On a Sunday a decade or so ago, I remember driving through the byroads of south Tipperary to reach a little church where a baptism was to take place. Above the village loomed Slievenamon, a mountain of magic and legend, a mountain whose tales seemed part of a religion set deeper in the culture than stories from First Century Palestine.
Slievenamon was a mountain that inspired music and song. It was Sliabh na mBan bhFionn, a place of fair women who enchanted the great warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill. It 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. Looking up at the mountain on tht bright spring Sunday, there was of not being part of something, a sense of having missed an education filled with characters who were both fascinating and terrifying.
Undoubtedly, the tales of Slievenamon, the story of Fionn and Diarmuid and Gráinne, the stories of the deeds of the fianna, the accounts of the mysterious Tuatha Dé Danann are 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. It was a mythology that gave a land its stories.
Yet there seemed a darkness in many of the stories, arbitrary, inexplicable events took place, characters would respond to developments with acts of grotesque violence.
In primary school days in Somerset, we would have read Arthurian legends, stories that sometimes seemed incomprehensible to a young schoolboy. There would be moments of violence which seemed unnecessary. The tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was always the most troubling. Even if the Green Knight did invite Gawain to chop off his head, it did not seem very chivalrous of Gawain to do so. Given such an offer, Gawain should have anticipated that the Green Knight would simply pick up his head and walk away.
Perhaps tales on both sides of the Irish Sea were a reflection of the realities of life as people experienced it. Sudden death, extreme violence and a belief in the efficacy of curses were part of the ordinary and the everyday. The darkness of the traditional tales mirrored the capricious behaviour of those who gained and retained power and authority by force.
The idea of pre-Christian Ireland as a place that reflected modern notions of “Celtic spirituality” seems a far remove from Ireland of the sagas.