This is the script originally written for the podcast, rather than a transcript, so there might be a couple of variations from what was actually spoken. If you notice any or have any questions, feel free to get in touch!
Welcome to Unreal, a podcast about Irish history, stories and tradition.
Winter is drawing in. The days are darker and the weather is getting colder. We had our first snowfall of the season last week. So many of my favourite fairy tales take place in the snow – The Grimm’s Snow White, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, and the Russian story of Snegurochka, the snow girl. There is something magical about snow – the way it transforms a landscape and makes it unrecognisable. The way it melts away again, so suddenly revealing everything unchanged. It is beautiful, but it’s also deceptive, and deadly, and so it’s the perfect ingredient for dark tales on a cold winter’s night. I started wondering whether there were any Irish stories that capture the strange magic of the snow. They are lesser-known than some of our more famous legends – but they are wild and fascinating. So sit back and listen to the final episode of Season 3 – Stories of the Snow. I’m Ruth Atkins, and this is Unreal.
Protected by the warm North Atlantic drift, Ireland does not have the kind of deep, lasting snowfalls that you see in other northern places, like Russia or Scandinavia. Because of this, snow usually plays a fairly minor role in most of our folktales and legends. But things weren’t always like this. Shortly after the Middle Ages, Ireland and much of Europe went through a period of cooling that was known as the Little Ice Age, bringing with it much colder weather, with cold wet summers and freezing winters. And of course, even far into the past, Irish people were at least familiar with stories and people from icier northern lands, both through attacks and raids, and through peaceful trade and exchange. It’s possible that we can see this influence in some of the snowy stories recorded in early Irish manuscripts.
While a white Christmas in Ireland is rarely a guarantee, people nonetheless watched the weather closely during this holiday period. It was believed by many communities that the weather on each of these twelve days offered signs that could predict the weather for the twelve months of the year. The day of the week that Christmas fell on was also significant for weather and fortune – Christmas on a Sunday meant a good, windy winter, and a dry and fair summer. Monday brought a good winter, but a summer full of storms and battles. And a Tuesday Christmas was worst of all, foretelling of many deaths and dangers on land and sea.
Weather-lore has always been a huge aspect of Irish folklore and tradition, and snow was included as part of this. Perhaps because of how snowflakes resembled feathers, snow often had an association with birds. One evocative phrase to describe snow was to say that people were “plucking geese in heaven.” Birds were often relied on for signs of snow as well. When robins and thrushes fly towards the house, when seagulls come inland and screech loudly, or when the smoke from the chimney rises straight up into the sky, you knew that snow was coming.
One heroine from the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology is associated with both birds and snow. Her name was Derbforgaill. I mentioned the opening of Derbforgaill’s tale in my very first episode of Unreal, on the swan children of Lir – Derbforgaill was a Scandinavian princess, who transformed herself into a swan and flew to Ireland, hoping to wed Cúchulainn. As you may remember, things didn’t quite work out between the pair, so Derbforgaill instead married Cuchulainn’s foster brother, Lugaid of the red stripes. And I did warn you in that episode that nobody in the story lives happily ever after, and I was telling the truth. Derbforgaill met her death soon after her marriage to Lugaid, one snowy winter, in a really quite horrible and undignified way. Sorry for the next couple of minutes, we are going to get a little gross.
One day, at the end of winter, there came a very deep snow. The men shaped the snow into tall pillars, and all the women of the area stood up on top of them, to take part in a very strange contest. Each woman had to urinate on their pillar, melting down through the snow – and the woman who made the deepest hole with her urine would be deemed the most desirable of them all. The manuscript doesn’t explain the logic behind this bizarre competition – though I think it’s fairly safe to assume that there was some kind of sexual innuendo involved. In any case, each of the 150 women took their turn, until finally it came to Derbforgaill. Derbforgaill was reluctant to take part, but at last she agreed, and quickly proved to be the clear winner when she melted all the way through the snowy pillar.
On seeing this, the other women began to grumble amongst themselves about her.
“If the men learn of this, none of us will be loved in comparison with Derbforgaill.”
Their whispers grew, and so did their jealousy.
“Let her eyes be taken from her head, and her nose and her hair and the flesh of her hams. She won’t be so desirable then.”
So the women closed in on Derbforgaill, torturing and disfiguring her, before bringing her back to her house.
Lugaid and Cuchulainn were on a hill nearby.
“It’s strange, Lugaid,” said Cuchulainn. “I can see snow on the roof of Derbforgaill’s house.”
“It means she is at the point of death,” said Lugaid, and the two of them rushed toward the house, where Derbforgaill lay dying. But when she heard them coming, Derbforgaill locked the house so that they couldn’t see what had happened to her beauty.
“Lovely the bloom in which we parted,” she said, “but you shall not see me now.”
By the time the men were able to break their way in, Derbforgaill was dead, and on seeing her, Lugaid died too, of a broken heart. But Cuchulainn’s heart was strong enough, and his anger was stronger. He went in search of the women who had done this to her, and collapsed the house on top of them, killing every last one. He buried Lugaid and Derbforgaill together in the frozen ground, and mourned them deeply.
Derbforgaill was not the only hero known to have an effect on snow. Cuchulainn himself was famous in other stories for his ríastrad, or battle frenzy, which among other things, created an intense heat and fire to emanate from his body – in one legend, it caused the snow to melt for thirty feet all around him. And Several Irish saints displayed similar mastery over snow, albeit in a usually more peaceful way. St Molasius once came to the hill of Tara to fast and pray. The High King of Ireland, lived there, and at the time, the High King was a man called Dermot, who did not believe in Christianity. Snow was falling on Tara when Molasius arrived, and by morning, Dermot the High King found it had become so deep that his servants had to beat open the doors of his home. As King Dermot looked out he saw that all the tents outside were covered with pure white snow – all of them, that is, except for Molasius. His tent was dry, and for seven feet all around it no snow had fallen. At this, Dermot became convinced of Molasius’ holiness. “That man is a living fire ablaze” he said. “I place myself under his safeguard, and under that of Heaven’s King and Earth’s.
Another saint found a different kind of protection from snow. St Comghan was one of the stranger Irish saints. He was known as Comghan Mac Dá Cherda – the son of two arts: that of extreme knowledge, and of extreme foolishness. He was, for the most part, a man with very low intelligence, but occasionally he was filled with prophecy, and a deep understanding of the Holy Spirit. When he was in his foolish state, though, Comghan had very little regard for the weather or his own health and safety. He would often sleep underwater, or out of doors with no shelter, even in snowstorms. And unlike St Molasius, Comghan couldn’t melt the snow. But because of his holiness, the birds and feathered things of the forests would come and find him on those snowy nights, and spread their wings over him to shelter him from the cold.
Snow also plays a huge role in the childhood miracles of St Patrick. He understood, perhaps better than any of the other saints and heroes, how to master the element – making what he needed out of it in times of want. It was told that as a boy, Patrick’s foster mother sent him out in search of firewood. When Patrick returned, all he had gathered in his lap were lumps of ice. His foster mother was angry – “better for us if you had brought a withered old twig than these. But Patrick was calm. “Believe that it is possible to God,” he said. And as they brought a flame to the icicles, they suddenly blazed up into a warm fire.
The child Patrick also knew that snow could be used for trickery. Another time, the king’s steward demanded that Patrick’s foster mother offer up butter and curd as a tribute. It was winter, and the store cupboards were bare, so she had nothing to give him. But Patrick took some snow from outside and formed it into butter to deliver to the king. As soon as the king had accepted it, the butter disappeared, transforming back into snow again. But the king must have realised Patrick’s holiness, for he did not react with anger. Rather, from then on, it was the king who paid tribute to Patrick and his mother – instead of the other way round.
I love these stories of people with powerful abilities to use and change the snow. But my favourite stories are those of people who have snow as their very essence. The Grimm Brother’s story of Little Snow Drop, which became Snow White, or the Russian folktale of Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, tell of parents who desperately want a child, and through their wishing on a snowy day they bring a child of snow into being. In the Russian story, Snegurochka is literally made of snow – a childless couple make a little snow-girl which comes to life and is loved by them as a daughter. But when the spring comes, or the girl gets too close to the fire, or when her love for another warms her heart, the snow maiden melts, and is lost to them forever. In Snow White, the girl comes similarly when a mother makes a wish on a snowy day, for a daughter with lips as red as blood, hair as black as ebony, and skin as white as snow. As the girl is not actually made of snow, she doesn’t have to worry about melting, but she does have to contend with her mother’s growing jealousy as her beauty starts to overtake her – a jealousy that soon grows murderous.
You know the story. And we find very few parallels in Irish legends and folk tales – again, I think because snow is just less frequent here. Although pale skin on a woman was prized as being beautiful, and was occasionally compared to snow, it was more likely to be described as being “as white as the foam on the wave,” particularly in stories from the south of Ireland.
There is one direct Irish parallel though, of a woman making a wish on snow and conjuring up a person. And I think it’s a really interesting one, because this woman does not wish for a child – she wishes for a lover. The woman was Deirdre, the most beautiful woman in Ireland, who had been locked away from the world of men and raised in secret, because it had been foretold that her beauty would cause stoke bitter jealousy among the men of Ulster that would lead to war, death and exile.
One snowy day in this hidden place, her foster father was skinning a calf outside for supper, and Deirdre watched as the calf’s red blood spattered onto the dazzling white snow, and a black raven flew down to drink it. Deirdre spoke dreamily to her foster mother, saying “I would love a man who had those three colours – hair as black as a raven, cheeks as red as blood, and a body as white as the snow.”
“You are fortunate,” said her foster mother. “Such a man is not far away. His name is Naoise, son of Usna.”
“I won’t be well until I see him,” said Deirdre.
Deirdre did indeed soon meet Naoise, and they did indeed fall in love – but that’s a story for another day. I’m probably not providing too much of a spoiler though, when I say it doesn’t end happily. It is, after all, popularly known as Deirdre of the Sorrows, one of the three great sorrows of Irish storytelling. I do find it fascinating though, to see this world-famous motif being turned on its head in an Irish manuscript, and used not as a manifestation of maternal desire, or of female beauty through the male gaze, but rather the opposite – female lust for an ideal male form. Even when you know the ending, legends are still full of surprises I guess!
The final story of snow that I’m going to share with you today is a darker one. I have always loved tales of Snow Queens – powerful, icy women like the titular snow queen of Hans Christian Andersen’s story, or the white witch of the Narnia books. Women who tempted boys and men into their freezing clutches, and brought fear and winter to the world. I’ve always thought of these as being later, literary stories, rather than older fairytales. But this story, from a 12th century Irish manuscript, shows that strange, stormy women have long been a part of our cultural psyche. I’m surprised that it isn’t more well-known – it’s a really enthralling story, about a young woman, powerful and beautiful, who sought revenge on the king of Ireland, and led him into a terrible fate.
Muirchertach was king over all of Ireland. He had a wife, Duaibsech, he had a family, and life was good.
But one day, he went out to hunt on the border of the Brugh, and he stopped to rest on his hunting mound, while his hunt companions went on. He wasn’t resting long when he looked around, and saw that he was not alone. A woman was sitting close to him. She was fair of skin and hair, and was dressed in a green mantle. And, it seemed to Muirchertach that he had never seen any woman to match her in beauty and grace. His whole body and mind filled up with love for her, and as he looked at her, the thought struck him that he would give the whole of Ireland to spend just one night with this woman.
Muirchertach greeted the woman, and asked who she was.
“I am the your darling, O king of Ireland, and I came here to seek you,” she said.
“Do you know me, O damsel?” asked Muirchertach in surprise.
“Oh I do,” she said, “for I have skills in places more secret than this.”
“And will you come with me?” Muirchertach asked.
“I will,” she said, “if my reward will be good.”
“I will give you power over me, O damsel,” Muirchertach promised.
The strange woman agreed, but then she gave her own terms.
“Duaibsech, the mother of your children, must never be in my sight. The clerics and holy men must never enter any house that I am in. And never may you utter my name.”
It would have been easier for Muirchertach to have given her half of Ireland, but still he agreed to the woman’s terms.
“Then tell me truly,” the king said. “What is your name, so that I may avoid saying it?”
The strange woman smiled. “Sigh, Sough, Storm, Rough Wind, Winter-night, Cry, Wail Groan.”
And, though Muirchertach never uttered it, from then on the woman was known as Sín, an old Irish word meaning storm.
“Good is the house we have come to!” said Sín, when Muirchertach brought her back to his home and held a great feast to welcome her. “But it is time you left it to me, as promised, and banish your wife Duaibsech and her children.”
Duaibsech, Muichertach’s wife, left sadly with her children. With nowhere else to go, Duaibsech went to seek her soulfriend, the holy bishop Cairnech.
“O bishop, bless my body,” she said to him. “I am afraid of death tonight. Go thou yourself, O Cleric there, to the clans of Eogan and Conall.” By this she meant that the bishop should go to Tyrone and Donegal to muster support, and bring an army to face her husband’s strange new mistress.
Cairnech did so, but Sín did not let them near the fortress. Cairnech was angry, but he still worked to secure a peace treaty and blood pact between Muirchertach and his opponents. Cairnech blessed them all, and wished a short life and hell to anyone who would break the treaty, and then returned to his monastery.
In his stronghold, however, Muirchertach returned to Sín. When he looked at Sín, it seemed to him that she had great power, greater by far than the holy men. Perhaps even the power of a goddess.
So he asked her: “Tell me, do you believe in this God of the clerics?”
“You cannot work in this world a miracle,
Of which I could not work its like.
I could create a sun and moon,
and radiant stars:
I could create men fiercely
fighting in conflict.
I could make wine …
of the Boyne
and sheep out of stones
and swine out of ferns
… and I could make famous heroes now for thee.”
“Work for me some of these great miracles,” said Muirchertach.
So Sín arrayed two great battalions, equally great, equally strong, equally gallant, and bid them to fight each other. She filled three casks of water and enchanted them, so that the king and his household thought they had never tasted wine so sweet. She collected some ferns, and transformed them into swine, which they roasted and feasted on all night. And Muirchertach truly believed that his new lover had incredible power, and trusted in her above anyone else.
But in the morning, when Muirchertach woke, he found that he, and everyone else who had eaten from the magical feast that Sín had prepared, was sick and weak. Sín enchanted the stones outside, transforming them into an army of blue men and strange figures with the heads of goats, and Muirchertach, weak though he was, rushed out to fight them, though it took all day for every time he killed them, they rose up against him again. And when Muirchertach returned to his fortress, Sín had prepared another feast, which he ate, and woke up even weaker than before.
Over and over this happened, and when the bishop Cairnech returned, he saw Muirchertach fighting, but not against an army – Muirchertach was alone, simply hacking wildly at the sods and stones of the ground. Cairnech realised Sín’s enchantment. Cairnech called out to Muirchertach, and when Muirchertach made the sign of the Cross over his face, he saw too that there was nothing there save the stones and sods of the earth. He stopped fighting, and confessed and repented his sins to Cairnech, and returned to his fortress and Sín. But once again, Sín beguiled his mind, and fed him wine.
As Muirchertach and his household drank deeply, there came the sigh of a great wind.
“This is the sigh of a winter-night” said the king.
And SÍn said: Tis I am the Rough Wind, a daughter of fair nobles: Winter-night is my name, for every place together. Sigh and Wind: Winternight thus.
And as she spoke, a great snowstorm came, louder than the noise of a battle, pouring over the fortress, and causing them to retreat still further inside.
Sleep tonight, said Sín. Leave me to watch you, and guard you from the hosts. While Muirchertach slept, Sín rose up and created a great army around the fortress, with their spears and javelins pointing toward the house. She then scattered fire throughout the house, before entering the kings bed again.
Muirchertach woke with a start.
“I dreamed a host of demons appeared to me, burning the house and slaughtering my people” he said.
“You have nothing to fear,” said Sín, but as they spoke, they heard the crash of the burning house, and the shouts of the crowds outside.
Sín lied to Muirchertach once again, telling him that the army were his real, flesh-and-blood enemies, and believing her, the king rose and dressed for battle, and fought his way through the enchanted army once again.
When he returned to the door, the embers and hails of fire had filled the doorway, and all of the house, trapping him without shelter. Desperate, Muirchertach climbed into a cask of wine, and there he drowned, and burned, and finally met his death.
The bishop Cairnech came to mourn and bury Muirchertach. On seeing her husband’s corpse, the king’s former wife Duaibsech cried out in lamentation. Her heart burst, and she died immediately with grief, and was buried beside him.
And when Cairnech and the other holy men had finished this burial, they saw a lonely woman walking toward them – beautiful and shining, and wearing a green mantle. They saw that the woman was deeply sad, and asked her who she was.
“Sín is my name, and Sige, son of Dian is my father. Muirchertach killed my father, my mother and my sister in the battle of Cerb on Boyne, and destroyed the old tribes of Tara and my fatherland. I overpowered him, and made a poison for him – to punish him for the grief he brought to me.
But now, I myself will die of grief for him,
the high king of the west of the world
and for the guilt of the sore tribulations,
That I brought on the sovereign of Erin.”
So Sín confessed to Cairnech, and repented to God, and then the strange, stormy queen of winter-night herself died, for grief of a man she had killed, and never intended to love. Cairnech ordered that a grave be dug for her, and he returned her body to the earth. And Cairnech spent the rest of his days praying for the soul of the tortured king, that he be lifted out of the fires of hell, and brought to heaven in time.
There is no pleasure so great as a story of the snow – when the weather is cold and dark outside, but you yourself are safe and warm. But snow as we have seen, is a tricky substance – an omen of death, and a symbol of deception – of how a world or a person that seems so solid, can easily melt away and reveal something you never knew was lurking beneath. So be careful who you throw your snowball to this winter in the hands of the wrong person, it can very dangerous indeed.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Unreal – and joining me for the end of Season 3. What a year it has been – I’m glad to be at the end of it, and am looking forward to better days to come. But I’m also excited to have more in store for Unreal, and thank you so much to everyone who has listened, shared, reviewed and discussed this podcast, growing it into a wonderful community and keeping legends and folklore alive. I’d love to find ways to build on this community next year, and to get more input and suggestions from listeners on what you would like to hear about – to make this a more collaborative and sustainable project in seasons to come. If you have any ideas or suggestions for future episodes, or your own treasured folktales to share, do get in touch on the contact page on unrealpodcast.com, or on social media. As always, links to the sources, music and script from today’s episode are available on my website, unrealpodcast.com. If you enjoyed this episode, you might enjoy last year’s seasonal episode too – The Wren The Wren The King of the Bird, about one of Ireland’s oldest winter traditions. I’ll be back after a break with Season 4 of Unreal – happy new year to everyone, tóg go bog é, and go néirí an bóthar leat.