We Irish tend to be a bit wary of our myths and legends. We pretend to enjoy them; buying watered-down versions to read to our children, and recounting these same simplified versions to tourists, but heaven forbid that we ever engage with them in a meaningful way.
Our science-based, materialistic mindset allows no space for such fripperies, beyond as charming eccentricities of a simpler past. Yet in a time of such change and turmoil myth might be just the resource we need to help guide us back to where we ought to be.
It is through the stories passed down by our ancestors that we can learn how best to live sustainably on this island that we’ve inhabited for so many thousands of years, and how to navigate a world that presents existential threats on a daily basis. Irish mythology may not be the easiest or most straightforward source of guidance, but it’s far from impenetrable.
There are tales that characterise the river Shannon as a gifted, young goddess who embarks on a sacred journey to Connla’s Well to acquire further wisdom and enlightenment
It appears convoluted and obscure, only because it is not based on the limited, linear reasoning of post-Enlightenment thought, but on a more expansive and inclusive view of existence that accepts the circularity of time and space.
The writer and mythologist Sophie Strand notes that, ‘Just as mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of underground mycelia, so are myths the above-ground manifestations of specific ecologies.’ They are the public expression of the timeless wisdom of society — not only our current society, but that of our ancestors and, perhaps even, our future selves.
And they are certainly not impenetrable, they just require a shift of mindset. And fortunately, a new generation of scholars, mythologists and storytellers are managing to extract fresh insights and find ways to help us engage with them directly in rewarding ways.
Our landscape in particular seems to be a rich focus of folklore, with stories of mountains, rivers, wells, lakes, valleys, ritual sites, assembly sites, caves, sacred trees, etc. It’s hard to convey quite how expansive, multilayered and intricate these myths can be.
For example, there are tales that characterise the river Shannon as a gifted, young goddess who embarks on a sacred journey to Connla’s Well to acquire further wisdom and enlightenment. In the course of her search she gets into difficulty and ends up drowning, and her body becomes the river itself. The tale presents the Shannon as a multidimensional entity which in turn affects how we might choose to treat her.
Acknowledging that she has autonomy and inner desires makes it harder to accept that the nation’s beef and dairy farmers are permitted to poison her with the run-off of their nitrate fertilisers, or that the Government is considering pumping millions of gallons of her water towards Dublin in a major infrastructure project that will affect the fragile ecosystem she maintains for myriad aquatic and non-aquatic forms of life, including migratory birds, insects and rare plants.
The many myths and legends about the wisdom and magical abilities of trees likewise enable us to see them more than just a resource to be exploited for financial gain. Oaks are presented as wise, noble entities in the landscape, while hazel, hawthorn, rowen and holly are associated with magical abilities. The sacredness of trees is particularly evident in stories of the bile, which was a prized tree that was believed to represent the essence of a locality.
A community would fight to the death to safeguard and preserve their local bile. Its destruction was considered more drastic than even the death of a king, as it represented not just a human lifespan, but the many centuries of continual existence of the tree and the encoded memories of the generations of kings that had been inaugurated beneath it.
Some stories suggest that the roots of a tree were recognised as being connected to the underworld and that its leaves were connected to the magical power of the sun. It represents the interrelations between dimensions. Even the direction in which a tree fell was believed to have meaning. Think how vibrant and thriving our forests would be today if we still saw them in this light.
Many of the old stories about elements of the natural landscape require an expansion of our thought process beyond the limits of rationality to fully appreciate them. For example, Lough Gur in Co Limerick is said to disappear every seven years and be replaced by a single supernatural tree that appears magically from the lake bed.
The landscape is where our myths and legends are rooted and stored
The tree is covered over by a green cloak beneath which a wise old woman sits. To make sense of this we need to first acknowledge that the lake was regarded as a representation of the goddess Áine, and that the creation of the lake was also connected with two divine entities from the Hill of Uisneach — a portal point in Co Westmeath, where a multiplicity of different dimensions interconnect. The names of these entities translate as ‘greenness’ and ‘forked tree’. Something potent is being communicated here, though it may need to be intuited, rather than explained rationally.
The one aspect that does arise very clearly in these stories of Lough Gur, as well as in many other stories about the Irish landscape, is that if a human tries to harm or interfere with these divine elements of nature the retribution is swift and severe. The lake has been known to rise up and swallow those who didn’t respect it, or to inflict continuous tragedy on them until they make amends.
Many localities in Ireland had similar stories that sought to make clear to the community the fact that the divine, natural and human world all coexist, and have validity and autonomy. This was once common to almost all traditional societies, and we’re fortunate that so many of our old stories survive in Ireland, such that we can recognise and identity with the sentiment of an Apache elder in Arizona saying that while ‘white men need paper maps’, the Apache ‘have maps in our minds’.
Our myths are our maps, which is why each tale is rooted to a particular place and why so many of our myths involve journeys around the island. The great linguist and anthropologist Harry Hoijer commented that “even the most minute occurrences are described by Navajos in close conjunction with their physical settings, suggesting that unless narrated events are spatially anchored their significance is somehow reduced and cannot be properly assessed”.
It’s the same in Ireland. The landscape is where our myths and legends are rooted and stored. If we wish to begin the process of deciphering the wisdom within them we need to get out on to the land, to visit the sites that were deemed sacred by our ancestors and to begin re-engaging with the natural world.
Over the last few years I’ve been attempting to reorient myself to this way of thinking. And while great insights can be garnered from archaeology, history and the Irish language, it is equally important to grapple with the myths and folklore, and to get out on to the land itself, that we’ve occupied and safeguarded for so many thousands of years.
It’s going to require a committed re-engagement to decipher it all. My own initial attempts are contained in a new book, Listen to the Land Speak: A journey into the wisdom of what lies beneath us, that explores the mythical wisdom of Ireland and the knowledge contained within the landscape itself.
But, in truth this journey of rediscovery is a personal one for each of us. Our ancestors left us with convoluted roadmaps to help steer us back to what truly matters. It’s up to each of us to reconnect with the old stories, culture and language that have been preserved on this island to seek out the solace and power that this land has always offered its people.
Listen to the Land Speak: A journey into the wisdom of what lies beneath us by Manchán Magan is published by Gill Books, from October 6th