Mountain tales

Apr 15th, 2012 | By | Category: Ireland

Driving through the byroads of south Tipperary, the little church was reached. The view was of Slievenamon, a mountain of magic and legend.

Slievenamon was a place of fairy women who enchanted the great warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill; it was the place where  Gráinne raced to the top to become Fionn’s betrothed, only to elope with Diarmuid, one of Fionn’s warriors. It is a place that brings a sense of having missed an entire education, of having passed by an important opportunity.

Starting training for the Church of Ireland in 1983, an Englishman barely off the Sealink ferry, Celtic mythology was fascinating, but no-one else was interested.  Many of my co-religionists from the North disavowed anything Celtic.  It seemed a matter of pride amongst some of them to denigrate all things ‘Irish’. It seemed sad that there was no interest in a heritage that predated every religious and political division.

The Setanta mural on Dublin’s Nassau Street, close to the arts block of Trinity College where we attended lectures, was a regular object for negative comment. Years passed when the Setanta mural was something to look at only out of the corner of an eye.  What was the point in digging up memories of animosity and open dislike?

One day, sitting in the coffee shop of the Kilkenny Design Centre, looking out at the mural, the time finally came to bury the old memories.  ‘Come on, let’s go and look at the mural!’

Our daughter, then sixteen, who had been taught the tales in school and who had learned the Irish language, explained the scenes.  As we walked down Nassau Street that morning, the stories continued, there was a tale of Oisín in Tír na nÓg.

‘But if Oisín went to Tír na nÓg, why is there an alleged grave in Co Antrim?’

‘Because he came back, of course’.

There was obviously great deal of catching up to do, a great backlog of stories to learn.

Of course, good intentions of taking out and reading the battered Penguin copy of ‘Irish Myths and Legends’, bought when it was a new publication and which has sat on our bookshelves for thirty years, came to nought. I am no more knowledgeable today regarding the stories of Setanta than I was in the coffee shop.

The tale of Fionn and Diarmuid and Gráinne is part of a mythology that shaped a whole culture, that made mountains and glens, and rivers and streams, and wells and thorn trees, into special places; a mythology that gave a land its stories.

Our daughter is nineteen tomorrow, and a medical student at Trinity College; were she here she could have told me the tales of Slievenamon.



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  1. My dad sung Slievenamon at Robin & Corina’s wedding afters for Corina’s late granny who was determined to be there despite ill health – a bit like himself yesterday – I missed the hymn singing at yesterdays event though sadly my dad wouldn’t have been able to join in & lead the singing like he used to.

  2. I would have loved to have heard him singing ‘Slievenamon’

  3. That was 11 or so years ago when he was only a young thing !

  4. He is no older now!

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