The Girl in the Tower

Tory Island, County Donegal

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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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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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The Achill Avenger

Achill Island, County Mayo

Photo of Achillhenge by P.J. McKenna

Stonehenge was built on Salisbury Plain some 4000 years ago over a period of generations. An equivalent structure in concrete was thrown up on Achill Island in November 2011 over one weekend.

Joe McNamara was no stranger to controversy. The year before, he had driven a mixer truck into the gates of Dáil Éireann (the Irish Parliament), the words ANGLO TOXIC BANK emblazoned on its drum. This was a reference to Anglo Irish Bank, the institution the centre of the Irish banking crisis. McNamara, a hotel developer who lost millions when the bank pushed his business into receivership, was soon dubbed the “Anglo Avenger” by the press. While he was waiting to be charged with criminal damage and dangerous driving, he drove up again to the Dáil, this time in a cherry-picker from where he blasted Lady Gaga along with other protest songs. He received a warning but not a prison sentence.

No-one was sure why he decided to create a 4 metre-tall, 100-metre round concrete structure on a piece of common ground on his native Achill Island.Was he inspired by other Stonehenge homages, such as Carhenge in Nebraska or Fridgehenge in New Zealand? He didn’t have planning permission; he tried to claim exemption by saying it was an “ornamental garden”, a “place of reflection”. While work was still ongoing, Mayo County Council served him an order to stop construction, but the structure was completed and McNamara was again in court. This time he was served with 5 days in prison.

Opinion on Achillhenge is divided. Locals are more than willing to direct curious tourists in its direction, and hand-painted signs point the way up the mountain path towards the structure. Archaeologists complain that it’s too close to a Bronze Age site. It has been described as an eyesore, a place of contemplation, a daring piece of art, and a monument to the Celtic Tiger.

It is meaningless – in a way – so each of us can put our own meaning on it.
— Achill resident, quoted by the BBC News

A poll in a local newspaper showed a majority of residents wanted Achillhenge to stay. In 2013, it was used for a temporary art installation, “Our Nation’s Sons”, twelve-foot drawings of young Irish men adorning each pillar.

In 2015, McNamara struck again, this time in the heart of London. Several other Irishmen helped him to erect the unauthorized structure beside Tower Bridge: a 7-metre high sword driven through a heart-shaped Union Jack. This one lasted just one weekend.

Achillhenge, nearly 5 years after its unlawful construction, remains in place.

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The Sea Queen of Connacht

Clew Bay, County Mayo

The Pirate Queen, Grace O’Malley by Tracy Feldman

 Tá Gráinne Mhaol ag teacht thar sáile,
Óglaigh armtha léi mar gharda.

Gráinne Mhaol is coming over the sea,
Armed warriors as her guard.

—  Óró Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile, by Padraig Pearse (1914)

The castle on Clare Island had a perfect view. When she stood on its ramparts and looked eastwards, she could see the mainland ahead of her, Achill Island to her left, the holy island of Caher to her right, and the restless seas running between them. Her clan, the O’Malleys, controlled these waters; their motto was “powerful by land and sea”.

Her name was Gráinne Ní Mháille. The English would call her Grace O’Malley. She had grown up on Clare Island,  and as a child she’d asked her father to bring her on a journey to Spain with him. He told her that her long hair would get caught in the ship’s ropes. Ever practical, she’d shaved her head and snuck on board with the boys, and thereafter was known as Gráinne Mhaol (“Bald Gráinne”), or Granuaile.

Her parents arranged a useful political marriage between their teenage daughter and one of the Ferocious O’Flahertys, a pugnacious young man known as Donal An Cogaigh (“Donal of the Battles”). They had two sons and a daughter together, but Donal was better at getting into fights than at ruling a clan territory, and Granuaile was the de facto chieftain during their marriage.

Predictably,  Donal An Cogaigh died during one of his ongoing disputes.The young widow returned to the family home on Clare Island, which became a lucrative pirate base. Granuaile’s crew came from multiple clans who were normally at war with one another. The fact that they put aside their differences to unite behind one woman is testament to her abilities and charisma.

She had strongholds on her headlands,
And brave galleys on the sea
And no warlike chief or viking
E’er had bolder heart than she.
— Granuaile, traditional song

February 1st was Saint Brigid’s Day, a time of pilgrimage to the holy well on Clare Island. Granuaile may have felt a connection to the formidable Saint Brigid, who had stood strong in her own time against the prejudices of men. As Granuaile walked towards the well, a messenger stopped her with news of a shipwreck off Achill Island. There was plunder to be had, and neither religious duty nor bad weather would stand between Granuaile and plunder!

Her crew sailed hard into the wind across the narrow strait between the two islands. A ship was foundering off Achill Head and a young man clung to the rocks. He was Hugh de Lacey, son of a Wexford merchant, a handsome fellow at least a decade younger than Granuaile. She took him home with the rest of the booty, and the two became lovers in her castle on Clare Island.

This romantic interlude was sadly short. Not long afterwards, Hugh went hunting deer on Achill and was killed by a member of the MacMahon clan. Granuaile was heartbroken, the warmth of her love turning to a cold fury that demanded vengeance.

Another pilgrimage was due to take place, this time on the little island of Caher. From her castle she watched the MacMahons disembark from their boats, and then her own fleet swooped in to surround and overpower them. She killed Hugh’s murderer with her own sword, but her thirst for revenge was not slaked. The ships set sail for the MacMahon heartland of Ballycroy and captured Doona Castle for herself, further strengthening her hold on the Mayo coast.

Sometime later, Granuaile married again, to Richard An Iarainn (“Iron Richard”) Bourke. He brought her the Bourke family connections and another strategic holding on Clew Bay: Rockfleet Castle on the mainland. It was another political match, but this time she was the one to negotiate the terms. She married him under the traditional Brehon custom of “one year certain”, a form of trial marriage after which either could withdraw from the arrangement.

On their first wedding anniversary, Richard returned to find himself locked out of Rockfleet Castle. His wife shouted down at him from the topmost window.

“Richard Bourke, I dismiss you!”

Despite the divorce, Granuaile and Richard cooperated when it suited them. They had a son together, Tibbot Na Long (Tibbot of the Ships) Bourke, and they both needed each other to play the political game.

There came to mee a most famous femynyne sea captain called Grany Imallye… she brought with her her husband, for she was as well by sea as by land well more than Mrs Mate with him… this was a notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland.

— Lord Deputy Sir Henry Sydney, 1577

Granuaile remained “powerful by land and sea” into middle and old age. She was 60 when her sons and her half-brother were captured by the governor of Connacht, but this didn’t stop her sailing for London and meeting with Queen Elizabeth I to negotiate their release. To everyone’s surprise, she approached the English Queen as an equal; and to even more astonishment, Elizabeth was impressed enough to order the freeing of Granuaile’s relatives.

The English authorities in Ireland were none too pleased with what they saw as their queen’s capitulation, and they didn’t trust Granuaile’s promise to refrain from further piracy. On this last point they were correct, because the Pirate Queen, despite her advanced years, resumed her clandestine activities on the western seaboard.

The English Queen and the Sea Queen of Connacht died in the same year. Granuaile’s last days were spent at Rockfleet Castle, and she was buried in the abbey on Clare Island.

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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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