Irish Pseudohistory and Lore of the Master Poets Part 3

When we turn to what the ‘Lebór Gabála’ actually says about the reign of the Tuatha Dé, the account of their soveignity over the Island falls into 3 sections. The 1st is of their invasion and defeat of the Fir Bolg (the first battle of Moytura). The 2nd provides a list of their kings, and the last comes an account of their genealogies. These 3 subsections look like that they were originally separate tracts., and this tells us about how the ‘Lebór Gabála’ was assembled. It suggests that the pseudohistorians scoured all available sources for information about the Tuatha Dé, including glossaries and miscellaneous scholarly texts,  and that they patched all this into their own design more or less wholesale.

The 1st section sets the Gods into the stage of Irish history. There is considerable variation in both detail and tone between the many recensions, although they all agree that the Tuatha Dé arrived and defeated the Fir Bolg at the 1st battle of Moytura. They arrive from the North (the most dark portentous direction of medieval thought). In some versions it is claimed that the sun and moon grew dark at their arrival, perhaps a disquieting vision of the Crucifixion, the pivotal disaster of biblical history (‘Leabhar Gabhála, Part 1’ Snowcroft). And whereas all previous races had reached Irish shores by ship, the Tuatha Dé had a grand entrance of arriving on clouds of dark vapour:

“The descendants of Bethach son Iarbonél the prophet son of Nemed were in the northern islands of the world, learning magic and knowledge and sorcery and cunning, until they were pre-eminent in the arts of the heathen sages. They are the Tuatha de Danann who came to Ireland.

It is this thus they came: in dark clouds. They landed on the mountains of Conmaicne Réin in Connaught and they put a darkness on the sun for 3 days and nights. Battle or kingship they demanded of the Fir Bolg. Battle was fought between them, the first battle of Moytura, in which a hundred thousand of the Fir Bolg fell. After that they took the kingship of Ireland”

(‘The Celtic Heroic Age’ JT Koch & J Carey)

Conmaicne Réin, the landing site, is an area east of the Shannon and comprises parts of the Counties Leitrim and Longford (‘Onomasticon Goedelicum’ E Hogan). The Tuatha Dé were meant to be descendants of Nemed, like the Fir Bolg, but this tradition makes them the medieval equivalent of eerie technologically superior fallen angels (‘Etymologiae’ Isidore). Continuing in the same tone, the 2nd recension also adds that the had been in Greece, where they had put their knowledge into infusing demonic spirits into corpses in order to help their Athenian allies in war against the Philistines (‘Lebór Gabála Ereann’ various). Interestingly enough to our modern eyes, this actually strengthens the pseudohistorians’ attempt to classify the Tuatha Dé as human rather than divine Beings; that men and women might acquire the knowledge to force demons to do their will (shades of Solomon the King here) was the classical line of the medieval explanation for magic (‘Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval Romance’ C Saunders).

Other versions of ‘Lebór Gabála’ present their arrival in a more positive light, with them travelling in large sea vessels they burned in order to make it impossible to turn tail and flee with the clouds of inky vapour had been the smoke rising from the flames of their burning ships (‘Leabhar Gabhála, Part 1’ Snowcroft). Significantly, this rationalising version was secondary with the motif of the Tuatha Dé’s supernatural arrival seems to be the older of the two. We know this because something very similar appears in the text ‘Scél Tuáin meic Chairill’ which was composed in the late 9th Century. This tale provides an account of the various invasions as witnessed by the ancient Tuán (see part 1) and transcribed to the saint, Finnia of Moville, who was in the process of spreading the word of Christ to the people of Ulster (Patrick bedamned). This text is crucial because it gives us the picture of an intermediate stage in the integration of the Tuatha Dé into the pseudohistory. It shows that around the year 900, the Tuatha Dé were already thought of as in one of the sequence of invasions, but they had not yet been defined as human descendants of Nemed in the way they had become orthodox a century or two later. Tuán speculates uneasily:

“Beothecht son of Iordanen took this island from the people that were in it. Of them are the Gáilióin, and the Túatha Dé and Andé, whose origin the men of learning do not know; but they thought it likely that they are some of the exiles who came to them from heaven”.

(Scél Tuáin meic Chairill’ J Carey){ the phrase Túatha Dé and Andé translates as Gods and non-Gods}

Here the Tuatha Dé are still identified as fallen angels. We can presume that the idea of exile from heaven has influenced the motif of landing from the sky. A century or so later, the pseudohistorian Eochaid ua Flainn was still batting the arguments like a tennis match:

“Their number was sufficient, whatever compelled them;

They alighted, with horror, in warlike manner,

In their cloud, evil wars of spectres,

Upon the mountains of Conmaicne in Connaught.

Without [? concealment they came] to skilful Ireland,

Without ships, a savage journey,

The truth concerning them was not known beneath the starry heaven,

Whether they were of heaven or of earth.

If from the demons, it is devils

That comprised the troop of……famous exiles,

A blaze [?] {drawn up] in ranks and hosts;

If from men, they were Betach’s offspring.”

(‘Celtic Heroic Age’ JT Koch & J Carey)

This looks like ramblings, but it is a learned poet’s scrupulous settingout  of varying opinions, before allowing himself to reach his conclusion, and opposite that to the tale of Túan, he is quoted writing “they belong properly among mortals”. This is the first confirmed assertion in Irish tradition of the plain humanity of the former Divine Ones, and this was to become a standard pseudohistorical doctrine.

If the Tuatha Dé were to be mere mortals in pseudohistory, a question arises as how did they come to have divine powers nearly equating to those of Gods? Some versions of ‘Lebor Gabála’ add more details about their arrival, with some declaring that they had learned their magical arts at the feet of 4 sages in 4 mysterious cities found in the north of the world, from where they had brought 4 treasures to Ireland (‘Book of Leinster: Recension 1’ various). This famous passage should be worth quoting here:

“Four cities in which they used to learn knowledge and lore and devilry: these are their names, Falias and Goirias, and Findias and Muirias. From Falias was brought the stone of Fál which is in Tara, which used to cry out beneath every king who used to take control of Ireland. From Goirias was brought the spear which Lug had: a battle would never go against the man who had it in hand. From Findias was brought Núada’s sword: one might escape from it from the moment it was drawn from its battle scabbard, there was no resisting it, From Muisias was brought the Dagda’s cauldron: no group of people would go from it unsatisfied. Four sages in those cities: Mórfhesa, who was in Falias, Esrus who was in Goirias, Uiscias who was in Findias, Semias who was in Muirias. Those are the four poets {filidh}, with whom the Túatha Dé Danann used to learn knowledge and lore.”

(‘Book of Fermoy: Recension1’ Various).

This was to become a vital part of the body of lore associated with the Tuatha Dé, and it would capture the imagination of a number of writers who gave the Gods their Anglo-Irish afterlife. Those set on weaving Ireland’s traditions into western hermeticism ( WB Yeats was a major player) were forcibly struck by the apparent symbolism here, which seemed to evoke the 4 elements of natural philosophy and esoteric doctrine.

A reader may wonder whether the medieval texts themselves actually point to any particular symbolism. We cannot push back the date of this tradition much before circa 1100, for neither the 4 cities nor the 4 sages occur anywhere before ‘Lebor Gabála’, and only one of the 4 treasures, the stone of Fál, occurs in some earlier texts. While there is always the chance that the treasures, sages, and cities represent a sounding from oral tradition, it is more likely they are late 11th century creations by the pseudohistorical school, which had an urgent need to invest the Tuatha Dé with the trappings of hidden knowledge. This is because the power of the Tuatha Dé posed a problem in exact proportion to their humanity. The key to the anecdote therefore is to appreciate that it partially explains how the Tuatha Dé could have been human, as pseudohistorical doctrine had come to insist,  and yet exhibited the supernatural powers which tradition invariably accorded them (‘Early Christian Ireland’ TM Charles-Edwards). It is tellingly bound up with the Tuatha Dé’s experiences in the northern islands and descent from Nemed; there was no need for magical academies in the north when the Gods were regarded as indigenous to Ireland, nor were they seen as fallen angels, since magical expertise is part and parcel with demons. The pseudohistorians’ solution to this conundrum was one that was apt to comfort intellectuals: the assertion that knowledge itself is power.

One of the strongest arguments that the tradition is a late creation is the fact that the scenario of sages and cities closely resembles that of the educational structure of the 1tth Century Irish church.  Schools were located in different monastic towns, each headed by one of the learned scholars termed scribae or fir léginn in the Annals. The sages Uiscias, Semias, Esrus and Mórfhesa would thus be reflections in a distorting mirror of those responsible for @Lebor Gabála’ itself, the class of experts in biblical and native historic traditions. In some versions the sages are called filidh or learned poets, and other accounts use the word fissid meaning seer or druí meaning druid, emphasising that the Tuatha Dé had specifically pagan knowledge, and their curriculum, involving the so called black arts, is decidedly unwholesome (‘Cat Magh Tuired: Myth and Structure’ EA Gray). The miraculous treasures associated with each city look like demonic or opposites of venerated relics associated with major ecclesiastical foundations (‘A Tale of Two Ditties: Poet and Satirist in Cath Maige Tuired’ K McCone). This is a version of the non-historical idea, as attested as far back as Muirchú’s 7th Century ‘Life of Patrick’, that the Irish belief in the Old Religions had been Christianity’s evil twin, complete with unholy, seemingly scriptural books and a learned priesthood teaching diabolical doctrine (‘Literacy and Identity in Early Medieval Ireland’ E Johnston). It is possible that the “ias” endings of some of the names were concocted to echo the names inscribed on many an Ogham stone’ Learned medieval scholars were able to read these, and though in many cases the language would be difficult for them, they certainly would have recognised that they were looking at personal names of great historical value (‘Lebór Gabála Ereann’ RAS Macalister). Macalister also notes that “ias” was the characteristic ending of the singular of feminine in Old Irish. “ia” would be plural while “io” would be masculine. This was common on ogham inscriptions because “[the stone of] X son of Y” was the standard form for such inscriptions. Macalister also noted that biblical names ending with “iah” ended in “ias” in the Vulgate, so the names like Semias and Uiscias might have given an Old Testament combined with the all-important native Irish feel.

There is uncertainty behind the true meaning of the cities, sages and treasures. Due to them being invented none of the available interpretations are definite. At best one can guess the associations the words might have set up in the minds of contemporary readers. In theory, there is nothing intrinsically improbable about the four cities echoing the four elements, which formed part of mainstream medieval cosmology and were perfectly well known in Ireland (‘Understanding the Universe in 7th Century Ireland’ Woodbridge). “Warm”, and “marine” cities accompanied with a”watery” sage look promising for elemental correspondences, but “watery” Uiscias is not associated with the “marine” city of Muirias, and there are other difficulties in making these names fit.

City                                               Sage                                                               Treasure

Falias (fál means hedge)          Mórfhesa meaning greatness                   Stone of Fál

                                                                        Of wisdom

Goirias (gor means warmth)   Esrus meaning opportunity                       Spear of Lugh

Muirias (muir means sea)        Semias meaning transparent                    An Dagda’s cauldron

Findias (find means bright)      Uiscias meaning water (usice)                  Sword of Núada

(‘Irelands Immortals’ M Williams)

In all, the balance of probabilities is that the tradition of the Tuatha Dé’s cities, sages and treasures was a creation of the pseudohistorical movement itself, rather than an ancient, pre-Christian concept. The array of names seems to evoke and underscore the Tuatha Dé’s Heathen knowledge, as a strategy for explaining their God-like powers after they were humanised and historicised (‘Les Isles au Nord du Monde’ F LeRoux). It is also noteworthy that it accords with a demonstrable high medieval interest in the depiction of magical learning. The pseudohistorian Geoffrey of Monmouth’s mid 12th Century account of the magical Isle of Avalon is a classic example, and provides a feminine equivalent for the cities of the Tuatha Dé. He describes the island as a form of women’s college headed by Morgan le Fay, who teaches astrology to her 8 sisters, and who, similar to the Tuatha Dé, is able to fly through the air. As with Semias, Uiscias, Esrus, and Mórfhesa, Moggan’s sisters have names which sing of phoney Greek mythology when we read of Moronoe, Mazoe, Glitonea and so forth (‘Life of Merlin’ B Clarke). As often with Irish mythology, apparent relics of Heathan lore turn out to reflect intellectual and literary currents which were widespread in medieval Christendom.

Go raibh maith agat as do chuid ama ag léamh an aiste fhada scríofa seo.

Seán Ó Tuama.

Irish Pseudohistory and Lore of the Master Poets Part 2

The Irish pseudohistorical tradition is quite plainly a rat’s nest but, the stages of it’s growth can be reconstructed (‘Leabhar Gabhála, Part 1’ Snowcroft). The point may not need labouring, but the story of successive invasions is demonstrably not pre-Christian as it developed gradually in early Christian Ireland (‘Native Elements in Irish Pseudohistory’ J Carey and ‘Cultural Identity and Cultural Integration: Ireland and Europe in the Middle Ages’ D Edel). The very concept of a universal history ofthis kind belongs to medieval learning, not native tradition. But no race of people lacks a story about where they come from, and the original nucleus of the pseudohistory is the narrative of the coming of the Gaedhil ( ‘Early Christian Ireland’ TM Charles-Edwards). We know that material about the legendary ancestors of the Irish existed as early as the 7th Century, because early poetry associated with Leinster mentions Íbir, Éber, and Éremón, figures who appear lateramong the grandsons of Míl Espáine in the story of the Gaedhil takeover ( ‘The Celtic Heroic Age’ JT Koch & J Carey). Míl himself, however, could not have entered the tradition before the late 7th Century, when, thanks to the writings of Isidore, the Irish first conceived of the Spanish-Irish connection, and so a good amount of knitting new material onto old was clearly going on (‘Literacy and Identity in Early Medieval Ireland’ E Johnston).

A rudimentary written account of the Gaedhil’s wanderings already existed by the 9th Century, at least 2 centuries before the composition of ‘Lebór Gabála’. This can be verified because of an importantfable style poem, known from its first lines as “Can a mbunadas na nGaedel” (whence did the Irish originate?), which cannot have been composed later than 887, when its author, Máel Mura Othna, died (‘In Search of Mael Mura Othna’ J Carey). While we know that the ‘Lebór Gabála’ compliers did not use this poem, minute details embedded about the wandering of the Gaedhil chime very close with it that a single source must ultimately have fed into both. This source must therefore have been in existence, in written form, before 887 (‘Leabhar Gabhála, Part 2′ Snowcroft).

Crucially, “Whence Did the Irish Originate?” does mention the Tuatha Dé. It tells us that the Gaedhil, having travelled from Scythia via Spain, reached Ireland and found the Tuatha Dé already there. But there is no suggestion of any other existing or previous inhabitants. It also contains suggestions that the Tuatha Dé began by being less than friendly, and though the phrasing is obscure we are clearly told that the Tuatha Dé gave the men of the Gaedhil wives in exchange for keeping one half of the Island. The poem does not actually make explicit, as documented elsewhere, that this means the half that lies beneath the earths surface, but this seems likely (‘Leabhar Gabhála, Part 2’ Snowcroft).

This is striking on two levels. First, it is broadly compatible with the representation of the Tuatha Dé in the Old Irish sagas, although it contains details of a primordial encounter between men and Gods, which the sagas do not. One strand of saga-tradition had depicted the Tuatha Dé as the Island’s antediluvian aboriginals, still in residence because free from original sin and therefore invisible and immortal; this is precisely the situation in the 3rd part of “The Wooing of Étaín”, for example. Secondly, there is no evidence in Máel Mura’s poem that the Tuatha Dé have shipped in from anywhere else: they are in their native land. This corresponds to the major mythological sagas like “The Second Battle of Moytura”, and certainly before the 9th Century there seems to be no assertion anywhere that the Tuatha Dé had been invaders (‘Notes on Cath Maige Tuired’ G Murphy).  This and the very idea of the mythological idea of inermarraige between the Gods and Gaedhil, was empathetically excluded from the tradition by the ‘Lebór Gabála’ compilers.

While the body of tradition about the migrations of the Gaedhil was clearly primary, by the mid 10th Century it had been gradually augmented by accounts of the preceding settlements or invasions. Traditions about the pre-Gaedhil settlements spread like suckers from the root story of the Gaedhil. Partholón seems to have been worked in first (Material of Íth is also found attached to Partholón, supposed to have lived thousand of years earlier. It is a strong suggestion that the story of Partholón may have budded from that of Míl). His name is the Irish version of Batholomew and learned Irishmen could read in Isidore that this is a Syriac name meaning “he who holds up the waters” (‘Leabhar Gabhála, Part 2’ Snowcroft). Accordingly, Partholón became mac Sera “son of the Syrian”, and the first man to settle in Ireland after the waters of the Flood subsided (‘Irish National Origin-Legend’ J Carey). Nemed seems to have been added next as another doublet of Míl, which results in 3 different invasions; Partholón, Nemed, and the Gaedhil under Míl.

This scenario is precisely what appears in the ealist account of the Irish invasion stories to have survived. It is not an Irish text, but a Welsh one the ‘Historia Brittonum’(History of the Britons), composed in Latin by an unknown cleric circa 830 (‘Wales and the Britons’ TM Charles-Edwards). Its author devotes some time to the origins of the inhabitants of his neighbouring Island, and says that he has taken his information from “the most learned of the Irish” (‘Historia Brittonium’ Th Mommsen edition). His account is recognisably a kind of prototype of ‘Lebór Gabála’ and it is a crucial witness to the early development of the pseudohistory. For the author of the ‘Historia Brittonum’, there were only 3 sets of invaders of Ireland being “Partholomus”, “Nemedius”, and the “miles Hispaniae” (Míl Espáine), but later he does mention one “Builc”, having misunderstood the ‘bags’ of the Fir Bolg as a personal name.

The standard first settlement, Cessair and her entourage, is absent from the ‘Historia Brittonum’. Cessair’s settlement is a kind of stillbirth and seems to be a very late addition to the tradition and continued to be of doubtful canonicity for some time. It can be observed from Gilla Cóemán’s poems, that he changes his mind about Cessair, for example. It is interesting, therefore, that she may nonetheless be of some degree of antiquity. John Carey has plausibly suggested that she was a Leinster figure, perhaps a Goddess associated with the confluence of the 3 rivers Barrow, Nore and Suir near Waterford in Munster, which is one of the most impressive natural water features of Ireland (‘The Origin and Development of the Cessair Legend’ J Carey). If this is so, we can observe antique material being incorporated into the pseudohistory long after it assumed its basic shape. Also conspicuous by its absence in the ‘Historia Brittonum’ is the invasion of the Tuatha De. It is this absence that brings us at last to consideration of their position within the pseudohistory, and within ‘Lebór Gabála’ in particular.

It has been long clear to scholars that the Gods were the last major group to be incorporated into the pseudohistory, which is hardly surprising. Nemed and Partholón have no value outside pseudohistorical tradition, but there existed a substantial body of independent material about the Tuatha Dé that varied conspicuously in detail and tone, which made them awkward to assimilate.

There is both direct and indirect evidence for the process of integration. Direct evidence includes the absence of the Gods in the list of invasions in ‘Historia Brittonum’, circa 830, as just noted; significantly, they are also omitted in a 9th Century set of texts preserved in the ‘Book of Ballymote’ (‘Leabhar Gabhála, Part 2’ Snowcroft). Further evidence is also visible within ‘Lebór Gabála’ itself, which carefully makes Ireland’s various invasions keep time with ‘world empires’ eg Assyrians, Persians, etc. The Tuatha Dé are the only race whose reign does not synchronise with such an empire, and this points to them having been belatedly spliced into the scheme.

Indirect evidence for the late integration of the Gods is provided by one of the notorious perversities of Irish mythology: confusingly, its Gods fight not one, but two “Battles of Moytura” (‘Notes on Cath Maige Tuired’ G Murphy). The first battle is the conflict between the Tuatha Dé and the Fir Bolg. The scholary consensus has long been that the second battle, because of its obviously archaic roots , is the original, while the first is merely an uninspired doublet. It seems that the idea of a battle between the Tuatha De and the Fir Bolg was a rationalising invention of the pseudohistorical school, intended to supplant the tradition of mythological conflict between the Gods and Fomór.. This may have been part and parcel of stripping the Tuatha Dé of their supernatural status, but it had been made necessary by the fact that the Tuatha Dé had been shoehorned into the narrative of successful invasions.  Instead of the Gaedhil defeating the Fir Bolg, the Tuatha Dé, now edged between the two, had to play two roles, vanquishing the Fir Bolg on one hand before themselves falling before the incoming Gaedhil on the other. This mythological scenario is very odd for it has the ethnic Irish inflicting military defeat on their own Gods. But in retaining the ancient tradition of a Tuatha Dé victory at Moytura, while redefining the vanquished as the human Fir Bolg rather than the supernatural Fomór, the pseudohistorians no doubt felt that they had arrived at a tidy solution. Unfortunately for them ( but fortunate for students of mythology) the Fomór defeat by the Tuatha Dé was clearly tenacious in tradition an impossible to uproot (‘Anecdota from Irish Manuscripts’ O Bergin, RI Best, K Meyer & JG O’Keefe).

It seems that the initial integration of the Gods into the scheme of invasions probably took place late in the 9th Century, and indeed “The Second Battle of Moytura” may have been originally composed as a grand restatement of the traditional doctrine in the face of a fabricated mimic intended to supplant it (‘Myth and Mythography’ J Carey). The 2nd battle was in turn absorbed into the structure of the pseudohistory during the 11th Century. The poems of Eochad ua Flann and Tanaide only mention the 1st battle, but Flann Mainistrech knew of both, significantly terming them the “first” and the “great” battles of Moytura, respectively (‘Leabhar Gabhála’ Snowcroft). Carey points outthat saga tradition added lustre to stretches of ‘Lebór Gabála’, for example, the narrative of the 2nd  or great battle is significantly less dry than the 1st. There is some evidence that the idea of the 1st battle against the Fir Bolg never really took off in Irish tradition outside the pseudohistorical school but a lacklustre Middle Irish saga on the subject appears to be an attempt to promnote the story in literary circles (‘Cath Maige Tuired Cunga’ {The Battle of Moytura at Cong} J Fraser).

Go raibh maith agat as do chuid ama ag léamh an aiste fhada scríofa seo.

Seán Ó Tuama.

Irish Pseudohistory and Lore of the Master Poets Part 1

There is a certain orchestrated haziness of the way in which the authors of sagas have handled native Gods, and this can be exploited for literary effect. As with Manannán’s epiphany to Bran, or that of Midir to the unhappy Eochaid Airem, the Gods intrude and then are lost in sight, leaving the question of their nature and potency open. In other words, if you do not know what a being is, you cannot not guess what it intends to do with you. Slipperiness combines unsettlingly with the capacity to overpower.

This haziness underlies the recurrence of phrases of strenuous mythological revival in Irish literary history, in which attempts are made to tie down the Gods with some new and less ambiguous intellectual frame. The best well known of these phases is the 19th Century Irish Revival but some of its foundations were laid down a millennium earlier, when the intellectual energies of Irish scholars were first galvanised by the prospect of clarifying Irelands ancient past and the place of the Gods within it.

In this piece, we will examine the 10th, 11th and 12th Centuries in relation to Irish literary history, crossing a millennial divide. Irish military success in the later 10th Century brought the Viking wars to an end and stabilised the political scene, enabling a multifaceted scholarly revival and reorganisation of monastic learning (see ‘Crossing Historical and Literary Boundaries: Irish Written Culture Around the Year 1000’ P. Simms-Williams and GA. Williams). Works typical of the time clearly aimed to bolster Ireland’s cultural memory, so we find attempts to rescue, reassess, and revive the writings of a few centuries before. Irish largely replaced Latin as the language of scholarship, older sagas were redacted, and several large, famous manuscripts (effectively one-volume libraries of vernacular texts) were produced. In these are found the earliest extant copies of most of the treasures of early medieval literature, so that what descends to us from that literature no doubt owes something to the tastes of the clerical compilers of the central Middle Ages ( ‘History or Fable’ Schluter).

A crucial dimension of this cultural stocktake was the creation of a chronological narrative for the Island’s past, which would integrate all the sources (biblical, native and classical) known to Irish scholars  at the time( ‘The Literature of Medieval Ireland, 800-1200’ M. Ní Mhaonaigh).  This seductive fabrication (often called synthetic history) possessed two core strands, both of which revolved around the question of who held power over the land. The first strand investigated the story of how the Gaedhil (Gaels) and how they came to Ireland, and the second tackled the story of the Island’s pre-Gaedhil inhabitants, imagined as a sequence of settlers/invaders. The Gods were represented as the last pre-Gaedhil or prehistoric people to have wrestled for the control of Ireland. This was the development of an idea which had been around since at least the 8th Century of that once, a long time ago (cue Stars Wars theme song) the God-people were in charge. Noted Professor Thomas Charles-Edwards of Oxford University, pointed out that this looks like a procedure for denying pagan divinities any existence in the current world- Christian orthodoxy would regard them as demons- by relegating them to an ‘innocuous’ past, in his book ‘Early Christian Ireland’. Thus distanced, they could be regarded safely, even with admiration, as figures of cultural significance.

I do use the term pseudohistory a lot but not in the derogatory sense. Our contemporary sense of history is (ie what really happened) differs from that of medieval writers, who regularly shaped stories about the past involving blatantly artificial narratives and genealogies. The purpose of these stories was to explain and exemplify how the past related to the present, often giving accounts of how people, places, and political institutions had come into being.  For our purposes, the crucial innovation of the Irish pseudohistory lay in its explicit insistence that the Tuatha de Danann had been a race of men and women not Gods, phantoms, unfallen humans, fallen angels, or any other form of theological fauna. The importance of this development can hardly be overstated, as a basic faith in the fundamental historicity of this narrative prevails for centuries, so that it effectively became Ireland’s official framework for It’s native Gods. They were to float within it, preserved as it were, until the middle of the 19th Century.

After several centuries of development, the culmination of the pseudohistory came in the final quarter of the 11th Century with ‘Lebór Gabála Érenn’ or the ‘Book of Invasions’. This highly influential Irish prose-and-verse treatise was written in order to bridge the gaping chasm between the Christian world chronology and the prehistory of Ireland (‘Irish National Origin-Legend:Synthetic Pseudohistory’ J. Carey). To the learned classes of medieval Ireland, as elsewhere, the primary source of history was the Bible; its narrative had been explicated and expanded by early Christian writers who had established precise chronologies for biblical events. As part of this process, figures from classical mythology such as Jason and Theseus, who were considered fully historical, were sometimes slotted into the timelines of the kings and high priests of Israel. A further important dimension to this medieval infilling of the Bible was an attempt to trace the decent of various peoples of the world, past and present, all the way back to notional ancestors in the Book of Genesis. But here Ireland’s men of learning came to a dead end: they possessed a vibrantly rich and well known body of oral traditions about the origins of the people of their own island, but could not find no reference to the Irish either in scripture or the works of Christian world history. S0 who, they asked themselves, were they? And where had they come from?

All versions of Lebór Gabála provided the same basic answer (‘Mediaeval Recensions of the Lebor Gabála’ RM. Scowcroft).  There are two strands to the story, and the first begins with Noah. Thanks to the Flood, he becomes the last common ancestor of humanity. His (non-biblical) daughter Cessair and her group of 150 women and 3 men are the first humans to reach Ireland. Desperately seeking shelter from the oncoming deluge, all of them drown except for Fintan mac Bóchra, who escapes in the form of a salmon and magically lives on in the form of different animals for approximately 3 and a half thousand years. Thusly, he becomes one of the most authoritative ‘ancient witnesses’ to the tradition (‘Surviving the Flood:Revenants and Antediluvian Lore in Medieval Irish Texts’ E. Ní Cárthaigh).

Thusly, Cessair’s line comes to an end. After Cessair are the people of Partholón son of Sera, a distant descendant of Cessair’s uncle, Japhet, a son of Noah. The Partholonians are wiped out by disease, but in some versions, as with Fintan, a single survivor escapes this catastrophe named Tuán mac Cairill who also used the forms of animals to survive through the ages (‘Scél Tuáin mac Chairill, Éiru’ J. Carey).

The next wave were the people of Nemed, a descendant of one of Partholón’s brothers. The original meaning of Nemed is ‘sacral’ which in itself is a native word Irish Law-Tracts used for free persons of rank, but the semantic range of the term is very complex. When applied to a person, it means dignitary or as a referral to the legal inviolability or privilege to said person as well as a concept of sanctuary or a sacred place that offers sanctuary. It has been used with regularity to mean ‘church’ in medieval times (‘Notes on the Text and Authorship of Early Irish Bee-Laws’ K. McCone). Its used here underscores the belief amongst the Irish that their societies roots were deep in the past. They imagined that Nemed’s descendants had introduced some of the Island’s most enduring political and geographical institutions, including kingship itself, the seating of the royal power of Tara and division of the country into provinces. With the exception of a few, the Nemedians are all but obliterated by a tidal surge during a seaside rebellion against the Fomór (whose origins have never been agreed on) (‘Mermaids, Leprechauns, and Fomorians: A Middle Irish Account of the Descendants of Cain’ S. Rodway). Some of the survivors made for Britain where they become the ancestors of the Britons, others find their way to Greece (Fir Bolg) and become enslaved landworkers and the last band go north where they grew skilled in the magickal arts and develop superhuman abilities in four mysterious cities (Tuatha Dé Danann). This tribe or race then become Irish pseudohistory’s take on the god-people. In time, both the Fir Bolg (after rebelling against their Greek enslavers) and the Tuatha Dé return to Ireland. A battle for the right to rule the land breaks out between the two distant kin and the Tuatha Dé take ownership of the island.

And this is the first of the two strands of the Lebór Gabála. The second strand follows the journey of another race of people descended from Japhet, son of Noah, who are destined to become the Gaedhil. After the debacle at the Tower of Babel, a Scythian noble, Fénius Farsaid (translates to ‘Irishman the Pharisee’ in Old Irish), extracted all the best bits of the new jumbled languages of man and from them creates the world’s first artificial ‘perfect’ language being Irish (‘The Ancestry of Fénius Farsaid’ J. Carey).  It is Farsaid’s son, Goidel Glás, who gives the name to his descendants and their language as Goídelc or in modern times Gaeilge. After a few periods taken and blended with that of the Book of Exodus, the Gaedhil settle in Spain and Portugal. From the tower of Braganza, their king Bregon glimpses Ireland . Later his grandson Míl Espáine (or ‘Spanish soldier’ in Old Irish) invades the island and defeat the Tuatha Dé. The Gaedhil also known as the ‘sons of Mil’ or Milesians in later texts, now rule Ireland and the Tuatha Dé are sent into exile.

This brief account does not convey what it is like to actually read the ‘Lebór Gabála’. I have not given the differences between the recensions or have I given a sense of the pseudohistorians complex chronologies or their Tolkienesque enthusiasm for family trees of imaginary characters. It must be admitted that the ‘Lebór Gabála’, important as it is among medieval Irish writings, is not the place for seeking historical fact. What is does highlight however is the manner of simple repeating structures decorated with detail. These structures are basically biblical, relating to Exodus and the Flood, and insistent motifs include plagues, migrations, dispossessions, the colonisations of deserted lands, and the reduction of once sovereign people to servile status under oppressive rulers (‘Leabhar Gabála, Part 2:The Growth of the Tradition’ Scowcroft). It can also reflect the political and social climate of the time of writing as many works have and still do today. One prime example is Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ which is a mix of Classical mythologies, biblical referencing, and political struggles of Dante’s time to create the ‘map of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory’ as we still envision it today in popular culture.

Versions of this pseudohistorical scheme seem to have emerged into the mainstream of Irish learning during the later 900’s, when the lore of the professional poets began to influence monastic authors deeply and significantly (‘Literacy and Identity in Early Medieval Ireland’ E Johnson). We do not know who gave it its final and lasting form as ‘The Book of Invasions’, but the task was complete around 1075. The many works which rapidly followed was the labour of many hands extending over 2 to 3 generations.

These scholars, while busily rearranging, cross-referencing, and interpolating, looked for much of their source material to moral instructive accounts of Irish history put into verse by a small number of poets during the late 10th and 11th centuries (‘Lebar Gabála, Recension 1’ J Carey). When compared  with contemporary ideas of writing history, these early ideas and methods, differ greatly. For us, it is obvious to put faith under close scrutiny using the comparison of sources, and the evidence of eye witnesses, but the redactors of ‘Lebór Gabála’ preferred to conflate and layer variant traditions in a sedimentary, accretive mass. The prose-and-verse of the treatise perfectly suited this approach, because the verse was basically primary and fixed, while the prose might not only allude to variant versions of a given incident, but also attempt to bring them into harmony.

The compilers of ‘Lebór Gabála’ seem to have drawn from the work of 4 poets in particular. The earliest was the Armagh cleric Eochaid ua Flainn (certified death 1004) described in the Annals of Ulster as a “sage of poetry and historical tradition”, marking him out to be a top scholar (‘Lebar Gabála, Recension 1’ J Carey). His poetry seems to have been designed to accompany a pseudohistorical tract which was the major nuclei around which the original ‘Lebór Gabála’ condensed. This tract must therefore been in existence around 1004, when Eochaid died, and its contents can be distilled from ‘Lebór Gabála’, as we have it. The second poet is a shadowy Connaught figure named Tanaide who reportly died around 1075 ( see Carey ‘Lebór Gabála, Recension 1). A major poem on the reigns of the various kings of the Tuatha Dé is ascribed to him in the 1st and 3rd recensions of ‘Lebór Gabála’, and his allusion to the familiar story of the loss and restoration of Nuada’s arm gives the flavour of the kind of moral instructive verse produced by the pseudohistorical school:

“Noble slender Núada ruled for seven year

Over the fair-haired wolf-pack;

[That was] the eager fair-haired man’s reign

Before coming into Ireland.

It is in grievous Mag Tuiread, without predestined death,

The yoke of battle fell;

His kingly arm was severed

From the bright champion of the world.

Bres ruled seven years, no bright interval;

On account of his beauty, the lord of poems

Held the kingship of the plain of tender nuts,

Until the arm of Núada was healed.”

And so on in this vein for another 6 quatrains, the kennings, stereotypical phrases, and asides on display here are all characteristic of the genre. To be fair to the poets, they were labouring under exacting and untranslatable metrical demands and the poems of ‘Lebór Gabála’ are superb examples of the kind of learned versifications of historical memory in which they specialised. Nonetheless, it is easy to see why it was found desirable to attach a prose apparatus setting out the data under curation (dán direch or strict-metre syllabic poetry).

The work of the 3rd poet, Gilla Cóemáin mac Gilla Samthainne (year of death 1072), would not be specially relevant to the representation of the Gods were it notthat we know that he had something to do with an important prose tract, the ‘Lebór Bretnach’. This text provides crucial evidence for how the Gods were imagined by the learned scholars of the period; Gilla Cóemáin may himself have been responsible for it (‘Three  Historical Poems ascribed to Gilla-Cóemáin’ P.J Smith). The last of the 4 poets was not used by the original ‘Lebór Gabála’ compilers as it would seem. The scholar Flann Mainistrech (of the monastery), death circa. 1056, was head of the monastic school of Monastarboice, County Louth (‘Medieval Ireland: an Encylopedia’ S Duffy). Poems of his, nonetheless rapidly incorporated into ‘Lebór Gabála’ as it underwent recasting and interpolation, and some of them are of great importance. One of these poems gleefully details on how each God met their demise.

These poets were the fountainhead for the national narrative which the ‘Book of Invasions’ made canonical. But what sources had these poets drawn upon originally? The answer lies in the pre-‘Lebór Gabála’ development of the pseudohistory.  A core of ideas about the geographical origins and peregrinations of the Gaedhil, clearly involving at least some written scholarly material, but still developing and shifting, seems to have been in existence before the 10th Century.  The Bible provided the major model for this kind of history, augmented by Christian authorities and biblical commentators; the pseudohistorian’s curious connection between the Gaedhil on the one hand and Spain, Greece and Scythia on the other was derived from these sources. To a significant degree this connection was based on the kind of false etymologies loved by medieval scholars. The idea of a link between Ireland and Spain, whence Íth son of Bregon had first sailed with the Gaedhil to their future homeland, goes back to the encyclopedist Isidore of Seville, who thought of Spain as the ‘mother of all races’ and had wrongly connected Hibernia with (H)Iberia (The Irish National Origin-Legend’ J Carey). Isidore also derived the Greeks from Noah’s son Japhet and ascribed Greek connections to the Gauls. Because of the similarity of names, Gaeldom’s men of learning soon took the latter to reference themselves (‘We are greeks in our Origin:New Perspectives on the Irish Origin Legend’ B Jaski).

Another example of this kind of etymological history was the standard assertion that the ancestors of the Irish had ultimately come from Scythia, an area notoriously vaguely imagined in the Middle Ages, but roughly to be identified with modern Ukraine and Kazakhstan (watch out, Borat). Scythia features in several Irish sources as well as all versions of ‘Lebór Gabála’, and the connection is based merely on the resemblance between two Latin words, Scythae (Scythians) and Scotti (the normal term for Irish) (see ‘The Ancestry of Fénius Farsaid’ J Carey). Even Míl Espáine, the ancestor of the invading Gaedhil and thus putative forefather of all the ethnic Irish, was an etymological figment. Transparently  not originally a name, it is rather a translation of the Latin phrase for a ‘soldier of Spain’ (miles Hispaniae), a form which actually occurs in the earliest pre-‘Lebór Gabála’ account of the wanderings of the gaedhil to survive (‘Leabhar Gabhála:Part 2’ Snowcroft). It is a tribute to the ingenuity of Ireland’s learned classes that the huge edifice of ‘The Book of Invasions’ could be built on such slight foundations. It is sometimes excitably claimed that genetic analysis, which shows a link between the inhabitants of Ireland and those of present day Basque country, points to the historical truth of ‘Lebór Gabála’. As the idea of a Ireland-Spain connection can be conclusively shown to be a learned development of the 7th Century, this is a coincidence, particularly as the same genetic markers are also very common in Britain (‘The Origins of the Irish’ JP Mallory).

Go raibh maith agat as do chuid ama ag léamh an aiste fhada scríofa seo.

Seán Ó Tuama.

St. Patrick, St. Sheelah and the Spring Equinox

Before the Spring Equinox approaches in Ireland, St. Sheelah’s Day is celebrated after St. Patrick’s Day. St. Sheelah was supposedly St.Patrick’s wife, but just as Brigid was changed from goddess to saint, so Sheelah was the original honoured at the Spring Equinox as Sheela-na-gig. Figures of this Celtic fertility Goddess who clutches her vulva with both hands, were widespread on Irish churches before the 16th century, such was her popularity in the ancient Celtic world. These figures represent the life giving powers of our Earth mother.

6th century St. Clements Church, Hebrides, Scotland. The stone carving incorporated into the building is thought to be much older and of pagan Celtic origin.

“Sheela-na-gig immodest maid, a symbol of fertility.
Although the Christian church forbade, she still appears quite frequently.
Her effigies protected by stern laws and heavy penalties.
The old beliefs refuse to die to no one but the priests surprise.
Sheela-na-gig with legs apart displays her femininity.
Some think her crude but she’s a part of Irelands ancient history.
If to your eye she appears lewd I must conclude you are a prude.”

Poem by Richard E Hogg

It is probably no coincidence that Mothering Sunday (often confused with the modern Mother’s Day) occurs on the fourth Sunday in Lent, around the time of the Equinox. For Christians it was originally about recognising the role of the Mother Church. However, it probably has much more ancient origins and the semi fictional characters of St Patrick and St Sheelah probably have an older Celtic origin.

The 16th, 17th (St Patrick’s Day) and 18th March: Erskine Nicol’s painting of the Irish celebration that included Sheelah’s Day. Photograph courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland

For hundreds of years Ireland has had an icon of womanhood and a compelling symbol of all things female, yet few people know her name. The forgotten goddess is none other than Sheelah, once widely celebrated on March 18th, both in Ireland and among the diaspora, yet now all but disappeared, but still celebrated by the Irish diaspora in Canada and Australia.

It’s interesting that both their days happen before the Spring Equinox, which marks the middle of Spring when the land is fertile and seeds are planted. It is about masculine and feminine fertility of the land. A time when things begin to Spring to life, a time of mating and birthing for many mammals.

So this Spring Equinox recognise our Earth Mother and Father. The Father is often represented by the tall established tree and The Mother by the well of life giving waters. Both are dependent on each other. So today, plant seeds, whether they are physical, or by sharing the importance of looking after the Earth.

Persephone Awakening (c) Jesper Alvermark October 29, 2012 “Persephone was abducted by Hades, the god-king of the underworld. The myth of her abduction represents her function as the personification of vegetation which shoots forth in spring and withdraws into the earth after harvest; hence she is associated with spring.”

Wherever you are and whether it is Spring or Autumn, may you have a blessed Equinox. Today’s Equinox takes place at 9:37 GMT (Greenwich Mean Time), about 2 hours from now.

The Concept of the Irish Family Pantheon: Imported or Native

Because Irish written records did not manifest until the 8th Century, we can be thankful to the Early Irish monks who captured the old legends and sagas through script, although using a Christain filter. It is difficult to know exactly when a society exchanges one religion for another as it takes time but we know during the 6th Century the Christain church had established it’s heirarchy and institution with Latin education and monasticisim spreading throughout the country in the 600’s. ‘Periginatio:Celtica II’, TM Charles-Edwards. The public worship of the Old Gods by high ranking individuals had come to an end by the 500’s but it seem to have continued, albeit marginilised, right up to the turn of the 8th Century. At this point in time, Druids ceased to appear in legal texts and it can be assumed that they disappeared from Irish society.
It is traditional in handbooks of mythology to begin witha family picture of the Old Gods, detailing their relationships, powers and attributes. However this is not the case for the Old Irish Gods. It can be argued that because everything we know about the Irish Deities comes from writings composed after the island’s conversion and maybe filtered through a Chritain lens. It is also important to bear in mind that their earliest appearances in the manuscripts has them divorced from religious activities. ‘Ireland and the Medieval World: AD 400-1000’, E Bhreathnach. In order to retrieve non-Christain manuscript information about the nature of the Divinities religiously revered by the pagan Irish, we have two tools at our disposal, archaeology and conclusions based on cross referencing with the related societies of Celtic Gaul and Britain. Because of its nature, archaeological evidence has a limited value on reconstructing belief systems and mythological narratives, but it does seemas least some Irish population groups erected wooden or stone images that have human characteristics related to the Old Gods. One such was found in the bog of Ralaghan in Co. Cavan. It is roughly 1 metre long and carved from a whole yew tree trunk. The hole gouged into the genital area may once have held a carved penis and the decorative style of the facial area is similar to that of the later La Téne culture. But it dates to the Bronze Age circa 1000 BCE. Many scholars would argue that this was before the arrival of any form of Celtic speech, so there is no guarantee of cultural continuity with the religious practises of over a 1000 years later. ‘Anthropomorphic Wooden Figures: Recent Irish Discoveries’, M Stanley. In saying this, similar sculptures have surfaced sparodically in Britain dating to the Iron Age which suggests that it may once have been more widespread, but we cannot tell for definite. ‘Rites of the Gods’, A Burl.
The same problem arises with the intrepretation of the stone sculpture “Tandragee Idol” which also dates to circa 1000BCE. It is a helmeted figure holding his left arm which could represent a warrior or a native deity such as Núada Argatlám (of the silver arm) who lost his arm at the first Battle of Moytura and had it replaced with a silver one. The great saga of the Tuatha Dé was written just under 2000 years later after the figure was sculpted so the link to Núada is considered a possibility. ‘Contributions to an Intrepretation of Several Stone Images in the British Isles’, E Ettlinger.
There are also hints that rivers, bogs and other bodies of water such as lakes were important in the old Irish religious beliefs, but Iron Age deposits are rarer in Ireland than in Britain but we can boast of having one of the most spectacular finds. The Broighter Hoard was discovered close to Lough Foyle in county Derry. These items are thought to have been crafted and deposited in 1BCE. Depositing offerings such as these suggest a belief in supernatural beings associated with water. Looking at later literature, scholars have speculated that the Hoard was a ritual offering to the sea God Manannán, because Old Irish texts associate Lough Foyle with stories of encounters between Brán son of Febal and the God Himself. Stating this, not all conclusions drawn between artifacts and legend are wrong. We must examine the evidence closely with caution and it is too easy to build structures on sifting sands.
Because archaeological evidence emerges as open to intrepretation, it can be used to outline the most important aspects of how pre-Christain Ireland regarded the Old Gods. For a time, there were a great number of these, related to certain places, clan and to the natural world. A prime example is an Bíle or Defhid (the god-tree) which was sometimes used to mean a specific tree venerated by the inhabitants of a certain area (and continued evolutionary as a marker of a families territory through Brehon Law and to date as a tree in a churchyard). ‘Sacred Trees of Ireland’, C Zuccheilli. It is unclear that the Old Ones were to either dwell within, under or use these sites as a portal between both worlds, but it can be imagined that of having uses for gifts which the old Irish would have offered up to them. This idea can be rounded by comparison with Gaul and Britain, but one final note about the archaeological record should be considered. The centuries immediately before the Christain conversion point to a period of economic contraction, agricultural decline, and (knowing this country) some degree of political in-house struggle. From this, it is possible that the late Iron Age religious values and beliefs reflect this turbulence, which in turn points to that an immemorial Irish Celtic past may have changed with this.
If we look at British and Gaulish archaeology, written data is available mainly in the form of inscriptions and the Roman descriptions of Gaulish religious customs. Parallels can be drawn if we stick to the outlines. There seem to be three key features that are shared. Firstly, watercourses are regularly venerated with associations to goddess archetypes more so than god archetypes. ‘Celtic Goddesses’, M Green. (It is important to remember that Greco-Roman culture tended to have more male archetypes). Secondly, was the wide range of local variety, with a large number of named deities attested and had overlapping roles such as warrior, hunter, healer, tradesperson, etc. ‘Pagan Religions’, R Hutton. And lastly, neither Gaul or Britain provide us with evidence in the Greco-Roman sense which relates to the localism mentioned in the first key feature. But this still provides a puzzle. It is mentioned repeatedly in the Old Irish literature, that there is a loose family structure similar to that of a pantheon. For example, an Dagda (the Good God) is the central focus of this structure, as like his Roman counterpart Jupiter and the Greek Zeus, has several children and is quite fertile (he has had many sexual laisons in the Saga’s). There are a number of ways to solve this issue.
On one hand, Pagan Ireland may have developed a pantheon independantly while the Britons and Gauls may have not, although this seems unlikely considering the proximity. Ireland was, and remained so after the conversion, a decentralised, rural and politically fragmented society with a thinly spread population of limited mobility. This would suggest more that this is a situation unlikely to foster the development of a national family of Gods.
A second possibility, is the members of society that could move around, thought in terms of a core pantheon. This would mean those who maintained themselves with professional skills, the áes dána (people of skill) such as the bards, Law givers and more importantly, the druids being the religious elite. We do find this reflected on in later literature emphasising on archetypes associated with skill. People tied to the land would have more than likely focused more on local Divinities associated with fertility. It is possible that a similar situation obtained in Gaul, and this would explain the sharp contrast between Julius Caesar’s famous description of a micro-pantheon, for whom he used the Roman names of Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Apollo and Minerva, and the clear epigraphic evidence that Gaulish Deities numbered in the 100’s. We know that Caesar spoke with a Druid, and that he had a pressing need to understand the attitudes of the powerful in Gaulish society. His account of the gods of Gaul may reflect only on the beliefs of the learned, mobile elite. ‘Caesars Druids:An Ancient Priesthood’, M Aldhouse-Green. ‘Caesar’s Perception of Gallic Social Structures’, B Arnold & D Blair-Dunham.
A third possibility is the whole concept of a family of Gods under a patriarchial figure may have been adopted by the Irish as a result of contact with Roman culture, although this may have happened either before or after the conversion. Pagan Ireland was exposed to a strong influence of Roman Britain culture and the idea of a pantheon might have been adopted in imitation of the culture of the neighbouring island, as was the custom of commerating the dead with inscriptions on stone. ‘The Romanisation Of Ireland in the 5th Century’, L Laing.
Alternatively the concept of a pantheon may never have been a part of true Irish Paganism at any stage before the conversion. The concept may have been imported after the island fully converted to the Christian religion, as the learned classes of Irish society developed familiarity with latin literature, especially Virgil’s mythological epic, the Aeneid. ‘Roman Ireland’, V Di Martino.
All the above options are possible, but at the present state of our knowledge, it is difficult to gauge which is more likely.

Seán Ó Tuama.

The Stone Circles of West Cork

The oldest known Megalithic structure in Ireland is that of Newgrange in the Boyne Valley. It dates to around 3,200 BCE and predates both Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Giza. Southwest Munster, and West Cork in particular, is home to the greatest concentration in Ireland of stone circles. There are two main kinds recorded in the National Monuments website ( see the link National Monuments Service ( ), each making up about half the total number of circles – the multiple-stone circle and the five-stone circle. (There are also a small number of not clearly understandable monuments called ‘four posters’ which share some features with stone circles.) 

The division based on the number of stones is somewhat arbitrary, since both share most other features. Both have uneven numbers of stones – five in the case of the five-stone circle, and seven or more (up to 19) in the multiple-stone circles. Both types are axial or recumbent stone circles. The name recumbent comes from the lowest stone in the circle, the only stone set on its side, with its long axis parallel to the ground. All the other stones are set upright and they often increase in size from the recumbent to the portal stones. The portals appear to form an entrance into the circles and are sometimes set end-on to the circle. An axis drawn from the point between the portals to the middle of the recumbent bisects the circle – hence the name axial stone circle. All these features can be seen in the photograph of Drombeg Stone Circle which featured in a blog by Andrew Gibbons earlier this year. While the multiple-stones circles appear roughly circular, they may have been laid out using more complicated geometry than the string-marking-out-a-circle technique. Some are more elliptical than truly circular. The five-stone circles, given the dominance of the recumbent, are actually D-shaped for example, Knocknacoille where some of you have seen my ritual decompressions take place. Many of our stone circles have disappeared over time, with only a memory in folklore mayindicate that here was once a circle of stones. Some have lost stones over time, while in others uprights have collapsed. Whole monuments have vanished into forests or dense undergrowth. Even where we still have partial circles it can be difficult to make out which are the portals and which the recumbent.

The circles are constructed from local stone and in some cases it is easy to see where they have been quarried from nearby rock outcrops. There is no evidence of the builders transporting the stones from elsewhere, with the exception, perhaps of the quartz blocks which are found occasionally either as uprights or associated with the circle inside or outside it. Although quartz is found in abundance in West Cork a large block of it may have been especially prized and reserved for such a situation.

The circles were carefully and deliberately constructed:the archaeologist EM Fahy’s (author of the journal “Cork Historical and Archaeological Society” 1957) excavations at Drombeg and Reenascreena shows that the ground was levelled.  Stones were, it seems, selected for shape as well as size. The recumbent is usually flat on top, which may indicate the side closest to the parent rock from which it was split. Some may well have been deliberately shaped by knocking or splitting off sections – we often notice, for example, how well certain uprights mirror the landscape behind them, like the example of the Ardgroom stone circle.

Stone circles are often associated with other monuments, most commonly boulder burials and standing stones, and at least two have radial stone cairns beside them. Some of the standing stones appear to function as outliers to the circle, extending alignments towards solar or lunar orientations. West Cork stone circles, from the sparse excavation evidence, date from the middle to late Bronze Age (about 1500 to 600BC). They are commonly found on elevated ground with a clear and expansive view southwards, but stretching from the northeast to the southwest – that portion of the sky in which both the sun and the moon rise and set. Our stone circles have always fascinated antiquarians, happy to label them ‘druidic temples’ or make outlandish claims about their construction by visiting Egyptians. This stems from the Celtic Revival at the turn of the 20th Century in which WB Yeats was one of the main pioneers.

In more recent times, they have been the subject of a great deal of neo-pagan speculation about long-distance ley lines, mystical ‘energies’, extra-terrestrial builders, associations with cults and the like. As an amateur researcher and folklorist, I think this is a pity, in the sense that these stone circles are fascinating enough as they are – they embody so much that we need to understand about the scientific knowledge, advanced construction technology, and social organisation of the builders. The belief systems that underlie their reasons for constructing these monuments are equally important and more difficult to rationally investigate and surmise after the passage of millennia, but should be based on close and serious study of the monuments themselves.

Multiple Stone Circles

An online search for ‘West Cork Stone Circles’ will bring you to many pages of information about Drombeg but precious little else. Drombeg is a marvellous site and its excavation yielded much-needed information about stone circles, but it’s only one site – the one with the signposts and car park with multitudes of Summer tourists as its on the West Cork tourist route going from Clonakilty to Rosscarbery on the coast.

Multiple stone circles in West Cork all fall under the heading of recumbent or axial circles, in which two portal stones (usually the tallest in the circle) stand opposite a recumbent and the line that passes through the portals and over the recumbent is considered to be the axis of the circles. However, within this predominant design, there are variations in how the builders decided to construct their circles.

The most noticeable variation, of course, is the size of the circle and the number of stones it contains, from seven to an estimated nineteen. We don’t know why the builders made these choices, although as with most construction, size can be equated with wealth: building a stone circle was an difficult undertaking relying on the the ability to band together a significant labour force. Perhaps also a larger circle with more stones permitted finer gradations of alignments, if this was the purpose of the circle, or more expansive ceremonials within the boundary of the circle.

The portals are normally the tallest stones in the circle but occasionally they are also set radially, or edge-on, to give the impression of a natural entrance. In only three cases an extra pair of stones helps to emphasise the entry point by creating a short passage. One example of this is Carrigagrenane, which is also one of the largest circles at nineteen stones.

Conversely, the recumbent or axial stone is normally the lowest stone in the circle and the broadest (since it is set with its long axis parallel to the ground) but even here variation occurs. The axial stone at Ardgroom Outward, for example, is a pillar stone. Indeed, it can sometimes be difficult to decide where the axis line of the circle runs, if stones have fallen or are missing.

Monoliths (single standing stones or blocks set on the ground) are present at some sites, either inside or outside the circle (as at Ardgroom Outward ). Where they are inside they are placed off-centre. Where they are outside, they can be close to the circle or some way off but visible from it. These are usually called outliers. Quartz is a stone of choice for some of these monoliths but it is interesting that quartz is never in use as a circle orthostat ( an upright stone set in the ground). Standing stone pairs can also function as outliers to a multiple stone circle. At Dunbeacon this outlier pair is almost half a kilometre from the circle across the valley, but each is clearly visible from the other. Originally a third standing stone also stood within 50 metres of the standing stone pair, but it has now disappeared.

Another association is with boulder burials, sometimes found outside the circle, as in Bohonagh where the boulder burial capstone is quartz and contains cupmarks. At Ballyvacky (below) a boulder burial stands about 50 metres from the circle and a standing stone once stood beside it. Boulder burials, as we have seen, are also found inside the circle: one of the most spectacular examples of this is at Breeny More where a group of four boulder burial are set in a square within a large circle from which most of the stones are missing. Finally, occasional stone circles will be surrounded by a fosse or shallow ditch. The most striking example is at Reenascreena, below.

When I have visited some of these stone circles, I was struck by features which appear to be similar at all or most of the sites. Many are situated on elevated sites with expansive views to the south and west. While this has been well documented by archaeologists, it’s one thing to read about it and yet another to visit a few circles and find yourself expecting a certain set of circumstances as you tune in to patterns in the sites themselves. What the orientation descriptions don’t mention, for example, is that the choice of location often features rising ground behind the circles which obscures the horizon to the north. Occasionally the higher ground blocking the horizon is not to the north at all, but to the south or south-west – confounding our expectations that the obvious view-lines will be to the south and west. Cappanaboule is strikingly situated thus, as is Ardgroom Outward. And then we have examples in fairly flat country with no really obvious view-lines. This can be complicated by surrounding forestry, as at Knockaneirk (above) where, if there was an obvious orientation over the recumbent it has long been hidden by tall trees.

5 Stone Circles

About half of the stone circles in the Cork-Kerry complex consist of only five stones, and constitute a sub-group know as Five-stone Circles. While they share many similarities with the Multiple-stone Circles, they are a unique class of monument. Most strikingly, the Five-stone Circles follow the pattern of the larger ones in having two portal stones, usually the tallest orthostat of the circle, across from a recumbent, or axial stone which is usually the shortest. In describing them here, I am using the work of Seán Ó Núalláin, who surveyed and described all the Cork-Kerry Stone Circles in 1975. While his comprehensive paper is over 40 years old, it is still the most complete work on the Stone Circles of Cork and Kerry (The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 105 (1975), pp. 83-131). 

Most of the Five-stone Circles I have seen now are complete or almost complete, although some of the orthostats have fallen. They are actually in remarkably good condition – perhaps their small size has offered them some protection against the need to ‘improve’ farmland. some have been filled in with field stones but most are simply marooned in little islands of grass in the middle of a field, occasionally with a protective fence to keep cattle away.

Two of the Five-stone Circles may in fact, according to Ó Núalláin, be actually Three-stone – it is assumed that both Cashelkeelty and Glanbrack had two more stones originally, but he muses that a setting of three stones could be seen as “representing the ultimate degeneration of the “circle” concept”. Neither are they truly circular – in fact they are mostly D-shaped, with the axial stone being the straight edge of the D. This is a function of their size – the axial stone, with its straight edge, represents a much bigger proportion of the circle that it would in a large Multiple-stone Circle, but it also brings up the issue of whether the circle shape is truly essential to the functions of this type of monument. The axis of the Five-stone Circles, that is, the direction of a line drawn between the portal stones across the recumbent, is generally NE/SW. This orientation is not exact, but most fall within a few degrees of it. Ó Núalláin agrees with Aubrey Burl in his analysis of the Scottish circles (and our own observations at the circles confirm this) when he says

“Thus the circles are so aligned that the entrances face the side of the heavens on which the sun rises and the axial stones face the setting sun. The broad splay present, 107 degrees, suggests that a general alignment on the side of the heavens on which the sun rises or sets was what was required, and that precise alignments on specific celestial events were not in question. It is worth noting however that the axial stones tend to group in a sector indicating a winter rather than a summer position.”

As with the Multiple-stone Circles, there are peripheral monuments associated with Five-stone Circles – standing stones, stone pairs, stone alignments, quartz blocks, radial cairns, and in once case (Mill Little) boulder burials. None of these are inside the circle so are referred to as outliers. One of the most complex of the Five-stone Circle sites is Kealkill, which includes two large standing stones and a radial stone cairn. Another complicated site is Cashelkeelty. With this one, we see the Five-Stone Circle (although it may be the second of Ó Núalláin’s Three-stone Circles), a row of three stones to the left, and in the distance orthostats of what may have been a Multiple-stone Circle. There are two Five-stone Circles in the townland of Baurgorm. In the first site, the more northerly of the the two, has two outliers but only one is visible as the other has fallen. There are two other standing stone recorded nearby. The portal stones are unusually far apart in this circle. The second site of the Baurgorm has a standing stone row (three stones of which only two are visible from where we were and of which one of the stones is split) and a single standing stone. The Mill Little Complex which comprises a Five-stone Circle which are a standing stone pair and three Boulder Burials. While there are many example of Multiple-stone Circles in association with Boulder Burials, it’s unusual to see them alongside the Five-stone Circles.

Ó Núalláin finds the size and shape of the stones unremarkable, apart from noting that the stones in individual monuments are roughly similar in size and shape. However, there is a little more to say about it than that. While the recumbent is invariably flat-topped, the flanking stones can vary from a gently rounded curve, to a slant, to what looks like a deliberately shaped angular peak. Have they been chosen, or shaped, with some purpose in mind? Two examples are shown here where the right flanking stone of the recumbent appears to have been chosen for its pointed shape. The first is Cappaboy Beg, the smallest of the Five-stone Circles and the second is Inchireagh. Even though the recumbent is usually the lowest stone in the circle, it’s not always the case. At Kealkill, for example, the recumbent is easily the largest and most dominant of the five stones.

We cannot rely solely on archaeological evidence to reveal more about the nature and purpose of the Five-stone Circles. Only one has been scientifically excavated – the one that is part of the Kealkill complex. No burials or deposits were found. A one-day dig in the 1930’s at the site of Knocknakilla, revealed a sort of flat-stoned pavement in the interior, with lots of quartz fragments. Glanbrack has cupmarks on the top surface of the recumbent. Obviously this will be a fertile field for some future researcher.

One thing to be noticed is that the Five-stone circles are differently situated from the Multiple-stone circles. Whereas Multiple-stone Circles are often on a bench on a hillside, with wide views in one direction and rising ground in the other directions (Drombeg is typical), Five-stone circles are often on flat ground in a valley or up the side of Mountains like Cullomane, Cappaboy Beg, Inchireagh and Knocknacoille but usually with panoramic views all around.

Purpose of Stone Circles

The Stone Circles of West Cork form a distinct group within all types of Irish stone circles – the axial or recumbent pattern is its defining characteristic and completely consistent across the geographical spread and different circle sizes.

But perhaps this post should come with a trigger warning. Back away now if you want me to talk about mystical energies or ley lines. Stop reading if you believe in vibratory signatures or that a pendulum or crystal will reveal some hidden secret to a circle’s purpose. There are loads of other places on the internet only too willing to engage with you on those approaches but you won’t find them in this written piece.

Let’s begin with the When? and By Whom? The idea of a circle as a way to create a dedicated space, of course, goes back to the earliest farming communities – John Waddell in his book “The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland devotes a chapter to the arrival in Ireland of various traditions of monument building based on a circle, firstly earthen enclosures and on to the circular passage tombs of Brú na Bóinne and Loughcrew.

While the circles we are discussing here – the axial circles of West Cork – share their basic shape with many of these earlier monuments they should be viewed as a unique and recognisable tradition of monument-building. Very few stone circles have been excavated, but those that have support a Mid to Late-Bronze Age date, that is from about 1600BC to about 600BC.  It was a tradition that occupied a restricted geographic region (Cork and Kerry) and had their closest parallels to the similar stone circles of Scotland. In Scotland, few have been excavated but those that have been also support a Mid to Late-Bronze Age date. Remember too that our stone circles are strongly associated with other monuments – boulder burials, standing stone outliers, stone pairs or rows. Where dates have been established, they place these monuments in the same era. Waddell sums up by saying “These new monuments may be related to an expansion of settlement and an intensification of agriculture reflected in the pollen record and pre-bog field systems.”

And now to the Why? Archaeological theories fall into two broad categories – axial stone circles were built primarily for calendrical purposes and stone circles were built primarily as memorials or burial places. I emphasise primarily as it is likely that anything that takes this level of resources to construct would have been multi-functional. Vice Admiral Boyle Somerville, ethnographer and archaeologist (1863 to 1936) was the pioneer of the calendrical approach and was nicknamed Irelands first ‘archaeoastronomer’.

There is no doubt that marking the turning of the year was of vital importance to an early farming culture. Two solstices, two equinoxes and the mid-way points between them, known as cross-quarter days, are the basis for many ancient calendars and festivals. Our own traditional festival days of Imbolg, Bealtine, Lughnasadh and Samhain correspond roughly to the cross-quarters and to the beginning of spring or the end of harvest. It makes sense to have some way to mark out those dates and building a stone circle to do so had the merit of being enduring in the landscape.

There is also the issue of the design of the circles – two portals across from a recumbent – a line has been observed and is being marked by the axis thus laid out. In West Cork, this axis line is NE (the portals) SW (the recumbent). However, there is a fairly broad spread on either side of the line so obviously it was not an immutable rule that the orientation was set to a certain point in the heavens but that it corresponded in a general way to that part of the sky in which both the sun and the moon rose and set – between the east for rising and the west for setting, moving across the southern sky.

Within that general orientation, settings over the recumbent have been observed at many, although by no means all, the stone circles. The most well-known is Drombeg, where the sun sets over the recumbent at the winter solstice. You can observe an equinoctial orientation at the Bohonagh site. Lunar risings and settings have also been noted. The winter sky appears to be what is most important – perhaps understandably given the psychological effect of passing the darkest and coldest time of the year.

Other theories have been argued – towards a sacred peak, for example, or to an upland area where people would move their cattle at a certain time of the year (known as transhumance, or as booleying in Rural Ireland) or to stars of first magnitude. Noted author and archaeoastronomer Terence Meaden has encouraged us to examine what is known as ‘shadowcasting’ as a way of building an 8-month calendar and has made many accurate observations at stone circles to support his thesis. While there is no doubt that fertility must have been important to early farmers, Meaden somewhat undermines his own research by his insistence on interpreting everything as sexual symbolism, to the point of seeing penises and vulvas in the the stones and in invoking the concept of celestial marriage to explain ‘union by shadow’ between phallic and female orthostats.

Then there are the outliers – standing stones or stone rows that provide further and different orientations. Sometimes these are close by the circle, as at Uragh or Glanbrack  and sometimes at a distance, as at Dunbeacon. 

The late archaeologist Aubrey Burl, in his book “Rings of Stone, reminds us that these are ceremonial spaces. Not keen on archaeoastronomy, he paid attention to the shape of the monument as creating a place for ritual, and especially for dancing, commonly done on special festival or feast days. Circle dancing is one of the oldest forms of dancing and innately human, providing contact between the dancers and capable of involving all, or specific members of the community. Multiple-stone Circles such as Cappanaboule may have provided a platform for performances inside the circle, while dances at Five-stone Circles may have been outside the circle.

The second main theory revolves around the circle as a burial place. Once again, there is an insufficient amount of excavation reports to rely on, but Fahy found cremated human bone at all three of his excavations, Drombeg, Bohonagh and Reanascreena, indicating that the primary purpose of the circle may have been sepulchral. Archaeologist also point to the strong association of stone circles with boulder burials. However, once again, there is actually little evidence of human remains at those boulder burials that have been excavated. Waddell, in fact prefers the more descriptive and less functional term boulder monuments for this reason.

The question arises whether, if individuals were buried in any monument, it conclusively proves that that the primary purpose was to receive and honour the body of this person, who may have been a high-status member of the community. In support of this contention, we can look at the pyramids – enormous monuments erected through the commandeering of community-wide resources as tombs for pharaohs. While it may have had other, secondary purposes, the main reason for building a pyramid was to memorialise the dead and to affirm a belief in the afterlife.

Megalithic monuments in Ireland, even if they displayed certain orientations, such as Newgrange to the winter solstice, or wedge tombs to the autumn or winter setting sun, are regarded primarily as burial places. Should the primary purpose of stone circles, then, also be considered to be sepulchral. Or should we perhaps, think in terms of churches and cathedrals with crypts underneath them? To be buried in a crypt under a church (as opposed to outside in the graveyard) was the prerogative only of those who had the power and prestige to exercise that privilege: however it does not mean that the only or even main purpose of the church was as a memorial to those buried within its walls or under its floor. Where the remains were those of the founding saint the claim is stronger and the church’s role as a centre for pilgrimage may take precedence over its other liturgical functions. Likewise, although churches are traditionally oriented east-west, it does not follow that their primary purpose is to celebrate the sunrise.

Whatever the ultimate answer, there is no doubt that for us in the present day, a visit to a stone circle is a very special experience. First of all, in West Cork, it is always an adventure going off the beaten track and in spectacular countryside. When you’re lucky, the circle will be right beside the road, or on the other side of a field of wildflowers, like the one at Drombeg. This rarely happens– normally I have to drive up a mountain (to get to Knocknacoille for example), trudge through a bog, beat back thick thorny bushes, get lost on tiny roads with nowhere to turn around and develop a hatred for Google Maps.

Finally, and despite which I have written here, I will to be the first to admit that upon visiting a stone circle has a profound experience. By this I mean that it connects you somehow to all that went before and it raises all the deep existential questions about why our ancestors expended their precious resources to build these complex and labour intensive structures.

Arís eile, go raibh maith agat as do chuid ama ag léamh seo,

Seán Ó Tuama.


Fleadh Cheoil

Fleadh Cheoil (festival of music) is an Irish music festival run by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (CCÉ), a non-profit organisation.

The first national festival of Irish traditional music was held in Mullingar in 1951. At its inaugural meeting in September 1951, CCÉ came up with the title of Fleadh Cheoil, aiming to make this a great national festival of traditional music. The fleadh has been held in many different venues.

From its beginning, the goal of the Fleadh Cheoil was to establish standards in Irish traditional music through competition. The fleadh developed as a mainly competitive event, but it also included many concerts, céilíthe, parades, and sessions.

It is held in different locations throughout Ireland each year. The largest fleadh to date was 2018 in Drogheda, an event which attracted 500,000 people. See attached YouTube link.

The 2008 festival was held in Tullamore, County Offaly and attracted an estimated crowd of 250,000 people making it Ireland’s largest festival, music or otherwise. The Fleadh came to Sligo in 2014 and 2015.

The 2016 festival was held in Ennis, County Clare and attracted an estimated crowd of 400,000 people over the nine days from 14 to 22 August. 

Sadly, Mullingar will lose out on a second year of hosting Fleadh due to the pandemic. Fleadh Cheoil 2021 will be replaced by a virtual event titled ‘FleadhFest’.

FleadhFest will provide each province, county and Comhaltas branch worldwide with the opportunity of presenting performances and archive footage online. The format will be a two-hour pre-recorded event that will be broadcast on social media.

For more visit 

The Paleo Diet

Obesity is a modern day problem that leads to diabetes, high blood pressure, fatty liver disease and kidney problems. Eating certain additives have been linked to cancer. One way or another it will kill you.

How do I know? Because I have had to change my own lifestyle because I am prediabetic, with stage 1 hypertension and non alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Now I didn’t particularly think I had an unhealthy diet. I had cereal in the morning, bread and soup at lunch, and an evening meal with potatoes, rice or pasta, vegetables and meat or fish. I would also have a dessert afterwards.

I have 3 issues in my diet. Too many carbohydrates and too much processed food (tinned soup, prepared Kiev, etc.). I discovered that a cooked breakfast (without toast) is actually better for you than a wheat cereal, although oat based cereal is a lot better for you.

I was recommended a book by my family doctor called The Obesity Code by Jason Fung. Now I’m not a dietician, but he certainly has helped me start on the road to recovery. He recommends fasting days. That doesn’t mean you don’t eat anything, but you have a drink in the morning, clear broth for lunch and a light salad in the evening. The following day you might have porridge, bacon and eggs, and a delicious meal with vegetables.

However, the main thing about the diet is that it cuts out carbohydrates. Our ancestors will have eaten wheat, but most bread is made from refined, processed flour these days and is basically bad for your body to break down. Rice, potatoes and pasta also are high in carbohydrates. It is these, not natural fats that put on weight.

The paleo diet

Berries and nuts are also a great way to start the day. A paleo diet is basically going back to the foodstuffs available in ancient times. Also, use herbs like sage and time for seasoning. There were fasting days in ancient Ireland, with weekdays set aside for fasting: –

• Dé Luain – from Latin dies Lunae – Moon Day
• Dé Máirt – from Latin dies Martis – Mars Day
• Dé Céadaoin – referring to Gaelic fasting: from céad (first) aoin (fast) i.e., the first
fast of the week
• Déardaoin – the day between the fasts
• Dé hAoine – the day of the fast
• Dé Sathairn – from Latin dies Saturni – Saturn Day
• Dé Domhnaigh – from Latin dies Dominicus (an alternative Latin name for
Sunday, dies Solis being more common)

So, as you can see fasting was an important part of Irish Celts and probably all Celts. Considering the scarcity of food too, it was probably a necessity.

I’m not dictating how people eat, but I am not ready to shorten my life, so am serious about losing weight. So I am go on a low carbohydrate diet of proteins, vegetables and fruits, berries and nuts. But cutting out processed food, bread, pasta and rice. I’m hoping that it turns my health around.

May you live a long, healthy and happy life.

Filtiarn x

The Celtic Sea

The Celtic Sea is the area of the Atlantic Ocean off the south coast of Ireland bounded to the east by Saint George’s Channel. Other borders are the Bristol Channel, the English Channel, and the Bay of Biscay. It is adjacent to parts of Wales, Cornwall, Devon, and Brittany. The southern and western limits are decided by the continental shelf, which drops away sharply into the Atlantic Ocean. The Isles of Scilly are a group of small islands in the sea, in an area renowned for more shipwrecks than any other part of the world.

The Celtic Sea receives its name from the Celtic heritage of the adjacent lands. The name was first proposed by E. W. L. Holt at a 1921 meeting in Dublin of fisheries experts from Great Britain, France, and Ireland to recognise that it wasn’t just a British sea. Prior to that the northern portion of this sea was considered as part of Saint George’s Channel and the southern portion as a part of the “Western Approaches” to Great Britain.

The need for a common name arose because of the common marine biology, geology and hydrology of the area. It was adopted in France, many years before gaining common acceptance in Britain. Although marine biologists, oceanographers and petroleum companies used the name, it did not appear on a British Atlas until 1963. It is still commonly
known as the “Western approaches”, but now you know it as The Celtic Sea.

Please share and educate. Let’s celebrate the fact that this sea, is named to celebrate our heritage.

Oidhe Chlann Lir

The Children of Lir

The settings of the story takes place during the battle between the Tuatha Dé and the Fir Bolg- two supernatural races in the Irish mythology. Tuatha Dé won the battle and Lir was expecting to receive the title of Ard Rí (High king). He believed that he deserved to be the one made the Ard Rí. However, the kingship was granted to Bodhbh Dearg, instead. Because of this, Lir became enraged and he stormed out of the gathering place, leaving a storm of rage behind. Lir’s action had driven some of the Rí’s guards to decide to go after him and burn down his place for not showing submission or compliance. But, the Rí turned down their vengeful suggestion, believing that his mission was the protection of his people and not the other way round.

As a means of peaceful resolution, an Rí Bodhbh Dearg offered his daughter to Lir for marriage in order to put down the fire that he set inside of himself. So, Lir married Bodhbh’s eldest daughter, Aiobh (commonly known as Eva in modern versions of the story). Aiobh and Lir had a cheerful life where she bore four beautiful children. They were one girl, Fionnuala, a boy, Aodh, and two twin boys, Conn and Fiachra. People had commonly known them as the children of Lir and they all made a big happy family. But, their happiness started fading away when Eva got sick. She remained sick for a few days before it was time for her to pass away and leave the world behind. Aiobh’s departure left her husband and children in a terrible mess. She was the sunshine of their lives. However, an Rí Bodhbh seemed to always care about the happiness of Lir. Thus, he sent his other daughter, Aoife, to marry Lir. Wanting to give the children a caring mother to look after them, Lir agreed and he married her right away.

Aoife was the caring mother they longed to. She was a loving and caring wife as well. But, her pure love transformed into jealousy as soon as she realised Lir’s remarkable affection for his children. She was jealous of the fact that Lir dedicated most of his time for playing with his own children. For that reason, children of Lir became her enemies instead of her stepchildren. She started planning for executing them out so that she could have Lir’s time all to herself. She thought about killing them with the help of the servants. But to her surprise, they refused to do so. She wasn’t courageous enough to murfer them outright all by herself, for she believed that their spirits would haunt her forever. Instead, she used her magic.

On one fine day, she took the children of Lir for a swim in Lough Derravaragh while Lir was away hunting. The sky was brightly shining and the children were having a great time. Aoife watched them while they playfully swimming in the lake, unaware of their awaited fate. While they were getting out of the water, Aoife spelt her cast and turned all four of them to beautiful swans. The children of Lir were no longer children, not human beings at all; they were swans. Her spell kept them swans for 900 years where they had to spend every 300 years in a different region. The first three hundred years, they lived on Lough Derravaragh (in northern modern day West Meath). The second three hundred years, they lived on the Sea of Moyle ( the Northern Channel), and the last ones were on the Isle of Inish Glora  ( Bay of Erris, Co. Mayo). The children of Lir transformed into swans, but their voices remained. They could sing and talk and that was how their father knew the truth. Lir, in his grief and vengeance,  turned Aoife into an air spirit (in some accounts a crow) in which she was disappeared for good.

(Most of the old legends and sagas face the misfortune of undergoing slight changes through the passage of time. The story of the Children of Lir is no exception. The repetition of the story hasn’t included changes throughout the years; however, the real ending of the story remained mysterious. Several versions had come to appearance, making the possibilities of knowing the ending of the original story very remote. The only similarity that all the versions shared was the fact that the ending was not a ‘happily ever after’ one.)

Ending I

The First Ringing Bell in Ireland and Naofa Caemhoch:

In this version, Aoife stated that the spell would break once the first Christian bell rings in Ireland. That was the version where Lir found his children and spent once they changed into swans. He remained a good and caring father to his swan children. For the first three hundred years of their spell, Lir lived by the Lough Derravaragh with them. He enjoyed spending time with his children, listening to their enchanted voices while they sang. They had long happy years until it was time for them to leave, according to the rules of the spell. It was time for them to say goodbye to their father and leave to the Sea of Moyle. During their time in the Sea of Moyle, they had the toughest time of their lives. However, they survived the fierce storms and endured the wounds they got. Sadly, they separated for more than a few times, but they reunited eventually. It was time for them to travel once again. Together, they went accordingly to their destiny and headed to the Isle of Inish Glora. It was the last destination that they were entitled to before their spell broke. By that time, their father had passed away in his mourning and the fortified home in which the children of Lir lived was nothing but ruins. One day, they heard the first Christian bells coming from the first church in Ireland. That was when they knew that the end of their spell was so soon. The children of Lir or, more precisely, the swans followed the sound of the bell until they reached a house that was by the lake. That house belonged to a holy man called Caemhoch. He took care of the four swans during the last days of their spell. But again, things went against their wishes. An armoured man appeared at the house, claiming that he was the Rí of Connacht. He claimed that he came all the way to that place after hearing about the swans that had beautiful voices. He wanted to take them away and threatened to burn down the whole monastery grounds had they refused to follow his decree. As soon as he was stretching his hands out to grab them, the bells rang for the second time. But this time, it was a call for the spell to break. The swans were about to return back to their original forms as children, the beautiful children of Lir. The Rí of Connacht panicked and started fleeing out of the building. The ending that supposedly had to be happy turned out to be a tragedy when the children started ageing rapidly. They were ancient, over 900 hundred years old. Caemhoch the holy man was there all along. He realised that the supposed-to-be children were only a few days, or even hours, away from death. As a follower of Patrick, he baptised them, so they would die faithful believers of the newly arrived god of the East. In some variations of this, Caemhoch ( St. Caomhog) is replaced by different saints. Patrick and Mochua are other popular candidates.

Ending II

The Provincal marriage of a King and Queen:

In this version, when Aoife cast her spell on the children, Fionnuala asked her when would they be children again. At the instant, Aoife’s answer included that they shall never return back to their human form unless a king from the north marries a queen from the south. She also stated that this should happen after they hear the first bell in Ireland. Throughout the plot of the story, those details did not change. But, in that version, another king showed up to take the swans and not the king of Connacht. This time, it was the King of Leinster, Lairgean. This king married Deoch, the daughter of the King of Munster. Deoch heard about the beautiful singing swans that lived on a lough by a monastery. She wanted them for herself, so she asked her husband to attack the place and take the swans away.  Lairgean, did what his wife asked for. He seized the swans and bound them together in chains made of silver. He travelled back to his wife with them. By that time, the silver chains that attached the four swans together broke open. They were free of any chains and changed back to human beings. But again, they were ancient, so they died.

There are other variations and are told and told again much to the joy and sorrow of both young and old. It is a tale that captivates the imagination the world over. No one really knows the true ending of the famous tale from the Mythological Cycle but one theme that connects all is that the tale ends in tragedy. But in saying that, one can draw lessons from the tale of the Children of Lir or “Oidhe Chlann Lir” (the Fate of the Children of Lir). It belongs to a Trio of Tragedy in Irish mythology called “Trí Truagha na Scealaidheachta” (The three Sorrows of Storytelling) along with “The Exile of the Children of Uisneach” and the “Fate of the Children of Tuireann”.

Swans are amazing creatures and are protected by both Irish and English Law. They had always been part of the Irish mythology. In fact, the story of the Children of Lir was not the only tale where swans take a significant part of the story; there are a lot of other tales in Irish mythology such as the “Dream of Wandering Aoenghus”, “the Wooing of Etain”, the tragic saga of the ‘Norse wife to be’ of Cú Chulainn and others. Swans have several types, including white, mute, black, and more. The world sees the swan archetype as a symbol of love and purity. Obviously, the reason behind this symbolisation is because these creatures are wired to mate for life. No wonder the Irish mythology used them to describe those who possess clarity and fidelity within their heart. Mythologies have always depicted swans as shapeshifters. They drove people to believe that swans can shift to the form of human beings by their will and the other way around. Such misconception has driven people in Ireland, in particular, and the world, in general, to treat swans like they treat humans. The Irish word for swan is Eala. Swans are also some of the rare animals that can live up to twenty years in the wild, so imagine how long they can live in captivities. According to the Irish mythology, swans were capable to travel between the real world and other worlds that existed in different realms.  it is easy to guess why the children of Lir were changed into swans for they represent transparency, innocence, and purity. The same applies to the four poor children. They were kids when their life turned upside down. As with the naivety, they went with their stepmother for spending a fun day by the lake, unaware of what was waiting for them in the future. The world is a cruel place and sometimes you have to grow up fast.

Go raibh maith agat as do chuid ama ag léamh seo,

Seán Ó Tuama.