Story Archaeology

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

The Ancestors and the Hollow Hills


Uaimh na gCai at Cruachan

In the podcast episode, “The Further Adventures of Nera – The Cow and the Time Machine”, we found ourselves exploring the gateway to the Irish Otherworld. It is not the first timewe have made this journey..  We only have to return to our last story, Fled Bricrenn, “Bricriu’s Feast”, where we encountered another powerful Otherworld character, that of the shape-shifting giant, Cú Roí.

In both episodes, we commented that interaction between the worlds could be perilous, creating a series of difficult challenges. However, we also noted that this interaction generally began after there had been a breakdown of natural order in the human world.

In Fled Bricrenn, the heroes fail to decide among themselves who is to be appointed as champion. Their refusal to accept judgement threatens natural order and justice. As Sencha says to Ailill as he begs for his help in containing the rivalry, “We really require our heroes. For great is their value to timid folks”. Ailill and Medb dodge the issue. It is the Otherworld figure of Cú Roí who finally deals effectively with the rivalry.

In Nera’s adventure, it may be the bragging challenge made at Samhain – a dangerous point in the year – that opens the door. However, during the episode, we pointed out that the captive who is hanged could be from the Otherworld himself. We also discussed the series of poor judgements made by both Medb and Conchobar that lead to the events of the saga.

There are other ways that the doors may be opened between the worlds. One commonly encountered cause  is the breaking of gessa. In Togáil Bruidthe ne Dá Derga, Conaire has been put in such a paradoxical situation that he cannot uphold his word of honour. Following this, he meets a number of strange and terrifying beings who bring about his eventual  destruction.

apple_branchCormac MacAirt has a happier experience. He is tricked into his quest to seek for Manannán’s Isle by being offered a gift of a magic apple branch that appears to solve his problems, but which leads to the temporary loss of his family. However, having learnt the lesson that quick fixes do not last, he receives the gift which helps him to achieve his aim of becoming a good king, i.e. one who makes good judgments.

So what is this Otherworld and how can it be defined? This is a topic that would fill a book. (It has filled many already.)  Some regularly encountered motifs are as follows:

  • Time-shifting;

Although the Otherworld is a place set apart, generally reached by travelling into a cairn or cave or sailing to an island, it closely resembles the human world, though it may seem a brighter or idealised version. Cú Roí’s home is set in the land of Ireland but is set apart by his strange revolving fort. However, as in the story of Nera or the tale of the abduction of Oisín to Tír na nÓg by Niamh, time runs at a different rate. For instance, once Oisín returns to Ireland, thinking that he has been gone only a short time, everyone he knows is long dead.

  • Shape-shifting;

While not apparent in the story of Nera, shape-shifting is a regular ability of Otherworld beings. Cú Roí seems to take a variety of disguises throughout Fled Bricrenn.

  • Symbolic logic;

The Otherworld has something of the quality of a dream. There may be high level of significance to what is witnessed there.Little is random. Nera’s observation of the blind man and the lame man guarding the crown in the well is +typical of this symbolic logic..

  • Mazing and Confusion;

One of my favourite stories will provide a good example of this. It main protagonist is  Conan Maol. When Fionn and his friends, including Conan, go hunting, they become trapped in a hollow hill that first appears as a noble dún, unoccupied, but with a feasting table piled high with food. The other heroes fight their way free when they realise they are not in a house but trapped inside a hollow hill. Conan, who ha been greedily wolfing down food discovers he is stuck to his seat. He is then able to see that what he is eating, is not good food, but snails, slugs and beetles. When Fionn and his men pull him free, Conan leaves the skin of his back behind. Fionn slaps a sheepskin on his friend’s wound to reduce the pain. There it sticks and there it grows.

The above examples are all taken from medieval tales, mostly Early or Middle Irish, and yet the same motifs are all clearly recognisable in later folk and fairy tales.  They may be stories of changelings, fairy abductions and treasure found in hollow hills.  However, the places inhabited by the fairies are still as perilous, and the daoine maithe, “good people”, themselves more likely to play tricks than give gifts. Shape and time shifting, mazing and that dream like sense of significance is equally prevalent.

A typical example is the well known legend of Knockgrafton. In this story, a good-natured man looses the hump from his back by adding to the song that the fairy folk are singing on a thorny mound. The fairies are singing, “dé luain, dé máirt”. The man, Lusmore, finishes the song by adding “agus dé céadaoin”. (“Monday, Tuesday… also Wednesday”).  Another hunchback gains a second hump for rudely, and unmusically, shouting the rest of the days of the week.

This is just one tale among many. In the podcast episode, “Corpse Carrying for Beginners”, we compared the adventure of Nera to a much later folktale known as “Tadhg O’Céin and the Fairies”. This bears resemblances to Nera, including the carrying of the corpse, and the houses that cannot be entered by the corpse because they are protected by good housekeeping.  The fire has been smoored and the slop water thrown out. However, one main difference is that Tadhg’s Otherworld opponents are no longer tall powerful warriors, but “little grey maneens”.

Spiorad na gCrainnte Faoigh by George  (AE) Russell

Spiorad na gCrainnte Faoigh by George (AE) Russell

It seems that the daoine síd have changed their size as often as they have changed their shape.  Over the centuries, they have dwindled in size. By Shakespeare’s time they had become small. His Queen Mab, the fairy midwife,(1) (who could possibly contain a faint memory of Medb), is much like the diminutive figure much loved by Victorian children and Walt Disney, albeit less benign and bland!  Under the influence of such figures as George Russell (AE) and, particularly, J. R. R. Tolkien, they have grown tall again and even re-assumed their armour. Unfortunately, every March, we still suffer from the ubiquitous leprechaun, a sea spirit, so Isolde tells me, who is hardly recognisable in his most recent guise.

Oral tales and folklore also retain the themes. For instance, I was told this anecdote:

“My grandfather had a house on that hill. The house is gone now but my grandfather always kept the front and back doors open, even in the winter. You see, it was on a fairy path and it wasn’t safe to close them”.

My own house has a stone set into the hearth.  I was told never to remove it as it kept the house from the ‘blessed sickness’. (This seemed to mean a conflation of epilepsy and / or madness, i.e. ‘being away with the fairies’). W. Y. Evans Wentz, in the useful book The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, gives further examples of fairy lore in Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century.

So how did these Síd warriors become diminutive tricksters? Are they merely faint echoes of the people of craft, who, according to the Lebor Gabála, (the “Book of Invasions”), or Cath Maige Tuired, (the “Battle of Moytura”), came from the four cities of learning in the North? The Moytura text is of a similar date to both the Bricriu and Nera texts, but has a very different ambience. The Túatha Dé Danann of Moytura have little in common with the people of the síd in the Nera text. In Cath Maige Tuired, The Dé Danann themselves are invaders, fighting for a place in the land. Although they have their druids and their magicians with them, they negotiate with honourable diplomacy and fight with finely-crafted  metal weapons. Even the Fomoire are not misshapen monsters, but another tribe who also wish to live in Ireland.

Riders of-the Sidhe by John Duncan (1911)

The Riders of the Sidhe by John Duncan

It is only in the 14th century text of Oidhe Chloinne Tuireann, “The Death of the Children of Tuirenn”, that we find descriptions of Lugh wearing the magical armour of Manannán and accompanied by the  fairy cavalcade. The same text treats the Fomoire as far more monstrous. Balor is now the terrible Fomoire leader and shares the attributes of a Norse frost giant.

The Moytura text, although dated to the early Christian period, does not present the Dé Danann as pagan gods. The story from the “Book of Invasions” that deals with their arrival is particularly interesting in that they do not create the Land. It has always been there. In fact, it is as if they, themselves, are created by their coming to the Land. They become ‘the people’ when they begin to craft. This is seen in terms of farming, metalwork, carpentry, boat-building, medicine and especially word-smithing, particularly poetry, which contains the truth of law.  They are ancestor figures rather than Classical-style gods.

The “Book of Invasions”, is a miscellany of documents collated rather later than the Moytura text, Beside telling the story of their arrival and their taking of the land it also tells what became of the Dé Danann. They, in their turn, lost in battle to another, later group of incomers known as the Sons of Mil. The Dé Danann were forced to share the land, it was said, and took the half beneath the ground, passing into the cairns and mounds, becoming the áes síd, the people of the hollow hills. This post-Milesian world is the one in which Nera, and many other tales, are largely set, although there is, as in most old tales, a degree of inconsistency. A tale of this type, is the one in which the Dagda brings about the birth of his son Oengus. He sends Elcmar, Boann’s husband away for a day while creating a time shift  in the Brú na Bóinne, (Newgrange), allowing time enough for the conception, gestation and birth of his son. In fact, by the time Elcmar gets home, the same night  as he thinks, the mother is fully recovered and the child has been fostered with Midir. The story of Midir and Etain, which we will be beginning in the next podcast episode, will have plenty more evidence of what happens when the two worlds clash.

Gradually, as the stories develop, the Dé Danann are often portrayed  as more remote, more magical, and perhaps even immortal. They become closely connected with the mysterious ancient places in the landscape; the Neolithic and Bronze Age cairns, raths and dolmens. The specific locations of their habitations deepen the dindshenchas elements contained in the stories.

Classical Greek and Roman sources implied that the Continental Celts had a strong belief in an active life after death. Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (“Lucan”, 39 CE – 65 CE)  the Roman poet, says;

“From you we learn that the bourne of man’s existence is not the silent halls of Erebus.  Death, if your lore be true, is but the centre of a long life“. (2) 

The dead heroes might appear, not as immaterial ghosts, but as they had been seen in life. Certainly, stories tell that St. Patrick managed to interview the odd one or two! It is hardly surprising that the compilers of these tales, already old in the early Christian period, did not always draw distinctions between the land of the ancestors and the land of the immortal dead.

Under the pressure of Christianity, the scribes reacted in a variety of ways. Compilers often undertook a deliberate process of euhemerisation, absorbing much of the information into an early pseudo-history.  This helped to preserve the stories, but some characters took on new roles. For example, the Dagda, who was never a king in the Moytura text, was allotted a period of sovereignty in later texts, and, of course, more than one leader claimed to be a direct descendant of Lugh.

Certain continental clerics and metaphysicians attempted to rationalise the pagan gods, ancestors and the whole thorny problem of the fairy world. Their solution was to identify them as fallen angels, who either remained neutral in Lucifer’s war against heaven or who were not evil enough to end up in hell. These beings would have immortality on earth but could have no chance of regaining heaven.  According to W. Y. Evans Wentz and Lady Wilde, this idea was widely held across Ireland and Scotland in the latter part of the 19th century;

“The Irish believe that the fairies are the fallen angels who were cast down by the Lord God out of heaven for their sinful pride. And some fell into the sea, some on the dry land, and some fell deep down into hell. But the fairies of the earth and the sea are mostly gentle and beautiful creatures, who will do no harm if they are let alone(3)

Lady Wilde’s “gentle and beautiful creatures” seem a long way from the warriors of the síd at Crúachán.  Many folktales do not regard them as gentle either. The title daoine maithe, “good people”, is given to them to guard against accidental offence. However, not all fairy lore can be directly attributed to the Dé Danann.  There is limited evidence to indicate that the Dé Danann were worshiped in the Classical manner. Continental imports, (our “shiny foreigners”), such as Lugh are another matter. Roman influence was greater in Britain and on the Continent but largely absent in Ireland and this seems to have made a difference. There Some late charms and prayers calling upon occasional Dé Danann characters can be identified, and at least one, Gobniu, has achieved canonisation as St Goban. But these charms give them equivalence to saints rather than to gods.


Fairy Thorn by Gail Kerlly

However, there is a great deal of evidence to show that great care and attention was paid to the Genii Loci of sacred places: ancient mounds, standing stones, caves, and, above all, water; including lakes, wells, river crossings and so on. Votive deposits have frequently been found in such places, especially in bodies of water. An excellent example is the wonderful Iron Age trumpet found in Lough Na Shade, but it is by no means unique as an offering. Many folktales tell of the need to propitiate these spirits, either at particular places or particular times of the year. Popular Hallowe’en customs still reflect this requirement, even if the reasons for the activities are no longer consciously remembered.

And so, we have come full circle, back to the adventures of Nera in the world of the Síd. This story includes most of the elements discussed in this article. The Síd warriors are transitional, somewhere between the earthly warriors of Moytura and the fantastical fairy cavalcade in the Children of Tuirenn.  The folk of Crúachán show no sign of reverence towards the Otherworld that lies so close to their own realm, and they have the confidence to fight them with earthly weapons. Yet the tale also includes elements of propitiation and appeasement towards what may be the Otherworld of the dead. These motifs particularly concern everyday domestic practices, ideas that are still current, some thousand years later, in the story “Tadhg O’Céin and the Fairies”.

This may also go some way to explaining why the dindshenchas elements are so prominent in Irish stories. The places where significant powerful events take place become set apart in the same way as a well, or an ancient mound. These places and times are perilous. They must be marked, recorded and remembered lest they prove to open the doors between the worlds.

Even so, nothing redeems the modern leprechaun!leprechaun


(1) William Shakespeare: Mercutio’s speech from Romeo and Juliet O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you.

(2) J. A. MacCulloch; The Religion of the Ancient Celts, (1911): ch. 12. p. 336

(3) Lady Wilde; Ancient Legends, Charms and Superstitions of Ireland, (1888)

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