• Ali Isaac

Of Heroes and Giants

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

I‘ve been channelling Emer this weekend for my manuscript, Mavourneen, so as I live on the edge of Cuchulainn country, I thought I’d head down to their neck of the woods and see some of the sites associated with their legend.

As the wife of Cuchulainn, Emer spent much of her time at the court of King Conchobar at Emain Macha, but originally she was from Lusk, which is just down the road from where I used to live when I first came to Ireland, Skerries.

The remains of Byrne's Folly at Dún Dealgan, Cuchulainn's Fort, Dundalk.
The remains of Byrne's Folly at Dún Dealgan, Dundalk.

However, according to the old stories, Cuchulainn had his own dún near the town we know today as Dundalk, and as such, it is reasonable to expect that Emer would have spent at least some of her time there. The site was later developed by the Normans; the stone tower we see today would not have stood there in Cuchulainn’s day. I’ll write more about this wonderful site another time.

What I really want to show you is this…

Proleek Dolmen, that capstone is estimated to weigh 40 tonnes.
Proleek Dolmen. That capstone is estimated to weigh in the region of forty tonnes.

Impressive, isn’t it? This is the mighty Proleek Dolmen, a portal tomb which dates from around 3000BC. That huge capstone is thought to weigh about 40 tons. As you can see, there is some damage to the lower section of one of the small pillar-stones which support it; this has been bolstered with some crude stone and cement remedial work. The dolmen is thought to align with Slieve Gullion and the summer solstice sunset.

Apparently, some cremated human remains were found there, along with tools, beads and some shards of pottery.  A closer look at the stones showed what might have been very faint marks of circular grooves and zigzag markings, but if it wasn’t my imagination, the marks were so faint, although I could feel them with my fingertips, I couldn’t pick them up with my camera.

It’s ironic that although the area is associated directly with Cuchulainn and the story of the Táin bo Cuailnge, ‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’ in which Medb of Connacht goes to battle with Ulster over possession of a fine brown bull, the dolmen itself is associated with another giant of early Irish literature, Fionn mac Cumhaill.

The story goes that a Scottish giant named Para buidhe mór Mhac Seoidin – I guess such a big guy needs an equally big name – came to Ireland to fight Fionn. When he arrived, Fionn was nowhere to be found, but his wife directed Para to a field where he could eat while he waited for Fionn to turn up. There, he set up his stone table and spread out his lunch. After he had eaten, Para was thirsty so he went down to the river for a drink of water, but Fionn had sneakily poisoned it, and so poor old Para died a horrible death and was buried in a stone grave nearby. Doesn’t sound like a particularly heroic deed on Fionn’s behalf, does it?

And here is the grave where Para was buried…

The grave of the Scottish giant Para.
The grave of the Scottish giant Para.

These large boulders form the remains of a wedge tomb, which has a very long gallery, or passage, at just under 7m long. You can see why local people would have associated it with the burial of a giant.

The  ‘Giant’s Table’ is another name for the dolmen, and I learned today that the word ‘dolmen’ actually comes from a Breton word ‘tolmen’ (I think) which actually means ‘stone table’.

Nowadays the dolmen and grave sit within the fairway of a beautifully manicured golf course at the Ballymascanlon House Hotel. The easiest way to get there is to park in the hotel car park and follow the signs. It is a ten minute walk across the golf course, just watch out for flying golf balls!

I often dislike the way urban development incorporates ancient monuments, but here, they are evidently well maintained, which is more than can be said for most of our ancient sites, and in the true spirit of Irish heritage, they are free to visit, and you can get up as close and personal as you like. Also, there are no access restrictions imposed by the land owners… happy days!