Thursday, March 31, 2011

Vernacular Cottages Part Three. A labourer's Byre House.

17th century labourer’s vernacular byre cottage in the west of Ireland.

Although cottages came in many sizes, they were all only one room deep. The length of the timbers available for the roof determined the width of the house. For many inhabitants of coastal areas and islands, the primary source of rafters was timber washed ashore from the wrecks of ships. The houses were simple with clay floors, sparse furniture and small windows.

The byre dwelling was a cottage that was shared with the animals. A cow, a few chickens, a duck or two or a goose if they could afford one and a pig to pay the rent. Livestock were an extremely valuable asset to poorer farmers so they kept them within their dwelling. Usually built on a slope or at least with sloped floors with the animals on the lower end so their effluent would run away from the living quarters. This arrangement meant the animals were close at hand if there were any problems or the weather was too poor to tend them and they also benefited from the heat of the fireplace.

Labourers, worked not for money but in return for the right to a small plot of land, known as ‘conacre’, on which they could grow enough potatoes to feed their family and some winter feed for the animals.. By spring several tons of manure would be removed from the byre and used as fertiliser on their small plot.

A writer of the time describes vividly the conditions in which they lived:

The master never fed a labourer…it was on the contrary a chief object with him to keep such a person as far away from his dwelling as possible. He therefore allowed him to occupy, at some remote corner of his farm, a miserable hut, a mere shell, formed of mud or sods, without loft, apartment or partition and sometimes without any other covering than that of straw or any chimney than the door. In one corner of this hovel was lodged his cow, while in the opposite were his wife, his children and himself.

To us this combined dwelling house and cattle byre might represent extremely grim living conditions, but it probably wasn't as unhealthy as we might imagine. After a while the smell would not be noticed and throughout the winter the animals provided a certain amount of heat. It would be wrong to imagine that these people cared any less about hygiene than we do - standards were simply different. The practice of housing people and animals together links the west of Ireland with the rest of the Atlantic fringe of Europe - the same arrangement is found in Scandinavia, Scotland, Brittany and Galicia.

Water was supplied to cottages by means of a well that would be located by a diviner. A diviner uses a hazel forked twig to determine where spring water is to be found, it’s a skill that is said to be in the hands as only some people can feel the energies of the earth keenly enough to follow them. Once located it was the duty of the woman of the house to bring buckets of water from the well each day for drinking and cooking. Water for washing clothes, floors and general domestic and farm duties came mostly from the rainwater collected in barrels at the ends of the thatch.

Light was provided from the hearth and also from burning rushes dipped in fish oils, the smell was horrendous and the light fleeting. Candles were more expensive and sometimes difficult to come by, they were preserved for good occasions and were often used as a method of barter.

The bed in the ‘Out shot’ or ‘Cailleach’ was very short but this was not because people were very small compared to today. It was for a far more practical reason, it was because of the fear of TB. It was believed by the people of the time that it was healthier to sleep sitting up supported by bolsters or pillows.
The diet of the labourer and his family was simple, mainly bacon, cabbage and potatoes, with all the cooking being done on the open fire. Sometimes, Galway and Mayo being fine fishing counties, there was fish.

Milk was available from their house cow, with oatmeal replacing or supplementing potatoes when they were scarce. They also ate what they could forage in the wild – berries, nuts, nettles, wild mushrooms and now and then a rabbit or bird. However these were all occasional rather than regularly eaten foodstuffs. Another traditional food of the time was black pudding, made from a mixture of cow’s blood and oatmeal. The blood was provided by the occasional bleeding of their cow. Sounds awful but this provided much needed protein without killing their valuable animal.

Poorer people either produced their own food or obtained it by foraging or hunting. Outside of towns and villages, little or none was purchased in shops, even when these began to appear, for there was no money available and what there was paid the rent.

While the potato provided enough food to allow the poor to survive and grow in number, it also caused their diet to become very narrow and restricted, a massive change from the varied diet eaten in earlier times and, as would become clear, a very dangerous dependence. By the mid seventeenth century the potato had become the main food and consumption reached eight pounds per person per day. It was easy to grow, a small plot could provide enough to feed a small family and it was very nutritious and filling.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Irish Vernacular Cottage. Part Two.

Vernacular Cottages Part Two.


Beds varied in design from a basic wooden box type structure with a straw mattress to other more elaborate set ups. Irish country life was and is built around the family and it was considered normal for a son or daughter to get married and share a house with elderly parents, who invariable slept in the warmest place. This was usually next to the hearth or fireplace and was known as the ‘Outshot’ or ‘Cailleach’ (See previous post).

There may also have been a ‘Settle Bed’, this was a very clever contraption for during the day it acted a a seat and at night it could be folded down to act as a bed. It was usually made by a local carpenter and could be any size you wished in order to accommodate family members. In the old cottages it may also have been used to accommodate the casual visitor (if not required by the family). Part of the folklore mentions that people used to regularly wash down the wooden frames with lime wash to aid in the prevention of diseases such as cholera. Don’t forget that in Ireland it was common to keep a burning lamp or candle in the window to guide wayward travellers. In many ways the old settle bed was the forerunner of the modern bed settee.

The Dresser:

The dresser was and probably still is one of the most important bits of domestic furniture as it was used to display the wealth and status of the household. The upper section would be used to display the ceramics (we use ours for blue and white willow pattern) and mementos. There are normally two drawers under which there will be two cupboards. The dresser was a great place for storage (still is) and was used for pots and pans and butter making utensils. A variation that you don’t see in the cottage anymore (thank the god’s, because of the smell) was the coop dresser, which used the bottom compartments to house chickens. This warm and safe environment ensured that eggs were always available throughout the year. Having the hens inside meant that you always knew where the eggs were when the hens had finished laying. This also prevented the hens laying in the hedgerows or up in the thatch of the roof and it also stopped arguments with your neighbours over whose chicken the egg belonged to. Chicken coops of this type were first noted in the inventories of the large country houses of the 17th and 18th century.

The Fireplace and the Fire Crane:

The fireplace was and still is the heart and soul of the cottage. It is a place where people gather and where life revolves. A place for reading, sewing, heat, and story telling. The focal point of the cottage. The fire was never allowed to go out, ashes were spread over the embers to “keep them in” until the morning. There is an old saying in Irish, “Nil aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin”, translated it means “There is no fire like your own fire” and in a way this illustrates the importance we place on the hearth. On the interior wall of the Inglenook firplace we used to have hung the Fire Crane, this was an ingenious method that was used to suspend cooking pots over the open fire. We still have ours (it’s in one of the barns), no longer used in modern cottages as we have replaced the open fire with a wood burning stove. Cottages today have Stanley Ranges (you may call them an AGA?) and modern cooking facilities.

The Butter Churn:

Every cottage in the country would have had its own butter churn and these would be of various designs. Here are the two most common ones.

The Dash Churn:

This was a common type which was very strong and made in a conical shape with a splayed neck into which a lid was fitted. The cream was then agitated by a wooden dash provided with a long handle which passed through a hole in the centre of the lid.

The Cylinder Churn:

In this smaller churn the cream was agitated by a wooden frame by turning a crank handle. When it was first introduced it immediately became popular with the domestic family. It had a limited capacity so was not really suitable for use by the larger farmer who may have been involved in the production of butter for sale. Our cylinder churn now sits on the top of one of the kitchen presses (cupboards) and serves an ornamental purpose.

When churning butter everyone was expected to take a turn, a refusal would bring down a curse from the fairie folk and great misfortune on the poor unfortunate who refused.

The manufacture of these churns was carried out by the local cooper (barrel maker).

1st image Coop Dresser.
2nd image Bed Settle.
3rd image Fire Crane.
4th image Cylinder Churn.
5th image Dash Churn.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Vernacular (traditional) Irish Cottage. Part One.

The Vernacular house in Ireland.

The vernacular houses of the north, southern and west of Ireland were almost always single storied although in some places a second storey may have been added in more prosperous times. This would have been more common in the east and the midlands. Even in the villages and towns, the single storied cottage often lined the streets, and a few of these early, traditional houses although rare still survive. The small single storey house with a thatched roof remained the dwelling of the ordinary family.

The traditional house of the remote west was moulded by the rugged landscape and the ferocity of the Atlantic weather. Rectangular, narrow and just one room deep, the narrow plan was mainly due to the scarcity of timbers for roofing and since only relatively thin poles or timbers salvaged from the ocean and sea shore were available, the roof spans were small. The cottages hug the landscape and seem to be part of it. Thatched roofs held down by ropes tied to pegs which are hammered into the walls or tied to heavy stones to protect them from the fierce Atlantic winds. These days a lot of the old thatched roofs have been replaced with slate.

A feature of the vernacular cottage in the North West and west of Ireland is the outshot bed; this is where a projection in the wall next to the hearth/fireplace would accommodate a small bed which was further protected from draught by a curtain. It was here that the Grandmother would sleep and here she would be snug and warm. In Mayo we call this the “Cailleach”, not a very flattering term as it means Old hag (don’t blame me). This bed was beneficial in other ways for if the older member of the family became bedridden they could still play an important role in the social and domestic fabric of the household. We should remember that their advice and skills were invaluable and they generally possessed a treasure trove of stories, an art that sadly is fast disappearing in the age of technology. Also and in some ways more importantly it showed them that they still mattered, they were still loved.

The vernacular cottage was always built of rough stone or stone and mud and in later years they would be lime-washed or plastered and then lime-washed (also known as white-wash) and they stood out against the backdrop of the landscape.

It was common for the back door to be opposite the front door and this made it easier to sweep the floor in windy weather (you opened the door on the calm side). The front door was usually a half door and this had the advantage of allowing in more daylight into the large central living room and also kept the animals out (farmyard and poultry). It also allowed conversation with passers-by.

Windows were small and of the up and down sash type with wide interior sills due to the thickness of the walls.

Early cottages did not have any foundations and the floors are usually finished in rammed earth, slate or stone flag, or tiles. These days it is common to find cement or concrete floors with a floating floor of timber unless you have been extremely lucky and have managed to find one with the original flagged floor.

The main fireplace in the central room is large and open of the inglenook type with a large stone or timber lintel, usually a ships timber salvaged from the sea shore. Today it is usual to find a wood stove set in the opening but it would have had an open fire over which you would swing a fire crane, on this you would hang an iron cooking pot or kettle.

On either side of the large central room there would have been larger rooms. In our cottage we have divided one of these into two bedrooms with independent doors. All these rooms have open fires although there is also the addition of modern day central heating throughout. We have the addition of a small extension which serves as a galley kitchen and a further small extension that serves as a shower room and toilet room.

Most vernacular cottages were built into the landscape, usually protected by a hill or some other natural feature, although groundwater running down the hill inevitably led to damp.

These types of cottages are fast disappearing from the Irish country side as more and more people buy them only for the site they sit on, They then knock them down only to build a modern style house. Now I’ve nothing against freedom of choice (how on earth do some of these monstrosities get planning permission?). However, I do believe that our cottage has character, an old world charm, it has soul representing our history and heritage and it doesn’t intrude on the landscape like some of those modern Spanish style mansions built not as homes but as B&Bs where the kids are put in the garage or loft for the holiday season as their rooms are worth euro’s (I’m not suggesting their all like that).

I will be fair though and say that in times gone by our ancestors must have looked out of their round houses and thought “How on earth did they get planning permission?”

Finally, one thing I have noticed about the type of people who buy and renovate these old cottages to live in. They are all quite similar (the ones I know anyway). They love their cottages, the heritage and history, the character and quirkiness. They usually grow their own or love organic gardening and are environmentally aware. I don’t intend to generalise and if you own and live in a vernacular cottage and are totally opposite to those I have described than “No offence intended”.

I will add a couple more posts that will cover the folklore of the Irish cottage and some of the artefacts that would have been used in days gone by so I hope that like me it may give you an insight into a dying tradition.

The bottom image is of our cottage in County Mayo.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Irish Caves. The Cave of The Seven Sisters.

Irish Caves.

The ‘Irish Cave Archaeology Project’ is prompted by finds already made, including human bones ranging from small body parts to full skeletons of men, women and children; jewellery made from shell, amber and bone; the remains of sacrificed newborn calves, lambs and piglets. Folklore traditions reveal that caves were seen as places of ghosts and ghouls, gateways to the Otherworld or a home for a supernatural woman that preyed on mortal men.

With uses varying from burial chambers to places to live, caves in Ireland have a diverse history and usage. ‘People have been using caves around Ireland for almost 10,000 years. In the 19th and 20th centuries, some were documented by antiquarians looking for bones of extinct animals such as woolly mammoth, bears and Arctic lemmings. They also turned up human bones and artifact’s many of archaeological significance. More recently, cavers have discovered and explored caves all over the country. These caves open up for us a cultural, religious and physical history dating back through prehistoric, medieval and modern times.’

Evidence indicates that for about 8,000 years, caves were used mostly for religious activities. These deep dark, often sacred, places were associated with death and the ‘Otherworld’. They were used for excarnation, where a corpse was left to fully decompose prior to the bones being removed for burial. Often small bones and beads were left behind, to be found thousands of years later. Caves were also used for burial, with extensive finds already documented in Co Waterford. During the Bronze Age, caves were used for burying high ranking individuals. In 1805, a skeleton covered in small sheets of gold was discovered in a cave in Co Cork. Burial traditions with offerings continued into the Iron Age. At caves in Co Sligo, human teeth were placed in the caves, possibly associated with the annual harvest festival of Lughnasa.

The coming of Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century AD saw major changes in how caves were used and perceived. For the first time, there was extensive occupation of caves, as they became home to individuals, possibly travelling laborers or craft workers. It is likely that the association between caves and death and the Otherworld was largely destroyed by the Church.

The Cave of the Seven Sisters:

The origin of the following tale is to be found in the small village of Ballybunion a few miles from Kerry Head. The cliffs rise up from the sea to heights well over a hundred feet and these are peppered with caves into which the sea rushes with a terrible fury in winter. This coast line is open to the full force of the Atlantic storms and it was usual to find the dead bodies of various unfortunate creatures washed up on the shore.

On the edge of one of these cliffs there stands the ruin of a castle. All that remains of it now is the basement standing against the force of the wind and waves like some lonely sentinel.

According to local legend, this castle was the home of a chieftain around about the time of the invasions by the Vikings. He was the father of seven beautiful daughters, a brave warrior with a great hatred of those who would invade his land. He seemed to always have his sword in his hand and night and day his ships patrolled the coast watching for any sign of the piratical Vikings who might threaten his people.

There came a day when a sail was spotted in the distance and as it came nearer the chieftain saw the vessel displayed the standard of a Viking marauder. Immediately it was surrounded by the Irish ships and despite putting up a fierce fight it was captured. As was the custom of the chieftain, he had the crew that had survived the initial attack killed and thrown overboard with the exception of the captain and his six brothers as he had a special more painful death planned for them.

They were brought to the castle and there they had their wounds dressed and as they had no way to escape they were allowed freedom within the castle walls. Of course the seven captured men soon spotted the seven beautiful Irish maidens and as they were starved of male affection they soon fell under the spell of the Vikings and agreed to aid their escape and run off to the Viking homeland.

All was set, a stormy night in winter was chosen, and there was not a star in the sky. A cold wind blew in from the sea bringing with it a torrential rain, the waves crashed against amidst the caves below. Using a rope ladder they escaped over the battlements and down to the ground but when they had all descended to their horror they were surrounded by armed men who had been hiding amongst the rocks.

No one said a word, they knew it was hopeless for it was obvious who these armed warriors were. Taken back into the castle they came face to face with the chieftain. With a look of anger and hatred he pointed to his seven daughters and gave a command to his captain of the guard. The man recoiled in disbelief his face had a look of horror, recovering, he whispered in the ear of his chieftain but the face of the chieftain told all there that his order would not be changed and with a look of hatred he repeated the order turned to the door and stormed out of the room without a backward glance.

Now we come to a fearful scene. The lovers were wrenched from each other’s arms and the daughters were dragged forward. The storm had grown more violent and the waves were crashing against the rocks. Sea spray was carried over the top of the castle walls; lightning flashed and by its light a scene of pure horror was illuminated. Dragging the women along the edge of the precipice the warriors came to a chasm which resembled the crater of a volcano as it was completely closed with the exception of the opening at the top and a hole below through which the sea rushed in with terrific force and violence. The roaring of the sea was fearful and the lightning flashed and it was now that the seven sisters realised their fate. There could be no escape, screaming and begging for mercy they were hurled into the boiling seas. Their father’s orders carried out.

What happened to the seven Vikings is not known, the legend is not for them. Eventually, over time the castle fell into ruin. As for the chieftain? well he sleeps in an unknown grave his name forgotten, but the legend of The Seven Sisters remains. The cave is now known locally as The Cave of The Seven Sisters.

On a stormy night you can still hear their screams and as you look out over the seas you may see the outline of a ghost ship as seven lovers search the waves.

Hope you enjoyed the tale.

I'm going away for the weekend so I hope the weather keeps fine for you all and I will return on Sunday with tales anew. Keep safe, Keep happy and Keep smiling.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

1739-40 Arctic Ireland. Our little ice age and The Forgotten Famine.

Bad weather hits Ireland.

Modern Ireland has experienced two of the greatest famines in European history. Everyone has heard of The Great Famine of 1845-1850 and its place in the annals of history is forever secured. The other famine, that of 1740-41 although more intense and infinitely more deadly has become known as The Forgotten Famine, and although often attributed to “natural causes” a closer look reveals the suffering could have been alleviated.

On the last day of 1739, Ireland awoke to find itself in the grip of a mini Ice Age. Rivers froze, mills seized up, and houses could not be heated above freezing point. Some people were enchanted by the novelty of it all. Carnivals, dances and sheep-roasting were held on the ice. It was reported at the time that a hurling match was played on the frozen Shannon River, while a fair was held on the frozen Lee River in Cork, one of the most southerly rivers in Ireland. It was said that it was so cold that alcohol froze and birds dropped from the sky, frozen in mid flight.

However the euphoria was not to last for in its wake came drought, flood, fire, famine and plague that have had few parallels in the recorded history of this island. Fuel prices rocketed and the poor began to freeze to death. However, a greater tragedy was unfolding, in early 1740 as the cold conditions continued the potato crop began to die and with it the seedlings that should have ensured a future crop. Even the cattle and sheep perished. This cold lasted into February and was not followed by the usual rains.

In January 1740, nature itself seemed to turn against the people. A winter of terrible coldness fell across the country. The temperatures fell so much that the ports were blocked by ice and coal could not be brought in from Britain. In the 1700s, without central heating, electricity, rail or reliable road transport, coal, the most common means of heating, was brought by boat. The frozen harbours and rivers meant that it could not be delivered to many towns. This had the effect of causing coal prices to soar. As a result hedges, trees, and nurseries around Dublin were stripped bare as desperate people searched for substitute fuel.

By April people were beginning to fear the worse. Whatever farm animals that survived the heavy frosts now had nothing to graze upon. The corn, which had been planted in the hope that the rain would come, failed to grow in the fields. The price of corn more than doubled which led to disturbances. In Drogheda a corn ship was boarded by the mob and its load removed, in Dublin mobs attacked bakeries in the search for bread. The drought caused mill streams to dry up thus preventing corn mills from making the flour. It also caused the timbers of houses to dry out and many fires took hold in diverse towns and villages.

As people starved that winter, the new year of 1741 saw the outbreak of typhus and dysentery. With a population already severely weakened by starvation, 1741 became known as “The Year of The Slaughter”. In many ways it had become the perfect storm within which starvation and disease decimated the population.

In September 1741, the bad weather returned in the form of violent gales which were followed by heavy blizzards in October. Then in November two terrible storms hit the country and these brought snow and frost. On the 9th December there was severe flooding throughout the country and the very next day the frost returned.

Exact figures of the number of people who died are unknown but most historians accept a figure somewhere around 400,000 from a population of about 3 million. This event did not have the same impact upon the mind of the populace as the famine a century later largely because it did not spark the large-scale emigration that followed the famine of 1845.

The causes of such freak weather remain poorly understood. However, it has been suggested that it was precipitated by volcanic eruptions on the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia which sent thousands of tons of dust into the upper atmosphere blocking out the rays of the sun.

It is interesting to note that Mount Tarumae in Japan experienced a major volcanic eruption, as did Mount Asahi, Japan’s tallest mountain, in 1739.

In 1783 and 86 we experienced two successive severe winters both attributed to an Icelandic volcanic eruption.

In 1816, known as the year without summer, snow fell late and the summer never really materialised. The winter proceeding it was also severe.

A volcanic eruption at Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia, greatly disrupted wind patterns and temperatures.

In 2010 the eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland caused enormous disruption to air travel across western and northern Europe over a period of six days in April 2010. Additional localised disruption continued into May 2010.

Is there a connection between volcanic activity and our unusual Irish weather?

Could it happen again?

Well we are certainly experiencing colder and more prolonged winters. Climate change is a fact. Volcanic action is projected and we are witnessing drastic changes in weather patterns.

So stock up on warm clothing, gather your winter fuel through the summer, then draw comfort from the fact we have been through it before and we are still here to tell the tale.

There is a brilliant little book called: Arctic Ireland written by David Dickson that covers this episode in Irish history for those who may wish to learn more and it would make a nice addition to your library.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


This post is in response to a question from Radcliffe on 20th March 2011.

From French souterrain, from sous ‘under’ + terrain ‘ground’.

There have been various theories put forward concerning the use of souterrains. Some have suggested they were constructed as a place of refuge in time of attack, others have suggested that they were intended as storage facilities for weapons and supplies. There are suggestions that the souterrains were used as a primitive form of cold storage for perishable goods, the forerunner of the modern day refrigeration method?

It would have been difficult to get anything in and out of the souterrains through the tiny entrances. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to build a fairly large space for storage implying you intended to keep a lot goods there and then only provide an entrance through which it would be difficult to carry objects much larger than a small sack.

Neither does it make sense to store weapons and supplies in a deep, dark and damp hole in the ground. As a place of refuge, there are many souterrains that have only one entrance which would make it more of a prison than a place of refuge. Dark, damp, no sanitation, no water, I don’t think it would be my first choice?
It is sad to imagine that during the ravages of the famine, of which there were many in this country including 1740 The year of The Slaughter, that the souterrains may have been used as places of refuge for those suffering from the freezing weather and starvation.

There is no definite evidence that souterrains were used as places of ritual practice but there are certainly ritual aspects to their use. Evidence of fire has been found at a number of sites as well as cremated human bones. When you consider that superstitious Iron Age humans may have looked upon the souterrain as an entrance to the domain of the earth goddess/gods? It may also have taken on significance as a symbol of the womb of mother earth sp may have been used for rituals surrounding birth and re-birth? They may also have been seen as places where you could commune with the spirits and with nature, a place of deep meditation.

Could it be possible that there were varied uses concerning souterrains that may have influenced their designs? Some do have more than one entrance so may have served as escape tunnels? Some have been discovered under Raths so may have been storage facilities for weapons and supplies? Some, due to a constant cold temperature could indeed have been used as primitive fridges. However, some may have been used as a place of ritual. It’s certainly food for thought.

There are also a number of legends concerning the Tuatha de Danann, and the Sidhe in regards to souterrains.

As I have said before “It’s for you the reader to decide”

Lower image: Court of the Faeries Artist: James C. Christensen
Top image: Titania Sleeping Artist: Richard Dadd

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Oweynagat The Cave of The Cats, Part Two.

Oweynagat. I thought I would do a follow up to the first post for those who may be interested.

Cave of Cruachan, Cave of the Cats Irish mythological site.

As stated in the previous post Oweynagat is In Co. Roscommon, which is in Ireland’s western province of Connacht. It is a tiny cave of huge mythic importance. Part of the great archaeological complex of Cruachan, the ancient capital of the province of Connacht centred on the fort of its goddess-queen Medb. Still visible and accessible in a small field on the edge of the complex, 700 meters southwest of the great mound where Medb’s palace was said to stand, the cave’s opening is quite small, some three feet high by four feet wide that opens up into a souterrain or underground passage.

Oweynagat figures prominently in ancient Irish myth and legend. It was the birthplace of Medb herself. The goddess and fairy queen Étain, fleeing with her fairy lover Midir from her human husband, stopped at Oweynagat with her companions, who included her maidservant Crochan Crogderg, whose name means “blood-red cup.” Midir was said to have wanted to visit a relative who lived in the cave, the otherwise unknown Sinech (“large-breasted one”), for whom he had great affection. At the end of their stay, Crochan was so enamoured of the place—which although it seems only a dingy cave, is a great palace in the Otherworld—that she begged to stay. Étain and Midir gave her the cave, and so it was there that Crochan’s daughter Medb was born.

Oweynagat also appears in the adventure tale about one of her servants, a man named Nera who saved Cruachan from an attack by Otherworldly forces with the assistance of a fairy woman whom he met in the cave and married. She warned him that Medb’s beautiful palace would be burned to the ground the following Samhain, a warning that brought the forces of Medb and Ailill Mac Máta into the cave to eliminate the danger. As with other tales, this one associates the cave with the feast of Samhain.

The cave is also associated with the great figure that shadows Medb throughout the epic through which she is most known, the Táin Bó Cuailnge or cattle raid on Cuailnge—the Mórrígan, who drove her Otherworldly cattle into the cave each sunset. She may be the one who flew out of the cave, called “the hell-mouth of Ireland” in medieval documents, for apparitions were said to appear there, especially on the magical Celtic festival of Samhain (November 1) when the veils between the worlds were thin and even those without second sight could see beyond this world and into the next.

The Mórrígan was known to have stolen the herds of a girl named Odras and to have driven them down into the cave of Oweynagat. Undeterred by Mórrígan’s fierce reputation, Odras pursued her, trying to regain the cattle upon which she relied. She got almost to Mórrígan’s domain, but the great queen was more powerful than the girl and turned her into a lake.

Oweynagat is much more commonly associated with cattle than with cats; not only does the Mórrígan drive her cattle through the cave, but a woman was said to have travelled underground for many miles, dragged there by a calf to whose tail she clung.

Within the cave, the great cauldron of abundance was said to reside. It was once kept at Tara but later returned to the Otherworld.

The cave is still accessible, although its frighteningly tiny entry makes it one of the least-visited of Ireland’s great mythological sites.

I hope you find this follow up to be of some interest. Oweynagat is not as high profile as Tara and yet in many ways is as important if not more so.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Giant's Causeway.

The Giants Causeway.

In County Antrim there is a place that is steeped in the mythology and folklore of Ireland. That place is known as The Giants Causeway.

Its ‘discovery’ was announced in 1693 by Sir Richard Bulkeley, a fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, when presenting a paper to the Royal Society. However, the ‘discoverer who should have received credit for it was the Bishop of Derry who had visited the site a year earlier.

There was a great deal of argument concerning the creation of the Causeway. Some said it had been created by men with picks and chisels, some said it was the result of nature, and some said it was the work of a giant.

The issue was finally settled in 1771 when a Frenchman by the name of Demarest, announced the true origin of the Causeway was the result of volcanic action.
In 1740, a Dublin spinster’s realistic sketches brought the Causeway to the attention of the public and ever since it has attracted visitors from all over the world.

What of its folklore?

One of the legends that surround The Giants Causeway concerns two giants, Finn McCool and Benandonner.

Finn MacCool, the handsome giant of Ireland, lived on the wild northern coast, and occasionally he sat at the edge of the sea, sucking on his thumb. Whenever he had a question, any puzzle at all, he sucked that thumb and the answer came.

Finn fell in love with a giantess named Oonagh who lived on a rocky isle across the Irish Sea. Trouble was Finn could not swim, so how would he reach his beloved? He thought a while, and then he tore up some trees, and he built himself a boat, but when he stepped inside, that boat sank under his weight. After all, Finn was a giant.

So Finn sucked on his thumb, and next thing he was gathering columns of rock, six-sided each, flat-topped and weighing 10 tons. He stood on the shore and tossed those columns, one after another, into the sea. In this way he formed a path all the way to Oonagh’s Island.

Oonagh was very impressed (what woman wouldn’t be?), and it was not long before they were married and shortly after she had a son (fast workers, these giants?). They called their son Ossian and he grew up and left home to live with the faeries (I’m saying nothing?) but let’s just say they were sad when he left.

However, they were not sad for long and they commenced singing. Everyone could hear them and as their singing was better than Jedward’s it didn’t upset them. Everyone that is except Benandonner, he was another giant that lived a lonely miserable life on the Isle of Straffa and he was very happy being miserable and did not wish to hear happy singing coming from his neighbours.

Benandonner decided he had to silence yer man Finn and while he was at it he might as well take his wife home with him so with this in mind he challenged Finn for Oonagh’s hand. Now Benandonner was a big ugly smelly yoke and as he dressed in old rat skins and had three eyes, one in the middle of his forehead, he had no chance of Oonagh but Finn Invited him to come over “if yer think yer hard enough”.

The following day Benandonner arrived at the house and knocked on the door. Oonagh answered, “Finn’s out at the minute come back tomorrow”. “O.K” said Benandonner and as this made him very miserable altogether he was quite happy.

When Finn arrived back he saw Benandonner’s footprints outside his door. “Jezus would ye look at the size of them” he began having second thoughts. “Oonagh, that gobshite must be massive”, said Finn. Oonagh said “Don’t you be worrying; I have an idea that will put manners on him”

The next morning there was a knock on the door. This time Finn was home but he was hiding in the baby cradle that had once been Ossian’s. He was covered with blankets so only his eyes could be seen.

“Is this yer baby” Benandonner asked, “Yes he is, and his father will be home soon”.

Oonagh had baked some cakes and invited Benandonner to sit down and have some while he waited. What he didn’t know was that she had baked a cake with pieces of metal in it and it was this that she gave him. When he took a bite he let out a scream “I’ve bust me tooth” he wailed, “What have you put in them”. “Only a bit of butter and cream, a few eggs and some flour, sure the baby loves them” and she gave one to Finn (without any metal in it).

“That child must have teeth of iron” said Benandonner and he bent over and for some unknown reason he stuck his finger in the baby’s mouth (he wasn’t a bright giant).

Surprise, surprise, Crunch! Finn bit down so hard he bit the finger clean off.
Benandonner let out another scream, “What kind of child is this, he’s strong enough to bite off a giant’s finger?”

“Aragh, he’s only a wee thing” said Oonagh, “He’s not that strong but his daddy is trying to teach him how to get better”

Benandonner laughed nervously. "What kind of things is he teaching him?" he asked.
Oonagh smiled “Oh just things” she said.

Benandonner began to tremble, and then he said, "I'll be going now," and he backed out of the house and ran across the causeway. Halfway across a thought struck him, and he stopped. Working feverishly with all his great strength, he carried away the middle section of those rocks, one by one, for he had no wish for a visit from the monstrous Finn.

So that is the reason why only the beginning and the end remain of the Giant's Causeway, one on Staffa Island, home of Benandonner, and another on the Antrim coast, just near the place where Finn lived.

Volcanic action or a giant’s fear, you decide.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

St. Patrick's Day.

St. Patrick’s day.

I have written previously on this blog about St. Patrick in a post entitled ‘The Serpent and St. Patrick’ on 9/9/10 so I won’t say too much today.

If you know any of the history concerning St. Patrick you will no doubt know that he is credited with driving the snakes from Ireland. However, did you know that the snake or rather the serpent is just a metaphor for a pagan? Serpent means Wise One in the old Arabic and St. Patrick uses the word in a symbolic sense rather than literally. He attempted to drive the ‘Serpents’ specifically the Druids from Ireland. So the celebration today is really celebrating the spread of Christianity throughout this island and the subjugation and conversion of the Druids. In some ways it is similar to the celebration of burning Guy Fawkes on bonfire night in England. Oh by the way St. Patrick wasn’t even Irish so why is he the patron saint as there are some who would argue that there are many others more deserving of the honour.

Some have suggested that St. Patrick’s day was designed to coincide with the spring equinox but I won’t get into that today. I would just like to wish all who follow this blog a truly happy day today.

Whether you are Irish in blood or heart, Christian or Pagan
we all need to celebrate on the odd occasion.
(that sounds quite poetic?).

There is a line of thought that supports the idea that pagans should not celebrate Christian festivals and vice versa . However, as most Christian festivals and Christian sites are superimposed over pagan festivals and sites I personally see nothing wrong in it as we celebrate these festivals not as religious festivals but just because as Irish people we just enjoy a good day out and as we say “a great bit of craic”.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Duit . Happy Saint Patrick’s day to you.

We have a statue of St. Patrick in the middle of Westport (my home town) and Westport is in the shadow of our mountain which we call The Reek locally but it is called Croagh Pádraig or Croagh Patrick meaning Patrick’s Mount. Above you can see the images.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Oweynagat. The Cave of The Cats. Part One.


Located within the Rathcroghan complex, Roscommon, which is the royal site of the great kings of Connaught (Connacht) and sacred centre of the Goddess/Queen Medb (Maeve).

(Pronounced Oen-na-gat), also known as Cave of the Cats (from a legend where a Great female Warrior killed a Monster Cat that dwelled in the cave). This is believed to be the entrance to the Otherworld and home of the Morrigan, where it is believed she arose at the beginning of the wars related in the story of the Taín.

When she emerges from Oweynagat, the Morrigan is the earth spirit aspect of Medb and as the fearsome ‘War Trio’, she becomes the Morrigan or Morrigu. The name is generally taken to mean “Great Queen”. She is generally accepted as a Triple Goddess, but there are disagreements about how specifically this works. The most common ‘threesomes’ are Aná (pronounced Anya), Badb (pronounced Bave) and Macha as well as Badb, Macha and Nemain. Her triple form has also been referred to as Morrigan, Badb and Macha.

Inside the cave are two ogham stones which translate to mean ‘the pillar of Fraech son of Madb’. Here it is believed that the spirits emerge at Samhain to mingle with the human world. It is of huge mythical importance, the opening to the cave is quite small, roughly three feet high by four feet wide and this opening leads to a souterrain or underground passage. Once through the opening the cave opens up to a large space.

How it became to be called ‘The cave of the cat’s’ is unknown, no cats appear in its folklore or myth. There was a cave in Connaught (Connacht) where a cat was consulted by fortune-tellers but its location was never given in the old texts. Was this Oweynagat, who knows?

The name Oweynagat may come from the magical wildcats featured in "Bricriu's Feast" that emerge from the cave to attack the three Ulster warriors before being tamed by Cúchulainn. The name could also refer to the king of the cats, Irusan, who features in Irish fairy tales and was believed to live in a cave near Clonmacnoise but is associated with many places.

The Christian monk’s called this cave ‘The gateway to hell’ as they were supposed to believe that devils and spirits dwelt there.

It's quite possible that feral cats lived in the cave and may have attacked anyone who tried to enter. You have to bend down to get into the entrance so you would be offering your face to any angry set of teeth and claws from screaming cats so it would be easy to understand any superstitious stories that may have been told at the time.

The whole area is well worth a visit. The Heritage Centre has a detailed history of the area, a well equipped shop, and a lovely little cafe where even though they use tea-bags they still warm the pot. They also have a well designed website which you will find at

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Hill of Tara.

Hill of Tara Faeries.

The ancient and sacred Hill of Tara was once where the High Kings of Ireland ruled. The place where the Druids lit the fires to announce the rebirth of the sun and the Faerie folk walked beside man at certain times of the year.

We all know what has happened at Tara, how our government has shamefully bulldozed their way through the wishes of the people and rode roughshod through one of our most important sites giving scant if any regard to the heritage of the Irish people.

John Gormley who laughingly purports to represent the Green Party took over from Dick Roache as the Environment Minister and the first thing this poor excuse for an environmentalist did when he became minister was to give the thumbs up to the M3 to go through Tara.

Do you believe in Faeries? Do you know what happens when you upset them? Fianna Fáil and the Green Party do.

Now I’m not suggesting for one minute they believe in the Faeries (although they seem to have been away with them often enough) but they have reaped what they sewed.

Since they carried out this wanton act of vandalism the economy collapsed, we have lost our independence having become a slave to the I.M.F. and both Fianna Fáil and the Green Party have been sent to the political graveyard.

We have a saying “Beware the law of the returning tide” it simply means be careful what you do for as sure as night follows day what you do will come back on you tenfold, good or bad.

Curse of Tara, curse of the Faeries, or just cursed politicians? You decide.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Coolbawn Castle. Francis Bruen. Absentee Landlord.

Coolbawn Castle. Wexford. Francis Bruen, absentee landlord.

Coolbawn Castle.

Built in the mid 1800’s by Francis Bruen who was descended from a Cromwellian soldier called James Bruen who had settled in Boyle, County Roscommon. The family were to eventually own lands and estates covering 25,000 acres. Francis Bruen commissioned the architect Frederick Darley to design the house which was to replace an earlier house that had been destroyed in an accidental fire. It was completed at great expense constructed of fine cut stone and finished in white granite from the nearby mountains. The house was covered in elaborate ornaments, pinnacles and spires. It has been described as 'a splendid mansion in the later English style and was erected by Francis Bruen (d. 1867) on the occasion of his marriage to Lady Catherine Anne Nugent (1801-64).

Coolbawn Castle has a gorgeous view of the Blackstairs Mountains. So much money was spent on its erection that it was locally known as "Bruen's Folly". Bruen was an absentee landlord, disliked by the locals and when close-by Tomanine Bridge was constructed, a discreet stone carving of Breun’s face was placed in the bridge, and its nose was then knocked off.

He spent most of his time in England and left the running of the estate to his hated agent, a man by the name of Routledge, who would pay the rent arrears of the Protestant tenants rather than let the land fall into the hands of the Catholics. If the Catholics could not pay, they would be evicted and their land was given to the Protestants. Remember this was in the 1840s and the Great Famine was looming.

Routledge also ordered fifty horses to be shod every Friday morning in preparation for a visit by Mr Bruen, but he very rarely bothered to make the journey from England (according to John Hennessy, son of the present local blacksmith).

Coolbawn was eventually inherited by Francis Bruen’s nephew, Henry Bruen who was an Irish Conservative M.P. for County Carlow and a member of the Privy Council of Ireland. In the 1911 census it is recorded that Coolbawn House was occupied only by Henry’s servants. His cook was the head of the household. Her name was Mary Sharkland, aged 43. Also recorded, Susan Warren, aged 25, parlour maid. Mary Kate Martin, aged 16, Kitchen maid and John Neill, aged 28, a domestic servant.

Bruen's descendants disposed of Coolbawn to James Richard Dier JP (b. 1857) in 1917 or 1919 and the new proprietor allegedly entered into negotiations to sell the house on for use as a sanatorium. That sale having fallen through The Irish Times subsequently recorded that 'Coolbawn, a beautiful unoccupied mansion, near Rathnure, about nine miles from Enniscorthy, owned by Mr. J.R. Weir [sic], Clonroche, was burned to the ground like many of the stately homes of Ireland, by the I.R.A. in 1923(during the civil war).

The ruins are currently owned by the Tector family, the castle ruins look magnificent set to a moonlit backdrop despite its violent end. The interior is now covered in ivy and even has a tree growing from the cantilever staircase, a case of nature reclaiming its own, but if you close your eyes it’s not hard to imagine the former beauty and grandeur of Coolbawn Castle. It survives today as one of the most impressive ruins in Ireland and is in some ways of greater architectural interest now than when it was intact.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Firbolg.

The Firbolg were an ancient race of people that ruled Ireland before the Tuatha de Danaan and the Melesians. The origin of the name of these peoples is still subject to conjecture with 'men of spear', 'men of the bag' and 'men of boats' being suggested translations.

Legend has it that the Firbolg were enslaved by the Greeks. For three centuries their persecution continued before they eventually stole some Greek ships and set sail for Ireland. The leaders of the escape were five brothers, Slainge, Rudraige, Genann, Gann, and Sengann. The 5000-strong tribe headed to the west coast of Ireland but were soon scattered by the rough seas and had to land at different bays. They reformed at the Hill of Tara where the country was divided into 5 Provinces. These boundaries substantially survived into modern times and became four Provinces, with two of the original five being merged.

Ireland prospered under the Firbolg. They had a political structure, administration and a kingdom. They brought bronze-age technology to Ireland. They fought off persistent raids by the Fomorians, who they united with on several occasions to ward off would-be invaders. For 37 years there were 7 successive Firbolg kings who ruled over a thriving land. A new wave of invaders were on the way however, the Tuatha de Danaan.

Despite negotiations and time-stalling tactics by the Firbolg, defeat to the technically superior Tuatha de Danaan was inevitable. Despite staring defeat in the face the Firbolg petitioned the Tuatha de Danaan for once last chance of victory: a battle between equal forces.

Bravery was not enough though. The Firbolg were finally defeated at the Battle of Moytura but not before they impressed the new rulers of Ireland with their fierce courage and honour. The country was divided again with the western part of the country, Connaught Province, being assigned to the Firbolg. From this time on the power of the Firbolg waned.

They continued to live in the West of Ireland and, together with he Tuatha de Danaan and the Milesians, are regarded as one of the great Celtic tribes of Ireland.

The Firbolg - An article provided by The Information about Ireland Site.

Ireland was ruled for thirty-seven years by the Fir Bolg, and they prospered. One night, however, their king Eochaidh Mac Eirc had a dream in which he saw a great flock of birds coming from the ocean, and his poet explained to him that this was a fleet of ships carrying a thousand magical heroes. Soon such a fleet arrived, and the warriors came ashore, burned their ships, and encamped on a mountain in Connacht. The Fir Bolg sent the greatest of their own warriors, called Sreang, to parley with them, and the strangers said that they were relatives of theirs, called Tuatha Dé Danann. They had come from the northern world, and their king was Nuadhu. They proposed that Ireland should be shared by the two peoples, but the assembly of the Fir Bolg at Tara refused this. The result was a great battle fought at Maigh Tuireadh (‘the plain of the pillars’) near Cong in County Mayo. King Eochaidh of the Fir Bolg was slain, but Sreang with a sword-stroke severed the right arm of Nuadhu. The tide of battle went against the Fir Bolg, and Nuadhu agreed a treaty with Sreang which allowed the west of Ireland to the Fir Bolg, while the Tuatha Dé took the rest.

Top image:
Ancient stone cairn near Newgrange- said to be the burial place of
Eochaid, King of the Fir Bolg.

Neo-Classical/Palladian Ornamentation.

Riverine Gods.

Ten thousand years ago, before the coming of Christianity in Ireland, the rivers served a very important role in the lives of the people living along its banks. It was their source of food, and a place where their cattle and crops thrived on the nourished plains. It also acted as a barrier between opposing armies and clans. People saw the rivers as powerful objects and worshiped river gods. Often people placed weapons and ornaments of precious metal in the river as offerings to these gods.

The river gods of Ireland were replicated in Ireland's architecture by Edward Smyth, when he designed the keystone sculptures depicting the faces of the river gods, on the Customs House in Dublin, in the late 18th century.

When James Gandon was commissioned to design the Custom House, Dublin, he approached Edward Smyth a relatively unknown sculpture and asked him to design a head depicting each of the fourteen major rivers of Ireland. He designed them based on traditional classical motifs and incorporated the principal features of the counties through which they flowed into their crowns. He worked on them during the 1780s and finished them in 1786, after which Smyth was to become Gandon's principal Sculptor.

He worked on other prominent Gandon developments; including the Kings Inns, The Four Courts, Parliament House, O'Connell Bridge, The Rotunda Hospital and the great mansion at Emo, Co. Laois.

Top image is of Westport House County Mayo.

Other images are of the Custom House Dublin.

Ash- The Enchanter
February 18 – March 17

The Ash Tree - Ash people have a duality to their nature. On one side they are artistic and appear vulnerable, on the other they are quite pragmatic. They are compassionate and understanding believing in both the natural and spiritual aspects of the world surrounding them. They can make ideal spiritual healers using their natural abilities and intuition both in the practical sense and in the energy they possess.

Although at first sight they may appear frail this is an illusion as they have an inner strength and are able to adapt quickly to emotional difficulties. However, they often have trouble with the little things that happen every day and are easily influenced by others; they may suffer from a lack of confidence and feel isolated from those around them. They can be good at making money by being creative but often fail to complete projects and as children may have needed careful guidance in the use of their natural talents and the achievement of their full potential.

Ash people tend to be mystical and appear drawn to fantasy. They love the theatre and the cinema as it allows them to escape into realms of make believe. They also feel the attraction of water, either with awe or fear but it will always raise an emotional response. They will be happiest in a career that has certain flexibility such as the arts or a career that will allow them to, make use of their compassionate qualities such as medicine. They are also very charitable, caring and gentle people who can be easily hurt and yet they are able to cope with both the positive and negative aspects of life. They are kind and considerate to their friends and make great lovers and caring parents.

Sometimes you may have to forgive them their day dreaming for they are romantics who often walk with the faeries. They have an enchanting way with them, constantly renewing themselves and rarely concerning themselves with how others see them.


The Sea Horse

An important figure in Celtic mythology, the Sea Horse often depicted significant connections with the Otherworlds, as symbolized by the fish tail. It was believed that The Sea Horse invited an individual to travel on a journey of discovery. It was also representative of confidence and grace. Many Celtic cultures regarded this creature as a baby Dragon.

The Adder

The Adder was symbolic of wisdom and spiritual energy. Snakes have long been associated with wisdom, reincarnation and cunning. Druids often carried an amulet called gloine nathair or serpent glass,