Friday, 28 December 2012

Art O'Murnaghan's retelling of "The Sword of Light"



And now for the next instalment in our explorations into Dion Fortune’s Hibernian Adept, Art O’Murnaghan….

This part of the story begins in 1891 with an American called Jeremiah Curtin. Having recently recovered from a bad dose of pneumonia, Curtin set off from Boston on a boat called “The City of Chicago,” sailing for Queenstown in Ireland. This was his second visit to Ireland on a trip which lasted between 1891 and 1893. During this visit he spent time in a number of places including Dingle, Traigh Fionntr√° (Ventry Strand) and Donegal, collecting as many jewels of Celtic folklore as he could find.

So who was Jeremiah Curtin? Pictured below, he was a successful American linguist, mythologist and folklorist.  Alongside Alexander Carmichael, Ella Young, Evans-Wentz and Kenneth Mackenzie, Curtin was one of the great collectors of folklore in the 19th and 20th centuries. While there is much warranted criticism about Curtin’s translations, interpretation and occasional over-literalism, we need to remember that he was working in an earlier time with hugely different academic expectations. Nonetheless, Curtin was certainly responsible for saving numerous rich and diverse Celtic and Native American tales which would otherwise have been lost forever with the creeping death of the oral story telling traditions.


On his second Irish trip he rented a room near Ventry Strand from a local man called Maurice Fitzgerald who was to introduce him to many of the local people and places.

Now the earth around Ventry is an ancient and magical landscape, and it is from here that the setting was provided for a number of Celtic stories featuring the heroic Fionn mac Cumhail and his band. It is also where an earth shaking mythical battle took place on what is now called “The Field of Blood.” The area was to prove a fantastic environment for Curtin to gather stories and immerse himself in the cooling embers of the old Gaelic oral tradition.

Over the following months Fitzgerald, Edward Sheehee and a storyteller simply referred to as “Lynch” imparted many of the local myths and folklore to Curtin. Many of these have appeared in Curtin’s published works in various guises such as Myths and Folklore of Ireland, Irish Hero-Tales and Irish Tales of the Fairies and the Ghostworld.  Fortunately most of these and his broader works are now available freely on line through sites such as Project Gutenberg.

During both of Curtin’s visits to Ireland, the young Art O’Murnaghan was still resident in the port of Southampton in England. There is no record I can find of the two having ever met each other in person. Although they were from different generations, I suspect that they may well have liked each other greatly and had long candle-lit conversations by the turf fire! But alas, any evidence of Art’s appreciation for Curtin’s work isn’t found for several decades.

O’Murnaghan, like many others of the time, would no doubt have found Curtin’s books a rare and valuable resource in their studies of Celtic mythology.  Apparently even England’s one-time Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone wrote to Curtin to congratulate and thank him for his tireless folklore work. (Gladstone was another truly fascinating character who deserves a later posting on The View From The Big Hills, but that’s for another day).

Flash forward from Curtin’s travels at the tail end of the 19th Century to Dublin in 1930. At this stage O’Murnaghan had already been an occasional contributor of articles and drawings to the Theosophical Path magazine. In one of his later submissions during 1930 he wrote a summary and commentary for the magazine on one of the many tales Curtin collected. The story was called The Sword of Light and is reproduced with the kind permission of one of Art O’Murnaghan’s great grandsons.

O’Murnaghan’s brief commentary, which runs throughout the retelling of the story, provides us with some fascinating insight into both the man himself and into how others over the ages have read between the lines of traditional stories and more deeply explored the metaphors and symbolism abounding in mythology. 

I hope you enjoy the opportunity to explore this tale with Art’s wise input and helpful pointers. I also hope that-- like me-- you look forward to a day when more of Art O’Murnaghan’s written word and art work is universally available for others to enjoy and learn from.



The Sword of Light

An Ancient Irish Tale Re-told

By Art O’Murnaghan



This story is full of mystical touches and seems to be a symbolic record of a certain initiation through which passes a candidate of full seven mystical years of growth.

This land of the Ancient Mysteries is said by Greek tradition to be an island to which men journeyed that they might learn more about the Mysteries. High tribute surely, for the Mysteries were taught among their own islands, and history links, in this respect, the rites celebrated in Samothrace with those of Sacred Ierne of the Hibernians.

In West Kerry, near the sea, among lonely mountains, rises the cloud-swept peak of Brandon Mountain. 


 It was known as a 'mountain of pilgrimage' long before the coming of Christianity, and today you will find a circle of big stones near the summit. The line of ancient Bards still remains as a vestige in the native tellers of old stories in Gaelic. You must bear in mind a remarkable proof of this - the tellers of the stories are not readers of books.

Probably some of them could hardly sign their names, but the language in which they have their store of Tales of the Old Wisdom, is that of masters in the use of words and the form of the narrative is finished and professional (shall we say?) in its shape.

This is the story of an only son, his mother, a widow, having no one else belonging to her. Shawn is his name and of the Cold Feet is his description or surname. The mystical nature of the tale is seen when we hear that as a child he grew so fast that when he had reached the age of seven years he could not find room in his mother's house, which was at the northeast corner of Brandon Mountain. In at least one story, the figure of a house refers to the body of the person, and there may be significance in this case. When he was seven years old his feet were not in the house when he was asleep. At fifteen years only his head could find room by night. Food became difficult to get and "one day above another"- in other words, on a day of decision - he told his mother he must go out into the great world to find food for them.

So Shawn went out, and rested neither in the clear day going, nor in the dark night coming, until he came to a high, roomy castle. He did not knock, but went in until he met the master, who asked if he were a servant in search of a master.

"I am in search of a master," is all he replied.

He was engaged to herd cows for a day and a year, for small hire and his keeping. He slept there that night; the first step completed, he took his first breathing-space.

Next morning, going out with the cows, his master was there before him with the warning to take good care of himself - no mention of the cows - that every one of those who took service with him had been killed by one of four giants who lived next his pastures. Four brothers they were – one was four-headed, one six-, the third eight-, and the fourth twelve-headed.

"By my hand, I did not come here to be killed by the like of them. They will not hurt me, never fear." said the hero.

Not long were the cows grazing, when the least of the giants, "caught the odour of a man from Eirinn" and came forward, trying to strike terror into the heart of the young man by threats.

"It isn't to give satisfaction to you that I am here, but to knock satisfaction out of your bones," was the answer. They fought till sunset and then, before the dark, the boy took the four heads off the giant, and put them into muddy gaps for a dry, solid road for the cows, and drove them home to his master.

On each of the three following days, a fiercer fight was waged, and on each sunset-hour a giant was killed, and his heads made into stepping-stones for a firm road for the cows.

On the fifth day, the dreadful mother of the giants came raging out to him, and she had steel claws on hands and feet - a characteristic of the cat-tribe, night-hunters, more clear of sight in the dark than in the light. She told him, also, that he was a man out of Eirinn. (This seems to suggest another country, does it not? and he had crossed no sea as yet. But anyway, he was no longer in Ireland.) She complained that the giants should have been asleep in her castle, and owing to the scarcity of trees she could not make cradles for them - so we may read that they were not fully grown. She also told him she knew he had come all the way from Brandon Mountain to kill her sons.

"Glad would I be to tear you to pieces, but 'tis better to get some good of you first. I put you under spells of heavy enchantment that you cannot escape, not to eat two meals off the one table, nor to sleep two nights in the one house till you go to the Queen of Lonesome Island, and bring the Sword of Light that never fails, the loaf of bread that is never eaten, and the bottle of water that is never drained."

"Where is Lonesome Island?"

"Follow your nose and make out the place with your own wit," said the hag.

(The word 'hag' in Irish folk-lore means simply a very ancient woman, and did not necessarily imply the repulsive appearance usually connected with it in English stories. The Calliagh or Hag of Beara, is the name of the Oldest Woman on earth - the Ancient Grandmother she was also called -and she lived not a great distance from the same Brandon Mountain.)

In the dusk, Shawn drove home his master's cows.

"You'll never have trouble again in finding men to mind your cattle," he said, "the heads of all the giants are in the muddy gaps from here to the end of the pasture, and there are now good roads for your cattle. I have been with you only five days, but another would not do my work in a day and a year –pay me my wages!"

The man - not now the master - paid him, gave him a good suit of clothes for the journey, and his blessing. The next step taken, he is reclothed for the further journeying he must take, farther from his mother's house, from the roomy castle of his master, and sent on his way with a blessing.

Away went Cold Feet now, having undergone four days of ordeals, and a fifth day on which a new task was put upon him. He was now on the long road, and, by my word it was a strange road to him. He went across high hills and low dales, passing each night where he found it, till the evening of the third day, when he came to a house where a little old man was living. The old man had lived in that house without leaving it for seven hundred years, and had not seen a living soul in that time.

Interesting details - the evening of the third day - the willing watcher for seven times one hundred years, who had not seen a living soul in that time. You will find different statements about the living soul with two other old men. Note also the different forms of conversation - after the usual Irish salutations: Good health to the old man, and one hundred thousand welcomes in return.

"Will you give me a night's lodging?"

"I will, indeed, and is it any harm to ask, where are you going?"

"What harm in a plain question? I am going to Lonesome Island if I can find it."

"You will travel tomorrow, and if you are loose and lively on the road you'll come at night to a house, and inside it an old man like myself, only older. He will give you lodgings and tell where to go the day after."

He left good health with the old man and received his blessing.

There is here nothing about the Island, and a simple blessing at parting. He travelled swifter than the hare in the wind and in the heel of the evening arrived at the house of his second guide. Here he goes straight into the house where a little old man was sitting at the fire. Follow the usual salutations.

"Why did you come; and where are you going? Fourteen hundred years am I in this house alone, and not a living soul came in to see me till yourself came this evening."

"I am going to Lonesome Island if I can find it."

"I have no knowledge of that place, but if you are a swift walker, you will come tomorrow evening to an old man, like myself, only older; he will tell you all that you need, and show you the way to the island."

From this old man he received good wishes for the road. He travelled more swiftly and at nightfall greeted the third old man.

"A hundred thousand welcomes! I am living alone in this house twenty-one hundred years, and not a living soul walked the way in that time. You are the first man I see in this house. It is to stay with me that you are here?

Here is the personal affection test and the invitation to halt on the way -- to get a little needed rest and comfort and give companionship to a lonely soul.

"It is not, for I must be moving. I cannot spend two nights in the one house till I go to Lonesome Island, and I have no knowledge where that place is."

 "Oh then, it's the long road between this and Lonesome Island, but I'll tell where the place is, and how you are to go, if you go there."

"The road lies straight from my door to the sea. From the shore to the island no man has gone unless the Queen brought him, but you may go if the strength and the courage are in you.  I will give you this staff, it may help you. When you reach the sea throw the staff in the water and you'll have a boat that will take you without sail or oar straight to the island. When you touch shore pull up the boat on the strand; it will turn into a staff and be again what it now is.

"The Queen's castle goes whirling round always. It has only one door, and that on the roof of it. If you lean on the staff you can rise with one spring to the roof, go in at the door, and to the Queen's chamber.”

"The Queen sleeps but one day in each year, and she will be sleeping tomorrow. The Sword of Light will be hanging at the head of her bed, the loaf and the bottle of water on the table nearby. Seize the sword with the loaf and the bottle, and away with you, for the journey must be made in a day, and you must be on this side of those hills before nightfall. Do you think you can do that?"

"I will do it, or die in the trial." said Shawn.

"If you make that journey you will do what no man has done yet," said the old man.

"Before I came to live in this house champions and hundreds of kings' sons tried to go to Lonesome Island, but not a man of them had the strength and the swiftness to go as far as the seashore, and that is but one part of the journey. All perished, and if their skulls are not crumbled, you'll see them tomorrow. The country is open and safe in the daytime, but when night falls the Queen of Lonesome Island sends her wild beasts to destroy every man they can find until daybreak. You must be in Lonesome Island tomorrow before noon, leave the place very soon after mid-day, and be on this side of those hills before nightfall -or perish."

And this is the last word that passes between the pilgrim and his last guide. In the story there are no blessings, no good wishes for the road.

Shawn rose in the dark before the dawn, ate his breakfast, and at daybreak he started on the road.

Three times seven centuries had passed with never a living soul on that road. Who was this old man? Hundreds of picked, high-born aspirants had struggled through the miles of terror, and died before they had attained - and then he had come to the point where the road ran straight from his door to the sea, and the island. And from that point never a pilgrim had tried to reach it: whether others had succeeded in reaching the points where the other two Ancients could have helped them, we are not told. The first had not seen a living soul, and not a living soul had gone in to the second house to see the old man sitting at the fire. There is food for much meditation on the points of this wonder-tale of the Island of the Mysteries.

And now let us return to the Pilgrim journeying in his straight line to the sea and the island - the Queen, and the three precious things, given to no man, but to be taken, swiftly and silently, while their guardian slept.

Away he went swiftly at daybreak. Over hills, dales, and level places, through a land - where the wind never blows and the cock never crows, and though he went quickly the day before, he went five-times more quickly that day, for the staff added speed to whatever man had it.

On the Irish bog-land, in the silence of night - and a miracle of silence it is, to stand after midnight, looking across unseen miles of flat, dark brown peat, and listening in vain for the shadow of a sound. At such a time you realize the companionship that the wind brings to a listener into the still silence - you are assured of touch, and that there are moving twigs and grasses - the touch of the free wind on your face, and the uneven rustling at your feet, and in patches around you are links with the everyday.

And there is never a rising of the sun without the crowing of a cock – it is mystical, this linking of the two things - and the pilgrim was travelling by the light of a day never associated with cock-crowing. It does not say that the crowing of a cock was never heard there, but there the cock never crows. And his swiftness was multiplied above all the daily increasing of speed, five times, the number of the known senses.

And he came to the sea, did as the old man had directed him, and all was as the old man had said it would be. But when he should have darted away immediately with the three precious things, he went towards the door; but there he halted, turned back and stopped awhile with the Queen. And then - away with him.

A tremendous moment - all the daring of his journey, the double daring of his entry of the Queen's castle, were excelled in this last moment. It was very near he was then, says the story, to returning no more – having gained his object, to have surrendered everything on the spot and at the moment of Victory. And it is said that though he travelled there swiftly, he strove more in going back.

When the sun was near setting he saw the last line of hills, and remembering that Death was behind and not far from him, he used his last strength and was over the hill-tops at nightfall. The whole country behind him was filled with wild beasts.

"Oh!" said the old man, "but you are the hero, and I was in dread that you'd lose your life on the journey and by my hand you had no time to spare."

Shawn gave him back: with thanks, the staff, stayed there the night, and next morning left his blessing with the old man and started back the way he had come, spending a night with each of the old men. He came to the ancient Hag who had sent him on the quest; she was outside the castle before him.

"Have you the sword, the bottle, and the loaf?" asked she.

"I have. Here they are."

"Give them to me," said the Hag.

"If I was bound to bring the three things, I was not bound to give them to you; I will keep them."

"Give them here," screamed the Hag raising her nails to rush at him. With that he drew the Sword of Light and sent her head spinning through the sky in the way that 'tis not known in what part of the world it fell, or did it fall in any place. He burned her body then, scattered the ashes, and went his way farther.

A very masterful man, this newly made Hero - he had made his way into the master's castle without knocking; he 'took off' the heads of the giants whose lives he had taken, and he took his leave, after five days, from the service he had promised for a day and a year. He did not ask, "May I go?" He said, "Give me my wages" -and it was so, and he was clothed anew and got his master's blessing. He had achieved where others died.

He forced his way through all the ordeal the Hag had put on him, and took by stealth the treasures of the sleeping Queen, finishing his task, and standing before her to claim his quittance. Refusing her possession of the things she had used him to obtain, he took her life, and took his leave. There is a hint of the demon in the suggestive words "or did it (her head) fall in any place."

I will go to my mother first of all, thought he, and when his feet struck small stones on the road, the stones never stopped till they knocked wool off the spinning-wheels of Old Hags in the Eastern World.

There is a new power in his going, a power which animated even the stones he kicked; they were carried by it until they reached the very presence of the Ancient Sisters who sit through the ages, spinning the thread of destiny for many a man, and even affected their eternal spinning.

And with that evening comes a change. He feeds the people who give him lodging, with the loaf, and the woman of the house, when he is asleep, substitutes one of her own, without his knowledge. At two succeeding houses on the following nights, he loses the bottle and the Sword of Light. And each day he travels more swiftly than before. On the second day, if he fell in his running he had not time to rise, but rolled on until the speed that was under him brought him to his feet again.

He came to his mother's cottage, and in great rejoicing at having food to free them from all further anxiety, they make their meal, and soon the bread is gone. Even then he is blind to the extent of his loss. His mother has a little meal in the house and would go out for water. "I have water here in plenty," says her son, and he discovers his loss. He thinks the Old Hag enchanted the things before he killed her. And so they had to live in the old way, but Cold Feet was "far stronger than the first time" and was able to take all he wanted of food and no man nor all the men in the country could stop him.

But the Queen of the Lonesome Island had a son, who grew so rapidly that "when he was two years old he was very large entirely." She was grieving always for the things taken from her, and there was no light in the chamber. All at once she thought:
"The father of the boy took them. I will never sleep two nights' in the one house till I find him." And she went with the boy the same way that the Hero had travelled. It is recorded that they stayed one night with each of the three Ancient Men, but never a word of any conversation. The first one must have known who she was, at any rate, as she came straight up the road from the sea to his house.

She recognises her loaf, her bottle, and the Sword at the houses they lodge in for one night, but beyond asking where they came from and being met with a lie, she makes no attempt to take them back.

When they come near to Brandon Mountain she sees a man coming down hill with a fat bullock under each arm, as easily as another would carry two geese. He put them in a pen near the house and came out and saluted her. The boy broke away from her, ran to the man, and would not be taken away from him.

"How is this?" said she; "the child knows you! Have you always lived in this place?"

Then he tells his story to her, she asking how he found the way and how he "came near forgetting" his life with her. When he brought the things home they were useless.

"What is your name?"

"Cold Feet.''

"You are the man." said the Queen. "Long ago it was prophesied that a hero named Cold Feet would come to Lonesome Island without my request or assistance, and that our son would conquer the whole world with his power. Come with me to Lonesome Island."

So they left Brandon Mountain after the Queen had given the Hero's old mother good clothing. "You will live in my castle," said she to her. Coming to each house where he had been robbed, Cold Feet and not the Queen asks where the people had obtained the three things, and throws their lies back at them, taking them back himself.

All the Old Men were glad to see Cold Feet, especially the Oldest, who loved him.

They all arrived safely at Lonesome Island where they lived on in happiness and there is no account of their death, and they may be in it yet for all we know.

And this wonderful story was told to Jeremiah Curtin, who collected in his time many of the folk tales of the American Indians, as well as those of Irish speaking peasants. Whether he saw nothing of its symbolism, or whether he left it alone, all his comment on the story is:

“This is a good hero, an excellent herdsman and cattle-thief. What a splendid cow-boy he would be in the Indian Territory or Wyoming. He has a good strain of simplicity and heroism in him. The bottle of water that is never drained, is like the basket of trout’s blood (also water) in the Indian tale of Walokit and Tumokit.”

If it is studied in the spirit in which it seems to have been created, there would seem to be a mine of rich seams of teaching waiting for the reader who can recognize the golden gleams of the incorrodible metal amidst the earth and dust now laid before them. Very fascinating is the barely hidden suggestiveness that peeps out in almost every sentence. The Spirit of Ancient Eirinn smiles a wise smile at you, gentle reader. 





July 2015 Update

Readers may be interested to know that I have written a total of four blog posts about Art O'Murnaghan:-



The Springtime of Dion Fortune

There she is staring out at you...or maybe that should be "in to you"! Whether writing as Violet Firth, Violet M Steele...