Holy Ground

by Varda

Today was fine and cold and very bright, so my brother and I and a brace of sisters in law went walking on Carnavaddy mountain, on the Cooley Peninsula.

As we toiled up the sheep track to the height from which you get the best view in all Ireland, my brother said to me 'C S Lewis did this walk, I read it in a book on the Inklings...maybe Tolkien came with him, because JRR also took walking tours in Ireland...'

It made me pause. JRR had indeed taken a series of walking holidays in Ireland, and had often gone on walking holidays with Lewis. Suddenly, the sheep track was holy ground!

From the summit of Carnavaddy you can see all over Cooley. This land was the setting for the ancient Irish epic The Cattle Raid of Cooley. Legend has it that a great war was fought over a treasure - a Ring type of desired object, only in the cattle economy of iron age Ireland the treasure was a great black bull.

The epic has many cycles of stories, and my brother said to me
'Did Tolkien get any inspiration from the Tain?'
'If he did, he never admitted it...' I said, but that has always puzzled me. Nothing in mythology resembles his Elves more than the magic race who legend tells us inhabited Ireland before the Celts, the Tuatha De Danann, children of the sea god.

When we reached the summit, we had the most wonderful view. To the North, the Mournes, to the South the Carlingford Peninsula and Slieve Foy and below us Cooley. To the south, the flatlands of Meath and Louth stretched away to the Wicklow mountains.

On the summit itself was a large ancient grave mound. Legend says it is the burial place of Finn McCool's hound, Bran. We paid the famous canine our respects then started back down.

As we descended we passed a passage tomb and a stone circle. A row of standing stones leading away from the circle followed the line of the winter sun exactly. I thought of the barrow wights and the Ettenmoors.

Had Tolkien been here?

Lagging behind the others, looking over the uplands, I thought of Aragorn and the Northern Kingdom of Arnor. That view, from the summit, must have been what Tolkien's Northern kingdom would have looked like, girt with mountains and looking West to the sea....

Climbing back over the gate I found a white-wood staff leaning against the stone wall of a famine cottage. I picked it up, and found it was cut and honed to be a walking staff. It was ash, or maybe alder, very hard and polished.

'That is left there for you, take it!' said the others, so I took it, a staff like that of Gandalf, to remind me of Arnor of Cooley, Kingdom of the North....

Response from Arthur:

A very interesting read, that area of Ireland sounds beautiful. The part of the burial of the famous hound made me smile. When I said I only knew one Welsh legend and that it was a bit sad it was about another famous hound, this reminded me of the story. Ive found the firdge magnet I bought from Beddgelert, it has the whole story on so here goes....

"During the 13th Century, Llewelyn, the Prince of North Wales, had a palace at Beddgelert. The Prince was keen on hunting and had one favourite hound - named Gelert. One day, Gelert was unaccountably absent on a hunt and on the Prince's return to the place he saw the blood-smeared Gelert lying beside the blood-stained cradle of his son and heir. The disraught Prince, believing that Gelert had killed his son, thrust his sword into the hound. The dog's dying yell was echoed by a baby's cry. Llewelyn discovered the baby alive and well in the cot, but underneath the cot lay the body of a huge wolf which Gelert had killed. The Prince, filled with remorse, is said to have never smiled again and he buried his faithful hound on the spot which is now know as Beddgelert (Gelert's Grave). "

Response from Daughter of Kings:

I don't know how you do it, Varda, but your writing makes me just a little homesick... for a land I have never seen.

Thank you for sharing your wanderings and musings with us.

Reply from Varda:

Climbing Carnavaddy was such a powerful experience for me I had to share it. First you pass the little fields marked off by ancient stone walls, then you reach the bracken, dead now and withered but covering the mountain with a cloak of fiery red. Then higher up the bracken gives way to a great covering of heather, also dead and dusty brown. The cold clear blue sky above these winter colours made me think of Tolkien's northern kingdom and the Misty Mountains, and guess that he must have been similarly inspired when he walked, here or in England.

A critic I once read said that Tolkien's great gift to the reader was that they would never look out from a mountain peak or wander a beautiful forest without thinking of Middle Earth. How true that has been for me!

In the Cooley Peninsula you can take the 'Tain Way', that is retrace the places and events told in the Tain, an iron age epic which was written several centuries before Beowulf. The sites of certain events are still to be found. This experience of making legend come alive must have influenced Tolkien when he strove to 'create myth'.

Actually, Daughter of Kings, the view did make me homesick too, because Carnavaddy is in the Republic, and I now live in Northern Ireland. It is only a few miles, but I miss my country. I once climbed Slieve Foy, and could see the Sugar Loaf in the Wicklow Mountains, the mountain the Celtic tribes called The Silver Spear. It made me so homesick! I spent much of my childhood in the Wicklow mountains....

Galadriel was right when she said that even if your own homeland has become an abode of dragons, it is still where you wish to be. My homeland has only become an abode of shopaholics, but the saying is still true....