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.
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.
(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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BR1OUXn0O48