We are awfully clever, aren’t we? With our touchscreen technology, circling satellites and cyber networking, it seems the only limit to our ingenuity is imagination.
This is certainly an interesting time to be alive. Few of us could guess what our societies might look like in a year, never mind in a decade, such is the rapid speed of change. Just as we get used to one gadget, the next ‘must have’ is available.
We are adapting to change at an extraordinary rate, and not only to accommodate the various forms of technology; industries too are expanding to sizes once unthinkable.
For many of us, the world we grew up in bears little resemblance to the world our children know. Industrial farming, mass production and global communication are the new normal and the ‘good old days’ we carry-on about, live somewhere in the mists of our memories.
Or do they?
I find myself pondering how our Celtic Ancestors would view modern societies, and wonder too, how this ‘technological age’ we are so proud of will be viewed by our descendants hundreds of years from now.
But how will they know us, the people who were pushing the buttons, and swiping the screens? Data downloads? Selfie museums?
More likely our descendants will recognize and, with any luck, understand us by knowing the stories we told each other. Just as we recognize and understand our Celtic Ancestors by sharing the stories they told each other – their folklore.
Celtic folklore reveals much about the people and communities which created them.
It tells us who our Ancestors were, their greatest fears, the values they measured themselves against and the importance of humour and community in their everyday lives. If we take the time to look, we can even recognize their quest for an understanding of the spiritual.
Is it possible, in the 21st century, that Folklore can remind us who we really are, were we came from and perhaps even, where our ancestors hoped we might go?
To those unfamiliar with Celtic folklore, be assured, it is far from a bunch of dusty, irrelevant tall-tales: Celtic folklore is a collective voice. Sure, some tales are a little lofty, but most have at least a couple of toes dangling in the truth, and all have something to teach us. If only we take the time to scratch beneath the surface.
Take Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (also known as Finn MacCool), for instance. His tale of defeating an enemy using cunning – not brawn – has echoed down the ages as an example for all of us. But it must be said, he didn’t work alone.
I think someone once said “Behind every great giant is a great giant’s wife” – and if they didn’t, they should have, for in truth, it was Fionn’s wife Oonagh who really defeated Benandonner, the Scottish giant known as ‘The Red Man’.
This tale of Fionn mac Cumhaill began one dark and gloomy day, not so very long ago. We find Fionn and the Red Man trading insults over the Atlantic Ocean. Fionn standing on the northern shore of Ireland, and the Red Man on his homeland of Scotland.
Sure, the Red Man enjoyed a group melee as much as the next giant, but it was one-on-one combat where he gained his mighty reputation. He fancied himself to beat that pesky Irish warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill without raising a bead of sweat. So there and then, he decided to kick off.
“Tis said yev the strength of a wee lamb,” he hollered over the dark grey sea.
Now Fionn was a bold fellow, always on the hunt for adventure and never one to back down.
“Is that so now? Well yer wife says I’ve the stamina of a wolf, so she did!”
“She never did!” yelled the Red Man.
Fionn taunted the giant Scotsman, “Aye, she also said yev the face of a cut haggis and ye smell like one too!”
The Red Man was known for his ferocious temper and once lit, his fury burned as long as his face glowed bright red, and this is how he earned the name the Red Man after all. Twas said the only thing could quash his fury was exhaustion – that he would fight until his rival was dead or he himself collapsed to the ground. But this could not be known for certain, as he had never failed to kill a rival.
Well, the Red Man growled and stepped into the sea between them. Mighty waves began to lash the shore at Fionn’s feet and he rubbed his hands in delight. It was on, and they would do battle on Irish lands, giving him every advantage. He stood and watched as the Red Man strode across the sea toward him.
The smile soon fell from Fionn’s face. As the Red Man treaded ever closer, Fionn could see that his rival was much greater than him in size. Perhaps three to four times the size in fact. He had no chance of defeating him with his fists and knew he had to think fast, for the Red Man was more than halfway across the sea, and with a scarlet face of fury upon him.
Most folk up and down the land knew Fionn mac Cumhaill as a great warrior, brave and cunning. Fewer knew that he was also a great joker, and charming too. Twas said he could charm the birds from the trees, and manys the time he had used this skill to save his skin. But Fionn knew that no manner of joke or charm would get him out of this.
So, he did what any canny giant would do, he turned and hightailed it for the hills. The Red Man saw Fionn run and knew the battle had begun. With only three more strides he put his giant foot on the Irish shore and took chase.
Fionn flung himself through the door built into his mountainside home and panted heavy to his wife Oonagh, “I’ve gone and done it again Oonagh. I’ve only got a giant the size of a… well…GIANT on me tail.”
Oonagh, long used to Fionn’s imprudence, sighed long; “Here” she said wearily. “Get in among these blankets and don’t say a word ye hear me? Not a word, no matter what ye hear me say.”
Just at that moment the door banged so hard the wood cracked its full length. “Let me at him, the coward Mac Cumhaill,” the Red Man roared.
Oonagh calmly opened the door and smiled at the giant, “Ye’ll be after me husband then. He’s away tending the sheep as it happens but yev the scarlet on yerself, sit doon for a cup of tea while ye wait.”
The Red Man sat and drank the tea while Oonagh busied herself about the cottage. She could see he was not going to budge until he had his mighty hands around Fionn’s neck and when his stomach growled loud and low, she had an idea. “Ye look hungry,” said she. “I’ll make you a cake here, the same cake my Fionn eats three times a day.”
“Well, if it’s no trouble, I see yer a busy lady with a bairn to care for,” said the Red Man as he glanced over at Fionn laying upon the floor wrapped in a mess of blankets.
“Not at all, ye just sit tight there.” Oonagh set about making two large cakes on the griddle. When they were cooked, she placed the metal griddle between the two cakes and handed it to the Red Man.
The giant bit down on the cakes and broke six of his huge teeth, right there in half.
“Oh dear,” Oonagh cried, “sure Fionn’s teeth have no trouble biting through my cakes!”
Blood poured from the Red Man’s mouth as he picked out pieces of broken teeth. “Here now, take this,” she said as she handed the Red Man a massive sword as tall as her own self. “It’s Fionn’s own tooth picker, he’s very particular about having clean teeth for to bite his enemies.”
Now twas the Red Man got to thinking. “How big was this Mac Cumhaill scoundrel? With teeth can bite through steel and a mouth big as a mighty tree trunk.”
Seeing the fear growing in his eyes, Oonagh called on her last trick. “But where are me manners? Come take a look at our wee baby. Not a moon-month old so he is.”
Oonagh led the Red Man over to where Fionn lay in the corner, with his broad smiling face and great hands bursting through layers of blankets.
“Not a moon-month ye say?”
“Aye, he’s a bonny boy, so he is.”
The Red Man had seen enough. If that was the size of his baby son, he had no desire for to meet the man himself. He turned and hightailed it back to his Scottish home as though the divil himself were on his tail.
The sky opened as Fionn chased behind the Red Man, at a safe distance of course. Through mud and puddle, the two Giants wound their way back to the sea shore.
When he was satisfied the Red Man was far away at sea, Fionn picked up a huge clump of earth and threw it after the Red Man, along with some sage advice to never come back.
And here’s a thing you might not know – that simple old plod of earth, an afterthought if you will, is now known as the Isle of Man.
In truth, this tale owes as much to the wit and grace of Oonagh as it does to the cunning of Fionn. Make no mistake, however – Fionn mac Cumhaill was a man of very many tales. He was known as a great warrior who slayed many monsters, and was very popular with the ladies, oh and if he sucked one of his thumbs, he was instantly possessed of all the knowledge and wisdom in the world. But that is another story.
This old tale of Fionn mac Cumhaill is a popular one and serves as reminder that none of us, no matter how grand, is an island.
No matter your past glories and victories, size or strength, courage or intelligence, we all get by with a little help from our friends.
Fionn is far from the only character from Celtic folklore who continues to speak to us. Consider Morrigan, the infamous Celtic Queen.
Morrigan plays a starring role in many of the great Celtic folktales, but she was a woman of many characters. Literally. She is known as a shapeshifter and frequently appeared as a crow, wolf or old woman. Perhaps her most impressive incarnation is as a triad of sisters, Badb, Macha and Anann. It is said that each sister served a purpose distinct from the other.
Badb, for example, is known as a Prophetess with a penchant for war. She could not only foresee who would die but choose who would die and, not content to observe the fray, she often took to the bloody battlefield herself. It is understandable, then, that Badb’s presence in combat caused great fear and confusion among her enemies, many of whom were said to have fled at the very sight of her. But this was not the end of her work. Badb was blessed to live with ‘one foot in this world and one in the other’ and often accompanied the spirits of those who had perished on the battleground to the place of everlasting rest.
Macha is a complicated woman too. Although she was known as a noble and stable leader, she is best remembered for laying a desperate and deadly curse. It is said the King of Ulster forced hr to run a race while heavily pregnant. Macha gave birth to twins moments after crossing the finish line and there died after two days of excruciating pain. What else could she do as she lay dying but lay a curse on the men of Ulster? Macha afflicted the men of Ulster for ‘nine times nine generations’ – that whenever facing danger on the battlefield they would suddenly be struck by the debilitating pain of childbirth. The pain would last for four nights and five days, leaving the warrior utterly vulnerable to attack and doomed to certain death.
And what of the third sister, Anann? She is associated with fertility and comforting those in sorrow, illness or injury. Anann is the Mother figure who encompasses the cycles of birth, life, death and rebirth.
Between the three sisters, Morrigan covers all the bases and, all-in-all, was one heck of a woman.
It is a reminder, perhaps, that none of us are one dimensional beings – but rather a combination of a very many things.
Morrigan speaks to women in particular – that the noble can also be vengeful, and that the nurturer can also fight. She serves as a warning to never underestimate any woman on account of her gender.
If heroics and revenge are not your thing, why not check out the dark side of Celtic folklore: The Faerie. But leave your glittered Tinkerbells and jolly Leprechauns at the door, these Faerie Tales are not for the faint hearted.
Our Ancestors were kind enough to pass on many stories, reminding us to live virtuous lives or risk retribution from the Good People. The greatest, and most terrifying, of these is the cautionary tale advising us to watch over our children and pregnant women with all care and diligence, lest they be stolen by the Good People and replaced with a grotesque Changeling.
But not all Celtic Faerie folklore is filled with terror or fear. The suffering of Banshee – also known as the ‘harbinger of death’ – reminds us of the burden carried by those in noble vocations. Banshee suffers great physical and emotional distress as she performs her duty of alerting loved ones to an impending death and then accompanying the spirit of the deceased to the other side. Perhaps in Banshee’s suffering, we might better understand the challenges facing those in our society who care for the dying and those who grieve for them.
The beauty of our Celtic folklore is that it is here for us, all the time.
We can enjoy folklore without sacrificing our Netflix binge. In fact, we can enjoy folklore entirely at leisure. Unaffected by ratings or subscriptions, it is timeless, always ready to speak to us. And, if you listen closely, you will surely find that these stories are amazingly similar to the ones we find on Netflix: lust, loyalty, duty, betrayal, conflict, humour, resilience and death.
But who did our ancestors listen to? It is wise to check our sources after all. Well, they listened to their own ancestors of course, each generation looking forward but paying heed to the knowledge of previous generations. Over time, their voices have become one. For many of us, as we get a little older, perhaps becoming parents or facing unique challenges – be they health, personal or professional – we find ourselves looking not only inward, but back. Our thoughts turn to our parents, and grandparents, the ancestors alive in our memory, and we wonder – ‘Did they know something I have forgotten?’ – leading us to ponder things they said, the ways they connected with their communities, their understanding of the spiritual, their greatest fears, the things they valued above all else and of course, the stories they told of their own ancestors. We might even find ourselves being impressed by our ancestors. Discovering that they were brave, innovative or resilient people and, perhaps, even inspiring…
Celtic folklore is as important today as it has ever been.
Indeed, it could be argued that folklore is more important than at any time before. As we bask in the glow of this ‘technological’ age, Folklore can connect us, get us talking, share ideas and ask questions about who we are, what we believe and how we want to be remembered. Sure, Celtic folklore may be rich in symbolic meaning and a fine subject for academics and scholars to dissect, but more importantly, here in the 21st century, it continues to offer an entertaining insight into the ideas and values of our Celtic ancestors.
So, go on, take a closer look, you just might find we are not so very different from those who came before us.
~Story by Kitty Phelan