A Sense of Time: Down the Lines of Blood and Bone
16th of April 2018
Grey sky stretches overhead, and a light drizzle as I board the early morning ferry for a day trip expedition to Rathlin Island. I am greeted by a seated man with little eyes lost in grooves on leathery skin, who waves my hand away when I pull my wallet. “Ach no, pet, you’re grand, you’ll get your wee ticket on the way, so you will,” he smiles and, eying me, mysteriously adds, “stay at the back of the boat.” I, fidgeting with my wallet, feeling very much the clueless foreigner, don’t understand his advice, but catch a mischievous glint that fleetingly lights up his little eyes. Meekly, I pick a plastic seat near the doorway of the cabin. As we round the corner of the safe harbour, I quickly learn the meaning of his words. Within moments, our unsuspecting little boat is delivered to the mercy of enormous waves on a fuming Sea of Moyle. Walls of water, in ominous shades of grey and green and blue, tower and swell above, around and below us, ramming our defenseless vessel on this side and that. The nose of the boat rears up to the grey heavens, then down into a deep swirl of marine rage. The sick bags flutter in their stands on the windowsill. I am elated, and looking around me I see more wide grins filling the bare cabin. I think of my grandfather, the Red Admiral, whom I never really got to know, and wonder if it’s his blood in me that has me grinning in a moment like this, hanging half upside down on the side of a monstrous wave. The ticket man reappears, climbing laboriously up the length of the aisle with a chuckle, feet planted wide, clinging on to row after row of plastic seats. He reaches me, his leather face bobbing below, then above, then to side of me, and I try to concentrate on the suddenly very complicated transaction of some uncounted coins for a slip of paper.
The people of Northern Ireland. I have observed them for some months now, as I have been observed by them. The women here go covered under a thick layer of make up when young, and call you ‘pet’ and ‘good woman’ and ‘wee dote’ when older. The men are adept at a brilliant brand of wit, that pulls your leg right out from under you, but never with malice. This society maintains its social equilibrium with a strict regime of humility, and the balancing mechanism is banter. People here are modest to the point of self-deprecation, and if you do big yourself up, someone will yank you back in line with jesting amicability.
Kind and ever so hospitable they are around here. But I also detect a wariness beneath, that bumps up against my own: a subcutaneous slate layer beneath the soft soil that you need to sit at, and wait, until you are admitted in. ‘Once a blow in, always a blow in,’ is what you are here, when not from here. It makes me wonder at them even more. Who are they, these people in this moody outpost of the continent? What historical heritage, which ancestral lines culminate behind the washed out faces in the rain, the withdrawn faces on the train, the painted faces in the shops, the jesting faces in the pubs, to make them what they are?
In the Northern Ireland of today, land of painted curbs and crossed out place names, when you ask people ‘what they are’, you’re asking them whether they are one of a binary: Irish or British, catholic or protestant, nationalist or unionist. People don’t like that question, and I too prefer to dodge it, and dive underneath. Our ancestral heritage is carried down through family stories and genes, but the places that meet our feet have a memory too, of the successions of peoples that have passed over them. What is this island is a question that takes us far back through the centuries into its tumultuous past, and rouses the echoes of voices that shake their way up through the feet of the people here today.
With so many sources and versions, academic and folkloric, of the recounted origins of a people, it’s a challenge to pry historical fact from fictional myth. But what’s the difference? It’s all so long ago that it’s down to retold stories anyway, diluted and embellished a thousand times. Here is some of what I’ve caught so far from the older whisperings of this place.
In uncounted times, a migrating tribe made its way from the Middle East where its offshoots later became the Hittites, to Greece where they became the Pelasgoi, Italy where they became the Etruscans, Spain where they became Iberians, their common ancestors proceeding to the British Isles, where they became the aboriginal settlers of Ireland around 10,000 years ago. They were a short, dark, and swarthy Stone Age people, speaking in a forgotten unfamiliar language. It later was these pre-Celtic people that built the tens of thousands of Neolithic standing stones, passage tombs, dolmens and fairy forts that pepper the Irish landscape. The Hill of Tara, Emain Macha, and Brú na Bóinne, containing the tombs of Knowth, Dowth and Newgrange, are all Neolithic monuments from the hands of these aboriginal Iberians. Their names and stories were lost to the mists of time long before pen came to paper, and they would be wholly forgotten now, were it not for Ireland’s mythological memory, where they became known as the Fir Bolg.
Half a millennium later the Celts, tall, fair, blue-eyed, came from Central Europe across the Alps and into France where they became the Gauls, Spain where they became the Gallaeci, Britain where they became the Britons, and Ireland where they became the Gaels. These first Celts in Ireland, the Gaels, are mythologically said to – also – have come from Spain, descendants from king Milé, which is why they are also known as the Milesians. When the Gaels arrived in Ireland, they found an ancient dark mysterious race, with weird magical rites in hill forts shrouded in mountain mists. The Gaels had sent their gods, the Tuatha Dé Danann, ahead of them. In myth these gods of the light battled and defeated the native Fir Bolg and their dark gods the Fomors on the Plains of Moytura, and drove the Fomors back into the abyss of deep sea, and the Fir Bolg into the kingdom of Connaught. The Gaels subjugated the old Fir Bolg, but rather than wipe them out, became amalgamated with them. Into the Gaelic pantheon were usurped the older, nameless deities connected to the land in which the Fir Bolg were so embedded, and became the Irish genii loci: spirits of river and mountain, stone and tree. Co-opted were ancient sites of worship; Tara became the seat of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and later of the High Kings of Ireland. Emain Macha became the seat of the kings of Ulster, and would later help draw the primacy of the Irish Church to nearby Armagh. And when the Gaels defeated their own gods in battle and drove the Tuatha Dé Danann into the Underworld where they became the faerie folk, the famous Brú na Bóinne became the sídhe (burial mounds and Underworld entryways) of the gods the Dagda and Aengus.
After this first cycle of myths, more times of tales followed. Ireland’s Heroic Age arrived, with the Ulster champion Cuchulainn and his king Conchobar around the time of Christ, and the hero Fionn mac Cumhaill and his Fianna warriors, who met with Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, in the 5th century. Folk tales abound of the faerie folk and spirit creatures such as the selkies, half-seal half-human, who regularly claimed shorter, darker members of Irish families as ‘one of their own’: those whose countenance betrayed some of that old endemic Iberian blood in their veins.
Before the Christian saints and scholars, the Viking marauders, the Norman invaders, the English and Scottish and Welsh and whoever else, this land bore the sons and daughters of the short, dark Iberian Fir Bolg and the tall, fair Milesian Gaels, who - plot twist! - both traced roots back to Spain.
I take another look at my ticket man, little eyes lost in leathery grooves, and think about his long lines of people and places, whom only myth could save from complete oblivion, and the long lines of people and places, blood and bone, that made me, meeting here to exchange some uncounted coins for a slip of paper on the side of a roaring wave. We make it to the safety of Church Bay, and I get a wink when I disembark on the tranquil island shore.