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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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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Casement’s Last Stand

Banna Strand, County Kerry

Photo of Roger Casement from National Library of Ireland

As the sun rose on Good Friday, April 21st 1916, three soaking men pulled a wooden rowboat to shore at Banna Strand in County Kerry. Roger Casement and his companions had been set down by a German U-Boat but their dinghy had overturned in the waves.

The sandhills were full of skylarks, rising in the dawn, the first I had heard for years – the first sound I heard through the surf was their song as I waded in through the breakers, and they kept rising all the time up to the old rath at Currahane.

— Roger Casement in a letter to his sister, 1916

51-year-old Casement was exhausted and unwell. When he collapsed on the sand, the two other men — Robert Monteith and Daniel Bailey — realised he could travel no further.

They had come from Germany, by way of Northern Scotland and Rockall, a long and dangerous route during wartime. But Casement had travelled still farther in his life. When he’d been born into a prosperous Anglo-Irish family at Sandycove in Dublin, most would have assumed he’d have a comfortable future. But Casement’s restless nature would not let that happen.

Most Europeans who went to work in the Congo Free State were able to ignore the atrocities that made their lives there possible. Casement could not. Initially employed as a clerk, he was later commissioned by the British Government to investigate exactly how King Leopold had been running his fiefdom in central Africa. The truth was more shocking than anyone had imagined. His report outlined the “enslavement, mutilation, and torture of natives on the rubber plantations“, and the international pressure eventually forced Leopold to relinquish his personal holdings.

He’d first contracted malaria in the Congo. As he struggled onto Irish shores for the first time in many years, he was suffering a relapse of that disease. His companions left him in the shelter of an ancient rampart known as McKenna’s Fort, and they went to find the local branch of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

As he curled in on himself, shivering with cold and fever, did he think about those days in the Congo? Did he also recall his later investigations into the abuse of the Putayamo Indians in Peru? He was known as a great campaigner whose searing words brought injustice to light. Would his admirers see him the same if they knew of his other activities, of the furtive pleasures he took with young men he met on his travels?

When did his razor-sharp sense of injustice begin to focus on his native land? He must have known, when he tried to persuade German government officials to provide arms and training for the IRB, that the British authorities would seen him as the worst kind of traitor. But the Germans provided far less equipment than was needed, and now his main aim was to contact the Irish rebels and advise them to call off the uprising.

He waited, surrounded by 2000 German rifles, listening to the skylarks, watching the primroses and wild violets that bloomed in the prehistoric ring fort. Did he wonder about the strange, circular fate that had brought him to this place?

Now the R.I.C. were hunting
For Sir Roger high and low,
They found him in McKenna’s fort;
Said they: “You are our foe”,
Said he: “I’m Roger Casement,
I came to my native land,
I mean to free my countrymen
On the lonely Banna Strand”.

— Lonely Banna Strand, song by The Wolfe Tones

The local Irish constabulary arrested Casement at McKenna’s Fort. The uprising took place on Easter Monday without the German weapons, and ended after six days with the surrender of the leaders.

Casement was tried for treason in London. His impassioned speech from the dock gained him new admirers around the globe, including in other parts of the British Empire who saw parallels in their own national situations. But during the trial, the British Government circulated passages from the “Black Diaries”, accounts of Casement’s homosexual activities in Congo and Peru. Nationalists protested that these diaries must have been faked, but they succeeded in their aim of tarnishing Casement’s reputation and turning off would-be supporters.

Roger Casement was hung at Pentonville Prison on August 3rd 1916. His remains were returned to Ireland nearly 50 years later.The old fort by Banna Strand has been renamed Casement’s Fort.

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Fungie the Friendly Dolphin

Dingle, County Kerry

Photo of Fungie by Dulup, licensed under Creative Commons

On a summer’s day in 1983, Paddy Ferriter looked out from the window of his lighthouse at Dingle Harbour. A fishing boat was making its way home, a bottlenose dolphin frolicking in its wake. Dolphins were not uncommon on the Kerry coastline, but few ventured this close to shore, and Paddy was sure he had seen this one before.

The dolphin soon became known as a regular in the area, and was christened “Fungie”. Visitors have wondered if this is an old Irish name meaning something profound, but it probably just stands for “fun guy”. Fungie is a playful creature who has an unusually close bond to humans. He rarely ventures far from Dingle, and has been adopted as a mascot by the town.

The tour boats leave the harbour all year round, weather permitting. They operate on a “no see — no pay” basis. Few boatmen lose money on this gamble, because the Dingle dolphin nearly always shows up. Over the years, hundreds of people have swum with Fungie, including celebrities such as Pierce Brosnan and Mary Black. An entire industry has built up around one playful animal.

Several theories have been proposed for the cause of Fungie’s affinity for Dingle and its people. Perhaps he was released from a marine park, which would explain his comfort with humans and disinclination to mix with his own species. Around the time of his arrival, the body of a female bottlenose was washed up dead; this may have been Fungie’s mate, and perhaps the dolphin couldn’t find the heart to leave after he lost her. In the late 1990s, Fungie had a fling with a younger dolphin named Smokey, but she left him for warmer waters and he remains in the bay.

Or does he? After 30 years, there is some speculation that the original Fungie may have been replaced by a younger model. The lifespan of bottlenose dolphins is hard to discern. In captivity, they typically live for no more than 25 years, but captivity probably shortens the life of a sociable creature used to open seas. In the wild, they may live as old as 50. Even so, Fungie was an adult in 1983, so he’s well past his prime in dolphin years.

The creature that inhabits Dingle Harbour has been slowing down of late. Local skippers point out the nick on his fin, which he got from a propeller blade some 20 years ago. They also point out that Fungie’s behaviour is so unusual that it’s hard to believe it could be replicated in another dolphin.

Fungie’s relatives are not always so easygoing. A more irritable bottlenose dolphin called Dusty has been located around Doolin and Galway Bay. Swimmers have ended up in hospital after mistaking her flapping fins for an invitation instead of a warning. Dolphins are still wild animals, and Fungie’s friendliness may have lead us to overestimate their tolerance of us.

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The American and the Bishop

Inch Beach, County Kerry

Photo of Inch Beach by Jerry Dohnal, licensed under Creative Commons

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough sold over 30 million copies and became a hugely successful mini-series. Part of its attraction was the scandalous relationship between the Irish priest Father Ralph de Bricassart and a younger Australian woman, Meggie Cleary. Their relationship was finally consummated on a tropical beach.

When Annie Murphy travelled from America to Ireland in 1973, she (like Meggie Cleary) was looking for a retreat from a broken marriage. She chose, not a tropical island, but the quiet green of County Kerry. A family friend was sent to meet her at the airport. Eamon Casey had first met Annie (as Father Ralph had first met Meggie) as a child. She was now 25. He was 45, the Bishop of Kerry.

When Eamon picked me up from the airport that day in 1973, a light went on, there was a spark, that was it.
– Annie Murphy in an interview with The Irish Independent, 2012

Anyone who met Bishop Casey remarked on his energy and charisma. He was a hard man to dislike, even for those who disagreed with him. He was seen as progressive, working for Irish immigrants in Britain, supporting those who protested against the apartheid regime in South Africa, opposing U.S. foreign policy in Central America. He loved to drive fast, to put his foot to the pedal, to push limits.

Casey, Casey, you’re the divil
When you get behind the wheel
– Casey, song by Christy Moore

Red Cliff House was an 18th century hunting lodge which had become a summer residence for members of the Catholic hierarchy. Nearby was the long sandy stretch of Inch Beach, where Ryan’s Daughter had been filmed four years earlier. For Eamon and Annie, Red Cliff House became a hideaway from the world and Inch Beach a place for romantic walks.

Like Rosy and Doryan from Ryan’s Daughter, like Meggie and Father Ralph from The Thorn Birds, Annie and Bishop Eamon became lovers. And like Meggie, Annie became pregnant.

Wear a condom, just in Casey
– T-shirt slogan

The romance ended with her announcement of the pregnancy. Casey insisted that Murphy was in no position to care for a child. Not long after she gave birth, he presented her with adoption papers for their son. She refused to sign and instead returned to America to raise Peter with the help of her parents. Casey sent regular payments for his upkeep, some of it from church funds.

The world didn’t find out until 1992, when Murphy’s partner took the story to The Irish Times. The scandal echoed around the world. Casey resigned as bishop and went to Ecuador as a missionary. Murphy was suddenly in the limelight, roasted on air by talk-show hosts. Later commentators would see it as one of the turning points where the Catholic Church began to lose its grip on the nation’s identity.

Gay Byrne: If your son is half as good a man as his father, he won’t be doing too badly.
Annie Murphy: I’m not so bad either, Mr Byrne.
– The Late Late Show, 1993

The Bishop Casey affair has long since been overshadowed by more disturbing priestly scandals. Few are still shocked by the tale of a bishop who had a consensual affair with a grown woman. Today, he is in a nursing home in County Clare, suffering ill health and dementia. Annie Murphy lives in California, far from Inch Beach.

Update: Eamon Casey died at Carrigoran nursing home on 13th March 2017 at the age of 89. His son Peter joined other relatives in paying tribute to his father.

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A Long Time Ago in a Monastery Far, Far Away

Skellig Michael, County Kerry

Photo of Skellig Michael by styrovor, licensed under Creative Commons

Contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens!

***

The spaceship landed on the planet and the girl stepped out onto the surface. She looked up at the jagged rock and the alien creatures swirling around. To this place at the edge of the known universe, she had come to learn the ways of the Force.

Her sandals climbed the stone steps that wound upwards. The way was unforgiving as it grew steeper; one slip and she could fall to her death. She touched the mossy rocks to steady herself. At the top, the Jedi Master pulled back his hood as he turned to greet her.

***

As they watched the final scene of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, viewers had many questions. What is Luke Skywalker’s relationship to Rey? Why is he hiding in such an out-of-the-way place? And what is that place anyway? A CGI backdrop, surely.

In fact, that rocky island exists about 12km off the shore of Ireland. Those stone steps and beehive huts were not built by 21st century set designers, but by medieval monks over a thousand years ago.

The era between the 5th and 9th centuries A.D. is considered the “Dark Ages” in most of Europe. In Ireland it was a golden age of “saints and scholars”, when monks formed thriving communities such as Glendalough, and preserved their learning in beautiful manuscripts such as the Book of Kells.

Some monks eschewed the relatively cozy world of the regular monastery to live in more out of the way places, all the better to commune with God. They were following the example of the “desert fathers”, early Christian hermits who retreated to the deserts of the Middle East and North Africa. Ireland did not have deserts, but it did have islands that were just as remote and forbidding, although a good deal wetter.

The monastery at Skellig Michael was founded some time in the 6th to 8th centuries, reportedly by Saint Fionán. Even by the standards of the day, it was a harsh life. Food came from their own vegetable gardens, or from the surrounding sea, or from the cliff faces which the most agile would climb down to retrieve wild eggs. No more than 12 monks lived here at any one time.

***

The boat anchored at shore and the boy stepped out onto the island. He looked up at the jagged rock and the seabirds swirling around. To this place at the edge of the known world, he had come to learn the ways of God.

His sandals climbed the stone steps that wound upwards. The way was unforgiving as it grew steeper; one slip and he could fall to his death. He touched the mossy rocks to steady himself. At the top, the abbot pulled back his hood as he turned to greet him.

***

Vikings attacked the settlement in 823, but it was a change in the weather that finally did for the community. In the 12th century, the climate became colder and the ocean more prone to storms, and the monks retreated to Ballinskelligs on the mainland.

Skellig Michael remained a place apart, occasionally visited by pilgrims and, from the 19th century on, by tourists.

I tell you the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in: it is part of our dream world.
– George Bernard Shaw, from a 1910 letter following a visit to the Skelligs

The monastery was made a World Heritage Site in 1996. Then in 2015, it hit the world stage as millions viewed Episode 7 of the Star Wars saga.

The decision to film on Skellig Michael was not without controversy. Some believed that the priceless monuments would be damaged by filmmakers, or by the tourists that such a high-profile film was likely to bring. Pressure might be placed to expand the season when boats travel to the island, or to increase the numbers allowed there. This would be a bad idea for many reasons, not least of which is safety. Tourists have died from falling on Skellig Michael.

It was decided not to film Episode 8 on the island but instead to build a replica in Pinewood Studios. However, in 2016 the crew came back to Ireland to film in Kerry and Donegal. It seems the Western Irish seaboard will once again be playing a starring role on the big screen.

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Beyond the Ninth Wave

Kenmare Bay, County Kerry

Photo by P.J. McKenna

Am gaeth i m-muir
Am tond trethan
Am fuaim mara

I am the wind on the sea
I am the stormy wave
I am the sound of the ocean

— Song of Amergin

According to the legend, Ireland was once inhabited by a magical race known as the Tuatha Dé Danann. They survived several threats from invaders, until the last.

The last invaders came from Galicia in what is now Northern Spain, descendants of a man named Míl Espáine (“soldier of Spain”) and therefore known as the “Milesians”. They fought several battles until a truce was drawn. As one of the conditions, the Milesians were forced to withdraw to sea and set anchor beyond the ninth wave from the shore.

Of course the Tuatha Dé Danann had a magical trick up their sleeves. They brewed up a storm and sent it towards the Milesian ships. The wind roared; the ocean churned. Many Milesians lost their lives to the waters, and others clung on as the storm threatened to overwhelm them. The invaders had no magic of their own, so how could they hope to survive, let alone defeat the Tuatha?

But they had a secret weapon on board. He was Amergin, a poet. He took out his harp and he sang.

Coiche nod gleith clochur slébe
Cia on co tagair aesa éscai
Cia du i l-laig fuiniud gréne

Who made the trails through stone mountains
Who knows the age of the moon
Who knows where the setting sun rests

— Song of Amergin

His music had charms to soothe the savage seas, and the Milesians were able to come ashore at Kenmare Bay. They had several more battles to fight, but they eventually defeated the Tuatha Dé Dannan.

Amergin was given the task of dividing the land between both sets of peoples. He gave the portion above ground to the Milesians, and the underworld to the Tuatha Dé Danann, where they still reside and only occasionally meddle in the lives of humans.

According to the legend, the people of Ireland are descended from the Milesians, those warriors and poets from Northern Spain. Of course, that’s just the legend. However, recent DNA analysis found the closest relatives to the Irish people in Galicia and the Basque country. So perhaps some Iberian poet led them here, after all.

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