West Cork Obscura – Finola’s Picks

The popular Atlas Obscura defines itself as the definitive guide to off-the-beaten-track and little known wondrous places. So we’ve captured that idea and, as our Christmas present to our readers, bring you our own carefully-curated, slightly eccentric, Roaringwater Journal Guide to West Cork’s Hidden Wonders. Robert’s selection is here. No well-know tourist spots for these posts! No car parks and visitor centres! You may need wellies for some, a good map for others, and, although all are accessible, some may require permission.Each place I recommend will link to a blog post with more information. As an example, Sailor’s Hill, just outside Schull (above) is an easy walk and look what you get at the top! 

This is the view from Brow Head, looking back towards Crookhaven, and Mount Gabriel in the distance. Brow Head is much less visited than Mizen Head, but just as spectacular

I’m going to start with some archaeology and a couple of spectacular sites. The first is the Kealkill Stone Circle – but this isn’t just a stone circle, it’s a complex of monuments that includes a five-stone circle, a radial cairn (very rare in this part of the world) and two enormous standing stones. The views are immense in every direction, and the site is easy to find.

We all know about Drombeg – and we love it when the sun goes down at the midwinter solstice, and even when it doesn’t. But fewer people know about another stone circle, equally spectacular, with a spring equinox orientation. It’s called Bohonagh and it’s quite a complex. First of all, there’s a boulder burial, with quartz support stones and cupmarks on the boulder. Then there’s a cupmarked stone, partly hidden in the brambles between the boulder burial and the stone circle. Finally, there’s the circle itself, almost complete, with views in all directions.

Equinox sunset at Bohonagh

We were lucky to have a session there one equinox, and another one with Ken Williams of Shadows and Stone. For access, park just off the main road, across from the salmon coloured house 4.5km east of Rosscarbery and walk up the farm road to the barns and from there to the top of the hill. This is a working farm – please close all gates and be respectful of animals!

Maughnasilly Stone Row broods on the hilltop

A stone row to round out the archaeology sites – this one is at Maughnasilly and I chose it because it’s been excavated, so there’s an informative sign, access is easy and it’s a beautiful, atmospheric site, overlooking a small lake. The row has been calculated to have both lunar and solar alignments.

And from the ground…

A couple of churches now, beginning with the Church of Ireland Church of the Ascension in Timoleague. This is one of those places that is dripping with unexpected stories. As soon as you go through the door your jaw will drop – the whole church, floor to ceiling, is covered in mosaic, partly paid for by an Indian Maharajah. Read the story here and here – and look carefully at the stained glass windows, some of them are among the oldest stained glass we have in Ireland. The key used to be at the grocery store on the main street, but I’m not sure where it is now, so you may have to ask around. Let us know if you find out.

The interior of the church, and one of the beautiful Clayton and Bell windows

You may wonder at my next choice – it’s not everyone’s cup of tea – but the modernist church in Drimoleague is the work of Frank Murphy, the architect hailed as Cork’s ‘Unsung Hero of Modernism’.

I love the spare minimalist space, very rare in West Cork, but it’s the stained glass windows that drew my attention. It’s not that they are particularly beautiful or skilfully done: they’re by the Harry Clarke Studios long after Harry himself had died. It’s that they fascinate me as a social document – they are, in fact, a prescription for how to live your life as an Irish Catholic in the 1950s. As such, they will resonate with anyone of my vintage. Research by the brilliant young scholar, Richard Butler, has revealed that the design was practically dictated by Archbishop Lucey, still a name to invoke an image of the all-powerful churchman of the 20th century.

And a final church, but this one strictly for the windows. (No – not St Barrahanes in Castletownsend for the Harry Clarkes – everyone knows about them already, and this is a selection of lesser-known wonders.) Do NOT go through Eyeries, on the Beara Peninsula, without stepping into the little church of St Kentigern. Here is where we were first introduced to the work of the stained glass artist, George Walsh.

The Annunciation and Nativity window

When Robert wrote his original post, we couldn’t find out much information on George Walsh, but now he has become a friend and I have written about his work for the next issue of the Irish Arts Review (due out in March, 2019) and spent many happy hours photographing his windows and his artwork around Ireland. It’s bold, graphic, modern and incredibly colourful, and the windows in Eyeries, along with the religious themes, tell the story of Ireland and the Beara through time.

Some places to visit now for a good walk or a swim. First, one of my favourite walks is to hike up to Brow Head, at the end of the Mizen Peninsula (you can drive up too, but pray you don’t meet a tractor coming down) and then walk out to the end of the Head (see the second photo on the post for the view from the top of the road). Stop first to explore the ruins of the old Marconi Station – there’s also a Napoleonic-era  signal station and a WW2 Lookout Post. Then wander through the heather and the low-growing gorse until you get to the part where the sea is crashing below, with vertiginous drops off either side. I will leave it to you how far you go from there!

Brow Head showing the signal station and Marconi station silhouetted against the evening sky

Although Barley Cove is well known, Mizen locals love Ballyrisode Beach for a swim or a lounge in the sun. White sand, sheltered bays, and water warmed by running over the shallow bay. The final little beach holds a secret – a Bronze Age Fulacht Fia or Water-Boiling Site, that Robert and I recorded for National Monuments this summer. It was an exciting find, hiding in plain sight. The beach has an association with pirates too!

Ballyrisode Beach – yes, the water really is this colour. The three sided rectangular stone thing is the fulacht fia

The final choice for a walk is Queen Maev’s tomb, a short hike up from Vaughan’s Pass car park, up behind Bantry. For this photograph I am indebted to Peter Clarke, of the wonderful Hikelines blog. He and Amanda (with whom we have explored SO many holy wells)  were our companions that day. When you reach the top there is a small wedge-tomb, but this is one place where the journey is the real story, with the Mizen, the Sheep’s Head and the Beara all spread out before you.

Photograph © Peter Clarke

I leave you with a detail from the George Walsh windows in Eyeries, together with the poem the scene is based on, Pangur Bán, written in the 9th century by an Irish  monk labouring away in a scriptorium in Europe. Here is the poem read, at a memorial service for Seamus Heaney, first in the original Old Irish and then in Heaney’s translation.

Merry Christmas from us! If you live here, get out and about this year to some of our picks, and if you don’t, come see us soon!

West Cork Obscura – Robert’s Choices

‘Hidden West Cork’ and ‘off the beaten track’ have been oft-used phrases in our posts – and that’s part of our mission with Roaringwater Journal: exploration of some of the more secret places, and researching and recording their stories. Finola has looked out her own favourites; my current choices are here – although, with 569 posts written to date between us, we could have picked out so many.

Header and above – one of the discoveries which made a great impression on me during the year was Tralong Bay, out beyond Glandore and Drombeg: it’s a beautiful piece of the coastline, at the end of a cul-de-sac and – it seemed to us – very little visited. But to visit is to transport yourselves back thousands of years as, on the beach and exposed at low tide, are the remains of an ancient forest. Here is the post.

A quirky discovery, not too far away from Tralong, was the pyramid-shaped mausoleum in the old burial ground at Glandore. For us, ancient graveyards are treasure troves of local history. This one – a peaceful and secluded place well worth a visit anyway – conceals an enigma: find the story here.

The Rock Art at Castlemehigan in its spectacular setting (above). Below is a close view of some of the markings on the rock

Delving back a few years, I found this December post on a visit to a spectacular example of Rock Art at the far end the Mizen Peninsula: Castlemehigan. The cupmarks on this earthfast boulder are impressive and the view from it is spectacular, especially on the clear winter day that we were blessed with. The rock was also in use as a Mass Rock during penal times, and there is evidence of this on the surface. We were told a story about those times by Florence O’Driscoll, whose land the rock is on. Make sure you have permission to visit if you go!

Finola managed to combine her consuming interest in wildflowers with industrial history and an account of a very special walk on the Sheep’s Head. It’s one of the marked trails on that peninsula – and takes in the deserted settlement of Crimea where a cottage has been partially restored (picture above) – finishing at the abandoned mine workings at Gortavallig, perched precariously on the very edge of a cliff (below). Here is the link to Finola’s post.

Here am I trying to get my head around the enigmatic ‘Rolls of Butter’ (above). I have to admit they are in Kerry (only just), but involved us travelling one of our all-time favourite roads, much of which is actually in West Cork: that’s the Priest’s Leap Road which runs over the mountains from Bantry (more or less) to Kenmare (more or less). We go out of our way to use this road because of the superb views – and a special piece of folklore – but, if you give it a try, be prepared for a narrow and steep journey (below)! Here is the post.

Archaeology dictates many of our outings. One of the less well-known monuments is Ardgroom Outward Stone Circle (pictured above and below) on the Beara Peninsula. This year, following a harsh winter, the weather turned sublime, and we have travelled extensively to make the most of it. We find ourselves often drawn to the Beara (much of which is in West Cork). This post describes an expedition which included stone monuments, colourful villages, stained glass – and ice cream! Have a look.

It was almost five years ago that we first reported on one of our perenially favourite West Cork locations: Gougane Barra (above). It’s a holy place – an alluringly beautiful lake sited in the Shehy Mountains, close to the source of Cork’s special River Lee. Here, in the sixth century, Saint Finbarr set up a collection of cells for his monastic community on an island. Here, also, lived the couple ‘The Tailor and Ansty’, immortalised in a book written in 1942 by Eric Cross. It’s a not entirely happy story as the book was banned because of its down-to-earth portrayal of the facts of life, and storyteller Tim Buckley (‘The Tailor’) was forced to burn his copy of it in front of the local priests: the incident led to an abrasive debate in Seanad Éireann on censorship. This story is, perhaps, one of the less well-known historical aspects of West Cork (and Ireland), but visit Gougane Barra for its beauty – and make sure you find the gravestone of ‘The Tailor & Ansty’: it was carved by their friend Seamus Murphy and bears the inscription . . .  A Star Danced And Under That Was I Born . . .

We hope that, between us, we might have given you some good ideas for exploration of our wonderful West Cork landscapes and – perhaps – encourage you off the highways and on to the byways: there are so many adventures to be had, summer or winter. Travel Well!

Dr Macaura – A Story of Sweet Melody, Picture Palaces and Quackery – in Skibbereen!

Our own local band – St Fachtna’s Silver Band – will be playing at a carol concert on the eve of Christmas Eve this year. I set out to write a simple post about the story of that long-established Skibbereen musical institution. Little did I know how much colourful West Cork history would tumble out of that modest project.

I am not the first to write on these matters, and I have to express my gratitude to David Brewster who contributed an article to the 2007 Skibbereen and District Historical Society Journal (volume 3): this was in the form of an edited transcript from a recording made in 1992 by Eleanor Agnes Macaura, whose father, Gerald Joseph Macaura – a local man – was the founder of the Silver Band in Skibbereen over a hundred years ago – in 1912. A further article – specifically about the Band – appeared in the Society’s 2012 journal (volume 8), written by Séamus O’Brien, then Chairman of the Band: again, many thanks to Séamus, and the Journal.

Gerald Macaura (left) and his friend Gugliemo Marconi

Gerald Joseph Macaura was born on 1 May 1871 in Townsend Street, Skibbereen. His father Florence was a cooper and needle-maker. His mother Ellen could see no future for her five sons in West Cork and sent them off, one by one, to her cousin in New Jersey where they joined the community of Irish labourers. Gerald had been an enterprising boy in Skibbereen: among other things he made a kite – a life-sized figure with a lantern inside it which he launched at night to terrify the neighbours. He taught himself ventriloquism and was an entertainer and practical joker. In America he was no less inventive: according to Ella’s account he made a machine for sharpening knives – angled files set in a block (we all have one today). He also made a hook and harness device which could be used for cleaning windows on high buildings (also still in use today). He got no recognition for these, but had more luck in the Edison Laboratories of Industrial Research where, in the 1880s, he met, worked with and apparently became good friends of Edison, Marconi and Henry Ford 1 (who also had West Cork roots).

Probably Macaura’s most successful invention: the Pulsocon. Claims made for it in the popular press of the day included ‘ . . . the blind will see, the deaf will hear, and the lame will walk (or even run), all in the space of 15 minutes . . . !’ Interestingly, examples of this machine can be found on display in Sex Museums in various parts of the world . . .

Macaura did successfully patent and market one machine while he was in America – the Pulsocon. This was an enduring success, and was also subsequently patented in Britain and France: he is said to have made a fortune out of it. Described as a ‘blood circulator’ the device produced strong vibrations which could be applied to various parts of the body to relieve ‘. . . pain, rheumatism, arthritis and many other ailments . . .’ Ella remembers that her father had ‘. . . the power of healing in his hands . . .

Loch Ine House, Gerald Macaura’s West Cork home in later life, as it is today

In 1901 Macaura and Marconi came to West Cork and were involved in setting up the Marconi telegraph station on Brow Head. At this time Gerald found – and fell in love with – Lough Ine House, just outside Skibbereen: it was neglected and run down. He purchased it and restored it with every modern convenience, including electricity and central heating. Around this time, Macaura began touring with his Pulsocon, renting large halls to give public demonstrations of the device – one was the Royal Albert Hall in London. He gave himself the title ‘Doctor’, but he had no medical qualification: he was first and foremost a showman.

But there can be no doubt that ‘Doctor’ Gerald Macaura (he sometimes also called himself ‘Colonel’) was a successful and prosperous showman. And Skibbereen benefitted! A nationalist, and supporter of the Irish Parliamentary Party, he contributed generously to the founding of the Skibbereen Volunteers in 1914, giving £50. He also commissioning a set of silver-plated Besson instruments for the establishment of a Volunteer band in the town. Not only that, but he was enterprising enough to look for a way in which the Band could be financially secure into the future: he built the first cinema in Skibbereen!

Sample programmes for the Kinemac. I found a link to the 1914 film ‘Sign of the Cross’ shown in the right-hand bill, here. It is actually hard work to watch!

The idea was that all admission fees would go to Band funds. Unfortunately, a town with a population at the time of only 3,000 was unable to support the venture, and in 1917 the Kinemac was abandoned and everything was sold at auction (note the details of the different grades of seating in the auction notice below). The building had been located beside what is now the westernmost roundabout going out of Skibbereen towards Ballydehob, and not a trace of it remains. Also, no photograph of the Kinemac seems to have come down to us – I am always hopeful that someone might come forward with something found in an old album in an attic . . .

There’s much more to Macaura’s story – including an incident in Paris where he was arrested and prosecuted for fraud and the illegal practice of medicine – and political controversy because it was suggested that the Skibbereen Volunteer Band’s committee was biased against the town’s Protestants, who had in turn boycotted the Kinemac. It would all make a great film . . .

I couldn’t find a photo of the Kinemac – which lasted from 1914 to 1917, but this view of Skibbereen dates from that time (probably 1916). I’m not sure what the ‘procession’ of ladies is doing. The ‘Maid of Eirinn’ statue is on the right, and today’s Town Hall straight ahead

All this serves as an introduction to how Skibbereen got its Band – which still thrives today! It has been through ups and downs, but is now a lively and colourful attribute to the town’s life. For me, at least, there’s nothing like the sound of a brass band (I played in one for over thirty years). In case you are not familiar with that very particular sound, give this a go: it’s a version of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez arranged for Flugelhorn, and comes from the wonderful film ‘Brassed Off’ featuring the late, lamented Pete Postlethwaite. The ‘real’ musicians are the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, with Paul Hughes as soloist.

Don’t forget the carol concert with St Fachtna’s Band in Abbeystrewery on the 23rd December, 7.30pm. I shall be there – and so will Doctor Macaura – in spirit, at least!

Maura Laverty and Kind Cooking

My friend Viv has loaned me her precious copy of Kind Cooking, given to her way back in 1977 by her mother-in-law, Molly – a wonderful matriarchal figure of my youth. It has plunged me back into the world of Irish cookbooks that I first explored with my posts on Monica Sheridan (Monica’s Kitchen, Back to Monica (about her famous Christmas cake recipe) and Monica Rides Again). Except this time it’s Maura Laverty, who predated Monica and who first established that bright, amusing, anecdotal style of food-writing that still defines the genre.

To open Kind Cooking is to be immediately reminded that Maura Laverty was, first and foremost, a writer. Author of several novels and later in life of a highly successful television soap opera, Tolka Row, she made her living as a writer at a time when it was not easy for a woman to do so. While I want to concentrate on Kind Cooking here, you can read in the Irish Times an excellent summary of her life by Seamus Kelly, author of The Maura Laverty Story: from Rathangan to Tolka Row which was launched to much acclaim earlier this year. (The book is available in shops and directly from the author. Enquiries to james.a.kelly55@gmail.com)

Seamus Kelly with son, Peter, and daughter, Laura, launching ‘The Maura Laverty Story’ in Rathangan Community Centre. Photo by Tony Keane

Most people in Ireland would be more familiar with Maura’s Full and Plenty, still a vivid memory from our mothers’ row of cookbooks, and for some a much-thumbed staple. It was her best seller and the food book she is still most remembered for.

This image is courtesy of the lovely food blog Eating for Ireland – the author uses it (her Mum’s copy) to make Apple Betty

Kind Cooking was published first in 1946. There is no date on Viv’s copy, but it is possible that it was given free when you bought an electric cooker, since it was published by The Electricity Supply Board. Although this one has no illustrations, subsequent issues had this photograph. Anyone can cook, apparently, with one of these new all-electric kitchens! 

It was published several times again, including an edition with the new title Maura Laverty’s Cookbook. One edition was brought out by The Kerryman, with a section on diet by Sybil le Brocquy and ‘decorations’ by her son, Louis le Brocquy.

From the start, the emphasis is on a warm, chatty, non-intimidating approach to cooking and on traditional recipes  – barm brack and soda bread, rowanberry jam, Irish custard, champ (although she calls it Thump), liver loaf (a friend of mine, working as a camp cook, was once fired for feeding this to a gang of road-builders) and lots of organ meats – tongue and mushroom, anyone? I will spare you a description of how to make a delicious and nutritious broth from a whole sheep’s head – even she calls it a ghastly, cannibalistic business.

Part of the index – including a whole section on rabbit

But Maura had lived abroad and had developed a taste for garlic, French onion soup, Swedish and Danish meat balls, Spanish rabbit. Hamburgers (called hamburghers) could also be made into Hamburg stew and hamburgher rolls. Some recipes contain ingredients we don’t use any more – anyone know what griskins are? How about forcemeat?

I wonder how this accords with our modern food pyramids

She wasn’t above convenience cooking, although she does warn you, in the introduction to her Corned Beef Hash, There is an enduring something about tinned corned beef that makes it as easy to detect as a legless fugitive with cauliflower ears and a cast in his eye. Disguise it how you will, your tin will find you out. Still, you can always try.

One of Louis le Brocquy’s ‘decorations’

It is this – the conversational, anecdotal tone, that Maura pioneered and that made her cookbooks so entertaining and beloved. You can sit and read them for pleasure as easily as you can use them to find a recipe. Her Fowl section starts with a two page story about Mag Donnelly – I am sharing it with you in full, below, as an example of the delights within these covers.

Since you’re probably thinking of Christmas dinner around now, I should tell you Maura’s secret to choosing a good turkey: Nice smooth black legs with short spurs and limber, moist feet are signs of youth and beauty in a turkey. Look into its eye. They should be full and bright. A turkey with sunken, bleary eyes is definitely unsuited to roasting.

You can just imagine her telling you about how to choose a turkey – Listen to me now

She’s a big fan of vegetables. In our place she says, we were acquainted with only six kinds of vegetables: onions, cabbage, turnips, boiled potatoes, mashed potatoes and potatoes steamed in the baker. The only people who grew such rarities as peas, beans, parsnips and carrots were the Protestant peelers. . . Their vegetable growing, in common with their Sunday school and their red, white and blue badges, was part and parcel of Protestantism and foreign aggression and we felt it couldn’t be good or lucky.

Cheese, especially good cheese or anything foreign, was a bit of a rarity when I was growing up. When Maura was a child it was all but unknown. Introduced to good cheddar she developed a passion for it. Since she was wondering at the time if she had a vocation as a nun, she felt it was important to ask her favourite teacher, Sister Mary Declan:

“Would Reverend Mother let you go to the press for bread and cheese any time you’d take the notion?”

Sister Mary Declan’s eyes grew round in her wrinkled face, and her eyebrows climbed up under her coif in horror.

“In heaven’s name, child,” she cried, “what kind of a poor excuse for a nun would I want to be to go gratifying my sinful appetites in such a manner?”

. . . She would be sorry to know that her reaction to my question about the cheese killed the vocation stone dead in me.

I will leave you with a couple of examples of Maura’s approach to conjuring up images of food. In the chapter on cakes she invites us to set our sub-conscious to work on any food item until an association has been evoked. She gives several instances of her own association but here are two of my favourites.

BLACK PUDDINGS: To think of these is to think of the Gunner Doyle, an ex-British Army man, who always drank more than was good for him on pension days. On ordinary occasions the Gunner would run from his shadow. His own mother said that in his sober senses he wasn’t fit to wash bibs for babies. When the drink was strong in him he would stand at the pump and roar an invitation to all Ballyderrig to come and be made into puddings.

TOAST: I can’t separate this from Maria Duffy at home in our place who, for fourteen years before God took her, never opened her lips to her husband – and all on the head of a piece of toast. She had a passion for toast. Cake-bread [home-made white soda bread] doesn’t toast well, so when Mrs. Duffy came into town (which she only did once a week for they lived away out in the depths of the bog), she treated herself to a baker’s loaf. Jem Duffy had a passion, too. His was for fishing. Someone told him that loaf bread made grand ground bait. He asked his wife for a slice. She retorted that with only the heel of the loaf to last her until Sunday, she saw no sense in casting her bread upon the water. Jem stole the bread when her back was turned. She never forgave him.

Thank you, Viv, for this treasure

I know I will go back to this book again and again, not for the recipes but for the opportunity to curl up and chuckle away an hour. As Maura says, Ingredients, skill and equipment are not so important to good cooking as a lively interest in human beings.

 

Patron Saint of Atheists?

This is the story of a man who became patron saint of two different places in Ireland – but is also considered the patron saint of atheists.

Wait – what? Atheists have a patron saint? Isn’t that like a complete oxymoron?

I think I’d better get on with the story. When we were in Lismore recently I visited the enormous and architecturally-interesting Catholic church called, (like the Church of Ireland Cathedral down the road) after St Carthage (AKA Mochuda or Mochua). In this church there is an impressive rose window, which I decided to feature on our Facebook page the other day. In doing so, I found I had to decipher the names of the saints, in an ancient script around their haloes. All of them were familiar to me except one – St Otteran. My quest to find out more about him led me to this story.

The Saints of Ireland, from top left, Patrick, Bridget, Declan, Dympna, Mochuda, Attracta, Otteran, Ita. I love that there is an equal number of male and female saints, even if the depiction is not very imaginative

Otteran is also spelled as Odhrán or Oran – I will use Oran for simplicity for the rest of this post. According to some accounts he was born in Britain, but his monastic career was first noted when he was an Abbot in Meath. However, he is revered in Tipperary where he established a monastic settlement and is honoured today as patron saint of the Silvermines Parish. There is a ruined church and a holy well dedicated to him in Latteragh, near Nenagh. See this lovely post about his church and holy well from our friend The Tipperary Antiquarian. He lived there for 40 years, therefore he must have been aged already when he went with St Columba (AKA Columcille) to Iona.

Photo courtesy of The Tipperary Antiquarian

St Columba voluntarily banished himself to Iona in 563 when he lost a judgement over a plagiarism incident. He took 12 disciples with him, Otteran being the oldest and therefore the first to die. 

Columba blesses Derry as he prepares to depart from Iona – from a large stained glass window in St Eugene’s Cathedral, Derry

Columba went to visit him on his sick bed and that night he had a dream of two warring angels – a good angel and a bad angel, fighting over Otteran’s soul. Sure enough, he died the next day, and was the first person to be buried on the island.

St Oran’s Cross, believed to be from the 8th century has recently been restored (story here)

A small church with a wonderful Romanesque doorway is dedicated to him, but more importantly, the graveyard that eventually grew up around it was called Reilig Oran.

This image, and the one below, has been borrowed  with thanks (I hope she doesn’t mind) from a lovely Blog called Flickering Lamps. This post is “Rèilig Odhrain, the ancient cemetery on the edge of the world”

Iona, located as it was on the extreme West coast of Scotland, was in those days a major stop along the marine highway. Irish, British, Scottish and Norse and Danish ships stopped. The Vikings did more than stop by – they sacked the monastery on two occasions, murdering the monks at a site afterwards called Martyr’s Bay.

Sráid nam Marbh is the Street of the Dead. It is a Medieval paved road (very rare) leading from the Bay of Martyrs (the Vikings did it) to the Reilig

As the fame of Columba and his monastic settlement grew, the Island acquired a mystical reputation as a preferred place to be buried. According to tradition, 48 kings are buried there, including MacBeth and Duncan –  kings of France, Scotland, Ireland and Norway.

This image, of grave slabs taken inside for safekeeping, is from the official Historic Environment Scotland page 

The Scots eventually surrendered the island to Magnus, King of Norway in 1098 and the Norse Vikings continued to transport their kings to Iona for burial at Reilig Odhráin from all over their territory.

Image courtesy of A Tribute to Alexander Ritchie 

And their territory was vast, and included several settlements in Ireland – Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick all started off as Viking sea-ports. In Waterford, honouring the burial place of their ancestors, the Vikings chose St Oran as the patron of their city. Thus, an Irish man who had never set foot in Waterford became one of its revered icons. Later, he also become patron of the diocese, along with Carthage of Lismore and of course St Declan of Ardmore. And don’t forget, he was already the Patron Saint of the Silvermines area in Tipperary.

Waterford celebrates its Viking and Norman heritage

But I said he is also the Patron Saint of Atheists – how could that have happened? Well, mainly it’s because there are two different stories about how he died on Iona, and it’s the second one that’s part of true Hebridean lore.

Image courtesy of A Tribute to Alexander Ritchie 

When Columba arrived he set about building a church. But the builders became very frustrated because every morning when they arrived on site what they had built the day before had been knocked down. Columba prayed a mighty prayer and the answer came to him – what was required was a ‘foundation sacrifice’ – that means a human had to be buried alive under the church. According to some accounts, Oran was in fact Columba’s son, and Columba felt, therefore, he would be the most powerful sacrifice. According to others, Oran actually stepped forward and offered himself, in the assurance that this guaranteed his place in heaven.

Image courtesy of St Barnabas Orthodox Mission Kenya

He was buried and the church walls stayed up. However, three days later, while the monks were at prayer in the church, he arose, poked his head up and announced that he had seen what was on the other side. God is not as we imagine him, he said, There is no hell, and, while he was at it, nothing like heaven either. St Columba was horrified and ordered that earth be heaped on him to keep him down. There is even a Hebridean saying Uir, Uir, air suil Odhrain! mun labhair e tuille comhraidh, which translates as Earth, earth on Oran’s eyes, lest he further blab. More succinctly, an old Irish saying, apparently, is to say Throw mud in the mouth of St. Oran, when somebody is uttering uncomfortable truths.

St Columba as a monk (right) along with Patrick and Bridget, from St Mary’s Catholic church in Ballinrobe. Columba is usually shown with a book, since he is so strongly associated with the story of the copied manuscript. This window is by the Harry Clarke Studios

St Oran’s body, according to tradition, is still under the foundations. Or maybe not – another version has it that Columba had him reburied in consecrated ground and that once that was done he troubled them no more with his blabbing of the secrets of the next world. That consecrated ground became St Oran’s Graveyard – this ensuring his immortality in Waterford at least, if not in heaven.

Images from the Kickstarter Page (this one and the final GIF) for the movie The Grave of St Oran by Jim Blatt, based on Neil Gaiman’s poem

It turns out I am far from the only one who finds this tale, and its various nuances fascinating. None other than Neil Gaiman has written a poem, In Reilig Oran.

Neil Gaiman’s poem – a signed print is available here

And now that poem has been made into a stop-motion animation by Jim Batt, called The Grave of St Oran. The kickstarter campaign page will give you an idea what it will be like – and apparently it’s finished but I can find out nothing more about it. So look out for it coming at some point to a screen near you. This GIF is offered as a teaser on their project page (see link above). It depicts St Oran gazing out to sea – perhaps he is contemplating the decision he is about to make.

There are so many layers in this story, so many familiar tropes of mythology, heroic tales and biblical stories, but I don’t believe I have ever heard one quite like this before. Pointing out that none of this story made it into the Life of St Columba by Adamnán, The Blogger Nihil Obstat puts it this way in his post The Silencing of St OranThe moral of this story is the same 15 centuries later. If even the most devoted follower of the faith reveals a revelation not in support of the preached version they are quickly silenced. And saints have their ugly or suspect  actions edited out of their official biographies.

A high status individual is buried in St Oran’s Graveyard

Among the many feelings it’s left me with, though, is a strong desire to visit Iona. Future post!