An Hibernian excursus

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Nowhere a stranger: a bust of Mercury from Emo Court House, Co. Laois. (I am a sucker for neo-classical architecture.)

As attentive readers of this blog may be aware, I travelled to Ireland last May for a variety of causes. The immediate impulse for the trip was last year’s Brexit vote, which made me think that it might not be so easy or convenient to cross the Anglo-Irish border (or should I say intra-Irish border?) once Brexit takes effect. The breezy wilful blindness of Theresa May’s government, and its all too evident indifference to the Irish dimension of Brexit’s aftermath, have only confirmed me in my darkest apprehensions of what the outcome might portend for the future of Ireland. I do sincerely hope, however, that from one cause and another, May (or her successor) may be made to take Ireland seriously. The fact that her government now depends upon the goodwill of the DUP—the type specimen of partisans of ‘soft Brexit’—ought to give some urgency to such considerations.

This is a trip that I’ve had in mind for a long time, however. Like many Irish Americans, I feel a deep and sincere attachment to the island and to its people(s). I had visited Ireland once before—in 1998! how time flies—and learned from that encounter to value highly both Irish hospitality and the natural and cultural beauties of the island. The mythology of the land adds an additional attraction, and I had long wished to see Ulster, my ancestral province, and in particular the region of South Armagh and the Cooley Peninsula, so rich in associations with Cú Chulainn and the Táin, which my great-great-grandmother left, and to visit ancestral places of memory so pregnant with associations both heroic and divine.

I’m no longer an assiduous or systematic worshipper of the gods of Ireland, and indeed many of the rhetorical positions I’ve taken with respect to Gaulish and Gallo-Roman religion have been to warn against too eager and naïve a Hibernicizing tendency. (I defy anyone to read Arbois de Jublainville’s paper identifying Cernunnos with Conall Cernach, for example, and not agree with me that this has at times been taken too far.) My primary religious focus in Ireland was, therefore, geared more to ancestor veneration than to worship of the gods—although I did pray daily to Éire, Banbha, and Fóla, offer gifts to themselves and to Lugh Lámhfhada and to the spirits of the land, etc. My journey took me through quite a number of places associated with Lugh: Naas, the northern Moytura in Co. Sligo, Dunlewey (in the Poisoned Glen of Co. Donegal, where Lugh is said to have slain Balor), Slieve Gullion, etc. I sincerely regret not having made it to the Hill of Tara; but driving rain and road closures on the day in question kept us from the site where Lugh assumed the high kingship after demonstrating his excellence in all the arts—but this just gives me a further spur to return to Ireland at no very distant date.

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The Poisoned Glen at Dunlewey, Co. Donegal.

In other respects, Ireland proved itself again one of the most all-around congenial destinations I’ve ever been to. I found local people remarkably friendly, unaffected, and good-natured almost without exception. It’s easier in Ireland to forget that one is a foreigner than in nearly any other country I’ve been (the other strong contender being Luxembourg). I’ve often wondered to what extent I’m favoured in this respect by a North American accent and an appearance plausibly betokening some Irish descent—but whatever the reason, I feel less out of place there than I often do in my own native land (thanks, GOP voters!).

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Atop Slieve Gullion. The Cailleach Bhéirre’s lake is to be seen in the top left.

The emotional (and altitudinal) high point of my visit was climbing Slieve Gullion. There is an intersection here of the natural and the supernatural, the legendary and the historical, that is extraordinarily rich and satisfying. You climb up this winding and at times rather tortuous path till you finally get to the summit of the mountain—at which point you are immediately at the southern cairn/passage tomb complex. There are also dramatic views of the Mourne Mountains, the Cooley Mountains, South Armagh, etc. Then, if you shlep northwards on the summit, the ground becomes gradually boggier, until you’re squelching through mud that can suck you right in up to your knee (or at least it can if you’re me!). Having braved these perils and twisted and turned a fair distance down the path, you reach the sacred lake of the Cailleach Bhéirre. Maybe there’s some innocent hydrological explanation for what this lake is doing at the top of a mountain, but to my eye it looks flatly otherworldly. The deep blue of the lake looks both dazzling and totally out of place on the summit of County Armagh’s highest mountain—and legend gives an account of how it was enchanted by an otherworldly lady called, in one version, Milucra. (Fionn Mac Cumhaill’s hair was turned white after he was tricked into taking a swim in it.) Then on the far side of the lake is the northern cairn, which also has a passage tomb.

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A view of Derry (looking towards the Bogside from the city walls). One of the more exciting cities I visited, Derry exudes youthful vitality and optimism as well as forthright resistance.


In other news, I confess to feeling a good deal of contentment with the outcome of the French elections this year. Marine Le Pen was kept out of power—and thus the lie was given to the notion that far-right ethnic nationalism is now universally unstoppable. In default of Le Pen, the presidency did not end up falling to another right-winger, François Fillon, himself tainted with scandal and avowedly sympathetic to Thatcherism. Instead, we have a centrist (even centre-left?), pro-European president in Emmanuel Macron who has only succeeded in completely reshaping the party political landscape—with which absolutely everybody was profoundly fed up—and giving a new élan to internationalism and progressivism of a certain (social-liberal) stripe. Macron’s politics are not mine, but they are at least compatible with the integrity of the rule of law in the French Republic. Meanwhile, my man, Benoît Hamon, has founded his own movement (M1717), so we can hope that the one candidate in this last election who had any fresh ideas is not going away.

Oh, and Daesh has been struck dead. Why does this get so much less press than than the very occasional (if admittedly horrifying) terrorist attack in the West? In the past few weeks, Mosul has basically been liberated (some isolated Daesh pockets notwithstanding), while Raqqa has been fully encircled and is already being liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces. This can only be cheering news for those who care about religious liberty, human rights, and cultural heritage. Lest anyone feel too sanguine, however, Turkey—even more nakedly authoritarian than when I used to live there—has broadened its military activities in both Iraq and Syria, attacking Daesh’s enemies on a variety of fronts, including on sacred Mount Shingal. A valued NATO ally if ever there was one.

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About DeoMercurio

I’m a Gaulish polytheist, now back living in lands ceded by the Council of Three Fires after several years’ sojourn in Anatolia and in the land of the Senecas, with frequent travels to Gaul along the way. My grandfather’s family came from the area around Trier, and I identify closely with the Treveri in my religious practice.
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3 Responses to An Hibernian excursus

  1. Glad to hear it was a good trip for you!

    I, too, wonder how a feminine divine figure (of some sort…”Goddess” might be saying too much, though) like the Caillech, who seems to have started out in Cork, has a lake up there in Armagh. While records of various caillich are all over the place (including Scotland), to specifically have what was originally a local epithet on it–though one easily adapted to many similarly-named localities, no doubt–presents an interesting situation.

    • DeoMercurio says:

      How did she get there, indeed? Well, you know, the motorways from Cork to Dundalk are really quite good. 😉 In seriousness, though, my guess is that awareness of figures like cailligh—as well as of heroes magnified like Fionn Mac Cumhaill into the giants of folklore—has tended to thrive as organized religion condemns the memory of the gods. In other words, centuries of Christianity have left rich traditions of the good folk, nature spirits, heroes, and giants, with whom local people cultivated relationships that were all the stronger since one was no longer supposed to have devotional relationships with deities (apart from Jesus or the saints). Which isn’t to say that they (the cailligh et al.) wouldn’t have been there all along. Even the great deities of yesteryear have been recast as comparatively modest púcaí or “mere” dwellers of the sí (somewhat as the descendants of Gaelic kings were reduced to “mere Irish”)… This is one of the reasons that I started (ages ago) turning my attention from Irish polytheism, where the sources feel so intertextual, so conjectural, so variously obscured, to the more concrete realm of Gallo-Roman religion where cult images, altars, and inscriptions leave less to the imagination…

      • Yes…and while there’s also a great deal unanswered in Romano-British polytheism as well, nonetheless one can at least see who they were honoring as full-on Deities.

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