Following Celtic Ways

Ramblings and reviews by John Willmott as he travels the Celtic Ways and Waterways visiting hidden ancient Celtic temples, sacred wells, and provoking legends .... plus music and theatre along the way

Monday, March 28, 2005

Living In "The Shire"

by John Willmott of Celtic Ways

Last Saturday, I moved into my new home at Keash in County Sligo and am now surrounded by an abundance of spiritual sites, legends, beautiful views and a remarkable community.

This is one of the most beautiful places in Ireland yet very few know of it or visit, and in some ways that may be a good thing. This is still the "old Ireland". Irish affluence has arrived here. The residents do have new cars, big televisions and classy furniture ..... but it has not changed their humbleness, caring, sense of stewardship, community spirit, love of God and ability to tell a good yarn.

Not many travel the N4 to Sligo but if they do they will follow the trails of Yeats, enjoy the abundance of culture in the town or enjoy the magnificent beaches.

To the east of the N4 are the stunning views of Loughs Key and Arrow and the west is the seemingly rugged range of the Bricklieve Mountains with glowing beehive shaped cairns on the northern peaks. East again from the Bricklieve Mountains is Kesh Corran, a mountain of many Irish legends. Below this is my new home.

Beyond my home, looking west, is a landscape of seemingly perfect rich green rolling hills with small stone walled fields and some ornate cottages, just like "The Shire" in the Lord Of The Rings films.

Keash possibly hosts the most abundant collection of ancient sacred sites in Ireland. To start, it is the site of 5 early Celtic Christian monastic sites and churches within a mile radius. It is said that most of the Celtic Christian saints spent time here such as Columcille, St. Kevin and St. Patrick. Toomour was also said to be the resting place of the kings and chieftains who fell in the "Battle Of Ceis Chorann in 971.

The local priest, Brother Thomas Connelly, has been quite a researcher in the local heritage, sites and spirituality. Brother Thomas and the local community have created and built a wonderful information plaque in the village at Toomour, the centre of a monastic site where St. Kevin was ordained, the saint who founded the monastic site of Glendalough where I have just moved from.

There is much pre-Christian history here with an abundance of cairns and tombs dating back as far as 7500 BC. The area is full of standing stones, that the locals today still use as "prayer stones". There are several ballaun stones that the locals refer to as healing stones.

A major annual festival of Lughnasa is still held here as it has done every year since around 1800 BC which combines sport, music and dance with a pilgrimage climb of the Kesh Corran, as it is spelled today, mountain. Today this is held on the last Sunday of July rather than the original cross quarter day of around August 4th. The locals now call this festival "Garland Sunday".

The legends founded around Keash are certainly the most abundant in Ireland with most of them involving the famous and beautiful white limestone entrance "Caves Of Kesh Corran" above the village.

The earliest is probably the legend of Tuatha De Dannan harper, Corran. A giant sow was terrorizing Ireland and causing widespread destruction. Nobody could catch and kill it but Corran sent it to sleep with his harp playing so the hunters could finally kill it. It is said that Kesh Corran mountain is the hardened carcass of this sow, but the mountain is much older than the story :-) .

Corran was rewarded with what is now Kesh Corran mountain and the surrounding plains. It is believed that Kesh comes from the word Ceis which is said to mean "ground bass", a style of droning harp playing unique to Ireland and a musical style that was eventually taught all over Europe. It is a style that is said to have been developed by St. Kevin of Glendalough but St. Kevin was ordained below Kesh Corran. I suspect Corran developed the style which was passed on to other harpers in the area and then St. Kevin made it famous.

The bass drone was probably inspired by the droning sound of the wind through the caves. However, the giant sow was also known as Cael Ceis so the hill may have been named after her. The same word may well have been applied to the later droning music style. The imagination can wander with this story.

More famous is the Kesh Corran caves being the final hiding place of Diarmuid and Grainne. King Cormac MacArt arranged for his daughter to marry Fionn Mac Cool, a man much older than Grainne. Instead Grainne fell in love with one of Fionn's soldiers, Diarmuid and they ran away together. Fionn chased them around the country but eventually peace was created when Diarmuid managed to pay Fionn with cattle, which was valuable currency then. For many years Diamuid and Grainne lived in peace farming on the plains west of Kesh Corran. There's a lot more to that story, of course.

King Cormac was one of Ireland's most popular kings with legends very parallel to King Arthur of England. It is said that Cormac Mac Art and his soldiers are asleep within Kesh Corran ready to awake when Ireland needs them.

The legends of the Tuatha De Dannan, which provided much inspiration for Lord Of The Rings, includes a story of the Milesians driving the Tuatha De Dannan underground through the Caves Of Kesh. However, through the years after the Milesians experienced famine and disease. They formed a treaty with the Tuatha De Dannan to rise from the underground, as spirits, or The Sidhe, pronounced Shee, and join them. The Caves Of Kesh are often still thought of as the entry to the underground, the "middle earth", Tir na Nog, etc.

These are just a few of many stories from the area.

My second guide in the Following Celtic Ways series will now be
"Following The Tales Of Keash"
where you can read the stories and then visit the area to maybe relive them or, better still, absorb the spirituality behind the tales.

I'll be offering some organized guided tours after I release the guide soon.

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