A meditation on 'Mythical Ireland: New Light on the Ancient Past' by Anthony Murphy

A meditation on 'Mythical Ireland: New Light on the Ancient Past' by Anthony Murphy

The following is a review of my book Mythical Ireland: New Light on the Ancient Past by Réamonn Ó Ciaráin of Aonach Mhacha, a cultural centre in Armagh. It is a wonderful review (Réamonn calls it a meditiation) and is, I think, the best review of any of my books I have ever read. Réamonn has kindly allowed me to share it here.

Writing from my own upper chamber near Navan Fort, west of Armagh City as day makes way for night, it occurs to me that there are those who tend towards making the complex simple and others who tend towards making the simple complex. Anthony Murphy does both in his groundbreaking and handsome dolmen of a book on mythic Ireland. Both approaches are surely required in this ‘search for a soul’, the dream-soul of our people, in ancient megalithic monuments. I mention Navan Fort or Eamhain Mhacha, because from Navan, a fire on Sliabh Fuaid could be seen, and from there, a fire on Slieve Gullian could be seen, and from there a fire on Loughcrew could be seen – a prehistoric and sophisticated internet.

In Mythical Ireland, New Light on the Ancient Past (The Liffey Press, 2017 & reprinted 2019) Anthony Murphy covers a lot of territory both physical and conceptual. It deals with an ancient anticipation of much needed light streaming back into dark enclosures, which are held within a verdant embrace at the bend of the Boyne River. The subject matter is both intuitive, employing intriguing speculation and tuitive, from extensive research and specialized knowledge. There is much to ponder; ritual, astronomical alignments, folk memory, mythic symbolism, toponymy, solar/lunar influences, archetypes to highlight but a few. This book introduces the reader to mythic and megalithic Ireland and represents a reliable fording point to the esoteric; that which cannot be Googled satisfactorily. 

Woven throughout the work are strands from archeology, mythology, astronomy and folklore. Metaphorically, you will scald your thumb on every chapter as Fionn Mac Cumhaill did on that salmon of knowledge, An Bradán Feasa, which he caught and cooked at the Pool of Fiacc; a deep well of our early Gaelic psyche situated at the Boyne’s liminal ford. On completion, you will know much more about the people, places and things connected with mythic Ireland and the universal energies that have impacted on them. Murphy makes a Cú Chulainn-esque effort to grapple with the big questions, questions that exercised our ancients and which still exercise us today namely: whence, why and whither. 

For sure, Murphy is a man whose Socratic daimon has placed him under geis – an enthrallment with the megalithic and mythic story of Ireland. He is aware of light and darkness replacing each other cyclically in a cosmic dance since even before our world emerged from its blackness. Each article casts more light on the preceding illumination as the sun moves reassuringly along precision-plotted passageways – at what are significant intersections of time, place, light and meaning. The author is an accomplished photographer and uses his camera with the same adroitness of his finely honed craft of writing. The book is supported beautifully with striking imagery forming a powerful confluence of masterful visual and literary communication propelled by authentic passion. 

Mythical Ireland, this book, and mythical Ireland, the collective imagination of our forebears, will help anyone born on this Island, living on this Island or whose roots stretch to this island, or who are interested in Ireland seeking to understand his or her place in this vast universe. Mythical Ireland is symbolized well by the imaginative darkness and subsequent illumination of the inner womb of Newgrange, Brú na Bóinne, or Síd in Broga as Murphy refers to it and her sister chambers. We are all vital to what the universe is doing and simultaneously a mere ‘cosmic speck’. More and more as the book makes its revelations the author is calling the ‘numen-seeker’ to the collective wisdom of our ancients, our early psyche; a confident psyche which existed before the colonization of that consciousness, before ideas of nationhood, before individualism took hold. In our haste to retreat from structured religion of rules and regulations in recent decades, we would do well to remember and not to let go of the spiritual nourishment offered for centuries; the metaphysical, the mystical and the ritual. Our Neolithic ancients understood ritual and symbolism more deeply than most of us do today. But we should not make new gods of our ancients now, Murphy suggests, in place of organized religion but rather be alert to the ancients whispering to us to us again from their depths.

Murphy guides us deftly over sacred territory both outwardly and inwardly. He introduces and expounds on many of the gods and goddesses from the Celtic pantheon of our polytheistic predecessors. I think we are still very much polytheistic but our new gods are wealth, physical beauty, power, fame, being in the right and these gods at the expense of paying attention to former gods such as Helios (Sun) and Poseidon (Oceans) whom we have been ignoring in recent decades at our peril. Mythical Ireland contains insights into the Tuatha Dé Dannan, the Fomorians, the Fir Blog, the Milesians, the Fianna, the druids, early Irish Christians and characters from folklore. Murphy proceeds beyond what John O’Donohue called ‘the dead cage of fact’ in search of meaning from the darkness of these ancient chambers. The body of archeological and historical knowledge presented in this volume is extensive and benefits greatly from an extra step, the corroboration of mythical and folkloric sources – sources from our collective imagination, from our wide-ranging medieval manuscript tradition such as Lebor Gabála Érann, Lebor na hUidre, Acallam na Senórach, Sanas Cormaic and other important texts such as the Annals of the Four Masters. Reference is also made to many historical journals and to our national folklore collection; a collection inscribed in 2017 to the UNESCO Memory of the World Collection such is its significance.

Newgrange, Knowth, Dowth and Loughcrew are to the fore in the narrative of Mythical Ireland and are brought center and front by the benign winding presence of their mother-goddess, the River Boyne, An Bhóinn, the earthly manifestation of the celestial Milky Way, our own Galaxy, our home among many galaxies  – as above below. The otherworld receives due attention also from Murphy. It features as the home of the eternal Tuatha Dé Dannan, a netherworld of the Síthe, the national subconscious or shadow, our clay, the earth, our roots – as we grow up we must surely send down roots, invisible roots though they may be and I get a sense of these roots from the ground covered in this book. One might speculate about what secrets are still to be uncovered in the 30k plus (some estimates suggest as many 60k) fairy forts, ráthanna, liosanna that remain on/under the ‘green carpet’ of our Island. One thing is clear to me though, given our current stewardship of the land and the seas; we have not yet earned the right or demonstrated the maturity to be trusted fully with these secrets. Somebody like Murphy though could be trusted I think to decipher these secrets building on the work of giants such as Professor Michael J O’Kelly and his wife Claire O’Kelly who carried out the excavation of Newgrange and witnessed its illumination once again after more than four millennia, at winter solstice,1967.

I agree with Anthony Murphy’s belief that the spirit of the Tuatha Dé Dannan is making a welcome return. Maybe this comeback is being assisted by some ‘unseen instructors’ (W.B Yeats,1932) in the compilation and distribution of the words in this and other books by Murphy himself.  It reminds me of how the spirit of Cú Chulainn was called upon during the literary revival of the 19th & 20th Centuries and for the poets’ revolution of Easter 1916 and possibly, I would contend, for the Civil Rights Campaign in the north in the late 1960s, a risen people who raved about Kinsella’s The Táin and the art therein of Louis le Brocquy in 1970. More and more people are seeking the restorative darkness, the quiet, the slower simpler life, to be closer to nature, truer to self and moving away from what James Hillman called ‘hyperactive passivity’ in The Soul’s Code and from a progress at all costs outlook. Mythical tales can certainly help on this inner journey. What this book demands of its readers is some due humility in all this vastness and ancientness and of course an awareness of our inherent fragility. Those who composed our mythical tales knew what it meant to endure climatic disaster, hunger, darkness and disease. But the light did return (and continues to return) from the skies to fertilize the land at the mound the Cistercians renamed New Grange, Brú na Bóinne of our ancient Celtic antecedents and their druidic caste who held aloft their forked branches of hazel and made their incantations on behalf of herdsmen and mothers, on behalf of kings and queens and their workers and warriors, on our behalf too.

The extensive research required to produce this volume containing a wealth of recondite material is evident in the sublime bibliography citing many of the greats who have been ‘digging from the bowels of antiquity materials for future poets and historians’ as John O’ Donovan, historian and toponymist, once wrote elsewhere. The bibliography lists works by Joseph Campbell, Ciarán Carson, Jeffery Gantz, Lady Gregory, Karl Gustave Jung, Thomas Kinsella, JP Mallory, John Moriarty, RAS Macalister, Daithí Ó hÓgain and many many more. The bibliography is a mind map of sorts and a useful guide to this area of reflection as are the painstaking endnotes.

One intriguing question tackled by the druidic Murphy is whether the builders of megaliths such as Newgrange, were zealous collaborators or coerced labourers or if they were, possibly, a mixture of both. This question is unpacked and explored and in doing so the author displays an ability to delve into the very humanity of these ancients; where they cold or wet on these exposed hills, were they hungry, could they read the stars, were they rewarded or maltreated. In exploring this and many other such issues the author poses many pertinent questions such as to what light inspired these people to drift towards the Iapetus Suture at Clogherhead to retrieve those huge kerb stones of grey wacke and how could they have known to incorporate elaborate marine physics to raise these three to five ton rocks, to be floated under their boats down coast and then navigated up the River Boyne. No doubt, these neoliths were more sophisticated than we like to think we are today.

Another wonderful tale recounted is that of the so-called Tara Brooch much favoured by Queen Victoria who had a replica made. It seems the brooch received its appellation through crafty branding by the Dame Street Jeweller, George Waterhouse, who wished to associate the exquisite item with the kings and queens of Tara for financial gain. One must feel some empathy for the poor peasant woman finder of this brooch who earned but a few pennies and may have even gone to lengths to alter the location of her find so that she could maximize her meager fortunes. This book is replete with fascinating and ungoogleable details like this.

Read this book. It is a treasure chest. It provides a glimpse through chinks, not too wide, as Kavanagh might have said, but wide enough to allow the cosmic, the awesome, the transcendental, the eternal, to shine through. It is a virtual visit to the complex minds of our mythmakers, our megalith builders. Mythical Ireland, New Light on the Ancient Past emits an energy that these ancient séadchomharthaí or monuments have been emitting for up to five millennia. Eternity goes both ways, backwards and forwards and this book is a timely reminder of the timeless at the center of our collective and ancient conscious; a reminder of what W H Auden wrote in 1939, ‘We are being lived by powers we pretend to understand’.

Visit Réamonn Ó Ciaráin's blog here: https://raymondkieran.blogspot.com/

View the review on Amazon.co.uk


Anthony Murphy is a journalist and photographer from Drogheda who also manages the popular website www.mythicireland.com He is author of Island of the Setting Sun: In Search of Ireland’s Ancient Astronomers (with Richard Moore), Newgrange: Monument to Immortality, Land of the Ever-Living Ones, The Cry of the Sebac and Dronehenge: The Story Behind the Remarkable Neolithic Discovery at Newgrange. 


Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.