Dia duit cairde!
As we delve deeper into the people of Ireland and their splendid culture, one cannot travel beyond Carrowmore without stopping. Whether it be respect for the dead or curiosity of the living, Carrowmore in County Sligo invokes a feeling of hushed fascination, one that merits leaving the beaten path and traveling over grass that’s blanketed rocky hillsides for thousands of years – along with the thousands of years-worth of history nestled in said hillsides like ancient and undisturbed Easter eggs…
Though some might argue Easter eggs and the concept of Easter itself is predated by these impressive and stony structures.
Let’s set the scene – a wind-tossed sea of grass bends low against the earth; kowtowing to the looming image in the distance that almost can’t be seen through the silvery mist. Wild Westies walk down a pebbled path toward a great open space agape beneath a platinum sky. The silence there is a tranquil veil of serenity; sweeping passersby underneath cloud cover that does not so much hover above the ground as it does embrace it as an old friend. Smatterings of rain splatter the stones; and just across to the right, the great cairn of Queen Maeve is seated in the highlands of Knocknarea, shrouded in enigma – and yes, more fog.
The guide for this place of glory and gloom is a man tall in stature and kind in face. With a resonant voice and a plucky hat pulled low over his brow, he seems to descend from the mountains to tell stories by watery daylight to any who’ll listen – and listen you will; as his words are spellbinding. Dr. Michael Roberts of Co. Sligo grew up in this area – and knows it like it’s a piece of his (very warm) soul.
With a passion for mythology and folklore that came at an early age; Dr. Roberts pursued anthropology as a means of “understanding people”. Cultural Anthropology; in fact – perhaps a direct reflection of being raised in these places of mists and legends. There was, for example, a fairy fort that Michael had to cross every day on his way to school. A fairy fort, for those who don’t know, is the skeletal remains of a structure predating the Christian era of Ireland – possibly; in some superstitions, predating human inhabitants. In terms of folklore; it’s considered bad luck to disturb these forts – in doing so, one runs the risk of losing anything he holds dear (including his life).
But Michael’s interpretation was slightly different – rather than approach the fort with wariness, he took it as an opportunity to ask important internal questions. Who built this? And why was it built? Things buried in Sligo’s history seemed likely to stay that way; as modernity forces all things ancient to remain in the past – were it not for the inquisitive mind of a young man with an old soul.
Now grown; Michael makes a point of bringing others around Carrowmore for a study not only in the stones of the archaic designs from the Iron Age and beyond, but also for a study in how the landscape and mythology shaped the world he grew up in. Worried that traditions and storytelling from the olden days was dying out, Michael began writing down his stories, rather than simply reciting them. His book, The Cailleach of Sligo: Stories and Myths from the North West of Ireland is a riveting take on Celtic and Gaelic mythology previously unexplored. The Cailleach, after all, is the Winter Hag – a creator and weather deity who, in Michael’s words, “makes the tough decisions” – a hard woman who clears out for Samhain in the Celtic Winter, a sort of “fall cleaning”, if you will. Without her, the year could not begin again, and the doubts, misgivings, and troubles of the year prior would continue on. She is the lady tossing open windows in a stuffy house to air it out. Or, as we call her at home where I’m from, “the fresh air fiend”. Passage tombs in Sligo were said to be affiliated with her; tombs in which the equinox light would illuminate carvings almost lost to time.
The full experience, however, does involve actually walking with careful tread into this great place of sacred energy; surrounding oneself with tall stones and a towering megalithic masterpiece comprised of wishes and prayers.
A cairn, after all, is a marker for burial; here – albeit they have had other purposes depending on location and historic insight, such as astronomy, ceremony, and defense. These at the Carrowmore site are specifically meant for those who have passed on; paying homage to their energy and potential – Maeve’s Cairn on the adjacent hill; for example, is considered a blessed place, one of power and focus. Carrowmore is also home to a few dolmens, more obvious in their structuring and well-recognized for their flat tops and raised rock sides. These were believed to be places of passage – not so much for the dead, but in the interim moments between life and death. The whole of Carrowmore crackles with silent, but prominent energy – the result, no doubt, of a place that has seen many a soul pass through it. It is indescribable unless you go there; because standing there amidst it all, one almost becomes a part of it, in spirals of carefully-laid stone that sing beneath the sky.
Spiral or cyclical aspects of passage are evident throughout Irish folklore. Michael Roberts points out that modernity forces people into a “linear” way of living – contrary to the old days (and old ways) wherein individuals lived on a cycle, rather than a line. A circular time is more hopeful, he suggests – knowing that one thing will end and another will begin. Linear living is much harder, as it’s difficult to see the stars from inside stone walls. People in the city should return to the country – to feel and embrace that cycle. A reboot, if you will – for your spirit.
There is much more to appreciate in a circular world than a flat one, after all – the monotony of urban life, the same monitored “weather” of an interior dwelling day after day can drain a person. It’s a different sensation entirely to feel the wind of Carrowmore on your neck than the dull wheeze of an air conditioner, you know. The ancients who inhabited the area of Carrowmore believed so much in the cycle of life that they put faith in the return of their souls to their people. Round stones were smoothed by artisans; wisewomen/wisemen, and people of great skills – then, through life’s many
events, death of the wearer, a bonfire (or “bone fire”, as it was previously called), and a washing away of ashes, the stone would be passed on to an expecting mother, whose child was said to inherit the soul that came with that stone. In such a way, the circle of life moves on, forever turning, and changing for the better. A concept of spiritual recycling – which even has the word “cycle” embedded in it.
It is also a reflection of how important it is to keep the old ways alive – Michael Roberts has done a spectacular job of doing just that. “Captured my attention the minute he started talking,” said Westie Wayne. “Especially when he would talk about the stars and how they were used.”
Things don’t have to be high-tech or fancy to invoke conversation. Communication can crop up in discussions following the recitations of his stories; stories he gathers with love and respect from the peoples of the past. He brings them into modernity via simple discussions – opening the door to those who are seeking to deviate from that linear life. He carries the past into the present and gives it a future, as more and more people come to explore the megalithic sites and learn of those who came before.
There is nothing quite like standing in the shadow of Knocknarea and Maeve; overlooking the hills of cairns and pondering the past. When one thinks of dig sites; or historical areas, one might first think of archaeologists, with their little tools and their painstaking focus; dusty-kneed and desperately, determinedly digging…
But in actuality; it may in fact be the anthropologists who are keeping history alive – as without them, we would never understand what a dolmen is, or why fairy forts exist, or how the culture before us lived; and we might not care to learn from the people who came before us –
And thus, without looking back at the past, and having those like Michael to tell us about it; to make us care again, we would most surely not have half as bright a future.
Slán go fóill,
– Sam Fishkind.