CONNECTIONS #BloggersBash Bestest Blog Post Competition The Tree and Me

The Sacred Tree – na Bílí – is where I made my home, called by a voice unknown, challenged but in the end found worthy. The heart knows when it is home. I pay my respects from a distance, content to wait.

And trees have time to kill.

My life has been filled with trees, from the day as a teen when I missed my train to work because I was so busy writing a poem (Winter Trees) about the trees which bordered the platform, to the day only a few months ago, when I planted the first trees in my garden.

I love them. I admire them. I respect them. I cry when I see one cut down. I feel pain when I see the naked wound of pale, fresh wood.

Trees are tactile. They invite touch. Against my skin, the trunk is cold, hard, unyielding. The tree is not like me: I am soft, warm, weak flesh. Silent and strong he stands, old long before I was thrust into existence; he will remain long after I am gone.

The tree is not like me. He reaches for the stars, blossoms for the sun, always standing tall and proud, bowing to none, resisting. When the storm rages, he dances and sings, but he is resolute.

I am not like the tree. I drift where life’s breeze blows me. I shy from sun and storm. I am human, enslaved to my weak, warm flesh.

The broad path leads me through the forest, and I am dazzled by the myriad shades of green, by the capricious filter of sunbeams, by the golden fall of last years leaves, shed like autumn tears. Above me, branches interlace, shaping the vault of nature’s cathedral. Protecting. Embracing. Forming me into the precious relic contained within their shrine. I breathe, and the burden of life’s woes is lifted.

Beneath my feet, deep in the dark, damp earth, roots search out kin, binding, weaving together, supporting one another, connecting. They are all different – the oak, the scots pine, the rowan, the willow. And yet, they are all the same.

Just like us.


I was inspired to write this by the #BloggersBash Blog Post Competition, which this year is all about ‘Connections‘.

Submit your entry here.


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Acceptance: Skin-Deep and Empty Words

Today is a significant one in world history. No matter which side of the fence we stand on, we have no choice but to accept. Around the world, governments are also preparing to show acceptance. And yet, there seems to be a global sense of uncertainty, and fear.

I fear for the minorities. I fear for acceptance. For tolerance. And I am reminded of something I wrote a few years ago for 1000 voices speak for compassion, which I think is as relevant today as it was then, if not more so.


I don’t like moths. I don’t like how they enter my house uninvited, fluttering blindly about, and cluster in a seething panic around any available light source. The frenzied flapping of their dull, tattered wings gives me the creeps.

But I love butterflies. When they gate-crash, I feel privileged, blessed, and patiently herd them out to freedom for fear their short, beautiful lives might meet an untimely end within my four walls.

When I found a glorious creature with stunning red and black markings walking determinedly across my doormat one spring morning, I assumed he was a newly hatched butterfly ready to test his wings. I opened the door respectfully, and watched him take flight.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered he was actually a day-flying cinnabar moth. Who knew that moths could be so gorgeous, or that some of them flew by day and not in the shadow of night?

I was struck, then, by my own superficiality. Me, who should know better. I know how it feels to be judged on appearance, and to be found lacking. I know how it feels to be probed skin-deep, and rejected. Is the sum of our worth truly wrapped up in the symmetry of our faces  and the slender lines of our bodies?

I suspect it’s a primeval thing, some kind of survival skill buried deep within that well of instinctual behaviour we no longer understand or need. Perhaps surrounding ourselves with beauty masks something ugly inside that we try to suppress. Perhaps associating with the beautiful makes us feel good about ourselves. Maybe it ‘rubs off on us’.

Of course, we’re in denial. We say brave words, like ‘Beauty is skin-deep’, or ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, or ‘Sticks and stones may break our bones but words will never hurt us.’ Admit it; they’re just empty words. We don’t live by them. And words hold enormous power. Too many young people have ended their lives after being bullied. Abused with words. They didn’t feel accepted.

Acceptance, whether it’s social or personal, requires approval and a non-judgmental state of mind. Being accepted gives us a sense of belonging. Ultimately, that’s what we all want. It’s what we’re all searching for in our own convoluted ways. But does being beautiful increase the chances of being accepted?

I was bullied at school, for many reasons; I wore thick glasses with National Health frames (definitely not beautiful), I didn’t speak with the local accent, nor was I a local girl, and I arrived in school only six weeks before the end of the school year. Bonds and social groups had already been formed. There was no peer pressure to try and ‘fit in’; I was a stranger, I looked and sounded different, and I simply wasn’t wanted. Boy, did they let me know it.

When I left school, I rebelled against this unfriendly society which had not found it possible to accept me. I defied their traditional, conservative, insular attitude.

It was the 80s: electronic music, big hair, frilly clothes and wild makeup which looked more like art. These young people were different. The disguise made us all look and feel beautiful. We were connected, united. I hid behind this flamboyant façade: it was an acceptance of sorts.

But I had to grow up. I didn’t want to work in an office or in a factory, so I joined the RAF instead. The RAF didn’t want us to be different, individual, unique; they wanted us all to be the same, their kind of same. Thrown into what seemed like chaos to us, a disparate band of females learned to pull together, accept one another, and become a team. Then the RAF split us up and sent us reeling in different directions, but it didn’t matter, because by then we were part of the machine. Acceptance was built in.

The tides of time washed me in its waters, sometimes soothing, sometimes stormy, but always eventful. I drifted, adding the roles of wife and mother to life’s CV. That’s when I ran aground, the meaning of acceptance suddenly rocketing to a whole new level.

Carys came into our lives. She was born with a rare syndrome, but we counted ourselves lucky, for she was never expected to live at all. Two days later, a tangle of blood vessels began to bloom on her forehead. It was the beginnings of a birthmark, a haemangioma, and it grew with a speed and virulence which astounded me.

Day by day it expanded, turning a deep, shiny red, a sinister parasite claiming its place on my daughter’s face. The surface began to wrinkle and pucker, forming little hills and valleys, a menacing roseate island in the soft smooth sea of her forehead.

People love to look at babies, have you noticed? A brief dip into Facebook or Pinterest throws up endless rounds of cute or amusing baby pictures with associated entertaining quotes. When my two sons were babies, I received many smiles and compliments from strangers, who looked into the stroller upon my boys’ perfect faces.

That didn’t happen with Carys. Oh, they gawped eagerly enough. Sometimes, they raised their eyes to mine in shock. Mostly, they just craned their necks and stared at my little girl as if she was something they had just scraped off the bottom of their shoe.

I can’t describe the pain that ripped through me. She was so innocent, had done nothing to anyone, just fought fiercely against all the odds to cling to the dirty, ragged scrap of life tossed her way.

When she was only four months old, she endured a long surgery to remove this ugly complex lump in the hope of saving her sight. With the haemangioma gone, I thought we would simply disappear into the masses, nothing worth seeing here. But I was wrong.

The wound developed a thick black crust. The edges were loose, and constantly seeped, but the doctors were happy, it was progressing exactly as they wanted. Now when people stared at Carys, their gaze quickly shifted to us, her parents, and I could see what they were thinking; were we simply neglectful parents, or abusive ones?

Carys, and other children like her, fall into a minority group which society as a whole has not yet found itself able to fully accept. True acceptance would, by definition, require the majority to allow the full integration and participation of the minority in all aspects of society. Even in these enlightened times, that doesn’t happen.

For example, Carys must go to a ‘special school’, which is tucked well away from the community where she lives. There is no other option. I resent that. Although the school is excellent, I would like her to attend our local school, which ideally should have an attached special care unit for disabled children.

How wonderful if Carys could be visited by her brothers during her day at school; how wonderful if the children from the mainstream school could integrate with the disabled children, help them, play with them at break, grow up never being afraid of them or developing ignorance and prejudice against them.

It’s as if society doesn’t want to be affronted by the sight, or blight, of disabled people. We hide them away and pretend they don’t exist. Perhaps their physical deformity reminds us of our own inner ugliness, something we’d rather ignore.

When participation in society is confined to only certain areas, then the majority is only practicing tolerance, not true acceptance. Tolerance and acceptance are not the same.

A decade later, Carys’s haemangioma is just a shadow of its former self; the scar has faded, but she still looks obviously ‘different’. The dangers of her syndrome are hidden within, where they can’t be seen and gawked at. People still stare, but not as much. I am less inclined to accept rudeness, but am also better able to let it go; I have grown, learned to tolerate and yes, accept these episodes of weakness from strangers.

Being Carys’s parent has broken my heart many times over, and filled and refilled it with more love and hope than I ever thought possible. She has taught me so much about what’s really important.

I want many things out of life for my sons. I work hard to set their feet on the path to achieving them. For Carys, the list is much shorter and simpler; happiness, love and a life as free from pain as possible.

And most of all, acceptance. Not just for Carys, and other children like her, but for all living beings.

Maynooth | Plain of Nuada and Seat of Learning

Lectures start today. That’s right, at nearly fifty, I’m going back to school. Maynooth University, to be precise, for a BA in Irish Medieval and Celtic Studies, History and English. I must be mad.

First up, it’s Celtic Civilisations at 11am, followed by English Prose and Fiction at 12pm, and finally History; Vikings and Normans at 1pm. If you know me at all, I think you’ll guess that I’m as happy as a muc in muck! That’s ‘pig’ in mud, for the non-Irish among you! 😃😂😜

After my interview back in May, I walked out the door straight into this…

… and my heart started to flutter; I was falling in love, and knew instantly how much I really wanted to study there.

The university is split into two campuses; north and south. South side is the old part, north is more modern, and where I will probably spend most of my study time. On Thursdays, however, I will have five hours of free time spread between three lectures, and some of that I will use to explore; the south campus has an old church, a museum, and Maynooth Castle stands guard at the entrance. Also, there are rumours of mysterious tunnels beneath the old buildings…

It also boasts the oldest yew tree in Ireland standing in its grounds; it’s said to be 700 years old, and I can well believe it. I mean, just look at it! Yes, something else which I think you will realise makes me very happy. I think this university and me were made for each other. 😃

Of course, being such an old institution, Maynooth University has its own set of resident ghosts. Room 2, located in a building called Rhetoric House (now the History building), is where two students in C19th, took their lives 19 years apart from each other. It’s claimed that a ‘diabolical presence’ made itself known to them, and caused them to jump out of the window to their deaths in terror.  Dark stains on the floor of Room 2 are said to be human blood (allegedly confirmed by the college’s chemistry department) which can’t be removed or covered up. Creepy, huh?

In 1860, as a result of all this, Room 2 was converted into an oratory of St Joseph, and the window sealed. The room has since become a waiting area between offices.

Maynooth actually means ‘Nuada’s Plain’ in Irish, and if you have read any of my books or early blog posts, then you will understand why this thrills me; Nuada was the King of the Tuatha de Danann, and it was he who was responsible for leading the Danann into Ireland.

Nuada lost his sword arm in the First Battle of Moytura against the Fir Bolg, who ruled at the time. It was cut from his body in single combat with Sreng, the enemy’s champion. Nuada was carried from the battle ground and tended by his skilled physicians, Dian-Cecht and his son Miach, a surgeon, and daughter Airmid, a herbalist.

He survived, and the next day when Sreng saw him, he couldn’t believe his eyes. He challenged Nuada to another armed combat, and cunningly, Nuada agreed, on the condition that Sreng tie his sword arm behind his back and fight with only his left hand. Sreng refused, and relinquished power to the Danann.

Unfortunately, though, despite how well-loved Nuada was as a King, he was unable to continue in that role, as the King was required to be whole and unblemished if the land and the people were to prosper.

Nuada and his Sword of Light
Nuada and his Sword of Light

In the years to come, as Nuada healed, Dian-Cecht worked with Creidne, one of the Danann’s leading craftsmen, and fashioned a fully functioning  ‘arm of silver’ for Nuada. Perhaps this was the world’s first bionic arm, or at least a prosthetic one, created over four thousand years ago.

Miach somehow managed to grow skin and blood over it, and thus in due course, when Bres was deposed for being a bad King, Nuada, now considered whole again, was elected as High King. He ruled for another twenty years, until his death at the hands of Balor in the Second Battle of Moytura.

Nuada also carried the Sword of Light, known in Irish as Cliamh Solais in Irish (pronounced Klee-uv Shull-ish), and is considered to be one of the  lost Four Treasures of Eirean. It was made in the northern city of Findias (or Gorias, depending on which version you read) by a powerful fílí and magician named Uiscas.

Undoubtedly, the High King’s great sword came to have symbolic meaning for the people; it represented strength, power, unity, physical prowess and identity. But what did its title mean? Did it refer to the illumination of knowledge, justice, truth? Or was it something more obvious, like a laser, for example, or a flame thrower. You can find out more about this magical, mystical sword in my post The Sword of Light.

Reading about Nuada all those years ago began my fascination with Irish mythology. I never thought then that he would spark the idea for a book series, a blog, and all the other things which have grown from it; storytelling, tour guiding, vlogging (my newest venture that I’m working on, coming soon!), even the Bloggers Bash, which I would never have been a part of if I hadn’t met Sacha through blogging.

uni9

The coincidence is not lost on me; going to Maynooth to learn more about ancient Ireland and its mythology kind of feels like a full circle has been completed. Well, almost. And it’s fitting that it should take place here, where Nuada’s legacy remains.


Ps. I spotted a whole row of beautiful mature rowan trees nearby, so I’ll get some pictures this week and post them on Instagram, for those who love them as much as I do. 😊


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Legends of the Burren

Last weekend, I hiked part of the Burren Trail with my friend, walking buddy and guide, Jenni. The Burren is an expanse of karst landscape located in Co Clare, stretching some 250 km between the villages of Ballyvaghan, Kinvara, Tubber, Corofin and Lisdoonvarna. Its name derives from the Irish Boireann, meaning ‘great rock’, or ‘stony place’.

The unique rocky lunar-like appearance of the Burren is due to it being composed of huge limestone pavements gouged by the last ice age. Over time, fissures and cracks have formed along lines of weakness, and these are called ‘grikes’. The slabs between grikes are known as ‘clints’.

Jenni advised me not to step on any patches of greenery; although they look solid, they often disguise grikes, which can be quite deep,  causing the unsuspecting walker to fall and sustain injuries. I did get caught out by one or two, too busy applying my eyes to the view or fumbling with my camera, instead of concentrating on my feet.

Not surprisingly, the Burren is home to over 90 megalithic tombs, cairns, ring forts and portal dolmens, including the famous Poulnabrone. Many of these are quite tumbled, and in a wide open vista of tumbled stone, hard to identify.

Poulnabrone (c) Trever Miller httpetrever.com – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, wikimedia commons

In ancient times, the Burren was the home of the Corco Modhruadh tribe; the name meant ‘seed or people of Modhruadh’.  At some point during the C12th, the territory was divided in two: Corco Modhruadh Iartharach (Corcomroe West), which was ruled by the Ó Conchubhair clan, and Corco Modhruadh Oirthearach (Corcomroe East), ruled by the Ó Lochlainn clan.

On the first day, we walked from the beach at Fanore to the sleepy town of Ballyvaughan via the Blackhead, Gleninagh pass and Newton Castle. Unsurprisingly, legends abound. According to myth, the Blackhead was home to a Fir Bolg chieftain by the name of Irghus (pronounced Eer-ish).

Blackhead was also said to be haunted by a banshee known as Bronach the Sorrowful. In the August of 1317, she appeared to Prince Donchad O’Brien, who was leading an army against his enemy, who were sheltering in the old abbey at Corcomroe. She wasn’t pretty;

“She was thatched with elf locks, foxy grey and rough like heather, matted and like long sea-wrack, a bossy, wrinkled, ulcerated brow, the hairs of her eyebrows like fish hooks; bleared, watery eyes peered with malignant fire between red inflamed lids; she had a great blue nose, flattened and wide, livid lips, and a stubbly beard.”

 from the Triumphs of Torlough A.D. 1350 by Seean mac Craith

She was washing limbs and decapitated heads in Lough Rask until the lake turned red with ‘blood, brains and floating hair’, and foretold that this would be the fate of Donchad and his men. They attempted to kill her, but she rose up screaming into the air and disappeared. Sure enough, they lost the battle, and by sunset that day, they were all dead.

In the legend of Bóthar na Mias, Colman, a monk, and brother to King Gaire the Hospitable of Hy Fiachrach Aidhne, now known as Gort, disappeared into the wilderness of the Burren to fast and pray. After the deprivations of Lent, his companion longed for a meat feast, so Colman turned to the power of prayer, and his wishes were answered.

King Gaire was just sitting down with his court to a grand Easter feast, when all the dishes suddenly flew up into the air and floated out of the castle. Gaire sent his warriors in hot pursuit, and they followed the food all the way to Colman’s hermitage.

Terrified by the sudden appearance of his brother’s fierce warriors, Colman prayed for deliverance, and he was answered; the feet of the men and the hooves of their horses stuck fast to the ground. The route from Gort into the Burren was known ever after as the Bóthar na Mias, or the ‘road of dishes’.

On the second day,  we took the Wood Loop, via Tonarussa, through the coll between Moneen and Ailwee hills, down to Oughtmama valley, St Colman’s holy well, up Turlough Hill, finishing at Corcomroe Abbey.

In Irish, Ucht Mama (Oughtmama) means ‘the breast of the high pass’. Three tiny churches were built here, now in ruins and shielded by hazel trees, and nearby is a holy well dedicated to St Colman.

Turlough Hill is crowned with a huge, mysterious and enigmatic prehistoric circular enclosure which has archaeologists scratching their heads in puzzlement. It’s huge, with the remains of 160 circular dwellings. Life here would have been bleak and windswept; there was no running water, no grazing for livestock, or land for farming crops. The huge stone wall contained as many as 10 entrances, which is unusual and indicates it was not built for protection. Who chose to live here, and why? It’s a mystery.

The barren surface of the Burren is interspersed with areas of verdant foliage which lie scattered over the stone like bright rugs. These are spotted with blue spring gentian, an alpine flower;  purple orchids, bloody cranesbill, and lots of others we couldn’t identify. The colours really popped against the stone. Who would have thought such a bleak wilderness could produce so many beautiful, vibrant and delicate flowers?

We didn’t see any wild goats, although we saw the evidence they left behind, if you get my drift. Nor did we see pine-martens, but we did see many small birds, and heard lots of cuckoos. In fact, we were treated to the aerobatic spectacle of a cuckoo being chased from a nest by two very determined and much smaller parent birds, something I doubt I’ll ever be lucky enough to see again.

We ate wild garlic, trudged through mud, scrambled up rocky ledges, splashed across waterfalls, meandered through hazel forest, and off-roaded across karst. We admired dramatic coastal scenes, rested beside holy wells, followed in the footsteps of our ancient ancestors in the places they built and lived. We carried everything we needed on our backs, and gloried in rare and consistent sunshine.

The Burren is only a small corner of Ireland, but as we traversed its breadth, we felt like ants in its vastness. We hardly saw a soul, and it felt wild and powerful and ancient, almost untouched by man in places. We embraced and admired and respected it; in return it allowed us safe passage, and for that brief space in time, yielded up its secrets and beauty.


Still to come…

St Colman’s Holy Well
Corcomroe Abbey
Newtown Castle
Gleninagh Castle


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Irish Words and Symbols of Love

irish words and symbols of love www.aliisaacstoryteller.com
irish words and symbols of love
http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

“Love wasn’t like it was portrayed in the movies; I understood that now. It wasn’t an ethereal cloud of hearts and flowers and happy-ever-afters. It was a solid gritty living lump with sharp edges plunging around in my chest, a spiky ball of complex conflicting emotions all rolled into one indistinguishable, exquisite messy mass which extended feelers into every aspect, every layer of my being.”

This is how Cethlenn, the main protagonost of my latest WIP, Swanskin, describes the experience of falling in love.

Of course, it’s different for everyone. Here are some thoughts on love from some of Ireland’s more famous writers;

“Hearts are not to be had as a gift, hearts are to be earned.”

-William Butler Yeats

“You don’t love someone for their looks or their clothes or their fancy car, but because they sing a song only you can hear.”

“Never love anyone who treats you like you’re ordinary.”

–  both by Oscar Wilde

If you want to tell someone special how much you care this Valentine, here are some things you could say in Irish…

Gráim thú

(pronounced graw-im hoo)

I love you

Is tú mo ghrá

is a more formal way to say I love you

mo chuisle

(pronounced muh khish-la)

my pulse

 

a chuisle mo chroí

pulse of my heart

grá mo chroí

love of my heart

Which reminds me, around this time last year, Jane Dougherty and I published some retellings of Irish love myths. You can get a free copy on Smashwords, but if you want to download from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com, you’ll have to pay 99p/99c… they won’t let us permafree it, sadly. If you haven’t read it, get it… it’s free (on Smashwords) and it’s perfect for the season that’s in it!

GMCFinal version sml

Now for some poetry. I came across this, and thought it was quite sweet…

“The red rose whispers of passion,
And the white rose breathes of love;
O, the red rose is a falcon,
And the white rose is a dove.
But I send you a cream-white- rosebud
With a flush on its petal tips;
For the love that is purest and sweetest
Has a kiss of desire on the lips.”

– John Boyle O’Reilly

“Love hath a language of his own – A voice, that goes
from heart to heart – whose mystic tone
love only knows.”

– Thomas Moore

Here are some old country Irish marriage proposals, which I quite liked…

  • Come live in my heart, and pay no rent.
  • Would you like to hang your washing next to mine? And the reply – Tis a lonely wash with no man’s shirt in it.
  • November is the time to wed, the harvest’s in and it’s cold in bed.

And some old Irish sayings about love…

  • If he/ she doesn’t hear poetry, they won’t hear anything at all.
  • Love is like stirabout (porridge); it must be made fresh every day.
  • A little fire that warms the heart is better than a big fire that burns.

According to tradition, Irish oysters are an aphrodisiac, especially when eaten with a pint of stout. It’s said to be more powerful magic than standing under the mistletoe at Christmas.

Finally, the Claddagh Ring is a symbol of Ireland that we all know and recognise. It is often used in place of a wedding ring, but in Ireland, it is just as often given and worn as a sign of friendship, as of love.

The design takes the form of a crowned heart nestled within two hands. It symbolises the intention, ‘let love and friendship reign’. It is thought that originally this ring was an heirloom belonging to a family from the fishing village of Clauddagh in Galway.

The Claddagh is a variation of a type of ring known as a fede. The fede dates back to Roman times, when the gesture of clasped hands was a symbol of pledging vows, and represented faith and trust.

Queen Victoria was said to have worn a Claddagh ring. It was only then that the crown was added to the design, and the ring gained popularity as a wedding ring.

There is a lovely story concerning the origins of the Claddagh ring. Richard Joyce, a silversmith from Galway was captured by Algerian Corsairs around 1675 while travelling to the West Indies. He was sold as a slave to a Moorish goldsmith who taught him the craft.

He was freed fourteen years later, when King William III sent an ambassador demanding the release of all British subjects who had been enslaved. Joyce then returned to Galway, taking the ring he had made while in captivity, which he gave to his sweetheart upon their marriage.

Tradition dictates that the ring must never be bought for oneself, but only given as a gift. The people of Clauddagh were said to have handed them down through the generations of their families as heirlooms.

The way the Claddagh is worn can reveal a lot about the wearer; if you are single, you should wear the ring on your right hand with the heart facing outward from your body. If you are in a relationship, you should wear the ring on your right hand with the heart facing inwards. If you are engaged, you should wear the ring on your left hand on the third finger with the heart pointing outwards, and if you are married, you should wear the ring on your left hand on the third finger with the heart pointing inwards.

Who knew the wearing of a ring could be so complicated! Only in Ireland…

 

Goddess of Spring

Goddess of Spring www.aliisaacstoryteller.com
Goddess of Spring
http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

Happy Imbolc! Today is the first day of Celtic spring, a tradition known in Ireland as Imbolc. This weekend we’ve had snow, we’ve had torrential rain, we’ve had wild winds, and we’ve had fog… it certainly doesn’t feel spring-like, and I wonder if the seasons have gradually slipped out of sync with the calender.

Today I was going to bring you to somewhere special, to a place associated with Brigid, but I’ve been ill this week, and so have my kids, a voyage of discovery out in the countryside just wasn’t going to happen. Instead, I’m going to tell you a little bit about Brigid.

I feel a connection with many characters from Irish mythology, but of them all, Brigid is the one I am most drawn to. Brigid was the daughter of the Dagda, a Druid and High King of the Tuatha de Danann, an advanced race with seemingly supernatural powers, who invaded Ireland some 4000 years ago.

Her feast day is celebrated at Imbolc, which falls half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and is usually held on the first day of February to welcome the arrival of Spring.

Imbolc (pronounced I-molk) is one of four ancient Celtic/Gaelic festivals, the others being Beltaine, celebrated on May 1st; Lughnasadh, on Aug 1st; and Samhain, held on Nov 1st.

These major festivals were celebrated with the lighting of huge fires. My favourite explanation of the Old Irish word Imbolc comes from imb-fholc, meaning ‘to thoroughly wash/ cleanse’. To me, this is clearly a reference to the ritual cleansing and purification of fire and smoke.

However, it is generally accepted to mean ‘in the belly’, with reference to the pregnancy of ewes. Indeed, the C10th manuscript known as Cormac’s Glossary explains it as oimelc, or ‘ewe’s milk’. As such, Brigid has popularly become associated with the onset of the lambing season.

Sheep are not a native species of animal to Ireland; they are thought to have been introduced by Neolithic settlers some time after 4000 BC, so there would certainly have been sheep around in Brigid’s day. However, they don’t get much mention in Irish mythology, which is highly unusual; almost every other animal, wild or domestic, did.

The Danann were well known for their milk-white cattle, indeed, cattle were highly prized among our ancient ancestors, as the many stories of cattle raids, real and mythological, through the ages will attest. Queen Medb was famous for going to war over a bull, as told in the Cattle Raid of Cooley, for example. Cows were used as a measure of currency, as a measure of value, and as a measure of wealth.

In the ancient text known as the Lebor Gebála Érenn, Brigid was said to have kept  two royal cattle called Fea and Feimhean, the Boar King known as Torc Triath, and Cirba, who was King of the wethers. In case you don’t know, a wether is a castrated male sheep. She owned a number of castrated male sheep. No lactating ewes.

So it’s very interesting that in the tower on Glastonbury Tor, there is a carving which depicts her milking, not a sheep, but a cow.

Brigid was herself credited with the gifts of healing, of poetic inspiration, and metalworking. As with many of the Irish female deities, for example, the Morrigan (Badb-Anann-Macha), and the Sisters of Sovereignty (Eriu-Fodhla-Banbha), she was a Triune Goddess, meaning she was one and three all at the same time.

This triple aspect of their femininity related to the stages of womanhood, namely maiden-mother-crone. Unusually, Brigid’s triple aspect revolved around her skills, poetry- smithcraft-healing. I like that she stood out from the crowd, and I like her combination of skills.

Whilst we are on the subject of the triple nature of the Goddess, Imbolc was believed to be when the Cailleach, or Crone, gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. If she intends to make the winter long and hard, she will bless Imbolc with a bright sunny day, so she can gather plenty of firewood to last her a long time. If Imbolc is a day of foul weather, it means the Cailleach is asleep and winter is almost over.

The name Brigid means ‘bright/ exalted one’, from the Sanskrit brahti, and is thought to refer to her association with fire and the sun. When she was born (at sunrise), a tower of flame was said to have extended from the top of her head to the heavens, giving her family home the appearance of being on fire. This is how the C10th text, Cormac’s Glossary describes here;

“Brighid, a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. She is the female sage, woman of wisdom, Brighid the Goddess whom poets venerated as very great and famous for her protecting care. She was therefore called ‘Goddess of the Poets’. Her sisters were Brighid the female physician, and Brighid the female smith; among all Irishmen, a goddess was called ‘Brighid’. Brighid is from breo-aigit or ‘fiery arrow’.”

I like the description of the fiery arrow. I think it is more fitting for her role as a poetess, that she would receive divine inspiration or knowledge in this way. It also corresponds with the glowing white-hot iron she would have manipulated in the fire of the forge, and the light she would have used as energy to conduct her spiritual healing. However, modern scholars are not in agreement with Cormac.

Brigid married Bres, of mixed Danann-Fomori heritage, with whom she had a son, Ruadan. Bres was an unpopular High King; he was mean and a tyrant, and after seven years, the Danann opposed his rule and reinstated Nuada as their leader.

Bres enlisted the help of his Fomori relatives and attacked the Denann. During the battle, Ruadan entered the Denann camp on a mission to kill Goibniu, their master-smith, but was himself killed in the attempt. According to an ancient text known as Cath Maige Tuireadh, Brigid collapsed in grief over her son’s body, crying her sorrow, and was thus said to have invented the act of keening (in Irish caoine, or cine) for the dead.

It is thought that following Bres’s death, she later went on to have three sons, Ichvar, Ichvarba and Brian, with a man named Tuirean. After that, her name seems to drop out of the stories.

You can read more about Brigid and Imbolc in my other posts…

Irish Mythology The County Cavan Cult of Brigid

Irish Mythology Brigid, Queen of Imbolc

Today it’s Imbolc, and of course it’s SNOWING!

Irish Mythology The Tuatha de Danann Come to Ireland

Ireland also has a Saint Brigid, whose feast day is also celebrated on 1st February. Some say she is the Christianisation of a much loved pagan Goddess that the Irish people refused to give up. It is also said that she started out as a Druidess who tended the eternal flame at the Shrine of Brigid, and was responsible for bringing about its conversion to Christianity. However, that is a post for another day…

How the Old Stories Inspire Today’s Irish Writers with Modern Seanchai Alan Walsh

Book of Conquests by Jim Fitzpatrick
The Book of Conquests by Jim Fitzpatrick

Followers of this blog will know just how inspired by obsessed I am with Irish mythology, and how I can lose myself in it for hours at a time. I call it research, but really, it’s my guilty pleasure; how lucky I am that I can indulge in it on a daily basis as an excuse for the work of writing!

And it seems I am not the only one. The illustrious Jim Fitzpatrick was feeding his inspiration and creating his famous masterpieces in the year that I was born. He in turn has inspired many artists and writers to unleash their creativity based on Ireland’s legends, not least among them, today’s guest author, Alan Walsh.

Alan is not new to this blog; he very kindly allowed us a sneak preview into his latest novel, Sour, which is based on the legend of Deirdre of the Sorrows, a couple of weeks ago. It’s certainly a highly original reworking of the myth. I love the caustic tones of the Puca, as he narrates the story, and the portrayal of Deirdre as a bit of a wild free spirit. Check it out for yourself; you can read it here, if you missed it. I already have a copy on my reading list. So, without further ado, here is Alan to tell you what exactly inspired him to write this book…

Sour by Alan Walsh
Sour by Alan Walsh

I had picture books of illustrations by Jim Fitzpatrick, when I was growing up. This was probably my first exposure to Irish myth, that and the obligatory Children of Lir they teach you in school. I used to like to copy out Jim Fitzpatrick’s pictures, owing to how much I liked their style, how they depicted a strange, ethereal world, like something from an old metal album cover, only more refined. So it was really that, as a boy, and then years of not really caring much for the old stories in way or another until I moved to London.

I had lived abroad before, in Italy, and had gotten along very well trying my hand at reading Italian authors, but for some reason, while living in London, I went and sought out books of old Irish stories. Not just Irish, either, but volumes of old Celtic tales, from Wales and Scotland, from France and other parts of mainland Europe laying claim to that heritage. Then further afield, taking in mythology from Scandinavia and Russia, from Africa and the Middle East and on and on. It ran a little like languages, each border two cultures met, the mythologies cross-pollinated easily.

London is very much a drinking culture. It’s not uncommon to take a pint with your colleagues at lunch and pick it up again after work on a Tuesday. I happened to be working in IT, which meant I was in an office with a wide range of nationalities, all of whom were curious sorts by nature. When they found out I was reading mythology they asked me to recite something.

Well, the only one that came to mind consistently, was Deirdre of the Sorrows. I’m still not sure why. I think maybe it’s because of how it ends. The same way Romeo and Juliet endures because of the horrific ending, this story lingers because it almost couldn’t have ended more horribly. It was all but guaranteed a reaction from a listening group. I still find that when I tell the story now, even here at home. Maybe that’s when I started wondering about Sour.

I had been writing a story about a murder in a small, dreary rural town in Ireland. It was kind of a procedural really. The lead character was a detective, he introduced the reader to one weird character after another as he pursued his line of questioning. The idea was the reader would uncover how the town was a kind of microcosm of the nation as they read along. But it lacked a hook until it dawned on me the crime I had in mind wasn’t a hundred miles away from the old story of Deirdre and the Sons of Uislu, and right then I set about working out how I might be able to use the old tale. It felt strange, on one level, re-purposing an old, almost sacred cultural element to fit my own needs, but I think that’s where the fun came in and that what provoked me into pushing the boundaries of taste with some of the more famous of Ireland’s heroes.

Fionn Mac Cumhaill as an unemployed wide-boy, downing cans of cider and passing his days playing X-Box on the ghost estate he lives in with his mates was a lot of fun to imagine. The kind of young men you see roaming streets in groups of about six in the small hours of the morning, with their dogs. This was the Fianna, there being no reason you can’t find old fashioned courage and heroism in characters as modern as this.

Cuchullain was re-imagined as a battle-scarred old traveller, bossed by his wife, passing his time watching afternoon television, but still managing to strike fear into the souls of the characters who come to ask for his help, along with everyone else in the town. Casting Ireland’s great epic hero as a traveller was interesting to me, owing to how that culture is so entwined with what we think of as Irish going back as far as the sixteenth century.

That the story is told by a Puca opened up a wide range of opportunities, as the mischievous supernatural being is most probably the very definition of the unreliable narrator. I was pleased mostly with how much potential the character gave me to bring in nature and give it character, how trees were angry about deforestation, how a cloud can be a hate-filled bastard, that mountains choose to look different based on how you look at them. I hoped people might be prepared to accept those kind of absurd digressions from a nebulous trickster.

Deirdre herself was the easiest to write, I think. In the original story, she kills herself at the end. Many people read that as an act of despair, but it always felt to me more like an act of defiance. When she was told she’d be shared between the two men she hated most, she showed them she was still in control of herself, if only in this last, awful way.

That idea really informed how she was written, an outright rebel from the first time we meet her. Not just an ordinary one either, a provocative, showy, angry rebel. Someone who has ostracised herself from the whole town. Only later do we learn she hasn’t just been rebelling against her father, but rather the whole town itself too, which she sees as complicit. Writing as the Puca gave me license to paint these characters with broad strokes, making them much larger than life, along with all the incidental characters, like the Morrigan, an old lady in a bowler hat doing an Open University course in fine art and also the smoking, grouchy crow that follows Deirdre wherever she goes.

Writing a book is a strange experience as it relates to a particular timespan in your life as much as anything else. I guess it’s much the same as reading one now I think of it. This one, for me, will always be the book I wrote between London and Dublin, between when I had the life of a tearaway to when I met my wife and we had a little boy together. I’ll always look back on the book with this in mind. I still read Irish mythology very regularly, and enjoy seeing it being re-purposed and re-imagined as much as and even more than I have, as this is definitely the only way to keep the old tales alive.


Read an excerpt from Alan’s book, SOUR, here. 

You can buy SOUR on Kindle or in paperback on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk and most other retailers. It would make a great Christmas gift for someone you know!

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Author Alan Walsh
Author Alan Walsh

I’m a writer, designer and recently a father too, who returned to Dublin a couple of years ago after living abroad in Bologna, Florence and London, doing all kinds of jobs from teacher to delivery-man to commis-chef.

Sour is my first novel, published by Pillar and available in all the very best places. I tweet pretty often at @Alan_Walsh_77 and I blog as often as I can at: http://alanwalshblog.blogspot.ie/, and there’s a whole website about the book at: http://sourthenovel.weebly.com/