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

Wicklow by the Sea

If you can’t be in West Cork – what’s the next best place? Why – County Wicklow of course! It’s also full of wonderful scenery and imbued with Irish history. That’s Wicklow Town, above, in Viking times: there had already been a Bronze Age settlement on this site. In the twelfth century the Normans arrived, led by Strongbow, who we have encountered before, and Black Castle was built (below). They were wild times, and the castle was attacked and destroyed completely in 1301 by local chieftains, notably O’Byrnes and O’Tooles. There were several subsequent revivals, and the gaunt remains we see today probably date from the 17th century.

While at this site, have a look down at the inlet on the coast to the south: that’s Travelahawk Beach, the scene of a bit of Wicklow history that’s sure to stick in the mind. It was there that St Patrick first landed in Ireland!

I have to admit that the beach is only one of several sites on the east coast that lays claim to this historic occasion, but I like the associated story of Travelahawk which tells how the local people, suspicious of this stranger, threw rocks at St Patrick and his crew. One of them hit the saint’s companion, and he lost his front teeth. He was known ever after as ‘Gubby’ or ‘Gap-toothed’ which is translated in Irish Mhantáin. Hence the old name for Wicklow is ‘Chill Mhantáin’ – the Church of Gubby. Today’s name for the town, Wicklow, is of Viking origin, and means ‘Bay of the Meadows’.

We popped over to Wicklow on a mild February day for a change of scene – and to absent ourselves from Nead an Iolair while some upgrading works were taking place. I was impressed: I had never explored the town before. Finola, however, was brought up in County Wicklow, and her impressions of the county town today were embellished with memories of times past. There’s much about the place that’s picturesque: I was taken with the number of painted murals about the place. The pier has, appropriately, a whole series of ships on the breakwater wall. There is an example, above . . .

. . . And here’s another. In fact, this one is the 50th mural to be painted by Pat Davis, who is the local postman. Each one depicts a vessel which has visited the harbour. It’s a wonderful and colourful record of one aspect of the maritime town’s history.

Here’s Pat at work. The image is courtesy of Ceaneacht O Hoctun, and appeared in the Wicklow People newspaper in 2020. Pat started painting the ships in the 1970s.

This one will be familiar to West Cork folk. It’s the Saoirse, a 42ft ketch built in Baltimore in 1922 for her designer, Conor O’Brien.

. . . This unique sailing ship was also a maritime inspiration for the new Ireland, uncertain of itself in an uncertain world. For this was Conor O’Brien’s characterful 42ft ketch Saoirse, which he designed himself, and with which – between 1923 and 1925 – he pioneered the round the world route south of the Great Capes, an ocean voyaging “first” which was forever written into world sailing history. . .

Afloat.ie

When O’Brien returned from his record-breaking voyage in 1925 he made his first landfall in Ireland in Wicklow Harbour. O’Brien designed a larger version of Saoirse to be the inter-islands communications vessel for the Falkland Islands: this – the Ilen – was also built in Baltimore. Back in 2015 we visited Oldcourt boatyard on the Ilen River to see the restoration of the larger ketch, which was then underway. That work was completed in 2018, and the same team embarked on a complete rebuilding of Saoirse, which had been wrecked in Jamaica in 1979. Our own West Cork photographer, Kevin O’Farrell has beautifully documented these projects at Oldcourt in his book, published in 2020.

The Asgard, above, was famous for gun-running at Howth by Irish Volunteers in 1914. Below is an Irish Navy vessel, LÉ Gráinne – a mine sweeper. Gráinne was a legendary princess who was promised to Fionn Mac Cumhail but ran away with his young follower Diarmuid. The ship was decommissioned in 1987.

We found that the town of Wicklow has so many maritime associations – everywhere you look there are reminders. But also it’s a thriving commercial centre and we were impressed by what is on offer there: great eateries, and a most wonderful bookshop. I think there might be another post in the making . . .

The Táin, by Hutton and Campbell

The Táin Bó Cúailnge (pronounced approximately tawn bow coolna), known in English as The Cattle Raid of Cooley, is one of the great Irish Sagas. There are many translations and illustrated versions, perhaps the most famous being that of Thomas Kinsella, illustrated by Louis LeBrocquy, published by the Dolmen Press in 1969. Almost forgotten now is the version by Mary Ann Hutton, illustrated by John Campbell – but it deserves to be remembered as one of the masterpieces of the Irish literary and artistic revival.

First of all, what is The Táin? It’s an epic tale, first written in the 7th century but preserved in various versions from the 11th to the 14th centuries with many modifications, additions and changes along the way. It tells the story of Queen Maeve, jealous of her husband’s white-horned bull, who determines to acquire the even more prestigious Brown Bull of Cooley from Ulster, ignoring the foretelling of a dreadful outcome should she proceed. The Ulstermen are rendered unable to fight by a curse, leaving the great warrior, Cuchulain, to fight alone – which, by the way, is no bother to him, especially once his warp-spasm, or battle-rage, comes on him. However, in the end he fights and kills his old friend and foster-brother, Ferdia. There’s a lot more to it, of course, and much of the tale is told by Fergus, who relates the whole story of Cuchulain as a youth and his many heroic deeds.

And what about the author and illustrator, neither of them now a household name, although justly acclaimed in their day? Mary Ann Hutton was born in England but had strong Irish connections and moved to Belfast when she married. She was highly educated, with an academic knowledge of Old and Middle Irish and became a fluent Irish speaker. She was an ardent supporter of Patrick Pearse and the Gaelic League and became a central figure in the Gaelic revival. Her version of The Táin was the result of ten years of intense scholarship. It is not a translation, but rather a rendition in blank verse of the story informed by her research into its various versions and iterations. She uses her own spellings as well – Maev and Cucullin, for example. I couldn’t find a photograph of Mary Ann, but here is the illustrator, below.

The illustrator was John Patrick Campbell, although in the spirit of the Gaelic Revival, he styled himself as Seaghan McCathmhaoil. There’s a wonderful biographical and appreciative sketch in the Irish Arts Review of 1998 by Paul Larmour* and that’s where I learned that he was also based in Belfast, that he produced illustrations for the first edition of Hutton’s Táin in 1907, but they were not used until the second edition, in 1924, and then only a selection of his illustrations were included. That’s a pity, because according to Larmour, Campbell’s illustrations for the Táin were ‘among his most impressive.’ They certainly capture the romantic spirit of the Celtic Revival period, and show his mastery of line drawing and strong black and white palette. Larmour says, This Irish epic poem conjuring up the ring of battle and the revelry of kings gave full scope to Campbell’s by now increasingly powerful expression and individuality, the drawings showing great strength of composition, dramatic power, and richness of decoration. 

I couldn’t agree more, so here are a few selections from the text (it’s available online at good old archive.org) along with Campbell/MacCathmhaoil’s illustrations. The illustration above, captioned Maev’s Second Meeting with Fergus, is from Larmour’s article and is one of those that was, inexplicably, not eventually used in the book.

And Fergus

Came from the grave where five times five score years

He had been hidden. And a beautiful

And rich appearance was upon that warrior.

Brown hair was on him ; and a hooded layna

With red inweaving of red gold. A bratt

Of bright grass-green was round him ; and he wore

A golden-hilted sword, and round-toed shoes

Wrought all of bronze. And when that warrior, Fergus,

Perceived the holy men of Erin nigh him,

It was his wish to stand, and standing, tell

The Táin he had to tell.

This was the time wherein Maev called and spake

Unto her charioteer, and bade him catch

Her steeds and yoke her chariot, so that straightway

She might repair to speak with her own Druid

And ask for prophecy and knowledge. “ Wait

One while, O Queen,” the charioteer made answer,

“ That I may three times wheel the chariot round

Sunwise, to win a sign of luck and fortune.”

He wheeled the chariot sunwise, and then Maev

Rode to her Druid. When she reached the Druid,

She asked for prophecy and knowledge.

I see a man youthful and very fair,

Who will perform great deeds, and win his fill

Of hurts and wounds in his smooth fine-fair skin.

Upon his brow, which is a meeting-place

For victories, the hero’s light flames high.

Amidst each eye the seven dragon-gems

Of a pure hero-champion flame and burn.

Plain to perceive, his intellect is keen.

A red hooked layna folds him. His fresh face

Is beautiful and noble. He observes

Towards women courtesy and modesty.

Though a mere stripling, blooming, dainty-cheeked,

He in the battle shows a dragon’s form.

His fairness and his valour now resemble

Cucullin of Mweerhevna ; and though, truly,

Who this Cucullin of green Moy Mweerhevna

May be I know not, yet this thing I know

These hosts by him will all be very red.

Four little swords for feats of special skill

He carries in each hand : he will attain

To plying these upon the hosts : the hosts

Will flee from him on every road and way.

When, in addition to his spear and sword,

He brings his dread Gae Bulg, he plants his feet

On every slope and hill. Two spears project

O’er his bright chariot-wheels : he rides to battle.

Fury distorts him, battle-fury changes

That form which hitherto I have perceived.

He is Cucullin son of Sooaltim,

Hound of the Forge : he wends unto a battle.

Your hosts, now whole, he will hack down and fell.

He will compel your slain thickly to lie.

Strong men will leave their heads with him. This I,

Fedelm the Prophetess, will not conceal.

Red blood shall drip from the white skins of heroes

Lasting and long the memory shall be

Bodies shall there be torn, women shall wail,

Through deeds of that renowned Hound of the Forge,

Whom now, O Queen, I see.

The Prophetess

Ended her prophecy : and Maev rode back

From seeking-out of prophecy and knowledge.

Said Laeg, “ here comes a chariot-rider towards us.”

“ Describe him, then, good Laeg,” Cucullin said;

And Laeg described him thus:

“ Larger,” said he,

Than is some heathy knoll, rising alone

From out a grassy level, seems to me

His noble chariot. Larger than the tree,

Reverenced and old, that stands upon the green

Of some king’s doon, appears to me the hair

That curls and waves in golden bright abundance

About that warrior’s head. A crimson fooan,

Fringed and embroidered, folds him round : a spike

Of graven gold secures it. In his hand

He holds a wide, red-flaming spear. A shield,

Carven, and compassed by a ridge of gold,

He has ; and a long sword-sheath, which for size

Is like the rudder of some kingly vessel,

Reposes on the huge and seated thighs

Of that great, haughty warrior, planted there

’Midst of his chariot.”

Then Cucullin cried :

“ Oh, welcome, ever welcome is the coming

Of that beloved guest ! I know that guest.

It is my guardian and my fosterer,

My gentle, noble Fergus, who comes there.”

Cucullin saw his weapon, red with blood,

Lying beside Faerdeeah ; and he said:

“ O my Faerdeeah, sorrowful the fate !

I, with my merciless weapon still unwashed :

Thou, pale in death upon a couch of gore.

Sad—what has come of our meeting here

I, wounded, sinking, covered with rough gore:

Thou, altogether dead ! Oh, dear to me

The friend to whom I have served a draught of blood!”

*John Campbell (1883-1962) An Artist Of The Irish Revival by Paul Larmour, 1998 Volume: 14, Pages: 62 – 73

Chasing Steeples!

I can’t resist a good Irish story . . . I look out for them wherever we go. Our latest adventure was over in the northern part of County Cork, searching out a number of holy wells and anything related to them: we were led by Amanda Clarke: look at her website here. Regular readers will know that we often get together with Amanda and Peter to share our mutual interests in the Irish landscape. On this most recent expedition our path took us through Buttevant, and specifically to St John’s C of I church there, where Finola was keen to inspect the stained glass windows. The present church was built in 1826, and replaced an older one, established in the late 1600s.

As you can see, it has a tower with a fine, elegant spire. I was fascinated to read that the predecassor of this church is credited with the historical significance of having ‘given birth’ to the Steeplechase horse race.

. . . The term ‘steeplechase’ actually originated in a horse race first held in Ireland in the 18th century. As the name might suggest, that very first race took place in 1752 between two steeples in rural county Cork in the south of Ireland. At that time, church steeples were among the tallest buildings in the landscape. On that night, Cornelius O’Callaghan and Edmund Blake were at dinner at Buttevant Castle, having a good time. They made a bet between themselves to race from the steeple of Saint John’s Church in Buttevant to that of Saint Mary’s Church in the town of Doneraile . . .

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Sadly, the Castle at Buttevant is no longer habitable. It was built around 1200 by Philip and William de Barry, on land seized from the Gaelic O’Donegan’s. The poet Edmund Spenser (1553 – 1599) lived in the nearby castle of Kilcolman for many years, and wrote his poem The Faerie Queene there. He also mentions Buttevant Castle in his writings:

“Old father Mole, (Mole hight that mountain grey
That walls the Northside of Armulla dale)
He had a daughter fresh as floure of May,

VVhich gaue that name vnto that pleasant vale;
Mulla the daughter of old Mole, so hight
The Nimph, which of that water course has charge,
That springing out of Mole, doth run downe right
to Butteuant where spreading forth at large,
It giueth name vnto that auncient Cittie,
VVhich Kilnemullah cleped is of old:
VVhose ragged ruines breed great ruth and pittie,
To travallers, which it from far behold”

Spenser is supposed to have derived the names ‘Mole’ and ‘Armulla’ from Kilnemulla or, more correctly Cell na mullach, an early name for Buttevant. It is possible that the castle here fell victim to the 20th century Irish Civil War, although I cannot find any detailed information on this. Accounts generally suggest that the building was in use until the 1920s and another reference states that there was a significant fire which destroyed the interior in 1936. Today, it is a windowless ruin which is not accessible to the public.

I’m sure you are all anxious to get back to the story of that first Steeplechase – and you want to know who won? When taking in any Irish tale you have to be patient . . . We simple don’t know who won! It’s not recorded anywhere . . . The account continues:

. . .The distance was around 4 miles, crossing countryside and rivers. The winner would be the first to touch the base of the steeple in Doneraile. The prize? More than 600 gallons of port. Sadly, history has not recorded who actually won the race. But that race has gone down in history, with steeplechase races becoming a tradition . . .

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Obviously, we had to continue our expedition with a visit to Doneraile, to view the finishing post. That’s St Mary’s Church, above. The present building does not have a spire: I would have thought that such a feature would be essential if you were looking out for it from a distance of four miles, even with fairly flat countryside in between. However, I have now learned that the term ‘steeple’ correctly refers either to a simple church tower, or a church tower with a spire on it. Have a look at the terrain from a birds’ eye view:

Here I have copied extracts from the first edition 6″ Ordnance Survey map, showing the terrain in more detail around the start and finish points as it was noted in the early nineteenth century:

On this occasion we didn’t have time to explore the route itself: I wonder if anyone else has? Is it significant that the townland which surrounds Doneraile Church is known as Horseclose?

In the present day, of course, Steeplechasing has an equine life of its own. Supposedly, the very first recognised English National Steeplechase took place in March 1830. In 1839, the British Grand National Race at Aintree was established, a race that is still run today over roughly the same distance of around 4 miles. Here’s a poster for the Irish equivalent – at Fairyhouse – on Easter Monday 1916, a very significant date in the Irish calendar . . .

While on the subject of the Aintree event, we must mention the most famous racehorse of all time (probably) who holds the record for winning the Grand National Steeplechase thrice – in 1973, 1974, and 1977 and coming second in 1975 and 1976: Red Rum.

. . . Red Rum was bred at Rossenarra stud in Kells, County Kilkenny, Ireland, by Martyn McEnery. Following a canter at Aintree Racecourse the day before the 1978 Grand National he was retired. The news of Red Rum’s retirement was the lead story on that night’s 9 O’Clock News on the BBC and was also front page news of the following morning’s newspapers. Red Rum had become a national celebrity, opening supermarkets and annually leading the Grand National parade for many further years. His likeness graced playing cards, mugs, posters, models, paintings, plates and jigsaw puzzles. Several books have been written about Red Rum, The horse helped launch the Steeplechase rollercoaster at Blackpool Pleasure Beach in 1977 . . .

Wikipedia

Yes, this is it: the Steeplechase Rollercoaster! You can join in the full experience here. Hopefully my account has enlivened your day: I’m sure there are many of you out there who are familiar with this tale and can, perhaps, add to it? I’ll finish with a view over Buttevant taken on our journey – an atmospheric winter morning.

With thanks to The Guardian for the header pic of the Aintree Grand National