Jul 112016

Mary Byrne


Mary Byrne is Irish but lives in Paris. These small texts are a hilariously whimsical mix of legend, fact, and fiction. The first three come from a collection of Irish firsts. The last — “That’s Another Story” — detailing Ireland’s long pre-history before the Irish were actually living there, is from the opening of a novel-in-progress.


Primordial Irishwomen

If we believe our own stories, the first woman to explore Ireland was called Cessair. She came from an island on the Nile – or maybe it was Greece – anyway, from further east, because she’d had warning about the imminent Flood.

A lot of things happened on the trip over: two of the ships went down, but Cessair and her companions – some 50 women and a mere three men – managed to land. They arrived in Ireland 40 days before the Flood, making land at a place later called Corcu Dhuibne, after the seed or tribe of Duibhne – whoever he was – and now known as Dingle.

It was already raining and the wet rocks looked black, as they would later look in the film Ryan’s Daughter.

Since the story is told by the winners (in this case seventeenth-century Donegal monks), we are told that the men divided up the women between them. A fellow named Fintan had Cessair and sixteen others. Bith – who also just happened to be a son of Noah himself and father of Cessair – took her friend Bairrfhind and another sixteen. The pilot of the boat, Ladra (the original Third Man), was a greedy chap who complained about his unequal portion of the women. Needless to say he was punished for his greed and died of a surfeit of women. Or else “it was the shaft of the oar that penetrated his buttock,” which we might put down to the first case of Freudianism in Irish writing. That left Fintan and Bith to share out the women between them, and sure enough Bith died next, leaving Fintan with the whole lot. Eventually it was all too much for him too and Fintan fled the women altogether, leaving Cessair and the others to die of broken hearts.

Fintan took refuge in a cave on a hill called Tul Tuinde where he rode out the ensuing Flood and hung around for a very long time – some of it under water – to tell his tale to each new group of immigrants.

Unless you prefer a version of the story from the manuscript Cín Dromma Snechtai (since lost), in which the primordial Irishwoman is Banba who survived the Flood on top of Tul Tuinde, and lived to tell the arriving Milesians that she was older than Noah himself.

We imagine a world in which aboriginal Irishwomen – although already in trouble in terms of the power they wielded – still had the last word, a world in which Madame Bovary hadn’t discovered credit, where the influx of money from the film Ryan’s Daughter (whose black rocks were actually near Cape Town) hadn’t yet saved Duncaoin from economic extinction, a world where even explorer-women were already telling lies to compensate.


A sacred marriage*

* With a nod to Gerald of Wales (Geraldus Cambrensis, sent to Ireland to justify arguments for English conquest), and to the Vedic ritual horse-sacrifice asvamedha.

Somewhere in remote Ulster, in the territory of the Cenel Conall perhaps a thousand years ago, it is the coldest season of the year. All summer the grey mare – prestigious colour for a horse – has been cosseted and protected. Now, her time has come. She is used to people, so the noise of the crowd doesn’t worry her. She waits, and grazes.

A huge fire burns nearby, from which assistants wearing identical garments draw hot stones, turning their faces from the heat, backing away from the sparks, They roll the stones into a nearby cauldron of water placed in a hole in the ground. The stones hiss at first, then warm quickly, hiss no more. Steam rises into the cool morning air. The crowd rubs its hands against the cold, and huddles.

Presently there is a hush as the future king appears, wearing a cloak. The mare is led to where he stands. Then his cloak is removed. He is completely naked. He approaches the mare, occasionally dropping onto all fours, and climbs onto a big stone then finally onto some kind of contraption – there are assistants in cloaks, there’s a lot of urgency, it is all far from clear – finally he stands and embraces her neck at length. He strokes her back and approaches her rear, moving quickly. He pretends to (or actually does) mount her like a stallion. The crowd chatters wildly as he fumbles in mimicry of urgent copulation. Someone narrates loudly for those at the back who can’t see.

When it is over the crowd sighs loudly as he is quickly covered again and led to one side. The mare senses danger for an instant as they quickly surround her – but it is too late. They cut her to the bone. Before the crowd can even see the blood, a swift mist rises and floats away on the cold morning. The mare sinks first to her knees then finally falls on her side. They hack at the now lifeless form jigging with fat and gurgling liquids, until it is reduced to manageable pieces that steam in the cool air until dropped into the cauldron of bubbling water.

There is a pause and more recitation while they cook the meat to sufficient paleness. When the broth is cool enough the future king uncloaks again and is helped into the bath where he sits, eating the cooked flesh and offering it to the surrounding dignitaries (who pass small bits into the crowd). He washes it down with his own milky bath water which he scoops up in his cupped hands.

Now he is king, married to the land.


A first for Ireland 

Partholon was the first man into Ireland 278 years after the Flood. He was belloragged as a renegade from justice after killing his father, which would make him the original Playboy of the Western World.

Anyway, Partholon and his crowd came and would settle.

He’d always been a man with a mission: he’d been around the Mediterranean in all directions from Sicily to Greece to Cappadocia to Gothia (don’t ask), back to Spain and finally on to Inis Fail in Ireland, arriving on a Monday, or in another version on a Tuesday, the 14th of the moon.

He found it lying waste. Proud of his progressive ideas (already we have a boaster): not only did Partholon introduce the first cattle and cauldrons into Ireland: he and his people set to tidying things up. They settled south of the Liffey, cleared plains, dammed rivers, studied new farming methods.

Partholon was proud of his team: Accesbal (another manuscript calls him Beoir) who had built the first Bed & Breakfast and was planning to expand; Brea who built the first dwelling; and either Samailith or Makaliach who might be described as the first underwriter. They loved counting their exploits: seven lake-bursts, three lakes, nine rivers including the Lee (giver of life) and four new plains, one of which they cleared so well that not a twig has grown on it since.

Partholon’s wife Delgnat was sick of the counting. She knew that the silent Topa, her husband’s servant, was doing a different kind of counting. Topa pretended to be pure, but she reckoned he was just a kenat (a word they used up-country for a smart-aleck).

One day Partholon decided to go off on his travels again. Delgnat didn’t particularly want him to stay, but she knew what would happen as soon as he left: she was beginning to fancy Topa no end, and reckoned that he’d been giving her the eye for weeks.

“Are you not taking himself with you?” she asked her husband, indicating Topa.

Partholon continued to pack. “He’ll only slow me down,” he said, picking up his bundle and heading for the door.

As soon as she saw him and his bundle disappear over the crest of the nearest hill, she manoeuvred Topa into her room and fell upon him. When the deed was done there was such a drought on them that she got him to share a drink from Partholon’s own private vat of sweet ale – the first ale brewed in Ireland and made from bracken, an all-too-available raw material.

She and Topa made the mistake, however, of drinking it through Partholon’s special gold straw. (It had to be taken through a straw because what passed for beer in those days was a porridgey brew with things floating in it – anything that could be found to sweeten it, from honey to meadowsweet – and the straw helped avoid some of the floaters. It would be quite a while before the use of hops – for flavour and head – would make its way to these shores. We may even surmise that the continental Celts used their moustaches for straining their beer, and not their soup, as later claimed by a disgusted Diodorus Siculus.)

When Partholon, a fussy fellow, returned from all his work with a drought on him, he headed straight for his stock of ale, and noticed immediately that someone had been at the gold straw in his absence. He was that smart he recognized exactly who: “I can taste the two of yous clearly,” he said. “I wasn’t long gone but yous couldn’t be aisy.”

Delgnat didn’t even appear apologetic – she gloated. Partholon knew well what she was capable of. Topa maintained that she threw her clothes off and stood in the nip before him and, as he added, sure what was he to do? He insisted that what he had done, he had done without pleasure.

Offended, Partholon didn’t believe this was entirely possible, and considered it insulting. A man normally given to firsts, here was the first case of adultery in Ireland: how well it had to be his own wife – and with a common servant to boot!

And so it was by the same token Partholon was the first to introduce jealousy into Ireland. He was angry and he’d show them.

First he kicked Delgnat’s dog. Finding that this did him no good, he killed it. Then he got so angry he killed Topa as well.

When the law came after him, he demanded his right.

“I want to be paid the price of my honour,” he said. (Obviously this came before Delgnat’s honour, and clearly no one was interested in Topa’s – maybe servants had none, which hasn’t much changed, anywhere).

Delgnat was ready for this.

“And what about me – what about my honour?” says she, bold as brass. “I’m the injured party here. Am I not entitled to compensation? Didn’t you take a great risk, leaving me here with no protection?”

Partholon was dumbstruck as she moved in for the coup de grâce: “You’d leave milk with a cat, would you?”

It was another first for Ireland, a legal first.

Partholon had to swallow his pride. After the adultery, the couple lived together for 17 more years, had ten daughters and four sons who divided the island between them (another first to be repeated ad nauseam).

Finally Partholon and his followers all died – 4,000 women and 5,000 men in a week – of a plague in the month of May, another first: the 1st of Bealtaine. To honour them, the place was named Teamhlacht (now Tallaght), meaning “death monument”, the first of many of these.


Sin scéal eile*

* Gaelic for ‘That’s another story’)

Around 20,000 years ago BAA (Before Anybody was Anybody), the last glacial maximum was in full spate. In northwestern Europe, ice overwhelmed all but the highest spots. Anyone with the inclination could have walked from where Dublin is now to where Stockholm would one day be. The mountains of future Donegal, Mayo-Galway, Cork-Kerry rose in their tundra-ness above the white-greyness. Wisps of cloud hung around those few visible peaks while darker denser cloud enveloped the troughs.

To the east rose the peaks of what Chaucer would some day call Englelond, where there had already been humans for some 20,000 years. So far, no evidence has been found that they made their way to Ireland in those early days, but this may be only a question of time. Already distant, the tip of the neighbouring island hung above its own white-greyness. Over the next 10,000 years, a temporary moving landbridge of rubble pushed ahead of the ice made its way from south to north between Englelond and us. Nothing permanent, you understand.

And to the north, between the closest points on the coasts of Donegal and Scotland, a thin umbilical stretched, under the ice.

To compress Ireland’s arrival at some 20,000 years ago is to do an injustice to nature’s patience. A rock in Inistraughull in Donegal is 1,700 million years old. From there to here is inconceivable time travel, painstaking detective work with precious little clues. 600 million years back, Ireland lay in two parts (could the trouble have started here?) around the present level of South Africa, with North American style fauna in one half, and European fauna in the other. 50 million years later, a fern-like branch fossilised in a Bray Head slate. 400 million years ago the two plates welded together and Ireland became one. At Clogherhead and some way inland, the two fauna can be found to mingle. Some 375 million years ago a four-footed creature left tracks in mud on future Valencia Island Co. Kerry. The mud has now become hard slate, but the footprints remain. Then the sea swept in with its coral reefs, preparing limestone for our horses. After that there were rainforests, then swamps. Fossils of spiders and dragonflies are found in coal from these times. By 300 million years Ireland had moved up to the level of the equator and in another 50 million we were level with today’s Egypt, with an appropriately desert climate. Carrantouhill was 3 times higher than today. The Galtees and Knockmealdowns were formed, and Kingscourt gypsum, and the karstic landscapes of the Burren resembled for all the world the Dalmatian coast. Later they became as eroded as the moon’s surface and finally were swept away by ice. From this period a solitary pinnacle remains, near Fenit in Kerry, standing sentinel over a lake. Foundering formed a giant basin from future Lough Neagh to the Firth of Clyde. Somewhere around 225 million years a small reptile crossed the muddy edge of a pond south of Newtownards, and left his mark forever.

From 200-65 million years, organic debris was turning into oil and gas reserves. Ireland got only gas, somewhere off Kinsale. By 180M our profile was very low indeed, drowned in a sea that stretched from Ireland to the Caucasus. By 150M we were covered in chalk, yet the only chalk now left is either hidden under basalt up north or exposed at Ballydeanlea off the road from Tralee to Killarney, where it has been quarried and roasted in limekilns by local farmers, for fertiliser. Skipping ahead now, from 65 to 50 million years ago, volcanic activity in and around the North Channel causes our northeast, Scotland’s southeast, and Greenland to break apart. Fingal’s Cave and the Giant’s Causeway are created. Molten rock intrusions bring to being the Mourne and Carlingford mountains, Doon Hill in Connemara, and probably also Hawaii and Vesuvius.

We’re up there with the big boys.

Now Ireland is a warm place with dense tropical forests of pine, cypress, monkeypuzzle, alder, fern. By now we’re at the latitude of the American Great Smoky Mountains. By 35 million years, the Lough Neagh basin is some 45 miles long, from future Ballymoney to Portadown, and completely unfamiliar: a large lake surrounded by forests of redwoods, swamp cypress, black gum, and the more prosaic alder, holly, lime, oak and palm.

Again a drive is made for natural resources: this time vegetable debris accumulates and changes into brown coal or lignite. There may also have been similar changes in the Shannon and Erne basins. Now lead and zinc form at Tynagh, where the remains of a bog of cypress have been found in the upper altered ores.

By 25M Ireland is near its present position, and slowly moving away from North America. Irregular falls in temperature all over the world signal what is to come and, sure enough, by 13M icecaps start to form in the polar regions. In Ireland there may have been badlands rather like those in Dakota today: a thick covering of red, yellow and brown clay bereft of plants. Our trees resembled those in North America or the mountains of China: warm temperate woodlands with magnolias, sweet gums, swamp cypress, palm, hemlock. Rhododendron, heather and moss from this period were found in a well near Carlow.

By 1.7 million years, the Ice Age had begun, during which Ireland would give drumlin and esker to the language of geologists and geomorphologists. It wasn’t all bad: a warm phase around half a million years ago gave us open country with fir, spruce, hornbeam and wing-nut. From 425,000-300,000 we had a warm phase named after Gort, with trees we would recognise: spruce, birch, juniper, pine, willow and, towards the end of the period, oak, hazel, ash, yew and finally holly, box and rhododendron, which would later disappear until they were re-introduced in the 18th century to plague the mountains of Kerry and Donegal.

Although man has by now discovered fire, he still hasn’t discovered Ireland, which now resembles the southern slopes of the Caucasus, with heath called Mackay, Dorset and St Dabeoc’s, and Killarney fern which loves being near the spray of a waterfall. 300,000-130,000 is all bad, a cold phase with ice all over the country except Cork and Kerry and thus called the Munsterian phase. There is tundra from the English Channel to Kiev. Ice forms the gap in the Knockmealdowns, carries gneiss cobbles from Mayo as far as Roughpoint near Castlegregory, dumps boulders of granite on the beaches of future Ballybunion and Ballinskelligs, cuts striae into a cliff on Valencia island, forms huge domes cover Mayo. The Tyrone dome holds hard against ice pushing in from Scotland as far as Cork where it deposits a blue-green granite like that of the lonesome Ailsa Craig just across the North Channel.

But what is man up to? By 130,000 years ago Homo sapiens sapiens was evolving seriously, in East Africa, perhaps. Some scientists now claim to trace us all back to a single ancestor they have dubbed the mitochondrial Eve. Others say there was more than one Eve. The whole thing, in the hands of the irresponsible, is liable to blow up into a racist scat, which will no doubt only be sorted out by DNA when our generations have passed on (although I am determined to hang on long enough to see some mysteries solved).

In fact, the work has already started: people in Ireland are already rubbing a brush around the inside of their cheeks and sending it off to scientists who will analyse it for some 15 genetic markers. Ireland, with its clan system, had a surname headstart of some 3-400 years over the British and the French, so the study is focusing on a handful of Gaelic Ulster names, for starters.

All things start and finish in Ulster or thereabouts, as we shall see.

Whatever the results will tell us about who the Irish really are, we are clear of the charge of being like monkeys, for scientists have recently determined that monkeys are merely man’s cousins. They have stopped looking for the missing link, because there isn’t one. We can talk, monkeys can’t, and that’s it. But I sometimes wonder: there are slender gibbons that live in treetops somewhere and never descend to the ground. They sing, all varieties of them. Like birds.

And wouldn’t you know, there are some bad boys amongst the crowd: researchers in France found the butchered remains of half a dozen people from this time. Not only was the meat removed from the bones in a certain way, but the marrow too. Ritual perhaps – or starvation-induced, there’s no one around to say. In spite of such savagery, most experts agree – and the weather was no doubt sufficiently mild for such luxuries: around 100,000 years ago man was getting into what is called “mythological thinking,” burying his dead with hippie-sounding “grave gear.”

Yes, this is the beginning of more trouble: ritual, religion perhaps, rules certainly.

Man got his heels cooled from 80,000 by a further bout of cold, when the ice returned to almost the level of the Munsterian phase. Drumlins come as far south as Clogher Head (the other, Kerry one), but this is followed 65,000-35,000 by a mild phase, during which elephant molars, pieces of tusk and a solitary tooth – perhaps of a woolly mammoth – get left in gravel near Lough Neagh. Temperature range was small, not unlike the range in today’s Armagh.

Soon they begin to come into focus, our hairy ancestors.

Around 50,000 years ago man began using language proper. I gaze in awe at reproductions of those first works of art called cave paintings which our ancestors may very well have called something else entirely, something more awesome, an impression perhaps augmented by mind-altering plants or mushrooms.

Yes, man may already have been at those dirty drugs.

But still no one has yet ventured to Ireland, or if they have, we haven’t found the evidence. From this time, in a cave at Castlepook near Doneraile in Co. Cork, an uneasy alliance of the bones of mammoth, spotted hyena, giant Irish deer, Norway lemming, brown deer, brown bear and Arctic fox offer silent testimony to either flooding, or strange bedfellows who roamed the open grasslands of the previous warm-up and took refuge from the ice that covered the rest of the country. There were even remains of the obstinate red deer who would still be around, in the wild state, till the 19th century. I imagine them mooching among birch and willow copses, in a landscape not unlike that of Siberia or northern Scandinavia today, a sort of tundra grassland, with docks, sorrel and least willow in patches amidst the snow, juniper in the northeast, birches in the southwest, crowberry in Roundstone. In 1715 someone reported finding mammoth bones near Newbliss, but sadly the bones were carried off and no proof remains.

Our other claim to fame, the giant Irish deer that decorates the walls of museums around the world, now has his heyday. Some 10 foot to the top of his (male only) antlers, he couldn’t have survived in woodland because the antlers also spanned some 10 feet. His was a dangerous life, for he was an awkward fellow, busy shedding and regrowing his annual antlers that weighed 60-odd lbs. He was stupid enough, when coming to drink, to blunder into the mud where he sometimes sank and died, if and when he wasn’t trampling all over his companions as they congregated in a valley, exhausted after the rutting season.

In those days art – if we decide to call it that – was perhaps considered a rather more meaningful activity. Indeed it was probably of prime importance. Artists and shamans had similar roles, if they weren’t exactly the same thing. By 20,000 years ago – now looking very recent indeed – America was being peopled, rampant animals and men were being painted on cave walls, while some remarkably fine Palaeolithic Venuses were being carved in bone and stone. Other, more brutish cave walls just got down to essentials: for a woman, an inverted triangle with a slash towards the bottom.

From now on, temperatures and sea levels rise and fall, but the Ice Age is on its way out, and from 13,000 years ago more practical things can get under way. In what we now call the Middle East and see on our TV screens daily, the first farmers started growing wheat and barley and raising cattle, sheep and pigs. Somewhere around 12,000 BP (before the present, for everything relates to us in the here and now) there is a final lengthy cold snap creating small glaciers in Wicklow. Arctic plants flourish where the Gulf Stream now warms our shores.

It is what I may call a pregnant moment: the ice forms the drumlins that will march from Down to Mayo. Above the ice, the peaks of Croagh Patrick and Errigal are distinguishable in the distance. When the ice finally recedes, all that will be needed is poor drainage, some dense woods, and the damp basket of eggs between Dundalk and Sligo will constitute a major physical obstacle to movement between the two parts of Ireland. It will only take a black pig’s dyke here, a dorsey there, the odd Cuchulainn, and the border is under way. To the west of this belt, corrie lakes nestle under high-seeming summits and further south form the deep glens and waterfalls that will one day attract tourists, like those white beaches where, in summer, foreigners are easily distinguished from the Irish by the fact that they wear rain gear, while the Irish wear swimsuits.

And still the first Irish have not yet arrived.

However, humans are near at hand: a solitary and roughly-fashioned flint, discovered in a Drogheda quarry, dates from this time and shows manufacturing techniques similar to those found in future England. People are there. Perhaps the lonesome flint was washed in at Drogheda from an outpost somewhere on the other side of the Irish Sea.

By 10,000 BCE (a common era that is politically correct) the ice cap has finally withdrawn, leaving tundra and steppe to take over most of Europe and the islands. As the ice withdraws it leaves sand and gravel across the valley of a river south of the present border with Northern Ireland, at a place that will figure in our story, between Conallgearr and Bellahanagadda, causing flooding in the river valley and forming a huge lake some 5 miles long. In the luckiest places pine and birch – one of the oldest tree species growing in Ireland today – start up.

Further north, however, since Scotland is still covered with ice, the remains of the landbridge still straddles between us and Scotland. Our umbilical, as it were, is still in place.

When the definitive warm phase – which we now consider normal – began, plants and animals wanting to immigrate here had a relatively short time to make it before the waters rose definitively to cut them off. It was rather like a Donnelly visa, many applied but few were lucky. You had to be in the right place at the right time to catch the forebulge that moved north as the ice receded, between us and the neighbours, acting as a bridge for our hopeful immigrants.

At Newlands Cross, some meticulous person has found the tooth of a field mouse from this time. But it is above all the botanical invaders that colour the landscape, arriving from all directions: from the north, lady’s tresses, blue-eyed grass and rushes move in, and stay. From the south creep arbutus (which the Irish will call cuinche), violet butterworth and Mediterranean heath splash their delicate pale purples over the mountains in early spring. The pink bells of St Dabeoc’s heath speckle the west, together with orchids and saxifrage. Mackay’s and Dorset heath make it back again, plus London pride and the Irish orchid. No pike, perch or bream are fast enough, but salmon, trout, eel, Lough Neagh pollan and Killarney shad make it in time. I imagine a place of grasses, docks, meadowsweet being slowly invaded by juniper scrub and then finally being overshadowed by willows, birches, aspen.

Our woods are under way.

Why some plants made it to Ireland but not to England is a mystery, especially since we have only 70% of their plants and 65% of their insects and invertebrates. But light thrown on this mystery may serve to answer questions related to later population movements. Here, our witness is a modest little bug that lives in rock crevices around the low-tide mark. Called Aepophilus bonnairei, it can neither swim nor fly, and is found on the Atlantic coast from here to Morocco. The conclusion is that the little fellow made it on foot, all the way up the Atlantic coastal strip. The same theory has the spotted slug making its way up from Iberia through France to settle definitively in Kerry.

Whatever the case, the whole immigration period only lasted some few hundred years. As post-glacial warming really got under way, the seas submerged coastal woods, until finally the crucial event occurred: the last of the ice melted.

It was around 7,500 BC when the drawbridge finally went up and the land bridge was severed. The only remaining link, between Donegal and Islay in Scotland, was removed. By now, the umbilical had been not so much cut, as drowned. Whatever flora and fauna we were going to get, had arrived. From now on, new life forms would get here by man-made means only. Nature’s shape had come to stay.

We were adrift from the neighbouring island, at last!

The remarkable flooding was widespread, causing Stone Age farmers to move on out of the Black Sea region and head off westwards, bringing farming to Europe. Perhaps this was the Flood that that marked man’s stories and memories forever, and in the case of Europe and the Middle East gave the leading role to Noah.

Here in Ireland, there was apparently no one around to celebrate the event, or sing ‘Thank God we’re surrounded by water’. Only the hazel bushes swayed gently in a low wind.

—Mary Byrne


Mary Byrne was born in Ireland an currently lives in southern France. Her fiction has appeared in: six anthologies, including Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories, Phoenix Irish Short Stories and Queens Noir; in dozens of literary journals in Europe, North America and Australia, including Numéro Cinq, Prairie Schooner, Dalhousie Review, Irish Times, Shenandoah, Transnational Literature, Stand, and Fiction International. and has been broadcast on British and Irish radio. Her chapbook, A Parallel Life, was published in 2015 by Kore Press https://korepress.org/books/AParallelLife.htm.

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  One Response to “Uimhir a Cúig | Primordial Irishwomen & Other Texts — Mary Byrne”

  1. Never go far from roots and history. There is a link indeed with the past. Nice read

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