August 28, 2008

Moss Men Are Goats

In Roscommon we stopped at a local history museum/tourist ffice and spoke at length with avid local historian named John. We chatted about our search for ancestors and our intention to visit local ancient sites, but when we told him that we’d stopped at St Patrick’s well, he beamed. As it turns out, the site is a particular favourite of his: a sort of pet project. It lead to a deeper and more interesting conversation about ancestry, local sites of myth, power and magic and coincidence. He told me about an Irish priest who’d become interested in the workings of coincidence and had managed to get permission from his superiors to take a year off from his regular duties to research the phenomena. As we we’re talking, I noticed a large stone nearby, up on a high window ledge and asked what it was. He told me to take a look and I stepped up on a stool placed nearby to have a look.
It was a 16th century Sheela-na-gig that had only recently been unearthed in a local churchyard. He said that the stone had been found face down and it was not clear if it had been placed that way to protect it or to condemn it. John also told us about a place called the Cruchán Ái Heritage Centre in Tulsk - an archæology/history/mythology centre dedicated to piecing together the multi-layered and multi-faceted story of Cruchán Ái, the one time seat of ancient Kings of Connacht and a place of great power and myth. We decided to head there next. The centre is adjacent to an archeological dig still in progress – so far they've discovered a deposit of bronze age artifacts, which has been layered over by the ruins of an ancient castle, which, itself, has been layered over by a medieval village.

No one was presently working the site, but we were invited to climb (carefully) around to look at the layers of discovery. However, the centre’s real find was a man who worked there named Croghan, who looked and talked like an everyday bloke, but who Jim and I later agreed had a deeply engrained sense of mystery and magic about him. It simmered just below the surface of his conversation - which felt half like an invitation and half like a challenge. Jim asked about Rath Croghan (Rath Cruchán or Cruchán Ái) – said to be the site of Queen Maeve’s Castle and Shebeag (the fairy mound featured in the legendary battle between Shebeag and Shemor) - which lead Croghan to mention a place called the cave of the cats - an ancient and little known site said to be the home of Morrigan and the entrance to the underworld. We talked about ancient ancestors and I told him about Norway and finding the Tolstrups/ He said, “My name is Croghan and we’ve been here forever.”
As we crossed a small stream on our way back to our car, Jim said something about the marsh mallows he saw growing along the banks. I heard him say, “Marsh men are goats.” which I took to be some sort of mystical shorthand - rife with meaning. I looked around to see what he was talking about and saw Croghan standing nearby with 2 other men. I stood there, perplexed, for a couple of minutes before realising that I’d misunderstood what Jim said.

We were about to head off to find the sites, when we realised we didn’t really know how to go, so Jim went back to ask Croghan for more specific directions. He said later that one of the other guys (the moss men) was really having him on – saying that in order to get to the sites, you had to climb through a fence, but watch out for the farmer with a gun, dodge the bull and wait for the ferryman to take you across to the fairy hill. Croghan said it was just past the last house on the road – the one with a front yard full of junk. With our Irish directions clear in our minds (take the first right and go beyond the solstice tree up to the place where Queen Maeve’s bull was stung by a wasp and then take the 2nd left after the fairy stone), and it wasn’t long before Jim excitedly pointed out Rath Cruchán as it came into view: a distinct mound. As we turned up the road, Jim spotted a sign for - Rath Beag (SheBeag) – the fairy mound of legend. we scrambled up to look around, inspiring Jim to play the fairies an Irish tune on his flute.
We followed our directions up a long, rough single-track road to the end, found the junk-stewn house, then looked around for what might be the cave of the cats. Nothing was immediately apparent - we headed in one direction after the other, across fields of cows and into thickets, when suddenly I got the distinct message that I was not meant to go there. I turned around and headed back for the car, when Jim suddenly spotted the grove surrounding the cave of the cats – it was exactly where Croghan had said it would be – through a gate across from the house with the junk in the yard, but we hadn’t seen it before. Jim went in while I waited. He said it was a deep, powerful and amazing place, but if you want to know more, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to ask him because I wasn’t meant to (and didn’t) see it.. I didn’t even take pictures...neither did Jim.

Satisfied, we headed off to find Maeve’s mound – whish was a (relatively) easy task. We climbed to the top through fields of grazing sheep and looked out over the beautiful countryside.
Our next discovery was Ogulla Well – an ancient site, but now heavily overlain with St Patrick mythology and Christian symbolism. The story goes that the two daughters of Tara’s High King, Laoghaire (the original King Lear), were bathing one morning in the well and St. Patrick happened on them and stopped to chat with them about Christianity. They asked how they could see God. and St. Patrick answered that you can only see God after you die. Story has it that they decided - then and there - to become Baptized and abandon their Pagan ways so St. Patrick then baptized them after which they both died. (there's an oddly intangible moral, here)Anyway, there remains at the site, powerful elements of Irish mysticism and folklore which is most evident in the way the site is used: Votive offerings and prayers are draped around the statue of St Patrick and tied to nearby trees (very similar in feel and, I think, purpose to the way Milagro votive offerings are made in Mexico).

We left our offerings - lovely cedar incense sent by Kathy - along with the others. I left mine on a huge and mossy stone at the waters edge.

We decided to head back to Ballycreggan House and weariness suddenly hit me. It dawned on me that I hadn’t a clue as to how to find our way back home and realised we couldn’t even retrace yesterdays journey, becuase we’d been lost for most of that, too. Getting lost had been great fun. All day we had been getting ourselves lost and found again – all in high humour and good spirits, while stumbling upon magic and mystery all over Roscommon. But now all I wanted was a clear and easy road leading to my bed. After what seemed like an interminable drive and a number of stops for directions, we finally found ourselves home again at Ballycreggan. Time for a glass of wine and a long, deep & dreamless sleep.


Katie and Emir said...

Funny thing, as i read the Irish adventure i thought 'gee the tone has changed in this storytelling'. do you feel that too? or is it just me?

21st Century Pilgrim's Progress said...

Perceptive girl...can't hide anything from you!!! (not that I'd want to)

Katie and Emir said...

also it's funny that you mention the milagros - i was thinking about that in those earlier posts and then all of a sudden you put up pictures and wrote about milagros!

He he well i think it's probably going to change again and again and again as you surge forward. It's very exciting isn't it? And scary, and mystical and ... well you know! You're doing it! I'm just reading about it from the comfort of my swivel chair :>

21st Century Pilgrim's Progress said...

It makes me very happy to know that my adventure is tied somehow to your swivel chair...and you're right, magic and mystery seems to be unfolding itself before me everywhere I go. I had a glorious adventure today...but I'm afraid it's a few Irish posts away...

Katie and Emir said...

We're going to have lots of stories to swap when we are reunited Sandy! Lots of things going on. Your story has played a big part in what has happened here, and your strength has been so encouraging :> You have buoyed me up and been my wingwoman just by doing what you're doing. It's a very very good feeling :>