Mary Dynan

Page One

There were other fairy places like Loughareema, the vanishing lake near Fair Head, not to mention the fairy forts and fairy thorns that were all around. (One never brought hawthorn into the house, even though it was usually out in all its glorious blossom when you would be looking for flowers for your May altar). There was some relic or site of significance in nearly every field. Standing stones, a lot of which had been knocked over, burial grounds, raths and forts and other monuments like the remains of monasteries that had been damaged or distroyed. However people knew that these sites had particular significance. They were probably some of the places that had yarns attached to them when I was young. Lough Geil or the White Lough was a little lake near to our village, and nearby was what was called Gallows Hill. On the other side of the road was the more mysterious Black Lough. It really was not much more than a moss (bog) hole but it was reputed to be bottomless. We used to look into the black murky waters and tremble at what would happen if you fell in. Maybe I would have arrived in Australia sooner! (A bit like the film The Navigator in which a group of medieval people from the north of England going on pilgrimage to pray for preservation from the plague, fell through a mine shaft to land up in modern New Zealand?)

Any time I drove along the Antrim Coast Road, by the Sea of Moyle, I thought Of the children of Lir, who were turned into white swans by their wicked step mother Aoife and condemmed to spend 300 years on that stormy and bleak sea.

Aoife was jealous of Fionnuala and her brothers Aodh, Fiachra and Conn. She felt that they were taking their father's attention away from her so she got the help of a druid to tranform them into swans. She granted them 2 consolations that they could still think like human beings and would not be distressed by being swans, and they would sing the sweetest songs that ever were heard in the world. They were condemned to spend three hundred years on Lough Derg on the Shannon, three hundred years on the Sea of Moyle and then three hundred years in Erris. No power could free them until Patrick came to Ireland bringing with him a pure faith, and they should hear the sound of a Christian bell. The story goes that Fionnuala had an arrangement with her brothers whom she sheltered under her wings, that if ever they should get separated in the storms on the Sea of Moyle they would meet at a rock called Carricknarone on the Antrim coast. On one occasion she arrived there and they were missing and so she sang her saddest and sweetest song which Thomas Moore wrote about in his plaintive 'Song of Fionnualala

After they spent 300 years on the sea of Moyle, they had to fly off to the Isle of Glora in Erris and it was there that they heard the bell which rang for the first Mass there and this restored them to human form. They were baptised, but as they were now very old they soon died and their suffering was over.

Thomas Moore captured Finola's sadness in his song:
Silent 0 Moyle be the roar of thy water
Break not ye breezes your chain of repose
While murmuring mournfully, Lir's lonely daughter
Tells to the night star her tale of woes.

Despite what anyone else says - the story of the Old Age of Oisin, as recorded by Flood, says he arrived at Gleann na Smoll and having touched earth there became an old man and was brought to Dublin to meet Patrick - the Glensfolk knew better - Oisin, the son of Finn McCool, came back from Tir na nOg to our part of country. He died and was buried here. On Lubitavish you can see his reputed grave, a great stone cairn in a beautiful spot. (It is not really his grave, but a Neo lithic court tomb. They say that a Franciscan friar in the area translated the poems of Oisin so expertly that the people thought he must still be around the place.)

Deirdre and the Sons of Uisneach are associated with my part of the country too. The Gaelic name for the Pan rocks at Ballycastle was Carraigh Uisneach - This was the place where they landed in Ireland when King Conor McNessa called them back to his court , where despite Deirdre's premonitions and warnings the sons of Usneach were treacherously murdered. Near Carnmoney on the side of Cave hill is the cave where there were said to have sheltered as well.

As a child growing up there I was very conscious of the fact that in our little patch of North Antrim there were many places associated with St Patrick. At Dunseverick, the castle on the north coast which is reputed in the Annals of the Four Masters to have been founded in BC 1692, and also at Portstewart Strand there were holy wells both called Tubber Padraig (St Patrick's Well). Our holy well in Cloughmills was called Tubberdoney (Sunday's Well). It had a stone with the knee print of an unnamed saint. However is was not treated with much reverence in the 1940's, though, until the scheme water came from Altnahinch Dam, the village got its lovely spring water supply from it, and succulent watercress grew in the swamp around it, and May flowers.

Coleraine (which just makes it into Co Derry) owed its beginnings to a monastery founded by St Patrick on the 'eastern brink of the Bann where the boys are burning the ratha (ferns)'. That's where it got its name Cul Rathan. Later Colmcillee visited that monastery before he left for Iona. In Coleraine, on the banks of the Bann, he stood for the last time on the soil of Ireland before he went into the exile from which he never returned.

Patrick founded the church of Ramoan which is now my mother's parish in Ballycastle - that makes it one of the oldest in Ireland. He had also consecrated St Olcan as Bishop of Armoy at Dunseverick, but Slemish was the jewel of all the Patrician sites. The tradition was that Patrick the slave boy had herded animals (sheep, pigs?) there for the local chieftain Milchu. I like to think that it was there that Patrick learned the Irish language - so he spoke it with a Northern accent. They must not have treated him too badly, for when he returned, he came to the North, even if he did land in Co Down! Perhaps it was the voices of the children of Antrim that he heard calling him to come back.

During his long lonely nights on Slemish he was laying the foundations for the man of prayer he became. In his Confession which is preserved in the Book of Armagh he wrote

'When I came to Ireland, I was daily employed in feeding cattle and often times during the day I prayed and the love of God, and the fear of him, grew more and more, and my vigour of mind increased, so that in one day I made as many as a hundred prayers and in the night a like number.'

Perhaps it was there that he composed that wonderful prayer, his 'Breast Plate'

Criost liom. Criost romham, Criost im dhiadh,
Criost os mo chionnsa agus Criost fuim ....
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me
Christ above my head and Christ beneath me .......

Tradition has it that when Patrick returned to North Antrim, Milchu was persuaded by the Druids that it would be a disgrace to be in any way subservient to his former slave so he killed himself. However his three children, Emer, Bronagh and Gusacht were among Patrick's first converts. The latter became a disciple of Patrick and was the first Bishop of Granard. Emer and Bronagh are remembered and their names are still popular today for girls. However, I've never heard of anyone called Gusacht!

We had other saints associated with the area. St MacNissi was an important one. He is the patron saint of Connor, and the diocesan boy's college where my brothers went to school is dedicated to him. St Malachy is the patron of the Down part of the Diocese of Down and Connor. There were many places where Mass had been said in penal times, but the most celebrated was the Mass Rock in Cushendun where there was an annual celebration. This was associated with St Kieran, who passed through the district at one stage. St Oliver Plunket made visits to various parts, but my father used to say it was because he had not been able to visit some of them that a lot of the people were lost to the Church. As a counter to that it could be noted that to some extent the Church was responsible for the demise of the Irish language in the area. There was quite a saga about classes using bibles in Irish provided by the Presbyterian Home Mission, which the Catholic were forbidden to have anything to do with. The fall-out from this was a decline in the use of Irish.

On his feast we could ask Patrick and the other saints associated with this sad and beautiful part of the world to pray for an end to the trouble there. He overcame the Druids, 'men of hard hearts without any good in them'. Perhaps he, 'Patrick of the miracles', could have another victory coming to him on behalf of the children of Ireland.