Who was the Old Woman of Beare?

The legend of the veiled one

Who was the Cailleach Bheara? She appears as a mysterious and shadowy figure hovering around the edges of Irish folklore and myth, yet very little is known about her.

The word cailleach has come to mean ‘hag’, or ‘crone’, yet in Old Gaelic it actually means ‘veiled one’. This conjures up images of early Medieval Christian nuns, yet it is possible that the word has more ancient origins and could refer to the wise-women or female Druids of pre-Christian and maybe even pre-Celtic times.

The legend of the cailleach can be found not only in Ireland, but in Scotland and the Isle of Man, too. She is associated with Winter, and the creation of the landscape.

In Scotland, it is said that if St Brigid’s day (1st February) dawns clear and bright, it is because the Cailleach is out collecting firewood to keep herself warm through a long, cold and stormy winter to come. But if the day dawns wet and wintry, the Cailleach is still sleeping, and therefore the winter will be a short one. Sound familiar? US friends may see something of Groundhog Day in this myth.

the goddess in the landscape

In Ireland, the cailleach lends her name to many features of the landscape. For example, Loughcrew is known in Irish as Sliabh na Caillí, meaning ‘the Hag’s Mountain’. It is said that the cairns were formed as the cailleach leaped between the three hill-tops, carrying rocks in her apron. When she stumbled and fell to her death, the rocks tumbled out creating the ancient ruined structures which cluster upon the three hills as we know them today.

She is also commemorated in the Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare, where one cliff is named ‘the Hag’s Head’ (Ceann Caillí in Irish); ‘the Hag’s Cliff’ (Aill na Caillí) in Co Galway; the Calliagh Birra’s House, which is another cairn on Slieve-Gullion in Armagh; the Labbacallee Wedge Tomb in Co Cork, known as Leabhadh Chailligh, meaning ‘the Hag’s Bed’, and which is said to be her burial place (although she is also said to be buried at Loughcrew).

These are just a few examples; if you google her, you may find more. It is amazing that, for a character so elusive, her presence is so prevalent in the naming of the landscape.

mistaken identity

But who was she? A Goddess, a Queen, a witch? And why is she associated with so many passage tombs and cliffs?

Well, as Goddess of the dark half of the year, she can be seen as the opposite twin to Brigid; perhaps they are even opposite aspects of the same deity. However, as most Irish goddesses are said to have a triple aspect – maiden/ mother/ crone (Brigid’s triple aspect is related to her skills, not her femininity) this idea does not quite seem to fit. I guess there will always be exceptions.

Female deities are popularly associated with fertility, or sovereignty, yet the cailleach, as an old hag, is associated with the dark and decay of winter. From the darkness of the womb, the light of life is born, and the dark, silent inner chamber of the cairn can be likened to the womb; in fact, sometimes these burial mounds are actually referred to as ‘womb tombs’.

Perhaps the dead were carried into these tombs to the cailleach to allow their bodies to decay while their souls were reborn. However, ashes found in many of these cairns suggest that the dead were usually cremated prior to interment.

To me, it would seem more fitting if the womb tombs were associated with the bountiful maiden of spring, of growth and regeneration and rebirth, rather than the barren old hag of decay and cold, dead winter. And yet they are not.

feminine symbolism

It is interesting that, consistent with the notion of womb tombs, some designs carved into the orthostats of some of these cairns have been interpreted as female symbolism. The elliptical carvings at Loughcrew, for example, have been described as vulvas, yet I have also heard others speak of these same symbols as boats.

Why would we have water symbolism at the top of a hill like Loughcrew? It is true that Goddesses in Ireland are often associated with rivers: Boan and the River Boyne; Sionan and the River Shannon, but there is no river at Loughcrew.

Personally, ever since I saw the complex patterns of cup marks in these stones, and then heard of the tiny little chalk balls originally found on the ground beside them, I thought the makers of the tombs were monitoring the stars. The elliptical carvings reinforce this, in my opinion, as they represent the elliptical orbit of comets around the sun. But I digress…

what’s in a name?

The cailleach of Loughcrew was named Garravogue (Garbhóg in Irish), which is also the name of a river in Sligo. Originally, this river was called An Sligeach, meaning ‘the place of many shells’, and is one of the oldest attested place-names in Ireland. The town which grew up along its banks in the thirteenth century was named after it, and later, also the county.

So, although we now have an association of the cailleach with a river, we know that Garravogue is a more recent naming of the river, and so cannot be associated with a pre-Christian Goddess.

Other names by which the cailleach has been known throughout history include Milucra in the Fionn mac Cumhall tale, the Hunt of Slieve Cuilinn; Biróg, in the tale of the Glas Gaibhnenn; Buí/ Bua(ch), who was also the wife of Lugh, and Digde, from the beautiful 8th century poem, ‘the Lament of the Old Woman’.

Was one woman known by all these diverse names in different regions of Ireland, or do they represent a collective of many different wise old women? A religious order, perhaps, be it Christian or pagan.

the cliff-top queen

Some stories say that at the end of winter, the cailleach turns into a great grey rock beside the sea. Others, that if she reaches the sea in time and bathes in it, she will not be turned to stone. There is a great deal of language relating to the sea, and much sea imagery in the poem ‘The Lament of the Old Woman’, corroborating her role as a creator of the landscape.

But why the sea in particular, and why the hilltops and cliffs?

Yet the meeting of sea and land, or sky and land, is a liminal space, a dangerous place, a place where magic can happen. Beyond the sea, over the ninth wave lies the way to the Sacred Isles, Manannán’s Land, the Otherworld. Where else might a seasonal Goddess go, once she has relinquished her power to her opposing force?

Her association with cliffs then makes some sense.

the poetic muse

‘The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare’ is a very (long and) beautiful old poem. Here are a selection of my favourite verses, but you can read the full version here.

Ebb-tide has come to me as to the sea;
old age makes me yellow;
though I may grieve thereat,
it approaches its food joyfully.

I am Buí, the Old Woman of Beare;
I used to wear a smock that was ever-renewed;
today it has befallen me, by reason of my mean estate,
that I could not have even a cast-off smock to wear.

When my arms are seen,
all bony and thin!
-the craft they used to practise was pleasant:
they used to be about glorious kings.

The maidens are joyful
when they reach May-day;
grief is more fitting for me:
I am not only miserable, but an old woman.

I have had my day with kings,
drinking mead and wine;
now I drink whey-and-water
among shriveled old hags.

I see on my cloak the stains of age;
my reason has begun to deceive me;
grey is the hair which grows through my skin;
the decay of an ancient tree is like this.

Some things, it seems, don’t alter with the passing of hundreds and thousands of years. As a woman who has just turned fifty, I can appreciate how women of a certain age lose their value in society, effectively becoming invisible.

So it is with the author of this poem. James Carney places this poem in the mid eighth century, and we know that in medieval Christian Ireland, women were not well thought of. Understatement of the year! A woman past childbearing age had no value whatsoever. The author is clearly lamenting the toll of age, not just on her body and beauty, but on her status and wealth also.

I  love how her bony thin arms once clasped kings, and how pleasant this was to her. Not a singular king, mind you, but plural. Many. Clearly not a chaste Queen and demure Christian woman. Was she a courtesan, a prostitute, or simply a noblewoman who was free to take lovers as she pleased?

She fixates on her association with kings. She drank mead and wine with them. In other words, she carroused with them at a time when women were expected to be demure, chaste, and did not take part in male feasting rituals. In Celtic times, only those of highest elite status drank wine. One only has to look at the Celtic burials of Vix and Hochdorf to appreciate the importance of wine and mead drinking as evidenced by the spectacular huge vessels used for wine mixing, and the array of high quality vessels and tools required for its consumption. that she took part in such events indicates her power and status.

Clearly, she was desired by kings, and she makes no secret of her beauty, or of her sexual liaisons. But is beauty enough to explain why all these kings wanted her? I suspect not. Beautiful girls were as ten a penny then as now, I’m sure.  There has to be more. Annoyingly, the secret is not revealed in the poem.

There seems to be no shame or stigma regarding her sexuality. In fact, her regret seems not so much to do with the promiscuity of her heady younger days, but with the lack of kingly consorts and the sexless void of old age. In any case, neither option fits with the era in which the poem was written, so could it perhaps have been based on something older?

Two striking features of the poem are the persistent metaphor of the tides of the sea with the inexorable advance of old age – I include only one verse showing this here – and the explicit declaration of her identity – Buí, the old woman of Beare.

We have already discussed the importance of the sea, but who was Buí (pronounced Bwee)?

Well, she was the wife of the God Lugh, and her burial mound is at Knowth; in Irish, it is known as Cnocba, meaning the ‘Hill (or burial mound) of Buí’.

She was the daughter of either Daire Donn, known as the King of the World, who led a great battle against Fionn mac Cumhaill in the C3rd, or of Donn of the Milesians, who later came to be known as Lord of the Dead.

She was said to have had an affair with Cermait Milbél (which means ‘honeymouth’), a son of the Dagda. Lugh was so furious that he challenged Cermait to a duel and killed him. Cermait’s three sons decided to avenge their father’s death, and killed Lugh in, or beside the lough named after him on the top of the Hill of Uisneach. A cairn was raised over his body there.

If this wasn’t tragic enough, Óengus Óg who was Cermait’s half-brother, discovered that Lugh’s poet, who is not named, had told Lugh a malicious lie; Buach and Cermait had not slept together, after all. He avenged the deaths of his brother and Lugh by killing the poet. What became of poor Buach is not known.

So, what does Buí’s story have in common with the old woman of Beare? Um… good question. Sex, affairs and infidelity, and kings for sure. Perhaps poor old Buí sought refuge in the nunnery in Cork where this poem is said to have been written.

Join me next time, when I’ll be discussing the women poets of Ireland.


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Happy #StPatricksDay, Mr. President!

It’s that time of year again… the Irish are preparing to party, big time, ‘cos there’s nothing we like more than celebrating the death of a saint. And all around the world, everyone wants in on the act.

Despite controversy, Enda Kenny is already in the US preparing to hand over the customary crystal bowl of shamrocks to President Trump on Thursday. This is a tradition which was started back in 1963, and symbolizes the ‘special’ relationship Ireland has always had, and hopes to maintain, with the US.

The design of this year’s crystal bowl was inspired by the incredible scrolling knotwork illuminations of the Book of Kells, and features a series of intersecting trinity knots, and engraved shamrocks. It has a scalloped rim which reveals the full brilliance of the crystal. It’s the best bowl, Mr President, and now it’s yours. We know you like all the best things.

Over the past few months, politicians have called for the Taoiseach to cancel his visit to the US. However, even though Ireland does not share the President’s values, Kenny will go ahead with his visit, in order to maintain Ireland’s strong links with the American people.

It’s not just politicians, though; just under forty thousand Irish people (at the time of writing this post) signed the petition “Shamrock for Trump: Not in my Name“, and are still continuing to do so, minute by minute. Bit late now, folks.

Before anyone rolls their eyes and says something along the lines of ‘Let’s not sully a saint’s day with politics,’ let’s be totally honest here; religion has always been about politics and power. Don’t be naive. And don’t have a go at me… it wasn’t me who decided Ireland need to cosy up to the American President with a bowl of shamrocks every Paddy’s Day.

And by the way, Mr President… a shamrock is NOT a four leaf clover. I’ve seen you sporting that vibe on your green cap. Somebody must have given you some fake news and alternative facts. No surprise there.

If you want to read some posts about the original Paddy, instead of modern politics, you can take your pick from these…

Happy Paddy’s Day!
The Shamrock, the Shillelagh and the Leprachaun; Symbols of Irishness for St Patricks Day, or Sad Stereotypes?St Patrick and the Cult of Crom Cruach
50+ Landscape Images of Ireland: Happy St Patrick’s Day!
St Patrick was a Slave Trader and Tax Collector
Patrick, Saint or Sinner?
The Power of the Harp in Irish Mythology

HAPPY SAINT PATRICK’S DAY!


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Mogh Ruith, the Blind Magician

Mogh Ruith the Blind Magician http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

Without a doubt, one of the most interesting and mysterious figures from Irish mythology is the One known as Mogh Ruith. He’s right up there with Manannán, as far as I’m concerned. His name is said to mean ‘slave of the wheel’, curious in itself, and he was a blind Munster Druid who lived on Valentia Island  in Co Kerry, which is now part of the celebrated Wild Atlantic Way.

Mogh Ruith was the father of tragic Goddess, Tlachtga, who left her name in the landscape of Ireland  at a place anglicised as the Hill of Ward, sacred to the festival of Samhain.

He is perhaps most famous for his flying machine, roth rámach, meaning ‘the oared wheel’, or ‘rowing wheel’ (could be a helicopter, don’t you think?), in which night appeared as bright as day. For this reason, it is believed that he must have been a sun god. I don’t know about you, but that sounds too easy to me. Perhaps it was a space ship… remember, the Tuatha de Danann were said to have descended from great storm clouds in the sky.

However, blaming aliens for something we don’t understand is also too easy. It’s just as likely that in the long history of the existence of our planet, there must have been advanced civilizations elsewhere on Earth. Unless, of course, you believe that life only came into being 6000 years ago, as some poor children are now being brainwashed taught. But that’s a discussion for another time.

If ancient civilizations could build pyramids, and incredible temples that we still can’t explain, never mind replicate, today, why not flying machines?

Interestingly, there is much talk of flying machines in Sanscrit and Hindu texts; here, they are known as Vimana, in which the Gods are transported by flying wheeled chariots, sometimes pulled by animals. There are descriptions of wheels, spokes, and the colour gold.

It is intriguing that in the name of Mogh Ruith’s flying vehicle, roth rámach, we can see a reference to the Hindu deity, Rama. This could be coincidence, of course, but many people seem to see a connection between the Irish myths and Sanskrit. Personally, I am open to this.

After all, despite the recent preference for separatism, and white elitism, we all share a common Proto-Indo-European heritage… and yes, that includes you, White America, who are descended from a right cocked-up cocktail of us Europeans and native Americans, in spite of what you might think.

But back to the man in question. Mogh Ruith pops up at various intervals in Ireland’s pre-history, according to Medieval sources. The ancient text,  Lebor Gabála Érenn, claims he died some time during the 10th century BC; the Annals of the Four Masters date him to around 1651–1621 BC. According to Christian lore, he is the man who executed John the Baptist.

According to legend, he became blind when he lost an eye in the Alps, how, I don’t know. The other was destroyed when he tried to stop the course of the sun for two days.  Again, I don’t know why he tried to do this, but it seems feasible… we know today that looking directly at the sun can cause damage to the eyes.

Was he a historical figure? No evidence survives, but for an abundance of fascinating stories. In my view, stories are a way of keeping someone, or something alive. If not the personage himself, then certainly something he stood for, whether fictional or real.

Mogh Ruith and his daughter, Tlachtga, were said to have been students of Simon Magus, also known as Simon the Sorcerer. He was supposed to have helped them build their flying machine. Simon was a Samaritan and religious figure mentioned in the Bible, who lived c. 1st century AD, and who converted to Christianity.

He received a lot of attention, not particularly positive, from ancient writers, such as Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, and Epiphanius, who regarded him as ‘the source of all heresies‘, and in fact,  the sin of simony (paying for position and influence in the church) is said to be named after him.

In addition to this less than glowing reputation, his three sons were said to have raped and impregnated Mogh Ruith’s daughter, Tlachtga. She fled from them to the Hill of Ward, where she gave birth to her three sons, Doirb, Cuma, and Muach, before dying from her injuries and a very hard labour.

So far, it’s not looking good for Mogh Ruith. Perhaps it’s time to have a quick gander at some of the stories about him.

Cormac mac Airt is one of Irish mythology’s most well known and best loved High Kings. He lived during the 3rd century AD. So loved was he, that the Christians tried to claim him as a convert, even though he lived well before the accepted age of Christianity in Ireland.

Cormac was contemporary with the legends of Fionn mac Cumhall. Fionn and his Fianna carried out much of the defence of the realm on Cormac’s behalf, and thus the High King rewarded him with the gift of marriage to two of his daughters, Aoife, and when she died only a year later, the young Grainne. Well, we all know how that went!

Anyhoo. In The Siege of Knocklong,  recorded in the Book of Lismore, dated 1480 AD, which was discovered hidden in the walls of Lismore Castle, Co. Waterford in 1814 (ooooh… isn’t that a fab story?)the King of Munster and Cormac go to war because Cormac has demanded too high a price of tribute.

Over the period of a year, Cormac lays siege to Fiacha Moilleathan, King of Munster, and they engage in five battles. Finally, Cormac resorts to magical means; he calls in his Druids, who dry up all the rivers and wells in the region. The Munster men are almost defeated, until King Fiacha employs Mogh Ruith. But the services of Mogh Ruith do not come cheap. This is what he demands…

A hundred bright white cows in milk, a hundred well-fattened pigs; a hundred strong working oxen; a hundred racehorses; fifty soft white cloaks; after the project is over, the daughter of the first lord of the East or the most prominent after him, to bear me children the first place in the files of Munster’s army for my successor who shall have in perpetuity the rank of a provincial king…; that the King of Munster should choose his counsellor from among my descendants;… that I am given the territory of my choice in Munster.

quote from Shee-Eire

He then restores all the water in the province so that man and beast may drink. With his breath, he blows up storms, and turns Cormac’s Druids to stone. He raises fire, and stone and sand storms, and eventually wins the day for the Munster men. He then chooses the territory Fir Maige Féne, which comes from the Irish for ‘men of the monastery of the plain’, later known as Fermoy, for his own.

There is an Iron Age hill fort at Fermoy, one of only three in northern Co Cork, called Carntierna, which means ‘Tigernac’s cairn’. It is named after legendary Munster King, Tigernac Tetbannach, who was said to have reigned during the time of Conchobar mac Nessa. A great cairn crowns the hill’s summit, supposedly the king’s burial-place. Perhaps this king and his people could have been Mogh Ruith’s descendants.


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Pangur Bán, the White Cat, and Other Pets in Irish Mythology

Pangur Bán, the White Cat and Other Pets in Irish Mythology. www.aliisaacstoryteller.com
Pangur Bán, the White Cat and Other Pets in Irish Mythology.
http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

I read a post on Facebook yesterday which claimed that animal behaviorists now believe that hugging your pet is harmful for them, as it causes their stress levels to rise. Apparently, they prefer tummy rubs, stroking and treats. Well, it’s hardly surprising; they haven’t evolved to hug each other, but instead show affection by licking and grooming each other, by sharing food and curling up together to sleep. I reckon not hugging your pet is going to upset you far more than your pet.

Which got me thinking… did our ancient ancestors form the same kind of relationships with their animals as we do, or did they see them merely as a source of food and income, or beasts of burden?

Well, take a look at this…

I and Pangur Ban my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.

‘Tis a merry task to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

translation by Robin Flower

This poem was written by a Christian scribe in the ninth century in Irish in the margins of his practice book. They learned their trade by copying religious texts, usually Latin, into their practice books, and these have been the source of many amusing anecdotes and fascinating insights into Irish life in the distant past.

This poem is preserved in the Reichenau Primer, which is kept in St. Paul’s Abbey in the Lavanttal, a Benedictine monastery in Austria. It is thought the scribe may have fled there to avoid Viking raids on Ireland, who were particularly fond of attacking religious institutions and carrying off their wealth.

This is the page on which Pangur Bán is written. By The original uploader was Dbachmann at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1821591
This is the page on which Pangur Bán is written.
By Dbachmann at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1821591

In this poem, the author is talking about his pet cat, Pangur Bán, bán meaning ‘white’ in Irish. Pangur means ‘fuller’, a tradesman involved in the production of woolen cloth, in which it is cleansed of oils, dirt and impurities, making it thicker. Perhaps this was a reference to the cat’s thick, white, clean fur. The author is comparing Pangur’s skill at hunting mice with his own industriousness as a wordsmith. It is quite clear from the poem that Pangur is his pet, and that there is fondness and companionship between them.

Saint Colman was the son of an Irish chieftain, Duagh, in the late 5th/ early 6th centuries AD. He became a priest, and according to legend, he kept three rather unusual pets: a rooster to wake him for prayers in the morning, a mouse to wake him for prayers during the night, and a  fly to act as a sort of book mark and keep his place when he was called away from reading his prayer book.

Unfortunately, a fly’s life is short, and Saint Colman was devastated when his faithful little friend passed. He wrote to  Saint Columba expressing his grief, to which Columba replied, “You were too rich when you had them. That is why you are sad now. Trouble like that only comes where there are riches. Be rich no more.” That was how Colman learned that one can be rich even without wealth.

A century earlier, the King of Leinster had a little pet fox that he was extremely fond of one. One day, a servant out cutting wood in the forest killed the fox, thinking it was a wild animal. The King was so furious, he had the servant imprisoned, intending to execute him.

I visited St Colmans Holy Well in the Burren last summer.

The poor man’s wife appealed to Saint Brigid, who charmed a fox cub from the woods as a gift to the King in exchange for the servant’s life. The King was so entranced by the little fox and its clever tricks, that he immediately agreed. The fox, however, ran off into the forest at the first opportunity, and although the King sent all his hounds and best huntsmen after it, it was never found.

In Irish mythology, many characters had particular animals they were associated with.

Ulster’s hero, Cuchulainn, had two special horses which pulled his chariot. Their names were Liath Macha, meaning the ‘grey of Macha’, and Dub Sainglend, the ‘black of Saingliu’. They were said to have emerged from the pool of Linn Liaith in the mountains of Sliabh Fuaid as a gift from the Goddess, Macha. This association with water clearly indicates their Otherworldly origin. Cuchulainn leaped onto their backs and rode them around the whole of Ireland in just one day, after which they were tamed.

Fionn mac Cumhail had two magical hounds that he loved above all others, and it is said that he kept up to 200 of them. Bran and Sceolán were the unborn children of his aunt, Tuirean. She was abducted by a woman of the Sidhe and transformed into a hound whilst pregnant. She gave birth to two pups, which were then sent to Fionn as gifts.

Fionn, Bran and Sceolán were inseparable; they hunted and fought beside him, and appear in many stories together. They were certainly more companions to him than beasts, although the stories never mention if Fionn knew their true identity, or if they could communicate in any way other than any man does with his dog.

My favourite story, though, is a sad one…

Boann strides up the path, her face composed with fierce determination, her little dog Dabilla trotting faithfully at her heels. The way is winding and covert, meant not for the feet of the uninitiated, but Boann has learned its secrets; thus she feels she has earned the right to visit this most sacred of places, the Tobar Segais, also known as the Well of Wisdom.

The pool is silent and dark, reflecting neither sky nor earth, an upwelling of water from the deepest reaches of the Otherworld, bringing with it all the arcane knowledge and mysteries contained therein. Around it stand the Nine Ancient Hazels of Knowledge. Boann catches her breath in awe as she gazes at them, for their branches are laden with blossom, fruit and leaf all at once.

As she watches, nuts fall into the shaded water with a hushed splash, and the five spotted salmon which reside there rise up gently to eat them. Dabilla rushes to the water’s edge and snaps at the benign creatures excitedly, but they just flip their tails at her and sink back down to safety.

Boann’s heart is pounding; should she catch a salmon, and eat of its flesh to gain the knowledge she seeks? It feels like sacrilege, and besides would take time she might not have, for every moment she delays, she risks capture. Perhaps she should just eat the nuts, but how many would she need in order to gain enlightenment?

The fear of discovery, her long search for knowledge, and the proximity to her heart’s desire stir up a heady concoction of exhilaration and turmoil in her blood, which causes her to throw caution to the wind.  She begins her circuit of the lake, chanting as she goes, but her perambulations take her widdershins rather than deasal-wise.

Perhaps this is her undoing, or perhaps her presence uninvited violates this holy place. Perhaps she is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. In any case, the waters begin to rise and stir. Wavelets grow into watery mountains which slop at the banks which contain them, chafing at their restraints like caged beasts.

Boann falters in her enchantment, gripped with sudden fear. Even as she turns to run, she knows in her heart escape is futile; she risked the wrath of the Gods, now she must pay. The roaring water towers above her, streaked with white foam and fury. It runs much faster than she; it sweeps her up as if she were no more than a feather, devouring everything in its path as it cascades down the hillside toward the call of the stormy grey ocean. Little Dabilla is tossed from wave to wave, like a sliotar between hurlers.

They say retribution was cruel; Boann lost an eye, an arm and a leg, her faithful pet, some even say her life in the lakeburst which carried her out to sea. And thus the River Boyne was formed and named after her, so that the tragic Goddess lives on forever in the landscape, and in the hearts and minds of the people of Ireland, gone but never forgotten.

Poor Boan, and poor little faithful Dabilla. Nevertheless, we can see from all these stories that in ancient Ireland, people formed attachments to animals, and loved their pets just like we do. 😍


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The Encounter of Líadain and Cuirithir

Last week, I listened to one of my lecturers read aloud a poem in Old Irish, and I learned a few things:

  1. Old Irish is a language which is meant to be listened to.
  2. Listening to someone read poetry aloud in Old Irish, even when you don’t understand what the hell he’s saying, is… well, let’s just say it’s very pleasant. 😉

The Encounter of Líadain and Cuirithir is a romantic tragedy, and a story I had not yet come across. It is told, as many old Irish stories are told, in both poetry and prose, with the poetry normally being reserved for speech, or to emphasize a particularly important point, or exchange. And because February is the month of love (just look at all the people born in November and tell me it isn’t!), I thought I’d share it with you.

Linguistically, the story dates to the ninth century, but is set back in the seventh century. It concerns two poets, and the love which grew between them, and how it ended in tragedy.

Líadain of Corco Duibne was a lady poet (see… women could be poets in ancient Ireland!) who was touring the province of Connacht, where she met  Cuirithir mac Doborchu, a local poet. Well, it was love at first sight, and being lusty Irish, they spent the night together.

Cuirithir wanted more than a one night stand; “Why do we not make a union, o Líadain? Brilliant would be our son whom you would beget,” he entreated her, no doubt alluding to their combined skills as poets.

Líadain had fallen even more deeply in love, but something held her back… her love for God (you might know he’d poke his nose in at some point, if St. Patrick wasn’t available).

She told him to come for her at her home when she has completed her tour as a poetess. This he does, and the couple then approached Bishop Cummine for guidance.

He was not kind. He instructed Cuirithir to renounce his love and banished him to a monastery far away over the sea. Líadain takes the veil, but never forgets her passion for her lost love.

As he crossed the sea in his coracle, she mourned the cruel loss of her lover from a vantage point on a boulder overlooking the bay, and died of a broken heart.

The Bishop then placed the stone over her grave. What became of Cuirithir, if he ever learned of his lover’s death, we don’t know.

This is part of the poem Líadian composes about Cuirithrir:

I am Líadain,
I loved Cuirithir.
It is as true as they tell it.

It was a short time that I was
in the company of Cuirithir.
Towards him, my companionship was good.

The music of the wood
used to sing around me when I was with Cuirithir
with the sound of the blood-red ocean.

I would have thought
that nothing of whatever things I might do
would bring Cuirithir against me.

One shouldn’t hide it:
he was my heart’s desire,
even if I loved everyone besides him.

A roar of fire
has broke my heart.
It is known that it will not live without him.

I think these words are so poignant, so sad and heartfelt. The passing of centuries has not diminished them. She clearly regrets having turned him down, having let her fear of God come between them. It is a lament that she hurt the man she loves so dearly… look how often she repeats his name: she is obsessed. I really feel for her.

There does seem to be some confusion in the story; the delay to their getting together is attributed to both her desire to become a nun, and her desire to continue her tour as a travelling poetess. Clearly, it can’t be both, so which is it?

If she becomes a nun first and then sleeps with Cuirithir, then clearly they have both sinned, which explains the Bishop’s harsh decision. But if she becomes a nun after Cuirithir leaves her, then clearly her decision to put her career as a travelling poetess first offended him deeply, in which case she should forget about the selfish arse!

If the former is true, then the story is one of chastity, punishment, love of God, and that most heinous of crimes, female lust. But if the latter is true, more than likely the story has an older source, and is a tale of love and tragic misunderstanding which has been tampered with by Christians to suit their moral code.

Was Líadian a historical figure? It’s hard to say. Her name means the ‘Grey One’, or the ‘Grey Lady’, perhaps in reference to the nun’s habit she wore. Her name does crop up elsewhere in the company of three other female poets, but there is no actual evidence that she really existed.

However, medieval writers were wont to put their stories in the mouths of historical personae as speakers of history. It may even be that her story is true, but she did not write it, at least, not in the version which currently exists. Linguistically, some of the rhyme in the text has been found to date specifically to the ninth century.

So, till next time, Myth Lovers…


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Film Trailer (video) for ‘The Search for the Seanachaí’, and I’m in it (briefly) 😁!

Last spring, I was interviewed by film maker, Peter McGee, for a new project he was working on, entitled ‘The Search for the Seanachaí‘. Here is the trailer for the film, see if you can spot me! 😁

For the love of GOLD

When I first visited the National Museum of Archaeology in Dublin, I was stunned by the sheer amount, and quality, of ancient gold artifacts on display… there is a whole floor  of the stuff.

My youngest son, who was about 8 years old at the time, scrounged my phone and busied himself taking photos of it all… he couldn’t believe what he was seeing, either!

Now put Ireland and gold together in the same sentence, and most people immediately think of pots of gold at the end of a rainbow guarded by a little red-bearded man dressed in green. *shudders* Ugh! How I loathe that little creature.

But here you go. The word ‘leprechaun’ is derived from the Old Irish luchorpán. The leprechaun first makes its apearance in an ancient medieval tale known as the Echtra Fergus mac Léti (Adventure of Fergus son of Léti). Fergus, King of Ulster, falls asleep on the beach and wakes to find himself being dragged into the sea by three tiny lúchorpáin. He captures them, who grant him the ability to swim under water in exchange for their freedom.

Over time, the leprachaun, clearly originally a sea-creature, became distorted into the drunken little shoemaker fond of causing mischief and mayhem, who hides his gold in that famous pot of gold. Of course, you can see how that happened… its a natural progression.

Hmmm…

Anyway, back to the gold. The ancient Irish adored the stuff, particularly during the Bronze Age (c.2500-500 BC). More Bronze Age gold hoards have been found in Ireland than anywhere else in Europe.

By Jononmac46 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36570957
By Jononmac46 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36570957

One of the most famous discoveries is the Mooghaun North Hoard found in County Clare. It is considered one of the greatest Bronze Age hoards of gold ever found north of the Alps. Sadly, much of it was sold off and melted down, but 150 items were rescued, and some of them can now be seen in the National Museum.

The earliest evidence of metal mining in Ireland is provided by Bronze Age copper workings at Ross Island, Co. Kerry in southwest Ireland. These workings, dated at between 2,400 – 2,000 BC constitute the oldest recognised in northwest Europe.

However, evidence of ancient gold mining and smelting materials and equipment has been found in a bog near Limerick. Scholars are unsure though, where the majority of Ireland’s gold has come from.

Scientists measured the chemical composition of some of the oldest known gold artifacts in Ireland to find that they were actually imported from Cornwall in Britain. It seems the English were not quite so fond of their gold bling at the time, and readily traded with the Irish in exchange for… you’ll never guess… tin.

The National Museum of Archeology in Dublin houses over 500 pieces of gold work, including golden collars, torcs and bracelets, mostly from the Bronze Age. It’s quite incredible, glass case after glass case of it.

But what of the mythology? Yes, gold makes an appearance in the old tales of Ireland too, as well as in the land’s archaeology.

This is how Niamh of the Golden hair is described, when she comes to confess her love for Oisin, Fionn mac Cumhall’s son, and carries him away with her into the Otherworld…

She wore the garb of a queen; a crown of gold was on her head, and a dark brown mantle of silk, set with stars of red gold, fell around her and trailed on the ground. Silver shoes were on her horse’s hoofs, and a crest of gold nodded on his head.

And this is how Queen Medb was described by Cethern to Cúchulainn, when he was wounded by her in battle…

A tall, fair, long-faced woman with soft features came at me … She had a head of yellow hair and two gold birds on her shoulders. She wore a purple cloak folded about her, with five hands’ breadth of gold on her back. She carried a light, stinging, sharp-edged lance in her hand, and she held an iron sword with a woman’s grip over her head – a massive figure. It was she who came against me first.

No shame there, it seems, to have been beaten in battle by a woman. Just sayin’.

Criomthan Nianair was a King of Ireland, and the son of Lugaidh Sriabhdearg ‘of the Red Stripes’, who was famously Cuchulainn’s foster son. Criomthan was said to have brought back a golden chariot and a cloak woven with golden threads as plunder from his adventures in Gaul.

Lugaidh was an interesting character. He was said to have been born of a night of incest between Clothra and her three brothers, Breas, Nar, and Lothola, and was described as ‘beautiful to behold, and stronger in bodily strength in infancy than was usual for a child of his age’. It was said that Clothra feared her family’s line would be wiped out in battle, so she seduced all of her brothers in the hope of producing an heir. When her son was born, he was divided in three by red wavy lines, and each third of him resembled that portion of one of his three fathers.

Clothra need not have worried. Far from being punished for their incestuous behaviour,  one hundred and seven of their descendants went on to rule as Kings.

In Ireland today, there are many places which bear the Irish word for gold, óir, in their names: Slieve Anore (Mountain of Gold), in Co Clare; Tullynore (Little Hill of Gold), in Co Down; Coomanore (Hollow of Gold), near Bantry in Co Cork, and Glenanore (Glen of  Gold), also in Co Cork. Does that mean gold was found or worked there in ancient times? Who can say? I’d like to think so.

Finally, I just thought you might like to know that the letter ‘O’ in the Ogham alphabet, the Beith-Luis-Nin, is called Onn, or Oir, which is also the Old Irish word for ‘gold’. (Learn how to pronounce it here.)


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