Swan Song

Erris Head, County Mayo

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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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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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