There are many of these Bronze Age tombs, the 'youngest' of the megalithic tombs littering the Irish countryside. Wedge tombs like these Giants Graves are a mere 4,000 years old (give or take a millennium). They are most certainly meters long, roomy enough for an extended family of average sized 21st century humans. Given that the Celts in Cavan seemed to favor cremation, there are no bones for a paleontologist to verify physical size.
As you can see, there are many ways into the Giant's Grave Story. Before the new trails were built up to the Giant's Graves, making them more accessible to the public, there was a self-seeded beech nemeton at what the finger post would say was the male grave. Now, I have been up there with a gifted medium who felt the energy was very feminine. To me, beech trees are matriarch trees. So in that light the Giant's Grave might have been a female's grave.
But on the other hand, in the days when giants were striding around sowing these mythic tales, it was the mystic marriage with the goddess who gave sovereignty to a chieftain. So perhaps the grave pictured above really was a female giant's grave. Women did have status back in the day.
Or here is another take on the Grave. This is truly a great height. On a clear day you can see Fermanagh and Lough MacNean in the north. All 666 meters of Cuilcagh Mountain, where the river Shannon is burbling underground, is just to the east. Face northwest and you can see the misty outline of Dartry Mountain in Donegal; dead west is Leitrim's Benbo and further is the chain of dramatic drumlins charging towards the Sligo coast. Turn a full 360 degrees and you can see Lough Allen shimmering in the sunshine; on a clear day you can just make out Slieve Anieran, where the Tuatha dé Danaan first arrived in Erin. Beyond that the wind turbines on Arigna Mountain in North Roscommon lazily turn. They sometimes catch some sun glare and wink at you.
Then turn south east and you see the Bellavally Gap. It was here that the magical smith Gaibhnen had his forge where he created the magical swords and spears of the Tuatha dé Danaan. After kings and high priests, smiths were very high status Celts. Since they used the four elements of earth (willow for charcoal), fire, air (hide bellows) and water, they enjoyed a very high status indeed. It was only when the secret of Gaibhnen's forge was infilitrated that the Tuatha dé Danaan were defeated at the Second Battle of Moytura by the Milesians. Smiths were considered magicians since they shape shifted form; they were the earliest alchemists.
So up at this Giant's Grave we get a good view of the Bellavally Gap which Gaibhnen's Giant Green Cow, Bo Glas Gaibhleann ran amuck, carving the Gap in the first place. Perhaps this is Gaibhnen's Grave? The alternative could be the cairn atop Cuilcagh. But surely a goddess would bag that spot, just as Maeve reposes at Knocknarea just to the west in Sligo?
I value the work of archaeologists and those who beaver away at discerning the everyday details of our ancestors. But up at these heights I enjoy playing with story. So many stories we tell ourselves. Which ones do we need to help future generations keep heart? Can we become Giants again? Can we lift our eyes up and dream of the stars?
The blog post image is by Sara Garcia Hiolito (https://www.facebook.com/naturewithsara) of the wedge tomb on the Cavan Burren. Ursa Major shines overhead.
Blessings of biodiverse Bealtaine! This is my favourite season in Ireland and with my lane bursting with scores of wild plants, the cuckoo calling and the swifts shooting in and out of my neighbour's barn you really can sense the fertility of the earth. All is well and the wheel turns on and on.
This past weekend I was leading a Dublin radio presenter around this sacred landscape for a program on New Perspectives in Ireland: Themes, Dreams, Myths and Ecology. John is a self-proclaimed pessimist about the planet even as he keeps planting trees for Peace Forest Ireland.
I, on the other hand, am stoutly an optimist. This is for several reasons. Foremost is that if I did not attach myself to optimism I'd be prey to despair. Sorry, it's just how I am made. Secondly, I have a philosophical allegiance (thank you, Soren Kierkegaard!) to visualising positive outcomes and thereby making it so. This isn't a soppy 'belief' but a practice of affirming outcomes for the highest good of all concerned. If you keep on feeding your fear of doom then doom shall be manifest. But if you see earth as an endless and timeless exercise in love and creation then...well, you see it manifest every Bealtaine.
Given how this sacred landscape is threatened by fracking I could sink into despair. But there is an ornery spirit that has probably a lot to do with the confraternity of fairies/earth elementals who daily manifest themselves on my doorstep. The redstart in the hedgerow advises 'Don't despair.' The trees shrouded in their wooly lungwort tell me to breathe and believe and so it shall be. The spikes of mare's tail and bracken frond unfurl. The earth is released from its cocoon, working its alchemy as it has always done.
As I told John about the arrival of the Tuatha de Danaan in their ships he looked sceptically at Slieve Anieran. "They arrived in ships?" Then I told him to look at the limestone pavement under our feet. Millions of years ago this used to be ocean floor for a subtropical sea. I have literally walked upon fossils of ancient coral and limpet.
If the Tuatha de Danaan teach us nothing else they are an object lesson in timelessness and how story can have literal elements sprinkled in with the metaphor and fable. Surely the Shining Ones were here when this sacred ground was sea. Surely they were here with the ice sheets. Surely they were here when the first juniper tree sprouted when those ice sheets melted. Surely they were here when the megalith makers constructed their monuments to their dead and sculpted the first human art in rock.
Looking at the glacial erratics John commented that to him large rocks are just cathedrals inverted. Yes! Structures for spiritual praise indeed. Our earliest ancestors knew how to respect time, eternity and infinity. It's in our DNA although they have yet to isolate the chromosome for awe.
Looking at the gorse ablaze on the hillside and hearing the cuckoo call yet again I have more faith in the fey and the timeless than any force of ill will. They will outlast all the environmental villains of the piece. It is impossible to know the ending of the whole story, only a piece of the tale. But I am backing that elemental energy of creation every step of the way.
Meanwhile, this May Eve I will make my posy of marsh marigold and lady's smock, primrose, celandine and dog violet. I will tie them with yellow ribbon and leave it on the doorstep, rejoicing in the tenacity of Danu and her children who along with the earth will outlast us all.
I had heard that fairies don’t like iron. This really nonplussed me since their landing pad in Ireland was Iron Mountain. It didn’t get that name for nothing. It really is iron rich.
If you look at the texts about the Tuatha dé Danaan there are two key points where iron in the landscape is a prominent feature of the tale. The first is when they land on Slieve Anieran in Co. Leitrim. The second instance is when they are defeated by the Milesians at the Second Battle of Moytura, which is on the Sligo/Roscommon boundary. In their retreat after the battle they are said to have travelled north and east past Lough Arrow on to Lough Allen.
Lough Allen has Slieve Anieran on its eastern shore. On its western shore north of Lough Arrow lies Arigna, where for generations iron and coal has been mined. When I consider the topography in terms of the Tuatha dé Danaan saga iron surrounded their territory. If you go to the mountain just east of Slieve Anieran you have Benaughlin in Fermanagh/Cavan. In Swanlinbar pig iron smelting was carried out in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Really, you can’t get away from iron; it almost seems like a ring fence around what could be considered the Fairy Folk’s homeplace. Because the trajectory of their retreat after Moytura surely shows a desire to ‘home’ to their place of arrival in Ireland before they departed into the sídhe.
I shared my puzzlement with an Irish born friend Siobhán MacMahon, who is also The Faerie Shaman, for elucidation.
“Oh, that’s easy,” she said over Skype, “The fairies use iron whenever they break ties irrevocably with a particular world. Humans need to use iron if they want to break contact with the fairies though.”
Light bulb moment!
When the Tuatha dé Danaan left the four cities of Filias, Falias, Gorias and Murias they needed the iron of Slieve Anieran to break their tie with the land they left behind. After the Shining Ones were defeated by the Milesians they instinctively headed toward the ‘homeplace’ to use the iron again for their retreat into the sídhe.
This is why it makes perfect sense to me to call Slieve Anieran the Fairy Homeplace in Ireland. Homeplace is a rural Irish concept that invokes great passion for the land that has been inhabited by one’s blood kin for generations.
Fairies may inhabit the whole of the island of Ireland but Iron Mountain is especially dear to the indigenous earth spirits of this particular land and sacred to Danu, her tribe and those of Her clan who retreated into the fairy sídhe at their homeplace.
So it’s a bit of a myth that fairies don’t like iron. It’s all about its proper function with fairies.
Until I moved to this magical place first settled by the mythic Tuatha dé Danaan I, too, was a fairy agnostic. But when the land energy is so potent and palpable my disbelief was easily suspended. So yeah, I believe and have also come to know. Unlike the Doubting Disciple of the Christian gospel I don't need to have seen to believe. It's enough to feel. But once you do get the vibe the communication in my personal experience gets more direct.
The nearest fairy sighting I've had was on a dark night as we crossed over the Bellavally Gap. It's wild moorland with the 'gap' between Cuilcagh and Slieve Anieran said to have been made when the Tuatha dé Dannaan's magical smith, Govannan, had a green cow (Bo Glas) of Paul Bunyanesque proportions ran amuck.
Anyway, we are driving in the dark one clear April night when we see lights approaching. Tony dipped the headlights anticipating an oncoming vehicle on this lonely stretch. But no car approached. Rather the light drifted across the road onto the boggy moor.
Now there are no turning points just moorland and road on the Gap so it absolutely was not a vehicle. We both did a reality check on what we had seen and corroborated each others version. In hindsight I reckon we had a will o the wisp manifest itself for our delectation.
Fairies are renowned for having a strictly reciprocal morality. You need to politely request and offer an exchange. This is why you often see accident 'black spots' (literally, a sign posted at the roadside alerting motorist that this is an accident black spot) along highways where a fairy tree was cut to make way for tarmacadam. These often are posted on the straightest stretched of road in a country that excels itself on the definition of the long and winding road. Any Irish country person knows that one cuts a fairy tree down you do so at your peril. There is 'no luck' in it. Of course, this is only strengthened when you hear about business titans like Sean Quinn or DeLorean being brought low by not respecting fairy trees and sacred stones.
This sense of reciprocity has been manifest most recently in my own life. I was up for a Writing Course scholarship to the UK and needed to travel to our county town for an interview. I pinned my favourite broach, a Celtic boar, onto my jacket. For luck like. In Celtic lore boar is sacred to poets and musicians so it seemed a good charm for an Arts Office interview. Later in the day I discovered that the broach was gone. The fairies must have fancied it and decided it was a worthy price in exchange for my heartfelt wish.
Now I got the scholarship and when I discovered the loss what came to mind that this was the fairy price for granting my fervent wish. It also reminded me of a friend who 'lost' some earrings straight after an interview that brought her to Ireland. She also knew instinctively that the 'loss' was the price for granting her wish of getting the job.
I'm still working on refining the formula for retrieving items the fairies have 'borrowed' but you do need returned. A ring and a debit card have turned up. The first I needed back since it is the only ring given me by my beloved. The second I suspect was either a tease or just post-menopausal absentmindedness.
However, I'm still turning the house upside down for an important document they seem to be holding hostage. It may take more than honey, milk and dark chocolate for a ransom. I'm probably going to need to reach out to my faery shaman friends.
Ireland has recently conducted national DNA research that asks the question of what actually makes the Irish...well, Irish? As a country conditioned by emigration the Celtic tiger of the 1990's and early Noughties brought an influx of new blood into the population. Cue some national soul searching.
If you read the earliest Irish texts, such as the Book of Invasions, Ireland has always been rather 'multi-cultural' although that was probably not the fashionable interpretation in earlier times. This DNA survey has noted that along with the Irish being well connected with the Scots and other British populations, there is a strong marker for Spanish, specifically, Basque, lineage.
Back to Danu and the primordial invasions, it is now speculated that the Basques are the marker for the sons of Mil or Milesians who vanquished the Tuatha dé Danaan, precipitating their withdrawal into the sídhe. But then this makes us ask about those who are said to predate the Tuatha dé Danaan, the Firbolg and Formorians. What makes anyone truly indigenous?
Some Irish pagans have pointed out to me that Celt is a useless term and this DNA research clearly shows that what Celtic influence in Ireland came via the Basque country rather than central Europe. Yet Danu was well-established in central Europe that was the stomping grounds of the Celts. She was venerated enough to give the name to the main watercourse, the Danube.
But this may also be an example of how in Ireland there are never more than three degrees of separation. (For instance, you, dear reader, are connected to me, who lived next door to James Joyce's great-nephew, so now you are three degrees from James Joyce...and Samuel Beckett, for that matter.)
Somehow, Danu's cult spread, perhaps to or by non-Celtic people. Or perhaps we are to take this story as a metaphor for the interconnectedness of all things.
More importantly, the legends of the Tuatha dé Danaan have always struck me as symbolic of how humans are a combination of immortal and mortal, for the tales tell of intermarriage with the Formorians. In particular, you read of Brigit, a goddess, marrying a mortal Formorian Bres. Three of their sons were slain at Moytura and it is said that this was the first incidence of keening in Ireland as Brigit mourned her sons.
Welcome to my world one that is quite literally magical. In this blog I’ll share how a relict goddess, the legends of her devotees and the earth that is their homeplace have nurtured my spiritual path.
In 2001 after a protracted leave taking from England, my Irish born partner and I were led to Ireland guided by Yeats’ synchronicities, goddess guidance and the ridiculous spinning of a pendulum over a map in County Cavan, a place neither of us remotely entertained as our new Irish residence.
However Brigit and Yeats’ and the pendulum knew better than our scepticism. By various meaningful coincidences we landed in Dowra, the first village on the river Shannon. It is a village that spreads over two counties, Cavan and Leitrim. Moreover, there is rumoured to be a remnant of the Black Pig’s Dyke, an earthwork defence to keep marauding Ulsterman out of Connaught, behind Oliver McGrail’s house. So we also bestride two ancient kingdoms of Ireland. To complicate matters still, this corner of northwest Ireland was also a subkingdom – Breifne – which actually does accurately follow the geological contours that the ice sheets sculpted millennia ago.
So we dwell in a neither here nor there and simultaneously both sort of place. This tends to addle one’s daily mindset.
The Cuilcagh Mountain range is Breifne’s spine. Slieve Anieran is on the far side of the parish. Translating as Iron Mountain, this is the place in the mythic invasion tales of Ireland where the Tuatha dé Danaan first landed on this island. As the myths tell us eventually they were vanquished and went to ground, virtually literally, at their homeplace after the second battle at Moytura. They transformed into the folkloric fairy race.
The Tuatha dé were worshippers of the goddess Danu. She’s a mysterious one, virtually lost from written record. She’s a memory or spiritual atavism who may havehad Her roots in India. Yet she is also indubitably Celtic and disputably distinguishable from Anu. See, no one can agree.
Shortly after we moved to our acre and bit on the Cavan side of the village I became unsettled in my flame tending for Brigit. It became a struggle and eventually I realised that a local deity desired my attention and acknowledgement. Each night I would walk our lane with our dogs and face the Playbank, a rocky escarpment at the termination of Slievenakila. “Who are you? Please tell me your name.” I asked and asked and finally it emerged – Danu.