A Mystical Vacation: Ireland
In the midst of this Covid-19 pandemic wouldn’t it be wonderful just to get away from it all? While that’s not realistic right now, I have hope that travel will become possible again sometime in 2021, and now is the time to start planning for it! But even during this pandemic, we can journey through the magic of words and pictures. The next three blog posts are designed to give us a virtual vacation through Celtic lands. First up: Ireland.
A beautiful, historic, mystical land, Ireland is filled with wonderful places to visit. I set out to list only places associated with Irish myth and / or folklore and those that aren’t the same old humdrum tourist sites every list contains. Even with that criteria, my original list was long. Below are the places that made the final cut. Admittedly I’ve included a handful from “Best Places in Ireland” lists, but I had to because, well, they have such compelling stories. And that’s the main ingredient of this blog: the story.
Who doesn’t love a good ghost story? Ireland is an ancient and haunted land. You can barely walk a block without stumbling across a ghost story. I’m going to save most of them for October’s posts, but here’s one. Renvyle House in Connemara, Co. Galway, currently a popular hotel, had been owned by the poet, Oliver St. John Gogarty. His friend, William Butler Yeats, Ireland’s famed poet and folklorist, often visited there with his wife, Georgia. Yeats was interested in the stories of paranormal activities at Renvyle. One night he held a séance. A mist appeared and, out of it, formed the shape of a red-haired boy of about fourteen. The spirit didn’t speak, but Yeats later identified him as a member of the Blake family, the original owners of the estate. The IRA burned down the house in the 1920’s. It was rebuilt and supernatural activity started again. Reports of doors opening and closing on their own, sheets flying off beds, heavy, limping footsteps coming down the hall, and a variety of strange noises in the night continue to this day.
Leap Castle in Co. Offaly is one of the most famous of Ireland’s haunted castles. I’ve already told the story of its many spirited inhabitants in my post “Irish Spirits: Ghost Stories from the Emerald Isle.” Click here to learn about the castle’s tragic and bloody history.
County Offaly is called the most haunted county in Ireland but Travel & Leisure magazine has named Co. Kilkenny “one of the most haunted places in Europe.” The county boasts of
a) a haunted castle called Shankill
b) a haunted river in which sixteen people drowned when a bridge collapsed in 1763
c) an inn, Kyteler’s, haunted by a witch
Kilkenny also was the site of the first witchcraft trial in Ireland.
Witch trials were rare in Ireland. The Irish tend to attribute supernatural events and unexplained phenomena to ghosts and faeries. In Irish culture, the Otherworldly is intricately interwoven with the ordinary. Christianity did not drive out the old beliefs. The old and new merged and married, allowing Ireland to retain a sparkling mysticism. Here are a few of its mystical and mythical places.
1) Rathcroghan, in County Roscommon, is a collection of 240 archaeological sites dating back to the Neolithic period.The seat of power of the legendary Queen Maeve, Rathcroghan is the setting for Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid at Cooley), the central story from Irish mythology’s Ulster Cycle. One of the most mystical places at Rathcroghan is the Oweynagat (the Cave of Cats). The opening to the cave is said to be an entrance to the Otherworld. According to folklore, on Samhain’s Eve, the faerie collective known as the Sluagh Sidhe fly out of the cave at midnight accompanied by red birds and Cu Sidhe (terrifying faerie dogs). They seek out humans traveling alone in the dark and carry off their souls.
2) Emain Macha (aka Navan Fort), in Co. Armagh, also is an important Ulster Cycle setting for stories of the legendary hero Cu Chulainn and the beautiful Deidre of the Sorrows. Emain Macha is named for the goddess, Macha, who reputedly founded it.
3) Giant’s Causeway: Located in Co. Antrim, this UNESCO World Heritage site is a place of wild beauty on the Atlantic coast of Northern Ireland. The stunning site is made up of over 40,000 basalt stones sticking up from the sea. Scientists claim the rock formations were created by volcanic eruptions over the course of 300 years but Irish mythology explains its origin differently. According to myth, the causeway is what remains of a bridge built by Ireland’s greatest hero, Finn MacCumhail.
Finn was a legend both in reputation and stature. After hearing about a Scottish giant named Benandonner, Finn built a bridge between Scotland and Ireland then went to challenge the Scot. The giant was asleep when Finn found him. He also was way bigger than the Irish hero. Deciding to let sleeping giants lie, Finn started for home, but the Scot awakened and pursued him. Arriving home, MacCumhail asked his wife, Sadbh, to help him. She disguised him as a baby but left him his same size. When Benandonner stormed into the house, demanding to see Finn, Sadbh said her husband was out and told the giant to shush so as not to wake the baby. After seeing the size of Finn’s supposed child, the Scottish giant hoofed it back to Scotland. Finn then destroyed the bridge to prevent Benandonner’s return. A final thought: in Scotland, there’s a rock formation known as Fingal’s Cave which strongly resembles the Giant’s Causeway. Could it be the other end of the bridge?
4) The Brú na Bóinne World Heritage Site: Located in Co. Westmeath, this is an ancient site of passage tombs and mounds. Newgrange, the best known, is over 5,000 years old. At dawn on or near the Winter Solstice, the rising sun illuminates the main passageway. The other two tombs are Knowth and Dowth. Knowth has a large collection of megalithic art, two passages, and eighteen satellite mounds. Scientists believe there was a community at this site as far back as 6,000 years ago. The thing I find most intriguing about Knowth and Dowth is that they are not aligned to the sun. They are lunar-oriented, indicating the importance of the moon in Celtic culture.
5) The Hill of Tara: This site is a must-see for anyone interested in Irish culture, folklore or history. It is the seat of the High Kings of Ireland, such as Brian Boru. At the top of the hill is the Lia Fáil. Known as the Stone of Destiny and the Screeching Stone, it is said to cry out when the rightful king of all Ireland places his foot on it. But that’s not all. St. Patrick confronted the Druids about religion on Tara. Also, Finn MacCumhail prevented the fire-breathing god, Aillen from burning down the palace here by killing him with a magic spear. One more reason to hike up this hill is the Faerie Tree at its top. People come from all over the world to make a wish there or leave gifts for the faeries. Some visitors claim to see the faeries too!
Of course there are numerous faerie sites in Ireland. How could there not be? There are more than 60,000 mounds considered to be Faerie Rings or Forts. A word of caution though: there is a difference between a faerie fort (usually an ancient mound) and a fairy trail. Faerie forts have a history both in legend and in fact. For example, Grianan of Aileach in Co. Donegal was a stronghold for the O'Neil clan from the 5th-12th centuries A.D., and is believed to have been built in the first century A.D. Then there is Knockainey Hill in Co. Limerick. It is associated with the Irish goddess Aine and has a history of faerie and pixie sightings. Another reputed area of faerie activity are the woods at the foot of Ben Bulben in Co. Sligo.
There are numerous fairy trails in Ireland too but these tend to be commercial venues set up specifically for the entertainment of children. Many are free to visit so certainly check them out if you’re interested. But check out their websites first. Glance at the photos of tiny faerie houses and I think you’ll understand my skepticism regarding their authenticity as faerie sites.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this flying visit to Ireland. As I said, it’s not too early to plan an actual journey for 2021 or even 2022. CIE Tours and Brennan Travel Services both offer a variety of destinations to Ireland (and Scotland) that can be done in a group or as a private tour. Cathy Kelly, an independent travel agent with InteleTravel can help you plan and book your tour with either company. Email her at Kcathy999@gmail.com or call her at 954-695-7308 for more information.
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Until next week, slan go foil!
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