MythLines 4: Acts of place-making: the ancient Irish lore of places

Continuing on with my series of ‘MythLines’ columns from EarthLines Magazine, here is my offering from Issue 15, in July 2016.


 

One of my favourite books on place-making, Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places (1) emerged from his anthropological studies of the Western Apache people of North America. It focuses on the ways in which placenames are associated with stories which not only convey the history of the people who lived there through the ages, but which illustrate what are considered to be good and appropriate ways of living and being. Basso’s study of the Western Apache people is above all about place-making: multiple acts both of historical remembering and transformational imagining which inform each other in complex ways. ‘If place-making is a way of constructing the past, a venerable means of doing human history, it is also a way of constructing social traditions and, in the process, personal and social identities. We are, in a sense, the place-worlds we imagine’, Basso tells us.

The stories which the Western Apache tell about specific places inform their daily lives: ‘The past lies embedded in features of the earth … which together endow their lands with multiple forms of significance that reach into their lives and shape the ways they think. Knowledge of places is therefore closely linked to knowledge of the self, to grasping one’s position in the larger scheme of things, including one’s own community, and to securing a confident sense of who one is as a person.’ And so members of the Western Apache community tell Basso: ‘The land is always stalking people. The land makes people live right’, and ‘I recall stories of how it once was at that mountain. The stories told to me were like arrows. Elsewhere, hearing that mountain’s name, I see it. Its name is like a picture. Stories go to work on you like arrows. Stories make you live right. Stories make you replace yourself.’

This moral relationship with place, this sense of belonging associated with the stories of place, isn’t restricted to Native Americans. It exists in our own native traditions, most notably in the ancient Irish lore of places, which is called dinnseanchas.

The word dinnseanchas is made up of two elements: dinn, a landmark, eminent or notable place, and seanchas, which is usually translated as ‘lore’, but in fact refers to the entire body of work of the professional learned classes in early Irish society. The literary corpus which is known as the dinnseanchas consist of around 176 poems (sometimes called the ‘metrical dinnseanchas’) and a selection of prose tales and commentaries collected in manuscripts which date from the eleventh century – though analyses suggest that most of the stories have their origin in pre-Christian times, because many placenames appear which had fallen out of use by the 5th and 6th centuries, when Irish lore first began to be written down. Dinnseanchas stories are also scattered throughout the Irish sagas, so deeply and thoroughly woven into the fabric of them that it sometimes seems that the main action is secondary.

In the dinnseanchas, then, the land of Ireland is translated into story, and often in complex and multifaceted ways. In their analysis of the dinnseanchas of the townland of Kilgallin in County Mayo (2), folklorists Séamas Ó Catháin and Patrick Flanagan report that ‘placename lore has its own particular style and structure, ranging as it does from truism to gossip and from the mundane to the fantastic, each item having its own validity though it is often difficult to differentiate between the real and the unreal. This kind of material has a specific function in Killgallin and in Irish-speaking Ireland since it is recognised and acknowledged as a vehicle for the explanation of the structure of the local world.’

 

‘[T]he collective memory of the community is enshrined in dinnsheanchas, which can function as that necessary psychic container the French psychoanalytical critic Julia Kristeva considered absent in our time. Through dinnsheanchas we can possess the land emotionally and imaginatively without any particular sense of or actual need for titular ownership. … I believe that a renewed interest in dinnsheanchas may enable us to share our love and admiration and wonder of the land of Ireland, and can cater in an imaginative way for the need of many for a place to belong to so that we may love and cherish it rather than killing ourselves over it.’

— Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill (3)

 

In addition to their explanatory function, dinnseanchas stories also have a moral or teaching component, as the examples I’ve selected below show. Cautionary tales about the consequences of seeking inappropriate knowledge; healing given for generosity of spirit; a curse on men uttered by a woman whose pregnancy was not respected … As for the Western Apache, these stories seem designed to ‘make us live right’.

Place-making is an act of belonging, and in our own landscape here in Donegal, the placenames are a critical aspect of my imaginative and emotional attachment to this place. Each early morning I walk with our dogs among the labyrinthine boreens which criss-cross the high bog. They are protected and surrounded by the Seven Sisters mountains, which gather round the fringes of the valley like a semicircle of elders, enclosing the land as it stretches across to the sea. An Earagail, or Errigal, ‘the oratory’; Mac Uchta, ‘son of the mountain-breast’; An Eachla Mhór, ‘the great horse’; Ard Loch na mBreac Beadaí, ‘the heights of the loch of the canny trout’; An Eachla Bheag, ‘the little horse’; Cnoc na Leargacha, ‘hill of the hill-slope’, and old sow-mother An Mhucais, or Muckish, ‘the pig’s back’. Every name tells its own story; every mountain holds its own secret; every secret whispered down the scree slopes and sinking into the bog below.

The two horses are particularly powerful presences, towering over our small stone cottage in the green valley below. In the photograph below you can see them lying down, next to each other. An Eachla Bheag lies to the left of the image, with her backside pointing left and her long pale grey nose pointing down in the centre as she rests. An Eachla Mhór curls out away from her, her nose tucked behind her back to the far right of the image.

 

 

The name of An Earagail, the oratory, clearly dates from the relatively recent Christian era; its older name is long lost. But I imagine that it would have been associated with the story of Lug of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who killed his grandfather, Balor of the Evil Eye, in the Poisoned Glen near An Earagail with a spear specially crafted by Gobhniu, the smith of the gods. According to historian Brian Lacey (4), once upon a time this remote area of Donegal constituted a tiny kingdom that had an ongoing association with the pagan god Lug; he argues convincingly that the mountain would likely have been known by some name cognate with Sliab Logha (Lug’s Mountain), reflecting other placenames in the area which are associated with Lug. Some days, I imagine that I can see a man’s head in the shadowy contours of An Earagail; I imagine that it’s Lug. In this way, I find myself connected not just with this land’s mythology, but with its historical past.

The myths and stories of place can help the establishment of enduring bonds between individuals and the natural world. Specific geographical features of the land take on symbolic importance, and we find ourselves forming personal relationships with them. For those of us who live in Ireland, just as for the Western Apaches of North America, places and their stories are continually woven into the fabric of community life, anchoring that life to the land. The act of dinnseanchas is an act of creative place-making, and it is ongoing.

REFERENCES

1. Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press (1996)

2. Séamas Ó Catháin and Patrick Flanagan, The Living Landscape: Kilgalligan, Erris, County Mayo. Dublin: Comhairle Bhéaloideas Éireann, An Coláiste Ollscoile (1975)

3. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, ‘Dinnsheanchas: The Naming of High or Holy Places’, in Selected Essays. Dublin: New Island (2005)

4. Brian Lacey, Lug’s Forgotten Donegal Kingdom: The archaeology, history and folklore of the Síl Lugdach of Cloghaneely. Dublin: Four Courts Press (2012)


 

BÓAND (the River Boyne)

Bóand wife of Nechtán son of Labraid went to the secret well which was in the green of Síd Nechtaín. Whoever went to it would not come from it without his two eyes bursting, unless it were Nechtán himself and his three cupbearers, whose names were Flesc and Lám and Luam.

Once upon a time Bóand went through pride to test the well’s power, and declared that it had no secret force which could shatter her form, and thrice she walked withershins round the well. (Whereupon) three waves from the well break over her and deprive her of a thigh and one of her hands and one of her eyes. Then she, fleeing her shame, turns seaward, with the water behind her as far as Boyne-mouth, [where she was drowned].

SINANN (the River Shannon)

Sinend daughter of Lodan Lucharglan son of Ler, out of Tír Tairngire (‘Land of Promise, Fairyland’) went to Connla’s Well which is under the sea, to behold it. That is a well at which are the hazels and inspirations (?) of wisdom, that is, the hazels of the science of poetry, and in the same hour their fruit, and their blossom and their foliage break forth, and these fall on the well in the same shower, which raises on the water a royal surge of purple. Then the salmon chew the fruit, and the juice of the nuts is apparent on their purple bellies. And seven streams of wisdom spring forth and turn there again.

Now Sinend went to seek the inspiration, for she wanted nothing save only wisdom. She went with the stream till she reached Linn Mná Feile, ‘the Pool of the Modest Woman’, that is, Brí Ele — and she went ahead on her journey, but the well left its place, and she followed it to the banks of the riverTarr-cáin, ‘Fair-back’. After this it overwhelmed her, so that her back (tarr) went upwards, and when she had come to the land on this side (of the Shannon) she tasted death.

LOCH DERGDEIRC (Lough Derg)

Ferchertne son of Athlo, chief-poet of Ulaid, was the cruellest man that ever lived in Erin. ’Tis he that would slay the woman in childbed, and would demand his weapon from the combatant and his single eye from some other man. ’Tis he, moreover, that went to Eochu son of Luchta son of Lugar son of Lugaid White-hand, King of Munster, to beg his single eye in payment for Boirche’s hen which the poets had brought from the west; and Eochaid, to save his honour, gave him his single eye.

Then Eochaid went to wash (the blood off his face), and searched the rushry and found no water: so he tore a tuft (of rushes) from its roots, and then water trickled forth. With this his empty eye was washed, and as he dipt his head thrice under the water all the well became red. Then because of the miracle of generosity (which Eochaid had performed) both his eyes came to the King, and as he looked on the well he said: ‘A red (derg) hollow (derc) is this hollow, and this will be every one’s name for it.’

ARD MACHA (Armagh)

Macha wife of Nemed son of Agnoman died there (on Mag Macha) and was buried, and it is the twelfth plain which was cleared by Nemed, and he bestowed it on his wife so that it might bear her name. Whence Mag Macha, ‘Macha’s Plain’ .

Otherwise: Macha daughter of Aed the Red, son of Badurn — ’tis by her Emain was marked out — was buried there when Rechtaid of the red fore-arm killed her. To lament her, Oenach Macha, ‘Macha’s Fair’, was established. Whence Mag Macha.

Otherwise: Macha, wife of Crund son of Agnoman, went thither to race against king Conchobar’s horses, for her husband had said that his wife was swifter (than they). Thus then was the wife big with child: so she asked a respite till her womb should have fallen, and this was not granted to her. So then the race was run, and she was the swiftest. And — and she said that the Ulaid [Ulstermen] would abide under feebleness of childbed whensoever need should befall them. Wherefore the Ulaid suffered feebleness for the space of a nomad from the reign of Conchobar to the reign of Mál son of Rochraide, ‘Great heart’. And men say that she was Grían Banchure, ‘the Sun of Womanfolk’, daughter of Mider of Brí Léith. And after this she died, and her tomb was raised on Ard Macha, and her lamentation was made, and her gravestone was planted. Whence Ard Machae, ‘Macha’s Height’.

From The Prose Tales in the Rennes Dindshenchas, translated by Whitley Stokes. (Available at http://www.ucd.ie/tlh/text/ws.rc.15.001.text.html)

2 thoughts on “MythLines 4: Acts of place-making: the ancient Irish lore of places

  1. And placenames are always subject to mistranslation and deliberate obfuscation by occupying forces. A classic example might be the name of the Poisoned Glen in Gaoth Dobhair (Gweedore). Its name is a mistranslation of Gleann Neamh, or “Heavenly Glen.” Neamh “heavenly” in some translations, was mistaken for “poison”, neimhe, by some English-speaking cartographer. And so it goes, and thus we are stuck with inaccurate clues to our history (and herstory).

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