Fadó, fadó, sure there were only the 2 seasons in Ireland. Summer and Winter.
Even after things moved on, for people, and for the land, these main boundaries in time loomed large every year for the Irish people.
And the turning between the two was a time of magic, and mayhem… you’d never even know what could happen as the boundaries shifted and the worlds changed.
At Samhain, from Summer into Winter; and again at Bealtaine, from Winter back to Summer.
So, here we are now, on that very threshold. What is the magic that might happen, on May Eve (now often called Beltane) in Ireland?
Long time ago now, the young children – especially girls – used to go around from house to house dressed in beautiful flowers. Think about the other side of this, with the Halloween customs we still have, and you’ll see the truth and the balance of it alright. These youngsters used to sing a song at each house, and get a few pence in exchange. They’d sing and bring flowers through the community, all the way around the boundaries.
You could do a bit of divination too, around May eve, if you were of a mind to. First sweep the threshold clean, sprinkle ashes from a fire over it, and watch for the first footprints. If you see the prints turned inwards, it means a marriage; but if you see the prints turned outwards, it means a death.
There’s talk to, of how they used to get a plate and sprinkle it with flour, then leave it at the threshold of the house. At sunset, take a look, and you would see the initials of your true love’s name.
In the old days, they’d also light a bush before the house on May Eve, and that would keep away thunder and lightning. ‘Twas sure to.
Folk would sit up at night on this eve, to be minding their cows and their land – there was a lot of witchcraft worked in those days. And maybe there still is sure, who knows?
One farmer I heard tell of had the experience of seeing a hare one May Eve going around his cows, and drinking a sup of milk from each cow. He chased the hare to a cabin with a hound he had with him. When he went into the cabin an old woman was panting in the bed. There’s a lot of stories like that I heard, when I was growing up here in Ireland.
They used also light a fire on May Eve too, and drive their cows over it. Or two bonfires side by side, and the cattle had to go between them. So close that the hide on them would be singed and the tang of burnt hair was strong on the breeze. In certain places, some would even be taken to the hilltops and bled; as an offering to the Old Ones, or to let out the bad humours… who knows why?
If there was a pond of water between two farmers, both farmers would try to be out early to skim the pond before the other got to it. They’d have to say the right words too: “North and South and East and West is mine”, or it wouldn’t even work, and their neighbour would get it all instead.
Then – to protect from all this magical influence going round and about at Bealtaine, you’d go and gather armful of yellow flowers. Or send the young girls of the house to do it, and these flowers were simply known as May Flowers. These are strewn at the gate of every field, outside the doors of homes and out-houses and even on the housetops. They’d keep away all sorts; the ill-luck, evil spirits, and disease.
Sure you’d never know what’s out and about on May Eve in Ireland.
To follow on from the recent post on Irish Ráths, I wanted to include some extra detail on a type of Ráth – the Lios.
In my experience and understanding, Liosanna (plural) are particularly associated with the Sidhe, the Irish Fairies, so I was very surprised to come across this account today…
Liosanna are plainly seen in many districts near the school. Quite close to the school in the same townsland – Ballycurrane – are three or rather were for one of them Crunnigans is gone. Coughlans is a field or so down from the school. Healys is at the other side of the stream running down from the well. Both are just round mounds with trees growing on them. There is no account of a passage in either of these. A part of Healys has been dug away at one side and the clay etc. coming out of it is a peculiar black colour. Some loads of it were brought here to to the school about nine years ago to make a dry path in from the road. It set like cement and gave it the appearance in patches of a tarred road. Bones were got there at one time but whether they were animal or human nobody knows. Old people used to say they heard music there at night long ago.
Crunnigans ploughed out the lios and as a result there is no one of the name there to day. The house is in ruins and the farm was bought by Merrinans.
Probably the nearest Lios to these is Hallorans in Kilgabriel. This differs from the others in the fact that it has a passage and underground chambers. In the time of the Civil War it was examined by the Free State soldiers who thought it was a dump for arms.
There is another big one in Declan Flahertys land in Ballindrumma. This is connected by an underground passage with the one in McGraths of Knockaneris. People who saw it say it was marvellously done and was paved with stones. Unfortunately hunting for foxes who went to earth in it has caused parts of it to fall in.
There was another passage from Knockaneris to Flemings in Coolbagh and from there to Dromore.
On the other side of the school across the Licky on the Grange side are two more – one in Briens and one called ‘Maire Ni Mearas’. There is an entrance to Briens one and some men went into years ago bringing a ball of hemp with them to guide them. The fox when hard pressed always takes refuge in it.
The following story was told to me by James Scanlan of Cladagh. When Maire Ni Meara lived she sent a man with two horses to plough the lios. He was not long ploughing when the two horses fell prostrate on the ground and despite all his efforts he couldn’t move them. He rushed in for the woman and she seeing how matters stood knelt down and asked God to restore the horses to her and promised faithfully that she would never interfere with it again. Immediately the horses stood up and from that day to this Maire Ni Meara’s Lios has remained undisturbed. The land now belongs to Currans of Ballylangiden.
The general opinion held by all the old people here is that they were built by the Danes. Whenever they were attacked or in any danger they lit a fire on top of the lios and this gave warning to the others. A fire lit on any of the Grallagh Liosanna can be seen from Healy’s Lios in Ballycurrane. This was evidently the important one here. A fire lit in Flaherty’s Lios could be seen from Knockaneris and so on. Mr. Mason of Augh heard the old people say that it was only when Brian Boru found out the secret of the liosanna and how they were able to signal and communicate with each other that he was able for the Danes.
Curiously I have met no one yet who mentioned fairies in connection with them. All seem to hold that they were used by the Danes for defence. They were all practically on a slope to give them a commanding position and all are the same shape round.
The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0640, Page 233
Now, I’m not sure what they think might have been the cause of them horses falling over and then miraculously reviving with a promise of leaving the site alone… but I’ve never heard tell of a Lios that didn’t mention fairies in connection with them. So I was curious.
There’s no mention of these monuments or the townland names on my go-to for Waterford sites – Prehistoric Waterford. Which suggests that they’d be Medieval monuments, not Iron or Stone Age sites.
Next stop is the SMR Database on www.Archaeology.ie, where we have the Archaeological Survey of Ireland from the National Monuments Service. Here we find a Ringfort of no apparent archaeological value at Ballycurrane…
But a little further North we can see the Ballindrumma site mentioned (on Declan Flaherty’s land) does have mention of a Souterrain attached:
WA035-010002- Class: Souterrain, Townland: BALLINDRUMMA.Description: Two souterrains are marked on the 1927 ed. of the OS 6-inch map, one of which is also marked on the 1840 ed of the map. It is likely that there is only one souterrain which is indicated by an area of scrub centrally located within rath (WA035-010—-), and also by two lintels on the perimeter at N.
So, I wanted to show ye a little insight of how I get some preliminary research on Irish monuments, and how the different resources can work together. From here, I’d like to get feet on the ground out at Ballindrumma (maybe for a Patreon Site Visit) and see what it looks like from there.
I wonder will I find any sight or sound of the Sidhe myself?
Saint Peter sat on a marble rock crying with the toothache.Our Lord passed by and said “Peter what is they ailment”.Peter said, “O Lord I am troubled with the toothache”Our Lord said, Stand up Peter and follow Me”
A good thing to cure any kind of sores is to get a dog to lick them, as there is a cure in the dog’s tongue.
An Aunt of mine- -Mrs Margaret Meade, The Cottage, Halfway House, Waterford had a charm for stopping a bleeding. It was a certain form of words which she repeated. There was a difference between words said to stop bleeding in a human being and those said to stop bleeding in an animal. She used this charm exclusively and it always successful. There is an old man still living in this locality Pierce Meade, Kilcullen, Waterford (age 99 years now) who had a horse which was bleeding to death. He went to her to use the charm. She did so and the horse was cured when he went home. Rev Fr Lennon, Killea, Waterford prevailed upon her to give us using the charm. She did so. The charm could only be transmitted from a woman to a man or vice versa. She intended passing on the charm to her brother before she did, but as she had ceased using it for years the matter was forgotten and the charm died with her.
ARCHIVAL REFERENCE – The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0652, Page 313. Images and data © National Folklore Collection, UCD. (except the Goat image!)
Yes, I feckin spelled that right. Thank you.
Rath, not wrath.
Ráth is the Irish term for an archaeological Ringfort, anglicised as Rath – or one of the terms, rather. Others being lios (anglicised lis), caiseal (anglicised cashel), cathair (anglicised caher or cahir) and dún (anglicised dun or doon). [ref Nancy Edwards, ‘The Archaeology of Early Medieval Ireland’, 2006]
A casual perusal of any Irish map or story will show you a whole rake of placenames with at least the anglicised versions of these words built right into them. Like, you can’t miss them. Rathcroghan would be a very famous example; Ráth Crúachán – the legendary home of Connacht Queen Maedbh (Maeve), and the Irish Goddess of battle and prophecy, the Mórrígan.
Ráth and Lios are what we call those earthen enclosure ringforts (with lios having a particular connotation as a fairy fort in more modern times, out of all of them, for some reason), while Caiseal and Cathair both signify a stone ringfort. The Dún then, can refer to any fort really, and it doesn’t even have to be circular either for that one… it’s basically used to signify an important stronghold.
There’s examples of these types of Ringforts in Ireland dated from the Bronze Age onwards (roughly 2500 or 2000 BCE on), but they’re definitely most common in the early Medieval, and they stopped being built probably around 1000 CE.
They came in all sizes really, with the earthen ringforts marked by a circular rampart (a bank and ditch), and they would have had (generally) at least one building inside, but often multiple dwellings and animal enclosures. The majority of them seem to have been domestic, but there’s a strong theory that the later more domestic working Medieval Ráth was built over or incorporated earlier Bronze and particularly Iron Age dwellings or even ceremonial enclosures, as there’s a distinct relative lack of vernacular housing remains for that period.
Archaeological excavation within some of the Ringforts revealed a lot about their function – there’s some of them with nothing we can find inside, and these have largely been deemed as livestock enclosures, but I’d suggest that an occasional ’empty’ one might just have been ceremonial in nature. In general though there’ll be a large central building found, usually circular, with smaller out-buildings beside or near it. There might be some other stuff too, like cereal drying kilns, or smithing furnaces. It looks like most of them would have been a homestead for small community or extended family, with the protection built in for any dangers roaming round outside the walls or banks.
In Ireland, there’s over 40,000 sites currently identified as Ringforts, and they reckon there would have been at least 50,000 on the island. [ref Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, ‘A New History of Ireland’ Vol 1, 2005]. They are so common in fact, that within any average area of 2 km2 (0.8 sq mi), you’ve a good chance of finding one.
Nowadays, they’re respected and not touched, for the most part, by landowners and communities, as they’re most often referred to as ‘fairy forts’. And you don’t want to go messing with the Good Neighbours now, do ya?
[NOTE – Photo Source]
Kite aerial photograph of the Multivallate Ringfort at Rathrá, Co Roscommon, Ireland. April 2016.
Source: West Lothian Archaeology’s camera flown on a kite at the field outing of the Rathcroghan Conference in April 2016. Credit: West Lothian Archaeological Trust (Jim Knowles, Frank Scott and John Wells).
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A clash of metal rang out over the training grounds, followed by a muffled grunt of exertion, and the wooden thud of shield engaging shield.
“Put yer backs into it little wormies! Domhnall, keep that shield up, yer shoulder is wide open. Aoife, thrust and slice, stop that bloody hacking!”
Her attention caught by the familiar morning sights and sounds of Corbhall putting the young warriors through their paces, she couldn’t help but smile as he met her eye with a wolfish grin. The benevolent smile faded somewhat as she observed him raise his leg and let rip a loud fart in her general direction. She sighed a little, observing him grab up a large wooden waster and stride off towards the hapless Domhnall, who was about to get a very practical lesson in what happens when a person leaves their shoulder exposed in a battle situation. Well, at least he was using a wooden training sword this time, and not his own fierce blade. Phuic’s latest ‘little chat’ with him must have done some good.
As she turned to go inside, movement through the hawthorn boundary stirred her curiosity, and she stepped towards it for a clearer view. As her home was situated with the School to the east and the Procession Ways to the west, she gained a clear view of the latter direction by moving through a small gap in the boundary with her back to the morning sun.
A tall, graceful figure was moving softly over the grass, and Leila recognised her immediately. Alone, as usual, the girl Saille made her careful way to a point exactly between the two raised banks, placing herself at the start of the ritual procession route. Pale arms seemed to glow in the bright morning light as she raised them in salute, the loose sleeves of her robe falling back lightly, and fluttering as she turned to face the newly risen sun. Eyes closed, she did not notice that she had an audience. Opening her mouth, her voice poured forth – the strong beginning note sounding pure in the morning air. Respectfully, Leila turned back, not wanting to disturb the solitary girl’s rituals, or embarrass her with observation. Besides, it was time to make her way to the School, classes would begin shortly.
Gathering her things from inside, she shut the door on her way out and walked a brisk pace around the training grounds, out to the horse fields. If she didn’t collect little Anande every day that child would never set foot in the classroom. Leila doubted she would ever do anything that didn’t involve those horses, unless someone cajoled, begged or forced her to do it. It had been the very same since she had arrived for fostering at the age of 2 – she was already grooming and working with horses by then. 8 years on, the obsession had only grown deeper. Her own breeding pair were her pride and joy, a fine white stallion she had called Tír na nÓg, and a proud dark mare who went by the (somewhat risky, Leila had often felt) name of Mórrioghan.
Indeed, her hard work and dedication had already paid off, with their offspring highly sought after – holding top position in many races each year, all over the land. Anande’s talents had come to the notice of the Queen herself, and it was known that she would have the option of a place in the royal household when she came of age. Although knowing that girl, she would probably never venture much beyond the stables and the horse fields, once she didn’t have to.
With the Óenach just around the corner, Leila braced herself for the frustrated tirade she knew was imminent. Sure enough, as soon as she came into view, Anande was upon her, demanding to know the news – would she be allowed to compete her own horses this year? Every other year she had been judged too young, even though her skill was equal to any grown man or woman. Privately, Leila supposed that the judges were listening too much to the whispers of their friends – friends whose whispers were fuelled mainly by fear of being beaten by a 10 year old girl. At these large community fairs, pride was everything; Anande represented too much of a threat to the long established egos.
“I am sorry mo leanbh, I have not heard a decision yet. But it would not do to get your hopes too high. You are young yet, and there is plenty of time to compete. This year again, the children of your horses will run, and be shown, and all will see and know your gifts with these creatures. Your time will come.”
Leila waited patiently while the girl cleared up and said goodbye to her friends, preparing herself for another day away from them. Hearing a grumpy ‘harrumph’ from the mare, she turned to find a large hairy hound loping across the open ground towards them, tongue lolling with exertion from the run. Greeting him with a smile, she spent the remaining wait for the child stroking Phuic’s sleek black head, and scratching his soft furry back. When Anande was ready to leave, they set out together, Phuic still in his hound form leading the way to the School.
When Leila had first arrived at Caiseal Manannan, it had taken her a while to get used to the Shifters.
Nervous at first, she had avoided their company, keeping largely to herself, as much as possible. But she had soon realised it was impossible not to like Phuic, with his easy going nature and boundless energy. The rest had taken her longer to get to know, with Corbhall being the last and latest. That one still made her slightly uneasy at times – the singular nature of the warrior wolf a contrast to Phuic’s flexible changing. The man did a great job training the young warriors though, she had to give him that. It made up for some of the noisy body functions and harshly practical and abrupt personality, at least.
Approaching the School, the trio made their way up by the stone wall of the first enclosure, over the ditch and in through the largest, central enclosure. Beyond the next ditch was the third enclosure, where her classroom was situated. Opening the door wide to catch the early breeze, she decided that today was a day for outdoor learning; perhaps a walk to identify some new plant species, and a lesson in the afternoon regarding the medicinal and magical properties of their new found flora. Phuic was already settling into his shift mode – which she still, despite her best efforts, found difficult to watch – for he would need human hands again to complete his daily tasks. It was not easy to maintain the armoury or practise sword forms with the hooves of a goat or the talons of a raven. Anande picked the broom from the yard, making her way to the classroom door to begin the morning sweep. Leila was close on her heels, and they both stopped short when they encountered the man seated inside. Uncurling from the chair, he rose and followed them as they backed out into the open. Phuic looked up in surprise at the unexpected visitor, but when he identified who had joined them, he quickly took his leave. Anande too, found somewhere else she urgently needed to be. Left with a polite smile glued to her face, Leila barely suppressed the flutter of panic in her breast. The man watched Phuic enter the main enclosure and disappear into the armoury, waiting for the last longing look that inevitably reached Leila as he left, and nodding with seeming satisfaction as it arrived right on cue. Leila failed to notice either man’s actions, her eyes on the ground.
“Sit with me.”
The command was not harsh, but it brooked no argument, so Leila sat at his feet. As she looked up into eyes that gave their colour to the seas, she felt nervous tension drain from her shoulders, and took a deep breath. This refreshed her. However apprehensive his unexpected presence had made her, they shared a trust carefully built with years of respectful interaction. She closed her eyes, and allowed his voice to transport her…
“You are floating. Dark seas all around you, and you sit in a currach, calm amid the storms. The motion is gentle, soothing, a contrast to the turbulence that surrounds you. As the boat moves, the serenity moves with you. You focus on that still centre, and look outward as you journey.
An island. People, music, fire. A confusing jumble of strange activity, odd clothing, incomprehensible speech. You move on, away, seeking forward on your journey.
Another island. Large structures, fast moving objects. You move on. Another, a large procession, giant green hats and banners, standards and crests unrecognisable. You move on. Faster and faster you move by the islands, none are right for you to see. Metal monsters that roar and speed faster than you can follow. Houses and keeps taller than any tree, taller even than the mountains. Music and sounds so loud they hurt the ear. Plants and animals so alien to your eyes. Colours and lights brighter than the stars, than flames, brighter than the summer sun. People of so many tribes, in garments and materials the like of which you have never dreamed. Doing things you can make no sense of. Your boat skims onwards, forwards on your journey.
And stops. This island seems empty, the shoreline clean and unbroken by habitat. Your currach washes up, bow softly kissing the sand. You disembark, sandy shingle quickly giving way to smoothened rocks as you make your way up the beach, then to wiry scrub, and finally to grassy land. There are trees you know, some small plants that are recognisable. Familiar forest noises, soothing after the strangeness. Then human sounds, voices in the distance. No discernible language, but shouts and laughter that seem to indicate contented playfulness. Continuing in that direction, you keep to the cover of the trees as you come to an open space, a clearing, in which a family are at rest. Not wanting to disturb them, you simply see.
A young boy, about 6 or 7 years old – shouting and whooping as he runs through the long grass. He is broad shouldered for one so young, sturdy and healthy looking. His sisters chase him, laughing carefree girls of early puberty, maybe 11 or 12; there’s not much between them in age. The younger girl is fit and strong, whooping with sheer pleasure, filled with energy and raw power. The older is graceful and willowy, more reserved than her siblings, joining in as she wants to but deliberately curbing her enthusiasm, and often distracted by some small detail, mesmerised in her own world until a shout or a poke brings her back into the game.
The grownups sit and watch, at ease with each other and comfortably familiar. He is a young old man, whose countenance seems to shed a light all his own; a bright, happy soul who cannot help but show his adoration for the family, and a deep self-satisfaction with the situation in which he finds himself. Fit, with a warrior’s movements and the innocence of youth. And she, she is dark of hair and light of skin, taller than a woman should be, but striking. There is a… presence about her, something that is hard to describe, a power that lies smooth under the surface. As you observe her, puzzling, she turns and looks directly at you. With no surprise, she smiles, and nods hello, and you return the courtesy. With that recognition, you know it is time to leave this happy family, to return through the trees, to the beach, and climb in to seat yourself in the currach.
The sea swells gently to carry you back, away from the island and back out across the waves. As you return, you think of this family, the knowing smile of that mother, safe in her home surrounded by her loved ones, and you can’t help but smile again.
You are floating again. Dark seas all around you, and you sit in the currach, calm amid the storms. The motion is gentle, soothing, a contrast to the turbulence that surrounds you. As the boat moves, the serenity moves with you. You focus on that still centre, and hear my voice. You remember those people. Their spirits are familiar, you have met and known them already, and will remember and love them again. Keep that calm centre within you as you travel your outward journey, and when you are ready, just open your eyes…”
And she did.
This piece grew from a character banter/brainstorm with the kids in the car on the way to school one morning. I write the following when I returned home, and the rest came later.
Saille: Priestess in training. Mystery figure who refuses to engage with anyone. Age undetermined.
Anande: 10 year old horse breeder/trainer. Not allowed to compete her horses in the óenach, too young! But there’s men of 50 who aren’t ¼ as good as she is. She keeps a mare and a stallion who’s offspring regularly win the races, breeds horses for the king and the queen themselves.
Corbhall: 19 year old warrior who farts a lot! Trains all the child warriors at the school, and can shape shift into a wolf.
Leila: Teacher in Caiseal Manannan.
Phuic: Shape shifts – black dog, black stallion, black bird. Young warrior knight.
All that aside, Manannan is a fascinating figure in Irish Gaelic tales. In his essay, Dr. Charles McQuarrie describes:
“Manannan mac Lir, the sometime god of the Irish Sea and lord of the Otherworld, who appears most often as a beneficent Otherworld-god-in-disguise. In some tales, especially the earlier ones, Manannan appears disguised as a noble mortal king, but in later tales, as in a number of 15th century sources, he appears in bizarre, horrible, and even comical disguise.”
The late, great, Prof. Dáithí O hÓgáin described him as “Otherworld lord and mythical mariner”, who rode over the waves on a horse named Enbharr (‘water-foam’), and the professor tells of the waves being called ‘the locks of Manannan’s wife’.
This son of the sea is associated with stone remains lying South West of Rathcroghan mound. Caiseal Manannan was a multivallate stone fort, made up of three concentric stone walls, with ditches between each – a site which may originally have incorporated a roofed structure. The inner enclosure is 40 metres in diameter, and the walls are approx. 1.5 metres thick. There is reference to a ‘Druidic school’ in the area, and Caiseal Manannan (the stone fort of Manannan) is a likely site for that.
Learning journeys to the Otherworld, teaching the secrets of safe travel, the mysteries of warrior training and initiation, and the priestly arts… it all had to happen somewhere, right?
Ogham (Pronounced: OH-mm, spelled ‘Ogam’ in Old Irish) is an ancient Irish language, written in a series of simple line markings along a straight edge. The original alphabet is a set of 20 characters or feda, arranged in 4 groups of 5, called aicmí. In later manuscripts, 5 additional letters appear, called the forfeda.
The characters themselves are known collectively as Beth-luis-nin, after the first letters of the groups, similar to the way Greek Alpha and Beta gave us the ‘alphabet’. Each Ogham letter is associated with a plant or tree, and a particular sound, and represents a collection of ‘kennings’; keys to knowledge, called the Briatharogaim.
While the texts and tales frequently mention Ogham being carved on wood and bark – used for spells and to record genealogies – it is the 358 inscribed stones known to remain in Ireland which provide a more permanent record. These seem to have served as burial or commemoration stones, boundary markers, and even a legal record for who might hold title to the land on which they stand.
It is impossible to definitively date the language, as we have no certain fixed points in history, archaeology, or linguistics. Most will agree that the Ogham carved stone tradition dates at least back to the 300’s CE, coinciding with the coming of the Latin language to Ireland, through trade with Roman Britain and the scholarship of Christian monks. Whether this was the start of the script, or it has deeper Pagan roots, is a question that waits to be answered.
Ogham’s importance in a hero’s burial is immortalised in the Táin:
“Then Etarcomol’s grave was dug
And his headstone planted in the ground
His name was written in Ogam
And he was mourned.”
Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom is a breakthrough in ogam divination and magical studies. Rather than working from the commonly known tree alphabet paradigm, Erynn Rowan Laurie takes us back to the roots of each letter’s name, exploring its meanings in the context of Gaelic language and culture. Like the Norse runes, each letter is associated with an object or a concept — “sulfur”, “a bar of metal”, “terror”. These letters are deeply enmeshed in a web of meaning both cultural and spiritual, lending power and weight to their symbolism. With two decades of experience with the ogam and over thirty years of working with divination, Erynn offers insights into the many profound meanings hidden in the ogam letters and their lore. She explains each letter in context and shows how to expand the system in new and innovative ways while acknowledging and maintaining respect for ogam’s traditional language and culture. In this book, you will find ways to use the ogam for divination, ideas on incorporating ogam into ritual, discussions of how ogam relates to Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism, and instructions for creating your own set of ogam feda or letters for your personal use.
This book is a creative exploration of the Ogam, based on a 17-year study by Irish author John-Paul Patton. The text explores the historical context of Ogam and the relationship between Ogam, poetry and the Gaelic harp. It contains a range of comparative studies between Ogam and the Kabbalah, Runes, I Ching and other systems. The text also presents original creations of an Ogam calendar, a divination system, and a reconstruction of Fidchell (the ancient Irish chess game) based on Ogam. The text further includes a system of Gaelic martial arts based on an elemental Ogam framework, magical Ogam squares, Ogam pentacles and much more, that fill this Tour de Force of contemporary Ogam study and use. The Poet’s Ogam carries on the Art and Science of the Filid-the Philosopher Poets who created and developed the Ogam and is a must for anyone with an interest in Celtic spirituality and magick. John-Paul Patton is generally recognised as a leading authority in Ireland of esoteric Ogam studies.
Tara in the Middle (Meath), Navan Fort in Ulster (North), Dún Ailinne in Leinster (East), Cashel in Munster (South), and Rathcroghan in Connacht (West), were major seats of the Kings and Queens in Iron Age Ireland, while Uisneach is the traditional ‘Navel of Ireland’, where all provinces met.
Activity at these sites stretches from deep roots in the Stone Age, through the Bronze Age, to the height of power during the Iron Age, and even on into Medieval Christian times. Modern spiritual seekers still gather at the sites which are accessible today.
Their presence in the landscape was commanding, sited at strategic and elevated positions, and each grew organically through many phases of use, but always with a similarity of form – as is clear from the Circles and Avenues image – and a distinct spiritual and ritual focus.
What ancient Irish Kings and Queens were inaugurated and lived, were born or buried at these Royal Sites?
Here we’ll look at the basics on Maedbh, the ‘Celtic’ warrior queen of Connacht (yes, that’s the correct spelling – ‘Connaught’ is the later anglicised version) – her home, family life, relationships, ruling from Rathcroghan, burial, and the cultural inspiration she has become.
It depends on which version of Gaeilge, the Irish language, you are using.
Medb (the Old Irish spelling) – in Middle Irish: Meḋḃ, Meaḋḃ; in early modern Irish: Meadhbh; in reformed modern Irish Méabh, Maedbh, Medbh; sometimes anglicised Maeve, Maev, Meave or Maive (all modern versions are pronounced May-v).
Most notably, the warrior priestess queen of Connacht, the western province of Ireland.
It is said that her father gifted her with Connacht, and no king could rule here unless they were married to Queen Maedbh. She had many husbands, and ruled for many years.
Maeve appears in much of the literature of the Ulster saga tales, and our most famous epic literary tale, the Táin Bó Cuailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley) features her strongly as the protagonist. Or is that the antagonist…?
Historically, she would have lived sometime around the years 0 – 100AD, if she existed as a real flesh and blood queen. And that is the question – was she real?
A queen, or a Goddess of the land? A priestess of a sovereignty Goddess, who rose to power? An archetypal figure, representing… what? These are some of the riddles of Queen Maedbh.
Meadb of Cruachan, daughter of Eochaid Feidleach, another of Conchobar’s wives, mother of Amalgad, Conchobar’s son, so that Conchobar was Meadb’s first husband, and Meadb forsook Conchobar through pride of mind, and went to Tara, where was the High-King of Ireland.
The reason that the High-King of Ireland gave these daughters to Conchobar was that it was by Eochaid Feidleach that Fachtna Fathach had fallen in the battle of Lettir-ruad in the Corann, so that it was as his eric these were given to him, together with the forcible seizure of the kingship of Ulster, over Clan Rudraidhe: and the first cause of the stirring up of the Cattle-raid of Cuailnge was the desertion of Conchobar by Meadb against his will.
Eochaid Feidleach, Father, High King of Ireland at Tara
Crochen Crobh-Derg, Mother, Handmaid to Etain
Well, they weren’t, not originally, but Maedbh and Ailill did end up with seven sons, all called Maine.
Back when they all had other names, Maedbh asked a druid which of her sons would kill Conchobar (king of Ulster), and he replied, “Maine”. A little bit concerned that she didn’t have a son called Maine, she decided to rename all her sons as follows:
The prophecy was fulfilled when Maine Andoe went on to kill Conchobar, son of Arthur, son of Bruide — not Conchobar, son of Fachtna Fathach, as Maedbh had assumed the druid meant.
Maedbh and Ailill also had a daughter, Findabair. She got to keep her own name, but was offered around as a prize during the Táin – Maedbh was bribing Connacht warriors with marriage to the fine Findabair if they’d go against the Ulster warrior CúChulainn in single combat.
Cruachú Crobh-Dearg (the spelling varies, as ever in our wonderful collection of tales) is remembered as a handmaiden of Etain, appearing in the love story of Etain & Midir.
She may have an older, sovereignty or tribal Goddess function, which is being remembered and carried through the later legends.
Listen, ye warriors about Cruachu!
with its barrow for every noble couple:
O host whence springs lasting fame of laws!
O royal line of the men of Connacht!
O host of the true, long-remembered exploits,
with number of pleasant companies and of brave kings!
O people, quickest in havoc
to whom Erin has pledged various produce!
Manly in battle-rout multitudinous
is the seed of noble Brian, with their strong fleets:
in express submission to them have been sent
hostages from all Europe to Cruachu.
If we stay to recount its fame for every power,
we shall not be able to pour out the lore of noble science
for Cruachu, holy without austerity,
whose foemen are not few.
Known to me by smooth-spoken eulogy
is the designation of powerful Cruachu:
not slight the din, the uproar,
whence it got its name and fame for bright achievement.
Eochaid Airem — high career!
when the fierce, generous man was at Fremu,
the man who cherished feats of skill,
holding a meeting for horse-fights,
There came to them noble Midir
(he was no favourite with the gentle prince)
to carry off Etain in dreadful wise,
whence came lamentation of many tribes.
Ill-favoured was the man who bore off
Etain and hardy Crochen
the queen and her handmaid,
who was right lowly, yet ever-famous.
Westward Midir bore the fair captives
after boldly seizing them as booty,
to Sid Sinche of the ancient hosts,
because it was noble Midir’s hereditary possession.
Till three days were out he stayed
in the radiant noisy Sid:
after fruitful enterprise it is custom
to boast at board and banquet.
Then said strong Crochen
What fine house is this where we have halted?
O Midir of the splendid feats,
is this thy spacious dwelling?”
The answer of the famous man of arts
to Crochen blood-red of hue:
‘ Nearer to the sun, to its warmth,
is my bright and fruitful home.”
Said Cruachu the lovely,
in presence of the spacious tribes,
“O Midir, yet unconquered,
shall my name be on this Sid?”
He gave the fine dwelling as reward for her journey
to Crochen, a fair recompense:
by Midir, report says, northward at his home,
by him her name was given to it as ye hear.
Hence men say Cruachu,
(it is not hidden from kindly tribes,)
since Midir brought (clear without falsehood)
his wife to Sinech of the Side.
As for Midir, he was no sluggard thereafter,
he went to Bri Leith maic Celtchair:
he carried with him the bright indolent lady, whitely radiant,
whom he bore off by force from Fremu.
Eochaid at the head of the numerous ranks
of his brave troop,
…was on the track of Midir, the great champion.
Said his druid to Eochaid,
“Thou shalt not be fortunate all thy life long:
lamentation for evil has come upon thee
for the loss of Etain of the golden tresses:”
“Come from the judgment-seat of Fotla
without warning, without royal proclamation;
bring with thee thereafter to Bri Leith
thy host — no cowards they — to sack it.”
“There shalt thou find thy wife
in noble beauty, beyond denial:
be not faint-hearted for long, O warrior;
bring her with thee by consent or by force.”
This is a beginning, with famous perils,
for the proud Wooing of Etain,
though it be a pithy tale to hear,
the tale when men came to Cruachu to listen to it.
It was Crochen of pure Cruachu
who was mother of Medb great of valour:
she was in Cruachu — it was an open reproach-
awhile with Etain’s spouse.
Ok, well, how long have you got? Yes, there were a serious amount of men who were getting it on with the Queen. She was a woman of large appetites.
There’s a whole Irish text devoted to this very topic called ‘Medb’s man-share’ (Ferchuitred Medba). The text was also called ‘Medb’s husband allowance’, ‘Medb’s men’, or Cath Boinde (the Battle of the Boyne), and you can find the translated version HERE. It originally comes from the Yellow Book of Lecan manuscript.
“Go there, Mac Roth,” orders Medb. “Ask Daire to lend me Donn Cuailnge for a year. At the end of the year he can have fifty yearling heifers in payment for the loan, and the Brown Bull of Cuailnge back. And you can offer him this too, Mac Roth, if the people of the country think badly of losing their fine jewel, the Donn Cuailnge: if Daire himself comes with the bull I’ll give him a portion of the fine Plain of Ai equal to his own lands, and a chariot worth thrice seven bondmaids, and my own friendly thighs on top of that.”
For a really interesting examination of Maedbh as a Lover, Initiator, and Intoxicator, you won’t go far wrong with this book.
The author is a Jungian Psychoanalyst, looking at the Maedbh myth in the context of her modern practice, which is a fascinating angle that makes for exploration of Queen Maedbh in directions we’d never thought of.
Publisher: Nicolas-Hays; 1 edition (October 2001) – it’s still available on Amazon HERE. (affiliate link)
Awww, she’s Dead? How?!
In her later years, Maedbh often went to bathe in a pool on Inchcleraun (Inis Cloithreann), an island on Lough Ree, near Knockcroghery in County Roscommon. Furbaide, who’s mother she had killed (so it is said), sought revenge, and set about planning her demise. He was quite dedicated about it. But I suppose it’s the type of thing that you’d really want to get right.
First, he took a rope and measured the distance between the pool and the shore, and practiced with his sling until he could hit an apple on top of a stake Maedbh’s height, from that distance. The next time he saw Maedbh bathing he put his practice to good use and killed her with a piece of cheese.
Yes cheese. Queen Maedbh was killed by cheese. Her son, Maine Athramail (he who was originally Cairbre, and most ‘like his mother’, ascended to the throne of Connacht in her place.
But buried in Sligo, right?
Well, not exactly. Maybe. ‘Maedbh’s Cairn’ in Co. Sligo, is the best known burial site of Queen Maedbh, but it is one of three possible sites. According to some legends, she is indeed buried in the 40ft (12m) high stone cairn on the summit of Knocknarea (Cnoc na Rí in Irish, Hill of the King/Queen) in County Sligo. The story goes that she is buried upright, facing her enemies in Ulster.
In Bronze or Iron Age burials though, it would be common enough to hack an important dead person apart and bury bits of them along different boundaries, for protection and guardianship. Another story goes that she is buried in the hill of Knockma (Cnoc Medb in Irish, Hill of Maeve), near Belclare in Co. Galway, which is also where Fionnbharr, King of the Connacht Sidhe, holds court. The Fairy connection is an interesting one, and maybe related to her later associations with Mab, the English Fairy Queen? The boundary theory holds here too though, as the views from the top of Knockma are spectacular. Very convenient for a guardianship position, I’d say.
Her home in Rathcroghan, County Roscommon is the third, and most likely burial site, with a long low slab named Misgaun Medb being given as the probable location. In the ‘she got chopped up in bitty bits and buried’ theory, this is where her soul (most likely to be contained in her head, according to thinking of the time) would be.
Or possibly her heart. Whatever bit of her was deemed the most important part would have stayed at home, with other bits spreading out at lesser sites along the boundaries.
In Gaelic Ireland, your husband being too fat to have sex was grounds for divorce.
A woman could easily divorce her husband for obvious reasons, like hitting her hard enough to cause a blemish, but she also had the legal protection which ensured he couldn’t go down to the village pub and blab about their sex life to his mates (instant divorce).
While divorce could – and did – happen at will, it wasn’t an easy or uncomplicated approach to Medieval marriage in Ireland.
The Irish Brehon Law system allowed for nine different types of union; from a marriage of equals, where both parties brought equal property to the match, down to a one night stand, it was all legalised and taken care of. Because there was no such thing as illegitimacy when it came to a woman’s offspring, it was just a question of who was legally responsible for their care.
In his article ‘Marriage in Early Ireland’, Donnchadh Ó Corráin looked at the different types of unions Irish lawyers divided first and principal marriages into. There were three categories based on property:
The Brehon Laws in medieval Ireland held out until the mid-sixteenth century, and represent a very different, more civilized and emancipated world view than the sacramental system which followed. There was a big divide between the Anglo-Irish laws that had been put in place with the invasions from England, and the native Gaelic laws and traditions around marriage.
Gillian Kenny, in her paper ‘Anglo-Irish and Gaelic marriage laws and traditions in late medieval Ireland’, notes that:
“The rights of the wife at marriage, her behaviour and freedoms within marriage and the right of a wife to leave a marriage varied enormously between the Gaelic and Anglo-Irish worlds.”
An English woman, for example, once she was married, was severely limited in her right to acquire or even manage land under the common law, and only legitimate heirs born after the marriage could inherit under the common law. An English man could not marry again while his first wife still lived.
Compare and contrast then, how in Gaelic culture and custom, the cétmuinter (first or principal wife) had some control over the other wives her husband could bring into the household, because she could divorce him if she didn’t like the new girl.
Yeah, polygamy was pretty normal back then, and it allowed the original wife to make her own choices based on the new situation, although there was a little leeway given if her feelings were hurt by his new choice. A higher status wife had three days on the arrival of the new woman, in which she could beat, batter and generally vent her spleen, as long as she wasn’t marked in the process. And the other woman was allowed to scratch back and pull hair!
Between the polygamy, the remarriages, and the allowance of illegitimacy, it made for an interesting sprawl of seed options for your average Gaelic nobleman. Mulmora O’Reilly, who was the lord of East Breifne until 1566, had at least fifty-eight grandsons recorded and acknowledged.
Katherine Simms, in ‘Legal Position of Irishwomen’, shows that ordinary concubines in a Gaelic household were of lower status to any wife, but were afforded protection in the households of the men they were having a relationship with. All of that was covered under the nine different types of union.
There were also clerical concubines though, way outside the sanction of the church but very common in the Gaelic areas, who wielded a much higher status, even being treated as a proper wife. Some of their names were recorded in the Annals when they died, just like any other noblewoman.
The church was kept out of the marriage business, as much as possible, though marriage ‘irregularities’ became subject to occasional ecclesiastical penalties. Kenny wrote:
“Throughout the middle ages in Ireland, the Gaelic Irish persisted in keeping many of their civil laws and traditions regarding marriage separate from the church’s teaching on the subject. For instance, Irish couples were not commonly united by the sacrament of marriage as Gaelic law regulated their relationship. Gaelic law allowed divorce at will followed by remarriage.”
There were undoubtedly some very marked differences between the two cultures, though they ran side by side for a long time. Kenny outlines some of the main contrast in her conclusions, where she says:
“Anglo-Irish wives (and their property) were legally subject to their husbands. This does not seem to have been wholly the case in Gaelic Ireland where wives could enter into contracts of their own volition and kept control of their own lands and goods after marriage. With these riches they often acted independently as important and influential patrons of the arts and also, in some cases, actively participated in the military and political life of their community. However they could not themselves become chieftains or hold power in such a formal and official fashion. Gaelic wives were still subject in some ways to the influence of their kin which could be disadvantageous. Similarly after her marriage ended whether through death or separation the Gaelic Irishwoman was once again subject entirely to the will of her own family whereas an Anglo-Irish woman found her rights more fully protected as a single woman or as a widow.”
It would seem that where a woman had a choice, she would stay within the Gaelic traditions while it suited her best, but it became increasingly common to see applications to the church courts to secure their property (and the inheritance of their kids) on widowhood, or to right a marital wrong such as being abandoned for no good reason.
It was easier, and clearer perhaps in the higher side of Gaelic society, for a woman to take advantage of the native rules. Ó Corráin wrote:
“It was a dignified state for the wife in question: if it was a marriage ‘with land and stock and household equipment’ and if the wife was of the same class and status as her husband, she was known as a bé cuitchernsa, literally ‘a woman of joint dominion, a woman of equal lordship’, a term which seems to be rendered domina in the canon law tracts. Neither of the spouses could make a valid contract at law without the consent of the other.”
Although it became easier as time progressed to apply to church law for safety and security, and the inheritance of a Gaelic woman’s children, there were other ways feasible through Gaelic Law.
An heiress could marry a cousin, for example, and keep land in her family that way; which the church wasn’t at all happy about, but Gaelic lawyers found multiple biblical instances to prove it was alright in the eyes of God, really. It didn’t even have to be a principle marriage, a second or third would do. And an even more liberal minded example from Ó Corráin:
“A woman could acquire land by outright gift of her father… land which was his personal (as distinct from family) possession, and women could also possess land which is called ‘land of hand and thigh’. It is possible (though quite uncertain) that two kinds of land are in question here: land acquired by the woman’s own labour and land got as a marriage portion or for some other sexual service, but the precise meaning of the term is not clear from the contexts.”
I think he’s hit the nail on the head at the end there, personally.
As Kenny put it, in an interview for ‘The History Show’ on Irish national radio:
“I mean the whole idea of marriage as being a monolithic, unchanging institution is incorrect, if you look back into the past in Ireland, further than the last couple of hundred years, you can see just how complex it was on both sides, English and Gaelic, so you know it’s only been sacramentalised very recently in historical terms.”
All in all, the Gaelic attitude was more practically tolerant of the ins and outs of human relationships than the English system which followed, and we’re the poorer for it.
Early Irish law was based on decisions made by the Gaelic Brehons, learned men and women of old Irish society who took on the responsibilities of the Judge.
It was an oral tradition, but the rulings were recorded by later Christian monks and priests, and so we have surviving Brehon Law manuscripts from the 700s.
The system remained in use despite many changes through Irish history, with native laws only specifically banned by the English in 1600.
The Brehons called their laws Fenechas – the law of the freemen of Gaelic Ireland, and it was a civil (not criminal) code which focused on payment of compensation for harm done, rather than punishment. Irish trees were revered and protected as an essential part of each community, and recognised as both sacred and valuable.
A text called Bretha Comaithchesa, which means ‘judgements of neighbourhood’, specifically regulated how Irish society dealt with harm done to trees. Damage to an especially valuable tree such as an oak or yew was a more serious offence than to a less prized tree, so 28 principal trees and shrubs are divided into four classes, with different rules applied to each group.
The most valuable and noble are the airig fedo – ‘lords of the wood’.
Then the aithig fhedo – ‘commoners of the wood’.
The fodla fedo are the ‘lower divisions of the wood’.
And least valuable are the losa fedo – ‘bushes of the wood’.
Let’s take for an example the mighty Oak. A mature Irish Oak (Quercus Robur) can live for more than 500 years, and grow 130ft tall. One of these trees supports over 250 species of insect, and over 300 different types of lichen, which form the food chain for a multitude of birds. Oaks grow acorns, a feast for many wild creatures, who can also make a home in the tree – whether they’re nesting in branches or curling up at the roots. Humans also benefit greatly from each and every tree, so it’s no wonder the oak is known as the ‘king of the woods’. In Irish it’s called dair, and shares a root with the word for magic and druid – draoí. The practical value of the oak in Brehon Law is said to be “its acorns and its use for woodwork”; the acorn crop was particularly useful for fattening pigs, while oak-timber is the finest for fences and buildings.
Tree energy is unique and incredibly healing. Trees can help humans to:
First, find one that’s physically convenient to you – in your garden or where you work maybe? You’ll want to build a relationship, so the occasional flying visit will not do. Go and look at it, really look at it. Stand back and take in its overall form and growth habit. See how the leaves are shaped, the patterns they form on stem or branch – notice every part of it.
Feel the sphere of energy, or aura, around the tree. It is formed in circles, and can be quite large; the outer ring will match roughly with the overall spread of branch and root. Step up to, then inside the energy circle. If you move slowly and close your eyes you’ll feel a slight push, a feint resistance as you step through, and again through each interior ring as you make your way to the trunk.
Find a comfortable spot and stand or sit with your back leaning against the tree. Sense how you are safe inside its energy circle. Take off your shoes and touch the earth beneath your feet. Put your hands to the bark of the tree, or flat on the soil beneath it, and let energy flow from the crown of your head, down your spine, and out of your body, down into the earth.
Allow your body to refill with fresh energy as you breathe air into your lungs, and pull the tree’s healing power through the top of your head and down into the centre of yourself. Let it circle and flow through you. Spend some time; see what thoughts come to mind.
When you feel refreshed, step away and thank the tree for the connection that day.
Visit the tree again soon!
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