Children of the Mist: Clan MacGregor

“DON’T mister me nor Campbell me! My foot is on my native heath, and my name is MacGregor!”

Sir Walter Scott put these words into the mouth of the world’s most famous MacGregor, Rob Roy. Let’s cast a quick look back at the history of this clan.

rob roy 1820s engraving
An 1820 engraving of Rob Roy, made famous worldwide through the novel of Walter Scottl.

On the third day of April, 1603, his majesty James VI publicly banned the name of MacGregor, that it

 ”…should be altogether abolished, and that (all) persons of that Clan should renounce their name and take some some other name, and that they nor none of their posterity should call themselves Gregor or McGregor thereafter under the pain of death.”

I find it ironic that the MacGregors, loyal Jacobites, lost their name by an act of the very king whom they laid down their lives for. History has a way of mocking us mere mortals. More on that later in this article.

This name-banning  was to last over 170 years and in a way shaped the history of an entire family. The sons of Gregor lost so much that oral tradition has dubbed them  “Children of the Mist.”

To be stripped of their proud name…This seems a harsh sentence for a clan that claims descent from Alpin, the first King of Scotland. 

king alpin

 

tartan and motto.png
The clan motto, ’S Rioghal Mo Dhream, means”Royal is my race.”

But the abolishment of a family name of was just the tip of the sword.

The clan was to lose more than its name. They, along with most major clans, would eventually lose their distinctive dress, their weapons, their income, their lands, and many thousands of lives.

The history of Clan MacGregor is in many ways the history of Scotland’s famous Highland clansmen. It’s a story of extreme loyalty, of feverish warriorhood, and battles to the death. It’s a dense tale of money, politics, favoritism, religious fanaticism, and merciless retribution of one enemy over another. The warp and weft of the MacGregor tartan is a texture of crime, punishment, and retribution.

highlander group

Here’s a brief overview…

Through the years between roughly 1500 and 1750, Clan Gregor was known and feared as a fierce family that slowly lost its prestige and its power when it made the wrong enemies. 

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Scotland’s Grampian and Cairngorm mountains, the mainstay of life was the droving and selling of cattle.

cowsrocks j

It’s strange to think that these clansmen were much like our American cowboys…including the outlaws and rustlers whose names, like Butch Cassidy and Billy the Kid, have been writ large in our own history.

colorriot j
Artist’s vision of a Gaelic “cowboy,” a cattle drover.
billy the kid
The best-known image of Billy the Kid.

 

The branch of the MacGregor family that would ultimately cause its downfall owned extensive lands in the modern area of Perth and Kinross. But it seems that they also coveted the land and property of their neighbors. They went about seizing cattle and sheep, extorting “rents” for protection, and trying to assimilate the tribal land of the clans around them.

It so happened that the Campbell clans were not just rich and powerful and in the path of the MacGregor expansion—they were also more politically astute. They managed successfully to defend their land from the Gregor boys, but also to align themselves with the correct political allies. 

Their whispers, their whining and cajoling, and even their outright lies, fell into the right ears. The very name “Gregor” became a byword for savage, renegade, and murderer in courtly circles and in the halls of power.

James II and VI
The king who gave his name to Jacobitism…James II and VI

To be fair, none of the Highland warriors were choir boys. Playing dominance games had for centuries been a way of life. What finally sank many of them—MaGregor and Campbell alike— was their siding with the “pretender” to the crown of England, James VI of England/ James II of Scotland. His followers, called “Jacobites” after the Latin word for James, were to lose everything in their zeal to have a Catholic instead of a Protestant on the throne of England.

The next article on this blog, “Unkilted,” will be a brief telling of how the Highland clans lost their very manhood, in the guise of their distinctive philabegs, bonnets, and weapons…even their eating knives. They lost much more, because the fateful Jaobite battle at Culloden spelled the end of clan power for once and for all time.

The next blog, along with this one, will serve as a kind of introduction to my novel in progress, Unkilted. Slàn until next time!

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Nuala’s Secret: Part 4

By now, Owen was about twenty years old. His oldest child, my grandson Muiredach, was about three. One day I went alone to the well to draw water for the household. Owen had gone to hunt a fine red deer for our provisions. As I was putting water jars into our wagon, a lone rider approached me.

She was a woman well past her prime, a score of years beyond my own age, one who should not have been traveling alone. She was dressed all in fine silk, and her shoes were inlaid with abalone shells. “O friend,” she called to me from her horse. “I have lost my way, and I am athirst. May I drink from your well?

crone and horse 2Of course, I bade her dismount, and I poured a cup of water from a jug and proffered it to her. She drank willingly, and she thanked me kindly. “For whom do you draw water?” she asked me.

“For my family,” I told her, not wanting to speak of my son.

She nodded and proceeded to tell me about her own family—six strong grandsons. Their father, husband of her only daughter, was sojourning in a foreign land, she said, and his sons had traveled with him. She told me how she loved them and missed them.

“Do you also have strong sons?” she inquired of me.

Loath as I was to speak of Owen, I told her proudly that I had one strong son and three grandchildren. She replied with tears that she would be honored to meet such a family, for she missed her own very much. My heart reached out to her heart, as mother to mother, and I invited her to sup with us that evening.

When we rode up to our brugh, Owen had just returned from the hunt, a red deer thrown behind the saddle. He dismounted to lift the deer, and the woman beheld his face. At one look, she shrieked like any banshee. Her cry was enough to cloud the mind and stop the very birds in the sky.

kelpie and man

As she screamed, Owen’s horse reared back in terror. I watched helpless as it came back down on top of my son, crushing him into the ground. And still the strange woman’s shrieks pierced the sky, and the horse began to struggle to find its legs. The more it struggled, the longer it ground Owen’s legs into the dirt.

Dear, dear God, forgive me!

thedyinggaul hellenistic statue acropolis
Th Dying Gaul, Hellenestic statue

He lay there as if dead, in anguish of pain, and I fell at his side, sobbing and keening as if he truly were dead. The stranger, who had not once dismounted, sat high and proud on her horse, even as it reared and pranced in confusion.

“You now pay for your own folly,” she said. “I have searched for you more than twenty years, and I have my vengeance at last. Your son is now half a man—cloven in two, blemished for all time. No high king may bear a blemish, and so his fate is sealed. Now my own grandsons may be kings, and your son will die a cripple. So be it.”

“But at last,” I told her bitterly, “I may tell him about his father. And I myself may go to him finally, for he is the only love I have ever known.”

c susan seddon-boulet
Crone image copyright Susan Seddon-Boulet

And then she laughed, more of a shriek than a laugh. “If I see your son’s face or your face, I hereby swear that I will end the life of your precious lover. I have my grandsons—that is all I want. His life became as spilled water or smoke from a fire pit from the moment his loins pierced your loathsome body and shunned my own daughter. Go to him, send your son to him—and know that he dies.”

And so we left the promontory and traveled south to the great lake of Foyle, seeking the safety of a new home. From that day to this, I have not told anyone what happened, or why.

maiden mother crone
Archetypal maiden, mother, crone by Amalur

Father, Heavenly Father, forgive me for what I have done!

~oooOooo~

This is not the end of Nuala, or her story. It continues as the story of her crippled son Owen  in the Dawn of Ireland novels of Erin O’Quinn.

oisin in sacred tara
Detail from Oisin in Tara by Jim FitzPatrick

Note: Wakening Fire is the second of The Dawn of Ireland trilogy by Erin O’Quinn

The trilogy is here: http://amzn.to/2pxBRGY

woman and crow

Nuala’s Secret: Part 3

Brother Jericho took a few moments to clear his mind. Then, leaning forward on the fur-lined couch, he spoke again as though it were from the mouth of Mother Sweeney herself.

Our life with the priests was serene. I soon learned to love our Lord, and the monks baptized me, calling me “Noella,” for I had come to them close to the birth day of our Lord. I taught my son to respect learning, and he did learn quickly under the teaching of the priests. I told him that his father had wanted him to be an ollamh and even a king. 

I am shamed to say that I never told him the truth about his father. I was terrified lest he should find out, and go to find his father, and be torn in half by the vengeful mother of Rídach. And so I told him that his father had died in a great battle, in a faraway land. I told him his father was of high birth, regarded as a king in Éire, but that he wanted to be left unmourned and his grave unknown when he died.

mother childwwwdothollysierra.com.pngMy son rebelled against the priests’ attempts to convert him. Even from an early age, Owen was headstrong. He told me often that there could be no blessed heavenly father, for he himself had no father. What kind of heavenly father would take away a child’s father before he could know him? I blame myself for his unbelief. Surely I alone kept him from knowing the comfort of our Lord.

Father, forgive me!

At last, when Owen was sixteen years old and he had come to the age of Self-Will in Gallia, he declared that he would leave the monastery where we lived, and he would sail for his home country. Even though born on the soil of Gallia, he considered himself an Éireannach, and he had learned the language from monks and native speakers alike.

oisin in sacred tara
“Oisin at Tara,” detail from the work by Jim FitzPatrick

And thus with a heavy heart, I sailed with my son back to Éire. He wanted to go to the land of his father. And so I chose a part of Éire, far out on the great peninsula near the Bay of Trawbreaga, where I thought we could live in peace. Owen went from settlement to settlement, asking about his father. He studied every cairn, every heap of rubble, every bit of ogham scratched into stone to find a clue to his father. I wept then, and I weep now, to think of it.

Of course, no one knew the name “Rory Sweeney,” for the name Sweeney had come from my own area of Dál Riata, a name from the land of the Picts. And the name “Rory” was my own invention, for I knew it held the word “king” embedded in its meaning.

joining.png

Soon after we arrived, Owen met and fell in love with a beautiful tall, dark-haired woman named Aileen. She loved him totally, and she was as devoted to him as I was myself. Within three years, she had borne him two sons and a daughter. But as day rolled into day, I saw my beloved son begin to lose his reason. Aileen saw it, too, and she mourned with me as we saw him shouting and drunk, verbally abusing us, disappearing for weeks on end.

madness

She often pleaded with me to tell him more about his father. “Nuala, for his sanity, for his health, will you not relent and tell your secrets? For the sake of his children, who may grow up to fear and hate their own father?”

I hung my head. I could tell no one the dread secret. I had even kept it from the priests, for I knew not whether one of them would reach Éire and let slip where Owen may be found.

And so, to save the life of my son, I slowly lost the life of my son. I shed bitter tears every day of my life to think of it.

Lord God, forgive me!

At last, to stop his searching, I relented just a bit and told him that his father hailed not from Éire but from Alba, across the expanse of the leaden North Sea. I even believed it, for I thought he was traveling from Alba when I met him. At my words, he went completely wild, raging and shouting. “How will I ever find him in that vast, barbaric land?”

borvo healing god

He left us for more than three months. I thought he had perhaps hired a currach and sailed to Alba in search of his father. But one day he came back home, looking haggard and old, hardly talking. I found later that he had gone on a “booley,” a kind of lonely trek to the mountains like the sheep herders, in search of his own sanity. After he returned, he never again spoke of his father. To this day, I know not what took place inside his mind, for something else happened after he returned that became the focus of our lives.

Brother Jericho stopped talking. He knit his brows. “This part is where she began to cry. It was hard to understand many of her words. Clearly she is tormented to the point of despair.”

“Do your best, dear brother,” I urged him. He nodded and continued.

 

This part of the odyssey of Owen Sweeney will conclude next week.

Nuala’s Secret: Part 2

Forty years ago, I was a young woman. Even a beautiful maiden, if you believe the poets. Everyone called me “Nuala.” I lived in the land called Dál Riata, part in Éire and part stretching all the way into Alba, across the few miles of sea. I was a daughter of the Cenél Loairn, the clan families who ruled the middle part of that great kingdom, and my home lay on the lovely green isle.

artemis goddess of the moon and hunt deviantart, ginqueenOne day, I was walking through a glen with my wolfhounds, playing and laughing, when a file of horsemen broke through the far line of trees. I could see at once that they were men of high birth, for the bridles of their horses were silver and the robes of the riders were trimmed in sable.

They stopped near me, and the lead rider dismounted. He was a man tall as an oak sapling, lithe and fair of skin. His eyes, and his hair, were golden brown, like my favorite horse. He stood and looked upon me, and he put his arms around my waist. “I have not seen such ivory skin, nor such raven hair, in all my life. Who is your fortunate husband?”

I admit that I felt my own blush, for I had never known a man. “My father Loam has not yet promised me to any swain,” I told him.

He looked at his fellows and his laughter rang through the glen. “This one is mine,” he told them. “I will make her my second wife.”

cloud“But your first wife Rídach is still alive,” one of them reminded him. 

“Then Nuala shall be my mistress, my wife of the day, while I lie with Rídach at night.”

To tell a long story shortly, the noble youth spoke to my father. He plighted such a sum of cattle and coins that my father willingly sent me south with the stranger. The man told me to call him “Cloud,” for he said he was a changeling, never the same from moment to moment, except with me.

Our trip to his home lasted seven days and seven nights. The nights were fair, and each night he would take me under a tree and lay with me. His hands were gentle, and his loins were strong. By the time we reached his homeland, I loved him more dearly than all my dogs and horses and all my silken robes.

He had a small teach built just for me, and every afternoon he came to visit me. “When will I see your own home?” I would ask him.

“Soon, Nuala,” he would tell me. “My wife will be loath to meet you, and so you must remain my secret for now. Will you wait for me?”

“I love you,” I told him. “And I will wait, no matter how long it may take.”

kissDay after day, Cloud lay with me, and we loved each other more every day. One day, I found that I was heavy with his child. When I told my lover, he was filled with dread. “O Nuala, I fear for the safety of our child,” he cried to me. “For Rídach will suffer no child, except from her belly, to call himself my own. I fear she will set her own mother on you, a woman of cunning and wicked ways.”

That same day, an old woman came to my house. She looked so much like my handsome Cloud that I knew it was his very mother. “Child,” she told me, “you bear within yourself the son of a king. But he must not be allowed to live here, near the queen Rídach and her ambitious mother. For she will have only her own sons be in line for the throne. If ever she finds out about your child, surely his life is forfeit.”

The old woman reached into her bosom and withdrew a large pouch of precious gems. “I give you this treasure willingly,” she told me, “but it must be spent in another land, far from here. You must go, your unborn son within you, and flee to far Gallia. There you will be taken in, and taught, by the bald priests of the one they call Christ.

old woman celtic

“His father wants your son to know that his name will be Eóghan, and he will be an ollamh, a great scholar, and some day even a king. But if ever he learns about his father, he will be cloven in two like a hoof, by the hand of Rídach’s own mother. Such is her hatred, and such is her power. Go, then, child. Escape while you can.”

And thus I found myself in the far, cold land they call Gallia, and I gave birth to a beautiful, dark-haired boy I named Owen. I called myself Suibhne…Sweeney…a name from my people’s land of far-off Alba.

Nuala’s Secret: Part 1

In my series of novels based in St. Patrick’s Ireland, each one bears the following dedication:

Dedication

I dedicate this entire series to the magic realm called Ireland: her language, her people, her history, and her wealth of unique treasures buried in the ancient past, even before a bishop named Patrick dressed her in the robes of religion and civilization.

There are voices that sing, pure and sweet, in the rivers and the mountains…in the lightning and the stones…in the mythos which created Cú Chulainn and many other larger-than-life Irish spirits. Sometimes I have awakened them from slumber. I beseech their forgiveness.

NualasSecretcover.pngIn this historical romance series called “The Dawn of Ireland,” the reader will find myths and short tales, poetry, songs—and a story that weaves through all of them. It’s the saga of a man named Owen Sweeney. In the next several blogs,you’ll read a fantasy tale called “Nuala’s Secret” excerpted from the novel Wakening Fire.

Old Secrets: from Chapter 20 of Wakening Fire

[Caylith is on a mission: to uncover the secrets of an old woman who holds the key to a man’s past, and even to his survival.]

And last, almost reluctantly, my eyes were drawn to the small, clotted figure of a woman lying as if curled in pain, a flyspeck on a large table. It was Mother Sweeney. I saw that she was sleeping, if fitfully, her mouth thin, her jaw clenched in her habitual silence. Even in slumber, she was refusing to speak her secrets.

Brother Jericho stood on one side of the bed. I put the cup of healing potion on the bedside table and knelt on the side opposite the monk. I reached out my hand and lightly drew her thin, shining hair back from her high forehead, seeing her entire face for the first time. When I was here before, she had kept a cowl over her head. And even after the prisoners had been freed, she wore a kerchief that shrouded her eyes and cheeks.

Now I saw that she had long, dark eyelashes and improbably dark, glossy hair. She had high cheekbones, and I could see the way her delicate bones molded her face that she must have been beautiful as a young woman. I wondered whether, if she ever unclenched her jaws, her mouth would be soft and yielding. 

brigid
Image of Celtic goddess Brigid, multiple sources

As I stroked her finely textured hair, her eyes flew open. Her thin body, already drawn into a ball, could not recede any farther, and so she let her eyes show her fright.

“Mother,” I said crooning softly. “Mother Sweeney, it is I, Caylith. Do you remember me?”

She closed her eyes tightly, and then again they fluttered open. “Fág anseo,” she said weakly, and she closed her eyes again. She was bidding me leave.

I looked up at Brother Jericho, who was regarding her with tortured eyes. His hands were writhing together as if to underscore his feeling of uselessness. “She is reliving the night I came here. She is afraid for me. Or afraid for her son.” I took the cup in my hands and told Brother Jericho to prop up her head.

He took her little head in his hands and looked into her eyes. Speaking in Gaelic, he said, “Mother, it is the monk Jericho. I have come to help you.”

She looked at him calmly. “Is cuimhin liom. I…remember.”

“You must drink from this cup,” I urged her softly. “It will make you feel better.”

Obediently, she let me tip the cup a bit into her mouth. I did it several times until I assured myself that the potion was sufficient for now. The monk gently let her head fall back and leaned close to her, almost whispering. I had to strain to catch what he said, for it was in Gaelic and barely audible.

A mháthair, abair scéal,” he said. I remembered what Brigid had said last night, when I proposed that a story be told. It was the age-old exhortation to tell a tale. Would she respond as generations had before her, telling a story of her youth, a story of her son?

She spoke, and I thought she said, “To you alone.”

“Caylith,” said Brother Jericho, “I must ask you to leave us. I think she realizes that this may be her last chance to talk to the Lord, through me. It is not a time to share with anyone but the priest.”

celtic crone 2
Image from witchesofwalthamabbey.com

“Forty years of silence, now broken for the sake of Christ and her own soul. Brother, I will happily talk to you later.”

I rose and left the room, reluctantly pulling the door closed behind me. I longed to hear her words as she spoke them, but even if I were there, I would understand only a word or two. I knew that Jericho would tell me later, as true to her own words as possible.

[After a while, the priest comes back to where Caylith and her friends are waiting.]

I saw Brother Jerome enter the room, a look of relief on his face. I rose. “I will now try to find what her silence has been hiding. Please excuse me.”

“O Brother, let us sit here on a comfortable tolg.” I gestured to one of the couches. “What can you tell us?”

“Caylith. Liam. I will tell you her story as she told it to me.” Jericho sat on a nearby couch, and Liam and I sat across from him, leaning forward in expectation. He cleared his throat a bit hesitantly and began to speak.

flourish tree

Story to be continued…

The trilogy Dawn of Ireland is here:

http://amzn.to/2pxBRGY

 

 

Cernunnos: ancient and modern

I recently wrote a couple of novels* in which I called on the mythopoeic image of a horned god, or an antlered man. In my stories, the man was just that—a mortal, one perhaps dangerous, the embodiment of the Scottish saorsa, the wild place.

The ancient idea of an antlered deity still intrigues me. This article is no more than a brief look at of the horned god as he appears in western (especially Celtic) tradition and persists even into modern times. The concept of a man-beast begs for an explanation…

From what I can gather, one of  the most potent and long-lived symbols of a horned deity is one born from the ancient Greeks—the deity Pan, god of wild places, of fertility, of man’s impetuous nature. Pan is usually portrayed as a satyr, a man with cloven feet, often with horns, playing a reed instrument.

pan & daphnis
The sexual overtones are obvious in this piece originally discovered at Pompeii [Wiki, copy of marble sculpture by Heliodorus. Ca. 100 BCE. Object in the collection of the Naples Museum of Archeology. Photo, 1999]
 In many myths (and images) his sexual potency is celebrated with nary a blush.

One sculpture whose photo I ran across—and have mercifully hidden from viewers’ eyes—shows the Roman cognate Faunus actively stropping a goat. Such activity obviously runs in the family. How else to explain the cloven footgear?

The most persistent image and mythos of an antlered god (aside from the modern Wicca tradition) is Cernunnos. This deity has the body of a man and horns of a stag; he’s often depicted wearing a torc, an ancient necklace with knobby ends fashioned of twisted metallic threads. Scholars think the torc may represent wealth or status.

cernunnos wiki pic
[The “Cernunnos” type antlered figure or horned god, on the Gundestrup Cauldron, on display at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. Wikipedia.] Clearly, Cernunnos was seen as the heart of all animals, large and small.
In my novel Warrior, Come Again the scholar Jaythor describes the god to a fidgety audience:

“Cernunnos is part of the ancient Celtic lore. A half-man, half stag, one whose legacy goes back as far as the Greek Pan. Or perhaps even farther. One endowed with horns, who lives in the shelter of trees, and takes his strength from the power of Earth itself. He embraces the notion of fertility as well as the end of days. There is something about the potency of wilderness that nests between his huge horns… Perhaps man’s seeking after the bestial side of his nature. Who knows?”

I have Jaythor surmise that the name “Cernunnos” may be a later distortion of a local (Scottish) tribe, a fact I picked up somewhere in my research. Who better to pontificate about this obscure fact than Jaythor  the Mentor?

“One of the splinter tribes of the Brigantes are called the Carvatii. I am certain the name is a Britonnic form of the Latin cervus, ‘deer.’ They are said to carry totems of an antler-headed god and actually worship a Cernunnos-style of deity. They are blue-painted with the woad plant , covered head to toe by markings to resemble a stag. And their leader is said to be twice the size of a normal man.”

What I want to emphasize in this short piece is the persistence of an ancient archetype. It may have started with the Greeks, or it may even be a separate tradition with the first Italic tribes (their god Faunus), then traveled over to Gaul and other Celtic locales with the spread of Roman civilization-cum-conquest, and lasted at least until the last century. 

Consider the celebrated poem “Afternoon of a Faun” by Mallarmé, whose frontispiece was illustrated by artist Manet; and Claude Debussy’s later orchestral homage.

faun by manet
Frontispiece by Édouard Manet (1832-1883) for the poem L’après-midi d’un faune by Stéphane Mallarmé 

No less an author than Kenneth Grahame used the mysterious character of a woodland deity in his influential children’s book The Wind in  the Willows.

wind in the willows
Original cover of wind in the willows. [Wiki: “Grahame’s Pan, unnamed but clearly recognisable, is a powerful but secretive nature-god, protector of animals, who casts a spell of forgetfulness on all those he helps. He makes a brief appearance to help the Rat and Mole recover the Otter’s lost son Portly.]
Note of interest: those who read (or who’d like to try) transgressive homoerotica, take a look at the short story “Amadan na Briana”  by Sessha Batto, which I discuss on another blog, here: https://gaylitauthors.wordpress.com/review-sex-ray-specs-by-sessha-batto/  Her brilliant work brings the ancient mythos into sharp modern (and mythic) focus.

cernunnos silo
This image of a squatting Cernunos with his torq, dark as it is, may be the best representation of the archetype that lurks in our collective psyche.

Man marries beast. Pan and his tansmutations are, for me, a reflection of our deepest fantasies. Through the centuries Pan has merged with Cervus/Cernunnos who has merged with an archetype we can clearly see in dreams but cannot put a finger on. Jung was right—such mythic images ride wild in the ganglia of all our brains, facets of our human nature.

cernunnos shutterstock

*My own tale of Stag Heart deviates from the mythopoeic. I keep the sensuality but couple it with a kind of wild innocence in the form of a young Scottish man. His name Oisean is itself taken from a Celtic myth about a boy disguised as a fawn.

stag silo trees
My own mashup of a man and a forest, in which the tree trunks become “horns.”

For readers of M/M romance-adventure, my books are:

The Iron Warrior (specifically Warrior, Come Again)

http://amzn.to/2n3sTgh

Stag Heart

Kindle US https://is.gd/G6elnN  

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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 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.

In my most recent novel, STAG HEART, all the action occurs at sacred Tara…action most unbecoming such a venerable site! Mischief and mayhem combine in a tour fe force among several strong men.

To most Irish people, the word “Tara” conjures up the unforgettable image of the Lia Fáil, the 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 historical books have roamed these boglands and hills, these seas and bays and lakes. You will meet them in the following novels:

The Twilight of Magic (fantasy for all ages): http://amzn.to/2C6SI6m 
The Dawn of Ireland (M/F fantasy romance): http://amzn.to/2pxBRGY
The Iron Warrior trilogy (M/M romance-adventure): http://amzn.to/2n3sTgh

 

treachery correx!

Stag Heart (M/M fantasy romance-adventure):

QRI:  https://is.gd/bQK5lo  (all links, reviews, explicit excerpt)

~and~

Kindle US https://is.gd/G6elnN  

Kindle UK https://is.gd/ocon0O  

SeaToSky https://is.gd/MrfeiG  (pdf or epub)

Smashwords https://is.gd/vU7yxi  (epub)

Slán until next time…Erin O’Quinn
Featured

Clootie wells and trees: Ancient celtic places of purification

Now that Iron Warrior novels and the sequel Stag Heart are out, it’s time to talk about one of the themes that runs through them–the idea of defilement/pain and purification.well#2 j200

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.)

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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.

In a later sequel set on the Hill of Tara (Stag Heart), a clootie well  and tree take on great significance.

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

In 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. In another novel, a young woman in pain, about to bear a child, travels to a  clootie tree to pray to the goddess Brighid. 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, left, 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 Twilight of Magic (fantasy for all ages): http://amzn.to/2C6SI6m 
The Dawn of Ireland (M/F fantasy romance): http://amzn.to/2pxBRGY
The Iron Warrior trilogy (M/M romance-adventure): http://amzn.to/2n3sTgh
Stag Heart (M/M fantasy romance-adventure):

QRI:  https://is.gd/bQK5lo  (all links, reviews, explicit excerpt)

~and~

Kindle US https://is.gd/G6elnN

Kindle UK https://is.gd/ocon0O

SeaToSky https://is.gd/MrfeiG  (pdf or epub)

Smashwords https://is.gd/vU7yxi  (epub)

Slán until next time…Erin O’Quin

Featured

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.                                                                                                               

 

 

 

 

 

 

cu c:fight j250
In his typical posture of “riastrad,” the champion thereafter called “Cu”  does battle with a wolfhound. Nude even,

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.                      

 

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
If you live in Central Texas, my dog-loving animal rescue friend James Martinez has given me two links:
Please note that I am re-publishing this article in June of 2018. Your comments are always welcome.
Featured

Healing herbs and plants in Old World Ireland

dandelion field 660
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 fantasy books, 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 their 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 Asteraceae or 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.

dandelion 242
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 tooth.”

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—not to mention a few other characters, like Dubthach—favors chicory, another flower from the family  compositae. Our American 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. Another of Gristle’s friends, the ollamh Dub, is addicted to chicory.

 

 

 

In Fire & Silk (to be re-released soon), 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 historical 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 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 novels centered in Old World Ireland:

The Twilight of Magic (fantasy for all ages)
http://amzn.to/2C6SI6m  

Dawn of Ireland (M/F Romance)

 http://amzn.to/2pxBRGY

Storm Maker
The Wakening Fire lily blue back 350
Captive Heart:
Fire & Silk: Coming 2018

Erotic M/M Romance:

http://amzn.to/2n3sTgh

Warrior, Ride Hard
Warrior, Stand Tall
Warrior, Come Again

Stag Heart:

QRI:  https://is.gd/bQK5lo  (all links, reviews, #explicit #excerpt)

~and~

Kindle US https://is.gd/G6elnN  

Kindle UK https://is.gd/ocon0O  

SeaToSky https://is.gd/MrfeiG  (pdf or epub)

Smashwords https://is.gd/vU7yxi  (epu