For the day that’s in it, here’s a little folk horror flavoured archeo-echtrai which happened to me a few years ago during a visit to Cruachu (aka Cruachán, aka Rathcroghan), a location dripping in early medieval dindsenchas. Its a ritual complex of barrows, mounds, avenues and enclosures – a prehistoric palimpsest of generations of ‘the dead’ carved into a ‘living’ landscape and overlaid with early medieval meaning. Think late prehistoric burial, assembly, inauguration, oenach festivals, mass meetings, power performances, legitimacy, declarations, legal decisions, disputes, drinking, carousing, games, fighting – all on a regional scale – and anything else that may have caught their fancy at any given time.
Cruachu and its hinterlands loom large in early medieval myth, mayhem and pseudo-folk memory. It occupies a prime position as one of the so called ‘royal’ sites of early medieval Ireland. A western version of Tara, and Emhain Macha. It appears as a key symbolic location in early Irish literature, such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge and Echtra Nerai (The Strange Adventure of Nera) – the latter having samhain and the mounds of the dead as a key backdrop to portrayed events.
Several years ago I found myself trudging around its eastern slopes, on the trail of a seventh century bishop – one of the earliest contemporary references we have to the physical monuments of the area. The episode in question is the famous ‘Well of Clébach’, in Tírechán’s Collectanea. The text depicts St. Patrick and a large retinue meeting the Daughters of King Loíguire at a well, to the east of Cruachu, and following initial confusion – they are eventually baptized, before dying and being buried within a specific mound.
The episode is dense with subtextual meaning and metaphor. Its pure poetry. Its drama. Its dialogue. Its a re-enacted creed. Its about conversion, purity and innocence. Its a legal metaphor about territoriality. Its a reworking of secular dynastic legitimacy. Its a political commentary on contemporary ecclesiastical disputes. Its about ancestral female dedication, authority and relics. Its about including ‘the ancestors’ in the past, for the future, via the medium of the (7thC) present.
The thing is, none of the above really matters, if you don’t take into account the portrayed location and what the author was using as a landscape framework to hang the whole narrative on. Cruachu – a rolling, undulating landscape of ridges and hills, littered with the tombs (and wombs) of the previous dead. In the episode in question, the daughters initially mistake the strange appearance of St. Patrick and his mates for ‘uiros side, deorum terrenorum and fantassiam‘, i.e. ‘men of the mounds, deities of the earth and phantasms’ – not because they were pagan gobshites, but because the story demands that this was what they were expecting in such a landscape. Following their conversion and death, they are waked beside the well and then buried in a fertae – a burial mound, surrounded by a ditch – in the manner of the pagan Irish. Traditionally, the depicted location has been ascribed to Ogulla Well, near Tulsk, but alas, this is based on erroneous antiquarian supposition and later versions of the episode in other manuscripts which do not factor in the earliest information found within the Collectanea.
And so, after considerable desktop study of maps and aerial photographs, I found myself at the actual location of Clébach on a moody Easter Sunday morning some years ago. A forgotten holy well on a lonely backroad beside a waterlogged corner of a long strip field, stretching back uphill toward Cruachán itself and containing a fading, but still impressive, ring barrow tomb on its crest.
I had come all the way, hoping to find a landowner. But on an easter morning, not quite mid day, everyone else in the area seemed to have far more important (and sane) things to do. And so, taking the plunge, I hopped over the wall, into hagiography and began trudging up. Taking care to tread softly, so as not to wake the dead. On the slopes of Cruachu. Toward one of the earliest (textually) depicted sid mounds in Irish history.
I remember it being perfectly still. No wind. No cars. Not even the lowing of a cow. I stopped regularly to take panorama shots of the view, both towards and away from, the summit. Every step taking me higher and higher towards a remarkably wide vista. As I approached, I could make out the faint remains of its original outer ditch, nothing more now than a slight shallowing in the grass.
I reached the top, and took one last series of panorama shots facing back the way I had come. I paused, drinking it all in – and as I turned back around again to ascend the barrow itself – a bovine head popped up from the other side. Followed by another. And another.
For a second, I was confused. It being only chest high, I couldn’t understand how they had been hidden from sight all the way up. But then, as another one and another one popped up with a startled grunt, I realized the cows had all been sitting down behind it, huddled up in its slight shade.
Six of them, gazed stupidly at me, as surprised to see me as I was them. No bother, I thought. I’ll give them a whup and a shunt and they’ll be off. Channeling my deepest jackeen culchie voice, I let off a few ‘Hup yis’ followed by a ‘Gwantafuck’, for good measure.
I took a step forward, arms wide, ready to let off a few more shouts when a final bovine head popped up over the tomb. But this one was different. A young bull. White haired. Nostrils flaring. Decidedly pissed at having his peaceful harem disturbed.
I stood my ground, trying to remember what the best course of action was in such circumstances. He stood his. I slowly slipped off my backpack, trying to watch him, whilst simultaneously establishing which of the fields walls was the nearest one to run towards. He took a step forward, grunting aggressively. I wasn’t about to cut and run without a fight, having come all this way. So I gave him my meanest grunt back.
His eyes narrowed. So did mine. I could almost hear the strains of ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’. He raised a single hoof and stamped. And only then, did I realize…
Here I was, a brown(ish) bull (of sorts)…
In a standoff with a white bull…
On the slopes of Cruachu…
With Rathcroghan as a backdrop, firmly framed behind him.
Not wishing to end up coming a cropper in my own personal medieval blood saga, I did the sensible thing and slowly retreated – with honour, valor and manhood intact. By that, I may actually mean, I grabbed the backpack and legged it back down the slope, arms flailing like kermit the frog, half afraid to look back at what may be charging after me.
After 50m I stopped and turned. Finnbhennach hadn’t even bothered chasing. Bastard. He just stood atop the mound, keeping a watchful eye until I left the field. Banished from my own barrow on the slopes of Cruachu, by a very real vacca side, an earthy smelly deus terrenorum…
A few months later, I returned. Found the landowner working in an adjacent field and received his archaeo-blessing to go take the shots I wanted. ‘I nearly got gorged by a white bull, last time’, I said, I hope he’s busy elsewhere today…’
‘A white bull?’, says he. ‘I don’t have any white bulls’.
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