Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Tara and Loughcrew aligned for Lughnasadh sunset?

Back in February of this year, at Imbolc, myself, Ken Williams and Lar Dooley witnessed the sunrise shining into the ancient passageway of Cairn U at Carnbane East, Loughcrew. That day, I noticed that when I was crouched in the chamber of Cairn U, the Hill of Tara was visible through the entrance of the passage. Based on that observation, I figured that a viewer on the Hill of Tara might see the sun setting over the hills of Loughcrew at Bealtaine (May) and Lughnasadh (August).

The Loughcrew Hills viewed from Duma na nGiall, Hill of Tara, with labels.

I was unable to get to Tara at Bealtaine, so I was determined to go there for Lughnasadh to see if I was right. This evening, standing on top of Duma na nGiall (Mound of the Hostages) at the Hill of Tara, I watched the sun get lower and lower in the western sky with my son, Finn. Above is a photo showing the hills as they appear from atop the Mound of the Hostages. It looked like it was heading for Loughcrew, but I couldn't be sure. So I watched and waited.

The sun setting over Cairn D, Carnbane West, and Carrigbrack, as viewed from Duma na nGiall.

And sure enough, as the sun set, it did so over Carnbane West and Carrigbrack, which appear almost as one hill as viewed from Tara. It was a beautiful sunset, and as the sun went down there was a lovely sun pillar (a vertical shaft of light extending upwards from the sun) reaching into the sky.

The sun pillar visible in the sky as the sun sets behind the hills of Loughcrew viewed from Tara.
So it appears that Duma na nGiall, the oldest monument on the Hill of Tara which is thought to date to the late Neolithic, around 5,000 years ago, is aligned with Loughcrew for (a) sunrise on Samhain/Imbolc viewed from Cairn U Loughcrew towards Tara; and (b) Bealtine/Lughnasadh sunset viewed from Tara towards Loughcrew.

The actual date of Lughnasadh this year was (I believe) August 7th, so the sun has moved a little bit to the south (left) since then. And I'm not sure how much the sun's position has changed at Lughnasadh from where it was 5,000 years ago. But it's would certainly appear that there is an alignment. Whether it was intended is another question entirely. But this is just one of many examples of alignments of sites over long distances. Seeing Tara framed by the ancient stones of Cairn U at Loughcrew in the cold dawn of Imbolc six months ago certainly was very fascinating to me. "This is hardly all coincidental," I said to myself. Indeed it might not be, but we may never know whether it was intended by the builders. All we can do now is watch and wonder.

The author atop Duma na nGiall watching the sunset over Loughcrew tonight. Picture: Finn Murphy.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Lughnasagh sunset still shines into the passage of Cairn S, Loughcrew, more than five millennia after it was built

37 years ago, in 1980, Martin Brennan, Jack Roberts and their team of researchers made several significant discoveries relating to the astronomical alignment of several ancient chambered cairns (passage-tombs) in the Boyne Valley region. One such discovery, made in early August of that year, was the apparent alignment of the passage of Cairn S at Carnbane East, Loughcrew. Sitting in the chamber of the (now roofless) cairn, Brennan and his team saw that the Lughnasadh cross-quarter sunset was visible through the passage.

Lughnasadh sunset shines down the passage of the ancient Cairn S at Loughcrew.

Tonight, for the first time in my 18 years of research and photography, I witnessed what Brennan’s people excitedly discovered back then, and it was spectacular, as you can see. There is a story behind this photograph. With my son Luke accompanying, I drove an hour from Drogheda to Loughcrew this evening with the express purpose of witnessing and photographing this alignment. However, when we got there, a massive cumulonimbus cloud was looming over the whole western horizon. After sitting in the car for a few minutes, we figured that it was moving, albeit slowly, towards us. The sun was hidden. It was clear that this cloud was giving out a lot of rain. So we decided to sit it out. We arrived at 8pm. We knew the sunset would occur at about 9.10pm or so.

We sat and waited. Another man who had arrived with camera gear got out of his car and they went up the hill. “A big mistake,” I thought to myself. I could see the rain wasn’t far away and that it was extremely heavy. Sure enough, by about 8.25pm or so it was raining very heavily. The problem was that the cloud was moving extremely slowly. With no let-up in sight, we considered leaving. But having spotted a small patch of blue behind the grey sheets of rain, I decided we’d wait. In the meantime, the gentleman who had gone up earlier returned, quite soaked. After a few minutes, he left in his car.

“If needs be, we can leg it up the hill as soon as there’s any let-up in the rain,” I said to Luke. We planned our departure. When the rain finally started to ease, we made a dash for it. It was 8.45pm. Surely this was an exercise in futility?

As we ran up the hill (and it was a struggle for me, I can tell you, with the heavy camera equipment on my back), I turned and the sun was appearing beneath the huge black shower cloud. “We might be lucky yet,” I said as we scrambled up that hill. The thing about Sliabh na Calliagh is that, when you want to get up it fast, it seems to take every bit of your energy and determination. By the time we hit the last ascent, the steepest part, I was breathless to the extent of being in a state of near-collapse. Luke took the camera bag for the last stretch. What a fantastic companion to have on this trip – a sprightly, nimble and energetic 15-year-old.

After getting in through the gate, we reached Cairn S. I dumped the tripod on the ground, and ordered Luke to put the camera bag down. It was still raining, but the sun was out. I needed to act quickly. We might only have a minute or two to get a photograph. “Which camera?” I thought to myself as I worked out which would work better with remote flash. I decided on the D3X and quickly got set up with the 14mm f2.8 prime lens. It turned out to be a good decision. The photo you see above was taken with this setup. As you can see, the enormous cumulonimbus cloud occupied a huge portion of the sky – but crucially, the sun was out, and just at the right moment! What a capture. What a journey. What a brilliant climax after such an uncertain wait.

A wider view of the Cairn S Lughnasadh alignment from outside the chamber.

I actually got plenty of time to take photos then – with both cameras, and a variety of lenses. But within a short time the sun went in behind some cloud and the magical moment had passed. Nonetheless, we had captured it, in all its fabulous glory. We were wet. We were cold. We were out of breath. But boy were we happy.

After that, we relaxed a bit. The almost-full moon was out. We got lots of other photos – of Cairn S, of Cairn T, of the Hag’s Chair, of Cairn U, and Cairn V. But for now, the magical, mystical shot of the sunset from the chamber of Cairn S is putting a big smile on my face. I feel like I’ve caught up with not just 37 years of history tonight, but over 5,000 years of it.

Because of its short passage and wide chamber, it is obvious that Cairn S will align with the sun for some time. I will have to make a return visit in a couple of weeks to see if it is still aligned. 

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Buí, the smiling hag of Knowth, perhaps?

Many people look for meaning in the symbols carved in stone at the great monuments of the Boyne. Sometimes the most facile examination (and perhaps the most puerile too!) is to indulge in pareidolia. When I took this image at Knowth/Cnogba today, I was conscious of the image of the Cailleach, having been reading about her quite a lot lately. I will quote the lovely words of the late Patricia Monaghan, whose book 'The Red-Haired Girl From the Bog' I am currently reading:

"Rock is the hag's prime element, her stony spine.... Cailleach time moves form moon to moon, harvest to harvest. It is pagan time, rooted in the eternal return rather than the once-off redemption."

Seeing this stone again – known under the archaeologists’ counting system simply as Kerb 22 – I was struck at how much it seemed to look like a big smiling face with two bulbous eyes and a big, broad grin.

These rocks were already eternally old when they were hauled into place - all 127 of them - to create a giant kerb or belt of stones around the gigantic mound that we know as Knowth. And now the carvings that were carefully etched into the surface of these slabs are eternally old, and the rocks that bear them speak of the beginning of time.

Once upon a time, so the story goes, this great mound of stone and earth was known as Cnoc Búa or Cnoc Buí, the hill of the daughter of "red-haired Rúadrí", wife of Lug, son of Cian, of the ruddy spears.

"It is there [Cnogba] her body was buried; over her was built a great hill."

What shall we say about Buí today, except that she is remembered still, in these many aeons since her image was first conceived in stone, at the mighty Brug na Bóinde where the hag never dies. The hag's breasts are imagined as mounds in the Boyne landscape; her passage-wombs, creaking and groaning under the weight of the ages, live on to tell the story of the undying sons who were born there – Oengus the young, who was conceived and born in the same day; and Sétanta, whose crossing of the threshold of initiation brought him from innocent boy to murderous warrior. In there, Elcmar the magician of Brug na Bóinde, divined souls with his fork of white hazel; Dagda Mór, the Eochaidh All-Father, offered satiation to those who were crossing over; Oengus protected the beautiful Etaín from the jealous Fuamnach in his sunny, crystal bower.

At ancient Cnogba, it is said that Englec the daughter of Elcmar was stolen away by Midir, much to the heartache of her lover, Oengus Óg. At Newgrange, Oengus had protected Midir’s lover Etáin, and yet at Knowth the two were love rivals for the woman Englec, whose disappearance was mourned greatly by the inconsolable Oengus. Mourning the abduction of his beloved, Oengus engaged in a curious ritual … casting the “blood-red nuts of the forest” on to the ground, and performed “a lament around the little hill”.

Cnogba (Knowth) commemorates a goddess Buí and a goddess Englec.
And so, in the confusion of tales so typical of the lore of the olden days, Knowth commemorates two distinct but perhaps not mutually exclusive events – both involving the passing (so to speak) of great women (goddesses even). As Cnoc Buí, Knowth remembers the great woman who was set to rest there beneath its heaving bulk, the undying hag of the ancient world who had many names and guises. As Chnó-guba (the “nut-lament”), Knowth commemorates the passing of Englec into another realm, swept away by Midir to the Síd of Fer Femin, never to be seen by Oengus again.

Today, I stopped in front of stone 22 at Knowth during my round of the kerb (deiseal, sunwise, this time),  and, having to stall a while under the modern concrete ledge to shelter from a summer shower, I imagined for a time that I was seeing the great women of Cnogba, the abiding visage of the ancient hag that was known here as Buí, and the darling Englec, the beautiful daughter of Elcmar. And I wonder which would endure longer – the memory of these great mythic women, or the stone carvings bearing this image.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Eschewing the little people, one archaeologist dismissed folklore about Newgrange, folklore that later proved true

The earliest antiquarians who visited, documented, sketched and spoke about Newgrange sometimes get a hard time from the modern academic establishment. The writings of Lhwyd and Molyneux and Pownall and Vallancey are all criticised for one reason or another (poor Charles Vallancey is largely ridiculed, perhaps because he referred to Newgrange as a Mithraic temple). All of the early antiquarian accounts of the monument are valuable for one reason or another. Some of them have captured aspects of the monument that have disappeared since they wrote. Without the tools and techniques of modern archaeology, all of them were poking around in the dark, so to speak. They couldn't have known the true age of Newgrange,  nor could they have appreciated the skills of the artists and builders who created it, those whom they all too often referred to as barbarous.

Newgrange in its pre-excavation days.

The New Grange book.
However, Dr. Glyn Daniel, lecturer in archaeology at Cambridge University and editor of the academic journal Antiquity, perhaps should have known better. In 1964, Daniel's book 'New Grange and the Bend of the Boyne' was published by Thames & Hudson. It had been a collaborative effort with University College Cork professor of archaeology, Sean P. Ó Ríordáin. Sadly, Ó Ríordáin had passed away in 1957 in his early fifties, when the pair were only half way through completion of the book. Daniel was the General Editor of the 'Ancient Peoples and Places' series of books, under which the New Grange title was published. It was to become the largest single study of the Newgrange monument since George Coffey's 1912 book, and would be the last before Professor Michael J. O'Kelly's excavations at Newgrange revealed so many of its secrets.

One of the shortcomings of the Daniel/Ó Ríordáin book is that it fails to deal in any substantial terms with the mythical history of the Newgrange monument or indeed its counterparts in the Bend of the Boyne. Except for one passage in which he relates that New Grange might be an English corruption of An Uamh Greine (the cave of Grainne), Daniel does not discuss the ancient names of Newgrange, or its import in the early texts, as O'Kelly later did in his own work on Newgrange. Failing to acknowledge the earlier Irish names of Newgrange, and its mythology and associated stories, Daniel falls into a trap – he assumes the folklore about the site to be utter fantasy, and dismisses it as such:

"It is natural that impressive monuments like New Grange and Stonehenge should be visited a great deal by the general public and should themselves have attracted a folklore based on imagination, half-forgotten history, unappreciated archaeology and the sort of nonsense that luxuriates in the lunatic fringes of serious archaeology."(1)

And in that foregoing paragraph, Daniel was just setting himself up for a fall.

"The visitor to New Grange and Dowth will not be surprised to be told that these monuments were built by and were the homes of 'the little people' or to be asked their connection with the Druids."

One should always be careful about dismissing the fairy folk – even if one is a leading archaeologist and "expert" of the times!

But the following is perhaps indicative of the perhaps excessively arrogant attitude of Daniel in dealing with a monument such as Newgrange and in his rush to dismiss the folklore, he dismissed also notions about the site that would later transpire to be based in truth:

The entrance kerb stone at Newgrange (K1).

"A coloured calendar current in Ireland in 1960 had in it a good photograph of the decorated stone at the entrance to New Grange; this was accompanied by an account which needs quoting almost in toto as an example of the jumble of nonsense and wishful thinking indulged in by those who prefer the pleasures of the irrational and the joys of unreason to the hard thinking that archaeology demands.'The entrance in the east was originally triangular,' says this description, 'but is now changed for easy entrance, formerly it was necessary to crawl in and progress was retarded by interference, stones compelling the neophyte to stoop and stumble. The rays of the rising sun at certain times of the year penetrate the opening and rest on a remarkable triple spiral carving in the central chamber. Like the Great Pyramid of Gizeh in Egypt the New Grange Temple was originally covered with a layer of white quartz and was a brilliant object of Light for a considerable distance. Nuda, first king of Tuatha de Danann in Ireland, and his Master Magician, are said to have officiated here in the very, very old days. Artemidoros the Ephesian stated: "To Sacred Ierne of the Hibernians men go to learn more of the Mysteries of Samothrace."'

Two very important statements in this 1960 calendar demonstrate that there were enduring traditions about Newgrange that were fascinating and even compelling (and certainly worthy of at least some investigation) – one that the sun shone into the chamber during the year and the other that it was once covered with white quartz. Understandably, Daniel could not have known about the existence of quartz, given that the O'Kelly excavations at Newgrange had just begun when the Daniel/Ó Ríordáin book was published, but there was at least one possible reference to this feature in mythology – the "white-topped brugh" was said to have been "brilliant to approach".(2) If he had been a bit more familiar with some of the mythology of Newgrange, he might not have been so quick to shrug it off.

But Daniel certainly should not have been so dismissive in relation to the solar alignment – especially as it had been previously suggested by the likes of Solar Physics Observatory director Sir Norman Lockyer in 1909, and W.Y. Evans-Wentz in The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries in 1911.(3)

Within three years or so of the publication of the Daniel/Ó Ríordáin book, Professor Michael O'Kelly would stand in the chamber of Newgrange and become the first person in the modern era (and perhaps since the Bronze Age) to witness the winter solstice sunlight streaming into its inner chamber, illuminating (by reflected light) the triskele or triple spiral in the chamber. During his excavations at the famous monument, O'Kelly would uncover a significant layer of quartz beneath the cairn spill material – quartz that he would later demonstrate through repeated experiment that actually fronted the monument. In other words, at the very least Newgrange had a white quartz facade, and it is not such a huge leap of imagination to envision the possibility that the cairn was once covered with this bright stone.

The Newgrange triple spiral (triskele) in the chamber

One wonders what Daniel made of O'Kelly's revelations, and how it might have altered his thinking in relation to folklore. Folk memory is a very powerful thing. This might have been demonstrated in the case of the story in the locality of Newgrange suggesting that the Morning Star (Venus) shone into the chamber of the monument once every eight years, as recorded by Joseph Campbell in his 1959 book 'The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology"(4) Then there was the folklore collected in 1938 that suggested the Tuatha Dé Danann had built Newgrange using stones brought from the Mourne Mountains, another apparently wild and imaginative claim that had some basis in reality.

Even in the claim that "Nuda" officiated at Newgrange, the calendar was not too far off the mark. In the early texts, Newgrange is associated in particular with Elcmar, Dagda and Oengus. Dagda was chief of the gods, a kind of Tuatha Dé king, so to speak, and Elcmar was described as a "magician" and "original master of Brug na Bóinne".(5)

Unfortunately, I can only challenge Mr. Daniel posthumously, and as he is not here to defend himself, I must not take undue licence in criticising him for these shortcomings. I am glad that this diminution of folklore is not ubiquitous among modern archaeologists. As mentioned above, Michael O'Kelly outlined the mythical importance of Newgrange, and seemed to hold great reverence for the possibility that it was "a house of the dead and as an abode of spirits" which, he said, was a concept not contradicted by the findings of the excavation. O'Kelly felt that a connection between the archaeological evidence and the early literature was to be found in the older and "more genuine tradition".(6)

Daniel allowed only one statement in the 1960 calendar to stand: "It is at least true in this strange wild-cat account we have just quoted, that New Grange might well be described as belonging to 'the very, very old days'."

"It is our object in this book," he continued, "not only to describe the great tombs in the Bend of the Boyne but to set them in what appears to us their true prehistoric context, as far as the limitations of archaeology allow, eschewing the little people and Artemidoros".

One eschews the daoine sídhe at one's peril! Never dismiss the folklore...

(1) Ó Ríordáin, Sean P., and Daniel, Glyn (1964), New Grange and the Bend of the Boyne, Thames and Hudson, p.19.
(2) Murphy, Anthony (2012), Newgrange – Monument to Immortality, Liffey Press, p.114.
(3) Ibid, p.170.
(4) Campbell (1991) [1959], pp.430-1.
(5) MacKillop, James (1998), Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford University Press, p.177.
(6) O'Kelly, Michael J. (1998) [1982], Newgrange: Archaeology, Art & Legend, Thames and Hudson, p.47.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Summer Solstice sunrise at Newgrange, Boyne Valley

Good morning from the Boyne Valley!

I'm delighted to share this beautiful photo of Summer Solstice sunrise at Newgrange/Síd in Broga (taken a few days after the actual day of solstice).

For a moment of the year,
the sun stops its run,
and stays awhile in the
northeast at dawn.
But, like everything in nature
the spiral will wind down once
more towards winter, when the sun
will come home again.

The big crowds that come to Síd in Broga on winter solstice are completely absent for summer solstice. I am glad for that! At 5am it's probably no surprise, but sometimes it's nice to be the only human figure walking among these magnificent remains...

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Rekindling the powerful image of Elcmar the druid and poet and diviner atop Newgrange at Samhain

In the story of Tochmarc Étaíne, the Wooing of Étaíne, there is an incredibly powerful image of Elcmar, standing atop Newgrange at Samhain in druidic garb with a fork of white hazel in his hand. Elcmar has arrived into the ownership of Síd in Broga through his power as a druid, and a poet, and a diviner.

And this is the symbol that is all to often missing from the interpretation of Newgrange today. Today, it is called a tomb. It has become a dead thing. The image of Elcmar standing on the mound in all his power reminds us that the creative and intuitive side of our nature must not give way to the deadening image of the archaeologist's measuring rod. 

Yes, the archaeological interpretation of Newgrange is hugely important, and we are extremely grateful for all the light that they have shed on these wonderful ancient places. But they do not hold a premium on the interpretation of these sites. In ancient times, the poet held almost equal court in terms of status with the king. 

Today, we should allow the druid Elcmar to hold equal standing with the archaeologist. This means accepting that Newgrange has a power beyond what can be measured with a red and white pole. This means empowering aspects of ourselves that are hidden in the darkness of the sídhe, and shining that solstice light into the darkness to awaken something latent in us. We must allow our Elcmar nature to stand on the sídhe at Samhain. 

Without that inculcation, that instilling of the wisdom from within, Síd in Broga loses its power, and becomes just the New Grange, that heap of stones that once was a tomb but now is an empty vessel. And the real danger in depriving ourselves of our Elcmar image is that everything thus follows the same path - everything becomes inanimate and materialistic and our view becomes perhaps even nihilistic. Why are we here at all? 

The Meaning of Myth - the Fork of White Hazel. Anthony Murphy with Treacy O'Connor.
Our Elcmar image allows us to stand in the power of our presence, in all that it encompasses - scientific and spiritual, awesome and terrible - and to engage fully with the journey of life. Thus, the childlike initiate becomes the supreme poet of the Boyne, the one who has tasted the Salmon of Knowledge. To the rationalist, the monument is called Newgrange, and it is a pile of stones from the past - the corpse of something it once was. To the poet, the monument is called Síd in Broga, and it is a crystal bower, a place where the sun eternally shines.

Monday, 22 May 2017

New map of Hill of Tara monuments – free PDF download

I have created a new map of the Hill of Tara, showing many of the extant monuments plus a few features that have vanished or been destroyed.

The map also includes modern features, such as roads and buildings, and is designed to be a helpful guide as you make your way around the hill and examine the various monuments. The map is downloadable as a PDF, which you can print out if you like.

The new map also pinpoints the locations of various sacred wells in the landscape.* Some of these are no longer visible, and some have only been named in modern times. However, the Well of the White Cow has been beautifully restored and is a lovely place to visit and spend some time.

The Well of the White Cow at Tara has been beautifully restored.
* I am grateful to Kyrie Murray for the locations and names of the various wells around Tara.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

The House of Cleitech and Rosnaree: on the trail of the ancestors, crossing the ancient ford of the Boyne

In ancient times, long before stone bridges, the places where you crossed rivers were called fords. These were generally shallow parts of the river, sometimes stony, where one could expect to be able to walk or wade across in general safety, except when the river was in full torrent.

Ironically, there is no modern bridge across the River Boyne between Slane and Oldbridge – around the whole Bend of the Boyne – except for the pedestrian footbridge that is used by visitors to Knowth and Newgrange to access their buses from the visitor centre. However, in the olden days there were fording points along the Boyne, and one in particular that may have been where an ancient road from Tara crossed the river as it headed north.

Aerial view of the Boyne at Rosnaree showing (right) the old mill house and (arrowed) the ford.

This road was the Slighe Midhluachra, and it crossed the Boyne very near to the old mill house which still stands at Rosnaree. The ford was a paved ford, and was in regular use until the early years of the 20th century(1). Elizabeth Hickey, writing a half century ago, says this of the ford:
This was the Áth na Bóinne of the ancients. Near here Mananan, son of Lir, tied up his magic boat, the Ocean-Sweeper, the craft which knew his thoughts; here came the Sons of Turenn to borrow it in order to pursue their quest. Across this ford the builders of the great tombs, which tourists see today, passed to and from their work. Milesian fleets rowed past these tombs to battle with De Danaan magic. Warriors from the North descended to the ford, King Conchubar with Cuchulainn and his army, to fight at Rosnaree. St. Patrick and his followers passed to Slane.
The Boyne at Rosnaree, looking downstream towards the ford - Áth na Bóinne.

In ancient times of course, rivers and watercourses formed the only effective transport network. The builders of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth knew this. They brought huge stones, many weighing three tonnes and more, up the Boyne on barges. However, they did not haul these stones beyond the shallow waters of the Boyne at Áth na Bóinne. It is likely that they landed much further east, somewhere in the vicinity of the lands that now form part of Dowth Hall, and hauled their stones from there. (The journey from that landing spot to Newgrange is a very arduous one. I might cover that in a future blog post).

The ford of Rosnaree was paved, i.e. artificially augmented with stones placed by people so as to raise the river bed and provide a more solid causeway across which the crossing could be made. The owners of the mill house in the middle of the 20th century were the Johnsons. Mr. Johnson told Elizabeth Hickey about the ford, "of travellers on horseback, travellers on foot, and hay-carts passing over, and men at work to keep it paved, not so very long ago".(2)

The ford marked on an old Ordnance Survey map. (Click to enlarge)

The precise location of the ford is still known, of course, not only because it is pinpointed on the older OS maps, but because a crossing is still possible in modern times, as pointed out locally, and indeed the rocks that undoubtedly form the augmented crossing cause the surface water of the river to rise and ripple over them.(3) 

Close by to the ford of the Boyne at Rosnaree is a place anciently called the House of Cletty (spelt variously as Cletigh, Cleiteach, Cleitech and Cletech, among others). Cleitech is said to have been the place where King Cormac Mac Art died after choking on a salmon bone, something that is very interesting because of Cleitech's proximity to Rosnaree and the Boyne, and the locality of Fiacc's Pool, where Fionn Mac Cumhaill and Finnegas were said to have caught the Salmon of Knowledge.

For a long time there was some mystery as to where Cleitech was located. The antiquarian William Wilde (father of Oscar Wilde) suggested it might have been at Clady, near Bective, south of Navan.(4) O'Donovan, in his notes on the Annals of the Four Masters, placed it "near Stackallen Bridge, on the south side of the Boyne."(5) Both were wrong. O'Donovan was closer, but Stackallen is several miles upstream from Rosnaree, west of Slane. It was Elizabeth Hickey who finally pinpointed its location through "considerable research"(6) and a healthy dose of doggedness. Here is her own account of the matter, based on her reading of the various myths and manuscripts. It is an excellent piece of detective work:
The Táin tells us that Cuchulain, when he went to woo Emer, descended to the Boyne on its lower reaches, between the Brugh of Oengus [Newgrange] and the Sidhe of Bresal to the west, and crossed the river between the houses of Cleitech and Fessi. From the story of the death of King Cormac we know that Cleitech was on the southern bank and was likely to have been near to Rosnaree, certainly not too far below the ford, for Cormac's bier was carried from the House of Cleitech to the river and borne by the river down to Rosnaree. Another story tells us of autumn games held between Newgrange and the House of Cleitech, and from these games and young folk ran to Knowth. The story of the death of Muirchertach gives us more detailed topography – the House of Cleitech was above the Boyne and above the green-topped Brugh; a glen lay to the south of the house; the grave of Muirchertach was to the north-east, according to another poem... There is only one spot on the map which fulfills all the conditions and this is the plateau-like elevation where Rosnaree House stands today.(7)
Síd in Broga (Newgrange) viewed from the Boyne at Rosnaree, near Cleitech.

Whatever the House of Cletty might have been, it is gone now. Its earliest mention as a house above the Boyne is in the Táin. One can imagine it might have been an Iron Age ringfort, something the Irish would have called a rath or a lios. But because it was the abode of kings (Muirchertach was the last king to live there), it might have been something more special, like a multivallate fort.(8) The Edwardian mansion of Rosnaree House is the most likely location of Cleitech, according to Hickey. The house is situated high above the river and from the terrace upon which it sits a great deal of the area can be seen, and there are views across to Knowth and Newgrange. According to archaeologist Geraldine Stout, a 14th/15th century reference "indicates that Cleitech lay near the Síd in Broga (Newgrange) and opposite Knowth".(9)

What might be the meaning of this name, Cleitech?

In a dialogue between Cúchulainn and his lover Emer, in the Táin Bó Cuailnge, Cúchulainn refers to a journey and masks the locations with obscure references, including: "over the Marrow of the woman Fedelm, between the Boar and His Dam", "That is, between Cleitech and Fessi. For Cleitech is the name for a boar, but it is also the name for a king, the leader of great hosts, and Fessi is the name for a great sow of a farmer's house."(10)

The old mill house at Rosnaree, close to Áth na Bóinne, the ancient ford across the Boyne.

Pigs and boars are prominent in Irish mythology. Long before the arrival of the builders of Newgrange and the neolithic farming revolution that saw the introduction of cows, wild boar was part of the staple mesolithic diet.(11) Pigs are plentiful in myth too. Lugh Lamhfada's father, Cian, took the shape of a wild pig to try to avoid the attention of the sons of Tuirenn. Diarmuid, one of the greatest warriors of the Fianna, was gored by a wild boar and consequently died. He was later brought to Newgrange by Oengus an Broga, "to put aerial life in him so that he will talk to me every day".(12)

But there is, perhaps, another meaning for Cleitech that makes sense in the context of a paved ford across the Boyne. In Shaw's dictionary, there is a word Cleitach which means "full of rocks", and a similar word, Cleitadh, meaning "a ridge of rocks in the sea".(13)

Whatever its meaning, Cleitech was an important place, although its house is long gone. However, the area around the ford at Rosnaree and the eminence upon which the House of Cletty once sat retain an ancient feel, and it's not difficult to see how the file (poet) or the draoi (druid), who might have drawn great inspiration from being close to the flowing waters of the Boyne, might have felt himself in heaven in these places.
...from just such ancestral visions the stuff of ancient history was made. This gentleman knew the river as the men of old, the number of the cygnets with the swans, the way the salmon ran, where lay the deep pool which must have been Linn Feic, the fox's way, the badgers' earth, the sunny sheltered place, a likely spot for hermitage. If Cleitech has disappeared, its environs remain unchanged – Cuchulain could cross the river today, and thinking of Emer, see nothing of the twentieth century but a slight untidiness of overgrowth.(14)
Rosnaree House (left), the most likely location of the ancient Cleitech, overlooking the Boyne.

(1) Holten, Anthony (2017), The River Boyne, p.527. See also Hickey, Elizabeth (1966), I Send My Love Along the Boyne, p.9.
(2) Hickey, op. cit, p.9.
(3) The present owners of the old mill house, the Heise family, showed me the location of these rocks.
(4) Wilde, William (1849) [2003], The Beauties of the Boyne and Blackwater, p.116.
(5) O'Donovan, John (translator and editor) (1854), Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters, Vol. I., pp.115-116.
(6) Hickey, op. cit., p.65.
(7) Hickey, op. cit., p.66.
(8) This, of course, is mere speculation on my part.
(9) Stout, Geraldine (2002), Newgrange and the Bend of the Boyne, Cork University Press, p.68.
(10) Lady Gregory, Cúchulainn of Muirthemne, p.353.
(11) Mallory, J.P. (2013), The Origins of the Irish, Thames & Hudson, pp.44-45.
(12) O'Kelly, Michael J. (1982), Newgrange: Archaeology, Art & Legend, p.43. This is cited from Ni Sheaghdha, N., (1967), Tóruigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne.
(13) Shaw, Rev. William (1780), Galic and English Dictionary, Volume 1.
(14) Hickey, op. cit., p.68. Hickey was here speaking with the then owner of Rosnaree House.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Climbing Slieve Gullion to see Calliagh Berra's House, the highest passage-tomb on the island of Ireland

I was up at Slieve Gullion today and decided to go and visit one of the ancient archaeological gems of Ireland that I had never seen before - the Calliagh Berra's House. This is a passage-tomb with covering cairn located on the summit of Slieve Gullion in County Armagh, at 570m above sea level. It is the highest passage-tomb in Ireland.

Setting out on the ascent up the path towards Calliagh Berra's House on Slieve Gullion.

Thankfully, there's a roadway that brings you to a small car park that is already 360m above sea level, so the walk/climb on foot is only a further 200m or so in elevation. Still, despite our brisk pace, it took my teenage sons and I about half an hour to make the climb. It was a dull day, although not cold, with only a light breeze. All the time it felt like it was going to rain but it mostly held off except for a very light drizzle for a few minutes at the top.

Looking south from Armagh towards Slieve Fuad (Fews Mountains).
The pathway up the mountain offers some beautiful views over the surrounding countryside. This was an excursion that stirred some excitement for me. I have long been a visitor to Sliabh na Calliagh, Loughcrew, hills in Meath scattered with ancient megalithic remnants. The two - Loughcrew and Slieve Gullion - are not only connected through their eponymous hag/goddess, but also through an alignment involving winter solstice.

As you get to the top of the path the cairn finally comes into view.

The path twists and turns and has been nicely laid out with smooth rocks in places, gravel in others, and just turf pathways in others. However, about halfway up things become more steep and the climb is a wee bit more arduous. This was no deterrent for my 14-year-old twins, who looked as nimble as Legolas running along the mountain ridges of Middle Earth. We met a man who said he was waiting on a bus! I suggested perhaps he was waiting on a helicopter. Truth be told, it might even be possible that a fairy bus does pass this way every once in a while.

The Calliagh Berra's Lake on the top of Slieve Gullion. Beyond it is another cairn, called the Northern Cairn.
The top of the mountain is remarkable. It has a small lake on it, known as the Calliagh Berra's lake. There is a story about Fionn Mac Cumhaill and this lake, which is nicely recounted on the Ring of Gullion website:
Fionn walked up the slopes of Slieve Gullion to the lake near the summit to find a beautiful young lady sobbing on the water’s edge. Being a gentleman he enquired as to why she was crying; to which she replied that she had dropped her golden ring in the bottomless lake. Without a moment’s hesitation Fionn ripped off his shirt and dived in, swam down until he found the ring, grabbed it and returned to the top only to find an old hag laughing, the Calliagh Berra. The witch had tricked Fionn and he fell out on the lake’s shore as an old withered man. When Fionn came down the mountain, no-one recognised him, not even the Fianna! However, when his trustworthy Irish Hounds smelled the old man they knew that he was their Master. Fionn, the Fianna, and the hounds forced the Calliagh Berra to restore Fionn to his youth, but it is said that his hair remained white like an old man’s for the rest of his life, and that his fate is said to befall anyone who bathes in the lake to this very day. Are you brave enough to dip your feet in the Calliagh Berra’s lake?

The cairn itself is known as Calliagh Berra's House and is just one of many ancient megalithic remnants that is named in her honour. At last we got the opportunity to enter its ancient passageway. It seemed like I had been waiting to do this for a long time. I've only ever imagined what it would be like because I had never seen it before. You have to hunker down at the entrance which takes a bit of nimble movement, but once inside the main thing to concern yourself with is the rocks on the floor. It would be very easy to sprain an ankle in there because the floor is so uneven.

Inside the chamber of Calliagh Berra's House looking out through the passage entrance.
The chamber and rear recess of the passage-tomb on the top of Slieve Gullion.
You certainly get the sense of a devoted, determined and stoic people. They built this cairn out of rocks - large and small - on top of a mountain in a far-distant age (around 5,000 years ago, maybe more) at a time when there was no proper footwear, and nothing like construction site health and safety. Building passage-tombs must have been a dangerous occupation in those times. It takes effort just to climb the mountain. But then to start hauling stones around the place in the cutting wind and inevitable rain must have been an undertaking requiring a serious devotion to the task. Calliagh Berra obviously commanded a pious respect among the ancient megalithic builders.

Another thing that strikes you is the lack of megalithic art. And indeed the lack of enormous structural stones such as those you find at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth - the large corridor orthostats, the bulky ceiling cap stones, the three-tonne kerb stones. This is a different type of structure to the Brugh na Bóinne complex. Similar in some respects, but different in others.

Sitting at the entrance of the passageway into Calliagh Berra's House.
They say first impressions last though. And Calliagh Berra's House made a deep impression on me. Such that I can say I would love to go back - and soon. Ideally in better weather, which makes for better photos. A trip up there for winter solstice sunset would be a distinct possibility. I'd love to see the sun shining in there as it sets beyond the distant hills of Loughcrew.

One thing that did slightly disappoint was the lack of a marker for Loughcrew on the direction plate on top of the cairn. However, even on a murky day like today the views are still beautiful. On a clear day, it's apparently possible to see the Slieve Bloom Mountains some 85 miles distant.

Upon turning to leave, it's not difficult to see how landscape made such a deep impression upon the imaginative and creative sensitivities of ancient people. Ireland is a beautiful country. I am reminded of this constantly. The journey back down the mountain created a greater awareness of that fact than the journey up. When you climb a hill or mountain, you are ever looking on ahead, upwards, towards the summit, the goal. You have a determination, and must concentrate your energies on getting there. On the way down, it's as if you have lightened your load, and the landscape unfurls beneath you. Even with the approaching rain, it looked heavenly. And that's a stark reminder of the real power that elevated megalithic sites must have had - engendering a sense of detachment from the sublunary world, providing an encroachment into the upper, divine levels, away from humdrum civilisation and altogether closer to something austere, numinous and regenerative.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Aislinge Oengusso - the Dream of Oengus - a retelling of the ancient love story of Newgrange by Anthony Murphy


D Eduard Muller’s translation updated for modern readers by Anthony Murphy

The story known as ‘Aislinge Oengusso’ (the vision or dream of Oengus) was first mentioned as a remscéla (introductory tale) to the Táin bó Cuailgne in the 12th century Book of Leinster, but is not recounted there. The story is contained in full in a British Library Egerton manuscript (1782, folio 70b) dating from AD1517. A translation by Eduard Müller was published in Revue Celtique in the 1870s. This translation uses somewhat archaic English, so I decided to update it for a more modern audience. (Note: It is not always implicit from the dialogue who is speaking, so I have had to use some judgement in a couple of instances. Any errors are, of course, mine). 


Oengus was sleeping one night when he saw something like a maiden near him at the top of his bed. She was the most beautiful woman in Ireland. Oengus tried to take her by the hands to bring her into his bed, but she suddenly vanished. His mind was uneasy until the morning. 

The episode brought an illness upon him – this vision of a figure he had seen but with whom he hadn’t spoken. He did not eat any food. The next night, he saw her again, this time with a cymbal in her hand. She played a song to him so that he fell asleep. He was there until morning. When he woke, he did not have any breakfast.

A whole year passed by and she continued to visit him in his bed so that he fell in love. He didn’t tell anybody about this mysterious maiden. He fell ill and nobody knew what was wrong with him.
The physicians of Erinn assembled. They did not know what was wrong. One went to Fergne, the physician of Conn. He came to Oengus. He knew from looking at Oengus’s face what was wrong with him. He had an illness of the mind.

Fergne spoke with Oengus and told him that an “accidental love has fallen on you”. 

“My illness has judged me,” said Oengus. “I loved in heartlessness. And nobody dared say it to the other.”

“It is true,” said Oengus. “I met a beautiful woman, the most beautiful that is in Erinn, with a distinguished appearance; she had a cymbal in her hand on which she used to play to me every night.”

Fergne knew that love sickness had seized Oengus, so he went to fetch the young man’s mother, Boann, to come and speak with him.

“I was trying to cure this man,” said Fergne, “who has been seized by an uncertain illness.”

Fergne asked Boann to search the whole of Ireland for a maiden like that which her son had seen at night. And so Boann searched Ireland for a year, but nothing was found.

Fergne was called for again. “We have not found any help in this matter,” said Boann.

Fergne said: “Send for the Dagda, so that he may come and speak with his son.”

Brug Mac ind Oicc (Newgrange), where Oengus had his dream of the maiden Caer.
Dagda came. “Why have I been called here?” he asked. “To help your son,” said Boann.  “Your help is better for him. It would be a pity for him to die. He has an illness. He has fallen in an accidental love and there is no help for him.”

“What use is it to him to speak with me?” said the Dagda. “My knowledge is no better than yours.”

Fergne said to the Dagda that he was the “fairy king of Erinn” and he implored Dagda to send to the fairy king of Munster, Bodb, whose knowledge was known far and wide. 

So they went to Bodb, who asked why they had come. “Oengus the son of the Dagda is in love this past two years,” said Fergne. “What for?” said Bodb. “He saw a maiden in his dreams. We don’t know anywhere in Ireland that this maiden can be found.” Bodb was asked to search Ireland for a woman of this form and appearance. Bodb agreed and said it would take him a year until he could answer with certainty.

Fergne went at the end of a year back to the house of Bodb, at Síd fer Femoin. 

“I have investigated all Erinn,” said Bodb, “until I found the maiden at Loch bel Draccon at the harp of Cliach.”

The two went to Dagda with the good news. “The maiden has been found,” said Fergne. “Now Bodb insists that Oengus is to come with us in order to ascertain whether he recognises her as the maiden he saw in his dreams.”

Oengus was brought in a chariot to Síd fer Feimin. A great feast was held with king Bodb for three days and nights. Afterwards, Bodb beckoned Oengus outside, to see if he recognised the woman.
They travelled until they were at the sea, where they saw 150 young women and the maiden was among them. A silvery chain linked every two of the women, a silvery necklace around the neck and a chain of burnished gold.

Caer took the form of a swan for a year and a human the next year.

“Do you recognise the maiden?” Bodb asked.

“Of course I recognise her,” replied Oengus.

“This is not your greatest power,” said Bodb.

“Not so,” replied Oengus. “For I will not be able to take her with me this time.”

“Who is this maiden, o Bodb?” asked Oengus.

“I know who she is. She is Caer ib Ormaith, daughter of Ethal Anbual from Sid Uaman in the province of Connacht.”

Oengus returned with Bodb to Brug mac ind Oicc (Newgrange) to visit the Dagda and Boann. They related how they had seen the maiden, and had heard the name of her father and grandfather. Bodb suggested to the Dagda that he should go to Ailell and Medb in their territory in the land of Connacht, where the maiden was located.

The Dagda travelled with 60 chariots to Connacht. The king and queen welcomed him. They had a feast and drank beer for a whole week. The king asked Dagda what was the reason for his journey.
“There is a maiden in your land,” said the Dagda,” and my son is in love with her and an illness has seized him. I came to ask if you could give her to my son.”

“Which woman is she?” asked Ailell.

“The daughter of Ethal Anbual.”

“We have no power over her,” said Ailill and Medb, “that we could give her to him.”

“Let the king be called here,” said the Dagda.

The stuart of Ailell went to Ethal Anbual and told him he was to go and speak with Ailell and Medb.
“I will not go,” he said. “I will not give my daughter to the son of the Dagda.”

Ethel Anbual’s answer was related to Ailell. “He will not come. He knows the reason for which he is called.”

“Not so,” said Ailell. “I will go and my soldiers will be taken to him.”

Then the household of Ailell and the army of the Dagda rose up towards the fairies. They destroyed the whole síd. They went to the king who was in the caves of anxiety.

Ailell said to Ethal Anbual: “Give your daughter to the son of the Dagda.”

“I cannot,” he said. “There is a greater power in them.”

“What greater power?” asked Ailell.

“Not difficult to say,” replied Ethal Anbual. “To be in the shape of a bird every day of a year; and the other year to be in human shape.”

“Which year will she be in the shape of a bird?” said Ailell.

“I don’t know,” said Caer’s father.
Ailell threatened to cut his head off if he did not explain. So he did.

“She will be in the shape of a bird the next summer at Loch bel Draccon and beautiful birds will be seen with her and there will be 150 swans about her.”

Afterwards, Ailell, Ethal and the Dagda became good friends and Ethal was set free.

The Dagda went to his house and told the news to his son.

“Next summer, you must go to Loch bel Draccon and call her to you at the lake.”

Mac Og went to Loch bel Draccon when he saw the 150 white birds at the lake with their silvery chains and golden caps around their heads. Oengus was in human shape at the edge of the lake. He called the maiden to him.

“Come to speak with me, o Chaer.”

“Who calls me?” said Caer.

“Oengus calls you. Come and yield to me.”

Swans at Newgrange...these birds may have inspired some of the old myths.
“I will come,” she said. She went over to him. He put his two hands on her. They slept in the shape of two swans until they surrounded the lake three times. They left the lake in the form of two white birds until they were at the Brug of the mic ind Oicc and they made sweet music so that the people fell asleep for three days and three nights.

The maiden Caer remained with Oengus at the Brug after that.

Afterwards, Oengus became good friends with Ailell and Medb and as a consequence Oengus went with three hundred others to Ailell and Medb for the Táin bo Cuailgne.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Painting with light: the three most highly decorated kerb stones at Newgrange in gorgeous detail

To celebrate the fact that the Mythical Ireland Facebook page has just passed 30,000 likes, I am revealing these three images of the most decorated kerb stones at Síd in Broga (Newgrange). The photos were taken in the pre-dawn twilight around winter solstice, with the kind permission of the Office of Public Works (OPW). In order to capture these stones in a way that has probably never been seen before, I used an old technique called "painting with light".

Kerb stone 52 at Newgrange, which is diametrically opposite the entrance kerb stone, K1.
My favourite of the three is the above photo of kerb 52 (K52), which can be found at the very rear of the mound, diametrically opposite the entrance kerb stone (K1). I'd only ever previously been able to photograph this stone in daylight. And while I have a couple of nice photos of it, I always longed to use the painting with light technique on it. The image was captured by putting the camera on a tripod and keeping the shutter open for about 15 seconds. During this time, I was "painting" the stone with light using a small LED torch, first from the right and then from the left. The result is an image that I've been waiting for years to achieve. I hope you like it. I have speculated that it contains representations of stars we know today as Orion's Belt and Sirius. At the time of the construction of Newgrange, Sirius was visible from its interior chamber as it transited the roof box.

Spirals on the entrance kerb stone at Newgrange, kerb 1 (K1).
The entrance kerb stone at Newgrange is one of the most famous artefacts from the ancient world, and its design has been photographed perhaps millions of times over the decades. One of the OPW guides at Newgrange regularly tells visitors that "it's the most photographed stone in the world, after Mick Jagger"! Sometimes, especially in midwinter, the evening sunlight catches this stone so that it is illuminated at a very shallow angle, which is the perfect angle for bringing out the relief. I have in previous years been able to get a nice photo using remote flash to achieve the same result. However, I still think that the above image, painted with light during dark twilight, is better than anything I would have achieved during the day.

Kerb stone 67 with its double spiral, triangles and lozenges.
The other of the three most decorated kerb stones at Newgrange, and perhaps the least famous, is this one, kerb 67. It is remarkable that of the 97 huge greywackle slabs that form the kerb around Newgrange, only three are highly decorated. There are carvings on plenty of others, but K1, K52 and K67 are the only stones that feature designs over most of their visible surface. Fascinatingly, there are some stones that are decorated on their rear side, where the carvings cannot be seen.