Grey Heron Nights 3: Old Crane Woman slips into the Otherworld

Old Crane Woman is walking up that track. Walking, walking. You’d smile to see her walk, all knees and bony elbows. Watch her carefully, as she goes. Is that a beak or a nose? Is she woman, or bird? Old Crane Woman shrieks her laugh into the night sky. Both at once, Old Crane Woman says. That’s the whole point. Haven’t you got it yet, girl?

Old Crane Woman is walking, on past the fairy hill. The síd, the mound; the entrance to the Otherworld. The Otherworld? Old Crane Woman snorts. I’ll tell you about the Otherworld. The Otherworld is all around you. The Otherworld is just a different way of seeing this one. Listen quietly, now, and I’ll tell you a story.

Listen quietly, now; Old Crane Woman is speaking.

Once upon a time, Old Crane Woman says, there lived a man called Bran Mac Febail. Bran was the ruler of all Ireland. One day, as he was coming home from a trip away, he began to hear music at the back of him. Although he kept looking round to find the source, it never made itself known to him. The music was always elusive, always behind. The music was so sweet and soothing that Bran sank to the ground and fell asleep. When he woke, he found himself lying beside a silver branch which bore beautiful white blossoms. He took up the branch and carried it into his fort, where his warriors were gathered — and all at once, a strangely dressed woman appeared before them. She sang a song about her home, the Otherworldly realm of Emain, from where she had brought the silver branch. And then she vanished, as fairy women will.

So haunting was her song and her description of Emain that Bran longed to see it for himself. With a group of his men, he set sail at once into the western ocean. So it was, in the midst of the sea, that Bran met Manannán Mac Lir. Manannán, who everyone imagines was the god of the sea. Manannán, who tore away the veil from Bran’s eyes, and showed him the world which shimmered behind the world and the land which shimmered behind the sea. Here is what Mannanán said to Bran:

An extraordinary beauty is the clear sea
For Bran in his coracle;
but to me in my chariot
It is a flowery plain on which he rides about.

What is clear sea
For the prowed skiff in which Bran is,
Is a delightful plain full of flowers
To me in my chariot of two wheels.

Bran sees
A multitude of waves beating across the clear sea;
I myself see Mag Mon,
Red-headed flowers without blemish.

Sea-horses glisten in summer
As far as Bran’s eye can see;
Blossoms pour forth a stream of honey
In the land of Manannán, son of Lir.

Along the top of a wood has floated
Your coracle, across ridges;
There is a beautiful wood with fruit
Under the prow of your little boat …

Old Crane Woman throws back her head and laughs. Manannán, Old Crane Woman says, was no god of the sea. The Otherworld is just a different way of seeing this one, Old Crane Woman says. Will you tear away the veil from your eyes? If I show you the veil, will you tear it aside? Will you tear it aside, and see?

Old Crane Woman raises her arms — or are they wings? — and dives into a sky that is full of the colours of the sea. A red-headed flower without blemish goes with her, for her nest. Old Crane Woman is building a nest. The nest straddles two worlds. Will you tear aside the veil, and see?


16 thoughts on “Grey Heron Nights 3: Old Crane Woman slips into the Otherworld

  1. I love these pictures and your journey so far with Old Crane Woman into the otherworld. I’m very much drawn to the stories of women shifting into the forms of cranes, particularly the one hinted at here in relation to Manannan’s crane-bag made from Aoife’s skin, as well as Finn’s grandmother in crane-form and the Cailleach with her crane sons. I love the way you’ve somehow captured the essence of all these women.

    Are there are many wild cranes in Ireland? I was delighted to hear that three young cranes reintroduced to the Somerset Levels took flight this year 🙂


  2. On the crane in Ireland: ‘The Eurasian crane became extinct as an Irish breeding species some time during the 1700s. The name, crane, is commonly used for the grey heron all over rural Ireland today. But the Golden Eagle Trust is researching a programme to re-introduce real cranes to Ireland. If this is successful it’s going to pose problems for those people who call herons “cranes”. It will be very interesting to see if the name transfer reverses itself. Again, there is some superficial similarity between the two species although cranes are much larger than herons. The main reason they became extinct in Ireland was that they were a very popular food item. They also seem to have been quite popular as pets and there are several references to tame ones in the courts of Irish kings and chieftains. They still turn up in Ireland fairly frequently. A couple of weeks ago almost 40 birds were spotted in two flocks, one in east Cork and one in west Cork, and another flock flew over the Rogerstown estuary in Co Dublin. They are migratory birds and sightings in the breeding season are very rare. But they do seem to be turning up more and more frequently.’
    We live in hope!


  3. A crane flew above me yesterday, circling old waters. Although we have many herons here, there was something different about her, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on – perhaps the quality of her flight, or just the echo of Old Crane Woman in my heart. It seemed to drape a shadow of magic over me. I love how so often the world catches on to a story we are telling ourselves, or are being told, and it participates.


    1. Yes. And now you’re participating in the next instalment, in which Old Crane Woman has something to say which relates directly to your comment. See how story is magic? But then you already know that 🙂


  4. Herons are summer birds here — we regularly have them visiting our pond, where the frogs and fish are abundant. It wasn’t until this past summer though, that I heard one calling. It was a surprising sound — very prehistoric, I thought.

    The corvids are our winter birds – crows, jays and, as of this summer, we have resident ravens as well <- which filled me with all manner of wonder and delight.

    All that to wonder aloud how the appearance of certain birds/animals in the old stories are particular to the land itself…which makes it ever so more important to know the land which you inhabit if you wish to learn it's wisdom.

    Sorry — musing aloud! And I wholeheartedly agree that the Otherworld is all around us….it's just a matter of taking notice.


    1. For sure the old stories spring directly from the land which give birth to them. Which is why, although stories might sometimes migrate, they have to be transplanted very carefully. A story divorced from the land its a ruined thing indeed!


  5. I am entranced with with Old Crane Woman, with otherworld. In those moments that defy descriptive words, when we see with different, the veil is lifted for a few moments and perhaps, we find ourselves in a place we can call home.
    Thank you for transporting me there once again.


  6. It was blackbird this spring that unveiled the both at once. And it took me till now and ‘haven’t you got it yet, girl,’ to become aware of that.
    I hear old Crane Woman laughing. ..


    1. Yes, blackbird too is a guide to the Otherworld; that’s why she’s always running along the ground. Old Crane Woman does love a good laugh. A reminder never to take ourselves too seriously 🙂 And also that, sometimes, we don’t take ourselves seriously enough …


  7. Cranes, Herons, wide-winged water birds sailing over the wetlands of Thisworld to the Otherworld, sailing from the wetlands of the Otherworld to Thisworld. And in the space between? That’s where we see them, where she turns and we glimpse, if we’re looking right, the fold of a wing …


  8. Reblogged this on Laura Bruno's Blog and commented:
    “Will you tear aside the veil, and see?”

    I will be off blog for awhile for Yule with friends, and a family celebration. Until I return, please enjoy some delightful, wise Old Crane Woman tales through Sharon Blackie.

    Wishing everyone in the Northern Hemisphere a magical Winter Solstice and Happy Summer to those down under!


  9. Thank you Sharon~ It was the Crane that prodded me into writing so many years ago. She showed herself to me in dreams, stories, and real life presents on my windshield! My writing so far has been non-fiction. But the dream story has been calling again, and now I must finish it. Thank you for the reset.


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