Sometimes a Goddess fancies a change.
Immortality can get awful boring after a time.
So it was with the Goddess Macha. She decided she wanted a home, friends of her own, a family… and that’s how she ended up on the doorstep of a wealthy merchant in the mountains of Mourne.
She knocked, asked to speak to him in person, and when he arrived down to greet her she made her proposal. She would bring wealth, prosperity, and abundance to his household (being a Goddess definitely has its perks), but in return she wanted a quiet life – to live out her days undisturbed, as a mortal. So he had to promise her privacy, and secrecy, and respect, and the love would come later, she was sure. And so he did.
She turned thrice sun-ways on his step to seal the deal, and stepped into his life as a mortal wife.
The years trundled on and his household prospered, as she had promised it would. She brought abundance and wealth to his life, as she had promised she would.
Love even bloomed, and she became pregnant, as is wont to happen at times, when a man and a woman are in love and doing the things that people in love might do.
The merchant rose in status, and he began to receive invitations for them both to attend all the feasts, and all the fairs – invitations which she always declined, but he attended. Unfortunately, his appetites grew right along with his status, and he began to feast and fair too much, eating and drinking until the wee small hours, and sometimes not even bothering to go home between events.
Macha didn’t mind too much; she kept herself busy, and was delighted when the physician told her she was carrying not one baby, but two – twins!
One month, near the end of her pregnancy, her husband was off again at one of his fairs. This was a big one: the Samhain festival at the court of the King. The merchant paid his tributes and tithes, ate his fill (and more) in the camp kitchens, and contented himself with wandering around the fair grounds, chatting to people he knew, looking through stalls and market tents, watching the competitive events, gaming for profit or loss… and of course drinking. Lots of drinking.
He sat eventually, content to watch the horse racing, and soon there was a cackling crowd, placing wagers on which would win. After a heavy loss, perhaps to salvage some part of pride perceived lost, the wine-soaked sot began to boast that as fast as those horses were, his own wife could out-run any one of them. Even the horses of the King himself, which were known to be the best of the best.
Now, it didn’t take long for this boast to reach the ears of the King himself: for his horses represented his rightful rule, and any slight on them was a slight on his very kingship. He insisted the woman be fetched, and made to race against the best horse of his stable.
Warriors went out, Macha was made travel, and told she would race the next day (as it was a three day festival). She bawled and cursed her husband – and his drunken, pounding, head – all through the night, but it was no use.
She was stood in front of king and crowd first thing in the morning, with the horse lined up next to her. She sweated and swore, for the pressure was doing strange things to her heavily pregnant body, and it looked like mother and babies were in serious distress, to anyone with eyes to see.
The king held firm, and she was made to race – but before she did, she cursed every single man of Ulster, to nine generations on, with a spell that gave each and every one of them the pains of labour and childbirth, to strike them whenever Ulster was under attack.
Macha raced that day, and indeed she won, but the exertion brought on the birth and she died there at the finish. Screaming her curse to the last breath.
This is why Ulster men were in bed each time their province needed them; but sure, they are all stories for another day.
Let’s go now to a lake away in Italy, where a group of distinguished visitors – all elegant and intelligent folk, we can be assured – had gathered on the private yacht of a good friend of theirs, an Italian Nobleman by the name of Count Neilsini.
He was a proper gentleman, of refined tastes and company; so one of his guests, a Colonel, was very surprised to notice a crooked, grubby woman with her back to them, right down at the end of the boat. Due to the seating arrangements, the other guests were not in a position to observe as he was. Politely, he said nothing, but continued to watch her shuffling and swaying about down there, with no apparent purpose or employment.
Eventually his curiosity got the better of his manners, and he queried the Count as to who the queer looking old thing could possibly be, while keeping her in view out of the corner of his eye. The Count’s response concerned him, for he was assured that there were only the visiting ladies present, and one young stewardess elsewhere.
The other guests looked on in trepidation as he quickly rose from his seat, turning the corner and disappearing from their view, but not from their hearing, as he continued to protest that he was indeed correct, and he would fetch back the strange woman to prove it. His assertions turned to a scream of horror though, and when the other guests got to him he’d collapsed in a heap on the deck. There was nobody else to be seen at all.
By the time they’d brought him round, and the gibbering had stopped, he was the fuller for three large brandies but not exactly calm yet. The Count of course was demanding to know what had happened, but all the sense they could get from him was that he’d seen the woman’s face as she turned on his approach, and it was like “nothing belonging to this world.
It was a woman of no earthly type, with a queer-shaped, gleaming face, a mass of red hair, and eyes that would have been beautiful but for their expression, which was hellish. She had on a green hood, after the fashion of an Irish peasant.”
One of the ladies present was American, of Irish descent, and had heard of such a thing before. When she suggested that the description was like that of an Irish Banshee, the others laughed, but the Count grew pale, and decided to partake of some restorative brandy of his very own.
It turned out he was actually an O’Neill, or at least descended from one. His family name was Neilsini, but had been O’Neill not more than a century before, when his great-grandfather served in the Irish Brigade. On the Brigade’s dissolution at the time of the French Revolution, the Count’s grandfather had escaped the massacre of officers, and fled across the frontier to Italy in company with an O’Brien and a Maguire. When he died, his son (who had been born there, and was far more Italian than Irish) changed his name to Neilsini, and from then on the family was known by that name – but the blood in his veins was still Irish. None of the others knew what it could mean?
His concerned American guest solemnly explained that the appearance of the Banshee is a harbinger for the death of someone close in the family, though the person who shall die will never see the Fairy Woman for themselves. The Count quickly sent word to land that his wife and daughter were to be looked after well that night, and he would return first thing in the morning, for he was frightened it’d be them the Banshee claimed.
He needn’t have worried so much about them though, because just as his yacht touched shore – but before he set foot on Italian soil again – wasn’t the Count himself seized with a violent attack of angina pectoris, and died before the morning.
And that’s not the only time I’ve heard such tales of the Banshee, not by a long shot, but sure, they are all stories for another day.
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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?
The oak door boomed, with a fierce thumping that shook the drying bundles of herbs right out of the rafters across the great hall. The Chief, sitting up at the top table, plucked a bit of dried nettle that had fallen into his cup, and – as puzzled as the rest of them about who could be making such a racket outside on that wild night – he gestured for the beams to be lifted and the door thrown open.
The gale from outside billowed in, throwing rain and twigs across the floor, and lifting the food off the plates of those who sat the closest. She stood on the threshold, with a cloak of dirty red wrapped tight around her, hood up against the storm – though it fought her every step to tear it down and away off into the night. She didn’t wait to be asked, but made her way inside with what would, ordinarily, have been a purposeful stride, but now was hindered and hobbled by an obvious injury to her left thigh. Once in, she threw off the hood, shaking loose the red head of curls for which she was well known, even then, and saying not a word til she stood right in front of the top table, and looked the Chief square in the eye.
“You owe me an honour price”, says she, “for the damage was done to me when your hounds were ahunting today in my woods.” The Chief knew well there’d been no damage done to her, nor any person, that day, for the Gilly was well trained to tell all on his return from any hunt. All he’d reported was a hare run down near the end of the day, though it’d gotten away before the kill, more’s the pity. He also knew those woods were no more hers than they belonged to his Gilly, but her family had the cottage by there for generations now, and the local stories went that they weren’t the type of folk that’d be wise to mess with (and whatever it was that had the neighbours afeared seemed to be growing stronger with each passing generation) so the Chief left well enough alone on that one. He asked her what she thought the honour price was owed for, and didn’t she bare her own thigh right there and then; the creamy white of it slashed through with a big mouthed bite that could only have come from one of the Chief’s own hounds indeed, for other dogs weren’t the size of them, and all the wolves had been hunted out long since.
She turned to the Master of the Hound, and asked him straight out if that bite, fresh as it was, could only have come from one of the Chief’s hounds, and he had to agree there was nothing else local that could have made it so fresh and so obvious. When the Chief refused to credit it, saying he knew the only thing they had run down that day was a fine puss of a hare, her nod and stony stare was all it took to draw the breath from every person in the place in shock.
But what could he do? Paying her would only show him believing in the magic long since thought to have been stamped from the land. He shook his head, and bid her leave, though the poisonous words then spewing from her mouth were enough to pale the staunchest noble at his tables. Her curse on his hounds just riled his temper even further, so he rose himself and pulled her off out into the night, with her cursing still heard after the stout beam was wrested back in place to bar the door.
She stayed there, just outside the hall, right through that night. Only at dawn, when she heard the first wails and cries as they found the stiff, cold forms outside in the kennels, did she pick up her skirts and begin the walk back to her cottage, where she lived for many a year more, with many more wails and cries on account of her… but sure, they are all stories for another day.
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The fire crackled and hissed, as life escaped from sticks and seeped from turf that had lain long idle in watery bogs. Each new noise made him jump a little, each spark that fell seemed fascinating to a mind that hungered to focus on something, attend to anything but the blank white page before him.
There was no sound from outside the cottage though, at this hour even the night creatures usually heard shuffling along on their business were abed. He had sat through the long, empty darkness all alone, again, since he had banished her from the house. He couldn’t have accepted what she had to offer. The price was too high, the cost too great to bear. Many had warned him through long years of training, of the possibility that she might appear. Or one like her, for there were many who sought the likes of him in this land, many who would pull and call and tempt and offer the worlds to a poet’s soul. His Masters had gone through it with each apprentice, and when it came his time to teach he had issued the same dire warnings, extolled the same ghastly consequences.
Out of the mounds they came, the Leanán Sidhe. Fairy Lovers: bright was their light, their gifts, their love. Strong burned the creative fires that they stoked and tended in a poet’s soul; his musical, magical, poetic inspiration, but with the gifts were balanced the ties that bind, for once a Fairy Lover gained entry to a man’s body and soul, she did not ever give them back. Their love was a deadly delight.
She had come to him first on a night just like this. A fire burning in the hearth of his small cottage on the hillside, a long and lonely night awash in the void of mundanity, with not a trickle or a spark of creative inspiration to be found. The gentle tap tap tapping on a window, thought at first to be a branch or twig, but persistent enough to breach the miasma surrounding his heavy head. When he opened the door, she stood a little out of the light that spilled into the night, back from the threshold, and she spoke to him quickly, offering all the things they had said she would, in a voice as soft as the velvet nub on a new calf’s horns. He listened, and was tempted, and resisted; refusing to invite her inside, refusing to accept the offers… but knowing that his refusal bound her to him as surely as he would be bound to her if he had accepted.
That was three moons ago now, and she had never left.
Constantly calling, she haunted his dreams, and shadowed the windows of his house as she circled each night. Her voice came to him awake or asleep, whispering dreams when he had no defences, tapping at his attention when he would try and concentrate, or create. Useless, pointless exercises that served no purpose other than to frustrate him. She stayed beyond his reach, impossible to banish, although the Rowan and cold iron charm his old Master had recommended for the threshold served the purpose of ensuring that she could not cross, no matter the weakened state she found him in. He was safe inside.
As he stared again at the plain white sheet that signalled his failure, his lack of resource, he realised that he’d had enough. In a dream, he rose from the table in the centre of his room, and walked to pull open the door. Reaching up, he ripped the charm from the lintel, raised his arm, and threw his protection out into the blackness beyond. Then he waited.
When she came, it was with a sigh of silk that instantly calmed his mind and balmed his spirit. His eyes drank her beauty, as she touched his flesh and entered his home. She would drink of his love, and give in return, and his pages would fill with bounty… until she took all that he was.
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Fionn MacCumhaill, leader of the noblest band of Irish warriors, the Fianna, sat on the hunting mound at the Sidhe of Kesh Corran, taking in the sights and sounds that made his heart most happy.
His men were spread below him on this fine sunny day, ranging the fields and forests, their great hounds barking and baying around them as they brought down kill after kill. The Fianna would feast well that day.
Conaran however, who was the Sidhe (Otherworld, Fairy) King in those parts, was less than happy to see his old enemy in such a fine, untroubled mood. And with the rest of the Fianna busy hunting, he decided the time had come to do something about Fionn for once and for all.
Three of Conaran’s four daughters were nearby, although neither the men of the Fianna nor their chief could see a bit of them, because you never can see the Sidhe unless you are in their world, or they want you to see them in ours. The King called his brood – who were as ugly a bunch as you ever saw, and worse again – and told them what he wanted. Then, by his magical arts, he opened a door to their world in the side of the Sidhe mound on which Fionn was taking his ease.
After a while, the warrior chief climbed down to join the hunting party below, and was astounded to see the three sisters sitting spinning in a cave that he was sure hadn’t been there before he’d climbed up.
Now you couldn’t call any of these Ban Sidhe beautiful. Well, you could I suppose, but you’d be telling a lie if you did. Fionn though, was a curious sort, and wanted to see more – it might have been the whiskers he thought he could see on their faces? Whatever was driving him to it, he stepped inside the mound.
As soon as he passed the holly on the threshold, a weakness came over him, and he could no more lift his own arm than he could have lifted a whole mountain at the best of times. He tried to give the whistle that would warn the rest of the Fianna to danger, but he was so weak that all the sound he could make was a chuff like a baby falling asleep, and sure that’d warn nobody.
He was bound by the sisters with every knot and tie they could think of, and as each warrior came looking for their leader and stepped inside the mound, the same fate befell them. The Sidhe mound was filled only with the sounds of gently chuffing babies, until every single man of them was captured and bound the same way.
But their dogs were not. As each man entered the mound, ignoring the warning signs in the search for his leader, his hound refused, and soon there was a great pack of barking, baying dogs gathered outside.
Finally one of the warriors, the last of them left outside, had the sense to be cautious enough not to follow blind into danger. The hideous sisters watched Goll Mac Morna stand his ground outside, and decided that three against one was a fair enough fight for them to take him on. They were wrong, of course.
Though it was hard fought, Goll managed to chop two of the three into halves and bits; so there were warts and twisted fingers on one side of him, gnarled toes and crooked noses on the other. Panting with the effort of it all, he extracted (in exchange for her life) the firm promise of freedom from enchantment for the Fianna from the last sister, who was so terrified by then that her whiskers were all atremble, on both the outside and inside of those livery lips.
She kept her honour, and released each of the warriors to sit out in the sunshine and shiver until their strength returned. The doings of that day did nothing to ease the enmity between Fionn and the Sidhe King Conaran, nor his remaining Ban Sidhe daughters – nor even the animosity between Fionn and Goll MacMorna.
But sure, they are all stories for another day.
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There’s lots of stories with Táin in the title, but this article relates specifically to the best known of them – the Táin Bó Cuailnge, or ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’.
Early Irish manuscripts are the oldest remaining extant literary source material in Europe, opening a fascinating window to the Medieval society in which they were written down, and the older tales and oral traditions which they record for us to enjoy today.
The Táin Bó Cuailnge, the ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’, (often just called “the Táin” – pronounced TAWn – though there are actually a number of different Táin stories as we said) lies at the heart of Ireland’s epic storytelling legacy.
This is a great battle saga tale set around the 1st Century CE, in the middle of the Iron Age – told and re-told through the ages. The story survives in a couple of different versions, called ‘recensions’; there are 3 of these remaining to us today.
The Book of Leinster scribe may have thought the tale worth re-telling, or perhaps he was reluctant and had been ordered to just get on with it, as there are elements of the Táin that didn’t sit well with him at all. His note in the margins, written in formal Latin script, tells its own tale:
But I who have written this story, or rather this fable, give no credence to the various incidents related in it. For some things in it are the deceptions of demons, other poetic figments; some are probable, others improbable; while still others are intended for the delectation of foolish men.
For those of us who want to have a look through the text today, we don’t have to go digging through the library archives of ancient manuscripts (thankfully, those things are dusty as all hell). There’s many options available to us both (free) online, and in tree book format if you like the paper stuff.
This is the most accurate translation of the epic Irish tale, the Táin Bó Cuailnge, and includes the major remscéla or pre-tales which go a long way towards putting some of the madder stuff into a bit of context.
There’s still a lot of mad stuff in there, but sure it’s all good.
Starting at Rathcroghan, in County Roscommon, the story wends its way across the country to Cooley in County Louth. Featuring CúChulainn, Lugh, the Morrigan, Ferdia, Conor MacNessa, Fergus Mac Roich, and the notorious warrior Queen of Connacht, Medb (Maeve) – you won’t be short of an interesting character to keep track of.
I really like the artwork included in this version, by Louis le Brocquy; it captures well the tenuous nature of the meanings and symbolism that are woven into the fabric of this teaching tale.
There was a young man in Clare, a miller’s son, whose name was Padraig. He worked hard for his father, for they hadn’t much, but every day he went to the mill he would have to shout and shuffle the lazy labourers out there to get them to do even a tap of work. One of the days, when they had a big order on, he couldn’t even get them to raise a toe, never mind a finger, and when he went to check at end of day, didn’t he find them all fast asleep – and not a bit of the corn was ground for the order.
Frustrated and furious, he walked out along the stream for a bit, and was sitting head in hands when he heard a fierce snorting behind him. Turning, he met a large black bull, pawing the ground and about to charge. Now, Padraig knew there was no such bull with his family nor with the neighbours, and his own mother was a fairy woman, who’d been telling him old tales since he was born – so he could well recognise a Pouca no matter what form it was taking. He stood and said that if the Pouca would help his family that night, he’d give him his own thick coat to wear, for it was fierce cold. He laid the coat over the shoulders of the bull, and it rested down meek as a lamb, then lumbered off back up to the mill. Padraig sat for a while by the stream, his head much quieter, and waited, for the fairies don’t like to be disturbed in their work. After a time, he saw an old man leave, away into the scrubland behind. The poor thing was skin and bones, and cold even with the heavy coat draped over him, for he was dressed only in rags beneath. When Padraig went into the mill though, he saw the corn all ground; a week’s work had been done in a single night and it certainly wasn’t the labourers who’d done it, for they were still snoring.
The next night, Padraig was back by the mill at the same time, with a drop of whiskey and a bit of a cake his mam had made, and left them by the door. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before he heard the mill working away, and he knew again it wasn’t the labourers, for they were all still down at the pub. He went and dismissed the lot of them, and was back in time to see the Pouca leave the same as the last night. This happened every night, and the family grew very rich, for the miller was getting a week’s work done in a night, and he never had to pay a wage other than the whiskey and a bit of cake of an evening. But Padraig grew tired of seeing the Pouca heading off through all kinds of weather with not even a shoe on his foot, nor trousers to keep his skinny old legs a bit warm. So he got a superb suit of clothes made up, and left them out one night in place of the usual whiskey and cake.
He watched the Pouca find them, try them on, and preen as he examined himself looking like a fine gentleman. Indeed, he must have thought himself such, and fine gentlemen don’t labour each night in a mill, so he took himself off to see the countryside, and laboured no more. But Padraig didn’t mind, for they were wealthy by then, and sold the mill for good profit. He made a match after with a Lord’s daughter, and had a fine wedding party with all the trimmings. At the feast, he found a grand golden cup laid up at the top table, and knew it to be a gift from the Pouca, so he insisted that only himself and his bride drink from it that day, and every day thereafter. The couple never had a day’s bad luck in their lives from then on, and their descendants went on to many adventures with the fairies.
But sure, they are all stories for another day…
It was fierce cold for sure out there, away from the light and heat of the feast. Eoghan hated gatekeeping duty, but it was his turn and that was that, so there he sat.
Young Fionnuala had slipped him a wineskin full of the best from inside in the kitchens, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been at least. He could hear the occasional strain of the harp though, and the odd waft of roasted meat drifted up to him even there, causing his mouth to water and his belly to rumble, and his mood to darken even further. He’d told Fionnuala there was no need for guard duty this night – the walls at Tara were the soundest in the land, and sure everyone who would be coming was inside already. Nobody missed a feast of the Tuatha De Danaan.
Sudden thumping from outside the gates jolted him out of a doze and made a liar of him, for there was most definitely someone there who wasn’t inside already, and didn’t want to miss the feast at Tara, judging by the clatter they were causing. Owen made his way down to the small gate and pulled back the hatch so he could see the head of whoever was outside.
The warrior, for he was undoubtedly a warrior, was alone, and he looked pleasant enough. There was a fierce brightness about him, even in the gloom of the evening, which Eoghan couldn’t account for, so he left that thought alone and reverted to his customary gate query – who was this stranger disturbing the peace at Tara, and what did he want. He was called Lugh, this bright warrior, and he wanted to join the feast within. But sure the seats were all full, and everyone who was supposed to be coming was inside already; what did they need another for?
Well, it turns out this young man could lay claim as a master Builder, one of the best in all of Eireann, and surely that would gain him a place at the King’s table? But no, Eoghan said, for the Tuatha De Danaan already had the best of Builders, and sure what would they be needing another for? Well, it turns out this young man was also a master Brazier, one of the best in all of Eireann, and could keep the fires in all of Tara lit and tended no matter what came. Surely that would gain him a place at the King’s table? But no, Eoghan said, for the Tuatha De Danaan already had the best of Braziers, and sure what would they be needing another for? Well, it turns out this young man was also a master Harper, one of the best in all of Eireann, and his music would soothe the very soul of any who heard it. Surely that would gain him a place at the King’s table? But no, Eoghan said, for the Tuatha De Danaan already had the best of Harpers, and sure what would they be needing another for? They progressed through a range of skills: Lugh was a Smith who could craft with any metal, a Champion of all games and arts, a Poet who could charm or curse with equal skill, an Historian who would recite the families and battles of all Eireann through the ages, a Cup-bearer who would never spill a drop, a Magician who could control the very world around them, and even a Physician who could cure all ills, excepting if a head be cut clean off. But no, Eoghan said, for the Tuatha De Danaan had all of these people skilled in such things, and sure what would they be needing another for?
Ah now, says Lugh, and tell me Gatekeeper – but do you have any man or woman within the walls of Tara who can do ALL of these things? Eoghan was forced to admit that no, they did not, and the stranger was welcomed on the back of that. Lugh was announced as the Ildánach – the many skilled one – and that was the first they’d heard of him, though not the last.
But sure, they are all stories for another day.
I sat on the shore, watching the dance and sparkle of sun on water, and seeing nothing. Nothing dances inside a heavy heart, nothing sparkles through a weary, worn spirit. I was nothing, then.
The great sea heaved its rhythm through my head regardless. The pattern of waves inserted into my mind, inciting me to notice, to follow, to count the waves. Each one lapped in, and out, with steady ebb and flow. I followed. In the cycle, one to eight were even, and then the ninth came. The ninth wave came each time; larger and longer, bolder and bigger, fine and free the ninth wave fell.
I watched each time. I felt it coming now, a familiar build through the order, and then the crash and boom, the expression of power and promise. The sun danced and sparkled on the water, a broad golden glitter, a pathway pulsing with each wave, and never clearer than on the ninth. Promise. The Land of Promise lay across the broad ocean, Tír Tairngire. It called to me, to come away, to follow the path across the sea and find my peace in promise.
And the ninth wave brought a distant shadow on the horizon, but when it fell to shore, the shadow passed. Each cycle brought the shadow closer – a smudge with the coming of the next ninth wave, and a shape with the show of the next. A silhouette, a figure, a woman. She stepped then across the golden glitter with the lightest of feet, calm and balanced as she rose and fell, moving to shore and nearer with each ninth.
Her face and form awoke me, my heart and spirit responding to the perfection of sheer Sídhe beauty. My eyes had never rested on such wonder before the vision of her approach. She strode the sea as a creature born to it, finding with each footstep a perfect wavelet crest on which to float. When she reached the sand, she stopped, the water bearing her weight without a touch of land beneath her. She beckoned me from my daze. When I stood in front of her, her radiance near blinded my eyes and I wanted more, I wanted the sight of her to be the last thing I ever did see.
Her name was Cliona, she said, as I stayed dumbstruck in her presence. Descendant of Lir, and daughter of Manannan, Keeper of Oceans. Her voice soothed my soul as the sound of gently lapping water, as the sound of a breeze sighing through seagrass. She came with the waves to answer my call, she said; to offer succour, to bring me to promise. I wanted that. I wanted to sit with her, to see her face, to hear her voice, to feel all that I felt in that moment for ever more. I wanted that with my heart, with my spirit, with all that danced and sparkled in her presence.
She lifted her hand and pointed along the shore. A currach lay there, up the way a bit and broken a bit, as it hadn’t been treated yet for the season. I went and she watched as I pulled it over, and satisfied myself that it would float at least, across the golden pathway to get me to Tír Tairngire. I lifted and dragged the little boat down to the water’s edge, to where she stood with waves licking her toes and heels, and I pushed it out into the sea, wading til it was born afloat, then climbing inside.
I watched her face as she kept pace with the craft, as the waves brought us away from land. I focused on her form as each ninth wave lifted us higher, pushed us farther along the path that disappeared rapidly as the clouds came down. I listened to her laughter as each ninth wave crashed each time onto the bow of the boat. My heart danced and my spirit sparkled as Cliona’s ninth wave crushed my craft, bringing me to the promise and into her world…
That’s not the last time one of us was brought to their world in such a way… but sure, they are all stories for another day.