The Oldest Adventure – Told Again!

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

You may remember that, back in the Covid days, 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 . . .

I tried – without success – to find a translation of the story into English. So – nothing ventured nothing gained – I created my own version of the story! I 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 first published it over two years ago, and feel it’s worth reviving again: perhaps there will be a new audience. I 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!

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is sons-title.jpg


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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is green-coin-2.jpg

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.”

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is spooky-castle.jpeg

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

Michael Collins Commemoration

It would have been hard to miss the centenary of the death of Michael Collins over this past week. He was killed at Béal na Bláth, West Cork on 22 August 1922, during the Irish Civil War. His passing – and his life – has been the stuff of legend ever since. He’s buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, but the events this week were focussed on the place where his life ended – not far from where we live.

Micheál Martin – Taoiseach and Head of Government in Ireland – (on the left, above) and Leo Varadkar – Tánaiste and Deputy Head of Government – (on the right) presided over the ceremony at Béal na Bláth this week (picture courtesy of The Independent). This was an historic get-together as both men lead different parties – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael respectively: these are in coalition at the moment, together with the Green Party. The Taoiseach said in his speech that the willingness of those of differing political views to try to find common ground was one of the great strengths of modern Ireland. In Collin’s time, a century ago, such coming together would have seemed extremely implausible.

This bust of Michael Collins is sited at his home place, Woodfield, Sam’s Cross in West Cork. There’s nothing left of the main house now (below): it was burned down during the Irish Civil War. But the original cottage still stands as a shell (it’s behind the trees in the background of the lower photo, to the right of the Public Works signpost). It was there that Collins was born.

We didn’t go to the official ceremony at Béal na Bláth on the 21st: many thousands of people attended. We were interested to visit a bit later in the week, to see how the site has been upgraded to mark the centenary. Previously, the memorial itself was gaunt and severe: here’s a pic from our visit in 2013:

It’s significantly different now: car parking has been rationalised and the commemorative cross is the main focus, with some significant hard landscaping. In our opinion, the works (by Cork County Council) have succeeded in focussing the main elements, and the scale is more human.

The new walling defining the edge of the memorial site is built from huge blocks of slate from Valentia Island Quarry, Co Kerry: “. . . the most westerly quarry in Europe . . .” The material is fittingly monumental. When we visited Valentia back in January 2019, we recorded the fact that this quarry has its very own Marian grotto:

We were interested – and pleased – to see that the upgraded memorial still gives space to ‘popular’ offerings. We maintain that Michael Collins is on his way to beatification, and he is already being treated as more than a fallen warrior (although that status is, in itself, heroic). Amongst the floral tributes are religious symbols, messages, and ‘relics’.

And – of course – the fateful spot (above) where Collins fell is still marked by the simple white stone which has been at this site for generations.

‘The Moment’ at which Collins was shot by an enemy bullet, captured in a dramatic painting (above), now on display in the Michael Collins Centre at Castleview, Clonakilty. No one has ever been held to account for the shooting, which was the only fatality on that day, and some have suggested that Collins was not intentionally targeted, and may have been the victim of an accidental ricochet. It’s most likely that we will never know the true story, but there’s no doubt that popular folklore has stepped in to fill the gaps.

The Michael Collins Centre (above) has been run for over 23 years by members of the Crowley family who are directly related to Collins. Visitors are given a comprehensive presentation on his life and times – and his death. There are many artefacts and memorabilia, including replicas of the vehicles which were in the convoy at Béal na Bláth. It’s also well worth looking out from the Museum grounds to the spectacular view across the Argideen River valley (below). Argidín means Little Silver River, and it flows from Reenascreena to Courtmacsherry.

We are keenly watching the progression of Michael Collin’s journey towards sainthood – or further. During the narrations we attended, we noted the descriptions of some of his followers as ‘apostles’. Also, we can’t ignore the fact that he foretold his own death (after he was sent to England to negotiate and sign the Anglo-Irish Treaty). His sister Mary Collins was nine years old when Michael was born in what she said were ” … miracle conditions, as there was no doctor and no trained nurse … mother and baby were well and comfortable … ” Michael was adored by the family, with his old Uncle Paddy predicting the future upon his birth, saying: “Be careful of this child, for he will be a great and mighty man when we are all forgotten” …

(Above) – a reminder of the ‘glory days’ – Michael Collins addressing huge crowds at a Free State demonstration in Cork City, 13 March 1922 (Wikimedia Commons). (Below) – Collins (behind the driver) leaving the Eldon Hotel, Skibbereen, 22 August 1922: the last known photograph of the hero (Cork Public Museum).

Thirty-Six Views of Mount Gabriel

Mount Gabriel is, I believe, a rarely regarded topographical prominence on the Mizen. Yet it is impossible to ignore: the summit can be seen from most parts of this western peninsula. And, for those visitors who do notice it – and make the effort to scale its heights, it presents the most spectacular of views over rugged landscapes to the oceans beyond.

Brian Lalor has chosen to make this peak the centrepiece of his new exhibition, which opened in Schull’s Blue House Gallery at the weekend: Thirty-Six Views of Mount Gabriel. You have to see it. The works are for sale, so it will be impossible, probably, to assemble them as one entity ever again. (Unless, perhaps, in a hundred years time – if there is still an intellectual world in existence – Brian’s genius will be fully recognised and appreciated, and an astute curator will raid collections from all over the world in order to put this canon back together as a centenary project).

The works themselves draw attention to some of Brian’s many artistic talents: conté crayon drawings, exquisite watercolour sketches and linocut prints. They make an impressive whole on the walls of Schull’s eccentric gallery, which is a jumble of smallish rooms, a staircase and landing, with a minimalist shop-window frontage. Circumnavigating the spaces is a revealing and stimulating experience.

Returning to the subject matter of the work, Brian – General Editor of Gill & Macmillan’s mammoth 2003 volume The Encyclopaedia of Ireland – and considered a prime authority on Ireland’s art heritage and its place in world culture, is familiar with artists’ legacies from many other domains. He grew up in a household which contained significant pieces of Japanese art and was au fait from a young age with the concept of ukiyo-e – the floating world. His early awareness of the arts of Japan provided the source of inspiration for this exhibition: Katsushika Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, woodblock prints which date from the early 1830s. Here are Fine Wind, Clear Morning (upper) and Inume Pass (lower) from the series:

Fuji is one of Japan’s Holy Mountains. Brian’s juxtaposition is brilliant: our Mount Gabriel has to be a holy place. It is named after an Archangel, who is said to have descended to the mountain top to view the unsurpassed beauty of West Cork’s landscapes, the reputation of which had reached to Heaven even back in those days. In so doing he left behind his footprint, which is still to be seen on the summit.

The Archangel was not the only biblical character to visit Gabriel: Satan himself touched down, but stumbled on a large rock. In a fit of temper he picked up the rock and threw it far off into the sea beyond. This caused such a hazard to shipping that we have had to erect a lighthouse on it. Here is Finola’s photographic view of The Fastnet, taken at sunset. For me, it has a suitably print-like quality . . .

Legends attached to Gabriel include many that attribute Irish heroes to activities on the summit. Finn MacCool, for example, is also credited with throwing large rocks from the mountain, including this fine boulder burial at Rathruane:

Brian’s observation and humour are not missing from this exhibition. He has included a cabinet of ‘artefacts’ distilled from his own explorations on the mountain. These make reference to the ancient history of the site and its connection with copper extraction in the Bronze Age and in medieval times, and also the twentieth century manifestations of air traffic control technology (known as ‘Gabriel’s Balls’) . . .

I am particularly taken with Brian’s linocut series – a limited edition of only ten of each print. They provide the ‘fine detail’ in the overall assemblage, and work so well together on the back wall of the largest room.

The detail print, above, shows Brian’s representation of archaeological finds connected with ancient copper mining which have been found during excavations on the mountain.

As ‘Guest Curator’ of this exhibition I was delighted to introduce it to an eager audience on the opening night in Schull (above). The show only runs until the 3rd of August, so please rush over in order not to miss it. It is (for me) the highlight of West Cork’s summer offerings!

Blue House Gallery, Schull

The gallery also has on show some work by other West Cork artists, well worth exploration, so don’t miss them when you go. I can’t resist finishing with one of them: this work (below) by Keith Payne – Sego Canyon. Keith has always been fascinated by ‘Rock Art’ in all parts of the world, and painted this based on his visit to a collection of petroglyphs on a cliff-face in Utah. It’s very apt, I think, to see this work in the context of the Brian Lalor exhibition. Below it is our own photograph of 5,000 year old Rock Art at Derreenaclough, West Cork – discovered only a few years ago. I am personally of the opinion that the siting of this rock in full view of ‘sacred’ Mount Gabriel is purely intentional!

A fully illustrated catalogue is available to purchase in the gallery

Some useful links:

Mythical Isles of the West

The fine map, above, was drawn in 1375 and is attributed to Abraham Cresques (courtesy  Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division). it is known generally as the Atlas Catalan. What interests us is that it depicts two islands off the west and south-west coasts of Ireland (see detail below): Hy-Brasil and Demar. These landfalls are shown on maps since then through the centuries, the last depiction being in 1865.

We look out to the hundred Carbery Islands in Roaringwater bay. The view (above) is always changing as sun, rain and wind stir up the surface of the sea and the sky and clouds create wonderful panoramas. But, generally, the view is predictable: we know that Horse island will be across from us, and Cape Clear will always be on the distant horizon, while the smaller islets break up the surface of the ocean in-between, and help calm down its wildness when the storms come.

But, suppose it wasn’t always predictable? What if those islands changed, moved around or appeared and disappeared? It seems that such things do happen, here in Ireland. At least, they do according to some of the recorded evidence. ‘Mythical Islands’ have been mentioned by mariners and storytellers through the centuries.

Our best source of information for Ireland’s ‘transcendent’ islands is our old friend Thomas Westropp (above, kitted out for an expedition) who was an archaeologist and folklorist living between 1860 and 1922. He was active in Counties Clare and Limerick and wrote a paper for The Royal Academy in 1912 – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic: Their History and Fable. This comprehensive paper includes a list of evanescent islands, a new map drawn by Westropp, and a summary of historic maps which have located them:

Westropp’s exploration of the subject is remarkably comprehensive. Here are some extracts:

. . . Bran son of Febal, sleeping near his fort, hears sweet music, and awakes to seize a magic apple branch. An unknown woman sings of “a glorious island round which sea-horses glisten – a fair course against the white swelling surge.” In it dwells no wailing, treachery, death, or sickness; it glows many-coloured in incomparable haze, with snowy cliff’s and strands of dragon-stones and crystals. She vanishes, and Bran, with twenty-seven followers, embarks. They meet the sea-god Mananann mac Lir in his chariot, visit Magh Mell, the Isle of Laughter, and the Isle of Women, whose queen draws Bran to it by a magic clue. Entranced by love, the visitors do not note the flight of time; in apparently undiminished youth and strength they return to Ireland; it is only when the first to step ashore falls to ashes, as if centuries dead, that they know the truth. The survivors tell their tale without landing, and sail out into the deep, never to be seen again . . .

Thomas WESTROPP – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic, 1912

Image above courtesy of the Worksop Bestiary.

. . . The Sunken Land. I found no name for this in north Mayo save when it was confused with Manister Ladra. Belief in it prevailed in north Erris and Tirawley from Dunminulla to Downpatrick. In 1839 it was said to extend from near Teelin to the Stags of Broadhaven and thence half way to America. A boatman knew a woman named Lavelle who saw from the shore (when gathering Carrigeen moss) a delightful country of hills and valleys, with sheep browsing on the slopes, cattle in green pastures, and clothes drying on the hedges. A Ballycastle boatman, a native of Co. Sligo, corroborated this, adding that he had seen it twice at intervals of seven years, and if he lived to see it a third time he would be able to disenchant it. He could talk of nothing else, became idle and useless, and died, worn out and miserable, on the very eve of the expected third appearance . . .

Thomas WESTROPP – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic, 1912

. . . Owen Gallagher, Lieutenant Henri’s servant, heard of one Biddy Took, who, when gathering dillish (seaweed), asked some passing boatmen to put her out to an islet and fetch her back on their return : amused by her talk they brought her fishing, and soon got a ” tremendous bite.” They landed a green, fishy-looking child, quite human in shape, and in their fright let him escape and dive. The man who hooked him died suddenly within a year. Gallagher also said that he had fired at and wounded a seal; soon after, when far out to sea in his currach, he got lost in a fog-bank and reached an unknown island. An old man, moaning, with one eye blinded, stood on the shore and proved to be the seal. With more than human forgiveness, he warned his enemy to fly from the land of the seal men, lest his (the seal’s) sons and friends should avenge the cruelty . . .

Thomas WESTROPP – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic, 1912

Image Carta Marina (1539) courtesy Bone + Sickle

. . . The Aran people now believe that Brasil is seen only once in seven years. They call it the Great Land. In Clare, I have heard from several fishermen at Kilkee and elsewhere that they had seen it ; they also told legends of people lost when trying to reach it. I myself have seen the illusion some three times in my boyhood, and even made a rough coloured sketch after the last event, in the summer of 1872. It was a clear evening, with a fine golden sunset, when, just as the sun went down, a dark island suddenly appeared far out to sea, but not on the horizon. It had two hills, one wooded ; between these, from a low plain, rose towers and curls of smoke. My mother, brother, Ralph Hugh Westropp, and several friends saw it at the same time; one person cried that he could “see New York ” ! With such realistic appearance (and I have since seen apparent islands in 1887 in Clare, and in 1910 in Mayo), it is not wonderful that the belief should have been so strong, probably from the time when Neolithic man first looked across the Atlantic from our western coast. It coloured Irish thought ; stood for the pagan Elysium and the Christian Paradise of the Saints ; affected the early map-makers ; and sent Columbus over the trackless deep to see wonders greater than Maelduin and Brendan were fabled to have seen, till Antilha, Verde, and Brazil became replaced by real islands and countries ; and the birds, flowers, and fruit of the Imrama by those of the gorgeous forests of the Amazon in the real Brazil. ” Admiration is the first step leading up to knowledge, for he that wondereth shall reign.” . . .

Thomas WESTROPP – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic, 1912

Above is the view from our house – Nead an Iolair – a day or two ago, when a strong sea mist was coming across from the south-west, enveloping Cape Clear and making it float ethereally like one of the mythical islands. Other writers have tackled the subject of the vanishing lands, including Joseph Jacobs, who put together a collection of stories in 1919. The subject is ‘Wonder Voyages’, and the book (available online here) covers some of Ireland’s adventurers, including Máel Dúin – a predecessor of Brendan the Voyager.

Máel Dúin sets out ‘into the limitless ocean’, suggesting that ‘God will bring the boat where it needs to go’. He and his crew encounter a large number of strange islands, including:

The island of ants, from which the men flee because the ants’ intention is to eat their boat

The island of tame birds

The island of the horse-like beast who pelts the crew with the beach

The island of horses and demons

The island of salmon, where they find an empty house filled with a feast and they all eat, drink, and give thanks to Almighty God.

The island with the branch of an apple tree, where they are fed with apples for 40 nights

The island of the “Revolving Beast”, a creature that would shift its form by manipulating its bones, muscles, and loose skin; it casts stones at the escaping crew and one pierces the keel of the boat

The island where animals bite each other and blood is everywhere

The island of apples, pigs, and birds

The island with the great fort/pillars/cats where one of the foster brothers steals a necklet and is burned to ashes by the cat

The island of black and white sheep, where sheep change colours as they cross the fence; the crewmen do not go aboard this island for fear of changing colour

The island of the swineherd, which contained an acidic river and hornless oxen

The island of the ugly mill and miller, who was “wrinkled, rude, and bareheaded”

The island of lamenting men and wailing sorrows, where they had to retrieve a crewman who entered the island and became one of the lamenting men; they saved him by grabbing him while holding their breath

The island with maidens and intoxicating drink

The island with forts and the crystal bridge, where there is a maiden who is propositioned to sleep with Máel Dúin

The island of colourful birds singing like psalms

The island with the psalm-singing old man with noble monastic words

The island with the golden wall around it

The island of angry smiths

The crew voyaged on and came across a sea like a green crystal. Here, there were no monsters but only rocks. They continued on and came to a sea of clouds with underwater fortresses and monsters.

The island with a woman pelting them with nuts

The island with a river sky that was raining salmon

The island on a pedestal

The island with eternal youth/women (17 maidens)

The island with red fruits that were made as a sleeping elixir

The island with monks of Brendan Birr, where they were blessed

The island with eternal laughter, where they lost a crewman

The island of the fire people

The island of cattle, oxen, and sheep

The most well-known voyager of all – in Irish tradition – is Saint Brendan. The image above is from the Finola Window, which was crafted by George Walsh. We all know that Brendan was a real character, who discovered America back in the sixth century. On the way he also encountered many islands – which we cannot locate today (that doesn’t mean they are not there) – and had hair-raising adventures on them. This post will take you through some of his journeyings.

It’s clear that, in the shared Irish psyche, we are aware of places that we can’t always see, or visit. it’s all part of a folk knowledge that’s largely hidden away, except in the memories of older generations, that relates to the sea, and the idea that there are races of people who live on ‘lost’ islands – or even in the sea. In some of the stories about the islands it is suggested that, when they vanish, it’s because they have submerged under the ocean – perhaps temporarily.

There’s a great collection of stories readily available in a series of podcasts known as Blúiríní Béaloidis / Folklore Fragments. Look out for the one titled Blúiríní Béaloidis 16 – Otherworld Islands In Folk Tradition. I have transcribed one of my favourite pieces from this podcast, and will finish this post with it. It summarises, very neatly, the tradition that other worlds are out there, and – at times – our world and theirs meet, providing solid evidence for there being human life under the sea! The tale was collected by Dr McCarthy of Kerry.

. . . People from Dingle Harbour used to sail to Kilrush in Limerick long ago. There was a boat leaving the harbour to Limerick one day with a load of salt. There were 8 men in the boat. They had prepared the boat. There was no quay in Dingle in those days, just a slipway. A fine, strapping young man approached them carrying a pot and a pot-hook, The pot-hook looked as if it had come straight from the forge. He addressed the boat’s captain. Are you going to Limerick, my good man? I am, said the captain, we are just about to leave. Would you mind terribly, said the young man, taking me some of the way? I don’t mind, said the captain, if you wish to come all of the way. He placed his pot and pot-hook in the boat, and got in himself. They rowed away and raised the sail at the mouth of the harbour. They were halfway when the man with the pot and pot-hook roused himself. I’ll be leaving you now, he said to the captain, and I’m very grateful to you. He took hold of his pot and his pot-hook and he leapt into the sea. They never saw him again . . .


Blúiríní Béaloidis

There’s a rather nice postscript to this story:

. . . Some time later, a man with a line and hook was fishing in the sea in the same place, and a boiled potato came up on his hook . . .

Blúiríní Béaloidis

Drying Gelignite By The Fire: Extraordinary, Ordinary Women of West Cork

Karen Minihan has spent the last two years seeking out the forgotten stories of West Cork women who played an active role in the founding our our state. She has compiled thirteen of these stories into a compelling book – Extraordinary, Ordinary Women: Untold Stories from the Founding of the State. This book has opened my eyes to the courage and commitment of young (and not so young) women who took on dangerous roles in the War of Independence and the Civil War. Most did so as members of Cumann na mBan (the Women’s Company – the word Cumann actually means friendship), founded as an auxiliary to the IRA. This RTE piece is a good introduction to what the Cumann was all about, and includes an interview with Leslie Price, one of the women quoted in this book. Cumann na mBan, famously, was particularly well organised in West Cork and these women did everything to support the war against British occupation. 

Karen (centre) with her mother and Conor Nelligan, Cork County Heritage Officer at the book launch

The book was launched on Friday at Uillinn (West Cork Arts centre) in Skibbereen, with a talk by Maura Leane (below), Professor of Applied Social Studies at UCC. She said:

Reading through the stories, I felt like I was watching an old, grainy, movie reel. Scenes were spooling out in my mind, providing beguiling insights into the history of the countryside around us, and into the activities that dominated the lives of many people living here, between 1915 and 1923, a time when West Cork, along with the rest of the country, was an active war zone. . . .It subtly shifts the spotlight of history, to pick out scenes that conjure up time and place, a local landscape, the atmosphere, and most importantly, a set of women characters. Characters, who have remained in the shadows, while attention was paid to the male heroes whose stories dominate our understanding of the period.

The stories are of women who were full of courage, spirit, skill and cleverness. The war would have been impossible without them – they scouted, carried dispatches, concealed and transported arms, nursed wounded men, raised money, sent essential supplies (like cigarettes!) to prisoners, passed on intelligence, cooked, sewed (many, many haversacks) and laundered for men on the run. They learned to handle firearms and to do first aid. They looked after the farms while their brothers were off with their Flying Columns. They cycled for miles through dark country roads to raise alarms or deliver messages. 

May Hickey lived in Skeaghnore – that’s her above in later life, not looking at all like the daring young woman revealed in her stories. They had a secret room where they hid men on the run – theirs being a ‘safe house’. May found herself many an evening cleaning rifles from the stashes she maintained in various hedges and ditches in the area. Also, “gelignite, tonite and detonators were given to me on various occasions to keep dry and often I was ordered to dry gelignite near the fire which was damp after the remainder being used for explosive purposes.” 

Helena Hegarty was the Matron of the Schull workhouse (above and below, as it is now). Incredibly courageous, she used her place of work to harbour IRA men and tend to the wounded. She even kept a British spy in the workhouse under lock and key for several weeks. She trained other women in first aid, and set up field hospitals. According to one account “she carried out her duties conscientiously and fearlessly.”

Having been given advance notice that the workhouse would be burned, she got out all the inmates and anything that could be saved. Because the British Military barracks in Schull was being attacked at the same time, she and her charges were under rifle and machine gun fire as they sheltered on the roads outside the workhouse. A recurring motif in the book is that few people knew of the heroism of the women who are portrayed. Below is Schull main street today – Helena Hegarty, warm and gentle and loved by all, ran a shop about where Brosnan’s Centra is now, after she was put out of work by the burning of the workhouse. She was known as Auntie by a generation of Schull children and their parents, who had no idea what she had done.

And in return the women were harassed by the Black and Tans and the RIC. Some women were roughed up and their hair was cut – it was called ‘bobbing’ and was a potent mark of punishment, used by all sides. They were threatened with having their house burned – they lived in fear but carried on. It took its toll – after Mary Ellen McLean’s brother, Michael John, was killed by the Black and Tans with appalling cruelty, she was ‘never the same.’ The memorial to her brother in Lowertown, (below), now occupies the spot where her post office was once the hub of intelligence for the region.

Most upsetting to us, as we look back from our present vantage point, is that their roles were undervalued. While heaped with praise both in the Bureau of Military History accounts of their deeds and in the Pension applications, they were routinely denied pensions by the (all-male) board, had their service downplayed and, where they were awarded a pension, were assigned to the lowest grade – E level. (Read more about that here.) Helena Hegarty was one such woman, awarded an E grade pension, despite the emphatic support by local IRA commanders for the work she had done

Karen includes the case of Bridget Noble, murdered by the IRA because she was a observed to be entering the RIC barracks. She had previously been bobbed and had lodged a complaint against the men who forced this on her, thus earning the ‘informer’ label. A thoroughly researched book by Sean Boyne (see his talk to the West Cork History Festival) has documented this case of the ‘disappeared’ woman of the Beara Peninsula.

A Cumann na mBan pin – note the centrality of the rifle

At the launch, Maura Leane summed up Karen’s work thus:

By inviting us as readers to engage with Bridget’s story, Karen pulls us, uncompromisingly, into the trauma and the violence and the highly emotive reality of this period of war, in our own localities. And when this period was over, and everyone had to start the journey of living together again, side by side, and in common cause, this trauma had to be set aside. The memories had to be put away, the stories had to be left untold. And so, this time was rendered silent. And this is why Karen’s work here, is so important. Because what Karen has done is to gently and skilfully evoke voices and emotions from this troubled time. She has storied these voices and brought forth war time memories, in all their complexity and in all their nuances. And most importantly of all, she has brought into relief the feelings and the emotional resonance that is embedded in accounts of the past.

Sullivan’s Toy Shop was once the home and business of Rose O’Connell, one of the extraordinary, ordinary women

At the launch, Karen enacted a short play based on the chapter on Rose O’Connell. Poignantly, the shop where the action took place could be seen from the room, and some of her descendants were at the event. Karen’s book is available at all good West Cork Bookstores but if you’re not lucky enough to live here you can order it from Schull’s wonderful Worm Books (thewormbookshop@gmail.com). 

Blasket through the Lens

Great Blasket, one of the islands in the parish of Dún Chaoin (Dunquin) off the west coast of Kerry, was the home and life-blood of a tenacious population of Irish families for many hundred years. One of these families – the Ferriters – claim that they controlled the islands as far back as the 13th century and had established a castle there. Whoever lived there had to be tough: the terrain is wild and there is little shelter. Nevertheless, the islanders clung to their territory, and their numbers expanded in the early 19th century when Lord Ventry of Dingle evicted many of his tenants from their holdings and those who left found island life – hard though it was – preferable to persecution.

We are fortunate that, during the early twentieth century, Great Blasket was visited by curious tourists and anthropologists. Among them was Robin Flower, who became Deputy-Keeper of Manuscripts in the British Museum from 1929 to 1944. He had many credits to his name, including Member of the Royal Irish Academy, Doctor of Literature of the National University of Ireland and also of Dublin University. Flower became the historian of the Blaskets, which he ‘immortalised’ through his lectures and writings – and many visits. To the people of the Great Blasket he was playfully known as ‘Bláithin’ – Little Flower – which he considered a great honour. I will write more on Robin Flower in a future post, but concentrate here on some of the photographs of island life which were recorded by likeminded researchers in the first half of the twentieth century. After 1954 there was nothing to record: life on the island, three miles from the mainland and involving an often treacherous crossing, became untenable. The whole remaining population was evacuated in that year, leaving their cottages and settlements to the ruinous ravages of the wild Atlantic gales.

The header picture is a wonderful statement of youth and vigour: island children photographed outside their school in 1932 by Thomas Waddicor. I can’t find anything about this man, but a lot of his work appears in the Dúchas Photographic Collection which was established in the 1930s, so I am assuming he was an active collector and researcher himself. The second picture is by our old friend Tomás Ó Muircheartach, who also spent time on the Blaskets in the 1930s. You will find more about him here. It shows the Blasket men in their fishing curraughs below the craggy rocks of the island. The pic above is also by Muircheartach, and shows Cáit Ruiséal and Máire Ruiséal being interviewed by a follklore collector at their fireside in 1942. I am not sure where this interview took place.

This photograph is also by Thomas Waddicor and dates from 1932. The caption given in the Dúchas Photographic Collection is interesting, if not entirely enlightening: Man, Great Blasket Island: Buffer, note stuffed peaked cap – an island custom.

Another from Waddicor, also 1932: Cáit at the Well. I think what strikes me most of all is how real and alive these people are – they certainly don’t seem in any way downtrodden or in danger of extinction: perhaps it’s just because they are ‘posing’ for the camera. But it’s salutary to think that they were only on the island for another generation or so.

These two photographs (above) are also by Thomas Waddicor and also from 1932. The top one is the ‘Wife and child of Séan the King’, and the lower is ‘Children of Séan the King’. We have a bit of a conundrum here as the last ‘King’ of the Blasket Islands passed away in 1929 (according to this Irish Times article). As Waddicor left behind no photograph of the ‘King’ himself, we have to assume that the lady in the upper photograph was a widow.

More ‘family’ photographs: the upper of the three is titled ‘Eilis and Brighid’; the centre is just given as ‘Family’, while the lower is ‘Fiddler and Woman’. All are by Waddicor from 1932.

This wonderful lady is also anonymous: sadly we can only know her by the title – ‘Great Blasket Woman’. Again, Waddicor 1932 – and, once more, she seems so full of life!

This is a picture of the Great Blasket Island School. We have some further information: while the folklorists and recorders were visiting the island in 1932, the older schoolchildren decided to interview each other about local customs and lore to mimic the visitors!

Further unnamed portraits: upper ‘Two Women Great Blasket’ and lower ‘Two Women gathering Heather’. From the Waddicor collection, 1932.

We’ll finish off with a few classics. This is Tomas O Criomhthain and it’s a photo from Muircheartach. Better known to us as Tomas O’Crohan, author of the classic book about the Blaskets:

. . . Tomas O’Crohan was born on the Great Blasket Island in 1865 and died there in 1937, a great master of his native Irish. He shared to the full the perilous life of a primitive community, yet possessed a shrewd and humorous detachment that enabled him to observe and describe the world. His book is a valuable description of a new vanished way of life; his sole purpose in writing it was in his own words, ‘to set down the character of the people about me so that some record of us might live after us, for the like of us will never be again’ . . .

The Islandman Book Review

We can’t discuss the Blaskets without mentioning Peig. That’s her, above, with folklorist Kenneth Jackson, taken by Thomas Waddicor in 1932. Peig Sayers was by all accounts a formidable lady but was also described by folklorist Seán Ó Súilleabháin, archivist for the Irish Folklore Commission, as ‘one of the greatest woman storytellers of recent times’. Peig was born in 1873 and died in 1958. She therefore experienced the abandonment of the island, although she had moved away from it in 1942. She was also not born on the island, but in Dunquin, Kerry, She married Pádraig Ó Guithín, a native islander, in 1892 and had eleven children, six of whom survived into adulthood. Sayers is most famous for her autobiography Peig, but also for folklore and stories which have been collected from her.

Finally, this an image of the Loganim Achive entry for Great Blasket Island, written in 1954.

I am grateful to the National Folklore Collection UCD for the use of the Thomas Waddicor images. It’s an incredible resource: this is just a small selection of the hundreds of images which have been archived