“Burning and Scorching”: The Easter Curse of St. Patrick

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For centiuries, great ritual fires were burned during the high festivals of the ancient Celtic world. And then the upstart Patrick lit his own in defiance of tradition . . .

Church historians and hagiographic scholars have claimed that St. Patrick, then a bishop ordained by the pontiff, was the center of a dramatic confrontation on the occasion of the Christian Easter in 433 AD.

The date was May 1, and the site was the Hill of Slaine, ten miles distant from the High King’s domain at Tara.

At that time Patrick had been in Ireland only about a year, but he had been held as a slave for six or seven years when he was much younger. His master Milchu had been a high druid, and historians believe that Patrick must have learned much about the druids and the religious life of the people of Ireland, along with a thorough knowledge of the language and culture.

circle of druids

Whether white-robed (according to Roman scribes) or not, the druids were a hugely powerful class, second only to kings in ancient Ireland. Who besides Patrick would dare hurl a curse back at them?

The Festival of Beltaine, in honor of the sun god Bel, was one of the two most sacred observances in the Celtic world. Huge fires were lit all over the island, signifying (among other beliefs) purification and rebirth through the power of great Bel. The high king when Patrick was in Éire was Leary, a stubborn and devoted pagan, who surrounded himself with scores of druids.

Leary’s purification fires, of course, were to be the highest and most sacred in the country, and Patrick well knew it. According to these historians, Patrick probably spent several months planning a fire that would not only rival Leary’s, but would awe and convert thousands on the occasion of the Christian Easter, which coincided with Beltaine.

Patrick was not only stubborn and highly intelligent, he must have been a very courageous soul to flout the power of the highest power in the land.

In my novel THE WAKENING FIRE, I imagined what happened on that fateful day, May 1, 433 AD and told it through the eyes of the main female character Caylith. After Patrick set his huge bonfire, King Leary angrily sent for the upstart to be brought before him on the sacred Hill of Tara.

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[Incensed that the meddling priest has lit a high Easter bonfire in defiance of his Beltaine ritual fire, High King Leary speaks to the bishop Patrick: ]

“Me druids tell me ye would usurp the laws of our land. Ye would defy the ancient Brehon precepts, an’ ye would replace our gods with yours. How do ye plead on those counts?”

“I plead only to my God,” Patrick said evenly. “I speak to kings, and to common men alike. But I plead only to Christ, that he forgive your ignorance and hold you to his bosom in his mysterious love and compassion.”

I felt warm admiration for Patrick. In all the time I had known him, I had rarely seen even a trace of anger. But now I saw it slowly building in his eyes, and in his very demeanor, in spite of his mild words.green paddy 330

“Then I must bid me guards take ye to confinement.”

“Even as Herod did, would you so dismiss me?”

I saw Leary’s face change then, and a flicker of fear or alarm in his eyes. “If I but believed the lies ye spread about a man who died an’ walked again, then yes. Even as Herod.”

Patrick’s tone changed then, and for the first time he spoke softly, in the fatherly tone so familiar to me. “Thousands of your subjects believe those lies, O King. Would you call them foolish? Misguided? Or do they see something that perhaps you are missing? That Christ is love. Is é grá Chríost. That he asked not for special treatment. That he sought only to teach others about God’s love and forgiveness. That he did indeed die and live again, even as your own god Bel, whom you celebrate as the sun. And so I also celebrate Christ, also the son—the son of God.”

Leary’s voice was almost pleading now. “Then why do ye flout me laws, priest? Why do ye set your own fires to be higher than me own? How does that show love?”

“I must love all men, even as my Lord Christ loved. I cannot show you more love than I show your worthy fair-faced advisor.” And he gazed directly at one of the most ugly men I had ever beheld, a hairy-faced druid whose lower lip seemed to emit a constant stream of dribble. A ripple of laughter drifted through the room.

The druid stepped in front of Patrick then, and he stood on one foot and extended his bony arm, and with the other hand he held one eye shut. “Dóite agus loisceadh ort!

“Burning and scorching on ye,” whispered Liam. I heard the note of awe in his voice. The druid’s high-pitched voice screeched almost as effectively as Talon’s own squawk had echoed in this room several months ago. Even I was mildly impressed.

Then Father Patrick drew himself up to the extent of his slight frame, and his own eyes began to crackle and burn. His tonsured head shone like a ritual fire in the bright light, and his voice rang out as though he were shouting at his enemy from a high rampart.

druid handsup

druid 433

When Patrick utters his own curse in answer to the druid, everything changes. What words does he speak that spare him and change the mind of stubborn King Leary?

Guess you’ll just have to read The Wakening Fire

How St. Patrick Changed Ireland

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A land mysterious, untouched by the hands of the Romans, pre-Patrick Ireland was a study in ancient ways . . . a land of mighty stones, gods, and stalwart warriors.

In about 432 D, Pope Celestine I elevated an unknown priest to bishop and gave him a mission. He sent him as a bearer of the Gospels, or good tidings, to an island steeped in mystery and considered a place of hellish paganism. The man was of Roman heritage, called “Patricius” or “patrician one.” The mysterious place was Ireland.

From what historians and archaeologists have been able to determine, the island that the Romans named “Hibernia” was a world so protected by fierce clan warriors that the emperors chose to stay on the larger island of Britannia and the European mainland. Few remnants of the Italian marauders . . . um, the proud Roman armies . . . are found throughout the island that its inhabitants proudly call Éire.fierce 200

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Why did the Pontiff choose Patrick? It is a matter of historical record that as a youth, Patrick himself had been taken from his home somewhere in Britannia—possibly Wales, or even Scotia—by a band of freebooters or pirates and taken to the island called “Hibernia.” He was about 16 years old, a pious young fisherman whose father and grandfather before him had been priests. Once in Ireland, probably in modern County Antrim, he lived in slavery for six or seven years.

Once taken, Patrick was sold to a clan chief, supposedly a druidic high priest. Patrick became both his lowly shepherd and possibly even his unwilling acolyte. In those several years, the young man learned the language and the beliefs of the druids—both of which would stand him in good stead much later, when he returned as a missionary.

According to his own published Confessio, Patrick lived among the people and spoke to them every day of the man named Christ. He says that he prayed to God hundreds of times every day, trying to maintain the utmost humility and love, even for his captors.

In a young adult novel called HIDDEN BY THE ROSE (to be published March 22), the authors Bil and Bon Franks recount his life as a slave. Here he is talking to a young girl whose mother, too, has been taken by slave-holders to Hibernia, and he is trying to  comfort her with his own story of captivity. During the telling, his own voice begins to take on the lilt of the Éireannach people:

st p statue ~2x5“Knowing me end had come, I collapsed to me knees and began to pray. ‘Lord, me Father,’ I whispered, ‘I come to thee with glad heart. If I cannot spread thy word abroad to the heathens, let them hear me now.’ I raised me voice in joy as the wild men gathered ‘round me. ‘Love thy God, thy father, with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind.’

“The savages stopped in their tracks. They exchanged looks of wonder at the strange young man on his knees, laughing and smiling at their imminent attack.

“Slowly, they lowered their barbed spears and talked among themselves. I continued me prayer, for I understood not a word of their gentle conversation.

“At last, two of them seized me, one on each arm, and dragged me to the water’s edge. One of the oarsmen reached over the side and hauled me into the currach. Thus I became an unwilling passenger on what turned out to be a slave ship. . . .

“I spent the next few days in ropes, alternately praying and vomiting, while the vagabond slavers made their way back to the Isle of Hibernia.

“I will tell you only that I was able to survive quite well during the seven years of thralldom that followed. Me captors soon sold me to a chieftain named Milchu, whose land lay on the hills of Slemish and down into the valley of the Braid. Milchu was a high priest of the group they call ‘Druids.’

“Thus I learned their strange beliefs, and I also learned their melodious tongue perfectly, and whenever I could, I taught the word of God to anyone who would listen. I spread glad tidings, and I prayed hundreds of times every day, not once failing to thank God for me good fortune.”

Patrick finally managed to escape on a boat that was bound for Britannia. After his return, he studied to become a priest somewhere in Gallia (modern France) and served as parish priest somewhere in Britannia before being called to Rome.

He recounts, again in his Confessio, how he was convinced in a dream to return to Éire, for he heard the children calling. Whether or not one believes in miracles, the outcome of this dream is one of the astonishing facts of history. For the lowly priest not only returned to convert the “children,” he lived a long and productive missionary life in Ireland and was beatified some centuries later as Saint Patrick.

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The Book of Kells, dating from the 9th century, is a direct result of Patrick’s insistence on re-copying and preserving the scriptures.

If one can differentiate the legends from the facts, it is safe to say that Patrick sent for scores of bishops and other priests to join him in Ireland, and that he insisted the ancient scrolls and scriptures be brought with them, copied and protected. This dedication to ancient learning is what “saved” the world from the dark ages of ignorance after the retreat of the Romans in the fifth century. Thomas Cahill’s best selling book How the Irish Saved Civilization is a great one to read in this context.

There is not a place in Ireland that does not boast of Paddy’s footprints somewhere on its soil. In the novel THE WAKENING FIRE by Erin O’Quinn, the people of modern Coleraine (Northern Ireland) trace the name of their town to a visit by the latter-day saint:

The brothers O’Cahan lived some ten miles north of Limavady, near the mouth of the River Bann. . . I gathered it was near a settlement called Cúil Raithin, or Coleraine, once visited by Father Patrick himself. Brion told me how his own grandfather, a chieftain, had offered Patrick a portion of land near the river overgrown with great ropy ferns that had to be burned to the ground each year. After Patrick left, the residents then adopted the name, meaning “ferny backwater” . . .

This was not the first folktale I had heard about Father Patrick in the northern part of this island. I began more and more to realize that Patrick’s influence was beginning to be felt in many places besides Armagh, even if he had never set foot near most of them.

Every place name in Ireland bearing the root word “kell” or “kil” can in a sense be traced to Patrick or his later followers, for the name means “church.” And St. Patrick’s day has become a celebration not just of the man, but of Ireland itself.

Patrick has put his stamp so firmly on the Emerald Isle that to think of him is to think of that charmed place, no matter what may be one’s religious denomination.

st p symbols

We are left to guess at what Ireland would be today if an intrepid priest named Patrick (“patrician one”) had not set his sights on converting the inhabitants to Christianity. But it hardly matters. Once Patrick entered Ireland, the charismatic bishop set about changing the entire religious life and world view of the people. Here, in an ingenious portrait of the saint by Hamish Burgess, we see the various symbols associated with St. Patrick: the tri-partite shamrock, the banished snakes, the gentle deer. The fanciful halo shows a kind of crown of thorns, possibly the paschal fire he set in defiance of High King Leary in 433 AD. Note that this image shows Patrick’s hair as it probably was worn—in a tonsure.

One last blessing to all: HAPPY ST. PADDY’S DAY!

~

Books noted here:

Hidden by the Rose:

http://amzn.to/WWgQjS

The Wakening Fire: Ask David! See his link on the right side of this blogsite…A free promo site you won’t want to miss out on if you’re a writer.

Other photo credits: Wikipedia.

St. Patrick art:

‘ST.PATRICK’ © Hamish Burgess 2012. Original Celtic and folk art by Hamish Burgess, a piece for the cover of The Celtic Connection newspaper in Vancouver BC and Seattle, the March issue.

 

Healing herbs and plants in Old World Ireland

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Dandelions are known throughout the world’s temperate climes for their tenacity, but also for the flavor they give to our teas and salads. In my books, they’re called “sun-petals,” because the French word dandelion hadn’t yet evolved.

From the time she was 16, starting in a series of my books under a different pen name, the redheaded Caylith began to study the properties of plants. Under the guidance of her marvelous grandfather, she found that somehow the plants had an affinity for her, rather than the other way around!

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Caylith’s road lilies are similar to this white lily grass, Ornithogalum, in itheir delicate flowers, leafless stems and bulbous roots. The word “road lily”–indeed the plant itself– is my invention.

From the road lilies that give her uncommon strength, to the “sun-petal” tea and chicory that she and the other characters drink daily, all the Caylith books—from the early fantasies to the later romances— are full of plants, used for preternatural magical abilities, for food, for refreshing beverages, and of course for purposes of healing.

Notice how many of the plants in this article are in the family compositae, those with composite, “daisy-like” flowers.

As the author, I gave healing properties to plants both fictional and real. “Road lilies” are pure fiction. And yet, almost two years after making up those little beauties from  my imagination, I found that the white lily grass called Ornithogalum almost exactly fits my idea of Caylith’s beloved road lily! They resemble the extremely hardy “rain lilies” in my central Texas yard. Just like Caylith’s plants, whose leafless stems favor the harsh soils in the cracks along the old Roman roads, their bulbine roots find deep cracks and are difficult to bring up completely without using a shovel and plenty of elbow grease.

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The ubiquitous dandelion–what would mankind have done without her? This lovely weed has one of the longest taproots I’ve ever tried to extract!

I invented the name “Sun-petals” for dandelions, a word that would not have evolved for several hundred more years, for it was adapted from the French words dent de lion or “lion’s teeth.”

In Gaelic Irish, dandelion is called lus Bhríd (Brigid’s plant) or Bearnán Bríd (indented one of Brigid) where “lus” is the Irish equivalent of the English “wort,” or “plant.”[1] To this day, dandelion roots and leaves are used widely in teas, and the leaves are considered by many to be a delicacy in salads.

Rough-and-tough former soldier Gristle favors chicory, another flower from the family  compositae. Our pioneer fathers drank a coffee-like beverage made from the tuberous roots of these hardy plants. Even in my rough “pioneer” yard out here in central Texas, chicory grows wild in sunny, gravely alkaline soil in patches throughout my yard.

Chicory flowers, a kind of pale purple or lilac, nod in exquisite greeting to the coolness of early morning. But their roots are anything but exquisite. Tough and stout, they give a bitter yet rich flavor when boiled or ground and steeped, so that they make a coffee substitute when there is no Starbucks around.

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Chicory is distinctive for its lilac-colored petals and for the savory-to-bitter flavor of its roots.

One of the recently discovered ingredients in chicory is inulin, a complex of sugar that is high in fiber and that has several beneficial medicinal properties, especially for treatment of diabetes and for weight control. But Gristle drinks it for its sweet-bitter edge that he’s grown almost addicted to over the years. In fact, his companion Wynn gives him a hard time over his “herb,” which the young man claims to put hairs on his friend’s knuckles.

In Fire & Silk, the young woman Mariana tries to mend the bruised and twisted limbs of Flann, who has fallen into a deer blind. Looking around the boglands, she finds feverfew and fennel, both of which grow throughout the northern stretches of modern Co. Donegal (then Tyr Connell) where she has found herself.

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Daisy-like with feathery leaves, fennel has many beneficial properties, especially its ability to reduce both pain and fever. Attribution: Photo taken by Carsten Niehaus

The fennel, thankfully, was well past its bloom, and hundreds of seed capsules were loose. She shook the bunch onto her woolen blanket, releasing the seeds. Next, she stripped leaves from the fever weed. She poured water from her wineskin into her own metal cup and threw in as many fennel seeds as she imagined would make a strong poultice. She found Flann’s cup among his supplies and brought it to the fire, filling it, too, with water. Before the concoction became too strong, she poured part of it into the second cup. And then she added the stripped leaves. This second cup would be his wildwood tea.

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Feverfew, as its name suggests, is an anti-inflammatory that can bring a fever under control quickly.

Another interesting plant used throughout my novels–indeed throughout most of Europe  to this day–is the bark and leaves of the willow, salix. Scientists have found that the main ingredient of willow bark is salicylic acid—yes, the main ingredient in aspirin.

A white willow tea, or a poultice  made from the steeped parts of the willow, would have soothed fevers, cured headaches, and dulled toothaches . . . if the patient could tolerate the nasty flavor.

One of the healing combinations that I invent for my books comes from an old idea, the use of gruits. In beer making, as we know, hops lend the bitter yet delicious flavor that makes beer such a distinctive and desirable beverage. But in those climes where hops do not grow, ingenious beer-makers have come up with any number of substitutes for them. Such combinations are called “gruits.”

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White willow–our ancestors’ eqivalent to aspirin.

Trying to find a palliative for Owen Sweeney MacNeill, Caylith comes up with an individualized potion, or gruit, for him. She uses part of the sacred hawthorns that grew near his sacred clootie well, and other plants such as heathers that were native to his homestead at Limavady. The resulting mix really does act as almost a narcotic for the ailing Owen. It also has the astonishing side effect, as Caylith discovers, of being an aphrodisiac.

Following is a list of additional plants that could have been readily gathered in Caylith’s northern Ireland: [2]

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)
Cat’s Claw – (Uncaria tomentosa)

Oregano – (Origanum vulgare ssp. hirtum)

Rosemary – (Rosmarinus officinalis)r:mary 80

Thyme – (Thymus vulgaris)

Yellow Dock – (Rumex crispus)

Wood Betony – (Pedicularis canadensis)

Passion Flower – (Passiflora incarnata)

Saffron – (Crocus sativus)saffron 80

Wild Lettuce – (Lactuca virosa)

Tumeric – (Curcuma longa)

Herbs that are helpful in pain treatment by gradually restoring the proper function of the body and increasing health and vitality:

Echinacea – (Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea purpurea)echinacea 370

Burdock – (Arctium lappa)

Skullcap – (Scultellaria laterifolia)

Lobelia – (Lobelia inflata)

Valerian Root - (Valeriana Officinalis)

oat 170Oats – (Avena sativa)

Herbs that are are used externally for pain relief

Peppermint – (Mentha piperita L.)

Lavender – (Lavendula officinalis)

[1] Noted in “Plants in Folklore,” part of a series by folklorist Eugene Daly in the Ireland weekly magazine Ireland’s Own, summer  2012. With special thanks to my friend Paul McDermott who sent me  this article.

[2] This list, and the photo/art of the fennel and feverfew, are taken from “The Herbal Resource,” www/herbal-supplement-resource.com

Don’t miss Erin O’Quinn’s Dawn of Ireland writing, including the MM Iron Warrior series.

M/F Romance:

Storm Maker: http://amzn.to/O218y7
The Wakening Fire : http://amzn.to/N1Gc6Clily blue back 350
Captive Heart: http://amzn.to/Qm8b1X
Fire & Silk: http://amzn.to/P6jZtn

Erotic M/M Romance:

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Warrior, Stand Tall: http://amzn.to/WoDkGS

Chariots and wheelchairs in the Celtic world of O’Quinn

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This fanciful image of “horned” warriors and horses is not true to my Celtic research, which does not show this kind of “Germanic” influence in Ireland; but the chariot itself is what I have in mind for my character.

I began to be intrigued by the idea of Celtic chariots when I expanded one of my “Dawn of Ireland” characters, Owen Sweeney. Owen actually began as a mysterious, villainous man in a book that preceded my O’Quinn novels and his past and his personality are slowly revealed throughout five books (so far).

Quite without my willing it to happen, a man in a wheelchair began to take on immense proportions. Always described as “bigger than life” for his towering intellect and personality, Owen Sweeney MacNeill is actually half a man. He has spent the past twenty years confined to an invalid’s cart, his legs no more than withered sticks.

Owen had a tragic past–from the time he began his anguished search for a father he would never find, to the incident when his legs were crushed by a frightened horse, to the loss of his beloved wife and his near-death in a currach tossed into the sea . . . all this and more makes up the many-wefted tapestry that reveals the complex man.

In the novels Captive Heart and Fire & Silk,  Owen needs a way to travel. Therefore I had to research the kind of “chariot”-like devices that could have been used in the fifth century AD.

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First, I discovered that wheeled invalid carts have been around since the days of the ancient Greeks. This photo (L) of a sculpture shows a man possibly sitting in a wheeled conveyance. The photo below of the wooden wheeled chair is much later than my stories, but the construction is not so far from what could have been possible at the time. The most likely way Owen could get around in his own  home would be similar to a small ox-cart. He turns the wheels by means of his massive arms, whose muscles have developed preternaturally from the strain of pushing himself from place to place.wheelchair 243

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Just as important as making his way through his own home, Owen must travel long distances to set up a new domain in the northern expanses of Ireland. After all, it is this man who gave his name to Ireland’s Inis-Owen and Tyrone (Tyr, or Land, of Owen). Luckily, his own nephew Michael MacCool is a gifted craftsman who has built a fleet of currachs and a gracefully-prowed longship.

Therefore I, in the guise of Michael, had to construct a chariot.

chariot sketch 275

The first question one might ask is whether the ancient Celts even used chariots. The scholars agree that they did. In the Bronze-Age epic the Bo Tain Culaigne, war chariots are noted constantly. Reconstructionists have given us ideas of what those chariots must have looked like: double yoked, with a passenger “basket” made from pliable branches; spoked wheels; a kind of floating suspension so that the chariots could travel safely over the rugged landscape.

The Irish Gaelic word for “chariot” is carpat, itself  a cognate of the Latin word carpentum, their word for “chariot.” The Gaelic word no doubt entered the language through the Romans, who did not much venture into ancient Ireland–or even Scotland–but who were past masters at the art of building and using chariots.

In Captive Heart, the narrator Caylith sees the finished chariot that Michael has just built:sketch #2 275

Framed by strong oak, fashioned in the center with latticed wicker and strengthened in strategic places with forged steel, the chariot was about six feet wide, including the wheels, and it stood at least that high. From the center, like a tongue, there jutted a long, flexible pole attached to an axle. I knew the pole would be attached on each side to two horses, for it ended in a metal yoke.

The wheels were six spoked, the rims covered in wrought iron for added strength. I saw that the hubs were also metal. 

I turned to Michael. “The wheels—so small—”

“Aye lass, this is me own invention. The bigger the wheel, the weaker the wheel. An’ the bigger it is, the heavier it is. So these are only about a foot or so high, an’ spoked for added lightness. The metal hubs give it strength. What do ye think?”

“Ah, is Owen supposed to sit with his—his legs down, or spread before him?”

carpat 487“Two people sit side by side, Cay, as if they sat on a bench. Ye see here? Their feet are protected by a board, an’ they can sit with support for their back. An when they are tired, the back can be laid flat. They can enter and leave by the rear also.”

I saw that the carriage itself—the “basket” that held the passengers—was very lightweight, almost like the latticework of the clay-and-daub houses or the frames of Michael’s currachs. At the joints, the lattice was interlaced with strong steel rings. I ran my fingers along the latticework while Michael talked. “The best part of all is the way the platform hangs free of the wheels an’ the axle. If it hits a rut, the whole chariot does not jump an’ dislodge the riders. “

Yes, that really was the best part. I could see, from the point of view of an ignorant observer, that this chariot would cause Owen no pain as it jumped and quivered along the rough countryside. In fact, he could ride like a very king. He could hold the reins, or Moc could be the driver.

“Michael, it is—beautiful. I can think of no better word.”

“Go raibh maith agat. It tested me brain, an’ the next one shall be better.”

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Research has shown that the chariots used in Ireland, in order to be driven across the rough terrain, were built with a kind of “floating” or independent suspension, as the reconstrution here shows.

Here is a scene from Fire & Silk, where Owen and his stalwart sons are traveling from their home in Inishowen to the home of his brother in (now) Donegal:

A curious procession moved south, beyond Snow Mountain. It bore slightly west, away from the worst of the foothills in the high pastureland. In front rode a quiet redheaded man on a black stallion. He turned his head often to gaze at the woman next to him, one whose long, dark hair lifted like wings around her face. 

He turned in the saddle to glance at his companions. Behind him, there rolled and rattled a vehicle borrowed from the poetry of the filí, bards of the kings. The man in the chariot was large and heavy browed, and he shouted out to a brace of strong horses as he guided the vehicle around a rocky outcropping or a small gully. Beside him sat a shapely little woman, her deeply black hair swept up with a large ivory bodkin, her eyes sometimes on the driver and sometimes gazing ahead.

Behind the chariot, three very large men sat astride horses, shouting and laughing, sometimes singing. And in the rear walked six packhorses. This was the caravan of Owen, King of Inishowen, who traveled to meet his own brother for the first time.

gaelic chariot 600

I hope you will read the Dawn of  Ireland novels, starting with Storm Maker . . . if not for the love stories, then for the evolution of a complex man, the character known as Owen Sweeney MacNeill.

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Erin’s Blogs:  Gaelic Spirit  The Man in Romance 

Erin’s Historical Romance: SirenBookstrand

Erin’s Contemporary MM Romance: Amber Allure 

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Romancing the stones: Pictish carvings, from tattoos to t-shirts

Part I: The Symbols

Which came first–the splendid stone work of the Picts . . .  or the lavish tattoos that history says adorned their bodies, and whose designs are found on stones all over Scotland? (Note from the map that the stones are heavily concentrated in the east, north of the Forth and extending as far as the Orkney and Shetland islands.)

As an introduction to the unusual art of the Picts, let me say that historians and archaeologists long ago fossilized the Pictish stone work into “Classes,” depending on the assumed age of the carvings and on the subject matter. Here is a brief breakdown of those arbitrary categories:

Photo by R.L. Dixon 2007

Class I: Rough stones containing only symbols, dating from the 6th to 8th c AD.

Class II: Stones usually rectangular in shape, usually showing Christian crosses on one or both sides in addition to other symbols, dating from the 8th and 9th c AD

Class III: A controversial classification  that “throws in” such free-standing markers as gravestones, crosses and boundary markers; none of the class III stones bear symbols.

The first fact to note here is that the classifications all include post-Christian dates, i.e., from around 600 AD, a few generations after St. Patrick went to Ireland and sent his monks throughout Éire and Alba (modern Scotland).

And yet, the designs themselves tell of a people long predating the Christian influence.  There are anywhere from 30 to 50 such designs, with the following designations:

V-rod/with crescent

 

Z-rod/with double disc

Mirror case

Comb design

Horseshoe/arch design

These designs do not take into account the figures of animals, fish, birds, “monsters,” and humans that found their way onto the stones and that are so widely copied today on our bodies and clothing too. I will show these figures in part II of this article next week.

The point I am making here is that the symbols shown above seem to reflect a society and a style far older than the 6th c AD. I tend to agree with those who theorize that these symbols were first painted on walls, made into jewelry, and placed on everything from door lintels to shields–even  on the bodies of the Picts themselves–before they were carved into stones. This would mean that the Picts’ artistic influence was felt long before many scholars theorize. It would also give credence to the Roman chroniclers’ accounts of blue tattoos on the bodies of these warriors whom they apparently feared enough to erect an immense wall to keep them out of Britannia. (See the article “Hadrian’s Wall” in these archives.)

According to a web article at www.orkneyjar.com:

These symbols, it has been suggested, predate the symbol stones and were perhaps based on the tattoos the Pictish tribes used to decorate their bodies.

From body adornments, which may have had symbolic or magical properties, the symbols may have been transferred onto objects such as jewellery, shields and doorposts before finally ending up on the symbol stones.

The article “Pictish stones” in Wikipedia says:

Simple or early forms of the symbols are carved on the walls of coastal caves at East Wemyss, Fife and Covesea, Moray. It is therefore thought likely that they were represented in other more perishable forms that have not survived in the archaeological record, perhaps including clothing and tattoos.

I have absolutely no doubt that Pictish inscriptions were painted in caves, and that they will be found by archaeologists, along with creature symbols to rival those of the neanderthal-age cave paintings in France.

The stone pictured on the right is called the Dunnichen Stone, a Class I stone as you can see from the presence of symbols only, and the lack of any Christian cross design. Some have said that the “comb and mirror” designations reflect the matrilineal society of the Picts and perhaps denote the property, grave or other territory of a locally powerful female figure. The top figure on the stone is  thought to be a  flower, a relatively rare symbol in Pictish stone work.

The stone was found in a farmer’s field, plowed up to expose its sandstone face. It has since been moved to nearby Dunnichen in Scotland. The stone measures a little over four and a half feet tall, two feet wide and one foot thick.

My writer’s imagination immediately seized on this spectacular stone, and I have given it the name “The Queen’s Stone.” It  shall find a place in my writing, and a lovely woman shall be created to befit the stone. You read it here first, my friends.

Here is another stone found near Aberlemno in Angus (roughly 20 miles NE of Dundee, Scotland) that is famously called the Serpent Stone. Archaeologists call it Aberlemno I, referring to its “class I status” as I describe above. As much as the first stone reminds me of a powerful woman, this one speaks of a strong male figure, perhaps a king. It is five feet tall, and the back of the stone is incised by “cup marks,” perhaps carved in a distant prehistoric time. The “feminine” symbols of mirror and comb are located near the bottom, and the center, like the Dunnichen Stone, is dominated by the Z-rod and disk symbols. The dominant position of the serpent  and the overall phallic shape are, to me, remarkably a male, just as as the flower and overall shape of the Dunnichen Stone conjure up a female image.

This one is a roadside stone, marred somewhat by plow marks, located in a dry stone wall.  It is one of the few that have been left in their original location; most have been moved to churchyards and museums.

My  identification of “male” and “female” symbols and stones are strictly my own, based on a fertile imagination and a lifelong love of stones.

Next week, I will show some of  the fascinating creatures that have made their way from the stones to modern tattoos and t-shirts. Stay tuned for a red snake…a grey bull…a hound, a deer, and a nice red boar that found its way onto a 21st century t-shirt.

The writing of Erin O’Quinn (as of September 2012) can be found in six novels, all centered on the ancient world of Ireland and surrounding lands.

Photo by R.L. Dixon 2007

Erin O’Quinn’s Manlove blog:  http://romancemanlove.wordpress.com/
Storm Maker:  http://amzn.to/O218y7
The Wakening Fire : http://amzn.to/N1Gc6C
Captive Heart:  http://amzn.to/Qm8b1X
Fire & Silk:  http://amzn.to/P6jZtn
Warrior, Ride Hard:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-ride-hard
Warrior, Ride Hard on Amazon:  http://amzn.to/P2eRDO
Warrior, Stand Tall:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-stand-tall

Hadrian’s Wall: Roman vs. Scot? Or not?

The Wall of Hadrian is strung like a stone necklace across the thin neck of England, just south of Scotland. From a little distance, I can almost imagine myself in China gazing at the Great Wall, seeing the famous Roman construction follow the lines of the rolling hills from horizon to horizon.

The wall was built under orders from the emperor Hadrian. It runs about 73 miles east to west, made of local limestone and, where stone could not be quarried, of turf and rubble. According to Wikipedia, “It is a common misconception that Hadrian’s wall marks the boundary between England and Scotland. This is not the case; Hadrian’s wall lies entirely within England,” south of the Scottish border by about half a mile in the west at Carlisle, and by about 68 miles in the east at Wallsend.

As we say in America–close enough for government work!

Massive as the undertaking was, the wall took just six years to build. Started in 122 AD and completed in 128 AD, it seems to have been constructed by three sets of Roman legions, laboring in fair weather or foul, seemingly as consumed with the task as they were with the construction of their hugely expansive roads. The Romans were dedicated, to say the least. Perhaps the whip was set to their back. Or perhaps the promise of rewards back in Rome kept their backs bowed to the task.

The question I have is this: why was this wall built? Historians have speculated on the various purposes of the Wall of Hadrian, and they have settled on four possible reasons:

To keep the Scoti and other Caledoni, the northern tribes, from invading Britannia. From fragments found by archaeologists, we know that part of Hadrian’s purpose was “to keep intact the empire.” The emperor’s biographer states that Hadrian’s policy was “defense before expansion.”

But from records of the time, it seems clear that these tribes were hardly a threat to the well-armed and  heavily-fortified Romans. Crude spears against metal swords, tribes on foot against mounted soldiers, swarming masses on the ground against well-trained men in fortified walltowers, or at least on the high ground–it  seems likely that the wall was overkill if it was meant to drive out the barbarians.  Historians theorize that all these reasons argue against the wall being purely defensive.

To mark the extent of the Roman empire in the north. Building limites, or markers, was common for the Romans. But a 73-mile marker (the singular Latin form is lime) would seem to be somewhat overkill–I use that word again–simply to mark the Romans’ world from that of the barbarians.

To give the Romans a large degree of control in exacting customs and other taxes from those traveling to and from the wall. Here is an argument that seems a little silly to me, but of course I am no historian. How many wayfarers could there have been then, traveling to and from the relatively wild area of the far north of Britannia? And how wealthy were those who sought to travel across the wall? If the Romans wanted to enrich the empire by means of customs, it would have been more logical to place customs checkpoints at the harbors, such as Deva Victrix, where several thousands of people traveled by land and sea.

To serve as a tangible reminder of the might of Rome and, above all, the power of its grand emperor.  In fact, the emperor himself made the long journey to northern Britannia to watch the progress of his wall. If the area was so dangerous, it seems unlikely that he would have been idly watching from his litter as the legionnaires bent to the task. The Wikipedia article notes that “Once its construction was finished, it is thought to have been covered in plaster and then white-washed, its shining surface able to reflect the sunlight and be visible for miles around.” In those days, whitewash was a combination of lime and chalk used to protect outdoor surfaces from the ravages of the weather. So it seems reasonable that yes, the imposing wall shone in the sun’s rays and bedazzled travelers by its size and its radiance too.

So it seems that the wall served multiple purposes: to keep out unwanted, possibly dangerous foreigners; to mark the territory of the Romans; to serve as a customs-gathering means of fattening the pocket of Rome; and to serve as a reminder of the glory of Rome and her emperor Hadrian.

I am fascinated by the Wall of Hadrian, and I have placed two of my characters in, on, or around that wall. Gristle, known as Marcus when he was a soldier, was stationed in the nearby hills of the Lake District in Warrior, Ride Hard. He and his soldiers were pitted against the roaming Pictish tribes. In the sequel titled Warrior, Stand Tall, I introduce a character named Dub or Dubthach who fought at the wall and ventured beyond to marry a Caledonian maiden.

The country itself is magnificent, as you can tell by looking at the various photos here. As I was browsing the images, seeing so many “tourist photos,” it came as rather a shock to see a few taken during the winter, where Gristle sardonically remarks that he “froze his buttocks” on the unyielding walls. It is also remarkable how the Romans built this huge enterprise by following the lay of the land. But of course, how else could they have done it?

Read more about the ancient world of Britannia, Hibernia, Wales, and Alba (Scotland) in the romance novels of Erin O’Quinn:

Storm Maker:  http://amzn.to/O218y7
The Wakening Fire : http://amzn.to/N1Gc6C
Captive Heart:  http://amzn.to/Qm8b1X
Fire & Silk:  http://amzn.to/P6jZtn
Warrior, Ride Hard:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-ride-hard
Warrior, Ride Hard on Amazon:  http://amzn.to/P2eRDO
Warrior, Stand Tall:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-stand-tall

Visit my manlove blog too, where excerpts will take you to these lands and more (warning: erotic content):

http://romancemanlove.wordpress.com

Tara: In the Cradle of Kings

Photo by Jim Dempsey

Tara–the very name evokes the ancient beginnings of Éire. That was the location of the famous Lia Fáil, known as the Stone of Destiny. That was the legendary site of the famous Mead Hall of the high kings…the Mound of Hostages….White Grange… the ráths or ringforts of kings and even mythic beings.

In the map shown here, you will see that Tara lies in Co. Meath, not far from Dublin. During the fifth century AD when my novels take place, Tara was  the site where Ireland’s high king Leary had his “bally” or settlement, and it served as the seat of his power. In the times well before that, since the dawn of Ireland’s civilization, this area was venerated as the sacral center of neolithic people around 5,000 years ago.

According to Ireland’s legends, Tara predated even those neolithic people, as it was the cradle of the Tuatha Dé Danann, pre-Celtic dwellers who held this land sacred. One can see by looking at a panoramic view that Tara is elevated gently, commanding a viewer to see for miles around. In a country largely devoid of peaks, this must have been a natural site to place its kings–close to the ocean, near rivers that feed the verdant, rolling hills where thousands of head of cattle could roam.

The Hill of Tara figures prominently in several of my novels, both published and unpublished. The first time the character Caylith stands on the ancient grounds, she is with her mother listening to the High King as he utters condemnations and bestows endowments from the Throne of Judgment. Later, she and the other characters watch a hurling match in a field near the sacred mounds, hosted by the king himself. In a later book, Caylith returns with her new husband in a failed attempt to forestall a confrontation between King Leary and St. Patrick. The the bold priest has set himself to lighting a huge bonfire to rival the king’s own Beltane purification fire. This event, supposed to have happened in 432 AD, is the part of the climax of my novel The Wakening Fire.

In my most recent novels Warrior, Ride Hard and Warrior, Stand Tall the characters are in a “flashback” setting, as I tell what was happening behind the scenes when Caylith and her mother were given lands before the Throne of Judgment. Later, one of the characters is captured and held inside the Mound of Hostages, and still later another character is severely wounded and left to die under a huge dolmen near the sacred hill.

Photo by Jim Dempsey

Two of  the most intriguing and compelling sites at Tara are the Mound of Hostages and the Lia Fáil, both unarguably several thousands of years old.

From neolithic times, the leaders (later, kings) of  Ireland held “hostages” or representatives from the various sub-kingships of the island. Ireland’s most famous High King, called Niáll Noígíallach, is known to this day as Niáll of the Nine Hostages, for he held hostages not only from the five provinces of 5th-century Éire but also from Alba, the land we now know as Scotland.

It is possible that the ancient kings actually sacrificed some of those unlucky hostages. Here we see the structure called the Mound of Hostages where it is surmised that some held were allowed to die as representatives of their people. Here is an overview of the mound, taken on a stormy day, that to me evokes the frightening aspect of that place:

Photo by Jim Dempsey

A closer look at the opening reveals that it is really quite low, no more than four feet or so. In Warrior, Ride Hard the young man Wynn is thrown into this enclosure and finds that he can hardly sit up, and he cannot move around, because the dimensions inside are so cramped. As I wrote of his captivity, I imagined those hostages from centuries past trying to find air to breathe and room to stretch their limbs in this dire place.

I imagined those huge stones at the entrance being rolled across, allowing scant air for the prisoners to breathe. All in all, this famous mound is one to stop a visitor in his tracks. It is clear that it dates from the neolithic period, and that it really was once the site of sacrifice–whether human or animal–and that it was an important part of the rhythm of life of those early dwellers in Ireland.

To most Irish people, the word “Tara” conjures up the unforgettable image of the Lia Fáil–Stone of Destiny.

Photo by Jim Dempsey

The stone is undeniably, proudly phallic. On this greyish-white stone, would-be kings would have reverently placed their hands. On the ground at the base did the ancient seekers after kingship place their feet. Legends say that if the stone roared, or cried out joyfully, the seeker was the true king.

One wonders what happened to those unlucky candidates who heard nary a peep. I suspect that the seekers after the throne had their minions ready somewhere to simulate the sound of approval from this mighty rock!

The stone itself is barely six feet high. But in centuries past, this height was no doubt much greater than that of the people. It is said that the stone even passed over to Scotland to usher in the realm of Fergus in ca. AD 500, but modern scholars have debunked that notion. It is more probable that a threshhold stone was taken instead, one of sufficient size to warrant being a “swearing-in” stone, but not this several-ton behemoth!

We do know that in the nineteenth century, the Lia Fáil was taken from its place near the Mound of Hostages and placed on its current site.

As if to rival the pagan stone of old, a modern statue of St. Patrick now looms on the Hill of tara, near where it is  told that he lit his famous Paschal Fires in defiance of High King Leary.

Patrick seems even now to defy the pagan beginnings of the ancient Hill of Tara, as his imposing figure stands in a place of honor not so far from the neolithic Stone of Destiny.

This modern map of the northern and central section of Ireland shows Tara a little more in context.

All the characters in my books have roamed these boglands and hills, these seas and bays and lakes. You will meet them in the following novels:

Storm Maker:  http://amzn.to/O218y7
The Wakening Fire : http://amzn.to/N1Gc6C
Captive Heart:  http://amzn.to/Qm8b1X
Fire & Silk:  http://amzn.to/P6jZtn
Warrior, Ride Hard:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-ride-hard
Warrior, Stand Tall:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-stand-tall

 Slán until next weekend…Erin O’Quinn

Clootie wells and trees: Ancient celtic places of purification

Now that both my Iron Warrior novels are out, it’s time to talk about one of the themes that runs through them–the idea of defilement and purification.

In Warrior, Ride Hard one of the protagonists–Wynn, a young trainer of wild ponies–is beset by druids who are bent on defiling him along with other men they have captured and drugged. In plain language, the druids are intent on raping him as they have abused other captive men.

(Please note that I am not intent on disparaging the druids. My story is just that–a story. No one knows about the personal lives of those long-ago priests, and so I have exercised “poetic license” to tell a compelling story about individuals, not about a group of people.)

Wynn is bent over the sides of a sacred well by two malevolent druids. He escapes, but not until he is convinced that the high king’s two chief druids, Loch and Lucet, have assaulted him while he is unconscious. In the following novel Warrior, Stand Tall, Wynn seeks out the place of his defilement–the sacred hill of Tara–along with a few friends who are there to help him seek justice. But Wynn doesn’t want justice. He wants to be cleansed of what he feels is a deep disease, or inner contamination.

I’d like to talk about the healing and purification, through the means of the clootie well and the clootie tree.

This is not the only instance in my books where I bring up the clootie well and the clootie tree. In The Wakening Fire, the crippled Owen Sweeney MacNeill is taken to the sacred well each month by his loving wife, where she seeks to bathe his ruined legs in the holy waters. Later in that same novel, Owen is taken to sacred waters at Cloudy (Clóidigh) near Derry to bathe his legs. Later still, Caylith brews a “gruit,” or special herbal mix for Owen, using the branches of the hawthorn as well as other plants growing around the well.

In Wynn’s mind, the way to cleanse himself is through the common means of a clootie well, a well filled with water sacred to a spirit or a local goddess. For centuries, folks throughout the celtic world would cleanse a diseased or malformed part of their body in the sacred water. After the advent of Christianity, when the wells’ spirit was transposed to a saint or other religious figure, the wells became the focus of folk pilgrimages.

The word “clootie” or “clougthie” is actually Scotttish Gaelic meaning “cloth” or  “clothing.”

The tradition of dipping rags or cloths into sacred water is apparently a very old one found throughout modern celtic locales–Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, Wales, and other places. Those seeking purification would dip a strip of cloth in the water, then apply it to the affected body part. After hanging the cloth on a nearby tree–in Ireland, usually a hawthorn–they would leave it to the elements. They believed that by the time the sun had bleached it and the passage of time had cleaned it, the part of the body it had touched would be cured by the attendant spirit or goddess.

Usually, the wells one sees today are adorned with Christian crosses, and there are areas designated for pilgrims to leave tokens. Originally, however, the wells were probably declared “holy of holies” by some attendant druid or representative of  the spirit that watched over the  healing waters.

Photo by J. Champion 8.29.2006

The well pictured here is from a site called Madron in Cornwall. The large cross, called the Boswarthen Cross, is located nearby.

Photo by J. Champion 8.29.2006

There are scores of sacred wells throughout the countries commonly called “celtic.” But sadly, many of them are beginning to disappear–usually through the ignorance of people, but often enough because of the lack of local laws preserving such precious sites from urban development.

An example of such desecration is the recent complete ruin of the Well of St. Brigid in Co. Dublin, Ireland, razed to make way for a building work. An article in Wikipedia mentions the destruction of such a well at Rath Lugh in the Tara-Skyrne Valley of Ireland that has recently been razed during the construction of a motorway.

The tree where the cloths were hung is known as a “clootie tree,” always located at or near the well itself. Both the wells and trees are seen to this day throughout celtic locales, especially in Scotland, but also in Ireland, Cornwall, Wales and other parts of Britain. I mentioned that in Ireland, the sacred trees were commonly hawthorns, long thought of as sacred; in Scotland and other places, Wikipedia mentions that the sacred trees are usually whitethorn, though sometimes ash.

It is noteworthy that right up to the present moment, there are “clootie” trees throughout the celtic world. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to see trees from apple to oak festooned with cloth, paper tags, even religious and other icons. There is even a modern offshoot of the clootie tree called a “wish tree,” sometimes seen as “wytch tree,” whereon one hangs good wishes for the future and other signs of luck. Students of religion will no doubt see similarities to India’s sacred Bodhi tree, and even to our modern Christmas tree.

Although I have not seen any sources that make the specific connection, I see the ancient “celtic tree” motif in the clootie tree. The motif, common nowadays in celtic design, seem to be an archetypal symbol of the tree of life. The hanging of cloths–and later, yarn, pieces of paper, even shoes and neckties–seems to reflect a universal human longing for the connection between our souls and the trees whose deep roots wind through the earth itself.

Below, I list the links to the works I have mentioned in this article. The last one (Warrior, Stand Tall) was published Sept. 5 and is available at a 15% discount for a limited time.

The Wakening Fire : http://amzn.to/N1Gc6C
Warrior, Ride Hard:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-ride-hard
Warrior, Stand Tall:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-stand-tall

Who were the Picts? And what about those tattoos?

I recently wrote a short story for Torquere Press in response to their call for submissions for “INK”–an anthology of tattoo-based stories. Of course, since most of my fiction has centered on fifth-century Ireland and other celtic locales, I thought right away about the Picts.

While reading about those mysterious people, I found out a few interesting bits that I’d like to share with my readers.

True or false? The Picts were really Caledonians, the people who later became Scoti to the Romans, and finally “Scots.” Answer:  PROBABLY FALSE.

True or false? The Picts bore blue tattoos on their bodies, virtually from head to toe. Answer: MAYBE.

I realize that I’m hedging my bets here. But almost 2,000 years after the Romans wrote about those people with picti, or pictures on their body, who’s to know for sure where they came from and what those blue marks really were?

Let me begin with the first “myth”–that the Picts were really just an offshoot of the Caledoni, the tribes that the Romans found when they invaded present-day Scotland at the dawn of the first century AD.

If the evolution of language is a way to trace the ancestry of a people, then perhaps it’s only a myth that our present day Scotsmen can trace their lineage to the Picts. Even though the Roman chroniclers were careful to distinguish among the people they conquered–and even those they did not–it seems that the Picts were one group of people, a distinct race, among others that the Romans found when they invaded the north of the great island of Britannia.

There is one school of thought that traces the Picts back to Iberia, the Roman’s name for modern Spain. Others think that the Picts originated in the Orkney and even the Shetland islands, two island groups that lie well north of the Scottish mainland. Could the original immigrants have come from Norway–or even Iceland and beyond–and settled in those islands, centuries before the Norsemen penetrated as far as Britannia itself?

Most scholars think that the Picts were a large distinct tribe that inhabited most of present-day Scotland until about the fifth century AD. Then they began to be subsumed with the people the Romans named the Scoti, a nation of people that emigrated from the region called “Dál Riada,” encompassing the modern day Inner Hebrides and a portion of Northern Ireland, modern Co. Antrim. On the satellite image pictured here, Dál Riada is in the shaded oval. Thus the Irish Gaels merged with the Picti to form a nation called Scoti, or Scots. The term “Caledonian” seems to be almost generic, a term the Romans used to refer to anyone beyond the great walls they erected to keep the savages from penetrating the rest of Britannia.

The question that no scholars have been able to answer is this: how could such a large number of people, spread throughout thousands of miles, have virtually disappeared in a few generations? It’s possible that instead of disappearing, the hardy Picti merely intermarried with the Scoti, to form the rugged, handsome people we now call Scots.

Mind you, this is a guess. No one knows for sure. One of the greatest mysteries of the Picts is their language. Not a trace of their language remains except in stone markings called “ogham,” a language that has been traced to the so-called P-Celtic tongue. Not a trace of their widespread early culture remains except in the form of standing stones with distinctive artwork, in unearthed burrows, and in the traces of stone houses, among other remnants.

Likewise, no one really knows the truth about the famous Pictish “tattoos.”

I’m almost reluctant to use the word “tattoo,” originating as it does from Tahiti/Samoa as late as the 17th century. In fact, in that recent short story I wrote about a blue-marked Pict, I used the term “pricked-in” to refer to the falcon embedded on his chest, and below you’ll see why I settled on that term.

The very word “pict” derives from the term used by  a Roman chronicler who thought that these people were covered with blue “pictures.” The blueness of the markings has been thought for centuries to be derived from a plant called “woad,” a member of the mustard family, whose ground roots render a distinctive blue dye.

Until recently, it was assumed that the woad plant was inserted under the skin after elaborate markings were picked, or pricked-in, with some kind of slender needle. But experiments show that first of all, the woad dye is short-lived, lasting only a week or two before it becomes so faded that it almost disappears. Second, anyone injected with woad paste or powder becomes very ill. It’s a substance that humans can hardly tolerate.

So how did the Picts make their tattoos?

Well, it’s entirely possible that the markings were not picked into their skin at all, but were painted–much the same as the Amerind “war paint.” I like to think that those who saw the distinctive blue swirls and designs were on the wrong side of the Picts’ better nature, and those marks were the sign of outright hostility–war paint, if you will.

Another plausible theory is that the blue paste worked under their skin was woad mixed with an iron-based pigment that would ensure that the marks remained, and that did not sicken the wearer.

I like to think that these ancient warriors, with a  culture based on matrilineal descent, were naturally drawn to the  intricate curved and geometric designs that we think of to this day as “Celtic” or “Pictish.”

Remembering that the Picts lived in a matriarchal society, ask yourself:  Who but a woman would have thought first of adorning herself with lovely patterns that highlight the muscles and natural curves of the body? You read it here first, my friends: Pictish tattoos were invented by a woman. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.  ;-)

The novels of Erin O’Quinn are centered largely in the northern portion of ancient Ireland–Derry, Inishowen, Tyrconnell (Donegal), Coleraine. From there, the characters have journeyed to sacred Armagh and Tara, south  to Wales, across Britannia to Deva Victrix, to Cambria, north to the great wall of Hadrian and beyond.

Join the growing number of readers who are beginning to learn about the wild-ass people of this exciting time on the cusp of written history through a series of unique novels.

Erin O’Quinn’s Manlove blog:  http://romancemanlove.wordpress.com/
Storm Maker:  http://amzn.to/O218y7
The Wakening Fire : http://amzn.to/N1Gc6C
Captive Heart:  http://amzn.to/Qm8b1X
Fire & Silk:  http://amzn.to/P6jZtn
Warrior, Ride Hard:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-ride-hard
Warrior, Stand Tall:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-stand-tall

Ireland: A Landscape Built in Dreams

The Lagan, near Belfast after a rain

All my books about Ireland were written looking from my window at the rain-parched landscape of central Texas. If ever I needed an inner eye, an active imagination, it was when Caylith and her immigrants first walked on the soil of Éire–when they embarked from their little skin-clad currachs from the bay where today stands the city of Belfast at the juncture of the Irish Sea and the lovely Lagan River.      

From there, I needed to envision the lush rolling hills, the green bogland, the cattle-dotted land between the coast and the huge Lough Neagh, Ireland’s largest lake. And the home of Father Patrick, the famous hill of Emain Macha, had to be not just distinctive but awe-inspiring–the place where the faith of a whole nation was born through the dedication of a man and his ever-widening ministry.

A panoramic view of the Hill of Macha, showing a modern roundhouse on the top

The Foyle not far from Derry

On the hill of Macha I set a large clay-and-wattle roundhouse and a perpetual bonfire, a reminder by Patrick to the people of Christ’s immortality. Even though that fire was my own creation, still it seems a logical fixture in the place where the later saint started his ministry.

Once Caylith and the pilgrims made their inland trek north to Derry, the settlement they built along the River Foyle, she naturally sought out the swift river and the large rocks imbedded along the bank and in the water itself. There she could fish for salmon and trout as she lay on a large rock, daydreaming as the cold, flashing currents swirled and leapt their way to the lake beyond, and from there to the northern sea.

The mighty Foyle, swiftest river in Éire

Many of those visions were mental ones. Writing that first romance, Storm Maker, I did not know how to navigate the web, how to instantly call forth the photos I show today. I’m surprised now, in retrospect, how close my imagination came to reality. And in some locales, I’m shamed at the disparity between the site and my inner perspective of the place.

One view of Trawbreaga Bay, Inishowen

Never mind.  The sites are vivid to me each time I re-read the passages where, for instance, in The Wakening Fire Caylith and Liam stopped on their way to Limavady and conceived their first-born under a red-berried holly. Or the winding bay, the lovely Trawbreaga Bay in Inishowen, where the two of them washed off the stench of their captured enemy in Storm Maker; and where later, in Fire & Silk, a future king established his first domain.

As the books continued and my ability on the computer improved, I was able to see actual photos of the treacherous Tory Island that figured so prominently in Captive Heart, the pyramidal Mt. Errigal with its rose-quartz color at sunset, the fingers of lightning that plague the north coast of modern Donegal, and much more, in Fire & Silk.

A rocky strand on Trawbreaga Bay

And yet, even with photos in front of me, I still needed to walk the land and sift the soil between my fingers. I needed to see the broken-knife shapes of the rocks on Tory and imagine them as resurrected warriors. I needed to see through the eyes of a future king the hill fort overlooking the Swilly River, and much more.

And so, even though these photos capture part of the spirit of my books, I can honestly say that my imaginary landscape is lovely and compelling too.

Mt. Errigal seems to reflect its color back to the clouds.

I’ll leave this flight of fancy with my imaginary waterfall on Mt. Errigal, as Mariana saw it:

She stood under a tall, rough escarpment, one that lay at an angle that would shield this low ground from the force of the prevailing wind. And then her ear was caught by a growl so continual and insistent that it took her several seconds to understand that a waterfall flowed from the bluff, hidden by a line of nearby tall pines. Enthralled, she walked toward the sound.

Emerging from the trees, she stood openmouthed. She had never seen a waterfall before. This one arched from the highest part of the bluff, catching the sunlight in its crystal sprays, tumbling and singing down the side of Errigal like a jeweled ornament. She soon understood the roar as a series of sounds—the rush of the water itself, the pounding of waves on rock, the echo it made as it tumbled and fell from Errigal’s thighs. Yes, she agreed with Flann. Errigal was a woman. She was a wanton, a beguiler, a siren, and a summoner of men. For the first time, she began to form an idea of Flann’s attraction to this place. 

As far as Flann goes,

He was walking into [a] recurrent dream. He wanted Mariana to see his mountain, his waterfall, through his eyes. Would the myriad diamonds of the cascades reflect back in her eyes? Or would the flashing brilliance of her eyes jump and swirl in his waterfall? He ached to find out.

Please come with me to ancient Éire and experience the landscape for yourself–both the real one and the one conjured in my dreams.

“Baylor’s Teeth” on Tory Island

Storm Maker…  http://amzn.to/O218y7
The Wakening Fire…  http://amzn.to/N1Gc6C
Captive Heart…  http://amzn.to/Qm8b1X
Fire & Silk…  http://amzn.to/P6jZtn
Warrior, Ride Hard…  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-ride-hard
Warrior, Stand Tall (coming Sept. 5)

A Bawdy Irish Tale: Battle of the Beauties

This blogsite has already re-told a bawdy tale about Maeve (Medb), the goddess known for her beauty and her insatiable sexual appetite. Here is another excerpt, this one from my first Dawn of Ireland romance Storm Maker, wherein not just Maeve but two other renowned goddesses enter the story–Brigid and Macha.

It so happens that Brigid is also the name of my heroine Caylith’s best friend, a fetching blonde; and Caylith secretly sees herself as the redhead Macha. One night, everyone is enjoying wineskins full of different heady brews, and one of the men, Ryan Murphy, begins to tell a ribald tale. Of course, both Brigid and Caylith listen closely while pretending to ignore the swilling, drunken men.

The story that follows is entirely my invention, but I can well imagine a story or two just like it in the mouths of the ancient filí, the bards, who recounted the boisterous legends of old and even made some up as they went along–just as I did!

THE BATTLE OF THE BEAUTIES

That night after supper, Ryan stood and lifted his cup to the crowd. “Have none of ye heard the story,” he cried, “of the battle of the beauties?” Laughing and red of face, Michael translated his cousin’s words almost as he spoke.

“This was a bit of time ago, ye understand, back when all of Ulster belonged to Ard Rí Murphy, High King over all these lands…” 

There were shouts of derision, for everyone knew that Murphy was never more than a cattle baron, a tribal chieftain. Yet in Ryan’s eyes he had attained the highest rank possible.

“…An’ the two loveliest women of the day, Bridget and Medb, sought to be crowned the most beautiful woman in Éire. Now King Murphy, at that time, was married to another beauty, the celebrated, red-haired Macha. An’ the two women, knowing of Macha’s renowned good looks, proclaimed that none less than King Murphy himself would declare the winner. For they knew that whichever one of them would win, Macha herself would lose.

“So the two women stood on a dais in front of the king, who had himself blindfolded, so sure was he of his ability to choose the right woman. Before he was to decide, his wife Macha told him tenderly, ‘Dearest one, let the contest be fair to all. Let us use a woman from your court to stand as a third contestant. I meself will choose her.’ 

“Now King Murphy was a great king, but in comparison to women’s brains, some say he was not so great as the legends would have ye believe. But others say he was wise beyond all other men. He agreed right away, an’ ye’ll decide which opinion to believe.

“Soon not two but three women stood on the dais in front of the blindfolded king. He stepped up to the first beauty and stroked her long hair. This was the lovely Bridget, she of the golden locks, whose beauty had caused the great Finn himself to swoon in desire, whose braids had wrapped around his groin as he slept. He tried to stand as close to her hair as he could, feeling the tendrils tighten about him. He stood there long enough to make a decision.

“Then he stepped to the next woman, the famous beauty, Medb, and he proceeded to kiss her full on the mouth. Now Medb was known for her unbounded appetites, and she seized his mouth and almost choked the poor man with her long, searching tongue. It took the king a few long moments to decide.”

By now, the men were cheering and stamping their feet on the wooden floor. I caught Brigid’s eye, and both of us headed for a far part of the room to try to ignore the end of the tale.

“And now he stood before the third woman. He reached out both hands and found her swelling breasts, rising out of her gown like ripe melons. He felt for a moment, uncertain.

“Now be it known that King Murphy loved his wife Macha beyond all others, and he accordingly loved every inch of her body. So he knew that she had a small beauty mole just—there, on the side of her right nipple. He bent forward and seized her nipple in his mouth and began to suckle, letting his tongue feel for a telltale mole.

“Sure enough, he found it right away, but he did not reveal his little deception, for then he seized the other as well. After another little while he backed away from the dais and raised both hands to the assembled court.

“‘Let it be proclaimed,’ he said, ‘that I have found the fairest woman in Éire. It is she whose breasts I have touched today.’

“And thus was Macha rewarded for a having a husband both virile and wise.”

Ryan’s story was met with such laughter and swigging from wineskins that I thought the din would never end. Brigid said, “This is typical, Caylith, of the behavior of great louts in a swine pen.”

I agreed, red faced. Deep down, where none would ever know it, I saw myself as Macha. I had felt Liam’s hands and mouth as the story was unfolding, and I blushed at my own little secret.

Caylith, Brigid, Murphy and many more engaging characters fill the pages of Erin O’Quinn’s novels. You will find them here:

Storm Maker:  http://amzn.to/O218y7
The Wakening Fire : http://amzn.to/N1Gc6C
Captive Heart:  http://amzn.to/Qm8b1X
Fire & Silk:  http://amzn.to/P6jZtn
Warrior, Ride Hard:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-ride-hard

How to be an Instant Irishman

‘Tis not just the lilting, musical tone of Gaelige that charms the ear and wins friends and sweethearts. The Irish have a way of speaking even curses that plays on the soul and begs to be sung.

I’ve gathered some of my own favorite Irish blessings, curses, drinking toasts and folk sayings. I’m sure you have a treasure trove of your own. If so, please add them to the comment section below.

When I could find the Gaelige, I put it next to the English translation. I’ve also added a few common endearments and other everyday expressions.

Cheers and sayings related to drink:                                                                                                           

Health! (Cheers!) Sláinte!

Ireland forever! Eireann go Brach!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Beannachtai na Feile Padraig!

Thirst is a shameless disease…so here’s to a shameful cure.

‘Tis the first drop that destroys you. There’s no harm at all in the last.

Good as drink is, it ends in thirst.

                        Blessings:

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields,
And until we meet again,
May God hold you
In the palm of his hand.

May you live as long as you want,
And never want as long as you live…

May the road rise with you.
Go n-éirí on bóthar leat.

(And my favorite:)
May your feet never sweat.

 

Curses:                                                                                                                                                 

                                                                                                        

Burning and scorching on you.
Dóite agus loisceadh ort.

May you leave without returning.
Imeacht gan teacht ort.

May you fall without rising.
Titim gan eiri ort.

[And, if it’s a particularly cringe-worthy curse:]

The same to you.
Gurab amhlaidh duit.

Kiss my butt!
Póg mo thoin!  pronounced <pohg muh hoin>

Folk Sayings:                                                                                                 

Say little but say it well.
Beagán agus a rá go maith.

May you be across Heaven’s threshold before the Devil knows you’re dead.

He who gets a name for early rising can stay in bed until midday.                                                                   

Man is incomplete until he marries. After that, he is finished.

You can’t kiss an Irish girl unexpectedly. You can only kiss her sooner than she thought you would.

Wisdom is the comb given to a man after he has lost his hair.

God is good, but never dance in a small boat.

The man with the boots does not mind where he places his foot.

The only cure for love is marriage.
Nil aon leigheas ar an ngra ach posadh.

Many a time a man’s mouth broke his nose.
Is minic a bhris beal duine a shron.

 

Other sayings:

I put the following original sayings in the mouth of one if my characters, Ryan Murphy, a character in Storm Maker and The Wakening Fire. Ryan is a kind of home-spun cowboy who always has something to say about the ageless dance of man with woman.

The less said, the longer wed.

A woman’s mouth can be a man’s downfall–or the way to stand him up again.

If ye’d be wealthy, marry a smart woman.

When first ye wed, ye stay in bed.

 

Quotes about the Irish:

[The Irish]  is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever. ~Sigmund Freud                     

I’m troubled, I’m dissatisfied. I’m Irish.  ~Marianne Moore

 

Terms of endearment and everyday sayings:

The equivalent of “Hello” means “God be with you”:
Dia dhuit   < dee-ah dwit> or <dee-ah gheet>

My dear/darling/treasure…
A chuisle mo chroí...  <a quish/leh  muh kree>  Literally means “beat of my heart”

I love you.
Is tú mo ghra.  <ees too muh grah>

In conclusion, may I say

Goodbye… an’ blessings on ye.
Slán agus beannacht leat.

Those who enjoyed these expressions may also enjoy the characters in my novels–ancient Gaelic warriors, cowboys, brehons, druids, tonsured monks, high kings, St. Paddy himself, and many more. I use Gaelic words often, for I love the cadence and the soft blur around the edges of the language.

Storm Maker:  http://amzn.to/O218y7

The Wakening Fire : http://amzn.to/N1Gc6C

Captive Heart:  http://amzn.to/Qm8b1X
Fire & Silk (on Strand):  http://www.bookstrand.com/fire-silk

http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-ride-hard

Cú Chulainn–Ultimate Irish Hero?

After reading several sources about the fabled warrior Cú Chulainn, I need to ask–was he really the quintessential Gaelic hero? Or was he, as Irish playwright Samuel Beckett famously described him, “the . . . patron saint of pure ignorance and crass violence”?

First, let’s get his tongue-twisting name straightened out. In the Irish Gaelic tongue, his name (a bit simplified) would be roughly   coo HOO lun   where the “ch” sound is similar to the Germanic “ch” sound, as in ach.

Every age, every culture needs its larger-than-life heroes. If  Cú Chulainn did not exist, he would have to be invented to fill a human need. Just so, the filí--the bards–of ancient Ireland needed to sing the exploits of a young man who was beloved of women, admired by warriors, respected by enemies, and indomitable in battle. In short, he was a man who represented all that the beautiful, wild land of Éire was to its people.                                                         

Legends about Cú Chulainn abound from about the end of the iron age, just about the time when Caesar was riding roughshod over Celtic territory. Perhaps there is a link between the hero and the conquerer here, but history is silent. Because Caesar’s exploits took place in Gaul, and our warrior  was centered in Ireland, there may be no more connection than a universal knowledge of the hero Achilles in the ancient Homeric epic, or that deep-seated need for a people to extol a national hero.

Cú Chulainn was not born with that name. Legend has it that he was the son of a god and a mortal woman. He was named Sétanta, roughly  sha DAN tuh  in Gaelic.

Although still a stripling, his aspect was so striking and his talents so amazing that he was pressured into seeking a wife. His fancy was for beautiful Emer–but she taunted him with the fact that he was still a boy and sent him off to learn to be a warrior.

So learn he did. He studied under a famous female warrior whom he not only bedded, but he sired a son by her daughter! He later married Emer, who became devoted to him. Cú Chulainn was definitely attractive to the ladies. But women would prove to be his undoing.

Again at a tender age, he attended a feast at the home of one named Culann, a sidhe smith who owned a huge wolfhound. As the legends have it, the dog attacked Sétanta, who killed the beast in self-defense. Feeling bad about killing the dog, the hero offered to stay until another guard dog could be trained. From that time onward, he bore the name “Cú” meaning whelp or young dog, and “Chulainn,” a form of Culann–The Hound of Culann.

Even such a warrior as Cú Chulainn would be just another legend if it were not for Queen Maeve and the famous Cattle Raid of Cooley. The mortal warriors of Ulster, true to a curse uttered by the goddess Macha, were rendered impotent for battle when Maeve’s army attacked. So our divine-born hero, unaffected by the curse, took them on single-handedly.

The standard of battle in legends was that one warrior could challenge another on behalf of whole armies. And so Cú Chulainn, greater than any warrior of the time, easily conquered any that Queen Maeve could send. Finally she was forced to make a bargain with him to end the bloodshed.

One of the most enduring aspects of Cú Chulainn was the “battle frenzy” or ríastrad, that seized him while fighting. Similar to the berserker aspect of the later Vikings, many a legend and picture of him shows him in full “warp spasm,” a term coined by the translator Thomas Kinsella.

Cú Chulainn died as violently as he had lived. Having angered the powerful Queen Maeve, he was cursed by her sending against him the deadly triple aspect of Goddesses called the Morrigan. To make a short tale of a brutal and bloody end, he was pierced by his own spears. He dragged himself to a standing stone and lashed himself there in order to remain standing. Most renditions of his death–including a famous statue in the General Post Office of Dublin–show him bound to the stone with a raven perched on his shoulder as a symbol of death. There is even a rock in Co. Louth fabled to be the stone he died upon.

As for my initial question–whether Cú Chulainn is a true hero or a symbol of all that is ignorant and brutal–I shall leave that for others to decide. If he is crass and ignorant, so then are the indomitable heroes of the Iliad, and mighty Beowulf, and for that matter the Biblical David and scores of other heroes who made their names not by their intellects but by their mighty deeds.

Erin O’Quinn’s romance novels are set in fifth-century Ireland, when deeds of old would soon give way to the godspels of Jesus as spread by tonsured priests and the famous bishop Patrick. 

The books are available as follows:

The manlove books, The Iron Warrior:

WARRIOR, RIDE HARD: http://amzn.to/P2eRDO

In U.K.  http://amzn.to/YxRtqv

WARRIOR, STAND TALL:   http://amzn.to/WoDkGS

In U.K.  http://amzn.to/13WTTNF

No Kindle? Find them on the Siren Bookstrand site: http://bit.ly/O7b5us

Storm Maker:  http://www.amazon.com/Ireland-BookStrand-Publishing-Romance-ebook/dp/B00845V8X6
The Wakening Fire : http://www.amazon.com/Wakening-Ireland-BookStrand-Publishing-ebook/dp/B008BKSGES
Captive Heart:  http://www.amazon.com/Captive-Ireland-BookStrand-Publishing-ebook/dp/B008K2X1QA
Fire & Silk (on Strand):  http://www.bookstrand.com/fire-silk

Ancient Irish dog breeds: Wolfhound and collie

The small isle of Éire boasts the world’s tallest dog…and the world’s most intelligent dog. The first is the wolfhound, and the second is the border collie.

Yes, there are many other breeds considered to be “Irish,” among them the Irish setter, water spaniel and varieties of terrier. Today, in the spirit of my blog, I want to talk about the two that we can trace to pre-Christian times, or at least (in the case of the collie) back to the time of the Viking invasions in roughly the 9th century AD.

No one is sure when the wolfhound “arrived” in Éire. Perhaps, like the giant elk, it developed because the sheer size of the elk required the evolution of a huge dog to pursue and bring it down. Scholars have argued for a date 3,000 years BC to around the 5th century AD, but there is no consensus.                      

The wolfhound is, in a word, humongous. Modern AKC size standards are a minimum of 32 inches at the shoulder. One man writing in 1790  referred to the dog as being 36 inches; even before that, Campion in 1571 said, “They (the Irish) are not without wolves and greyhounds to hunt them, bigger of bone and limb than a colt.”

Thus as big as they are now, the wolfhounds were no doubt even larger up until a few hundred years ago. When the wolves began to die out in Ireland, so too did the large hunters of wolves. Only after careful breeding did the wolfhound survive, and even thrive.

The coat is most often wiry. The animal is muscular and deep-chested, with an appearance often described as “commanding.”

In spite of its size and apparent ferocity, though, the wolfhound is a gentle dog, very attuned to its human companions. Some breeders feel that due to its sensitivity to humans, it makes a good guard dog because it can sense malicious intent (say, on the part of an attacker or burglar) and react swiftly.

Given the size and overall appearance, it is not surprising that the wolfhound became a byword in Irish folklore because of the exploits of a mythological god-warrior once called Sétanta. As a child, Sétanta was said to have killed the giant dog of Culann in self-defense. From that time on, he was called “Cú,” after the Gaelic word for “whelp” or “pup” and Chulainn after the name of Culann.                                                                                                               

There are some who  will argue that Irish collies are actually older than the wolfhounds. It is certain, however, that they were bred from the dogs that the monks used starting in the 6th century AD to tend their cattle and sheep. When the Vikings swept across Éire, plundering the monasteries, the monks fled to Scotland with their cattle, sheep and of course their dogs.

An author colleague, Kemberlee Shortland, has written to me of the derivation of the word “collie”:

“The Border Collie  . . . was first bred in Ireland! Not the Borders of Scotland. The word Collie is an Anglicized word from an ancient Irish word no longer in use that meant ‘helper’. The Irish word coileán means pup or puppy. That word stemmed from the ancient word for helper.”

“Over the centuries, those dogs moved into England, but because of the farming in the Scottish lowlands, the dogs thrived in the region and large scale breeding came about. Who didn’t want a dog who could fetch sheep from the side of a mountain while you stood in the valley whistling at it?! This is why they became known as the Border Collie, aka the Scottish Border Collie . . . a collie or helper dog bred in the Borders of Scotland. In reality, they should have been called Irish Collies.”

Regardless of which breed came first, few will argue that the working collie is on the genius scale of canine brains They have been bred for centuries to take care of errant cattle and sheep, and they seem to have an unerring way of knowing just what to do in every circumstance. Here is an amusing story Kemberlee wrote to me:                      

“Incredibly smart dogs. I think Daisie was about two when we took her to our friend’s farm to see if she had the aptitude for herding. She’d never seen a sheep before in her life and Robert said to just let her off the lead in the pasture. A small flock were at the top of the incline in this particular pasture. Daisie ran up the right flank of the field, circled the sheep and brought them down to us. She ran over to me with a look of ‘Man! Can I do that again?’”

I would like to end this article with a reference to another writer colleague, Miriam Newman, who is involved in dog rescue. If you go to her Blue Rose Blog (see my blogroll on the right side of this page), you will see why she has devoted hundreds of hours to the rescue of dogs of all breeds.

I’m sure Miriam and Kemberlee both would join me in urging you to hug a pup today! Sure an’ if it can’t be an Irish pup, or if ye have no pup, visit your local shelter and learn about unconditional love.

Slán, Erin O’Quinn

If you live in the New York area, follow this link to rescue an endangered pet:www.middlemutts.com

Celtic cowboys: Riding the range in ancient Ireland

Ireland, like several other celtic lands blessed with rangeland and the right climate, has been a haven for cattle since prehistoric times. Where there are cattle, there are valuable milk-cows–the rich source of milk, butter, cheese; and of meat, horn, hooves and durable hide.                                                               

And where there are cows, there are always cowboys.

First let me address the cattle themselves. In Ireland, two of the most ancient strains are the stocky Kerry and the durable Dexter breeds. The milk-cow from the beginning was the measure of wealth in the country, and for centuries the cumal (one milk-cow) was the standard against which all other wealth was weighed. This standard was set in the Brehon, the law of the land. Thus any who owned many cattle were regarded as nobles in society.                                                          

The ancient Gaels took their cattle very seriously. They drove them faithfully to the ripening grass throughout the country, even into the rocky cairns, through land that many people (like the Romans) would never venture. They built shielings, or rough shelters for them in the winter, driving them to lower areas where they could be tended more closely together.

The summer drives would have been especially difficult and important for the men who took care of their herds. In the following excerpt from The Wakening Fire, one of the main characters named Liam talks about what the cattlemen could expect:

“I grew up tending the land and cattle of me father. It was, and is, a life of hardship. But also a life of joy, and—yes, adventure, Cat. A kind of adventure that ye may not understand. Which calf will not survive until the next summer drive? How many cattle will be stolen if we leave this pasture for a few days only? Will the lake waters recede and give us a tur loch for summer pasture, or will we need to ride for days seeking undiscovered fodder for our herds? Will the cry of the wolf come in the night, and the next day find our darlings dead an’ gutted? Such be the adventures we face every day.”

Liam mentions the tur loch or turlough, a word derived from the Irish Gaelic word for “dry” combined with “lake.” This was an area lying on limestone, low enough that it would be flooded during wet weather, and then during drier weather, groundwater would well up through the rock to provide precious water for the cattle.

Liam also brings up the fear of stolen cattle. The best-known of Ireland’s sagas, “The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” was based on the theft of a prize brown bull. The battles that raged around that cattle raid resulted in a saga as rich and full of heroes as Homer’s Iliad! The underpinnings of this story are clear enough: with a commodity as valuable as cattle, the rustling of the herds must have been common…and the result bloody.

There are many renderings of celtic warriors. But I have found no pictures of ancient “cowboys,” the men and boys who drove  the herds from low ground to higher summer pastures, the ones who drove  them also to markets where they could be traded for other kinds of wealth.

I imagine these cowboys in the novel Storm Maker, as Caylith’s love interest Liam and his cattle-drover cousin Ryan ride with her on the long road to Derry.

Liam wore a knotted kerchief like a band around his forehead….It kept his wavy, auburn hair back from his face as he rode, heedless of the hot sun and the stiff wind gusting off the lake.

His chest was bare except for a leather thong that crossed one shoulder and then circled his waist. Without seeming to look, I watched how the sun and shadows played across his skin, how his bold muscles flowed with every movement.

He wore leather riding breeches, bríste leathair, no doubt an old pair of Michael’s. I had always liked the way his breeches hugged the muscles of his calves and thighs; and the fact that he was larger than Michael made his contours stand out even more.

His leggings were close fitting, too, made of half-tanned leather and encircled with laces all the way to the knee. Altogether, Liam struck a handsome figure as he rose easily across the low-mounding, green hills. 

Ryan rode next to us, dressed in a tanned leather tunic with no sleeves. Under the tunic he wore pleated trousers, a different kind of breeches called triús, to protect his legs from the friction of horseback riding. They seemed to be made of wool. The upper part, from about midthigh, was loose and gathered. He, too, wore leggings.

The leggings and trousers, triús, would have protected the riders’ legs from rubbing against the sides of their horses. A headband or kerchief would have shielded their necks or heads from the hot sun. Liam’s bare chest here is merely an excuse for Caylith to look upon him with suppressed excitement….     

One of  the more humorous references I learned about these ancient cowboys and  their wards was the suggestion that the tenders of milk cows would actually blow into their, ah, nether region to hasten the running of the milk. In The Wakening Fire, the discussion runs like this:

As Michael made our fire, he told me more about the roving clansmen. “Do not be disappointed, lass, if our kinfolk do not see our signal. Even if this is the first day of spring weather, they will not be herding cattle onto the pastures yet. Chances are, they are holed up in their little huts, waiting for the grass to green.” 

“And yet, to hear Ryan tell it, the drovers are on the range night and day, sleeping with their charges.”

He grinned, piling the kindling into an interlaced pyramid. “Yea, lass, methinks Ryan does sleep with his nose in the nether parts of his milk cows.”

Liam brought the tinderbox, laughing. “To make sure she gives the best milk…very old tradition.”

I left to find my smoke blanket, wondering whether all the clansmen were bawdy all the time when they congregated. When I returned, I asked Brigid in a low voice, “Why do they always speak with such vulgarity when they are together?”

She smiled up at me from her cross-legged position near the fledgling fire. “You know, Cay, the drovers really do, um, blow a bit into their cows to stimulate the milk giving. Our husbands are telling a very tiny bit of truth, for once.”

I leave you with that very close look at cows and their keepers….

To read more about the celtic cowboy life and much more, please get a bit closer to the following:

Storm Maker: http://www.amazon.com/Ireland-BookStrand-Publishing-Romance-ebook/dp/B00845V8X6
The Wakening Fire: http://www.amazon.com/Wakening-Ireland-BookStrand-Publishing-ebook/dp/B008BKSGES
Captive Heart: http://www.amazon.com/Captive-Ireland-BookStrand-Publishing-ebook/dp/B008K2X1QA
Fire & Silk (on Strand) : http://www.bookstrand.com/fire-silk

Queen Maeve and the Bull’s Nether-Horn

While writing all the Dawn of  Ireland books, I was drawn to the rich folklore of Éire, and throughout the novels I attempt to capture some of the music, the heroism, and above all the bawdy spirit of the original tales.  Many followers of Gaelic lore know that The Cattle Raid of Cooley (Táin Bó Cúailnge) has been hailed as the Iliad of ancient Ireland.  It is, in a nutshell, a saga of mighty battles fought over the ownership of a fine red bull.

Like Homer, the singer of the Cattle Raid, the Táin, was not one man but scores of men–poets, ollahmhs, filí--whatever we call the people who sang the great mead-hall ballads of warriors and maidens, gods and goddesses, those creative people with no name who spanned centuries.

Of all the characters in the Táin, probably two stand out more than the others–the hero Cú Chulainn and the warrior queen Maeve (in Gaelic, Medbh). As an archetypal figure, Maeve is also associated with Queen Mab of England and even the Welsh Morgan La Fey, among many others. Today I want to talk a little about the Gaelic Maeve and to present to you an alternative version of the cattle raid–a bawdy story I wrote for The Wakening Fire that spoofs the original and yet, I hope, remains true to the spirit of the sexually unquenchable, powerful queen of Connacht.

The infamous cattle raid of the original epic was indeed started by Maeve. Jealous that her husband Ailill had one more possession than she–a fine red bull being cared for by a neighboring noble–she sets the wheels in motion that result in years of warfare and bloodshed, including the deaths of her children.

Many pictures of Maeve show her next to a red bull. The war began one night during a tender moment of pillow talk, when Maeve begins to feel the stirrings of possessiveness that result in the cattle raid. In my own story (possibly true to the original intent), her craving for the red bull is really a reflection of her renowned sexual appetite.

In the following excerpt from The Wakening Fire, Caylith’s erudite friend Brigid has a plan to arouse her husband. She tells the company sitting around the campfire the tongue-in-cheek female version of the famous Cattle Raid, making the red bull not a possession of her husband, but her own. In this version, Maeve is far more interested in the horn than in the bull….

One  night around the campfire, Caylith calls for a story:

“It is time for a tale,” I said to the company at large.

Abair scéal,” said Brigid. “The ages-old cry for a story. What shall we hear tonight?” She settled back on the raised knees of Michael, her head thrown back and all her golden hair spilling over his legs.

“A tale of cattle,” I said.

“Then the teller must be me wife,” said Michael, stroking her soft curls. “Her namesake, the goddess Brigid, is the protector of cows.”

“Yes,” said Brother Jericho. “And tonight is her night, of all nights of the year. Um, to the local people, that is. Father Patrick is hoping to alter those old folk beliefs.”

She looked up dreamily to the top of the pines, where a few stars stood out against the black of the sky. “Tá go maith. I shall tell, for the many thousands of times over, the story of the great cattle raid. But from the point of view of a woman—the powerful queen Maeve.”

I knew the story, of course. It was one of the oldest in Éire, told by men as they quaffed their beer, recited by poets in the great mead halls of kings. For it was a tale of manly conquest, of warrior against warrior. The cattle raid itself was a mere excuse for a tale of bloody might versus might. I would enjoy a female version, and I settled back in the hollow of Liam’s shoulder to hear her story.

We all know that Maeve was a beauty [Brigid began], and she was the queen of all Connaught. Her fortunate husband, Ailill, enjoyed a life of sensual gratification because of her ready thighs; and a life of ease because of her bounty. And he knew it. She was loath to remind him, as long as he remained loving and true—and as long as he did not challenge her wealth.

One night, Maeve and Ailill were lying back on their golden bed strewn with mink furs and nosegays of lavender, basking in the glow of their lovemaking.

“Darling,” said Maeve, “the size of your loins is as great as that of my strong, red- eared bull.”

“Really?” he murmured. “I would see this bull. For I say my great shaft is more like that of my own white-horned bull.”

“Challenge me not on this point, dear husband. How are you qualified to judge the nether horn of a bull?”

Ailill was rankled at her teasing. “Because I am a man,” he said. “Because White Horn belongs to me, and his size is a matter of pride.”

“Say you that your possessions—even a single bull—are greater than my own? Say you that my Red Ears cannot measure his horn against that of your White Horn?”

“Yes,” he said, convinced of his own manly prowess, blind to his wife’s growing vexation. For he was beginning to feel again the stirrings of desire, and his words amounted to an invitation to prove his proportions were worthy.

Now Maeve was no fool. She knew exactly what Ailill was doing and she, too, craved his nether horn for the second time that night. But she was also very competitive. She thought she would have his bull, and her own, too, thereby increasing her wealth and enjoying his dimensions at the same time.

“I propose a raid,” she said with a fire in her eye. “If you capture my red bull, I will give you the debate, and you may use that bull in any way you see fit. But if I capture yours, you must yield it to me any time, night or day, in any way I see fit.”

To unquenchable Maeve, this challenge was not just a competition—it was a way to ensure unheard-of gratification from her prodigious husband. But to Ailill, suddenly stubborn and proud, it was a way to best his overweening wife.

“By tomorrow night,” he said rashly, “your red-eared bull shall be mine.” 

He turned his back then and slept, much to Maeve’s disgust. When he was snoring loudly, she crept from their fine bed and donned her leather slippers. Drawing her silken tunic around her ivory shoulders, she walked to the byres of Ailill where she knew a large white bull lay sleeping.

“O White Horn,” she murmured. “I have come to take you to my prize heifer, she of the lovely red shoulders, she who has never known the nether horn of a fine young bull.”

He opened one eye, loath to rise from the shelter of the byre and the plenty of the hay haggard.

“And,” said Maeve, “to sweeten the feast, my second virgin heifer waits for you, she of the deep black coat and milk-white chest.”

At these words, White Horn heaved himself to his hooves and began to beat his shaft against the sides of the byre in anticipation.

“Follow me,” she said sweetly, and he did. For Maeve knew the weakness of every male—and that is the promise of yielding thighs with no payment on the morrow.

As soon as White Horn entered her own byres, she shut the paddock firmly and called her strongest guards to stand sentry. “So that none may disturb you,” she told him with a broad wink.

And then she returned to her mink-soft bed to exact her payment.

Brigid stopped speaking, and she and I started to laugh—first softly, then louder, until I felt tears at the corners of my eyes. “Brigid, you are a poet. If you were not a woman you would stand by the shoulder of the high king himself as his ollamh.”

“Ah, I think the woman’s perspective may rankle even the most benign of kings,” she said, raising her eyes to look at her husband.

Michael looked as if his dinner were not quite settled in his stomach. “The next tale at this fire, young Brigid, will be told by Ailill.” He seized her shimmering hair and pulled her head toward his, and I could see that her story had aroused him deeply.

The chapter ends with Caylith and Liam’s own reaction to the story, but I leave it right here for you to imagine.

The Wakening Fire is now available on Amazon:   http://goo.gl/XRYvA

Celtic life: Ancient Ireland’s houses and villages

Historians think that St. Patrick arrived in Ireland around 432 AD.  What did he find when he arrived? What kind of buildings did he and his fellow priests erect when King Daire ceded them land in Armagh, near the huge lake called the Lough Neagh?

In asking this question, I am also asking myself as an author–what kind of village did my fictional Caylith and her immigrants set up when first they arrived in Derry, the land ceded to her by High King Leary?

Historians and archaeologists alike conclude that for centuries, the Irish as well as other Celtic people constructed their homes from a combination of woven saplings and hardened daub. This type of construction is called “clay and wattle,” or “wattle and daub.” In fact, this same building technique lasted there and in the UK well into Shakespeare’s day (the 1500s), even though the overall construction by then had become more “modern” and sophisticated. And think of today’s use of rebar and concrete–exactly the same principle, using more modern materials.

On the western coast of Ireland, there were many stone houses, where granite and other building supplies were plentiful. But in Derry, Armagh and Meath, the best supplies were the limber rowan trees and the boggy grasslands.

Let’s take a look at the houses that would have existed when Patrick walked the boglands of Old World Ireland, and when Caylith and her people extended the village of Derry along the swift River Foyle.                                                                          

First, builders would select hundreds of limber tree saplings, usually of the rowan or ash trees, that were plentiful throughout the island. They would begin by forming a circle within a circle– or sometimes a double square–of older, sturdy trunks to form the framework. Or they might merely construct one solid wall in a circle or rectangle. These trunks would be sunk into the ground to form a wind-resistant structure. Then they would weave the saplings back and forth inside the space between the double circle, or simply through the larger standing trunks as shown in the photos.

When the outer framework and inner latticework were finished, workers would make a daub or clay from wet soil mixed with peat, straw and even dung. The sticky clay would be worked all through the latticework of saplings and allowed to dry. Spaces would be left for windows, which could be shuttered to shut out the incessant rain.

The overall construction of the round houses called for a cone-like roof, and it would have been thatched using long dried grasses. With a hole in the center for smoke to escape, the house would have looked like those of many other people throughout the ancient world–from the homes of Cherokees and Aztecs to Africans throughout the entire vast rural plains of the south.

To ensure that the hardened clay would not deteriorate, the builders used a combination of chalk and lime–a whitewash–to spread over the outside of their structures. This technique resulted in what would no doubt seem startling to our modern eyes–whole villages, complete with large churches and monasteries, stark white and reflecting a dazzling appearance for many miles around.                                                                    

In The Dawn of Ireland novels, true to modern Irish Gaelic, a clay-and-wattle house is called a teach–pronounced somewhat like “chalk.” A larger, many-roomed structure is called a brugh.

On a subsequent post, I will explore the inside of a clay-and-wattle house, and I will talk about the larger, more complex structures and earthworks that a nobleman or king would have constructed.

For a fictionalized account of houses and of village life in the Ireland of St. Patrick, please see my Dawn of Ireland series:

Storm Maker on Amazon: Erin O’Quinn
http://www.bookstrand.com/the-wakening-fire
http://www.bookstrand.com/captive-heart

Did the Irish invent the kilt?

 If you have read any of my novels (The Dawn of Ireland trilogy), you will have seen numerous references to the clothing of the time, ca. 432 AD. But no amount of words can adequately describe the real thing. What follows is a short post on what the Irish people of that day probably wore. I say “probably,” because of course after 1500 years, who’s to know? The descriptions are based on pictures in old manuscripts, on extant writings by Romans and others of the time, and on descriptions in Ireland’s earliest written legends and tales. A few articles of clothing have actually been taken from deep layers of Ireland’s famous bogland, well known as a preservative (see the gown below).

To begin “at the top,” let us consider the hair styles of the time. When Caylith first meets Liam, she is a little amused to find that he has “frizzed” his mustache and beard hairs, possibly by setting a match-sized piece of wood next to his hair and allowing it to curl. This may well have been a style of the time, along with weaving all sorts of foreign objects into the hair to make it stand out, curl, and so on. I have read that the men especially would allow their hair to mat, like gigantic dreadlocks, to form an almost impenetrable “helmet.” Hey, it must have been sexy at the time, ladies . . . .

Next, let’s consider the most common form of clothing, the léine. The word means “linen,” and it was probably a one-piece shirt such as you see on the male model here. It was most often made of dyed linen and worn by both men and women. Notice that the sleeves are quite long, and that it is gathered in the middle with a belt. By using a belt, the wearer could don a shirt that might be rather long, and simply hitch it up to the desired length.

Discussing the léine means talking about the kilt. Did the ancient Irish wear kilts, as their latter-day brethren the Scotsmen did (and do)? Battles have raged over this subject for over a hundred years. The best compromise I can reach is that, because the Gaels began to overtake the southern part of present day Scotland in the fifth century, they probably influenced the Scots with their skirt-like léines. Some say it was the other way around–that the Irish Gaels met up with the free-roaming Scoti and adapted their more casual dress style. For the sake of this post, I agree not to agree!

It is true that no matter who invented the kilt, the colors were many and the underwear nonexistent.

In ancient Ireland, and for centuries into recorded history, the people of Ireland were allowed to wear colors depending on their social status. Kings and their ollamhs, or high scholars, were allowed to wear six colors. Each descending rung of society was allowed fewer colors, until at the bottom of the social landing we have the “non-free,” or the “bonded,” who could wear only one color, usually either white or yellow, according to different historians.

Women wore an article called a gúna–yes, a gown–on top of their léines. The gúna had no sleeves, in order for the long, bright colors of the tunic sleeve to thrust through. And those sleeve colors must have been as varied and the patterns as whimsical as the dress-makers themselves–stripes, crosses, hatches and cross-hatches–surely the beginnings of the latter-day tartan designs of both modern Irish and Scottish people.

Men wore either bríste–britches–or triús, trousers. Both our modern words are, as you see, derived from the old Irish Gaelic. In my books, Liam favors tight leather britches fastened with a thong; and his warrior wife Caylith begins to wear trousers when she and her lady friends gather to practice stick fighting. In fact, they call themselves
“The Terrible Trousers,” and they prove themselves worthy warriors in both The Wakening Fire and in Captive Heart. The trousers were slender in the leg and then flared at the hips and tied with a belt or thong.

Both sexes would also have worn a brat, or mantle, made of wool, simply a four-corner large woven cloak to stave off the cold. Shoes, called bróga,  were of leather, and could be either low or–in the case of rough-riding men–worn to the thighs and laced.

Then various swords, shillelaghs, long knives and eating knives would have been thrust through the leather belts or thongs. And this completes the picture of what the well-dressed Irish Gael would probably have worn in the time of St. Patrick.

For a very close look at the clothing and culture of the days of St.Patrick–rounded out by Caylith and by sexy Liam and his clansmen–please visit the buy links below to purchase Erin O’Quinn’s entertaining trilogy.

Storm Maker on Amazon: Erin O’Quinn                                                                                                                                                    
http://www.bookstrand.com/the-wakening-fire 
http://www.bookstrand.com/captive-heart

Treacherous Beauty of Tory Island

Much of the action of Erin O’Quinn’s Captive Heart –now making its debut–centers on the wild, desolate island of Tory some nine miles off the northern shore of modern Donegal.

Tory island was the subject of a 2005 BBC spotlight by correspondent Kevin Connolly. He introduced it as “a rocky sliver of land stuck out in the wild Atlantic–just beyond the point where Ireland sits with County Donegal like a shoulder hunched up against the ocean winds.”

Tory is a heap of forbidding, jagged rocks on the perimeter, lashed by such turbulent currents that to this day, the island can be reached by ferry only seven months out of the year. Through the harsh winter, it is accessible only by helicopter. The high cliffs boast stretches of wild grasses and the world’s sparse remaining population of Corn Crakes, a small pheasant-like foraging bird. And the island itself–a crescent roughly three miles long and a mile wide–is torn incessantly by winds so high that flying insects do not even live there. Connolly observed that he never saw a tree there higher than a large bush–and that one was blessed by its location in a church yard!

Imagine this forbidding place, then, as the destination of a group of fifth-century travelers whose only transportation was currachs–light, wickerwork boats stretched with animal skin and buoyed by animal bladders.

Caylith’s group of intrepid men and women have made their way to Tory for a single high purpose–to rescue about a dozen women who are being held there in secret by what is supposedly a horde of Pictish slave-mongers and freebooters. The captors know well how to navigate the perilous shores of Tory, and their expertise as currach sailors is what has given them a safe haven from the retribution of the law of Éire.

I have usually tried to be historically accurate in my Dawn of Ireland series, but I depart a bit in the story of Captive Heart. The slaves seized by the raiders would have been considered legally held in these dark days just as St. Patrick began his ministry; and even for centuries after, men and women seized from foreign shores were considered by the Brehon Law to be the lowest on the rung of society.

In the novel, I have postulated that the current High King Leary has made it illegal for citizens of other countries and other formerly free people to be seized and held as slaves. It is the one piece of “fantasy” I have woven into the story, and for a good reason. I want the men and women of my novels to aspire, like all people should, to a life of freedom and happiness.

One may be astonished to learn that today, Tory Island is the haven of a group of Irish artists whose work is sought by dealers and private buyers throughout the world. Their population varies from about sixty to ninety, and they are allowed by special dispensation to elect a King of Tory every year from among their rank.

Apparently, even for a non-artist such as I, to stand high on Tory is to stand on the crest of the most beautiful interplay of sea and rock ever seen. The artists have an eternal paragon of beauty to interpret. As Connolly stated in his conclusion:

Tory is like a granite kaleidoscope where the shifting patterns of light in the seas and skies produce a curious ephemerality, as though the cliffs and beaches somehow change every time you look away.

Captive Heart, the conclusion of the Dawn of Ireland trilogy, is now available at  http://www.bookstrand.com/captive-heart

Irish poetry and pictures

To read the poetry of Séamus Heaney is to stand in a bogland of Ireland gazing at the people and the countryside. There are many facets of his poetry, but what I want to talk about today is the image he presents of the country itself through the words of his poetry.

Heaney (b. 1939) won the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature. Since 1966, he has published 13 collections of poetry. Although I’ve never been to Ireland, his words evoke in me powerful images of a land of fathomless layers. Indeed, the fact that the island ‘s center is a deep bogland is one of the central images of his poetry.

from “Bogland”

                                   We have no prairies                                                                                                           To slice  a big sun at evening–
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Encroaching horizon,

Is wooed into the cyclops’ eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun. . . .

They’ll never dig coal here,                                                                                 

Only the waterlogged trunks
Of great firs, soft as pulp,
Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,   

Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomless.

From those layers of peat, for hundreds of years, workers have stripped layers to build their homes, to burn for heat, to use in hundreds of ways to earn a sustenance living. He writes famously of his father and his grandfather, men who spaded the earth to eke out a living for their families:

from “Digging”

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down                                                                                                           
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

A step away from bog are the cliffs and the ocean. He writes movingly of Aran Island, comparing the meeting of shore and sea to the embrace of lovers:

“Lovers on Aran”

The timeless waves, bright, sifting, broken glass,
Came dazzling around, into the rocks,
Came glinting, sifting from the Americas

To possess Aran. Or did Aran rush
To throw wide arms of rock around a tide
That yielded with an ebb, with a soft crash?

Did sea define the land or land the sea?
Each drew new meaning from the waves’ collision.
Sea broke on land to full identity.

But my favorite images of Heaney are those of the rowan trees and their berries. Here is a fragment from one poem, where the ash berries present a startling image:

from “Song

A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

I end with a fragment showing those same bright haws, vivid against the stark background of winter:

from “Exposure”

It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.

A comet that was lost

Should be visible at sunset,  

Those million tons of light                                                              

Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips . . .

Romance with a fighting stick

The notion of weaponry and romance linked together seems at first to be an odd one. But in the universe of “The Dawn of Ireland,” weaponry was not just common–it was a necessity.

During the freewheeling days when St. Patrick first went to Ireland, ca. 432 AD, the people of Ireland or Éire (call them the Éireannach people) were largely land holders, farm workers and cattlemen. Cattle, the mainstay of the economy, were prized above all. So cattle rustling was the order of the day. In fact, the most famous piece of literature that has come down to us from ancient times is “The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” where opposing forces of great gods and warriors do battle over a bunch of cows.

There were no handy swords lying about, nor a tradition of knives. What the people had in abundance were oak trees and blackthorn bushes. And so the branches of these ubiquitous trees were used as their weapon of choice.

 The main characters in all the Dawn novels learn one weapon in particular–the shillelagh. When used as a weapon, it is now common to call such a weapon a “bata,” and the art of bata fighting is called “bataireacht.” Research suggests that the shillelagh, a rugged, knobby-sided stick cut from the blackthorn (sloe) bush, has been part of the culture since ancient times.

The blackthorn can begin as a straggly, widespread bush and grow into a gnarly, twenty-foot tree. To this day, blackthorns are used as natural hedges to keep interlopers (human and otherwise) from people’s property. The spring flowers of the blackthorn, or sloe, are a mass of pretty flowers; and by late summer, sloe berries are a favorite of birds and of gin-lovers everywhere, for the berries are the basis for gin-making throughout the world.    One of the most interesting features of the blackthorn is its dark, burnished appearance. And the makers of shillelaghs enhance that dark appearance even more by smearing them with some kind of animal fat and putting them into a chimney or otherwise exposing them to smoke. The second compelling feature of these sticks is their knobby, nubby appearance. The makers deliberately leave part of the thorns along the stick to add a bit more “bite” to their strike.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           The first to seize a stick of blackthorn when the immigrants landed in Éire is, of course, Caylith herself. She takes her companion Swallow to a stand of dark, prickly bushes and begins to cut thorny branches, which she trims with her knife to make sticks that the pilgrims later lash together to symbolize the Christian cross. But she keeps one about three feet long to use both as a walking stick and as a weapon.

When a band of wild clansmen show up to confront the immigrants, the men are wearing shillelaghs–probably really batas–stuck through their waist-thongs. One of those warriors is Liam, later to become Caylith’s husband. Her own armsman Gristle and Liam sit together comparing fighting techniques, and Liam naively shows the expert martial artist some bata moves.

After she has settled down in Derry, Caylith organizes four other women into a group they call the “Terrible Trousers” (the word trousers comes from the Gaelic word triús). Small and innocent looking as they are, the ladies become formidable warriors using the blackthorn stick, for Liam has taught her the techniques that she shows her friends.

The Terrible Trousers use their bata skills in two tense situations–first when they are attempting to rescue a clansman from the                     clutches of two malevolent druids (in The Wakening Fire), and next when they find out who is behind the nefarious slave-trading that had resulted in much agony for captured women (in Captive Heart).

In more amorous moments, Caylith and Liam use the bata as a synonym for the phallus, and their play-fights always end in passion.

To this day in Ireland, the shillelagh is a potent symbol. There was a time in the 19th century when it was outlawed, so misused it was by gangs. Now it abounds in Éire as–among other things– a walking stick, a beer label, and a standby in many Gaelic songs.

                                        

Metamorphosis of a villain

Sunday, May 20 on The Celtic Rose blogsite, Miriam Newman ran an interesting article from Erin O’Quinn on the nature of her villain Sweeney. What follows below is not a repeat but an extension of those comments.

The first time the reader hears about Owen Sweeney, it is a flashback, as Caylith remembers freeing her captive mother from the clutches of a dark, brooding man confined to an invalid’s cart. Not only does she free her mother, but her friends manage to capture all Sweeney’s cattle and tie the cripple into his own cart. From there he is delivered to the High King for judgment and punishment. His own family members accuse him of murdering his late wife and holding captive women for vile purposes.

In Storm Maker the reader learns that Sweeney, bound into his cart and thrown into the turbulent sea, has somehow escaped and has ordered the capture of Caylith’s beloved Liam. In  that book, Sweeney is even more vile than before, for he has hidden himself far from the haunts of men, in a tiny clay hut on the northern promontory. Here he has surrounded himself with crude lickspittles while he waits for Liam to be delivered to him for punishment, even as he was punished by Liam’s kingly father.

Caylith lies concealed in a tunnel under his hut, listening to the sounds that threaten to suffocate her with horror.

 I had come to him with the suspicion that he had enslaved my mother, and my conjecture had proved true. Before I could steal out of his locked brugh that night, I had been trapped with him, my back against the door of his murdered wife’s sleep chamber. That same feeling returned now—the realization that I was cornered by a ravening animal, and only guile and cunning would free me from his jaws.I put together the next sounds I heard into a picture of what was happening. Sweeney rolled his chair away from the table and over to his raised bed. He put his enormous arms on the sides of the bed and slowly dragged his body out of the cart and pulled his bulk onto the bed. I could even hear the way he grasped his lifeless legs and drew them onto the bed, the way they fell with a thud onto the hard, matted-down surface.The man had not bothered to wash, or take off his clothes, or even to instruct his lickspittles to change the reeds on his bed. He had sunk so low that he truly had become almost an animal. No wonder the stench of the room was so powerful. It was the fetid odor of uncleanness and of something else, almost inhuman.Not to give away the plot of Storm Maker, but Sweeney is finally delivered to Father Patrick; and in The Wakening Fire, he has once more begun to make himself heard, as Caylith hears the heart-stopping, grating sound of his cripple-cart’s wooden wheels against the wooden floor of the monk’s house where he’s being held. This time Caylith has gathered her deep fear into a controllable place where her curiosity can overcome her terror of the man.

From the time she finally allows him to speak, Caylith begins to realize that there are layers to this man she had loathed–this dark force who had captured and dishonored her mother, the one who had killed his own wife.

Here the author Erin O’Quinn admits that even she changed her mind about Sweeney. There must be compelling reasons why a highly-educated, wealthy man who had sired six children by a wife he loved–why such a man would come to be accused by his own family of unspeakable crimes.

And here is where O’Quinn steps aside and invites you to learn Sweeney’s secrets for yourself. The Wakening Fire is available at http://www.bookstrand.com/the-wakening-fire  (buy link)

The fire today!

The Wakening Fire is available right now at the publisher’s site,

http://www.bookstrand.com/the-wakening-fire  (buy link)

Installment Two:  Caylith and Liam begin to experiment not just with the new language they share, but also the new state of marriage. Liam drinks too  much barley beer, opening a  new vista for Caylith who begins to understand  that her husband is deeply desirous of even more than she has been giving him.

Today, as always, Liam felt himself to be the hunter, and I the hunted. I was the deer to his swift arrow. Seeming to ignore his passion, I saw it clearly—the arrow flying to its mark. At that split second my weak defense became a steel barrier, and the arrow shot straight up, for my own weapon guided his skyward. Then my bata was resting lightly on the crown of his head. Captured! Who is the hunter, O Liam, and who the hunted?

At that instant, Liam and I reached out to each other, our eyes riveted on each other. Our mouths began to bite and lick and kiss with an untamable intensity. He gathered me up in his arms, strode to our house, and roughly pushed the door open. He turned and closed it with one foot, his mouth traveling all over my face and shoulders, and then he swiftly moved to the bed. He did not lay me down but stood me up on the floor beside the bed.

He pulled down his bríste, stepping out of them as though shedding an old skin. He stood before me with an erection so swollen that my knees turned to water. Still he said nothing, reaching out to my shoulders and pulling the deerskin down almost to my nipples.

“Say it, Cat.” His voice was thick with passion.

I stood before him with my entire body humming and alive, craving his mouth, craving his groin. “I am hungry for you,” I said. I could hardly talk.

He pulled the tunic down to my waist in one sudden movement, and he seized one breast. He took almost the entire breast into his mouth and then noisily, slowly came off it, lingering on the nipple. Then he seized the other breast and did the same, all the while I was crying out and moaning loudly.

“Eat you,” he said with a gruffness that almost frightened me. He picked me up and stood me on the elevated bed. His hands at my waist, he pulled the deerskin down to my ankles and leaned into me, both hands on my butt.

A fiery beginning

The second of Erin O’Quinn’s Dawn of Ireland trilogy is about to burst into flame . . .

  Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Called The Wakening Fire, this novel takes us from the marriage bed of Caylith and Liam to the deathbed of a woman with a momentous secret . . . then beyond, to the famous Paschal Fires lit by Father Patrick within sight of the high king’s own Beltane ritual fires.

Installment One:

The romance between impetuous Caylith and her wild clansman husband has just gotten more tantalizing, as both of them begin to explore the heady world of marital sex. Liam begins to teach her what he likes in bed; and Caylith, quick to learn, casts aside some of her natural modesty to enjoy her new husband.

He raised up a bit and tugged at his breeches, and I helped him, moving them down slowly over his butt. He impatiently kicked them off and knelt over me again. Then, rising and squatting, he moved so that his groin and sac dangled over me, almost at my head. “Suck me,” he said roughly. I was both shocked and aroused, for he had never spoken so directly before. I raised my head and caught his groin in my mouth, stroking his velvet-skinned testicles. He thrust himself again and again. “Suck me,” he moaned, and I knew the beer was speaking.

I thought we would end our lovemaking that way, but he suddenly stopped and gathered me into his arms and stood up. He set me not on the bed, but on the bench, and then he straddled me, pushing himself into me, moving up and down with his strong legs. “Yes,” I breathed, for the rhythm was just right, and he was hot inside me.

“Say it,” Liam said, moving up and down.

“Love me.”

“No.” He leaned until his mouth was in my ear, and he stopped moving. “Say it.” I was angry at him again for stopping, and I tried to thrust myself against him, but he was sitting on me and I could not move. His tongue in my ear, he breathed, “Say it, Cat.”

I whispered the crude, forbidden words in his ear, and he seemed to explode, moaning and moving, and I knew then that he was as aroused by my own words as I was by his.

 Buy link:

http://www.bookstrand.com/the-wakening-fire

Here’s a treat for everyone: The Celtic Rose is a luscious, well written site devoted to all things Celtic. I invite you to visit the blog and to leave a comment:

www.thecelticroseblog.blogspot.com

Slán, Erin