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.


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,
By Jononmac46 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

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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The Land of the Ever Young Part One

The Land of the Ever Young

In Irish mythology, there is much mention of a place referred to as the Otherworld.  But where and what actually is it? Ah well, that would be telling. The thing is, mankind has been searching for this mysterious and elusive land for centuries, and we are still no nearer discovering the truth.

The Otherworld has many names; Tir na nOg (the land of the Young/ Ever Young),  Tír na mBeo (the Land of the Living),  Mag Mell (Plain of Joy), Tír fa Tonn (Land under the Waves), Tír na mBan, (Land of Women), Tir na nIongnadh (Land of Wonders), Tir Tairnigiri (Land of Promise), Manannán’s Land, and perhaps most famously, Hy-Brasil.

So are they all one and the same place? Possibly. No, don’t roll your eyes, this is mythology, not science; there are no facts, just lots of contradiction. That’s why it’s so intriguing.

In Irish mythology, the Otherworld was divided into two realms, that of the Sidhe in their hollow hills, and the other being the island lands ruled by Manannán, God of the Sea.

Also known as the Blessed Isles, they lay ‘beyond the ninth wave‘, gentle places of peace, beauty, healing and eternal life, happiness and everlasting summer. The realm of the Sidhe, by contrast, was as full of strife as the mortal world, as any of the myths about them show us; their lives were subject to the same passions, love, hate, desire, joy, power, jealousy, battles and death as are our own.

land of the Dead

Definitely not. If the ancient Irish believed in reincarnation, they had no need for a place to collect the souls of the dead. Interestingly, though Donn of the Milesians, said to be the first Gaels, died on his ship as it neared Ireland’s shores. He was buried at Bull Rock, a formidable stony crag which juts out of the ocean, and so the legend of Donn, Lord of the Dead was born. (You can read about this in my post Donn, Lord of the Dead.)

The Milesians went on to defeat the Danann, half through might in battle, half though trickery, and the Danann were banished underground. Perhaps the thought of Donn waiting to lead them to the afterlife was a comforting thought to the Milesian warriors anxiously waiting to confront the notorious Danann, and fearing death in battle in a strange land far from home.

In any case, this story was not part of the Celtic Irish tradition, and does not form part of the Otherworld stories.


Hy-Brasil was an island which once lay off the west coast of Ireland. Its name is derived from Old Irish hy, a variation of í, meaning ‘island’, and brasil, from the root word bres, meaning ‘beautiful/ great/ mighty’. It has also been explained as coming from Uí Breasal, meaning ‘of the clan of Bresal’, a people who once inhabited the North East of Ireland.

Legend has it that the island lies shrouded in mist most of the time, thus shielded from the eyes of mortals, but that one day in every seven years, the fog rolls back to reveal its distant splendour to anyone who might be looking.

Many explorers over the last few hundred years have gone on voyages seeking this fabled island, some even claiming to have sighted or visited it. It could well have been one of the island kingdoms belonging to Manannán. (You can read more about it in my post Hy-Brasil, Mysterious Lost Island of Irish Mythology.)

manannán’s land

Manannán was not of the Tuatha de Danann, yet when they were defeated by the invading Milesians and forced to retreat to their lands beneath the surface, he came to their aid, helping them to establish amongst themselves a High King. He then shrouded their Sidhe-mounds with fog, to keep them safe from prying eyes and unwanted attention.

Manannán’s lands were not seen as the land of the dead, as portrayed by Christian belief, but as the land of the ever living, of the ever young. As with Hy-Brasil, his lands were said to lie west of Ireland.

Niamh of the Golden Hair was said to have come from Manannán’s lands when she came for Oisin on her white horse. This animal could well have been the Sea God’s famous white horse, Aonbharr of the Flowing Mane, who could gallop over water as if it were solid ground.

Ciabhán was rescued from his little capsizing corracle by Manannán, after setting sail to seek Cliodhna, a woman from the Sea God’s land that he had fallen in love with. She too arrived from across the sea riding a white horse.

It’s quite likely that the Sea God’s kingdom comprised an archipelago of islands off the west coast of Ireland, which could be one reason why it has so many names, and could possibly have included Hy-Brasil.

sea voyages

There are a group of ancient texts called Imramma, in which the hero of the tale sets out in a boat searching for paradise. They are very Christian in the telling, usually but not always involving a monk or priest as the hero character, and although dated from C7th onwards, it’s thought they could be based on much older stories.

The Imram is all about the trials and tribulations of the journey; the destination is less important than the ordeal of getting there. But on the way, they encounter many strange islands, where odd things befall them and conspire to keep them from their mission, or tempt them in un-Christian ways.

In the Imram Brain, or the Sea Voyage of Bran, for example, Bran and his companions are persuaded to stop off at the Isle of Women, where they each pair off with a woman and live very happily for a year. When they eventually return home, they find that so much time has passed, Ireland has changed beyond recognition, and their names are only remembered in ancient legend.

I hope you’ll join me on Wednesday for Part Two, to find out more about the Otherworld beyond the Sidhe-mounds. You can read Land of the Ever Young Part Two here.

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Ancient Ablutions

Ancient Ablutions
Ancient Ablutions

I don’t know about you, but even as a child, I was always fascinated by the way our ancestors from our distant past may have conducted the minutiae of every day life. What they ate, how they slept, how children played, how they cooked, what their homes looked like, and so on; these were the things which occupied my mind far more than the major political upheavals and turbulent events they lived through, and kept me awake at night, or coloured my dreams.

Personal care interested me; hairstyles and fashion, cleanliness, how did they manage all this? After all, we know from all the old stories that beauty and style are  not modern concerns.

Lets get this over with first, huh? I know you’re curious, don’t try and deny it. How did the ancient people go to the toilet?

Ever heard of a place called Skara Brae? It’s a stone-built Neolithic village in the Orkneys consisting of eight houses, which was occupied from about 3180 BC–2500 BC, and is older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids.

Skara Brae By Wknight94 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

These houses were sunk into the ground, presumably to protect and insulate them from the harsh weather. All the furniture in them was built from stone, as there were no trees growing on the island.

There are so many fascinating features about these dwellings, but for the purpose of this post, I will tell you about only one of them.

Each house had built beneath its floor a complete drainage system. Some of these houses had separate cubicles with a drain in them, and it is thought that these were actually toilets, probably the kind that you squat over, I should think. Over 5000 years ago… how amazing is that?

Some ancient civilisations, such as that of the Indus valley (3300 – 1900BC) and the Minoans on Crete (sooo-1600BC) had sewerage and drainage systems built under their homes with toilets that actually flushed with water.

It seems our ancient ancestors were far more comfortable with their bodily functions than we are today.

Take the Romans, for example; they had communal latrines with long benches to sit on, with numerous keyhole shaped holes which gave onto ditches flushed with waste bath water. There was no privacy;  people sat side by side to… well, conduct their business, and have their business meetings, or socialise at the same time! Eeeuw!

Ostia Roman trench Toilets By Fubar Obfusco -, Public Domain,
Ostia Roman trench Toilets By Fubar Obfusco –, Public Domain,

Our Irish ancestors left behind less evidence of their toilet habits (pardon the puns!). Medieval castles had garderobes, a small chamber with a platform over a hole in the floor. Some had chutes through which waste fell, others just had a hole, and the faeces were dumped down the castle wall. Must have been a cold and draughty experience in winter, and a particularly pungent one in the warmer summer months!

Cathair na BhFionnúrach is an incredible figure of eight shaped stone fort which has stood on the Dingle peninsula for over a thousand years. Its two rooms are connected by an internal door, and the smaller room at the rear also has access to an underground souterrain.

Beyond this room, lies a large cess-pit which the inhabitants used as their toilet; it was 2m wide by 1.9 deep and partially stone-lined. It was found to contain straw, grass and flax, which may have been used as toilet paper, as well as human faeces.

Various fruit seeds were also recovered  by archaeologists, including apple, blackberry and hazelnut as well as exotic imports, such as grapes, so clearly it was also used as a rubbish dump.

There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of a structure built over it to provide shelter or privacy. I imagine this type of toilet had not advanced in many years; it served its purpose, and our ancient ancestors were too busy innovating in other areas, metalworking, for example.

Did you know that the Celts were said to have invented soap? I don’t know if that’s true, but according to Pliny (Roman author, naturalist and philosopher 23-79AD), the Celtic Gauls introduced soap made from sheep tallow, animal fats and plant ashes, to the Romans, and called it saipo. The Old Irish word for soap is sleic.

The Romans observed that the Celts were very particular concerning their bathing habits and personal grooming. The Irish merely washed their hands  in a nearby stream or well on rising, and bathed later in the day. For this, they kept a large vessel indoors called a dabach (pronounced dau-vah). It was considered extremely important to have bathing facilities available for guests, as hospitality was vital to a person’s honour in those days.

I’m sure they often bathed in lakes and rivers, too, when the weather was mild. Even in summer, this is an invigorating experience, I can assure you! Strange things happen when people bathed in lakes, though; Queen Medb of The Cattle Raid of Cooley fame was killed by a slingshot of hard cheese (I kid you not!) while she was bathing in a lake on an island in Lough Ree, Co. Roscommon.

Fedelm and Eithne, princesses of Connacht were bathing in the sacred spring of Ogalla, when they were chanced upon by St Patrick and his priests. A discussion on religion took place, whereupon the girls agreed to be baptised and immediately died, in order to ascend to heaven in purity. Sounds suspiciously like foul play to me.

Here is the story of Gile, a young woman who went to bathe in a lake, and died of shame when she caught her lover spying on her. Her father killed the young man, and subsequently died of grief himself soon after.

“Bright Gile, Romra’s daughter, to whom every harbour was known, the broad lake bears her name to denote its outbreak of yore. The maiden went, on an errand of pride that has hushed the noble hosts, to bathe in the spray by the clear sand-strewn spring. While the modest maiden was washing in the unruffled water of the pool, she sees on the plain tall Omra as it were an oak, lusty and rude. Seeing her lover draw near, the noble maid was stricken with shame: she plunged her head under the spring yonder: the nimble maid was drowned. Her nurse came and bent over her body and sat her down yonder in the spring: as she keened for Gile vehemently, she fell in a frenzy for the girl. As flowed the tears in sore grief for the maiden, the mighty spring rose over her, till it was a vast and stormy lake. Loch Gile is named from that encounter after Gile, daughter of Romra: there Omra got his death from stout and lusty Romra. Romra died outright of his sorrow on the fair hill-side: from him is lordly Carn Romra called, and Carn Omra from Omra, the shame-faced [gap: extent: two lines] Loch Gile here is named from Gile, Romra’s daughter.”

from The Metrical Dinnsenchus

It is thought a warrior had to bathe before battle and before a meal. Some claim this was the function of the extraordinary structures found dotted around the Irish countryside, known as fulachta fiadh. These sites consist of a low, semi-circular shaped mound of soil rich with charcoal deposits, and scattered with heat-shattered stones; a hearth on which a fire was built,  and a central trough dug into the ground. The pit was often lined with planks of wood, or slabs of stone, and sometimes clay.

The stones were thought to have been heated in the fire and then dropped into the pit in order to heat the water it contained. It could have been used to cook large batches of meat, or perhaps to heat water for bathing. You can read more about the fullachta fiadh in my post, How Do You Feed a Hungry Fianna?

Another feature of our Irish countryside are the intriguing little bee-hive shaped stone structures called sweathouses. Their purpose is not known for sure, but soot lining the inner surface indicates fires were lit within them. Whether they were used for smoking and preserving food, or inhaling the smoke of mind altering substances, or as ancient saunas is not known for certain. Personally, I see no reason why they couldn’t have served all three functions.

Men and women both wore their hair long. In battle, it was coated in lime, which whitened it and held it out of their faces while they fought. Often, both sexes wore their hair curled and elaborately dressed. Conall Cernach, (a hero warrior of the Ulster Cycle of mythology), for example, in The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, had fair hair which flowed down his back, and was done up in ‘hooks and plaits and swordlets’.

The Book of Kells, which is famous for its elaborate artwork, shows men and women alike with hair which has been plaited and braided and worked into sections. In fact, many of these hairstyles are so ornate, they must have taken hours to create, and could only have been dressed by a professional hairstylist.

Oisin was carried off on the back of a white horse into the Otherworld by the Sidhe princess, Niamh of the Golden hair….

her golden hair hung in tresses, and at the end of each plait hung a bead. To some men her hair was the colour of the yellow flag iris which grows by summer water; others thought it like ruddy polished gold.”

Ciabhán, prince of Desmond, went to the Otherworld when he fell in love with Clíodhna. He was known by the epithet ‘of the curling locks’. I imagine there was some vanity involved in this, for he was asked to leave the Fianna for his womanising. Perhaps he spent a lot of time on his hair in order to attract the women!

The beard, or féasóg, was given much the same treatment. Think dwarves from the Hobbit movies; sometimes it was worn long and fashioned into two points, sometimes squared, sometimes divided into sections and twisted into ‘slender fillets’. Moustaches were curled and pointed at the ends, and not always accompanied by a beard. Sometimes, the whole face was left bare.

An ancient text known as Cormac’s Glossary mentions the common use of razors, and many bronze examples have been found by archaeologists. Combs were also in common use, and usually made of bone or horn, often highly decorated. Mirrors were made from polished metal, and known as scathán (pronounced ska-han) or scaterc, from scáth derc, meaning ‘shadow-seeing’, which I think is quite lovely.

Cormac’s Glossary also claims that the blush of a cheek was often emphasised with pigment from ruam, the alder tree, and that eyebrows were darkened with the juice of berries. Fingernails were dyed red, although how, I’m not sure. Deirdre, in her grief for the deaths of the sons of Uisneach, who were killed protecting her, claims that she will never sleep or crimson her nails, for she will never know joy again.

Etaín, for example, was described in the ancient text Togail Bruidna Da Derga, The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, as having shimmering waves of fire-gold hair, skin as white as snow, and blushing cheeks red as foxgloves. White skin and red cheeks are mentioned often in the old tales. I wonder how much of this was enhancement by early cosmetics.

And there’s me thinking that all these Celtic goddesses were just natural beauties…