Story Archaeology

Uncovering the layers of Irish Mythology through a regular podcast and related articles

Uaimh na gCait (Oweynagat)

The Cave of the Cats

Taken from a personal journal entry after an early visit to the cavecave of the cat

…..“There it is, by that house” and we tumble out of the car into the everlasting drizzle. The cave of Cruachán was said to be the most notorious otherworld entrance in folktale and legend. From here, so it was said, the Morrigan once appeared in her chariot, crimson-cloaked, leading the heifer to the brown bull of Cuailnge. This, so it was said,  was the gate that loosed various plagues of otherworld beings into the outer worlds, and here Neera began his quest into the ‘hollow hills’.

At first sight the way in is not impressive. The opening is low and positioned under a small track. But there is a great stone lintel overhung by a verdant hawthorn and the entrance is open.

I have been inside before and know that the path is easier than it looks, although very muddy. However, last time I had no light and could only go so far. Now I have a torch in my hand. I see that my companions are hesitating at the low opening and the depth of the mud, and so I dive right in.

“Come on,” I say from deep down the passage. “It is not difficult.”

My hand slips deep into the mud and squelches into my boots. I try not to remember that the friend who follows me is six foot four.

Now I can see the descending passage clearly. It is a rectangular tunnel well lined with cut stone, even if the floor is dripping with soft mud after the prolific rain. It dips steeply, and then ahead there are stone steps cutting down to a lintelled doorway of dressed stone. Behind it stretches suddenly a great natural cavern, water-washed and wild. It is leaf-shaped and high.

Carefully, watching each step, my companions enter through the portal and we stand together in the cavern.

inside caveWe hold our breath as the cave seems to reverberate around us. Much further along the cave, the floor rises suddenly into a rounded cascade of muddied stone, leaving only a dark opening below the ceiling. It might be possible to scramble up to that crack, but not now. We do not move, for this place is silent and almost disturbing.

I would like to experience the darkness, so I warn my young daughter that I am going to turn off the torch. She doesn’t mind. I click the switch and am dazzled by the sudden darkness. Cloaked in the  blackness the cave seems, no longer, silent., There are  whispers, sounds, words, echoing the  stories that  this Otherworld entrance still remembers.

Shuffling feet, a muffled voice; “A man on the track”. Then from behind me, offering his response to the requested password. “And the heavier is the track”. Is this Nera, tracking the Sidhe hosts on his timeless journeys between the Worlds?

And that sound, a distant grunting, probably nothing, direction is difficult in the darkness, seems to come  from beyond the rock fallen barrier. And yet, there are tales of all devouring  pigs that once surged from the cave, so they say, …in the folktales.

A sudden glow illuminates the cave’s depths. In  the Cattle-Raid of Regamna, the Morrigan came from this cave all regal and red, shining with power.

But not this time. It is us who must return to the mortal World,this time.

With the  renewed torch light, we hand each other through the gate and up into the stone passage, and scramble crouching in the mud towards the lightful world. The mist around us as we leave is thicker. It swirls in the torch-beam, patterning the path. And then we are out, mud-smeared, into the falling rain. We both spontaneously raise our arms to the sky and stretch our exhilaration to the scattering water drops. …..

Chris Thompson

This cave is part of the ceremonial landscape of Cruachan Ai, Cruachan Ai is one of the most important archaeological sites in Ireland, and the other end of the story that begins at Macha’s Navan Fort. For more information on this fascinating place go to http://www.rathcroghan.ie

 

Other Appearances of The Morrigan

The Brown Bull Pat Maguire,County Louth

The Brown Bull
Pat Maguire,County Louth

As discussed in the podcast, there are several other notable appearances which the Mór Rígan makes through Irish Mythology.  Below, I have produced a translation of the Dindshenchas poem, “Odras”.  Before we get to her, here are links to some of her other roles:

Esnada Tige Buichet, “The Melodies of the House of Buchet”.

This is “the other side” of the Odras story.  Odras is not even named in this tale.  If you want to have a go at the Old Irish text, you can read it here.  If you’re happy with Myles Dillon’s “synopsis” (which misses out the passages of rosc poetry), you can read it here.

 

Táin Bó Cuailgne, “The Cattle Raid of Cooley”

The Mór Rígan plays a crucial role in Cú Chulainn’s involvement in the Táin.  There are several versions, which you can compare and contrast!

Recension I, edited by Cecile O’Rahilly can be read here.  Her translation can be read here.  She has also produced an edition and translation of the version found in the Book of Leinster (LL); read the edition here and the translation here.

Every home should also have the version of the Táin by Thomas Kinsella, with illustrations by Louis le Brocquy, published in 1968.  Order it through your local friendly bookshop! ISBN13: 9780192803733, ISBN10: 0192803735

 

Reicne Fothaid Canainne

This is the eulogistic poem discussed in the podcast.  It gives us a glimpse of the Morrigan in her under-appreciated role as bringer of the dawn and good news.  You can read the edition by Kuno Meyer here, and his translation here.

 

ODRAS

From the Metrical Dindshenchas, Vol. IV, edited by E. Gwynn

Translated by Isolde Carmody

 

1. Odras, úais ind ingen,

Odras, noble is the daughter -

fris’ indlem laíd lúaidme,

for whom we prepare this poem which we recite -

Odornatan airme

[daughter] of Pale Dawn of repute

meic Laidne meic Lúaidre.

Son of Latin [learning] son of Repute [?]

 

2. Ban-briugaid ba brígach

She was a vigourous woman-hospitaller

in gnímach glan gúasach,

that active, pure, dangerous [woman],

céile cáem co cruthacht

beloved and shapely comanion

do Buchatt balcc búasach.

to sturdy, cattle-rich Buchet

 

3. Bóaire cáid Cormaic

cow-lord of revered Cormac

co roblait in Buchatt,

was this mighty Buchet

dúiscid búar co m-blaitne

He woke the strong herd

cach maitne for muchacht.

every morning, first thing

 

4. Fechtus luid dia ésse

Once, she went after him -

a ben glésse gasta,

- his brilliant, quick-witted wife

Odras rúad co romét,

Odras, red-headed and great-sized -

do chomét búar m-blasta.

to guard the tasty cattle.

 

5. Moch dia m-boí ‘na codlud

As soon as she was asleep -

Odras groc-dub gnóach,

Odras, dark-wrinkled [?] and busy -

dosrocht ben in Dagda,

the Dagda’s woman reached her

ba samla día sóach [?].

In this way, [her] produce [soth] was [taken] from her

[NOTE: This is a very difficult line. Gwynn: “in this wise came the shape-shifting goddess”]

 

6. Tuc léi tarb in tnúthach,

She took with her the [most] important bull,

in rígan garb gnáthach,

that rugged constant queen,

baí i Líathmuine láthach,

which was in Líathmuine of the warriors,

[Líathmuine = Grey Scrubland.  This was the plane which was flooded to form Lough Neagh]

in fíachaire fáthach.

that sagacious raven-lord

 

7. Dairis boin in búaball,

The ox covered a cow,

tarb túamann ‘nar taídenn,

the domestic [?] bull in our company

ó Themraig tric táraill

suddenly went from Temar

co slemnaib Fraích Oírenn.

to [the] flats of Óiriu’s Heath.

 

8. Slemon ainm in tairb-sin,

Slippery” [was] the name of that bull,

dremon in dóel donn-sin:

That wild, clay-coloured beetle [i.e. as we may call someone a “worm”]

a ainm, mer cen mebsain,

his name – demented and undefeated -

‘sed rolen in fonn-sin.

It is [on] that basis [that] it has stuck to it [the place]

 

9. Luid co Crúachain cróda

She went to blood-stained Crúachán,

iarsind úath-blaid ágda

after the valourous, famous phantom

in Mórrígan mórda,

The exalted Great Queen,

ba slóg-dírmach sámda.

The hosting of warrior-bands was sated.

[NOTE: I have made a deliberate departure from Gwynn’s translation; “There came to blood-stained Cruachu, according to the weird and terrible tale, the mighty Morrigan, whose pleasure was in mustered hosts.”]

 

10. Luid Odras ‘na h-iarn-gait,

Odras went to steal with force [lit. “iron-theft”]

iarmairt nárbu ada,

a consequence [i.e. response?] that was not justified

‘s a gilla dúr dorthain,

And her sturdy, protecting, serving-boy

[NOTE: I interpret “dorthain” as a diminutive of “turtugud” - a special form of legal and physical protection within one’s home].

torchair i Cúil Chada.

He was felled in Cada’s Nook.

 

11. Cada ainm a gilla

Voice” was the name of her serving-boy

rofinna mór fíche:

He discovered great feuds

ruc Odras, úair áithe,

Odras brought him, a keen time,

for lurg a búair bíthe.

to look for her submissive herd.

[NOTE: “bíthe” is the verbal noun of “benaid” - to strike.  It literally means “beaten”.  It is also a quality often ascribed to women, usually translated or glossed as “soft” or “demure”.  It seems to me to indicate a woman being beaten into submission.]

 

12. Iarsin, d’éis a gilla,

After that, surviving her serving-boy,

luid in ben gléis glanda

The bright, pure woman went

co Síd Crúachan cumma,

to the shapely fairy-hill of Crúachan

co fríth úath-blad alla.

so that she found yonder famous phantom.

 

13. Roléic cotlud chuicce

She let sleep come to her,

in groc-dub cen glicce

the dark-wrinkled [?] one, guilelessly,

nDaire úar Fhálgud

in the cold oak-wood of Fálga [on Sliabh Baghna,near river Shannon]

dia fúair sárgud sicce.

where she found harsh violation. [“sárgud sicce” may be a kenning or euphamism for death].

 

14. Dosruacht ina tathum,

She came upon her in her rest,

trúag tachur for tulaig,

wretched, that meeting on the moun,

in Mórrígan úathmar

the terrible Mórrígan

h-úaim Chrúachan cubaid.

[came] out of the harmonious cave of Crúachán.

 

15. Rochan fuirre ind agda

She sang the instruction [?] over her

tria luinde cen logda

through her eagerness, without remission,

cach bricht dían, ba dalbda,

every dilligent incantation, it was magical,

fri Slíab mBadbgna m-brogda.

by the cultivated Scald-Crowish Mountain [Slíab Badbgna = Slieve Baune in East Roscommon]

 

16. Legais in ben brígach

The spirited woman melted away

fri Segais, sreb súanach,

by Segas, soothing stream,

mar cach linn cen líg-blad:

like any pool, without famous [memorial] stone

nísbaí brígrad búadach.

she had no powers of victory

 

17. Don tshruthán fháen fhoglas

For the level, pale-green stream

is ainm sáer co soblas,

its noble sweet-scented name

luid ón mnaí thrúaig thadaill

came from the wretched bleding woman

cosin abainn Odras. O.

to the river Odras.

 

 

NOTES:

bóaire, briugud & Buchet:

The name Buchet comes from , “cow”, and cét, “hundred”. It refers to part of the definition of a briugu, “hospitalier”, the highest grade of bóaire, “cow-lord” or “strong farmer”.  To reach this noble status, the strong farmer must be able to count his cattle in hundreds, have a large house at the meeting of at least three roads, and dispense food, drink and shelter to all comers.

 

Crúachán:

The site of the royal fort of Connaught and the cave, Ua na gCait, “The Cave of the Cats”, out of which the Mórrígan emerges in this poem and in the Táin Bó Cuailgne.  Crúach means “corn-rick” or “heap”, and the suffix “-án” is a diminutive, often fond form.  So this royal compound is described as “little heap”!

Fraích Oírenn:

It is said in LL that Fraích Óirenn became known as Fraích Slemna after the Mór Rígan took the bull, Slemon, there.  Describing the area as “slemnaib” is perhaps a play on this or just an indication of its later name-change.  The best guess of where this might be is somewhere East of Temair.

http://publish.ucc.ie/doi/locus/F

Odras:

This name comes from the word odar, a colour-word originating from fresh or clear water.  See “Many Shades of Darkness” for more on this word.

The Mórrígan Speaks – Her Three Poems

From Cath Maige Tuired, “The Battle of Moytura”

Introduction

At the end of the Old Irish saga of Cath Maige Tuired, there are three poems attributed to the Mórrígan; one immediately before the main battle, and the other two afterwards, ending the saga as a whole.  These three poems were the main topic of my Masters Thesis in 2005.  I have revisited the work I did on these poems, making some amendments to my translations.  The main thrust of that thesis remains, however, and here are some of the main points:

The poems are in a form called rosc or roscaid.  This is a very archaic, non-metrical, non-rhyming form of poetry which may date back further than our written record of the Irish language.  Its most consistent feature is connective alliteration, where the word or words at the end of one line alliterate with the word or words at the beginning of the next line.  This forms a kind of conceptual chain, where the image of one line is shifted to produce the image of the following line.  Rosc can be notoriously difficult to translate, as there is a scarcity of verbs, a lax attitude to syntax and many archaic and obscure words preserved in the poetic form.

When the poems are taken out of the surrounding prose text, they form a continuous text of their own.  It is my belief that the saga was originally contained entirely in this loose verse-form.  Poetry tends to preserve older forms of language, which are crystalised by the structure of the poem like insects in amber. As the language of the poems becomes more archaic and obscure, the tellers of the story need to add more and more prose to explain what the poems mean.  But they do not abandon the poetic passages, which retain their music and sonorous wholeness.

Both then and now, I am working from the edition of Cath Maige Tuired by Elizabeth Gray, published by the Irish Texts Society in 1982.  References to sections and line numbers are to this edition.

Poem A: Section 137, Lines 683 – 693

This poem is in the present tense, and almost reads like a “live commentary” of the battle itself.  There is not much more description of the actual battle in the prose text: it is largely concerned with the preparations before and ramifications after the battle.  This poem introduces the main action of the battle.

Afraigid rig don cath

Kings arise to [meet] the battle

rucatair gruaide

Cheeks are seized

aisnethir rossa

Faces [honours] are declared

ronnatair feola,

Flesh is decimated,

fennátair enech,

Faces are flayed

ethátair catha -rruba

[incomplete word] ?? of battle are seized

segatar ratha

Ramparts are sought

radatar fleda

Feasts are given

fechatar catha,

Battles are observed

canátair natha,

Poems are recited

noatair druith

Druids are celebrated

dénaitir cuaird

Circuits are made

cuimnitir arca

Bodies are recorded

alat(-) ide

Metals cut

sennat(-) deda

Teeth mark

tennat(-) braigit

Necks break

blathnuigh[i]t(-) [cét] tufer

[A hundred] cuts blossom

cluinethar eghme

Screams are heard

ailitir cuaird

Battallions are broken

cathitir lochtai

Hosts give battle

lúet(-)ethair

Ships are steered

snaat(-) arma

Weapons protect

scothaitir sronai.

Noses are severed

At_ci[ú] cach ro_genair

I see all who are born

ruad_cath derg_bandach

[in the] blood-zealous vigorous battle,

dremnad fiach_lergai fo_eburlai.

raging [on the] raven-battlefield [with] blade-scabbards.

Fri uabar rusmebat

They attempt our defeat

re_nar_már_srotaib sinne

over our own great torrents

fri fur fo_abad líni Fomoire

Against your attack on the full [compliment] of Fomoire

margnaich incanaigh

In the mossy margins;

copraich aigid fiach

the helpful raven drives

dorar fri_ar_solga garuh

strife to our hardy hosts

dálaig for_m_desigter rodbadh

mustered, we prepare ourselves to destroy

samlaidh derg_bandaib dam

To me, the full-blooded exploits are like

aim_critaighid conn_aechta

shaking to-and-fro of hound-kills

sameth donn_curidh dibur fercurib fristongarar.

goodly decay of muddy war-bands, your violations are renounced.

Poem B: Section 166, Lines 819 – 827

This is the penultimate section of the saga, and the poem used in the podcast (read it here).  It has a timeless quality to it, and lays out a vision of eternal peace and prosperity.  It is balanced by the last poem (below), which offers a diametrically opposed view.

Sith co nem

Peace to [the] heaven[s],

[NOTE: Síd = peace & Síd = faery – most likely same root]

Nem co doman.

Heaven to [the] world / earth

Doman fo ním,

Earth under sky / heavens

nert hi cach,

Strength in each.

án for_lann,

Cup on a plate

lan do mil,

Full of honey

mid co saith.

Mead to [one’s] satisfaction

Sam hi ngam,

Summer in winter

gai for sciath,

Spear upon a shield

sciath for durnd.

Shield upon a fist

Dunad lonn_garg;

Blade-bristling fort

longa(i)t(-) trom_foíd

Consumption of solid earth

fod di uí

Rights of [the] grandchildren [descendents]

ross for_biur

Forest on a point

benna a_bu

Horns from a cow

airbe im_etha.

Encircling fence {?}

Mess for crannaib,

Mast upon trees

craob do scis

Weary [its] bough

scis do áss

Weary from growth

saith do mac

Wealth for a boy

mac for muin,

Boy on a neck

[NOTE: “Macc for muin” is also a food-portion or ration, deemed appropriate for a free person.]

muinel tairb

Neck of a bull

tarb di arccoin

Bull from[?] a watch-dog

odhb do crann,

Knot for [on] a tree

crann do ten.

Tree for fire

Tene a nn-ail.

Fire from a stone

Ail a n-uír

Stone from earth

uích a mbuaib

[Young?] from cows

boinn a mbru.

Cows from a womb

Brú la_fefaid

[River-]Bank with birdsong

oss_glas iaer errach,

Grey deer before spring

foghamar for_asit etha.

Autumn whence grows corn

Iall do tir,

Flock [of birds, warriors, people] for [the] land

tir co trachd

Land [extending] to the shore

la feabrae.

With sharp edges

Bid_ruad rossaib síraib rith_már,

The great run {time} to the eternal woods / promintory will be fierce

‘Nach scel laut?’

“Have you any story?”

Sith co nemh,

Peace to the heavens

bid_sirnae .s[ith].’

It will be eternal peace.

Poem C: Section 167, lines 831 – 840

This finishes the saga and balances the previous poem.  It is in the future tense, and starts with the verb “at-cí” (sees), which marks it as a vision.

Ni accus bith no_mbeo:

I do not see a world of the living:

Baid sam cin blatha,

Summer will be without flowers

beti bai cin blichda,

Cows will be without milk

mna can feli,

Women without modesty [/ generosity / pudenda]

[NOTE: féle is a defining “virtue” of women; a tlás, a fos, a féile (characteristics of a good woman) = “her yielding / compassion, her perseverance / steadfastness, her modesty / generosity” (ZCP viii)  See more about “féle” in “The Poems of Sinann“.]

fir gan gail.

Men without valour [semen]

[NOTE: gal is literally “steam”; as “vigour”, it is a defining “virtue” of men, hence my reference to semen as male essence.]

Gabala can righ

Conquests without a king

rinna ulcha ilmoigi

walls of spear-points [on] every plain

beola bron,

Sad mouths

feda cin mes.

Forests without mast

Muir can toradh.

Sea without fruit

Tuir bain(b)thine /// Tuirb ain(b)thine

Tower-wall of white metal /// A multitude of storms

immat moel rátha,

around bare fortresses

fás a forgnam locha

Empty their dark buildings

di_ersitir dinn

High places cannot endure

at_rifiter linn

A lake has attempted

lines sech_ilar flaithie

to flood past a multitude of kingdoms

faoilti fria holc,

Welcome to its evil

ilach imgnath

Howling occupies

gnuse ule.

every face

Incrada docredb-

Great unbelievable torments

gluind ili,

many crimes

imairecc catha,

Battles waged everywhere

toebh fri ech delceta

Trust in spiked horses

imda dala

Many (hostile) meetings

braith mac flaithi

treacherous princelings

forbuid bron

A shroud of sorrows

sen saobretha.

on old high judgements

Brecfásach mbrithiom-

False maxims of judges

braithiomh cech fer.

Every man a betrayer

Foglaid cech mac.

Every son a brigand.

Gignitir cen_mair

[People] will be born without surviving

olc aimser

Evil time

i_mmera mac a athair,

in which the son will derange his father

i_mera ingen …

In which the daughter will derange…

The Morrigan’s Prophecy

River Unshin.

River Unshin.

From “the Morrigan’s prophecy” spoken at the close of the battle of Moytura. (based on the translation by Isolde Carmody)

Beneath the peaceful heavens lies the land.

It rests beneath the bowl of the bright sky.

The land lies, itself a dish, a cup of honeyed strength, there, for the taking, offering strength to each

There it lies, the splendour of the land.

The land is like a mead worth the brewing, worth the drinking.

It stores for us the gifts of summer even in winter.

It protects and armours us, a spear upon a shield

Here we can make for ourselves strong places, the fist holding the shield

Here we can build safe places, our spear-bristling enclosures.

This is where we will turn the earth.

This is where we will stay.

And here will our children live to the third of three generations

Here there will be a forest point of field fences

The horn counting of many cows

And the encircling of many fields

There will be sheltering trees So fodderful of beech mast that the trees themselves will be weary with the weight.

In this land will come abundance bringing:

Wealth for our children Every boy a warrior,

Every watch dog, warrior-fierce

The wood of every tree, spear-worthy

The fire from every stone a molten spear-stream

Every stone a firm foundation

Every field full of cows

Every cow calf-fertile.

Our land shall be rich with banks in birdsong

Grey deer before Spring And fruitful Autumns

The plain shall be thronged from the hills to the shore.

Full and fertile.

And as time runs its sharp and shadowy journey, this shall be true.

This shall be the story of the land and its people

We shall have peace beneath the heavens. Forever

Chris Thompson

Series 5,episode 6: Encountering The Morrigan

Úa na gCait

Úa na gCait

The Morrigan,  is a multi textured mythological figure, She may take  the role of war correspondent, and diplomat and record keeper. She can be sensual, uncompromising and occasionally even downright scary but then, above all, she is the perfect exemplar of the poet’s skill.

Come an explore her fascinating complexity with the story archaeologists as they follow her track through the epic stories of the  Táin bó Cuailnge and the Battle of Moytura. Links for this episode

There is relevant material throughout the second series on Moytura, but three are especially connected with The Morrigan. See series 2, episode 4: ‘On the Dagda’s Track ,  series 2 episode 6: The Morrigan’s View (part 1) and series 2,episode 6 The Morrigan’s View (part 2)

We also mentioned her appearance to  Cú Chulainn in Series 3.episode : The Cow and the Time Machine.

There are also many , articles, texts and translations, connected to each of these  topics, on the website.

Brigid Links

There are two editions and translations of two different medieval hagiographies of Saint Brigid available on CELT:

Betha Brigte: Edited and Translated by Whitley Stokes Editionhttp://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/G201010/index.html Translationhttp://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T201010/index.html Bethu Brigte: Edited and Translated by Donnchadh Ó hAodha Editionhttp://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/G201002/index.html Translationhttp://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T201002/index.html

The living tradition of St. Brigid in Kildare is kept by the Brigidine Sisters at Solas Bhríde in Kildare.  Amongst much other work, they celebrate St. Brigid’s Day, Lá ‘le Bhríde, every February 1st at St. Brigid’s Wayside Well and Garden Well.  The Wayside Well is right beside the entrance to the Japanese Gardens and National Stud, just outside Kildare town, and the Garden Well is a short walk away, off the main road.

Celebrating Lá 'le Bhríde in Kildare with the Brigidine Sisters

Celebrating Lá ‘le Bhríde in Kildare with the Brigidine Sisters

I have been to this celebration twice, and it is an uplifting, inclusive event.  On the eve of the festival, folk gather by candlelight at the Wayside Well, and then process to the Garden Well, where there is often a great bonfire lit.  The following day is full of tours of the countryside, including sites important to St. Brigid, and talks on everything from history, folklore and mythology to social justice.

Fochard Bríde

Brigid's well

According to the early hagiographies, St. Brigid was born at Fochard Muirtheimne, a few miles north of Dundalk, about 450 CE. Though  of the strength of this tradition, the place  later became known as Fochard Bríde.

On the hill nearby, are the remains of an Iron Age fort, a Norman motte-castle and a medieval church. St Brigid’s Well is in the graveyard. There is also the base of an old cross and a horseshoe-shaped mound.

I visited the site in 1990, but have not had the opportunity to return since. However, I found it a fascinating experience, particularly the stations along the stream. Each is supposed to help cure problems with a particular part of the body.

The Waist Stone at Fochaird Bríde

The Waist Stone

For example, at station 8, is the Waist Stone, for illnesses connected with the waist or hips.

The Hoof Stone at Fochaird Bríde

The Hoof Stone

The Eye Stone is to be found at station 9. This holds water for washing the eyes to improve vision.

Station 10 is a bit odd. This “Head Stone ” has a shallow indent with a white circle painted around it. As far as I know, you have to put the top of your head in the concave circle, presumably to treat heaaches.

The strangest stone of all is at station 6. This is the Hoof Stone. I am uncertain how this one is applied!

It is a calm and beautiful place, but there was one thing that surprised me in my visit all those years ago. I might even say it came as a shock.  I was perfectly prepared to encounter the long established folk practice of tying   rags  to a thorn tree.As I understand the intended  purpose of this practice,  problems would be solved as the rag decayed. However, here I saw. not rags,, but plastic bags tied on a barbed wire fence. This gave a completely different impression. No natural decay here!

I have seen the same in other places since, and am no longer surprised.  However, it would seem that the ancient practice now has a somewhat different significance for the participants.

Lassair and Her Well

Every parish in Ireland has its holy well, with specific healing properties and a “pattern day” (Patron Day), where Mass is said and pilgrims perform rituals by the well.  In the Arigna area of South Leitrim / Roscommon, one of the best known of these is St. Lassair’s Well in the parish of Killronan, between Keadue and Ballyfarnon.

Signpost to St. Lassair's Holy Well

Finding the Way…

This well, like many others around the country, is well loved and cared for.  It is set into a “garden” sandwiched between a busy (in rural terms!) road and the shore of Lough Meelagh.  The main features of this garden are the well itself, surrounded by a stone path and facings, and the “altar”, a flat stone slab on four stone legs, with a bullaun (spherical stone) set on top.

The Altar Stone at Lassair's Well

Lassair’s Altar Stone

Although I have never attended the pattern day mass, there is ample evidence that the site is continuously used.  One use is the cure for bad backs that involves crawling in a figure of eight around the legs of the altar, and someone has kindly laid matting under this slab to prevent muddy knees.  The bullaun on top is supposed to be a blessing / cursing stone: you rotate it clockwise for a blessing, anti-clockwise for a curse.  The top of the altar is pitted with countless depressions, although this could be the result of some odd form of erosion.

The Bullaun stone on the Altar at Lassair's Well

The Bullaun – clockwise to bless, anti-clockwise to curse!

Beside the well itself, folk have left cups to facilitate drinkingof the fresh water.  But many people have left offerings there for the answering of their own prayers: asthma inhalers, baby bootees, pens (at exam times) and countless beads.  More offerings hang from various trees and thorn bushes surrounding the garden.  The well used to be overhung by a large ash tree, and countless pilgrims had hammered coins into the bark as a kind of spiritual tax.  So many coins were stuck deep into the tree that it was weakened and had to be removed after it fell in a storm..

The stone around the well, with offerings left behind

Here you can see some of the offerings left by pilgrims

As with any saintly figure, one cannot disentangle history from mythology in examining the stories that cluster around a figure such as Lassair. She was said to be the daughter of St. Rónán, for whom the parish of Killronan is named.  Her name means “Flame”, and a 17th century hagiography from the Stow Missile reports that this name was given to her when she survived a raging fire.  She was apparently so absorbed in the singing of psalms and prayers that she didn’t notice the flames roaring high above her head.  The onlookers saw the young woman surrounded by fire, and the name “Lassair” stuck to her from then on.  This naming story mirrors almost precisely a story of the young St. Brigid.

St. Lassair's Well, including the stump of the tree which had coins hammered into its bark

The Well itself

There are many stories of her healing of the sick through preparing a draught using her well-water, and also by using mud scraped from the cliff above the well.  This is also reported in the 17th century text, and folk still collect this clay for luck and protection. There is a story recounted by Mary Condren in her book “The Serpent and The Goddess” which links Lassair to St. Brigid in a curious way.  The story is that St. Brigid came to visit St. Lassair, and so Lassair slaughtered her last ewe in order to provide food for the saint.  During the meal, however, St. Patrick then dropped by.  Lassair had no more to offer the new guest (presumably both clerics had brought full retinues), and Lassair was at risk of breaking the laws of hospitality.  Brigid shared her portion so that Lassair would not lose face, and in gratitude, Lassair gave Brigid her church (of women) and her flock of sheep.  Condren reads into this a passing on of the following of a local female figure to the stronger, national figure of Brigi; a handing-on of the flame, or the mantle, to keep practices of female spirituality alive in an increasingly male church.

The garden around St. Lassair's Well

Lassair’s Garden

There is something to be said for this hand-over, and some characteristics that seem native to Lassair are certainly now associated with Brigid.  In particular, the coincidence of the flame (Lassair, Brigid’s Fire) and the well seems strongest in central imagery.  Both women were depicted as powerful land-owners who provided gracious hospitality and could cure the greivously ill.  Both fires still burn brightly in their followers.

The Story of Rúadán from Cath Maige Tuired

from Cath Maige TuiredThe Battle of Moytura

edited by Elizabeth Gray

translation and notes by Isolde Carmody

[Terms in bold have notes and discussions below]

 

544] Tánic didiu frisna Fomore annísin, go tudciset-som fer n-úadaibh de déscin cathai & cosdotha Túath nDéa .i. Rúadán mac Bresi & Bríghi ingene in Dagdai. Ar ba mac-side & ba úa do Thúaith Déa.

124. Things were going against the Fomoire now.  So they brought out one of their men to spy on the battalions and encampments of the Túatha Dé: that is, Rúadán, son of Bres and of Brig, daughter of the Dagda.  [This was] because he was a son and a grandson of the Túatha Dé.

Atcuaid íerum gním an gaphonn & ant sáeir & an cerdou & na cetri lége rouhátar imon tibrait do Fomoraib.

Then he told the Fomoire about the work of the smith [Goibniu] and the craftsman [Luchta] and the goldsmith [Creidne Cerd], and of the four physicians who were encircling the well.

Rofaíded-som afridisie fri marbod neich den óes dána .i. Gaibniu.

They sent him back again to kill one of the Crafted Ones: that is, Goibniu.

Tothloigestar gai ó ssoide, a semonn ón cerdai, & a crand ónt sóer. Debreth íerum amal asbert.

He requested a spear-blade from him, its rivets from the goldsmith, and its shaft from the carpenter.  Then that was given to him as he had stated.

Baí dano ben and fri bleth arm .i. Crón máthair Fíanluig; is í rus-meil gaí Rúadáin.

There was also a woman there sharpening weapons; that is, Crón the mother of Fianlach. It is she who ground Rúadán’s spear.

Dobreth dí Rúadán didiu an gaí ó máthri, conud de sin doberar “gaí máthri” de garmnaib beus a n-Érinn.

The spear was given to Rúadán therefore by his maternal kin, and it is from that that weaver’s beams are also called “the spear of the maternal kin” in Ireland.

 

554] Immesoí didiu Rúadán íer tabairt in gaí dó, & geogoin Goibninn.

Rúadán turned suddenl after the spear was given to him and he wounded Goibniu.

Tíscais-side an gaí as & fochaird for Rúadán co lluid trít; & co n-érbailt ar bélaib a athar a n-oirecht na Fomore.

He drew the spear out of himself and cast it at Rúadán so that it went through him.  Then he died in front of his father at the parliament of the Fomoire.

Tic Bríc & cáines a mac. Éghis ar tós, goilis fo deog.

Bríg came and keened for her son.  First she cried out, then she wept.

Conud and sin roclos gol & égem ar tós a n-Érinn.

It was [as though? / ] then that weeping and crying were first heard in Ireland.

(Is sí didiu an Prích-sin roairich feit do caismeirt a n-oidci.)

(It is she also who is the Bríg that created a hiss to signal at night.)

 

NOTES

áes [óes] dána:

Áes is a word denoting a group or class of persons, very much like lucht below.  It especially applies to members of a profession when followed by a genitive, as in this case with dána.  Dán is a word which has “craft” at its root, but is especially used of poetry, which is seen as a craft or skill.  In Modern Irish, a poem is still called dán.  Áes Dána is sometimes used as a synonym for Túatha Dé Danann, and indeed both can be interpreted as “people of craft / poetry”.

Áes Dána is still a term in use in modern Ireland.  Being a Republic, we do not have an honours system.  The Aosdána was established by the Arts Council in 1981 to honour creative artists of Ireland.  Its members are selected by peers and through election.  From among no more than 250 people, 7 Saoi, “sages”, are selected.  The title is conferred by the President of Ireland and is a life-time position.

You can read more about the modern Aosdána here: http://aosdana.artscouncil.ie/

 

 

Bres:

[NOTE: This paragraph also appears in “Texts of Eithliu”]

Bres is introduced as a member of the Fomoire, the undersea people who place the Túatha Dé Danann under a heavy tax, leading to the (second) Battle of Moytura.  That saga (Cath Maige Tuired) features “The Conception of Bres” very near the beginning, and gives some explanation of his name.  His father, Elatha Mac Delbaeth, says he will be so beautiful that after him, any beautiful thing will be called a “bres”.  The name itself seems to originate from bres meaning “fight”, “blow”, “effort”, or “uproar”, “din”; then, by extension, a hero, chief or great man.  Interestingly, there are instances where it seems to mean “beautiful” or “valuable”, but it is hard to know whether this meaning is the root of the saga explanation or vice versa.  I think the naming of the Fomorian king as “Bres” also plays on bras, a word meaning “boastful” or “forward”, particularly implying someone who makes false claims to greatness.  This seems to fit with how Bres is characterised in Cath Maige Tuired.

 

Bríg:

If you search for the name “Brigit” in a source as supposedly reliable as the Dictionary of the Irish Language, published by the Royal Irish Academy, the first entry is “name of goddess or member of triad of goddesses”.  The main source for this, which has been taken up repeatedly, is Cormac Úa Chuilleanáin’s Glossary.  I have often pointed out the unreliable nature of the glossaries when it comes to understanding language, and this is just as true of this 9th century bishop’s imagining of Ireland before the advent of Christianity.  To give him credit, he does cite Brigit as daughter of the Dagda, and Brig is described as such in our extract from Cath Maige Tuired.

As to the meaning of the name, there are two main candidates: brí, “hill”, and bríg, “power, force, strength”.  Many have gone for the latter as their preferred root, but I favour the former.  My reasoning is partly the strong association between Celtic peoples and the ancestral figure Brigantia, who is the source of the assumption that we, in Ireland, also had a pre-Christian mythical figure of a similar name.  Celtic settlements are identified archaeologically by a distincive hill-top fortification; a type not found on the island of Ireland.  It makes sense to me that a people favouring hill-tops might have an ancestress whose name is related to bri, “hill”.  I can also imagine a development of meaning from “hill” to “high” to “exalted” or “powerful”; bringing us to bríg.  I am open to correction from historical linguists!

There is another curious linguistic connection which has specific relevance to our story.  Brig’s actions are to keen or lament vocally, and she is said to have created an aural signalling system.  There is further the mention of garman, which relates to “calling” (see below).  As well as bríg having a sense of “meaning” or “tenour” – a meaning that has survived into Modern Irish brí - there is a verb, brigaid, which has the meanings “shows, declares, displays”.  I do not know the etymological root of this verb, unless it somehow comes from bríg in its sense of “meaning”, “essence”.  Even if coincidental, the composer of our story seems centrally concerned with acts of vocalising.

 

cáines:

The intended verb here is surely caínid, “laments, keens”, rather than cáinid, “satirises” – no matter how much a mother might be cross with her son!  In fact, caínid is where we get the English term “keens”.

In many cultures, funerals are accompaned by professional or semi-professional keeners, and these are very often women.  Keening is generally a very public, very audible expression of grief.  In Ireland, by early Modern times, professional keeners would compose a eulogy for the dead, often ex tempore.  There is evidence to suggest that these poets were often women as well.

Caínid is distinguished from, though related to, égem, “shout, cry”, and gol, “weeping”.  Indeed, this is how Brig’s lament is structured in the story – an initial shout followed by weeping.

 

Creidne Cerd:

Creidne has two possible roots, both of which seem appropriate to the craftsman working with soft metals.  Firstly, there is créda, “earthen, from the clay”.  There is a somewhat synthetic explanation of créd as “tin”.  Since crédumae is “bronze” and umae is “copper”, then créd must be “tin” as the other ingredient of bronze.  Linguistically, créd- is simply the combinatory form of cré, “earth, clay”, much as con- is a combinatory form of , “hound”.

The second root is crett, “framework”.  It is often used of the “chasis” of a chariot, and then sometimes as made from bronze.  It is also used of the framework or timbers of a boat, a tree-trunk and a human body.  This root-word seems appropriate in the context of our story in terms of the structural role played by the rivets supplied by Creidne Cerd.

Cerd is a term meaning “craftsman, artisan”, most often applied to silver- and gold-smiths.  It can also apply to the craft or skill itself, and thereby to an occupation or way of life.

 

Crón:

This is a characteristically tricky colour-word (see “Many Shades of Darkness”).  It has variously been translated as “brown”, “reddish-brown”, “dark yellow” and “red”.  It is used substantively to mean “the Abyss”, “the Pit of Hell”; and the verbal noun crónugud seems to mean “twilight”.

Some illumination of this Abyss may come from the word crúan.  This is some kind of ornamental material, usually translated as “red enamel”, a favourite decoration in medieval Irish metalwork.  In support of the colour as a blood-red, it is used in the poem Buile Suibne in the phrase: caor[a] . . . crúandatha cuilinn, “blood-red berries of holly”.

It is possible that crón is related to crú, “blood, gore”, which becomes cró- in compounds.  The sense of crú extends both to a blood-red colou and to a serious or fatal wound, both of which are appropriate to our story.  It can also be used to indicate race or family relationship, much as we would use “blood” in modern English.

 

Dagda:

[NOTE: This paragraph is identical to the note on the Dagda in “Texts of Eithliu”.]

aka Eochaid Ollathar.  In Cath Maige Tuired [lines 423 - 426], he gives his full name:

“Fir Benn Bruaich Brogaill Broumide Cerbad Caic Rolaig Builc Labair Cerrce Di Brig Oldathair Boith Athgen mBethai Brightere Trí Carboid Roth Rimairie Riog Scotbe Obthe Olaithbe.”

For now, we shall look at the name by which he is most commonly known; the Dagda.  Firstly, it is worth noting that this apellation always has the definite article; in = “the”.  The Morrigan also always has the definite article, and these two characters are closely linked in Cath Maige Tuired.

As for Dagda, the medieval glossators analysed this as dag-día  “good god”.  However, I have not come across any examples where día, “god”, changes to da.  Día has forms such as deadeu etc., but the -da element of the Dagda’s name is very consistent.  Its genetive form is Dagdae or Dagda, and dative form DagdoDagdea.  Only this last form would be a possible form from dag-día, “good god”.

I propose that it is a dvandva compound; a word that is doubled for emphasis.  As a comparison, note that Irish people sometimes say “at all at all” for emphasis.  In which case, Dagda would be a doubling of da- / dag, “good”, making him “the best of the best”!

 

fét:

I was always a bit non-plussed by the standard translation of this line: “Now this is the Brig who invented a whistle [fét] for signalling at night”.  I could neither make sense of the relevance of the “aside”, nor of why a whistle might be especially good for signalling at night.  However, once I looked into the related meanings of fét, a different picture emerged.

The sense in which fét is a whistle is the sense of a sword whistling through the air, or some other process involving blowing, such as the whistling of the wind.  Fét is very often the word used to describe the hiss of a snake, and I think using a hiss to signal at night would be more effective than a whistle.

Then I came across this intriguing triad from the Book of Ballymote:

tri gotha diabhuil….i. fead ┐ gul ┐ eigeamh

“three diabolical voices i.e. hissing and weeping and shrieking”

All three of these “diabolical voices” are ascribed to Brig in our story: her keening starts with égem, “shrieking”, then moves to gol, “weeping”, and finally she is attributed with fét, “hissing”.  Brig’s role seems to connect with vocalisations, which further connects to the use of the term garman (see below).

 

Fíanlach:

This essentially means a “fían band” or “warrior band”.  Fíana were bands of young men whose occupations were hunting and fighting, most familiarly in the many stories of Find [Fionn, Finn] and his Fíana.  The derivation of the word is unclear, but it may come from an abstract noun meaning “driving” >> “hunting”.  Fíanlach would then make more sense as “hunting band”, and it would be appropriate then that their mother, Crón, would be sharpening blood-red weapons.

Fíanlach later developed a general meaning of “group”, not unlike áes (above) and lucht (below).  Perhaps this association suggested this as another character-name in the piece, as I haven’t come across any other characters called Fíanlach as yet.  If you have, please leave a comment or contact us!

 

garman:

This is usually translated as “weaver’s beam”, which feels quite obscure.  Let us follow its uses and senses to see how it relates to our story.

My first association with garman is from a gloss on a kenning for the Ogam letter nin.  In the Tree Ogam, popularised by late medieval scholars in works such as the Auraceipt na nÉces, this letter was given the meaning “ash tree”, despite there already being a letter, ohn, which clearly means “ash tree”, and whose kennings point to that meaning with references to wounding, weapons and warriors (the ash being a favoured material for making spear-shafts).  To return to nin, one of its kennings is bāg ban .i. garman, “boast of women i.e. a weaver’s beam”.  It is worth remembering that garman here appears as a gloss, and so is not part of the original kenning-poem.

While garman does carry senses of beams, shafts and cudgels (appropriate to the later association with ash-trees), it has a more straight-forward meaning as the nominative plural of gairm, “calling”.  The senses in which this veral noun can be used include “cry”, “vocation”, “summons” and the “calling” of the soul from the body at death.  To me, understanding garman principally as “callings” or “cries” makes better sense of its relationship to the kenning bág ban, “boast of women”, and to its appearance in our story which deals so much with keening and vocalisations.

It may be that the transference of garman to the sense of “weaver’s beam” may stem from its association with women: women as keeners, women as weavers and the deeply feminine character of nin.  Rather than meaning “ash tree”, this Ogam letter relates to the fork of a tree, with its kennings as bág maisi, “boast of beauty”, bág ban, “boast of women” and costud side, “establishing of peace”.  This points me to an understanding of nin as vagina, associated widely with forked objects (such as “crutch” <> “crotch”), and with the establishing of peace through sexual relationships between tribal groups.

 

Goibniu:

Goibniu is an n-stem noun with the genitive Goibnann, “of Goibniu”, which gives us the Modern Irish word gabha[nn], “smith”.  However, the sense of the goib- part of the name is a little oblique.

The root meaning of gob or gop isa “beak”, “snout” or “muzzle”, and is where we get the modern slang term “gob” for “mouth”.  The ancient Irish also used gob as a somewhat pejorative term for a human mouth.  It seems most particularly to refer to “beaks”, as it is used figuratively of the head of a spear, which is beak-shaped.  It is also used in the plural, goib, as the end of a set of tongs.  It is these figurative applications that point us to Goibniu; although he may simply have had a particularly pointy nose.

 

Luchta:

This comes from the root lucht, which might as well be translated as “stuff”, with a similarly broad range of applications. [The Irish often use the word “yoke” to mean “thing”, because it would have been among the first English words learned by agricultural labourers.  Subsequently, if they did not know the English word for something, they would call it a “yoke”].

However, lucht often carries the sense of “load”, “cargo”, “complement”, “capacity”, leading O’Davoran to gloss it as coire, “cauldron”.  It also has a meaning of a group, class or category of persons, and has continued into Modern Irish in this sense; e.g. lucht féachana, “audience” [lit. “group of looking”].  This seems to have a primary sense of the people occupying or possessing a place or piece of land; the “complement” of a household.  It also applies to groups that make up a profession e.g. lucht ech, “horsemen”, and this may be coming closer to the sense of the character Luchta.

Other words from the same root include luchtaigid, “to load”; luchtaire, “cook, dispenser”; and luchtmar, “well-laden, roomy” often in relation to ships.  While it seems clear from stories and glossaries that Luchta worked with wood, it may be in the general sense of wood as a basic substance, a universal cargo.  Or it might come from the extensive association with ships and their carrying capacity, in which case we could call him a shipwright.

 

Rúadán:

The primary sense of this name comes from rúad, the colour of dried blood.  This is also the colour-word used to describe a “red-head’s” hair, so Rúadán could simply be an appropriate name for a red-haired person, with the -án as a commonly-used diminutive suffix.  However, rúad became usedin poetic language to mean “strong”, “mighty” and even “impetuous”; this last coinciding with modern associations of red-heads being “feisty”.  Indeed, the impetuosity can be seen in Rúadán’s hurling of the spear at Goibniu, although there is a stronger association with the colour of bloodstains, especially when paired with Crón (see above).

Brig and Rúadán

grief_statueIt was the first time keening had been heard in the green land of Ireland.  The poetry of mourning, the ritual of the eulogy.  Brig keened for her lost son, her impetuous red-headed boy, Rúadán.

Rúadán was dead, killed by the spear of Goibniu, and the smithcraft of the Dé Danann, killed as a spy in the forge..

Why did it have to be her son who was chosen? Why did it have to be him? Not hard, the answer. She herself had played a part in his choosing.

It had been her choosing to give allegiance to Bres, a man of the Fomoire.  He was beautiful, yes, and wise in the ways of the land; but he was cruel and miserly. It had seemed fitting when Nuada, leader of her people, the Dé Danann, had been maimed, It had seemed fitting then to choose a chieftain from among the Fomoire, those strange sea people who shared their land,

It had seemed fitting then…

Bres, her husband, had put her people under a great burden of tax, keeping them in poverty. Why, he had even set her own father, the Dagda himself, to work building great ditches of earth.

And battle had not been averted

Now Lug, the Ildánach, master of many crafts, led her people, Lug, who, like Rúadán, was a son and grandson of both the Fomoire and the Dé Danann. Lug, with his Fomorean mother and Dé Danann father. Rúadán, with his Dé Danann mother and Fomoire father

So alike…. only Rúadán was dead.

And all had gone well - at least for the Dé Danann - and now the Fomoire were worried. They sent for Rúadán, one of the few who was welcome in both camps,

“Why is it,” they asked the boy, “that the weapons of the enemy are never blunted? Why is it that warriors we injure return to face us again each  day?”

And Rúadán, her son, his father’s son, had answered them.

“Not hard to tell: The warriors were renewed, dipped in the waters of the well of Sláine, Dían Cécht’s well of health.

“Not hard to tell: The weapons are re-sharpened each day in the skilful forge of Goibniu the smith.”

And Rúadán had been sent to the forge of Goibniu to kill the smith, to stop his skill… and she had let him go.

The red-haired youth had found his welcome in the fiery forge as always.

“Make me a spear,” he asked, the ruddy flames lighting his smile, and Gobniu set his hand to the hammer and the iron to the anvil. When the shape of the spear was sharp, Creidne Cerd framed it with rivets and Luchta set it to the shaft.

And Crón took it, finished it with her blood-red mark. She gave it to the red-haired youth.

And this was the moment that Rúadán made his choice. With a cry he lifted the spear and let it fly. It struck the smith, struck him there in his own forge. It wounded him but it did not fell him.

Goibnu plucked the spear from his own flesh and cast it once more. It struck Rúadán full in the breast, struck him and he fell, red in his own blood. There in the forge the youth died.

And Brig mourns for her son who will not be dipped in the waters of the healing well.

And the cadences of her keening are heard in both camps.