Sunday, 27 August 2017

The Mysterious Stone.

“ ’Tis a big yoke alright ” said Paddy,“ white and covered in circles, like someone’s taken a baked bean can to it.”

Paddy and the stone beneath a stump.

My neighbour was working for Coilte, the Forestry and his gang had cleared a section of coniferous trees up on the Slieve Bloom when Paddy came across a stone, the like of which he’d never seen. 
“Would you come and have a look?” he asked, so we agreed a day to meet.

Our destination was a small river valley lying between the shoulders of the hills. 
As we drove the landscape below stretched out as far as the Dublin mountains.

We climbed to Ballyhuppahaune and beyond. 

Past the last house and the old sheebeen.

Upwards until the road narrowed.

Ending in a forestry track, a silent place edged with mountain ash.

From there it was a hike across rough ground and islands of tree stumps until we reached the stone.

Composed of white sandstone, it was about half a metre wide, smooth and covered 
with perfect circles of of various sizes and depths. 
What was this ?

The day was warm, the valley peaceful, filled with birdsong and the murmuring Owenass River, 
so we sat and contemplated the boulder.
As my eyes wandered the designs, I saw cycles, suns, moons and carvings made by our ancestors. 
Excitement bubbled, ancient rock art in the Slieve Bloom!

But as I cleared pine needles and debris from the grooves I realised they were smooth, 
shouldn’t there be ‘pick marks’ made by tools? 
If not man made what were they? 
After a while Paddy asked what I thought and I admitted I was mystified. 

Later, I returned with friends and together we levered up the stone to peer beneath.

A few circles were marked on the underside.

We scrutinised it, we meditated on it.
Was it a bullaun stone? 
Was it rock art? 
Were those cup and ring marks?
We argued this way and that. 
After an hour or so we gave up and decided to seek the opinion of someone with more experience in rocks.
A length of white string was tied around the nearby tree stump as a marker, photographs were taken and still puzzled, we went home. 


The geologist, Dr. John Feehan, felt the stone was intriguing enough to make a site visit and a few days later he contacted me with his opinion: the circles were not hand carved but made by nature.

I was disappointed as my rock art theory went up in smoke, however John couldn’t say how the markings had been made.
As he sent his photographs and measurements to various geologists across the world to find the answer I eagerly awaited their conclusion, imagining huge bursting bubbles or some prehistoric creature leaving shapes in the sand.

But no answer came, the geologists were baffled too. 

Soon the stone was shrouded again in shadows and trees.

To this day the origin of The Mysterious Stone remains an enigma.
Perhaps Paddy was right. Maybe it was a man with a baked bean can after all.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

LUGHNASADH - Gathering Fraochans at Brón Trogain.

Along the boreen flowers are becoming fruits and the year is turning towards Lughnasadh.

Honeysuckle flowers depart & berries appear.

The earliest name for Lughnasadh, derived from Old Irish, is Brón Trogain, which likens the earth to a woman in labour, sorrowing as she births her fruit.
As green berries are revealed, the first wild fruit to ripen is usually the fraochan.

Also known as fraughan, bilberry, whortleberry, blaeberry, heatherberry, whorts & hurts.

Fraochans have been known in Ireland since ancient times and their seeds have been discovered during excavations of Viking and Anglo-Norman settlements in Dublin. 

Across rural Ireland it was customary to celebrate this time of year by visiting the heights of the land to pick the berries. 

Purple dye was produced from the berries and the juice was believed to be a cure for eczema

The shrubs grow low on heathland and wet mountainsides where their solitary flowers produce purple-black berries, rich in vitamin C.
Bilberries were traditionally gathered on the last Sunday of July or the first Sunday of August and Domhnach na bhFraochog, Fraochan Sunday, was considered a day of great festivity when people danced, sang and played games in the wild places. 

Ard Éireann on the border between counties Laois and Offaly, 
was a popular place to harvest fraochans.

In 1942 massive crowds were reported as streams of cars, pony traps and bicycles from the surrounding countryside made their way to Arderin to pick the berries.

Large quantities of bilberries for export to Britain were harvested in Carlow, Wicklow, Tipperary and Waterford in the early 20th century. The price paid was very low and the baskets large but hundreds of people picked them to earn money to support their families.

During the 2nd World War imports of bilberries to Britain from Europe were disrupted resulting 
in the price paid to Irish pickers increasing dramatically, especially as British pilots 
reported that bilberry jam improved their night vision.

In earlier times the gathering of fraochans appears to have involved only the young people who would spend the day walking to the slopes, foraging for berries and celebrating. 
In Co. Donegal the aged were not allowed upon the hill tops so berries were strung on long stalks of grass, cuiseógs, to be brought down to them. 

At Glenkitt, Co. Laois people gathered to climb the slopes of Ard Erin in search of berries.

Many accounts describe Fraochan Sunday as a time for courtship, a festival where people could hope to find a husband or wife.
Young men threaded berries, making bracelets as gifts for the young women. 
Custom dictated that the bracelets had to be removed and left on the hill top at the end of the day, although the reason for this has long been forgotten.

A plentiful supply of the berries were thought to bring good luck to the coming harvest.

Bilberry pies called Pócai Hócai, were made by young women to be presented to their chosen partners and fraochan wine, a mixture of sugar and berry juice, was given to lovers in the hope of hastening a wedding.
Perhaps the tradition of courtship associated with Bilberry Sunday is an echo of the old Teltown Marriages lasting for a year and a day, which also took place at Lughnasadh ?

Gathering bilberries upon the heights brought people to the hilltop mounds and fairy-forts and there are accounts of the Old Gods and the Good People being honoured at this time. 

A celebration was held on Knockfeerna Hill, Co. Limerick where flowers and fraochans were strewn around a small cairn, the ‘Struicín near the summit, reputedly the entrance to 
Donn Fírinne’s underground palace. 

On the small hill, the Spellick, near to Slieve Gullion, Co. Armagh, everyone who gathered fraochans had to sit on a rocky formation known as the Cailleach Beara’s Chair, for luck.
However Crom Dubh, the ‘black stooped one’, was the pagan deity most associated with the festival and gathering berries any later than Fraochan Sunday was thought to bring his curse. 

Of the many traditions associated with Brón Trogain, later Lughnasadh, it appears that Fraochan Sunday has stood the test of time. In many areas people still pick fraochans on the hills. 

Here in the midlands Ard Erin was silent this year and Glenkitt a lonely place, 
but the fraochans are still thriving on the hills. 

Take a sound journey through Glenkitt to Ard Erin with local guide Mick Dowling who remembers the days when thousands gathered on Frochan Sunday. 

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Meeting the Othercrowd in a Scented Land.

St. John’s Eve had not long passed, the air on the Slieve Aughty mountains was warm and along the way the foxgloves bloomed, a portent of what was to come.

Foxglove, Lus Mór, has long been associated with the Good People.
Also known as fairy thimbles, fairy gloves and witches’ bells they were considered 
unlucky to bring indoors.

A ritual involving foxglove was utilised by parents whose child had suffered a ‘fairy stroke’ 
and was thought to be a changeling. 
Three drops of foxglove were put in each ear and on the tongue of the infant before placing it on a shovel at the house door. 
The door was swung open three times whilst saying “ if you’re a fairy away with you.” 
If it was a changeling the child would die, if not the infant would recover.

St. John’s Eve was believed to be the best time to collect foxgloves but unless you were being paid 
to cut the flowers, great care had to be taken not to cross the Good People. 
One story tells that a woman was stopped from collecting them by a voice which called  
“ Don’t cut that if you’re not paid, or you’ll be sorry.”

Soon I was back on the Burren, truly a fertile rock at this time of year. 

The Land of the Fertile Rock - link to previous post HERE

I was greeted by mossy islands. 

 And miniature landscapes.

A green swathe around St. Fachtnan’s well.

Clear water pooled & a creature swam within, too fast to capture.

New offerings had been left, a tribute to Brigid.

From limestone crevices ferns unfurled.

 And orchids bloomed.

My destination lay hidden in peaceful hollow, a scented land.

Founded 40 years ago, The Burren Perfumery is a self-sufficient island 
where limestone walks lead to sensual delights. 

Over 700 species of flowering plants flourish on the Burren and the perfumes, soaps and creams created here are fragranced by indigenous plants. 

Leaving buildings and visitors behind I entered the herb garden, built on the site of the original 
old farmhouse garden of 1800’s.

A path, leading deeper into dappled green 

brought me to a secluded nook, a wilder place where foxgloves flourished.

Breathing deeply, eyes closed, I sat on old stone and cast my mind adrift.

It was in that silence I heard Them.
Quiet laughter at my side, a quiver in the leaves close by. 

I held my breath, all senses keen, 

but only the bowing foxgloves betrayed the passing of the Othercrowd.


To discover more about The Burren Perfumery please visit their website - HERE

Take a brief tour of the perfumery, the tea rooms and the grounds -

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Knockainey, Midsummer and the scent of Meadowsweet.

Midsummer is almost upon us, our senses filled with colour, the heady scents of woodbine 
and wild sweet pea, the sound of bees and birds. 

Almost overnight, clouds of meadowsweet appear along the boreen. 

In folk medicine meadowsweet, Airgead Luachra, ‘silver rushes’
was used to cure fevers and colds as well as easing pain. 

In Co. Galway meadowsweet was placed under the bed of a person afflicted by wasting sickness brought on by contact with the Good People. The use of the flower was fraught with danger however, as patients risked falling into a deep and deadly sleep.

Also known as Cúchulainn’s Belt, meadowsweet was said to have reduced 
the heroes’ fever and calmed his fits of rage. 

It was Àine however, the ‘bright’ goddess often associated with the sun, who gave meadowsweet its’ perfume. 
In the old tales she is described as “the best-natured of women”.

Àine is found in several places in the Irish landscape, including Lough Gur 
where she is remembered as Bean Fhionn, White Lady. 

Link to previous post about Àine & Lough Gur ~
LOUGH GUR - “a personality loved, but also feared.”

Her main residence however is her hill, Cnoc Áine, Knockainey, which is steeped in myth.

Knockainey from Bóher Na Sceach, ‘road of the thorns’. 

Ritual once took place here on Oiche Fhéile Eóin, St. John’s Eve, June 23rd.
The celebration falls close to the Summer Solstice and many believe it has its’ roots in pagan ritual. 

In legend Áine, using her magic, helped to take the hill from the Firbolg so that her people, the Tuatha Dé Danann, could settle there. 
Her price for preventing bloodshed was that “the hill were given to her till the end of the world.”  

At 528 feet high, the summit provides views across the landscape to the hills around Lough Gur, 
to Knockfierna and to the sacred fires which would once have been lit on hill tops to celebrate the changing seasons. 

Knockfierna to the west of Knockainey. 

Folklore tells that the local fairies, led by Áine, used to play a hurling match against the god, 
Donn Firinne who lived beneath Knockfierna. 
Whoever was victorious would ensure a successful potato crop.

The top of Áine’s Hill, difficult to reach in the summer months due to grazing cattle, has the remains of three mounds. These were believed to be the dwelling places of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Eogabal (said by some to be Aine's father), 
Fer Fi and Áine.

Diagram of Knockainey mounds from Thomas J. Westropp, 
 “The Ancient Sanctuaries of Knockainey and Clogher, Co. Limerick and Their Goddesses”
Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 1917 - 1919 

After visiting Knockainey Westropp describes’s Áine’s cairn as

 “a defaced, insignificant heap of earth and stones wrecked by treasure-seekers.” 

As late as the 19th century celebrations were held at Midsummer and at harvest when burning brands of hay and straw were carried to the summit.

Evans-Wentz, W. Y. - 'The Fairy-faith in Celtic Countries', London: H. Frowde, 1911.

The goddess herself was believed to lead a similar rite. 

Several wells are marked on the old maps suggesting that there may have been rituals involving water. 
One ‘curious’ well which flowed down the slope beneath her mound was recorded as 
Áine’s Well and she was said to haunt the local river as a banshee, combing her hair beside the waters of the Camòg.

All that can be found today is Mary's Well in the village.  

A series of exposed rocks, the remains of an old quarry, hide the elusive Áine Clíar's Cave.

The Hill and land around Knockainey is filled with ancient monuments, mounds and standing stones once part of Bronze and Iron Age burial traditions and ceremonies. 

The landscape holds its’ secrets but still whispers, in the summer months, of forgotten rituals, celebrations to the sun and to Áine, the “ beautiful spirit crowned with meadowsweet”.

Offerings to Áine at the river.

Click link below to read more about Knockainey & view the surrounding landscape from the summit ~