• Ali Isaac

the land of the ever young | pt 2

Updated: Sep 4, 2020

In my last post, The Land of the Ever Young Part One, we talked about Manannán’s Land, a mythical island kingdom of eternal summer and youth, a place of peace and joy and laughter, thought to be found in the oceans somewhere west of Ireland.

Today, we’re taking a look at Tir na n’Óg, the ‘Land of the Young/ Ever Young’.

When the Tuatha de Danann were defeated by the Milesians, a bargain was struck; the Milesians agreed to share the rule of Ireland equally. But they tricked the Danann; as the victors, they chose the half of Ireland which lay above ground, so the Danann were forced to retreat to their half below ground.

That’s mortals for you, they’re tricksy.

At least, that’s what people believed, because that’s what it looked like, but when the Danann entered through their Sidhe-mounds they were not going underground. Oh no! These Sidhe-mounds simply acted as gateways into the Otherworld, also known as Tir na n’Óg. Was it the land of the dead, heaven or hell, another dimension, or another planet?

There was one big difference, though; time was almost viscous, slowed down to such an extent that, as the tale of Oisin and Niamh shows, a year in the magical realm could amount to as many as three hundred in the mortal world. Thus the Danann appeared ever youthful and ageless to mortal man.

The Danann continued to interact with mankind, offering help or hindrance, taking lovers, making marriages, sport and battle with them, forming alliances and enemies, fostering mortal children. Eventually, as mankind moved on, the Danann became known as the Sidhe, named after the mounds they appeared to live in. They were thought of as fairies, or demons and their longevity and magic were mistrusted and feared.

Ireland is well known for its ragged mists and enveloping fog. According to legend, these vapours were said to be Manannán’s Cloak of invisibility and forgetting, the Faeth Fiadha. It was a gift given the Danann by the Sea-God at the time of their retreat. It shrouded their demise, and protected the borders of their land from unwanted attention. Humans knew better than to stray into the fog; they could end up wandering into the fairy domain, and never find their way home. At least, not within living memory.

Curiously, Manannán used his Cloak of Mists to save his marriage. When the Ulster warrior, Cuchulainn, came to visit, he had an affair with the Sea-God’s wife, Fand, even though he was already married to Emer. Manannán shook his cloak between Fand and her lover, that each might forget the other, and sent the amorous young man back to his extremely irate wife.

Water plays a part in the legends of Tir na nOg too, for the Otherword could be accessed not only over water, ie sailing west over the sea, but through water. It’s tempting to think that when ancient man looked into the surface of a still lake (and Ireland has very many of them), he saw the mountains and trees and skies reflected there, and thought it was another world.

But just remember, this is a people who could raise massive stone monuments with some unknown technology we still can’t figure out today; they could read the night sky as well as we can without telescopes and computers. They were not simple savages. They were complex and intelligent. I think they were capable of working out reflections.

So what does this ‘through water’ mean? Did it mean you had to drown to pass through that watery gate? The body was left behind and the soul went on into the Otherworld? Interesting, bearing in mind the bodies found in bogs, and the many votive offerings found in pools of water.

Boundaries were thought of as liminal places, neither belonging to one realm or the other; fog, as we’ve already seen, blurs the barrier between the physical and spiritual worlds. Water, particularly shore lines, whether sea or lake, does the same, giving way from the solid to the ethereal.

Even the humble doorstep bears the same function; Saint Brigid, for example was born on the doorstep of her family home, neither within nor yet without it. She was born at dawn, when it was not properly day or night.

These spaces are powerpoints where magic can happen; the margins between the physical and non-physical are thin, through which entities both solid and spirit can pass. That is what I think ‘through water’ means. Perhaps it’s why Christians threw ‘witches’ into water. But that’s a post for another time.

Tir na nÓg, not surprisingly, has a few other names, among them, Ildathach ( the many coloured place), Mag Mór (the Great Plain), Mag Mon (the Plain of Sports), Mag Rein (the Plain of the Sea), and Emain Ablach, meaning ‘place of apples’. This is quite intriguing, given the talk of Avalon, the Isle of Apples, in the medieval tales of King Arthur. Wales also has its mysterious Isle of Apples, Ynys Afallach. Could these tales have derived from an earlier Irish tradition?

So what’s the big deal with this little round fruit? Well, in my post A Fire In the Head | The Shamanic Use of Amanita, we learned how the apple could have been used as an innocuous representation of the secret use of this magical red fungus to access the Otherworld. Which ties in nicely with the Otherworld aspect of the mysterious isle of apples.

But if it was an island, then it must surely have been part of Manannán’s Land, and he was indeed said to have kept an orchard of magic apples; his white horse Aonbharr fed on them, as did Cliodhna’s three little multi-coloured pet birds.

In the Echtra Cormaic mac Airt, the King is visited by Manannán in disguise, who gives him a gift of a silver bough on which three golden apples are found. He claims he has brought the branch from a land ‘where there is nothing but truth, and where there is neither age nor withering away, nor heaviness, nor sadness, nor jealousy, nor envy, nor pride’. When the branch is shaken, such beautiful music is heard that battle-wounded men, or women in childbed, or those who are sick, fall into restful sleep and are healed.

Interestingly, the apple branch was carried by poets, and denoted their status; the Ollamh, or chief poet, would carry an apple branch of gold, lower ranks would carry a branch of silver, and all the rest would carry a bronze branch. In this way, it came to be seen as a druidic symbol.

Patricia Monaghon in her Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology claims that one of the names for Tir na nOg was Mag Rein. I understood that it was one of the first places where the Danann made camp when they invaded Ireland; Magh Rein in the Red Hills of Breffni. 

Are you still with me? Cos this is where its about to get really interesting.

Last year, when I was researching Magh Slecht for a post on St Patrick, I discovered that bordering this area, there is a a townland called Magh Rein, in Leitrim. In Cavan, we also have a place called Redhills, and in ancient times, much of Cavan and Leitrim formed a Kingdom called Breffni.

So perhaps the Otherworld didn’t exist underground, or through water, or west across the sea at all; perhaps it’s been right here under our noses all along, our very own heaven on earth.

You can read The Land of the Ever Young Part One here.