Story Archaeology

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

Rowing Around Immráma 14: The Pursuit of the Gilla Decair – An Unofficial Fenian Immrám

 A photo of a horse pulling a face

 In the last stop of our very circuitous Immrám of Immráma, we have a canter through a Fenian tale of surly servants, marine equines, hairy horrors and a battle with the High-King of the World. All in a day’s work for Finn and the Fianna…

But is it an Immrám? Is it a recognisably Irish tale or a Classical rip-off? Help pull the Story Archaeology oars into its final harbour and find out!

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

Fair Lady, Will You Go With Me?

Stephen Reid, Midir and Étaín rise up in the air

 

from Tochmarc Étaíne, “The Wooing of Étaín”, ed. Osborne Bergin and R. I. Best

poetic translation by Isolde ÓBrolcháin Carmody

 

A Bé Find, in rega lim

Fair Lady, will you come with me

i dtír n-ingnad hi fil rind?

To a wonder-land of harmony

Is barr sobairce folt and;

Hair shines with a primrose glow

Is dath snechtai [& for] corp [slim /] co [fh]ind.

Body smooth and white as snow.

 

Is and nád bí muí ná taí,

There, is neither mine nor yours,

gela dét and; dubai [a] braí;

Teeth bright white, dark the brows.

is lí súla lín ar slúag

The eye’s delight our populace

is dath sion and cech grúad

Each cheek bears a foxglove blush

 

Is corcur maige [/ muighi] cech muin;

The heather’s bloom on every neck

Is lí súla ugae luin;

Eyes shine blue as blackbrids’ eggs,

cid caín déicsiu Maige Fáil

Though you love to gaze on Ireland

annam íar n-gnáis Maige Máir.

It palls after visiting the Great Land.

 

Cid [mesc /] caín lib coirm Inse Fáil

Though sweet you deem your Irish beer

is mescu coirm Tíre Máir.

Our mirthful mead is sweeter far.

amra tíre tír as-biur;

It is a wonder, truth be told,

ní tét oac and ré siun.

Young do not die there before old.

 

Srotha téithmilsi tar tír,

The land flows with streams,both warm and sweet

rogu de mid ocus fhín,

The best of wine, the choicest mead.

doíni delgnaidi cen on

Marke the flawless folk therein,

combart cen peccad, cen chol.

conception without rape or sin.

 

Ad-chiam cách for cach leith,

While we watch your people teem,

ocus níconn-acci nech

We walk among you, still unseen.

teimel imorbais Ádaim

Dark the tragedy of Eden

dodon-aircheil ar áraim

That keeps our countless people hidden.

 

A ben, día rís mo thúaith tind

Woman, join my noble folk

is barr óir bias fort [chind]

Your head shall bear a crown of gold

[muc úr/] mil fín, laith, lemnacht la lind

Pools of milk, mead, ale and wine

rot-bía lim and, a Bé Find.

We shall drink there, my Bé Find.

 

a. B. é. F.

A Description of the Sid of Labraid

Misty sun over Lough Allen: (Lough Allen Outdoor Pursuits Centre.)

Paraphrased from Laerg’s poem in Serglige Con Chulainn, “The Love-Sickness of Cú Chulainn”

from “Serglige Con Chulainn“, ed. Myles Dillon from Lebor na hUidre; lines 486 – 513

Poetic rendering by Chris Thompson

 

Colba do lepthaib crónda,

úatne finna forórda,

is sí caindell ardustá

in lía lógmar lainerdá.

Soft crimson beds there are

Emblazoned gold and green

And brilliant precious stones shine out,

In place of candlelight

 

Atát arin dorus tíar,

insinn áit h-i funend grían,

graig n-gabor n-glas, brec a mong,

is araile corcordond.

There where sun goes down,

Close at the Western door,

A stud of steeds, grey dappled mares,

Another, crimson brown.

 

Atát arin dorus sair

tri bile do chorcor-glain,

dia n-gair in énlaith búan bláith

don macraid assin rígráith.

And at the eastern gate

Three tall and stately trees.

From which sing birds, immortal blooms,

To fill the young with joy.

 

Atá crand i n-dorus liss,

ní h-étig cocetul friss,

crand airgit ris tatin grían,

cosmail fri h-ór a roníam.

The roof tree of the house,

Glints silver in the sun;

Or lustrous gold, poured out in full,

Matchless in harmony

 

Atát and tri fichit crand,

comraic nát chomraic a m-barr,

bíatar tri cét do chach crund

do mes ilarda imlum.

Three-score of orchard trees

Grow green from tip to tip;

Enough to feed three hundred men

With ripe and ready fruit

And three-score orchard trees

All touching tip to tip;

A hall they weave to feed the hosts

With ripe and ready fruit.

 

Atá tipra sint shíd thréll

cona tri cóectaib breclend,

& delg óir cona lí

i n-óe checha breclenni.

A fountain in the síd

Is bright with speckled sun

The flash of trout, in pools of light,

Like cloaks pinned up with gold

 

Dabach and do mid medrach

oca dáil forin teglach:

maraid béos, is búan in bés,

conid bithlán do bithgrés.

A vat of merry mead

To satisfy the house

Is kept for ever foaming full;

May the custom long live on!

 

The Irish Abroad – an ongoing tradition

In our final Immrám episode, The Pursuit of the Gilla Decair – An Unofficial Fenian Immrám, we noticed that Goll, Oscar and Fergus FinnBhéoil ["Fair-Lips"] came up with a familiar strategy. Just like the Children of Tuirenn, Fergus suggests that they sneak into the court of Athens disguised as poets, right down to the hair-do!

The natural flaw in this plan is “And what if they ask us to give them a poem?”. This is what brought this ad to mind. It could so easily be Brian, Iuchar and Iucharba, or indeed Fergus FinnBhéoil, Goll and Oscar.

Here’s what the present-day raiders actually say in the ad:

“An bhfuil cead agam dul amach go dtí an leithreas?”

“May I go out to the toilet?”

“Agus madra rua”

“And a fox”

“Is maith liom cáca milis.”

“I like cake.”

“Cáca milis.”

“Cake.”

“Agus Sharon Ní Bheoláin.”

“And Sharon Ní Bheoláin.” [Newsreader on Irish television.]

“Tá geansaí orm.”

“I am wearing a jumper.” [Literally; "There is a jumper on me."] {“jumper” is Hiberno-English for “sweater” or “pullover”}

“Tá scamall sa spéir.”

“There is a cloud in the sky.”

“Tabhair dom an cáca milis.”

“Give me the cake.”

“Cáca milis.”

“Cake.”

“Ciúnas. Bóthair. Cailín. Bainne.”

“Silence. Road. Girl. Milk.”

 

 

 

 

The Island of the Pillar – For Real?

Staffa, inner Hebrides, ScotlandIn episode 14 of the series “Rowing Around Immráma”, we treated the Fenian tale, The Pursuit of the Gilla Decair and his Horse, as a kind of spoof Immrám. While this is the impression given, it also has another purpose.

One of the prime functions of Fenian tales is to illustrate that whatever genre its heroes happen to wander into, whether in the mortal or the Otherworld, they will prove themselves vastly superior in every highly regarded quality, (mostly feasting and fighting), to any person or power that they encounter.

If the tale  tale may be seen  as  a ‘spoof’ Immrám,  it is not a  a parody. It is not merely making fun of the form. This Fenian story has generated  a popular story in   Immrám style, featuring some  well-loved heroes. To be effective, a ‘spoof’ has to demonstrate familiarity with the established genre material. The Pursuit of the Gilla Decair and his Horse does just this.

This precipitous Fenian Immrám is launched  after fifteen of Finn’s men  have been snatched away on the back, or tail’s end, of a huge and ugly horse.  Finn may have a gifted tracker in his company, but he and his men, in true Immrám style,  row blindly for three days and nights.  They find themselves facing a rocky island, with sides so high and sheer that it proves impossible for even these heroes to ascend. Only Diarmuid, after being taunted s a wimp, manages the climb; pole-vaulting up, using staffs given him by his foster-father Manannán. Even so, he is unable to find a way for the rest of the crew to follow.

Already, he has succeeded where other Immrám voyagers have failed to climb a ‘pillar island’.

The Uí Corra encountered a very similar island, (island 4).  It had high sheer cliffs, but no landing place. They could hear ‘a great commotion’ from above, but could see nothing. Máel Dúin’s adventure includes a very similar island, (island 23). His pillar-island has a ‘locked door’ as a harbour. Máel Dúin’s crew can see people on top of the pillar, but are unable to converse with them.

That these islands are significant is re-enforced by the recording of an adjacent island, or ‘wonder’. Máel Dúin’s crew encounter a four-sided pillar draped in silver net. It is so high that they can see, neither,  top or  base in the clear sea. The mesh of the net is large enough for the boat to row through a single link. To prove that it is not an illusion, Diurán cuts a two-and-a-half ounce piece away. The Uí Corra also encounter a pillar-island, draped in a net of silver and findruime.  Indeed, the text states that this is the same wonder encountered by Máel Dúin in his turn.

Brendan only encounters the pillar-island in its netted form, (island 13); although his ‘Island of Hell’, (island 15), had cliffs that were “so high they could scarce see the top, were black as coal, and upright like a wall”.  The description of the netted pillar-island, has now reached fantastical proportions. The monks see a column in the sea, where the top is lost in the sky. It has a canopy made of some strange material like silver marble, stretching a mile out and deep into the sea.  The sea is transparent and they can see down to the base of the canopy and the column. The pillar itself is clear crystal. The monks lower oars and pull themselves closer by holding onto the canopy, and try to get the boat into the opening. Brendan goes to great lengths to measure the island using sunlight and shadow.

The duplication of these islands is interesting.  It seems that this island is  significant enough to have a presence; both in the temporal, everyday world and the magical Otherworld. This transitional state is typical of the Immrám genre. In The Pursuit of the Gilla Decair, the island of the pillar is described in naturalistic - if exaggerated – terms; but is clearly a transitional portal to Otherworld adventures.

In our  “Rowing Around Immráma” series, we made it clear that we do not regard the Immráma mView of Fingal's Cave, Staffa, Scotlanderely as fanciful travellers’ tales, based on actual voyages. We felt that they were multi-layered, capable of holding several interpretations. However, this view does not exclude descriptions of real, perhaps unusual locations, encountered by sea-going explorers.  This “Island of the Pillar” may well reflect an actual island.

The island of Staffa is a small, now uninhabited, island situated not far from Mull; part of the Inner Hebrides in Scotland.  The island is hardly more than a kilometre long and half a kilometre wide. It may be small, but it is geologically world-famous.  Staffa is  volcanic in origin, and its basalt layer cooled forming hexagonal crystalline columns, similar to  those found on the Northern Irish Antrim coastline and known  as the ‘Giant’s Causeway’. The island also has a number of sea caves, some containing basalt pillar formations. The best known of these caves is known as ‘Fingal’s Cave’. The island has no natural anchorage, but does have a fresh-water spring.

In modern times, the island was ‘discovered’ by the naturalist, Joseph Banks, who sailed with Cook on his first voyage in 1768. It was he who, initially, brought it to the attention of the public. Its growing fame attracted many famous  tourists  included Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Keats, Wordsworth, Turner, Robert Louis Stevenson, David Livingstone, even Queen Victoria.

Fingal’s Cave was a particular draw, although its associations with Fionn Mac Cumhaill, now detailed on every tourist website, Finga'ls Cave interiorwere most probably the work of the eighteenth-century (so-called) translator and forger of Gaelic poetry, James MacPherson. The original Gaelic name for the cave was An Uamh Bhinn, “The Melodious Cave”, but it was renamed, or mistranslated,  under the influence of MacPherson. After visiting the cave in 1829, Felix Mendelssohn  wrote the Hebrides Overture, known as “Fingal’s Cave”. He is said to have been inspired by the strange acoustics in the cave.

Staffa, and particularly Fingal’s Cave, typified all that was required to make up the most attractive of eighteenth and nineteenth century Romantic landscapes. its popularity grew as a tourist destination throughout the nineteenth century, even though the travel challenges were considerable. Today  is still only possible to visit Staffa in very calm weather conditions, much like the Skelligs off the Kerry coast.

It might have been re-discovered in the eighteenth century, but it was certainly ‘on the map’ much earlier. The Vikings knew it and gave it the name of “Pillar Island”, (after stafr – old Norse for ‘staff’ or ‘pillar’). It must also have been known to intrepid Irish sea-voyagers. Geographically speaking, it is not distant from the North-Eastern tip of Ireland. Islay, associated in story with Manannán. and Kintyre, where the fatal enemy of Mongán was located, lie only just to the South of Mull and Staffa.

This tiny inaccessible and spectacular island must have always been a place of uncanny mystery. Passing sailors might well have come back with tales of sheer rock precipices and regular shaped pillar constructions that, surely, were man made, perhaps  castles constructed by giants. Then there were the great sea caves, like Fingal’s Cave, seemingly open to exploration, but forever closed to boats on closer inspection. Scrambling into the caves on foot, in their echoing darkness, must have been like stepping into an Otherworld portal.

With a model like that to draw on, it is hardly surprising that the “Island of the Pillar” appeared as a regular Immrám motif.  Tales of its strangeness, its crystalline pillar formations, and its inaccessible, wondrous caves may have even inspired colourful, ‘Otherworld’ variants.  Why should geology limit a fertile imagination?

Even so, we have to admire Finn and his friends. Only they could use such an Immrám motif as a launching point to victory over the “High-King of the World” and his elite soldiers, to surviving countless ‘Otherworld’ battles, plus plenty of extravagant feasting, and - oh yes - stealing the most beautiful woman in the world. Helen of Troy, eat your heart out!

If the island of Staffa was the inspiration for this tale, it was a good one.

Rowing Around Immrama 13 – In Search of Midir

Etain and Misir by Jim Fitzpatrick

Etain and Misir by Jim Fitzpatrick

As we reach dry land after our long Immram,we encounter yet another  mystery. Midir was once a Lord of the Sidhe a judge, and a worker of wonders. He was, on  land, what  Mananann was, in the Land Under Wave. .  All is not what it seems. A mist of obscurity has gathered around Midir.

Join the Story Archaeologists as they undertake a little restoration work.

 

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

Underworld, Otherworld ~ part1: Underworld

Underworld, Otherworld: Introduction 

ionaThere are, as we have frequently noted, only four official members that can be strictly classified as Immráma . These are, of course, Immrám Brain Mac Febul, Immrám Snedgussa ocus Mac Ríagla, Immrám Uí Corra, and Immrám Curaig Máel Dúin .

However, series four has already reached podcast episode 13 the longest series that we have undertaken, . It would seem that the story set was not as narrow as it, at first, appeared. Over the series, we have also been led to explore a whole vista of connected themes that have appeared, like extraordinary islands demanding research and further investigation.

Tadhg and his crew view Manannán’s sumptuous world with delight. But the poet of this little known gem takes equal pleasure in celebrating the diversity of the up-and-coming Christian world, with a vibrant enthusiasm and a double helping of humour. Not all such voyagers share Tadhg’s open mind.

The Immrám, tale is indeed transitional. It moves from the security of the ‘known’ to the uncertainty of the ‘unknown’ ocean, aware of the challenges and opportunities facing an adventurous seafaring race. Equally the tale set stands on the border between the heroic past and the Christian future, already demonstrating an equal diversity.

The Immráma ‘sea’ may also reveal deeper, themes, rising like Iasconius, the great fish, from the depths. For some voyagers, a world of pleasure and luxury may be a gift, for others, a temptation. Some see joy, others find hell. All see marvels and wonders. The Immrám, also contains the oldest theme of all, that of the journey of the soul through life. In a previous article, (Immráma in a broader mythological context) I suggested that the Immrám, had much in common with one of the earliest tales ever recorded. This is the voyage of Attrahassis the wise; more familiar to most of us in the guise of the Hebrew, Noah. Irving Finkel in his book “The Ark Before Noah, Decoding the story of the Flood”, notes, with interest, the unique vocabulary used to describe both the animal rescuing ark and another ‘basket’ ark, the cradle of the baby Sargon, left to float alone in a river reed boat. The earliest ark form, Finkel informs us, was woven from reeds and baskets shaped, round like a modern coracle, or a gigantic cradle.

The destination of these basket ‘arks’ is not of prime importance. They are intended to preserve life in whatever direction the storms of life may drive it. This, of course, does not preclude the pre-destined direction of an ‘outside agency’. Many of our Irish Immráma do have intended destinations although the travellers generally abandon themselves, at some point, to the hand of destiny, usually God.

However, the prevailing world view radically alters the desired destination in this transitional story form.  Bran encounters the pleasures of the Isle of Women and shows little regret in abandoning himself to its eternal abundant summer. Máel Dúin  encounters the same Land of Promise but the ‘work ethic’ of his crew demand a costly escape plan. Finally Brendan eschews all female company in his “Land of Promise of the Saints”. Nothing happens in this anti-climactic destination. The central image of his journey is the forcible dragging of a ‘brother’ down to hell, already burning with eternal fire as he is carried away screaming.

The true Irish Otherworld, with its ignorance of original sin and death, its life, health and beauty is lovingly described in many a story. It may be found on an offshore island or approached through a cave entrance or even a thick mist.  Although it may be entered by travelling underground, it is no underworld. You don’t even necessarily have to die to get there, although it may prove difficult to return, owing to time dilation. There is no judgement, in the Christian sense, although you may be given tasks or quests. Women are usually wise, and beautiful, and all men are heroes. You may meet the Ever-living Ones, Manannán, Midir, Fand, Étaín, and others who will appear in a variety of splendid guises.

So on one hand, we have a sumptuous and scintillating summer, Otherworld and another focussed on of suffering and judgement. Which idea came first and what the journey was involved? This article, in two parts, will plot alternate routes, the Underworld route and the Otherworld route.

I will show you fear in a handful of dust “The Wasteland”:T.S. Elliot 1922 Read more »

Rowing Around Immrama 12 – In Search of Manannan

Sculpture of Manannan by John Sutton at Limavady

This sculpture of Manannan, by John Sutton from Dungannon, disappeared from Binevenagh Mountain outside Limavady in January 2015. Those who stole the statue left a wooden cross in its place with the words; ‘You shall have no other gods before me’. The statue was found one month later and is to be replaced.

As we glimpse safe harbour after our mammoth Immram, we take the opportunity to get to know a favourite Otherworld character. But where does Manannan Mac Lir come from? Is he all he appears to be?

This quest became so huge that we had to split it into two episodes. So join the Story Archaeologists as they part the mists to look for this maratime Lord of the Sidhe. Be prepared for more surprising navigational twists in the next episode!

 

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

Mongán, Taliesin, Finn and Arthur!

What is so special about Mongán?

Mongán is no longer a well-known figure in Irish mythology; and yet we have found ourselves giving three full podcast episodes to exploring his stories.  In the Irish annals (3.1), Mongán was referenced as a king who died in 625 CE. There is also an existing prose text and a couple of poems which relate a meeting between him and Colmcille (1.3; 4.11). If we wish to follow the questing beast of historicity, then, given their allotted dates, these two could possibly have met. As we commented in the episode (4.11), St Adomnán gives Colmcille’s dates as 521 to 591.  The saint might have met Mongán on one of his rare visits to Ireland later in his life! Theoretically, it could have even been the Convention of Druim Cett (Limavady, Co Derry) in 575. The locations are appropriate, at least.

Mongán is, of course,  far more than just a name in the annals, and it is his fascinating complexity that has lead us to give so much attention to the available texts from his story cycle (1). Mongán shares many elements with familiar epic heroes, i.e. a marvellous or hidden birth; childhood feats; powers and achievements beyond the usual; a quest or forays into an unfamiliar or dangerous environment, sometimes supernatural; and a dramatic and memorable death.

What is particular to Mongán is that he is not flung into his hero role, reluctantly or otherwise.  His intended ‘destiny’ is specific. He has inherited a twofold nature from his duel parentage, and this enables him to combine a double role in the mortal world. Born to a mortal mother and accepted as an adopted son by a mortal king, he is, therefore, qualified to become a warrior-leader. As the immortal son of Manannán, on the other hand, he is authorised by the Otherworld to function as an inspired poet and seer. If the role of the ‘warrior-king’ is to maintain the natural order by giving fair (true) judgement and upholding the honour of his túath; then the role of the ‘king’s poet’ is to provide his chieftain with the knowledge and guidance required for his rule to succeed. The poet will augment his king’s reputation with praise when he is effective, or will censure him with satire if he fails. Satire may even put an end to his rule. However, the poet must be ready, in his turn, to demonstrate that he has the ability and authority to fully undertake the role.

Mongán’s Hero-Journey

A Significant Conception and Birth

The story of Mongán’s miraculous birth begins long before he was even conceived. The whole point of the Immrám Brain (4.01) is to provide an audience for Manannán to announce his plan to conceive this ‘saviour’ child. The Otherworld woman, who comes to offer Bran the apple branch that will entice him to begin his voyage, describes the wonders of the Otherworld in scintillating detail. It is this land that informs the paternal half of Mongán’s heritage:

fair streams of silver, cloths of gold

they give welcome, all great draughts..

(1.7)

Manannán even anticipates Mongán’s poetic shape-shifting wordplay:

He will be a speckled salmon in a full pool,

He will be a seal, he will be a fair-white swan.

Mongán references this poetical style in his later conversation with Colmcille:

I have grazed it when I was a stag; I have swum it when I was a salmon, when I was a seal; I have run upon it when I was a wolf

Manannán manages the conception of his son without difficulty, offering the queen his help for her husband. King Fiachna is being threatened by a ferocious enemy. The help is offered in exchange for the opportunity to sleep with the queen. She agrees, and Manannán, honourably, tells her that he will inform Fiachna of her ‘sacrifice’. A later 14th century version of this story offers a lively alternative threat to Fiachna from venomous sheep! The child is given the name Mongán, meaning ‘flowing hair’.

Youthful exploits

As can be expected, Mongán shows his quality while hardly more than a child. However, unlike so many familiar heroes, he does not demonstrate super-human strength, fleetness of foot, or skill at hunting. He neither grows unusually rapidly, nor gets to wield a memorable weapon.  Mongán is not granted an Otherworld gift, because he is already part of the Otherworld, and so has directly inherited the gifts of poetry and seer-ship. This is demonstrated in the story Why Mongán was Deprived of Noble Issue. Here, Mongán sets out to prove that Eochu Rígéigeas, chief poet of Ireland, is not fit to hold such a role. The young boy arranges, in  a manner that remains undefined in the story, a series of poetic tests in which Eochu fails in his ability to ‘read’ the landscape. He has not the dindshenchas knowledge that all poets should hold ready. Unfortunately, it seems that the royal poet retains the ability to curse, and prophesies that Mongán will never have legitimate offspring. However, Mongán’s role is not to found a dynasty. This is not a part of his purpose. So Eochu is merely predicting the future. The meeting with Colmcille should also be listed among Mongán’s youthful exploits. In“The conversation of Colmcille and the youth at Carn Eolairg”, Mongán demonstrates his own dindshenchas knowledge by showing how well he is able to ‘read’ the landscape.  Mongán also uses this opportunity to drop the hint that he has lived through many generations, or has lived in the mortal and immortal world over many periods.

 Adult adventures

There are a few further stories of Mongán’s life.  None of them concern battle-prowess. “Scéil Mongán” shows the manner in which he tests the poetic training of a student by sending him on a quest to fetch an item from the ‘hollow hills’. It is an odd little story, in that absolutely nothing goes wrong. The student does exactly what he is told to do and gains exactly the reward he was promised. However, the story indicates Mongán’s connection with, and his right to enter, the Otherworld at will. Even the intriguing story, “Mongán’s Frenzy”, tells the same tale. Mongán is unable to tell his wife why he has suffered such a ‘baile’ until seven years have passed. Even then, the story cannot be told until a particularly significant moment in time, and in a safe ‘Otherworld’ environment. In modern narrative terms, it is annoying never to be told the cause of the frenzy, but the story communicates its intention. The substance of the tale can only be told from  with in the Otherworld. Another text, entitled“A story from which it is inferred that Mongán was Finn Mac Cumaill”, gives even more indications of Mongán’s ‘Otherness’. When Mongán is threatened by the demands of another poet whom he knows to be incorrect, he draws on unexpected resources. The dramatic suspense of the story builds as a strange warrior approaches, walking along or through the rivers of Ireland. This warrior turns out to be Cailte, who lets slip that Mongán is really Finn himself. After a little archaeological excavation, the error of Fergoll the poet is proven. There is one final story that should be considered. The latter part of the 14th century version of the conception and birth of Mongán also includes a fascinating narrative about the relationship of Mongán and his wife, Dubh Lacha. Mongán very nearly swaps his wife for some very attractive cattle, and the situation is only saved by her quick wits. Indeed, he spends most of the story wasting away in some variant of a ‘love-sickness’, and only recovers after he encounters the Hag of the Mill, whose name, ‘Cuimne’ mean ‘memory’. This is a delightful story with some scurrilous humour, recounted in a later, romance style.  The previous tale, concerning the threat to Mongán from the poet Fergoll, also involved the potential loss of his wife. As Mongán specifically states that he will offer Fergoll anything except his kingdom or his wife, it does suggest that a story in which he had managed to give away his wife might have been already known. An earlier, oral or literary version of the Dubh Lacha story could have existed.

 The Death of Mongán

Much of what is known about the death of Mongán is contained in the prophecy of Immram Brain. This includes the specific information that the son of Manannan will be killed by a stone from a dragon from over the sea. The event will be located at Senlabor and Loch Ló (modern Roscommon). As he lies dying in a pool of blood, he will be carried away by a fair host, in a wheel of cloud, to the land without sorrow. In the annals, Mongán receives his death from a slingshot cast by Artur, a Briton, son of Bicur who comes from islands to the north east, identified as Kintyre.

 Mongán and Taliesin

We commented in the podcast on the similarities between Taliesin and Mongán.Is Taliesin the Welsh equivalent of Mongán? What aspects do they share in common? Taliesin is given historical dates in the Welsh annals (d. 6th century). There is also a 14th century text, a book of poems of an earlier date, of which many are attributed to Taliesin. However, just as with Mongán, there is more to Taliesin than his role of king’s poet to Urien of Rheged.  He, equally, is a character whose heroic feats are poetic rather than martial.

 Taliesin’s hero journey

A significant conception and birth

Taliesin, also, has experienced more than one life. He was originally a child known as Gwion Bach. In this incarnation, he is set to watch the fire under the cauldron of Caridwen, who is seeking to create a potion of inspiration to empower her deformed son, Avagddu. The brew is required to boil for a full year and a day to be effective. Just as the brew is ready, three drops leap out and burn Gwion’s finger. He cools the burn in his mouth, and therefore becomes inspired. With his new awareness he realises the importance of escaping Caridwen’s anger. There follows a magical chase, in which both Gwion and Caridwen are able to shape-shift into a series of animal forms. Eventually, Gwion hides as a grain of corn, but Caridwen, in the form of a hen, swallows him, becoming pregnant. The new-born child is so fair that Caridwen finds herself unable to kill him. She places him in a hide-covered basket and puts him in the water. Elphin, son of Gwyddno, takes him from the weir and brings him up as his son. He is given the name Taliesin, meaning, ‘radiant brow’.

 Youthful exploits

Taliesin speaks poetry as a baby when rescued from the salmon-weir. However, when Elphin is imprisoned for boasting of his bard’s prowess, Taliesin, at thirteen years old, is able to silence all Maelgwn’s poets, enchanting them so they can make nothing but burbling sounds, humiliating them.

Adult tales

Later legend has Taliesin gaining the status of belonging to King Arthur’s round table, as well as becoming chief bard to Urien Rheged. But there are no specific tales concerning his adventures, unless he is one of the seven who accompanied Arthur in the Otherworld raid of the Preiddeu Annwn, “The Spoils of Annwn”. I am not aware of any specific death tales concerning Taliesin.

 Mongán, Taliesin and Finn

A resonance between the characters of Mongán and Taliesin can be demonstrated, but how are they directly connected with Finn? Finn also has a secret childhood, but there are so stories specifically giving him a magical conception or birth. He certainly exhibits exceptional abilities as a child, and, of course, gains his poetic inspiration in a similar manner to Gwion. Finn’s warrior status is undoubted, but he is also a powerful poet-seer. The story that links Mongán with Finn has been explored, both in our recent podcast episode, ‘Mongán and the Poets’.   It has also been noted that Taliesin experiences a ‘pre’ life in which he began as the child, Gwion. It is this story that seems to offer a possibility of a chain of links between all the characters. It seems that Taliesin had been the child, Gwion, and Mangan had been the hero Finn. It is equally demonstrable that the names Gwion and Finn in Welsh and Irish are cognate, both meaning ‘fair’. Gwion and Finn can be further connected by the similarity of the childhood tales telling how both young heroes gained their seer-ship, i.e. their gift of poetic inspiration. The child Gwion gains the gift when three drops from Caridwen’s cauldron burn his finger, just as the blister on the salmon’s skin, as it cooks, burns the young Finn’s thumb. However, the question remains unanswered. If Gwion equates to Finn, and Mongán and Taliesin are, (or have been), Finn / Gwion; then can Mongán and Taliesin be regarded as equally connected? This question is becoming something of a Gordian, or rather, Celtic knot. In his ‘Encyclopaedia of the Irish Folk Tradition’, Dr Daithi O hOgain makes a case for Finn, (or Find), as a very early child-seer who unlocks his ability by placing his thumb against his teeth. Although interesting, this does not yet provide an answer to our tangle of poets. There are also significant differences in the stories. Mongán, for example, is more closely associated with Finn as an adult hero, while Taliesin is associated with the child Gwion / Finn. This may explain why Taliesin’s childhood is hidden until his appearance in the salmon-weir, whereas Mongán’s birth is openly heralded by prophecy. It is unfortunate that while texts concerning Mongán have left us a variety of exploits and adventures, there are no recorded adult adventures of Taliesin, apart from a fragment of legend that has him rescuing a companion from a sinking coracle. Taliesin is best known through the fourteenth century book of (earlier) poetry, largely attributed to him.

 Mongán, Taliesin and Arthur

Taliesin’s name is readily associated with the famous King Arthur of legend in the Welsh texts and stories. There is, however, no reason for the Irish Mongán to have had any connection with this mythical king, whose stories grew with the telling, absorbing and adapting motifs as they went. This is what makes Mongán’s death-tale so startling. Nothing is known, either in Immram Brain, or the Annals, concerning the cause of the battle of Senlabor. It is only relevant in that it brings about Mangan’s departure from the mortal world. Either the text is suggesting that he is being translated to heaven by angels, somewhat in the manner of the biblical Old Testament prophet Elijah; or, as is far more likely, he is being carried away to the Land of Promise, i.e. the Isle of Women and Bran’s ultimate destination. Put together with the, not infrequent, intimations that Mongán has lived through or over several generations and can come and go from the Blessed Isles at will, he begins to look as if he is also a proto-type ‘Once and Future King’. Even the birth of Mongán and the birth of Arthur have elements in common. In the familiar Arthurian tales, Merlin carries the, secretly fathered, infant, to a hidden place of safety until he is grown. Manannán, removes the infant Mongán to his hidden ‘Otherworld’ Isle until he is old enough to return and take up his adult role, As I understand it, the earliest mentions of Arthur appear in the Welsh annals around the 10th century. The ‘Preiddeu Annwn’ is thought to be of 9th century origin, based on linguistic evidence, although it is to be found in a later 13th or 14th century manuscript.  However, the first description of the familiar ‘Death of Arthur’, and the prophecy of his future return, is not to be encountered before 1136, where it appeared in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’. There is one more detail to add to this rich mixture. Mongán’s death is accomplished by a man whose own name is Artur and who is described as a Briton. Although probably an unexpected co-incidence, it is possible that wisps of oral stories may have inter-wound themselves, each growing on the familiarity of the other. It is equally possible that, as we have found before, a half-forgotten Irish story has acted as a prototype for a later, more familiar version. This is not a question that can be easily answered. However, it is hardly a knot that needs to be cut, Gordian-style. It may be better, rather, to appreciate and celebrate the intricacies of its interwoven complexities. Arthur, Finn, Taliesin; names that are currently familiar to all those interested in the mythology of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. Mongán is sadly neglected. So, may we commend to you the most lively and entertaining stories of the Wondrous Son of Manannán. We give you Mongán, the Once and Future Poet-King.

 

(1)  Downloadable versions of the texts (English translations)

1.1 Three Stories of Mongán

Includes The Birth of Mongán, A Story of Mongán and A Story From Which It Was Inferred That Mongán was Finn Mac Cumall.

1.2 Why Mongán was Deprived of Noble Issue

1.3 Colmcille and the youth at Carn Eolairg

1.4 The Cause of the Recounting of Mongán’s Frenzy

1.5 The Conception of Mongán and Dub-Lacha’s Love for Mongán

Note: All texts in Old or Early Middle Irish except The Conception of Mongán and Dub-Lacha’s Love for Mongán, which is 12th-14th century (Book of Fermoy).

1.6 Immrám Brain Part 1 – The Woman’s Poem

You can read the text with links to sources here.

1.7 Immrám Brain Part 2: Manannán’s Poem and the Prophecy of Mongán

You can read the text with links to sources here.

 

(2) Podcast episodes concerning Mongan

4.01 – Immrám Brain Mac Febul

4.09 – Mongan and his Missus

4.10 – Mongán and the poets

4.11 – The Mongán Mysteries

(3) Other material

3.1 Link to the Annals of the Four Masters

Mongán’s Death recorded at M620.7 – under heading M612 in the table of contents in the right-hand navigation frame.

3.2 Link to an interesting article on Taliesin

Written by Dianne Evanochko as part of The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester.

3.3 Link to a translation of  Priddeu Annwn

Translated by Sarah Higley as part of The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester.

Colmcille and the Youth at Carn Eolairg

The Colloquy of Colmcille and the Youth at Carn Eolairg

As it might have been reported by the most insignificant and junior of the sainted man’s monks

A Medieval Manuscript depiction of St. FinianSome say it was Mongán, son of Fiachna, who spoke to Colmcille that Thursday morning. They had conversed all day, they had - and all night too. Some of the brothers, aggrieved by this sudden loss of guidance, had agreed to keep a watchful vigil on the curious behaviour of their master. It had been a sleepy vigil for most, but not for the youngest of them. Murmuring voices under a chilly moon had kept him from sleep. Now in the yellow dawn the rim of a misty sun had lifted above the mother-of-pearl horizon.  The beautiful youth still stood, haloed against the dawn, his long hair flowing with the dawn breeze. His face and his figure was in shadow. It was strange, thought the young brother, that this mysterious visitor was somehow always in shadow. A leafy bough-shade, a sudden wisp of sea mist, the low dazzle of evening light; not once had he seen the stranger clearly - not once. And when had the youth arrived, here at dawn on the border of the great sea-lough? No one had seen his coming. And if this was the young princeling Mongán, son of Fiachna, then where was his retinue? Why had he come alone? But there were whispers about this youth - whispers of prophecy, whispers of destiny, whispers of a gifted power. He had heard it said that Mongán was not the son of the king, but the child of Manannán himself.  He had heard it said that Mongán came and went from the Islands of Promise at will, sharing the skill of his sea-father’s knowledge. Some whispered that he could change his shape, becoming as insubstantial as the sea-foam. All said he was, even at his young age, a poet of great wisdom.

The brother - the most insignificant of the community, the least noticed, most infrequently missed - had moved closer to the two figures who stood so close in conversation. He had strained his ears to hear what words he could. Colmcille’s words were easy to understand. He was asking the stranger where he had come from. The reply made no sense. It must be that he had misheard.

“I have come,” the youth had answered, “from unknown lands and from known lands. I am here to ask you whether it is in this spot that knowledge and un-knowledge have died, have been born, and have been buried.”

The holy man was about to speak again. The young monk had hoped for help in understanding. “I have a question for you,” he had heard Colmcille address the youth again. ‘What is the history of this lough?” A simple question; although not one he could have answered, thought the young brother.

The young stranger was looking up, staring towards the water as if he were seeing into the past. “That I know well. It was yellow, it was flowery, it was green, it was hilly, it was full of drink, it was rich in silver, it was full of chariots. That was when I was a deer, when I was a salmon, and when I was a seal of great strength, when I was a roving wolf.” The young monk had tried to make sense of what he was hearing. Was this a calling up of the ‘Land Under Wave’? Were they all shape-shifters there?

The stranger had turned. The young monk had to creep closer before he could make out more of the words. The stranger, Mongán, (if it were he), was still speaking. “…sails, a yellow sail, it carried a green sail, it drowned a red sail under judgements of blood… Though I am not wholly of mortal parentage, do I not yet live in the mortal world?”

The two men turned away, walking into tree-shadow. The young brother could hear nothing more, and had returned to his day’s tasks. Even his psalter and the learning of the Latin could not be more bewildering than what he had just heard.

And now it was the dawn of another day. The stranger and the holy man were still deep in quiet conversation. They sat together on a rocky outcrop, their backs turned to the community. The fresh morning sun flashed one sudden gold spear, piercing the low cloud. The young monk briefly shaded his dazzled eyes.  And when he looked up, the holy man sat alone. The stranger was gone.

The youngest - the most insignificant - of brothers did not hesitate. He ran like a child and sat quickly at the feet of Colmcille. “Father, who was that you were speaking to and what was he saying?”

“Nothing really,” replied Colmcille, carefully avoiding the young brother’s first question. He stood up yawning, stretching his arms. “I am not sure that I really understood a word he said.”

“But there must be a story to tell. You talked to him for long enough.”

“His story is not one for the world we are now making.” The saint began to walk back towards his waiting monks. The young brother followed him just catching the words that Colmcille added, almost under his breath. “Not for a while, at least.”