story Archaeology

Exploring stories in the landscape

An Unexpected Journey part 2: Are we nearly there yet?

A small lane near near Sheebeg

I wrote the article, An Unexpected Journey – There and Back Again, all of eighteen months ago, back in May, 2020. This, as everyone other than my friends and family in Queensland will remember, was during the first round of Covid lockdowns. In this article I compared the feeling of being flung into an unpredictable and somewhat disturbing situation, to the old Irish stories of sudden and unexpected transfers to that ‘Otherworld’ of myth.

In May 2020, that sudden change was surprising, even a bit scary, but I think most of us regarded it as a temporary hiatus. We were expecting ‘normal service to be resumed as soon as possible’.

Now my son, who generally takes a hyper-rational outlook to statistics, informed me to expect the acute stage of the pandemic to be with us for around two years minimum. It was not something that I wanted to hear in May 2020 although, as a historian, I should have had a pretty good idea of the wave patterns encountered in historical pandemics.

I wrote that article at Bealtaine. It is now Samhain, an ideal season for reflection being both the end and the beginning of the ancient Irish agricultural year. It is a perfect time for looking into a mirror, through a mirror, or just for noticing and acknowledging that space ‘in between’.

I can’t help feeling that we stand in this ‘in between’ place now. We are trying to return to the familiar working world, yet, here in Ireland, we are also awaiting the peak of the Covid fourth wave and infections stand as high as the moment we entered into the deepest seclusion last January. However, we cannot just step back into that ‘Otherworld’ again, not now. We find ourselves living with our borderland situation whether we feel safe or not.

As I wrote in that Bealtaine article, ‘No-one ever returns, unchanged, from that Otherworld.’  This remains true although some return with gifts and treasures while others find themselves bearing wounds and scars.  What I did not emphasise enough, back then, is that many find themselves returning to a world that appears to have radically changed. They may even find themselves returning to what seems like another time or location.

Looking back on my Bealtaine 2020 article I am certain that I was also writing to support and re-assure myself.  I continue to have been one of the fortunate ones.

I have certainly been offered gifts and treasures during that long ‘Otherworld’ sojourn.   I have been spending the last year and a half, designing multimedia programmes, creating online workshops and interactive story-telling sessions for schools, libraries and heritage groups. I have even managed to meet a long-held wish to set up a modern schools’ Óenach. The first was in October / November 2020 with a much bigger event in October 2021 and still ongoing . True, they are virtual Óenachs, (no chariots,) but this has allowed far more schools to get involved.

The Schools’ Óenach project will be the topic of a future post.

I have found myself   rapidly acquiring, at least, almost adequate   skills in filming and video editing and discovering methods that help to break that Zoom fourth wall. Yes, you can still run drama sessions through a camera!

After I receiving my ‘jabs’ back at the close of May I was very excited. However, my down-to-earth and ‘eternally wise’ daughter warned me that it would not change things very much. The delta variant proved her correct, of course, and yet there were still positives. It is still not possible to make primary school visits but, now I give workshops from home, I am no longer limited to schools in my locality. I may find myself racing off to a school in Donegal in the morning and Athenry in the afternoon. Sadly, Queensland, Australia, is still a long way from letting me in to visit my family and my three grandchildren. Virtual visits to them are far less satisfying.

‘No-one ever returns unchanged from that Otherworld.’  What I did not emphasise back then is that many find themselves returning to a world that appears to have radically changed. They may even find themselves returning to what seems like another time or location.

The Biggest changes

It seems that the Story Archaeology podcast is one of those things finding itself in a different position. New, dynamic ways of working, developed during the pandemic, have offered Isolde some great opportunities and new fields of exciting work have opened up for her. She is now busy with many fresh projects.

Working alongside Isolde for so many years has been both a privilege and a pleasure. I have studied world mythology for most of my life and have been deeply interested in Irish stories for more years than I would wish to count but I am not a philologist. I never imagined that I might have the chance to  be working from newly translated texts. In story Archaeology podcast exploration, it was always Isolde who would do the digging. Our ‘small finds trays’ were often full with the most exciting and productive philological treasures. But philological fieldwork is both demanding and time consuming, and so Story Archaeology has to change.

The website is not going to disappear. It still provides a rich archive of resources that I use, all the time, in my work and that will be continue to be available to all our many friends.

So, What Comes Next?

Story Archaeology hasn’t been idle in the last eighteen months. When I was teaching in England back in the 1980’s, I had already become irritated with the fact that it was hard to find anything about Iron Age Celtic Britain that was uncontaminated by Julius Caesar’s personal aggrandising propaganda.  I had studied ‘Caesar’s Gallic Wars’ at school, but by the 1980’s became increasingly aware that this text, although largely comprised of tabloid style reports praising his genocidal rampage across Gaul, and sent back to Rome to be read aloud to the crowds in regular instalments, was still maintaining its influence almost 2000 years later

Story Archaeology for Schools

From the 1990’s, working with children here in Ireland, I came to realise that so many of the wonderful stories, first recounted long before the Normans arrived here, were also little known.

Another problem is that without some awareness of pre-Norman societal organisation, much of the story context may be missed or misunderstood. The Irish stories are as exciting as any Marvel hero tale, I think they are far better. What is more important, is that the Irish stories are embedded into a real and recognisable landscape.

During the Pandemic I have been able to reach more classes in schools over a far wider area. Even better, there are now multimedia programmes and plenty of video and audio stories recorded and ready to share.  I would now like to start to make sample programmes available to teachers and educators. I may well set up a parallel Patron site to support this goal. My patreon page has been sitting unused a very long time.

Arts Projects

I remember, back in the early 90’s, sitting the the Carrick Barrel Store, keeping shop for the Arts Co-op I was involved with. It was a very quiet day so I began to write. In about twenty minutes, with the Shannon flowing outside the window, I wrote my version of ‘The Story of Sinann’. I still have the original hand written draft.  I tend to edit heavily. However, this story is almost word for word, identical to the version published on Story Archaeology.  Of course, when I first wrote it, I had no access to all the philological research that has altered the relevance of the story and its importance to the topic of story longevity. However, the story stands in its own right. There have been many times when it has acted as a personal reminder to keep going, and flowing.

In the last eighteen months it has been of immense pleasure for me to watch Sinann’s wellspring growing in strength and spread. Though the story of Sinann, I have found myself working with some very unexpected and exciting collaborators.  In 2020, I was delighted to find myself working with Professor Ralph Kenna, a theoretical Physicist specialising in the area of statistical physics. He is the author of ‘Myths meets Maths’ Quantitative approaches to ancient narratives. You can read all about Art for Sinann international competition on Story archaeology (link).

Next year the story of Sinann will be a core story for  an innovative Art Exhibition in Sydney. I will be putting up information on this project very soon. The installation will be open between March and June 2022, live and on-line. I still have hopes of getting to Queensland in that timeline. If they let me in, I might also be able to make a visit to Sydney. That would be very special.

Future Podcasts?

At the heart of Story Archaeology were the podcast episodes that Isolde and I created together. It is unlikely that any more will be made. I will miss those shared explorations. I have already referred to the rich archive of work to be retained on the site and I would like to build on this useful foundation. I am planning a complete update of the site in a new format that will allow both acess to a valuable achive as well as encouraging new approaches. The rebuild will take a while. will take a while.

For the present, I will be creating regular ‘Chris’ Rambles’. Each of these will be directly connected to a past episode I but will be drawing  attention to new connections and discoveries. I am constantly wandering through stories and would love to share a few of the very surprising discoveries I have stumbled over in the last couple of years. Do you know there is a very unexpected connection between Gerardus Mercator, the Flemish cartographer, who developed the cylindrical map projection back in 1569, the rather weird and wacky English alchemist, Dr Dee, and the Lebor Gabála, The Book of Invasions? No, I am not making it up but the story will have to wait for now.

Story Archaeology has been subtitled ‘Conversations on Irish Mythology’,. Although I have changed the subtitle to ‘Stories in the Landscape, I am keen to retain the concept of conversations. Over the years I have had some wonderful online on-going conversations with Story Archaeology friends from New Zealand, Australia, America, Wales, England and many other places. Irish mythology may have been the starting point but it has led to a river ripple flow of interconnections between mythologies of many places. I would love to invite individuals to join me in a conversation on mythology which we can plan together. I will shortly be sending out invitations to invite friends to set uo the first Conversations on ‘Stories in the Landscape’. PLEASE, get in touch with me if you would like to join me for one of these conversations. I hope some of these will launch the newly re-vamped site.

As the river flows who know what new tributaries may be formed or where they will lead?

Chris Samhain 2021

Tain 20: An ‘Online’ Schools’ Óenach

What has been happening?

Each May the Táin Bó Cúailnge is celebrated by a group who walk the entire route undertaken by characters of the story. Along the way, schools community groups and many others, organise events and exhibitions to celebrate this wonderful ancient ‘epic’.

The march begins at Tulsk, Roscommon. This is Cruachan, the traditional royal site of Medb of Connacht. In other years I have worked with Primary schools throughout the County giving workshops, and sharing stories and poetry, as support and enrichment to this project.

This year, because of the Pandemic, the march had to be cancelled but that did not stop the fun. In October, , a group of schools joined together in an ‘online’ project to explore and celebrate the old Irish stories.

I created a special Google Slides interactive presentations with lots of information about Ireland in the time of the stories as well as plenty of video and audio stories. There were also some very special creative writing activities, as well.

The fun did not stop there. Part of the plan involved live Zoom sworkshops for each school We shared further interactive stories and even some drama games. Then we tried something new, well, new to us today. We held an on-line Óenach.

So, what’s an Óenach then?

In the time of our stories, an Óenach was a big party, held once a year or so. Everyone who was anyone came to it. There was feasting, and music, and story-telling and all the guests had a great time.


It was also like the Olympic games There were chariot and horse races with sports competitions of every kind. Every warrior, wanted to become a champion. There were poetry and story competitions too. There were loads of prizes.


It was a fashion show. Everyone, showed off their most fancy clothes and finest jewellery and armour.


In the days before YouTube and Facebook, it was a great opportunity to pass on news and make sure everyone knew about your latest exploits! It was a great time for boasting and bragging.

And Laws were made, treaties agreed and disputes settled

So, how did our on-line Óenach work then?

A Virtual Feasting hall was set up on-line. Each participating school had a ‘seat’ in the hall where they could demonstrate their skills and share, stories poems and challenges. Each week, throughout Samhain, the month of November, I added new challenges and stories to share. New games were created but some of the sporting activities were more difficult to include. And, of course, chariot racing would, mostly likely, have been a non-starter in any case.

The Óenach Gallery

For those who did not get past the doorkeeper and get to take a seat at the first online Óenach, never mind. Why not visit our gallery and view some of the shared stories, poems and art that was created to celebrate the event.

The schools who took part in this very special experiment were:

  • St Josephs B.N.S. Boyle
  • Ballintleva N.S.
  • Threen N.S,
  • Feevagh N.S.
  • Scoil na nAingeal Naofa NS, Boyle
  • Lismoil N.S.
  • Lecarrow N.S, unfortunately had to pull out owing to circumstances beyond their control
  • Scoil Chlann Naofa, Ballinamore (Leitrim) also joined us for the workshops.

For more information and downloads go to the ‘top navigation’ Gallery hub.

Supporting the Project.

The Táin March Festival is supported by the Creative Ireland Programme, an all-of-Government five-year initiative, from 2017 to 2022, which places creativity at the centre of public policy. Further information from and 

This project is supported by Roscommon County Council as an action of the County Roscommon Heritage Plan 2017-2021 and as part of the annual Táin March Festival

Art For Sinann

Sinann, the river Shannon, from a painting by Chris Thompson

 “Story Archaeology is delighted to be part of an exciting and International Arts competition.”.

“The Competition is the idea of Professor Ralph Kenna, Irish mathematician and theoretical physicist, who leads the statistical physics research group at Coventry University. Over the last 10 years, its ‘Maths Meets Myths’ research project has investigated Irish and other mythologies from a unique quantitative perspective. Most recently they published a very exciting paper on the narrative structure of A Song of Ice and Fire, including how it compares to Irish myths and other epic narratives. “

In the spirit of Sinann, who in the search for an all-encompassing inspiration and vision, became a woman of many skills, the competition welcomes submissions from visual artists, story-tellers, writers, poets working in any medium. It is open to adults and children alike, on any theme inspired by the story of Sinann. You can read about the competition including where and when to submit your entries here.

The story of Sinnan has been the myth and metaphor that has flowed through my work for many years, especially with children and young people. It is one of the stories that lead to my meeting with Isolde and was the topic of the first ever Story Archaeology podcast.

For Isolde and myself, the story of Sinann represents a symbolic reminder that the source of creativity , the world of the imagination, must be free to flow to into the world of our everyday life, just as, in the old Irish stories, it was the role of the storyteller poets to encourage an open channel between the ‘Otherworld’ of memory and wonder with the mundane world of work and action.

Of course when we delved deeper into the story, we discovered that the original Dindshenchas telling had an even greater relevance to our current world. If you want to find out more, you can listen to one of our Sinann podcasts and find out some of the little known secrets of this fascinating story. If you would rather begin by reading a modern telling of the Sinann story you can find one here.

The story of Sinann is one that speaks to us, today, and to all the challenges we face together. We need the voices of our poets, writers, story tellers and artists in each and every medium. Every voice and artist’s eye is needed to form a river that, like our great river Shannon, will become green and growing, ‘carrying the Salmon of Wisdom, once more, on their way to the spakling sea’. Welcome to ARTS FOR SINANN.

Art for Sinann – An international Competition

Sinann, the river Shannon, from a painting by Chris Thompson
Sinann, the river Shannon, from a painting by Chris Thompson
  • Three prizes of £1,000 each
  • And £1,000 worth of prizes for children
  • (Any form of visual or literary art)

We are launching an international arts competition centered on the mythological goddess of Ireland’s longest river – the Shannon. In Irish mythology, rivers are personified as divine figures attributed with gifts of poetic inspiration and mystical wisdom. The aim of the competition is to re-ignite awareness of Sinann who has too often been forgotten in the mists of time.

Sinann sought inspiration and knowledge at Connla’s well – a place where nine hazel trees of wisdom grew. The pursuit of knowledge is also the aim of Coventry University’s Fluid and Complex Systems Research Centre (FCS) which is a member of L4 – an international collaboration of four prestigious research centres. Its Maths Meets Myths research programme uses mathematics to investigate world mythologies and epic literature [1-5]. Knowledge and education are also the themes of Rathcroghan Visitor Centre in County Roscommon. Home to Cruachan Aí, it is the largest un-excavated Royal Site in Europe and of central importance in Irish mythology [6]. The Story Archaeologists are experts in Irish mythology and Sinann in particular [7]. Their explorations of original Irish texts inspire art forms that illuminate their meaning. Research and cultural matters are communicated to the public through quality media such as the Irish Post [8,9]. To reflect these, Coventry, Rathcroghan, The Story Archaeologists and the Irish Post are teaming up with a broad panel of judges from diverse backgrounds. Their contribution to the judging process will help promote Sinann and all she stands for – research, education and enlightenment.

 Why three prizes?

 Sinann passed a three-sided stone to the mythological hero Fionn MacCumhaill when he was set upon by fierce warriors at a ford on the Shannon. We encourage the public to do their own research into Irish mythology and reclaim the rich stories within. The three main prizes (£1,000 each) are equal in value as are the prizes for children.

Why an international competition?

Ireland has a global diaspora. We think anyone identifying themselves as Irish, part Irish, with interest in or love of Ireland deserves to be informed of the heritage they feel connected to.

Why Coventry?

With a large Irish population, Coventry has been selected as the UK’s City of Culture and will host Fleadh Cheoil na Breataine (Ireland’s “feast of music in Britain”) in 2021. In recognition of its research and teaching achievements, and to support impact of its research on the world beyond academia, Coventry University is funding this competition.

Why L4?

L4 is a research collaboration between FCS (Coventry) and counterpart groups in Universität Leipzig (Germany), Université de Lorraine (France) and the Institute of Condensed Matter Physics in Lviv (Ukraine).

Why Rathcroghan?

It is a site steeped in myth and history. Ireland’s most famous epic, An Táin Bó Cúailnge, begins and ends here [6].

Why the Story Archaeologists?

Experts in Irish mythology, their podcasts have inspired adults and children alike. They have long been advocates of Sinann and all she stands for and bring unique expertise about the Shannon’s authentic river story [7].

 Why the Irish Post? The Irish Post has promoted Ireland, its affairs and culture for 50 years. With 3 Million visitors online every month it remains the voice of the global Irish diaspora.

What has Maths to do with Myths?

Maths Meets Myths is a research project started at Coventry University in 2010, funded by the Leverhulme Trust [1]. It applies the mathematics of network science to investigate how characters interact with each other in mythology in much the same way as social scientists investigate how people interact with each other in real life. In 2016 a paper was published [2] investigating one of the most famous literary controversies of all time – an 18th-century text that Irish scholars claimed misappropriated material from Irish mythological sources. This paper was covered in international media (e.g., [8]) and recently reignited awareness of the authenticity of Sinann as the Shannon’s mythological river deity [3]. The most recent paper in the genre was published in 2020 [4].

When is the deadline for submissions?

 Imbolc – 1 February 2021. This festival date is associated with the mythological goddess Brigid. It is also Saint Brigid’s Day in Christendom and it is three months after Samhain. Samhain marks the end of the old year and beginning of the new. while Imbolc marks the beginning of Spring. We hope that launching the competition in Samhain (November) will carry entrants through the dark winter months for Brigid to take over in Spring.

How will the submissions be judged?

The University of Warwick is also located in Coventry city. Assisted by Coventry University it developed an algorithm called Calibrate with Confidence to judge objects in circumstances where every assessor cannot assess everything [5]. The algorithm also accounts for different levels of stringency in assessors and different levels of confidence in their assessments. Demonstrating the impact of this algorithm is another aim of this competition.

Who are the judges?

We are keen to make this a prestigious competition, so we are inviting a prestigious panel of judges. We are also interested in a diverse set of opinions, expertise and levels of confidence. The Calibrate with Confidence algorithm irons out any variations and individual subjectivity.

How many submissions do panel members have to judge?

As many as they like – Calibrate with Confidence works without everyone having to assess everything.

 Will the panel members be anonymous?

We wish to avail of the prestige associated with panel members to lend prestige to the competition. However, we will not reveal who awarded what score to what submission. We would like data on panel members age and gender so that we can spot any patterns such as whether more experienced people more generous or stringent with their marks. However, you don’t have to tell us anything you don’t want to.

Who can submit an entry?

Anyone – professional or amateurs from anywhere in the world.

What art media are allowed?

Anything. Sinann sought all-encompassing inspiration and wisdom at Connla’s well and no medium is superior to another. Calibrate with Confidence enables interdisciplinary comparisons. Examples include painting, drawing, ceramics, photography, design, crafts, poetry, short story, music, etc. Entries can be in Irish or English.

What are the prizes for children?

We are conscious that standard competitions can have the effect of discouraging a majority of children who fail to be selected for first second or third prizes. Depending on the number of submissions, we hope to offer larger numbers of smaller prizes

How do people submit their art work?

Submissions can take the form of text or photographs of art sent by email to and copied to These should be accompanied by a short description of how the art relates to Sinann.

What are the criteria by which the art will be judged?

Submissions are assessed according to originality/creativity, clarity of the theme (and clarity of photo if applicable), quality of composition, effect of the artwork and overall impression as an excellent or outstanding work of art.

Where will the prizes be awarded?

If conditions allow, we would like to announce or award a prize at Rathcroghan, Coventry and the Irish Post offices or a nearby location.

What do the artists get in return?

Three artists will each win £1,000. We hope to publish all submissions in an online gallery at and thereby promote their work (we will not reveal individual scores).

We will endeavour to give as many children as possible a prize (e.g., a book, badge or other token, depending on the number of entries).

What do panel members get in return?

Panel members get the pleasure of belonging to an art project and the sense of connection to Sinann and what she stands for. And, if they like, we can use the Calibrate with Confidence algorithm to feedback privately how their opinions compare to other rest of the panel – are you overly stringent or overly generous? Are you overly confident in your own assessments?  

 Róisín Dubh:
Tell me the legends of long ago
When the kings and queens would dance in the realm of the Black Rose
Play me the melodies I want to know So I can teach my children, oh
Thin Lizzy


[1] P. Mac Carron and R. Kenna, Universal properties of mythological networks, EPL 99 (2012) 28002. DOI:


[2] Joseph Yose, Ralph Kenna, Pádraig MacCarron, Thierry Platini and Justin Tonra, A Networks-Science

Investigation into the Epic Poems of Ossian, Advances in Complex Systems 19 (2016) 1650008. DOI:


 [3] Open Letter to Westmeath County Council from People of Athlone and the World, Westmeath Independent,

27 July 2019 and

 [4] Thomas Gessey-Jones, Colm Connaughton, Robin Dunbar, Ralph Kenna, Pádraig MacCarron, Cathal

O’Conchobhair, and Joseph Yose, Narrative structure of A Song of Ice and Fire creates a fictional world with

realistic measures of social complexity, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Nov 2020,

202006465; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2006465117

 [5] R.S. MacKay, S. Parker, R. Low and R. Kenna, Calibration with confidence: a principled method for panel

assessment, Royal Society open Science (2017) 4 160760; DOI: 10.1098/rsos.160760.


[7] Isolde ÓBrolcháin Carmody and Chris Thompson, Story Archaeology website:

[8] Mal Rogers, A Celtic Conundrum, Irish Post, 29 October 2016.

[9] Fiona Audley, Art Imitates Life: New study reveals scientific secrets and social complexities of Game of Thrones , complexities-of-game-of-thrones-196882 3 November 2020,

The Story of Sinann

Sinann, the river Shannon
from a painting by Chris Thompson

In the days of dreaming when the when the ever-living ones still walked freely among the misty mountains and green valleys of Ireland, when the soft light of enchantment still shone from every hill of the sidhe, there was a well.

It was a deep hidden pool, fringed and caressed by nine strong hazel trees. Pale leaves in spring would gently stroke the bubbling waters, and as the year turned red nuts would drop softly into the deep reflecting mirror of the well.

Within its depth the wise ones, the old ones, the salmon, consumed each kernel of wisdom, each nut of inspiration, for had they not the whole world in a nutshell?

It was a deep place of wonder, of enchantment, of understanding, but above all a secret place.

A deep and secret place, but not unknown; it was known, after all to the wise men, who would drink the water from the pool, skimming the surface of its secrets, wielding its knowledge and absorbing its enchantments.

And so, they became great, awesome, knowledgeable, powerful, enchanted, inspired, but not inspiring.

Then, came Sinann to that place. Granddaughter to the sea, she came in her tide -time. She came free and fresh, drawn like a seagull from the open sea to that deep wide well, deeper, wider, and stronger, than the sea itself.

She came not to seek power. She came as the sea comes, in curiosity without hindrance. She was unstoppable.

Her feet were like white seashells and her hair was woven with the wind. She was ungovernable.

Her azure green robe undulated like wind washed waves as she walked. She was unknowable.

The salmon stirred in their bonds of knowledge and began to turn in great spirals rising to meet their freedom.

As she reached the well the water rose to greet her. Wild waves of beauty reached out for her, overstepping the bounds of knowledge. New patterns of laughter, white and blue, green and purple, azure and turquoise, the deep longings of amethysts, cried out to her as the waters danced around her.

The song of the waters swept her along and she allowed herself to become one with it in all its bubbling joy.

The magicians watched in amazement as secrets were released in a babble of wise words, the gems of their secret wisdom shining like pearls on the bed of the crystal river for all to share. For the well, no longer contained and static, had indeed become a river, tumbling over rocks, dancing in sheer exuberance for its own pleasure until it reached the plains.

She flowed gladly and graciously down, down through the land, becoming broad and queenly, green and fertile,  a goddess among rivers, , carrying the salmon of knowledge on her way once more to reach the sparkling sea.

More Questions answered from the Story Archaeologists

Join the Story archaeologists as they attempt to catch up and answer some of the questions that you have been asking. This Q&A session covers the topic of fír flathemon , ‘The truth of the king’ and delves into the complexities of the text, Lebor Gabála Érenn, the ‘Book of the Taking of Ireland’. We also return to the strange phenomenon of the Morrigan’s Mono-horse.

An Unexpected Journey

On the second morning of May, 2020 I awoke before dawn. It was four forty a.m.  A glorious cacophony of birds was already celebrating a luminous sky-glow, heralding a clear morning. Suddenly, I was no longer sleepy. I grabbed my dressing gown, put my phone into my pocket, and stepped outside.

Standing in the orchard, facing east, I watched in fascination to where the skyline, was gradually colourised with streaked magenta and blotches of the palest lemon turquoise. The birdsong grew in volume, suddenly, portentous.

And then it was morning and everything changed.  It was just an accident that, the sun rose, blinding and goldenly bright, through the frame of the garden arch. It was a just a happy accident but It created a shot that any cinematographer would have wanted to catch on film. It was worth waiting for. A sudden portal to another place had opened, transforming the garden into endless variations of green.  From the darkest, green-grey. juniper velvet to the fern greens of the Sweet Cicely fronds and the sweet acid-greens of the new hawthorn leaves, the entire garden scintillated in constantly altering shades.  I took a great many photos before I went in to get myself an early breakfast.

It was an impressive, but dawn is a daily event. This one felt different. My garden is hidden away in a valley in the west of rural Ireland. Blue-sky sunrises are not common in misty Connacht, even in May, but that wasn’t it. I couldn’t shake off the hint of half-remembered revelation haunting the recesses of my memory like the echo of repeated birdsong. I felt as though I had fallen into a story, an old Irish story. I was reminded of those tales, that recounted journeys into a mysterious ‘Otherworld’. 

The Irish ‘Otherworld’ is no dank dark, land of the dead, the kind of place where Virgil strands his hero, Aeneas. The Irish Otherworld lies, not beneath, or even above our own, but parallel, ever present, yet unseen.

There is an Irish hero, Nera, who takes a wager, one Samhain night, to win a fine golden sword. He agrees to venture out to tie a willow withy around the ankle of a recently hanged enemy. He has some hair-raising adventures including being forced to carry the corpse on his back in a search for water but, ends up following, what he believes are dangerous enemies, into a cave.

On the ‘Other-side’ all is transformed. He emerges. not into darkness, but into a place of golden summer light, of fields and farms, meadows and meads, all transfigured and blooming. Indeed, at the close of his story. he chooses to make his home in this ‘Other-place’ and to leave his own people behind.

 There are other routes to this ‘Otherworld’, besides a cave mouth. It may appear as an island in the sea, as sudden land in a familiar lake. It may be encountered after the hero becomes lost in a forest or finds himself shrouded in a sudden snowstorm. 

This ‘Otherworld’, once encountered. draws you in, whether you will or no. It may offer a homely house, rest and recreation, strange visions or new possibilities. It may appear to be a world of summer and sunshine, achingly familiar and startlingly new at the same time. It can also present as a unsettling place of challenges, and danger. Secrets and treasures are there to be uncovered but you may also find your journey presenting layers of trickery and delusion. It can be hard to keep track of time while you remain in this Other-Place and, it can be hard to leave.

That May morning, as I prepared my breakfast, an odd thought surfaced.  I realised that I had already crossed over into that Otherworld, without consciously noticing. It must have happened a few weeks earlier. All the signs were there to see. There had been no rain for a month. The sun shone each day, blue skies breaking earlier, every morning. April was never like that in the ‘real world’. This was surely Nera’s land of eternal summer. Had I not noticed bunched blossoms appearing daily on every bough?  

Then there was the strange problem with communication. I could talk with friends and family, at a distance, but could not meet up with them. I knew what was happening ‘out there’ but it was so far away and it became harder to engage with that familiar world with every passing day.

Fionn MaCumhail, I recalled, had encountered a similar problem. Finding himself trapped in the ‘Otherworld’, he was shown images of what was happening, on the eve of a great battle. However, to his disgust, there was no way he or his men could get back to weigh in and lend an enthusiastic hand.

What made my translation even more likely was that I was rapidly losing track of time. Was it Tuesday, or it could be the weekend? I could find a calendar to make a decision for me but it mattered very little. This was an undoubted sign of a transference to the Otherworld.

The adventurer, Nera thought he had been living in the Otherworld for the best part of a year or more. When he returned, he found himself back at the feast of Cruachan almost at the same moment he had left. He had a bit of explaining to do. No-one was inclined to believe his mad adventures.

Now in the old stories, it is told that journeying into the Irish Otherworld, may not be by personal choice. There are occasional heroes who make deliberate decisions to search for a way in. There are tales of King Cormac and his quest to find Tír Tairngire, the Land of Promise, or Bran who travels the seas for Emhain Abhlach, the Plain of Apples. Yet, they had been ‘pushed’.  Cormac was following in the path of his stolen wife and children. Bran had been lured by the magical apple branch with its leaves of silver and apples of gold. What other choices had they? It would seem that the journey into the Otherworld could be unexpected, inevitable, and redolent with both hopeful anticipation and fearful expectation.

At this point, I feel that I have stretched the elasticity of a metaphor almost to snapping point. We are all thoroughly aware how, in the first half of 2020, much of the world’s population was wrenched away from everyday life and confined in the narrow limbo of Corona virus ‘Lockdown’.  This has been a very new type of crisis for the more developed areas of the world, both, East and West. This was not an epidemic or famine in some distant location.  It was not a tragic situation where the more fortunate could respond to appeals and, sympathetically, fund-raise for the stricken. All we could do was to watch as the crisis loomed ever closer.

The cancellation of Chinese New Year celebrations was troubling, but not of immediate personal concern, at least, not here in Ireland. And, then, northern Italy, Venice, Florence, ‘flowery Tuscany’, familiar holiday places, went into Lockdown.  Terrifying tales of desperation in hospital wards appeared in the media. Spain and France succumbed.  The shadow crouched on the doorstep.

I was working in a school in the Dundrum area of Dublin, the day that the first case in Ireland was confirmed. Although RTE would not officially release the area of the fnitial Covid. victim, it was an open secret that a pupil at the secondary school, ‘down the road’ from the primary school where I was giving story telling workshops, was infected. Many of the children, so I was told, had relatives or siblings in the affected school. It was an odd moment and I remember keeping my scarf over my face on the bus that day.

I had just completed the second of a four-week local history project in County Sligo when the news came that all schools were to be closed the following day. It wasn’t unexpected but it was sudden.  I work with schools and libraries as a story teller and I design and deliver creative writing and local history projects. All my projects were, of course, cancelled immeadiately. . As I was fairly certain schools would not open again, until September, many months would pass before I could pick up the threads of my planning again.

Then came full Lockdown and we all found ourselves transported to personal ‘Otherworld’s where time became elastic and friends and family were pulled away into separate realities. All those everyday concerns, work projects, travel plans, social events, holiday dreams all became meaningless, overnight, and were replaced by new experiences and anxieties. Could the ‘gold-dust’ promise of a slot for food delivery be achieved?  Should that, casually missed, dentist appointment have been kept after all? How far away might the next hair cut be? What theatre production was available to stream this week?  What was happening to the Wi Fi band-width? Was it really Wednesday or was it Thursday?

‘But like the experience of Fion MacCumhail in the Otherworld’ it has still been possible to watch in sadness as the battle raged  on in the world ‘Out-there’.  For those caught in the conflict, as front-line workers and carers, or the fearful battles waged by the victims of the virus, it has been terrible. Many a time, as those images were shown to me, I found myself deep in tears.  It was the same for many as they reached out from their own Otherworld realities and ‘clapped for the carers’ or dressed up in crazy clothes just to demonstrate that they were still human.

The ancient tales of the Irish ‘Otherworld’ stress that, although for some, the Otherworld will offer summer golden beauty, others will face isolation, and fearful terrors. The boy hero Cú Chulainn and his warrior companions were forced to fight murderous fanged cats that came through the Otherworld cave of Oweynagat. These were enemies that could not be overcome by any amount of heroism or superior weaponry.

And I know just how fortunate I have been. Once my on-going work was cancelled and I could not visit family and friends, it seemed cobvious that it was best to stay home. I was only too aware that, however I would have liked to deny it, I was fast approaching a definitive number after which, it was strongly recommended to see no-one at all. Also, I live with my son, who has his own co-morbidity issues. Now there is a phrase that I would have had no use for, only six months ago. We were facing the possibility of several months of isolation and weekly food deliveries. Many of my family were, out there among those key carers and  I was concerned for them at the same time as all as my usual roles were suspended.

I live well out in the countryside on eighteen acres of land, half of which are set to mature mixed woodland, all hardwood species. I also have large landscaped gardens set back from a minor road with a four hundred metre drive down to the house.  How could I possibly complain when I could get up at dawn and walk in my own woodland or wander through my own fields and gardens, under a ‘super-moon’. What was even better, was being offered the leisure to tend the gardens and exceptionally fine weather to work with, No, I really had been given access to Tír Tairngire. I can only imagine what it must have been like for families in small apartments with little, or no access to a garden. I had been fortunate, indeed.

Yet if I continue to follow the path of my meandering metaphor, those old Irish tales still have more to tell. Entering the Otherworld might be unavoidable. Being there might bring blessings and have much to teach. But getting back could be another matter entirely. The danger could reveal itself, if and when, the sojourner sought to return.

Cú Chulainn, who never had much luck with Otherworld beings, managed to get himself nearly beaten to a pulp by a couple of ‘Otherworld’ women. It happened after he had crossed the world’s border to hunt and kill white birds linked by a silver chain, in order to provide exotic feathers for his wife, Emer. After this incident, he became gravely ill for a long time.  What you bring back from your Otherworld experience may not have the results that you expect.

In the stories, the return is always tricky. No-one returns unchanged. Nera returns to a world where his life was altered irrevocably. For others the return is, physically, very dangerous. Perhaps the best-known story concerning an ‘Otherworld’ journey and return is the echtra or adventure tale, of Oisín in Tir na nÓg. It is not a happy ending.  After Oisín goes with Niamh and cheerfully remains with her for, what he believes, is no more than three years, he decides to return. Niamh lends him the white horse, Aonbharr, but warns him to stay in the saddle and not to set his foot on the earth of Ireland. She fails to let on that he has been away, not for three, but for three hundred years. Once he falls from his horse, he becomes an ancient and decrepit old man. In the Acallam na Senórach, the Book of the Scholars, he meets up with Patrick himself. When he hears that the Fianna are gone and in hell, Oisín informs Patrick that he would rather join his father and his warrior companions in hell than enter heaven without them. His world is changed indeed.

I begin to hear my metaphoric elastic creaking again. I do not wish, in any case, to attempt a direct analogous comparison between the Irish Otherworld tales and the Corona Virus Pandemic of 2020. Yet there is, in words Professor Tolkein might have used, an ‘applicability’. We have all unexpectedly been snatched away from our familiar activities and concerns with little notice. Our ‘Otherworld’ experiences will all have been individual, separate. We will all have handled them in differing ways.

Somehow, we must all attempt the return and I think this will be as tricky as the old tales suggest.  I have been one of the luckiest ones, tucked away in a country garden, occasionally lonely, usually productive and generally enthusiastic. Even so, I find myself anxiious about the return journey. 

For some, especially older travelers, there is, as both Oisín and Cú Chulainn, discovered, a real and physical danger of encountering sickness and weakness, Others will uncover profound changes that will greatly affect the way they work within their communites. We are returning to a world that is now constantly altering in a subtle and unpredictable manner. We will greatly need all the imagination and kindness that has been, so often, demonstrated during the Lockdown.

only The old Irish poet story tellers recounted these tales with purpose. They were not just fantastic adventures told for entertainment. They knew how important it was that the two parallel worlds, the ‘Otherworld’ of magic, wonder and imagination, alongside the familiar world of work, ambition and progress, were held in balance. Only then would the land and its people remain healthy and prosperous.  Like the poets of the past, I also hope that some of these modern ‘Otherworld’ gifts, imaginative approaches to communication and new ways of working and sharing, may cross over with us as we make our careful return to the world of work.

For a combination of reasons, I was part of that group who have been, effectively, ‘shielding’, often referred to as cocooning, over the past two months. It so happened that my seventieth birthday coincided with the day before the firsthints of quarantine relaxation began, here in Ireland.  The term ‘cocooning’ is an odd one.. It implies metamorphosis I quite like it. I am looking forward to discovering just what I can do when my new wings emerge.

The ‘Stories at Home’ Project

Up until now, Story Archaeology has been designed for an adult audience. however, as I spend much of my time story telling and giving workshops on Irish mythology, I am making these available on-line for families at home.

Click 0n the ‘Stories at home project’ hub link in the navigation bar, above, to find out what is currently on offer. And please feel free to contact me for further ideas,or to send me poems and stories you have made. Chris

Stories and Activities with Children 6: Irish story picture gallery

What might King Fergus have worn? What was an Iron-age roundhouse like? What was a hero’s chariot made of? What about that ‘Cave of the Cats? What does it look like now?

I thought I might put up a page of images to help answer these questions and lots more. I hope these pictures help to make the stories more easy to imagine.

A Roundhouse from Butser ancient farm.
Rathcroghan mound today
This is what Cruachan may have looked like in the time of the stories
This is how some of our heroes might have looked
Úa na gCait
Úa na gCait, the Cave of the Cat, near Cruachan today
Heroes and chariot

More pictures will be added later. I am happy to add any pictures drawn by children in your family.

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Stories and Activities with Children 3: Finn and Conan Maeol

There are many stories about Finn Mac Cumhaill. The original texts are complex and difficult to say the least! This is largely because the Fionn (earlier Finn) stories remained in the oral tradition and were written down quite late. This means that there are many interwoven versions and duplications.

I have created a video of one of my favourite ‘tellings’. This is one version of the ‘The House of the Quicken Tree. There are several tales of the sharp tongued, Conan Maol who was always at odds with Diarmud , and generally got into trouble wherever he went. I have done my best with this telling but it usually includes the full participation of several members of my audience. I miss them!

In this tale I recount the challenges of becoming a part of the Fianna. the first important skill was to have the skills of a poet. The early Irish poetry had to fulfill all the roles of showing scene setting, action sequences and dramatic moments that you would find today in your favourite films. Having a go at becoming an Irish Hero Poet is easy and fun. You will find everything you need by clicking this link . Become an Irish Hero Poet

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