irish myth

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This week marks the feast of Lugh, the sun god of ancient Irish tradition.

Known as Lughnasadh or Lúnasa (in this case, it’s ironically the Irish spelling that appears closest to what most English-speakers would regard as the phonetic pronunciation — luu-na-sa). It is a harvest celebration, a ritual to give thanks for the bounty of the land, and to ask the gods’ blessings that the weather will hold long enough to gather it all in. (The traditional date is the night of July 31-August 1, but modern convenience has moved the date to whichever Sunday is nearest.)

leitrim view 2

Looking north from Carrowkeel Megalithic Cemetery. Ben Bulben is the long flat mountain in the upper left.

Origins of Lúnasa
Lúnasa is a curious festival, and there are different traditions regarding its origin in different parts of Ireland. All traditional festivals are based on older beliefs and practices, constantly over-written with new interpretations — All Saint’s Day is the Christian gloss on Samhain, now commercialized as Halloween; Easter was built on the foundation of Bealtaine, and, Candlemas one of the Christian attempts to overwrite Imbolc — but, much of what we know of Lúnasa appears to bear conscious witness to an earlier attempt to replace one set of beliefs with another. Some sources describe Lúnasa as the story of the sun god Lugh defeating the dark god Crom Dubh and making the world safe for humanity once again. (For a fascinating account of the surviving traditions honoring Crom Dubh, see Felicity Hayes-McCoy’s excellent piece on Crom Dubh Sunday on the Dingle peninsula in Co. Kerry.)

Stone FaceIn agricultural terms, the weather has been good enough for months that the crops have ripened (i.e. they’ve had enough sun — something you can rarely get enough of in Ireland) and famine (the old or dark god, the eternal enemy of hunter-gatherers or agrarian people) is defeated for the time being. In this case, it seems that Crom Dubh was once a major god, if not the major god, of Ireland before one of the waves of invasion came and replaced the power structure and began to teach that their gods were superior. Other origin myths tell of Lugh’s sorrow for the death of his foster-mother Tailtu, who expired after clearing the forests of Ireland to make way for farmland (suggesting that the tribes who imported the belief in Lugh and his brethern the Tuatha dé Dannan (gods of craftsmanship) were the first farmers, who replaced earlier nomadic tribes whose gods would possibly have been rather more barbaric and elemental in nature.

Tailteann Games
Lugh instituted a two-week tribal assembly of games, trading, and peaceful gathering in memory of Tailtu — who was buried on the Hill of Tailtu in Co. Meath, near where I grew up; hence that is the origin-myth that I learned as a child. A special peace was sanctioned by the Druids/Brehons for these assemblies, and any feuds and conflicts were to be set aside for the festival. Great sporting events took place in each tribe’s center of power, as champions tested themselves against each other in feats of strength, speed and skill. In Co. Meath, the Tailteann Games — said to be the continuation of the actual festival instituted by Lugh — were held as a kind of Irish olympics for centuries until the disruption of the Norman invasion. In other places, such as the Dingle peninsula in Co. Kerry, there is a tradition of horse racing on the strand.

The tradition of horse racing on the beach appears to be the modern descendant of what was originally the traditional event of “horse-swimming,” where man and horses completed a course that involved swimming across a lake or body of water, and which was apparently very dangerous and took the lives of men and horses every year. (Lough Owel in Co. Westmeath appears to have been the scene of a particularly notorious event for many years.)

Óenach
The óenach (a traditional name for this kind of tribal gathering, and also possibly the name for the horse races themselves — “a contention of horses”) lasted for two weeks, culminating in the festival of the Lúnasa bonfires, and for these two weeks the peace held. New laws were set down and announced, bards presented new poems and performed new songs for the first time. There was also a custom of temporary or trial marriages being sanctioned at Lúnasa, but the Catholic church never adopted this practice for some reason. Echos of this custom can be seen in events like the Puck Fair in Kilorglin, Co. Kerry in early August, and in the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival in Co. Clare at the end of the month.

The emphasis on horse racing coupled with the tradition of trial marriages and emphasis on fertility may reveal earlier spiritual roots of Lúnasa. One of the continental proto-Celtic goddess is thought to be Epona, the horse goddess, a mother or fertility goddess whose attributes includes cornucopias, ears of wheat, and foals. Perhaps the óenaige are echoes of earlier festivals dedicated to Epona, or the rites enacted during these tribal gatherings reflect the early importance of horses and the horse goddess?

Horse racing at Bellewstown, Co. Meath.

Horse racing at Bellewstown, Co. Meath.

Note: There may have been as many as 80 sites for Óenach around the country, which reflects the multiple tribes and difficulties of traveling long distances at the time. My focus on the Tailteann Games and a few other locations reflects the limits of my knowledge. There are probably many different myths and traditions around Lúnasa as there were óenaige.

Bonfires
The Lúnasa festival is traditionally marked by a bonfire (as are most ancient Irish festivals), a feast, the ceremonial cutting of the first corn, picking of wild berries, and dancing. However, for Lúnasa, these usually take place on the top of a mountain, as the climb is symbolic of the sun god Lugh’s ascent to battle the dark god, and presumably honored the sun god by getting as close to him as possible. The mountain ascent has been absorbed into Christian practice as the custom of pilgrimage up holy mountains like Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo. Anyone who has seen Brian Friel’s play “Dancing at Lughnasa” will be aware of the Catholic Church’s dismissive attitude towards pre-Christian practices and beliefs, and also of their enduring power across the centuries.

Lúnasa was the occasion for the central festival of Irish culture for centuries, and its like (in terms of spiritual and administrative community) has never been seen since. However, the modern Irish summer is chockfull of festivals from Imbolc to Samhain; music festivals, arts festivals, book festivals, fleadh cheoil, matchmaking festivals, multi-day race meetings… they’re endless. So in that respect, the pre-Christian óenaige tradition is alive and well, and undergoing another metamorphosis of meaning.

During my recent research into the Northern Ireland locations used for Game of Thrones, I came across the story of Shane’s Castle, near Randlestown, Co. Antrim, which is said to be haunted by the O’Neill banshee.

Irish HIstory Expert

A traditional depiction of a banshee.
Image source: Wikipedia Commons

A banshee is similar to the Morrigan, the crone aspect of the Celtic triple goddess, the representative of death. Sometimes encountered in the guise of an old woman washing clothes by a warrior on his way to death, the banshee is more often seen as a spirit (bean-woman, sidhe–fairy) keening a death in the night. Like the washerwoman, the banshee’s appearance precedes death.

Set on the northeastern shore of Lough Neagh, Shane’s Castle was a commanding presence for many centuries.  Originally know as Eden-duff-carrick, the castle was reinstated to the O’Neill clan by King James in 1607. After this it became known as Shane’s Castle. Mary Lowry, in her 1913 book The Story of Belfast and it’s Surroundings, cites Shane McBrien O’Neill as the owner who changed the name, and gives 1722 as the exact date. The O’Neills then in possession of the castle were descended from the great Shane O’Neill, who become The O’Neill Mór around 1562 and ruled or controlled most of Ulster. After his death, his many sons were known as the Mac Shane, the sons of Shane, and predictably the christian name Shane was popular among his descendants. So, the name Shane’s Castle has many resonances and potential origins.

Although the O’Neills held many castles, Eden-duff-carrick contains a stone carving of a head inset into one of the tower walls, known as the black head of the O’Neills, or the black brow on the rock.  It’s thought that this stone carving pre-dates the castle by some centuries.  It is said the line of the O’Neill’s will come to an end if the head ever falls from its position on the castle wall. Luckily for the O’Neills, the tower containing the head survived when their banshee burned the castle.

Game of Thrones fan gear - Shop HBOTraditionally, only the oldest Irish families are said to have banshees, spirits that forewarn of death. The O’Neills, being descended from the first Ard Rí, the High King of Ireland, Naill Nolligach, also known as Niall of the Nine Hostages, are one of the very oldest. (Niall died around 405, Shane O’Neill rose to O’Neill Mór about 1562, and the O’Neill family were hugely influential in Irish political life during this span.) A room in Shane’s Castle was traditionally laid aside for the use of Maeveen, the White Lady of Sorrow, the banshee of the O’Neills. Perhaps, implying she was originally a family member? I don’t know of any other banshee’s who were/are on first-name terms with their families. Visitors, it is said, could see the impression of the woman on her bed. However, in 1816, a large house party meant that this room was called into service. Perhaps the banshee was enraged at this snub after centuries of respect? A fire began in this room, and burned down the main block of the castle. They say a jackdaw’s nest which had been built in the long-unused chimney caught fire, and the fire spread, but who knows the true story?

One source suggests that the origin of the O’Neill banshee lies in an affront the fairies. One of the early O’Neills was returning from a raid when he found a cow with its horns tangled in a hawthorn tree. Single hawthorns are sacred to the sidhe [see wishing trees] and so the fairies now regarded the cow as their property. Foolishly, he freed the animal, and incurred the anger of the fey. When he arrived at his home (which presumably was not Eden-Duff-Carrick, as that was built much later, but may have been where the black head of the O’Neills originally stood), he found that the fairies had taken his daughter to the bottom of the lough (which lough is not specified, but the waters of Lough Neagh were said to have healing properties associated with the little folk). The girl was allowed to return to let her father know that she was safe in the fairy kingdom, but she could only return from then on in order to warn of impending death in the family by keening. This source names her as Kathleen, which is of Anglo-Norman origin and so would seem to be of much more-recent provenance than the ancient legend. Maeve is a very old Irish name, found in the oldest sagas, and appears more in keeping with the apparent antiquity of the banshee myth. The ending -een is a common diminutive in Irish, an affectionate twist on a name that would seem to reinforce the story that the banshee was originally a daughter of the house.

Irish History is even more fascinating than fantasy fiction

Ruins of Shane’s Castle. The intact conservatory is to the left.
(Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

The ruins of the castle today are unusual, as the castle was in the process of being rebuilt in a grander style by Richard Nash, architect of Buckingham Palace, among other famous buildings, when the fire broke out. The conservatory was already completed, and it survived the blaze while the main block of the castle was destroyed. Visitors can get a glimpse of the sumptuousness of the plans for the restored castle from the completed conservatory, while touring the ruined remains of the main block, towers and curtain wall. A fortified esplanade, studded with cannon salvaged from an English man-o-war, stands guard over the shoreline, and an interesting family tomb and statues can be seen in the grounds.

The castle boasted an impressive series of vaults and basement chambers, connected to a long underground passage, reputedly used as the servants entrance, but possibly originally intended as a refuge or escape route. To my knowledge, these vaults are now closed to the public.

The banshee was said to be heard in Coile Ultagh, the “Great Wood of Ulster” which grew by the castle on the shores of Lough Neagh, and through which Shane O’Neill had marched his army in 1565 on his way to defeating the MacDonald’s at the battle of Glentaisie, which cemented his authority over Ulster. There’s still some of the great wood left in the grounds of Shane’s Castle, although much of it has gone to farmland and housing developments.

After the Flight of the Earls, in 1607, when the leaders of several Irish clans fled to the continent, thus ending the last vestiges of the Brehon laws and traditional governance in Ireland, some say that the Banshee of the O’Neill’s followed the family into exile. However, the family line of the O’Neills is often unclear, and Hugh O’Neill, the last Earl of Tryone, was the offspring of an illegitimate son of the first Earl of Tyrone, and his father’s claim had been successfully contested by the great Shane O’Neill. So, perhaps Maeveen, the White lady of Sorrow, the banshee of the O’Neills remained at Shane’s Castle, and the legitimate descendants of Shane O’Neill. After all, the black head of the O’Neills still stands on the tower wall at Shane’s Castle.

 

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Notes
If you enjoy Irish mythology, you might be interested in the festival of Lúnasa or the Irish roots of Halloween: the feis of Samhain

If you enjoy Game of Thrones, you should check out the History Channel’s great show Vikings, which is also filmed in Ireland!