In 1950 Pope Pius XII declared a Holy Year – and galvanised Ireland. It was the height of a certain time of Catholicism in Ireland – fervent, highly-organised, state-sanctioned – and the Pope’s decree was embraced with enthusiasm.*
First of all, what is a Holy Year? It’s a year of special devotion and penance, and a year in which, through following certain prescriptions, you can gain a Plenary Indulgence. Sounds a bit medieval, doesn’t it? But the concept of a Plenary Indulgence isn’t quite the same as the Cash-For-Forgiveness schemes that brought about the Reformation – you earn it, rather than buy it, and it gives you a Time Off For Good Behaviour Card to shorten your sojourn in Purgatory. As you can imagine, this is an attractive proposition for an ardent believer, steeped in all the ritual and dogma of Catholicism – and that described almost all of us in 1950s Ireland.
A wonderful short film about the 1950 Holy Year in Rome
The Holy Year itself involved many rituals. The Pope declared it open by knocking on the first of four Holy Doors in Rome and finished it by sealing up the door again at the end. Pius XII encouraged those who could to make a pilgrimage to Rome.
In response, Ireland mounted a National Pilgrimage, led by the President, Seán T O’Ceallaigh. Take a look at how British Pathé covered this event. Aer Lingus laid on specific flights: A special return fare of £54 from Dublin or Shannon to Rome, valid for 30 days will apply during the Holy Year. Passengers may travel via London, Paris or Amsterdam and may break their journey at any scheduled stopping place en route provided that the stopover is specified at the time of booking.
The Post Office issued a special Holy Year set of Stamps (above). The national radio station started its tradition of playing the Angelus every day – still going strong despite frequent calls for a more inclusive time marker. Everything about the official Government position telegraphed the statement – We are a Catholic Country.
Edwardian Bray, Co Wicklow – the famous Promenade is there but no cross yet
But how did this ultra-Catholicism manifest itself in individual communities? Besides specially organised missions, sodalities, novenas and parades, many towns and villages decided to mark the year by erecting monuments. Somehow the notion of hilltop crosses became The Idea of the day – perhaps it was suggested by John Charles McQuaid as a suitable mark of respect. And all over Ireland plans got underway to erect tall crosses on top of the local prominent landmark.
Many (most?) of these 1950 crosses have survived and have become imbedded in our consciousness as a ‘natural’ (in the sense of ‘expected’) feature of our Irish landscape. Few today remember the impetus which led to their erection. At the time, there were fund-raising drives and committees and huge ceremonials attached to the actual situating of the crosses.
The Bray Head Cross: one of several routes up to it; the 1950 plinth; a popular spot
We have visited several of these crosses lately. I grew up in Bray and as anyone who has ever been there knows, the town is dominated by Bray Head, and Bray Head is dominated by its Holy Year Cross. It’s become the thing to do, to walk up to the cross – there are at least four ways up to it and they’re all spectacular. Sitting at the base of the cross enjoying a well-earned rest, we reminded ourselves that when it was erected over 5,000 people attended the blessing ceremony.
More recently, here in West Cork, we walked up to two crosses, the first at Knockaphuca on the Mizen (above and below). The Knockaphuca walk (it’s fantastic!) was the subject of Robert’s post a few weeks ago. The cross here is a replacement for the original wooden one that had rotted away, finally falling way back in 1968. The memory of the cross was still strong in the community, though, and the local GAA club conceived of a project to re-erect it in 2011 as a symbol of hope and re-assurance in these challenging times and a call to prayer in our hour of need. The challenging times was a reference to the global recession, which hit Ireland badly and ended the reign of the Celtic Tiger.
The volunteers took things a little further than they would have in 1950 and carried up with them an array of solar panels. Thus, this is a very modern re-incarnation of the traditional Holy Year Cross – a glow-in-the-dark model. They called it The Cross of Hope and as such it recalls the beacons that lighted many a weary sailor’s way into safe harbour.
This week we walked up (above) to the cross on Dromore Hill. This one is clearly visible to anyone travelling between Drimoleague and Bantry, on a hill behind the village of Dromore. (Special thanks to Oliver Farrell and Bridget Threthewey for directions.)
It’s a lovely walk and the cross looks like it may be original, although it may also have been replaced. It is still a focus – most years the local parish of Caheragh organises a mass at the cross in August and it’s always well attended. It’s another one where lights have been added, this time in the form of fluorescent strips. We couldn’t figure out the power source though – electrical lines disappear into the ground. Very mysterious.
The cross with its 1950 Holy Year Plaque and a space for an altar for the annual mass
St Lachtan’s Holy Well is situated south of Ballyvourney and in 1950 a group of volunteers from the Ré na nDoiri branch of Muintur na Tíre decided to erect a cross on the well to mark the occasion. This one is not on a hill top – in fact it is quite hard to find, but the plaque, in Irish, confirms it as a Holy Year project.
St Lachtan’s Holy Well (the two bullaun stones below the cross) and its Holy Year Cross
Our final local cross is one we haven’t been up to yet – a future project. It stands on a hill between between Skibbereen and Lough Hyne – I’m not sure what the townland name is, it looks like its on the boundaries of Gortshancrone, Booleybane and Curravalley.
If anyone local knows about it, or can tell us the best way up, we would love to hear it.
It wasn’t always a cross – the people of the beautiful Glen of Aherlow in Tipperary decided on a giant Christ the King statue (above). It’s visible for miles – the current one a 1975 replacement for the original and made by the same firm. According to the signage it depicts the hand of Christ the King, raised in blessing the Glen, its people, and all those who pass by.
However, crosses (that’s the one close to Skibbereen above) seem to be the most frequent choice to commemorate and mark the 1950 Holy Year. Do you have one close to where you live?Have you been to it? Is it still in some form of use (for annual masses, say)? Is it valued by the community?
There seems to be a thread going through our recent posts: my Mizen Mountains and Signal Tower projects take us to high places, and today Finola reports on her exploration of hilltop crosses dating from the 1950 Holy Year. Our travels have brought us to many peaks and pinnacles in and beyond West Cork. I must say there’s nowhere I would rather be than far away from the crowds up on an Irish eminence which – without fail – provides us with the most spectacular views across the topography of this greenest of all lands.
After lockdown restrictions were eased, we made a little trip up to County Wicklow to see family and friends, and took full advantage of the many trails that cross the granite outcrops between Bray and Greystones. The header picture looks south-west from Bray Head towards the Great Sugar Loaf, part of the Wicklow mountain range which, at 501 metres, is significantly higher than our own Mount Gabriel in West Cork at 404m, but which nevertheless provides this view (above) towards the coast of Roaringwater Bay, and looks out over Carbery’s 100 Isles.
Travellers through Wicklow have, since ancient times, oriented themselves using the high peaks. Pilgrims going to the holy city of Glendalough and keeping to the coastline south out of Dublin might have followed the routes which, today, pass over Bray Head. A modern way of doing it, at least in part, is on the railway line that hugs the cliffs between Greystones and Bray – a feat of engineering laid out by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the 1850s and surviving to this day, although it has had to be realigned six times because of erosion and rockfalls. It has even been described as one of the world’s most picturesque train journeys – something of an exaggeration, perhaps, but it’s well worth taking the trip if you are in the area. The photos above show (from upper) the public trail leading from Windgate up to the Bray Head Cross; the railway line seen from the cliff path that runs close to the route – note the abandoned tunnel on the far right; the view from Bray Head looking south to Greystones with Dunbur Head, south of Wicklow town, far beyond.
Back in West Cork we have no end of high places to choose from. Our latest escapade was a climb to the 1950 cross at Dromore, between Bantry and Drimoleague, which provides the two views above and this one, below, from which you can see the high peak of Gabriel in the distant west.
We have shared with you some of our favourite high journeys in our own part of the country, including the remarkable Borlin Valley road, which crosses the County border between Cork and Kerry:
Climbing to the summit of Knockaphuca gave us this striking view over the Mizen village of Goleen and out to the ‘Wild’ Atlantic beyond it:
Heights still to be scaled: in the picture above I’m walking on a very old roadway which leads out to a ruined Napoleonic signal station perched right above Mizen Head. To my left is the distinctive Mizen Peak. Both sites will feature in future posts, and both reveal dramatic views over this western edge of the land.
We couldn’t complete any account of high places in the west of Ireland without mention of one of our favourite destinations: the Beara Peninsula. Above is the view north from the top of the Healey Pass, looking into Kerry. Below is a dizzying view into the heart of the Beara: look at the farmsteads and cottages below the ancient field system, dwarfed by the power of the mountains.
We will continue to share with you our experiencing of the landscapes here, and not just the high places, of course. We have many years of exploring Ireland under our belts, and look forward to lots still to come.
I suppose this – our fourth venture into the world of Irish signal towers from the Napoleonic era – has a distinctive resonance with me! Of the 84 signalling sites around Ireland, only five bear a personal name: John’s Point, Co Donegal; Brandon Head (Brendan), Co Kerry, Sybil Head, Co Kerry; Barry’s Head, Co Cork; and this one – Robert’s Head, Co Cork.
As you can see on this aerial view, the headland on which the signal tower stands is named after Robert’s Cove – Cuainín Riobaird – close by. The Cove, a small village, is a popular weekend escape and holiday destination which has two pubs and a former coastguard station, possibly dating from 1863.
Highlights of Robert’s Cove: the old milepost on the top is non-committal about the apostrophe! The former Coastguard Station (now a private residence) is the building on the left in this picture, above
I wondered how this cove got its name, and was rewarded by a search in A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland by Samuel Lewis, 1837:
Ballyfoil, a parish, in the barony of Kinnalea, county of Cork, and province of Munster, 10 miles from Kinsale; containing 1291 inhabitants . . . comprises 1304 statute acres, as applotted under the tithe act. The soil is fertile, and about one-half of the land is under tillage; the remainder is in dairy farms. The system of agriculture is improved; the only manure is sea-sand, which is brought into Rocky Bay and Roberts’ Cove, two small coves in the parish, in large boats, of which several are employed in this trade. At Roberts’ Cove is a valuable slate quarry, belonging to Sir Thomas Roberts, Bart., but it is not worked to any considerable extent. Britfieldstown, the seat of Sir Thomas Roberts, Bart., is pleasantly situated in a secluded spot above Roberts’ Cove . . . The Cove affords a commodious shelter for vessels of 200 tons’ burden, which occasionally arrive laden with coal, and return with cargoes of slate. The coast-guard station here is the most westerly of the eight stations that constitute the district of Cove. A little to the west, on the summit of Roberts’ Head, is a ruined signal tower, from which is an interesting and extensive prospect. It is an impropriate curacy, in the diocese of Cork, and is part of the union of Tracton, where the Protestant inhabitants attend divine worship . . . The tithes amount to £109. 4. 6. . . The church has long been a ruin . . . there is also a hedge school in the parish . . .
In this 1842 Ordnance Survey map of the area, the site of the signal station is marked. Britfieldstown House, the seat of the Roberts family, was situated further to the north. In 1851 the estate was sold on behalf of Sir Thomas Howland Roberts, ‘…an insolvent debtor…’ It became derelict in the 1970s and the only survivals now are remnants of a walled garden and a derelict gate lodge. It’s interesting that the apostrophe has been changed – on this map – to indicate a singular ‘Robert’ rather than the ‘Roberts’ family, whereas the 1837 Topographical Dictionary entry clearly implies the naming as ‘Roberts’.
A closer aerial view of the signal tower clearly shows the extent of the remaining buildings, although all ruinous
The visible buildings on the signal tower site are extensive, and imply that this station was in use beyond the time of the Napoleonic invasion threat: many of the other stations were stood down around 1810 and became derelict soon after, mainly due to their remote exposed locations and the ravages of the weather. Interestingly they do not generally appear to have suffered from stone ‘robbing’ in the same way that medieval tower houses did.
The complex of buildings on the Robert’s Head site showing (from upper picture) north-west, north-east, south-east and south-west elevations. I think it’s very likely that the highest part of the structure is based on the original signal tower, and contains much of that early structure: the raised entrance (north-east elevation) follows the general pattern, but there are no bartizans or machiolations. These could well have been replaced in later reconstructions, when a pitched roof was added. Clues that much of the original masonry has been retained lie in the back wall – thickened at the centre to incorporate a chimney flue – and remnants of external vertical slate-hanging, a method of weatherproofing evident in many other towers.
I can provide no answers as to why the extensions were added: it has been suggested that these are late 19th or early 20th century works. But the resulting building is substantial – now just a gaunt shell on a windy hill. It’s possible that the station was used as a lookout by the coast-guards based down in Robert’s Cove. Stuart Rathbone (Irish Signal Stations), writing about the Mizen Head station, observes:
The enclosed signal station at Mizen Head, County Cork, features a well preserved three storey building that is now believed to be a replacement for the original signal tower. The building is very similar to the example at Robert’s Head, County Cork. It has tall gabled walls and a large single storey building wrapping around the south east and north east sides . . .
In the early years of the 20th century a fog signal station had been established at Mizen Head, Co Cork, and was probably based on the original signal tower building there; the project also involved building accommodation for the additional crew members required at that time. It is possible that the enlargement of the earlier buildings at Robert’s Head happened in the same period, and for a similar purpose: establishing a signalling and communications base connected to the local coast-guard activities. Those works appear to have included accommodation, office and workshop space, with stores, a toilet and a large concrete water cistern adjacent to the south east wall.
Amenities established in the later reconstruction: a probable outside ‘privvy’ (upper) and ‘shovelling out hatch’ (middle), with large water cistern (lower)
Internal features are difficult to describe definitively, but in likelihood include a hearth / cooking range, living and sleeping quarters with rendered walls providing a level of comfort above that found in the early signal towers. Now, after years of abandonment, the surfaces have been embellished with graffiti and lichen growth, all imparting a compelling visual patina: the place is alive with its own decay. Even the texture of the masonry itself is evolving in a compulsively fascinating way as centuries of abrasive winter gales take their toll.
Access to the site is along farm tracks – don’t forget to seek permission if you intend to visit. With all of the towers we have explored so far, the roadways leading to them have survived intact, and have been well made and metalled – in this case solidly crafted with slate probably quarried in Robert’s Cove.
I feel we have been privileged to explore an actively disintegrating artefact of Ireland’s engineering history. More than most, perhaps, this signal tower has absorbed the lives of those it sheltered, and we can meet them there, in our imaginations. It’s a raw place, and it won’t be there forever. In time it will be no more than the scattered piles of stone that we saw at Ballyroon. But in our brief lifetimes, through tempest and contagion, it will continue its slow decline into the dust of the earth largely unseen and unmourned.
The previous posts in this series can be found through these links:
As of this week I hadn’t been in a canoe for, oh, about 25 years. That all changed on Thursday when my friend Jack O’Keeffe invited me along on a CORKumnavigation! I was a bit apprehensive but I needn’t have been – the trip was easy, my paddling skills were still intact and I felt very safe. Most of all, though, this was a terrific experience.
There are, in fact, very few cities in the world where you could do something like this. That’s because Cork was built on a marsh, with the the rivers that formed it gradually flowing around the reclaimed land, and joined to the land on either side by a series of bridges. The traces of that former city (above) are all still there, as both Brian Lalor and Eiléan Ni Chuilleanáin pointed out in this post and this one.
There are complications for anyone wanting to navigate this river using the two channels as seen in the map above – the flow of the river is one and the tide is the other. There’s a hydro-electric dam upstream at Inniscarra and it can control the release of water that raises or drops the level of the river. And then there’s the tide – since the river here is tidal the water level rises and falls on every tide.
Why is this important? Because there are weirs and bridges along the CORKumnavigation route. The water has to be high enough to cover the weirs (which are a real hazard to small craft) but at the same time low enough to allow passage under the bridges. There are windows of opportunity in which the tidal level is just right, and the Inniscarra Dam isn’t affecting the river unduly. Several years ago, under an initiative managed by Meitheal Mara, all the weirs and bridges were surveyed and measured and thus it is now possible to work out the times in each month when it is possible to travel safely around Cork by water.
Jack takes all this information, calculates optimum times for the voyage, and spreads the word when those windows open. And magically, people gather in an astonishing variety of small craft – curraghs, skiffs, one and two-person kayaks, canoes, paddleboards, inflatable sit-upons. My partner in the canoe was the genial Cathy Buchanan who is the Manager of Meitheal Mara and a former National Rowing Champion. We proved to be a wonderfully compatible team, able to keep the canoe going in the direction we wanted, and chatting companionably throughout (first photograph in the post).
On this occasion, the trip was anti-clockwise. We launched at Crosse’s Green, right by the new half-built convention centre and under the looming walls of the 17th century Elizabeth Fort, and paddled downstream, passing first under the South Gate Bridge, the site of one of Cork’s original historic bridges, and from there down to the docks, past City Hall and the mid-century building where my father worked in the 60s. In the photo above the paddlers are passing the intersection of the South Mall and the Grand Parade.
Viewed from the water, with the docks (below) behind us, the quays are very fine examples of Victorian Commerce, with the most imposing edifice of all being the neo-classical St Mary’s Church, a monument to the rising power of a Catholic middle-class. Rounding a bed you come to the Lee Maltings where UCC students, including me, played raquetball in the early 70s.
Once past the Maltings, everything changes. The river seems to slow, the headwind stops, greenery appears and you float past lovely old Edwardian houses with their gardens sloping down to the river on the right, while the landscaped lawns of Fitzgerald Park and the Mardyke sports grounds stretch along the left bank.
This brings us finally under the fabled Shaky Bridge and on to the portage, a rather grand name for the act of hauling our boats over the Split Weir and an opportunity for a rest and a drink.
Then came my favourite part of the whole trip, as this smaller, south stretch of river meanders through the treed banks along which you are hardly conscious that you are in a city. The noise falls aways, green branches arch down to the water, Water-crowfoot provides a sparkling carpet to paddle through, a duck family swims leisurely aside and overhead in the canopy of leaves birds are singing their hearts out. You could be deep in the country, totally unconscious of the urban life all around you, until you emerge once again beside the River Lee Hotel. It especially astounds me as I attended UCC for five years, often walking in and around this part of the campus but unaware of the green and beautiful waterway below.
From there it’s a short paddle to the pull-out, and you’re done. The whole thing took about two hours or a little more but it felt like longer, I think because we had experienced so much in that time. We were lucky with the weather, as it was a warm and sunny evening. We were expertly guided by Jack, who quietly and unflappably sorted out any issues as we went along. It was, in fact, ideal. It felt privileged, too, to be along with a small group on such a unique trip.
My heartfelt gratitude to Jack, and to all the people at Meitheal Mara who worked so hard to establish how this route could be safely undertaken. Given that there are so few cities where this is possible, this is a world-class experience and deserves to be far better known than it is.
Seán O’Sullivan showed me an international folktale known in Irish as ‘Ao Mhic an Bhradáin agus Ó Mhic an Bhradáin’ (‘Hugh and O, the Two Sons of the Salmon’) . . .
It was the earliest known folktale, first discovered on Egyptian papyrus 3,250 years before. During my years with the Commission hundreds of variants of that far-flung story were gathered in remote hamlets on the western seaboard of Ireland, in parts of Munster, in northwest Ulster and from a group of travelling people on the borders of Wicklow and Wexford . . .
A full text is available as an audio file, in Irish. It’s here if you want to have a listen:
Since writing that first post I have been trying to find a translation of the story into English, but without success. So – nothing ventured nothing gained – I’m providing you with my own version of the story! I have distilled this from the Irish language (although my knowledge of Irish is but rudimentary), using dictionaries and online translation helpers and then putting the whole thing into a sort of vernacular tongue which seems to suit the subject. I think I have the gist of it right enough, but you’ll just have to go along with my own way of telling it. I have also delved into the Roaringwater Journal archives for a few illustrations to break up the text. For me, it’s a fine story: I hope you enjoy it!
Legend of the Salmon of Knowledge by Charlie Fallon (Saatchiart):
Hugh and O, the Two Sons of the Salmon
It came about that there was a poor man whose only means of making a living was catching fish. If he came home with no fish, he wasn’t lucky: he could only do his best. The poor man had a wife, but no child came to them, and the years were on them.
Fisherman on Lough Skeagh 1946 (Irish Folklore Commission):
One day he was out fishing with his rod and took a fine salmon. It was hard work, but he reeled in the fish and was about to kill it when it spoke to him! “Don’t kill me’’ said the salmon, “Let me go and I will tell you a story of good fortune.”
The poor man was amazed to learn that the salmon could speak, but he replied: “I will hear the story and, if I am pleased, I will let you go.”
“Listen now”, said the salmon. “I know you have been upset that you have no children; I am glad to tell you that you will soon have two sons.”
“That is certain to be untrue”, said the fisherman.
“I am not telling you a lie”, said the salmon. “Let me go and you will see that I am telling you the truth.”
The fisherman cut the line and released the salmon. He returned home and told his wife the great news. She was not impressed. “It’s a pity you did not bring the salmon back with you for our supper: it’s clear that he was mocking you!”
Nevertheless, within the year the couple were surprised to have two sons. “Look now”, said the fisherman, “wasn’t it the truth that the salmon told me?”
“By my soul it was”, said the woman, “but what shall we call these two?”
“We will call them É Mhic and Ó Bhradáin” said the fisherman. And so it was. They were known as Hugh and O, the Two Sons of the Salmon. You could not put anything between them in looks, manner or speech.
As the boys grew, so did the luck of the fisherman. Every time he went out with his rod his catch increased fourfold, and they became rich enough that each boy could have a hawk, a greyhound and a horse. The boys also had the luck with their hunting.
At twenty years of age Hugh told his brother that he would leave and seek his fortune in the world. “If I am not back in twelve months, then come and find me,” he said.
Hugh took his hawk, his dog and his horse. Also, he did not forget his sword. He tackled the road and had good travels. On a day in winter he got lost in a wood, and stumbled on a fine castle in a clearing. “By the Devil”’ he said, “I’ll go in and wait out the night if no ill will is shown to me.”
Inside was a fair countrywoman and they began to converse until a terrible noise was heard, and the walls of the castle shook. The girl vanished and it wasn’t long before a big, strong, bad-tempered affair jumped into the room. “What kind of a person has the destiny to end his life in my castle?” he shouted.
“It doesn’t matter to you”, said Hugh. “What the heck, now I’m in I will stay here!”
The two laid into each other with their swords and, in the shock of the fight, the giant was turned to dust. In the morning it was raining all over the woods, and Hugh spent the day wandering. As evening fell, what should come to him but a hare? He took his horse and released the hound and the hawk but the hare outran them all and disappeared into a small cottage in the wood. “Why wouldn’t I go in?” said Hugh.
Inside was a fire in the grate and he sat down beside it. Soon the ugliest old woman he had ever seen came through the door. She made no blessing to him at all, only to look badly at him.
“Come in from the door”, says Hugh, “and share the fire with me.”
“I won’t come”, she said, “I would be scared!”
“What would you be scared of?” asks Hugh.
“That hawk, and I don’t trust the greyhound, and I wonder what this horse would do to me?”
“You are in no danger from them”, says Hugh “They are all honest. Come up and sit by the fire.”
“I will not”, she says, “unless they are all leashed.”
“Why don’t I bind them?” says Hugh. “But I have nothing to bind them with.”
“I’ll give you a way to bind them”, says she, and tore three snares of hair off her head. “Here”, she says, “Use these.”
He snapped a hair leash on the hawk – the old lady must have had very strong hair! And he tied the hound with another snare and the horse with the third. When he had done this the old woman produced a sword.
“Take care, my boy”, she said, “I know you were in the castle last night and you killed my son there. He would despise me unless I challenge you now.”
She wielded her sword and they fought a battle inside the cottage. The woman – who was small – had the advantage because Hugh could not properly swing his sword within the confines of the room. The old woman had the head start on him, and he called out to his hawk.
“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman. With that the snare closed on the hawk and it could not stir.
Hugh became angry and tried to get the better of the old lady, but it was no use. Soon he was tight-lipped, and called for the greyhound to come to his aid.
“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman. The snare clipped on the greyhound and she couldn’t move. The fight continued, and Hugh urged the horse to come to his aid.
“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman.
“I can’t help you”, said the horse, “The snare is too tight on me.”
Hugh’s anger intensified and he was about to take a final blow at her when the old woman took out a magic rod. She hit Hugh with the rod, and he turned into a stone in the middle of the floor. She struck another blow for the hawk, the greyhound and the horse, and there were three more stones in the floor.
The Giant’s Fingers, Co Cavan:
“Now”, she said, “I have avenged my son’s death, and these stones will stay here a long time before anyone will take them away!”
After a year Hugh had not returned home, and O said to his mother and father that he was going to look for him. “I fear something bad has happened to him”, he said.
“It will be little help to you or us if he is dead’’ said his father, but he would not be stopped. He seized his hawk, his dog and his horse, and never forgot to take his sword also.
He travelled a long way and a short way and one evening – why, shouldn’t he find himself in the same wood where his brother had been, and across the wood he found the same fine castle.
“I am tired after this day’s ride”, he said. “I’ll stay in this fine castle tonight, unless anyone puts me out of it.”
The first thing he saw was the fair countrywoman, who was surprised, thinking that he was Hugh – for the twin brothers looked exactly the same. “Where have you been?” she asked. Before he could answer a terrible noise and shaking filled the air and the girl disappeared. In bounced a much larger and stronger giant than the one which his brother had faced up to.
“What brought you to my castle uninvited?” he shouted. “And what kind of person are you to have the destiny to end your life here for a second time?”
“I was outside and had no place to go”, said O. “But I have no memory of ending my life here before.”
“Come here and I will make you remember”, said the giant, wielding his sword. It was a long night of fighting, but the eventual ruin of the thing was the despatch of the giant by the brother, who settled down and went to sleep.
Tomorrow morning he got up and searched the castle, but failed to find anyone else alive in it. He raised his horse, his dog and his hawk and went out hunting in the demesne.
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