A Month of Ireland: Long Ago, But Still Speaking

In this last post about lovely Irish things, I’d like to look at things from the past that still matter so much to those who see them now.

The exciting thing about Irish literature and history is that we are not only still discovering things today, but we are also rediscovering some of the gems of Irish history.  What has been discovered?  Not many weeks ago, there was an article posted about the restoration of a beautiful Celtic cross from the island of Iona.

st oran's crossIona is part of Scotland, but was the home of many Irish monks seeking holy refuge from the world.  St. Oran’s cross is a massive, stunning piece of stonework engraved all over with beautiful Celtic designs reminiscent of the glorious book that was also supposedly created on that island not long after: The Book of Kells.

The cross is over fourteen feet high and weighs a literal ton, a massive project to begin with and just as massive to restore.  The restoration was timed to be completed for the 1,450 year anniversary of Saint Colomba’s arrival on Iona.  Go ahead and just ponder that number for a moment.  Yes, that many years.  And yet, that cross is still here and there are still people willing to spend exhaustive hours lovingly restoring it to its former glory.

The magic of such artefacts is in their ability to travel across centuries and profoundly impact people a millenium and a half later.  They are part of history and part of the present, stories without words.

On the other hand, some of these pieces of old magic are filled with words.  Not long after St Oran’s cross was constructed, a book was composed.  Containing the four Gospels, The Book of Kells has been honored for centuries, treasured and preserved.  And now to the intense delight of many who are unable to turn the actual pages, the entire book has been scanned and uploaded.

The Book of Kells, like the cross of St Oran, has abided centuries of change and development.  Because of the willingness of generations of scholars, archaeologists, historians, and enthusiasts to put the time and effort into guarding it, and then into updating its availability for a new generation, The Book of Kells belongs to anyone who cares to read it, as the Gospels were always meant to.

I am not a historian, but I am a lover of stories, and the stories tucked away into the corners of history are the ones I find most interesting.  It is all the better when those stories are tangible, visible, and knowable, revealed in a beautiful medium that allows them to speak for themselves.

A Month of Ireland: What Happened to St. Patrick?

Saint Patrick’s Day has come and gone.  What did you do?  Was there much festivity, music, drinking, dancing?  Did you wear green?  Did you see a leprechaun, or at least a rainbow?

I wore green and I certainly appreciated this Irish-themed holiday.  However, it sometimes boggles my mind how a holiday (holy day?) dedicated to a man of true worth, a hero whose valor and sacrifice helped instigate a wave of conversion across an entire nation, can be pared down to things as mundane as wearing green or drinking too much.

Don’t get me wrong.  While drinking is not a pastime of mine, I am not opposed to celebrating a holiday by having fun with friends and enjoying a concept as hilarious as little men in green chasing rainbows.  Although it does seem like holidays have a habit of becoming increasingly fluffy.  I mean, look at what we did to poor St Valentine’s holiday.

Saint Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland.
Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland.

It’s not so much that I think that we shouldn’t celebrate these things with new, entertaining traditions.  Celebrations are meant to be fun, after all. However, I do think that Saint Patrick does deserve at least a little consideration sometime during the festivities.  He isn’t Ireland’s patron saint because of faeries or alcohol. He was a warrior for Ireland’s heart and soul.

saint patrick's cathedral hall
Inside the cathedral.

Many people know the basic story of Saint Patrick: How a young boy raised in Rome-civilized England was kidnapped to be a slave by Irish marauders.  How he escaped and returned home.  How he became a Christian, and then discovered that his calling was to return to the land where he was a slave and free them from their own, darker enslavement.

saint patrick's well dublin ireland

The stories of Saint Patrick range from his driving all the snakes from Ireland to how he challenged the druidic order by cutting down their sacred oak.  Whatever he actually did, Saint Patrick’s legacy is ongoing.  Far, far more than a color, an overindulgence in alcohol, or a fae creature with a predisposition for ginger hair and rainbows, Saint Patrick’s heritage is one of faith and literature.saint patrick's cathedral dublin

My post last week was about a magic cat and the man who wrote about it.  That man’s earnest desire to convey stories, both true and fanciful, to a lost world owes its existence to  the courage and dedication of the heroic Saint Patrick.

So, I hope you wore green.  I hope your day was festive (in moderation!).  But I also hope that those of you who believe as I do, who were able to go to your church for a day of worship, also took a moment to consider that men and women like Saint Patrick, as instruments of their Maker, brought the light into our ancestors’ dark world. We owe them much.

stone bible Saint Patrick's cathedral dublin ireland
A passage from Psalms set in stone in St Patrick’s Cathedral

A Month of Ireland: The Magic, Faerie-Hunting Cat Named Pangur Bán

Last week I provided a very dark but beautiful bit of poetry about the faeries stealing away a child.  This week, my Irish-themed post has a slightly happier note.  As previous posts have mentioned, there is a cartoon called The Secret of Kells about the writing of the Book of Kells.  In that film is a cat named Pangur Bán, white with one blue eye and one green eye.  Multicolored eyes indicate magic, as we all know.  So today, we will talk more about what it means to have a magic cat.

The original cat Pangur Bán (he was real!) exists for us in the pages of a 9th century Irish manuscript.  An Irish monk reflects on how his own struggle for words compares to the hunting of his “whiter than white” cat.

Messe ocus Pangur Bán,
cechtar nathar fria saindan
bíth a menmasam fri seilgg
mu menma céin im saincheirdd.
    . . .
I and Pangur Bán my cat
Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

The thing about magic cats is they have a tendency to show up in unexpected places.  This Irish cat now lives in my house.

pangur ban white green eye blue eyeThe other thing about magic cats is that they do not see the world the way other cats do.  Pangur Bán’s eyes are her gift and her curse.  She sees our world with her blue eye, the mundane eye.  However, with her green eye, she sees the faeries.

Pangur Bán’s eternal battle with the invisible house faeries has been going on for months now.  She hunts them, chases them, and pounces on them, but our house is overrun.  Fortunately, Pangur Bán refuses to give up, and her hunt for the faeries continues.


The Pangur Bán of the 9th century hunted mice, so says the poem, but he, too, was a magic cat.  He had the ability to inspire his master to write. It is through observing his cat that the anonymous Irish monk is able to conclude:

pangur ban

He fesin as choimsid dáu
in muid dungní cach oenláu
du thabairt doraid du glé
for mu mud cein am messe.
                   . . .
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

(Translation by Robin Flowers)

The Irish monks of this man’s time were facing many years of darkness – literary darkness, that is. They are responsible for preserving much of the early literature that we value so much today. They were writers and readers, lovers of books, masters of their craft of illumination. You know a true book-lover when he not only writes the book, but he is driven to make it beautiful.

This poem is so especially beloved not just because it is such a strange little bit of writing tucked in the margins of a manuscript.  It also shows us just a glimpse of man’s thoughts aside from his long hours of writing down and preserving valuable texts.  Over a thousand years ago, a man sits at his desk and struggles to find inspiration and to use just the right words.  Another translation of the first verse by Seamus Heaney:

Pangur Bán and I at work,
Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:
His whole instinct is to hunt,
Mine to free the meaning pent.
How many times has any one of us sat in front of a blank screen or stared at a page, pen in hand, and struggled to free the meaning trapped in our thoughts?  If we could just find the right words, the story would come to life.
Pangur Bán may seem to be no more than a small white cat, but this cat has managed to travel through time to tell a very simple, but universal story of the writer’s experience.  A magic cat, indeed! Although the author of this poem is nameless, he has given us a name to remember.  It seems, thanks to his cat, he found his words, after all.
pangur ban cat rabbit friends
Pangur Ban makes friends with the evil Bella Bunny.

A Month of Ireland: The Faeriescape

It’s March, St Patrick’s month, so why not do a few posts on Ireland to celebrate?  I personally have a heavy dose of Northern Irish on my mother’s side (as I discovered when I found her maiden name on nearly every tombstone of a church in Portadown).

And of course, there’s the fact that I am very, very fond of early Irish literature. So was the poet William Butler Yeats, who, aside from poetry, wrote a book called Celtic Twilight, which explores the existence of faeries (Yeats was a believer) and their connection to Ireland.  Yeats’s fascination with Irish magic came through into his poetry as well. I’ve always enjoyed one in particular, haunting and mysterious, about a child being lured away by the faeries.  When I was in Ireland, I was amazed at the enchanted landscapes that we passed through.  It was much easier to see why Yeats was so convinced that faeries lived in the forests.

So, to start the month of Ireland off right, a poem about faeries and some lovely pictures.

(And for a real treat, listen to Loreena McKennit’s version of this poem set to music!)

misty mountains ireland

“The Stolen Child”

WHERE dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

pond portadown ireland

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

tree tunnel northern ireland

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

mountain of mist northern ireland

Away with us he’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.

~ William Butler Yeats

Enter Here for Otherworld: No, Seriously. (This is Why I Love The Mabinogi.)

For the next couple of weeks, I am simultaneously researching for a major essay on Echtra Nera (a super weird, super awesome Irish tale that involves talking corpses, fairy mounds, weird time shifts, and other such delights) and preparing for my twenty minute presentation on Pwyll Pendeuic Dyuet and narrative structure for a postgraduate conference here at Edinburgh Uni.

On the road in Northern Ireland, an old shell of a house caught my eye. I love these ghosts of the past. There are stories here.

Needless to say, I’m enjoying myself immensely.  A bit of Irish and a bit of Welsh and my day is set.

Today, I am focusing mainly on Pwyll and my presentation for the coming week.  Pwyll is the first of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, a group of Welsh tales written in the Middle Ages with roots from a bit earlier, though we aren’t quite sure how early (lots of debate going into that particular subject, but I try to stay out of it).  My favorite thing about the stories are the stories themselves.  Yes, I appreciate the history and the language and everything that influenced the creation of these tales, but I enjoy diving into a good narrative more than I like chopping it up and investigating it in little pieces to prove things about early Welsh myths and culture and such.  I don’t think that literary analysis should be so clinical, I suppose, until you’ve learned to love the story itself.

The other day, my Welsh prof lent me a translation of the Four Branches that I’d never seen before and it took my breath away.  Because this wasn’t just any translation; it was also a picture book!  And who doesn’t like a good picture book?

I haven't yet been to Wales, but the hills in Scotland are certainly inspiring in their own right.

You see, one thing that the Welsh (and the Irish) enjoy doing in their old tales is including place-names.  They put incredible events, epic battles, magical beings right in their own remarkable countryside, very specifically named.  No surprises there.  One look at an Irish landscape and you can almost see Nera joining the band of mysterious warriors as they enter a fairy mound on Samain night…

In Bollard’s translation of the Four Branches, he has pictures by photographer Anthony Griffiths of all the various place-names mentioned in the tales.  Hills and rivers and ancient ruins color the pages.  Instead of a remote story from a distant land, you are transported to somewhere very real.  Pwyll didn’t happen upon Rhiannon on some nonexistent, nondescript hill; it happened on a real hilltop called Arberth and you can go to it today.  Will you see a wonder when you sit atop it?  Only one way to find out!

Not a Welsh Otherworld waterfall, but certainly magical.

Pictures of waterfalls that are said to lead to the Otherworld…. of the castle where Bran watched the incoming Irish fleet whose king would ask for his sister’s hand and thereby begin a series of epic and tragic conflicts… of a sunset at the spot where the seven survivors of Wales would have feasted in timeless merriment for 80 years…

How wonderful to read a story and not just imagine how it would have been, but see where the writers envisioned the tales unfolding!  How fabulous to imagine finding that waterfall that they practically signposted for us and taking a look behind it!

And this is what I am being ‘forced’ to study?  I accept!

I just need to get to the summer so I can take a trip to Wales…

Arawn, king of an Otherworld palace, guided Pwyll through the woods to his court. Pwyll spent a year there, ruling in Arawn's stead, before his battle with Arawn's greatest enemy...