The “night of the big wind” or as it is known in Irish “Óiche na Gaoithe Móire” was one of the worst storms ever recorded in Ireland leading to many deaths, mass homelessness, and apocalyptic levels of destruction around the entire country. The power of the storm and the resulting damage was so intense that people ascribed supernatural origins to it, with some believing that it was Divine retribution, and others thinking that the fairies were to blame.
The storm itself occurred on the night of the 6th of January (the 12th night/feast of the epiphany/Nollag na mBan) and the early hours of the 7th in 1839. The devastation of that night would be passed through the generations, with people recounting it to the next generation whenever a storm would break out.
The day started with snowfall, but throughout the day the temperature would rise by 10 degrees leading to the day becoming unnaturally warm and clammy by some accounts. A number of people noted that there was a sense of foreboding in the air and that there were ominous, motionless clouds and an unnatural absence of wind. As the evening pushed on, rain and hail started and the wind amped up in intensity from about 10pm onwards. The rudimentary weather measurements available at the time recorded extremely low barometric pressure, ideal for extreme winds, earlier in the day.
First-hand accounts of the event paint a picture of the absolute terror that must have been felt by people. One man, who was only a boy at the time tells how his brothers struggled to rescue all the animals before the outhouses collapsed around them. He tells us how the sound of the wind from that night stuck with him his entire life and that it was so loud that adults had to shout directly into each other’s ears for any hope of hearing each other. Other accounts tell us that it sounded like “a continuous peal of thunder” or the “bellowing of ten thousand bulls”. We can only imagine how terrifying this would have been, especially to a child.
The Newry telegraph was one of the first to report on the damage on the 8th and even though the full extent of the damage was unknown it reported that several ships and boats had been wrecked with a number of lives lost, houses decimated and unroofed, stacks of turf (the main source of fuel) destroyed, stored crops wrecked, livestock dead or missing and centuries-old trees uprooted (10,000 alone on the Ballymeyer demesne). In many cases, people lost everything.
To paint a picture of the conditions in the country at the time. The population was roughly 8.2 million (today it is 5 million) and the majority of houses were mud-walled thatched cabins, with an estimated 2 million people living in sod/mud cabins (like this). If you think of the fact that even the “big house”, stone churches, and castles were damaged, the ramshackle houses of the lower classes stood no hope at all. As you can imagine, the thatched houses brought their own problems. The wide chimneys and thatch were a disaster waiting to happen and fires broke out in many townlands, with varying degrees of destruction. More rural areas fared better than towns in this regard due to the houses being further apart. Loughrea suffered terribly with 87 homes being completely destroyed. The whole town might have been lost were it not for the wind suddenly changing direction. One policeman trying to help to quell the conflagration, received serious burns to the eyes from red-hot ashes blowing into his face. It’s hard to imagine the terror of the roaring winds, the screaming and abject terror and the pitch black of the night being broken by roaring fires and buildings falling around them. Outside of the losses to fire, 600 people in the area were left destitute. Many had to flock to churches and police stations in the following days for shelter. It was said that as a result of the storm “manys a one who lost their fortune and manys a one who found it” owing to the fact that many people kept their savings either stashed in the thatch roof, or in the chimney. For those unlucky enough to lose it, there were others who were unscrupulous enough to make their own fortune by gathering up the ill-gotten gains.
As I mentioned above, even the big houses weren’t safe. The large ornate chimneys of the mansions and stately homes of the landed gentry fell prey to the unnatural winds. Many deaths were a result of falling masonry and it is estimated that almost 5000 chimneys were knocked throughout the country (houses big and small). Some people were even forced to find shelter by hedges, hollows, and embankments. Eyewitness accounts tell how “huge limbs of oak flew like straws before the fury of the tempest”.
A number of anecdotal stories arouse out of the disaster. Herrings were said to be found 6 miles inland, supposedly carried by the winds after being pulled from the water. Salt brine was reported covering trees 12 miles inland. Waves were said to have come over the top of the Cliffs of Moher and the sound of waves crashing over was said to be heard miles inland, so loud that it could be heard over the thunderous roar of the wind itself. A canal was said to be stripped dry of water by the force of the wind. A pig was said to be carried a quarter of a mile and found safe and well stuck in a tree. And, given the vast destruction of trees and destruction of birds’ nesting and roosting spots (and the mass death of birds) the following spring was said to be almost devoid of birdsong. A massive tree was uprooted in a Carrickfergus graveyard, bringing “many of the dead to the surface”. An account from one area claims that the damage was so bad that it was the “big wind” that was the impetus for emigration and not the great hunger that would follow only a handful of years later. sand dunes formed from sand carried inland appeared in numerous areas. One account tells how years later while preparing to build a new house, an entire house was found 8 feet below the sand, having been entirely subsumed by the sand dunes.
As you could imagine, given the widescale destruction, it would come as no surprise that supernatural forces were blamed. Some gave divine retribution as a cause and that it may be a signifier that the world was about to end. The great scholar John ó Donoghue was spending the night in a hotel in Glendalough while carrying out fieldwork for the ordinance survey. As he survey the damage the following day, he remarked that the whole country looked like it had been “swept away by a broom” (ó Donovan was intimately familiar with Irish manuscripts, so I have to wonder if he is referencing Irish eschatological belief here, a tale where a giant broom will sweep the world clear on doomsday). Others ascribed the disaster to the sídhe (the fairies). A few different versions of this exist: invading fairies fighting Irish ones, massive groups of different factions fighting each other, or that it was the fairies finally leaving Ireland on magical tornadoes. An account in the national folklore collection tells us that a local spot normally associated with fairy music has been silent since.
The estimated damage done (in today’s money) is somewhere around the 250 million mark. The death toll is uncertain but is estimated at between 300 to 600 people. Thousands were left homeless, and many were injured. Stones were erected in some towns detailing the damage done. Interestingly, when the old age pension was introduced in 1908, the age of the people applying for it was determined by if they were alive at the time of the big wind.
We can only hope that we will never see a storm of this magnitude again in our lifetimes
‘Night of the Big Wind’, Frank Watters, Journal of the Pontzpass and District History Society, 1994 (pp.73-82) Irish Weather Online ‘The Calm Before the Storm’, Irish Times, 16th Oct 2017 NFSC, Vol.0313:0569, NFSC, Vol.0185:0569 NFSC,Vol.0909:288 NFSC, Vol.0186:364 NFSC,Vol.0113:376
In the politically fragmented and hierarchal society of Medieval Ireland, a country lauded as “The Land of Saints and Scholars”, few figures made an imprint on Irish society such as the one left by the intellectual powerhouses known as the filidh(poets).
The pre-Christian origins and activities of the filidh may be a bit nebulous due to the distinct lack of written records from the time, but the evidence available points to the fact that they were likely an offshoot, or at the very least a spiritual successor, to the Druids and as such, inheritors of their knowledge. It also suggests that they dealt in prophecy and had a function as a seer, but truth be told, little is known of them before the 7th century. A clear connection between the Filidh and magic can be seen with the esoteric nature of the skills required by a master poet:
Imabas Forosna(i): ‘supernatural knowledge that illuminates’. The mantic knowledge accessed by poets. Popularised in the stories of Finn Mac Cumhaill who gained this power from eating the ‘Salmon of knowledge’ (who itself had eaten the nuts of knowledge) and could access this esoteric knowledge by sucking his thumb.
Teinm Laedo: ‘Chewing the Flesh’, a form of divination
Dichetal do Chennaib: ‘Chanting the Heads’(?), a particular way of chanting.
Prophecy played a part in the wide-ranging skill set of these medieval polymaths, with this being evidenced in the stories and sagas, for instance in the story known as ‘The Colloguy of the Two sages’
Prionsios Mac Cana describes the Filidh as “a professional fraternity with a strong stake in society”. This statement is reflected by not only their legal status in society, but in the fact that they would inherit land as part of their occupation. Their status and honour price was second only to the king himself and the Filidh were the only lay people to be considered of full Nemed (privileged/sacred) status. In fact, Mac Manus suggests that they were even more sacred than the king, considering that the historical record shows the killing of many kings, but hardly any Filidh. The hereditary position came with many benefits including a parcel of land, free of taxes, and it was within their power to request that this land was located near the stronghold of the chief. Other benefits included getting the best cut of meat at a feast and sitting next to the king, as well as having the king’s confidence or acting as an advisor.
Their primary functions seem to have been related to the composition of panegyric poetry and Satire. They would praise the bravery of chiefs or curse their enemiesusing the magical power of satire or a curse to inflict harm. They would extol the victories and notable deeds of their patrons and record them in verse. These records were invaluable for the descendants of the chiefs as they were handy propaganda tools to legitimize their rule, to show where their ancestors came from and how they were connected to the world or kingdom they ruled. These records and stories, however, were not enough to give them this power or right to rule. The Filidh held the power in this regard. They acted as “provers of pedigree” and they could literally legitimise the ownership of land, the ruler’s connection to the tuatha (kingdom) and his suzerainty over them. The Brehon Laws mention “ten immovable rocks which hold fast every ownership of estates” including the fact that land and title are confirmed “by the words of poets” and that legitimate inheritance is “chanted by poets”. Given this, it is no surprise that kings bent over backwards to accommodate them throughout the centuries, but more on that later!
Praise poetry, satire and the legitimisation of land ownership were only a few of the arrows in the quiver of the multi-talented Filidh. They had to be a master of Coimhgne, which involved historical knowledge, advanced memory skills and the construction of Geneology.Even though they were typically employed by a single ruling family, they were one of the few people in society that had freedom of movement which allowed them to travel freely between kingdoms. As a result of this, a working knowledge of the genealogies of all the most powerful families was needed. The poets also had to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the Brehon Laws, the native, compensation-based justice system, which they would render down into rosc poetry (likely for mnemonic reasons to aid memory). Chiefs would often call on the Filidh to aid in making true judgements, as making a false judgment could be detrimental to the entire kingdom (in the form of crop failures and birth defects), but couldalso show the king as not being fit for rule.
As entertainers and repositories of Senchas (traditional lore), the poet also had to know stories. The number of these Príomhscéala (Primary stories) that they needed in their repertoire depended on what grade they were. The highest grade, the Ollamh needed to know 350, whereas the lowest grade, the Focloc, needed to know only 30. The importance of this aspect of their craft can be seen in the adage “Níba Filí gan Scéla” (He is not a poet who does not have stories). Consequently, the level of training was also reflected in the number of poetic meters that a poet had to know and the final degree of training required them to be able to compose a poem on any topic extemporaneously. In terms of performing in front of chiefs and nobles, if a Filidh could not make it to perform, they might send a lesser poet, or Reccaire (Reciter) to present alongside a harpist.
As Christianity gained a foothold, the oral tradition of the Filidh had to contend with the new technology of writing and manuscripts, which flourished between the 6th-12th centuries in the monastic scriptoria. Ó Corráin argues that by the 6th Century, the line between the secular Filidh and the monastic literati was either seriously blurred or entirely non-existent. But, just because these traditions overlapped and interacted, doesn’t mean they were the same thing. There is evidence to suggest that the Filidh refused to take on the new monastic meters, naming them Nua Crutha (new forms), at least until the 9th century when they, at last, took them up. They also resisted letting go of the oral tradition in favour of literacy, and as a result, the monastic scriptoria were solely responsible for recording the entire corpus of tales before the second half of the 12th Century. The monastic scholars likely had visits by the Filidh who recited the tales, poems and genealogies to the monks who ultimately wrote them down, preserving the native tradition for future generations. The overlap mentioned above is further evidenced by the fact that a number of clerics were also Filidh in their own right. Early sources and annals do draw a clear distinction between the monastic scholar and the Filidh, but the Annals of Ulster, for instance, mention a cleric by the name of Mael Muire of Othain who is described as being Ríg-fhilli Éireann (Chief poet of Ireland), showing that being a monastic figure was no impediment to become a very prominent poet or vice versa.
As mentioned above, the filidh were of extremely high status in Irish society, and as a result, could become very wealthy from their patrons. They could be paid in rings, jewellery, cattle, silver and they also had a right to claim the wedding raiment of any woman married within the kingdom. The highest grade could have a retinue of up to 24, which in and of itself would be a great financial burden to anyone having to host them, but the Filidh knowing that no chief would refuse them (for fear of satire and loss of status due to lack of hospitality), would often turn up with three times the number of retinue they should have. The increasing audacity and ludicrous demands of the Filidh eventually reached a boiling point at the Mór-dál at Druim Cett in 575 AD when King Aodh wanted to disband the institution of the poets. Were it not for the intercession of the saint Colm Cille, it is very likely that the Filidh would have been exiled en masse. The Filidh were found guilty of Avarice, idleness and insolence and the Ríg-Fili Éreann, Dalán Forgaill was tasked with reforming the institution and with appointing a chief poet in each province who had to set up a bardic school. These renowned bardic schools continued alongside the monasteries and allowed the Filidh to hold on to prominence within Irish society throughout the middle ages, almost up until the fall of the Gaelic order in the 17th century.
 Alternatively named as éces, éigeas, fear dána, dámh, sgoil in some sources.
 Brezina, C. (2007), ‘Celtic Mythology’, New York:Rosen Central. Ó Siodhacháin, P.H (2012), ‘From History to Written Word: The History of Irish Law’, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol.101, pp.327
 Mallory, J.P. (2016) ‘In Search of the Irish Dreamtime’, London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. The link with them being seers can also be seen linguistically with their name.
 Murphy, G. (1931), ‘The Origin of Irish Nature Poetry’ An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol.20, No.77, Dublin: Messenger Publications
 Mulligan, A.C (2009), ‘The Satire of the Poet is a Pregnancy: Pregnant Poets, Body Metaphors and Cultural Production in Medieval Ireland, Carey (1997), “The Three Things Required of a Poet.”, Ériu, vol. 48.
 Jackson, K (1934), ‘Tradition in Early Irish Prophecy’, Man, Vol34, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.
 Mac Cana, P (2004). ‘Praise Poetry in Ireland Before the Normans’, Éiru, Vol 55
 The amount of cattle, silver or cumal (female slaves) that had to be paid if they were wronged or injured.
 Kelly, F. (2016), ‘A Guide to Early Irish Law’, Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, pp 43-44
 MacManus, S (1990), ‘The Story of the Irish Race’, Wings Books: New Jersey, pp176
 Breatneach, P.A (1983), ‘The Chief’s Poet’, Proceeding of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature, Vol.83C, pp. 61-65
 Clark, P (2010), ‘The O’Cleary’s Hereditary Historians and Poets’, History Ireland, Vol.18, No.3, pp. 20
 D’Alton, E.A (1912). ‘History of Ireland: From the Earliest Times to Present Day’, Gresham Publishing Company Ltd: London.
 Brady, L. (2021), ‘Origin Myths in Early Insular Pseudo-histories: Medieval or Modern’, personal notes from online conference “Pseudo-history Among the Celtic speaking Peoples: Medieval Propaganda”, 12th June 2021
 Kelly, F. (2016), ‘A Guide to Early Irish Law’, Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, pp.46. Typically only people of the Áes Dána or ‘People of Skill’, such as poets, Wrights, and other craftsmen could travel from kingdom to kingdom.
 The concept of making a true judgment could make or break a king in medieval Ireland. A false judgement could result in a king losing his status. It would also be reflected in his kingdom with storms, crop failure, murrain etc
 There were seven main grades of Filidh. In descending order. These were Ollamh, Anrúth, Clí, Cano, Dos, Mac Fuirmid, Focloc. (Breatneach, 1983:37)
 Two times leading up to the convention of Druim Cett this issue had been raised to exile them. 50 years after it, Ulster kings had to interject and save the poets (Ibid:182)
 Ó Siodhacháin, P.H (2012), ‘From Oral History to Written Word: The History of Ancient Irish Law’, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol.101. pp327-8
* ‘Long Memoried Custodian of Tradition’, Breathnach, L. (2006), ‘Satire, Praise and the Early Irish Poet’, Éiru, Vol.56, Dublin: Royal Irish Academy.
Brady, L. (2021), ‘Origin Myths in Early Insular Pseudo-histories: Medieval or Modern’, personal notes from online conference “Pseudo-history Among the Celtic speaking Peoples: Medieval Propaganda”, 12th June 2021 Breathnach, L. (2006), ‘Satire, Praise and the Early Irish Poet’, Éiru, Vol.56, Dublin: Royal Irish Academy. Breatneach, P.A (1983), ‘The Chief’s Poet’, Proceeding of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature, Vol.83C, pp. 61-65 Brezina, C. (2007), ‘Celtic Mythology’, New York:Rosen Central Carey (1997), “The Three Things Required of a Poet.”, Ériu, vol. 48. Clark, P (2010), ‘The O’Cleary’s Hereditary Historians and Poets’, History Ireland, Vol.18, No.3, pp. 20 D’Alton, E.A (1912). ‘History of Ireland: From the Earliest Times to Present Day’, Gresham Publishing Company Ltd: London. Jackson, K (1934), ‘Tradition in Early Irish Prophecy’, Man, Vol34, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Kelly, F. (2016), ‘A Guide to Early Irish Law’, Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, pp 43-44 Mac Cana,p (1974), ‘The Rise of the Later Schools of Filidheacht’, Éiru, Vol.25, Royal Irish Academy, pp.126 MacManus, S (1990), ‘The Story of the Irish Race’, Wings Books: New Jersey, pp176 Mallory, J.P. (2016) ‘In Search of the Irish Dreamtime’, London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. Mulligan, A.C (2009), ‘The Satire of the Poet is a Pregnancy: Pregnant Poets, Body Metaphors and Cultural Production in Medieval Ireland, Carey (1997), “The Three Things Required of a Poet.”, Ériu, vol. 48. Murphy, G. (1931), ‘The Origin of Irish Nature Poetry’ An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol.20, No.77, Dublin: Messenger Publications Ó Siodhacháin, P.H (2012), ‘From History to Written Word: The History of Irish Law’, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol.101, pp.327
For this edition of the animal folklore series, I am going to focus on a very divisive member of the animal kingdom, the goose. The goose has picked up a bit of a bad rep, especially online, as being an extremely aggressive and cantankerous creature. People have even gone so far as to label them as “Cobra Chickens”. Now, I have no doubt that some breeds, such as the Canadian goose that the term originates from, may in fact be more aggressive, but it is a shame that all of them are tarred with the same brush. Having spent the last 3 years visiting a local colony of Greylag geese (with a couple of Emden Geese thrown in) and befriending them, I can at least testify that the more domestic breeds are unfairly labelled in the same way. Given the fact they are some of my favourite birds, it is surprising that I have left it this long to write a piece on them, especially considering how they pop up in Irish myth, poetry and folklore.
In older texts, we are told that bird flight was observed carefully as a form of divination, as were the voices of birds. The ancient text of Cormac’s Glossary (Seanas Cormaic) tells us that the early arrival of Brent Geese (Cadhan) meant that storms and high winds were to follow. We see these beliefs repeated, to a degree, in more modern practice where birds would be observed for weather divination. The behaviour of geese was watched carefully in Donegal for instance and should a fisherman see a goose stick its neck in the air and beat its wings on its chest, it is very likely that he would not take to the sea in fear of high winds. In Mayo, the height they flew at was indicative of how the weather would play out: High flying = good weather, low flying = Rain.
The Irish language (Gaeilge/Gaolainn) placenames in certain areas are related to geese such as:
Gort na gCadhan (Field of Brent Geese): Galway, Roscommon
Inis Gé (Goose Island): Mayo
An interesting belief in west Cork claims that geese are capable of speech, and not only that but are said to speak to each other in Irish no less! The conversation between them involves a young goose asking an older goose about food, with the latter replying “It is certain that if you don’t Whisht here, that they will grab us and wring our necks” (Bíodh geall mara n-Éiste tú anso, go mbéarfear orainn is go gcasfar na sgrogaill orainn)
The NFC (National Folklore Collection) has many cures listed among its pages and some are more grounded than others. For those who are unfamiliar, the NFC is one of the largest folklore archives in the world and is one of the greatest sources we have on genuine Irish folklore and traditions. Luckily it is all digitised online at dúchas.ie and is well worth browsing. Be warned though, you are likely to fall down a rabbithole or two and will lose hours of your life.
Returning to geese, they pop up a number of times in relation to cures. Outside of using goose grease as an ointment for arthritis, these tend to fall into the category of extremely unusual to the point of wondering where the logic to it is. To enact one of these cures, the bill of the goose is placed into the mouth of the sick person or child, with the breath of the goose said to provide the cure. In some instances, the goose has to be specifically a fasting gander and is used for curing oral thrush.
The Barnacle Goose (Gé Ghiúrainn)
Some may find it ludicrous but there was a long-standing and pervasive belief in Ireland that the barnacle goose was in fact a form of shellfish that grew on old pieces of timber, hence the ‘barnacle’ in the name. The fact that they closely resemble a type of shellfish called the goose barnacle in terms of colour, and the fact that they don’t nest here has likely given rise to this belief. Classing them as fish allowed religious men to eat them during lent or when meat was forbidden from being eaten (such as on Fridays)
The Cambro-Norman chronicler known as Gerald of Wales wrote the following in his book ‘Topigraphica Hibernica’:
‘They [the barnacle goose] are produced from timber tossed along the sea and are at first like gum. Afterwards they hang down by their beaks as if they were seaweed attached to the timber and are surrounded by shells in order to grow more freely. Having thus in the process of time being clothed with a strong coat of feathers, they either fall into water or fly freely away into the air. They derive their food and growth from the sap of the wood or from the sea by a secret and most wonderful process of alimentation. I have frequently seen with my own eyes more than a thousand of these birds down on the seashore from one piece of timber and enclosed in their shells and already formed. They do not breed and lay eggs like other birds, nor do they ever hatch any eggs, nor do they seem to build nests in any corner of the earth. Hence bishops and religious men in some parts of Ireland do not scruple to dine off birds at the time of fasting because they are not flesh nor born of flesh”
Geese as lost souls
Pádraig Breatnach recorded a story in Galway about a hunter who was unable to shoot a bunch of wild geese one night because a wild hare kept getting in the firing line. He recounted this event to his priest who warned him that he should hunt only during the day and to leave the night to the spirit world. The reason he advised this was because he claimed that the geese were in fact lost souls who died unable to return to their homeland and who were taking the form of geese to do so. He mentions that the hare was a good soul helping them to achieve this goal and warned that if the hunter was successful in killing the geese, the souls would never succeed in returning.
Riddle me this
Ní fhuil is ní feoil is ní cnámh é
Ach is as fuil agus feoil a d’fhás é
Bain an ceann de agus gléas deoch dó
Agus beidh sé ag scéalaíocht go maidin dhuit
It’s not blood or flesh or bone
But it grows out of flesh and blood
Take the head off it and give it a drink
And it will tell stories until morning
ANSWER: A goose feather used as a quill
A fairy goose
An interesting story that I found when perusing the National Folklore Schools Collection relates to a goose gifted by a fairy and the resulting abundance that comes with it.
A poor woman is at home during a very bad storm, worried that her house will be blown down. A member of the ‘other crowd’ [a fairy] appears at the door and offers her a goose, asking her to mind it. Every day she has the goose, her wealth and status increase to the point she was able to keep a number of maids. There was a problem though. Every time the goose laid an egg, she got louder and louder. At some point the woman couldn’t take any more, so she started throwing anything she could get at the goose. As the goose ran around the house screaming, the fairy appeared at the door, admonished the woman and took the goose back. Within a few moments, all the windows were blown in and she was suddenly left with nothing again.
This is one of many tales where people fall foul of the other crowd for not appreciating gifts that have been given.
Fled Dún na nGéd (The Feast of the Fort of the Geese)
A number of tales and poems mention geese, but one tale features them as a central aspect. A middle Irish text, dated to the 11th to mid-12th century, called the “Feast of the Fort of the Geese” features goose eggs as a very important feature of the tale. This text, by modern classifications is placed in the ‘Cycle of the Kings’, a series of texts usually based around real historic personages, as opposed to say, the more mythical focus of tales featured in the ‘mythological cycle’.
The story relates to the revolt of Congal Claén (king of the Ulaid) against his foster father, Domhnall mac Áeda (over king of the Uí Néill) and ends with a brief account of the battle of Mag Ráth (which took place in 637) in which Congal was ultimately defeated.
Domhnall’s Fort on the banks of the river Boyne, called Dún na nGéd (The Fort of the Geese), provides the scene for the tale. The Fort itself was said to be modeled on the Fort at Tara. Domhnall was given a prophecy that one of his foster sons would betray him, but due to his belief in the bond of fosterage, he refused to put the foster sons in fetters.
In preparation for the feast, Domhnall instructed his men to go in search of goose eggs for the feast. They searched high and low for eggs but couldn’t find any great number. That was until they came to the hermitage of Saint Erc. The Saint himself wasn’t home, as it was his practice to go up to his armpits in the river Boyne from morning till dusk praying. The soldiers asked the woman at the house for the baskets of eggs, but she explained that they belong to the Saint and that all he ate all day was 1 1/2 eggs and 2 sprigs of cress upon returning from his prayers. They refused to listen and took the eggs. Needless to say, the Saint wasn’t happy and cast a malediction (for the tradition of cursing in Ireland see here) on the feast.
At the banquet, Congal said he would inspect the banquet before everyone arrived and while doing so, ate one of the goose eggs (and Domhnall was made aware, as per the prophecy, that whoever ate it would be the one who would betray him). Domhnall attempted to have the curse reversed by getting 100 saints to bless the banquet but it didn’t work due to the fact Congal had eaten before everyone else.
During the feast, every king present was given a goose egg presented on a silver platter, except for Congal who was given a hen’s egg on a wooden plate. This slight, along with the fact that he should have been seated at the right of Domhnall instead of another king, caused Congal to declare publically that he would seek revenge, leading to the battle mentioned above.
Saint Kevin of Glendalough and the Goose
Saint Kevin is usually associated with Blackbirds, but there is a tale that recounts how Kevin came to a chieftain to request land for his monastery. The Chieftain laughed at the request and pointed to an injured goose with a broken wing. He told him he could have all the land that the goose could circle. No sooner were the words out of his mouth, the goose took to the air recovered and flew around the entire valley. Another version involves a sick and ailing pet goose that the saint offers to heal if he can claim all the land that the goose circles on his first flight. This story is very similar to the story of Saint Brigid, who is told that she can have all the land that her cloak can cover, only for her cloak to magically expand and cover a large swathe of land.
A few Pics of Geese for your enjoyment
Fled Dún Na nGéd, A reapraisal by Máire Herbert
Birds of Ireland: Facts, Folklore & History by Glynn Anderson
Irelands Birds by Niall Mac Coitir The History and Topography of Ireland by Gerald of Wales
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.
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 within 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 is likely 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 depend 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
In 1324 Richard de Ledrede , the then bishop of Ossory , declared his diocese a hotbed of devil worshipers. Few knew the far reaching, dire consequences this declaration would have and the ripples it would send through the centuries. The woman at the center of all of this was Alice Kyteler, a wealthy woman from a Flemish merchant family. Her accumulated wealth over multiple marriages had led to the accusations of witchcraft in question.
Circa 40 years before the landmark case, Alice had married a wealthy merchant/moneylender and had a son. Following her husband’s death she married another wealthy man. He subsequently handed over his fortune to Alice’s son from the first marriage, much to the chagrin of his own children. This would later cause problems and ultimately become the impetus for the future accusations against her. Upon her third marriage, her son somehow benefitted financially again. Her final and fourth marriage was to a knight, Sir John de Poer. At this point, her accumulated wealth at the expense of her stepchildren as well as de Poer showing signs of arsenic poisoning (hair and fingernails falling out and emaciated) led to the suspicion of Alice and the accusations of witchcraft. The changing attitudes towards sorcery and witchcraft, especially on the part of the church, would have a dramatic effect on this case, as would the machinations of the highly cunning bishop at the epicenter of the whole ordeal.
It was only a few hundred years prior to this case, in the 11th and 12th centuries, that sorcery/witchcraft was beginning to be seen as an inversion of Christianity. The practice of which would have been treated as a misdemeanor before this change in attitude. In 1258 Pope Alexander legislated in favour of inquisitorial prosecution for sorcery due to it’s new connection to heresy. This allowed the church to institute torture as a method to procure confessions from suspected heretics, witches and sorcerers. This in turn gave the church more power than secular court in these regards. Before this, it lay on the accuser to furnish proof of guilt. These ‘crimes’ had usually been dealt with in English law as a petty offense. Inquisitorial prosecution, it seems, was introduced into this case by Bishop Ledrede, who likely picked up the practice from his stay at the court of Avignon, the then Papal seat. Ledrede had originally been sent to Ireland in the years leading up to the accusations of Kyteler by the Pope (who was known to be terrified of sorcery) because of his “zeal for reform and strict adherence to the law of the church”.
In total seven charges were brought against Alice, including:
Denying Christ and the Church.
Cutting up living animals and scattering them at crossroads* as offerings to a demon called “son of Art”. *Crossroads are understood to be liminal spaces and are often employed in magical rites
Stealing church keys and performing rituals inside the church at night.
In a skull of a thief, her and her accomplices placed the entrails of animals, the organs of a cockerel, nails cut from bodies, hair from the buttocks and used clothes from baby boys who had died before baptism. Using these ingredients, they were said to have made potions to kill people and to make people hate Christians.
It was claimed Alice had a familiar with whom she fornicated. It either appeared as a cat, a shaggy dog or a black man.
That she used sorcery to convince her husbands to give their wealth to her and her son, and also used sorcery to kill them.
Poisoning her latest husband.
Ledrede had used a law Ut Inguisitionis (1298) to force secular powers to obey the word of a Bishop. Luckily a prior of the Hospitalliers of St John, a relative of Alice’s first husband, stood up for her and put a spanner in the works. Ledrede was told that he would have to hold a public prosecution and that she would have to be formally ex-communicated before they could go ahead with the charges. Ledrede attempted to have the Prior arrested on charges of heresy (and for harbouring heretics) but the prior had some powerful acquaintances, in this case the Seneshal of Killkenny. The seneshal had Ledrede arrested for 17 days to prevent the arrest of the prior. Ledrede used this to his full advantage to start to swing public opinion in his favour. He placed an interdict on the diocese, meaning that no baptism, marriages and burials could take place. Given the strong belief in hell during this period, this was obviously of grave importance to the eternal souls of all parishioners. He also used his influence while incarcerated to give masses in full regalia from his cell. During this time, the seneshal put criers in each outlying town to see if anyone wanted to lodge complaints against Ledrede.
Every move on Ledrede’s part was carefully orchestrated for maximum effect. He left his cell in full high vestments. He turned up at the seneshal’s court, in full regalia holding the consecrated host before him (as any assault on him, would ultimately be an assault on Christ himself). He was not alone. In toe were Franciscans, Dominicans and an entire cathedral chapter. He also carried a decree concerning heretics. After forcing his way into the court, the seneshal asked him to get in the dock for questioning. He claimed that since he was holding the host, it would be like putting Jesus himself on trial, just like when he was tried by Pontius Pilate. Despite the best efforts of all involved, it was inevitable that public opinion would sway in the direction of the church and the bishop due to the constant attacks and insults. Upon seeing that public opinion was turning against her, Alice used her wealth to flee from Dublin and was never heard from again. Her not as wealthy associates and alleged co-conspirators were subsequently rounded up and arrested using a papal decree and under inquisitorial procedure, confessed. Unfortunately, only the poorest of these, Alice’s maidservant, Petronilla de Meath, bore the brunt of the whole thing. She was tortured, whipped and ultimately burnt at the stake (it was legal to torture under church law, but not secular), while all the others were released on payment of sureties. William Outlawe, the friar, was arrested and accused of heresy. He begged forgiveness and was released on the condition that he would pay penance in the form of saying multiple masses each day for a couple of years, and also by re-leading the roof of a church. He was later re-arrested for not carrying this penance out.
A quote from a Franciscan friar at the time, John Clyn, reads: “Moreover, even in olden days, it was neither seen nor heard of that anyone suffered the death penalty for heresy in Ireland”.
So, what had brought about this drastic change in attitude in Ireland that culminated in the barbaric death of a poor, young maidservant? In short, Ledrede, the man at the center of all of this. It is very likely that Ledrede himself introduced the connection of demonic forces and witchcraft to Ireland. It is no surprise that the landmark case found its way into a number of annal entries at the time. Many people, in a European context, believe that this case was a development “of a phenomenon which, with its distinctive characteristics of diabolism” gave rise to the great witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries (of course the influence of the Malleus Malificarum cannot be ignored either). Before the Kyteler case, these ideas had not really permeated beyond the Papal courts of Avignon. It was circa 1300 in France that learned circles started to disseminate the idea that a witch was connected to satanic sects and diabolical powers. To give further context to this, 17 years before this case, the King of France, Philip IV, had the Templar Order put to death on many similar charges and claims of diabolism. The pope of the time also fanned the flames by thinking his life was in danger from sorcery. Ledrede was appointed by the pope himself and had actually been present at court during the Templar trials. This of course is likely to have influenced his belief system and he is also likely to have had direct contact with the learned milieu who espoused the radical ideas of heresy.
Civil court up to the point of the case had seen witchcraft as a minor crime, punishable only in terms of damage done to the victim. The church was not interested because there was no link with religion. It was even believed that in order to control demons, a sorcerer have strong faith and a devout belief in god in order for it to work (c.f Carey, The Nature of Miracles in Early Irish Saint’s Lives for a similar tradition in how miracles worked).
It would come as no surprise to anyone that five years following the death of Petronilla de Meath, Richard de Ledrede had overplayed his hand and was finally exiled from Ireland. Unfortunately for Petronilla, it was too little too late. So give a little thought this Samhain to all the women over the centuries who were executed under the guise of being “witches”.