It’s taken a long time, quite a few very late nights… by that I really mean early mornings 😂, a few a lot of glasses of wine, much foul language sweet blessings, blood, sweat and tears, but finally, my latest book, ‘Conor Kelly’s Guide to Ireland’s Ancient Places‘ is here!
This has been, without a doubt, the hardest book I have written and produced so far. Formatting images is hard, hard, HARD, I’m telling you! And you can’t have a guide book without images. Let’s just say I unexpectedly learned a lot. And I sincerely hope you will think it was worth it.
So, what’s it all about?
Well, you could be mistaken for assuming that all the locations in my books are pure fantasy. After all, we are used to the sophisticated world-building of today’s brilliant fantasy and science-fiction authors.
But that’s not what you get with my books; all the magical locations are REAL, and I have visited every one, most of them many times over. (Except for the Otherworld, I’ve only ever been there in my dreams! 😜)
This book features images and information on some of the ancient sites – Tara, Uisneach, Newgrange, Knowth and several others – as featured in my Conor Kelly series, The Tir na Nog Trilogy.
But it’s not just a bunch of dry facts on archaeology, oh no! In it, I tell you some of the myths attached to each site, why each site is so special to me, what I love about them, as well as essential info like how to get there, should you decide to tour Ireland yourself one day. I also connect each site to the relevant chapter in my books, so you can see how I built the story around them.
But before you all rush off to Amazon… hehe, I should be so lucky!… I should tell you that this book is NOT FOR SALE.
This book is exclusively a gift for my email subscribers.
It’s a thank you for supporting my blog and other writing endeavours. I do appreciate you all immensely.
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I hope my books bring a little Irish magic into the lives of people for whom these legends are new and unheard of. I hope I do that in a way which is fun, and in language that can be easily understood. I hope I transport you to Ireland’s ancient places, even though you live on the other side of this multi-faceted global community we are lucky to be a part of.
I hope in your mind’s eye you can see them as you read, feel the stone, cold and damp under your hand; feel the mist caress your face, hear the rustle of the hawthorn trees in the breeze, feel the beat of Eriu’s heart in the earth deep beneath your feet.
I hope you can see the bustling splendour of Newgrange and Almu as they once were, witness the victory and defeat of battle, hear the soft murmur of lovers’ words, exult in the stirring speeches of High Kings, weep at the tragedy of a hero’s death, delight in the strains of a harper’s song. I hope all this, and much, much more.
So sorry if anyone just received a blank post notification from me… somehow in the seconds between finishing this post and hitting the publish button, wordpress managed to lose my entire content. There have been some weird things going on at wordpress lately,,, gremlins in the machine?
Hugh fromHugh’s Views and News has very kindly featured my book, Conor Kelly and the Fenian King as his Book of the Month… cue sparkly lights and glitter! Yaaay! Thanks, Hugh! In tandem with this, you can find the book at only 99c/ 99p on Amazon, and completely FREE on Smashwords and associated retailers. And now, here is an excerpt…
Chapter Forty Two – The Disappeared
the present day…
Conor coughed and spluttered as the dust rose in clouds around him, then admonished himself; his body and lungs were safe in his aunt’s little Micra at the bottom of the hill. As a free roaming spirit, he couldn’t be harmed by clouds of dust, or collapsing masonry, or landslides, or whatever it was that had caused Sidhe Finn to cave in.
But Ciara could. What if she was killed, crushed beneath a fallen orthostat? What if…
Conor felt waves of panic swell inexorably through him like the tides of the sea. He couldn’t find her. He couldn’t see her. Even with his spirit eyes and his supernatural senses, he couldn’t detect any sign of her presence. It was as if she had simply vanished.
But that was impossible. Maybe she had got up and wandered outside, dazed and confused. Maybe she had a head injury, and didn’t know where she was. She could be out there, floundering about in a state of bewilderment.
Oh my God! She could fall off the cliff and plunge to an untimely death in the quarry…
He had to get out, had to find her. He took another quick look around. Many of the orthostats had fallen inward, held up from the floor only by the central pedestal which supported the coffin. A couple of the ancient stones had cracked in two. The coffin had been smashed into matchwood, but Conor saw no evidence of bones. Fortunately, much of the loose rubble which traditionally comprised the infill between the chamber ceiling and the mound had been removed by Aylmer’s builders, and replaced with blocks and mortar, thus forming a secure foundation for the tower. The old mortar had cracked and crumbled in places, releasing some of its bricks, but had mostly held firm. The devastation was not as terrible as he had expected.
But his heart jumped into his mouth when he realised that one huge, carved orthostat had collapsed directly onto the spot where Ciara had crouched the last time he had seen her. Its fall had not been halted by the softness of a body beneath it; no pool of blood lay spreading on the ground around it. The relief Conor felt on observing that was short-lived. Where was she?
Beside the stone, the flagstone with the Ogham symbol lay smashed into several pieces. It had been lifted from its resting place, and placed beside a small pit. Which, Conor noted with disappointment, was completely empty. Had Ciara found the missing mouthpiece and removed it? Or had she lifted the flagstone to find only an empty space and a sense of despair? He had to find her. Where was she?
Convinced at last that the chamber was completely empty, Conor allowed himself to drift up through the ceiling and into the circular chamber above. The stairs leading down from the entrance had collapsed into nothing more than an unstable pile of rock. He floated over it and out through the devastated doorway.
It was dark. The weak wash of moon and stars showed Conor that the hillside was deserted. After the explosions and collapse of the tower, it was eerily silent, almost as if nature itself was shocked at this traumatic turn of events.
He wandered around the remains of the tower, dejected and overwhelmed with guilt. There was no sign of Ciara.
Am I to blame? Did I cause this with the ferocity of my lightning attack on the tower? Or was it the quarry? I’m surprised the hill didn’t collapse years ago after such extensive mining. Surely it was an accident just waiting to happen; we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time…weren’t we?
Pushing his way carefully between the yellow gorse bushes, Conor stood on the edge of the cliff and contemplated the drop. Was Ciara down there, broken and battered and bleeding? Far beneath him, a tear trailed down his face as, in the car, his inert body responded to his desolation.
The only way to find out was to leap down after her. Even knowing that he could not fall or be hurt, it took Conor a good few moments to find the courage to jump over the edge. He found it much easier to control his descent this time around. As the ground rushed up to meet him, he saw that the quarry men were running about in a panic. Alarms were sounding, people were shouting, but the drills were silent, and the trucks which transported rock and rubble lay abandoned.
Hmmm…looks like there’s been a bit of a disaster down here.
Conor levelled out a couple of metres from the ground and glided slowly along the base of the cliff, searching for Ciara. Eventually, elated, he had to conclude she had not fallen. His only other option was to search the path on his way back to the car. Perhaps she was already waiting there for him. With his spirits lifting, Conor retraced his journey. But Ciara was not there.
For what felt like the hundredth time, he wondered where on earth she was.
The car was waiting on the far side of the car park, just as they’d left it. Conor felt anxious now; for Ciara, and also for himself. His body was lying in wait for him on the back seat, but what if he couldn’t get back into it? He hadn’t stopped to contemplate how that part of the process was achieved. He might not be able to do it. What then? He had been outside of his body for quite a long time. He might not be able to readjust to its rhythms and limitations.
He went first to the front of the car, half expecting to see Ciara sitting there, impatiently waiting for him. She wasn’t.
What do I do now? Do I re-join my body, and wait? Or do I go out looking for her again? I’m really tied by my mobility if I re-enter my body at this stage. But the longer I leave it, the harder it’s going to get.
Conor wavered between his choices. Then the decision was snatched from him. When he looked in at the rear window, his body was gone.
COMING SOON: Conor Kelly’s Guide to Ireland’s Ancient Places, an exclusive free gift for all newsletter subscribers, featuring all the sites and locations upon which The Tir na Nog Trilogy is based. WANT ONE? It’s FREE, and coming to a newsletter near you soon! All you have to do is sign up to my Marvellous Myths newsletter.
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? 😜
COMING SOON: Conor Kelly’s Guide to Ireland’s Ancient Places, an exclusive free gift for all newsletter subscribers, featuring all the sites and locations upon which The Tir na Nog Trilogy is based. WANT ONE? It’s FREE, and coming to a newsletter near you soon! All you have to do is sign up to my Marvellous Myths newsletter.
Sounds like a sweet little piece of nonsense, doesn’t it? A fairy tale to amuse the kids. Well, not in Ireland. We take our fairy trees, and our fairy tales for that matter, quite seriously. So seriously, in fact, that we delay the building of a motorway by 10 years, and then end up completely re-routing it so that we avoid harming a well-known fairy tree.
Wait… what? Really?
Absolutely. You can check out the story right here, if you don’t believe me. Having spent some time in Co Clare this year, and last year, walking the Burren Way, I can confirm that it is a very magical and mystical place steeped in ancient lore, and it’s impossible to be there, and not be seduced by it. As with many of Ireland’s ancient places, there is magic there waiting for you.
So, what exactly is a ‘fairy tree’?
Well, they look like this…
You will often find one at an ancient pagan site, or a holy well. They are usually hawthorn trees, but not always. People leave prayers, gifts or a personal token of some kind attached to the trees branches in the hope of receiving healing, or good fortune, or having their prayer answered. It can be fascinating viewing the strange objects people leave; children’s toys, socks, photos, ribbons, messages scrawled on scraps of paper, balloons, even strips of fabric torn from their clothing.
A TWOFER! One fairy tree either side of the path at maire na Gaill holy well, Co Claire
A closer look at the gifts left by visitors
The lone hawthorn standing in the middle of a field was treated with much respect, and some suspicion by farming communities. Whilst it was thought to be auspicious, bringing good fortune and prosperity to the landowner, it was also thought to belong to the magical folk of the Otherworld, the Sidhe. As such, it was never to be cut or harmed for fear of bringing their wrath upon the perpetrator.
In fact, some farmers would go so far as to pile boulders around the base of the tree so as not to accidentally cause damage to the trunk whilst ploughing or reaping around it.
So, a little bit of background about the hawthorn itself: the hawthorn is a small, bushy tree which grows up to six metres in height, which can live to a grand old age of four hundred years. It is native to Ireland, where it is mostly used to mark field boundaries, and roadside hedgerows.
In Irish, the hawthorn is known as Sceach Gheal, from sceach meaning ‘thornbush/ briar’ and geal meaning ‘bright/ lumnious/ radiant’. According to the ancient Brehon Law, it was classified as a Peasant tree. In Ogham, also known as the Tree Alphabet, the hawthorn is represented by the sixth symbol called Huath(pronounced Hoo-ah).
The fields and hedgerows are awash with the blaze of wildflowers right now. Sadly, I don’t think many people see them, as we are always in such a hurry to get from A to B; we are focused on the destination, not the journey.
One fellow you can’t possibly miss at the moment, though, is this…
It’s called Rosebay Willowherb. It grows taller than me, up to a height of 2m, in great swathes of vibrant eye-popping purple, and it’s everywhere! Roadsides, embankments, railway sidings, bogland, woodland, building sites, and anywhere the ground has been recently disturbed. It brightens up all the abandoned, un-loved forgotten places, and I just love it!
A fireweed blossom
This little chap loved fireweed
But he was too busy to stay still for long
And then he moved on the the next bloom
In ancient times, it was the first plant which grew on the hillsides after the gorse had been burnt back, which is why it was named Lus na Tine in Irish, meaning ‘fireweed’. This has become its popular name. Medicinally, its root was powdered and thought to stop internal bleeding, whilst an infusion brewed of its leaves was used to treat asthma.
Fireweed growing in the garden and in the roofspace of this derelict cottage
Fireweed growing in the garden of this abandoned old home
Despite its proliferation, however, I could find no mention of it in Ireland’s myths, even though it is a native plant. Hopefully, someone out there with more knowledge will enlighten us in the comments.
Other wild flowers I am loving right now, and which are prolifically and delightfully in full bloom are Montbretia, Fealeastram Dearg in Irish, and Fuschia, Fiúise or Deora dé in Irish, although neither of these are native to Ireland.
In Irish mythology, Cuchulainn suffered from alternating bouts of malaise and rage. It was quite possibly drug induced, perhaps through use of Amanita, but according to the stories, he was treated by being bathed in infusions of Meadowsweet.
Its Irish name is Airgead Luachra, which I believe is translated as ‘Cuchulainn’s Belt’… perhaps he always carried it with him in a little pouch attached to his belt in case of emergency; this was how physicians of the time carried their medicines.
Interestingly, it is from this plant that aspirin is derived; meadowsweet contains salicylic acid, which is a disinfectant, pain-killer and anti-inflammatory. Right now, the hedges are a-froth with its downy creamy flowers, and insects love its heady sweet scent.
In Irish, the Bluebell is known as Coinnle Corra. Of course, these delicate spring-blossoming wild flowers are long gone, but they have their place in Irish mythology: on her wedding night to Fionn mac Cumhall, Grainne was said to have mixed bluebell with tormentil and secreted it into the wedding guests’ wine, thus sending them all to sleep so she could elope with her beloved Diarmuid.
Although it was traditionally used to stop bleeding, and also as a diuretic, I can’t find any reference to it as an anaesthetic. Apparently, in ancient times, the bluebell’s sticky sap was used as a glue to bind books, and to stick feathers to the ends of arrows.
Tormentil is a little yellow flower which looks similar to a buttercup, and which commonly grows all over Ireland between May and September. It was used for pain relief and to treat digestive problems.
In Irish, its name is Néalfartach; neal meaning ‘depression/ gloom’, and fartach meaning ‘hurt/ injury’. In Co Cork, however, it was known as Lus an Chodlata, meaning ‘herb for sleep’, suggesting that it may well have been used for promoting sleep.
Bluebells? I’m not sure
According to mythology, the warrior Nera disappeared into the Otherworld at Samhain, the beginning of winter, yet returned bearing summer flowers: wild garlic, golden fern and primroses, Sabhaircín in Irish.
This is a strange and convoluted story in which Nera receives a violent vision from the Sidhe showing the awful fate of his people if they don’t destroy the Hill of Cruachan. He warns Queen Medb and convinces her that he speaks the truth by giving her the summer flowers he brought back from Tir na Nog.
Honeysuckle, known as Féithleann in Irish, is associated with the tragic love story of Baile and Aillinn. These two lovers both died unnecessarily from grief, believing the other already dead. An apple tree grew from Aillinn’s grave mound, and a yew from Baile’s. These were eventually cut down, and tablets made from them, engraved with their stories. When these tablets were brought to King Cormac’s house in Tara, they sprang together and cleaved to each other as tightly as honeysuckle around a branch and could not be parted.
Finally, the foxglove, known as Lus Mór in Irish, meaning the ‘great herb’, is used to describe the beautiful blush of the pure cheeks of Étain, Deirdre, and warrior Conall Cernach.
COMING SOON: Conor Kelly’s Guide to Ancient Ireland, an exclusive free gift to all newsletter subscribers, featuring all the sites and locations upon which The Tir na Nog Trilogy is based. WANT ONE??? It’s FREE, and coming to a newsletter near you soon! All you have to do is sign up to my Marvellous Myths newsletter.
In my last post, The Land of the Ever Young Part One, we talked about Manannán’s Land, a mythical island kingdom of eternal summer and youth, a place of peace and joy and laughter, thought to be found in the oceans somewhere west of Ireland.
Today, we’re taking a look at Tir na n’Óg, the ‘Land of the Young/ Ever Young’.
When the Tuatha de Danann were defeated by the Milesians, a bargain was struck; the Milesians agreed to share the rule of Ireland equally. But they tricked the Danann; as the victors, they chose the half of Ireland which lay above ground, so the Danann were forced to retreat to their half below ground.
That’s mortals for you, they’re tricksy.
At least, that’s what people believed, because that’s what it looked like, but when the Danann entered through their Sidhe-mounds they were not going underground. Oh no! These Sidhe-mounds simply acted as gateways into the Otherworld, also known as Tir na n’Óg. Was it the land of the dead, heaven or hell, another dimension, or another planet?
Good question. It was forested, and like the Sea-God’s islands, perpetual summer. The Danann lived their lives there in much the same way as they had ‘above ground’ in Ireland.
There was one big difference, though; time was almost viscous, slowed down to such an extent that, as the tale of Oisin and Niamh shows, a year in the magical realm could amount to as many as three hundred in the mortal world. Thus the Danann appeared ever youthful and ageless to mortal man.
The Danann continued to interact with mankind, offering help or hindrance, taking lovers, making marriages, sport and battle with them, forming alliances and enemies, fostering mortal children. Eventually, as mankind moved on, the Danann became known as the Sidhe, named after the mounds they appeared to live in. They were thought of as fairies, or demons and their longevity and magic were mistrusted and feared.
Ireland is well known for its ragged mists and enveloping fog. According to legend, these vapours were said to be Manannán’s Cloak of invisibility and forgetting, the Faeth Fiadha. It was a gift given the Danann by the Sea-God at the time of their retreat. It shrouded their demise, and protected the borders of their land from unwanted attention. Humans knew better than to stray into the fog; they could end up wandering into the fairy domain, and never find their way home. At least, not within living memory.
Curiously, Manannán used his Cloak of Mists to save his marriage. When the Ulster warrior, Cuchulainn, came to visit, he had an affair with the Sea-God’s wife, Fand, even though he was already married to Emer. Manannán shook his cloak between Fand and her lover, that each might forget the other, and sent the amorous young man back to his extremely irate wife.
Water plays a part in the legends of Tir na nOg too, for the Otherword could be accessed not only over water, ie sailing west over the sea, but through water. It’s tempting to think that when ancient man looked into the surface of a still lake (and Ireland has very many of them), he saw the mountains and trees and skies reflected there, and thought it was another world.
But just remember, this is a people who could raise massive stone monuments with some unknown technology we still can’t figure out today; they could read the night sky as well as we can without telescopes and computers. They were not simple savages. They were complex and intelligent. I think they were capable of working out reflections.
So what does this ‘through water’ mean? Did it mean you had to drown to pass through that watery gate? The body was left behind and the soul went on into the Otherworld? Interesting, bearing in mind the bodies found in bogs, and the many votive offerings found in pools of water.
Boundaries were thought of as liminal places, neither belonging to one realm or the other; fog, as we’ve already seen, blurs the barrier between the physical and spiritual worlds. Water, particularly shore lines, whether sea or lake, does the same, giving way from the solid to the ethereal.
Even the humble doorstep bears the same function; Saint Brigid, for example was born on the doorstep of her family home, neither within nor yet without it. She was born at dawn, when it was not properly day or night.
These spaces are powerpoints where magic can happen; the margins between the physical and non-physical are thin, through which entities both solid and spirit can pass.
That is what I think ‘through water’ means. Perhaps it’s why Christians threw ‘witches’ into water. But that’s a post for another time.
Tir na nÓg, not surprisingly, has a few other names, among them, Ildathach ( the many coloured place), Mag Mór (the Great Plain), Mag Mon (the Plain of Sports), Mag Rein (the Plain of the Sea), and Emain Ablach, meaning ‘place of apples’. This is quite intriguing, given the talk of Avalon, the Isle of Apples, in the medieval tales of King Arthur. Wales also has its mysterious Isle of Apples, Ynys Afallach. Could these tales have derived from an earlier Irish tradition? (I think you already know my thoughts on this!)
So what’s the big deal with this little round fruit? Well, in my post A Fire In the Head | The Shamanic Use of Amanita, we learned how the apple could have been used as an innocuous representation of the secret use of this magical red fungus to access the Otherworld. Which ties in nicely with the Otherworld aspect of the mysterious isle of apples.
But if it was an island, then it must surely have been part of Manannán’s Land, and he was indeed said to have kept an orchard of magic apples; his white horse Aonbharr fed on them, as did Cliodhna’s three little multi-coloured pet birds.
In the Echtra Cormaic mac Airt, the King is visited by Manannán in disguise, who gives him a gift of a silver bough on which three golden apples are found. He claims he has brought the branch from a land ‘where there is nothing but truth, and where there is neither age nor withering away, nor heaviness, nor sadness, nor jealousy, nor envy, nor pride’. When the branch is shaken, such beautiful music is heard that battle-wounded men, or women in childbed, or those who are sick, fall into restful sleep and are healed.
Interestingly, the apple branch was carried by poets, and denoted their status; the Ollamh, or chief poet, would carry an apple branch of gold, lower ranks would carry a branch of silver, and all the rest would carry a bronze branch. In this way, it came to be seen as a druidic symbol.
Patricia Monaghon in her Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology claims that one of the names for Tir na nOg was Mag Rein. I understood that it was one of the first places where the Danann made camp when they invaded Ireland; Magh Rein in the Red Hills of Breffni.
Are you still with me? Cos this is where its about to get really interesting.
Last year, when I was researching Magh Slecht for a post on St Patrick, I discovered that bordering this area, there is a a townland called Magh Rein, in Leitrim. In Cavan, we also have a place called Redhills, and in ancient times, much of Cavan and Leitrim formed a Kingdom called Breffni.
So perhaps the Otherworld didn’t exist underground, or through water, or west across the sea at all; perhaps it’s been right here under our noses all along, our very own heaven on earth.
Ireland has a strange history when it comes to the care of its children. Sometimes, it seems as if they were treated as possessions to be traded rather than flesh and blood to be cherished, our country’s future.
We have a dark legacy to come to terms with, as we discover pits at nursing homes packed full of the remains of babies and young children; stories of babies torn from mothers at the Magdalene laundries and given into slavery in exchange for a donation, and people within living memory who have no idea of their true identity because they were adopted or fostered outside of the law.
In ancient times, fosterage played an important role in Irish society, but the process was governed by strict and complex rules as specified in the Brehon Laws. It was something practised by all classes, but particularly by the wealthy and the noble.
It strengthened natural bonds of kinship between various branches of a clan. In a turbulent world, it also served as a means of negotiating political advantage and gaining allies, and in war, fosterlings could be held for ransom.
Sometimes, a child was fostered out of goodwill, but generally a fee was paid to the foster parents. This was graded according to the child’s rank, so for example, three cows might be paid for fostering a farmer’s son, but eighteen cows might be paid for the son of a king. In those days, cattle were used as currency.
Fostering a girl was far more expensive than fostering a boy. The reason for this is unclear; perhaps she required closer supervision, or perhaps it was more complicated to teach her women’s skills.
The legend of Princess Tuag might indicate why the cost of fostering female children was greater than fostering males. Tuag was the daughter of High King Conall Collamhrach, but he was killed after only five years of rule. The princess was fostered at Tara by the new High King Conaire, and had a great retinue of ladies and waiting women to serve her. She was so beautiful that no man was allowed near her, for she was destined to be married to a great King, perhaps to Conaire himself.
When she was just fifteen, however, Manannán the Sea-God decided he would take her for himself. He sent his druid, Ferdia, to steal her away from Tara. Ferdia disguised himself as a woman, and sang a sleeping spell over her, and thus managed to escape with her.
He carried her to the mouth of the River Bann, and set her down on the sand whilst he went to get a boat in which to take her to Manannán’s land. She was still sleeping. As the tide rose, a great wave washed over the Tonn and carried her out to sea, where she was sadly drowned.
No doubt Conaire had to repay his foster-fee to Tuag’s family.
Children were often fostered as young as one year old, but seven was more typical. Often, strong affections resulted from fosterage at such a tender age.
We see this in Irish mythology with regard to the God, Lugh, and his foster mother, Tailtiu. She was the only mother he had ever known, and when she died, he was so overcome with grief, that he founded the annual Festival of Lughnasa in her honour at Tailten (Teltown in Co Meath, between Navan and Kells), where she had lived and was buried.
It was expected that a foster child be reared in accordance with the role they would fulfil in life as an adult. Foster parents were responsible for ensuring the child was taught the knowledge, business, or trade suited to their rank. If the quality of the fostering was found to be inadequate in any way, the foster parents would be subjected to a hefty fine of two thirds of the original foster-fee.
Lugh was known as the Samildanach, or ‘Master of all Arts’, because Tailtiu had seen to it that her foster son was taught not just in the battle arts, but many other skills also, such as healing, playing the harp, composing poetry, working metals as a smith, to name but a few.
Fosterage was considered complete if the child died, committed a crime, or was married. For a girl, marriage was legal at fourteen, and for a boy, seventeen. If the foster parents had no children of their own, they were entitled in old age or sickness to be supported by their foster children.
The laws which governed the fosterage process were very detailed and complex and controlled even the minutiae of their daily lives; stirabout (a type of porridge) was given to all fosterlings for breakfast, but only the sons of kings were allowed to flavour it with honey. Fresh butter was given to the chieftains’ sons, but the lower ranks had to make do with salt butter.
Even the colour of their clothing was controlled by the law. The lower ranks could wear yellow, black, white or beige, but children of noble status were allowed to dazzle in red, green and brown. Purple and blue were reserved only for royalty. This probably had much to do with the scarcity and costliness of certain dyes.
If a child committed any crime, it was the foster parent rather than the natural father who was liable for the offence.
When Diarmuid ua Duibhne, a warrior of the Fianna, committed an offence against his leader, Fionn mac Cumhall, he was already a young man, and so his foster father, Óengus Óg, Denann God of Love, was not held responsible.
Diarmuid eloped with Grainne on the night of her wedding to Fionn mac Cumhall. Deeply offended, Fionn chased the love-struck pair across the length and breadth of Ireland, even when Grainne grew heavy with child.
It was Óengus, foster father, not biological father, who stepped in and intervened with Fionn, thus calling off the hunt and arranging an uneasy truce. However, Fionn was to get his revenge many years later.
If a fosterling was physically marked in any way, either through being struck by the foster parent, or injured whilst in their care, the foster-fee was forfeit. If the child became seriously ill, or diseased, the foster parents had the right to return it to its natural parents.
If a child died, and the foster parents were found to be negligent, the child’s biological parents were fully entitled by law to seek direct retribution.
When Cuchullain was born to Lugh and the mortal woman, Dechtine, daughter of Ulster King, Conchobar mac Nessa, the nobles of Ulster squabbled amongst themselves over who should foster the boy. The matter was only settled when Morann the Wise intervened and chose a team of six foster parents for their own particular skills, who all had a clearly defined role in the boy’s upbringing.
Interestingly, Fionn mac Cumhall was fostered at birth by two women. They took him to a secret place in the forests of the Slieve Bloom Mountains, to raise him away from the reaches of his father’s enemies. Bodhmall was his aunt and a druidess, and saw to his education, whilst the mysterious Liath Luachra trained him in hunting and the battle arts.
But perhaps the most famous fosterage story of all in Irish mythology is that of Deirdre of the Sorrows. Deirdre was the daughter of the King’s storyteller Fedlimid mac Daill. Cathbad, the King’s chief druid prophesied that the child would grow up to be so beautiful that kings would go to war over her, much blood would be spilled, and Ulster’s three greatest heroes would be exiled.
Hearing this, many people called for her death, but the King of Ulster, Conchobar mac Nessa, refused to have a baby murdered, and took her into fosterage. He gave her to a druidess named Lebhorcham, and ordered her to be reared in the forest in isolation, where she could cause no harm.
Deirdre grew up into a beautiful young woman, and one day quite by chance, meets Naoise, a warrior frrom the King’s court. They fall in love and fearful of the King’s wrath, elope to Scotland with Naoise’s two brothers, Arden and Ainnle.
Conchobar tracked them down, and had Naoise and his brothers killed. He married Deirdre, but then decided to give her to the man who had murdered her lover, Naoise. Distraught, Deirdre threw herself from the chariot, hitting her head on a boulder, and so was killed.
These myths are tragic indeed, but pale beside the true stories which have been emerging in Ireland in recent years. Brehon law, although altered by the Christians to fit with their beliefs, continued into the middle ages. These laws, so ahead of their time, protected the rights of not only the fosterlings, but the foster parents and the birth parents too.
That they came to be scrapped in order to pave the way for the abuses which are still coming to light even now was a step not into enlightenment, but ignorance.