Saturday, 18 March 2017

A poem in honour of Sheelah, a rediscovered saint, wife of St. Patrick and likely an ancient goddess

In honour of Sheelah, whose special day is today, I've written this poem. The photo is of Newgrange at sunset a couple of weeks ago. It is my 200th upload to the Newgrange gallery.

Síd in Broga (Newgrange - the 'Big Sidhe!') under a red sky at sunset.


What is the Síd/Sidhe/Shee?
Shall we go and shee?
No, you cannot see the shee.
The shee is for Sheelah.
Who is Sheelah?
She is the woman who cannot be forgotten.
She is the great mystery.

So what is the shee?
Is it a fairy palace?
The shee is more than that.
The shee is the great mystery.
It is the untranslatable concept.
Yes. You call Síd in Broga by this strange name, The New Grange
And the gods shudder.
Síd in Broga will not reveal
her mysteries in a strange tongue.
There are no words
that will introduce you to her.
Sheelah of the great sidhe.
She is the unknowable,
except through symbol.
The symbol of the sidhe.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Saint Patrick was married - his wife's name was Sheelah and St. Sheelah's Day was celebrated on March 18th

The revelation in today's Irish Times that Saint Patrick had a wife whose name was Sheelah is tremendously exciting for a number of reasons. Shane Lehane, a folklorist from University College Cork (UCC) has discovered pre-Famine references to a widespread belief that Saint Patrick had a wife and that St. Sheelah's Day was celebrated the day after St. Patrick's Day, on March 18th.

Lehane is quoted in the Irish Times as saying "Pre-Famine, if you go back to the newspapers in Ireland they talk not just about Patrick's Day but also Sheelah's Day. I came across numerous references that Sheelah was thought to be Patrick's wife. The fact that we have Patrick and Sheelah should be no surprise. Because that duality, that union of male and female together, is one of the strongest images that we have in our mythology."

A Sheela-na-Gig, female deity with exposed/exaggerated genitalia, carved into a standing stone at Hill of Tara.
Although the devastating effects of the Great Famine on Irish culture can never be truly quantified, we have a significant example here of a folk belief that seems to have died out in Ireland with the famine. References to Sheelah's Day were found in the Freeman's Journal of 1785, 1811 and 1841, but the feast day has been "largely forgotten about in Ireland" according to Lehane.

Some time ago, I wrote about the story of the "twining branches" (Deirdre and the Children of Uisneach) and how memories of this creation myth were brought by Irish emigrants to Nova Scotia. The story of Sheelah seems to follow a similar fate. Before the Famine, which happened in the late 1840s, the celebration of St. Patrick's Day continued into March 18th for his wife's special day, St. Sheelah's Day (and of course in typical Irish fashion copious amounts of alcohol were consumed.) However, after the Famine the tradition seems to have died out here, but Irish migrants who ended up in such places as Newfoundland, Canada and Australia brought the tradition with them.
Lehane says perhaps the most enduring legacy of Sheelah is the so-called “Sheelah’s Brush.” This is the name given by Newfoundlanders and Atlantic Canadians to a winter snowstorm that falls after St Patrick’s Day.
Sometimes referred to as “Sheelah’s Broom” - or if the snowstorm is mild with only a bare covering of snow, “Sheila’s Blush” - it is still referred to respectfully by meteorologists and fisherman in that part of the world.
Undoubtedly some media commentators will pick up on the obvious relevance of Patrick's wife to the whole discourse about Catholic celibacy - and the perceived connection between that peculiar diktat of the traditional church here and the many sex and paedophile scandals that have decimated the Catholic faith here in Ireland.

A somewhat obscure and tenuous but perhaps very important connection is made by Lehane between Saint Sheelah and the "hugely interesting archaeological manifestation that also bears her name" - the Sheelah-na-Gig.
"Sheela-na-Gig is a basic medieval carving of a woman exposing her genitalia. These images are often considered to be quite grotesque. They are quite shocking when you see them first.  Now we look at them very much as examples of old women showing young women how to give birth. They are vernacular folk deities associated with pregnancy and birth." (Source)
And Lehane believes that the tradition of Sheelah could and should be revived and embraced in Ireland.
""Sheelah represented, for women in particular, a go-to person because she represented the female. The Sheela-na-Gig is a really important part of medieval folk tradition. She is an important folk deity. The figure of Sheelah was perhaps much bigger than suggested by the scant mentions we find in the old newspaper accounts. She would have been massively important. She represents a folk personification, allied to, what can be termed, the female cosmic agency, and being such, would have played a major role in people’s everyday lives. It is a pity that the day has died out. But maybe we will revive it."

A revival and reactivation of Sheelah

My own view is that the revival of the tradition of a female deity equal in status to Patrick might very well be important to the spiritual well-being of a country which has been very heavily influenced by patriarchal religious zeal for centuries, an influence that is seen by some as a contributory factor in many of Ireland's ills. The symbolic importance of Patrick (who was, ironically, a Romano-British immigrant to these shores) cannot be understated in the milieu of a nation defined for so long by its trenchant support for the male-dominated Roman church.

A statue of Saint Patrick looks out across Gabhra Valley from Hill of Tara.
Now we have the chance to reconcile the tradition of an almost-forgotten woman into the complex folk fabric of a fractured cultural history - a history that, it must be borne in mind, was vibrantly aware of the necessity for accessibility to the feminine deity in most of its past eras. The patriarchal influence of Rome did not decimate the ancient divine feminine - rather it forced upon us some sort of collective obeisance to the supremacy of the omniscient and jealous male god of the old testament, forcing the old indigenous female deities such as the Cailleach and Sheelah into the shadows.

The female wasn't altogether banished, but rather was revealed in a guise that was somewhat familiar, with reflections of the ancient goddesses of old but very much dressed in the raiment of a woman whose power was contingent upon the emanations of the Catholic patriarchy. Thus, Brigid the prehistoric goddess survived as the saint who became known to us as Muire na nGael, the Mary of the Irish, and indeed the Catholic Church had allowed Mary to become a co-redemptrix with Jesus. The presence of this ancient goddess, albeit in diluted form, in the church of Rome was probably one of the factors that had helped the church to become established in the first place.

Further to the possible revival of the tradition of Sheelah here is the possibility that incorporating her into our national celebrations could become a hugely significant act. We have here the very vivid and exciting possibility of activating or reactivating a feminine energy that is, as CG Jung might have suggested, of supreme importance for the ultimate rehabilitation of the modern human soul through the reconciliation of the masculine and feminine elements in life.

Can one yet countenance the notion of a Saint Patrick's Day AND a Saint Sheelah's Day? A national holiday for Ireland, spanning two days, recognising the male and the female, and allowing both to hold equal court in the hearts and minds of Irish people and their descendants and friends all around the world?

One of the ironies of the story about the disappearance of Sheelah from popular folk memory is that she hasn't vanished at all. The Sheelah tradition simply moved abroad with the forced migrations resulting from mass starvation. Many of those who stayed behind perished. Sheelah's story might have perished with the Famine also (even if Patrick's story only became more ubiquitous) except for the fact that her flame was kept burning abroad, in distant lands, by those who left these shores. The supreme irony is that Patrick - who was married - brought the tradition of Jesus to these shores, from a distant land, and that even though that tradition espoused celibacy for its all-male clergy,  Patrick himself had a wife.

It could only happen in Ireland.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The Celtic Imagination and A.E.'s 'Kingdom of Light'

The following is taken from a chapter of Candle of Vision by A.E. (George William Russell), published in 1918. The chapter is called The Celtic Imagination.

To one who lay on the mound which is called the Brugh on the Boyne a form like that the bards speak of Angus appeared, and it cried: "Can you not see me? Can you not hear me? I come from the Land of Immortal Youth."

Angus appeared at Brugh on the Boyne (Newgrange). He came from the Land of Immortal Youth.

And I, though I could not be certain of speech, found the wild words flying up to my brain interpreting my own vision of the god, and it seemed to be crying to me: "Oh, see our sun is dawning for us, ever dawning, with ever youthful and triumphant voices. Your sun is but a smoky shadow: ours the ruddy and eternal glow. Your fire is far away, but ours within our hearts is ever living and through wood and wave is ever dawning on adoring eyes. My birds from purple fiery plumage shed the light of lights. Their kisses wake the love that never dies and leads through death to me. My love shall be in thine when love is sacrifice."

.... Some interpret the spirit with sadness and some with joy, but in this country I think it will always cry out its wild and wondrous story of immortal youth and will lead its votaries to a heaven where they will be drunken with beauty. What is all this? Poetry or fantasy? It has visited thousands in all ages and lands, and from such visions have come all that is most beautiful in poetry or art. These forms inhabited Shelley's luminous cloudland, and they were the models in the Pheidian heart, and they have been with artist, poet and musician since the beginning of the world, and they will be with us until we grow into their beauty and learn from them how to fulful human destiny, accomplishing our labour which is to make this world into the likeness of the Kingdom of Light.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Sadness and the monuments: remembering the ancestors and embracing this one life

(Or 'Ramblings and Reflections upon sadness', part II)

Another aspect of sadness in relation to the megalithic monuments is the feeling of melancholy  engendered by thinking about the ancestors, and the lives that they endured, and the sometimes harsh existences they lived through. And to what end? So that we can exist on this day? So that we too can endure the fullness of life, and all its agonies and all its ecstasies?

I think part of the sadness relates to the temporal, and temporary, nature of our physical existences. As I wrote in Newgrange: Monument to Immortality, "we are here only for a short time". We look at the magnificent megalithic edifices, those wondrous temples of stone from the ancient world, and we stand in admiration of a society of people who created something so powerfully enduring, so permanent, in an ever-changing and ever-vanishing world. And that sums up a powerful part of the human experience on this earth. We are born. We live a short life. We die. And what do we leave behind, as a memorial of our brief existence here?

The builders of Newgrange created something powerfully enduring in an ever-changing world.

In Land of the Ever-Living Ones, I addressed the issue of ancestors in the beautiful dialogue between the sean-draoi, the wise old man, and the young boy. The sean-draoi tries to impress upon the boy that we must never forget the ancestors, because we are them and they are us.

"We are the ancestors," the sean-draoi declares, to the bemusement of the young boy.
"We are on a winding trail, an ancestral pathway that is much longer than any road we will ever walk in this world. It winds out of the furthest reaches of the past, and leads onwards to some unknown destiny, far off in the distant future. If we were to forget from whence this path emerged, from our own mothers and fathers of the long forgotten yesteryear, if we were to forsake our own journey along this path, would we not also be denying the magical future, the unknowable destiny that awaits our myriad descendants yet to come? Are there not a thousand, nay a million, even more, of our offspring who will look back along the path to remember us, their distant progenitors, those who continued the pilgrimage on this great path that leads back to the very dawn of time itself?"

"We are the meeting point of ancestors and descendants. The track leading from the past, and the road heading off into the future, are joined, here and now, with us. We are what binds ancestors to progeny, forebears to descendants, yesterday to tomorrow. We have a very special place in the life of the world, and we must recognise and honour it, holding fast to the onerous pathway beneath our feet, and all the time remembering ancestors who have brought us to this point. Some day we will be the ancestor, lifted off this worldly trackway and brought aloft towards the heavenly realm, and although our own feet will no longer tread the sacred pathway of life, those of our children and our children’s children will, we hope, find their way on the never-ending trail from ancestor to descendant."

It's so beautiful. And yet to tragic. And poignant. None of us will endure the harsh contract that life imposes upon us. "We are locked into a binding and irreversible contract with life, a treaty that insists upon death for every last one of us, with no exception".(1) The 17th century poet James Shirley, in his poem Death the Leveller, wrote:
The glories of our blood and state
     Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armour against Fate;
     Death lays his icy hand on kings:
               Sceptre and Crown
               Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.
The following short film that I made a few years ago tries to capture some sense of the sadness relating to the passing of the ancestors, and of the temporal and fleeting nature of our earthly existence:(2) 


Faced with this awful reality, that we must all tumble down into the dusty grave of death, what are we to do?  We have but one choice. To live life, and all the consequences that that choice entails. Joseph Campbell has some good advice for it:

“All life stinks and you must embrace that with compassion.”  (3)

“Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.”

“You can't say life is useless because it ends in the grave.”

Of course, all the above is predicated on the belief that "this is it", that this life is the only life, and that when we die, we are going into a grave, and we will be extinguished forever.

If there is one thing that can be said about the ancient mound of Síd in Broga/Newgrange (and there are many great things that can be said about it), it's that the people who built it were keenly participating in life and its mysteries, at the same time, preparing themselves for what might lie beyond. In Newgrange: Monument to Immortality, I postulated that the design of the monument is in tune with aspects of the near death experience (NDE), with its dark tunnel leading towards the light. We might call them primitive, but our distant forebears were pragmatic about life and death. They sensed that there was something beyond this life, and aspects of this belief survived into later times in the form of stories about wondrous otherworlds and places or realms where people lived on in happiness.
"All the greatest spiritual traditions of the world...have told us clearly that death is not the end. They have all handed down a vision of some sort of life to come, which infuses this life that we are leading now with sacred meaning. But despite their teachings, modern society is largely a spiritual desert where the majority imagine that this life is all that there is... Believing fundamentally that this life is the only one, modern people have developed no long-term vision. So there is nothing to restrain them from plundering the planet for their own immediate ends and from living in a selfish way that could prove fatal for the future."(4)
And so it becomes clear that the sadness that I sometimes feel at the monuments is not always one that's inherently part of those monuments, but rather a sadness that I bring from my modern world and its attendant psychosis, and its bulldozers. We see fit to destroy in order to create. We deem it normal to rip the earth asunder, because in our own shortsightedness, we think that this is all there is, so we'd better make the most of it, even if that means depriving our descendants of a hospitable planet.

Despite my great love for the monuments, there are yet some hard questions that must be asked. To shy away from them would be a disingenuous act. An honest appraisal of our relation to the mounds, and the landscape, and the past, and the ancestors, requires us to remove the mask and to see ourselves as both ancestors and descendants. What would we have done, in the same situation, in the past? And what are we likely to do in the future? Does anything really change? Do we change at all?

We might ask Newgrange if it should ever have been built at all.

At Newgrange, "we wish that we could scale the fence, walk right up to its gleaming facade, and ask the very monument to speak to us of matters cosmic, of creation and the journey of life and, ultimately, why we are here and where we are going".(5)

Could I even dare to suggest that, at Newgrange, I might even ask it, "should you have been built at all?"

Was its construction not the beginning of this sometimes awful phase of humanity, the one in which we rip the earth up to build our castles of mortal life on foundations of sand? Has the result of this "civilisation" of ours not been the gradual removal and detachment of humans from the natural world? And has that divorce of human from wilderness not been one of the greatest crimes against the planet? (I'm not blaming the construction of Newgrange for the state of the planet, but merely opening up a line of enquiry here.)
"Modern industrial society is a fanatical religion. We are demolishing, poisoning, destroying all life-systems on the planet. We are signing IOUs our children will not be able to pay ... We are acting as if we were the last generation on the planet. Without a radical change in heart, in mind, in vision, the earth will end up like Venus, charred and dead."(6)

When we left the forests, and the antediluvian hunter-gatherer life of the Mesolithic, were we not beginning on this frightful march towards oblivion? Could we yet contemplate the notion that there was someone who stood watching the construction of Síd in Broga all those 50 centuries ago, who observed with bewilderment the emergence of a new phase of human madness?

To be continued...

References and footnotes:
(1) Murphy, Anthony (2012), Newgrange: Monument to Immortality, p.134.
(2) I should add that several times in this movie I mention the "men" who built Dowth. This is not an intentionally sexist statement, but rather a repetition of the myth about Dowth, which says that the king commanded "all the men of Erin" to build it.
(3) Campbell, Joseph, Pathways to Bliss.
(4) Sogyal Rinpoche (2002), The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, p.8.
(5) Murphy (2012), p.10.
(6) Former Brazilian Minister for the Environment, Jose Antonio Lutzenberger (quoted in the Sunday Times, London, March 1991)

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The sadness around the monuments and how nothing is created unless something else is destroyed

Sadness. Now there's a word. A word full of power, and so appropriate for the story of the monuments, especially those that are damaged or decaying in the landscape. I've been dealing with this sadness for a long number of years. Whenever I am alone at one of the many ancient and sacred places of this land, there's always a sense of sadness. Not that I'm always sad. And not that it's always a dominant emotion. Sometimes, (quite often, in fact) I'm ecstatic. These places are capable of enrapturing me and bringing me to a state of numinous awe. But the sadness is always there, somewhere. It never fully goes away.

The remains of Cairn U at Loughcrew, a "lost world" which is over 5,000 years old, with storm cloud.

I used to think it was just a sadness for a lost world. A lost tribe of humanity, of my ancestors. A people who lived and died in the blinking of an eye, and whose presence here would go totally unrecognised were it not for the presence across the landscape of so many of their ancient monuments and sacred structures.

But then I remember when I was younger, and I'd see a bulldozer at work, ripping up the earth and making a mess of it. And I was sad then too.

I was sad when the diggers came and took down all the trees that used to grow "down the back", a wild field behind the house where I grew up, a place full of briars and old ruins, the decrepit remnants of an old and forgotten urban world - a Drogheda on the Boyne that has been and gone. There, in among the thorns, was "the cave", an ancient wine or food cellar, its old ceiling inlaid with a decoration of cockle shells, set into a sandy cement that formed a rough curving, arched ceiling. Like the candlelit Newgrange of the old days, before the excavations, "the cave" was both fascinating and terrifying. It had partly collapsed at some stage, leaving a hole that we used to enter in through. While in there, in the darkness, we did not know if the whole thing was going to collapse in on top of us. Of course, that didn't stop us from going in!

And one day, the bulldozers arrived and took it all away. And I was immensely sad. I have no photographs of it. All that's left of it is what I remember, and even that's not much.

I was sad the day our apple tree was cut down. And I was said when, years after my siblings and I each planted a tree at the end of the garden, mine had been choked by the growth of many others, and withered away and died.

The house I grew up in (left) and the view towards Laurence Gate. Photo: Google Maps.

I was also confused. When I was young, in my early teens, Drogheda was a run-down place. A decaying old town, crumbling to bits. And I wanted it to be renewed, and rebuilt. And I wanted it to be bigger. And I wanted it to have the biggest port in Ireland, and the busiest railway, and the best shopping centres, and I wanted it to have a big population. That would make it important. That would make people sit up and notice my old town.

And when some of that did happen, in those crazy Celtic Tiger years, I was sadder than ever. More of the green fields were ripped up. In their place was built concrete and asphalt and steel and glass and brick and slate. The land that had been green forever was maimed and scarred. And I was sad.

I never realised that within me was this environmental fundamentalist, bursting to get out. I hated to see new roads being built. I hated to see the bulldozers, ripping up the sods. I hated to see concrete being poured into a green field. It made me very, very sad. And even when old, decaying, derelict and sometimes dangerous, roofless old houses or buildings were knocked, to make way for new ones, I would be sad. How do you explain that? People cannot live in derelict, roofless houses. And yet I was sad, because another part of the old world was being torn up. Of course I would rarely vocalise this urge to preserve everything, perhaps because I feared ridicule because of the apparent futility of my position.

It got to the stage that I wanted to keep the old bits, and I didn't want the new bits. A generation of Drogheda people remember a part of the town - the area of James' Street, Bull Ring, and John Street, that was torn out by the metal monsters to make way for a new dual carriageway that carved its ugly pathway through one of the most ancient parts of the town.

Even today, the traffic winds its way under the ancient archway of Laurence Gate, an ancient barbican, and the most impressive remnant of the walls of the town that were first erected in the 13th century. I grew up on the street that leads eastwards away from the great barbican. I passed by it, and under it, pretty much every day of my life for 20 years. And sometimes a lorry goes under that arch and clips off it, scraping it, and occasionally knocking a chunk out. There's a campaign to close it to traffic. That campaign has been running for at least three decades. The traffic still flows underneath, and the ever-present danger of a catastrophe is there. I wonder if I will wake up some day to the news that the thing has collapsed in a ruin because it has been struck by the truck of ignorance. Or maybe, to save ourselves from all that pain, we should just bulldoze it now?

Aerial view of Laurence Gate. Photo:

No wonder, then, that I make my escape from the post-Tiger concretised Drogheda, out into the Boyne Valley and beyond, to visit places that are away from this unfettered craziness that we call urban civilisation.

Even Newgrange was rebuilt. This is what it looked like in 1890 as depicted in George Coffey's book.

I'd go to Newgrange, and I'd be sad.
I'd drive to Monasterboice, and I'd be sad.
I'd visit the Hill of Slane, and I'd be sad.
I'd climb Loughcrew, and I'd be sad.

Why was I sad? I don't know if I can explain that in one blog post, but one of the reasons I was sad was probably because I realised that, in order to build something, something else must be destroyed. In the world view of a committed environmental fanatic, Newgrange would never have been built in the first place. 

Friday, 3 February 2017

An early morning trip to Loughcrew to observe whether the passage of Cairn U is aligned to Imbolc sunrise

In his 1983 book, The Stars and the Stones: Ancient Art and Astronomy in Ireland, Martin Brennan suggested that the passage of Cairn U, one of the smaller cairns on Slieve na Calliagh (known today as Carnbane East) at Loughcrew, was aligned on the November/February cross-quarter sunrises. One team of observers was situated in Cairn U on November 3rd 1980, which was five days before the correct date for Samhain cross-quarter on November 8th. Brennan implies, although falls short of explicitly stating, that Cairn U is aligned to the cross-quarter sunrises. Regrettably, no further observations were possible, due to weather (not altogether unsurprising due to the Irish climate!) until November 12th.(1)

The passage of Cairn U in the pre-dawn sky of February 3rd.
I was unaware of any photographic proof extent showing the sun aligning with the passage of Cairn U. Probably the best-known photographer of ancient megalithic sites and their alignments is Ken Williams of Shadows & Stone. In personal communications, Ken indicated to me that although he had been at Cairn U around the time of the cross-quarter sunrises, and although he had some photos, he hadn't been there on the exact day.

I set out from Drogheda at 6.25am with the intention of getting to Loughcrew (which can take an hour or so by road) and climbing up the hill to be ready for sunrise, which occurs at around 8.08am. With all the camera gear, the walk up the hill is quite laborious!

Cairn U looking down the passage from the end recess towards the southeastern sky.
With a red sky forming because of some cloud towards the southeast, it was clear that the sun would come up in the approximate direction to which the passage of Cairn U was pointing, with me positioned in the rear recess (photo above).

The sun was obscured by cloud for the first few minutes after the actual moment of sunrise. So I was unable to make direct observation at the moment the sun was rising above the horizon.  However, what was immediately clear was that the sun's position was still somewhat to the south of where it needed to be for a direct alignment. I observed the sun's azimuthal position from the light that it was projecting on to the clouds. Crouched in the rear recess, I couldn't see the sun or its light. However, on leaning slightly into the left-hand recess, I could see the sun coming out from behind the clouds in alignment with the passage. This is shown in the photo below.

The sun appears from behind cloud in alignment with the passage of Cairn U (sort-of!)
It was a great thrill to see the sun emerging though. I suspect it will be maybe a week or so before the sun is rising directly in alignment to the rear of the end recess - but unfortunately this is just a rough guess and there is no empirical method to my guesstimate! Perhaps a return visit next week might be in order.

A closer view of the sun's appearance from the interior of Cairn U.
The alignment today was such that I had to lean towards the left-hand recess of Cairn U in order to see the sun through the passageway. Perhaps the cairn focuses on a range of sunrises, maybe lasting a couple of weeks. This is something that requires further observation.

Megalithic art on the side stone of the left-hand recess of Cairn U.

One very, very interesting thing which I did not realise until this morning is the fact that today's sunrise, as viewed from Cairn U, was coming up over the Hill of Tara in the far distance. I imagine that is not a coincidence. Neighbouring Cairn T faces the Hill of Slane (looking across Hill of Lloyd) for equinox sunrise. Some of the cairns on Carnbane West point to cairns on Carnbane East. I put the telephoto lens on the camera to zoom in for the shot of Tara from Cairn U below:

About 15 minutes after sunrise. The Hill of Tara is located at the clump of trees towards the left.
It's such a great pleasure to be able to observe these astronomical occurrences at prehistoric buildings. There are numinous qualities to such moments because they transcend temporal boundaries and take us back, in a way that is both spiritually and empirically connective, to a remote era when our early ancestors observed heavenly phenomena. We can only conjecture at a possible greater purpose behind such alignments, and inevitably such conjecture takes us into realms that are both scientific and spiritual. On the one hand, early people were marking out the distinct patterns of the sky, making the ancient passage-tombs of Ireland primordial sundials (and doubtlessly moondials too). But their construction was such that they are a statement, tacit or explicit, of permanence, of longevity, in a world where the cycles of nature spun all too fast, especially where humans themselves are concerned. In the Neolithic, a great many people would not live to see even one completion of what was known in later Irish as the Naoidheachda, meaning "the nineteenth" - the 19-year cycle of the moon which today is known as the Metonic Cycle. The best a neolithic cairn builder could hope for was to see two complete Metonic Cycles. There were no elders in the New Stone Age, certainly not in the sense that we have elders today. Spiritual elders, perhaps, but not aged octogenarians or centenarians. At 40, you were a wise elder of the Neolithic community. At 50, you might have been seen as a freak of nature.

Furthermore, the ancient passage-cairns weave a connective web suggestive of awareness or consciousness of a greater cosmos, in which the sun and astral bodies are not so much seen as things that are "out there", totally beyond reach or influence, but rather things with which humans and the animate world have a distinct interaction. The light and heat of the sun can be seen to directly influence growth and seasonal patterns in nature, in addition to the many migratory patterns which would have been observable in the vicinity of the Boyne and Slieve na Calliagh tombs in the Neolithic. The moon's distinct and powerful effect on the tides is something that Alexander Thom remarked might have been known since time immemorial. 

The labour involved in creating cairns on hilltops must not be underestimated. Even a fit young person finds the climb to the summit of Slieve na Calliagh an exertive and physically demanding activity. Imagine repeating this exertion, with the additional burden of carrying a boulder, or several boulders. When one factors weather and the lack of any significant capable engineering or construction technology into the equation, the building of the cairns on the hills of Loughcrew seems a gargantuan task. These structures certainly deserve to be described as immense and monumental. As well as being prodigious feats of construction, they are monumental memorials to the humans who laboured hard to complete them. Their fastidious observations of discernible natural phenomena were ingeniously combined with an imaginative vista which opened towards realms that were supernatural, transcendental and otherworldy while retaining a physical connection to the telluric, sublunary sphere. At Loughcrew, this world and the next are seen to coalesce. Up there, on the hills of the hag, one gets a sense of detachment from the ordinary mortal dimension. Reaching out towards the sky above and the horizon beyond, the young humans who had just discovered agriculture and who were setting in place the foundations of civilisation, stepped out through the inter-dimensional threshold of the cairns into whatever realms of the spirit or imagination lay beyond.

There is yet at least one place on the earth where the ancient spirit dwells. When the fast-revolving clock of astronomical circuits ticks down on each of us at our own appointed time, we might aspire to those realms that were so anciently envisioned. Can we yet countenance the possibility that we will perhaps some day meet those who left their bones behind in the cairns of Loughcrew, out there, beyond that threshold?

(1) Brennan (1983).

Friday, 20 January 2017

"O Men of Dea, let a high mind and high courage rise within you now in the face of the battle"

One of the most famous battles of Irish myth is the Battle of the White Strand (Cath Finntrága/Battle of Ventry), in which Daire Donn, the "High King of the Great World", comes with a massed army assembled under various other kings with the purpose of invading Ireland and putting it under tribute. The story has its known origins in 15th century manuscripts, but there are references to it as early as the 12th century, and, as with many of our ancient stories, its true antiquity is unknown.

The massed armies have one major obstacle to their ambitions - the warrior hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill and his soliders, the Fianna, who have to defend Ireland against this onslaught. The lengthy text describes a protracted and multifaceted battle between the opposing forces. Folklorists suggest the story's motif - that of an interminable battle, serves as an example of "the everlasting fight".(1)

With the might of the massed forces of the world against them, it might seem that the outcome is predetermined. However, the Fianna make an extraordinary and heroic effort, somehow managing to stem the tide, despite repeated assaults on the shore of Finntraigh by various sorties and a seemingly endless onslaught from the numberless armies of the world.

Principal among the allies of the apparently massively outnumbered Fianna, although they are initially not involved in the battle and at the first petitioning appear uninterested in helping them, are the Tuatha Dé Danann.

Taistellach (whose name means wanderer or traveller) is asked by Conn Crither to go to the house of Bran, and ask him to gather all of the Tuatha Dé Danann to help the Fianna in their mighty battle. Bran goes to Dun Sesnain, where the Dé Dananns are holding a feast.(2)

"There is a greater thing than this for you to do," said Bran; and he tells them the whole story. Sesnan replies, saying that his son Dolb will go to Bodb Dearg in Sidhe Bean Finn above Magh Femen. But Bodb Dearg (who presumably is the chief of the Dé Dananns at this time) is initially reluctant.

"Young man," said Bodb Dearg, "we are in no way bound to help the men of Ireland out of that strait." "Do not say that," said Dolb, "for there is not a king's son or a prince or a leader of the Fianna of Ireland without having a wife or a mother or a foster-mother or a sweetheart of the Tuatha de Danann; and it is good help they have given you every time you were in want of it."

Ventry beach, the setting of Cath Finntrága (Battle of the White Strand). Photo: Christian Faulhammer.

"I give my word," said Bodb Dearg, "it is right to give a good answer to so good a messenger." With that he sent word to the Tuatha de Danaan in every place where they were, and they gathered to him. The army of the Tuatha Dé Danann makes its way to the White Strand, where they are given great welcome by Abarthach:

"O Men of Dea, let a high mind and high courage rise within you now in the face of the battle. For the doings of every one among you will be told till the end of the world; and let you fulfil now the big words you have spoken in the drinking-houses."

"Rise up, Glas, son of Dremen," said Bodb Dearg then, "and tell out to the King of the World that I am come to do battle."

(1) MacKillop, James (1998), Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford University Press, p.78.
(2) The retelling of this part of the story is either quoted or paraphrased from Lady Gregory's Gods and Fighting Men.