Into the Ancient Heart: Irish Myths and Magic
by DAVID ACKERMAN-GRAY
Crouching in a Neolithic womb, my hands press against stones laid into place by men over 5,000 years before. My wife's fingers trace cryptic spirals and lozenges carved by ancient artists using only flint and bone. This cross-shaped grotto, known as a passage tomb, has become our refuge from the storm and a doorway into another time.
Our guide plays a flashlight across an elaborately decorated slab, his soft voice describing how, on the equinoxes, the sunlight moves precisely from one graven sunburst to another. It is a quiet communion of sky and stone, one of many monuments left behind by a complex, enigmatic people. What do the symbols mean? No one knows. Yet in this silent, artificial cavern at Loughcrew, Robin and I are both humbled and comforted.
For five millennia later, they still proclaim: "We were here."
Tales of Kings and Demons
A proud land of vast green fields, rustic cottages, and musical wit, Ireland has a history that stretches back 7,000 years. Because the island is isolated at the outermost edge of Europe, much of its early culture and lore has survived, though the country has faced its share of strife.
Irish myth is an amalgam of legends that date from the Neolithic through the Iron Age, painting a unique history of the island. The earliest tales, such as in The Book of Invasions, described the Tuatha De Dannan, the Formorians, and the Fir Bolg, noble peoples akin to gods, who were ultimately driven away or into the Underworld by war. The later stories of the Ulster Cycle featured 1st-century figures such as Queen Maeve of Connacht and the hero Cúchulainn - not gods but humans with extraordinary abilities.
In these parables, the Tuatha were transformed into the Sidhe or faerie: magical, amoral beings who could use ancient stone monuments and sacred sites to enter our world. The Fenian Cycle carried into early Christian times and was built around Fionn mac Cum-haill and his Fianna (warriors rather like Celtic samurai).
Throughout the eras, the sagas were often as tragic as they were splendid. Heroes belonged to the land, sharing its soul and its destiny. Happy endings were rare and fates often harsh. But there was joy even in the pain, and otherworldly wonders were abundant.
It was this rich heritage of myths and megaliths that my wife Robin and I set out to explore with our guide, storyteller and folklorist Richard Marsh, on our seven-day tour arranged by the Irish Connection.
Our journey began at Tara, a short drive northwest of Dublin. This was the "Seat of Kings," the symbolic center of royal power in Ireland until the fifth century a.d. Irish kings came here annually to be recognized in ceremony and celebration, and the site still exudes authority, complemented by a 360-degree view that takes in Ireland's central plain.
At first appearing as a simple set of undulating hillocks, Tara gradually revealed itself to us, with its earthen rings and white standing stone -the Lia Fail - delineating the Royal Enclosure, including the home of celebrated 3rd- century King Cormac's house. Beneath the Mound of the Hostages, we gazed into the neolithic tomb where the hero Fionn supposedly defeated the faerie terror Aillén as it emerged to ravage Tara with fire.
Like Tara, every place had its tale. On the north coast was the Giants Causeway, an ancient lava outcropping composed of thousands of hexagonal pillar-like formations. According to local lore, the pillars were actually remnants of an ancient bridge to Scotland constructed by Fionn in his desire to duel a Scottish giant.
In the west was Croagh Patrick, the stark, wind-swept mountain where Ireland's patron saint chose to banish all demons from the island. And in the midlands lay Lough (lake) Derravaragh, where a jealous stepmother transformed the children of King Lir into intelligent swans, their plaintive but beautiful songs echoing over the land for 900 years. To this day, it's illegal to kill a swan in Ireland.
If each locale was a story, then the west coast city of Sligo was an anthology. A century ago, beloved poet W. B. Yeats popularized much of the folklore in his books and plays, and has since become a regional industry, with an honored gravesite as well as signs and statues spread throughout the township.
Yeats claimed his inspiration was all around him, and our local guide, Michael Roberts, showed us why. Whether it was walking through the verdant Hazelwood punctuated with rough-hewn statues of warriors, lovers and gods, or listening to Michael's rendition of the Second Battle of Moy Tura - where the Tuatha faced the dark Formorians in a titanic clash of arms - the fantastic felt alive here. In fact, the reverence for myth is so deep that local residents have prevented any attempt to open Queen Maeve's Cairn (tomb mound) on imposing Knocknarea Mountain, leaving it, and the legend of the warrior queen it holds, inviolate.
Touching the Timeless
Ireland is strewn with hundreds of mysterious megalithic and antediluvian structures, most protected by Dúchas, the Irish Heritage Service. The best known is Newgrange, a fully reconstructed passage tomb. Impressive in both decoration and scale, its polished veneer prompted Robin to name it "the Disneyland of Megalithic Cemeteries."
Indeed, it was the more remote sites that seemed to draw us in. When we entered the intact cairn of Ollamh Fodhla (the poet-king) at the Loughcrew Tomb Cemetery, it felt like stepping into a cherished piece of art. The solidity of the stone walls, the age-worn, abstract quality of the carvings and mysterious purpose of the enclosure all provided a sense of timelessness.
Uisneach, a sacred mount at the geographical center of Ireland, was equally powerful. From the crest of the 600-foot prominence, historian Kevin Hayes wove an enthralling image of the fire pits, raths (ringed homesteads), and other structures maintained there for over 4,000 years. The sense of spiritual peace and harmony among the haw-thorn trees and thistles was palatable - an aspect that draws hundreds annually, including Sioux and Aztec shamans.
We were determined to commune more closely with such a sacred site, and so, unable to resist, we crawled through the narrow crevice at the base of the Catstone, a massive rock formation there known as the umbilical between the earth and sky. Few things will connect you to the land like scrambling on your belly under a hundred tons of granite.
Of Pubs and People
Of course, we couldn't explore the past at the expense of the present. The term "forty shades of green" perfectly describes the Irish countryside, with rolling fields crosshatched by ivy-clad stone walls and accented by the occasional castle or church ruin.
Despite their often melancholic lore, the Irish are warm and welcoming, honestly inquisitive and always ready with a story or joke. In the bustling port of Galway, we unwound with rich pints of Guinness and live jazz at the Ti Neachtain pub. Later, at the Belvedere House B&B, I enjoyed a bout of "slagging" - sharing wine and boisterous conversation with a quartet of well-read locals deep into the night.
The term "hospitable" is an understatement here. The owners of Uisneach, David and Angela Clarke, took an hour out of their busy farming schedule to share tea with us. Our hosts, from the Roxford Lodge in Dublin to the White Park House in Ulster, made us feel like family, with advice and gossip eagerly exchanged over coffee and cookies.
Hero of the Land
Our travels finally brought us into the Cooley Peninsula, situated 60 miles north of Dublin. This was the land of the great Irish epic, the Táin Bó Cuailnge or the Cattle Raid of Cooley. Here, Queen Maeve warred against Ireland's greatest mythic hero, Cúchulainn, stealing the prize bull of Ulster. Richard related the colorful chronicle of Maeve's hubris and Cúchulainn's bravery as we traversed the rugged and rich scenery.
Here we saw the most poignant sight of our journey. In a wide field of rippling grass, a single majestic stone stands alone against the horizon. It is Cúchulainn's Death Pillar, to which he bound his body so that even as death took him, he could stand to face his enemies. Lured into a trap by Maeve's agents, his was a tragic but noble end, and this simple monument powerfully captured that moment.
I could imagine him there, bowed but not broken, existing somewhere between reality and myth - just like the extraordinary land which shares his soul.
The Myths and Legends tour also includes castle and church sites, shopping, and other experiences. For more information, contact: The Irish Connection Inc. Tel: 404-373-1420; Fax: 404-875-1457; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: www. theirishconnection.net
Richard Marsh, storyteller, can be contacted at email@example.com
Photo courtesy of Tourism Ireland.