With the recent release of a book claiming to be “genuine Irish Tradition” by Amantha Murphy, I thought the easiest way to tackle this is through a public blog post since nobody involved with it is willing to properly address it. The publisher, Womancraft Publishing, claims this book to be a counter to cultural appropriation when in fact it is the exact opposite. All they do is shrug their shoulders and parrot Amantha’s rhetoric in its defense. The “author” Amantha blocks and deletes any comments calling her out on this and the scribe doubles down on Amantha’s BS, clearly sucked in by her charm. A great review of the book by Amy Coe can be found here.
This book, like many others, purports to be “ancient Irish tradition” but is nothing more than a sad attempt to cash in and create a brand by a woman selling “tradition” to innocent people looking to get in touch with their heritage . Seeing the “author”, the scribe and the publisher are all unwilling to address the issues involved in creating pseudo-Irish words, of cultural appropriation or any of the other highly problematic issues with this book, hopefully this open letter will help to dissuade people from filling the coffers of Amantha and the publishing house willing to defend her. I will start with the two blog posts by the scribe about the book, and then I will address some of the many issues within the book. EDIT TO CLARIFY: The cultural appropriation in question is not a woman of Irish descent using Irish material (although it is so far from genuine it can barely be considered as such), it is about her using terms like shaman, stone people, dragon lines etc. and trying to insert them into an “Irish” system of spirituality.
I will address the recent post by the scribe below and go through it point by point. The link to the original is here:
To Orla, the scribe, I feel sorry in a way that you fell under whatever charm or blind confidence that Amantha is using to convince people that what she is peddling is “genuine Irish Tradition”. This article of yours does not clarify things linguistically at all. It still remains grammatically AND linguistically incorrect, by a long shot. I will address this more below.
“It (Seabhean) was a word given to Amantha many years ago by an elderly woman who had heard it used in Donegal”–
While Amantha may have been told this, the truth is I have had MULTIPLE Donegal speakers refute its usage there and so it appears this is one of many origins of the word she chooses to mislead her readers about. Other explanations she has given for the origin include a Gaelscoil teacher in Howth made use of the word and then at another point Amantha admits she made it up herself. In fact, contradictory remarks are made throughout the book. She has also yo-yoed on the definition of “sea” being “yes” or “strength”.
“I searched Ó Dónaill’s Irish dictionary and the word ‘seabhean’ was not listed” –
Well, that’s because it doesn’t exist Orla. I’ve checked Dineen (the go-to dictionary for out of use, antiquated words), O Dónaill, De Bhaldraithe, Ua Maoileoin and eDil (the one that lists every manuscript mention of words in medieval Irish and early modern Irish). I have also scoured Ireland’s National Folklore Collection and there isn’t a single usage of the word. Because…it likely didn’t exist and its absence from so many sources over such a period of time should speak for itself.
The composite word seabhean (pronounced shavan) is a combination of the word ‘sea’ (pronounced sha) and the word ‘bean’ (pronounced ban). From a grammar and spelling perspective, the word seabhean is correct as a composite word using those two components”.
‘Seabhean’ isn’t even close to being grammatically correct, nor is it correct as a compound word. She has also yo-yoed on the definition of “sea” being “yes” or “strength” neither of which grammatically works as “seabhean” for a start, but then it wouldn’t be close enough for Amantha to make a play on words of the appropriated word shaman that she is trying to market and shoehorn into her distorted view of “genuine” Irish tradition.
“Meaning of those two words together is quite close to the essence of what the Irish healer woman is”
It’s almost as if there aren’t already multiple Irish terms for healer woman/ Wise woman i.e. Bean feasa (wise woman), Bean Ghlúine (midwife), Bean Leighis (healer woman) that could have been used in its place, but circle back to my point about it not being close enough to “shaman” for her purposes.
“Perhaps some Irish speakers from Donegal may know if the word is still used today for healer women there”
Having already established that there are no attestations of it ANYWHERE for almost 1500 years of the language being written down, a number of Donegal speakers confirming it isn’t a thing and not a single dictionary in existence mentioning it, I think we can safely say it exists entirely in Amantha’s imagination. Perhaps though, this could have been investigated by either yourself or Amantha at any point between conception of the idea, the writing and publishing of the book, especially since she keeps trying to claim “authenticity”. You know, research, the kind of things people do before releasing a book. It would really save face and the endless mental gymnastics to justify it. Although it’s fine for Amantha, she can just use her lackies to do the work for her while she retreats to fantasy land of culturally appropriated concepts.
“If she had used an Irish word, people would not have understood”.
So she just made up a pseudo-Irish word with false antiquity and that better explains it how exactly? Terms like Bean feasa, Bean Ghlúine, Bean Leighis etc are easily explainable.
“mainly indigenous or tribal cultures, many of whom would describe themselves as shamans”.–
Unless they are from Tunguska, no, they wouldn’t use the term “shaman” to describe themselves at all.
“seamhná – plural of seabhean”
The word doesn’t have a singular, let us not invent plurals of it please.
“Perhaps Amantha’s courageous sharing of this work” —
Are those her words or your Own Orla? Because that seems just like the sort of self-absorbed rhetoric she has been using ad nauseum when talking about this book.
How is it courageous exactly? Her mangling Irish tradition for monetary gain and a shambolic attempt at making a brand. I thought we left that carry on in the 19th century with the Anglo-Irish writers. And the shoehorning in of “the way of the seabhean” in every sentence by both of you is tiresome. Her claiming that she is courageous by releasing this information is only a subtle dogwhistle to her sharing “tradition” that has been kept secret, thus making it more exotic, and lends more credibility to her due to people not being able to refute these traditions due to them being “closed”. Of course it is all fabricated and appropriated on her part and nowhere near accurate. Sooo courageous of her, I’m sure there will be a public holiday named after her in no time.
It might not be as bad if she had just been honest and said “This is a system I’m working with. I have invented this word for it as an ode to the healer women/wise woman and it is very, very loosely inspired by Irish tradition”…But no it just had to be “this is genuine Irish tradition that has been passed down and this is an ancient term that was used”. The fact that everyone is willing to defend her behavior on this is sickening. And the fact that Amantha isn’t addressing this herself is very telling. We can only hope that this fizzles into obscurity and that I don’t have to spend the next few decades having to refute this nonsense online like all the other fake “genuine” Irish tradition that’s out there. It’s an insult to all the Seanchaí and the filidh before them, to all the Bean feasa through time and all the other repositories of Irish tradition, to all the collectors who travelled the country saving our lore. To quote Séamus Ó Duilearga, the director of the Irish Folklore Commission “We are certain that the nonsensical rubbish which passes for Irish Folklore, both in Ireland and outside, is not representative of the folklore of our Irish people”. And that legend of a man would be rolling in his grave having to read what Amantha is trying to pass off as genuine.
“The tradition of the seabhean has been passed down through generations of Irish women from ancient times, possibly since the time of the Tuatha Dé Danann”.
While traditions, customs and stories were carried through an oral tradition, even until modern times, this tradition was not known as The tradition of the seabhean, a thing that Amantha has created using a hodgepodge of outside traditions that are alien to the Irish tradition and packed with a nice neat bow of “my Irish granny told me”. And where do I even start with the trademarking of the term “way of the seanbhean” when it is a supposed “ancient tradition”. From her goodreads profile she states another fallacy “From early childhood Amantha Murphy was the girl-child chosen by her grandmother to be initiated into the ‘Way of the Seabhean’, a traditional Irish path of the healing woman and seer, a role passed down from mother to daughter (or grandmother to grand-daughter) since ancient times”
“their presence and practices have been kept secret”.
Again, more reinforcement of the “I’m a keeper of secret, esoteric knowledge and I’m brave for sharing this”
She believes (and has proved) that these practices and this way of being in the world is not confined to the few who inherit it, but can be learnt and used by all“
For a nominal fee of course for her workshops and apprenticeships. But hey, she has all this secret knowledge that her ancestors were persecuted for and is very, very courageous in sharing that with us.
“I hesitated at first but then I attended a workshop in which she kept thirty women spellbound for an hour-and-a-half. I thought to myself, if this is not written down, the world will be poorer”.
The world would be better off had you not. I’m not bashing what might help people. If something helps you or heals you, by all means do it. But this could be done in a new age book without claiming it as genuine ancient tradition and romanticising the life out of it. Or without selling herself as a bearer of tradition. You wouldn’t fit ten of Amantha’s feet into half a shoe belonging to any of the genuine bearers of Irish tradition that have long since passed on.
“all enriched with the oral tradition which she has INHERITED”
More justification. She has a right to this.
“put in context and written down (much of it for the first time)”
“Amantha uses the word shamanic to describe the way in which the Seabhean operates. While this work is essentially Irish, it also belongs to a worldwide shamanic system”.
Having skimmed the book, are you sure this Irish material isn’t in another book? Or is it lost somewhere amongst the chakras, stone people, other worlds or planes that don’t conform to the well established (over 1500 years of oral and written lore) notion of the Irish otherworld?
Amy’s goodreads review covers a lot of this so I won’t be repeating too much, but just to expand on them:
“a woman could divorce her husband at any time, but a man could only divorce his wife at Bealtaine.” (p. 87)
The Brehon laws allowed for divorce on both sides under specific circumstances. There was no specification that a man had to wait till Bealtaine. He could divorce for 7 reasons: Unfaithfulness, persistent thieving, inducing an abortion, bringing shame on his honour, smothering her child or being without milk through sickness. (Fergus Kelly, Guide to Early Irish Law, p75)
“Women still took their mothers’ names and owned land. Some women were chieftains.” (p. 76)
Women were expressly barred from chieftanship, there are no historical records of this ever being achieved afaik. Names were patronymic. The owning of land is one of the most cherry picked and misquoted things out there. Only yesterday I was accused of “wanting to put women in their place” by someone when I corrected them on women’s status in early Ireland. Women owning land was exceptionally rare. The banchomarbae (female heir) could only inherit land if there was no male heir. Considering multiple marriages were allowed, along with separation to impregnate another women for an heir (and every child whether legitimate or not being equally allowed to inherit), the absence of a male heir was typically not an issue. On top of this, her inheritance of the land was only a life interest and could not be inherited by her child on her death. It instead returned to the kin group.
Amantha’s grasp of mythology is almost non existent (or consists of researching new age books and websites as bad as her own) and this is covered well by Amy in her review. But in short her christianisation of Cú Chulainn (while he was alive that is, there is a tale where his ghost is christianised), “Cúchulainn knew that Maeve had a wicked temper , but he had taken to the way of the cross and was a Christian”. In the timelines presented in the lore, Christ was still alive when Cú Chulainn was. Hard to “take the cross” when the person in question had yet to be crucified.
“Bealtaine is the time of the green man” “When we celebrate Bealtaine with a group that includes men , it is also the place of the Green Man , a personification of the god Pan” .
The green man, a new age centered concept, not native to Ireland, has NOTHING to do with Bealtaine
Her use of mother, maiden, crone and the typical “sun god” nonsense for Lugh are just more examples of her inability to research and more solid proof of her separation from true Irish culture and tradition . And PAN…Really?
These proliferate throughout the book. As mentioned above about the word “seabhean”. At one point she proclaims “There is no “tradition of the seabhean”” to only come back a few pages later and claim “The seabhean is held in high regard in her community. This role has passed down through the female line in families since ancient times”.
“People came to me for readings and I did not charge them . I said to spirit , “ I cannot keep giving readings . I need to get a job to earn money . ” Spirit replied , “ What is your problem ? We’ve given you the tools . ” (p22 kindle)
She is trying, unsuccessfully, to tie this book into the wise women who existed in every community in Ireland. Only difference is…they didn’t charge people. But hey, Amantha now has been told to make money from the otherworld, and is now totally justified in ripping people off and selling made up “ancient tradition.
“I realised then that I was supposed to be charging money; there was supposed to be an exchange”…The exchange was not monetary in the actual tradition and was never asked for or expected. It was freely given.
The name Brigid also means bridge .
Brian Boru: “Each Bealtaine , he lay with a priestess of Medb at Tara and in this way he became the king of the people .
Where do I even start with that?
Ailill turned to her and said, “ I have a bull and my bull is the strongest and biggest bull in the whole land. Nothing and no one can come against my bull. So I no longer need you , Maeve , in order to rule this land .”
That isn’t how that story went…
If the relationship suited both , then they could have a handfasting ceremony at Lughnasa (pge87)
Handfasting does not appear in ANY record before circa 17th century in SCOTLAND. It was not an ancient or Irish practice.
“The children conceived at Bealtaine were born at Imbolc and were considered sacred”
No they weren’t.
“Since the time of Christianity , there has been a systematic effort to rid the world of magic and to regard our more ancient deities as evil and against life” .
Not in Ireland there wasn’t. Priests used magic, Saints used magic, the people used magic. Still did widely until very recent times and may of the practices are still carried out.
“The fairies I played with when I was young were tiny , light-filled elementals “.
Completely going against HUNDREDS of years of accounts in Ireland of “fairies” and on top of that she actively tells people to seek them out. Not a single Irish person who has even read enough stories of the “othercrowd” that they could count on one hand, would ever tell you to go anywhere near them. Hundreds if not thousands of tales of people being killed, maimed, blinded or driven insane would tell you not to do this. And her claim of restoring the fairies (sídhe) to a locality is laughable. The sídhe would make mincemeat of this woman if she went anywhere near them.
And suggesting leaving urine as a gift for the sídhe? Have you even the SLIGHTEST bit of knowledge about them? Absolute proof the author is full of shit and completely detached from actual Irish tradition. Urine, has for centuries, been known to be a massive deterrent to the sídhe/fairies.
If you made it this far – thank you for reading to the end, and hopefully the examples given above are enough to convince you not to fill the coffers of this charlatan or support the publisher and scribe willing to bend over backwards to defend this fraud’s approprition of multiple cultures not just the Irish one. I will leave some suggestions for books and sources at the bottom
To Womancraft Publishing: You should be ashamed for marketing this as a weapon against appropriation or for defending it. Do the right thing and never reprint this.
To the scribe, Orla: Wash your hands of this immediately and stop defending her
To Amantha: Stop deleting comments and face up to the fact you are uncovered for the fraud you are. Stop watering down our legends, folklore and mythology because you are completely incapable of even basic research. Stop ripping people off by pretending to be a repository of ancient tradition and stop telling people your completely bastardised version of “Irish tradition” is genuine. You are an absolute disgrace and should be ashamed of yourself, although considering the self-absorbed rubbish I’ve seen so far, it’s unlikely that you know what shame is.
Suggestions for decent, accurate sources on Irish folklore, celtic studies and Irish culture
Probably one of the most recognisable traditions of Saint Brigid’s feast is the “Brigid’s cross”. These were and still are traditionally made from either reeds or straw (but feel free to make them from paper or whatever is available to you. For examples of paper crosses see folklore.ie here). These were prepared on the eve of the feast in a highly ritualised manner. Depending on the region these vary in complexity. The simplest resembling the characteristic four armed Brigid’s cross. They were typically nailed to the thatch of the roof, over doors and in animal byres to protect from fire, lightning and fairy influence. To read more about the traditions of Saint Brigid’s day traditions, including more about the cross please see my article here .
Anne O’ Dowd’s book Straw, Hay and Rushes also has an excellent section on the crosses, including photos and information on the museum examples and types.
What you will need:
Fresh rushes (or straw)
Elastic bands or string
Trim the rushes to about 30 or 40 centimeters, depending on how big you want your cross. Pick the best rushes from the bunch.
Take a single rush for the center piece. Take a second rush and squeeze the middle and fold in half, like the photo below:
Now wrap this around the first rush like so:
Bend another rush and place it as follows (Making sure to always hold the center tight to stop it all unravelling):
Again, bend another rush as place going this direction:
Now, TURN THE CROSS ANTI-CLOCKWISE once. The rush you just placed that was facing to left should now be facing down. (If you think of a clock, it should go from 9 to 6). Now bend another rush and place it as follows:
Now every single time you add a rush, turn it anti-clockwise once and keep building up the pattern like below ( so add rush, turn, add rush, turn, add rush, turn until you are happy with the size of the cross):
Before placing the last piece, loosen a piece like the photo below and thread the final piece through it, placing it the same way you did the previous steps. Then pull the piece tight. This will hold the hold the whole thing together for you to tie off the ends, and will keep the pattern woven tighter:
It should now hold together for you to tie the ends off and trim:
Hopefully this was of help for you and you should now have your own Brigid’s cross to protect your home or animals. Don’t forget to follow on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/Irishfolklore and feel free to leave pics of your completed crosses in the comments of the facebook post. Happy Saint Brigid’s Day!
Few historical characters have made such an imprint on Irish folklore and legend as Gráinne Ní Mháille (Anglicised as Grace O Malley, or simply Granuaile). Luckily outside of the oral tradition, we have a number of historical accounts (almost all from English sources) detailing the life and exploits of this extraordinary woman.
Her family were accomplished seafarers, with her father known to have travelled often between Ireland, Scotland and Spain. This seafaring lifestyle set the O Malley’s apart from most clans. The family motto “Terra Marique Potus” (Powerful by land and sea) illustrates their overall efficacy quite well. Control of the waters of their territory allowed them to levy tolls for safe passage and for fishing rights. In 1579, we see an account from an English admin claiming that each year 50 English ships would have to pay a “great tribute” to the O Malleys in order to fish there. The fertile waters filled with Hake, Herring, Cod, Ling, Turbot, Salmon and shelfish provided an important source of income for the O Malley Clan as well as making nets and building fishing boats. They also supplemented their coffers by means of piracy, a long standing family tradition, and in this regard Gráinne was lightyears ahead of her ancestors.
Born circa 1530, she was the daughter of Eoghan Dubhdara (Black Oak) Ó Mháille, chieftain of Umhaill, Co Mayo. Although Gaelic tradition barred her from holding the chieftainship, This certainly didn’t stop her being a trailblazer by sea, even though it was a rarity for women to helm a ship (not to mention them generally being considered bad luck on ships). This fact no doubt accounted for her notoriety and made her stand out. Had she been born a son to Eoghan, she may have faded into obscurity as just another seafaring O Malley. And this was a century and a half before the Irish women Anne Bonny and Mary Reid were forging their high seas careers in the Caribbean. Spending time as a child with her father on his trading and fishing voyages helped hone her skills on the sea, which taught her how to travel by star or by compass, how to divine the weather and navigate the treacherous waters. This intimate knowledge of the hard to navigate (and largely uncharted) inlets of her own territory certainly made her a force to be reckoned with.
Her first marriage to to Dónal “an Chogaidh” Ó Flaithbheartaigh (Donal of the Battles) produced two sons (Eoghan and Murchadh) and a Daughter (named Margaret after her mother). Eventually however Gráinne chose to leave Iar-Chonnacht, taking many of Dónal’s clansmen with her to live under her rule in Mayo. It was from here that she would start to really make a name for herself in her supposed 40 year career of piracy. From here they would swoop on merchants, many trying to make their way to Galway, and exact a toll for safe passage. These attacks by the Flahertys and the O Malleys were recorded in correspondence between Galway city and the English council in Dublin. Coming back to Dónal, he was Táinaiste elect for the O Flaherty clan and next in line for the chieftanship. Queen Elizabeth 1 threw a spanner in the works in that regard by promoting an upstart minor O Flaherty chieftain as chieftain of Iar-chonnacht. This was a complete repudiation of the native Brehon law system and a very effective divide and conquer technique*.One of many things that would set English law and Brehon laws on a collision course. Donal however, would be killed not long after this event, falling at the hands of his rivals, the Joyces. (*another common tactic at the time was that any captured children of Gaelic lords should be indoctrinated in English ways, thus transforming them from Gaelic chieftain to Anglicised Lord.
“A Nurse for all rebellion in the province for 40 years”
English military governor, Sir Richard Bingham referring to Gráinne, 1593
One of many legends relating to her tells of a time when Gráinne was on a religious Saint Bridget’s day pilgrimage to a holy well on Clare Island. News reached her of a shipwreck on Achill Island and neither the rough seas nor religious observance were enough to beat the draw of potential salvage. Among the wreckage, she was said to have found one Hugh de Lacy, son of a wealthy merchant from Wexford. The two soon became lovers. This however was to be a short romance as he was tragically killed by the Mac Mahons. she bided her time to get her revenge, till one day while looking from the parapets of her castle, she spied the Mac Mahons on pilgrimage to a nearby Island. She quickly swooped on them, destroying the ships and slaughtering them all. This not being enough, she went to Doona castle, routed it and claimed it for herself.
Another legend involves the heir to howth castle. She arrived at the castle one evening and was refused hospitality, a very serious slight in Irish culture. As she was leaving, she encountered the heir and subsequently kidnapped him. She was said to have been offered a significant amount of gold and silver that she turned down. Her terms: leave a side door to the castle open and always have an extra place at the table (The door is said to be still open to this day). Records do exist that mention that she was given a ring as a pledge.
By 1567, Gráinne now in her late 30’s had married again. This time to Richard an Iarann* Bourke, the owner of the castle most synonymous with Gráinne, Rockfleet Castle. Richard was also heir to the MacWilliamship, the most powerful title in Connaught (*The Iron, said to be either from the fact he wore an ancient suit of armour, or from the iron foundry on his land). They had one child issue from this marriage, Tibbot ne long or Toby of the ships (owing to the fact she was said to have given birth to him on her ship, mid battle). After a year, she was said to have made use of the Brehon Law practice of dismissing a trial marriage. She locked him out of his own castle and dismissed him from atop the parapets. They would however fight alongside each other for a couple of decades after this. Rockfleet Castle remained her main residence till her death in 1603. I should mention here also that both Gráinne and Richard made extensive use of the Gallóglaigh (Gallowglass) warriors from the Scottish Isles. These mercenaries, renowned for their fighting skill and prowess, were typically shipped over between May and October to be hired by Gaelic chieftains. The Ferrying of these soldiers of fortune was one of the many forms of seafaring activities and income of the O Malley’s. The clan most associated with the west of Ireland was the O Donnells. Clan Donnell would eventually settle in the west of Ireland as sub-chieftans of the O Malley’s in Umhaill. While these Gallowglass remained the mercenaries of the land, Gráinne and her sons were mercenaries on the water.
Circa 1577 after a botched raid of the Earl of Desmond, Gráinne was captured and imprisoned. She would spend the next few years incarcerated, first in Askeaton, then on to Limerick prison, Then Dublin castle. Desmond had originally intended to present Gráinne to the queen as a show of loyalty (but only 3 years after this he would be labelled a traitor and start a rebellion). After two years of incarceration she was released. The merchants of Galway didn’t waste any time upon her release, and hired a large sea borne force to attack her at her castle. She found no difficulty in routing this attack.
Not one for the quiet life. She would soon encounter one of her greatest adversaries, Sir Richard Bingham. Bingham would relentlessly harass Gráinne for many years. To the point she would try on numerous occasions to have him removed from his post. Somewhere around 1586 she was captured by Bingham, but her release was organized by her son in law, “the Devils Hook”. This was due to fact he was the only one of her relatives that wasn’t in open rebellion and as such, could be trusted. She wasted no time in gathering her galleys and heading to Scotland to hire more Gallowglass warriors. A storm damaged her galley and she ended up in Ulster. Here she struck up an alliance with Hugh Dubh O’ Donnell and Hugh O Neill (Táiniste of the Uí Neill chieftaincy). These men, who had once been bitter enemies, decided to bury the hatchet to form an alliance after seeing the effect the English had on Connacht and knowing what was likely in store for them also.
Circa 1591 Gráinne would receive news that her son Murrough ne Moar had submitted to Bingham. Gráinne was clearly incensed by this and “burned his town, spoiled his people and their cattle and killed three or four of his men”. A woman such as Gráinne would not let the simple fact of familial associations get in the way of her wrath. One legend tells of a time when her other son, Tibbot ne Long lost his nerve in battle and supposedly ran behind her. Gráinne was said to have shouted at him “An ag iaraidh dul i bhfolach ar mo thóin atá tú, an áit a dthánig as? (Are you trying to hide behind my backside, the place you came from?). There was no special treatment when it came to cowardice with Gráinne.
By 1592, Gráinne, her son and her step son were some of the only people who had not submitted to Bingham His relentless harassing of Gráinne would lead to him impounding her galleys, murdering her son, taking her cattle and ravaging her lands. Gráinne, now in her 60’s was still a force to be reckoned with. These events would lead her to try and petition the Queen in person, and that is exactly what she did in June 1593.
Legend would have you believe she stormed up the Thames in her Galley and waltzed right into court to Queen Elizabeth. She would spend a few months at court waiting to be seen. That being said, given her record of piracy, there aren’t many Gaelic chieftains who would have been bold enough to set foot on English soil, let alone stroll straight into court with a petition. The only other recorded chieftain to do this was Shane O Neill (1562). On being summoned to court, she was said to appear barefoot in Irish costume before Queen Elizabeth. A famous story of this meeting says that when presented with a fine lace trimmed handkerchief, Gráinne blew her nose in it and threw it in the fire. Elizabeth remarked how she was meant to put it in her pocket, to which Gráinne retorted that the Irish had a better standard of cleanliness. She was famously said to have declined the offer of the the title countess, as she was already an equal. As powerful as Elizabeth was, she had led an army or captained her own ship on the seas (despite giving herself the moniker of “the mistress of the seas” and could never compare to Gráinne in any way. Gráinne applied for a license so that during her life she would “invade with fire and sword, all the Queens enemies”. The reasoning behind this was that she could could undermine Bingham and do what she had been doing, but be untouchable by the English
Bingham would continue to be a thorn in Gráinne’s side for a number of years, by putting detachments of soldiers on her ships and pitting her against relations by saying they were rebels (Bingham still managed to undermine her licence by not only keeping tabs on her, but putting her under financial strain by having to support the Queens troops). Gráinne, not one to be undermined, offered to man her ships with 100 soldiers at her own cost from Easter till Michaelmass.
The exact circumstances of her death are unknown but it is believed to have occurred circa 1603 at Rockfleet castle. Whether she outlived Queen Elizabeth, who died the same year, is not known. She is said to be buried in the ruins of the Cistercian abbey on Clare Island. Even though she is absent from the Irish Annals, her legend continued strong within the oral tradition and still remains so to this day. There are few who have not heard Gráinne Mhaol and her fame will not be forgotten for many centuries to come.
Great news today in that the book, commonly referred to as The Book of Lismore, has returned home to Cork after spending almost the last 100 years in Chatsworth, UK at the seat of the Duke of Devonshire. It will be stored in University College Cork and will eventually be placed in a publicly accessible exhibit, along with a number of other manuscripts and artifacts in the university’s possession. But, Lismore is in Waterford I hear you say, so how is it coming ‘home’ to Cork? I will touch on that below as well as the contents of what is widely referred to as one of the “great books of Ireland”
This 15th century manuscript gained it’s name “The Book of Lismore” owing to the fact that it was found hidden in a wall in Lismore Castle during renovations and structural work in 1814. Its other name “The book of Mac Cárthaigh Riabhach” comes from the fact it is believed to have been composed for its patron Fínghin Mac Cárthaigh Riabhach, Lord of Cairbre, Co. Cork. The evidence for this rests on a poem to him and his wife Caitilín (the daughter of Thomas Fitzgerald, the 8th Earl of Desmond). A scribal note also mentions a couple (Lánamhna) for whom the book was written, although this has been argued that it might have been Fíngin’s father and mother and that the poem was added in later. It was then believed to have been housed in Killbrittain Castle (belonging to the Mac Cárthaigh clan) until 1642 when Lord Kinalmeaky (son of Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork) mentions in a letter to his father that he took a manuscript after sacking the castle. The book was then sent to Lismore Castle, then in the possession of Richard Boyle. So, how did it end up in the wall? This was believed by some to have happened in 1643 when Lord Muskerry was besieging the castle, although this is disproved as a scribal note on one of the pages has a date of 1745 revealing someone had access to it at this point which leaves us with more questions than answers.
Following the discovery of the manuscript in the walls of Lismore Castle it made its way to a few scholars and scribes in Cork and of course in the process a number of folios were lost, not to mention that the workers who found it were said to have taken off with entire sections of it (a total of 66 folios/pages are believed to be missing). Then in 1856 the parts that now feature in the book were returned to Lismore. In 1930 it made its way to the Duke of Devonshire’s (the then and current owner of the castle) seat in Chatsworth. In 1950 a facsimile of the book was created and then in 2011 the original manuscript was briefly displayed in UCC while plans were put in place for it to be placed there permanently. Yesterday, the 28th October 2020 was that historic day. Looking to the future, the manuscript will prove to be an excellent resource for all students of language, paleography and Celtic studies for many years to come.
Stokes, O Grady and Macalister identified three main hands: In Bráthair Ó Buaghacháin (this was later found to be not the case as he is believed to have been the scribe responsible for an earlier version), Aonghas Ó Callanáin and an unidentified scribe but there is also evidence of an “intrusive hand” in the texts, sometimes mid text. This is evidenced by different sized texts, changes in ink, the number of lines per page etc, suggesting that another scribe (or scribes) took over the work.
Macalister referred to the manuscript as “not being for the library, the monastery or the professional scholar, but for the use of the intelligent, cultured layman”. The wide-range of material contained within certainly points to this. The religious material is to the front, giving way to the more secular works of entertainment later on. It contains a diverse array of texts from different sources and genres such as vita, myths, law tracts, travel texts and more. Some of these are:
A number of Saints’ lives (vita) 9 in total including at least one local, Finnchu of Brigown. Finnchu is unusual in the fact that he is comparable to Cú Chulainn’s riastrad when he becomes enraged. Flames and sparks were said to have issue from his mouth when angered. He was also said to have uttered a curse in a strange language from his mothers womb which caused barrels of ale to explode when his mother was refused a drink at a tavern. This is identical to the store of the Pre-Christian filidh (poet) Aitherne (This story and the corresponding ale charm can be read in Carey.J(2019), Charms in Medieval Irish Tales). All the other saints mentioned with the exception of Patrick are Irish, compared to the similar and contemporary Book of Fermoy (which mentions continental saints). The other lives include Brigit, Columcille, Seán of Scattery, Finnian of Clonard, Brendan of Clonfert.
The geographical text Crichad an Chaoilli that describes north Cork.
Irish apocryphal texts (one of which, In Tenga Bith Nua I touched on here) and the story of the Tenga is to be found in the link in the bibliography.
Enumeration of the 8 deadly sins.
A tract on the Anti-Christ.
Description of the day of judgement.
The Battles of Cellachán of Cashel. This was a propaganda text of the Mac Carthys.
Texts of an otherworldly nature such as The Adventure of Loegaire Mac Crimthann and the otherworldly visit of Tadhc Mac Céin.
Munster-centric texts such as The Siege of Drum Damguaire and poems to Munster Kings including Aillil Ólomm
A tale relating to an underwater monastery (Tale of the Pigs Psalter). For a deep discussion of the phenomenon of underwater monasteries see Carey.J(1992),Aerial Ships and Underwater Monasteries:The Evolution of a Monastic Marvel, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic ColloquiumVol. 12 (1992), pp. 16-28 (13 pages)
Irish Kingship texts such as tales of Diarmuid Mac Cearbhaill, the last king to hold the pagan Feis Temro at Tara. It also has material relating to the privileges of the Uí Neill and tracts on rights. The manuscript also has texts relating to foreign rulers such as The History Charlemagne (who Mac Neill claimed that many Irish kings modeled themselves on).
A list of the requirements to get into Finn Mac Cumhaill‘s Fianna.
Acallamh Na Senórach (The Colloquy of the Elders). This is chronologically (in therms of the setting of the tales) the end of the Fianian Cycle. It focuses on the remaining two members of Finn mac Cumhaill’s Fianna, who have somehow survived for centuries, as they travel around the country relating tales of the pagan past to Saint Patrick. They explain how places got their names and lament the old ways of the past. This tale takes up a significant portion of the manuscript.
Acallamh Becc (The Small Colloquy)
Lebor na Gceart (Book of Rights). This related to the rights of the kings of Cashel, from whom the Mac Cárthaigh were descendants, and how they had supremacy over all other kings in Ireland.
The only surviving Irish language translation of Marco Polo.
The feast day of Saint Finbarr, the patron saint of Cork City, falls on the 25th of September, but the rounds are observed on the closest Sunday to this date. Like many of the most popular saints, this involves visits to the holy wells associated with them to perform the “rounds*” in the hope of gaining the blessing of the saint in question. The site of pilgrimage associated with Finnbarr is Gougane Barra but he is also associated with the site that is now occupied by the Anglican cathedral that bears his name in the city. This is reputed to be the site where he set up his monastic settlement at Corcach Mór na Mumhan (The Great Marsh of Munster). Although he is much loved and still revered by the city folk as their patron saint (with the name Finbarr still being a very popular name for boys) and the pilgrimage to his shrine still draws numbers, research by the the noted hagiologist Professor Ó Rían created waves when he claimed that the saint may never have set foot in the south, and that it was in fact his cult that came here and grew in popularity. This as you would imagine, was received very coldly by the locals! We have no contemporary accounts of Finbarr in Cork, with the first “life” of the saint being written in the 13th century. So, whether he set foot here or not may never be revealed, but we have no shortage of folklore built up around the saint, some of which I will share below. He is often depicted with a bright shining hand, said to be touched by God himself. This was said to be so bright that he had to wear a glove to hide it. The Harry Clarke stained glass window (shown in the banner picture) depicts him as such. His legacy today exists in the sheer number of churches, roads, estates, sports clubs, people and the cathedral named after him. He is also the patron saint of University College Cork whose motto is “When Finbarr Taught, Let Munster Learn”.
* The rounds or turas are usually a set number of pilgrim stations where the pilgrims circumambulate in a sunwise (deiseal) direction performing a proscribed number of prayers or a specific ritual such as carving crosses into a stone.
First I will detail the historic accounts of the pilgrimage to Gougane Barra.
Gougane Barra and the Pilgrimage
Gougane Barra is the supposed site of the hermitage of Saint Finbarr and was the site of pilgrimage for centuries. The pattern (the word pattern derives from the word patron, i.e the patron saint associated with the site) there was recently revived, albeit without many of the more profane activities for which we have accounts. Thomas Crofton Croker gives us a fine example of the mix of sacred and profane goings on at this pattern in his book Researches In The South Of Ireland. He is clearly shocked by how “drunken men and the most depraved women” are side by side with the pious pilgrims and how an “uproar of prayers and oaths, of sanctity and blasphemy” could be heard simultaneously. In most of the other accounts, the observers tend to draw a line between the sacred aspect taking place during the day and gradually giving way to revelry as the night progresses. In Croker’s account, he places them side by side and shows no end to the religious aspect, which continues through the night alongside the secular activities. Here he tells us that both the holy well and chapel are still crowded at midnight while the dancing, drinking and fighting were happening. He likens the tents set up to a gypsy camp, an interesting choice of language no doubt to point out its wild, secular nature. He also tells us how “intoxication becomes almost universal” at these tents and goes to great effort to point out the hedonistic nature of these encampments where people are singing “rebellious songs” and have pipers in every tent. We can see clearly that he doesn’t agree with dancing being compatible with a religious event and claims it is an “amusement of which the lower orders of Irish are immoderately attached”. The most profane aspect he mentions in his writing is the lighting of bonfires on the hillside in the evening which he says has nothing to do with the pattern or the saint but instead harkens back to a bygone era with origins in pagan sun worship. In terms of how shocking many of the supposedly sacred practices were to the uninitiated observers, one can only imagine how striking it was to witness the hillside littered with fires reflecting on the lake below.
While on the subject of sacredness we will turn our minds to the sacred aspects of the pattern as recorded by Crofton Croker. Here he gives us detailed accounts of the religious side of pattern similar to the much more sombre side that we see today at these pilgrimages, albeit with much more rigorous observances. The extreme nature of the rounds are a common feature throughout multiple accounts with many obscure practices being recorded. In relation to Gougán Barra the most obscure ritual the author provides to us is the placing of a rusty iron object by the devotees on the head of the person next to them three times while reciting a prayer. Beyond providing a sketch of the item and telling us that it was of “considerable importance” and that it was passed around with “much ceremony”, we are told no more about this object. We do however get the impression that this was a very sacred object and a crucial ritual in relation to the pattern. When speaking of the sacred aspect of pilgrimages, or indeed of pattern days, one cannot fail to mention the importance of the holy well. In terms of pattern rounds it is oft a central, if not the most important aspect of the observance. Of the sacred waters at the well in this instance, we are given a very graphic account of how people with “the most disgusting sores and shocking infirmaties” washed themselves and thrust their arms or legs into the water to obtain a cure. He also tells us of how people eagerly drank this “polluted water” in hopes of receiving a blessing. Rigorous prayer is another common feature of pattern accounts. In regard to praying Croker tells us that an “immense concourse” of people were involved in a number of different acts of devotion. Many prayed on their knees with their arms uplifted with “considerable gesticulation”. Just as in modern patterns, a certain number of prayers had to be said at each ‘station’ as part of the ritual. Here Croker tells us how people kept track of these prayers. Some “counted their beads with much apparent fervour” or used small pebbles as a substitute. He also notes how men notched their cudgel or a piece of stick. Here with the mention of the cudgel we most likely see an intersection of the sacred and the profane. Men first mark the number of prayers on the cudgel that they possibly use as part of the faction fighting that was often found at pattern days.
The ‘Péist‘ (water monster) at Gougane Barra
The saint was said to have encountered a péist, a type of serpentine beast often encountered by saints (postulated by some as being the domination of Christianity over paganism, though I don’t subscribe to that myself as the connection of snakes and paganism is extremely tenuous). He arrives at Gougane and successfully banishes the serpent. In its attempt to escape to the sea, it created the channels of the river Lee as we know it today and the stones thrashed up in the process formed the island where Finbarr would later set up his monastic settlement.
Folklore of the Saint
In the National Folklore Schools Collection (digitised on Duchas.ie) there is no shortage of folklore based around the saint and sites associated with him.
First we get a story from Séan Ó Brian, Castledonovan, Co.Cork. He tells us of the ’rounds’ at the well associated with Finbarr in the townland of Kilbarry. He tells us that these rounds are carried out for the benefit of diseases and that people would throw pieces of bread or apples into the well as they pass it. He also tells us that a great fair or Óenach was held on the feast day in the town of Drimoleague that people would travel from far and wide to take part. (NFSC,Vol.0303:224)
Mrs K O Riordan supplied a wonderful story of when the saint was making his way to Cork from Gougane following instruction from an angel to do so. As he and his retinue of other saints ran out of water he struck a rock with his staff and a spring burst forth (which would later become a holy well called “tobar na naomh” or “the well of the saints”. This particular motif is quite common in the lore of saints and is often listed as the origin of many holy wells). Following this he realised that he had forgotten his book and spectacles and left them on a rock at “drom a bpóca”. He had one of the saints retrieve them but it is believed that to this day that the rock still bears the imprint of the book and spectacles. (NFSC, Vol. 0456:304)
We have two stories from the collection that curiously feature fairy lore. The first comes from Mrs Daly from Granig, Co Cork. She tells of hidden treasure said to be located at the subtlety named Castletreasure, south of Douglas. Legend tells us that there was a large sum of gold, in a golden chest, taken from saint Finbarr’s college by the Danes (who often appear anachronistically in Irish tales). They were said to have hidden it for fear the Irish would happen upon them and take it back. Scores of people were said to have looked for it over the years, but were often thwarted by an otherworldly black bull and a fairy woman who have chased people away (and even said to have killed some). (NFSC, Vol. 0321:057)
The second story was collected from Denis MacCarthy and again features a lot of interesting motifs found in fairy lore. In this account we are told of a family who live near a rath/lios (fairy fort). The fort was said to have an entrance going into the ground (possibly a soutterain) from which ‘the other crowd’ were said to emerge. The father of the household had previously been taken by the ‘other crowd’. One night the son had arrived home from playing at a wedding and started playing a strange, haunting tune on his fiddle that he had heard coming from the fort. His mother warned him that it was fairy music, the exact same his father was playing prior to having been taken, and that he should stop playing it. He ignored this and later played it at a wedding. The ‘other crowd’ came and claimed him. His mother went to see the local wise woman and she produced a relic (bone) of saint Finbarr and said she would be able to get her son back. It is interesting here, IMO, to see the mixing of native (bean feasa, wise woman) and christian elements as a solution as they are often opposed to one another. They proceed to the fort and she sees her son surrounded by the ‘other crowd’. She runs up and embraces her son while holding out the relic. The ‘other crowd’ upon seeing the relic use magic to turn some plants into horses and flee. (NFSC, Vol.0346:127-9)
Croker, T.C. (1981), Researches in the South of Ireland, Irish Academic Press, pp.278-281
Corkery, K (2017, Cork Folk Tales, The history Press Dublin
Duchas.ie, National Folklore Collection,Vol.0303:224, Vol.0456:304, Vol.0346:127-9
In a country with an epithet like “The Land of Saints and Scholars”, one would expect to find a very rich and plentiful resource of religious beliefs when looking at the vast collection of manuscripts handed down to us from our forebearers. This is certainly the case and among these beliefs the medieval Irish seemed to have a special fondness towards the eschatological tradition. Within this tradition we find the subject of this current essay, the so called ‘seven heavens’. John Carey classes the ‘seven heavens’ as being the “most striking element in insular eschatological tradition”, a claim that is certainly hard to refute considering the fact that accounts of it can be found in manuscripts dating well into the 19th century. This popularity is especially striking considering the fact that many of the beliefs found therein had long since gone out of fashion. The main focus of these texts is on seven zones or heavens through which souls have to pass. Several of these ‘zones’ contain punishments of a purificatory nature, ultimately culminating in judgement before the divine.
This tradition of course does not originate in Ireland, nor is it limited to such. Carey argues for a Gnostic background for the tradition and although there are ten zones/heavens in many instances in the Coptic sources, they do in fact share a common denominator, the fact that these zones share the hell like torments that have a purifying effect on the souls involved. In the Irish sources though it is not common to connect the seven heavens with the seven known planets known at the time unlike what we see in, for example, the Egyptian sources where they often equate the seven heavens with the planetary bodies or the primeval week. The resemblance between the Irish, old English and Latin material pertaining to the seven heavens does at the very least point to the possibility of them all stemming from a common source. This theory of a common lost apocryphon can be argued for due to the schema relating to the passage of souls through the heavens and the remarkable similarities between the Irish, Old English and Latin sources. Each of these portrays the heavens as concentric with a gate or door to each entrance. The entrances of the first two of the seven heavens are guarded by 2 virgins and an archangel. Souls must pass through the zones facing obstacles such as fiery walls and streams with levels of time taken to pass through the obstacles being dependent on if the soul was righteous or a sinner. As they reach the 7th heaven they are subject to judgement by god with the sinners being eaten by a succession of twelve dragons until they are deposited into the devil’s mouth. By the time the tradition had evolved to the point of the more modern versions, such as in In Tenga Bithnua modern recension (hereafter TBNM) this description has become more graphic in terms of the dragons eating the soul and it being passed through the anus into the mouth of the next dragon. Also similar to the Seacht Neamha (hereafter SN), we see the use of classical names for rivers (such as Asceron, Styx etc.). This so-called ‘lost apocryphon’ of the seven heavens was proposed by Stephenson to have been derived from a mixture of the Greek version of the Gnostic Apocalypse of Paul and another apocalypse that was translated into Latin before reaching Ireland. This was more or less backed up by Carey although he views Pistis Sophia as being a better candidate over the Apocalypse of Paul. Whichever apocalypse informed it, it is clearly evident that there was indeed Coptic influence and it may be safely assumed that there were some now lost editions circulating that ultimately informed our own native insular seven heavens tradition.
In an Irish context we have a number of texts relating to the seven heavens that survive. As mentioned above these cover a large time period from the 12th century up until the 19th century. The primary texts relating to this tradition are the account of the seven heavens contained within Fís Adomnáin, ‘An Seacht Neamha’ in the Liber Flavus Fergusiorum (hereafter LFF), and ‘In Tenga Bithnua’. The oldest account of the seven heavens that can be found in Ireland is contained within Fís Adomnáin (hereafter FA) and is found in Lebor na hUidre. This recension of FA has essentially the same framework as the Visio Santi Pauli but chooses to omit all the names of the doors and of the heavens. Also it would appear, according to Touati, that the FA seven heavens section could have been informed by the homily of the karlsruhe fragment which is Hiberno-Latin in origin and was very likely familiar to the author of FA.
Another Irish seven heavens text we are aware of is ‘In Tenga Bithnua’ (hereafter TBN). John Carey places the original composition of this to around the 9th century whereas Whitley Stokes had placed it to the 10th/11th century around the time of the crossover between old and middle Irish period. The popularity of this text can be seen from it being copied over many centuries, long after the belief systems contained within had become obsolete. There are numerous copies of this text extant in three recensions. The third recension, or modern recension (TBNM), can be found in 39 manuscripts, the oldest of which dates to the 15th century (this copy however does not have the seven heavens section ) and the latest of which are 18th and 19th cent. Of these later manuscripts twenty copies are from the 18th century and eighteen from the 19th century. The language in these recensions, in comparison to the others, has been modernised and due to this fact, can be dated to no earlier than the period in which they were written. Even though the language has been ‘updated’ as such, there are some similarities found there with phrases found in both SN and FA and while TBNM does not directly derive from them, it certainly shows influence from them. What is worth noting though is that in TBNM we see more attention paid to the names of the seven heavens unlike FA, with many of the names being similar to SN. Another development when looking at TBNM is that it is the only recension that features the ease of passage through the trials by the righteous and the prolonging of torments of the sinners that is in other seven heavens texts that is not evident in the first and second recensions of TBN.
So in conclusion we see that in the case of SN, TBN and FA that there are gates involving barring access to the heavens that would appear to be some sort of interface between the vertical and horizontal approach to the traditions. We also see virgins as guardians (only named in one instance) that have iron rods for scourging souls. And in some cases these heavens seem to be specifically concentric as opposed to ascent. In all cases these souls have to pass through various obstacles such as fiery rivers, walls etc, that increase in difficulty depending on the purity of the soul and the ultimate time needed to pass dependant on said purity. Each passes through these zones till they reach an antechamber of sorts in the sixth heaven and ultimately being judged by god himself in the seventh heaven. In all cases we also encounter twelve dragons who swallow the soul of those damned to hell, passing the soul from one to another till the damned soul is deposited into the jaws of the devil.
The remaining seven heavens text we find in Ireland is the An Seacht Neamha text found in the Liber Flavus Fergusiorum . This is the only version of this text that we have available to us. Also in this manuscript we see a deliberate attempt to modernise the language possibly to make it more accessible to the readers of the 15th century. We see many parallels between SN and TBN in the fact that they both have very close descriptions of the heavens. Both describe seventy two rewards in the paradisal zones and seventy two punishments in the hell like zones but as well as its similarities it has its own unique elements that cannot be found elsewhere. These elements include the naming of the virgins found in the second heaven. This naming of the virgins can also be found in the Old English homily along with identical naming of doors which leads us to believe that both derive from the same source.
Bibliography ‘The End and Beyond: Medieval Irish Eschatology’, Carey, J.,Nic Cárthaigh, E., and Ó Dochartaigh, C. (eds.), 2 vols (Aberystwth,2014), vol.1
Carey, J.,’The King of Mysteries:Early Irish Religious Writings’, (Dublin, 2000)
Carey, J.,’The Seven Heavens and the Twelve Dragons in insular apocalyptic’, in McNamara, M. (ed.), Apocalyptic and Eschatological Heritage: The Middle East and Celtic Realms, (Dublin,2003)
Herbert, M.,’Medieval Collections of Ecclesiastical and Devotional Materials: Leabhar Breac, Liber Flavus Fergusiorum and the Book of Fenagh’ in B. Cunningham and S. Fitzpatrick (eds.), Treasures of the Royal Irish Academy Library (Dublin,2009)
Stevenson, J., “Ascent through the heavens, from Egypt to Ireland”, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 5 (Summer, 1983)
Stevenson, J., “Ascent through the heavens, from Egypt to Ireland”, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 5 (Summer, 1983) Stokes, W.,’The Evernew Tongue’, Eriú 2 (1905)
Wander a short walk from the heart of Cork City and you might just happen across this fantastic gem and its wonderful avian denizens (I’m sure anyone who follows my photography page is driven demented by the sheer amount of photos of geese, swans and ducks as I have charted the growth of all this year’s hatchlings on the lough). The well-loved lough is a favourite spot for walkers and joggers, but I doubt many are aware of the fascinating legend that lies behind this natural spring fed pond. The earliest mention I could track down of this tale was circa 1825 when Thomas Crofton Croker was travelling around collecting tales and folklore. Chances are this legend might stretch back a little further, providing of course he didn’t make it up entirely after being inspired by seeing the lough. The story presents a number of motifs that are found in Irish literature dating back to the middle ages. I will briefly mention those at the end. First I will give a run down of the folktale.
Fadó, fadó (long ago) there was a great king called Corc whose fort was in the center of a valley where the lough now lies. Within the courtyard of this fort was a spring with the finest pure water to be found anywhere. People flocked from near and far to draw water from the well. This brought great concern to the king, as he feared his precious water would be all used up so he had a great wall constructed around it with a solid door, to which only he had a key. If he required water for himself, he would send his daughter to retrieve it for him.
One night, the king decided to have a great feast. Kings, princes and nobles from all the neighboring tuatha (petty kingdoms) were all in attendance and Corc personally selected the greatest filidh (poets) from near and far to regale his guests with praise poetry and to play their cruith (harp). Huge celebratory fires were lit, the tables were laden with the finest foods and everybody danced and drank. As the feast drew on, one of the lords in attendance rose to toast the king. “Sláinte (good health) to our great Rí (king). We do not want for the finest food or drink, but the one thing absent is some water”. You see, Corc had purposefully held this back in the hope someone would ask and he would be able to wow them with the well-renowned water that now lay hidden. “Water you shall have, and I challenge anyone present to find a finer source of water than this anywhere in the whole of Éireann (Ireland). “Daughter, fetch us some water le do thoil (please)”. The daughter, named Fíor Uisce (pure water, spring water) balked at being asked to do such a menial task in the presence of such illustrious company, so the king suggested that the fine prince that she had been dancing with all night go with her. Fíor Uisce and the prince delighted in this, so off they went. She retrieved the key and the prince carried the fine, heavy golden jug that Corc had specially made for this occasion and they made their way to the courtyard.
Upon opening the well-house door, Fíor Uisce leaned over the well to retrieve the water, but owing to the weight of the jug, she lost her balance and fell into the well. The prince tried his best to save her but the water burst forth from the well head with such force that he was forced to flee. The courtyard filled with such speed that by the time he made the relatively short journey back to the fort and spoke a single word to the king, he was up to his neck in water. The water continued to rise until the valley was full and it engulfed the fort, the outbuildings and the fine gardens and hence, the present day lough was formed.
But that was not the end of it. For the king was not drowned, nor were any of the guests. Fíor Uisce, the fair daughter of the king was also alive and every night following this, up to present day, the celebrations still continue beneath the surface of the lough, and it is said that it will continue until someone happens across the fine golden chalice that lies hidden beneath the surface. It is believed that this happened as judgement for shutting off the pure water from the poor people who relied on it. It is also said that on days where the waters are clear, that you can still see the buildings clearly beneath the water. So next time you are there keep an eye out for the buildings beneath the surface and the tell-tale glint of the gold vessel!
So, with the tale out of the way, I will now touch upon some of the motifs present and any connection to history that I could find. A lot of the elements of this folktale can be found elsewhere in Irish literature. When looking for a real king, there was none by the name that I could link to a kingdom in Cork city, but there was a Corc (or Conall) mac Luigthig, who reigned in the 4th Century and is traditionally believed to have been the founder of the kingship of Cashel and the progenitor of many of the clans and septs of Munster. He was however said to have a son, Ciar from whom the Ui Mhic Ceir, an unimportant sept on the south side of Cork City, arose (and the lough is situated on the south side).
The “flooded kingdom” type motif occurs in a number of places. The dindsheanchas (Lore of places) tales of the goddesses Sínann and Boand(of which the Shannon and Boyne rivers are named respectively) tell of when they attempt to access otherworldly knowledge through a well, which subsequently gushes forth killing the goddesses. It is not unknown to find tales where buildings and communities still survive beneath the surface. There is even a very Christian version of this underwater world with otherworldly monasteries that are covered in far better detail in Professor John Carey’s article “Aerial Ships and Underwater Monasteries: The Evolution of a Monastic Marvel.
The golden chalice for collecting water brings to mind the tales that mention treasures hidden within otherworldly wells not to mention the archaeological record that shows votive deposits in bodies of water, and even at least one instance where ecclesiastical treasure was hidden within a holy well.
I hope you have enjoyed my recounting of this tale of one my favourite places. Should you want to read other versions of this tale, you can find the original version in Crofton Crokers “Irish Fairy Legends” or another version in Kate Corkery’s “Folk Tales of Cork”.
In the last few weeks a viral post has been doing the rounds on Facebook relating to the “Forgotten Irish slaves”, an erroneous and widely discredited (by many historians) idea that insists Irish people were shipped en masse to the Americas, under a non-existent bill supposedly enacted by the reigning monarch at the time. Long story short, it has gained traction in recent weeks as a opposition to the BLM movement and serves only to lessen the suffering of African slaves and an attempt to falsely claim that the Irish had it a lot worse than the black slaves. I will not go into this post any deeper, but I bring it up solely to illustrate how ignorant the believers of this utter raiméisare of Irish history and our own practices of keeping slaves and our treatment of them.
Social hierarchy was very much prevalent in early Irish society. You were either free (Saor) or unfree (Daor). Slaves obviously fall into the latter category and as a slave you were considered an ambue (non-person) and had no protection against being killed or injured. The terms used in the texts are Mug for male slaves that were used for menial labour and Cumal for female slaves who were in turn used for household tasks. The Cumal was of great value, so much so that the term would later be used to denote a unit of currency or a specific size of land (1 milch cow = 3 Cumhal (female slave) = 1 ounce of silver). These slaves could be people obtained as debt slaves, prisoners of war from raids into other tuatha (petty kingdoms), or prisoners from raids on Britain (the most famous captive of which being Saint Patrick himself) . Even more abhorrent is what we find in the law text Gúbretha Caratniad, which implies that children may have been sold into slavery by their parents. The motivation behind this can only be speculated at, but it doesn’t lessen how horrific it is.
Another law text, Di Astud Chirt acus Dlighid, tells us that it was seen as an anti-social act for a king to release slaves as it was believed that it would entail cosmic/supernatural retribution in the form of crops failing and milk drying up as such slaves were an integral part of the kings prosperity. However, the law texts also claim that the king should have a freed slave (having previously been held captive by a rival king) as part of their bodyguards. Runaway slaves (élúdach) could not avail of sanctuary and could not be protected by anyone, even if they were high status or Nemed (privileged, sacred). Slaves could be hurt or killed by their master with no repercussion and any attack on them by others resulted in compensation being paid to the master, not the slave. Next I will cover hostages, who were in most cases in a completely different league to slaves when it came to status.
The material below regarding hostages is taken from the lecture “Hostages in Medieval Ireland” given by PHD candidate Philip Healy on the 27th Feb 2020 at University College Cork.
When looking at the manuscripts, we have numerous mentions of hostages throughout the heroic literature, the law tracts and the annals, especially covering the periods between the 7th century to the 12th century. These hostages were given for a variety of different reasons including:
Suriety for legal cases
Submission to subordinate kings
To secure political agreement
The major differences we see between slaves and hostages was that they were not mistreated and there is evidence to suggest that they retained their status, enjoyed the hospitality of the king and had freedom of movement withing the tuatha (people would not typically have any legal rights outside their own kingdom). The legal text Críth Gabhlach tells us how forfeited hostages may be fettered but more often than not they enjoyed meals at the high table between the king and filidh or brithim . The Senchas Már tells us that hostage giving in legal disputes was commonplace among the upper classes (the high cost of default is another piece of evidence in regard to this).
Between the years 600-1000 we see no evidence of any hostages being harmed, however between 1000-1200 we see that five hostages were killed. The reason for this likely being due to a general increase in violence and social upheaval. During this period we see an increase in mutilations, castrations and blindings.
The terms used when referring to hostages depends on the period we are looking at:
The Yellow book of Lecan, or Leabhar Buidhe Lecain is a composite/miscellany manuscript dating to the 14th/15th century and is currently housed in Trinity College, Dublin.
It is written in Middle Irish on vellum and contains almost the entirety of the Ulster Cycle of tales within it’s pages. An incomplete version of the Táin bó Cúailnge found here,made up of copies of other versions, was used with the incomplete version found in Lebor na hUidre (The Book of the Dun Cow) to form the complete recension of the Táin that we have today. The Ogham tract found in the Book of Ballymote is also found in this manuscript as well as the Irish triads, The Settling of the Manor of Tara and a version of St Patrick’s life. The life and the Settling were said to have been recounted by Fintan Mac Bócaire (one of the first arrivals in Ireland, who arrived with Noah’s granddaughter Cessair). The version of the life also tells of the giant Trefuilngid Tre-eochair who was based at the hill of Tara, who was the first person in Ireland to hear of the Crucifixion of Christ.
Also found within is Tech Midchuarta which gives us the seating plan of the royal dining hall at Tara
The book was sourced from either Ruaidhrí Ó Flaithbheartaigh or from Dáithí Óg Ó Dubhda in the year 1700. Ó Flaithbheartaigh and Ó Dubhda would have obtained them from Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh whose family created and preserved the book. Following this the pages were bound together, seventeen manuscripts as a single volume and were dubbed “The Yellow Book of Lecan”.
Contents include, but not limited to:
Life of Saint Féchín of Fore
“Sanas Cormaic”, Cormac’s Glossary
O’Mulconry’s Glossary (Etymological Tract)
Beginning of Togail Bruidne Da Derga
“Cáin Domhnaigh”, The Law of Sunday: A legal tract forbidding work on Sunday
“Bríathra Flainn Fhína maic Ossu”, ‘The wise sayings of Flann Fína Or Aldfrith, son of Oswiu’
Audacht Morainn ‘The Testament of Morann’, a Speculum Principum or ‘Mirror of princes’
The triads of Ireland
Tech Midchuarta (plan and description).
Aided Muirchertaig meic Erca ‘The Death of Muirchertach mac Ercae’
Fled Dúin na nGéd ‘The Banquet of the Fort of the Geese’
List of Archbishops of Armagh from St. Patrick to Giolla Mac Liag (Gelasius).
Account of celebrated trees of Ireland prostrated by a storm in the year 665.
Fragment of ‘The voyage of Máel Dúin’s coracle’.
‘The Voyage of Snedgus and Mac Riagla’
‘The Voyage of Bran mac Febaill’
The adventure of Connla’
Leabhar Ollamhan, including the Auraicept na n-Éces ‘Poets’ Primer’, a treatise on Ogham
Longes mac n-Uislenn ‘The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu