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Welcome to Unreal, a podcast about Irish history, stories and tradition.
Legends of lost and sunken lands have captured imaginations all around the world. Explorers have searched for centuries for the lost city of Atlantis, a greek island that fell out of favour with the gods and was lost forever beneath the ocean. And around the world, from millennia past right up to the present day, real-life cities have fallen into the sea, through earthquakes, landslides and tsunamis.
Our landscape is always changing, and in our myths we create memories of great places and lives of happiness, now long lost to the world as we know it. Ireland is no different. Tales of mythical islands and enchanted cities have captivated our storytellers for generations. We are always searching, searching on the far horizon and in the depths of our lakes and rivers, for the worlds we have lost, and the promised lands we still have left to find.
I’m Ruth Atkins and this Unreal.
According to legend, there was once a beautiful palace and fort in the mouth of the Shannon. Kilstuiffeen, an enchanted city owned by a chieftain called Stuiffeen. The city was under a magical protection – whenever Stuiffeen wished to hide it, he could draw up a wall of water that would entirely cover it, and prevent anyone from attacking. This protection was necessary, because Stuiffeen did plenty of plundering and attacking himself, and had many enemies.
One day, together with his brothers, Stuiffeen raided cattle from a nearby family at Loop Head. When the family discovered their cattle were missing, they chased Stuiffeen and his brothers through County Clare, and eventually caught up with them. They slew Stuiffeen’s brothers, and destroyed their forts entirely. But before they could kill Stuiffeen, he drew up his palace’s protection. The waves rushed forward like a wall of water, covering the palace and grounds. And as Stuiffeen breathed his last, his city vanished, protected from harm, but completely unreachable hidden far beneath the Shannon’s water.
The story of Stuiffeen and his brothers isn’t the only explanation for the city’s disappearance, however. Another tale tells of an earthquake and storm that spread along the whole of Ireland’s atlantic coast in the year 799 AD. The day before St Patrick’s Day, a great wind, thunder and lightning swept the coastline. The earthquake and storm caused destruction and danger all along the sea shore. Fithi island in Donegal, now called Inis Caorach, was split into three parts, one thousand and ten men died, and the beautiful city of Kilstuiffeen was sunk forever beneath the waves.
It’s hard to know why exactly this legend of a lost city in the Shannon came to be told, but it has captured the imaginations of storytellers in this area for centuries. It was often said that the rough waters in the Shannon estuary were caused by the waves bumping over the city’s towers and spires and turrets below. Poets have spoken of the splendour of the Kilstuiffeen:
Its stately halls and gardens wide
Its palaces and towers of pride,
All buried ‘neath the rushing tide
And deep sea-waters green!
But though it is sunken, Kilstuiffeen is not gone forever. Legends tell that the island re-emerges briefly, on certain days, every seven years. Once, when a small boat anchored nearby for the night, the sailors woke up to find the magnificent city in front of them. They were welcomed by the people of Kilstuiffeen, and permitted to come ashore, but, when a couple of the men were too free with the Kilstuiffeen ladies, suddenly a great storm blew up and the tide rose high. The sailors barely made it back to their boat in time, before seeing the beautiful city sink beneath the swelling waters. When they woke some time later on the calm riverbed, nothing remained of the wonder they had seen.
Although the city is beautiful – you’re better off not seeing it! For Stuiffeen’s island carries with it a terrible curse.
Woe for him, on summer eve,
Who sees that city rise,
And dome, and roof, and spire appear
Above the ocean high and clear
… Within a week he dies!
In the summer of 1823, so the story goes, the city once again rose above the waters. And at the same time a crew of fifteen fishermen were lost forever. The sailors’ ghosts were seen at mass in the nearby chapel at the time of their deaths, but no sign of their bodies, or the boat, or the fate that they suffered, was ever seen again. They had simply vanished, down beneath the rushing waters – perhaps to remain in that marvellous sunken city, or perhaps to an altogether less happy fate.
Another sunken city was said to have existed long ago near Carlingford in Co. Louth. There’s a mountain near this place called Slieve Foy, which long ago was once an active volcano. This part of the story is true – the mountain is made of gabbro, an extremely hard igneous rock that came from lava, and gives the mountain its steep, angular appearance.
In ancient times, so the story goes, there was a city where Carlingford Lough is now – the beautiful Caher Linn, city of the pool. The people who lived in Cahir Linn, in the shadow of the great volcano Slieve Foy, worshipped a fire god. At their temple, they burned a sacred fire, which was lit with the flames of Slieve Foy’s crater. A young woman, Aete, was raised to be the chief priestess, in service of this Fire-God. She was the only daughter of the king in the city, King Carolan. But Aete fell in love with a prince called Colla who came to worship at the shrine. They met together often by the pool of Cahir Linn, and soon made plans to run away together. Aete would give up her priestess duties, and they would marry in secret. But as the couple stole away in secret, a sentry spotted them.
Aete had broken a sacred law by abandoning her duties as a priestess, and the people of Cahir Linn were furious. They imprisoned Aete and Colla in a vault cut deep into Slieve Foy mountain, and as they lay there, they could feel the heat of the volcano burning into them. Then, the couple were sentenced to a gruesome death. The Cahir Linn people, carried the pair to the crater of the volcano, and when the signal was given, they were flung forward, into the fiery depths below. As Aete and Colla burned beneath them, the people of Cahir Linn cried out to the Fire God to accept them as a sacrifice to him.
But the Fire God was not pleased with their gift – and why would he be? What Fire God would want a fiery passion extinguished on his behalf? As the people of Cahir Linn waited, the ground beneath their feet began to tremble and made strange sounds. Suddenly, the lava in the crater rose up, and boiled over the top, and flames and smoke came pouring forward. As the people rushed down the mountain, thunder and lightning filled the sky, and showers of ashes poured down on their beautiful city. Buildings fell. Statues rocked where they stood. And then, as the lava bubbled under the surface of the earth, it opened a channel under the Irish Sea, and caused a great tidal wave swallowed up the ruined city, and forming a lake, Carlingford Lough, that still stands in the district today. If you look closely, the people say, you can see the old buildings of Cahir Linn, lying far below the waters, gone and forgotten, never to rise to the surface again.
I actually hadn’t heard of this tale of Carlingford, until earlier this week when @RostrevorRARE shared it with me online. It’s collected in the dúchas archive and in Louth Folk Tales by Doreen MacBride. I don’t think it’s quite as ancient as it claims to be, as Irish volcanoes have been extinct for millions of years, long before the first Irish people. But it is a fascinating story all the same – and floods as a punishment from God are certainly a long-standing tradition in mythologies across the world.
Although floods in folklore often destroyed whole cities, there were usually one or two survivors left to tell the tale. Fintan Mac Bochra was said to have survived the Biblical flood of Noah’s time, living for a year deep in a cave called Fintan’s Grave. He lived for many centuries afterward – five hundred years as a salmon, fifty years an eagle, and a hundred years happily as a stately blue-eyed falcon, before eventually returning to his human form again.
The salmon-woman Liban also survived a great flood, one that led to the creation of Lough Neagh, Ireland’s greatest lake in Ulster. Liban was the daughter of Eochaidh, who lived on the land now covered by the lake. The tale of how this lake became a lake is slightly weird. Eochaidh was the son of the king of Munster, who eloped with his stepmother, a young woman called Ébliu. When they reached Ulster, the couple’s horse urinated on the ground, and a spring of water bubbled up from the ground at that spot. This doesn’t seem to have worried Eochaidh too much – he simply covered the spring with a capstone to stop it overflowing, and they built their house and raised their family at this spot. But their happy life did not last long. One day, a woman came to draw water from the spring, but she heard her child crying and when she hurried over to him she forgot to cover the spring with the capstone again. As she turned to try and replace it, she met a torrent of water, the swept away her and her son, and Eochaidh, his wife, their family and tribe, their cattle and buildings, until all was buried under the waters of an enormous lake, which still remains in the spot today.
All except Liban, Eochaidh’s daughter. Liban survived, alone in a grotto deep underneath the lake, living there for a whole year. At the end of this time, just like Fintan, Liban asked to be transformed into a salmon, and continued to travel the seas for another 300 years. Eventually, a currach of holy men found her when out at sea one day. They heard what sounded like angel song below them, and Liban called to them and told them who she was, and asked them to set nets to bring her to land. They did so, and Liban was christened and renamed Muirgen born of the sea, and eventually became a saint through her holy living.
As well as sunken places, much of Irish folklore and legend speaks of strange, almost unreachable islands with the magical properties and enchantments placed upon them. These lost islands are a staple of Irish adventure tales, and certainly show off our imagination.
Lough Cre near Roscrea in Tipperary, which has now dried up, contained two such supernatural islands. One was a holy place of worship, and it was forbidden for any woman or female creature to ever set foot there. In fact, it was said that any female animals brought to the island would die immediately, the instant they reached it. The other island was stranger still. It is called the Isle of the Living. On this enchanted place, death never happens. No person in this place has ever died while their feet still touched the island’s soil. In some ways, this is similar to great fabled islands of eternal youth like Tír na nÓg. But there is one important difference. The people who lived on the island in Lough Cre still grew old, and they got sick with diseases, and they aged long past the point they should, in great misery and pain. Many of the natives eventually decided that they would rather die than live the life of death that the island gives them. When they reached this decision, so the story goes, they were ferried to the shore in a boat, and happily breathed their last as soon as their feet touched the new soil.
Inis Gluair, off the coast of Mayo had another bizarre magical property. People died on this island, but when they died, their bodies were not buried, and they did not decay. A strange legend said that the people of this place used to line up their dead along the churchyard fence. There the dead stood in rows, like living men, and each person on the island could pick out his father, and grandfather, and all the people from whom he had descended.
And then of course, there were the promised islands. Mag Mell. Tír Tairngire. Tír na nÓg. Hy Brasil. These were all names given to a mythical otherworld – a paradise of eternal happiness, holiness, and everlasting life.
In legend and in history, heroes and holy men searched for this island, travelling throughout the seas around Ireland in small boats of wood or animal hide. Some of these voyages were taken as pilgrimage and a chance for Christian meditation. Some were a form of punishment or penance – a way to purge yourself of wrongdoing. Still others went searching for the island because of a sign from God – a promise that paradise was waiting, if they could find it. The stories of these adventures became known as Immram – voyage tales, that told of their hero’s journey, and all of the wonders and dangers they encountered along the way.
One of the most well-known voyage stories is that of St Brendan. The story of Brendan’s voyage was written a little later than most of the immrama, in about 900AD. Brendan had prayed to God to give him a land – secret, hidden, secure, delightful, separated from men. A land where he could live in quiet prayer and reflection. After he had prayed, Brendan dreamed that he heard the voice of an angel calling out to him. “Arise O Brenainn” the angel said. “God has given you what you asked for – Tír Tairngire, the Land of Promise.” Brendan rose and went to a high mountain called Sliabh Daidche, and looked out onto the wild Irish sea. In the distance he could see it – a beautiful island, with trains of angels rising from it. Brendan was so struck by the sight that he stayed on the mountain top for three days looking at it, until the angel came to him again, and promised to guide him in his journey there.
Brendan’s voyage was a pretty large expedition. He ordered three ships to be built, each to hold thirty men, and they each had three rows of oars, and three sails of animal hides. They didn’t take food with them, for they knew that God would provide.
The group had amazing adventures. Brendan saved a giant sea-maiden – a hundred feet tall with yellow hair and spear lodged between her breasts, and he baptised her and helped her when she chose to go to heaven. But they also saw many dangers – the devil tempted them constantly with poisoned water to drink, and showed them the gates of hell and mountains of eternal fire, and made vast black whirlpools spring up to attack their boats. But Brendan and his crew always trusted that God would save and provide for them – and so he did. Each Easter that they were at sea, God sent a great whale to swim by their boat, so that they could climb onto his back and pray and celebrate the holy day.
One day, after seven years of sailing, they came across a beautiful island, with steep high cliffs, and no place to come ashore. They circled it for twelve days, but could not land, though they could see a wonderful church on top of it, and hear men’s voices praising god. At the sound of the island folk’s voices, Brendan and his people fell into a deep sleep. When they woke, the island people had sent down a wax tablet. “Do not try to enter this island” it said. “You will never enter it, and it is not the island you seek. Go home to your country, for your people are looking for you.”
Brendan did so, bringing treasures and gifts for the Irish people, healing the sick, and performing many miracles for them. But the island he had been promised was still on his mind. He went to the home of his foster-mother, Íta, and asked her what he should do.
“My dear son,” said Íta, “why did you travel in those boats without asking my advice? Don’t you know the land you seek would never allow a boat with animal skins ashore? It is a holy land, and no blood has ever been spilt there. Go in wooden vessels” she said, “and you will find the land.”
So Brendan went to Connaught, and had an enormous wooden boat built, to take him and his people to sea again. He had plenty of adventures again this time, fighting terrible monsters called Murcats that attacked them in the seas. Brendan had brought a foolish and sinful man with him this time, who had begged on his knees to be allowed to go. When they reached an island where the terrible murcats filled the strand, hoping to swallow them up, the sinful man jumped from the boat and swam towards them, offering up his body to be eaten, to save the others. The murcats devoured the man, leaving only a few bones – but he was remembered by the others as a great martyr – the last to come aboard the boat, but the first to go to heaven through his heroic act.
They sailed westwards again, and found another island, and battled another murcat (it’s a long story!), and saved the old man who lived there. The old man was overjoyed, and at last he revealed to them how they could find the island they were searching for – Tír Tairgne, the land of promise.
Brendan sailed onward and finally reached it. “Leave everything you have in your boats,” the old man said, “for this land has all you need. Health without sickness, delight without quarrelling, rest without idleness, freedom without labour, feasting without famine, and all the delights of Paradise.” And as the old man spoke of the wonders they would find, his body filled with bright white feathers like a dove, and his speech became the speech of an angel, not a man. And Brendan and his people lived on the island forever more, in lives of peace and happiness.
Immram, or voyage tales like Brendan’s, although fantastical, may have been at least somewhat rooted in history. Early Irish holy men were certainly well-travelled – they settled in many remote islands around Ireland and Scotland like Iona, Skellig Michael, Orkney, Shetland and the Faroe Islands. It’s even thought that they may have made it all the way to Iceland. The magical adventures and wondrous things they encountered may be the work of fiction, but people going out in small boats to face the marvellous, bitter, unknown ocean certainly happened, and the bravery they showed in the face of isolation, danger and quite often death was real.
Sometimes these adventures seem more captivating than the mythical lands themselves. From cities that sank, to holy islands that rose up, facing heaven, it is not always the destination that is the true point of the story. Usually, the journey towards it and the adventures along the way that are the main reason people tell them. That is the fate of the story teller. We search and search the far horizon – not for the speck of hope and holiness shimmering in the far distance, but for all the things between us and it, that make an adventure worth telling.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Unreal. You can find links to the sources and music from today’s episode on my website, Unrealpodcast.com. You can follow the show at Unrealpod on facebook or twitter, and subscribe wherever you get your podcast. And if you enjoy the show, please do consider leaving a rating and review, or telling a friend. I’ll be back soon with the last episode of season 2. I hope you enjoy it, and until then, go néirí on bóthar leat.