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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Ireland: Seeing the Stories

The idea behind today's blog is pretty straightforward - its a collection of pictures of different sites in Ireland from my recent trip along with some related lore, history, myth, or personal stories. I had been sharing these in snippets on social media and decided to collect them all into one place here and share them with a wider audience.

Display at the Bru na Bionne Visitor Centre, "Stone Balls"

"He was eating a piece of cheese. He did not then tarry to seek a stone. He put the piece [of cheese] in the sling. When Medb's forehead was [turned] towards them, he let fly the piece [of cheese] and it struck her on the crown of the head so that he killed her by the one cast in vengeance of his mother.
That is the death of Medb."
- Aided Meidbe

At the Bru na Boinne centre we saw some examples of stone balls, which got me talking to several people on the Sacred Sites tour about sling stones and ended with me re-telling the story of Medb's death via hard-cheese-sling-stone. Because I think people fail to grasp often how large and weighty sling stones actually were/are. It was really fascinating to be able to see the archaeological examples of the stones knowing how often they feature in the mythology, from Lugh to Cu Chulainn.

Image of the river Boyne

The Boyne is named for the Goddess the Bóinn, mother of Oengus mac ind Og.
A powerful Goddess, she is often referred to in mythology as 'the Boann' or 'the Boand' (modern Irish Bóinn) with the definite article 'the' used before her name in many stories just like we see with the Dagda or the Morrigan. She created the river by going to her husband's well, the well of Segais which held all wisdom, without permission and without dryness [cen tarta] to entreat its power [airigud a chumachta]. The water of the well rose up against her in waves and tore her apart as she ran to the sea, creating the riverbed behind her.
Her name likely means White Cow or Bright/Blessed Cow, from Bó Fhind

The Mounds at Knowth

Knowth is a really amazing site and one of my favorites that we visited. Consisting of 19 total mounds, 1 'great' mound and 18 smaller ones, Knowth was constructed about 5,000 years ago as a series of passage tombs. The great mound has two entrances to tombs, one on the eastern side one on the west. The smaller mounds were also tombs, and there is evidence of wooden henges on the site as well and tempe structures. Over the millenia Knowth has been used for a variety of purposes by the local people, starting as a passage tomb and later having homes built on top of the great mound, which offers a fantastic view of the surrounding land (and was insanely windy btw the day we were up there; I was sure if I let go of my phone it would end up in another county). The curbstones at Knowth are intricately decorated and the entire place has a more genuine feel imo than Newgrange which has been heavily modified by reconstruction attempts.


I really didn't feel much connection to Newgrange at all. It was by far my least favorite of all the passage tombs we visited, although when we were wandering the grounds I did find an amazing tree with some intense energy that I made a small offering at.
Newgrange is about 5200 years old - older than the Egyptian pyramids - and is aligned with the winter solstice. The inner chamber is a cruciform tomb with some beautiful decorated stones. The mound itself had been sealed at some point and heavily overgrown until the turn of the 18th century (1699) when the entrance was accidently discovered by laborers digging for stone. The ensuing centuries saw attempts at study and understanding of the location. In the 20th century the site was heavily reconstructed, including the placement of the white quartz on the face, giving us the monument as we know it today.

An image of the River Unshin

"The Dagda had a house at Glenn Etin in the north. The Dagda was to meet a woman on a day, yearly, about Samain of the battle at Glen Etin. The Unish of Connacht calls by the south. The woman was at the Unish of Corand washing her genitals, one of her two feet by Allod Echae, that is Echumech, by water at the south, her other by Loscondoib, by water at the north. Nine plaits of hair undone upon her head. The Dagda speaks to her and they make a union. Laying down of the married couple was the name of that place from then. She is the Morrigan, the woman mentioned particularly here."
- Cath Maige Tuired

The river Unshin, where it's said, at a ford of this river near Samhain time, the Dagda had a yearly arrangement to meet the Morrigan. He found her straddling the water washing herself with her hair unbound from 9 plaits and the two united. Afterwards the place was called 'Lige ina Lanomhnou' which means roughly 'Bed of the Married Couple'. she then gave him advice on dealing with the coming battle with the Fomorians and promised to use her magic to destroy the Fomorian king Indech.

Heapstown Cairn

Heapstown Cairn is a large, unexcavated cairn believed to be a passage tomb. It was once much larger but has lost an unknown amount of material over time to people taking stones for construction of walls and such. Nonetheless it is still a large sprawling mound - the largest existing cairn in Ireland - and it is quite impressive to see.
Heapstown is located to the west of Magh Tuired and in mythology it was the site of the well of Slaine which was filled with stones by the Fomorians during the second battle of Maige Tuired. Some people have come to associate this location with Airmed because of the mythology; personally I felt a strong presence of the aos sidhe here as did several other people on the tour.

Ceathrú Chaol, cairn G

The Ceathrú Chaol [Carrowkeel] passage tombs are a series of 14 cairns clustered on the hills of the Breac Sliabh mountain range. Cairn G was excavated in 1911 and is unique in that it is the only passage tomb known, other than Newgrange, to feature a roofbox, and the cairn is aligned to the midsummer solstice, according to the Megalithic Ireland website. The inside of the cairn, which can be easily accessed, features an open central chamber and three small side chambers.
The group I was with walked up to the cairns and I chose to go into cairn G. Several other people did as well and then later left to go explore other cairns but I stayed in this one. I would probably still be in this one if I had a choice about it.

The Janus Stone, Boa Island

In Caldragh Cemetery on Boa Island we went to see two stone carvings, both of which had been moved there at some point from other location. The larger figure is called the Janus Stone because it carved on each side; one side is male the other female. The smaller figure I found out later is called "the Lustyman" although it may be a female figure. The name seems to be because it was original located on Lusty More Island. Both figures appear to have become the focus of some form of offering as they had coins on them in piles, although I could not begin to guess what the intent with the coins was. The cemetery itself is extremely old and impossible to navigate without walking on graves, and as well is still in contemporary use so the energy is interesting. There was also a Fairy Thorn at the back of the cemetery area, within the fence.

Rathcroghan Mound

Once the site of an immense royal complex the Rathcroghan - Ráth Cruachan - mound is still impressive. The mound itself was once the royal seat of Connacht and is where it is said that Medb herself ruled from. It is surrounded by other significant sites including Uaimh na gCat, Medb's grave, and the place where the two bulls from the Tain Bó Cuiliagne fought, reinforcing its significance. The mound itself is immense and one can easily imagine the wooden palisades and buildings. Although it has never been excavated the way other sites have been it is clearly of great historic value. The mound itself has a curving eastern entrance and another western one, and standing on top of the structure provides a magnificent view of the countryside. Pictures really don't do the beauty of the Rathcroghan mound justice, this is one of those places you need to see for yourself.

Uaimh na gCat

Uaimh na gCat, the Cave of Cats, the Cave of the Morrigan. Also called "Ireland's Hellmouth" by some. To me, after going in and coming back out again, it will always be the Sí of Cruachan but that's another story. As we arrived I saw a rainbow in the sky and then we had a little black kitten gamboling around the entrance, which was surely a good sign at the Cave of Cats, right?
The cave itself, deep down and a slippery climb into the earth to reach, is a natural feature but the entrance is a man made souterrain which makes for an odd contrast of experience going in and coming out. You ease into the earth, reaching up to touch the Ogham carved on the lintel, and the first dozen feet in is all hard lines and sharp edges - it feels man made. It feels carved. And then that transition point and you leave behind the hand of man and move into the sections made by nature, and it just feels different. Smoother, even where its jagged. Everything here is all wet clay that sucks and clings, as if the cave means to keep you. And maybe it does. But you go anyway, into the darkness that only the deep earth can have, where sunlight has never even been a dream. And maybe you understand why people describe caves as wombs, or maybe you understand why darkness drives some people mad or terrifies them, or maybe down there you find Herself waiting.
And that's the cave.

Navan Centre & Fort

Novemeber 1st - still Samhain - went to Emhain Macha and visited an Iron Age village at the Navan Centre & Fort. The village is like a small version of Sturbridge Village or Williamsburg where the actors stay in character and the day we visited they had a special event 'A Death in the Celtic Clan'. It was really fun, but I had to be on my best behaviour as they kept talking about the Good Folk and the temptation to troll the poor actors was kind of epic - ie actor asks 'where are you from?' nice person says 'America' I'm wanting to say 'the Sí of Tlachtga where we celebrated last night', and so on3. I basically sat there covering my mouth and smothering giggles the whole time.
Inside the reconstructed roundhouse was really neat - the whole floor was covered in furs! - but wow so much iron. Also their story teller told a really neat version of the tale of Fionn and Sadb, where Sadb was turned into a deer by 'Fer Dub' [dark man] who wasn't a Druid she'd refused to marry as I'd always heard the tale but was a man of the Sí in this version sent to take her for the Unseelie Court

Dumha na nGiall

"It was then that Badb and Macha and Morrigan went to the Knoll of the Taking of the Hostages, and to the Hill of Summoning of Hosts at Tara, and sent forth magic showers of sorcery and compact clouds of mist and a furious rain of fire, with a downpour of red blood from the air on the warriors’ heads; and they allowed the Fir Bolg neither rest nor stay for three days and nights."
- Cet-Chath Maige tuired

Dumha na nGiall [mound of hostages] is a 5,000 year old passage tomb at Teamhair [Tara] at the edge of the section known as Raith na Ríg [fort of kings]. The mound is built in the same way as most other passage tombs and includes some beautiful, intricate carving of the stones at the entrance. The entrance itself was blocked with a heavy iron grate, and much to my deep dismay the visible interior was cluttered with rubbish. Seeing a place that was actively used for burials for a thousand years and which has up to 500 cremated remains in it used as a modern rubbish bin for tourists makes me beyond angry and as much as I hate seeing the entrance blocked I wish they had something solid there.
I'll add here that our group went around cleaning up all the sites we went to, picking up litter, cigarette butts, and clearing trees of ties that would have hurt them. Part of me was really happy and proud that we were doing this. Part of me was really furious that we had to.
If you are a tourist and you don't want to clean up other people's trash, at least try not to treat someone else's sacred site like your rubbish bin please.

Cloch an Fhir Mhóir

"And there [Cu Chulainn] drank his drink, and washed himself, and came forth to die, calling on his foes to come to meet him.
Now a great mearing went westwards from the loch and his eye lit upon it, and he went to a pillar-stone which is in the plain, and he put his breast-girdle round it that he might not die seated nor lying down, but that he might die standing up."
- Aided Conculaind

It was sunset as we walked across the fallow field to the standing stone which folklore and local tradition says was the place that Cu Chulain had died at. There was something very evocative about the stone jutting up from the empty field and as our group gathered around it, some people reaching out to touch the stone, I retold the story of Cu Chulain's Death starting with the Morrigan breaking his chariot. It is a good story I think, and a complex one, and as we stood in the gathering darkness as the light faded there was something powerful in telling about Cu Chulainn's final battle. We could look around and imagine the gathered army, see the chariot wheeling around, the trick of the satirists and false combatants, Laeg's death, the mortal wounding of the Liath Macha, and finally Cu Chulainn's wounding and effort to tie himself to the stone. People laughed in a grim appreciation of the irony as the hero's dead hand fell and cut off the hand of the enemy seeking to take his head and faces fell still at the part where the wounded Liath Macha went and brought Cu Chulainn's friends back to this very spot, too late to save him.
The entire experience was more moving than I expected it to be, honestly, as someone who isn't really very interested in Cu.

the Hag's Chair, at Cairn T, Sliabh na Caillíghe

Cairn T is aligned to the equinox, like the more famous Loughcrew cairn L Samhain alignment. The Cairn is barred and locked but it is possible to get the key, which we did. The inside of the main cairn is beautifully decorated, although we cleaned up a bit of litter while we were there (seriously people? lollipop sticks, wrappers, and cigarette butts?). At the outside rear of the cairn is the stone known as the Hag's Chair. The entire location is strongly associated with the Cailleach, and its said that the site was created when she was leaping from hilltop to hilltop and dropped teh stones from her apron. Folklore says that a person may sit in the chair and make a wish and the Cailleach will grant it. It didn't feel right for me to do so, so I did not when I was there. I'm a big one for trusting my gut with these things, which gets me into another point I'd like to make. Someone had left a significant amount of what looked like oatmeal on the stone which we cleaned off, as it was attracting birds and while the idea of the offering was probably really nice the resulting bird poop covering a stone people were supposed to sit on was less so. We moved it to a better location. I don't usually disturb other people's offerings but in this case I made an exception, and I'd encourage people in general to give some thought before they make offerings to A. what they offering and whether it's suitable to the area and wildlife and B. whether that's the best place to leave it. also don't leave things that aren't biodegradable or might cause issues in the future with study of the site.
The area around the main cairn includes several smaller cairns that have been opened and I was very drawn to one of those in particular. It also had some carving left on at least one of the inner stones, although it was greatly weathered. The entire site was amazing, and I would like to go back at some point.

I have more pictures, and more stories - I didn't even get into Kidlare or Dublin here! - but I think this is getting long and that's a good way to end. I hope you enjoyed this, as it was definitely a different blog today.

Copyright text and all images Morgan Daimler 2016

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