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Meath: Folk Tales
By Richard Marsh
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Richard Marsh
All rights reserved.
Dunshaughlin is blessed with two approved Irish names, neither of which is unanimously accepted. Dún Seachlainn (Seachnall's Fort) is the one you see on the official sign as you enter the town, but Domhnach Seachnaill (Seachnall's Church) is preferred locally. Situated as the town is, only a few miles from Tara, it is not surprising that the doings of kings and saints feature prominently in its eventful history.
The Prophecies of Art, Son of Conn
Art, son of Conn of the Hundred Battles, was known as Art Aonfer – 'only son' – because his only brother, Connla, set sail to the Otherworld and never returned. The famous Cormac mac Airt was the only one of Art's three sons to survive. Art had fathered the other two by his daughter, and they were killed – whether by Art for shame or by Art's brothers to prevent their inheriting the crown is not clear – one by drowning in the Boyne and the other by being thrown to a wolf. One of them, Artgen, was an ancestor of St Finbar of Cork.
Art was king of Ireland from AD 166 until he was killed in the Battle of Mag Muccrime in 195. Shortly before the battle, he was hunting alone at Duma Derglúachra, now known as Trevet (tréde fót – 'three sods'), 3km north of Dunshaughlin. Standing on a hunting mound – probably the earthwork in a field 1km east of Trevet – he saw angels flying up and down. The Holy Spirit infused him and bestowed the gift of prophecy on him, and he saw that he would be killed in the coming battle. He chose Trevet as his burial place, rather than the pagan cemetery at Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange), because he foresaw the coming of Christianity to Ireland and proclaimed his belief in the Holy Trinity. In a long poem, mostly in obscure language, he foretold the arrival of St Patrick.
For those reasons he is considered one of the first three Christians in Ireland. Conor mac Nessa, king of Ulster, was the first, and Art's son Cormac was the third. Conor was deemed to have received a baptism of blood, because his anger at the news of the Crucifixion expelled a brain ball lodged in his head, causing his death. (A brain ball is a missile made of the calcified brain of a slain warrior with supposed magic power.) Like his father, Cormac refused a pagan burial at the Brú.
The Metrical Dindshenchas (Lore of Place-names) confirms that Art and Cormac are not buried at Brú na Bóinne, though Conn and other kings are:
Bright is it here, O plain of Mac ind Oc!
wide is thy road with traffic of hundreds;
thou hast covered many a true prince
of the race of every king that has possessed thee.
Thou hidest Conn the just, the hundred-fighter.
There came not Art, highest in rank,
round whom rode troops on the battlefield;
he found a grave proud and lofty,
the champion of the heroes, in Luachair Derg.
There came not Cormac free from sorrow:
after receiving the Truth (he affirmed it)
he found repose above limpid Boyne
on the shore at Rossnaree.
On the night before the Battle of Mag Muccrime in Galway, Art stayed in the house of Uilc Acha the smith, where he met Uilc Acha's daughter, Étaín. Together they made Cormac, who would later become the most celebrated of the high kings. That story is in the twelfth-century Lebor na hUidre (Book of the Dun Cow) under the title 'Fástini Airt meic Cuind' (The Prophecies of Art son of Conn). 'Senchas na Relec' (History of the Cemeteries), also from the Book of the Dun Cow, adds that when Art's body was carried to Trevet, 'if all the men of Erin tried to draw it from there, they could not, so that he was interred in that place because there was a Catholic Church to be afterwards at his burial place because the truth and the Faith had been revealed to him through his regal righteousness.'
Local historian Mickey Kenny took me to Trevet in 2010 to show me Art's grave next to an old cemetery and the ruins of a church said to be the oldest Christian site in Ireland. The story gives the location of Art's vision as 'Duma Derglúachra .i. áit hi fail Treóit indiu – Mound of the Red Rushy Place, that is, the place where Trevet is found today'. The road from Dunshaughlin to Trevet is called the Bog Road. It passes through the townland of Redbog, which can best be described as 'red rushy'.
ST SEACHNALL (SECUNDINUS)
St Patrick arrived in Ireland in 432 with his nephew St Seachnall (372-447). Seachnall founded a church in Dunshaughlin and was appointed the first bishop of Dunshaughlin in 433. (Some say Seachnall arrived before or after Patrick and that they were not related.) Seachnall wrote several hymns, including one in praise of Patrick, and he transcribed another called 'Sancti, venite, Christi corpus sumite' (Come, holy ones, take up the body of Christ) from the singing of angels. Long used as a Communion hymn, it is best known by the title of a popular nineteenth-century English translation, 'Draw Nigh and Take the Body of the Lord.' It has been described as 'that golden fragment of our ancient Irish liturgy' and is found in a late seventh-century collection called the Antiphonary of Bangor. Its style reveals an earlier origin, lending veracity to this story attached to the hymn, which is related in the Irish Liber Hymnorum (1898).
Patrick heard that Seachnall was telling people, 'Patrick would be a good man except for one thing: he doesn't preach enough about charity.' Patrick was angry at that, and he came to Dunshaughlin to confront Seachnall, who was saying Mass and had just come to the Communion. When he was told that Patrick had arrived in a temper, he left the Host on the altar and went out of the church and bowed down in front of Patrick.
Patrick drove his chariot directly at him, but God raised the ground around Seachnall so that he was not injured.
'What was that for?' asked Seachnall.
'You've been saying that I don't fulfil charity. If I don't fulfil charity I am in violation of God's commandment. But God knows that it is for charity that I don't preach it, because there will come after me to this island sons of life who will need to be supported by wealthy men. If I preach charity to these wealthy men now, they won't have anything left to give to those who come after me.'
'I didn't realise that you were not being remiss,' said Seachnall.
They made peace between them, and as they were going into the church they heard angels singing around the Host on the altar. What they were singing was the hymn beginning 'Sancti, venite, Christi corpus sumite'.
It was partly to make it up to Patrick that Seachnall wrote a hymn about him. One day, he said to Patrick, 'When shall I write a hymn in your honour?' Patrick said, 'You don't have to do that. And besides, you don't praise the day until after the sun sets.'
It was unheard of to write a work of praise for a living person.
Seachnall said, 'I didn't say if, I said when, because I'm going to do it anyway.'
It suddenly occurred to Patrick that Seachnall didn't have long to live, and he said, 'By God, you'd better write it now.'
So Seachnall wrote the 'Hymn of St Secundinus', and when he finished it he wanted Patrick's opinion, but he didn't want Patrick to know that he was the subject. They met along the Northern Road, the Slíge Midluachra, and Seachnall said, 'I've written a hymn of praise for a certain man of God, and I'd like you to hear it.'
'Praise of the people of God is always welcome,' said Patrick. Seachnall started with the second stanza, 'Beata Christi custodit mandata in omnibus' (he keeps Christ's holy commandments in all things) because the first stanza has Patrick's name in it. The hymn begins with 'Audite, omnes amantes Deum' (Listen, all lovers of God) and each following stanza starts with the succeeding letter of the alphabet: 'Constans ... Dominus ... Electa ...'
When he reached 'Maximus namque in regno coelorum vocabitur' (for he will be called the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven) Patrick stopped him and asked, 'How can you describe a man as "greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven"?'
'It doesn't mean that he is the greatest in Heaven. It means that in Heaven he will be called greatest, because he is the greatest among the men of his race here on earth, and he will be so recognised in Heaven.'
When Seachnall reached the final stanza – 'May we always sing Patrick's praises' – Patrick thanked him for the tribute. Seachnall asked him for a poet's fee.
'As many sinners as there are hairs in your cloak,' said Patrick, 'shall go to Heaven for singing the hymn.'
'That's not enough,' said Seachnall.
'Then I'll give you this: everyone who recites it going to sleep and waking up will go to Heaven.'
'But the hymn is long. Not everyone will be able to commit it to memory.'
'The virtue of the hymn,' said Patrick, 'is in the last section. Whosoever of the men of Ireland shall recite the three last stanzas, or the three last lines, or the three last words, just before death, with a pure mind, his soul will be saved.'
'Thanks be to God,' Seachnall said.
St Colman Ela, one of the three great Colmans of Meath, founded a monastery in County Offaly. One day, he recited 'Audite, omnes' three times in a row in his dining hall in the presence of St Patrick. A man standing nearby complained at the choice and said, 'Have we no other prayer that we could recite except this?' Patrick took this as a personal affront and stalked out of the room in anger.
A century later, Cainnech (St Canice of Kilkenny) was in a boat on the sea when he saw a black cloud of devils flying overhead.
'Stop here on your way back,' he called to them. On their return they reported that they had gone to collect the soul of a certain wealthy man.
'He sang two or three stanzas of Audite, omnes, and we thought it sounded more like a satire than a hymn of praise, but it defeated us.'
Lough Gabhair (Lagore)
According to the Annals of the Four Masters, Lough Gabhair, the now-dried up lake in the townland of Lagore just outside Dunshaughlin, was formed in 1513 BC.
The Rennes Dindshenchas tells how Lough Gabhair got its name. Eochaid Cind Mairc (Horsehead), king of Munster, sent two white mares to Enna Aignech, king of Tara, as tribute, but they were drowned in the lake when a stallion chased them, hence 'Loch Gabar' (Lake of Steeds). (Gabar/gabor can also mean 'goat'.)
Blathmac, son of Áed Sláine, was king of Brega, part of Meath, before he and his brother Diarmaid shared the kingship of Ireland from 657 to 664. Blathmac's royal seat was a newly built crannóg (a manmade defensive island residence) in Lough Gabhair, one of the largest – 520ft in circumference – and richest crannógs in Ireland.
In 647 or 651, the Leinster champion Maelodrán killed Blathmac's two sons at a watermill in County Westmeath. (See chapter 10 for St Ultán's epitaph on the boys.) Blathmac threatened the Leinstermen with invasion unless they gave up Maelodrán to him, but Maelodrán told his people not to worry, because he was going to surrender to Blathmac.
He didn't surrender. Instead, he went to Lough Gabhair at night, took a boat across to the crannóg, and waited outside Blathmac's house. Eventually, Blathmac came out to 'bend his knees', as a twelfth-century manuscript delicately puts it, or to 'sit by himself', as another blushingly hints. In the darkness, and probably half-asleep and half-drunk, Blathmac could barely make out the form of Maelodrán and mistook him for one of his guards.
'You there! Hold my sword,' the king commanded.
Maelodrán did so. When Blathmac had finished relieving himself, he ordered Maelodrán to hand him something to wipe his bottom. Maelodrán gave him a bunch of stinging nettles.
'Ow. I'm burned, I'm wounded. That was no friend who did that. Who are you?'
'I'm Maelodrán, who is just after killing your two sons. And now ...', he held Blathmac's own sword to his throat, ' ... I have you in my power.'
'That's true. Can we go into the house and talk about this?'
The upshot was that Blathmac gave Maelodrán a horse, a suit of clothes, a brooch, and free passage back to Leinster, and thereafter they fought together against their common enemies.
The Annals of the Four Masters report that in 848 Cinaedh, king of North Brega, rebelled against the high king, Maelseachlainn, and plundered Lough Gabhair and burned it 'so that it was level with the ground'. Then he burned the oratory of Trevet, 'within which were three score and two hundred persons'. The following year, Maelseachlainn and Tigernach, king of Lough Gabhair and South Brega, drowned Cinaedh in the River Nanny (described as 'a dirty streamlet') in revenge.
A New Heroine
Marvel Comics super-heroine Shamrock – real name Molly Fitzgerald – was born in Dunshaughlin, date unknown, and made her first public appearance in Marvel's Contest of Champions #1 in June 1982. She is costumed in two-tone green with shamrocks, and her super-power is a protective aura that causes 'random improbabilities' to protect her when she is in trouble: in other words, she embodies the luck of the Irish. She's retired now and works as a hair stylist. Folklorists of the future will undoubtedly include her in their dictionaries.CHAPTER 2
The twelfth-century Dindshenchas (Lore of Place-names), compiled from earlier sources, gives us several choices for the derivation of the name of Slane:
Rudraige and 150 men were chasing a wild boar at the Hill of Slane. The boar killed fifty hunters and broke Rudraige's spears. His son, Rossa, came to his rescue and turned the boar away without his spears being broken. As a result, the name of Sliabh Slan-ga (the Hill of the Whole Spear) was given to the hill.
Or, Slanga, son of Partholon, was buried there. Slanga was the first healer in Ireland, and the Irish word for 'health' is slán. Low mounds near the college on the hill are believed to be the grave of Partholonians killed in a plague.
Or, Slaine, Leinster king of the Fir Bolg, was buried there.
St Patrick gave Slane its main claim to fame. It is generally agreed that he was appointed bishop by the Pope and arrived in Ireland in AD 432. In Wicklow they say he landed at Arklow or Wicklow Town, but the people threw stones at him and he left. He came up the coast and stopped at Swords, looking for fish. He found none and went to St Patrick's Island off Skerries and then on to the mouth of the Nanny at Laytown, where again he found nothing. He cursed all three places, and so they are said to be unfruitful.
He arrived at Drogheda in 433 and made his way up the Boyne. Having served many years as a slave, Patrick was able to speak Irish and knew the customs of the land. He was aware that all fires had to be extinguished on the eve of the First of May and that the druids would light a fire in front of the king on the Hill of Tara to celebrate the first day of summer. (As late as the nineteenth century, farmers were reluctant to light fires early on May Day, for fear that something bad would happen to their cattle.) So Patrick lit a bonfire on the Hill of Slane to attract attention, knowing that it would be visible from Tara 10 miles (16km) away.
King Laoghaire saw the fire, which illuminated all of Meath. His druids told him that if the fire was not quenched that night, the person who had lit it would have the kingdom of Ireland forever. Laoghaire led his warriors to Slane, but they didn't arrive until daylight. The druids said to Laoghaire, 'Don't go to him, lest it seem that you are paying him honour. Make him come to you, but let none of your people show him respect.'
When Patrick saw them with their horses and chariots, he sang a verse from the Book of Psalms (19:8): 'Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we will call upon the name of the Lord our God.' One of Laoghaire's druids, Erc, stood to show respect and later converted. When Patrick founded the church on the Hill of Slane, he made Erc the bishop. His grave is still to be seen in the graveyard: it's the one with two rough triangular stones at either end.
Another druid, Lochru, insulted the Christian faith, and Patrick prayed, 'Let this impious one, who is blaspheming Thy name, be destroyed.'
Demons raised the druid in the air and dropped him so that his head struck a stone, and he was turned into ashes.
Laoghaire ordered his men to attack Patrick, and Patrick quoted Psalm 67:2: 'May God arise, and may his enemies be scattered.'
Immediately darkness came over the sun. The earth shook, and thunder rumbled overhead. The horses panicked and ran, and the chariots were scattered as far as Slíab Moduirn, south of Castleblayney in Monaghan, over 30 miles away. The warriors began fighting one another, and fifty were killed as a result of Patrick's curse. Only three were left with Patrick on the hill: Laoghaire, his queen, whose name was Angass, and a serving man of the king.
Angass said, 'O just and mighty man, don't kill the king. He will submit to you and do what you wish.'
Excerpted from Meath: Folk Tales by Richard Marsh. Copyright © 2013 Richard Marsh. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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