What are the strange statues on Boa Island County Fermanagh?

Boa Island Fermanagh

Situated on the island of Boa in County Fermanagh stands some of the most remarkable and mysterious stone figures in Ireland or Europe. These bizarre statutes hark back to an era of Paganism, sacrifice, and a whole host of other activities.So what exactly are these enigmatic figures that have the power to captivate the imagination?

The Janus figure

Boa Island Fermanagh

It is widely believed that these structures date from an early Christian period, perhaps from around(400-800AD).One of these figures is widely referred to as a Janus figure and this is because it has a head on either side of it.

The figure is 73cm in height and 45cm wide. Whilst the figure is reminiscent of the two headed Roman diety known as a Janus, but in spite of this resemblance, the general consensus is that the figure is not a Roman Janus.

It is believed that the figure represents a Celtic god or goddess. Some people reckon that the head represents the Goddess Babhbha who was the Celtic God of war and fertility. What supports this theory is that BOA island is named after Badhbh the Celtic goddess of war.

More evidence that supports this theory is that people of that era had no reading or writing skills but because of this lack of literacy they had phenomenal memory power, and consequently, could easily pass stories and place names down from generation to generation without the story ever changing or deviating too much.

Each side of this mysterious figure has an intricately carved face and a torso. Where the two separate faces are joined there is an interlace design that may represent hair joined as one. The faces are large, pointy, with straight noses and small mouths from which protrudes pointy chins.

Bizarrely, the figure has no neck with the head directly on its torso. There originally was another part to the figure which encompassed long fingers carved into the rock but this part of the structure broke away.

This section was recently discovered buried in the ground nearby. The east side of the figure faces sunrise and the bearded figure that is engraved within seems to be speaking.

The lustyman

lustyman

The second figure that is located at Boa was originally found at Lustymore Island but it was then relocated to Boa. Known as “The Lustyman” it was brought to Boa Island in 1939.

This figure measures in at 70cm in height and it has been extremely worn down by rain, weather and time. Some people believe that due to the deteriorated condition of “The lustyman” that the figure actually pre-dates the Janus.

Some of the theories that revolve around the structure the mythical woman Sheela na Gigs who was said to ward of evil spirits. These figures were usually placed outside homes or place of worship so to ward of any evil spirits from entering.

Relevance to the modern era?

boa island fermanagh

Perhaps in the modern world we have more in common with our pagan ancestors than we might like to think as we worship the gods of money and digital devices. As soon as we arise in the morning we bow down and genuflect in front of our TV’s, Laptops, and Ipads, and Iphones.

At least the ancient Irish only spent a few moments worshipping their Boa Statutes and then got on with the rest of their day, but nowadays, many people spend the entire day prostrate paying homage to their mobile phone.

The ancients might have saw visions of their gods and goddesses in the clouds but the image the modern man might see in the clouds would be the apparition of a mobile phone followed by a rumble of noise which would announce, “tweet, tweet, tweet, ding, ding….” Perhaps, in many ways we have managed to out-pagan the pagans?

Overall

Overall, I think that these figures at Boa Island are some of the most remarkable figures in Ireland. They truly have an ability to captivate the imagination.

Imagine the time, effort, and craftsmanship that it would have taken to carve these figures out of a huge solid block of rock. The makers of these enchanting structures must have laboured and laboured night and day to try and perfect the engravings.

The fact that the figures have managed to survive thousands of years is another testament to their enduring power. These figures meant something. They became a focal point for the communities of that era. Gatherings would have taken place at these statues.

What time of gatherings? Who knows? Many as the sun rose of set each day people would congregate at these locations to welcome the coming light of day or to ward of the spirits of the approaching night as the sun dipped into its sleep.

Maybe it was an attempt to try and put a face to some of the figures and spirits that the Celts or ancient Irish felt were all around them? Perhaps, these images could have been reflective of some common dream?

Maybe as the night approached the people would try and evoke whatever powers they felt the statutes had to try and protect the tribe? Remember this was an era were death would have been constant, people weren’t expected to survive too long.

We will never really know what these strange and unusual statutes stood for but that doesn’t stop us from guessing.

I’ll leave the last words to the great poet Seamus Heaney who was inspired to write a poem when he visited Boa Island and laid eyes on the statutes.

January God by Seamus Heaney

Then I found a two faced stone

On burial ground,

God-eyed, sex-mouthed, it’s brain

A watery wound. 

In the wet gap of the year,

Daubed with fresh lake mud,

I faltered near his power —-

January God. 

Who broke the water, the hymen

With his great antlers —-

There reigned upon each ghost tine

His familiars,

The mothering earth, the stones

Taken by each wave,

The fleshy aftergrass, the bones

Subsoil in each grave. 

This article was created by web content writer Seamus Hanratty. You can read more content writing and blog content writing on the website.

Where is Irelands “City of the Dead”? What happened there?

portal dolmen

We all know about Egypt’s mysterious Valley of the Kings, were countless gold encrusted Pharaohs were placed into their tombs for eternity, but I bet you’ve never heard about Ireland’s ominous sounding “City of the dead”?

The very name“City of the dead” evokes fantastical images of some kind of Zombie apocalypse, but the place is real, zombie apocalypse aside, and it comes equipped with over 100 tombs whose time-line stretches back into the dark depths of Irish history.

The similarities with Egypt don’t end there with tomb raiders plundering the site in the 1800’s and not be outdone by the Tomb Raiders, in 1983 Sligo Council showed their “reverence and respect” for Irish culture and history by attempting to turn the site into a dump for rubbish. Luckily, some locals appealed to the Supreme Court and blocked Sligo County Councils grand designs.

The place I am referring to is Carrowmore Megalithich site near Sligo which is the largest megalithic site not only in Ireland but also one of the largest in Europe. Dating back to 4600BC it is believed that there are or were over 100 tombs or monuments located at Carrowmore.

Sadly, the area was extensively damaged in the 19th century due to quarrying and land clearance. But even though the site is much diminished from its former glories it is still an impressive capsule of history.

At Carrowmore, you can set your eyes on the remains of portal tombs, chamber tombs, portal dolmens, ring forts, and Cairns dating back thousands of years.

During excavations in 1837, each archaeological site was given a number a tag as an identifier. In more recent excavations that were conducted by Swedish archaeologists some of the items found in these tombs dated by as much as 4600BC.

Largest site

Passage tomb

The largest site at Carrowmore is a site known as Listoghill. An interesting fact is that Listoghill is the only site that has been decorated with megalithic art. Another interesting fact is that this is the only site were both burials and cremations took place.

The majority of the remains found at the location would have been cremated. All of the other tombs and passages surrounding Listoghill are arranged on a oval fashion which seems to suggest that Listoghill was the center point of worship and devotion.

The kissing stone

portal dolmen

The Kissing Stone was given it’s name during the Victorian era. Here, a capstone sits atop three upright stones and covers a large chamber which points towards the south east.

This particular Dolmen is rather tall and has lots of room within the chamber unlike some other Dolmens were there’s very little room for manoeuvre.

Fascinatingly enough, the kissing stone is surrounded by a circle of 32 boulders and each boulder measures 12.5 meters in diameter. There is also a smaller inner ring which surrounds the Dolmen.

Carrowmore 7

portal dolmen

When this tomb was cleared out, cremated bones weighing 1kg in weight were found. Some of the other finds at the site included an arrow head, limestone marble, and a piece of chert. A mass of unopened seashells were also found in a pit just outside the circle. The fact that these seashells were unopened may suggest that they were some left as some kind of offering to the gods.

The other satellite tombs

Most of the satellite tombs originally consisted of a central Dolmen stone that would have held up by a number of smaller stones. The majority of these tombs were enclosed by a boulder of circles which measured about 12 to 15 meters in diameter. One of the secrets to their longevity was because the structures were built upon a small platform and earth and stone which locked them in place.

What was discovered?

Portal Dolmen

Some of the items that were uncovered during the various excavations include antler and bone pins with mushrooms shaped heads. Archaeologists were also able to shine a light into the diet of the people who used these tombs with masses of mussels and oyster shells discovered at one site.

portal dolmen

An interesting discovery was that in most of the burials tombs fragments of Quartz were found, this suggests that Quartz had a hugely symbolic and ceremonial significance for the people who inhabited these tombs.

In the modern era, spiritualists believe that Quartz is a stone of harmony and is a help in romantic relationship. The mineral is also believed to facilitate a cleansing of the soul and mind.

Ornaments made from Sperm Whale teeth were also found in many of the graves. These findings are also suggestive of skilled fishermen and perhaps even a larger fishing fleet that hunted and caught large mammals and fish.

Each chamber contained human bone fragments and in some cases skeletons. Because cremation was the most popular method of disposing of a body the majority of the humans bones found were fragments. It appears that the chambers were also used as being a location were artefacts of significance were stored.

Data from the Carrowmore seems to overhaul the general consensus as to how passage tombs spread across the island of Ireland. Previous to the studies that were conducted at Carrowmore most historians believed that tombs spread from the east of Ireland to the west of Ireland with tombs such as Newgrange marking the beginning of the practice.

However, some of the results which were obtained at this site suggest that Carrowmore may have been one of the very first passage tomb complexes constructed in Ireland. Although, this is still open to vigorous debate.

The spread of passage tombs

The construction of megalithic tombs throughout Europe and further afield is a widespread phenomenon and many debates have opened up as to whether the spread of these tombs meant the spread of an ideology or a way of life.

Whatever the case may be there is no doubt that these tombs were a principal focus for ceremonies, burials, and celebrations as well as being markers of territory on the wider countryside.

Overall

I think its safe to say that Carrowore is one of Irelands most enigmatic and interesting mass of portal tombs in Ireland. Whilst some of the site may have been destroyed I think we owe a debt of gratitude to the local people who took the County Council to Court and prevented them from turning Carrowore into a dump for rubbish.

Whilst the behaviour of the council was and is abominable, unfortunately, this behaviour is nothing new and is another fine example of the utter contempt the Irish Government and their minions have for Irelands cultural heritage. Fortunately, a good chunk of Carrowore survives to this day and lovers history, tourists, and other visitors are still able

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What is the true history of Claddagh rings? What is their meaning?

Claddagh ring
Claddagh ring

Claddagh rings are etched into the annals of Irish history, these iconic rings are associated with romance, loyalty, love and friendship. The rings which are designed with two hands holding aloft a crown heart are widely recognised as being a symbol of Ireland and enduring love. Nowadays, these rings are widely used as fashion accessories and also as a symbolic gesture.

What do they mean?

claddagh rings

The two hands represent friendship, the heart means love, and the crown represents loyalty. The earliest known record of anyone using one of these rings dates back to the 1700’s to the Irish village of Claddagh.

The Claddagh ring is a fine example of a much broader category of rings known as faith rings or fede rings. The Italian word fede means “hands joined in fidelity.” Similar to to other variants of the ring, wearing a Claddagh ring is synonymous with with love or friendship.

The history of similar rings

The power, symbolism, and magnetism of rings goes back to the era of the ancient Egyptians who considered a circular object as being a powerful symbol deserving of reverence. The circle represented eternal life and love, and an opening carved into the circle would represent a passageway into an unknown realm or world.

It appears to have been the Romans who first introduced rings as symbols of love and friendship. The most well known ring was the fede ring, which similar to the Claddagh ring, had two hands clasped together. These fede rings were extremely popular and widely used during the Middle Ages and throughout Europe.

The widespread consensus is that the Claddagh ring originated in the small Galway village of Claddagh around the 1700s but there is much dispute as to who first made it and why they made it.

Where it all began?

claddagh ring

One legend says that an Eagle dropped a fully completed Claddagh ring straight into the lap of a woman to reward her for her hard work, generosity, and loyalty.

Another tale suggests that the origin of the ring was when a poor commoner fell in love with a wealthy lady and to prove his love to her and to her father he designed and created the Claddagh ring.

But it is the story of Richard Joyce that is most commonly associated with the Claddagh ring. Richard was a fisherman from Galway who had fallen in love with a local woman named Margaret and one day when Richard was out fishing he and his crew were captured and taken prisoner by a gang of ruthless Spanish Pirates.

During his captivity Richard grew distraught because he was going to be deprived of the woman that he loved. Eventually Richard was sold as a slave to a Spanish Goldsmith who began teaching him the trade.

To keep his spirits, alive each day, Richard would steal a small speck of gold and as the years passed by in captivity he was able to design a gold ring. His greatest dream was that one day that he might escape from his prison and present the ring to his long lost love.

In the meantime, a powerful allay of King William III heard that his fellow Christians were being held as slaves and he ordered all of these slaves to be released. When Richard was released he returned to Galway and presented his ring to his long lost love Margaret who willingly accepted him back into her arms.

Overall   

Over the years Claddagh rings gained in popularity and began to be used as wedding rings in the wider Galway area. The rings also began to be associated with poor fishing families along the Galway coast who used the rings as investments.The rings were used as family heirlooms getting passed down from generation to generation.

Claddagh rings have gained widespread use and have been worn by the rich and famous. Claddagh rings have been worn by Princess Grace of Monaco and Queen Victoria. More recently Kanye West bought his wife Kim Karashian a Claddagh ring when they visited in Ireland.

One thing is for sure, that the popularity of these iconic Irish rings seems set to continue unabated.

The true history of Celtic Crosses in Ireland? What was the meaning of a Celtic Cross?

Celtic Cross

The Celtic Cross is a symbol that is indelible associated with Ireland. There is something mysterious and uplifting when you one looks at these iconic crosses. Like the Shamrock and the Harp the Celtic Cross could easily be mistaken as the national symbol of Ireland.

The power of these crosses and how they are linked with Ireland can be seen throughout the globe. If you were to walk into a Bar in New York, Sydney, Toronto or anywhere else In the world the chances of you setting eyes on a Celtic Cross would be very high. These iconic symbols have graced the sporting arenas of Basketball, Football, Rugby and many other sports.

Nowadays, these crosses are used as a fashion accessory and can be seen on the Cat Walks in Milan right up to the swankiest and most up market stores New York.

A Celtic Cross was used was in a famous scene in the smash hit film Gangs of New York were Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) held one of the crosses aloft as he prepared to go into battle on the streets of New York.

In graveyards throughout Ireland Celtic Crosses dot the landscape. These structures are associated with modern day Christianity and also link back to our ancient pagan past.

Controversy has abounded as to who introduced these crosses into Ireland with many believing that Saint Patrick was instrumental in bringing them into Ireland, but other people argue that Saint Columba or Saint Declan were the main reason they were introduced to the shores of the Emerald Isle.

Why and how have these crosses become associated with Ireland?

celtic crosses

 These monuments first began appearing around the 9th century and feature a cross with a ring carved into the top of it. In the majority of cases, the cross is located on atop of a pyramidal base which is used to support the monument.

Some theories suggest that the origin of these crosses may have originated from early Christian crosses whereby struts where inserted to support the top arm of the cross but many other histories disagree with this theory.

Many of the earliest examples of crosses in Ireland are carved with inscriptions of ogham, an ancient Irish language. Some of the finest examples which can be seen in Ireland are the crosses at Monasterboice, The Cross of Kells, Arboe Cross and the Clonmacnoise Cross.

My theory is that the Celtic Cross is a fusion between our Pagan past and the Christian future that was being introduced into Ireland at the time. Celtic crosses were a union between past and present.

Our pagan ancestors understood circles and the power of them, and this was an inroad Christian missionaries used to try and convert the people to this new religion that was taking over Europe.

Circles

celtic cross

One of the earliest examples of the fusion between the past and the present can be seen at Calanais on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland. This site is not your stereotypical stone cross but actually a stone cross that is planted into the ground with a stone circle surrounding it. The Calanais site is unique in that the shape of cross is made out of a structure that looks like a stone fort.

Many people believe that the circle stands for the Roman god Invictus. And that as the Celts spread throughout Europe and eventually made their way across the edges of Europe to Ireland that this was when this circle symbol was introduced to the island of Ireland.

If one was to visit any site in Ireland associated with the megalithic period the chances are you would come across stones circles etched into boulders or larger stones.

The most well known example of this practice can be witnessed at Newgrange. These circles were associated with the life giving sun. The moon. The changing of the seasons. The circle of life. Birth death and rebirth a cotinous cirlce

Some modern day puritans of the Christian religion believe that the circle represents the halo of Jesus Christ but I feel that this is unlikely when one takes into account Irelands ancient past and the prevalence of the circles within that past.

The fact that the tip of the cross hovers over the circle may be indicative of a message that Christ reigned supreme when the pagan past and the Christian futures were fused into one.

Types of crosses

celtic cross

The earliest examples of Celtic Crosses in Ireland were not carved out of rock but were inscribed into stone. One example of this type of cross is the Gallerus Oratory in County Kerry. Here you can see a slab of stone standing upright with a Celtic cross carved into its surface.

Another superb example is the Killaghtee Cross in Dunkinelly which dates from around 650BC. At the top of the rock there is the carving of a Maltese Cross which is tied with a triple knot of Saint Brigid, which is said to represent the Holy Trinity.

In general, these crosses usually fall into three separate categories.

  • Standing stone crosses. It is believed that the original purpose of these structures was to mark the boundaries between different territories.
  • Celtic High Crosses. These crosses are usually decorated with a vast array of etchings and carvings which tell the story of Christ. One of the reasons for this was because during that era the majority of the population would have been illiterate and so it would have fell upon the local monks or Christian missionaries to explain the story of Christ.   How they explained the story was by carving various scenes from the Bible onto these rocks, locals would then gather around the cross as the Monks or Missionaries used the carvings on the cross to retell the story of Christ.
  • Celtic cross memorials. The majority of these crosses date from around 1860 when the upper classes in Irish society began to use them as markers for the graves of their loved ones. Nowadays, these crosses are ubiquitous and commonplace throughout the majority of Irish graveyards.

Celtic crosses are considered to be one of Ireland’s greatest contributions to medieval art in Europe. Whilst some of these structures are seen throughout Europe it is with Ireland that the connection runs deepest.

Overall

celtic cross

Celtic crosses are steeped in style, charisma and panache. The mystery and intrigue regarding their true origins adds a further layer of depth to their meaning and power. The fact that these ancient structures are etched with a whole host of mysterious designs enhances their power as being symbols deserving of reverence and devotion.

Their true meaning is disputed but the functions that they had in the past and present is pretty much certain: Teaching the message of Christ, being used as markers of territories, and for staging political events or gatherings.

Whilst we will never really know the true meaning of the circle in these crosses it is my belief that the most likely scenario is that the circle was used as means to help the local pagans understand the message of Christ.

The circle was used as an inroad to help the Celts or ancient Irish comprehend  this new religion that was rapidly sweeping throughout Europe.

The circle on the cross also might have helped to reassure our ancient ancestors that by embracing this new religion that they would not be completely abandoning the practices of old. This theory is backed up in how many pagan traditions such as the celebration of Halloween and the reverence of the Pagan Goddess Saint Brighid is still practised to this very day.

Overall, it is safe to say that Celtic Crosses will, as long as the world keeps turning on its axis, be forever associated, connected, and indelibly linked with the Emerald Isle.

 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.

Overall

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. “

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.

 Adulthood

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.

Politics

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.

Overall

 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?

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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

San-Patricios

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.”

Battles

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.

Overall

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.

You can read more Irish immigration stories  by seo writer Seamus Hanratty here.

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

Monaghan
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

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

Monaghan
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.

Monaghan
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

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.

Food

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

Monaghan
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!

Overall

Monaghan

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.

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.

Photos.

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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