Mother Ireland (Part I)

According to Edna O’Brien countries are mothers or fathers and “engender the emotional bristle secretly reserved for either sire”. Ireland has always been a woman, a beautiful maiden, a womb, a cow, a Rosaleen, a bride, a harlot and the gaunt Hag of Beara. For James Joyce, in ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, Ireland is ‘the old sow that eats her farrow’.

Unlike the mythology of Greece or Rome, where male gods dominate, Irish mythology has an essentially feminine quality and female deities feature prominently in many of our legends and ancient stories. The feminine is the personification of the fertility of the land. This personification is usually in the figure of a sovereign otherworldly queen, with whom the mortal aspirant for kingship must have union if he is to rule well. This ritualistic mating ensures the fertility of the land. In contrast to Greek mythology where the all-powerful male god Zeus is promiscuous, in the Irish myths we have feminine deities and queens, such as Queen Medhbh (Maeve) of Connacht, whom we are told mated with at least nine mortal kings. Her promiscuity clearly symbolises the ongoing fertility of the land.

Irish mythology can be seen as seasonal and cyclical, following the wheel of the seasons.

Agriculture and many of the arts were in the hands of women, and therefore goddesses of culture and fertility preceded the male gods in time. Their supremacy is also clearly present in the stories, where they woo and win heroes, and determine whether a king will rule or not.  Their capacity for love, their passions, their eternal youthfulness and beauty are all suggestive of goddesses of fertility. She has many names – Danu (also known as Dana or Anu). Áine, Grian, Macha, Brigit, Fliodhais, Cliona, Mórrígan, Badhbh, Éadaoin (Etaín), Aoibheall, the Cailleach Bhéara and so on. Since Ireland was, and still is, a predominantly rural and agricultural country, it is natural that the mythology of the country is concerned with natural cycles – spring to summer to autumn to winter, and also the eternal cycle of birth, life and death, of death and regeneration, of beginnings and endings.

The literature and mythology of early Ireland shows a remarkable concern with the physical configuration of the land – the plains, mountains, rivers and so on. Also there are many stories about animals that are nurtured by the land – the cow primarily, but also the pig, the deer and the wolf, and in the rivers, the fish, particularly the salmon, and in the sea, the abundance of fish. Every river and lake and well, every plain and hill and mountain has its name and each name evokes its own explanation. This highlights the importance of place names to understand any area; unfortunately their Anglicised forms which we now use are meaningless in any deep sense. For example, the townland of Aughatubber (near Glandore) is in Irish ‘Acadh Tobair’ (the plain or field of the water or spring) or ‘Cill Dara’ (the church of the oak) for Kildare, convey a wealth of  meaning which is not present in translation.  The agricultural imagery is especially pronounced in the case of the goddesses Danu, Brigit and Macha. The idea of fertility and of food production means that a goddess could be regarded as synonymous with the soil. Practically all Irish rivers have feminine names and feminine deities, the best known being the ‘Bóinn’ (Boyne) and ‘Sionainn’ (Shannon). ‘An Life’ (the Liffey) is recognised as feminine by Joyce in ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, where he calls it ‘Anna Liffey’ or ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’, based on his idiosyncratic translation of  ‘Abha na Life’.     Identification with mountain tops is best instanced by the peaks called ‘Dhá Chích Danann’ (literally the two breasts of Danu), two round-topped mountains, south-east of Killarney.  Known locally as ‘The Paps’, they bear testimony to the association of the goddess Danu with the area, and indeed, with all of Munster.

Danu is generally accepted as the mother of the Irish gods. But just as the Daghda is seen as the father of the gods, Danu was not literally their mother. Rather she is the main fertility goddess, associated with the plenty and prosperity of the land. She is the mother or nourisher of the Tuatha Dé Danann (literally the people or tribe of Danu). Danu must have been worshipped from antiquity by the continental Celts and later by the Irish Celts. Several river names in Europe – most notably the Don and the Danube – are based on her name. One early text calls Ireland ‘Iath nAnann’ (the land of Danu) The Tuatha Dé Danann held Ireland before the Milesian Celts conquered the country about 500 B.C. After the Milesian conquest, the Tuatha Dé Danann were driven underground, but their deities were recognised as the gods and goddesses of pre-Christian Ireland. The Milesian conquerors divided the country between themselves and the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Milesians keeping everything over ground and the Tuatha Dé Danann the underground. So the Tuatha Dé Danann live on in ‘liosanna’ (forts), cairns, mounds, on off-shore islands, in lakes, and so on.

Queen Meadhbh (Maeve) of Connacht is one of the great fireballs of Irish myth. She is proud, fierce, uncompromising, beautiful, lusty, polyamarous, who will never take no for an answer. Her name literally means ‘she who intoxicates’. But Maeve is more than just a sexy warrior queen. Her original self was a goddess of sovereignty, who offered her intoxicating mead to the man who would be king. The king, as the leader of, and therefore symbolic representative of the entire tribe, was seen as the goddess’s lover. Ancient coronation ceremonies included a priestess offering a cup of mead  to the new king, ritually symbolising the offering of the goddess’s body (the land) to her new lover. When Queen Maeve brags in ‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’ about her many lovers, it is a mistake to see this as praising or criticising her as an immoral woman. Rather, it is a clue to a time when the goddess of the land really was seen as enjoying the pleasures of many lovers, as kings in succession each took their turn as her favoured one.

Another female figure, a mother goddess, is the ‘Cailleach Beara’, the old hag of the Beara peninsula in Co. Cork. She is a corn-goddess and is associated with the protection of fertility.  In one story she put to death a succession of male reapers who failed to match her prowess with the sickle. She is also portrayed as a shaper of the land itself. It is said that she was responsible for creating many of the rocks and islands around the south-west coast of Ireland.  Deep ravines and valleys are the result of her having run her nails across the landscape. In another role she is seen as symbolising the wild forces of nature, especially storms. She is also a symbol of longevity and is said to have passed through seven periods of youth and age, so that her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are the series of tribes who invaded Ireland. She represents three aspects of the feminine – young maiden, mother and old crone.  In West Cork the word ‘cailleach’ occurs in at least three place names, Poulnacallee (Poll na Caillí, the hag’s hollow) in Aughadown Parish and Kilnacally (Cill na Caillí – the hag’s church) in Kilmacabea Parish. Mionnán na Caillí is a spectacular rock formation outside of North Harbour, Cape Clear (Mionnán is the Irish for a kid goat, but also a rock formation). The word cailleach was used up to quite modern times to refer to the last sheaf of corn bound at harvest time.

Pádraig Pearse, in his poem, Mise Éire, refers to the longevity of Ireland:

Mise Éire, / Sine mé ná an Chailleach Béara, / Mór mo ghlóir: / Mise rug Cúchulainn cróga. / Mór mo náir: / Mo chlann féin do dhíol a máthair. / Mise Éire, / Uaigní me ná an Chailleach Béara.

I am Ireland / I am older than the Old Woman of Beara. / Great my glory: / I that bore Cuchulainn the valiant. / Great my shame: / My own children that sold their mother. / I am Ireland / I am lonelier than the Old Woman of Beara..

Another early goddess is Brigit (or Brigid, Bríd in Irish), goddess of fire, smithing, fertility, cattle and crops. She was also an expert in ‘filíocht’ (poetry) and traditional learning in general, as well as divination and prophecy. She was worshipped by the ‘filí’ (poets). It is in the person of her Christian namesake, St. Brigid (Naomh Bríd) that she survives mainly. It is clear that the role of the goddess and her mythological traditions was usurped by the Christian saint. Also associated with childbirth, fertility and the hearth, her festival on February 1 was called ‘Imbolg’. Today it is Lá ‘le Bríde (St. Brigid’s Day). Imbolg was a pagan spring festival associated with the lactation of ewes and cows, linking her to fertility and the abundance provided by animals.  It is significant that, although St. Brigid was not widely travelled, she is second only to St. Patrick in popular favour, and dedications to her are widespread throughout the country, although the Christian saint seems to be connected only with Kildare (Cill Dara, church of the oak) where she had her convent. There are at least four holy wells dedicated to her in West Cork, one at Glanafeen, near Lough Ine; one at Myross, near Union Hall; one on Rabbit Island (Oileán Bríde) off Myross and one near Tralong between Glandore and Rosscarbery.

Irish literature at all stages stresses the symbolic unity of the king with an otherworld lady. Ériu (Éire in modern Irish) is one of three divine sisters and goddesses of the Tuatha Dé Danann.  At the battle of Tailtiu, the Milesians defeated the Tuatha Dé Danann, all of whose chiefs and queens were killed.  Before the decisive battle, however, Ériu told the Milesians that they had no just cause to capture Ireland.  When Amergin, the Milesian poet, said that they would do so anyway, Ériu made a request: ‘At least grant me one thing…that the island be called by my name’. ‘It shall be so’, replied Amergin.  Her sisters, Banba and Fodhla, made the same request and both got the same promise but Ériu seems to have won. The official Irish name for our country is ‘Éire’, but ‘Banba’ and ‘Fodhla’ have been used repeatedly by poets and writers to refer to Ireland. ‘Éire’ is Ireland in its geographical sense.  ‘Banba’ symbolises Ireland in its warrior aspect, while ‘Fodhla’ is Ireland in the intellectual and spiritual sense. ‘Éire’ is given a pivotal position as the ‘sovereignty of Ireland’, giving a drink of mead to each successive king of the country. ‘Éire’ represents Ireland in good times and bad. Thus she can appear as an ugly hag or as a beautiful maiden. In the story of the great king, Niall of the Nine Hostages, ancestor of the royal Uí Néill sept, she is transformed by his kiss from an ugly hag to a beautiful maiden. This symbolises the reign of the proper king when misfortune is banished and the whole country prospers. Probably the most famous of all early kings was Cormac Mac Airt, who was thought to be so wise and just, that during his reign, calves were born after only three months gestation, every ridge produced a sackful of wheat, the rivers abounded with salmon and there were not enough vessels to hold the milk from the cows.  

Part 2 next month.

Eugene Daly

A retired primary teacher, West Cork native Eugene Daly has a lifelong interest in the Irish language and the islands (both his parents were islanders). He has published a number of local history books and is a regular contributor on folklore to Ireland’s Own magazine. Eugene’s fields of interest span local history, folklore, Irish mythology, traditions and placenames.

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