Tailtiu, the Church of St Patrick and the Eastern Fort

I started 2017 with a trip to Teltown. It was the morning after the night before, and I looked like it, but I didn’t bring you here just to admire my good looks (ahem); I have something far more interesting to show you…

Tailtiu, the Church of St Patrick, and the Eastern Fort. www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

No, that’s not me, but I can see the resemblance. Ok, not really. 😁 She’s Tailtiu, last Queen of the Fir Bolg. Some say she was the King of Spain’s daughter, or even that she was of Egyptian origin, and that her name was Neffertiti. In which case, I suspect she may have  looked a little different to the woman in my image…

Her husband, Eochaidh mac Eirc, was killed by the Tuatha de Danann in the First Battle of Moytura, when they invaded Ireland. After their victory, in order to establish good relations with her and her people, the Danann gave her one of their noble-born sons, Lugh, to foster. This was common practice in ancient Ireland.

Tailtiu retired to the area located on the River Blackwater between Navan and Kells now known as Teltown. In Irish, its name is Tailten. Here she established her home, and set about the back-breaking task of clearing the land for farming.

Meanwhile, she loved Lugh as if he were her own, lavishing care and attention on him. She found for him all the best tutors, and had him trained not just in the arts of battle and strategy, as befitting a high-born son, but in music, poetry, healing, the secrets of the forge, and many other skills besides.

When she died, Lugh was heart-broken. He buried her beneath a great mound at her beloved Teltown, and set up the Tailten games, known as the Oenach Tailten, in her honour every year at Lughnasadh (August 1st), that she might never be forgotten. This festival continued on, in some form, well into the nineteenth century.

Teltown is a vast and complex ancient site of some significance dating to the Iron Age. Features include the remnants of mounds, ring forts, earthen ramparts, artificial lakes, and an ancient roadway, but much of these have been erased from the landscape through the actions of farming over the years.

I came to see Donaghpatrick Church, and Rath Airthir, which means ‘the Eastern Fort’. Donaghpatrick, from Domnach Pádraig, meaning the ‘church of St Patrick’. According to legend, Conaill, brother of the High King Laoighre, gave the land to St Patrick after his baptism.

It’s kind of hard to imagine that the Irish would have handed over such an important site so willingly, but not so hard to imagine why Patrick would have wanted it. What better way to stamp out pagan activities than to establish a Christian church right there in the middle of it all?

In fact, there are six churches in total, though not all are still in use. Donaghpatrick is itself very intriguing. It appears to be constructed upon a mound or platform, possibly an earlier ancient one, and contains a standing stone, and the old medieval font from the previous church in its grave yard. It is built upon a medieval tower house, which has a strange stone head embedded three quarters of the way up one wall, slightly offset to the right.

The magnificent Rath Airthir

But most wonderful of all, if you stand with your back to the church, Rath Airthir faces directly opposite, in a field just across the road. It is a trivallate ringfort, meaning it has three ramparts circling it, and stands at around 30m (98ft) in diameter. The ramparts could not be seen from this angle, but even so, it really is quite spectacular.

Apparently, Rath Airthir has been identified by archaeologist Michael Herity as the Tredua (triple rampart) fort of Tailtú, as noted in the Metrical Dindshenchas: ‘the Tredua of Tailtiú, famed beyond all lands, where the Kings of Ireland used to fast that no disease might visit the land of Erin.’ (see Voices from the Dawn)

This, coupled with the triple rampart, seems to me to be ritual in nature, possibly the site of some ancient Kingship purification rite, but don’t quote me on that… it’s just my guess, I’m no expert.

I was gutted when I walked up the road and found a sign on the gate prohibiting entry. As much as it maddens and disappoints me, one has to respect the wishes of private landowners; trespassing does not win their favour.

Rath Airthir was, on this occasion, only to be admired from afar.


Happy New Year to you all!
Athbhliain faoi shéan is faoi mhaise daoibh!
(AH-VLEE-in fwee hayn iss fwee WISH-uh deev)


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The Stone of the Big Man

I drove past it three times. Eventually, I stopped in the local village shop for a bottle of water and directions.

The young woman behind the counter gave me a friendly smile. “We’re always after getting visitors in looking for that stone,” she said. “Sell a lot of bottles of water that way.”

cuchulainns-stoneThe little old man who was flirting shamelessly with her when I walked in took me outside and pointed out the way, then mounted his equally ancient push-bike. “Used to pick ‘taters in that field when I was a lad,” he added. “The whole village turned out for it.” He gave me a wave and pedalled slowly off.

Surprisingly for Irish directions (I’m sure you know the old joke – ‘Hmmm… well, I wouldn’t start from here…’ 😭), they were spot on. A couple of minutes drive up the road, and over a stile on the right… how could I have missed it?

Because the bloody sign was tiny and hidden by an overgrown hedge, that’s how, and the stone was way off at the other end of a huge field and couldn’t be seen from the road.

It was well worth the trip, though. That thing is HUGE!

Clochafarmore, or Cloch an Fhir Mhóir in Irish means ‘the stone of the big man’, and is located in the townland of Rathiddy, at Knockbridge, in County Louth.

You might be thinking GIANT, and in a way, you’d be right… this particular man was a giant in reputation, if not in physicality. You probably know him as Cuchulainn, legendary hero of Ulster.

Cuchulainn was born Setanta, son of lightning God, Lugh Lámhfada and the mortal princess, Dechtire, who was the sister of Ulster king, Conchubar. Even as a child, he showed great skill beyond his years in the sports of wrestling, hurling, and the arts of warriors.

When he was seven, he went to train at the court of the king. It was during this time that he earned the name of Cuchullain – Cullain’s Hound – by killing Cullain’s fiercest guard  dog as the brute leaped to attack him.

But everyone knows that story, so I’m not going to tell it here. As everyone also knows the other story he’s most famous for, the Tain Bo Cuailnge, or the ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’, in which Queen Medb of Connacht starts a war with Ulster over possession of a bull, and how Cuchulainn holds off her army by fighting a series of single combats with Medb’s choicest warriors.

No, I’m not going to tell that one, either. You don’t have the time, and I don’t have the blog space for that epic.

But I will tell you how the Cloch an Fhir Mhóir got its name….

After a visit to his mother, Cuchulainn was returning to battle against the men of Connacht when he came across a woman crying and washing his bloody clothing in a stream. No matter how much she scrubbed at it, she could not wash out the stain of blood, and he knew it was an omen of his death.

He continued on his journey and after a while came across three old women roasting a dog on spits made from rowan wood, and they bid him sit down and eat with them. Cuchulainn was now in a quandary, for he was honour-bound by two geasa: never to eat dog meat, and never to refuse hospitality when it was offered.

So he decided it would be more dishonourable to refuse the food, and sat down with them to eat. But no sooner had the first bite of dog-flesh passed his lips, and he felt a weakness claim his body, and he knew this was an omen of his impending death.

After his meal, he continued on his way and soon came across his enemy who were arrayed in battle formation against him; they made a wall of their shields and strengthened it with their strongest men in the centre, and their Druids prepared to take his spears from him, for they had a prophecy in which three kings would be killed by those spears.

When Cuchullain saw them, he ordered his charioteer, Laeg, to drive straight at them…

“and Cuchulain came against them in his chariot, doing his three thunder feats, and he used his spear and his sword in such a way, that their heads, and their hands, and their feet, and their bones, were scattered through the plain of Muirthemne; like the sands on the shore, like the stars in the sky, like the dew in May, like snow-flakes and hailstones, like leaves of the trees, like buttercups in a meadow, like grass under the feet of cattle on a fine summer day. It is red that plain was with the slaughter Cuchulain made when he came crashing over it.”

from Lady Gregory’s The Death of Cuchulainn

“Give your spear to me,” called one of the Druids.

“You are not so much in want of it as I am myself,” Cuchulainn growled in reply (love that… Lady G.’s words, not mine, however😜). With that he cast the spear at the Druid, and it went through his head and killed the men also on either side.

Lugaid, Cuchulainn’s enemy, retrieved the spear and cast it at Cuchulainn as he charged by on his chariot, but his aim was not true, and it pierced Laeg, and so it was that the King of Charioteers was killed that day by the Hound’s very own spear.

“Give me your spear,” demanded a second Druid, and Cuchulainn dutifully cast it at him. It passed through his head, and Erc took it this time, and fired it at Cuchulainn, but he charged by in his chariot too quickly for Erc. The missile missed and went through his horse, the great Grey of Macha instead, and so it was that the King of Horses died that day by Cuchulainn’s second spear.

“Give me your spear,” yelled a third Druid, and without delay, Cuchulainn hurled it at him as hard as he could, and it passed clean through the unfortunate man’s head. Lugaid siezed the weapon and threw it, and this time it found its mark: it passed through Cuchulainn’s body, and as he watched ‘his bowels came out on the cushions of the chariot’ he knew he had received his death wound.

‘Then he gathered up his bowels into his body’ and tied himself with his belt to a tall pillar-stone standing close by so that he would meet his death standing on his feet like a warrior.

His enemies gathered at a distance but did not dare approach; no one would be foolish enough to meet the great Cuchulainn in close combat, even with his death wound upon him. Three days they waited, until finally the Morrigan landed on his shoulder in her guise of black raven feathers, and they knew he was dead.

And so it was that the prophecy was fulfilled, and the great King of Heroes was killed by his very own spear.

Stones such as these are thought to have been set up in the bronze age, possibly as memorials to some special person or event, or perhaps as territorial markers. I’d also like to point out that not everything vaguely cylindrical and upstanding has phallic significance.

The area in which Cuchulainn’s Stone is located is named An Breisleach Mor in Irish, meaning ‘the Great Carnage’, and the field is still known locally as the ‘Field of Slaughter’.  Perhaps there really was a battle which took place there in the far distant past.

A bronze age spear head was found near the stone some time in the 1920s, and handed over for safekeeping to the parish priest, a Fr Seamus Quinn, after whom the local GAA pitch was named, and subsequently was lost. It’s a nice touch, though… another of those little life coincidences which connect us to the stories of the past.

Cloch an Fhir Mhóir stands over 3m (10ft) tall, and 1.3m wide. It has a deep fissure in it, which looks as if it could have been caused by a lightning strike, at least to my fanciful imagination, which would be fitting, since the Hound’s father was Lugh. I can imagine Lugh lashing out at the stone in fury and sorrow after his son was so cruelly killed there.

It’s a very peaceful place, full of light and space and wind and sky, set on top of a rolling hill, with a wonderful wide panoramic view across the valley. I leaned with my back against the stone, like the hero once did, and could almost see the approach of the army, watching and waiting fearfully for death.

No crow landed on my shoulder, and so far I’m still here…


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Halloween or Samhain?

girl vampire in retro dress, in a black cloak, in the forestI recently watched a video on Youtube where the expert in the film kept pronouncing Samhain as it looks… Sam-hain. An easy mistake to make, you might think, and I would agree. But not if you profess yourself to be something of an expert on the subject. Then you have a duty to get it right. He should have known better.

If you don’t already know, it’s pronounced like this… sau-win. Don’t you think it sounds so much better?

I’ve written about Halloween and Samhain so many times, but don’t worry, I’m not going to repeat myself again. But for all my new followers, here are links to the existing posts, which you probably haven’t as yet read. On the big day itself, I will have something new and spooktacular for you, I promise.

Enjoy the season, and Happy Half-Term, if you’re off! 😜


Samhain | The Original Halloween

For our ancient ancestors, the day began not with the arrival of dawn, but with the fall of dusk. Therefore, Samhain (pronounced sau-win, and believed to derive from the Old Irish sam, meaning ‘summer’, and fuin, meaning ‘end’) began on the evening of 31st October, and continued until dusk on November 1st. Similarly, their New Year began with the arrival of the dark season, Winter, not halfway through it, as ours does today. Some say this equates with a belief that life is born into the light from the darkness of the womb.


om

Tlachtga | Goddess of Earth and Fire

At Tlachtga, I felt a great sense of peace. I know you will say it’s because it all happened so long ago, in fact, probably never happened at all, because these are just ancient stories. But I think forgiveness washes a place clean, floods it with peacefulness and makes it wholesome again.

It didn’t even feel like a hill, but as I walked out onto the summit, I was amazed at the wide open 360* panorama which unfolded around me. From here, other famous ancient sites can be seen, if you know where to look, such as Tara (19kms), Loughcrew, Slane (23kms) and Teltown (12kms).


An Irish Ghost Story for Halloween | Sabina of Ross Castle

My father was not known for his kindliness; the Black Baron, they called him, and with good reason. He couldn’t abide lawlessness, demanded obedience, and ruled with an iron hand.

That grim, grey castle was not the place for a young girl to grow up in. For the most part, I was left alone, save for my poor governess. I was always tricking her with false errands, that I might escape her sharp eyes and those unforgiving walls.


Human Skull with silver Crown

Samhain Legends | Donn, Lord of the Dead

As far as we can tell, the ancient Irish people  never had a God of the Dead. The Otherworld was said to be the domain of Manannán, God of the Sea, but the myths and legends do not tell of him being a God of the Dead. However, there is someone, a mere mortal, who has come to be associated with this role.


Aillen of the Sidhe sprays fire from his mouth upon the roof of Tara.A Samhain Story | Fionn mac Cumhall and the Sidhe-Prince of Flame

“Tomorrow is the eve of Samhain,” whispered the Filidh, the High King’s Royal Bard. The crowd stilled, straining to hear through the smoky atmosphere of the King’s hall.

It was the night before Halloween. As always, the High King had invited all his favourite nobles to celebrate the festival at Tara. They crowded his hall, feasting at his table. The air was thick with smoke from the hearth fires, the scent of candles, the aroma of roasting meat, chatter, music and song. Now, when bellies were full and hunger sated, folk sat back and turned to their cups. It was time for the storyteller to weave his magic.


A Witches LamentA Poem for Samhain | A Witches Lament

They hide the truth,

these gaudy costumes,

the carved lanterns,

the trick or treat…


A Samhain Poem | The Princess on the Hill

She lies upon the hill, ragged and torn,

Borne of the night her three sons bold.

Told a story heartless and cruel,

Fuel for revenge of an act most foul…


warrior-2A Samhain Story| Lugh, Master of All Arts

Lugh hammered loudly on the palace gates, his men gathered about him. They had been travelling many days, and darkness would soon be falling. They had no intention of spending yet another night sleeping on the hard ground with just their cloaks to warm them.

“Be off with you!” someone shouted down to them from the shadows atop of the palisade wall. “The gates to the King’s palace are closed for the night. We are accepting no visitors this Samhain Eve.”


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The Fairy Folk of Ireland

What kind of image does that expression, ‘the fairy folk’ conjure up when you hear it? Something a bit like this…

Maybe you see something a little more ‘Tinkerbell’, a sweet pretty little thing with gossamer wings, so tiny it could fit in the palm of your hand?

That’s the traditional view, but let me tell you, Ireland’s fairies are a whole other kettle of fish. Oh, and by the way, don’t ever refer to them with the ‘F’-word, as I have done here… they are not over-fond of the term, and may do you a mischief you may come to regret!

In Ireland, these magical beings are known as ‘the Sidhe’ (prounounced Shee), also the Aos Sí, and Daoine Sídhe, and in Scottish lore, the Sith, although it’s still pronounced the same. They are named after the mounds which dot the Irish landscape, and which are said to lead to their homes below the ground. In folklore, they are often referred to as ‘the Fair Folk’ (hence fairy), or the ‘little people’, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Well. You know what I mean.

They are not tiny. They never were. In fact, they were larger than the indigenous people of Ireland. Think of the elves from Lord of the Rings: beautiful, terrible, tall, slim, powerful, magical… well, where do you think Tolkien got his ideas from? He borrowed from many mythologies to create his masterpiece, and he wasn’t the only one… Star Wars, anybody?

According to the Lebor Gebala Erenn, an ancient medieval text describing Ireland’s history as its Christian scribes understood it, the Danann were a supernatural race of people who invaded Ireland and defeated the Fir Bolg people, who ruled at the time. You can read more about them in my posts, Who were the Tuatha de Danann Really? and The Tuatha de Danann Come to Ireland.

In the Book of the Dun Cow and the Book of Leinster, the Tuatha de Danann are described as ‘gods and not-gods’. This is interesting because it seems to imply that whilst they possessed many of the powers one would expect of a deity, they were god-like, rather than actual gods.

I’d just like to point out here, that although it is popularly believed that the Danann constitute a pantheon of Celtic/ Irish pagan gods, the ancient texts such as Lebor Gabála Érenn and Cath Maige Tuireadh name them not as Gods but as Kings.

Now whilst this could simply be a case of demotion by monks who believed there could only be one true God, we must also consider the fact that perhaps these really are the tales of remembered chieftains, warriors and heroes of times gone by. My personal opinion is that the antiquarians of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries interpreted their archaeological findings, and the ancient texts, using the only model they had: their education in the Greek and Roman classics.

Now, back to the ‘not gods’. An example would be the question of immortality. The Danann were long-lived, but they did not live forever. They could be killed by injury, as in battle, or sickness, like any mortal, but not by old age, as they did not seem to age at all. This can be very confusing, if you think of immortality in its absolute sense, ie life everlasting.

High Kings held the crown for extraordinarily long terms. The Dagda, for example, was said to have reigned for 80 years. He eventually wasted away from a sickness caused by a wound he had received in battle from a poisoned sword.

Lugh of the Long Hand, another Danann High King, was murdered in a revenge attack, yet still popped up several centuries later to father Cuchulainn on mortal woman, Dechtire. Some years later, when Cuchulainn was grievously wounded, he returned to tend his son’s wounds for three days, and nursed him back to health. Not something a ghost could do, methinks.

In the end, the Danann were defeated and tricked out of Ireland by a race of mortal man known as the Milesians, or Sons of Mil. The Danann were forced to retreat to that half of Ireland which lay below ground, whilst the Milesions took ownership of the surface. You can read this story in my post, The Retreat of the Tuatha de Danann. From then on, the Danann and their descendants became known as ‘the Sidhe’.

According to the Book of Leinster, the Danann then took revenge on the sons of Mil by destroying their wheat and souring their milk. This apparently forced a treaty in which the Milesians were to supply the Danann with milk and butter, and no doubt other goods they no longer had access to.

The Sidhe did not disappear altogether, however; there are many stories in which they interacted with humans, although not always favourably. But as time passed, inevitably a distance grew between men and the Sidhe, and with it, distrust.

The Christians, when they came, severed any final loyalties and friendships that remained, by claiming them as devils, demons, evil spirits, and the like. This fostered fear, resentment and the rise of superstitions; gifts/ bribes would be left out in order to placate ‘the Good Folk’, for example, and fairy forts, mounds and certain trees thought of as the Sidhe’s property would not be harmed, for fear of earning their wrath.

Apart from their long lives, and apparent eternal youth, the Sidhe possessed other powers humans could not explain. They could shape-shift; the Morrigan was famous for transforming into a crow and flying across the battlefield, crying harsh encouragement to her men, and striking fear into the hearts of the enemy.

When her amorous advances were spurned by Cuchulainn, she shifted into a red-eared heifer and tried to knock him over whilst he was engaged in combat with another warrior; then she turned into an eel, wrapping herself around his legs, before finally becoming a grey wolf which lunged for his sword arm. Unperturbed, Cuchulainn managed to keep his enemy at bay whilst, of course, he defeated her every attack; he broke the cow’s leg, trampled the eel underfoot, and poked out the wolf’s eye, and went on to kill his opponent shortly after. What a hero! 😍

They also had strange, inexplicable magic. What we might call technology. Nuada was fitted with a bionic arm an arm of silver when his limb was cut off in battle; he also carried a light sabre sword of light. They arrived in spaceships dark thunder clouds in the sky and lighted on the mountain Sliab an Iarainn. Lugh had a flame-thrower burning spear. They had a sound system to rival any current band a talking rock which announced the rightful king in a roar which could be heard across the land.

Ok. It’s a bit disrespectful calling the Lia Fail a talking rock. Sorry. But you get the picture. Oh, and the Dagda had a bottomless cauldron from which everyone went satisfied, ie he fed them till they were full… any ideas on what that particular piece of technology could be?

Visitors from the Otherworld crop up often in the old stories. They often took mortal lovers. Niamh of the Golden Hair appeared on a white horse to Oisin, son of Fionn mac Cumhall, to confess her love for him, and took him back with her. Ciabhan, Prince of Desmond,  risked his life in a little fisherman’s curragh on the stormy high seas, chasing after Cliodhna, having spent a few hours of passion with her on the beach. And Cuchulainn actually had an affair with Fand, the wife of Manannán, the sea-God… the audacity of that man!

Interactions between man and Sidhe were not always so benign. As a boy, Fionn mac Cumhall was the only warrior capable of slaying the fire-fairy, Aillen mac Midhna, who for many years had been laying waste to the Hill of Tara with fire every Samhain festival.

Often, the Sidhe would fight amongst themselves, and sometimes, humans would be caught in the crossfire. This happened on one occasion to Fionn, when he and five members of his Fianna were hosted overnight by the Sidhe after getting lost whilst out hunting. The next morning, they awake to find they are expected to fight on behalf of their hosts against the massive Sidhe army led by Bodb Derg lined up outside the mound. Of course, being particularly honourable humans, they don’t hesitate to jump into the fight.

And that’s your lot. I could go on, but it’s nearly midnight already, and I have uni in the morning… doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun? 😜


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Were There Giants in Ancient Ireland?

I suppose that depends on what you mean by ‘giant’. The Oxford Dictionary is vague: ‘An imaginary or mythical being of human form but superhuman size’. It backs this up with, ‘An abnormally or extremely tall or large person, animal, or plant‘.

If you Google it, you will be told that Irish mythology is full of stories of giants. Despite popular belief, search a little more deeply, and you’ll find this is not true. More often than not, it is folklore which tells of giants, as last week’s post explains; Fionn mac Cumhall reduced to hiding in a crib dressed as a baby, even though he was so large he was responsible for building a road across the sea to Scotland, which we now know as the ‘Giant’s Causeway’; the giant witch-hag falling to her death as she leaped from crag to crag, carrying boulders in her apron which formed the cairns of Loughcrew, and so on.

giant2Clearly, from these examples, Irish giants were… well, fecking gigantic! But how ginormous is a giant, exactly? Here’s an interesting story, which might give us a clue.

DNA extracted from the teeth of a man named Charles Byrne, from Northern Ireland, who lived in the 18th century, proves that he had a genetic mutation which resulted in extreme growth. He was 7ft 7 ins tall when he died in the 1780s aged just 22. His skeleton can still be seen at the Hunterian Museum in the London headquarters of the Royal College of Surgeons.

By StoneColdCrazy at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16500747
By StoneColdCrazy at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16500747

What’s so intriguing about this case, is that the DNA matched with that of five Northern Irish families still living in that area today, and scientists believe they all inherited the gene mutation from the same common ancestor who lived up to 66 generations, or 1500 years, ago. Who knows, perhaps in the future, it will be traced even further back. If so, then perhaps we have just found the origin of the giant stories in Irish folklore. (You can read the full story here.)

The Tuatha de Danann were said to be tall, slender and powerful, although they were never described as giants. The Fomori, a sea-faring race who battled against the arrival of the Danann, were led by a King known as Balor, said to be a giant with one eye in the centre of his head which could kill people with one look.

Although the Fomori are portrayed as nasty and despicable, and really quite ugly, it is only Balor who is described as a giant. I would also dispute their ugliness; Elatha was so beautiful that when he appeared over the sea to Eriu in his silver boat, she consented immediately to sleep with him. Their resulting son, Bres, was also beautiful; in fact, that is the very meaning of his name.

Balor locked his daughter, Ethne, away in a tower on an island after hearing a prophecy that he would be killed by his own grandson. Despite this, Cian of the Danann comes to her and they sleep together. She gives birth to triplet sons, but Balor orders them to be thrown into the sea. One of them is rescued by Birog, a druidess, and he grows up to be Lugh, God of Lightning. At the Second Battle of Moytura, Lugh does indeed kill his grandfather with a spear through his evil eye, and so the prophecy came to pass.

My favourite giant story, however, concerns the origins of the five sacred guardian trees of Ireland. I can’t help feeling that this myth has really really ancient origins. One day, a tall stranger, some say a giant ‘as high as a wood’, came to the court of the High King at Tara bearing a branch from which grew three fruits, an apple, an acorn, and a hazelnut.

The stranger’s name was Trefuilngid Tre-eochair, meaning ‘of the three sprouts’. From the description, he was clearly a descendant of the Otherworld;

“As high as a wood was the top of his shoulders, the sky and the sun visible between his legs, by reason of his size and his comeliness. A shining crystal veil about him like unto raiment of precious linen. Sandals upon his feet, and it is not known of what material they were. Golden-yellow hair upon him falling in curls to the level of his thighs.”

He requested of Conan Bec-eclach, a just and brave High King, that all the men of Ireland be assembled, and from them he selected seven of the wisest men of knowledge from each ‘quarter’ of the land, and also seven from Tara.

He taught them all about their history and heritage, and shared with them his knowledge, but during that time, not a drop of wine or morsel of food passed his lips, for he was sustained purely by the fragrance of the fruits of his branch.

When his work was done, he gave the fruits from his branch to Fintan, the White-Haired Ancient One, who extracted seeds and planted them in each quarter of the land, and one in the centre, at Uisneach. The trees which grew from these seeds became the five sacred trees of Ireland.

Searbhan was a giant who protected a sacred rowan tree in the forest of Dubros (in Co Sligo), upon which grew magical berries which had the power to restore youth to the old. During their flight from jealous Fionn mac Cumhall, Diarmuid and Grainne entered the forest, looking for a safe place to sleep. Being quite pregnant by this time, as soon as Grainne laid eyes on the glossy red berries, she was consumed with an insatiable craving for them.

Inevitably, Searbhan refused to give her any, causing Diarmuid to attack him in anger. The giant swung his huge club, but Diarmuid was a mighty warrior of the Fianna, and not only did he dodge nimbly out of the way, but he managed to relieve Searbhan of his weapon, and kill him with it.

Here in Co Cavan, folklore local to the Burren tells the tale of two sibling giants, Lugh (an important and well loved character from mythology, borrowed yet again) and Lag, who both fell in love with the same female giant. To see decide which one of them should win her, they challenged one another to jump over a wide chasm. They both succeeded. Lag then decided he would jump the chasm backwards, and of course, he fell to his death. He was buried in a wedge tomb beside the chasm, which to this day is known as ‘the Giant’s Leap’.


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Manannán’s Land Irish Myths of the Sea

Until I moved to Cavan eight years ago, I had always lived within sight or sound of the sea. Every summer I head down to Co Kerry for a few days with friends and the boys. There, we are surrounded by sea, and mountains. I love wide open spaces. Both the sea and the high places provide that.

Being a small island, peoples lives have been dominated by the sea. In mythology, the Danann, the Milesians, and various other races came to Ireland from the sea. According to legend, Ireland had two sea deities: Lir, and Manannán mac Lir, which means ‘son of Lir’, or ‘son of the sea’.

Little is known about Lir; there is a Lir who was father to the four children turned into swans by their jealous stepmother, but it is by no means certain that he is one and the same with the sea-god of the same name.

Even Manannán’s identity is uncertain, although he features far more in the stories and legends. According to the Yellow Book of Lecan (c. 1400 AD), there were four Manannáns: Manandán mac Alloit, a ‘druid of the Tuatha dé Danann’ whose ‘proper name was Oirbsen’; Manandán mac Lir, a renowned sailor and merchant; Manandán mac Cirp, king of the Isles and Mann; and Manandán mac Atgnai, who took in the sons of Uisnech.

Confused? Me too.

Manannan was guardian of the Otherworld. To get there, one had to sail west beyond the ninth wave. This was an island realm consisting of many different islets. It was sometimes known as the ‘Land under Sea’, although it is never specifically described as such. However, it could also be approached through water. It is unclear if this is the same land known as Tir na Nog, ‘Land of the Ever Young’.

Aonbharr
Aonbharr

His magical possessions included Aonbharr of the Flowing Mane, a beautiful white horse that could travel over water as easily as land. Note that he was not winged, like Pegasus. He also had a boat named Wavesweeper; it had no sails or oars, but was directed by the thoughts of its occupants. He also he owned a cloak of mists that granted him invisibility, a flaming helmet, and a sword named Fragarach (meaning Answerer/ Retaliator) that could slice through any armour and when pointed at a target could make that target answer any question truthfully.

Although these items were precious, Manannán would sometimes loan them out, particularly to Lugh, who was said to have been his foster son, and whom benefited from the the boat, the sword and Aonbharr.

Of course Manannán and Lir weren’t the only deities associated with the sea: Cliodhna was his daughter, who left her father’s realm to be with her mortal lover, Ciabhán. She is lulled into an enchanted sleep upon the shore of Glandore harbour in Co Cork by the music of Fer I, Manannán’s harper, while her lover is off hunting. Her father sends a wave to bring her back home, but instead she is drowned. The tide there is still known as Tonn Chlíodhna, meaning ‘Clíodhna’s Wave’.

According to legend, the sea was inhabited by many strange and mystical creatures, including the Merrows. These were Ireland’s mer-people. The word ‘merrow’ comes from the Irish murúch, which is said to mean ‘sea singer’. They were a bit scary; as you can probably guess, they would lure sailors to their deaths by singing beautiful songs, then drown and devour them.

Mermaid
Mermaid

Like all mermaids, she was half human, half fish, very beautiful, with pale skin and webbing between her fingers. She was said to be gentle and benevolent (huh?). Sometimes, a mermaid would fall in love with a human, and leave the sea to be with him, but she would always long to return. In order to prevent this, her human husband would have to hide her cohuleen druith, a little magic hat. If she found it, she would be off like a shot, never to be seen again.

Lí Ban was a woman who was turned into a mermaid when a spring burst under her house to form Lough Neagh, named after her father, Eochaid mac Mairidh, who was drowned. Li Ban survived in an underwater chamber in the lake for one year, after which she shape-shifted into a mermaid form, half human and half salmon. After 300 years, she was captured by a monk who was in a boat fishing, and she agreed to come ashore. She was then baptised Muirgen, meaning sea-born’, but died immediately and ascended to heaven. This story is recorded in two ancient manuscripts, he Four Masters in an entry under year 558, and the Annals of Ulster in the year 571. So I guess it must be true! 😂

A legend made popular in recent years by movies such as Ondine and The Secret of Roan Inish is that of the Selkie, or Roanes/ Rón in Irish. By day, Selkies swim the seas as seals, but during the dark of night, they shed their skins and hide them carefully on the shore. Their human form is beautiful with dark hair and eyes and a creamy white skin. Humans are instantly enamoured of them and try to win their love. As with the Merrows and their little caps, however, the only way a human can keep a Selkie is to find their skin and hide it. A Selkie that is thus trapped on land will always long for the sea.

Of them all, though, my favourite sea legend is the story of Fergus and the fearful sea-dragon, Muirdris. Fergus mac Leti was a King of Ulster who fell asleep one day on the beach. Not a very safe thing to do in Irish mythology. Anyway, three little sprites called lúchorpáin (meaning ‘little bodies’) came up out of the water and tried to steal him away.

The coldness of the sea awoke him, and he lunged at the creatures, catching one in each hand and crushing the third to his chest. They promised to grant him one wish if he let them go, to which he agreed, and asked for the power to be able to swim deep under water without having to surface for air. They gave him magical herbs with which to plug his ears, but warned him not to swim under Lough Rudraige (Dundrum Bay).

Being a King, Fergus was used to doing as he liked, so of course he disregarded their advice, and encountered a massive, fearsome sea-serpent called Muirdris. His terror caused a facial disfigurement, which his people kept secret from him, as a king must be whole and perfectly formed.

One day, seven years later, a spiteful servant girl revealed the truth after he beat her unfairly. Shocked, Fergus decided to confront Muirdris once again. They battled for a night and a day, the sea turning red with blood about them, but Fergus emerged onto the shore victorious, bearing the great brute’s head. Fergus’s good looks were restored, but he immediately collapsed and dropped dead from his efforts. No happy ever after for him, then. Sigh.


The Sacred Rites of Kings

Sacred Rites of Kings www.aliisaacstoryteller.com
Sacred Rites of Kings
http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

So according to current scholarly thinking on ancient Kingship rights in Ireland, a new King had to shag a white horse, kill it and bathe in a stew made from it whilst eating its flesh. Then, if he was a bad King, or the crop failed, or he suffered an affliction which rendered him less than whole, his family and tribe sacrificed him to the Gods.

Intelligent, learned people actually believe this stuff?

Well. I read as much as I can about this kind of thing. I also spend a lot of time reading all the old stories from Ireland’s mythological cycles. And whilst many people dismiss them as pure fantasy (ahem… just look at that first para again!), if one plays close attention to what they tell us, we can actually learn from them.

Apart from Gerald’s gruesome ‘eye-witness’ account, I have not yet come across any more stories involving intimate relations with animals. Of course, that does not mean there aren’t any, just that I haven’t found them yet… cue the flood of helpful suggestions in my comments! Guys, where do you get your reading material from???

Ok, joking aside, here is a handy list of Kingship rituals I HAVE come across in the old myth stories, none of them gruesome. Maybe one of them is a little unsavoury, but nothing like what old Gerald would have us believe.

1. the tarb fheis

The Tarbfheis, or bull feast, was a ceremony used to select the next High King. It involved the sacrifice of a white bull, after which the Druid, or poet, would ‘chew the flesh and drink the broth’. I’m assuming the meat was cooked, since broth was a component of the ceremony. Following this meal, the poet was wrapped in the bull’s raw hide to dream. If his dream was unsuccessful in identifying the new King, he faced death.

According to the Togail Bruidne Dá Derga, ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’, on this occasion, the poet dreamed the future King would arrive in Tara naked and surrounded by birds. Young Conaire Mór was out hunting birds, when the leader of the flock suddenly threw off his feathers and revealed himself as the King of Birds, and Conaire’s true father. He advised Conaire of the details of the new prophecy, whereupon the young man immediately removed his clothes and set off for Tara accompanied by the Bird King and his flock. Thus the prophecy was fulfilled.

This ceremony is also explicitly described in a story preserved in the Lebor na hUidre, or ‘Book of the Dun Cow’, c 1106 AD, in a story called Serglige con Culainn, or ‘The Wasting Sickness of Cuchulainn’.

2. The wedding feast of kingship

Also known in Irish as banfeis rigi, the ‘wife-feast of kingship’, and when it pertains to the High King, who ruled from Tara, feis Temhra, the ‘feast of Tara’. Basically, sovereignty over the land was believed to be embodied in the Goddess. Thus in the ceremony, the king was ritually united, not just with his wife, and through her the Goddess, but also with the land, his kingdom. A King without a wife was seen as a king without sovereignty, or the right to rule.

Details are sketchy, but according to the myths, the bride/ Goddess offered the king a drink. Its quite likely that he then consummated his marriage with his Queen, the Goddess, and the land, thus indicating that the ceremony was, in part, a fertility rite.

Although the modern meaning of the word feis is ‘festival’, in the old days it meant ‘feast’ and also ‘to sleep/ spend the night’.

In the Baile in Scail, also called ‘the Phantom’s Ecstatic Vision’, Conn of the Hundred Battles and his companions wander into a blanket of fog and find themselves in the Otherworld, where they are greeted by Lugh. They are taken to his hall, where a beautiful woman named Flaith, meaning (‘Sovereignty’) serves Conn with a drink in a golden cup. He is thus made high king of Ireland.

3. The Coronation Stone

According to legend, the Lia Fail was made by Morfessa of the lost city of Falias, and was one of the Four Treasures belonging to the Danann, which they brought with them to the Hill of Tara when they came to Ireland. Also known as the Coronation Stone, and the Stone of Destiny, it was said its cry confirmed the coronation of the rightful High King of Ireland when his feet were placed upon it, and that its roar was heard throughout the land. It is reasonable, therefore, to suppose that it must have reclined upon its side in order to facilitate a man standing upon it, rather than standing tall as it does today. Additionally, the magical powers of the Stone were said to have rejuvenated him, and gifted him with a long reign. In fact, the Tuatha de Denann revered the Lia Fail so much, they named Ireland Inis Fail after it.

4. The guardian tree

It is thought that all clans possessed within their territories, their own sacred Guardian tree. It is believed that chieftains would have been inaugurated beneath their sacred tree, thus connecting them to both to the powers of below (the Otherworld) and above (the physical world). Thus the trees were seen as powerful, and representative of the success of the King and his tribe; they were the Guardians of their province, and this is what was meant when each tree was said to have ‘sheltered thousands of men’… it was meant symbolically, rather than literally.

5. challenges

Candidates for the High Kingship of Tara had to perform certain tasks to prove their eligibility, according to some legends. For example, they had to drive their chariots at full speed towards a pair of standing stones which had only a hand’s breadth between them. The stones would only part for the rightful king to pass through. Sounds a bit risky to me.

 

So what happened to bad kings? The ones who failed to fulfil their promises, or live up to expectations? The ones who got sick, or maimed in battle? Were they really sacrificed?

Not according to the myths. King Nuada lost his sword arm in battle, yet thanks to the skill of his great physician, Dian-Cecht, he survived. He wasn’t given a savage death in honour of the Gods though. A new king was elected, whilst Dian-Cecht set about making a fully functioning ‘arm of silver’ for Nuada. No dishonourable death for him. In fact, I’d go so far as to say he must have been held in great esteem and high regard if they bothered to go to all the trouble and expense of creating the world’s first ever bionic/ prosthetic arm for him.

Meanwhile, the newly elected king, Bres, proved to be a tyrannical, power-crazed maniac. After enduring seven years of his rule, during which Bres reduced the Danann to little more than slaves and forced them to pay  hefty tribute to his father’s people, the Fomori, the Danann finally rebelled and deposed him.

Notice how even a bad king was not sacrificed, or even harmed. The worst that happened was that a poet satirised him. He was allowed to leave, and return to his father’s people. Nuada, now whole, was reinstated.

The Danann and the Fomori went to war. The Fomori were defeated, and Bres taken captive. You’d think they might finally get around to sacrificing the tyrant at this point, but no; he was pardoned, and given the role of agricultural advisor.

So much for sacrificing  bad or maimed kings. Here’s another story for you.

Fergus mac Léiti received a facial disfigurement after fighting the sea-serpent known as the Muirdris in Lough Rudraige (Dundrum Bay). Instead of sacrificing him for not being whole, his people decided to hide the truth from him, and removed all mirrors from his home. For seven years, he was unaware of his deformity, until one day he beas a servant girl and she maliciously revealed the truth. Fergus went back into the sea to kill the Muirdris once and for all and succeeded, but died from exhaustion soon after.

Hmmm… a deformed king who wasn’t sacrificed.

Archaeology provides us with the most amazing discoveries and fascinating insights into what life was like for our ancestors. But it is not an exact science; it is open to interpretation, which can vary wildly from one person to another. Just like the old stories. They’re not merely entertainment, they can teach us a lot about the lives and mindsets of our ancestors. Instead of dismissing them, they should be layered with the archaeology, two powerful tools working together to unlock the secrets of the past.


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