The Oldest Adventure

You may remember that, a few weeks ago, I put up a post about the Irish Folklore Commission, and mentioned Bríd Mahon, from Cork, who had found references to many Irish versions of . . . the earliest known folktale . . .

Seán O’Sullivan showed me an international folktale known in Irish as ‘Ao Mhic an Bhradáin agus Ó Mhic an Bhradáin’ (‘Hugh and O, the Two Sons of the Salmon’) . . .

 

It was the earliest known folktale, first discovered on Egyptian papyrus 3,250 years before. During my years with the Commission hundreds of variants of that far-flung story were gathered in remote hamlets on the western seaboard of Ireland, in parts of Munster, in northwest Ulster and from a group of travelling people on the borders of Wicklow and Wexford . . .

A full text is available as an audio file, in Irish. It’s here if you want to have a listen:

Since writing that first post I have been trying to find a translation of the story into English, but without success. So – nothing ventured nothing gained – I’m providing you with my own version of the story! I have distilled this from the Irish language (although my knowledge of Irish is but rudimentary), using dictionaries and online translation helpers and then putting the whole thing into a sort of vernacular tongue which seems to suit the subject. I think I have the gist of it right enough, but you’ll just have to go along with my own way of telling it. I have also delved into the Roaringwater Journal archives for a few illustrations to break up the text. For me, it’s a fine story: I hope you enjoy it!

Legend of the Salmon of Knowledge by Charlie Fallon (Saatchiart):

Hugh and O, the Two Sons of the Salmon

It came about that there was a poor man whose only means of making a living was catching fish. If he came home with no fish, he wasn’t lucky: he could only do his best. The poor man had a wife, but no child came to them, and the years were on them.

Fisherman on Lough Skeagh 1946 (Irish Folklore Commission):

One day he was out fishing with his rod and took a fine salmon. It was hard work, but he reeled in the fish and was about to kill it when it spoke to him! “Don’t kill me’’ said the salmon, “Let me go and I will tell you a story of good fortune.”

The poor man was amazed to learn that the salmon could speak, but he replied: “I will hear the story and, if I am pleased, I will let you go.”

“Listen now”, said the salmon. “I know you have been upset that you have no children; I am glad to tell you that you will soon have two sons.”

“That is certain to be untrue”, said the fisherman.

“I am not telling you a lie”, said the salmon. “Let me go and you will see that I am telling you the truth.”

The fisherman cut the line and released the salmon. He returned home and told his wife the great news. She was not impressed. “It’s a pity you did not bring the salmon back with you for our supper: it’s clear that he was mocking you!”

Nevertheless, within the year the couple were surprised to have two sons. “Look now”, said the fisherman, “wasn’t it the truth that the salmon told me?”

“By my soul it was”, said the woman, “but what shall we call these two?”

“We will call them É Mhic and Ó Bhradáin” said the fisherman. And so it was. They were known as Hugh and O, the Two Sons of the Salmon. You could not put anything between them in looks, manner or speech.

As the boys grew, so did the luck of the fisherman. Every time he went out with his rod his catch increased fourfold, and they became rich enough that each boy could have a hawk, a greyhound and a horse. The boys also had the luck with their hunting.

At twenty years of age Hugh told his brother that he would leave and seek his fortune in the world. “If I am not back in twelve months, then come and find me,” he said.

Hugh took his hawk, his dog and his horse. Also, he did not forget his sword. He tackled the road and had good travels. On a day in winter he got lost in a wood, and stumbled on a fine castle in a clearing. “By the Devil”’ he said, “I’ll go in and wait out the night if no ill will is shown to me.”

Inside was a fair countrywoman and they began to converse until a terrible noise was heard, and the walls of the castle shook. The girl vanished and it wasn’t long before a big, strong, bad-tempered affair jumped into the room. “What kind of a person has the destiny to end his life in my castle?” he shouted.

“It doesn’t matter to you”, said Hugh. “What the heck, now I’m in I will stay here!”

The two laid into each other with their swords and, in the shock of the fight, the giant was turned to dust. In the morning it was raining all over the woods, and Hugh spent the day wandering. As evening fell, what should come to him but a hare? He took his horse and released the hound and the hawk but the hare outran them all and disappeared into a small cottage in the wood. “Why wouldn’t I go in?” said Hugh.

Inside was a fire in the grate and he sat down beside it. Soon the ugliest old woman he had ever seen came through the door. She made no blessing to him at all, only to look badly at him.

“Come in from the door”, says Hugh, “and share the fire with me.”

“I won’t come”, she said, “I would be scared!”

“What would you be scared of?” asks Hugh.

“That hawk, and I don’t trust the greyhound, and I wonder what this horse would do to me?”

“You are in no danger from them”, says Hugh “They are all honest. Come up and sit by the fire.”

“I will not”, she says, “unless they are all leashed.”

“Why don’t I bind them?” says Hugh. “But I have nothing to bind them with.”

“I’ll give you a way to bind them”, says she, and tore three snares of hair off her head. “Here”, she says, “Use these.”

He snapped a hair leash on the hawk – the old lady must have had very strong hair! And he tied the hound with another snare and the horse with the third. When he had done this the old woman produced a sword.

“Take care, my boy”, she said, “I know you were in the castle last night and you killed my son there. He would despise me unless I challenge you now.”

She wielded her sword and they fought a battle inside the cottage. The woman – who was small – had the advantage because Hugh could not properly swing his sword within the confines of the room. The old woman had the head start on him, and he called out to his hawk.

“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman. With that the snare closed on the hawk and it could not stir.

Hugh became angry and tried to get the better of the old lady, but it was no use. Soon he was tight-lipped, and called for the greyhound to come to his aid.

“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman. The snare clipped on the greyhound and she couldn’t move. The fight continued, and Hugh urged the horse to come to his aid.

“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman.

“I can’t help you”, said the horse, “The snare is too tight on me.”

Hugh’s anger intensified and he was about to take a final blow at her when the old woman took out a magic rod. She hit Hugh with the rod, and he turned into a stone in the middle of the floor. She struck another blow for the hawk, the greyhound and the horse, and there were three more stones in the floor.

The Giant’s Fingers, Co Cavan:

“Now”, she said, “I have avenged my son’s death, and these stones will stay here a long time before anyone will take them away!”

After a year Hugh had not returned home, and O said to his mother and father that he was going to look for him. “I fear something bad has happened to him”, he said.

“It will be little help to you or us if he is dead’’ said his father, but he would not be stopped. He seized his hawk, his dog and his horse, and never forgot to take his sword also.

He travelled a long way and a short way and one evening – why, shouldn’t he find himself in the same wood where his brother had been, and across the wood he found the same fine castle.

“I am tired after this day’s ride”, he said. “I’ll stay in this fine castle tonight, unless anyone puts me out of it.”

The first thing he saw was the fair countrywoman, who was surprised, thinking that he was Hugh – for the twin brothers looked exactly the same. “Where have you been?” she asked. Before he could answer a terrible noise and shaking filled the air and the girl disappeared. In bounced a much larger and stronger giant than the one which his brother had faced up to. 

“What brought you to my castle uninvited?” he shouted. “And what kind of person are you to have the destiny to end your life here for a second time?”

“I was outside and had no place to go”, said O. “But I have no memory of ending my life here before.”

“Come here and I will make you remember”, said the giant, wielding his sword. It was a long night of fighting, but the eventual ruin of the thing was the despatch of the giant by the brother, who settled down and went to sleep.

Tomorrow morning he got up and searched the castle, but failed to find anyone else alive in it. He raised his horse, his dog and his hawk and went out hunting in the demesne.

Hare – stained glass by George Walsh:

As evening fell, what should come to him but a hare? He took his horse and released the hound and the hawk but the hare outran them all and disappeared into a small cottage in the wood. “Why wouldn’t I go in?” said O.

There was no-one inside but a fine red fire in the grate, and he sat down beside it. Soon the ugliest old woman he had ever seen came through the door. She made no blessing to him at all, only to look badly at him.

“Come in from the door”, says O, “and share the fire with me.”

“I won’t come”, she said, “I would be scared!”

“What would you be scared of?” asks O.

“This hawk, and I don’t trust the greyhound, and I wonder what that horse would do to me?”

“You are in no danger from them”, says O, “They are all honest. Come up and sit by the fire.”

“I will not”, she says, “unless they are all leashed.”

“Why don’t I bind them?” says O. “But I have nothing to bind them with.”

“I’ll give you a way to bind them”, says she, and tore three snares of hair off her head. “Here”, she says, “Use these.”

He pretended to bind them, but at the first opportunity he put the three hairs into the fire.

“Take care, you scoundrel”, she said, “there’s no doubt that you killed my son – the best son a woman ever had! You were in the castle last night”, she said,“ and my son is dead there today. You did it, for sure”.

“But what is your satisfaction?” says O, “I wouldn’t have killed him if he hadn’t tried to kill me.”

“I’ll tell you”, she said, “I’ll be happy.” She wielded her sword and they fought a battle inside the cottage. They both laid into the battle, and it was the greatest sword-wielding that any man had ever seen between any two, and they continued on ever and ever until O was in trouble. He saw that he was strained and he called for his hawk to come to his aid.

“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman. 

“I can’t move”, said the snare, “because I’m here in the fire”. So the hawk jumped, and that was it for the woman – her eyes were out. This did not stop the battle between them and she very soon had the headache on O once more. He yelled out to the greyhound, “Give me help.”

“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman.

“I can’t help you”, said the snare, “because I’m here in the fire”. So the greyhound jumped in and took a piece out of the old woman’s leg. Yet she still gave her best and O was forced to call out for his horse.

“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman.

The snare spoke and said, “I’m here in the fire”. With that the horse came to his aid and didn’t the old lady explode with both her legs gone.

From then on it was O taking the lead. He raised his sword to strike the final blow: “Here’s an end for you,” he shouted.

“Hold on”, says she, “If you remove my head or my walls of life, your brother and his horse, his dog and his hawk will remain captive forever”.

“How can you bring them back?” he asked.

“There’s a magic wand, stuck under that rack by the fire. Hit these stones with the rod and they will come back as right as they ever have been.”

He made for the rod and the first thing was he had struck the witch and she turned to stone herself! Then he struck the other four stones and his brother, the hawk, the greyhound and the horse were back right as they had always been. There was the great reunion and the sharing of stories, then they were all for going back to the castle. “We have the magic wand now”, they said, “We can do whatever we like – let’s call and see what big lads there might be there now.”

There was the fair countrywoman, and wasn’t she surprised to see the two men standing there as alike as you could ever believe. O grabbed her for fear she would vanish as she had before. “Now”, he said “there’s something strange about you, for you left me before when the ground shook.”

“It’s like this”, she said, “ there are three of us here enchanted. The old woman comes every night and puts the magic on me, then in the days I have to do all the chores in the castle for her two sons. She didn’t come at all last night.”

Enchanted Woods (The Dark Hedges, Co Antrim):

“No”, says O, “and you will never see her again. I ended up with that old girl last night and I took the living breath from her. But tell us how you came to be here?”

“It’s too long to tell”, said the girl. “There were only the two of us, sisters – and the best times were when we were living with our father and mother: strong, rich and important. Our mother fell ill and knew that there was no cure. She called us to her bed and told us that she saw a disaster on the horizon. The old powers would come and put an enchantment on us, and take our castle. Our father asked how long we would stay enchanted, and if there was any cure. There was none, she said, unless the Sons of the Salmon would ever find us. The old powers came to take the castle from us. When we resisted the old woman struck us with a magic wand and we were turned into three stones – my father, my sister and I. Only I was released every day to carry out the chores. That is how we have lived our lives up to now, and if the old woman is dead then perhaps the magic is at an end.”

“She is dead”, said Hugh, “as we have survived the magic. Where are the stones that were made for you and your father?”

She showed them the stones. Hugh beat the magic wand on the stones and there were all three bounced up as well as they ever had been. Then their stories started together, with the father telling all that had taken place. “And now”, he said, “we believed that we would be captured forever unless the Sons of the Salmon lifted the magic. But you cannot be the Sons of the Salmon, yet the magic has been lifted!”

“That doesn’t matter now”, said Hugh. “but we are two brothers and you have these two daughters. Why wouldn’t we be the ones to marry them?”

“So be it”, said the father, “and I will divide my kingdom between you.”

“Perhaps we don’t need a kingdom”, said the brothers, “for our own father is a gentleman too. Now we should return to him to give him the news.”

And so it happened that the families were united. The gentleman who had been a fisherman remembered the story of his meeting with the salmon who could talk, and who had foretold the birth of the two boys. Of course it was these two who were the Sons of the Salmon. It was agreed that they should go and look for the salmon so that he could share the news. The fisherman went back with his line to the pool where he had the adventure in those far off days. What should happen but the salmon reappeared and spoke again! The long of it was that they struck the salmon with the magic wand and he turned into a fine gentleman who told them how he, also, had been put under an enchantment which could only be lifted by his own sons.

The short of it was that they all returned to the castle in the woods. They picked up the stone that was made from the old woman and took it to the pool where the salmon had spoken. “What would we do with her”, said O, “but put her where she put somebody else?”

They threw in the stone, and there was never trouble again in that castle or in that kingdom. The sun has always shone in everlasting summer, and the fields are only green. And the children’s children of those families have spread across the western lands and are the happiest of all peoples in all this world.

Endpiece from Irish writer and illustrator Robert Gibbings’ final book – Till I End My Song (1957):
Salmon of Knowledge by George Walsh:

This story was reworked by Robert, based on a most ancient story, told in Irish

Mizen Mountains 5 – Knockaphuca

Perhaps one of the most satisfying mountains on the Mizen, the 237m high Knockaphuca provides a well maintained waymarked trail best tackled as it is laid out – in a counter clockwise direction. You will go up the east side and down the steep west face. If you are lucky with the weather, as we were just before the longest day, you will have an experience which is hard to rival in this corner of Ireland. The loop walk is one of the latest sections of the Fastnet Trails which have been established to the west of Schull during 2019. All credit is due to the team which has so successfully organised and laid out these trails: this has involved much behind-the-scenes hard work.

In fact the full Knockaphucka Loop trail starts in Goleen, and is 10km long. We joined it as it leaves the R591 road north of the village (upper picture – the route goes off to the left). The map above has the mountain section (which we followed) superimposed on the Google Earth contour information. The section we walked is 6.6km long, and climbs about 200 metres.

One of the first landmarks on the way is right at the point where the marked track to the mountain leaves the main road: Ballydevlin Old School House (above). There is another ‘Ballydevlin Old School’ nearer to Goleen; presumably one was the National School (established c1831) and the other may have been a denominational Church of Ireland school. This peculiar Irish duality still exists today in many places.

Once on the marked track you are in a paradise! An ancient green road takes you part-way up the mountain, passing through small gorges which must have been cut out long ago: even if you are not a geologist you can’t help being impressed by the rock formations – they could be works of art.

After a while the path turns to the east and follows narrow, grassy glens bordered by majestic, serpent-like outcrops. It’s here that the views begin to open out, particularly to the south. Always you think that there couldn’t be a finer prospect over the Mizen and across the islands of Roaringwater Bay, and always – as you climb higher – you are surprised by the next, which is even better.

Twists and turns take you more steeply across the contours and swing round towards the summit. Only then is the full picture revealed: the whole landscape set out below you – every rift, valley and glacial glen with the higher land beyond culminating in the crests of Gabriel, 407m high, to the east, and the ‘little’ Mizen Peak, 232m high, to the west.

You won’t get lost as you head for the summit: this mountain had a distinctive cross placed at its highest point in the Holy Year of 1950, which reportedly fell in 1968, leaving the inscribed concrete plinth intact. The photo below shows the plinth in 2006 – courtesy Richard Webb. A new cross was installed in 2011 by a community effort led by the local GAA: this is now visible from much of the trail. The plaque mentions ‘…these challenging times…’, referring to the financial crash that hit Ireland so badly around that time. Illumination of the cross today is provided by photo-voltaic cells.

When you get to the top – pause… Now is the opportunity to appreciate the spectacular views in every direction. On our outing the south wind had been building up all day and was at its strongest in the late afternoon, when we gained the summit. It was pretty hard to remain upright! In fact, I wondered if we were being given a message by the resident Púca whose domain this is, after all?

The path down descends quite steeply: make sure you are well shod and vigilant. But you are in for further treats: the marked way passes by some peaty mountain tarns which are exquisite in their pristine beauty. Finola was in her element finding undisturbed native species such as water-lilies and sundews.

The mountain trail section ends on the small boreen running to the west of Knockaphuca, but the waymarkers will lead you back to the starting point, and there are still views up to the summit to enjoy, along with some landscape features on the way to continue to stimulate the senses.

What more could anyone want from a day’s outing in West Cork? Well – a bit of local history, perhaps. I searched for stories about the hill, particularly about the Púca – but only turned up this one told by Jerry McCarthy and included in Northside of the Mizen, the invaluable collection of Tales, Customs and History produced by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes in 1999:

The Púca of Knocnaphuca

 

The old people would feed the Púca of Knocnaphuca on ‘Snap-apple Night’, or indeed, whenever one had call to travel up the hill. It was the wise person that fed the Púca the night before going up. Milk and cake would be put on a plate and left outside the house and by the next morning the food had always gone!

 

The Púca of Knocnaphuca was half horse and half human. One late Snap-apple Night there was a young lad out walking the road when he heard a strange, sweet music coming from the hill. He went up and saw the Púca playing on a whistle. As soon as the lad had put eyes on it, it stopped playing and caught him. Away the Púca went to the top of the hill, where a crack opened up in the rock. In they went. They were twisting and turning down through tunnels until they entered a chamber full of gold. “Now,” said the Púca, “you are mine!”…

 

The next morning the boy was found on the road by the Long Bog. His hair had turned white and he could not speak a word ever after.

Thank you to our artist friend Hammond Journeaux of Ballydehob for this wonderful drawing of ‘Pooka’, included in The Little People of Ireland by Aine Connor, illustrated by Hammond, The Somerville Press, 2008. Púca in Ireland has counterparts in Cornwall (Bucca), Wales (Pwca), The Channel Islands (Pouque) and Brittany (Pouquelée). A shape-shifter (Flan O’Brien’s character from At Swim-Two-Birds, the Pooka MacPhellimey, changes his appearance by smoking from a magic pipe), the Púca most often appears in Ireland as a fine black stallion with red eyes. If you meet him, you have to mount him and he will take you on a journey far across the sea. It will seem to you as though you had been away for only a few hours, but the world will have moved on several weeks, perhaps months, during your absence. We saw no trace of the creature in June but, perhaps, if we climbed this mountain in the November Dark, we would have more chance of an encounter.

The Oldest Folktale in the World!

The Irish Folklore Commission was established in 1935 in Earlsford Terrace, Dublin – where turf fires burned regularly in the grates. In our library at Nead an Iolair are three books by researchers who gave much of their working lives to the Commission. Bríd Mahon, from Cork, was hired by the Commission as a temporary typist in October 1939. Ten years later she took over as office manager from Máire MacNeill, who was to marry: married women could not be civil servants in Ireland in those days! Seán O’Sullivan was the archivist of the Commission for the duration of its existence (1935 – 1971). In 1971 the project was absorbed by the Department of Irish Folklore, University College, Dublin.

Tadhg Ó Murchú recording an unidentified informant on a clockwork Ediphone in Spunkane, Co Kerry, 1936. ©Commission and Department of Irish Folklore

. . . The first things I noticed were the wicker basket heaped with sods of black turf beside an open fire and the smell of the blue peat smoke which I love. It was the first day as a raw recruit to the staff of the Irish Folklore Commission. One wall of the room was lined with manuscripts bound in dark leather. A small dark man was turning the handle of a machine. Shreds of wax from a long cylinder fell into a container. Seán O’Sullivan (1903 – 96), who was the archivist, explained that the wax cylinders he was paring were used by the collectors on clockwork dictating machines called Ediphones to record the tales and traditions of the Irish countryside. He said that they were a great improvement on the old method of taking down information by hand. The only drawback was that the Ediphones had to be carried by the collectors on bicycles, which made riding over stony roads difficult and up mountain paths near impossible . . .

 

The Second World War was drawing to a close, petrol was scarce and few people owned cars. The Commission employed five full-time collectors, who worked in places as far apart as the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry and the Bluestacks in County Donegal. When the men had filled a dozen cylinders they transcribed the information onto blue notebooks, using indelible ink. These were sent back to Dublin, carefully packed in boxes. The notebooks were bound and kept in the Commission’s archives and the cylinders were pared and recycled . . .

From Bríd Mahon’s account of her time at the Irish Folklore Commission: While Green Grass Grows Mercier Press, 1998

Paddy Óg Liath Ó Súilleabháin being recorded by Tadhg Ó Murchú. On the right is Caoimhín Ó Danachair  (Kevin Danaher – familiar to our Journal readers) ©Commission and Department of Irish Folklore

Bríd Mahon also relates how the Folklore Commission (which survived on a shoestring budget) acquired its Ediphone machines:

. . . In the 1930s Delargy [Séamus Ó Duilearga, Director of the Commission throughout its life] had gone on a lecture tour of America that entailed much travel and long train journeys. Coming to the end of his travels, he happened to find himself sharing a carriage with another traveller. They soon discovered a common interest – both were dedicated fishermen. As the night wore on they got talking about Ireland and the work of the Commission. Delargy remarked that gathering folklore was akin to fishing – both took time and patience. He described how for eight years he had spent every vacation in a remote hamlet in County Kerry, first helping with the housework, afterwards making himself as comfortable as he could on a bag of salt, while he wrote down from the dictation of one of Ireland’s great storytellers hundreds of legends, Fianna tales and miscellanea of folklore. ‘On a night in April 1931 Seán Ó Canaill told me the last tale in his repertoire,” Delargy told his listener. “A month later he was dead. It had been a race against time.”

 

Delargy’s travelling companion was impressed by the meeting. “I wish you well in your undertaking, Mr Delargy,” were his parting words as the train pulled into Grand Central Station, New York. But it wasn’t the end of the story. Delargy was scarcely back in Dublin when a consignment of Ediphone machines arrived with the compliments of the President of the Edison Company. The accompanying note read: “To a fellow traveller and fisher of men.” These Ediphones were used by the collectors for many years . . .

Left – Séamas Mac Aonghusa (Seamus Ennis) was responsible for recording over 2,000 songs and dance tunes while working for the Folklore Commission. Right – an Ediphone being transported in rural Ireland (1945)

More from Bríd Mahon:

Seán O’Sullivan showed me an international folktale known in Irish as ‘Ao Mhic an Bhradáin agus Ó Mhic an Bhradáin’ (‘Hugh and O, the Two Sons of the Salmon’) . . .

 

It was the earliest known folktale, first discovered on Egyptian papyrus 3,250 years before. During my years with the Commission hundreds of variants of that far-flung story were gathered in remote hamlets on the western seaboard of Ireland, in parts of Munster, in northwest Ulster and from a group of travelling people on the borders of Wicklow and Wexford . . .

The Travelling Community, Parkgarve, Co Galway, 1956 ©Commission and Department of Irish Folklore

Nothing would satisfy me but to find a version of the ‘earliest known folktale’ to finish off this post. But, search high and low, the only example I could find is written in Irish and amounts to 5,000 words! With my very limited skills and many translation aids I have begun to work on the story. I’ll give you a taster, but the full tale will have to wait for another day:

Hugh and O, the Two Sons of the Salmon

 

It came out that there was a poor man whose only means of making a living was catching fish. If he came home with no fish, he wasn’t lucky. He could only do his best. The poor man had a wife for many years, but no children came to them, and they were both now well into old age.

On a day he was out fishing with his rod and a fine salmon came to him. It was hard work, but he reeled in the fish and was about to kill it when it spoke to him! “Don’t kill me’’ said the salmon, “Let me go and I will tell you a story of good fortune.”

 

The poor man was amazed to hear the salmon speak, but he replied: “I will hear the story and, if I am pleased, I will let you go”.

 

“Listen now”, said the salmon. “I know you have been upset that you have no children; I am glad to tell you that you will soon have two sons.”

 

“That is certain to be untrue”, said the fisherman.

 

“I am not telling you a lie”, said the salmon. “Let me go and you will see that I am telling you the truth.”

 

The fisherman cut the line and released the salmon. He returned home and told his wife the great news. She was not impressed. “It’s a pity you did not bring the salmon back with you: it’s clear that he was mocking you!”

 

Nevertheless, within the year the couple were surprised to have two sons. “Look now”, said the fisherman, “wasn’t it the truth that the salmon told me?”

 

“By my soul it was”, said the woman, “but what shall we call these two?”

 

‘We will call them É Mhic and Ó Bhradáin” said the fisherman. And so it was. They were known as Hugh and O, the Two Sons of the Salmon. You could not put anything between them in looks, manner or speech.

 

As the boys grew, so did the luck of the fisherman. Every time he went out with his rod his catch increased fourfold, and they became rich enough that each boy could have a hawk, a greyhound and a horse. The boys also had the luck with their hunting.

 

At twenty years of age Hugh told his brother that he would leave and seek his fortune in the world. “If I am not back in twelve months, then come and find me,” he said . . . 

The Fisherman – Lough Skeagh, Co Cavan, 1946 ©Commission and Department of Irish Folklore

Quest for the Lone Whitethorn

The crowning glory of our West Cork hedgerows, highways and boreens at this time of the year is the May bush – Sceach Gheal – Hawthorn or Whitethorn. The example above is on the way down to Ballydehob, just a few minutes’ walk from Nead an Iolair: we can’t resist stopping every time we pass to admire its brilliance – a shining presence among the abundant greenery of the early summer that’s all around us in these quiet days.

You have to get up close to fully appreciate the wonder of the tiny individual blooms that contribute to the billowing white cloud effects we see wherever there is a May bush in the hedges. We have one right outside of our bedroom window (see Rossbrin Castle in the distant view):

Such a visually striking tree has attracted many traditions and superstitions over the generations – and pisogues like these never really go away. A good account of many surviving beliefs in the British Isles is given in The Hazel Tree Blog.

Of course, the May Bush is a thorn – a spiky tree, seen here before the blossoms come out. Even if those pisogues about it being unlucky to bring it into the house didn’t protect it from being cut, then those thorns would certainly be a goodly deterrent. This great picture, with chaffinch, was taken by Finola, who also provided many of the other photos here. Thank you, Finola! We admire the work of Michael Fortune, who lives in Wexford where, with Aileen Lambert, they have succeeded in re-establishing a May Bush tradition.

It’s been a quest of ours, when on our ‘lockdown’ walks – limited to 5km – to find the iconic ‘lone thorn tree’, out in a field, moor or open country, as this is the one imbued with the legends. So far we have been unsuccessful – the whitethorns around us all seem to be part of a hedgerow. In my English west country days – when I lived in the Celtic regions of Cornwall and Devon – I was aware of many solitary thorn trees, particularly out on the moors. Being in exposed locations they were usually distinctively shaped, bending away from the prevailing winds.

I had to search my archives for this photo of a lone thorn tree ‘bent’ by the wind: it was taken on the Sheep’s Head in June 2015 – after the blooms have faded. Always be careful of the solitary thorn for it guards the entrance to the realm of the Other Crowd. If you fall asleep under that thorn tree you will find yourselves transported into the kingdom of the old ones. It will not be an unpleasant experience – they will offer to satisfy all your thirst and hunger… But, if you accept, you will remain in that kingdom and grow old. One day they will release you, and it will seem as if just a few moments had passed since you left, but your aged body will very soon crumble to dust. This belief was as prevalent in Devon and Cornwall as it still is today in Ireland. Beware!

Close to home again – whitethorns in Ballydehob Bay. Once the blooms have gone, of course, we look forward to the haws, which are said to be edible but bland. They are traditionally used to make jelly and wine.

We could not be without the hawthorn trees which are all around us: they are lighting up our days in these times of anxiety and restriction – and they are reminding us of the continuity of nature and the constant cycle of the seasons. Life will prevail.

Our own May Bush a few years ago – blackthorn and gorse. We keep up the ancient traditions out of respect for the lore of our ancestors. If we don’t, the sun may never rise again!

To Puncture the Mysterious – Finbarr and the Serpent

There are two St Finbarrs, Patron Saint of Cork – the one you read about in academic studies, and the saint of myth and legend. If you’re of a romantic turn of mind, I recommend you avoid the first of these. It will do your heart no good to read the forensic analyses of the origins of his cult and who he might really have been.

The legendary Finbarr: Arriving at Gougane Barra in this window in Caheragh by Murphy Devitt; and being consecrated as a bishop by angels in an Earley window in St Finbarr’s church in Bantry, donated by William Martin Murphy

No – far better to read the hagiographies, which lay out his virtues, for he was godlike and pure of heart and mind, like Abraham; mild and well-doing, like Moses; a psalmist, like David; wise, like Solomon; firm in the faith, like Peter; devoted to the truth, like Paul the Apostle; and full of the Holy Spirit, like John the Baptist. He was a lion of strength, and an orchard full of apples of sweetness.

St Finbarr’s monastic site as reconstructed by Fr Peter Hurley in the 1890s and still a place of pilgrimage. The window is in the Church of St Finbarr and the Holy Angels in Inchigeela and is a flamboyant example of Watsons of Youghal’s Celtic Revival style

He is associated with Cork, of course, but probably most closely with Gougane Barra, that idyllic mountain lake where he is said to have founded his first monastic community. Gougane Barra – the rocky cranny of Finbarr – lies in a cleft in the Shehy Mountains and from it the River Lee flows eastwards across Cork to empty itself into its mighty harbour.

The oratory at Gougane is an in-demand wedding venue and home to stained glass windows by Watsons of Youghal, including this one of Finbarr

Legend has it that when St Finbarr arrived to set up his cell the lake was occupied by an enormous serpent, called Lú (or Louie, in some accounts) who, having had it to himself naturally resented the saint’s arrival and on one occasion arose and tore the chalice from his hands as he was celebrating mass. Finbarr raged and prayed and with the power of God to sustain him he summoned Lú from the depths and banished him forever from the lake.

Lú underfoot, being banished by Finbarr

Lú departed, thrashing his giant tail as he went and such was his anger and strength that he carved a deep valley as he went. The water from the lake flowed into the valley and thus the River Lee (below) was formed.

Our favourite contemporary poet, James Harpur, has re-imagined this story as a classic spiritual struggle. He has given me permission to use his poem, Finbarr and the Serpent of Gougane Barra. This is the perfect answer to the desiccation and disappointment of academic analysis – the power of Finbarr’s legend lies in the timeless battle between good and evil – whether that’s between a saint and a serpent or between a saint and his demons.

Did it exist?

                   For hours I’d scan the surface

Hope for a splash, a shadow in the water,

Anything

               to puncture the mysterious.

At night I’d set the traps with squeaking bait.

But nothing came

                            except a badger and an otter.

Yet still I felt its presence by the lake.

At last, I snapped: I drove the serpent out

With curses, shouts – I exorcised the beast

Along with every slithering scaly thought.

But soon … I could not bear the certainty

Of absence, emptiness.

                                     I headed east

To settle where the plains of marshes lie

And built a trap, a cave-like oratory;

And here I pray for god

                                      to coil around me.

 

A Hobby Horse in Ireland?

Surviving tradition in Ireland – a May garland seen on a threshold in Schull, West Cork. on May Day this year

We are in the month of May. How significant is that here in Ireland? Well, if it’s any indication, it’s a fact that Irish folklorist Kevin Danaher (1913 – 2002) gives far more space in his writings to May and traditional May customs than to any other single subject or season.

Kevin Danaher of Athea, Co Limerick, at the Irish folklore Commission in 1954. the photographer was Dorothea Lange, who features in this post

In the west of England, which has always had close links with Ireland in terms of language, culture and industry – the month of May has long been celebrated with a strong focus on the ‘Hobby Horse’, a phenomenon which bridges the worlds of superstition, spectacle and folklore. In two places – Padstow in Cornwall and Minehead in Somerset – Hobby Horse (or, colloquially ‘Obby Oss’) festivals are huge events – usually. In 2020, sadly, both had to be cancelled due to Covid19 restrictions: probably the first time in hundreds of years that they have not taken place. The Minehead Oss has a recorded history that goes back to at least 1465, while in Padstow they will tell you that the Obby Oss has been revered forever on the First of May with never a break.

The Padstow Oss has survived through peacetime and wartime. This rare photograph (above) – attributed to Joshua Barret – was taken in 1944, while the early 20th century photograph (below) of the Minehead Oss is my all time favourite of a folk custom: the Oss always has and always will perambulate the town every year, even if no-one is interested in watching it!

As we find this very strong May tradition thriving (usually) in the west of England, we might expect to see an equivalent in Ireland, but you can’t immediately think of a Padstow or Minehead equivalent. Oh, yes – the Hobby Horse is purely Irish, in that there was once a now extinct breed – called a Hobby – which is said to have been the genetic source of all race horses since pre-Roman times!

. . . It is possible to trace the root of the Irish Hobby back to the northern Iberian Peninsula where this peculiar population of horse seemed to first be recognised about 700 BC, identified as the Celtic Horse. It was a small horse, gaited and exceedingly fast. It was the fastest horse in the known world back then, by 400 BC the Greeks called them the Thieldones and immortalized them on the frieze of the Parthenon, and this breed was already the Roman’s preferred steeds for racing. Pliny even writes about them in 77 AD, and we know when the Romans invaded Britain they brought those horses with them. But the Romans found that when they arrived they were met by the natives who had Celtic Horses already–horses which had been brought to Britain centuries earlier in trade from Spain by the Phoenicians for the metal mined there . . .

(Source – Sport Horse Breeder.com)

I won’t dwell on this idea that the Irish Hobby Horse was the ancestor of all modern pure bred sports horses – and was probably responsible for the innate Irish love of everything to do with horses and sport – as I am getting completely out of my depth here, and it’s all a bit off-topic anyway! Although, who knows how and where that name might have migrated over the centuries?

The culmination of the Padstow ceremony on May Day is the ‘meeting’ of the Red and Blue Oss at the huge maypole in the Town Square on the evening of the day (above). They have to close the town to all traffic because of the enormous crowds who attend, and you can see why the ‘social distancing’ rules could never have been applied to the event. Let’s hope that in future years ‘normality’ will have returned sufficiently to our lives to ensure that these ancient customs continue. In my lifetime I have been to Padstow on May Day at least thirty times, and also to Minehead on many occasions: I have good memories of them both.

In order to find a precedent in Ireland for a traditional Oss, I have mined the enormous archive that Kevin Danaher left behind in the Irish Folklore Commission, and I am pleased to report a whisper of success! Danaher uses various sources to summarise an account of traditions taking place in Ireland on May Day:

From the diary of Joshua Wight, a Quaker, we learn that so late as the middle of the eighteenth century, propitiatory rustic processions took place in the south of Ireland. The observer records, that about noon in the month of May, 1752, there passed through the streets of Limerick many thousand peasants marshalled in companies, representing various branches of agriculture…

 

And Thomas Crofton Croker (1825) tells us of what he calls mummers:

 

‘They consist of a number of the girls and young men of the village or neighbourhood, usually selected for their good looks, or their proficiency, – the females in the dance, the youths in hurling and other athletic exercises. They march in procession… Two of them bear each a holly-bush, in which are hung several new hurling-balls. the bush is decorated with a profusion of long ribbons which adds greatly to the gay and joyous, yet strictly rural appearance of the whole. The procession is always preceded by music; sometimes of the bagpipes, but more commonly of a military fife, with the addition of a drum or tambourine. A clown is, of course, in attendance: he wears a frightful mask, and bears a long pole, with shreds of cloth nail to the end of it, like a mop, which ever and anon he dips in a pool of water, or puddle, and besprinkles such of a crowd as press upon his compassions, much to the delights of the younger spectators… The Mummers during the day parade parade the neighbouring villages, dancing and receiving money. The evening, as might be expected, terminates with drinking’.

 

Patrick Kennedy, in The Banks of the Boru, describes a similar procession:

 

‘After a reasonable pause we had the delight of seeing twelve young men come forth, accompanied by the same number of young women, the boys dressed much more showily than the girls… To heighten the beauty of the spectacle, out sprung the fool and his wife, the first with some head-dress of skin, a frightful mask, and a goat’s beard descending from it. Though we knew that the big bluff, good-natured countenance of Paudh himself was behind the vizard, we could scarcely refrain from taking flight, not being able any more than other children to look on an ugly mask without extreme terror. His wife (little Tome Blanche, the tailor) was in an orange-tawny gown, flaming handkerchief and mob-cap, and had a tanned, ugly female mask, fitting pretty close to her face. Paudh’s first salute to his friends was a yell, a charge in various directions, and a general thrashing of the crowd with his pea-furnished bladder suspended from a long stick. Mrs Clown had a broom, and used it to some purpose when she found her friends disposed to crowd her.’

 

There is also mentioned by Sir William Wilde, together with something like a hobby horse (Popular Irish Superstitions, 67):

 

‘From Monaghan we have a graphic account of a somewhat similar proceeding: there the girls dressed up a churn-dash a s a “May babby” and the men, a pitchfork, with a mask, horse’s tail, a turnip head, and ragged old clothes, as a “May boy” but these customs have, we believe, long since become quite obsolete.’

The mask worn by the Obby Oss at Padstow could have evoked the description by Patrick Kennedy, above: some head-dress of skin, a frightful mask, and a goat’s beard descending from it . . . This particular representation, once used in the Padstow processions, is now a museum piece. So here I present my argument that we can find descriptive evidence of traditional Hobby Horses in Ireland as part of the May festivities. If anyone finds other instances or has direct personal experience or stories passed down which involve Hobby Horses, or activities which sound like the examples described in Danaher’s reports, above, please let me know.