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.

aliisaacstoryteller

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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