The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry

With thanks to Laurel from Unfettered Wood for posting this on Facebook!

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Posted by on September 21, 2013 in Uncategorized


Lugh and Weather

The following is a loose translation from the original Irish given by MacNeill, detailing some weather lore concerning Lugh, as well as a tale of how his grandfather Balor was killed. In spite of Lugh lending his name to the festival (and thunder storms being common at this time of year), he doesn’t feature heavily in the surviving tales relating to the many Lughnasa sites around Ireland. Instead, it is Patrick who takes the honours, although MacNeill notes that in at least some cases, Patrick may simply be a substitute for Lugh:

When there is thunder and lightning it is said:

‘Lugh Long-arm’s wind is flying in the air tonight!’

‘Yes, and the sparks of his father!’

Balor Béimeann, the father, had nine folds of cloth over his evil eye. There is folklore in Co. Mayo that says it was a blacksmith who killed Balor, and there is blood on a stone that marks where he was slain. The blacksmith thrust an iron shank he had heated in a fire into Balor’s eye, before Balor could lift the ninth fold from it.

Maire MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962 (2008), p598.

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Posted by on July 31, 2013 in Uncategorized


The Burnt Offering

Appendix I of Maire MacNeill’s The Festival of Lughnasa gives a detailed account of the many different tales associated with the festival. Some of them are more Paganish in context than others, so in the next few posts I’ll excerpt a couple of them.

This one has a couple of versions; the first version describes Crom Dubh as a tyrannical Protestant landlord who insisted on his tenants burning a bullock in his honour in celebration of his birthday, whereas this one describes him as a pagan and “a kind of a small god”; either way the resulting sacrifice is made in his honour, but eventually the practice shifted to a different day. The first version says it was when Crom died and the people built a bone-fire of old bones on St. John’s Eve to herald his end, but the following version evidently tries to reconcile the surviving practice of a “beef-animal” traditionally being killed at Martinmas (roughly coinciding with the Old Style date of Samhain):

Crom Dubh was a landlord, a pagan and a kind of  a small god.1 Each year on the last Sunday of July each householder had to put the best beef-animal on his farm into a fire in Crom Dubh’s honour. That is why the days was called Domhnach Chrom Dubh. The animal was laid between two stone walls or stone heaps and the fire was lit beneath it. When the Catholics won they changed the feast to St. John’s Eve, and that was the night on which the beef was roasted afterwards. Some say it was to St. Martin’s Eve the change was made. Others say that Crom Dubh was a saint but they know no more about him.

Maire MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962 (2008), pp583-584.


1 The original Irish: Deirtear gur tighearna talmhan ab eadh Crom Dubh. Págánach a bhí ann, agus bhí an ghráin shaoghalta aige ar na Caitlicigh bochta.

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Posted by on July 31, 2013 in Uncategorized


The Old Woman of Beare

This is a version of a well-known story about the Cailleach, which can be found in many different forms. In some versions of the tale it is not a friar or priest who visits with the Cailleach, but St. Patrick himself. In the south-west of Ireland, it is often a local saint such as Gobnait who is the visitor, however. Either way, the end result is the same; the Cailleach is so old that it is impossible to count all of the bones.

This version is from Douglas Hyde’s “Legends of Saints and Sinners.” 

There was an old woman in it, and long ago it was, and if we had been there that time we would not be here. Now; we would have a new story or an old story, and that would not be more likely than to be without any story at all.

The hag was very old, and she herself did not know her own age, nor did anybody else. There was a friar and his boy journeying one day, and they came in to the house of the Old Woman of Beare.

“God save you,” said the friar.

“The same man save yourself,” said the hag; “you’re welcome,[1] sit down at the fire and warm yourself.”

The friar sat down, and when he had well finished warming himself he began to talk and discourse with the old hag.

“If it’s no harm of me to ask it of you, I’d like to know your age, because I know you are very old.” [said the friar]

“It is no harm at all to ask me,” said the hag; “I’ll answer you as well as I can. There is never a year since I came to age that I used not to kill a beef, and throw the bones of the beef up on the loft which is above your head. If you wish to know my age you can send your boy up on the loft and count the bones.

True was the tale. The friar sent the boy up on the loft and the boy began counting the bones, and with all the bones that were on the loft he had no room on the loft itself to count them, and he told the friar that he would have to throw the bones down on the floor — that there was no room on the loft.

“Down with them,” said the friar, “and I’ll keep count of them from below.”

The boy began throwing them down from above and the friar began writing down [the number], until he was about tired out, and he asked the boy had he them nearly counted, and the boy answered the friar down from the loft that he had not even one corner of the loft emptied yet.

“If that’s the way of it, come down out of the loft and throw the bones up again,” said the friar.

The boy came down, and he threw up the bones, and [so] the friar was [just] as wise coming in as he was going out.

“Though I don’t know your age,” said the friar to the hag, “I know that you haven’t lived up to this time without seeing marvellous things in the course of your life, and the greatest marvel that you ever saw — tell it to me, if you please.”

“I saw one marvel which made me wonder greatly,” said the hag.

“Recount it to me,” said the Friar, “if you please.”

“I myself and my girl were out one day, milking the cows, and it was a fine, lovely day, and I was just after milking one of the cows, and when I raised my head I looked round towards my left hand, and I saw a great blackness coming over my head in the air. “Make haste,” says myself to the girl, “until we milk the cows smartly, or we’ll be wet and drowned before we reach home, with the rain.” I was on the pinch[2] of my life and so was my girl, to have the cows milked before we’d get the shower, for I thought myself that it was a shower that was coming, but on my raising my head again I looked round me and beheld a woman coming as white as the swan that is on the brink of the waves. She went past me like a blast of wind, and the wind that was before her she was overtaking it, and the wind that was behind her, it could not come up with her. It was not long till I saw after the woman two mastiffs, and two yards of their tongue twisted round their necks, and balls of fire out of their mouths, and I wondered greatly at that. And after the dogs I beheld a black coach and a team of horses drawing it, and there were balls of fire on every side out of the coach, and as the coach was going past me the beasts stood and something that was in the coach uttered from it an unmeaning sound, and I was terrified, and faintness came over me, and when I came back out of the faint I heard the voice in the coach again, asking me had I seen anything going past me since I came there; and I told him as I am telling you, and I asked him who he was himself, or what was the meaning of the woman and the mastiffs which went by me.

“I am the Devil, and those are two mastiffs which I sent after that soul.”

“And is it any harm for me to ask,” says I, “what is the crime the woman did when she was in the world?”

“That is a woman,” said the Devil, “who brought scandal upon a priest, and she died in a state of deadly sin, and she did not repent of it, and unless the mastiffs come up with her before she comes to the gates of Heaven the glorious Virgin will come and will ask a request of her only Son to grant the woman forgiveness for her sins, and the Virgin will obtain pardon for her, and I’ll be out of her. But if the mastiffs come up with her before she goes to Heaven she is mine.”

The great Devil drove on his beasts, and went out of my sight, and myself and my girl came home, and I was heavy, and tired and sad at remembering the vision which I saw, and I was greatly astonished at that wonder, and I lay in my bed for three days, and the fourth day I arose very done up and feeble, and not without cause, since any woman who would see the wonder that I saw, she would be grey a hundred years before her term of life[3] was expired.

“Did you ever see any other marvel in your time?” says the friar to the hag.

“A week after leaving my bed I got a letter telling me that one of my friends was dead, and that I would have to go to the funeral. I proceeded to the funeral, and on my going into the corpse-house the body was in the coffin, and the coffin was laid down on the bier, and four men went under the bier that they might carry the coffin, and they weren’t able to even stir[4] the bier off the ground. And another four men came, and they were not able to move it off the ground. They were coming, man after man, until twelve came, and went under the bier, and they weren’t able to lift it.

“I spoke myself, and I asked the people who were at the funeral what sort of trade had this man when he was in the world, and it was told me that it was a herd he was. And I asked of the people who were there was there any other herd at the funeral. Then there came four men that nobody at all who was at the funeral had any knowledge or recognition of, and they told me that they were four herds, and they went under the bier and they lifted it as you would lift a handful of chaff, and off they went as quick and sharp as ever they could lift a foot. Good powers of walking they had, and a fine long step I had myself, and I cut out after them, and not a mother’s son knew what the place was to which they were departing with the body, and we were going and ever going until the night and the day were parting from one another, until the night was coming black dark dreadful, until the grey horse was going under the shadow of the docking and until the docking was going fleeing before him.[5]

The roots going under the ground,
The leaves going into the air,
The grey horse a-neeing apace,
And I left lonely there.

“On looking round me, there wasn’t one of all the funeral behind me, except two others. The other people were done up, and they were not able to come half way, some of them fainted and some of them died. Going forward two steps more in front of me I was within in a dark wood wet and cold, and the ground opened, and I was swallowed down into a black dark hole without a Mother’s son or a father’s daughter[6] next nor near me, without a man to be had to keen me or to lay me out; so that I threw myself on my two knees, and I was there throughout four days sending my prayer up to God to take me out of that speedily and quickly. And with the fourth day there came a little hole like the eye of a needle on one corner of the abode where I was; and I was a-praying always and the hole, was a-growing in size day by day, and on the seventh day it increased to such a size that I got out through it. I took to my heels[7] then when I got my feet with me on the outside [of the hole] going home. The distance which I walked in one single day following the coffin, I spent five weeks coming back the same road, and don’t you see yourself now that I got cause to be withered, old, aged, grey, and my life to be shortening through those two perils in which I was.”

“You’re a fine, hardy old woman all the time,” said the friar.


[1] Literally, “He (i.e., God) is your life”; the equivalent of “Hail!” “welcome.”
[2] Literally, “the boiling of the angles-between-the-fingers was on me.”
[3] Literally, “before her age being spent.”
[4] Literally, “give it wind.”
[5] The fairies ride their little grey horse, and stable them at night under the leaves of the copóg or dock-leaf, or docking. But if they arrive too late and night has fallen, then the copóg has folded her leaves and will not shelter them.
[6] Literally, “man’s daughter.”
[7] Literally, “I gave to the soles.” Many people still say in speaking English, “I gave to the butts.” The Irish word means butt as well as sole.

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Posted by on March 9, 2013 in Uncategorized


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In the dark season of the deep winter

A poem for the Midwinter:

Dubaib rathib rogemrid
robarta tonn turgabar
íar tóib betha blái.
Brónaig eoín cach íathmaige
acht fiaich fola forderge
fri fúaim gemrid gairg.

In the dark season of the deep winter
heavy seas are lifted up
along the side of the world’s region.
Sorrowful are the birds of every meadow-field,
except the ravens of dark-red blood,
at the uproar of the fierce winter-time.

From Kuno Meyer, Learning in Ireland in the Fifth Century, 1913.

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Posted by on December 21, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Laa Boaldyn (May Day)

Here is a fairly modern poem from the Isle of Man, detailing one man’s memories of celebrating Laa Boaldyn, the Manx equivalent of “Bealtaine” or Bealltainn. It’s maybe a little out of season here in the northern hemisphere, but for those of you down south I’m sure it’s quite topical! The notes given at the bottom are by the author of the poem and help to explain some of the Manx terms or folklore smattered throughout

The season has returned again,
When the bwillogh is all in bloom,
By April’s sun and showers of rain,
And evening dew and midnight gloom.

I still remember days gone by,
When I was but a little lad,
We plucked the yellow flowers with joy,
And on May-eve we all were glad.

At eyery door we laid them down,
That fair Titania might see
The beauteous flowers scatter’d round,
And dance around with fairy glee.

The Fairy Queen—the old folk said—
Was going round on old May-night
When all mankind was gone to bed,
And in the flowers did delight.

She kindly blessed each little cot,
Where yellow flowers did appear:
If there were none – she blessed them not
But gave bad luck through all the year.

I still remember on May-day,
Those flowers scatter’d in Cregnaish,
But since the Queen is gone away
No flowers at the door we place.

No more among the trammon trees,
The little elves or fairies swing,
Hopping amongst the leaves like bees,
Or little birds upon the wing.

And branches of the rowan tree
Were carefully in crosses made,
And placed in holes where none could see,
To keep away each witching jade.

While bonfires blazed on every hill,
To keep the buitching crew at bay.
And some folks kindle fires still
To scare the witches—people say.

The little elves now dance no more,
Nor sing in Manx their midnight song
Among the flow’rets at the door,
And home to fairy-land are gone.

But these are now things of the past,
For witch alike and elf are flown,
From all the hills, save Crank Glenchass—
‘Tis said they claim that as their own.

Note. —The Bwillogh is the Caltha palustris, and a grand Manx fairy flower. The Trammon, or elder tree, is dear to the Manx elves and fairies. The Rowan Tree, or mountain ash, plays an important part in the celebration of May Eve and its berries, when placed on cow byres, and tied in the tails of cows, or hung over the threshold of the house, or worn by the milk-maids and fastened to the pails and milk vats, etc., acted as powerful agencies against witchcraft and evil spirits and their dark work. Cronk Glenchass, or the dry glen, was and still is supposed to be a favourite haunt of the Manx fairies, and I have a large collection of stories and legends referring to it.

C. Roeder’s Manx Notes, 1904.

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Posted by on October 1, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Hounds, ale, horses and teams

Excerpted from Timna Chathaír Mor, The Testament of Cathair Mor, this short passage evokes imagery of Lùnastal, or Lúnasa.

Hounds, ale, horses and teams,
women, well-bred fosterlings,
a harvest of honey, wheat of the first reaping,
mast for feeding goodly swine
shall be in thy populous household,
many women and pet animals,
musicians for ale-feasts.
coin coirm eich is echrada
banntracht dalta dualmaithi
milchnuas cruithnecht cétbuana
dairmes dail do deghmucaibh
beit it chróthreibh coitechta
ainnri imdai is eisrechta
cerda ciuil fri coirmlindi

From Myles Dillon’s translation of Lebor na Cert (The Book of Rights), 1962, p158-159.

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Posted by on August 5, 2012 in Uncategorized


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