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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Glen of the Birch Trees

Glenveagh Castle, County Donegal

Photo of Glenveagh National Park by P.J. McKenna

And even the longest winters rain,
Can’t wash away all the suffering and pain,
Of the Evictions at Derryveagh.
– The Evictions, song by Goats Don’t Shave

When John George Adair arrived in the remote Derryveagh area of Donegal in 1857, he was “enchanted by the surpassing beauty of the scenery”. As well he might be, for the place possessed an imposing if bleak beauty reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands. Adair, originally from County Laois, had made his fortune on land speculation in America. Ten years after the Great Famine, land in Ireland was going cheap, so he proceeded to buy up 28000 acres in Donegal.

In the land around Lough Veagh, he purchased “fee-farm” rights, which meant the right to collect rents but not “sporting” rights (hunting, shooting, fishing). He decided the remoteness of the estate meant he could ignore the rules, but some of the tenants objected, beating the bushes and forming a ring 50 paces around him to disrupt his hunt. He threatened them with his fowling gun and swore “they would pay dearly”.

Tragically, he was soon in a position to make that threat real.

In 1861, Adair took full possession of the land and houses in Derryveagh. To the local authorities, he pleaded fear of local reprisals and received a special force of over 200 constabulary; in addition, he hired a 10-man “crowbar brigade” from County Tyrone. The tenancy grew justifiably nervous.

To fit with his Highlander theme (his home would later be built in the “Scottish Baronial” style), Adair had imported Scottish sheep and Scottish shepherds. These men were distrusted by the locals, both as outsiders and for their connection to the bad-tempered Adair. One man, James Murray, was particularly hated. When Murray’s bloody body was found dead on the estate, there were too many suspects to pin the blame on anyone. Adair decided that his entire tenancy were responsible for sheltering a murderer.

Between the 8th and the 10th of April 1861, he sent the constabulary and his own heavies in.

Forced to discharge an unpleasant duty, the sheriff entered the house and delivered up possession to Mr. Adair’s steward, whereupon a Crowbar Brigade of six men who had been brought from distance immediately fell to with right good will to level the house to the ground. The scene became indescribable. The bereaved widow and her daughters were frantic with despair and throwing themselves on the ground, they became almost insensible, and bursting out in the old Irish wail – then heard by many for the first time – their terrifying cries resounded along the mountains for many miles.
—  Londonderry Standard, 1861-01-10

244 people were evicted in all, including 159 children. Once the cottages were unroofed and the former tenants turned out onto the road, there was a deathly silence over the area. Some found shelter with neighbours, while others were forced into the Poorhouse for survival.

The news reached all the way to Australia. Michael O’Grady, representative of the London Insurance Company in Sydney, founded the Donegal Relief Committee to gather funds. In January 1862, many of the younger residents took up the offer to start a new life Down Under. Accompanied by parish priest Father James McFadden, they took the train to Dublin and from there a boat to the other side of the world.

glenveagh_cropped_pj
Photo of Glenveagh Castle by P.J. McKenna

Adair married an American heiress and the two of them built the imposing Glenveagh Castle, whose name translates as “Glen of the Birch Trees”. It became a fashionable residence where they invited friends and celebrities to go hunting, shooting, and fishing. But to the locals that remained and those forced to emigrate, the name “John George Adair” remained bitter on their tongues.

Adair died in 1885 on return from a business trip to America. His wife inscribed a rock on the Glenveagh estate with her husband’s name and the words “Brave, Just and Generous”. One stormy night, the rock was struck by lightning and sent crashing to the bottom of Lough Veagh.

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The Emergency Corridor

Bundoran, County Donegal

Photo of Tullan Strand, Bundoran by Brittni Stasiuk, licensed under Creative Commons

Is it smugness or insurgency
That makes them say ‘Emergency’?
I feel it lacks the urgency
Of World War Two
— ‘Be Careful not to Patronise the Irish’, song from Improbable Frequency

In April 1941, the men at an Irish army observation point watched as a fishing boat approached Tullan Strand near Bundoran. This would have been a normal sight, except the catch of the day was not herring but a Saro Lerwick sea-plane. Its pilot, British Army Officer Denis Briggs, had been forced to ditch when he ran out of fuel off the coast of Donegal.

Ireland was officially neutral during World War Two; the impact of the European conflict was dealt with under the Emergency Powers Act of 1939 and the situation in Ireland was therefore dubbed “The Emergency”. At various spots along the coast, the word EIRE was spelled out in large white stones, warning Allied planes that this was not the place to land and Axis planes that this was not the place to bomb.

So as Briggs and his plane were brought ashore, the local Irish army thought they knew what to do. They impounded Briggs’s plane and brought the crew to the nearby Finner Army Camp.

They were not aware that an under-the-table deal had been made between the British and Irish governments. British planes could use the air route over north Leitrim and south Donegal that linked the Atlantic Ocean to Northern Ireland, so long as they kept above a certain height, avoided the Finner camp, and didn’t make a nuisance of themselves. This route would become known as “The Donegal Corridor”.

Officer Briggs had, through no fault of his own, breached the accords of the “Donegal Corridor”. However, after a certain amount of diplomatic wrangling, a camouflaged aircraft lorry arrived from Northern Ireland with aviation fuel and the crew could take off again. Media censorship ensured that the news didn’t travel far, so Ireland’s neutrality was officially kept pure.

Three years later, the crew of a British Halifax aircraft was not so lucky in their flight through the Donegal Corridor. They were gathering weather-forecasting information that was essential to the war effort, so they were forced to go out despite atrocious conditions. Tragically, the plane hit the cliffs near the Fairy Bridges at Bundoran, and all ten men were killed. A monument to the Halifax crash can be seen today at Tullan Strand.

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Following Yeats’ Poems, 127 Years Later

Yeats’ country in Sligo and Leitrim. Reblogged from “Irish Dreams”.

Irish Dreams

For my upcoming trip to Ireland, Sligo is higher on my “must visit” list than Dublin, and for one semi-nerdy reason:  I love Yeats’ poem The Stolen Child.

I first heard the poem in high school after stumbling upon Loreena McKennitt’s work.  Several months passed before I realized the words were actually penned by Yeats in 1886, and that each stanza references real sights in an around Sligo.

1600px-mullaghmore2c_co_sligoSligo Coastline.  Image Credit:  Wikipedia.

From that moment on, I was entranced.  I chose The Stolen Child for a classroom poetry analysis exercise, and I’d later find inspiration from its refrain for a short story that evolved into my first novel.

When I went to Ireland with my family in 2011, our tour group didn’t stop in Sligo.  It came as a disappointment, but I’d already decided at that point I’d find a way back to Ireland…

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Among Savages

Streedagh Strand, County Sligo

Illustration of Irish warriors by Albrecht Dürer in 1521, public domain

In 1588, Captain Francisco de Cuéllar sailed with the Spanish Armada, no doubt expecting victory over the English and a triumphant return to Spain. Instead, his fleet received a crushing defeat and he attempted to sail his galleon, the San Pedro, home via Scotland and Ireland. Off the coast of County Sligo, the San Pedro floundered and met its end on Streedagh Strand.

I escaped from the sea and from these enemies by having commended myself very earnestly to our Lord, and to the Most Holy Virgin, His Mother; and with me three hundred and odd soldiers, who also knew how to save themselves and to swim to shore. With them I experienced great misfortunes: naked and shoeless all the winter: passing more than seven months among mountains and woods with savages.

— Captain Francisco de Cuéllar

His travels through Connacht and Ulster brought further adventure and hardship. He walked barefoot and wounded along a stony road, and was robbed of all his belongings. Fortunately, some of the locals were kind enough to provide him with food and dress his wounds.

De Cuéllar and some of fellow Spaniards found themselves in County Leitrim, living with a man named MacClancy, “a savage gentleman, a very brave soldier and great enemy of the Queen of England and of her affairs”. The English governor was not happy that MacClancy was providing shelter to the Armada survivors, and attacked the castle.

After MacClancy and his clan hid up a mountain, De Cuéllar and his countrymen held off the governor and his forces for 17 days, until “our Lord saw fit to succour and deliver us from that enemy by severe storms and great falls of snow”. MacClancy declared the Spaniards as his “most loyal friends, offering whatever was his for our service”, suggesting that his sister would marry De Cuéllar. The captain turned down this enticing offer, and travelled to Antrim where he found passage to Scotland and eventually back to Spain.

De Cuéllar’s letter about his experiences provide a valuable picture, if not always a flattering one, of Tudor Ireland:

The custom of these savages is to live as the brute beasts among the mountains, which are very rugged in that part of Ireland where we lost ourselves. They live in huts made of straw.

— Captain Francisco de Cuéllar

He describes the men as “large bodied, and of handsome features and limbs”, wearing “tight trousers and short loose coats of very coarse goat’s hair” and with “their hair down to their eyes”. The women are “very beautiful, but badly dressed”. He notes sniffily that “these people call themselves Christians” but “the chief inclination of these people is to be robbers, and to plunder each other” and concludes that “in this kingdom there is neither justice nor right, and everyone does what he pleases”. But he also acknowledges that “if it had not been for those who guarded us as their own persons, not one of us would have been left alive”.

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A slightly longer version of this story was originally published on my other blog, A traveller from an antique land.

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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