“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”
– Jacques Yves Cousteau
STRANDHILL, The Surfer
A surfer is walking into the ocean. Some people are strolling along the sunlit shore, by the great mass of dunes at Strandhill.
Surfers at Strandhill remind me of seals. Capable of moving along the sand but eager to return to the turbulent salt water. This area is populated by one of the largest colonies of common seals in Ireland. I have often watched the seals at Strandhill poking their heads out of the water and observing both the pedestrian visitors on the prom as well as the more adventurous surfers paddling out to the waves.
On the North Atlantic islands there are many legends and beliefs relating to seals and selkies and mermaids. The general gist of these tales suggest that seals are closely connected to us. One such belief is that seals are reincarnations of people who have drowned at sea. Many communities have long protected seals from hunting or harm. I find this easy to understand. It is the way that they observe us!
This story is a collection of brief thoughts and memories which passed through my mind as I completed this painting. What has always fascinated me is not the differences between cultures, but rather, the connections. And the more that one thinks about it, the more connections that one will discover, be they real or imaginary.
Sail north from Sligo around County Donegal, to Scotland and onwards to Scandinavia and Northern Europe and you may be retracing the path of the Bell Beaker People, who arrived in Ireland 4,500 years ago. Sail west around Mayo and you pass the 5,500 year old field settlements of the Céide Fields, perhaps the oldest known field systems in the world. Continue south to mainland Europe, as many different groups of our ancestors did over millennia, and you follow the path of fishermen and hunters and settlers and raiders from Gaul, Iberia, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and, also, North Africa.
My ancestors are your ancestors, whoever you may be. Our DNA shows this. The Irish are not a specific people who arrived and settled the island. We are an exotic recipe of diverse cultures and languages. I like this thought, this reality. I even like how it must irritate those who nurture the idea of a 'pure' race. We are all mud-bloods descended from generations of muggles and wizards. I will return to racism later.
Referring back to the map, Sligo town is situated where the Garavogue River flows into Sligo Bay. Immediately to the North is the headland of Rosses Point. To the South of the bay is a larger headland, called Coolera, with the small coastal town of Strandhill at its Western shore. This is one of the many villages in Sligo where surfers congregate. Between both headlands lies Coney Island which is separated from Coolera by tidal water.
The landmass of Coolera is dominated by the legendary hill 'Knocknarea', with the great ancient cairn on its summit.
My painting above shows the enormous stone cairn which sits on the summit of Knocknarea, to the west of Sligo town. In the foreground lies a ring of stones which outline another Neolithic burial site. The sun is rising in the East, and to the North the familiar shape of Benbulben can be seen on the horizon.
In our Irish language the name Knocknarea, possibly, means the hill of the Kings. It may have been a burial place for ancient royalty. It has also been suggested that it may refer to the hill of the moon, or the hill of executions. The sound of the name survives, but the meaning is uncertain. I like to believe that the name refers to a burial place for royalty, but I am happy not to know for sure!
I also like to think that sometimes more than one explanation can be correct. After all the people who lived here have changed over millennia and the languages spoken may not have been consistent over time. There is Irish and old Irish and even an older variant which would have had more similarity to distant root languages. There may have been a time when the hill was linked by Druids with the moon or even with sacrifices. At another time it may have marked the burial place of Kings. Things, like people, are quite often not simply black or white, but many shades of grey.
It is remarkable that this great cairn has never been opened. I have read that it is the largest court cairn in Ireland, outside of Newgrange, and certainly the largest that has not been excavated. But just look at the setting. This is not a field by a river. The cairn towers above an amazing landscape, where earth mounds and stone circles and court tombs and passage tombs and shell middens and legends cover the land. Ireland is renowned for its ancient monuments, and Sligo has the greatest density of archaeological sites on the island. Personally, I am happy that the great cairn has never been disturbed, unlike other smaller burial sites on Knocknarea, which were excavated and damaged by eager archaeologists, or antiquarians, in the 19th century.
The most famous local legend is that the cairn on the top of Knocknarea is the tomb of ‘Queen Maeve’, an ancient Queen of the province of Connacht. One legend says that she was buried in the stone tomb, standing upright, or on her horse and dressed for battle, and facing her enemies to the North. In Sligo we refer to the stone mound as Queen Maeve's grave, (or tomb, or cairn).
Nearby, towards Sligo Town, is the townland of Carrowmore with numerous ancient stone ‘cairns’ . Bones and wood from these burial sites have been dated to 4,100 BC.
Given the connections with archaeology and kings, the name, Strandhill, could not be more understated. The name comes from the small lane which connected the older settlement below Knocknarea to the beach. This route was developed after 1900 to bring tourism to the area.
I was born in Sligo town in 1967, after which I lived in County Kildare (with a year in Scotland) before returning when I was 9. The first time that I saw a signpost to Strandhill, I noticed the Irish name for the town, Leathros. I immediately thought of one of the first words which every Irish school child had to know, 'leithreas', meaning toilet, and which sounds very similar. And I mistakenly thought that the sign indicated a place with a toilet.
My father's first language as a child was Irish and he kept a love of, and interest in, the language until this day. In recent years we spent a lot of time travelling around Sligo and Czech and I developed a habit of mentioning place-names to my father as we passed a road sign, and then I would listen to him expand on the origin of words and related tales. Last year we found ourselves doing this in Czech and Austria, where ancient towns and rivers have names which date back to their distant Celtic origins.
One day in Strandhill, possibly having a coffee in the market on Sunday, or enjoying fish and chips in 'Shells' or Chowder in 'The Strand', we talked about 'Leathros'.
Leath meaning half and Ros meaning headland. My father explained how Ros is a common word meaning headland in some parts of Ireland but meaning woodland in others. So this ignited the curiosity in my mind.
I wanted to know why the same word meant completely different things. We discussed how the words must have arrived into Irish from different root languages.
In Czech we had become used to using online dictionaries to look through many Indo-European languages to find connections with words linked to Celtic place-names. We had done this with many words when in Czech, but finding links to 'Ros' with Indo European languages (Latin, Norse, German, Hindi, etc) showed little connection, not even close.
I hate giving up on a puzzle and so I persisted and decided to translate 'headland' in every language. Thankfully it did not take too long to arrive at 'Arabic' and the translation of headland showed up as 'Ros'. In hindsight, it should have been obvious.
[Note, I failed to find any connection between Ros and Arabic when first writing this blog. I recently discovered an excellent paper by Paul Tempan of Queens University - 'Ros, tor and tul – topographical survivors from pre-Celtic strata?']
The common place name in Irish for a port is 'Port'. This word is extremely common and used in numerous languages throughout much of Europe, suggesting that it is a very old word which dates back to a common ancestral language. But there are other words used for a port in Irish and this again makes me curious, - why?
The word Caladh is a commonly used word for harbour in Scotland, and also appears occasionally around the coast of Ireland. The Arabic word for harbour is - Kal'ah or Qal'ah - which has a very similar pronunciation. Ros and Caladh - both having very specific meanings which would have been used by seafaring people, possibly suggests a connection, a very ancient connection.
Although I have found very few examples of Ros along the coast of mainland Europe, there is one that stands out to me. Roscoff - which coincidently (or maybe not) is the headland where, to this day, anyone sailing from Ireland to France would most likely disembark. Checking for connections with 'Caladh', I see that someone has already made a similar connection between Caladh and Calais. https://groups.io/g/philo-celtic-society/message/437
As I write I am reminded of yet another North African connection, - and sorry, but this is the way my father and I pass a long car journey!
The Irish phrase for a black man, is 'fear gorm', which literally translates as a 'blue man'. I understand that in the Irish language, we often have specific words for colours when used in a certain context. For example 'Dearg' is red but the adjective to refer to red hair is 'Rua'. Hence a fox is 'Madra Rua' (red haired dog). But 'Blue Man' is not using a different word to black or brown, it is using a different colour. [My father informs me that Fear Dubh (literally Black Man refers to to a person having dark hair]. I have heard the suggestion that a very dark skinned person can look almost dark blue, but I never found this very convincing.
Across the vast lands of North Africa live an ethnic group of Berber people called the Tuareg. I encountered these people occasionally in The Gambia, as they travelled with herds of long horned cattle to the markets. I heard my Gambian colleagues refer to them as the 'Blue People'. This reminded me of the Irish phrase - fear gorm / blue man.
This ethnic group have been called the 'Blue People' by many other cultures, and even historically by Latin writers, in Roman times. This is due to the indigo died cloth which the men wear.
[Indigo is a dye which is obtained from a plant. It has been used in Peru and India for 6000 years and was imported from India by Arab traders to the Mediterranean. The Greeks referred to it as the Indian Dye from which we get Indigo.]
So what reason do I have for linking these people to our Irish language? At the end of this article I will list a few of the many connections.
THE MAJESTIC SWAN
Above is my painting from Hazelwood, looking out towards Lough Gill and Innishfree.
Swans always add a certain majesty to any scene.
The God of the Sea in Irish folklore is 'Lir'. One of the best known tales in Irish folklore is that of 'The Children of Lir'. In this story the four children of Lir were changed into four swans and destined to live for 900 years on three lakes. When one hears this story as a young child it is hard not to think of these children every time you see white swans flying overhead.
The Irish word for swan is 'ealla'. This is also an unusual word as it has very few similarities across Europe. Norwegian - svane; French - cignes; German -schwan; Czech - libut; Russian - lebed; Latin - olor (getting closer); Greek - kýknos; .... etc. This is how our puzzle game works. And, no, Arabic is not the solution, - as the various translations that I have listened to, have no similarity in sound. But because of the lack of any connection between Ealla and mainland Europe we can go propose that it may have a root more distant in time and place.
Often we go back to Hindu or Sanskrit for a connection but even here this is not clear.
I was interested to read that this idea of gods taking the form of swans seems to be common among many cultures. Norse, Hindu, Slavic, Greek, even Native American legends, tell of their Gods moving in the form of a swan. And the swan is commonly seen as a divine bird which has often been protected from harm. Both Apollo and Zeus took the form of a swan. In Norse mythology, the Valkyries took the form of swans. In Hinduism, the swan was also the vehicle for the creator, Brahma, and represents his movement.
So whether I am by Lipno lake in Bohemia, or Lough Gill in Sligo, when I hear the whooping sound of the wings, I turn and look up and worship - the beauty of 'Ealla'. And yes, the pronunciation of Ealla and Allah are practically identical.
[I should note that the Arabic word Allah predates Islam. Today the word for God as used by Christian Arabs, is also Allah. In the English language we tend to associate Allah only with Islam. In pre-Christian times there were many gods and is seems that Allah was believed to be associated with creation.]
There is an ancient God, Alalu or Alala, from Mesopotamia and Hurrian mythology, which dates back to the early civilisations of the 'fertile crescent' in the middle East.
DNA studies from some of the first farmers in Ireland, over 5000 years ago, show that they came from the fertile crescent at that time. Could they have brought a God with them that survives in a legend or a word?
I had three assignments to Syria in response to the humanitarian emergency. The last one brought me to a water pumping station on the banks of the Euphrates. It was snowing and I did not see any swans. But there are some stories there for another time!
Thank you for reading.
Feel free to comment below. As mentioned I will list some of the connections below with sources.
For people who are interested in the origins of the people of Ireland, many of these links may not be news, after all there are so many links and DNA research continues to strengthen the arguments each year.
There is an 11th century account of a Viking raid on Mauritania which brought people back to Ireland who were referred to as 'fir Goirme'. In those times Mauritania was a Berber Kingdom which included Morocco and Algeria. [https://moli.ie/radio/series/spreading-the-words/gorm-blue/]
The Tuareg people were skilled sailors and they often ventured far to the North Atlantic. In 1627 the Berbers from Salé (now a port in Morocco), undertook a series of raids in Iceland and captured hundreds of people. Their captives were brought back to Salé and sold in slave markets. In 1631 there was a Berber raid on the village of Baltimore in County Cork and somewhere between 100 and 250 people were captured to be sold as slaves.
Recent DNA analysis suggests that that about 1 per cent of all Scotsmen are direct descendants of the Berber and Tuareg tribesmen of north Africa, a lineage 5,600 years old. The link with people of Connaught can be expected to be much stronger. [https://www.irishtimes.com/news/environment/the-tracing-of-the-shrew-why-celtic-dna-leads-back-to-africa-1.522345]
Ancient Irish mythology refers to the original inhabitants of the island as being a giant, sea-faring people called the Fomorians (Fomors), which means “dark of the sea”. According to the ancient lore, they were a cushitic people from the African continent. [https://www.africaresource.com/rasta/articles/african-roots-of-ireland/]
The structure of speech as used in Irish is unusual but closely related to that of North Africa. Similarities in music and song have also been noted. 'That rather roundabout way of saying things is widespread in the English of people who lives in parts of Scotland, Ireland and Wales where the older Celtic languages were spoken. Instead of ‘I sing’, they might say ‘It is the singing that I was at’ – which indeed is a more interesting way of expressing it. The word to describe this kind of language pattern is periphrasis, meaning a roundabout way of speaking.' [https://oisf.org/the-north-africa-connection/]
The Stone circles of Mzora in Morocco. 'As hinted at by Geoffrey of Monmouth ..., Mzora, incredibly, appears to have been constructed either by the same culture that erected the megalithic sites in France, Britain and Ireland or by one that was intimately connected with them'. The stones circles of Mzora predate the earliest examples in Europe but the similarities in terms of dimensions, mathematical layout and solar calendar seems to be beyond coincidental! [https://heritageaction.wordpress.com/2011/01/27/the-mysterious-moroccan-megalithic-menhirs-of-mzora/]
Ireland's Neolithic inhabitants traced their origins to an expansion of people out of Anatolia (modern Turkey) around 6,000-7,000 years ago. This migration transformed Europe's way of life from one focused on hunting to one based on agriculture. Genetically, Ireland's first farmers were most closely related to people living at broadly the same time in Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal). [https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-53059527]
Some additional thoughts:
Looking at a list of connections that support an argument, it is easy to then get carried away and believe that the Irish came from North Africa, and that other theories are therefore incorrect. This is the opposite of the point which I am trying to make. My belief is that the people of Ireland have cultural, linguistic and genetic links to many diverse people over thousands of years. We are all connected although this is not always what people want to hear. Not only did people from different lands and cultures populate Ireland, but they populated Ireland at the same time. Diverse ethnic groups coexist throughout Africa today in the same lands.
I have also noticed in the comments section of many articles insisting that there is no relationship between Taureg, Berber and Arabic people! But surely there is quite a strong relationship. DNA studies reveal how chieftains in Ireland and elsewhere had children with women possibly taken from other lands. The Taureg brought slaves from Europe and Sub Saharan Africa to their lands for trading for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Even in my lifetime this has continued. Arabs have moved across North Africa with the Muslim conquests since the foundation of Islam and throughout the 7th Century, bringing their customs, and religion and intermarrying. And the resulting diversity can be seen in the gene pool.
The Tuareg are a large ethnic group of Berber people. And the Berber are themselves a larger ethnic group of people living in North Africa. The Word Berber comes from the Greeks and means 'non-Greek'. So I guess, by that measure, I too am Berber, - unless I think a bit more and accept that I am also Greek! Similarly the word Celt, has also very little meaning. It was first used by the Greeks to refer to the tribe of people living around the mouth of the Danube. Today many of us have very different opinions as to what, or who, a Celt is. And I guess this is similar for Arabic people.
Racism: Many people detest the idea that they are genetically related to other tribes, groups, or ethnic races. There are people in Europe and the US who strongly believe that their fair skin defines their nationality. I have also heard some Arabic and Tuareg people insist that they have no connections to the darker people of sub-Saharan Africa, despite centuries of colonisation and slave trading! I imagine that this is another thing that every ethnic group has in common, and that is a significant percentage of people with xenophobic attitudes. Personally I am proud of every genetic link which I have to other cultures. I am particularly delighted to know that I may have up to 2 percent of my DNA from Neanderthal people and even more from Denisovans. It is the people from sub-Saharan Africa who are least likely to have DNA from these 'different' ancient people. For some reason that makes me smile!