Story Archaeology

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

Rowing Around Immrama 11: The Mongan Mysteries – Some Poetic Fragments

A medieval image of St. Colm Cille on a boat

In our third and final episode on the lost hero, Mongán, we piece together some intriguing potsherds. What has the son of Manannán to say to Saint Colm Cille? What happened when he had his “Frenzy”? Can we re-construct his death-tale, Aided Mongáin?

Join the Story Archaeologists as they look for edges and corners in this poetic jigsaw.


Don’t forget to subscribe to get the latest posts! Related Articles will be posted in the days to come…

Story Archaeology is run on a voluntary not-for-profit basis. If you can afford a donation towards our running costs, we would be very grateful. The “Donate” button is on the right-hand-side of each page, or e-mail us for other ways to support our work.

Check our Reading List for further reading and resources.

by The Story Archaeologists

Music: “Tam Lin” by Gian Castello

Story Archaeology needs you!

Greetings all diggers and scrapers and fragment-collectors…

To The Skelligs - by Éamonn O'Doherty

If you read “The Trials and Tribulations of a pair of Story Archaeologists”, you’ll know that we at Story Archaeology have been on our own technological Immrám for some time now. It certainly can feel very much like “rowing around” when trying to select, construct and set up new computers.

We have conquered one of those islands on our journey. Isolde now has a new PC which is much less terrified of the internet than her previous model. Chris has finally installed the wonders of wi-fi in her own home. So we are ready to strike out on the next leg.

This is where you come in. Please take a listen to this short-cast, which explains why we need your help to continue on our journey. We would be nothing without our wonderful audience. Indeed, we’re starting to get the sense that this audience is in fact a community. So please help tug on the oars, and let’s keep Story Archaeology on this extraordinary immrám of discovery!

Story Archaeology goes Kind of Epic!

Graphic for Kind of Epic Show


Just when you thought there wasn’t enough Story Archaeology around, we go and do an interview for the Kind of Epic Show! We’re featured in a St. Patrick’s Day special on this “weekly look at all things geek” with Gabe Canada.

Here’s a direct link to the episode which will play automatically:

Here’s a link where you can download the episode:

Here’s the podcast on iTunes:

And on podomatic!

Enjoy! And thanks to Gabe for including us!


An Open Letter to QI

QI is a long-running BBC panel show hosted by Stephen Fry. It is produced by “Quite Interesting Ltd.”, and has become an unofficial source for Quite Interesting facts and exploding General Ignorance. But their research is not flawless…

The QI panel for the episode concerned: L to R, Alan Davies, Jason Manford, Stephen Fry, Johnny Vegas, Aisling Bea

The QI panel for the episode concerned: L to R, Alan Davies, Jason Manford, Stephen Fry, Johnny Vegas, Aisling Bea


Dear QI Elves,

Please can you stop spouting nonsense about Ancient Ireland? I know it’s a specialist area, but we at Story Archaeology are the specialists.

Most recently, in the second episode of the L series, “Location, Location, Location“, you had a question on Leprechauns. Here’s what you got wrong:


1) The leprechaun as cobbler does not exist in the millenium of literature preceding 1825. We could not find any rationale for this connection, so it may well be the invention of a 19th or 20th century author.


2) They were certainly not exclusively male! This passage from the 16th century story, although expurgated by Standish O’Grady, has the leprechaun queen, Bé Bhó, [pronounced “Bay Voe”, not “Bebo”!] demonstrating her femininity:

Iubhdhán [king of the Lucurpan] was brought out then afterwards and Bébó was left inside in Fergus’s company and Fergus [Mac Léite - king of Ulster] professed great love for her and made love to her. And when Fergus was making love to her, he placed his hand on the crown of her head, and the queen asked him, why he had placed his hand on her head. “It is a wonder to me”, said he “that the manly member in which there are seven fists in length, while you are not even three fists in length, hasn’t come out through your head. And it’s for that reason I placed my hand on your head.” “Ah give over Fergus” says she, “a woman’s thighs can absorb a lot”.


3) The oldest written account of the leprechauns – more properly, lucorpan – is 8th century, not 19th century! They appear in the saga Echtrae Fergusso Mac Léiti, “The Adventures of Fergus Mac Léite”, preserved in MSS TCD H.3.18 and Harlean 432. These are later legal manuscripts that preserve the saga, including its dateable 8th century language, as a precedence for legal decisions.


4) The physical description you cite for leprechauns comes from a single 19th century source, written by an Irish American, D.F. McNally, in “Irish Wonders: The ghosts, giants, pucas, demons, leprechauns, banshees, fairies, witches, widows, old maids, and other marvels of the Emerald Isle”. Every other source, including W. B. Yeats, seems to be a direct quote from this book.

What’s curious about the description of the leprechaun’s costume – the red coat, breeches, ruffs and cuffs – is that it seems to be a satire on the  English military and aristocracy. Quite interesting that over the course of a couple of centuries, this satire on the English colonisers has become a satire on the Irish colonised.


The 8th century saga of Fergus Mac Léite is also the source of another piece of travesty committed by your programme (although you are, by no means, the only perpetrators, it must be said). Back in the 4th episode of the I series, you perpetuated the myth that the ancient Irish would suck nipples as a sign of subjugation. The origin for this “ancient practice” is in the same saga, but it is not therefore a custom. It is, in fact, a parody of breast-feeding, playing on the smallness of the lucorpan (literally, “small body”), and the fact that he is an adult male, as is the king, who is shocked by the incident. It is not appropriate for either of them to engage in breast-feeding, and was A JOKE!!!

The only other mention of this nipple-sucking comes from St. Patrick, who claims he refused to show obeisance to a pagan Irish king by sucking his nipple. However, St. Patrick is as reliable a source for pre-Christian Ireland as Caesar is regarding the Continental Celts.


Despite all of this, we owe you a debt of thanks. In response to “Location, Location, Location”, we dedicated our 2014 Midwinter special to discovering where Leprechauns come from. You can listen to the episode, “A Crock of Old Cobblers”, here:


Yours in hypercorrection,

Isolde and Chris

The Story Archaeologists

The Humiliation of Eochu Rígéigeas

3 of the Collaiste Ide Ogham Stones in Co. KerryEochu, chief poet of Ireland seethed furiously, shame diffusing his face into red rage.

To make a fool of him, to humiliate him in public - it was an unforgivable insult to a man of his status.

But for a young man, hardly more than a child, to be the cause, the origin of his discomfiture; this was more than he could bear.

And the youth who had done this thing to him was Mongán, son to the king of Ulster.

There was a strangeness, a knowingness about the lad; a hidden wisdom, quiet and sharp as a sudden frost.

It was whispered on the wind that Mongán was not, indeed, the son of Fiachna, but fathered by Manannán himself. Oh, the child had been born to the queen, without doubt - but if the child were the get of the Sea Lord himself, then how could even the chief poet of Ireland stand against him?

It was unjust.

His face darkened again as the images of his humiliation rose, unbidden, before his eyes. The young clerics, arguing the lore of the stone markers. It had been a scene of such normalcy, of rightness: King Fiachna on his progress around the provinces of Ireland, accompanied by his chief poet. All had been as it should be.

A simple request for information, a question of lore, directed to him. That was correct. That was right. That was how it should be.  And he had answered their respectful queries; not, perhaps, a full and thoughtful answer, but a lore-master’s answer nonetheless.

“I do not remember all that. I should think the Children of Deda raised them, to build the City of Cú Roí.”

Then the youths, these striplings, had dared to correct him to his face.

“These are the three stones of a champion-band, a warrior-band,” they had told him. Conall Cernach aided Illand, his foster-son, to raise the stones.  It was, after all, the custom of the Ulstermen to celebrate the first arming of a warrior with such stone markers. “But surely you should know that, for this is an Ulster story and you are an Ulsterman.”

And each youth had showed to him a face of jeering pity. Yet the eyes that looked out of each face were the eyes of the boy, Mongán; and Eochu knew with a certainty that he was behind the insult.

Twice more he had met with such insults. Twice more, groups of grinning youths had flung his ignorance in his face.

“We want to hear from Eochu what rath this is, and who lived in it.”

“So many build raths,” he had replied, “that they do not all find room in the memory.”

A good enough answer for the young and untrained.

“Let him be,” the boys had replied. “He does not know.”

They had laughed in his face; and yet, all the time, it was Mongán’s eyes he could see, jeering at him in insulting pity.

Then Fiachna, his king, had turned to him in condescending gentleness.

“You shall not be thought the less, just because of your lack of knowledge,” he had told him, smiling, a royal hand patting his shoulder. Yet it was Mongán’s voice he had heard, Mongán’s eyes laughing behind the assumed sympathy.

And he knew, with a certainty, that Mongán would not let him be; that the inspiration of Manannán was with the youth, and not with him, poet of all Ireland.

Eochu drew himself up to his full height, gazing out to sea, breathing the wind. He was still a poet, he could still see. He stared into the darkness, the sea wind cooling his face, and draining away the shame. The inner vision came to him, the insight of what was to be. Let Mongán be what he was, the child of prophecy, and the progeny of Manannán.

But that was all he would be. The boy’s closeness to the Otherworld would be his undoing. He would never truly be of this world. His glory would be fleeting. He would bear no sons to carry his name, his blood, down through the circling years.

He would return to Manannán, forgotten.

If this was a curse, so be it. It was his curse; the curse of Eochu, chief poet of all Ireland.

So be it.


Rowing Around Imrrama 10: Mongan and the Poets

Taliesin by Heloise Christa

In our second dip into Mongan’s mysterious waters, we compare several stories showing off Mongan’s miraculous poetic skill. As a boy-wonder, he humiliates his father’s chief poet; as a king, he terrifies a poor student into a mysterious quest; and finally lets slip that he may have been here before…

Join the Story Archaeologists as they dredge up a lost hero of Irish poets – one who can give Taliesin a run for his money!


Don’t forget to subscribe to get the latest posts! Related Articles will be posted in the days to come…

Story Archaeology is run on a voluntary not-for-profit basis. If you can afford a donation towards our running costs, we would be very grateful. The “Donate” button is on the right-hand-side of each page, or e-mail us for other ways to support our work.

Check our Reading List for further reading and resources.

by The Story Archaeologists

Music: “Tam Lin” by Gian Castello

Extolling the Holly


Poetry specifically describing the properties of different woods is not all that common, although I know of a couple of poems that gives  Ash  prime place. This poem, in keeping with the season, places the holly as the best of winter woods, It also favours the fragrant  honeysuckle,  the woodbine.

The poem is part of the story of  how, Iubhdan, King of the Lupracán, pays a visit to Fergus mac Léite,, king of Ulster. The story contains a great deal of bawdy humour and adventure but it also includes quieter, poetic moments, such as this interlude where Iubhdan advises, the king’s fire keeper on which woods he should choose for the fire and which might have better uses.

“O man that for Fergus of the feasts dost kindle fire, whether afloat or ashore never burn the king of woods.

Monarch of Innisfail’s forests the woodbine is, whom none may hold captive; no feeble sovereign’s effort is it to hug all tough trees in his embrace. The pliant woodbine if thou burn, wailings for misfortune will abound; dire extremity at weapons’ points or drowning in great waves will come after.

Burn not the precious apple-tree of spreading and low-sweeping bough: tree ever decked in bloom of white, against whose fair head all men put forth the hand.

The surly blackthorn is a wanderer, and a wood that the artificer burns not; throughout his body, though it be scanty, birds in their flocks warble.

The noble willow burn not, a tree sacred to poems; within his bloom bees are a-sucking, all love the little cage.

The graceful tree with the berries, the wizards’ tree, the rowan, burn; but spare the limber tree: burn not the slender hazel.

Dark is the colour of the ash: timber that makes the wheels to go; rods he furnishes for horsemen’s hands, and his form turns battle into flight.

Tenterhook among woods the spiteful briar is, by all means burn him that is so keen and green; he cuts, he flays the foot, and him that would advance he forcibly drags backward.

Fiercest heat-giver of all timber is green oak, from him none may escape unhurt: by partiality for him the head is set on aching and by his acrid embers the eye is made sore.
Alder, very battle-witch of all woods, tree that is hottest in the fight, undoubtingly burn at thy discretion both the alder and the whitethorn.

Holly, burn it green: holly, burn it dry: of all trees whatsoever the critically best is holly.

Elder that hath tough bark, tree that in truth hurts sore: him that furnishes horses to the armies from the sidh burn so that he be charred.

The birch as well, if he be laid low, promises abiding fortune: burn up most sure, and certainly the stalks that bear the constant pods.

Suffer, if it so please thee, the russet aspen to come headlong down: burn, be it late or early, the tree with the palsied branch.

Patriarch of long-lasting woods is the yew, sacred to feasts as is well known: of him now build ye dark-red vats of goodly size.

Ferdedh, thou faithful one, wouldst thou but do my behest: to thy soul as to thy body, O man, ‘twould work advantage

From The king of the Lupracán’s journey to Emain, and how the death of Fergus mac Léite, king of Ulster was brought about.

‘Silva Gadelica’ – Standish O’Grady, 1892

I have also included a version of a similar, and far more recent poem,  most probably, English.  This version is  sung by Robin Williamson, a man who, in no small way, influenced my journey as a story teller.

A Crock of Old Cobblers ~ A Holiday Special

iubhdansvat2Fergus mac Léite gets to encounter the underwater world of the  Lupracán, a story which in the late middle / early modern Irish version, almost certainly, inspired Swift’s wonderful satire, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. The Story Archaeologists, ear herbs at the ready, dive right into the tale, but wonder how these small, but proud and fiercely independent, beings  have devolved, over the centuries into the scary  Leprechaun  travesties .that are dragged out every Paddy’s day?

The Saga of Fergus mac Léite  

The king of the Lupracán’s journey to Emain, and how the death of Fergus mac Léite, king of Ulster was brought about.

Rhiannon, meet Dubh Lacha – You have a lot in common!

"Rhiannon", a painting  by Alan Lee

“Rhiannon” by Alan Lee

The Prequel to the wedding of Pwyll and Rhiannon; from Mabinogi Pwyll

  • Pwyll Peneuic, Lord of seven Cantrefs of Dyfed, goes hunting at Glyn Cuch and becomes separated from his companions.
  • He hears the cries of a pack of hounds chasing a stag, but it is not his own hounds he hears. This pack is dazzling bright white with fiery red ears. He drives off the new pack and allows his own hounds to feed on the stag.
  • The huntsman objects to his actions, and the two bandy words. However, Pwyll knows he is in the wrong, and offers to ‘redeem the friendship, appropriate to the others rank’ (i.e. to the value of one hundred stags).
  • The Huntsman announces that he is Arawn, king of Annwfn, and he wishes Pwyll to take his place for a year. During this time he is also to deal with an enemy of Arawn’s. No-one will recognise that there has been an exchange of rulers, not even Arawn’s wife will see through the glamour.
  • Pwyll carries out the exchange as requested, remembering not to give Hagfen, Arawn’s enemy, more than one blow, as he is warned not to do. However, out of courtesy, he does not sleep with Arawn’s wife.
  • When he returns home, he discovers that Arawn has offered Pwyll’s own wife the same courtesy. (The wives are confused, having no knowledge of the swap.)

While the Irish and Welsh stories are of a different order - the Welsh commencing with a hunt and the Irish with a battle - there are motifs and themes relevant to both:

  • In “The Conception of Mongán” in LU, Mongán’s father Fiachna goes to Scotland to face his ally’s enemy. However, Manannán has arranged this to give him cause to sleep with Fiachna’s wife.
  • The dogs in the Welsh story and the cattle in the Irish story are all Otherworld animals - white with red ears – and cause both Pwyll and Mongán to act impetuously.  They cause Pwyll to act dishonourably and Mongán to drool with desire and swap his wife for them.
  • In the Mabinogi of Pwyll, the men swap over without their wives consent or knowledge. In the story of Mongán and Dubh Lacha, it is the wives who are swapped and everybody knows.

Pwyll encounters Rhiannon

Pwyll encounters Rhiannon, first seeing her from the Mound of Arberth. However, he cannot catch up with her until he asks her to stop her horse.

He realises that; ‘at that moment the faces of every woman and girl he had ever seen were dull in comparison to her face’.

She has come to find him as she has been promised to a man she dislikes and would rather have Pwyll. It is agreed that he will come to claim her at the court of Hyfaidd Hen in one year’s time. She will have everything arranged.

However, Pwyll is so excited and happy at his wedding feast that, to Rhiannon’s horror, he blithely offers a young and princely man whatever gift he desires. This man is Rhiannon’s discarded suitor, Gwawl, and he requests the wedding feast, which includes the bride!

Rhiannon is left to sort out his mess. She puts Gwawl off for a year, when, she promises, another wedding feast will be held. She gives Pwyll clear instructions as to what to do.

Pwyll comes to the feast disguised as a beggar, and asks for enough food to fill his bag. However, the bag is not full, however much food is put inside. Eventually, Gwawl climbs inside to stamp it down. The bag is sealed and the poor suitor is beaten, mistaken for a ‘badger in a bag’.

Rhiannon, meet Dubh Lacha. You have a lot in common!

Rhiannon and Dubh Lacha are quick-thinking and capable women.

Both women have to clear up after the impetuosity and lack of foresight shown by their respective partners.

They both have a lot to put up with.  For a start, both are given away at their own wedding feasts. At least for Dubh Lacha, given away by Brandubh, this is exactly what she has been waiting for.

Rhiannon, on the other hand, has not been exchanged for a herd of cattle, even if they are the most beautiful (Otherworld) cattle in Ireland.

Both women plan calmly and quickly, when put in impossible positions, i.e. exchanged, or given away. They both demand the grace of a year from the usurping partner. Both use this time to get their true partner galvanised into action.

A painting of Pwyll by Alan Lee

Pwyll by Alan Lee

Pwyll merely requires to be told what to do. He carries out Rhiannon’s plan effectively, disguised as a beggar.  Her plan to trick Gwawl into the sack, where he can be dealt with, is carried out efficiently by her would-be husband.

Mongán is not so biddable.  At one point, Dubh Lacha even has to strip off to goad him into action. However, to give him his due, he takes clear and definitive action once he has encountered the ‘hag of the mill’, Cuimne.

Both women and their partners complete their story with the utter humiliation of the offending ’other’. Gwawl, Rhiannon’s ex-suitor, finds himself publicly beaten and forced to give away sureties of non-reprisal before being released. Brandubh is publically stripped of his wealth and ends up sleeping with an ancient hag.

The main difference between the two partnerships is that Rhiannon and Pwyll solve their problems alone, even if Rhiannon seems the more dominant of the two; whereas there is a duplication of characters surrounding Dubh Lacha and Mongán.

Dubh Lacha and Mongán are born on the same night, and promised to each other from birth. They share the same birth date are another couple, Mac an Daimh and his eventual wife.

Mac an Daimh is an engaging character, and there is no equivalence for his role in Rhiannon’s tale.  He is more than the Shakespearean, outspoken servant. He is active confidante and companion to Mongán, just as his wife is companion and confidante to Dubh Lacha.  It is Mac an Daimh’s down-to-earth wisdom and humour that adds greatly to the quality the tale.

There are also a plethora of hags, particularly the hag Cuimne (“Memory”), who plays a central role as the substitute bride.

The two stories are of a different style, and their hero’s origin of a different nature. Yet, if it were possible to introduce our two female protagonists to each other, they would, indeed, find stories to share.

Read  Compert Mongáin ocus Serc Duibhe Lacha dó,  “The Conception of Mongán and Dubh Lacha’s Love for him”, from The Book of Fermoy:

Read  Compert Mongáin, “The Conception of Mongán”, from Lebor na hUidre [LU]:

Read the Mabinogi of Pwyll on

The Text of Immram Brain Part 2: Manannan’s Poem and the Prophecy of Mongan

Here is the second part of the text of Immram Brain, as edited by Séamus Mac Mathúna.  The translation is based on that of Kuno Meyer, although where my translation differs significantly from his, I have included his translation in brackets.

For Chris Thompson’s rendition of part of the poem, see Manannán’s Prophecy of Mongán.

I have also marked the scribe’s glosses with brackets, introduced with .i. in the text and i.e. in the translation. I think many of these glosses highlight the cross-referencing of Christian with non-Christian material, as we discussed in the episodes, Immrám Brain and Mongán and his Missus.

Points of interest, such as the names for various Otherworld places or tricky translations, are marked in bold.

Isolde Carmody

¶32] Luid Bran íarom ara bárach for muir. Trí nónbuir a llín. Oínfer forsna trib nónburaib dia chomaltaib ocus comaísib.

Bran went then the next day onto the sea. Three nines was their complement. One man over [each of] the three nines [was] of his foster-brothers and confidantes.

Óro-boí dá láa ocus dí aidchi forsin muir co n-accae a dochum in fer isin charput íarsin muir.

When he had been two days and two nights on the sea, he saw coming towards him the man in the chariot over the sea.

Canaid in feer ísin tríchait rand n-aile dó, ocus sloindsi dó, ocus as-bert ba hé Manannán mac Lir, ocus as-bert boí fair tuidecht i nÉrinn íar n-aimseraib cíanaib, ocus no-gigned mac óad, .i. Mongán mac Fíachnai, is ed forid-mbíad.

That man sings another thirty verses to him, and he named himself to him [to Bran], and he said he was Manannán son of Lír, and he said it was upon him to go to Ireland after distant ages, and that a son would be born from him, i.e. Mongán son of Fíachna, that is what he would be called.

Cachain íarom in tríchait rand-so dó:

He sang then these thirty verses to him:

Read more »

Manannán’s Prophecy of Mongán

A painting of Manannán Mac Lír in his sea-chariot. Loime Studios

Image Courtesy of Loime Studios

From the poem of Manannán Mac Lír in Immrám Bran:


Manannán speaks:


You see me here. I stand before you

As I approach the mortal world.

I will come to the woman who waits in Moy-linney;

I will come, at last, to her own home.


For I, Manannán of the line of Lír,

Will take to my chariot in mortal form

To where my son will be conceived,

Sculpted to mortal fair perfection.


For I, Manannán of the line of Lír,

Will lie with the queen in mutual tryst;

The child, called by us, to the beautiful world,

Acknowledged by Fiachna, his mortal father.


He will melt the heart of every Sídhe,

The darling boy of welcome lands;

He will know secrets, and make them known,

Fearless, in all the fearful world.


He will take the shape of every beast;

Beast of the blue sea, beast of the land.

He will stand as a dragon at the battle-line

And the wolf in the heart of the forest.


The antlered stag, all silver-tined,

On the chariot road-crossed plains of men;

The speckled salmon of the deepest pools,

The seal in the sea or the fair-white swan.


Known throughout the lengthening days,

A king who reigned one hundred years;

As a warrior, strong and fierce and fatal,

His battled fields left rutted red.


His birth shall be of the highest rank;

His death, the deed of a bastard son.

Yet I, Manannán of the line of Lír

Will guide, will teach, will foster him.


Translation by  Isolde Carmody

Re-telling by Chris Thompson