Category: Through Nine Waves

Wave 9 – Niall of the Nine Hostages

The Embracing of the Shadow (Kissing the Crone)

Niall is a King of Tara.  This is a story of a moment where mythology meets history.  The precise date of his death is felt to have been around 450 AD. His name Noígíallach means nine hostages which meant that he had hostages from nine septs in the kingdom.  He was the first of a long dynasty of kings, the Uí Néill as we move into the historical period.

Niall’s father was Eochaid by Caireann.  But the legal wife was Mongfind who had four more sons by the King.  Mongfind treated Caireann like a slave and in the pattern of ‘hero’ stories the baby Niall was born in the open and then abandoned.  The poet Torna, picked him up and reared him.  He could see Niall’s future role as a great King.

Torna brought Niall to Tara when the time was right.  Niall saw to it that Caireann, his mother, was treated honourably.  He clothed her in a purple robe.  From slave to queen was what he ensured happened!


The Niall story is highlighted by two tests.  One is the fire at the forge of the druid smith, Sithchenn.   He sets the place on fire.  The four brothers emerge with what they could grab.  But it is Niall who emerges with the anvil – an object on which many other objects can be made.  He then is proclaimed the greatest.  The second dramatic test is the encounter with the ugly hag/crone as the brothers seek water.  It is only Niall who is willing to kiss the hag, embace her and be with her.  She is sovereignty and transforms into a beautiful girl.  This again reaffirms the Kingship ideology of King sleeping with sovereignty – the land.

The Connections and insights from Participants

The Bard team collected some of the most significant connections and insights from participants at the immersion.  They are from the breakout groups and the large group discussions.

Connection 1 – Eochaid’s Passivity

Niall’s father is extremely passive in the light of Mongfind’s treatment of Caireann.  She treats her like a slave!  The comments made were in the context that with her vicious behaviour of which he could not have been ignorant.  But he did nothing!  Did he feel guilty on his encounter with Caireann.

Connection 2 – The Test at the Forge

The symbolism of the fire at the forge was a source of rich debate.  Clearly the anvil represented the King as a creator of things with an enduring prosperity.  In contrast the kindling from the forge (representing fire) represented the impotence of the transient.  The other items selected were human made instruments whereas the kindling was not.  Was this a penalty for seizing that which is property gifted by the land.  This has echoes in the Cormac MacAirt story with the thatched cottage where the roof is blown away by the wind.

Connection 3 – The Beer and its Symbolism
One of the items/objects selected by one of the brothers was  beer.   Participants speculated on the symbolism and meaning of beer from the forge.  Did it symbolise science, beauty or fun and relaxation?    It was suggested that there was as broader, deeper and more complex relationship with beer than in the present day (health and hygiene, economy and artisanship, a mead/beer hall!).


Connection 4 – Symbolism of Water
Water plays a very important symbolic role in the story.   Niall’s mother Caireann, is tasked with carrying water, and then later water is what the brothers are searching for when they encounter the hag/crone and it becomes a symbol and medium of choice of Niall as the King.  The water symbolism is contrasted with the fire symbolism – the fire at the forge.

Connection 5 – Kissing the Hag
The encounter with the hag in the pursuit of water is a central moment in the story.  This reflected, for the group, the concept of sovereignty as “marrying the land”.  The hag as a Triple Goddess figure and Kingship as being a contract with the other world.  Niall’s engagement with the hag suggesting he fully grasps this role in its wholeness.

Also important in this story is the idea of “journeying through the shadow” with echoes of the psychology of Jung and Freud and of the writings of Dante.  The shadow for Jung was those aspects of ourselves that we deny and then project out on to others.  Individualism for Jung was in part about re-owning the shadow.

Connection 6 – Kingship – Treating People Well
One of the notable characteristics of Niall is how he treats the marginalised, the rejected, the outcast.  This is firstly in the case of his mother, Caireann, who Mongfind has treated as a slave.

But it is also in regard to the old hag/crone.  He is the only one of the five sons willing to kiss her.

Connection 7 – The Substance of Kingship
The contrast was made between the present day dominance of appearances and stereotypes in politics.  The qualities of Niall are looking beyond to more complex and subtle truths.  The depths of King wisdom suggested here, were to provide the political justification for the power of the Uí Néill kings who were to last into the next six centuries.

 

Finally the comment was made that myth as something that never actually happened yet is always happening!

Wave 8 – Conaire Mór: The Exemplary King

And the Constraints of the use of Power

Conaire Mór was one of the great mythical high kings of Ireland. 
His reign ushered in a remarkable period of abundance, happiness and good fortune.  What we learn is that this is a result of an alignment in the early part of his reign with the forces of the otherworld.  These are articulated in the geasa (restrictions, taboos) and buada (gifts and responsibilities) of Conaire’s Kingship which are respected.

What happens is that his Enflaith (or reign) which Moriarty described as “the bird reign of the once and future king” was initially exemplary.  However, it all starts to go wrong and things start to unravel.  What happens is Conaire breaks one of his geasa when he is asked to make a judgement over the forbidden act of diberg or plundering.  He favours his foster brothers over the other plunderers and orders a farmer to kill his son according to the law/custom.  Conaire only exiles his foster brothers.

This story of which the principal text is Togail Bruidne Derga (The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel) tells of the demise of Conaire as he breaks geasa after geasa before ultimately coming to a grisly end as the foster brothers return with helpers to cause the demise of him and the hostel.  It is, in essence, a cautionary tale.

The story is an excellent opportunity to explore and understand the ancient ideology of kingship: the role of the otherworld at key ritual moment such as birth, the constraints on power in the form of the geasa, the role of the natural world in the fate of the king, the concept of Fir Flathemon, a ruler’s truth, the way the natural world reflects the behaviour and actions of a king.  Wasteland or abundance is tied up to the practice of Fir Flathemon and the adherence to the constraining geasa.

The Connections and insights from Participants

Here are some of the most significant connections and insights from participants that were collected by the Bard team in the breakout groups and the large group discussions.


Connection 1 – Extraordinary Pressures on a King
What was apparent was the extraordinary pressure Conaire Mór was under as King.  This was especially when asked to choose between his beloved foster brothers, now plunderers, and the cultural imperative that they be put to death.  Conaire fails this test, breaks the geasa and the downfall begins in a comprehensive and unforgiving way.  Essentially there is no place for nepotism in this ideology of kingship.  Participants put themselves in Conaire’s position.  They ask could they put the demands to honour law and custom over family?  This is an extraordinary pressure.  For many they would not want that kind of responsibility.

Connection 2 – The 45th President

The marked contrast between this Ancient Irish Kingship ideology and the Trump presidency was noted.  It was apparent how the 45th President has frequent recourse to nepotism both in terms of his family and his benefactors.  The concept of geasa highlights an almost sacred bond between King and his people bound by certain rules.  Break the rules, the geasa and you break the bond.  Things will unravel. But Ancient Ireland was a culture that had shared values around kingship.  They share a common mythology.

Connection 3 – The Good King Question
It was clear that the matter of what is a good king is inherent in this story and indeed the other king stories (Cormac MacAirt, Niall of the Nine Hostages, Labhraidh Loingseach).  This remains a live and eternal question in all societies?  What the Conaire Mór story offered was an image of an ideal king. When things started to unravel it became a cautionary tale.  How does contemporary kingship stand up was a natural question.

Connection 4 – Travelling naked to Tara
The image of Conaire travelling naked to Tara suggested to participants the idea of a new start, a transformation of culture with new knowledge.  It also represented a willingness to show vulnerability in the “once and future king”.  This is the King that brings a childlike perspective to the task, sees things that others see but don’t say.

Connection 5 – Knowing Culture, Representing All
In a way the Conaire story highlights the centrality of the King knowing the culture and acting out of that knowledge and its rules.  Conaire in his judgement clearly moves away from his culture’s rules and is no longer representing everyone.  He is favouring his family, a small subset of culture.   It is culture that shapes the ideology of kingship and that culture is shaped by the shared compendium of stories.

Connection 6 – The Unforgiving Nature of Kingship
One comment made was how unforgiving is the story of Conaire.  He makes one mistake, but there is no way back.  It is as if once things start to go wrong a chain of events is set up in which there is no return.  Observations were made as to recent ‘collective scapegoating’ incident in politics.  When things go wrong, they really go wrong.  But as a listener it is hard not to feel some sympathy for Conaire.  The question was asked, is there any place for forgiveness in Irish Myth

Connection 7 – Checks and Balances, Constraints on the Powerful
Participants reflected on the balances and constraints there are in the myths as restrictions on the use of power by the powerful.  In this case it is less an ‘institutional’ constraint such as the separations of power in a democracy between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government than a body of myths that provided a cultural set of constraints.  The checks and balances are more cultural and embodied in the ‘lore’ more than the ‘law’!

It is almost as if the role of the poet/bard acts as the custodian of the stories which acts as the ‘cultural glue’ and as a balancing force around power as practiced by the king.  The notion of Tara/Uisneach as described by the symbol of the kidney captures the same idea

Wave 7 – Amhairghin and the Arrival of the Sons of Mil

And, the end of Goddess Culture

The arrival of Amhairghin Glungheal and the Sons of Mil is the arrival of the Gaels in Ireland.  This was the start of Celtic Ireland.  What is self evident in this, but a surprise to many, is that there was a whole history and mythology of pre-Celtic Ireland.  The “Irish” weren’t always Celts!

Mil was descended from Noah according to Lebor Gabála and lived in Scythia.  He had to leave Scythia because of a jealous king and set off on a great journey.   He was travelling towards Ireland but never made it.  His uncle, Íth, decided to travel to Ireland with thrice 50 warriors.  The Tuatha Dé engaged in discussion but in the end killed Íth. He was brought back to Spain.  This was not exactly exemplary hospitality.

Nine of Íth’s brothers and eight of the Sons of Mil set off to take Ireland from the Tuatha Dé.  They arrive at Inber Scéne (Kenmare Bay) where Amhairghin delivered a piece of mystical rhetoric.  They defeated a force of the Tuatha Dé at Sliabh Mis.  The great Banba, Fódla and Ériu who all asked that their name be on the Country.


They, the Sons of Mil then met three kings of the Tuatha Dé who persuaded the Sons of Mil to retreat over nine waves.  But in a druid battle they won and arrived again on the shores of Ireland.  They then defeated the Tuatha Dé at the Battle of Tailtiu.  The Tuatha were then banished to live in the sidh and other lonely places.  For philosopher, mystic, John Moriarty “this was a sad day for Ireland, a cultural disaster, a worse disaster culturally than the coming of the Vikings, than the coming of Cromwell and his religious roundheads”.

The Connections and insights from Participants

Here are some of the most significant connections and insights from participants that were collected by the Bard team in the breakout groups and the large group discussions.

 

Connection 1 – The Transition from A pre Celtic World
Clearly what we are dealing with here is Irish pre-history but nevertheless we do know the Celts arrived from the 5th century BC onwards.  This means there was a pre-Celtic Ireland.  For some people this is news and something they have given no thought.  In a sense, for many, the Irish are Celts, always have been.  So the Sons of Mil arriving is a transition.  It seemed that this idea was fully and enthusiastically welcomed by some, enthusiastic about the pre Celtic Ireland.  For others, it seemed, this was not so welcome!  It was a surprising, perhaps ’shocking’ new idea! 

Connection 2 – The Gender Dimension
What this arrival/invasion marked was a transition that was a movement to a more patriarchal/male dominated world.  And despite the lack of historical information, there is an enormous significance in a collective cultural chance to remember a story that symbolises the idea that patriarchy came from somewhere else (as opposed to being inherent to human nature).  The Tuatha Dé Danann were the people of the goddess, Danu.  They were a goddess culture.  The arrival of the Celts was the end of that matriarchal culture.

Connection 3 – The Tuatha Dé Driven Underground
Significance of Tuatha being driven underground: with the symbolism of the unconscious, the “other world”, faerie, rivers/forests as ecological foundations of life.  It also offers a receded but nonetheless ever present layer of more valuable things in life than those valued on the surface.  Also comparisons with king under the mountain trope: not really dead but there biding its time, to surface again in times of danger, and potentially to one day take power again.  For some ,the idea of the Tuatha Dé coming back over ground again is compelling, especially from a feminist perspective.

Connection 4 – Circular Thought
The sense of spirals, waves and continuous motion and a cyclical conception of history.  This is contrasted with the linear progress narratives of history and of Greco Roman thought.  This spiral/cyclical conception applies in our personal lives as well.  But the idea of spiral suggests ever spiralling layers of one’s understanding.  These stories, this wisdom tradition evokes a circular world view.

Connection 5 – Irish Suspicion of Outsiders
In spite of all the compliments of Íth who led the forward party, the Tuatha Dé were very suspicious.  And as we know, they killed him.  The participants suggested that there might be a lesson here. 

Is there an enduring suspicion of the stronger (Britain, the EU, new arrivees) and what about current Irish political negotiations?  Certainly the Tuatha Dé did not cover themselves in glory with this episode.


Connection 6 – Faults on both Sides
The story highlights a strong sense of the Tuatha’s action being wrong in the killing of Íth.  This then brought on the aggression of the Sons of Mil but participants reflected on feelings of shame and perhaps a reflection on Ireland’s historical wrong doings.  In turn was Amhairghin’s song all about ego (as represented by Moriarty) and could they be trusted?  In the end they did get rid of the Tuatha Dé and the goddess culture.  It seems the Tuatha Dé had demonstrated a failure of hospitality and a loss of touch with their own values.

Connection 7 – A story with Global Resonances
What the story of the Sons of Mil represents is the possible Scythian origins of the Irish.  There are also important connections in this story to Noah and the Fenius the Ancient and those who went on to build the Tower of Babel and to Moses.  This Old Testament figure, Moses, saved the life of the infant Gaedheal, who was bitten by a snake, by touching him with his rod before pronouncing that Gaedheal’s descendent would be safe from serpents and live in a land where no such creatures existed – Ireland!

 

There are clearly connections here to Islamic and Middle Eastern cultures and a number of mythic resonances.

Wave 6 – Cú Chulainn as a Tragic Hero

Where Now with Warrior 

What we have experienced experienced in the Bard is that as we tell the many stories of the Tain that the take on the story becomes ever more tragic and sad. Cú Chulainn is, as you tell the story, absolutely not a romantic hero but rather a figure of tragedy.

We told the story of “The Curse of Macha” and how this farmer Crunchu has all his dreams come true when Macha comes into his life.  But she tells him one thing he is not to do, don’t boast about me.  He can’t resist!  And the race with Kings horses is set up.  The twins are born but Macha dies but not before cursing the Men of Ulster, who, at their time of greatest need will be struck down, and unable to fight.

The Curse of Macha story sets up the Battle with Ferdia at the Ford.  Cú Chulainn’s fights with his foster brother, Ferdia who is representing the Men of Connacht and Medb’s army.  We told this story but because of time had to omit much else.  We also told the story of the death of Connla, Cú Chulainn’s son with Aoife during his time with Scatchach in Scotland.

And finally, we covered the Death of Cú Chulainn at the hands of the Sons of Calatan and how some of his past victories (he had killed Calatan) came back to haunt him.  The combined effect of the battle with Ferdia, the death of Connla and the death of Cú Chulainn created a powerful aggregated effect.  It is simply tragic but most of all you are left with a feeling of how little agency this extraordinary warrior had! How ironic that someone so apparently powerful had so little power to shape his destiny!

 

The Connections and insights from Participants 

Here are some of the most significant connections and insights from participants that were collected by the Bard team in the breakout groups and the large group discussions.

Connection 1 – Medb’s Ease of Manipulation
In the telling of the Battle at the Ford the way in which Queen Medb is so easily able to manipulate Ferdia into a fight he does in no way desire.  She did this through appealing to his pride, or perhaps more accurately the threat of shame if he did not take up the challenge.  The role of emotion and manipulation was noted as an important feature in setting up the ‘brother battle’ between Cú Chulainn and Ferdia.

Connection 2 – How People of Strength are Manipulated

One reflection on Cú Chulainn and Ferdia is how the strong are manipulated by the powerful.  The power figure could be a Queen as in Medb but the ‘powerful’ could also create a culture that value certain sacrificial behaviour that is the duty of the physically strong.  The young, often men, are then a sacrificial victim within a particular cultural context.  They have little or no agency.  Those that do exercise a sense of agency e.g. conscientious objectors, deserters or those who commit suicide in these horrific circumstances in contrast earn only spite and contempt.

Connection 3 – The Tain: A Cautionary Tale
One way we can read the Cú Chulainn story is as a celebration of the warrior spirit, energy and the idea of the ‘blood and sacrifice’.  In this regard the archetype seems to have played a powerful role in the cultural imagination.  The events of 1916 and the actions of figures like Padraig Pearse seeming to act out the ultimate blood sacrifice.  In modernity, the exploits of our sporting heroes across sports and in every village, county, province and the nation, are embodiments, surely of those figures who ‘put their necks on the line’ to defend the honour of the  community.

But ultimately, and hearing these stories, Ferdia’s battle, Connla’s death and Cú Chulainn’s demise, the collective feeling was that the Tain can be understood as a critique, a total critique of the warrior archetype and of war and where it can lead.  Every battle, every death in battle is essentially the death of a brother.

Connection 4 – Silence and Speechless-ness
Such was the impact, the cumulative impact of the stories of the Ferdia battle, the Connla death and  the Cú Chulainn demise that the participants were left with a sense of speechlessness ……. what was there to say, what could be said after that …. the stories were so powerful.  The collective experience seemed to be …. this is so sad, so tragic.  Only a wish to be silent.

Connection 5 – Cú Chulainn’s Red Mist
There was another angle on the powerlessness of the apparently most powerful.   It was the reflection that when Cú Chulainn was in his rístrádh, when the ‘red mist’ descended, he was actually not in control.  Internal emotions and instincts had completely taken him over, he was unable to distinguish friend from foe, he had lost any sense of agency.  So both from forces outside him and from forces inside him, Cú Chulainn is not in control.


Connection 6 – Warrior and the Return Journey
One participant had a son who worked as a psychiatrist in the US Military dealing with post war trauma and post traumatic stress disorder.  He spoke of the difficulty of the return journey after the conflict.  It is as if the mental places a warrior goes in battle, what they do, what they see makes it very difficult to return to normal life.  And then if they do not return as ‘heroes’, as happened after the Vietnam War in the US, it makes it doubly difficult.  The classic deal for the warrior/soldier is ‘you put your neck on the line’ (ref. the Champion’s Portion) and on return you get the best of everything, return a hero and if you die we will sing about you for eternity.  But modern psychiatry and experience highlights the lie that there may be in this warrior code.

Connection 7 – War Ritualised …. To Contain the Rage
One point that was made was that some scholars (for example Proinsias MacCana – Early Irish Ideology and the Concept of Unity in “The Irish Mind” P 64/65) have pointed out that  fighting in early Irish society was rigidly patterned and that it had strong elements of ritual.  It was pointed out that the use of ritual in the Good Friday Agreement was helpful in containing the rage.  In this regard language using forms of address, Mr. Speaker, Mr. Adams, was helpful in creating a contained anger.

And one current question for participants was as to whether this was essentially a tale of a violent society in Irish pre-history or one where the fighting was contained within ritual structures and not that harmful.  Indeed, did the fighting act to strengthen cultural ties and bonds?

Wave 5 – Cú Chulainn: Romantic Cultural Hero

The Classic Archetype of the Warrior

 

What the Bard Mythologies Global Research Study on Irish Myth revealed is that one of the best known figures in Irish Myth is the great warrior, Cú Chulainn – the Irish Achilles.  He is the great defender and was adopted by both communities in the Troubles in the North.

In Wave 5 we told the stories of a hero, who prior to his first great exploit was called Sétanta.  Beginning with his birth stories we heard of his divine and human parentage in that both the god Lugh and the warrior Sualtam have claims to fatherhood.  This otherworld/human origins is common with mythic heroes and was central to Cú Chulainn’s story.

Even as a young child the young Sétanta was exceptional. Once he heard of the Red Branch Knights he was enthralled.  He persuaded his mother Dechtaire to allow him to join the young Knights at Emain Macha.  Once there he laid low 50 of the youths playing hurling and the rest fled.  His early life was a series of extraordinary feats in fighting but also in chess.


He acquired his name when slaying the hound of the smith, Culann on his way to Tara – Sétanta was to arrive late and the fierce hound was in his way.  The hound is Cú, so hence this remarkable deed gave him his name Cú Chulainn – the slayer of Culann’s hound.  He took up arms on a fortuitous day, killing the ferocious Sons of Nechtan, while in a rístrádh, or battle spasm.  He only came out of this state of fury when the women lifted their skirts and then threw him into a vat of cold water. Cú Chulainn’s relationship with women was often fraught, but always interesting!

The Connections and insights from Participants

Here are some of the most significant connections and insights from participants that were collected by the Bard team in the breakout groups and the large group discussions.

Connection 1 – The Positive Aspects of the Warrior Archetype – in today’s sport
This Wave was looking at the Story told with Sétanta and the Warrior as a ‘romantic hero’ and the idea of war and battle being seen in a positive light.  A video of the famous 2007 Ireland vs. England rugby match was shown with the reminder that the last time the English had officially been in the stadium, the British Army had shot unarmed Irish Citizens.  This famous day was indeed a catharsis in Croke Park, with the silence during the English National Anthem being seen as a moment of nurturing and healing.  The cosmic necessity of this critique, Ireland’s crushing win, the preceding tension and fears of violence, not realised, was an example of the positive role of ‘battle’ as in sporting battle.  The battle in this context had a healing, redemptive effect.

Connection 2 – The Recurring Sets of Three
The participants noted what is a frequent and recurring motif in folklore and myth.  This is the frequent recurring of sets of three: three enemies (The sons of Nechtan), three vats of water (to cool Cú Chulainn) after his rístrádh, three companions, three barriers, etc.  Numbers often have a symbolic significance that it helps to understand.

Connection 3 – Warrior: to Unite and/or Divide
While it might be easy to either refute or embrace the warrior archetype in modernity the participants reflected how this archetype and its associated energy could be used to unite (e.g. Croke Park 2007) or to divide.  The Warrior energy could be a part of destructive hate such as sectarian violence in the North, or it could also play a key role as a ritual unifier such as in sport.  A conflict can unify a community but that unity could be focused against a ‘hated’ enemy which, certainly within a county, is divisive.

Connection 4 – Ordinary Warriors 2020
One of the characteristics of these early Sétanta stories is how ‘outstanding’ and ‘exceptional’ is the young Sétanta.  The Covid-19 virus has given us the concept of the “ordinary warrior”, doctors, nurses, carers, delivery drivers.  But this does not mean their contribution is not outstanding.  It was felt that it is, but that it had gone largely unrecognised.  This was the harnessing of the warrior archetype by ordinary people to fight for ordinary people.

Connection 5 – Warrior Energy – A British Perspective

Following World War 2 there was a clear collective  focus within Britain to harness the Nation’s energy to build a better society.  After the war, the warriors were working to build a better society: the British Welfare State, NHS and free education as well as the rebuilding of cities etc. after the war.  Such were the horrors of war, such was the collective sacrifice, that there was a collective resolve to build a better society.

Connection 6 – Rístrádh, Battle Race and the Role of the Woman
One of what was now Cú Chulainn (after the Culann’s hound story) characteristics was the rístrádh, the battle rage that he got into, for example in the fight with the Sons of Nechtan.  In this state he knew not enemy or friend!  The role of the women, lifting their skirts to shame him and then putting him in three vats of icy water to get him out of this state was noted with interest.


Connection 7 – Warrior Focus today
and the Dangerous Invisible Enemy
The participants felt that there was still an important role for this archetype figure and the associated energy.  One of the challenges is that the nature of the enemy has changed.  It is often an invisible or intangible threat that is being faced such a racism, climate change, or importantly an invisible virus.

Wave 4 – The Settling of the Manor of Tara

A foundational political structure: distributed power and the fifth province

The tradition was that the High King of Tara had to throw a feast for all the people of Ireland every three years.  It lasted seven days and seven nights.  What a way to ensure friendship and cultural unity?

One year King Diarmuid mentioned that he was considering reappointing “The Manor of Tara” – today we might call it a reorganisation.  The people said they would not eat until this matter was decided.

Diarmuid wanted advice and sent out for the wisest man he could think of, Fiachra.  He deferred to someone wiser, who also deferred, who also deferred.  Finally Fintan MacBochra was called.  Fintan though known had become marginal.

Fintan arrived to a great welcome to spell out the ‘settlement’ based on the idea of ‘cuige’  provinces.  This was the four (Munster, Leinster, Connacht and Ulster) that is five (the fifth province).  He also spelt out the qualities and gifts of each province. (See the diagram below).

Here is a mythology of distributed power and the idea of the sacred centre – the fifth province.  It is a political structure with global resonances, especially in India and other parts of Asia.

 

The Connections and insights from Participants

Here are some of the most significant connections and insights from participants and collected by the Bard team in the breakout groups and the large group discussions.

Connection 1 – Nothing has changed!
When the ancient model and framework was shared, along with the various qualities of each of the provinces and their attributes (Munster – Music, Ulster – toughness/wars, Leinster – elegance/prosperity, Connacht – wisdom) there was a collective feeling that the scheme and the qualities have not changed despite the passage of thousands of years.  In modern parlance, the operating system remains the same.   The Ancients had set something in place that was to last.

Connection 2 – A Mythology of Power – And its Right Use

The Five Provinces model can be seen as a Mythology of Power, in which real power is vested in the people, in the local, supported by the fifth province idea but led and inspired by those with the greatest wisdom and memory.  Precedent, tradition and memory seen as very central.  Reference was made to the Citizens Assembly and its role in the recent successful referenda as an example of a fifth province thinking and approach in action in modernity.


Connection 3 – The Centre’s Balancing Role
The image of the two kidneys from a beast as a chosen body part for Tara and Uisneach had strong resonances for participants especially in its ‘balancing’ role in the body.  It felt very significant that it was not the head -r the heart – the usual suspect!  The fifth province/centre’s role in this context is not command and control but rather balance and coordination, not power over in a hierarchical sense but ‘power with’.  Insight from participants was that in a present day context, the banking crisis, climate change and Covid 19 were seen as a consequence of going against the natural state of the world and violating the ‘Fifth Province’ for private gain.

Connection 4 – Global Echoes
Symbolic numerology and compass directions have parallels in the thinking and cosmology of other cultures.  For example in the Nature American tradition compass points reflects different qualities, in China certain numbers are assigned qualities.  This places this ancient Irish thinking within a global context with echoes from indigenous cultures around the world.


Connection 5 – Ollamhship, Wisdom and the Law
Wisdom was seen as central but it was a result of having a depository of information, a compendium of story/myth and that it was held by the Ollamh (highest rank of fili) and included a shared legal system of laws.  Each person knew where they stood in regards to the laws and each had rights and responsibilities.  These principles were felt as very relevant and interesting.

Connection 6 – The Attributes of Ulster
One of the areas of contention that has come up in these discussions of the Five Province Framework is the attributes associated with Ulster.  Firstly the main descriptor is battle followed by contentions, rough places, strikes, captures, assaults, hardiness, war, conflicts.  These are not descriptors that would be called “good” in modernity.  Some participants felt that these, while maybe having some truth, were overly harsh on Ulster.  That in Ancient Ireland that these were not necessarily negative or that fighting was an escapable part of human existence did not address the overall concern regarding the portrayal of Ulster.

Connection 7 – A Vision of Leadership and The Fifth Province
What is laid out in this framework was felt to be a unique description of leadership/kingship as convening power and a facilitative style of Kingship.  The idea being that the Fifth Province is a view from a height over all the provinces at once, with the fifth reaching openly in and out of all with no hard boundaries.  Importantly the view from a height did not mean superior, rather different.  The collection of judgements, history, story, science from all the provinces to collaboratively bring people together and distributing this out to the benefit and dignity of all was what was understood, and positively understood.  The contrast between Ireland’s handling of Covid 19 as a marked contrast to how England had handled the virus was pointed out.

The Primary Sources

The main source used in this retelling is that of RI Best in Ériu 4 121 – 137.  Emmet’s adaptations are outlined above.

Wave 3 – Fintan and the Hawk of Achill

Shapeshifting and the Shamanic

In the colloquy of Fintan and the Hawk of Achill we have a dialogue between a wonderful shamanic figure who has lived for 5500 years and a hawk who has lived as long!  The dialogue takes place just before they die.  These two, human and bird have seen it all.

In this story we hear of two more of the “Three Wisdoms of the Irish”.  If Cesair brought the synchronic perspective of knowing all the mythologies of the world, Fintan brought diachronic second wisdom having lived for so many years.  The final foundational wisdom is the ability to shapeshift, an important shamanic gift.

We learn that Fintan had been variously salmon, eagle and hawk.  This third wisdom, shapeshifting, means an ability to see the world from anothers perspective.  In this story it is the perspective of the animal kingdom.  But someone with this skill can surely apply it to the human world – and shapeshift to understand others, understand enemies.

This story gets closest to offering echoes of a Mesolithic (2000 BC – 4000 BC) before the emergence of a Neolithic culture.

We also had a powerful presentation from Chaobang Ai, on his experiences with Shamans in Guyana and the Philippines and the connections between this story and the stories/myths of indigenous peoples around the world.

The Connections and insights from Participants

Here are some of the most significant connections and insight from participants which were collected by the Bard team in the breakout meetings and the big group sessions at the event:

Connection 1 – Mythic History from the Hawk’s Perspective
There was clearly an impersonal, detached quality in the hawk’s reflections in the dialogue with Fintan.  Was the hawk being sadistic, or bureaucratic and simply doing what a hawk does?  Was the hawk relishing in the bloodiness of a battlefield or simply fulfilling what a bird of prey does in its cosmic and transcendental role in recycling the dead (warriors on the battlefield) and reintegrating them into nature.  Hawks, it seems, don’t do compassion or sentiment!  Fintan on the other hand did bring some compassion to his telling!  The contrast was very clear.

Connection 2 – The Ecological Role of Birds
From the perspective of the narrative it was easy to see the ecological importance of birds, especially birds of prey in playing an important role as recycler.  The hawk was detached from the personal or tribal sentiments.  From here it was possible to appreciate their role in the greater good in regard to nature and the natural world.  So what we as humans might see as a cruel detachment could also be framed as ecologically positive.


Connection 3 – The Ecological Role of Birds
In the colloquy both the hawk and Fintan have lived for thousands of years.  They have seen the entire ‘mythic history’ of Ireland.  What this clearly spoke to was an extraordinary wisdom and insight.  But as listeners we were left with a feeling of the loneliness that goes with an extremely long life.  It means the guaranteed and repeated loss of everyone one knows. This sense of loneliness also had strong resonances with people in the Covid 19 context with people having to deal with the deaths of people close to us and also large numbers of people dying alone in care homes and hospitals.  That shared loneliness acted to bring Fintan and the Hawk together at the end despite prior antagonisms in a deep understanding and companionship.

Connection 4 – The Fighting and Bloodshed
There was, it seems, considerable amounts of fight and bloodshed in the two shared stories.  Or is it that these are the stand out moments in a mythic history?  Were the Irish always fighting?

Connection 5 – Shapeshifting and Oneness with Nature
The shapeshifting of Fintan who told of his time as salmon, hawk and eagle was felt as a meditative journey but also in a current context, was felt to be relevant to how lockdown gave rise to new rituals and ceremonies (including the Bard sessions) that help us to remember how it is to be human.


Connection 6 – Circularity of Life
Connections made to the circularity of life being from death to life to death whether it was for Fintan or the Hawk or individuals or communities or even Ireland as a whole.  Unlike the linear rational thought of Greco Roman culture this world view is far more circular.

Connection 7 – Encounters with Shamans
The pursuit of shamanic energy and experience was valued but how could it be the real thing as opposed to New Age type stuff which misuse language and symbols.  Discussion took place on the impact of the Catholic Church and modernity on the shamanic values.  In Irish myth the connection with the Cailleach and the negative branding of shamanic elements as “witches” etc.  Reflection on the loss of the shamanic experiences and indigenous communities around the world was expressed especially in relation to Chaobang Ai’s recounting of meeting shamans with indigenous people in Guyana and the Philippines.

Wave 2 – The Cesair Journey

An epic journey and a foundation myth of Ireland

In regard to the beliefs of the ancient Irish about their origins what we know is that we don’t know.  Whatever nature origin legends there may have been did not survive the arrival of Christianity.  What we do know, however,  is that these origin questions were important to them.

What does emerge from literary and historical sources is a series of settlements of “people who come from somewhere else” often fleeing hardship, wars, floods.  This foundation mythology is captured in a collection of stories put together in the late eleventh century, Lebor Gabála Érenn, “The Book of the Taking of Ireland”.

The first arrivee was Cesair, fifty women and three men including her partner, Fintan MacBochra.  She arrived after an epic journey that started in East Africa, in Meroe and travelled all the known world.  In some versions she was refused a place in the Ark.  In a sense the first arrivee was an outcast, and her myth was that of a “Not Chosen” people.   We also told a version in which Cesair and her people were the ‘great founders’ of Ireland – its first people.     


The first arrivee brought a formidable woman and the ‘mothers of the world’.  Imagine that she was informed by the wisdom of knowing the Myths of all the Known World in the various cultures she passed through on her epic journey.

The Connections and insights from Participants

Here are some of the most significant connections and insight from participants collected by the Bard team after the storytelling:

Connection 1 – The Flood as a Primal Mythic Moment
Myths have frequent recourse to a primal moment .  These are events or happenings that affects everyone in the society and which they remember for a very long time.  In the case of Cesair and her people it was floods as their primal moment.  Today it is a ‘virus – Covid 19’ but both are primal world shaping moments and times.  A war whether external or a civil is another typical primal moment.

Connection 2 – Difference between the Versions
The participants observed how little you have to do to oral story to fundamentally change its meaning fundamentally.  In one version Cesair and her folk are the ‘great founders’ of Ireland as its first arrivees.  In another version (based on old texts) the Cesair party are essentially ‘outcasts’ in that they are not allowed on Noah’s Ark.  Each version has very different meanings and identity value.  Which do you prefer to tell and believe is an important question.

Connection 3 – Why do we not know this story?
Every time the Bard team tell the Cesair story we find there is little knowledge among the public of the story.  The Bard Global Survey confirmed this lack of knowledge.  Participants ask why?  Was this founding myth of a strong woman and her accompanying 50 ‘mothers of the world’ effectively written out of history?  Did the monks or other Christians seek to marginalise it

Connection 4 – An Irish Dreamtime
The aborigines have the idea of ‘dreamtime’ where they essentially imagine (dream) a world into existence.  Given, as outlined, there is little knowledge of this story.  It obviously offers itself as an alternative creation myth – perhaps of a people who came from somewhere else?  To embrace this epic story could mean a people changing the story/myth they tell about themselves.
Myths, if they are implicit or unconscious drive us though we don’t know it.  To become conscious of the myths we live by is to gain agency.  It is about an individual or a people owning the myths it lives by.  A people can change its identity and its myths.  And to do so is to create a dreamtime – an Irish dreamtime.

Connection 5 – The Gendered Aspect – Women/Goddess
One of the connections and insights made was that this is a ‘women led’ venture and one in which women are dominant.  The new religion, Christianity had its own ‘myth of origins’ to propagate, an intention to repudiate the old gods.  It was also a patriarchal religion.  The Bard participants were of course acutely aware of the gendered aspects of this story.  And many inspired by the obvious gender of the key protagonists!

Connection 6 – Parallels with Greek Mythology
There is an obvious parallel in Greek Myth with the great sea journey of Odysseus and his companions back to Ithaca from Troy.  The obvious differences being the sheer length of Cesair’s Journey (is it ten times as long?) and the face of it being a new start rather than a journey home as in the Odyssey.

Connection 7 – Archetype of the Mother

Cesair as the archetype of the mother as creator, founder, protector, nurturer and source of strength was noted.  At the same time Cesair is not a typical ‘maternal’ mother but rather one with a very strong sense of agency, independence and purpose.

Wave 1 – The Voyage of Bran

A different encounter with the Divine

Along with a culture’s creation myth there can be few more central moments than when that peoples encounters the divine.  That moment fundamentally shapes the relationship with a transcendent force and imagined god.

In the case of the Jewish people it was that meeting of Moses as leader of the Israelites with Yahweh on the top of Mount Sinai.  Yahweh having induced fear with fire and thunder gives Moses a gift, a tablet of stone on which are inscribed the ten commandments.

As John Moriarty, the late Kerry poet and mystic pointed out the contrast with the Irish encounter could not be more stark.  Here the king/hero Bran whose life was upended by a ‘longing’ ends up meeting the Irish Sea god, Manannan MacLir.  His gift, a silver branch.  This Moriarty saw as a way of perceiving the world – silver branch perception.


Here we have a contrast between a God whose elements are fire and stone and one whose elements are air and water; one whose gift is a tablet of commandments and another whose gift is “silver branch perception” – a way of perceiving the world.

The Connections and insights from Participants

Here are some of the most significant connections and insight from participants and collected by the Bard team:

Connection 1 – A Time out of Time
In the way that Bran’s voyage to the otherworld was a ‘time out of time’ so this corona virus lock down is also a time out of time.   This lock down can be seen perhaps as a time of opportunity and possibility what the Greeks called “Kairos” time.   Other comments were that it was of time slowed down and this gave people an opportunity to assess what is really important.

Connection 2 – The Gift of Silver Branch Perception – A Way of Perceiving
The silver branch gift as being part of the encounter with Manannan was an experience where the divine gave Bran a very different way of perceiving the world.  In this regard the gift was seen as an enhancement of one’s awareness of the world.  The point made was that this was about the oneness and the connection between all things and an aspiration to know one’s fuller known ness (evoking Aristotlean potentiality).

Connection 3 – A Time of Planting Seeds to germinate a new normal
The germination theme came up in another connection in a comment that ‘we are locked away to germinate like seeds’.  This was captured in a Mexican proverb ‘they tried to bury me but didn’t know that I’m a seed’.

Taken together the idea of taking the time out of time and also a new way of perceiving there was discussion of this time being about the germination of a new normal.  In this regard the silver branch suggest critical thinking about what is going on at this time.  This critical thought is not just about access to knowledge nor is it about looking to authority figures.  For some this new normal was exciting leaving open the new and the possible generated from the bottom up.

Connection 4 – The Paradox of the Silver Branch
The question here was is the branch of this world (but seen differently) or is this a separate otherworld from which there is no return.  In the story as told the branch occupies both of these options.  We are left with the paradox.  Perhaps it is not one or the other but both/neither and perhaps a cognisance of and comfort with that ambiguity and this is at the heart of silver branch perception.

Connection 5 – The Image of the Golden Thread
In the story, Bran catches a ball of thread, and is pulled back to the Island of Joy he is seeking to leave.  Is this, one participant commented, to be seen as Covid 19 a golden threat pulling us into a perceptive mode of thought whether we want to go there or not.

Connection 6 – The Power of Longing – a “Call to Adventure”
Many were struck by how a strong man, Bran, who was secure as warrior and king and apparently impervious to all challenges, yet is suddenly brought low by a totally different form of power.  As Moriarty put it “Bran Mac Feabhal laid low not by a sword but by longing’.  In the language of myth this is typically the ‘call to adventure’ that begins the Hero Journey, as we find we are pulled into a journey into the unknown, after that longing.  In Bran’s case perhaps this was the King Journey rather than the Hero Journey.

Connection 7 – The Return Journey from a world upside down
Being an exile and removed from life as you knew it not only changes your perception of the world but other people’s perceptions of you as you return.  Could this return be difficult or even, as in Bran’s case, impossible!   One feature of the world of Bran (and Covid 19) is how it turned things upside down and how the low paid front liners (often women and immigrants) were now heroes.  This is world upside down!  But surely out challenge is to make the return journey.  In the myth Manannan comes ashore but not Bran.  Do we need a different ending?

The Story of the Story

The story of Bran mac Feabhail is one of a fictional character, originally written with much in verse. Though written at a time when Christianity was well established the story is based on pre Christian ideas of the otherworld. The writer was a Christian he was working within the structure of an international folklore motif of a man who returns from the timeless other world. The text was written in northern Ulster in the early eighth century.

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