(6) The Lovers at Howth

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PlaceCard No.Date
Freshwater Beach Howth, Fingal Co Dublin. “6”18 /09/21
Spiritual/Esoteric  refGaeilgeEytmological Root
The Lovers, The Cave and The BeachBin Eadair The Hill of Oaks

The Fishing Village of Howth from the Norse Name ‘Hoved” meaning ‘head” is situated on a small peninsula north of Dublin City and is an area filled with legends and history . I spent many days in my youth in this part of County Dublin known as Fingal. It was always a well known place for day drips and family days. In my early twenties I created a sculpture there which tells the history of Howth known as The Ready Boat Pillar, launched by Gay Byrne back in 1996. This was also the year I got married to Laura and her likeness is used as the model for the figure of “Cesair” a personage from Howth’s local history. The faces of our eldest daughter Stacey our son Noel were used for the figures of “The Daughter of Today” and the “Son of Nessan”.

The Ready Boat Pillar by Sean O’Dwyer 1996 :Reconstituted Stone. https://seanodwyer.com/the-ready-boat-pillar/

Howth is also translated to Irish as “Ben Eadair”  the “Hill of Oaks” and Deer park does feature some surviving Oak Trees. The Legend I have focused upon for this section of the Crystal Path is “The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne” which is associated with a cave on the east side of the head, at freshwater bay as it is called on the map. But if you want to learn of more stories about Howth’s legendary past do visit the Ready Boat Pillar itself. you will find a plaque outlining them there alongside it. See pictures of it here https://seanodwyer.com/the-ready-boat-pillar/

In the manuscript of “The Hiding of the hill of Howth” it refers to the cave on Howth where Diarmuid and Grainne hid themselves to escape from Fionn Mac Chumaill.

The Story goes that Grainne, the most beautiful young woman in Ireland agreed to a marriage with the King Fionn without ever having met him. On her day to be married at Tara she was disappointed to find that Fionn was a man old enough to be her Grandfather and she took a strong disliking to his appearance.

In order to escape her fate she put a “géis” (an enchantment or type of oath) upon all the wedding guests putting them all asleep except for some of the few most handsome men of Fionn’s warriors. From amongst these she was drawn to Diarmuid Ua Duibhne (son of “Donn” of “Tech Duinn” the “House of Donn” where all the souls of dead gathered before they travelled to the Otherworld) .

The unsual rocky beach at Freshwater Bay. One can imagine ancient figures from our myths standing there to this day.

Diarmuid was also known as “Diarmuid of the love spot” for he had a spot below his eye that enchanted any woman that saw him. So Grainne fell in love with him and put a “géis” upon him too so he had to fall in love with her. But even so he was not happy about this as he was loyal to his king and was one of the kings best warriors. He protested but to no avail as he was caught between the géis and his loyalty to Fionn. This sealed his fate and this type of situation where one is caught between a rock and a hard place is a feature of these cycles of stories. Quite like life really, don’t you think?  

The pink rocks of Howth at Freshwater Beach

So began the great  story of “The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne” which is a tale that sends the lovers across the Irish countryside escaping at many a turn Fionn’s Fianna (his soldiers) who also feel divided in their loyalties between their honour to their king and their friend. Places where Diarmuid and Grainne sleep become associated with Dolmens, those great Stone monuments often known as Diarmuid and Grainne’s Bed. In order not to offend his King  Diarmuid won’t sleep with Grainne until she finally challenges his manhood , when she splashes her foot in water she says to him that the water has more courage to touch her than he has. This is seen as an insult and as a result at that moment Diarmuid gives in and makes love to Grainne putting his loyalty to Grainne above his loyalty to his king for the first time.

Bin Eadair as it appears from Baldoyle. A peninsula stretching out above Dublin Bay

Diarmuid and Grainne’s travels may have been the source for the tale of Tristan and Isolde. But their time in the cave of the Hill of Howth (Ben Etair, or Bin Eadair),describes how an old woman was with Diarmuid and Grainne at that time, watching over them. But the tale relates that the old woman went out of the cave, and up to the top of the Hill of Howth where she saw an armed man coming towards her. It was Finn, the warrior-king. Then the tale goes on describing how Finn fooled the old woman to get information out of her…. the old woman asked tidings of him. ‘To woo thee I have come,’ said Finn, ‘and the cause I will tell thee afterwards, and what I desire is that thou shouldst live with me as my only wife.’ The old woman believed the words of Finn, and promised him to do his will. But what Finn desired of her was to betray Diarmuid to him. She consented to this, dipped her cloak into the salt water and then went into the cave. Diarmuid asked why she was so wet. ‘I confess,’ said she, ‘I never saw or heard the like of it for cold and storms. For the frost has spread over the hillocks, and there is not a smooth plain in all Elga, in which there is not a long rushing river between every two ridges,’ said she. ‘And no deer or raven in Erin finds shelter in a cave or in any other place, or on an island, or in a bay of Falmag.’ Craftily she shook her raiment across the cave, and sang these staves: 

  1. Cold, cold! 
  2. Cold tonight is the broad plain of Lurg, 
  3. Higher the snow than the mountain-range, 
  4. The deer cannot get at their food.
  5. Cold till Doom! 
  6. The storm has spread over all: 
  7. A river is each furrow upon the slope, 
  8. Each ford a full pool.
  9. A great sea is each loch, which is full, 
  10. A full loch is each pool. 
  11. Horses do not get over Ross-ford, 
  12. No more do two feet get there.
  13. The fishes of Inis Fil are a-roaming, 
  14. There is no strand that a wave does not beat 
  15. In the lands there is no house visible
  16. Not a bell is heard, no crane talks.
  17. The hounds of Cuan-wood find not 
  18. Rest nor sleep in the dwelling of hounds, 
  19. The little wren cannot find 
  20. Shelter in her nest on Lon-slope.
  21. On the little company of the birds has broken forth 
  22. Keen wind and cold ice, 
  23. The blackbird cannot get a lee to her liking, 
  24. Shelter at the side in Cuan-woods.
  25. Cosy our pot on the hook, 
  26. Crazy the hut on Lon-slope: 
  27. The snow has smoothed the wood here, 
  28. Toilsome to climb by kine-horned staves.
  29. Glenn Rigi’s ancient bird 
  30. From the bitter wind gets grief,
    Great her misery and her pain, 
  31. The ice will get into her mouth.
  32. From flock and from down to rise 
  33. —Take it to heart!—were folly for thee: 
  34. Ice in heaps on every ford, 
  35. That is why I keep saying ‘cold’!

The old woman went out after that. But Grainne, as women often do, had an extra sense of things that told her something was not right when she noticed that the old woman had gone, she put out her hand on the garment that was about her, and put it on her tongue, and found the taste of salt on her cloak. ‘Woe, oh Diarmaid!’ she cried, ‘the old woman has betrayed thee. And arise quickly and take thy warrior’s dress about thee!’ Diarmaid did so, and went out, and Grainne with him. Then they beheld the warrior-king with the Fianna around him coming towards them. Diarmaid glanced upon the sea around Erinn, and saw a skiff in the shelter of the harbour near him. He and Grainne with him went into it. One man was awaiting them in the little boat with a beautiful raiment about him, with a broad-braided golden-yellow mantle over his shoulder behind. That was Oengus of the Brug, also known as Aengus Óg the foster father of Diarmaid, who had come to rescue him from the night-watch which he was in from Finn and the Fianna of Erin.

Aengus Óg is a very interesting figure that represents the lightness or the sun. His name means “True Vigour of Youth”. Diarmuid Ó Duibhne literally translated means ” free from envy the son of the dark” and it is interesting that his foster father seems to counteract in his nature the dark nature of Diarmuid . What can be sensed here are deeper meanings about the nature of life for Gráinne’s name means “Grace”. So the pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne is the pursuit of Grace with darkness which is the plight of love. Diarmuid’s love spot seems to tell us that it is the nature of those in darkness to be loved through Grace. It is how they are redeemed. With the strength of youth overseeing Diarmuid, he is destined to discover love even at great peril to himself. His identity in darkness is transformed through this love. Its no coincidence that the old woman tries to thwart Diarmuid and betray him to his pursuer. because it is youthful vigour and grace combined that save then from falling into the hands of earthly duty and service symbolised by the king which can be impediments to finding the rewards of true love.

Of course the love spot of Diarmuid may symbolise numerous other aspects of inner meaning which I will cover elsewhere . But the old Irish myths contain much knowledge under layers of reinterpretation and translation. They were used as teaching devices for initiates and much evidence of the great learning contained within is scattered throughout our texts. The teachers, the druids would have also explained the movement of the planets the stars the moon the sun using these myths. Looking at the meaning of the names of figures within the Irish cycle give us many clues about this.

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