Mogh Ruith, the Blind Magician

The blind magician of County Kerry. Reblogged from Ali Issac’s site.

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Mogh Ruith the Blind Magician http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

Without a doubt, one of the most interesting and mysterious figures from Irish mythology is the One known as Mogh Ruith. He’s right up there with Manannán, as far as I’m concerned. His name is said to mean ‘slave of the wheel’, curious in itself, and he was a blind Munster Druid who lived on Valentia Island in Co Kerry, which is now part of the celebrated Wild Atlantic Way.

Mogh Ruith was the father of tragic Goddess, Tlachtga, who left her name in the landscape of Ireland  at a place anglicised as the Hill of Ward, sacred to the festival of Samhain.

He is perhaps most famous for his flying machine, roth rámach, meaning ‘the oared wheel’, or ‘rowing wheel’ (could be a helicopter, don’t you think?), in which night appeared as bright as day. For this reason, it is believed…

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The Girl in the Tower

Tory Island, County Donegal

Photo of Tory Island Cliffs by Sara Everett, licensed under Creative Commons

Eithne wandered to her bedroom window, rubbing her eyes and trying to make sense of the strange dream she’d just had. From this height, she could see the rocky cliffs and, if she listened carefully, could hear the crashing of waves far below.

One of her maids had already started to air out her sheets, while another placed her breakfast porridge on the table. This tower, all of its storeys apart from the ground, was the only space she had ever known. Her maids — twelve of them in all — were the only people she had ever known. She didn’t even remember her father, who had placed her here when she was a small child.

So who was that person in her dream, with the oddly-deep voice and the oddly-square jaw? Was it some kind of magic vision?

**

Balor walked through the world with one eye closed most of the time. When he opened that evil eye, it killed all within his vision. It seemed none could defeat a man with such power, but he didn’t want to leave his fate to chance. So he consulted with the druids to see if anyone could defeat him.

“None but your own grandson,” they said.

Balor had one daughter, Eithne. To ensure she would give him no grandchildren, he had her locked in a tower on Tory Island with twelve women to keep her company. She was not, he ordered, to meet any man or even hear tell of one.

**

Eithne heard the women at the front of the castle, but the door to the ground storey was locked so she could do nothing but listen.

“Help us!” an elderly woman called up.

“I am a queen of the Tuatha de Dannan,” called a younger voice. “And my enemies are in pursuit.”

“Take pity and let them in,” Eithne told her maids from behind her door.

She heard the maids welcome the newcomers, and then suddenly go quiet. The younger visitor’s tone changed to that strange, deep voice she had heard in her dream.

She stepped back as the two strangers unlatched the door. As they entered, she fled up the winding staircase. They followed her all the way to the top tower, and she stopped only when she came to the window.

“I won’t hurt you,” said the voice from her dream.

His face, framed in golden hair, was just as it had appeared in her sleep.

“Who are you?” Her hands were pressed to the windowsill behind her back.

“I am Cian of the Tuatha de Dannan. This woman is the druid Birog, who helped me disguise myself and put the maids to sleep.” He tilted his head in puzzlement at Eithne. “Have we met before?”

“I don’t think so,” she said. “Unless it was in a dream.”

The old druid coughed. “I’ll leave you two alone for a bit.”

**

Cian had once owned a magical cow that never ran dry. Balor tricked him out of that cow, and Cian asked an old druid woman how he could get his revenge. Birog promised that if she got him into the tower on Balor’s island, he could be the instrument of the Evil Eye’s downfall.

He hadn’t known what to expect, but he certainly hadn’t expected a beautiful woman to rush into his arms like she’d been waiting for him all her life.

He begged Birog to help him sneak Eithne out of the castle, but the druid woman shook her head.

“You have no idea what terrible revenge Balor would wreak with that evil eye of his.”

“I don’t care!” Cian declared. “I’m willing to risk it, for Eithne’s sake.”

“I’m not.” Birog grabbed his hand and called on a magic wind to carry them back to the mainland.

Eithne stood watching in shock. A few moments later, her maids began to revive.

**

The maid laid some freshly-baked cakes on the table.

“Although it seems you’ve been indulging too much in my baking,” she said to Eithne. “You’ve been growing plump.”

Another maid, who was changing the sheets, frowned as if performing a calculation in her head.

“How long has it been since your last monthly course?”

The maids were bewildered. No, this was impossible! They found the least embarrassable among them to ask Eithne some pointed questions and found out that, yes, it was indeed possible. There was a good deal of wailing and argument as Eithne curled herself into a ball and cried, hugging her belly. All were agreed on one thing: Balor must never find out.

A few months later, a baby boy was born with hair as golden as his father’s. Eithne held him to her breast and determined that she would love this child as she herself had never been loved.

But while she was sleeping, the maids stole the infant away and threw him out to sea.

**

Birog was waiting on the shore just opposite Tory Island. She cast a spell to roll a wave towards her. The wave carried a laughing baby who she handed to his father.

The boy would become the warrior god, Lugh of the Long Hand. He would grow up to kill his grandfather with a slingshot that he aimed at his evil eye.

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A Legen-dairy Death

Knocknarea, County Sligo

Photo of Knocknarea by P.J. McKenna

Fógraím cogadh feasta
ar fhearaibh uile Éireann
ar na leaids ag na cúinní sráide
is iad ina luí i lúib i gceas naíon

War I declare from now
on all men of Ireland
on all the corner boys
living curled in children’s cradles
— Medb Speaks by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

Furbaide Ferbend sat on the grassy hill and unwrapped the cloth that held his lunch. A hunk of bread, a roll of cheese, and a cup of ale — what more could a man want on such a gorgeous day as this?

It was a rare day indeed, warmest of the year, and there was a rare peace in the land. Furbaide had fought for many years in the army of his father, King Conchubar, and he knew that peace was a fragile thing. He was determined to enjoy this moment: the luxury of solitude, the sun shining above him, the lake sparkling below.

He noticed a movement in the water and his sharp eyesight picked up a woman swimming in the lake. She had a fine figure but she wasn’t young, not with that long grey hair floating about her. Then he recognized her face.

She was his aunt, Queen Maeve of Connacht.

He’d heard the story many times. How his father had married three sisters: Eithne, Clohru, and Maeve. The rivalry had grown murderous, and the sly-eyed Maeve drowned the heavily-pregnant Eithne. Clothru found Eithne floating face down in the pond and noticed that the child was still moving in her sister’s belly. Checking one last time that Eithne had stopped breathing, Clothru took out her knife and cut the baby free.

The boy was named Furbaide, from the Old Irish urbad meaning “cut”. That woman in the water was the reason he had never known his mother.

His aunt was notorious for other reasons besides. What Maeve wanted, Maeve got, no matter what the cost. She divorced Conchubar and her next few husbands had won her by successively beating the previous incumbents in single combat. The last husband was her former bodyguard, Ailill, the only one who could match her in greed and cunning.

I asked more of a husband than any Irish woman before me asked: the absence of fear and jealousy and meanness.
— Táin Bó Cuailgne: The Cattle-Raid of Cooley

Maeve and Ailill had caused war and destruction across Ireland, particularly in Ulster where King Conchubar lived. She seemed to reserve a particular fury for her first husband, almost enough to give credence to the story that Conchubar had raped Maeve when the clans gathered at Tara.

Furbaide frowned, not wishing to think ill of his father or to spare any pity for the woman in the lake. She stopped swimming and leaned back in the water, closing her eyes, no doubt enjoying the sun on her skin. How dare she take pleasure in life while Furbaide’s mother had never lived to hold her babe in her arms?

But perhaps the gods were on his side today? Perhaps this was his opportunity to take revenge? Surely his whole life, from the moment he had drawn a bloody breath, had led to this?

Furbaide was famous for his skills with a sling. He carried his weapon always, but he had brought no ammunition. Nothing but a picnic in an unwrapped cloth.

The cheese was round and hard, the perfect size for the sling’s pouch. Furbaide closed one eye and focused on his target: Maeve’s forehead, high and white. In combat, none could beat him, but this might be the most important shot of his life. It hit her between the eyes and she slunk dead into the water. The proud Queen of Connacht, felled by cheese.

She was buried in Sligo, at the top of Knocknarea from where she could view her entire kingdom. She stood upright, facing Ulster, so none of her old enemies could feel safe from her even in death.

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The Sea Calls Back Its Own

Enniscrone, County Sligo

Photo of Enniscrone beach by joushikijin, licensed under Creative Commons

Idir gaoth is idir tonn
Idir tuilleadh is idir gann
Casann sí dhom
Amhrán na Farraige

Between the winds, between the waves
Between the sands, between the shore
From the shell
A song of the sea

— Saoirse’s song, Song of the Sea (2014)

Thady O’Dowd had a lot on his mind that morning. The chief of the O’Dowd clan had reached that stage of life where he should be married, but he’d not yet found the woman to suit him. So he took a walk along the long strand at Enniscrone, hoping the sea air would clear his head

Whatever he’d been expecting to find on Enniscrone beach, he surely hadn’t expected a woman as naked as the day she was born! Yet there she was, her shimmering skin hidden only by her long hair. Even when she saw him she made no move to cover herself, just smiled shyly and continued to brush that lustrous hair. He had never seen anyone so beautiful in his life.

On a rock nearby, he spotted a green cloak and reached towards it. Her eyes flashed a sudden anger.

“Leave that be!” she said.

He realised what she was now, a mermaid who could only return to her aquatic form if she had her magical cloak.

A mermaid found a swimming lad,
Picked him up for her own,
Pressed her body to his body,
Laughed; and plunging down
Forgot in cruel happiness
That even lovers drown.

— The Mermaid by W. B. Yeats (1928)

He draped the garment over his arm and grinned.

“You’ll have to come and get it then.”

So the woman followed Thady home. Her name was Eileen; she became his wife and bore him seven strong children. She seemed as pleased with her life as he was, except for moments when she would stare absently at the sea or inquire about her magical cloak.

One day his chieftain called Thady away to fight. When he opened the chest where he stored his armour, he found it wrapped in the green cloak that he’d taken from Eileen. He stroked the soft and strangely cool material. He really should hide it somewhere less obvious.

That night, he slipped away from his sleeping wife and took the cloak outside to bury it near the well. As he returned to the castle, he was startled by his youngest boy.

“Da? What did you put in the ground?”

“Treasure,” said Thady. “We need to hide it from thieves.”

The child rubbed his bleary eyes as Thady kissed his forehead and led him back up to bed. The boy was surely too sleepy and too young to remember anything.

But when Thady was away, swinging his sword for his chieftain’s honour, his youngest child told Eileen about the “treasure” that was buried by the well.

She dug it up with her bare hands and her fingernails were filthy by the time she dragged the cloak out of the earth. And yet the cloak itself seemed untouched, its material still cool and shimmering.

“Is that the treasure, Ma?” the little boy asked.

His siblings came out of the castle and surrounded her. They were squabbling about some fight that each blamed on the other, but all she could hear was the rushing of waves from the beach. A tear fell upon the cloak, and the salt taste in her mouth was just like the sea.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
— Sea Fever by John Masefield (1902)

“Come, children,” she said. “It’s time to go home.”

They were so startled that they stopped arguing and followed her towards the sea. At the top of a hill, they overlooked the long golden strand of Enniscrone where their father had first met their mother.

Eileen realised that she couldn’t take all of her children with her, so she turned the eldest five into stones. As they moved towards the shore, another child was turned into a rock. She lifted the youngest into her arms, tucked him inside her cloak, and swam away, never to be seen again.

When Thady returned, all he found of his family were five stones in a circle, and one looking out over the bay. He sank to his knees and wept for a day and a night before his servants took him home.

The stones can still be found in a brush beside the road about a mile from Enniscrone. It is said that, to this day, the stones weep whenever an O’Dowd passes away.

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Manannán’s Land Irish Myths of the Sea

Another reblog from Ali Issac’s site. The Wild Atlantic Way is all about the sea and its stories.

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Until I moved to Cavan eight years ago, I had always lived within sight or sound of the sea. Every summer I head down to Co Kerry for a few days with friends and the boys. There, we are surrounded by sea, and mountains. I love wide open spaces. Both the sea and the high places provide that.

Being a small island, peoples lives have been dominated by the sea. In mythology, the Danann, the Milesians, and various other races came to Ireland from the sea. According to legend, Ireland had two sea deities: Lir, and Manannán mac Lir, which means ‘son of Lir’, or ‘son of the sea’.

Little is known about Lir; there is a Lir who was father to the four children turned into swans by their jealous stepmother, but it is by no means certain that he is one and the same with the sea-god of…

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Swan Song

Erris Head, County Mayo

Photo of Belmullet by P.J. McKenna

When shall the swan, her death note singing
Sleep with the wings her darkness furled
When will Heav’n, it’s sweet bells ringing
Call my spirit from this stormy world ?

— Silent, O Moyle by Thomas Moore (1779-1852)

The swans’ wings beat rhythmically through the air, and the people turned their heads upwards to listen to their beautiful song. For these were no ordinary birds; they were the last remaining of that magical race, the Tuatha de Danann.

Lir, ancient king and ruler of the seas, had four children: his eldest son Aodh, his only daughter Fionnuala, and twin boys Fiachra and Conn. When their mother died, he married Aoife, but she was jealous of her stepchildren and turned them into swans. Yet the spell could not quench their magical voices, and when they told Lir what had happened, he banished Aoife into the mist.

For 300 years, the four swans lived near their father at Lake Derravaragh; the Tuatha de Danann were a long-lived people. But then they had to leave and spend the next 300 years on the Straits of Moyle, between Ireland and Scotland, where fierce winds gave them hardly a moment’s rest and they were frequently separated from each other.

The final leg of their journey took them to Erris Head on the Belmullet peninsula, to the far north-west of county Mayo. Beyond that was Inishglora Island. Few more remote places existed in Ireland. They settled on the island for another 300 years, and the people of Erris Head grew used to the sad song drifting across the water.

Babbles Conn the youngest, ‘Sister, I remember
At my father’s palace how I went in silk,
Ate the juicy deer-flesh roasted from the ember,
Drank from golden goblets my child’s draught of milk.
Once I rode a-hunting, laughed to see the hurry,
Shouted at the ball-play, on the lake did row;
You had for your beauty gauds that shone so rarely.’
‘Peace’ saith Fionnuala, ‘that was long ago.’

— The Children of Lir by Katherine Tynan (1859-1931)

Near the end of that time, a group of men sailed across in a calfskin boat, a currach. The swans stopped to look at them in their peculiar garb, their rough robes belted with rope, their hair shaved deliberately.

The men dug a well for fresh water and built stone huts to live in. The swans craned their heads, curious. The man who lead them, Brendan, had travelled beyond the great ocean, further than anyone in Ireland, and had returned to set up monasteries across Ireland: in Inchquin, Annaghdown, and now on Inishglora.

As Brendan stood back to admire the construction work, the swans hummed to themselves. Brendan approached warily. He knew how vicious a swan’s beak could be when they were riled.

“Who are you?”he asked.

“I am Fionnuala, the daughter of Lir, and these are my brothers. Tell me, what happened to my people, the Tuatha De Dannan.”

“I’m afraid that the Tuatha de Dannan have long left our land,” said the monk. The Tuatha had been driven out by the Milesians.

“But do your people not follow the old gods?” Aodh demanded.

Brendan explained that a new faith had come to Ireland. Aodh was grumpy about this, but Fionnuala was curious and listened attentively as Brendan explained about Jesus and his saints. Fiachra and Conn were more interested in his travel stories. He told them of one land where fire spewed from the earth; of another which was a paradise of birds; of an island that sank when the monks lit a fire on it, because it was no island, but a whale.

We sailed for a year and a day and hailed
No field nor coast of men;
No boat nor bird saw we ever afloat
For forty days and ten.
— Imram (The Voyage of Saint Brendan), J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

In return, the Children of Lir told Brendan all about the Tuatha de Dannan and the days of old. He made marks with a quill on a vellum scroll. The swans were astonished when he told them these marks could be interpreted by others, could transmit words to people in far-away countries and could continue to do so long after the writer had died.

In the centre of the little community, the monks built a church with a high steeple. What a strange construction, Fionnuala thought, like nothing she’d ever seen. When it was finished, two men went inside to pull at the ropes hanging from the tower. Fionnuala started to sing her song, and her brothers joined in as usual.

The first chime of the bell came at the same time as the highest note reached by the swans. Its reverberations echoed in the voices of Fionnuala, Aodh, Fiachra and Conn, so much that it seemed hard to tell where the swan song ended and the bell began.

As the sounds mingled, the swans grew larger and began to shed their feathers. Out emerged four young people — one woman, three men, all astonishingly beautiful. The monks gasped with amazement. But within minutes, their skin began to shrivel and their hair to turn white as they rapidly aged.

“Brother Ciaran!” Brendan yelled. “Fetch me the baptismal water!”

Come, holy priest, with book and prayer;
Baptize and shrive us here:
Haste, cleric, haste, for the hour has come,
And death at last is near!
— Children of Lir (unknown author)

“Bury us together,” Fionnuala croaked. “As we have been together in life, let us be together in death.”

“And write our story on your scrolls,” said Aodh. “So we will be remembered always.”

They were buried on Inish Glora, Fionnuala in the middle, Aodh in front of her, Fiachra and Conn on either side.

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Legends of the Burren

Some tales from the Burren, that rocky and mysterious land in north county Clare. Reblogged from Ali Issac’s site.

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Last weekend, I hiked part of the Burren Trail with my friend, walking buddy and guide, Jenni. The Burren is an expanse of karst landscape located in Co Clare, stretching some 250 km between the villages of Ballyvaghan, Kinvara, Tubber, Corofin and Lisdoonvarna. Its name derives from the Irish Boireann, meaning ‘great rock’, or ‘stony place’.

The unique rocky lunar-like appearance of the Burren is due to it being composed of huge limestone pavements gouged by the last ice age. Over time, fissures and cracks have formed along lines of weakness, and these are called ‘grikes’. The slabs between grikes are known as ‘clints’.

Jenni advised me not to step on any patches of greenery; although they look solid, they often disguise grikes, which can be quite deep,  causing the unsuspecting walker to fall and sustain injuries. I did get caught out by one or two, too busy applying my…

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