Celtic Myth & Legend

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Belfast has a bright new star in writer Laurence Donaghy, whose Folk’d trilogy (Folk’d, Folk’d Up, and Completely Folk’d) is creative, gloriously weird, and irreverently funny.

Folk'd by Laurence Donaghy

Book 1: Folk’d

Laurence Donaghy’s Folk’d trilogy riffs off the old myths of the Tuatha dé Danann and transports us to modern Belfast, where Danny Morrigan has got his girlfriend Ellie pregnant, and together they are struggling to keep mind and body together as they deal with being new parents before they even took one step on the career track.

If you have any notion of the legends of the Tuatha dé, you know the Morrigan is the goddess of war, and you assume Danny’s name will turn out to be more than mere coincidence. Read the rest of this entry »

Happy Samhain, or Halloween, if you prefer. Here are a few Samhain-related or posts (or just spooky stories) from the archives.

banshee title card

 

All About Samhain

‘Tis the time of year to declare Halloween indisputably Irish and credit everything from jack-o-lanterns to trick-or-treating to ancient Celtic practices. But the evidence is sketchy, although interesting…

Read the rest of this entry »

By summer, most fairy trees in Ireland are sagging under the weight of misguided offerings. Many are dying from the accumulated damage. Yesterday, my kids and I joined in an effort to save the rag trees on the Hill of Tara.

Fairy Trees in Ireland

Rag trees on the Hill of Tara after cleaning. (Click the picture to see what they usually look like in summer.)

The Tara & Skryne Preservation Group organized a clean up because the two rag trees on the Hill of Tara (they grow together, so appear to be one) were becoming not just unsightly under the weight of inappropriate offerings, but were actually being damaged by them. After seeing the call-to-arms on Facebook, we joined 30-or-so other old souls who cared enough to spend some time cutting the clutter away. Read the rest of this entry »

Celtic scholar Juliene Osborne-McKnight’s novel Song of Ireland is a very enjoyable dramatization of the arrival of the Celts in Ireland and their clash with the Tuatha de Danaan.

Book Review: Song of Ireland by Juilene Osborne- McKnight

Song of Ireland by Juilene Osborne-McKnight (paperback, Tor)

To start off, Osborne-McKnight does a wonderful job of drawing the ancient Celts as a people with a nomadic spirit, moving around Europe and as far as Egypt as mercenaries, attracting respect and riches wherever they went. The life of Amergin, son of warrior king Mil, is vivid and she gives a real sense of their beliefs, social, and religious structure. As a founding myth, the idea of the Irish being fundamentally nomadic in our core puts a more positive spin on decades of emigration, and is a valid reading of our history.  Read the rest of this entry »

Imbolc (celebrated January 31-February 1) is an important feast day in the Celtic tradition.

Here comes lambing season!  (Photo: Nicola Stathers via cc license on Flickr)

Here comes lambing season!
(Photo: Nicola Stathers via cc license on Flickr)

The mid-point of winter having been passed at the winter solstice (Dec 21), the days are now slowly growing brighter. Imbolc is often called the “rekindling of the solar hearth” and celebrates the returning sun, the promise of spring, and the steadily improving weather. It’s a very important time for farmers, who depend upon the whims of the weather. Tradition holds that the weather on Imbolc is a predictor of the year to come: too cold/wet/stormy and a bad year is predicted (although in typically pessimistic Irish fashion, if the day is too nice that’s thought to presage even worse conditions!). Weather that’s just a little better than expected is thought best, promising a mild conclusion to winter and a fertile year.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Brú na Bóinne World Heritage Site is made up of three major passage grave sites: Newgrange, Dowth, and Knowth. I’ve written about the first two already, so it’s time to explore the most-complicated of them all, Knowth: quite literally, a city of the dead.

Knowth passage grave

One of the satellite tombs at Knowth.
(Photo by Photolifer/Marc Gautier via cc license/Flickr)

Constructed contemporaneously with Newgrange, the Knowth site consists of a cluster of 18 smaller tombs around one huge central tomb. When I was a child, I used to peer through the gate to the site at the huge network of rectangular pits that marked the excavation that continued for decades before the site was finally open to visitors. It took the archaeologists five years of digging to discover the entrance to the first passage, and then another year before they found the second one. Eventually, archaeologists would spend over 40 years excavating Knowth, and the story they discovered was extremely complex.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Hill of Slane is one of the major archaeological sites associated with early Christianity in Ireland, but recent research has suggested that there may be more truth in the ancient legends about the site than previously thought.

View of the Hill of Slane by Michael Osmenda (via Creative Commons license /Flickr)

View of the Hill of Slane by Michael Osmenda
(via Creative Commons license /Flickr)

The traditional St. Patrick story holds that around 433AD Patrick built a bonfire on the hill to celebrate Easter. However, this coincided with the feast of Beltaine, the spring rite of renewal and rebirth in the Celtic world, and tradition held that all fires must be extinguished and relit from the King’s bonfire on Tara Hill — although in practice, there would likely have been many communal fires around the country, given that the Hill of Tara is not visible from everywhere in Ireland. Tara is visible from Slane Hill, however, and tradition holds that the High King, Laoire, sent for the person responsible for this break with tradition. His druids had warned him that if that fire was not extinguished there and then it would consume the whole kingdom, and figuratively that’s just what it did. Read the rest of this entry »

The Brú na Bóinne complex of three neolithic tombs (Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth) on a ridge in the middle of the Boyne Valley is perhaps the most-famous archaeological site in Europe, and Newgrange is its poster child.

newgrange, bru-na-boinne

A side-view of Newgrange passage tomb.
(Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

Built around 3200 BC, Newgrange is a huge passage tomb on top of a small hill overlooking the river. On each side stand two other huge passage tombs, and numerous smaller mounds. Excavated and controversially restored in the 1970s, both Newgrange and Knowth contained numerous cremated remains and are decorated with a marvelous array of carved boulders; the interpretation of the images on these boulders still eludes archaeologists — so visitors can play amateur archaeologist trying to make a story out of the characteristic symbols and patterns.  Read the rest of this entry »

Most of the earthworks on the Hill of Tara are thought to have been dwelling or feasting places. A long depression runs up the hill from the road towards the Mound of the Hostages. The two sides are high, presumably man-made, earthen banks. This is known as the Banqueting Hall, and for years kids were told it may originally have had wooden walls and a roof. However, this interpretation may have been due to the existence of a seating chart for an ancient King’s banquet, and is likely a good example of people naming a feature to fit in with available relics. A more-likely explanation for this long earthwork is that it may be the remains of one of the five roads that were said to lead to Tara from the five corners of Ireland. It’s easy to see how it could have been a ceremonial entryway, with the high earthen embankments on either side, complete with “windows,” gaps that may have allowed views of significant local landmarks such as the Hill of Skryne on the other side of the Boyne valley, the various tombs of former kings, and possibly a few standing stones.

Artists' Impression of The Arena on the Hill of Tara c.

Artists’ impression of The Arena on the Hill of Tara, c.1200 BCE
(Photo credit: RTE/Secrets of the Stones documentary)

“The Arena”/Ireland’s Stonehenge

Magnetic gradiometry and other non-invasive survey techniques have recently revealed the remains of a huge structure at Tara. Under the tall grass and several feet of dirt lies a deep ditch dug into the bedrock of the hill. The ditch runs in a circle around the site for about 170 meters (about the length of two football pitches!), encompassing the Mound of the Hostages (and probably the original site of the Lia Fail as well) and the present-day church grounds. This ditch seems to have been surrounded on both sides by an enormous “fence” of huge wooden posts. Circles of wooden posts are not uncommon at this time (1200BCE) — remains of one much-smaller circle have been found and partially reconstructed nearby at Newgrange — but the scale of this one is off the charts. Interestingly, the “banqueting hall” appears to terminate directly at the edge of this ditch, perhaps suggesting the hypothesis that it was a road or ceremonial entryway is more likely.

The exact purpose of this arena (or “woodhenge” as it has been dubbed) is unknown, but as it enclosed the burial chamber known as the Mound of the Hostages and then later the Christian church was built within its boundary, this would suggest it had deep spiritual significance to generations of people. It’s not known what, if anything, was placed on top of the wooden posts, but that hasn’t stopped fanciful artists depicting it as an Irish Stonehenge, with two concentric circles of wooden posts topped with horizontal wooden beams. It’s estimated that at least 500 immense (and old judging by the size of the post-holes) trees would have been required to provide the beams.

One theory holds that the remains of deceased Kings and nobles may have been left to rot inside the arena. Once the flesh was stripped from the bones by decay or birds, the bones would be separated and interred within the mound of the hostages. There is ample evidence of this practice of defleshing a body before burial from elsewhere in the country. Another interpretation is that the aspirant King needed to make a circuit of the arena as part of the spiritual journey toward kingship.

The RTE documentary "Secrets of the Stones" discusses The Arena on the Hill of Tara at length.

The RTE documentary Secrets of the Stones discusses The Arena on the Hill of Tara at length.

500 years later, around 700BC, an iron age ring fort — simply a large, thick wall of dry-stacked rocks surrounding a building or buildings — was built on the Hill of Tara. This was an advance over the old raths, which were simply a deep ditch with the earth removed and piled up in a bank behind. This represented the labor of many people working together to transport rocks from a larger area and construct the thick protective wall. By this point, the wooden posts surrounding the ceremonial ditch would have rotted away, and evidently the people of that time did not valued the structure enough to replace or maintain it, although the importance of the top of the Hill of Tara appears to have remained undiminished.

This new ring fort was every bit as large as the fenced ditch, but surrounded the top of the hill more exactly (the ditch and ring of posts was on a slight slope). It encircled the rath of the kings and also reclaimed the mound of the hostages. In light of this series of constructions on the Hill which all incorporated the mound of the hostages, it’s obvious how important the inhabitants considered their ancestors, regardless of whatever changes occurred in their mode of worship.

 

Notes

This is the final part of a series of posts about the Hill of Tara.

Part 1: A Brief History of the Hill of Tara…

Part 2: The Mound of the Hostages…

Part 3: The Lia Fail…

 

 

The Mound of the Hostages before the current restoration project. (Photo credit: Victor Bayon/formalfallacy @ Dublin via flickr)

The Mound of the Hostages in 2009, before the current restoration project.
(Photo credit: Victor Bayon/formalfallacy @ Dublin via flickr)

The oldest — and perhaps most important — monument on the Hill of Tara is the misleadingly named “Mound of the Hostages,” a neolithic passage tomb of a much smaller scale than Newgrange (which is visible from the top of the hill on a clear day — but you’ll need binoculars). Due to the thick metal bars on the entrance, generations of Irish schoolchildren (and tourists) came away from brief tours of the hill erroneously assuming that this was a prison mound. This small tomb is similar to the satellite tombs that surround the principle cairns at Loughcrew, Newgrange and Knowth, but in rather better condition. The passage is very short (about 13 feet) and the chamber is simply where the passage deadends, rather than an elaborate cruciform chamber with carved bowls like some others. Despite its relative simplicity, the passage has a solar alignment, this time with the “cross-quarter” days (Feb. 4 and Nov. 8) which correspond to the Celtic festivals of Imbolc and Samhain, and boasts some fine carved rocks. Unlike Newgrange, which controls access to the chamber at the solstice by lottery, anyone can walk up to the Mound of the Hostages and observe the solar alignment through the bars on cross-quarter days — weather permitting!

The tomb is called the Mound of the Hostages/Dumha na nGiall after one of the most-famous High Kings of Ireland, Niall Nolligach, who — like all Iron Age kings — took members of other royal families “hostage” to deter aggression, hence his nickname, Niall of the Nine Hostages. The iron bars on the tomb entrance gives the misleading impression that these hostages were thrown into the tomb to rot, but the truth is that the main tribes of Ireland sent children to be fostered by other leading families to create alliances and engender goodwill, so treating them that harshly would rather have defeated the purpose.

The Mound of Hostages during reconstruction. The exposed orthostats and lintels have been protected from the elements with plastic sheeting.

The Mound of Hostages during reconstruction (June 2012). The exposed orthostats and lintels have been protected from the elements with plastic sheeting.
(Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

One striking fact about the Mound of the Hostages is that it remained in use centuries after all the other passage tombs had fallen into disuse. Whatever the exact reasons for this change in burial practice were, it appears that Tara was considered more important than the other tombs; when the mound was excavated in the 1950s, the volume of human remains filled the passage and chamber almost to the roof. Indeed, archaeologists have found that our ancestors began interring people in graves around the mound at a certain point; whether this reflects new beliefs or the simple fact that the tomb had reached capacity is open to debate.

In late 2011, the National Monuments Service began work to stabilize and repair the front of the mound. The two slopes adjacent to the entrance had become very eroded, and the integrity of the structure was judged to be at risk. Workers removed the earth covering the passage and chamber, affording visitors an unparalleled look at the construction of the passage. Needless to say, this work was very controversial (note protest sign in the photo above right), not least because it began on the day of the winter alignment and blocked the solar alignment during the time when work was underway. (The workers charged with carrying out repairs are said to have had no idea about the alignment — although I learned that nugget of gossip from the protestors, so take with a pinch of salt — which, if true, reminds us of how little-appreciated this monument is.) I have not been able to visit the site thus far in 2013, but a recent picture (below) shows the new facade close to completion. Doubtless there will be a sustained argument over the integrity of the interpretation, as still continues over Newgrange.

Plan to check out the new Hill of Tara on your Irish vacation

The almost-complete new facade of the Mound of the Hostages in spring 2013.
(Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor)

 

Hill of Tara: a must-visit part of any Irish vacation.

Explanatory signage detailing the reasons for reconstruction which was erected during the 2012 conservation work. Click through to a higher resolution image if you want to read the text.
(Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

History of the Hill of Tara. Background research for any Irish vacation.

Interpretive signage erected during the 2012 conservation work at the Mound of the Hostages. Click through to a higher resolution image if you wish to read the text.
(Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

 

Notes

[This is part two in a series of posts on the Hill of Tara. Part one, dealing with the history of the Hill of Tara can be read here. The third post in this series will deal with the Lia Fail, the fabled stone of destiny.]

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