World Tree

As I raked leaves this weekend, I spent some time taking stock of the ash tree standing sentinel over the front yard. It’s had a rough few years and bears the D-shaped scars of attack from the emerald ash borer, a devastating insect pest that’s slowly making its way east to west across the US, killing every ash tree in its path. But not this one. Not if I can help it. This tree has witnessed the death of all the other ash trees in the neighborhood because none of my neighbors bothered to arm them against the coming battle. The armor, a treatment administered by a licensed arborist, costs about $200 every two years for a 25-foot tree, and to me it’s worth every penny. My ash tree is lush and healthy and could, one day, be the only one left in west Michigan. And it’s not just in North America that ash trees are struggling to hold their own. British ash trees are succumbing to a deadly fungal disease commonly referred to as ash dieback. It breaks the heart – especially one pumping Celtic blood.

To the Celtic peoples, trees were (and still are, as is evident by surviving traditions and folklore) sacred. The letters of the ogam alphabet, used by the Irish on stone boundary and grave markers, bear the names of trees.  In ancient Ireland, laws were enacted for the protection of trees, and fines were levied for the damage or destruction of certain trees. “A lost text of the 7th century dealt exclusively with tree judgments. Another surviving tract classifies trees as follows:  airig fedo (nobles of the wood): yew, oak hazel, ash, pine; aithig fedo (commoners of the wood): alder, willow, rowan, elm; fodla fedo (lower divisions of the wood): blackthorn, elder, arbutus (only survives in the warmer climate of Munster); losa fedo (bushes of the wood): [no examples are given]” (Mitchell & Ryan, 1997, p. 284-285). These divisions reflect the economic importance of the wood, along with the mythological endowments given to the species.

I thought I’d start a series of posts focusing on the sacred trees of the Celts, starting with the tree that is first to lose its leaves in the fall – the ash (Fraxinus), known in Irish as nion and in Welsh as onn. It’s also one of the last to come into leaf in the spring.

Looking at the graceful ash, it’s not difficult to see why it was considered the World Tree. Its branches reach for the sky, then dip downward and then up again at the tips. It’s as if the tree can’t make up its mind whether to dwell in the heavens or with man on earth. Early on, the deep root system of the ash tree was noted. As far as the branches reached above ground so did the roots below. To the ancient Celts, the tree represented the past in its roots, the present in its trunk, and the future in the growing tips of its branches. To the Norse, it was Yggdrasill, and it marked the center of the Scandinavian universe. “The Vikings believed that the first man was born of ash….The Viking runes were recorded on tables of ash and the Vikings themselves are said to have been known as Aescling, ‘Men of Ash’….” (Gifford, 2001, p. 29).

Spearshafts were almost always made of ash due to the strength of its wood, which does not split, and also perhaps because of the inter-connectedness of all things, as the druids believed. What better way to ensure the death of your enemy than to strike him down with the force of the Universe? “In the early histories of Ireland, it is said that five magical trees protected the land; three of these were ash trees, the other two were yew and oak. The magical ash trees were called the Tree of Tortu, the Tree of Dathi, and the Branching Tree of Uisnech” (Gifford, 2001, p. 28).

The ash tree also has a connection with water, perhaps the most sacred element to the Celts, considering the number of votive deposits that have been discovered in lakes, rivers, and wells. “In ancient Wales and Ireland, water-loving ash was always used for coracle slats and oars, and sailors carried an equal-armed cross carved from ash wood to protect them at sea” (Gifford, 2001, p. 29).

As for me, one thing I appreciate about the ash tree is its leaves: when they fall and dry out, they curl themselves into little balls, making them easy to rake and compact! And no weeds grow under the ash tree (the tree is said to sour the soil so no other plants grow under its canopy). Thank you!

In future post, we’ll take a look at other trees the Celtic peoples deemed sacred.


Gifford, J. (2001). The wisdom of trees: mysteries, magic, and medicine. New York: Sterling.

Mitchell, F. & Ryan, M. (1997). Reading the Irish landscape. Dublin: TownHouse.

Posted in Mythology, Religion | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

What’s in a Name?

Cuibhlean stòlda mu dheas,  [The wheels of industry at a standstill,]
Na fàsaichean a’ tuath,   [The northern lands wasted,]
An taigh-mòr falamh an Dùn-éideann   [The empty house in Edinburgh]
Gun chumhachd gun ghuth.  [Without authority or voice.]      (Macdonald, 1987)

These are some of the poignant lines from the first song I ever heard by the Gaelic folk-rock band Runrig. The lyrics, penned in Scots Gaelic, describe the economic downturn and the lack of true authority granted to the Scottish people to govern themselves – a situation that continues today after the vote for independence on September 18. Things are changing, but not fast enough.

During that historic day just passed, it came to me that the land we know as Scotland was forged from a longing for independence. The land takes her name from the Scoti, the name the Romans gave to the Irish tribes who raided the western shores of Britain. One such seagoing tribe, the Dál Riata, left the Antrim coast around 500 AD in search of a new place to call home. They found it, seemingly without bloodshed in southwestern Scotland – a land they called Albu, a name which survives today in Scots Gaelic as Alba. The word is a cognate of Albion, which is the oldest name for mainland Britain in the Brythonic language (a precursor to Welsh).

So, what does the name Scoti actually mean? Ireland was originally referred to as Hibernia in Latin and the Irish as Hiberni up until the fourth century AD. Then the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus began to use the term Scoti for the Irish. He referred to the other great enemy of Rome in Britain as the Picti, or “The Painted People.” These were the Picts. “Scoti, by contrast, is a name with no obvious Latin meaning and has been most plausibly suggested as the Latin form of an originally Irish term for ‘plunderer’”(Marsden, 1997, p. 23). It isn’t hard to imagine a young Gaelic warrior lifting his chin and spouting to his Roman captors, “We’re the Raiders and we’re going to kick your….” Well, you get the picture.

A modern Irish dictionary reveals no trace of this meaning for scot or the original term. However, another word which sounds similar makes me wonder. Scoth (plural scotha) means “a young shoot,” or “a family branch,” or “the hair forming the tip of a tail, a brush, or loose-hanging part” (Dinneen, 1979, p. 983). Could the Irish who harried the Roman military have comprised a particular clan (“a family branch”)? They most certainly were a band of young warriors (“young shoots”) to go on raiding expeditions. Was Scoti a nickname used in reference to a particular hairstyle? Did they all sport ponytails or plait their hair in certain fashion? The Highland Clans stuck heather, juniper, and other sprigs of distinctive plants in their belts or caps (and later adopted distinctive tartans) to identify one other on the battlefield), so it seems reasonable that Irish clans or tribes resorted to impressive hairstyles as a means of identification.

“This original identity of the Scots as a people from Ireland is fully confirmed by later Irish authors, writing in Latin and familiar with classical Latin sources, who use Scoti in just that sense. Most prominent among them was Adamnan mac Ronan, the learned abbot of Iona at the end of the seventh century whose Life of Columba not only makes regular use of Scoti as a name for all Irish people and of Scotia for Ireland itself, but also uses the term Scoti Britanniae, the ‘Irish of Britain,’ for the Irish settled in Argyll” (Marsden, 1997, p. 23).

These Scoti were the Dál Riata, the People of Riata, who was a chieftain or petty king. So, what sent them to the shores of Albu? At the time of their migration, the Dál Riata were squeezed into a territory measuring about 450 square miles, bordered to the west by the River Bush, to the north and east by the sea, and to the south by the Latharna people.  This squeeze resulted from the pressures of Uí Néill expansion, and the Dál Riata sought relief in the land they could see across the waves, with their leader – according to legend – Fergus Mór mac Ercca. However, there is another legend of a migration led by Riata, who a century or more earlier delivered some of the Erainn peoples from a famine in Mumu (Munster). They settled for a time in Antrim and then crossed the sea to Argyll in Scotland. Riata’s people would have had to form a relationship with the British kingdom of Stratclut (Strathclyde), a major power source in the region. The kings of Stratclut may have welcomed Dál Riatan settlement to serve as a buffer between themselves and the Picts.

In 575 AD, a pact was drawn up by the Dál Riata’s most famous king, Áedán mac Gabráin, and the Uí Néill, who thought themselves overlords of the clans of the Dál Riata who remained behind in Antrim. The agreement reached was this: the Dál Riata dwelling in Ireland were to provide military service to the Uí Néill, but their tribute belonged to Áedán (and his successors) as their rightful overking.

History repeats itself – this time between Edinburgh and London.



Byrne, F. J. (1973). Irish Kings and High Kings. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Dinneen, P. S. (1979). Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla: An Irish-English Dictionary. Dublin: The Educational Company of Ireland.

Macdonald, R. and C. (1987). Alba on The Cutter and the Clan. New York: Chrysalis Records.

Marsden, J. (1997). Alba of the Ravens: In Search of the Celtic Kingdom of the Scots. London: Constable.

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Of Sunlight and Shadow

It’s the burning question everyone living in a northern clime wants to know this time each year (and if the question burned a little more, it might actually keep us warm): when will this blasted winter end? The winter of 2013-2014 has been particularly tough with the dreaded polar vortex repeatedly dipping down, bringing abnormally low temperatures further south in the northern hemisphere. I wonder – since winter came early, will spring also shift to arrive early this year, or will the white death linger on?

It’s still a question that plagues farmers today despite modern meteorological forecasting, but without such technology, how awesome this question must have been to the ancient Irish. The stars wheeling overhead were carefully watched, the progress of the sun was marked, and seeds were planted with invocations to the gods.

One American folk custom for predicting the arrival of spring that started in the 1800s among the Pennsylvania Dutch has something of a counterpart in the British Isles. One old rhyme has a familiar ring to it:

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won’t come again. (Traditional)

This, of course, is the basis of Groundhog Day in North America. German pagan custom held the belief that hedgehogs would emerge from their burrows to test the weather on this day. There are no hedgehogs in North America, but the groundhog made a nice substitute.

Candlemas – a time when all the candles of the church are blessed – celebrates the purification of the Virgin Mary on February 2, when she was allowed to participate again in temple rituals after the birth of Jesus. In the Jewish tradition, women were considered unclean after the birth of a child and had to wait 40 days after delivering a boy and 60 days after a girl. The feast also celebrates the presentation of Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem, where prophets proclaimed him to be a light unto the world.

So, what does Jewish purification rituals have to do with hedgehogs? Nothing, but like so many other pagan festivals (including Christmas), the celebration of the sun’s return in February was hijacked by the Christian Church, making Christian concepts easier for pagan audiences to understand. In Britain and Ireland, missionaries noted at this time of year the observance of Imbolc, connected to the goddess Bridgit, an ancient fertility and sun goddess. Imbolc comes from the Old Irish i mbolc, meaning “in the belly,” a reference to the start of lambing season. It’s a time of year, spaced equally between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, when the lengthening of days becomes noticeable. Brigit was said to be the patroness of poets – poetry being a spark of light – and a goddess of the hearth. She was especially revered by the Laigin, the confederation of Irish tribes whose territory essentially became Leinster. In the Christian tradition, Brigit of Kildare, abbess of several monasteries, is said to have lived from about 451-525 AD. At Kildare, a vestal fire was kept perpetually burning in her honor until the Reformation. St. Brigit’s feast day is February 1.

So, back to our weather prediction: why were sunny skies at Imbolc believed to herald more brutal weeks of winter, while clouds or rain would suggest the end of it? In some aspects of the Irish pagan tradition, Brigit is considered to be a triple goddess. In spring, she is the maiden; in summer, the mother; in winter, the hag. This divine hag was thought to venture out to gather more firewood when the weather was fair at Imbolc, in preparation for more winter weather to come. If the day was cloudy or rainy, she would still be asleep and not awaken to do this chore. I suppose the same could be true for the hedgehog/groundhog: a January thaw would bring it out of hibernation too early and there would be nothing for it to eat.

In any case, I vote for long naps with a cat curled on my lap.

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Into the West

Back in May, in celebration of the first annual Tolkien Burren Festival, we took a look at how author J.R.R. Tolkien’s love for Ireland – especially the Burren – may have influenced The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. The rugged beauty of the west coast of Ireland not only helped him envision Middle-earth, but he was likely influenced by Irish mythology in developing the mythos of the Elves leaving Middle-earth…and taking battered heroes Frodo, Bilbo, and Gandalf with them.

Tolkien’s Elves, the Eldar – a race predating humankind – are in keeping with the Sídhe of Irish tradition (see Wikipedia link below). Both the Elves and Sídhe possess an affinity for the Earth and a deep understanding of the natural and supernatural world. Both retreated to secret and powerful strongholds as the human population grew and expanded into new territories. Both, in the end, withdrew entirely from the world of men – rarely to return. To them, the future of Middle-earth (and Ireland) lay in the hands of men.

So, where did they go? The Elves’ destination isn’t really discussed in The Lord of the Rings, although the Silmarillion sheds some light on it, but it is a place parallel to the Blessed Isles of the Sídhe – the Otherworld. And since the veils between this world and the Otherworld are said to thin during Samhain (Halloween), and with the second installment of The Hobbit coming soon to theatres, I thought it would be an appropriate time to peek into the Otherworld.

For the ancient Irish, the Otherworld was located, in places, underground – its entrances gained through burial mounds – at the bottom of lochs, or in what we would call today a parallel universe. “Frequently, the Otherworld is across the sea, and a whole class of Irish stories, the immrama, deal with epic sea voyages. The journey is always westward, to where the sun sets – the sun symbolizing the conscious self – and is usually to an island of the blessed. Sometimes, a complicated route is followed from one island to another. It is possible that these stories were intended to help the soul find its way in the afterlife, possibly on the way to rebirth” (Hamilton & Eddy, 2008, p. 157).

The oldest of the immrama, or “mystical voyages,” was written down in the seventh century. In it, Bran mac Febal and company reach the Isle of Women. They live there for many years in a land where there is no wailing, treachery, sickness, grief, or death, and where silver trees grow, blossoming with crystal flowers – until one of the men becomes so homesick that they set sail back to Ireland. But once the homesick man’s feet touch Irish soil, he turns to dust because a few hundred years have passed while the men were away. The Voyage of St. Brendan is the most well-known of the immrama, told from the perspective of the Celtic Church, but it is clearly based on an earlier tale, the Voyage of Maelduin. The tale was originally told in Old Irish by a professional poet or bard, known as a fíle, before it was written down in the eighth or ninth century. In it, Maelduin encounters many strange things: a hound-footed horse, cannibal horses, fiery pigs, invisible riders, giant cattle, a crystal keep, a revolving rampart of fire, and giant ants the size of foals. Sound like a 1960s Japanese horror movie? Depends on your sense of adventure!

“The Otherworld is the storehouse of archetypes,” says Matthews (1992, p. 11) “that inform and shape our own phenomenal world. For example, take the trees that grow all around us in our own world: in the Otherworld they grow perfectly, without blight or frost to kill them. They have a luminous life, which is stronger and ‘more real.’” Apples, so mundane to us, were an Otherworldly fruit to the ancient Irish. When Maelduin and his men sail past an island of trees, he cuts a branch from one of the trees. After three days, three apples grow on it and sustain the travelers for forty days.

Getting back to Tolkien, in the movie version of The Return of the King, as the trolls batter at the door to Minas Tirith, Pippin turns to Gandalf and says, “I didn’t think it would end this way.” The situation is desperate, and although Gandalf holds great power as a wizard, there’s little hope either of them will survive the battle. “End?” says Gandalf. “No, the journey does not end here. Death is just another path – one that we all must take. The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it…white shores. And beyond – a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

Images of silver and glass are prominent in the Voyage of Maelduin. His boat passes through a silver net, suspended from a pillar. “The Pillar represents a significant gateway on the immram, for it shows the way into the deepest realms of the Otherworld….Passing beyond the net or veil signifies a deepening of experience, a greater confidence and trust….We note that from this point onwards the terrors that surround the inmost circle of the Otherworld cease” (Matthews, 1992 p. 53).

Shortly before this, Maelduin and company had come to the Sea of Glass: “They came to an utterly green sea of glass-like hue; they could see beneath them – a mighty wealth – the stones of the sea” (Matthews, 1992, p.31). Matthews points out, “The clear sea is like the clarification of the soul that is accomplished after considerable hard work and spiritual effort. In the Voyage of St. Brendan, St. Brendan’s crew are terrified of this sea because it reveals to them all the possibilities they had never thought of” (1992, p.51).

To Gandalf’s description of the Otherworld, Pippin has this to say:

Pippin: Well, that isn’t so bad.

Me: No, Pippin, it isn’t.


Hamilton, C. & Eddy, S. (2008). Decoding the Celts: revealing the legacy of the Celtic tradition. New York: Metro Books.

Matthews, C. (1992). The Celtic book of the dead: a guide for your voyage to the Celtic Otherworld. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

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If it’s written in the annals…

I get a kick out of the commercial where a man’s using his State Farm app to diagram an accident. A female friend of his comes along and asks what he’s doing. She says, “I thought State Farm didn’t have all those apps.” He says, “Where did you hear that?” She says, “The Internet. They can’t put anything on the Internet that isn’t true.” She turns at the approach of a gangly, geeky, unsophisticated man. She beams. “Look, here comes my date. I met him on the Internet. He’s a French model.” “Bonn-jure,” the geek throws out in a blatant American accent, curling an arm about her.

The commercial’s meant to be silly, but it does bring up a valid point about the willingness of people to blindly believe anything that’s printed, posted, tweeted, or otherwise published. It seems society had the same problem in ancient Ireland long before the printing press was even invented.

In the middle of the sixth century, the monks in the great monastic houses set out to record the noteworthy events – mostly battles and deaths of kings – that took place in the region during a given year. It wasn’t until the eighth century that these annalists began recording the affairs of the Laigin (the people of Leinster), but “Leinster does provide us with one extremely interesting set of documents which throw much light on archaic attitudes to kingship…and the oral transmission of genealogical information in verse form” (Byrne, 1973, p. 134). These are regnal poems composed in honor of Leinster’s kings, boasting of their prowess, legitimizing their pedigree, and lamenting their deaths. Here’s an example:

Mál ad-rualaid iathu marb      mac soer Sétnai,

Selaig strathu Fomoire     fo dóene domnaib

Di óchtur Alinne     oirt triune talman,

Trebunn trén tuathmar     Mes-Telmann Domnann.


A prince has entered the realms of the dead, the noble son of Sétnae;

he ravaged the meadow-valleys of the Fomorians underneath the worlds of men.

From the summit of Ailenn he smote the strong ones of the earth –

a mighty tribune of many peoples, Mes Delmann of the Domnainn.  (Byrne, 1973, p. 134)

The mythical Fomorians were thought to actually have been raiders from across the Irish Sea – perhaps Picts – but Byrne goes on to say that it’s unclear whether this poem was composed to honor Mes Delmann at his funeral – boasting that he’s conquered the realms of the dead as he conquered the realms of the living – or if it was to commemorate an actual journey the prince made across the sea on a raid of his own. The Laigin did, after all, establish a foothold in Wales for a time.

Anyway, my purpose here is not to delve into the mythology of the poems but to give you a taste of the language and tradition. Scholars haven’t been able to reach a consensus in dating these poems and have suggested dates as early as the fifth century and as late as the seventh. Nonetheless, they would seem to predate the annals, stemming from an oral tradition that dates back even further, which brings us to their real value: the poems contradict the official history laid down by later annalists in later royal genealogical tracts.

For example, official doctrine suggested that the Uí Dúnlainge tribe monopolized the overkingship of Leinster since the sixth century – that is, the king was consistently chosen from the Uí Dúnlainge, even though men from other tribes were equally eligible. Apparently, the pedigree (genealogical chart) of the Uí Dúnlainge was converted by later genealogists into a regnal list, suggesting that the kingship passed from father to son without fail for generations, which doesn’t jive with early Irish law. It was the Normans who brought with them the notion of primogenitor, under which kingship passed from father to oldest son.

“The obscurity of their language protect [the poems] from tampering emendations while their traditional prestige ensured their preservation.” Byrne foes on to say that, “elsewhere in Irish literature, particularly in the hagiography…are fossilised fragments of earlier tradition which have escaped the notice of the revisers of the genealogical texts” (1973, p. 136). For example, the Lives of St. Comgall and St. Fintan show evidence that the Uí Dúnlainge did not enjoy a monopoly on the kingship. These texts mention that Colman mac Cormaic of the Uí Cheinnselaig was “king of North Leinster.” Furthermore, annals that have not been tampered with maintain that Crundmáel, who died in 656 AD, grandson of this Coman, “was king of Leinster, which suggests that his father Rónán is probably the king of Leinster who died in 624 rather than…Rónán mac Colmán of the Uí Dúnlainge, as the regnal lists would have us believe” (Byrne, 1973, p. 136-137).

It seems unlikely that three generations of men bore the same names in the same order – Cormac, Colman, and Rónán – in two different tribes. In the Uí Dúnlainge list, Colmán is the son of Coirpre, not Cormac. It seems possible that the Uí Dúnlainge genealogists commandeered Colmán and Rónán from the Uí Cheinnselaig and conveniently forgot to mention that fact. Or, there were two contemporary kings among the Leinster tribes named Colmán and their lineages were confused.

The Leinster regnal poems indicate a king list for the late fourth and early fifth century of names that do not agree with later Middle Irish sources. The men came from the Uí Bairrche, Uí Dego, and Uí Enechglaiss – “all septs…which were never admitted into the later regnal scheme” (Byrne, 1973, p. 137).

History is constantly being rewritten…by the victor, by the privileged. Today, the Internet just might function like the bard(s) who composed the regnal poems; with all the data being captured and stored on servers around the globe, it’ll be impossible to erase all traces of a particular reference – especially if the masses tweet about it!


State Farm Commercial

Byrne, F.J. (1973). Irish kings and high-kings. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

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My name is Kerry and I’m a Tolkien-junky. Over the holidays I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey six times. The cinematography, special effects, and characters were so real I couldn’t help myself. Only snowstorms and icy roads kept me away from going to the theatre more. What does my addiction for everything Middle-earth have to do with ancient Ireland? More than you might think. J.R.R. Tolkien, beloved author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, had an addiction for ancient Ireland…or at least a fond affinity for it.

From 1949 to 1959, Oxford professor Tolkien graded exams in Old and Middle English at the National University of Ireland in Galway. While he was there, he loved to explore the countryside and took a particular interest in the Burren, located in nearby County Clare. The Burren consists of about 150 square miles of barren fissured limestone – an eerie plateau that has seen continuous human habitation for the past 6,000 years despite its limited resources. The plateau gets its name from the Irish boireann, meaning “rocky land/stony place.” Between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago, light forests of pine, hazel, elm, and a few oaks grew there along with open scrub and grasslands. Today only a few wind-stunted hawthorns grow between the cracks. Neolithic farmers cleared the land for grazing and the land became overgrazed and eroded. This agrarian society erected over 70 wedge and portal tombs, including the Poulnabrone Portal Tomb, Parknabinna Wedge Tomb, and the Gleninsheen Wedge Tomb. This last place marks the transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age. Throughout the Iron Age and into early medieval times, about 450 ringforts – including Caherconnell (Cathair Chonaill), Cahercommaun (Cathair Chomáin), and Cahermore (Cathair Mhór) – were constructed and occupied.

So, what was Tolkien’s interest?  The ruins of the stone forts may have inspired such forlorn places in Middle-earth as Amon Sûl (Weathertop), the ruined tower where Frodo is stabbed by a Morgul blade in The Fellowship of the Ring. The wedge and portal tombs recall the chilling Barrow-Downs where Frodo, Same, Merry, and Pippin are entombed. Tolkien’s description of this place draws one’s mind to Ireland: “…[Frodo] saw that on that side the hills were higher and looked down upon them; and all those hills were crowned with green mounds, and on some were standing stones, pointing upwards like jagged teeth out of green gums” And later, “They…went down into the hollow….In the midst of it there stood a single stone, standing tall….It was shapeless and yet significant: like a landmark, or a guarding finger, or more like a warning….The sun, a pale and watery yellow, was gleaming though the mist just above the west wall of the hollow….Beyond the wall the fog was thick, cold and white” (Tolkien, 1982, p. 190).

Also in this Burren landscape lies a cave called Poll na gColm (pronounced POLE na GOLL-um), meaning “hole of the dove.” Some speculate that Tolkien got the name for one of his most famous characters, Gollum, from this cave. Rock doves roost in the area and make a guttural sound – not unlike the famous Gollum. For the full story, see this BBC news link:

Interestingly enough, if you look at a map of the west coast of Ireland, the inundations of the coastline of Galway and Clare – although deep and punctuated with more inlets and islands – bears a striking resemblance to the west coast of Tolkien’s Eriador and Gondor, with the city of Galway corresponding to the mouth of the Anduin in Middle-earth.

If the Burren-Tolkien connection piques your interest, you may want to head to the inaugural Tolkien Burren Festival scheduled to take place from 9 to 16 May 2013:

Tolkien’s links with ancient Ireland aren’t confined to The Burren. I’ll explore others in future posts in an ongoing celebration of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films.


Tolkien, J.R.R. (1982). The fellowship of the ring. New York: Ballantine Books.

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The Spear-Mighty

Overshadowed in legend by their contemporaries to the north, south, and west, the history

Gaelic tribes circa 800 AD.

Gaelic tribes circa 800 AD.

of the Laigin tribes is no less rich. The land of these confederate tribes formed roughly what would become the Province of Leinster in southeastern Ireland. “Their ancestor figure was Labraid Loingsech or Labraid Móen, a legendary prince who was tormented by Cobhthach, his evil uncle. Cobhthach slew Labraid’s father and forced the boy to eat his heart, an ordeal that robbed the young prince of the power of speech. Seeking revenge, he enlisted the assistance of a force of Gaulish warriors, who helped him to depose Cobhthach, and it was from the Gauls’ distinctive broad spears (laighne) that the name Laigin derived” (Zaczek, 2000, p. 52).

In this post, we’ll take a brief look at the Laigin (pronounced LAH-yin) and their territories at the beginning of the historical period (400-800 AD).  Much of what survives in the annals are lists of battles from about 452-516 in their struggle against the southern Uí Néill for control of Tara and the Middle Kingdom (Míde). Although they put up a good fight, the Laigin inevitably lost that struggle. In addition to annalistic documents, other early literary sources include a collection of regnal poems which “are specific in their claim that the Laigin were entitled to be kings of Tara” (Byrne, 1973, p. 142). More to come about these works in a future post. Below is a list of major Laigin tribes along with some specifics about their territory and early history.

Uí Cheinnselaig(EE XENN-shal-oik) “Descendants of Cennsalach;” a southern tribe centered on the River Slaney near Ferns. The tribe’s ancestral home was at “Ráith Bile in Carlow along the western foothills of the Wicklow mountains in the region of Baltinglass” (Byrne, 1973, p. 149). They enjoyed a certain independence from the northern rulers (the rí ruirech or overking of the Laigin ruled from the Liffey Plain). Their king Brandub mac Eachach defeated Áed mac Aimmerech of the Uí Néill at the Battle of Dún Bolg in 598, putting an end to Uí Néill expansion into Laigin territory.
Uí Dúnchada(EE DOON-χad-dah) “Descendants of Dúnchad;” a subdynasty of the Uí Dúnlainge whose territory reached northeast to Dublin; their royal seat was at Liamain (Castlelyons on the Dublin-Kildare border) (Byrne, 1973, p. 150-151).
Uí Dúnlainge(EE DOON-loin-yeh) “Descendants of Dúnlaing;” After pushing the Uí Failgi to the northwest and the Uí Garrchon, Uí Erechglais, Uí Máil, and the Uí Briúin Chualann to the east, the Uí Dúnlainge maintained a strong hold on the Life (LIffey) Plain. They held the overkingship of the Laigin from 738 until 1042 (Byrne, 1973, p. 150).
Uí Enechglais(EE ENN-eχ-gloiss) “Descendants of Enechglas;” This tribe failed to protect the interests of the Laigin in the midlands and were driven eastwards across the mountains in the sixth century AD (Byrne, 1973, p. 130).
Uí Fáeláin(EE FAY-loin) “Descendants of Fáelán;” a subdynasty of the Uí Dúnlainge; descended from Fáelán son of Murchad mac Brain. Their stronghold was at Naas, from which they ruled the eastern part of the Plain of Life (Airther Liphi) (Byrne, 1973, p. 150).
Uí Failgi(EE FALL-yee) “Descendants of Failge;” The monastery of Kildare was located in their territory. To the northwest of Kildare stood the ringfort of Ráith Imgain (Rathangan), the royal residence of the kings of the Uí Failgi. They lost their hold on the LIffey Plain and were pushed to the northwest by the Uí Dúnlainge, losing territory in Offaly and Westmeath (Byrne, 1973, p. 142-153).
Uí Garrchon(EE GARR-χonn) “Descendants of Garchonn;” Another tribe which lost their hold on the Liffey Plain in the sixth century and retreated east across the mountains (Byrne, 1973, p. 130).
Uí Máil(EE MOIL) “Descendants of Máel;” They retreated east across the Wicklow Mountains into political impotence after losing their control of the Liffey Plain to the Uí Dúnlainge in the eighth century AD (Byrne, 1973, p. 130).
Uí Muiredaig(EE MIR-eek) “Descendants of Muiredach;” a subdynasty of the Uí Dúnlainge; descended from Muiredach son of Murchad mac Brain. The tribe was “centered at Maistiu (Mullaghmast) in south Kildare, which was the original home of the Uí Dúnlainge” (Byrne, 1973, p. 150).

According to Zaczek, the Laigin are “thought to be one of the most ancient races of Celtic invaders, second only to the Erainn” (2000, p. 54). We’ll consider the Erainn next as we continue our circuit around ancient Ireland. And we’ll revisit the Laigin later this year when we take a look at those archaic regnal poems.


Byrne, F. J. (1973). Irish kings and high-kings. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Zaczek, I. (2000). Ireland: land of the Celts. London: Collins & Brown.

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