Who are the Irish, and where did we come from? These are such academic questions. What we should really be asking is what power this island holds over us, and in what way does it transform and transfix us upon our arrival here? It's not in the origins of the Irish we should be looking, for these lines of inquiry will lead to arbitrary conclusions and follow dull lines of material and conventional inquiry.
Rather, we should follow that beam of sunlight that glistens off the western ocean in the evening, and pursue it to Tír na nÓg; we should watch in the midnight moonlight for that dancing troop of fairies around the ancient ráth; and we should rap upon the door of Síd in Broga and ask Oengus Óg himself to reveal Étaín to us, glimmering in her crystal bower deep inside the womb of the earth. These are the images of the mythmaker, the images of the dreamer. And, in the words of Boyle O’Reilly, “the dreamer lives forever”, while the toiler dies in a day.
Far beyond the narrow purview of the rational and quantitative mind, there is an indescribable concept, a transformative and magical power. This is the sídhe power. The sídhe are places of transformation, where the young mature in a day, and the old come to be reborn. Where men become fish and take to water, and where women become swans and take to the air. Ireland is a place where the sídhe power is everywhere. This island is bountiful, as Amergin implored it to be. It is beautiful, as Eriú described it. And it is beguiling, as almost every human who has ever arrived here would attest. Ireland and its people, it is said, once saved civilisation. There is something here, in the fields and trees and rivers and mountains, in the very essence of the landscape, of an altogether different world, one uncorrupted by the ceaseless scheming of humans; one, in many places, yet untainted by the frantic madness of man.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.(1)
What does it mean to be Irish? We should not be too hasty about looking for our origins. Ultimately, they lie far beyond the shores of this beautiful island. It is what this island does to you, and how it transforms you after your arrival here, that ultimately makes you Irish. That raw sídhe power, that seeps and emanates from every rock and lonely bush, will make you Irish, if you allow it to, no matter what your skin colour, or no matter how far you’ve travelled to get here.
Anthony Murphy, 2018.
The image shows a prehistoric burial mound (labelled simply Mound B on maps) beside the Boyne river, close to Newgrange, in the morning mist.
(1) From ‘The Stolen Child’ by Irish poet W. B. Yeats.
Enter the ‘Ancient Sites’ section of this blog for a fascinating and wide-ranging exploration of the megalithic and sacred sites of Ireland. Find out all about the Stone Age and prehistoric ruins and learn more about the possible functions and alignments of these sites. Visit the great temples of Brú na Bóinne, the Hill of Tara, the ancient cairns of Loughcrew among many others.
Explore the ancient myths, legends and folklore of Ireland and their meaning. Read the epic Táin Bó Cuailnge, or the place-name myths in the Dindshenchas. Learn about how the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Milesians came to Ireland and how the early texts describe various invasions of prehistoric Éire. Hear about Fionn and the Fianna, and discover how some myths might contain information about astronomy and the stars.
There is no doubt that the ancient megalith builders had a substantial knowledge of the movements of the sun, moon, planets and stars through the heavens. Learn more about just how complex and impressive this knowledge was. There is evidence that the people of the Neolithic knew about the 19-year Metonic cycle of the moon, as well as being able to predict eclipses.