Voyages from I to Thou.

Location: Skellig Michel, Ireland

Friday, February 04, 2005

Harm and Boon

Mugain, the Munster queen, seems to be the same person as Mor of Munster. The story goes that the Kings of Ireland were seeking Mor. Her "house" is pointed out at the western extremity of Corco Duibne (off the southwest coast of Ireland), and when the sun is shining on it is said that "Mor is on her throne." Fintan changes his form, and the Old Woman of Beare renews her youth, time and time again.

A similar metamorphosis appears in a Fenian story in which Finn's destiny is revealed by a visitant from the Other World. This stranger is Cronanach -- his name is suggestive -- from Sid ar Femuin, the sid of Munster, and he appeared, an enormous, black, misshapen churl, upon Finn's hunting-mound. He brought out two pipes and played "so that wounded men and women in travail would have fallen asleep at the exquisite music which he made." Later, "As the light of day came there came upon the churl a beautiful form and shapeliness and radiance so that there was a delightful beauty upon him ... and he had the demeanor of a high-king, and there was the charm of a youth in his figure.

-- Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage

Ogre On The Road (2001)

Perhaps the minotaur
is a poet. Is Poetry.
A hoary hammer, like sex.
Didn't the Irish bard
Senachen once meet
a churl on the road
whose hellmouth
was the gate of all song?
Why are sweet words
suddenly so loathsome
on this road we
must all travel some night?

In the Irish tales
the lord of the South
was a harper-changeling,
a green giant who'd
as soon sing as lose
his head (or yours)
at the solstice. (And oh
what a pretty wife had
he, wearing only that
green pubic sash...)
Horrid lug was just
one his guises. A signal
that you've hit the
mid-point of the barrow.

Question is, what then?
Senachen could have
turned back and trudged
home as Senachen,
but instead he got past
and went on to become
a Taleissin. Will I eventually
write poems too, after all
this posing and posing
in poisoned trash heaps?

The problem is, a lyric
is not a tale. No stripper
here with nipples to offer
in ripened sequence: this
is flashing: not fiction,
but close. Poets play fast
with truths but from the
other side: We dip the day's
pewter turds into moonwater
and -voila!-pull out a
silvery bone of spirit.
Preter-truths, a peel more
real than the real itself.

But who cares for such
jugglery today? Poems for
a penny, a dozen for two!
Least of all cares this oaf,
burdened with this
bushel of rancid poems.
I would rather sneakeypete
around this beast of sweet
utterance just to get home again.
To what at least is livably real.

But I wrote my way here and
must write my way through.
For now these satires,
black-pelted raillery at
the ogre on the road.
I'm a king's fool, worthy only
in reverse, offering for your
pleasure ugly words on a page
of foul brine, a bitterroot
inked with all that somehow
must be said before there's
any going on or going home.

The Siren's Tail

The ceiling began its upward curve from this band, making the arc of the vault conform to that of the doorway. The border was richly inventive and delightful, with excellent carving, being harmoniously filled with little semi-human sea-monster in an imitation of water and waves. There were women with curling fish-like tails seated on the their backs, some of them nude, embracing the monsters with mutual intertwinings. Some played the flute or fantastic instruments, while others were seated in strange chariots drawn by tireless dolphins. some were crowned with the cold flowers of water-lilies and clothed in the foliage of the same; others had many vases filled with fruits, and overflowing horns. Some were striking each other with bundles of sedges and flowers of wood-beard; others were girt with trivuli. The rest fought mounted on hippopotami and various other unfamiliar beasts protected with tortoise-shell. Here and there they were acting lasciviously, or playing various festive games. Their vivacious gestures and movements were carved and expressed to perfection, and the decoration ran all the way form one side to the other.

In this way I came to the end of the hallway, where the charming scenes ended, but beyond that there was such dense darkness that I did not dare to proceed. I was turning to go back when suddenly I heard a sound in the ruins like the breaking of bones and the cracking of branches. I stood stock still, my delightful recreation shattered, and then heard, closer to hand, a sound like the dragging of a great bull's carcase over the rough and ruin-strewn ground. As it grew ever louder and nearer to the doorway, I heard the deafening hiss of a giant serpent. I was stunned. Voiceless, and with my hair standing on end, I felt no reassurance in rushing for escape into that thick darkness.

--- Hypnerotomachia Poliphila,, transl. Joscelyn Godwin

Ghost Music (2004)

Fascinating but fatal is the Leanhaun
Shee, the "fairy mistress" who is so
hauntingly beautiful that men cannot
fail to fall in love with her. If a man
should meet her, then through his love
for her he is inspired with the power
of the bardic arts. However, she is
a malevolent muse, for through loving
her the Gaelic poets die young. She
is restless and will not let them
practice their art long on earth.

-- Nigel Pennick, Celtic Sacred Landscapes

Driving home last night after the gym
it was raining slow and steadily, summer's
pulse of that cerulean certainty which
cauls every day in sun then storm.
I popped in an old CD, Everything But
The Girl's Walking Wounded (1996), and
settled into techno-dance mixes of love
songs which somehow caught the far
rumble of thunder and held it there
in moisture and abandon of storm.
But most strongly it made me
recall the taste of bad Scotch in
secret places, illicitly honeyed,
infernally wronged-Clan MacGregor, I
think, $16.99 a half gallon, cheap
enough to drink the way I desired.
The glow of that booze settled on
an awful season, just after I got
married the second time, when I
gave myself permission to get lost
in the bottle again. So much
of that drive home yesterday had
the same familiars: job and gym
done, mind and body relaxing from
that toil, the long miles home opening
like petals, though then it was a
darker, opiate bloom I desired, not
the flush of fresh love, deciding
back then to give in to a falling man's
gradient of deceit and loss, down
and out whatever drain I'd find.
That when my new wife waited for
me happy in our new home -- the
same as this one, only younger --
glad for me to be a part of it,
kissing me when I got home and
then working upstairs arranging
furniture or making the bed
this linen-fresh, bright white
arrangement. Downstairs I made
dinner working on my "cooking
Scotch," refilling my glass again
and again from the bottle under
the counter, or sniping swigs
from the other bottle stashed in
the closet. And that music played
on the stereo, the late summer
afternoon mixing into it a sere
gloom, at least the way I perceived
things descending down the buzz
of too much bad Scotch. The
sureness of the descent was
somehow made delightful by
the flightiness of my deceit,
perhaps as every deal with the
devil is forged. I cooked our
dinner in a filling cloud
and praised our love when my new
wife came downstairs to eat,
too affirming, overloud, yes, but
nothing -- not yet -- that my wife
would take notice of. Little did
she know I was stealing her
happiness, draught by draught
from that cheap green bottle.
There was not poetry those days,
only dark love and ever guiltier
arrears in the motions of a man
of the suburbs. (The poetry began
further down, whether to praise
or redeem my blackening wings,
I'll never know, though that writing
has led me here. I listened to that sad
music yesterday and wondered why I
would want to bugger love so and good,
choosing instead to pursue the secret
thrills balmed by that booze. Perhaps
it was just the toll of an ex-drinker
turned gentlemanly spelunker, my
ravel back down to the thickest
Scotch-amber below. Perhaps too I'd
chosen the false god of fast fucks, that
zero half of my moral circuitry (always
suspect), taking what was mine when
I couldn't get her to agree to fall my way.
Somehow -- thank God -- I found the
plug for that jug. I ravelled back home
and remained, choosing to love the
difficult and the real. The permanent
and legitimate. The spirit not found
in bottles, or between any bad woman's
great thighs. Why did I want to hear
that music which rises the gorge of
my awfullest times? Certainly not
to indulge a dark thought of returns.
(I pray.) Perhaps because it's becoming
safe enough to look back on those days
with no desire for them. Humbling move,
the awfulness this ink can only
rib and echo, the malevolent muse
of every ebb and recede, her charms
sufficient only when the hole in me's
indulged, making comfort instead
of truth the drink of the day -- Perhaps.
But I also heard in those songs a
mere terrible sway which I could no
better resist than say here just what
made such dreariness also dear.
And so I listened to a song or two
as I drove my way home, a man
minted of motions counterclockwise
to those screws, looking forward
to this rain in our garden as I cook
up a meal -- kisses surficial and
a clear deep dark blue, that half
of the tide now married to you.

Columba and HIs Two-Faced Past

In St. Columba's encounters with his pagan past, darkness and light are like a magical seam. He meets Black Angus on the shore of Iona -- an ugly seal-man who is Judas and married to Lilith, a sea-witch ("Columba and Angus MacOdrum, Feb. 1, 2005 posting) ; and he also meets on that shore Manannan in the form of a shapely youth. Oran -- of the clan MacOdrum and he who travels on in search of Manannan -- is Columba's unconscious persona who remains connected to the Otherworld.

In an anecdote of Colum Cille in "Sancti Columbae Hiensis cum Mongano Heroe Colloquium" (ed. Grossjean), a mysterious youth appears to Columcille at Carraic Eolairc on the shores of Loch Foyle. When asked by Columcille about the original form of the lake, the youth gave a description from his own experience. The youth describes the prosperous country which the lake has covered, and says that he has at various times been a deer, a salmon, a seal, a wolf, and a man. Carney: "The mysterious youth came to be identified with Mongan mac Fiachna, but I would suggest tentatively that in the original composer's mind, although preserved without identification, he probably came out of the water and may have been a manifestation of Manannan Mac Lir.


Columba's curiosity about his past is weirdly echoed in a tale in which a chalice used by the Iona abbey is broken. It is taken by one of the monks to the sea-god Manannan, who magically restores the chalice by blowing on it. He sends it back to Columba with a question: would he achieve Christian immortality? "Alas," says the ungrateful saint, "there is no forgiveness for a man who does such works as this!" The message is returned to Manannan, who breaks out into an indignant lament. "Woe is me, Mannan-mac Lir! For years I've helped the Catholics of Ireland, but I'll do it no more, till they're weak as water. I'll go to the gray waves in the Highlands of Scotland."

Sounds of the Magic South

We have connected the Music of the South with low-class entertainers, but this gives only one side of the picture. Time and again, both in the early literature and in folktales, sweet music is revealed to be one of the essential attributes of the Other World. Its sound often heralds the approach of the supernatural, and by means of it the sid-folk place men and women under enchantment.

... In China "right behavior" Li and music ... are contrasted: "Li is of the order of earth ... music was made manifest in the genesis of all things, and Li has an abode in their completion." It is a supernatural belief that words have a creative power; they symbolize the manifest world. Music, on the other hand, brings us into harmony with the non-manifest, and "to understand music is to understand the secret source of Li"

-- Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage

Proximity (Feb. 2, 2005)

I know I'm close to you
when the surf is high
yet far, its drone piped
from a distant drowse
which floats into pure blue.
Driving home last night
wrecked by the difficulty
of my day -- ferrying,
if you will, a hundred
wounded cares --
I popped in Lyle Mays'
Solo CD, jumping to
"Let Me Count the Ways,"
which for 3 minutes
pilots your infinity,
pouring sweetness and
grief from a piano's
jazz into my broken
brow and hull, letting
go the flood that's
always just below.
I thought of my wife
at home hard at work
at her sewing machine,
embroidering bed linens
of a dream we make
together, waking (at
least on weekend)
wrapped in the cool
blue wash of first light
amid the antique and
clean whites and
pale fern greens of
the bedroom she and
love both made.
That gentle so
gorgeous jazz filled
my ear as I drove
back to home shores,
traffic knotted with
fretful tail lights
and the sky at that
hour of the season
another seam for you,
the last blues ebbing
into black with the
first stars burning through.
For the duration of that
song my work day was
simply the cross you
came and lifted me
from. its difficulty
like a rock hard pounded
by the sea, the stinging
mist arising from
the mash angelic
and deep blue, singing
hosannas of soul sweetness
surely sent from every
depth of you, though
only the music is what
endures till all my
hearts have drowned.
How good it was to
get home at last, pulling
in the driveway with
you in the kitchen
making dinner & the
lights bright in nearly
every room, the dark
outside a rich wild
velvet in which love
so gemlike harps
its gleaming distant tune.

Verge, Marge, Shore (Feb. 2, 2005)

In the 32 Triad of the "Mysteries of
the Bards" it is said that when the soul
inherits Gwnnfyd, that is, Happiness, three
supreme gifts -- once, long ago, its crown,
but long, long ago, lost (...) -- primitive
genius, primitive love, and primitive memory.

Fiona Macleod, "A Triad"

Wash your plashing curves over me here,
oh my blue empyreia, salt of my swoon's
incessant plunge: tail every siren's sweet
wave-breaking tune with the harder
caesuras of abyss, black as the churl
who came from the West bearing a
heavy horned cudgel of pure South.
Verge in my margins shores of white bliss.
Pour in my ears the roars and ebbed
hiss which rises to fall into your dark Yes.
Walk with me here where the triad completes
its charm of three heavens -- old dreams,
first kisses, the infinite book at the rear
of all seas where one tidal music
drowns all the reams. I'll be your pilot,
your lover man, your poet despite
that those worlds are now far under
and near lost, subsumed by the
greater brute thunder of waves
pounding for miles and aeons the loneliest
of shores where I daily wake and walk,
the no-longer-quite-solid-or-solitary
penman, author and augurer, blue
salt's inland metaphor and integer,
its dreamiest denizen. Leave the lapis
at the last line I weave, a hue of
lazuli bluer than this world has seen,
yet. Let the horses ride wild on
the steppes of far waves, their
courses and thunder hooved hard
from your heart, or mine, our ours, I dunno,
the sources of song are so vast and
so lost and ripe for the plucking,
for fucking and flipping like
flat stones cross still waters,
plucking the surface then diving full down
through every egress to kiss your breast
and sleep, perhaps forever.

Rudder, Root, Roar (Feb. 4, 2005)

Without these soaks in
your old blue, I'd surely
die of dry futurity,
a three-world man
planed flat of all his
lumps and sags. Ahead
like a shimmering runway
lies the long workday
in the life I found
when I made my
grief of you a song,
an inland road
shy of shores or
even the faint thunder
of the surf, having
fading and long dried
to relic dunes
my wheels sigh over
on the way to work.
Nowhere in that
furious hive of forwarding
labors is there time
or room to stray
or curve, so this scant
hour here must fall
anchorlike down the
shelves of silted rue,
salvaging the flukes
and spume of those
drowned mordents
which are the sighing
depths of you, or me,
or what you and I
hurled long ago. The
greater half of the
bright day ahead
roots down in cold
abysms to grip
and suck rootlike
that mouldered bed
in which we once
cooked the very
devil in a spasm of Yes
which broke my
every shore in one
loud booming crash
then ebbed in such
angelic bliss to
haunt the rowing here
in predawn depths,
haunting every line
with a hallowed
harrowed sound,
weaving like a
siren's hair around
this pale white
writing chair.
Forward now I
must row, to complete
the tasks assigned
by love of the life
which rose treelike
from that bed, a faith
and purpose married
to your own. Daily
I mouth these prayers
inside a chapel
on the shore, built
over what is known
about the mysteries
of that ancient
unquiet blue, its floor
and footers ruddered
by old urgent and
betsotted bones which
mouth the ever tide.
Ahead the road to the rest
of my life, bright for
the trudging and arrowed
like a western sun
directly toward the strife.
Praise to the shells
which you delve and roar
hard pounded in the
asphalt, ferrying that
deluge into all dry
hours far ahead.

Book, Boat, Bone (2003)

Here I am again
striding in the surf
& riding out to you
writing it all down
on an ossuary of foam.

You walked away:
"not here" is inscribed
on a pouty angel's ass,
taboo and tide

my voyaging silk
to absent tart islands
and their galling,
gorgeous milk.

Breviary, bestiary,
book in ocean thrown:
each wave I well here
is a vowel of the
sea's blue bone,

curving plash to hiss:
the motions of a
lover's tongue,
the first line last kiss.

From Underneath (Stephen Dunn)

A giant sea turtle saved the life
of a 52 year old woman lost at sea
for two days after a shipwreck
in the Southern Philippines. She rode
on the turtle's back.

-Syracuse Post-Standard

When her arms were no longer
strong enough to tread water
it came up beneath her, hard
and immense, and she thought
this is how death comes,
something large between your legs
and then the plunge.
She dived off instinctively,
but it got beneath her again
and when she realized what it was
she soiled herself, held on.

God would have sent something winged,
she thought. This came from beneath,
a piece of hell that killed a turtle
on the way and took its shape.
How many hours passed?
She didn't know, but it was night
and the waves were higher. The
thing swam easily in the dark.

She swooned into sleep.
When she woke it was morning,
the sea calm, her strange raft
still moving. She noticed the elaborate
pattern of its shell, map-like,
the leathery neck and head
as if she'd come up behind
an old longshoreman
in a hard-backed chair.
She wanted and was afraid to touch
the head-one finger
just above the eyes-
the way she could touch her cat
and make it hers.
The more it swam a steady course
the more she spoke to it
the jibberish of the lost.
And then the laughter
located at the bottom
of oneself, unstoppable.

The call went from sailor to sailor
on the fishing boat: A woman
riding an "oil drum"
off the starboard side.
But the turtle was already swimming
toward the prow
with its hysterical, foreign cargo
and when it came up alongside
it stopped until she could be hoisted off.
Then it circled three times
and went down.
The woman was beyond all language
the captain reported;
the crew was afraid of her
for a long, long time.


My whole life is mine, but whoever says so
will deprive me, for it is infinite.
The ripple of water, the shade of the sky
are mine; it is still the same, my life.

No desire opens me: I am full,
I never close myself with refusal-
in the rhythm of my daily soul
I do not desire-I am moved;

by being moved I exert my empire,
making the dreams of night real:
into my body at the bottom of the water
I attract the beyonds of mirrors...

-- Translated by A. Poulin

WATER BRIDE (Dec. 24, 2002)

The water bride returned
in the silted waters
of night: She was weary

of wearing this or that
woman's face, so she
came blind as the sea.

I was once desperate
to claim her for life
& so kept losing her

in comic motions,
shaping my body for her,
shouting into waves.

None of it worked: She
lapsed on back into surf,
leaving this bald shore,

even her smile erased
in the boneless wash.
But not lost. She curves

every line down this page,
across and down down
down, nothing I'll kiss

again but deeper, a wave
washed through, forever
afoot in wastes of this heart.

I have been pickled in
her brine: I am that dawn
where she'll always shine,

that scree of white
slippers dancing where
I pull my every breath.

It's 5:30 a.m. on Christmas
Eve, the windows open
to a restlessness which

later will pour rain
then turn cold. I am that year
at birth once again:

son and lover of a
uteral gulf which streams
through the day

like the sheets of her
gauze bower, cell and
boudoir, well and tower,

ring to middle finger,
trothed to the wave's
forever breaking smile.


When by the twilit sea these twain were come
Dermid spake no one word,Grainne was dumb,
And in the hearts of both deep silence was.
"Sorrow upon me, love," whispered the grass;
"Sorrow upon me, love," the sea-bird cried;
"Sorrow upon me, love," the lapsed wave sighed.

"For what the King has willed, that thing must be,
O Dermid! As two waves upon this sea
Wind-swept we are,--the wind of his dark mind,
With fierce inevitable tides behind."
"What would you have, O Grainne: he is King."
"I would we were the birds that come with Spring,
The purple-feathered birds that have no home,
The birds that love, then fly across the foam."

"Give me thy mouth, O Dermid," Grainne said.
Thereafter, and whispering thus she leaned her head --
Ah, supple, subtle snake she glided there
Till, on his breast, a kiss-deep was her hair
That twisted serpent-wise in gold-red pain
From where his lips held high their proud disdain.
"Here, here," she whispered low, "here on my mouth
The swallow, Love, hath found his haunted South."

Then Dermid stooped and passionlessly kissed.
But therewith Grainne won what she had missed,
And that night was to her, and all sweet nights
Thereafter, as Love's flaming swallow-flights
Of passionate passion beyond speech to tell.
But Dermid knew how vain was any spell

Against the wrath of Finn: and Grainne's breath
To him was ever chill with Grainne's death;
Full well he knew that in a soundless place
His own wraith stood and with a moon-white face
Watched its own shadow laugh and shake its spear
Far in a phantom dell against a phantom deer.

"Elegy: The God in the Sea Greets Bran In the Land of the Waves" (Seamus Heaney)

(from the Eighth-Century Irish "Voyage of Bran")

When Bran and his companions had been at sea for two days and two nights, they saw a man in a chariot coming toward them over the sea. The man sang to them and made himself known, saying he was Manannan. These are some of the verses he sang:

Bran is astonished at the beauty of the waters;
his coracle lifts on the clear wave.
I ride where he rows; my chariot plunges, I
surge through a blossoming plain.

Bran rolls with his boat, the sea lifts and
lays him, he leans to the prow.
My chariot axle threshes a surf of wildflowers,
my wheels are spattered with flower juice.

Bran sees the backs of the waves like the quick
backs of dolphins; the sea surface glitters.
I see greensward, wild roses and clover,
the pelt of the grazing.

You look and next thing salmon leap out
of the foam; mother-wet silver.
They are my calves, my calves' licks, my
lambs, my bleating cavorters.

One chariot, one charioteer-me at full tilt-
that's all you can see.
You are blind to what's here. The land is a drumming
of hoofbeats, a mane-flow, a host at full gallop.

The land is immense, we swarm in its
bounty, it flourishes for us.
You are welcome; from the prow, gather up
the fruit of the branches.

Men and women, lovely, at ease among
windfalls. No sin and no forcing.
They rise off the forest floor, they pour
out the wine.

We are from the beginning, won't grow
old or go under the earth.
We cannot imagine debility; we
are unmarked by guilt.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Progeny of the Seal

MacLeod mentions a MacOdrum of Uist of the Slioch-nan-ron or Progeny of the Seal. "The seals splash to and fro from the moon-dazzle, calling to one another, We, to, are the sons of God."

-- Fiona McLeod, Iona

MacOdrum (Feb. 1, 2005)

It is given to them (the seal-
tribe of MacOdrum) that their
sea-longing shall be land-longing
and their land-longing shall
be sea-longing.

-- South Uist farmer

Shall I forever row
this rock which flaunts
below so brute a tail
and brogues the wind
like flukes? Standing
here do I forever
ride the wave
which answers every
shore with blue recede?
Surely I was just the next
nude nallie to lose his skin
in your embrace, doomed
thus to build his lives
ashore with the greater
half of the three hearts
pursed in your abyssal blue.
Half-man half fish
between the worlds
I weave my three
dark songs of fin
and breast and
thrall, that music
riven as the tide
which pounds these
rocky cliffs where
you are least of all.
Will you ever give
me back my skin,
that oiled black frock
which I must wear
to dive full back to
the single world,
free of doubletalk at last?
Shall I woo you or connive,
do I ravage the verses
or mount the mare I ride?
Such strategems
I dream atop this lonely
rock which is my writing
chair, reaching out as
far as I know how
to kiss the cross still
burning there, inscribed
aeons ago when love
was young and I woke
in your arms, a naked,
fresh-borne man 18 miles
out to sea with no
way ever to go home.
Your breath has
stayed in my ear
for all these lives,
like the sea inside
a shell, a shining
blue tide my song
has slowly pickled in.
Three cups, three
heavens, three purgatories
here beyond the ninth
wave you folded and
crashed over me --
a charnel house of
every thrill and thrall
to fade from blue to black.
I hear the selkies singing
on moony nights as
this an hour from
first light: I write
their sealskins down.
Inside this oratory
on high rock I
nail that strange music
to my own, a revenant
still revenant of
the blue which
drowned my bones.

Neil McCodrum and the selkie

Long ago, on an island at the northern edge of the world, there lived a fisherman called Neil McCodrum. He lived all alone in a stone croft where the moorland meets the shore, with nothing but the guillemots for company and the stirring of the sand among the shingle for song.

But in the long winter evenings he would sit by the peat-fire and watch the blue smoke curling up to the roof, and his eyes looked far and far away as if he was looking into another country. And sometimes, when the wind rustled the bent-grass on the machair, he seemed to hear a soft voice sighing his name.

One spring evening, the men of the clachan were bringing their boats full of herring into shore. They swung homeward with glad hearts, and their wives lit the rushlights, so that the wide world dwindled to a warm quiet room. Neil McCodrum was the last to drag his boat up the shingle and hoist the creel of fish upon his back. He stood a while watching the seabirds fly low towards the headland, their wings dark against the evening sky, then turned to trudge up the shingle to the croft on the machair.

It was as he turned, he saw something move in the shadows of the rocks. A glimmer of white and then - he heard it between birds' cries - high laughter like silver. He set down the creel, and with careful steps he neared the rocks, hardly daring to breathe, and hid behind the largest one. And then he saw them - seven girls with long dark flowing hair, naked and white as the swans on the lake, dancing in a ring where the shoreline met the sea.

And now his eye caught something else - a shapeless pile of speckled brown skins lying heaped like seaweed on a boulder nearby. Now Neil knew that they were selkie, who are seals in the sea, but when they come to land, take off their skins and appear as human women.

Humped low so he would not be seen, Neil McCodrum crept towards the pile of skins, and slowly slid the top one down. But scarcely had he rolled it up and put it under his coat, than one of the selkie gave a sharp cry. The dance stopped, the circle broke, and the girls ran to the boulder, slipped into their skins and slithered into the rising tide, shiny brown seals that glided away into the dark night sea.

All but one.

She stood before him as white as a pearl, as still as frost in starlight. She stared at him with great dark eyes, then slowly she held out her hand, and said in a voice that trembled with silver:

"Ochone, ochone! Please give me back my skin."

He took a step towards her and she stared at him with large brown eyes that held the depths of the sea. "Come with me," he said, "I will give you new clothes to wear."

The wedding of Neil McCodrum and the selkie woman was set for the time of the waxing moon and the flowing tide. All the folk of the clachan came, six whole sheep were roasted and the whiskey ran like water. Toasts overflowed from every cup for the new bride and groom, who sat at the head of the table: McCodrum, beaming and awkward, unused to pleasure, tapped his spoon to the music of fiddle and pipe, but the woman sat quietly beside him at the bride-seat, and seemed to be listening to another music that had in it the sound of the sea.

After a while she bore him two children, a boy and a girl, who had the sandy hair of their father, but the great dark eyes of their mother, and there were little webs between their fingers and toes. Each day, when Neil was out in his boat, she and her children would wander along the machair to gather wild parsnips and berries, or fill their creels with carrageen from the rocks at low tide. She seemed settled enough in the croft on the shore, and in May-time when the air was scented with thyme and roseroot and the children ran towards her, their arms full of wild yellow irises, she was almost happy. But when the west wind brought rain, and strong squalls of wind that whistled through the cracks in the croft walls, she grew restless and moved about the house as if swaying to unseen tides, and when she sat at the spinning-wheel, she would hum a strange song as the fine thread streamed through her fingers. McCodrum hated these times and would sit in the dark peat-corner glowering at her over his pipe, but unable to say a word.

Thirteen summers had passed since the selkie woman came to live with McCodrum, and her children were almost grown. As she knelt on the warm earth one afternoon, digging up silverweed roots to roast for supper, the voice of her daughter Morag rang clear and excited through the salt-pure air and soon the girl was beside her holding something in her hands.

"O mother! Is this not the strangest thing I have found in the old barley-kist, softer than the mist to my touch?"

Her mother rose slowly to her feet, and in silence ran her hand along the speckled brown skin. It was smooth like silk. She held it to her breast with one hand, and put her other arm around her daughter, and walked back with her to the croft in silence, heedless of the girl's puzzled stares. Once inside, she called her son Donald to her, and spoke gently to her children:

"I will soon be leaving you, mo chridhe, and you will not see me again in the shape I am in now. I go not because I do not love you, but because I must become myself again."

That night, as the moon sailed white as a pearl over the western sea, the selkie woman rose, leaving the warm bed and slumbering husband. She walked alone to the silent shore and took off her clothes, one by one, and let them fall to the sand. Then she stepped lightly over the rocks and unrolled the speckled brown parcel she carried with her, and held it up before her. For one moment maybe she hesitated, her head turning back to the dark, sleeping croft on the machair; the next, she wrapped the shining skin about her and dropped into the singing water of the sea.

For a while a sleek brown head could be seen in the dip and crest of the moon-dappled waves, pointing ever towards the far horizon, and then, swiftly leaping and diving towards her, came six other seals. They formed a circle around her and then all were lost to view in the soft indigo of the night.

In the croft on the machair, Neil McCodrum stirred, and felt for his wife, but his hand encountered a cold and empty hollow. He knew better than to look for her and he also knew she would never come to him again. But when the moon was young and the tide waxing, his children would not sleep at night, but ran down to the sands on silent webbed feet. There, by the rocks on the shoreline, they waited until she came - a speckled brown seal with great dark eyes. Laughing and calling her name, they splashed into the foaming water and swam with her until the break of day.

Knight Errant (March 2004)

Lord, I do not know
how I err so wide
riding the back
of so narrow a pen:
How, when I attempt
to describe the vaults
you have filled
in my day -- feverish
spring, the drift of
a nap on the courses
of a breeze, dreams
of breasty valences
breaking yeasty waves --
You resound in my
yesses with such
echoing no-ey egresses,
your refusal of home
in a wave’s recessional
pale foam. Striving for
a precision of alms
I keep confusing the ends
-- are you over or
under the great water,
inside or beyond the
the next room I dream?
Are those fragrant bells
of orange blossom now
tolling through revery
window your envoys,
or are they augurs
of fullness whose kiss
shrieks of dregs down
the bottommost plunge
of abysm? How would
I know, O Lord, without
Your blue graces
sprinkled over me in
the trough between
the lines, east of good
porpoise and west of
divine shoals -- salt
ablutions You sieved
from texts housed under
the North Sea’s
northernmost wash,
revealing the other’s
undermost ravines,
maulings of basalt
which somehow
balance the wings of
every cloud-harping
stooge of empyriea.
Your corrective croaks
from the dirt of every
cathedral I have presumed
to build. Song strung
with human wires still
taut with heart balls
& mouth, it all seems
so half-understood
flapping here on the page,
still wet with salt
infinity, the eyes I see
with draining of
undervaults into the
blindness of day: A
cockeyed organum
for wind, wooer and wave,
harrowing a threshold
that moves every day,
like a barrier island
or itinerant god whose
name tides the sea.
Make fragrant and
wild, O Lord, this
aging man’s music
in Your surf’s choired skulls.

Holy isle, holy merge

Islands in holy lakes have a special quality, for it is through lakes that the otherwordly land of Tir nan Og may be visited. This is the “Country of Youth,” where people and non-human beings live immune to the passage of time. It is said to exist in the depths of lakes, and the legend is localized in several places such as Lough Carrib, Lough Gur and Lough Neagh.

On occasion, these lands have been visited by human beings. Both the bard Oisin and the warrior O’Donoghue entered the otherworldly realm through the Lake of Killarney.

To reach Tir nan Og, one must pass through the reflective crystal waters of the lake, undertaking a journey from the outer world into the inner, just as the sun enters the waters of the underworld at sunset. It is a perilous shamanic descent into the unconscious depths where timeless archetypes reside.

The lake is a dangerous crystal castle where all is reflected inwards. There, the visitor may be trapped in an inner world that bears no relation to the outer one. Once entered, it is a region from which it is difficult to escape. But those who do manage to return to the everyday world are transformed by the experience.

-- Nigel Pennick, Celtic Sacred Landscapes

Tir nan Og (2003)

This journal-page is just
the surface of a lake too
bright with what we intend
to see what’s really there.
When the bothos of
this pen begins to flow
I again descend
to the chapel
of Tir nan Og, a bone
house lodged among
meteorites and
broken swords. Here
is the crystal skull
of Oran, a water-song
weaves and winnows
my words amid
dancing weeds and
drowned maidenhair.
Down here depth is
true compass and
blue the only coin
the mistress of the
house accepts,
pressing my mint
into her dread corset
deeper than any
loch in Scotland.
The music enchants
and dreams and fins
and pours like blood
bereft of pause or staunch.
ItÕs said that no one
returns from the castle
in the lake -- not quite,
though I see the shore
again now brightening
above with a spring-
sugary day. Who knows
how the selkies and
melusina will succor
the singer who remains
down there while
I emerge dripping
here, but of him I’m
harrowed in a
a way that will forever
return me back down there,
next day, next poem,
next page parting where
it’s bluest and deepest,
where all harper plays
all night in the shadow
house of song.

Columba and Angus Macodrum (Black Angus)

On a day of the days, Colum was walking alone by the sea-shore. The monks were at the hoe or the spade, and some milking the kye, and some at the fishing. They say it was on the first day of the Faoilleach Geamhraidh, the day that is called Am Fhill Brighde, and that they call Candlemas over yonder.

The holy man had wandered on to where the rocks are, opposite to Soa. He was praying and praying; and it is said that whenever he prayed aloud, the barren egg in the nest would quicken, and the blighted bud unfold, and the butterfly break its shroud.

Of a sudden he came upon a great black seal, lying silent on the rocks, with wicked eyes.

“My blessing upon you, O Ron,” he said, with the good kind courteousness that was his.
“Droch spadadh ort,” answered the seal, “A bad end to you, Colum of the Gown.”

“Sure now,” said Colum angrily, “I am knowing by that curse that you are no friend of Christ, but of the evil pagan faith out of the north. For here I am known ever as Colum the White, or as Colum the Saint; and it is only the Picts and the wanton Normen who deride me because of the holy white robe I wear.”

“Well, well,” replied the seal, speaking the good Gaelic as though it were the tongue of the deep sea, as God knows it may be for all you, I, or the blind wind can say; “well, well, let that thing be: it’s a wave-way here or a wave-way there. But now, if it is a druid you are, whether of fire or of Christ, be telling me where my woman is, and where my little daughter.”

At this, Colum looked at him for a long while. Then he knew.

“It is a man you were once, O Ron?”

“Maybe ay and maybe no.”

“|And with that thick Gaelic that you have, it will be out of the north isles you come?”

“That is a true thing.”

“Now I am for knowing at last who and what you are. You are one of the race of Odrum the Pagan?”

“Well, I am not denying it, Colum. And what is more, I am Angus MacOdrum, Aonghas mac Torcall mhic Odrum, and the name I am known by is Black Angus.”

“A fitting name too,” said Colum the Holy, “because of the black sin in your heart, and the black end God has in store for you.”

At that Black Angus laughed.

“Why is the laughter upon you, Man-Seal?”

“Well, it is because of the good company I’ll be having. But, now, give me the word: Are you for having seen or heard of a woman called Kirsteen MÕVurich?”

“Kirsteen -- that is the good name of a nun it is, and no sea-wanton!”

“O, a name here or a name there s soft sand. And so you cannot be for telling me where my woman is?”


“Then a stake for your belly, and nails through your hands, thirst on your tongue, and the corbies at your eyne!”

And, with that, Black Angus louped into the green water, and the hoarse wild laugh of him sprang into the air and fell dead upon the shore like a wind-spent mew.

Colum went slowly back to the brethren, brooding deep. “God is good,” he said in a low voice, again and again; and each time that he spoke there came a daisy into the grass, or a bird rose, with song to it for the first time, wonderful and sweet to hear.

As he drew near to the House of God he met Murtagh, an old monk of the ancient race of the isles.

“Who is Kirsteen M’Vurich, Murtagh?” he asked.

“She was a good servant of Christ, she was, in the south isles, O Colum, till Black Angus won her to the sea.”

“And when was that?”

“Nigh upon a thousand years ago.”

“But can mortal sin live as long as that?”

“Ay, it endureth. Long, long ago, before Oisin sang, before Fionn, before Cuchullin, was a glorious great prince, and in the days when the Tuatha-de-Danann were sole lords in all green Banba, Black Angus made the woman Kirsteen M’Vurich leave the place of prayer and go down to the sea-sbore, and there he leaped upon her and made her his prey, and she followed him into the sea.”

“And is death above her now?”

“No. She is the woman that weaves the sea-spells at the wild place out yonder that is known as Earraid: she that is called the seawitch.”

“Then why was Black Angus for the seeking her here and the seeking her there?”

“It is the Doom. It is Adam’s first wife she is, that sea-witch over there, where the foam is ever in the sharp fangs of the rocks.”

“And who will he be?”

“His body is the body of Angus, the son of Torcall of the race of Odrum, for all that a seal be is to the seeming; but the soul of him is Judas.”

“Black Judas, Murtagh?”

“Ay, Black Judas, Colum.”

But with that, Ivor Macrae rose abruptly from before the fire, saying that he would speak no more that night. And truly enough there was a wild, lone, desolate cry in the wind, and a slapping of the waves one upon the other with an eerie laughing sound, and the screaming of a seamew that was like a human thing.
So I touched the shawl of his mother, who looked up with startled eyes and said, “God be with us”; and then I opened the door, and the salt smell of the wrack was in my nostrils, and the great drowning blackness of the night.

Your feathers wing my song

The "tuion" or "singing robe" (of the Irish bard) may have been stolen from an otherworld woman who spends alternating years as a bird. In "The Dream of Oengus," a man betroths a selkie (seal-woman), an while he is in possession of the (human) robe she is in his power.

-- Anne Rosse, Pagan Celtic Britain

The Goodman of Wastness

A tale of the selkie from the Orkney islands:

The Goodman of Wastness was a handsome, well-to-do young fellow.

Strong, well-liked and with a profitable farm, it will come as no surprise to learn that many of the unmarried local girls had their sights on him.

However, despite their ample attentions the Goodman was a man who was simply not interested in marriage.

Their advances spurned, the local girls soon began to treat the Goodman with contempt.

Describing him as "an old, young man" and "old before his time" in their eyes he was committing the unpardonable sin of celibacy.

The Goodman, however, paid these malicious creatures little heed and as is more often the case, the gossips soon turned their attentions elsewhere. When questioned by his friends as to the reason he would not take himself a wife, the Goodman would smile and simply explain:

"Weemin ir lik minny ither tings in dis weary wurld, only sent fur a trial tae man an' I hae trials aplenty withoot bein' tried be a wife. If yin owld fool Adam hiddno been bewitched be his wife, he might still be in the Gerdeen o' Eden the day."

Women are like many other things in this weary world, only sent as a trial to men and I have enough trials without being tried by a wife. If that old fool Adam had not been bewitched by his wife, he might still be in the Garden of Eden to this day

One old woman who heard this oft-repeated speech, remarked:

"Tak thoo heed theesel, fur thou'll mibbe be yursel' bewitched wan day."

Heed well what you say, you will maybe be bewitched yourself one day

"Aye," replied the Goodman, laughing. "That'll be when thou waaks dry-shod fae the Alters o' Seenie tae da Boar o' Papey"

That will be when you walk from the Alters o' Seenie to the Boar o' Papa [Orkney placenames] without wetting your feet

So it came to pass that one fine day the Goodman was down on the ebb when he saw, a short distance away, a number of Selkie Folk lying out on a flat rock.

Some of these Selkie Folk were sunning themselves in the afternoon warmth while others jumped and played in the clear water. All were naked with unblemished skins as white as snow. Their enchanted seal-skins lay strewn carelessly on the sand and rocks around them.

The Goodman crept closer to their basking rock.

As he neared the place the Selkie Folk played, the Goodman leapt to his feet and ran towards them for all he was worth. With a shriek the Selkie Folk snatched up their seal skins and quickly retreated to the safety of the sea. However, swift as they were, the Goodman was quicker and he managed to seize a skin belonging to one beautiful seal-maiden.

In the hasty rush to safety this poor creature had forgotten to retrieve her skin.

The Selkie Folk swam out a little distance and turned to gaze mournfully at the Goodman. He stared back and realised that all, save one, had taken the shape of seals. Grinning, he put the captured seal-skin under his arm. Whistling a merry tune he set out for home.

No sooner had he left the ebb than he heard the most sorrowful wailing and weeping coming from behind him. Turning, he saw a fair woman following him. She was a most pitiful sight. Sobbing and howling in grief, she held her arms out and pled to have her skin returned. Huge tears ran from her large dark eyes and trickled down her ivory cheeks.

Falling to her knees, she cried:

"O bonnie man! If thur's inny mercy in thee human breest, gae me back me ain selkie skin! I cinno live in da sea withoot it. I cinno bide amung me ain folk waythoot me selkie-skin."

Oh handsome man, if there is any mercy in your human breast give me back my seal-skin. I can not live in the sea without it. I cannot live among my own people without my seal-skin.

The Goodman was not a soft-hearted man but he could not help but pity the poor creature. Pity, however, was not the only emotion he felt. With the pity came the softer and sweeter passion of love.

The icy heart that had yet to love a mortal woman was soon melted by this seal-maiden's beauty.

Eventually the Goodman managed to wring from the Selkie Wife a reluctant consent to remain with him as his wife. She had little choice in the matter for as you all Orcadian know, she could not return to her kin in the sea without her skin.

So the sea-maiden went with the Goodman and stayed with him for many a day. She turned out to be a thrifty, frugal and kindly wife and although she was a creature of the sea the Goodman had a happy life with her.

The Selkie Wife bore the Goodman seven children.

Four boys and three girls came from their union and it was said that there were no children as beautiful as them in all the isles. And all the while the sea-wife, and her human husband, seemed content and merry.

But all was not as it seemed - there was a weight in the Selkie Wife's heart. Many was the time that she was seen to gaze longingly out to the sea. The sea that was her true home.

So to all the islanders and to the Goodman himself all seemed well with his family. But as is always the case in these tales, the bliss was not to last.

One fine day, the Goodman and his four sons were out fishing in their boat. With the menfolk out of the house, the Selkie Wife sent three of the girls down to the ebb to gather limpets and whelks for their tea. The youngest girl had to remain at home because she had hurt her foot climbing on the sharp rocks by the shore. As usual, as soon as the house emptied, the selkie wife set to looking for her long-lost seal-skin.

She searched high and she searched low. She searched "but" and she searched "ben". She searched out and she searched in but to no avail.

She could not find the skin.

The time passed and the sun swung to the west, lengthening the shadows. The peedie lass, seated in a straw-backed chair with her sore feet on the creepie, watched her mother carry out the frantic hunt.

"Mam, whit ir thoo luckin' fur?" she asked.

Mother, what are you looking for?

"O' bairn, dinna tell, bit ah'm luckin' fur a bonnie skin tae mak a rivlin dat wid sort thee sore fit." replied the Selkie Wife.

Oh child, don't tell but I'm looking for a pretty skin to make a shoe that would cure your sore feet

"Bit Mam, " said the bairn. "I ken fine whar hid is. Wan day when ye war oot and me Fither thowt I wis sleepin' i' the bed, he teen a bonnie skin doon, gloured at hid for cheust a peedie meenit, then foldit hid an' laid hid up under dae aisins abeun da bed."

But Mother, I know where it is. One day when you were out and my Father thought I was asleep in bed, he took a pretty skin down, glowered at it for a short time, then folded it and put it away in the aisins over the bed

When the Selkie Wife heard this she clapped for joy and rushed to the place where her long-concealed skin lay.

"Fare thee weel, peedie buddo," she said to her child as she ran from the house.

Rushing to the shore she threw on her skin and with a wild cry of joy plunged into the sea. Shifting again into her selkie form she swam out through the waves where a selkie man was waiting for her and greeted her with delight.

All the while, the Goodman was rowing home and happened to see these two selkies from his little boat. His wife uncovered her beautiful face and cried out to him.

"Fare thee weel. Goodman o' Wastness. Farewell tae thee. I liked thee weel enough fur thoo war geud tae me bit I love better me man o' the sea."

Farewell Goodman of Wastness. Farewell to you. I liked you because you were good to me but I love my husband from the sea more.

That was the last the Goodman ever saw of his sea-wife.

Often though, in the twilight of his years, he could be seen wandering on the empty sea-shore, hoping once again to meet his lost love.

But never again did he look upon her fair face.

-- Sigurd Towrie,

Monday, January 31, 2005

Anchoring (On the Precedents for this Work)

As with other traditional cultures, Celtic society could not function without precedents. A dispute over boundaries could not be settled on grounds of expediency; the oldest and most learned historians had to be called upon to recount how ireland was divided in the beginning. When the original model had been recalled, there could be no more further argument: “It is thus it has been, and will be forever.”

That the need for archetypal precedents of this kind persisted even when the old tradition had been supplanted by Christianity is clearly seen in the incantations and charms of Scottish crofters. Cures derive their efficacy, and daily activities their meaning, by being regarded as repititions of what members of the Holy Family and the Saints did once upon a time:

“I bathe my face
In the nine rays of the sun
As Mary bathed her Son
In the rich fermented milk ...”

“I am smooring the fire
As the Son of Mary would smoor ...”

“I will pluck the gracious yarrow
That Christ plucked with his one hand ...”

This is the way of all ancient cultures. Life is meaningful in as much as it is an imitation or reenactment of what the gods did in the beginning: “reality is acquired solely through repetition or participation; everything which lacks an exemplary model is “meaningless,” i.e., it lacks reality.”

-- Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage
(the concluding quote is from Mercea Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return

St. Columba's Precedent

Iona had a history before Columba stepped ashore with his 12 companions at Porta Curraich in 563 AD. To become its new king—the one to dream its dream onward—Columba first had to mate his story with the island’s story, much as kings of his clan were ritually mated with the clan totem, a white mare.

"Desert in the Ocean"

.. the acetic practices of the early Irish church could serve to purge the soul in this life in order to mitigate suffering in the next, and they also served to assist the souls of departed kindred and friends. Asceticism is etched in monastic sites such as Skellig, a bare rock in the sea dedicated to Michael the archangel, leader of souls into Paradise. The hardship of existence on a windswept height over the raging sea must surely have counted as penitential preparation for the perilous passage of the soul after death, and the pilgrimage to the top of the bare height can be seen as a Christian adaptation of Irish pagan practice of assemblies on heights in honour of their deities
As well as living in "a desert in the ocean" like Skellig, undertaking the perilous sea-journey in search of such a retreat is also a feature of early Irish monastic asceticism. The eighth-century Navigatio of St Brendan thereby reflects contemporary monastic practice as well as pre-Christian tales of the journey of a mortal to an overseas Otherworld.

-- Maire Herbert, "The Celtic Otherworld and The Commedia"

The Rock of Purgatory

After this dreadful sight, they sailed for seven days towards the south, and then St. Brendan observed a very dense cloud, on approaching which there came into view what had the shape of a man, sitting on a rock, with a veil before him as large as a sack, hanging between two iron prongs; and he was tossed about like a small boat in a storm. When the brethren saw this, some thought it was a bird, others, that it was a boat; but the man of God told them to cease the discussion, and to steer directly for the place, where, on his arrival, he finds the waves all around motionless, as if frozen over. They found a man sitting on a rugged and shapeless rock, with the waves on every side, which in their flowing beat upon him, even to the top of his head, and in their ebbing exposed the bare rock on which the wretched man was sitting; and the cloth which hung before him, as the winds tossed it about, struck ,him on the eyes and on the forehead.

When the saint asked him who he was, for what crime he was sent there, and how he had deserved to suffer so great a punishment, he answered: ‘I am that most unhappy Judas, the most wicked of all traffickers; not for any deserving of mine, but through the unspeakable mercy of Jesus Christ; am I placed here. I expect no place for repentance; but through the forbearance and mercy of the redeemer of the world, and in honour of His Resurrection, I have this cooling relief, as it is now the Lord's Day; while I sit here, I seem to myself to be in a paradise of delights, considering the agony of the torments that are in store for me afterwards; for when I am in my torments, I burn like a mass of molten lead, day and night, in the heart of that mountain you have seen. There Leviathan and his satellites dwell, and there was I when it swallowed down your lost brother, for which all hell exulted, and belched forth great flames, as it always does, when it devours the souls of the reprobate, But that you may know the boundless mercy of God, I will tell you of the refreshing coolness I have here every Sunday from the first vespers to the second; from Christmas Day to the Epiphany; from Easter to Pentecost; on the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and on the festival of her Assumption, On all other days I am in torments with Herod and Pilate, with Annas and Caiphas; and, therefore, I adjure you, through the Redeemer of the world, to intercede for me With the Lord Jesus, that I may remain here until sunrise tomorrow, and that the demons, because of your coming here, may not torment me, nor sooner drag me off to my heritage of pain, which I purchased at an evil price.’

-- The Voyage of St. Brendan, XIV

Skellig Michael (Jan. 28, 2005)

Looking back from the great civilizations
of 12th-century France or 17th-century
Rome, it is hard to believe that for quite
a long time -- almost a hundred years --
Wester Christianity survived by clinging
to places like Skellig Michael, a pinnacle
of rock eighteen miles from the Irish coast,
rising seven hundred feet out of the sea.

-- Kenneth Clark

Here is your most desolate
shore of rock, southwest
of all we build and till
and love: What a brutal
bed it is, O Lord,
500 feet of stone perched
above a sea-blast
which choirs below
all dreams with the
blessed thunder
of salt’s destiny.
You bid me build
this oratory beyond
all ears, joining my
voice to mashing waves
and a legion of gales,
each note not so
much offered as ripped
from my lips. Here
the oldest gods are
ravenous and raw,
their bones knocking
like boulders against
first rock, fucking
and dismembering
and roaring pure blue
riot, foaling water-dragons
of the tongue I dare not
speak but must because
this hour derives its
gospel from such abyss.
O God it’s lonely here
between angel wing
and heartless tide,
my song a rock
gnawed by appetites
which have not human
end, or, at least
for which few people
I have known would
care to bend their
inner ear. So be it,
ten waves I daily row:
I will make of this
mote in the sea’s
eternal eye a chapel
for every selkie and
child of Lir to lose
their wits on their
way here, long ago
today and perhaps
tomorrow, perhaps
as long as this rock
remains at the last
shore of the heart.

The pilgrimmage on Skellig Michael

... because they are places of vision, mountain-tops are attractive to mystics and magicians. Anyone who reaches a place of vision on a mountain will have done so through undertaking a life-threatening pilgrimmage whose effect will have been transformative. The initiatory nature of climbing can be given no better than the ritual climb performed on the holy isle of Scelig Mhichil. There, after offering and praying at holy wells at the foot of the mount, the votary climbs a steep pathway which leads to narrow chasm called The Needle’s Eye. After squeezing through this gateway, he or she then continues high above the sea on a periolous ledge called the Stone of Pain. Beyond this, the next stopping-place is called the Eagle’s Nest, where there is a stone cross. Lastly, the climber must sit upon a ledge overhanging the sea 460 feet (140m) up, to kiss a cross carved on the rock. Those who succeed in completing this pilgrimmage are respected as brave and pious individuals who will be rewarded in the next life.

Station Island

Station Island in Lough Derg is the site of the most curious pilgrimages in Ireland. It began in the 12th century when a knight named Owen spent a fortnight in prayer and fasting there. He spent the final night of his vigil in a cave, where he received visions of the afterlife, both heavenly and hellish.

Owen recounted his experiences to a Lincolnshire monk, Gilbert of Louth, who spread the story among the Cistercians. They recognized that Owen’s visions were similar to those of St. Patrick, who, unable to convince his congregation of the existence of heaven and hell, prayed to be shown a place where people could experience them. Patrick then discovered a cave where the visions were accessible.

Owen was declared to have rediscovered it, and it was henceforth called St. Patrick’s Purgatory. It became an important place of pilgrimage, though only pilgrims who were considered worthy, and who had purchased the appropriate permits, could enter the cave. Once there, they were shut in to experience visions of torment. They were warned not to sleep, for, as in all otherworldly myths, once one sleeps in the otherworld, one can never re-enter the world of the living.

The Augustinian Order was put in charge of the cave, but in the late medieval period there were allegations that the cave was no longer effective in giving visions. So in 1497 the Pope ordered the cave-shrine to be closed on the grounds that it was inauthentic. But this was not done, for in 1503 the Bishop of Armagh petitioned the Pope to grant indulgences for those who entered the cave.

Nearly 500 years later, the pilgrimage still exists, though the cave is sealed. It lasts three days and begins with a fast. Barefooted pilgrims visit a number of sacred stopping-places, including St. Brigid’s Cross, St. Patrick’s Cross and six beehive cells, named “beds” of various saints. Until quite recently, it also involved plunging into the cold waters of the Lough, but this has been discontinued.

-- Nigel Pennick, Celtic Sacred Landscapes
(Thames & Hudson, 2000), pp. 97-8

St. Patrick's Purgatory (Feb. 2004)

I swam down Oran’s Well to find
The islands that he shored there, the
Gods he named as they ebbed, like surf
Through his hands. I was warned not to
Fall asleep in that hollow, but I did;
It crept over me like a curved
Sweetness, the muse who writes that low
Psalm on every longing heart. When I
Woke I could never quite dry my
Meters of that wash, and now walk
My days harrowed by Oran’s haul,
Drowned in a long-lost coracle.
Hot torch now upside down, skull that
Won’t shut up: The wages of my sin
Are seas I daily fill within.

Every Devotion Dreams It's Cross (Jan. 29, 2005)

For all my voyaging
home is here, on this
sterile black rock
exposed too fatally
to sea and sky, with
every bruised angel
of third heaven
winging round its heart.
Here I am as naked
as the stone washed
by salt immensity,
awed and silenced
by your wild presence
most absent in all
I see and say. How did
I come to make this
chair southwest of
every bed we shared,
to make of my without
an oratory of drowned
prayer? Yet where
else can I see you
better than perched
high on this grave-marker,
the last proud stone
to recall that sea
where kisses mined
infinity and abysms
wombed the oldest
song I’ve yet to find?
Every devotion dreams
its cross, a spread atop
a hill of skulls
exposed to devouring
winds; the heart flung wide
with its ecstatic Yes
to every sea-wolf
and polar hammer of wind
to batter a bed’s high
promontory. On Skellig
Michael the pilgrimage
begins at wells before
the mount, the ache sent
down before the awful
climb along a narrow
stair which threads a
tight chasm called The
Needle’s Eye. From thence
the perilous walk across
that ledge known as the
Stone of Pain where one
step false to you is
a scream straight down
to doom. Still more is
required of the pilgrim
who then stops at
The Eagle’s Nest to touch
the stone cross which reaches
like a throat to heaven
but cannot say the
words, not yet, perhaps
never. Here the
one who reach his
beloved must crawl
along the last ledge
some 500 feet above
the cold sea-mash,
there to kiss the cross
etched in the rock.
Press warm lips there
to Manan’s last trace,
like a cross between
blue breasts I’ll never
see or kiss again.
All who dare to
name you must harrow
here all words in
brute travail, crucifying
every billow and drowse
atop Michael’s mount
of oldest stone. How
else can desire
mate its bliss
than to summit
the absolute without
and there there
still find the ghost
of a face to kiss?

Continent's End (Robinson Jeffers)

At the equinox when the earth was veiled in a late rain, wreathed with wet poppies, waiting spring,
The ocean swelled for a far storm and beat its boundary, the ground-swell shook the beds of granite.

I gazing at the boundaries of granite and spray, the established sea-marks, felt behind me
Mountain and plain, the immense breadth of the continent, before me the mass and doubled stretch of water.

I said: You yoke the Aleutian seal-rocks with the lava and coral sowings that flower the south,
Over your flood the life that sought the sunrise faces ours that has followed the evening star.

The long migrations meet across you and is is nothing to you, you have forgotten us, mother.
You were much younger when we crawled Out of the womb and lay in the sun’s eye on the sideline.

It was long and long ago; we have grown proud since then and you have grown bitter; life retains
Your mobile soft unquiet strength; and envies hardness, the insolent quietness of stone.

The tides are in our veins, we still mirror she stars, life is your child, but there is in me
Older and harder than life and more impartial, the eye that watched before there was an ocean.

That watched you fill your beds out of the condensation of thin vapor and watched you change them,
That saw you soft and violent wear your boundaries down, eat rock, shift places with the continents.

Mother, though my song’s measure is like your surf-beat’s ancient rhythm I never learned it of you.
Before there was any water there were tides of fire both our tones flow from the older fountain.

A Choir Beyond the Ninth

Brendan glimpses a church with ten choirs (in the C/H version) or, as (the) M/N (version) has it, a town/citadel with twelve choirs or doors. The latter image is probably based on representations of the heavenly Jerusalem, which was, according to the Bible, the holy city with 12 gates which the apostle saw coming down out of heaven from God, “having the glory of God, and the light thereof was like to a precious stone” (Apoc. 21:11). The ten choirs in C/H probably refer to the traditional order of the heavenly hosts, which was supposed to have 9 choirs consisting of angels and a tenth of human beings. According to this doctrine, God created men to replace the group of angels associated with Lucifer, who were banished from heaven. The saints and the just were to take the places of the fallen angels. In the 12th century this was a commonly held idea. It can be found in the Elucidarium (early 12th century), a guide to salvationi in the form of a dialogue between a master and a pupil.

- Clara Strijbosch, The Seafaring Saint 111-12

Skellig Michael's Older History

(The) biblicized “history” ((of Ireland)), as set out in Lebor Gabala, culminates in the story of “The Sons of Mil.” After journeying through Egypt, Crete, and Sicily, these ancestors of the Irish eventually reached Spain, and one of their company, Bregon, built a tower there. From the top of this tower Ith son of Bregon saw Ireland across the sea and set sail to investigate the land he had seen. At that time Tuatha De Danaan were in occupation of the country, and they, suspicious of his motives, killed him. Then his kinsmen, the eight Sons of Mil, invaded Ireland to avenge his death. The most prominent among them were Donn the king, Amairgen the poet and judge, Eremon the leader of the expedition, and Eber. They were accompanied by Lugaid the son of Ith, their own sons, the sons of Bregon, and a number of champions.

On reaching Ireland, they defeated the Tuatha, here associated with Demons and Fomoire, and then proceeded to Tara. On their way they meet in turn the three goddesses, Banba, Fotla, and Eiru, each of whom extracted from Amairgen the promise that her name should be a name for the island.

At Tara they encountered the three kings of the Tuatha, Mac Cuill, mac Cechct, and Mac Grene, who “pronounced a judgment against the sons of Mil” to the effect that they should leave the island in peace for three days. The justice of the case was referred to Amairgen, on pain of death if he judged falsely. “I pronounce it,” said Amairgen, “Let this island be left to them.” “How far shall we go?” said Eber. “Past just nine waves,” said Amairgen. this was the first judgement he gave in Ireland.

And so they withdrew and went through the motions of landing again as though they were performing a ritual. Their first landing had been resisted, for every time they came up with Ireland the demons made for the port as it were a hog’s back, and they skirted round the island three times before coming ashore. Now the poets of the Tuatha sang spells against them, and a magic wind carried them far out to sea, but Amairgen countered with a poem which calmed the wind. The invaders landed for the second time and, after a further victory over the Tuatha, took possession of the country.

The repeated landing, which may have a significance comparable to that of the “second birth” in the life-story of individual personages, is not the only feature which reveals the pre-Christian origin of the tale. As the invaders raced for land the first time, Donn showed envy of his brother Ir who had gained the lead. The oar broke in Ir’s hand and he fell backwards and died. He was buried in “Skellig of the Spectres” off the west coast of Munster, and his brothers judged that it would not be right for the envious Donn to share in the land.

After they had landed, Donn offended Eiru, the queen of the Tuatha De Danann, and she prophesied that neither he nor his progeny should enjoy the island. When he again spoke threateningly of the Tuatha before landing the second time, a wind arose and his ship was wrecked.

Lebor Gabala also says that the youngest brother, Erannan, climbed the mast to reconnoiter and fell to his death. But according to the dinsenchas it fell to the lot of Donn to climb the mast, to chant incantations against the Tuatha, and as a result of the Tuatha’s curse an ague came into the ship.

Donnn asked that his body be carried to one of the islands lest the disease remain in Ireland, “and my people will lay a blessing on me for ever.” After his ship had foundered, his brother Amairgen declared that his folk should come to the high rock, Tech Duinn, “the House of Donn,” whither his body was carried, and so, according to the heathen, the souls of sinners visit it and give their blessing to Donn before going to Hell, while the souls of the penitent behold the place from afar and are not borne astray.

There are references to the House of Donn as the assembly-place of the dead in earlier sources: “To me, to my house ye shall all come after your death.” And the belief has survived in Ireland that on moonlit nights the souls of the dead can be seen over the Skellig rocks, on their way to “The Land of the Young.” (Tir na nOg)

-- Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage


The story of Oran’s sacrifice in the footers of the Iona abbey are built on this older story, for it is Oran’s lot to be sacrificed so that the abbey walls may stand (in effect, so that the ship of the Iona abbey can finally land at Iona & be received by the resident energies there. It is Oran who travels for 3 days and 3 nights into the Celtic otherworld, and it is his bones which harrow the graveyard where all the dead where sent, and it is through Oran that the angels of Iona are accessed.

The Island Purgatory

Following his vision of the Afterlife Brendan is allowed to see this:

From the (outermost, C version; eastern, M version) face of a rock Brendan and his crew see burning birds (souls, M version) bursting forth. At the same time they hear a multitude of voices sob and sorrow. An unfathomable sea battles the rock, making noise that can be heard for miles. Then they see (acc. to C/H versions, coming from the mountain) an enormous flam which sends sparks up into the sky (and coals the size of masts). From the mountain black, boiling water runs down, which is so hot that the stones burst. From the other side of the rock issue water and wind, which are terribly cold. On one side of the rock, it is hot, on the other so cold that the bark comes off the tree-trunks. Brendan tells his crew to pick up their orars. It now takes them two years (C/H version; in the P version, it takes three days) to leave the place which they had reached in one day.

-- Clara Strijbosch, The Seafaring Saint

The House of Donn (Jan. 30, 2005)

This high rock beyond
the ninth wave off Ireland
is where the Head of Donn
dreams for all time,
interned there so
the Sons of Mil could
take possession
of green love
in the deeper half
of my heart. In the
Christian age which
wrote over that old
myth, it was said
that souls of the
dead were sent there
and chaffed, the
damned blessing Donn
from the height of
Skellig before being
pitched into abyss,
while the saved
viewed that rock from
aloft as they were
carried by angels
to high heaven.
Michael’s rock indeed
if Skellig’s Michael
is to be believed,
a door for all dead
souls beyond which
all kissed the cross
of their fated fires.
How is it then
that you bid me live
here, Lord of
dazzling dark seas,
forever offshore the
beloved embrace,
tending the terrible
paths where souls
and penitents wind
and writhe? What music
charms these cliffs
with such blue
and cold delight? Far
and strange indeed
though I’m still in my
white writing chair
as dawn starts to limn
the night with its
seethe of polar blue,
ten minutes from
feeding all the cats
outside & then heading
up to wake my love
to our Sunday. How
did all those worlds
come to marry here on
the lip of a page and
its past, a shore where
ghostly numens walk
and tides curve breasts
and smash all bones?
Who would guess such
a place exists just
outside this house
of love, just over
the marge of our
beyond the garden
but before the day’s
news and labors
and leakage? A
shore translated from
my father at 78
fading among his stones
and my mother fading,
like an ink, from all
the scriptures she keeps
writing down while
behind the words I write?
A shore where Melville
at age 37 was already
finished by
his great work &
falling into the mouth
of his great words
never quite to return.
Where Rilke walks
the grounds of Muzot
with his Elegies full
smashed and ebbed,
a gaunt and tired man,
bearing not a trace of his
words -- loves all
failed, his daughter
Ruth estranged, disease
blooming in the blood.
House of Donn indeed,
this rock breaking far
millennia into the sea,
remnant of a shore
fallen miles back out
of sight. The only poem
worth writing, the only
one you still invite
dreaming in that bed
a thousand leagues below
where Michael's in his boat
ferrying it all back home.

Night (Robinson Jeffers)

Tide-rocks lift streaming shoulders
Out of the slack, the slow west
Sombering its torch; a ship’s light
Shows faintly, far out,
Over the weight of the prone ocean
On the low cloud.

Over the dark mountain, over the dark pinewood,
Down the long dark valley along the shrunken river,
Returns the splendor without rays, the shining of shadow,
Peace-bringer, the matrix 0f all shining and quieter of shining.
Where the shore widens on the bay she opens dark wings
And the ocean accepts her glory. 0 soul worshipful of her
You like the ocean have grave depths where she dwells always,
And the film of waves above that takes she sun takes also
Her, with more love. The sun-lovers have a blond favorite,
A father of lights and noises, wars, weeping and laughter,
Hot labor, lust and delight and the other blemishes. Quietness
Flows from her deeper fountain; and he will die; and she is immortal.

Far off from here the slender
Flocks of the mountain forest
Move among stems like towers
Of the old redwoods to the stream,
No twig crackling; dip shy
Wild muzzles into the mountain water
Among the dark ferns.
O passionately at peace you being secure will pardon
The blasphemies 0f glowworms, the lamp in my tower, the fretfulness
0f cities, the cressess of the planets, the pride of the stars.
This August night in a rift of cloud Antares reddens,
The great one, the ancient torch, a lord among lost children,
The earth’s orbit doubled would not girdle his greatness, one fire

Globed, out of grasp of the mind enormous; but to you O Night
What? Not a spark? What flicker 0f a spark in the faint far glimmer
0f a lost fire dying in the desert, dim coals of a sand-pit the Bedouins
Wandered from at dawn . . . Ah singing prayer to what gulfs tempted
Suddenly are you more lost? To us the near-hand mountain
Be a measure of height, the tide-worn cliff at the sea-gate a measure of continuance.

The tide, moving the night’s
Vastness with lonely voices,
Turns, the deep dark-shining
Pacific leans on the land,
Feeling his cold strength
To the Outmost margins: you Night will resume
The stars in your time.

O passionately at peace when will that tide draw shoreward?
Truly the spouting fountains of light, Antares, Arcturus,
Tire of their flow, they sing one song hut they think silence.
The striding winter giant Orion shines, and dreams darkness.
And life, the flicker of men and moths and the wolf on the hill,
Though furious for continuance, passionately feeding, passionately
Remaking itself upon its mates, remembers deep inward
The calm mother, the quietness of the womb and the egg,
The primal and the latter silences: dear Night it is memory
Prophesies, prophecy that remembers, the charm of the dark.
And I and my people, we are willing to love she four-score years
Heartily; but as a sailor loves the sea, when the helm is for harbor.

Have men’s minds changed,
Or the rock hidden in the deep of the waters of the soul
Broken the surface? A few centuries
Gone by, was none dared not to people
The darkness beyond the stars with harps and habitations.
But now, dear is the truth. Life is grown sweeter and lonelier,
And death is no evil.

Hit Counter
Internet Service Provider