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

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

Living in Lockdown!

Main Street, Ballydehob: 4 April 2020. You’ve never seen it like this before on a Saturday morning. We are only out because we have urgent shopping to do. We are permitted to go to the shops, the dispensary and the dump (we live too far out of town to have any waste collections). Oh, and we can exercise within a two kilometre radius of home (here’s Finola’s account of that). It’s a strange life – but we are gratefully alive…

We completed our last ‘long’ walk on Friday 27 March – to the summit of Mount Corrin, for my Mizen Mountains post. On that evening the government announced the ‘lockdown’ and we are now isolated in Cappaghglass for the foreseeable future, although the 2km restriction will allow us to trespass into our adjacent townlands of Stouke, Cappanacallee, Foilnamuck, Rossbrin, Ballycummisk and Kilbronogue, provided we keep our distance from other walkers. We see very few.

When the sun is shining, there’s no better place to be than home – looking out over Roaringwater Bay! We have plenty to occupy us. Not least, keeping up with this journal and my new venture Swantonstown Sessions – compensation for the enforced adjournment of the weekly traditional music meetings in Ballydehob. It’s an online forum for sharing tunes, songs and related ‘chat’. Please join in!

There’s not much activity in Schull, our other centre for essential supplies, either. The main street (upper) and pier (above) are deserted on Saturday morning, when it’s normally buzzing. All the businesses in our villages and towns rely on customers: we hope for their sakes (and ours) that the situation doesn’t last too long, although we do all understand how necessary the restrictions are.

Join us for one of our walks – along to Rossbrin – to look at the water and the always changing scenery as spring gets under way. That’s the boreen leading down to it, above.

Rossbrin Castle, the home of the ‘Scholar Prince’ Finghinn O’Mahony in medieval times, is the local landmark which always draws us towards the Cove. It has stood for centuries, although very gradually returning to nature: parts of it will remain for generations to come, and will intrigue those who chance upon it, as I first did some thirty years ago. It is on private land, remember, but it can be seen from many accessible vantage points.

It’s no hardship to be ‘marooned’ out here in rural Ireland. The one thing we miss above all else is meeting and chatting with friends and neighbours: that’s unnatural. But we will survive it. After our walks there’s always the road home to look forward to (do you see the celandines lining the way?):

Roaringwater Journal wishes to heartily thank all those in our communities who are supporting the rural population through these abnormal times: medical teams, pharmacies, shopkeepers, producers and suppliers . . . All who keep our facilities and utilities going . . . They are helping us to stay healthy and upbeat in times of disquiet. We appreciate all of you.

Brendan in Bronze

Do you know the story of St Brendan? He – ‘The Navigator’ – went to North America long before Columbus. Nearly a thousand years before, in fact: Brendan was born in the fifth century. The story of his voyage, and his remarkable adventures with his fellow monks, has inspired art, music and song ever since then. Here’s the beginning of Christy Moore’s version:

A boat sailed out of Brandon in the year of 501
’twas a damp and dirty mornin’ Brendan’s voyage it began.
Tired of thinnin’ turnips and cuttin’ curley kale
When he got back from the creamery he hoisted up the sail.
He ploughed a lonely furrow to the north, south, east and west
Of all the navigators, St Brendan was the best . . .

We went to Tralee, Co Kerry, to visit the Church of Our Lady and St Brendan: Finola was looking for windows by Murphy Devitt (which are spectacular) and I chanced upon a set of bronze roundels laid into the paving leading up to the main entrance (above). I felt I had to record them here, as they illustrate and tell the whole story of the Saint so wonderfully well. The large medallions were designed and made by Eithne Ring and Liam Lavery, and were installed in 2010. As far as I know this is a unique record of the voyage: well worth a visit – but don’t miss the windows!

St Brendan: part of a huge stained glass installation by Murphy Devitt in this Kerry church

I’m showing the roundels in the order in which you encounter them as you approach the main doors to the church, and giving a very brief description of the subject of each. At the end you will find a commentary provided by the designers, which gives more detail.

1 St Brendan visits St Enda prior to building his boat

2 On a rocky island, Brendan’s crew are led by a hound to a miraculous hall of food

3 The monks find an island inhabited by giant sheep

4 Brendan and his companions land on an island, light a fire and celebrate Mass; they discover that they are on the back of a whale!

5 An island of white birds: one is ringing a bell

6 The monks take meat from a beast that has been slain by a monster

7 On the Island of Grapes the monks witness a battle between a gryphon and a bird: the bird is victorious

8 All the fish in the ocean come to listen to Brendan while he sings

9 Brendan finds a huge crystal pillar rising out of the sea

10 The sea is boiling like an erupting volcano

11 Brendan and his companions meet the unhappy Judas chained to a rocky island

12 The travellers find a hermit who has been fed by an otter for forty years

13 Brendan returns to Ireland to prepare for his death

So now you know the bones of Brendan’s story. Now listen to the music! Saun Davey’s Brendan Voyage, a suite for uillinn pipes and orchestra, is a masterpiece inspired partly by the Saint himself, but also by Tim Severin’s 1976/77 recreation of the journey across the Atlantic in a leather clad boat:

Tim Severin pictured with a model of the boat in which he recreated the Saint’s journey

Let’s give the last words to Christy Moore, and the chorus of his Brendan song (you can find all the lyrics here):

“Is it right or left for Gibraltar?”
“What tack do I take for Mizen Head?”
“I’d love to settle down near Ventry Harbour”,
St Brendan to his albatross he said . . .

The Castle of Rossbrin

It was just Raven and I, down at Rossbrin today. We were both inspecting the O’Mahony stronghold which has stood here for, perhaps, 800 years in one form or another. Peter Somerville-Large explored the area and its history in the early 1970s:

Down beside a narrow inlet which empties at low tide stands Rosbrin, the most easterly of the O’Mahony castles. Like the O’Driscolls, the O’Mahonys had a passion for building castles: they built twelve, and six survive, all overlooking or right on the edge of the sea. They shared with the O’Driscolls one of the finest fishing grounds in Europe, controlling the waters and exacting dues from visiting fishing boats in much the same way. ‘None of the fisheries of Munster are so well known,’ wrote an observer in 1688, ‘as those of the promontory of Ivaha, whereto a great fleet of Spaniards and Portuguese go, even in the midst of winter . . .’

The Coast of West Cork, 1972

Neither Raven nor I would be deterred by the winter weather. On a day of hard frost followed by blue skies and sunshine, nowhere could be more beautiful than Rossbrin, and nothing could be more poignant than the quiet remoteness of this western corner of Ireland, once considered ‘the greatest centre of learning in Europe’. I walked in the company of the wisest of the corvids over the vanished ruins of a great university.

Finnin O’Mahony – Taoiseach, or chieftain, of the clan – as he may well have looked in the latter part of the fifteenth century (above): cultured, fashionable, flamboyant even, and powerful. It’s sobering to think that, while Columbus was following in the footsteps of Saint Brendan to rediscover the New World, scholars and scribes were busy on the shores of Roaringwater Bay writing and translating treatises, medical manuscripts and historical accounts of travellers busy in their quests to prove the earth may not be flat after all . . .

The Annals of Ulster tell us that Finghinn Ó Mathúna of Rossbrin Castle who died in 1496 was an acclaimed historian of the then known world. And, the Annals of Connaught lauded him as ‘a great scholar in Irish, Latin and English’. The Annals of the Four Masters referred to Finghinn Ó Mathúna as being unmatched in Munster for hospitality and scholarship. The O’Mahony territory was inclusive of today’s parishes of Dromore and Caheragh and all the lands westwards to Mizen Head. Finghinn made Rossbrin Castle both his residence and a rendezvous for Irish scholars . . . Most writers who laud the scholarship of Finghinn Ó Mathúna lament the loss of many of Rossbrin Castle’s manuscripts . . .

From an article by Alfie O’Mahony in the Skibbereen and District Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, 2010

Roaringwater Bay – the view to the south, today, from Rossbrin. In the foreground is Horse Island, and beyond is the profile of Cape Clear, also a place of learning to this day: students of the Irish language spend time on the island, one of the Gaeltacht areas where Irish is still the native tongue. One of the reasons for Finghinn being so expert in languages himself was the desire to communicate with the visiting fishermen whose needs provided him and his clansmen with a good living. As well as a celebrated place of learning, Rossbrin Cove would have supplied fish palaces and all the trappings of the industry: barrels and salt for preserving, victuallers, alehouses, brothels . . . It must have been a boisterous and vibrant place.

Peter Somerville-Large gives a commentary on the more recent history of the castle:

One wall of the splintered tower has a crack running down the side. Another was partly blown down by a storm in 1905. If there is another great storm like that one, Rosbrin might well disappear without trace, like the O’Mahony castles at Ballydevlin, Castle Meighan and Crookhaven. It is sited on an area which is very difficult to approach from either land or sea, standing on a rock. Contrary to what might be written in Holy Scripture, buildings on rocks have little in the way of foundation, and when they fall down or are swept away there is nothing left of them except a memory . . .

To the south of the rock on which the castle stands are the vestigial remains of an ancient stone quay (above), still in use as a landing place. The Cove itself – a natural haven – would have been the main harbour area serving the fishing fleets. The castle stands sentinel above the harbour entrance, ensuring that no-one could approach unseen.

I have been looking for older illustrations of the castle, in order to ascertain how much erosion is taking place as the years go by. Here’s a fascinating record of an O’Mahony Clan Gathering, photographed in 1975 by Michael Minihan of Skibbereen. There is a lot more of the building intact at that time. Can you see the spectators high up on the walls and roof?

As most of you will know, we look down on Rossbrin Cove and Castle from our eyrie up at Nead an Iolair. We consider anyone living on or by the Cove a neighbour. One of these is Julian, the first to welcome us when we arrived here many years ago. On my walk today I called in on him – he lives next door to the Castle Farm. I was over the moon when he showed me a portrayal of the Castle which his mother, Geraldine, painted in the 1970s, only a year or so after the gathering above. Clearly, a substantial part of the castle walls has gone in that short time.

Rossbrin Castle, painted by Geraldine van Hasselt in the 1970s (above). Best of all, though, is a photograph of Julian – her son – taken at Easter, 1969:

Julian van Hasselt on Rossbrin shore: behind him is a clear view of the castle. You can see the vertical crack which eventually led to the collapse of half the tower.

At this time of the year we get excellent sunsets when the weather is right. Today’s was a good one! I reluctantly said goodbye to Raven, my companion whose constant cronking seemed to follow me as I perambulated this place of deep history. I wonder: was it just Raven? Or might it have been Finghinn himself, speaking to me in yet another of his languages? I think I’ll have to return to Rossbrin to find out!

With many thanks to friends Julian and Raven . . .

Ireland’s Santa Claus!

You may remember my excitement when – a few years ago now – I found out that the real St Valentine is interred in the Carmelite Church in Dublin. But here’s a palpable marvel: at Jerpoint, Co Kilkenny,  the bones of St Nicholas are reputed to be buried.  Yes – the Santa Claus St Nicholas! Tradition has it that a band of Irish Norman knights from Kilkenny went to the Holy Land to take part in the Crusades. As they headed home to Ireland, they ‘seized’ St Nicholas’ remains, bringing them back to Jerpoint, where the bones were buried – some say – under the floor of the Abbey (others say they repose nearby at the old church of St Nicholas).

We first visited Jerpoint back in 2015, on a trip that took us to County Meath where we explored the monastic city of Kells (the famed book was written and illustrated there) and also where we found the medieval image of Santa’s reindeer in the header of this post! It is carved on to the base of the town’s Market Cross. We also visited Kells Augustinian Priory – a different Kells but in County Kilkenny  – and Jerpoint Abbey itself, a Cistercian monastery rife with carved figures, some up to 900 years old. Look at the ‘Weepers’, above, carved by members of the O’Tunney family – sculptors from Callan who worked in the 15th and 16th centuries. These four represent saints and show how they were martyred: St Thomas with a lance (left), St Simon with a saw, St Bartholomew holding a skin (he was flayed to death) and St Paul with a sword.

The Book of Kells is worth more than a passing mention, especially as some commentators have likened the medieval carvings at Jerpoint and other contemporary monastic foundations in Ireland to ‘illuminated manuscripts cast in stone’, because of the richness of the characters, the decoration and the detail. The Book (that’s just one example of the incredibly detailed capitals on a single page, above) probably dates from the 8th or 9th centuries and may either have been written in its entirety in Kells, or started by St Columba’s community in Iona and completed in the Scriptorium in Kells. That building still exists! In fact it (or something very like it) is illustrated in the book. It’s known as St Colmcille’s House – we went to have a look at it, and were fortunate to have a tour by its guardian.

Here is the ancient stone roofed oratory of St Colmcille’s House (above), supposedly the place where the Book of Kells was written – or, perhaps, completed. The upper floor of the building has a small window oriented to focus sunlight on the writing table. St Colmcille’s bed was also kept here – a large and heavy stone slab – until it was stolen in the 1950s! A few hundred years earlier (in 1007)  the Book itself was stolen from Kells and eventually found in a nearby bog. It stayed in Kells until 1654, when it was sent to Dublin for safekeeping: it is now on permanent display in Trinity College.

(Above) another page from the Book of Kells, which may be an illustration of the Scriptorium at Kells, and – perhaps – a self-portrait of the writer: see him sitting in the doorway to the house working away with his quill pens. Back to the medieval feast at Jerpoint: the trio below, from Jerpoint, are St Catherine – with her wheel, Michael the Archangel and St Margaret of Antioch – who is conquering a Dragon.

At Jerpoint it’s not just the tombs and the Weepers which fascinate: there is a 15th century cloister which, in its heyday, displayed a riot of carvings both saintly and secular. Some of these are in situ; some are partially destroyed and others have been recovered during archaeological excavations, and placed on display in a little museum. Among them we identified knights, ladies, animals fantastic and real, and ‘ordinary folk’ – including a man with stomach ache!

‘The Bones of Santa Claus’ (Author Bill Watkins)

Where lie the bones of Santa Claus, to what holy spot each pilgrim draws
Which crypt conceals his pious remains, safe from the wild wind, snows and rains?

It’s not in Rome his body lies, or under Egypt’s azure skies
Constantinople or Madrid, his reliquary and bones are hid.

That saint protector of the child, whose relics pure lie undefiled
His casket safe within its shrine, where the shamrocks grow and rose entwine.

Devout wayfarer, cease your search, for in Kilkenny’s ancient church
Saint Nicholas’ sepulchre is found, enshrined in Ireland’s holy ground.

So traveller rest and pray a while, to the patron saint of orphaned child
Whose bones were brought to Ireland’s shore, safe from the Vandal, Hun and Moor.

Here lie the bones of Santa Claus, secure beneath these marble floors
So gentle pilgrim, hear the call, and may Saint Nicholas bless you all!

I hope this topical little foray into some of our archives demonstrates once more how easy it is to find history (and legend) wherever you go in this special land. In fact, it’s very difficult to travel far here without tripping over the past. It’s often fairly low-key. Most sites are protected as scheduled monuments; some are in the good care of the Office of Public Works and have guides and visitor centres. Many are remote, open to the wind, rain and sunshine and free for us all to visit: very often you will have the history all to yourself.