Story Archaeology

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

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

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.

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.

Return to the Stories at Home project hub

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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Stories and Activities with Children 5: The Two Poet Pig-keepers

Wild boar with piglets

This audio story is one of the many stories that circle around the great
Táin Bó Cúailnge , The cattle raid of Cooley. It is not a well known story but it is important as it is really the ‘origin’ story for the whole cycle. It is also a great tale and explains a lot!

The story has been included because it emphasises the importance of the storyteller-poets and can be enjoyed in conjunction with the become an Irish Hero Poet activity sheets. Have fun together.

Or go to the podcast episode about the Two Poet Pig keepers, The Quarrel of the Two Swineherds.

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Stories and Activities with Children 4: Become a hero poet

Try your hand at a Rosc poem

Rosc is very old. The very first stories were told through this type of poetry. The form was used to describe both the setting of a story and the action. It was a good way of describing a battle. It can be hard for us to understand today especially because they were originally written in a very old style of Irish. Download the ‘rosc’ worksheet and have a go.

Make a Praise Poem for a famous hero

First, listen to the story Bricriu’s feast to get to know about some of the best heroes.When these stories were first told, there was no TV, there were no films. The story tellers had to paint pictures with words. Thy were very good at it. You can do it too. Download the Hero Praise poem worksheet and have a go.

Make a praise poem about yourself

There is a very early type of ‘praise poem where a poet (or a poet-warrior is singing his own praises. Each line begins “I Am”. You could write a poem in the same style. It is very easy but great fun. The short video below will show you how you can create a really imaginative poem.

Download the special template sheet. With this you can create really unusual poems by asking your brothers and sisters parents or even Grans and Grandads the questions on the template, over Skype or Watsap.

This is a translation of part of a poem that was first written down at least, 900 years ago. Your poems will be just as good.

I am a stag: of seven tines,
I am a flood: across a plain,
I am a wind: on a deep lake,
I am a tear: the Sun lets fall,
I am a hawk: above the cliff,
I am a thorn: beneath the nail,
I am a wonder: among flowers,
I am a poet: who but I
Sets the head aflame with smoke?

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Stories and Activities with Children 2: A Family Project Pack

This project pact can be explored by one child, a group, for example, siblings together or even as a family activity. There are opportunities for design activities, imaginative writing in a variety of styles and suggestions for further research.

The Adventures of Fergus Mac Leite

The best introduction to this topic is to watch one of the video story sessions: Fergus Mac Leite, Airthine the Unsociable or the audio story Bricriu’s Feast

The pack is divided into six different topics connected to the theme. Each topic has one PDF information sheet to read together and a connected activity sheet. You can download them all though the links below

Download topic 1: Waterbeasts . Information sheet and Activity page

Download topic 2: Become Queen (or King) Information sheet and Activity page

Download topic 3: Land Under Wave . Information sheet and Activity page

Download topic 4: Otherworld Islands . Information sheet and Activity page

Download topic 5: Heroes . Information sheet andActivity page

Download topic 6: Poets and Story-tellers . Information sheet Activity page 1

Go on to explore the old poet writing Ogham with Activity page2a and Activity page 2b

Have fun and please feel free to send me your stories and pictures . I will be happy to send you more ideas, I can include a gallery page on the site.

There will be more videos and things to do very seen. So, join in the Irish Hero stories ‘Stories at Home’ project. Stay safe and have fun!

Return to the ‘Stories at Home’ project hub

Stories and Activities for Children 1: Bricriu’s Feast

It has been a while since Isolde and I have been able to work on the podcast but I have continued working with the stories in schools around Ireland, This year, as part of the 2020 Tain March Festival, in May, I had planned to set up a children’s Óenach in Roscommon. Like so much else, this has been postponed for the foreseeable future

But this very postponement offers new possibilities. , As a teacher, I am only too aware of the need for fun and interactive ‘things to do’ at home at present.. Those of you who value the old Irish stories as much as I do might welcome stories and projects based on marvel-ous Irish hero stories,

So I am going ahead in releasing my schools’ Irish story telling programmes “Warriors, Heroes and Poets”. There will be videoed stories and full project pack suitable for use by siblings or as a whole family if you like.

I will also be uploading some audio readings of stories of the stories from my, as yet, uncompleted book. This post contains just one of these stories. This is Bricriu’s Feast. We covered the story for adults in a previous series. This version is a ‘family’ version.

Watch the animation, part of this story, The Cats of Cruachan.

Return to the ‘Stories at Home’ project hub

Thanks from Isolde

Your donations have allowed Isolde to buy a really important and useful piece of kit. Although she has to largely remain lying down, (She can sit in her wheelchair for short periods now) she can begin to think about work again. The Braille display unit will greatly help her get back to working with early Irish texts. The video says it all. Take a look,

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