Saturday, 22 August 2015

Beneath the Hill of the Women

Cnoc na mBan, Knocknaman, The Hill of the Women

I recently deserted the studio and my current painting in favour of a landscape which guards ancient secrets.
I travelled west along the curving shoulder of the mountains and turned to wend my way beneath the Hill of the Women.

Rambling through the green shadowed glen and over a small stream I finally reached the
Old Munster Road.
Slí Dála is one of the five roadways which were said to originate from 
the Hill of Tara in the time of the High Kings. 

Along the way lies a holy well dedicated to St. Fionan Cam, known as a healer of the sick and injured around the 6th century. A saint who had a curious paternity.

The well of St. Fionan Cam, restored in 1988.

Legend informs us that he was conceived when his mother bathed in Lough Lein, Killarney, after sunset one evening and whilst doing so she was impregnated by a golden salmon.
She later gave birth to the saint. 
The head of the saint carved by a local man, Paddy Heaney.

From the well the road leads to Forelacka, a glen surrounded by hills and it is here, where the valley suddenly widens and the modern road ends, that a circular burial mound stands, a monument to the early inhabitants.

The passage tomb, similar in style to those in the Boyne Valley, is thought to date to 
the early Bronze Age. 
A stone once rested on this side of the mound indicating an entrance to the chamber.

Looking north from the mound to The Hill of the Women. 
The silhouette of a much larger passage tomb shrouded by forest can just be seen on the summit. 

In 1844, when the forest was being planted, this summit tomb was clearly visible surrounded by a
stone circle. Evidence of fire action was found on the stones with layers of ash discovered in the soil.
It is speculated that ritual fires were once lit on the top of the hill at Bealtaine to welcome
the summer and obtain the blessings of the Ever-Living Ones.

I turned and stood with my back to the passage grave and looked across to another hill, beyond
which sits a modern bungalow concealing a secret.

Dowsers at the Cumber Stones - photo by © Seán Gilmartin.

The Cumber Stones are two limestone pillars, weathered and shaped by time, which stand incongruously at the front entrance to a house.
Over the years dowsers have visited them in an attempt to decipher their meaning within the landscape.

Between the stones by © Seán Gilmartin.

I had a final visit to make on my journey that day so left the strange stones behind me and set out
for Glenafelly. In this quiet valley nestles the Fiddler's Rock, where the fairy fiddle player sits.
He was heard here one evening playing his lament, by two local farmers, now long gone.
More recently children's voices have been heard about the stone, in the glen were children no
longer play.

Although seemingly lost in a field it is the Fiddler's Rock which holds a clue to the beliefs 
of our distant ancestors.

The stone itself, a block of quartzite, is of a type not found elsewhere in the region 
and was probably erected in the Bronze Age.

Many years ago the geologist, John Feehan, made a fascinating discovery.
If you walk in a straight line from the rock you will pass directly between the Cumber pillar stones, descend into the valley beyond and arrive at the entrance to the burial mound near the foot of The Hill of the Women.
And that is not all.

Whilst out running near Glenafelly in the week before Christmas he observed:
"I was stopped in my tracks, awestruck at the great beam of sunlight that streamed through 
Cumber Gap across the Fiddler's Rock, whose long shadow pointed like a dark finger at Knocknaman, 
and all the way down the valley south of it."

Evening gathered as I turned to leave the Fiddler's Rock, my head filled with questions about
sunlight at Winter Solstice, alignments across the landscape and ancient beliefs.

I speculated aloud about the ancient people who once lived here.

Most importantly I asked about the Hill of the Women.
" Who were the women ? Were they warriors, mothers, healers, the wise ones ?

Did they light the fires on the Hill ?

But no answers came.
The Fiddler's Rock remained silent and the hills held their secrets.

'The Landscape of the Slieve Bloom - a study of its natural history and human heritage. '
By John Feehan has been republished and is available HERE

Sunday, 2 August 2015

A visit to Biddy Early's - The Wise Woman of Clare

Last week I  travelled to County Clare to visit the remains of Biddy Early's cottage.
I was about to begin a new painting and as part of my research I looked for the photographs that I'd taken there nine years previously. I hunted high and low but they had gone.
Not only that but my friend, who had been with me back then, had also misplaced hers, so I left home
for a second pilgrimage to Feakle.

This time, alone, I found the over grown pathway which leads to the remains of Biddy's cottage. 
Biddy Early was a renowned herbalist and healer, using her cures to help both people and animals, skills which seem to have been handed down by her mother.
She was reputed to be in touch with the Good People and some in Clare viewed her as a descendant
of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Many of those who sought her help travelled great distances and none were turned away from her door. For this service she took no money but would accept poitín, whiskey or food in return.

Her cottage, near Feakle, hidden in a tangle of trees and surrounded 
by greenery now stands forlorn.  

Biddy was born in 1798, the year of the Rebellion and baptised Bridget Connor, but she was always 
known by her mother's maiden name, Early.
Her parents died within six months of each other, forcing Biddy to leave home aged 16 and take to the 
roads. She went on to marry four times, surviving each of her husbands and her only child, Tom, 
who died of typhus aged eight. 
Her life was extremely hard and Biddy lived through famine, evictions, disease and forced emigrations. 
Looking through the doorway into the cottage with a chair left by a previous visitor.
On entering there is stillness, silence and an atmosphere which cannot be described.

Biddy's most mysterious power was reputed to lie in her famous Blue Bottle.
Where this bottle originated is unclear, some say her mother returned from the dead to give it to
her daughter, whilst others firmly believe that it was a gift from the Otherworld.
By looking into it she was said to predict futures and divine the source of illness so accurately that people from all over the country sought her help.

It was well known that Biddy was close to the Good People throughout her life and on occasion intervened to save those marked by the Sídhe who were due to be 'taken'. It was understood that she paid a price for this ability and was beaten by supernatural fists.

Her fame as a wise woman, who helped those in poverty and need, was considered by the church
to be dangerous and disruptive. Although she was well respected within her community the parish priest denounced Biddy from the altar and admonished people for visiting her.

Offerings, including a blue bottle, are left in remembrance of Biddy on the window sill inside. 
My own, a small white quartz pebble left 9 years ago, still lies there amongst the coins, 
jewellery, stones and shells.

In 1865 Biddy Early was accused of practicing witchcraft. 
During her trial in Ennis many people who had benefitted from Biddy's skills supported her and 
by the end most of her accusers had withdrawn their testimonies. 
She was acquitted of the charge due to lack of evidence. 

Three years later, aged 70, Biddy married for the last time. Her husband, Thomas, who was 40, 
passed away after a year and widowed once more, she spent her remaining days alone. 

Despite her fame and skill Biddy continued to spend her life in poverty.

In April 1873 Biddy Early died peacefully in her two roomed cottage, aged 75.

A priest was present at her death and she is buried in the local cemetery although her grave is unmarked.  At her funeral Father Dore of  Feakle is reported to have said,
“We thought we had a demon amongst us in poor Biddy Early, but we had a saint and we did
not know it.”

On her death the famous Blue Bottle was thrown into the nearby lake, now a bog.
Although it has been searched for since, the bottle was never found and it is understood that the
Good People took it back.

Biddy's renovated cottage as seen in the RTÉ film.

In the late 1960's a local man, Dr. Bill Loughnane, reconstructed and furnished Biddy's cottage,
as can be seen in this short RTÉ film - link below. According to stories the doctor had nothing but misfortune following this venture and the building was left to fall.
CLICK HERE to visit RTÉ  and watch archive footage inside Biddy's cottage.

Such is the enduring nature of Biddy Early's legacy that 142 years later, people here are still wary
of her powers and she is named by some as a wise woman, by others a witch.

The gable end of the cottage & nook next to the fireplace where a visitor had recently rested.

Standing there alone I felt a curious atmosphere in the remains of her cottage.
After taking the photos you see above, I turned to take a shot of the hearth when my camera stopped working. I felt my presence had been tolerated for long enough so I left.

The folklorist Eddie Lenihan talked with many people whose families had personal contact with Biddy. You can listen to Eddie and local residents reflect on the Wise Woman in this video:

Eddie's book 'The Search for Biddy Early' can be found here:
'Biddy Early - The Wise Woman of Clare' by Meda Ryan is here: