Friday, 13 January 2017

All the dead kings came to me - Francis Ledwidge and the legend of the sleeping horsemen of Rosnaree

There's a poem by Francis Ledwidge that I really love. Ledwidge was born at Slane and died in the Great War in 1917 at the age of 29. He loved the Boyne Valley, and shortly before he died he wrote of his great longing for home in a letter to fellow poet Katherine Tynan:

Francis Ledwidge
"I want to see again my wonderful mother, and to walk by the Boyne to Crewbawn and up through the brown and grey rocks of Crocknaharna. You have no idea of how I suffer with this longing for the swish of the reeds at Slane and the voices I used to hear coming over the low hills of Currabwee. Say a prayer that I may get this leave, and give us a condition my punctual return and sojourn till the war is over."

Unfortunately, he never came home. He and five others were killed when a shell exploded beside them at the Battle of Ypres.

The Boyne Canal and River at Staleen at dusk, looking upstream towards Rossnaree (on the left).

One of his poems, The Dead Kings, interests me greatly.

All the dead kings came to me
At Rosnaree, where I was dreaming,
A few stars glimmered through the morn,
And down the thorn the dews were streaming.

And every dead king had a story
Of ancient glory, sweetly told.
It was too early for the lark,
But the starry dark had tints of gold.

I listened to the sorrows three
Of that Eire passed into song.
A cock crowed near a hazel croft,
And up aloft dim larks winged strong.

And I, too, told the kings a story
Of later glory, her fourth sorrow:
There was a sound like moving shields
In high green fields and the lowland furrow.

And one said: ‘We who yet are kings
Have heard these things lamenting inly.’
Sweet music flowed from many a bill
And on the hill the morn stood queenly.

And one said: ‘Over is the singing,
And bell bough ringing, whence we come;
With heavy hearts we’ll tread the shadows,
In honey meadows birds are dumb.’

And one said: ‘Since the poets perished
And all they cherished in the way,
Their thoughts unsung, like petal showers
Inflame the hours of blue and grey.’

And one said: ‘A loud tramp of men
We’ll hear again at Rosnaree.’
A bomb burst near me where I lay.
I woke, ’twas day in Picardy.

Rosnaree (more often spelt Rossnaree these days) is on the southern bank of the Bend of the Boyne, overlooking the famous Fiacc's Pool, where Fionn Mac Cumhaill is said to have caught the Salmon of Knowledge. It is close to the river ford (áth) which would have been the main crossing point over the Boyne in ancient times. It is the place where the Boyne river swelled up so that Cormac Mac Art's body could not be brought to be buried at Brug na Bóinne.

I wonder, when reading some of the lines of Ledwidge's poem, whether it is perhaps infused with elements of a familiar legend from Rosnaree, one that might involve dead kings and the spectre of a loud tramp of men returning to haunt its woods. Being a native of the area, Ledwidge would have undoubtedly been familiar with some of its stories.

There is a legend about Rosnaree which tells of sleeping soldiers. It is a familiar story, being similar to that told about Garrett's Fort(1) at Hacklim, outside Ardee in Co. Louth.

Rossnaree and the River Boyne from Bing Maps.

The Rosnaree version of the story talks about a man who encountered a light at a fort near Rosnaree, close to the Boyne. He entered into the fort to find a lot of bags hanging on the walls and one of the bags had a sword stuck in it. This story was recounted to a collector from the National Folklore Collection in 1938 by Navan resident James Neill (aged 74), who in turn had heard the tale from an elderly gentleman called Johnny Murray:
He went over and he was lifting up the sword and according as he was lifting it there was a man's head lifted up from this big bag and a horse along with him, and he was riding the horse, and as according as he drew out the sword there were horsemen rising all around the wall. They were nearly clear out of where they were and he got afeerd and he let the sword drop back in, and as soon as he did he was told, 'Go home, you coward.'  I disremember the regiment he'd have lifted out of prison if he lifted up the sword altogether.(2)(3)

Legends of a sleeping army waiting for a hero to come and rouse them for some great battle are present in other parts of Ireland too (such as at The Curragh, Co. Kildare, and Lough Gur in Limerick). Gearóid Iarla (Earl Garrett, Gerald) is sometimes the one who is the chief of the chthonic army. At Hacklim, some versions say it is Fionn Mac Cumhaill. The messianic theme of the legend in its various forms is overtly political, the clear premise being that a great leader from the past will return, from a supernatural subterranean domain, leading a great army to restore glory to Ireland. In the context of a country under the sway of foreign rule and oppression, it is no wonder that such tales might have been commonplace in Ireland.

The rousing of the army will happen because a prophesied hero (those who tried and failed are invariably referred to in less than favourable terms, such as "coward") will pull a sword out of a wall or a stone or a bag. If the sword in the stone sounds familiar, think of King Arthur and Excalibur! The notion of a hero or king sleeping in a cave can be found all over Europe and even further afield. It is so familiar in folklore that it is referred to as the "king in the mountain" motif and has been classified in the Aarne-Thompson system of folktale motifs.(4)(5)

Ledwidge's opening lines, "All the dead kings came to me At Rosnaree, where I was dreaming" are suggestive that he is familiar with that location's mythic and perhaps even historic significance. Perhaps the dead High King Cormac Mac Airt was one of those of whom he writes.

"There was a sound like moving shields In high green fields and the lowland furrow." Was Ledwidge, perhaps, describing the sound of the enchanted army of Rosnaree being awakened?

"A loud tramp of men We'll hear again at Rosnaree." Granted, Ledwidge was in the battlefields of the Great War, and although he says he is dreaming at Rosnaree, the bomb wakes him to the reality that he is, in fact, in Picardy. Nevertheless, it's an interesting speculation that he was perhaps reflecting upon cultural aspects of his homeland. Rosnaree would have been visible just across the Boyne Valley from his home at Janeville, east of Slane. Interestingly, Rosnaree is a name that comes from the Irish Ros na Ríogh, meaning "wood of the kings".(6)

Had Francis Ledwidge heard the story of the sleeping army of Rosnaree, and did he incorporate it into The Dead Kings? One might never know.(7)

However, the final lines of his poem are sadly prescient. "A bomb burst near me where I lay." He was killed on July 31st, 1917.

(2) Marsh, Richard (2013), Meath Folk Tales, The History Press Ireland, p.164.
(3) A similar version, from the same original source (Johnny Murray) can be found in the Schools' Collection here:
(7) It must be pointed out here that I am not well versed in the life of Ledwidge, and have not researched it in any scholarly way. If it should transpire that someone has written of  Ledwidge's inspiration for The Dead Kings and can answer my speculation either positively or negatively, I will be duly obliged/embarrassed (delete as appropriate!)

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

A dream of the collapse of Mellifont Abbey and the reinstatement of the old names of Newgrange

This is perhaps going to be a blog post with a bit of a difference. I don't often talk about my dreams, but I've had a few very interesting ones lately, and my mind is bubbling with intuitive thoughts as I consciously (and perhaps unconsciously) try to extrapolate some meaning from them.

A couple of nights ago, I dreamt I could see an old wall, or a portion of an old building. There was a storm, and the wind was very strong. As I watched, I could tell that this structure was going to collapse. And collapse it did. It came crashing down. I was greatly moved by this, and a sense of urgent duty compelled me to reach for my mobile phone, to call for help. I'm not sure who I was supposed to ring for help, but the words were there, on the tip of my tongue, ready to be shouted into the phone to anyone who answered.

"Mellifont Abbey has collapsed."

The remains of Mellifont Abbey, Co. Louth, founded in 1142 and dissolved in 1539.

The location of my dream was not Mellifont Abbey. It was set in another tranquil and scenic location, a place,with which I am familiar, overlooking the River Boyne. However, there was no doubt in the dream that it was Mellifont Abbey that had collapsed. Its strange appearance and obvious dislocation may also have meaning, but for the moment I am concentrating on what seems to me to be the central import of the dream.

Mellifont Abbey

For those of you unfamiliar with Ireland and its history, Mellifont Abbey is one of those places that occupies a reasonably prominent and influential role in our past. A Cistercian monastery, it was founded in 1142 by Saint Malachy of Armagh and went on to become the largest Cistercian abbey in Ireland. It is located on the banks of the River Mattock, a tributary of the Boyne, and is located just over 5 kilometres (3.3 miles) north of Newgrange.

Its importance to my own work is largely through the fact that after its establishment, the Cistercians came into ownership of a lot of the land in the area, including lands at Brú na Bóinne. They established farms, known as granges, with the purpose of supplying the monastic order with enough food to make them self sufficient, and established exclusive fishing rights along the River Boyne. Several of their granges have, it is believed, left their names in the landscape today. They include Newgrange, Sheepgrange, Roughgrange and Littlegrange.(1)

Donnchadh Ó Cearbhaill, king of Airghialla, granted the monks the site for their abbey and the lands with which it was endowed, in the 12th century. It was around that time that the monument we know today as Newgrange assumed the name by which most people now know it. The "new grange" of the Cistercian monks contained this most auspicious monument of ancient Ireland, the one previously known by several different names and variations thereof. Today, it is simply known as Newgrange, but I wonder how many visitors to Newgrange know any of its pre-Medieval names.

The old names of Newgrange

In the Dindshenchas (lore of place names), it is called Tech Mic ind Óc (the house of the son of the young, viz. Oengus/Anghus). In Tochmarc Étaine, the Wooing of Étain, it is known as Síd in Broga - síd being commonly translated as a "fairy hill or mound"(2) and Broga being from bruig, meaning "abode, house, mansion, etc."(3) The áes síde were the supernatural beings, or fairies, who inhabited these mysterious mounds and hills. Many believe these "fairies" represented a later folk survival of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the gods who were said to have owned and lived in the mounds. Dagda, the chief of the gods, is described as the original owner of Síd in Broga, but later his son Oengus takes possession of it.(4) Newgrange was also previously known by variants such as Brug Oengusa and Brug mac ind Óc. (5)

The 'New Grange', originally known by various names including Síd in Broga and Brug mac ind Óc.

A couple of months ago, I watched a beautiful documentary on the Irish language station TG4, called Fís na Fuiseoige (The Lark's View).(5) It was an exploration of the deep connection between Irish people and their places. In it, one scholar suggested that the anglicisation of many Irish place names by the English had helped to undermine this sense of connection, and, by extension, we could propose that a sort of disempowerment had taken place. Did the same thing happen when Síd in Broga became Newgrange? Did it lose some, or all, of its power for people? I believe that something of its importance was diminished by that renaming.

The Cistercians experienced their own disempowerment with the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. Mellifont was dissolved in 1539 and today it lies largely ruined, although small but impressive remnants survive, including the much-photographed and documented Lavabo, or wash room. In terms of a direct, literal portent, the dream could hardly refer to a physical collapse of Mellifont, for there is not much left to collapse. The Cistercian order does survive, to this day, at the nearby New Mellifont Abbey, in the nearby village of Collon (on land which was part of the original Cistercian grant), which was founded in the 1930s by the surviving Cistercians from Mount Melleray Abbey in Co. Waterford.

Fascinatingly, although long renamed, the "New Grange" of the Cistercians had not altogether relegated nor eradicated the older names of the monument, even in the late 19th century, when Borlase mentioned that the place name Bro/Broe, presumably a survival of Brug/Brugh/Brú, still existed in the vicinity of Newgrange and the Bend of the Boyne. There was (and still is today) a Broe House near the river beneath Newgrange. Borlase quotes a Mr. O'Laverty, writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, who had spoken to a Mr. Maguire and his son, of Newgrange, who told him that "the field in which Newgrange tumulus stands is called Bro Park" and that in the immediate vicinity of Newgrange are the Bro Farm, Bro Mill and Bro Cottage. It appears that some things are not easily forgotten! You can listen to me reading an extract from Borlase's Dolmens of Ireland about this Bro/Broe place name in the audio clip below.

The renaming of Newgrange

I'm not entirely sure how the connection was made in my mind, but since I had the dream I've been thinking that it is, at least in part, related to the renaming of Síd in Broga to Newgrange. And I cannot help entertaining the thought that the renaming was not necessarily a deliberately sinister or suppressive act on the part of the Cistercians, but that it was merely coincidental to the long and slow degradation of the mythic and sacred importance of this monument or sídhe that we have come to know as Newgrange. For Síd in Broga slumbered in the shade for great ages of this world, and through many times of turbulence and transformation the áes sídhe kept a quiet watch on the comings and goings of kings and chieftains and religious orders from the unknown hidden realms beyond its doorway.

The Tuatha Dé Danann encountered many "invaders", according to the Lebor Gabala (Book of Takings), and it was the Milesians, arriving from Spain, who finally dispossessed them of Ireland. But it was an incomplete dispossession, because in their armistice with the Dé Dananns, the Milesians empowered them for eternity when they granted them possession of the sídhe. Failing to understand the gravity of this lack of foresight, the Milesians guaranteed the undying Dananns a special immortality. They may have been removed from the physical landscape of the invaders, but in the realms of dream and song and netherworld, they assumed a transcendent elevation of extraordinary proportions - something that legitimized and prolonged them and ensured their vitality for countless generations of people for whom they remained (and still remain) a very real presence.

And so, in the dying light of an apparently vanquished Dé Danann world, the sidhe which had kept hushed for centuries its remarkable secret of hidden realms and banished gods had even been made to suffer the ignominy of the loss of its name. And thus, through deliberate act or unwitting insult, the Cistercians became another in the long line of "arrivers", or invaders, or takers, to attempt by guile or gullibility to degrade and dispossess the stony vault of Síd in Broga of its divine and sacred import.

And what is that import? That there survives in people, even today, a light, a sacred essence, a revered and inviolate aspect, which derives originally from the very best facets of humanity. This aspect preserves the wish to initiate oneself into divine realms, with the express aim that one can be of service to one's greater community. The sacrifice of the Dé Dananns was immense. They yielded ownership of the beautiful Éire, the land we are so blessed to call our home, in order to avoid another war. They were weary of their encounters with the Fir Bolg and the Fomorians. With their blessing, the Milesians would become the new caretakers. But they were only custodians. Their time would come and go with the waning of the years.

In the past century, Newgrange has been unearthed and restored. Given a facelift, it has emerged from the rubble of its forlorn and dormant state. After five millennia, its secret crystal bower receives the golden sunlight once again on the Winter Solstice. The great sídhe has experienced a resurrection of sorts. The Fir Bolgs and the Fomorians were vanquished. Cessair and the Partholonians perished. The Vikings and the English came and went. And the Cistercians changed the sacred name of Síd in Broga to the newfangled Newgrange. But the Dé Dananns never died. Even in the hushed ages of their belittlement, they emerged as the diminutive fairies, the "good people", and danced and sang with unrestrained merriment around their ancient hollow hill in the midnight moonlight.

The unnaming of Newgrange 

Is it too bold a proposition to suggest that Newgrange be given back its old name? If we call it Síd in Broga once again, perhaps those diminutive fairies will arise in us as the unvanquished gods of our better nature, ready to bring light back to a somewhat darkened world.

(1) Stout, Geraldine (2002), Newgrange and the Bend of the Boyne, Cork University Press, p.86.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Tochmarc Étaine.
(5) O'Kelly, Michael J. (1982), Newgrange: Archaeology, Art & Legend, Thames & Hudson, p.25.
(6) You can watch a short trailer for this documentary here:

Sunday, 1 January 2017

New Year, New Moon - sunset, dusk and the arrival of the moon, Venus and the stars at twilight at Newgrange

The first evening of the new year was a glorious one at Newgrange in the Boyne Valley. The first sunset of 2017 was magnificent, followed by a descent into twilight that featured rich hues and colours, and then the crescent moon next to Venus, the Evening Star, made it a really gorgeous close to the day. In a couple of the shots, you might also catch a glimpse of Mars, which was trailing the Moon and Venus. I was lucky to be able to spend time there putting together this very special time lapse video. It might have been cold, but it was lovely.

Enjoy watching this time lapse with music to match. You will see the sun setting behind Réaltoge Hill, and the last tourists of the evening departing from Newgrange, before seeing the gradual arrival of twilight and darkness. Shot on four different cameras from six different vantage points over the course of four hours. Well worth the effort, I hope you agree. This video captures some of the essence of a place that, as a sacred monument, sees hundreds of visitors every day, but which once evening falls becomes a lonely and lovely place.

What could be better than to watch the sun, moon, planets and stars from Newgrange, where our ancient ancestors did likewise?

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

The 12 days of Solstice - Day 12 - sunlight in the passage of Newgrange on the dawn of Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice has officially arrived. Today the sun reaches its minimum declination - its furthest southerly position in the sky. This is the turning point of the year. As the sun rises above Red Mountain in the Boyne Valley this morning (weather permitting), its light will enter through an opening above the passage entrance known as the 'roof box' and will illuminate the central chamber, which lies about 20 metres inside the cairn, for around 17 minutes.  The lucky Winter Solstice Lottery winners will be inside, while hundreds will gather outside. This year, there will be 20 Irish wolfhound dogs at Newgrange too. It should be a great morning.

The photo shows a view taken on Winter Solstice 2010 just as I was emerging from the chamber where I had witnessed the solstice illumination for the first time. As you can see, there are two beams of light. The main area of light, on the floor and the lower part of the passage orthostats, enters through the main doorway. This might have been closed by a large slab during winter solstice ceremonies in ancient times. The upper beam is a much shallower beam, and is visible higher up on the orthostats in the left of the image. This is the light that comes in through the roof box, and it is only this beam that reaches the floor of the chamber within.

As we reflect upon the coming of the glorious light of dawn into the dark void, and the turning of the year, we hope that events in the wider world which have led humanity into darkness in recent times will turn also, and that the hearts of those who have resorted to anger, hatred or fear are softened, so that we can better learn to get along with each other. For that is one of the central themes of the ancient myths involving the Tuatha Dé Danann, the gods who were said to have owned and built Newgrange. When the Milesians came from Spain, to take Ireland by force, there was initially some fighting and, after losses on both sides, the Dé Dananns and the Milesians reached an accord. The Dé Dananns would occupy the sídhe, these great palaces of stone and earth that allowed access to and from the otherworlds, while the Milesians would occupy the surface of the land. And so it is that we must learn to get along with our fellow humans. We must learn to get along together. What is the alternative, except suffering and misery?

Today, as the sun shines into the heart-shaped mound of Newgrange, and warms its interior with a golden light, we ask that a light shines into the hearts of all our fellow human beings, that we might learn to reach an accord that looks to the ending of hate and discrimination, and allows for a peaceful settlement of all conflict. That is the most urgent message from Newgrange for today's world.

Monday, 19 December 2016

The 12 days of Solstice - Day 11 - Winter Solstice sunrise viewed from the doorway of Newgrange

It's day 11 of my new series of photographs entitled 'The 12 days of Solstice'. This is the second-last image in the series. It shows the sun not long after it has risen on the shortest days of the year at Winter Solstice. The picture was taken just inside the entrance of the passage of Newgrange. Above my head in this image is the specially constructed aperture known as the 'roof box'. This is the portal which allows sunlight to penetrate the entire length of the passage and into the chamber. The light that enters through the actual doorway does not reach the chamber floor. The two beams of light are kept separate by the stone seen in the top of this image.

Immediately in front of the entrance is the large kerb stone, K1, which on its front side (the side facing the sun) has the famous tri-spiral design among other lavish engravings. At the time this photo was taken, the sun's light had already left the chamber again. It shines in there for 17 brief minutes. There is something very special about the quality of the light immediately at sunrise. As soon as the sun rises above the ridge known as Red Mountain (Roughgrange), its golden light reaches into the corridor of Newgrange and shines a narrow beam of light onto the darkened floor of its central chamber. It is at this moment that the year is seen to have reached its turning point. The old year dies and the new year is born. Dagda, the father god, yields ownership of Síd in Broga (Newgrange) to his son, Oengus Óg, the youthful sun.

From this moment, following a period of about a week when the sun's rising position has stood still on the horizon, it begins its slow movement back towards the east, and after a few weeks the light will get stronger and the days longer.

The 12 days of Solstice - Day 10 - the famous triple spiral on stone C10 in the end recess of Newgrange's chamber

This carved design, on the side wall of the end recess in Newgrange's chamber, is one of the most readily identifiable symbols from the ancient megalithic world. It is a design that is unique to Newgrange. It is not found anywhere else. It's often referred to as a triple spiral, but this is not an entirely accurate description of it, as Clare O'Kelly pointed out in her description of this stone:

C10, the three-spiral stone (often wrongly called a triple spiral: since a double spiral, like those on the entrance stone, consists of two parallel coils, by analogy a triple spiral should consist of three; in fact, the design consists of three double spirals, the two on the right being S- or returning spirals as well). In order to integrate the left-hand spiral into the design the two free ends of its outermost double coil were separated so as to sweep concentrically around the two other spirals and to meet again having encircled the S-spirals. The whole pattern is only 30 x 28 cm. The spirals are beautifully picked in broad shallow channels so that the intervening bands stand in relief. The design is executed on the undressed surface, but an area of pick-dressing on the left partly encroaches it.(1)

One thing the archaeologists tend not to do (although that is not an exclusive tendency) is to try to interpret the meaning of the symbols. There are many, many theories as to the meaning of the triple spiral (should that be the triple double spiral?) Its position within the end recess, but on a side wall, means that, contrary to some speculation on the internet, the winter solstice sun beam does not strike it directly. Rather, it is illuminated by reflected light. So what does it mean? Does it mean anything?

My own speculation has revolved around the mythology and the astronomy of the monument. In myth, there are two significant "trinities", or trios of figureheads. Tochmarc Étaíne (the Wooing of Étaín) is believed to have been written in the eighth or ninth century AD, but the true genesis of its story cannot be known. It describes how Dagda, the chief of the god, the Tuatha Dé Danann, desires Bóinn (the goddess after whom the River Boyne is named). He sends Bóinn's husband Elcmar away and lies with Bóinn and they conceive a son, Oengus Óg. So we have father god, mother goddess, and divine offspring. The second trinity consists of Lugh, Dechtine and Sétanta. Dechtine comes to Newgrange in wintertime from Emain Macha (Armagh) and while there Lugh (another of the chief gods) appears to her in a dream and tells her she will bear a son, and that he will be called Sétanta. Sétanta later becomes Cúchulainn. Perhaps the triplicate of spirals represents the trinity of gods?

Separately, we find that several heavenly objects cast their light into Newgrange. One of these, as we know, is the sun. Each year on Winter Solstice, the light of the rising sun enters the long corridor of Newgrange and shines into its inner chamber. What is much less well known is that sometimes the full moons in summertime shine into Newgrange. Further to this is the fact that Venus, as the Morning Star, is said to cast a beam into the chamber of Newgrange once in eight years. 

(1) O'Kelly, Michael (1998) [1982], Newgrange: Archaeology, Art and Legend, Thames and Hudson, p177.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

The 12 days of Solstice - Day 9 - red sky over Newgrange

It's day 9 of my series 'The 12 days of Solstice' and today's image features a red sky over Newgrange. One of the benefits of living relatively close to Newgrange is that I get to be there regularly. This means I have seen and photographed Newgrange under many different skies. The weather in Ireland is so changeable that every sunrise is different and every sunset too. And sometimes even after the sun has set, something like the above happens. As usual with red skies, this one didn't last long - no more than five minutes - but at its peak it was beautiful.