Who was Grace O Malley The Irish Pirate Queen?

Grace o Malley
Grace o Malley

The province of Connaught has long been known as the “wild west” of Ireland and one of the most famous rebels who hailed from this untamed part of Ireland was the Pirate Queen known as Grace O Malley. Grace was condemned by the ruling English of the time as “a woman who hath imprudently passed the part of womanhood.

But to the Gaelic Irish Grace O Malley was known as a hero who had beaten the English in many battles that were fought on the high seas. Known as Grainne Mhaol to the natives, her exploits have passed into legend and in the modern era, she has become a symbol and icon of feminism.

A highly educated woman who was fluent in many languages included, French, Spanish, Latin, and English her personal motto was ”Terra Mariq Potens” meaning “powerful by land and sea.”

So who was this mysterious woman who managed not only to capture the high seas of Ireland but also managed to capture the hearts and minds of its people?

Early years

grace o malley

Grace was born around 1530 and was the only daughter of local Chieftain Owen O Malley who ruled much the western coast of Ireland stretching from Achill Island to Innisboffin.

The O Malleys were a powerful family who had amassed a fortune from plundering and pirating from ships that sailed along the west coast.

In order to strengthen their power, the O Malleys had built a number of formidable Castles along the western shoreline which were to serve as bases from which they could launch attacks on any vulnerable looking vessel that held treasure.

When Grace was a young girl she wanted to join her father in one of his seagoing trips but  Graces mother forbade this, saying that she was only a girl,  Grace in defiance of her mother shaved off all of her hair and when her father saw this he relented and allowed her to go on the voyage.

At the age of 15, Grace married Donal O Flaherty who ruled a Kingdom around the Connemara region. It was during this period of her life that she honed and perfected her skills in boarding ships and commandeering their loot.

When Grace was 23, Donal was killed in battle and so Grace extended her empire by inheriting Donals Castle and ships. Soon after she married another warrior and chieftain by the name of the Richard Iron Dick Burke.

Queen of the High Seas

Grace o Malley

Graces fleet has been credited with taking part in attacks along the entire Irish shoreline all the way from Donegal to the tip of Waterford. Any ships that were foolish enough to sail alongside the Irish shoreline without a vast array of military protections were immediately earmarked for attack by the Pirate Queen who greedily plundered and stole whatever loot she could get her hands on.

One day, Grace gave birth to a child when she was aboard one of her ships.  After the birth Grace retired to bed to recuperate from the stresses of the labor when a gang of Algerian Pirates attacked her Ship, upon hearing of the attack Grace arose from her bed and began to orchestrate a savage counter-attack which turned the tide of the battle. The Algerians quickly sailed away unwilling to risk any more men against the ferocious Irish Sea Queen.

In 1575,  Englishman Lord Henry Sidney visited Connaught and met  Grace O Malley and spoke of having met,  “a most feminine sea captain called Granny Imallye and offered her services onto me…..‘This was a notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland.”

A short time after having met Lord Sidney, Grace was captured and was imprisoned for a number of years. She was eventually released in 1579 and immediately resumed her pirating activities.

A Captain Martin who was enraged with Grace plundering a large number of his ships launched an attack on Carraighahowley Castle. The Pirate Queen who was besieged in the Castle launched a number of ferocious counter-attacks that forced Captain Martin to withdraw his forces.

Observers at the time stated that,  “Martin was lucky to evade capture himself, so spirited was the defence made by the extraordinary woman.”

A fierce and determined woman who refused to accept against less than 100% during one particular battle she admonished her son for his less than courageous conduct by roaring at him, “Are you trying to hide in my arse, the place you came out of?”

On another occasion when she docked at the fishing village of Howth in order to resupply her crew she approached Howth Castle in the hope of getting some supplies but she was refused as the Lord of the Castle was eating his dinner.

Enraged by this disrespect Grace ordered her army to capture the Lords son and keep him in captivity until the Lord agreed to prepare her dinner and supplies every-time her ships docked in the harbour.

With his son’s life hanging in the balance Lord Howth agreed to this new arrangement. To this very day there is always a spare set seat set for Grace O Malley at Howth Castle.

Visit with the Queen of England

grace o malley

When Sir Richard Bingham began attacking Grace and her band of Pirates Grace decided to take matters into her own hands by traveling over to England to petition Sir Richards boss Queen Elizabeth I. When Grace was finally given her audience with the powerful Queen of England she was asked to bow down before Queen Elizabeth but the defiant Pirate Queen refused to bow as one Queen does not bow to another.

Grace explained that as she was not a subject of the Queen Elizabeth that she would under no circumstances bow. In spite of Graces proud defiance, or maybe because of it, Queen Elizabeth was quite taken with Graces company.

The two ladies began conversing in Latin and came to an aggrement whereby Graces two sons were released from imprisonment and Grace agreed that she would stop attacking and plundering English ships.

The Pirate Queen lived out the rest of her life at Rockfleet Castle, Co Mayo where she died at the ripe old age of 73 of natural causes. According to legend, her head was interned at Clare Island her childhood home. Local folklore has it that her ghostly body sets sails around the west coast in search of her head.


grace o malley

Grace O Malley was a warrior of the high seas, the Pirate Queen, mother, wife, and chieftain whose very name struck fear into the heart of her enemies.

Here was a woman who was ahead of her time, a woman who refused to be curtailed by the prejudices of her era. Whilst the true story of Grace O Malley may never been known, the very fact that her story lives to this very day is a testament to the indomitable courage and power of the woman.

I think I will leave the last words to Grace’s biographer Anne Chamber who wrote that Grace was,  “a fearless leader, by land and by sea, a political pragmatist and politician, a ruthless plunderer, a mercenary, a rebel, a shrewd and able negotiator, the protective matriarch of her family and tribe, a genuine inheritor of the Mother Goddess and Warrior Queen attributes of her remote ancestors. Above all else, she emerges as a woman who broke the mould and thereby played a unique role in history. “

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The remarkable tale of the Arthur Kavanagh the limbless yachtsman, painter, writer and MP

Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh was born in 1831 in County Carlow with no arms, no legs, and only small stumps awkwardly protruding out where his limbs should have been.

When his mother held him in her arms for the first time she proudly raised him in the air and said, ‘Thank god this child was born to me and not anybody else.’ And so began one of the most remarkable and unlikely stories in Irish history.

In one sense, Kavanagh was fortunate to be born into an ancient Irish family whose lineage stretched all the way back to the Kings Of Leinster.

His mother a formidable woman, Lady Harriet, undeterred by her son’s grave physical disabilities quickly set to work to ensure that Arthur would receive all of the opportunities that life could afford him.

Arthur was placed into the care of the much-respected Doctor Francis Boxwel who was tasked with ensuring that Arthur would not be defined by his grave physical disabilities but my his indomitable determination and courage.

In order to toughen the young Arthur up, Lady Harriet would place toys out of the reach of young boy and would ignore the boy’s cry as he pleaded with her to take the toys to him. Over time Arthur learned to wiggle his way over to the toys and get them himself.

He also was forced to take exercises that eventually resulted in the stumps in his arms becoming so nimble and skillful that these stumps could almost be mistaken for fingers.

 At the tender age of three, Arthur learned how to ride a Horse whilst seated in a specially commissioned saddle. He managed to direct the horses reigns by using the stumps of his arms. Over time, he also learned to how to fish, go hunting, paint pictures and write stories.

The exercises he partook in allowed him to strengthened the stumps to such an extent that he could hold a pistol and grip and thrust a sword. When he was reading Arthur would turn the pages with his teeth and would use the stump of his arms to write with the pen.

 His mother also arranged for makeshift stilts for him to walk on. Arthur managed to walk short distances on these stilts and then hop and jump to whatever other location he wanted to go to.


As Kavanagh slowly matured into a man he began to develop an insatiable appetite for women. He secretly embarked on many affairs with women in the Carlow region who couldn’t resist his romantic advances. When his mother discovered that her limbless son had turned into a right little lothario she immediately ejected him from the family estate.

 It was around this time that a wanderlust seized Arthur and he and his brother began an epic worldwide journey which passed through Scandinavia, Asia, Iran, Pakistan and India.

Arthur relished his time on the open road and took to womanizing and drinking on a prodigious scale. When word reached Lady Harriet that Arthur had been frequenting Brothels, Kavanagh’s mother withdrew his allowance. Undeterred by this turn of events, Kavanagh got a job as a dispatch rider which allowed him to finance his nocturnal activities.

In 1851, Kavanaghs brother died and so Arthur became the sole air to his family’s estate. Putting to good use some of the economic practices he learned whilst travelling the globe, Kavanagh boosted the local economy by building a sawmill and investing in local railways.

This ensured that local farmers and peasants had a means to earn a living and feed their families. Whilst many landlords of that era were notorious for their brutal evictions Kavanagh always sought to ensure that his tenants would never go hungry. During the great famine, the Kavanaghs rather than evict their starving tenants fed and nourished them.


Kavanagh was a unionist who despised the class divisions that had arisen between Catholics and Protestants. His desire for change saw him become an elected MP of the British Parliament for the Wexford. When he was elected as MP a local newspaper wrote an article on him,

 “On Monday, Mr. Arthur Kavanagh was elected member for Wexford county………Mr. Kavanagh is descended from an ancient Irish family….but it was his misfortune to be born without feet or hands-indeed he has but very short stumps in the place of either of his four limbs.

He has a handsome face and robust body, with what is still more to the purpose, he has a quick and powerful mind, which has enabled him in a most wonderful manner to triumph over his sad physical disadvantages. He writes beautifully with his pen in his mouth, he is a good shot, a fair draftsman, and a dashing huntsman.

He sits on horseback in a kind of saddle basket, and rides with great fearlessness. He lately wrote and published a lively and smart book called “The Cruise of the Eva.” He has married a lady of beauty, and has a large family of handsome children. He will make a sensation in the House of Commons.”

In that era were getting to Parliament would have been an arduous task which meant taking five hour journeys via train and then boarding a steamer which would have taken another five hours. Arthur sidestepped all of these issues by learning how to sail his own Yacht which he moored right beside the Houses of Parliament.

During his time in Parliament he was a staunch supporter of the Land Act which afforded Irish farmers more protections and enabled them to purchase the land which they lived on.

Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh died of pneumonia in 1889 and thus ended one of the most extraordinary tales in Irish history.


 It’s safe to say that in spite of all of the obstacles put in front of him Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh led a remarkable life. Here was someone who was born with no arms and no legs but someone who still learned how to walk, write, paint, ride horses, sail yachts and become an elected MP.

Every conceivable physical disadvantage was put in front of Kavanagh but he still managed to transcend these disadvantages by ingenuity, creative thinking, and dogged determination. His is a tale that is a testament to the limitless human spirit that can thrive and succeed even in the direst of circumstances.

 Now, what’s your excuse?

Why did the Saint Patrick’s Battalion change sides and fight for Mexico?

saint patricks brigade mexico

The story of how an Irish Battalion defected to the Mexican Army during the Mexican American war is a story of courage, a story of right and wrong, a story of men who answered the call of their conscience.

Known as the Saint Patricks Battalion or in Mexican as the San Patricios, the men mostly made up of Irish immigrants decided to down tools and switch sides during the brutal conflict that took place in 1846-1848.

Every year, on the September the 12th, Mexicans gather to honor the men of Los San Patricios. Flowers are placed close to a marble plaque where a list of engraved names are read. A Mexican band plays both the Irish and Mexican national anthems in honour of the sacrifices that the Irish brigade endured during the conflict.

On the 12th of September 1997 Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo paid tribute to the special sacrifice of these men where he stated in his speech:

“One hundred and fifty years ago, here in San Ángel, … members of the St. Patricks Battalion were executed for following their consciences. They were martyred for adhering to the highest ideals, and today we honor their memory. In the name of the people of Mexico, I salute today the people of Ireland and express my eternal gratitude.” The president finished by, saying: “While we honor the memory of the Irish who gave their lives for Mexico and for human dignity, we also honor our own commitment to cherish their ideals, and to always defend the values for which they occupy a place of honor in our history.”

Why they deserted


There are a number of theories that abound as to why the men switched sides.  The most common theory is that the men were subject to widespread anti catholic and anti Irish sentiment in the US Army.

And that by coming from a small impoverished land that had been continually battered, bruised, and bullied by a bigger neighbour that these Irishmen saw common cause with the Mexicans in their fight against US imperialism.

The Irish soldiers where also denied the rights to to practice their religious beliefs and where routinely flogged and beaten for any minor indiscretion, leading to simmering resentment festering against those in power. It was said that Mexicans Generals who where watching from afar noticed the ill content amongst the US Army and offered any deserters land and money for switching sides. This story may have been made up by the US authorities in an attempt to blacken the name of the San Patricos.

Another story goes that Irish catholic conscripts heard the church bells ringing in a nearby Mexican church and decided to down tools and practice their catholic faith in defiance of their commanders in the US army. Over time they built up a relationship with some of the Mexicans and found that they had much more in common with the impoverished Mexicans than they had with the greedy land hungry American army.

Another thing that must have played some part in the minds of the Irishmen was that Mexico had abolished slavery, and that the unconscionable and widespread use of slaves by the United States must have been abhorrent to an embattled and abused race like the Irish. Whatever the real story is, soldiers began to desert in droves to fight for the Mexicans.

The leader

Saint Patricks brigade mexico

The deserters where led by a man from Clifden in Co Galway, Captain John Riley. In 1846, Reilly began organising an artillery unit which was mostly comprised of Irish Catholics. This unit formed the nucleus of the San Patricios brigade.

A number of months after the creation of the unit over 200 soldiers formed part of it, which was enough to form a battalion and two companies. Some historians reckon that at the battalions peak there were over 700 men who part of the San Patricos.

Whilst the majority of the battalion was made up of Irishmen there were other volunteers of European descent. The Galway man set about forging a distinctly Irish identity to the battalion by commissioning a green flag with an image of Saint Patrick on one side and a harp and a shamrock on the other.

O Reilly when asked about what he thought of the charcater of the Mexicans stated that, “Do not be deceived by the prejudice of a nation at war with Mexico, because you will not find in all the world a people more friendly and hospitable than the Mexicans.”


saint patricks brigade mexico

The San Patricos where responsible for some the most ferocious resistance experienced by the US army during their invasion of Mexico.

At the Battle of Buena Vista, the Saint Patrick’s Battalion fought with real courage with the unit being instrumental in the capture of a large number of American Cannon. Eye witnesses described the ground held by the Patricos as, “ a strong Mexican battery….moved….by dint of their extraordinary exertions….that commanded the entire plateau.”

At one stage during the battle, The commander of the US forces General Zachary shouted in frustration at his troops, “to take that damned battery” but on that particular occasion the assault failed. Ultimately, the Mexican army were forced to retreat with the Irish contingent covering their withdrawal with ferocious tenacity.

Even though the heavily out-gunned Mexicans lost the battle the bravery of the Irishmen was acknowledged by the Mexican General Mejia who wrote in his battle report that the San Patricos where “worthy of the most consummate praise because the men fought with daring bravery.”

A number of the Irishmen where awarded the Mexican medal of honour “The War Cross” for their heroism in the heat of the battle.

But it was at the Battle of Chrubusco where the San Patricos passed into legend. In this engagement witnesses from both the US and Mexican sides stated that the unit had, “fought like demons.”

During the heat of the battle, as ammunition began to run out, the Mexican army tried to raise the flag of surrender but Officer Patrick Dalton tore down the white flag. Members of the Irish Battalion urged the men, if necessary, to fight on with bare hands.

When the Mexicans attempted to raise the white flag two more times members of the San Patricos shot and killed them. Some brutal hand to hand fighting ensued with bayonets and swords being the order of the day.

The legendary Irish brigade only surrendered when they ran out of every last piece of ammunition and weaponry and were completely surrounded by the US Army. The great American General Ulysses S Grant stated that it was “the severest battle fought in the valley of Mexico.” The Irish Battalion lost over 60% of their men in the engagement and the rest were taken prisoner.

The execution

saint patricks brigade

And so, just after down on September 10th, 1847, the villagers of San Angel a small on the outskirts of Mexico City, awoke to the sound of carts rustling into the center of the village. Inside the carts where members of the Patrick’s Battalion who where chained and bond and guarded by members of the United States army.

The carts drew to a halt beside specially constructed gallows which had been erected in the center of the village. The gallows consisted of 40 foot long beams,in which 16 nooses dangled in the Mexican air. Five Catholic Priests who were present at the time began to hear the prisoners confessions and administered the last rites.

The nooses where then placed around the necks of the prisoners and the order was given to drive the carts forward, whereby some of the prisoners fell to their deaths. Other captives where not so fortunate as they dangled in the air slowly choking to death.

A number of days after the executions at San Angel another thirty San Patricos where hanged at the village of Mixcoac. Anyone who escaped the hangman’s noose was branded and scared with a D on their face with a hot iron. The D identified them as deserters from the US army. Reilly was one of the fortunate ones to avoid the hangman’s noose.

One of the reasons for this, in spite of being instrumental in the formation of the Battalion, was because O Reilly had deserted from the US army before the war had actually began. Reillys punishment was to be branded with the D on his cheek. In all, over 50 members of the Saint Patrick Battalion were hanged, the largest mass execution in US history.

Side note

It’s also an interesting fact that the Irish have a well established history of fighting for other nations throughout Europe and the world.  In the 16th and 17th Century many Irishmen fought for the Spanish army during the continental wars, these soldiers became known as the “Wild Geese”.

Irish soldiers have also played a significant part in many South American wars for independence. During the Boer war many Irish soldiers deserted the British Army and took up arms to fight for the Boers.


The tale of the Saint Patricks battalion is a tale of people rising up against widespread discrimination and prejudice. These human beings where brutalised and discriminated against in their famine stricken homelands, and when they immigrated to another country for a better life, they were once more on the receiving end of hatred and abuse.

It seems that the members of San Patricos had enough of being treated like the refuse of the world and decided that they would rather die fighting for the Nobel cause of freedom than for the cause of imperialism, colonialism, and oppression.In the eyes of any right thinking man the San Patricos where and are heroes to the underdog standing up against impossible odds.

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Sacred Lodges and Smoke Walkers.

sweat lodges

This article was written by @ (c) David Halpin from Circle Stories

Sweat lodges seem to have been used in every indigenous culture for both healing and ritual purposes involving communicating with departed ancestors and spirits.
That said, there is a distinction to be made in terms of each individual culture’s ceremonial approach to these constructions as well as the term ‘sweat lodge’ itself.
Often, the building of a place of ritual is a task which requires both the respect and knowledge of a people’s traditions and taboos.
So, comparing a sweat lodge ceremony of the many North American indigenous cultures and that of the Australian Aboriginal tribes and the various European peoples is not, nor indeed should it be, considered the same.
Ireland’s tradition in this respect is without surviving written or oral evidence yet the similar practices of indigenous cultures thousands of miles apart may be able to help us in understanding the possible rituals which may have taken place at our own sacred sites.
In this context we can also look to the San people of Southern Africa where we do have examples of oral tradition describing both sensory deprivation and isolation trances used to achieve higher-consciousness states.
I recommend David Lewis William’s book, The Mind in the Cave, for those who want to look more into this, as well as the collection of San lore traditions collected by German Philologist Wilhelm Bleek and his sister-in-law, Lucy LLoyd, and later continued by Bleek’s daughter, the anthropologist, Dorothea Bleek.

A clochán, then, is a small beehive-like stone hut dating back to at least the Bronze Age.
The corbelled roofs of clocháns are also found on many types of Neolithic structures all across Europe. Knowth, as an Irish example, contains fantastic spiralling stonework.
Another famous site is that of the settlement on Skellig Michael. Initially believed to be hermetic cells, today archaeologists and anthropologists see a deeper ritualistic and, indeed, more ancient function behind these structures.
According to the archaeologist Lloyd Laing, “There can be little doubt that these buildings belong to a long-established Celtic tradition though there is at present no direct evidence to date the surviving examples before 700AD.”
Laing is speaking specifically about Irish clocháns here but in fact, outside of Ireland there is a long documented tradition of similarly shaped buildings.
The beehive huts of Harran date before 2000 BCE, for example.

As Laing correctly observes, the clochán does indeed belong to an ancient Celtic tradition but the Celts themselves inherited their use from older people including the Scythians, Thracians and the Kurgans, as postulated by Marija Gimbutas and Andrew Sheratt of The University of Oxford. Sheratt researched similar 5’500 year old structures in Eastern Europe which contained cannabis incenses and ‘smoking cups’ found to hold traces of charred hemp seeds.

An interesting line of thought is to think again about the so called ‘fulacht-fiadh’ in this context. A fulacht fiadh is a small horse-shoe shaped mound containing charcoal enriched soil and usually a heat-cracked stone or stones.
When it comes to clocháns, many archaeologists have noted the difficulty in carrying hot stones and water in through the tiny entrances. Perhaps if the earlier versions were built over fulacht-fiadhs using animal skin and sods this might explain the now absent covering and the fulacht fiadhs themselves? This idea was also suggested by Professor Michael J. O’Kelly (Early Ireland – An Introduction to Irish Prehistory. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. pp. 223–227.)
There is no agreed consensus on the etymology of fulacht fiadh among Irish historians.

Looking for early evidence of sweat lodges and rituals involving steam we find a very telling description of Scythian and Thracian shaman. They are described, both men and women, as ‘Kapnobatai’ which translates as ‘smoke walkers.’
When in these altered states the Kapnobatai would divine prophecy and speak to the dead.
An interesting aside relating to witchcraft is that the Scythians were known for the conical hats, some made of gold, and which have been discovered in graves said to be those of shaman. Perhaps there is a link to the origin of the witch’s cone hat here?
Writing about a Tarin mummy from 800 BCE, Elizabeth Wayland Barber, the American professor of archaeology and linguistics observes, “Yet another female – her skeleton found beside the remains of a man – still wore a terrifically tall, conical hat just like those we depict on witches riding broomsticks at Halloween or on medieval wizards intent at their magical spells.”

The clochán on Slievegad is badly damaged at this point. The site itself also contains an ancient cairn whose stones were later used to build a Christian church inside the original structure. If it ever had an alignment it is no longer determinable but it is interesting to imagine what once took place on this mountain.
Speculating, we might imagine that before a particular constellation appeared overhead at night an ancient shaman-type figure conducted the appropriate ritual in the clochán before directing their thoughts to the spirits and stars.
Perhaps this was the natural order and the veil between the Otherworld and earthly world was one that was seen to be permeable?
Placing a monument high on a mountain top may have demonstrated both the reaching towards a higher realm as well as giving the ‘smoke walker’/ shaman-type figure, the isolation required for such journeys.
As the trance took hold, the participant’s consciousness would fall into a psychedelic state where the ancestors and spirits waited.

Might there even be a connection to the sidhe here in that the legends tell us that they retreated into the mounds and underworld?
Maybe the clocháns and cairns were the entrances to these spirit-places where the participant crossed the threshold between the physical and non-material and in a heightened state entered the Otherworld?
What we notice with the many types of sweat lodge and site is that even though the means to achieve sacred consciousness mindsets were different, the purpose behind the rituals share the same ecstatic and transcendent consequence.

(C.) David Halpin.

The Mythic Consciousness and Fairy Archetypes


The article was written by David Halpin of Circle Stories

I recently read Alan Garner’s excellent book The Owl Service.
I won’t spoil the story in case people want to look it up and read it themselves but the premise behind it is interesting when it comes to examining both fairy lore and fairies themselves.

In this case we will have to be aware that using the term ‘fairy’ has a connotation for people which is only the surface level of how they are rooted in landscape and myth.
Also, it’s worth keeping in mind that ‘fairy’ does not only refer to one class of non-human being but potentially a whole diversity of otherworldly forms, including the place or places of fairy.

What is interesting is how here in Ireland many fairy encounters might reflect a recurring conflict, property or aspect of a tradition and local population.
This draws the fairy experience from the personal, through to the communal, and into the mythic and collective memory.
This can seem like an abstract concept but, for me, it is only because of how hard it is to define the fairy purpose that this is so: folklore tells us that fairies are outside of our understanding of time in the first place.
It is akin to tying ourselves in knots if we try to restrict ‘themselves’ to how our physicality shapes and filters our sensory experience.

In The Owl Service something archaic and powerful is occurring: the myths associated with the location where the story is set begin to manifest through the characters who live there.
The novel is set in Wales and so the archetypes which appear feature in the Mabinogi.

The main narrative they unconsciously re-enact involves that of Blodeuwedd, a woman created from flowers and oak by the magicians Math and Gwydion.
She is made for a man who is cursed to take no human wife but she ultimately betrays him for another man.
Blodeuedd is then transformed into an owl for inducing her lover to kill her husband.
There is much more to the myth, obviously, but in The Owl Service three teenagers in contemporary times find that the myth is recurring again through their lives and it is hinted that it is a never ending cycle which will repeat again once this story has completed.

Of course, the idea that we relive mythic narratives all the time is nothing new. Thinkers like Joseph Campbell, for example, have written extensively on this subject with ‘the hero’s journey’ motif perhaps most identifiable in this context.
However, it is the agency and individual consciousness of the mythic archetypes which separate the fairy aspect from the more philosophical and perhaps abstract understanding of such concepts.

In Irish fairy lore, for example, fairies often appear in the form of communal fears or concerns such as the association with the dangers of childbirth at a time when infant mortality and that of pregnant women was very high.
There is an interesting reversal here, though, in that it is usually the human midwife who helps the supernatural being as opposed to the other way around.
One explanation for this is that it is a psychological reinforcement regarding the strength of women themselves and their ability to overcome the dangers of labour.

We can see a similar emergence with respect to the sickness of animals thought to have been struck by elf shot or fairy darts. The fear of the community encompasses the folkloric traditions of fairy association in this instance with various remedies and cures carried on in order to thwart the evil or negative influence.
Again, the security of knowing that a particular ‘spell’ or work of a bean feasa or fairy doctor can overcome the sickness creates a communal strength and confidence even within the landscape where such perils lie permanently on the periphery of daily life.

These fairy dangers seem steadfast in Irish folklore to the point where fairies seem to lose any sense of individual identity and instead occupy a force akin to what Garner writes about in The Owl Service. It is the archetype of fairy behaviour and influence which penetrates into the consciousness of the community, as opposed to any single fairy being.

Perhaps the mythic influence is inescapable for all of us and it is a matter of using the stories and wisdom in order to transition ourselves to a more beneficial place in our own personal narrative.
Understanding the lore as a construct or landscape in which we can navigate ourselves past dangers and pitfalls is why such stories remain so potent and relevant.
And yet, we still have the enigma of fairy and mythic agency to explain: often it is the beings of the Otherworld who deign to pass us on the wisdom in the first place.
So, do we put this down to the deeper wisdom of our subconscious or should we go further and perhaps consider that there is a plethora of further levels and worlds awaiting us once we find the way in?
I don’t have any answers but I do enjoy thinking about such questions!

(C.) David Halpin.

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What are Irelands Portal Dolmens? What lessons can we learn from our ancient past?

Throughout Ireland, there are hundreds of mysterious rock formations known as Portal Dolmens. For many, these Dolmens take on a supernatural aura with people believing that these structures contain the spirits of our ancestors.  
The very name evokes images in the mind of a portal into the next world, the spirit world. For the Celts, that’s what these structures were, a place where the mortal remains of their loved ones were to rest for eternity.  
Maybe its the mind playing tricks but when you walk around these locations you can almost sense that something significant happened here many thousands of years ago.
One of the most recognizable features of a Portal Dolmen is the huge capstone, or roof stone, which is wedged in place by a number of smaller stones underneath. The capstone provides a stunning sight for any visitor to one of these places. These Dolmens are known by a diverse array of names: Giants Graves, Cromleachs, Stone Tablets. 
 In Ireland, these structures have become associated with myths, fairies, legends, and giants. These Dolmens are connected to some of the most legendary figures in Irish history, figures such as Finn McCool and Cuchulainn.
Dolmens are widespread throughout Europe and they are indicative of the Celtic era were the Celts were one of the largest tribes in Europe. Ireland has some of the finest examples of Portal Dolmens not only in Ireland but in Europe too. Usually, Dolmens have an entrance feature, known as the portal, and it was down through this passage where the remains of their loved ones were placed.
Originally, most of these Dolmens would have been covered with masses of smaller stones but in most cases very little remains when it comes to these stones. There are many fine Dolmens that can be seen throughout in Ireland but in the Louth and South Armagh area we are blessed with having some of the finest in Ireland and further afield.
The prevalence of these Dolmens in the South Armagh North Louth area is a testament to the areas deep historical and cultural roots that stretches back into the annals of time.
Portal Dolmen Ireland
In an archaeological dig of the Poulnabrone Dolmen in County Clare the remains of 33 people where found buried underneath the structure. Carbon dating of the bones suggested that the people buried there all lived between the years of 3800 to 3200 BC. Some of the items found during the dig included a stone axe, jewellery, quartz crystals, weaponry, and pottery.
 The testing also revealed that all but one of the adults found at the scene were under the age of 30. There are many theories as to why the people who were buried there died at such a young age.
Historians have speculated that in the Celtic era the practice of ritual sacrifice was pretty widespread and that the sacrifice of a young, fit, and health male would have been seen as an offering that would have been worthy of the god’s approval.
But the evidence gathered from the Poulnabrone Dolmen suggests different, with children’s teeth gathered at the site showing signs of illness and malnutrition.
Other evidence from the site indicates that the people who were buried there had a very physically demanding lifestyle and they were not being fed an adequate diet which would have aided in the recovery from their physical exertions.
Another fascinating discovery was that some of the bones showed evidence of major physical injury.  Two of the bodies had skull and rib cage fractures which had healed over time.  A male hip bone showed evidence of having been pierced by the tip of some projectile and the evidence suggests that this hip bone injury had not healed before the time of death.
A large proportion of the bones showed signs of arthritis in the upper body. Historians are pretty sure that the bodies would have left to decompose in some protected location because there are no signs of animal bite marks on the bones. 
A common custom at the time was the practice of “defleshing” where the body was cut of meat and was then burned so as to preserve the corpse from the mutilation by animals.
In humble view, the majority of the bodies found in the tomb in Clare were more than likely warriors who were placed in the tomb in recognition of their valor and bravery in battle.
To these men death in battle is glorious,
And they consider it a crime to bury the body of such a warrior;
For they believe that the soul goes up to the gods in heaven,
If the body is exposed on the field to be devoured by the birds of prey”.
(Silius Italicus (2nd c. AD) Punica 3:340-343)
Ballykeel Dolmen


The Ballykeel Dolmen in South Armagh is a fine example of a tripod dolmen. An interesting fact about this Dolmen is that the capstone had originally fallen of the top but it was reerected during excavations in 1965. This capstone is over 3 meters long and it has a peculiar notch on it, which is very similar to other Dolmens which are seen throughout Northern Ireland.


Proleek Dolmen

Situated on the grounds of Ballymacscanlon Hotel is the Proleek Dolmen, which dates from around 3000BC.  It is believed that the portal of the tomb, the entrance, points directly towards the nearby Slieve Gullion Mountain and that the tomb is alignment with the setting of the sun during the summer solstice. Legend has it that the massive structure was carried to its location by a Scottish giant. This Scottish giant challenged local Irish warrior king Finn McCool to a one on one duel but unfortunately for the giant Scotsman he was no match for Finn who quickly dispatched the Scotsman to his maker.  Local tradition has it that the Scot is buried in the wedge tomb that is located only a few feet away from the Dolmen.

Brownes Hill Dolmen Carlow
This Dolmen has a capstone which is estimated to weigh over 120 tonnes! The capstone is the largest known Captsone in Ireland.  It’s quite remarkable to comprehend how the Celts, without the help of any mechanical equipment, managed to move such a gigantic stone right up into the air and place it on top of the smaller stones that make up the base of the Dolmen.

Poulnabrone Dolmen Co Clare

Earlier on in my blog, I wrote about some of the fascinating finds that where discovered at the Poulnabrone. This Dolmen truly is one of the most remarkably preserved Dolmens in Ireland.  At the setting of the sun, or at any other time of the day, the Dolmen can make for a real panoramic photograph.  The region where it lies, the Burren,  has a vast reservoir of historical remains and structures, with 70 tombs and nearly 500 forts. The sheer quantity of megalithic tombs and forts in the area is a sure sign of the Burrens importance during the Celtic era.


These Dolmens are nearly always situated in places of outstanding natural beauty. In Armagh, you have the stunning background of Slieve Gullion Mountain.

A suitable time to visit a Dolmen and experience their full magnificence is when the sun is setting or rising.  The orange glow of the sun as it shines its rays down through the eyes and heart of the Dolmen is a breathtaking sight to behold.
At Ballykeel Dolmen and other tombs around the locality, a visitor can witness Slieve Gullion slowly beginning to eat the last dying rays of the sun, until the dusk and darkness of the night begins to tighten its grip.  And what a darkness of the night it must have been for the Celts with packs of wild hungry Wolves roaming throughout the countryside seeking to tear someone limb from limb.
The howls of these fearsome animals in the dead of the night must have pierced the hearts of the Celts. Not only had the Celts to contend with Wolves, they also had to keep an eye out for other rival tribes, who would have stalked the night waiting for a chance to slit a rival tribesman’s throat.
It’s no wonder that when it comes to the “modern man” that one of the most common dreams we all experience is where we are getting chased. These dreams are a fingerprint on our DNA, a fingerprint of a bygone era where all sorts of ghouls and bloodthirsty animals chased us.
Just like how our bodies have evolved over the centuries, so have our minds.  The well known “fight or flight” phenomenon goes back to this evolutionary past. For our ancestors, this fight or flight phenomenon was very real.  Run and maybe you live. Fight and maybe you die. Sit still and do nothing and die for sure.Our genetic heritage demands that we do something.
Nowadays, for the most part, we no longer have to run and fight to survive  but still this etching, this imprint on our DNA lives on. The practicality, the usefulness, of this evolutionary byproduct is questionable to say the least but yet, we can’t get away from it.  
Overall, I think its safe to say that these Portal Dolmens, these relics of a bygone age, have not only left a lasting imprint on our landscape but the people who inhabited them, have left a lasting imprint on our DNA.  
This article was compiled by local SEO blog content writer Seamus Hanratty. Local SEO in Ireland is great way to grow traffic and help build local SEO traffic.  

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Lesser spotted Monaghan! What secrets lie hidden in the depths of the Drumlin Belt?

Monaghan is a county with a rich history that stretches back thousands of years. During the Celtic era the original name for parts of Monaghan was the  Oriel County meaning  “those who give hostages” or “the hostage givers.”  The area is also associated with the ominous-sounding the “Black Pigs Dyke” which was a huge timber structure and earth embankment that ran for miles along the frontiers of the county.

Historians reckon that the Black Pigs Dyke was a structure which was used to keep out Cattle raiders and other undesirables many thousands of years ago. All in all,  you know if you’re entering a place that is renowned for Hostage takers and Black Pigs Dykes its a pretty sure bet that you’re entering into an area where traditionally strangers feared to tread. And some still do.

Only a short number of years ago if a man from a few miles outside the parish dared to venture into another parish or townland he would have been known as “a blow in”. He was a leper, wearing the mark of Cain. Passports would have been required. Passport control comprised of a thump on the jaw. If the stranger walked into a pub in the next village the music would fall silent and everyone would turn around with their jaws pinned to the floor with astonishment almost as if an alien from outer space had just entered the building and ordered a pint of the black stuff. But times have changed. Nowadays, Monaghan is a modern vibrant county where law-abiding people from all over the world are welcomed.

In my previous blog, I gave an overview of some of the more well-known sites in Monaghan, but in this blog I will focus on some of the lesser-known hotspots that lie hidden right under our noses.

The Monaghan way

The Monaghan Way is a long-distance walk which starts in Clontibret and stretches all the way to Inniskeen. The walk encompasses over 33 miles and takes in some of Monaghan’s stunning scenery. Ok, it isn’t exactly akin to the world-famous Camino de Santiago which goes from the Pyrenees in France right into the heart of Spain but the Monaghan way has its own sort of romance.

Them French and Spanish aristocrats can have their fancy vineyards and olive trees.  Can you get a decent pint of Guinness on the Camino?Of course not. Anyways, vineyards, white white, red wine, pints of the black stuff, it doesn’t matter what beverage is on the table we’d drink the bastards under the table!

Imagine an elite squad of drinkers assembled from the cream of Ballybay, Castleblayney, Carrickmacross, Magheracloone, Inniskeen, etc. It would be like a whose who of the best in Ireland. An all-star champions league squad. We wouldn’t be going for national honours we’d be going for world titles. The big time. A one on one face off against the Russians with the final being held in the wilds of Siberia.

In the ultimate finale, The Monaghan boys would be led out to the theme song from from the hit 80’s TV Show the A-Team, “Ten years ago a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a round of drink they didnt pay for. These men promptly escaped from a maximum-security stockade and proceeded to drink every alcoholic beverage in sight. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as drinkers of fortune. If you have a beer and no else can drink it….if you can find them….maybe you can hire…… the  A Team.”

It would be an inevitable world title victory for the boys in blue and white. Champions. But there’s much much more to Monaghan besides our warrior-like drinking abilities.

Big figures


Monaghan is home to and associated with some of the greatest literary and political figures in world history and one of those figures is the literary titan Oscar Wilde.

Wildes sisters are buried just outside Monaghan at Drumsnatt Church of Ireland. The inscription on the headstone reads,  “In memory of two loving and loved sisters, Emily Wilde aged 24 and Mary Wilde, aged 22, who lost their lives by accident in this parish, Nov 10th 1871. They were lovely and pleasant in their lives and in death they were not divided.”

Oscar Wildes father Sir William was a notorious philanderer and when the children where born out of wedlock they where sent away to be looked after by a relative, Ralph Wilde, who was the Rector of Drumsnatt church.
The girls were tragically killed in a fire but their deaths were kept under wraps in order to prevent Sir William from experiencing any embarrassment from the Dublin media.   Another unusual connection that Monaghan has is to Sir Winston Churchill. Sir Shane Leslie who was born near Glaslough was the first cousin of the legendary political leader.

Off the beaten track

In Monaghan, there are loads of small little villages and townlands that at face value don’t seem to offer much but when you dig a little deeper you begin to see that these places have a rich and vibrant history. Clontibret in north Monaghan is one of these places.

When one thinks of Clontibret the image that automatically floats into the mind is of a field abandoned amongst masses of other fields. A barren desert of nothingness except for cattle and farm animals wandering aimlessely about the place. A verifiable nuclear holocaust of dung, cattle, and dodgy diesel. But as is so often the case with Monaghan appearances can be very deceptive.

In 1595 Clontibret became the battleground between forces led by Hugh O Neill of Ulster and Sir Henry Baegnal. O Neill delivered a stunning victory by massacring over 700 of Baegnals most elite troops. In tribute to this victory the areas GAA team was named after O Neill and the team have continued their namesakes winning ways by amassing over 17 Monaghan senior titles.

A testament to the areas of grand ambitions is local man John O Neill who in 1866 and armed with only a motley crew of a few hundred soldiers invaded Canada and tried to take the country under the control of the Fenian Brotherhood.

Needless to say, O Neill’s crackpot scheme ended in complete disaster but the Clontibret man couldn’t be faulted for his aiming too low in life. In the late 1980s  Clontibret was the scene of much controvesy when Peter Robinson and a gang of loyalists invaded the area in an attempt to highlight the lax Irish border with Northern Ireland.

Not far away from Clonibret is the lovely little village of Glaslough, a place that has recently won the prestigious Irish tidy towns title. The village has some stunning Georgian buildings that really make it stand out. During the summer months, Glaslough comes alive with a vast array of stunning flowers and shrubs.

Monaghan is also home to a number of top-class golf courses, including Mannan Castle, Nuremore, Concra Wood, and Rossmore. So if you don’t buy into the Mark Twain saying that “Golf is a good walk spoiled” then the county could be the perfect place for you to swing your body into action.

In Monaghan town, You could always take a tour of the very underrated museum which comes equipped with a 12,000-year-old Irish deer skull that was found in Lough Muckno. Whilst there set your eyes on the 12th Century Cross of Clogher, Bronze age weapons, tools, and loads more.


Carrickmacross Monaghan
In Carrickmacross pay a visit to the 19th century Saint Josephs Church and amaze at the world-famous Harry Clarke stain-glassed windows. A guided walking tour of the town will give you an in-depth overview of the history of the place.

Outside of Carrickmacross, you could always take a sneaky look at Shirley’s Castle. A spooky gothic looking castle that wouldn’t be amiss in Bram Stokers horror Dracula.

Nearby, in Shirley’s Forest, you have Kilrock which comes equipped with a stone seat that is locally known as Finn McCools seat. The giant stone seat is etched into a small cliff face and resembles the indentations where a giants ass may have sat at some stage.  And if all of this touring sets your stomach rumbling the Farney County might just be the place for you to satisfy your appetite.


Mushrooms are to a Monaghan Man are what Cocaine is to a Colombian. The lifeblood of the economy. In Monaghan, when young kids are attempting to discover their origins, they aren’t told that they where found under a cabbage patch, they are told that they where discovered inside a punit of Mushrooms. Ok, I might be exaggerating slightly but the Mushroom industry is an integral part of the border economy.

But the Farney cuisine extends much further than Mushrooms with some top-notch food to be eaten the length and breadth of the county, The Court House in Carrickmacross is a Michelin winning restaurant. Ginos Chip Shop in Carrickmacross has caused many a man to suffer a premature cardiac arrest but the delicious fast food is usually worth any coronary blockage.

The Batch Loaf in Monaghan town has a reputation that precedes it. In the same town, The Indian Restaurant Monaghan Spice is listed as being one of the top 50 Indian Restaurants in Ireland.

Myths and fairies

If you’d like to veer off into the mythical or supernatural you could always check out some of the many fairy forts that populate the countryside.

These Forts are spread throughout the entire county and are usually recognised by a round circle of trees located in the middle of a field.

According to Duchas the last sighting of a fairy in Monaghan was over 100 years ago. “The fairies once dwelt in a forth called Clontreat Forth, situated on the by-road leading from Clones to Newbliss. They used to go out into Ferguson’s fields to play in the late hours of the night. They played round a lone-bush. The man who was living in Ferguson’s house often heard them at play…John McGuirk saw a fairy in a hole in the ground on the 19th  October, 1918 and that was the last fairy seen about the forth.”

If you’re visiting one of these fairy forts just be careful not to disturb it as the vengeful wrath of the fairies is legendary!



With a history stretching back thousands of years, there is much to see in Monaghan and in my previous blog I have gone into more detail on some of our more famous sites and landmarks but If you’re a tourist visiting the place or anyone else for that matter you’ll have to attend a Gaelic Football match. Gaelic games are the glue that keeps small places like Monaghan together. It’s Integral to our identity.

Our common ancestral heritage waged on the battlefields has been transported into sports . Now we wage war on the football field.  The stroke of a foot and the kick of a ball over the bar are the way we inflict damage. No longer do we need Black Pig Dykes to keep raiders out all we now need is the timing of a shoulder as an opposition player crashes onto the muddy ground causing their supporters to groan in horror when they lose the ball.

Our swords and knives have now become the midfielders and forwards who act in union, in harmony, to crash the ball into the opposition  net.  A stab to the gut of the invading posse. Our defenders become our shields.   Like a baying mob, the crowd roars its approval as they smell opposition blood, they smell victory.  The manager stands on the sidelines directing, orchestrating, urging his troops on like a latter-day Hugh O Neill. A name inscribed on the cup becomes like the scalp from yesteryear.

The spoils of battle. A triumphant victory parade is held through the centre of the town or village as the cup is held aloft for all to see. Victorious warriors. “Did you see the point he put over the bar?” They whisper in awe. The troops have returned home from the trenches victorious. Champions. Kings of the Gaelic football field. The true essence of the Farney County.

Check out my previous blog on Monaghan here.

Is Slieve Donard the Jewel of the Mourne Mountains?

Slieve donard
As you drive across the Mourne Mountains towards Newcastle Co Down your mind can sense that something special is about to unfold. Nearly everywhere you look a spectacular mountain pops up from the earth’s crust beneath the background of a clear blue sky. A jet darting across the sky gives the impression of a shooting star, a shooting star promising omens of a glorious day.A journey through these hills is a bit like going for a 5 course meal in some Michelin Star Restaurant where the starters are just mouthwateringly delicious. Awakening every sense and taste bud of your body. You’re left flabbergasted with each new dish that is placed before your eyes. The next dish couldn’t be any better than the last, it couldn’t, could it?? But it always is.

As you travel into the heart of these hills the suspense is slowly built up, and then bang. The waiter removes the cover from the last bit of food and there she is- the main course itself, Slieve Donard standing in all her majestic glory. The mountain is a masterpiece of nature carved out of the rock, granite, volcano, and sea ice. It dominates the surrounding landscape for miles around. At the bottom of the main street in Newcastle, she stands there with her chest puffed out rising magnificently into the heavens.  Make no mistake about it, Slieve Donard sits on the throne of Newcastle Co Down.

There are numerous ways in which to start your trial up the mountain but the one I took is the most one which is via parking at Slieve Donard carpark and making your way to the trail which starts at the end of the park.  The initial trail up the mountainside is an enclosed rocky pathway that in many ways resembles an 18th-century cobbled street. After a few minutes of hiking you come across the ominous-sounding bloody bridge which has a lovely waterfall running down between it. The Bloody Bride is a place where a massacre was said to have taken place during a rebellion that occurred in 1641. One real noticeable feature during the first phase of your hike is that of waterfalls rushing down the side of the mountain. These waterfalls provide a hypnotic and soothing sound.

Once you clear the forest you’re then out in the open and there before you stands Slieve Donard standing at 2790 feet and Slieve Commedagh standing at 2,516 feet. As you make your way up towards these mountains, in the distance, small flashes of silver catch your eyes. For the first time hiker, you might be forgiven for mistaking these flashes for a motherload of silver or gold but upon closer inspection, you realize that these flashes are small trickles of water flowing down the mountainside.

Isn’t it amazing to think how these small little trickles of water will morph into streams, slowly growing momentum, slowly gathering pace, then bit by bit all of these streams will join in union to create a river and then this river will expand into a raging torrent that can cut through rock and spread out throughout the countryside like the life-giving arteries of the human body?   In total, the Mournes gives birth to 19 separate rivers, most notably, the River Bann and the River Lagan.  It’s remarkable to think that these mighty rivers humble origins all began with a single trickle of water flowing down the Mourne Mountains.

Local legend has it that the Mourne Mountains was the place where Saint Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland. There is also said to be a stream located in the Mournes known as Saint Patricks stream where the legendary Saint was said to have knelt down and drank some water. Legend has it that when Saint Patrick’s hand touched a rock on the stream that to this day his handprint can be seen upon this rock.

When you hike your way up between the Slieve Donard and Commedagh the first thing that catches your eye is the Mourne Wall. The immense and powerful Wall was built between 1904 and 1922 using local granite and which was hauled up to the top of the mountains. The wall which runs for 22 miles encompasses 15 summits and includes the biggest mountain of them all Slieve Donard. Its awe-inspiring thinking of the sheer audacity and iron will of the men who set out to accomplish the task of hauling masses of granite up a mountain, thousands of feet into the air, and then to build a wall which stretches across the 15 highest mountains in Ulster.

When you stand at the wall and look to the other side of it the views are simply breathtaking.  It’s almost like you’re stepping foot inside one of Van Goghs or Michangeloes masterpieces only these masterpieces are second rate garbage compared to the reality that mother nature has put in front of you.  It’s not surprising that they have filmed  TV shows like Game of Thrones show on these slopes as  hiking the mournes is like stepping foot inside your own real-life fairytale.

When you’re standing at the wall and peering up at the summit of Slieve Donard it does seem like the peak could be reached in only 5 or 10 minutes but this illusion is very deceiving because the last end of the trek to top of the summit is very steep and if you’re not prepared it will have you tested to the last.

But the hike up this last section provides you with one spectacular view after another. Just when you think that you’ve seen it all another revelation is at hand. A previously undiscovered snow-covered peak catches your eye. A ray of sun blasting its way through a pit of blackness in the sky becomes almost like a message from god himself. A sudden breath of a wind clearing away all the clouds, and nature, like a  master magician, reveals another trick to a stunned audience. Words can never do it justice. If there is a god she is up here amongst the hills. This is my chapel. My church. I kneel at the alter of the nature’s craftsmanship.

Hiking Ireland
When you finally reach the top of Slieve Donard You can’t but help smile. You’re at the very top of Ulster.  Of the 2 million people in Ulster not a single soul is standing higher. At the summit, in the distance, you can see the Isle of Man, Snowdonia Mountains in Wales, and the Lake District. Masses of green and golden fields populate the horizon. To the east there’s Dundrum Bay which stretches all the way to Saint Johns Point. There’s several miles of beach that reaches all the way into a seemingly limitless horizon. On a good day the yellow cranes from the Harland and Wolfe Dockyards in Belfast can be seen.

This is the ancient province of Ulster shaped by men like:  Cuchulainn, Finn McCool, Henry Joy McCracken, Owen Roe O Neill, Hugh O Donnell, Edward Carson, Ian Paisley, Bobby Sands, George Best, and the list goes on and on. This land has borne witness to some of the momentous and tragic moments in Irish History. In 1798 Belfast born Presbyterian Henry Joy McCracken and a dozen or so other protestants set up the group called the United Irishmen a group that pledged to end English rule over Ireland by any means possible. Their motto was to “unite Catholic, Protestant, and dissenter. ” Predictably, the 1798 rebellion ended in disaster with McCracken meeting his doom at the end of a hangman’s noose. These days the Mourne Mountains unites people from all creeds, orange and green united in our love of the great outdoors.

As you descend from the mountain you will be afforded more time to soak in some of the sites you may have overlooked on the way up. Depending on how fast you’re going you should reach sea level within the hour. When you come down from the mountain your mind is swimming with endorphins. A creamy pint of Guinness is the cherry on top of the large cake that you’ve been consuming all day. The first gulp of the Guinness is a thing of bliss as it flows down your welcoming throat. Conversations flow free and easy.

The town itself, Newcastle, is a town that has something for everyone. Amusement parks, water parks, the seashore, restaurants, bars. At the end of the town stands the impressive gothic-looking Slieve Donard Hotel. For anyone who likes a bit of golf they can always decide to go for a round of Golf in the famous local golf course, the Royal County Down, which has hosted tournaments as prestigious as the British Open and the Irish Open. Four time major winner Rory Mcilroy counts the course as his most favorite course in the whole world.

But Newcastle in spite of its stunning surroundings is a town that has been on the receiving end of its fair share of tragedies. In 1843 a  fleet of local fishing ships sank resulting in 73 men reaching a watery grave. References to the tragedy at the time stated that, “Newcastle town is one long street entirely stripped of men.” One of the most famous residents of Newcastle is a man called Harry Ferguson, who in 1910 became one of the first Irishmen to fly an engine-powered plane. Newspaper reports at the time stated that “He flew a distance of almost three miles along the foreshore at a low altitude varying between fifty and five hundred feet.” His solo Plane ride is commemorated with a large plaque which is located along the Newcastle shoreline.

But all of this is a secondary aftershow to the main course itself, Slieve Donard. She stands there, proud, defiant, unbroken, enduring. A symbol of strength and power.  She stood here a thousand years ago and will stand here a thousand years into the future when we’re all dead and gone.  And us mere mortals,  temporarily full of life, full of delusional self-importance will register not even a flicker in the great passage of time.  The Mourne Mountains rekindles your spirt, revitalizes your heart. Redemption is poured amongst these treasured hills and Slieve Donard, for me anyways, is the ultimate Jewel in the crown.

Reading the Tay: Samhain, Divination, and Speaking to the Dead

This article was written by (c) @ David Halpin Circle Stories

As we approach the time of Samhain I thought I’d take a look at some of the ways in which divination has been practiced in Ireland over the years. While some of these methods are ancient, others are much more recent. The art of reading tea leaves has a relatively short history in Irish folklore in comparison to Ogham divination or scrying through the flames of a fire, for example. And yet, it is a tradition which turns up regularly in the folklore archives as well as in the oral histories of families.

There are numerous accounts of travellers conducting readings in the rural areas of Ireland in the folklore archives but, in my own case, I know of tea leaf readers who were well known in Dublin city going back to the early 20th century. The actual name of this method of divination is Tasseography, although I have to admit that I never heard of it being called this when I listened to the incredible stories of dire predictions and foresight as an awestruck child.

When I have written about this subject before, some people have mentioned that herbal drinks may have served the same purpose before tea arrived in Ireland. We know that wise women and cunning folk certainly brewed potions, medicines and drinks so perhaps divining the pattern of the ground leaves of plants may have worked in the same way.

In that context, tea leaf prophecy is simply part of a wider art of pattern reading which is observed in every world culture and tradition. Whether we look to the example of reading the innards of animals or the flight pattern of birds, this art of magical prophecy was an auspicious hand upon the shoulder of Kings, Queens, Druids and magicians.

As I have mentioned before in previous articles, the Irish Druids also used cloud divination, ‘Neldoracht’, and Geoffrey Keating writes of another method of divination called Tarbhfeis, where the seer was wrapped in a bulls skin to produce a more powerful trance state.

Other examples of divination throughout the world include the Greek oracles, listening to the rustle of leaves upon sacred trees, the I Ching, Tarot and, of course, Astrology. Indigenous people also see a correspondent relationship between divination and the landscape. Reflections of future events might manifest in the behaviour of animals or the changing path of a stream or river, for example.

Perhaps it is fair to say that tea leaf reading is a less ambitious incarnation of some of these more complicated and far-reaching techniques, or maybe I am wrong about that? A fascinating work which examines the potentially connected reasoning behind all of these disciplines is Robert Temple’s book, Oracles of the Dead: Ancient Techniques for Predicting the Future. https://www.amazon.com/Oracles-Dead-Ancient-Te…/…/1594770859

Tea only arrived in Ireland in the early 19th century but it wasn’t until decades later that the poorer people had access to it at all. There are many accounts in the Duchas archives of how poorer people tried to consume it as a dish when they first came across it. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4602702/4596812/4631953

The methods of reading the leaves do vary but, as a very simple explanation, the cup is often understood as a microcosm of the universe and life of the person inquiring their fortune. In this context we can also notice some astrological parallels, perhaps. The person seeking their fortune will drink most of the tea before being asked to swirl the remaining tea three times. The reader will then work their way through the pattern of tea leaves clinging to the inside of the cup from the edge and rim downwards, travelling through the near and far future of the querent.

Of course, it should be noted that this is not the only method, and often a particular reader will incorporate their own beliefs and universal outlook into their reading. There is very much a rural and urban divide, I notice, with some of the older country readers openly calling upon fairy helpers whereas some of the city readers will say that the recently deceased will offer them advice. Perhaps, as we have seen throughout Irish folklore, the division between these definitions is far too murky to even comment upon. Biddy Early, who was well known for her ability to communicate with the good people, possessed a bottle which she would shake before examining the particles within it to tell a persons future. This example from the Duchas archives describes these particles being similar to tea leaves. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4583310/4578499/4591583

Another ancient mention of Irish divination occurs in the text the Cogadh Gaedhel re Gaillaibh . In this case the seer is a woman named Otta who used the church at Clonmacnoise for her oracle workings. She would seat herself in a high chair upon the altar where she would enter her trance states.

When it comes to tea leaf reading, though, there is one rule which should never be broken and that is cutting open a tea bag in order to use the leaves. This is said to give a corrupt reading and bring bad luck upon both the reader and querent. Whether this is because it is seen to be altering a predestined pattern or simply contaminating a more authentic technique depends upon who you ask, I find. One thing is certain, though, tea leaf reading or ‘reading the tay’ is still an ongoing and popular method of fortune telling in Ireland today.

(C.) David Halpin.

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The Caul Bearer: Those who see Beyond the Veil

In Irish lore and custom a person born with a caul was considered to be someone both lucky and magically powerful. They were said to have the ability to foresee the future as well as being able to travel easily to the Otherworld and communicate with spirits. Some caul bearers were healers and had an ability to dowse for water as well as protecting the harvest from evil forces. Interestingly, within Scottish folklore a caul was a sign of a person having been ‘marked’ by the fairies in a darker context, and was sometimes associated with changelings. Personally, I have found that with older lore a caul is considered a blessing, whereas with later Christianised folklore, as we shall see in this piece, the caul was often seen as a sign of witchcraft.

The caul itself is a membrane which is formed when part of the amniotic sac breaks away and forms a type of mask or veil upon a child’s head. The caul was usually kept by the family and sometimes used in rituals concerned with placating dark forces as well as fairies and magic. One reasoning for the attribution of supernatural powers was that the caul represented the veil between worlds and so if a person was born behind a caul this symbolised their ability to venture between the human an non-human worlds. Perhaps one of the more famous uses of a caul was that it was said to prevent a person from drowning. This led to many Irish fishermen paying large sums to those who were prepared to part with their caul. In this example from the Irish folklore archives a family is offered money from a sea-captain for their caul but they refuse to part with it.

A “Caul” is said to be very lucky. If baby is born with caul, the caul is taken with the baby when it is being baptised. When I was a little one I saw a baby’s caul in our own house. We kept it drawn out stretched upon something to keep it so. I remember a sea-captain advertised for a baby’s caul – he would give £5 for one and that was big money in those days but my mother wouldn’t sell the one she had. People were going out to America in those days on the ‘coffin ships’ and someone was always looking for a bit of the caul as it was considered to be very lucky. We cut off a bit now and then for those going by sea and by degrees, the whole caul melted away.” Original source here: https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4770049/4769282

Another example of a supernatural link to cauls is an association with mermaids who were said to wear a caul themselves. In many stories if a person were to manage to steal the mermaid’s caul then the mermaid would be unable to return to the sea until they retrieved it again. We see this type of theme in many other tales of magical folk from the ocean, in particular the various types of seal-person who might be captured by stealing their sealskin. Here is an example from Irish folklore.

“The mermaid is supposed to be half a woman and half a fish, and always lives in the sea convenient to the coast. Tradition says she is very handsome with a beautiful head of green hair. She is seen sitting on a rock brushing her hair. She wears a “caul” and if this is snapped from her, she has no power of getting down to the sea again. Once upon a time early in the morning a man was out bathing, and the wind blew the “caul” towards him. The mermaid screamed, and the man went and caught her and took her to his home. He hid her “caul” and he married her. For three years she lived with him never speaking one word. One day they were cleaning down some loft. The “caul” was found. The mermaid snatched it, put it on her hair, and made out to sea, and was seen no more.” Original source here: https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4921941/5053535/5110774

The belief that a caul bearer had supernatural abilities is not limited to Ireland. In fact it is a worldwide tradition which was also demonised throughout the inquisition. With the spread of Christianity, in many indigenous traditions the luck and power for good associated with a caul was turned into something demonic. Perhaps the most famous example of this is that of the “Good Walkers” or benandanti of Northern Italy around the 16th century. However, it is believed that although their activities were recorded at this time the benandanti were part of a much older and pre-Christian folk and visionary cult or tradition. The benandanti were people who were born with a caul which signalled their ability to participate in spiritual battles against evil forces in order to protect crops and fruits of the land. The Italian scholar Carlo Ginzburg has documented the history of benandanti in his ground-breaking work, The Night Battles, which I highly recommend.

The Catholic church questioned members of this group and in the end saw no distinction between the benendanti and witches, but this went against everything the benandanti said about themselves. In their own words they were people who battled witches. For the benandanti, their spirit excursions during the wheel of the year and “ember days” (times of the year when the crops were planted and sown, harvested and reaped) were undertaken for the good of the community and not in order to cause destruction.

There are many parallels between the shamanistic-type vision quests of the benandanti and examples of spiritual travelling and the wise-women of Irish folklore, not least the often cited description of having been born with a caul. There are also links to the The Wild Hunt and the seasonal parade of fairies and the dead. Another interesting parallel is that the benandanti say that they left their bodies in order to fight witches and in some examples that Ginzburg mentions there are also accounts of dead benandanti being present at the battles. As I have written about on many occasions, there is a strange overlap between the fairies and the dead in Irish lore in this context. Indeed, this association turns up everywhere we find fairies, from Europe to indigenous accounts in the Southern Hemisphere. For more on this:https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/71150.The_Night_Battles

In the folktale The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs, which was collected by the Brothers Grimm in the 19th century, we see yet another example of the caul being associated with travels to spiritual realms. The tale itself contains many symbols scholars associate with older myths as well as visionary motifs such as entering the Otherworld, prophecy, witches and pre-destiny. You can read the story here: https://www.grimmstories.com/…/the_devil_with_the_three_gol…

Returning to contemporary Ireland, I myself have heard of people being born with a caul who have gone on to become healers and in other cases being associated with an almost otherworldly talent in whatever they pursue.

In the accounts of the previously mentioned benandanti they maintained that they were visited by a figure at night who commanded them to partake in the battles against evil. Here in Ireland, though, there is a hesitancy to label fairies ‘good’ within such a black and white context. Whether that is a difference between cultures and the good people or, perhaps, a particular trait of how we interpret their actions and motives is hard to tell. Either way, if a person is born with a caul, folklore seems to tell us that they have a good chance of hearing from the fairies at some point whether they want to or not!

(C.) David Halpin.


1. Haroldstown Dolmen, Co. Carlow.

2. Athgreany stone circle, Co. Wicklow, exhibiting a definite autumnal turn.

3. A misty morning near the summit of Turlough Hill, Co. Wicklow.

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