the poetry of rocks

 

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I can’t remember the first time I heard about the great Battle of Moytura that was fought thousands of years ago between the tribes of Fir Bolgs and Tuatha Dé Dananns near Benlevi, where I currently live.

Like many epic battles, that have vanished from our immediate memory, the story of this Battle, its facts and fictions, have been woven into a complex web of myths, songs, ballads, and fairytales – the stuff of imagination.

One of the first sources that I heard mentioning it was an Irish storyteller Clare Muireann Murphy at the Cape Clear Storytelling Festival. There was so much playfulness and detail in her skilful telling that I felt affected and almost transported in time. The characters were so real, the gossip so juicy.

At the time, I did not realise that the events actually took place so close to where I live near Clonbur.

Then there was another source, a book that fell into my hands by accident from a dear neighbour and a great storyteller, John Joe Conroy. It was Lough Corrib – Its Shores and Islands by Sir William Wilde, the father of Oscar Wilde, written in the 1860s, that describes and identifies some of the monuments left by each army during the four day slaughter.

According to the book, the Battle between the Fir Bolgs and the Tuatha Dé Dannan took place on the shores of Lough Mask and Lough Corrib, within a collection of fields that form a triangle between the villages of Cong, Cross,  Neale, and Clonbur, at the foot of Slieve Belgadain, aka Benlevi or Mt Gable.

To simplify this complex story, the Fir Bolgs, a Belgic tribe of “small, swarthy, dark race” came from the east of Ireland, and moving across the plains of Moytura met another tribe of Tuatha Dé Dananns, of “large fair, light or sandy-haired people of superior knowledge and intelligence, which obtained for them the attributes of magical skill and necromancy; they were also musical and poetic”.

Benlevi was where Dananns camped and probably lived and so, according to Wilde, prior to the engagement with Fir Bolgs, they gathered their army on Benlevi with “warriors, sages, Druids, bards, poets, and physicians, &c., whose names have been all recounted, and their prowess sung in story, so that through the whole thread of Irish history they remain recorded”.

Benlevi is a special place. It is a rather modest mountain if you compare it to Alps, standing at only 416 meters, but it has amazing views stretching in all directions from every one of its many summits. I remember when I climbed it for the first time, just after Ed and I moved to this part of Ireland,  my heart skipped a beat and it was like

falling

in

love.

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I’ve always felt that this mountain was of great importance, not only because it is the first proper hill on the edge of the famous Connemara Alps, or because we enjoy its delicious blackberries and elderflowers, but also because, well, the mountain itself feels like it has seen a lot. And it probably has, as it rises above the sleepy fields, and heavily grazed hillocks below – the plain that is known as Moytura and from where the Battle takes its name.

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The Battle of Moytura, is anglicised for the Battle of Magh Tuireadh, meaning the “plain of pillars”, or plain of the ‘Tuireadhs’, referring to the column or battalions of warriors that marched into the battle across the plains with their spears placed “like trees of equal thickness” and their shields “over their heads”, writes Wilde.

The 11th of June, in the year of the world 3303 is when the Battle commenced. According to Wilde, it lasted four days and 100,000 men were engaged in it.

“Both parties were armed with swords, spears, darts, and shields, but no mention is made of either slings or arrows; so it must have been a hand-to-hand fight. They did not, however, forget the wounded; for each sank a ‘sanitise pool’ or medicated bath in the rear of their lines, in which the wounded bathed.”

After four days, the Dananns won and Fir Bolgs only had 3,000 men left: “both parties withdrew after the fourth day’s fighting – the dispirited Firbolgs to the camp along Corrib shore, and the Danannians to their mountain fortress. Both parties interred their dead; and it is said the former “raised Dumhas [or tumuli] over their nobles; raised Leaca [or flagstones] over their heroes; Ferthas [graves] over the soldiers; and Knocs [or hillocks] over the champions”.”

Many cairns, standing stones, forts, and rocks and giant boulders simply scattered in the fields can still be seen today on the Moytura plain.

When we first moved to this part of the world, over three years ago, I heard different stories. Those were not stories of battlefields and blood, but of Aran sweaters, fishing competitions, and of an American movie The Quiet Man.

In Cong, where The Quiet Man was filmed in 1951, you can visit a Quiet Man Museum, can have a coffee at a Quiet Man Cafe, or take a selfie at the Quiet Man Cottage, but you won’t hear about the bones and blood of an army interred in the fields where sheep and cattle peacefully graze these days.

But rocks,

they tell

another story.

It took me three years to discover those other stories, to create space in my head to look at the shape of land and its contours, to find bumps and depressions to help me imagine and remember something that happened a long time ago.

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There are rich stories that are unspoken, they don’t have place in our every day speech, but you can find them when you are walking.

William Wilde spent many summers roaming the Moytura plain in search of those stories, mapping ancient rocks and cairns, and collecting artefacts.

Only a short walk from Cong towards Cross settled into the landscape and signposted from the road, is the Ballymagibbon cairn.

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This was erected by the Fir Bolgs to celebrate the end of the first day of the Battle: “each Fir Bolg having carried with him a stone and the head of a Danann to their king, he erected “a great cairn” to commemorate the event.”

What a way to celebrate.

Wilde has a picture of the cairn in his book from the time when he visited it:

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“It is 129 yards in circumference, and about 60 feet high; and its original base may still be traced by a number of upright stones. Within it there is a large cave, but it is not at present accessible.”

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From the moment I spot it from the narrow boreen where we park our Honda Civic, it is like a magnet to me, I want to be by it, to touch it.

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The cairn looks small, perhaps because some rocks were used to build the many dry stone walls nearby.

When we visit one summer evening, we bring Wilde’s book with us. We are astonished by the sheer beauty of this pile of rocks.  We reread the description of the first day of the Battle and take in the views from the cairn’s impressive height. My imagination runs wild with images and words. It is getting dark and I feel the presence of something very old and sad here.

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Standing on this great and ancient rocks, I feel each second of those thousands of years,

the great weight of time pressing deeply into the soil.

The burden of its untold stories,

reaching deep beneath like roots of a tree.

And while its roots spread below,

the cairn also blossoms up,

reaching and spreading into the space above itself.

Stretching into the windy, damp air

that bind its rocks with moss and lichen into something beautiful,

into something for which I don’t have the words…

 

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I walk around the cairn trying to locate the entrance among its damp rocks, but in reality I am looking for something else, for answers, for meaning, for help.

I want to understand what it knows and I want to cure my own restlessness, to be rooted like a mountain or a rock, to belong, to know what I am.

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I search in the holes, look between the giant boulders, but I don’t move the rocks, I don’t dare to disturb this perfect design, fearing of breaking the connection between the elements and spaces, disturbing the air and the shadows within it.

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The cairn is a poem in the landscape and I am walking it.

Its beauty

gives

me

goosebumps.

I feel its metaphors in every rock beneath my feet, I breathe its rhythms.

and I understand

and I know.

I will be OK.

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a trip to the coast

We live in Ireland’s Lake District near two enormous bodies of water – Lough Mask and Lough Corrib. There is also Lough Coolin a short hike from our house up Mount Gable. The mountain itself is a soggy giant covered in bell heather and bog. There is so much fresh water around, above and below and so little land to absorb it it seems.

But even though we are literally surrounded by water, there are days when I long to see the Ocean, the craggy and dramatic Atlantic coast.

Yesterday we went to my favourite village of Roundstone. It’s one of those places that has the best of everything. My favourite pub, O’Dowd’s, serves the best lobster and mussels I’ve ever tried. These come fresh from the tiny cute harbour opposite, which itself is a treat for the eye with its colourful nets, ropes, lobster pots, and electric pink sea boyes. 

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Errisbeg hill towers above the village and stunning beaches of Gorteen and Dog’s Bay. 

The beaches are pure white sand punctuated by turquoise ocean on one side and muirbheach or machair, a smooth carpet of grass kept trimmed by grazing, based on densely compacted sand, on the other.

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As you walk on the beach you are unaware that you are strolling the length of a vast necropolis of dead organisms. Tim Robinson in Connemara describes that the sand at Gorteen and Dog’s Bay consists of shards of mollusc shells and exoskeletons of the single-celled sea-creatures called foraminifera.

Foraminifera, or forams, when alive build a unique shell and under the microscope they look just amazing. Of course forams are only visible under a microscope, but each one would have had its own life-history, defined by its DNA. 

West of Ireland has so many types of sand. A few weeks ago we went to Corral beach near a small settlement of An Cheathrú Rua to the west of Galway city. Here the beach was covered in tiny multicoloured coral fragments. When picked up they felt like bones or something entirely edible like a crunchy breakfast cereal.

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The wind-swept Gorteen beach was dramatic and wild. The waves made amazing patterns in the sand that looked like stepping stones above tiny rivers that hurried back to the ocean. 

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There were some unexpected finds too.

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After our walk we ate scones with butter and drank orange juice at a picnic table in the carpark. I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but later I recalled reading in Connemara about “soot blackened ‘soil horizons’” in the sand banks above the beach. What Tim Robinson refers to are blackish layers of coal and shell middens – periwinkles, dogwhelks, mussels and limpets in the dunes above the beach. These are remains of meals from Neolithic people who gathered here to enjoy fruits of the sea together, a veritable “kitchen refuse” as he calls it in the book.

It really is amazing, I think, that there we were sitting, eating our scones enjoying the views, unaware that thousand of years ago humans just like us did exactly the same, only their lunches were more interesting, something Bear Grylls would have loved to sample.

These layers in the dunes above Gorteen beach have sadly eroded from winter storms and constant stream of beach goers like myself, but I still remember them being visible during our last visit in the summer of 2015.

Tim Robinson also writes that there is evidence that in Ireland dogwhelk (Nucella lapillus) were used as a source of dye similar to the way Murex shell was a source of famous Tyrian purple in the past. Large concentrations of dogwhelk shell found in dune systems in the west of Ireland may suggest a whole dogwhelk dye industry in the early Christian times. This is what the tiny things look like:

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Of course it would be unimaginable to sacrifice thousands of dogwhelks for a drop of dye these days. But molluscs are not the only source of colour on the coast. There is also colourful plastic items and some blend in rather well, they almost look beautiful.

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Groteen is anglicised for Irish Goirtín, meaning ‘small field’, which perhaps refers to the original use of machair near the ocean as grazing commonage and for growing potatoes. You can still see potato ridges from pre-famine Ireland.

As I walked on the beach it was easy to forget the past, all these thousands of years of human impact on this short stretch of coast were buried or will be buried eventually under the sand. Rain swept across sandunes and wind drove tiny sanderlings away from water, the whole scene felt untamed and unaffected by our presence. This is probably why I love coming here – to clear my head and to refocus my attention on what is under my feet.

x.