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.


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.