On This Day: My Mother The Cow

On this day is remembered the Irish saint Máedóc of Ferns, born around 558. According to Irish legends, when a boat could not be found to take the infant Aedan (Máedóc’s original name), across the lake where St.Kilian waited to baptise him, the boy was floated to shore on a slab of stone.

The font at St Mogue’s in Bawnboy is said to be made from part of the stone. Will come in handy if ever the churchyard floods.

He studied at Clonard Abbey, the famed school of St.Finnian. When many people came to seek him out, desiring to be his disciples, he fled to Wales to study under none other than St.David. These saints do seem rather clicky, don’t they?

Along with St.Cadoc (another name drop there) Máedóc was said to have exterminated an army of Saxons or Irishmen in a narrow valley by rolling stones upon them.

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The monastic site at Clonmore is in ruins. Here some cross fragments and carved stones have been collected together.

He was noted for his benevolence and hospitality (though perhaps not to Saxons or Irishmen). At one point, a man pushed him into a lake to see whether he would lose his temper, then, when he meekly got back out of the lake the tormentor confessed his guilt and apologised.

A humble, forgiving soul, eh? Don’t bet on it:

He was well known for his curses. Once, when he was grinding flour, a local man begged for some meal. After being given some, the man disguised himself as a blind man and returned to beg for more. Annoyed, Máedóc cursed him that the generations of his descendants would never lack for a blind member. Sins of the father and all that.

When a notable figure slew his own father-in-law, he attempted to accommodate the saint, only for him to curse that the man’s right hand would wither to a stump. When the man begged for a penance, Máedóc directed him to pray for forgiveness at the tomb of Brandubh in Ferns. The man did so, and a spectral voice from the crypt forgave him.

Miraculous. Marvellous. He still lost his hand though.

Many more stories abound concerning this seventh century figure. Once, fetching ale for his fellow monks, old butter fingers broke a jug. Making the sign of the cross over the broken shards, the jug repaired itself and he continued along the way. As a former teenage glass collector, I can tell you there is definitely a market for this kind of trick.

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Stained glass window of the Saint in Enniscorthy Cathedral.

I like the story about the time wolves devoured one of the calves at the monastery, the mother cow being inconsolable. Máedóc blessed the head of his cook and told him to offer it to the heifer. The cow licked him with its great, rough tongue, and from that moment ‘loved him like a calf’. Oh, how that cook must have leapt for joy whenever he heard it lowing mournfully in the barn. Think I’d have preferred a withered stump.

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One thing I love about the tales of these Celtic monks is their affinity with, and connection to, the natural world. Perhaps there is a moulding here of both the native pagan and early Christian faiths, back in the melting pot of these islands. There is a nice tale of  Máedóc reading one day in Connaught, and a hunted stag in desperation took refuge with him. By a miracle, the saint rendered the stag invisible, and so the pursuing hounds ran off.

In art the figure of a stag remains this saint’s emblem. A visible one, of course. An invisible emblem wouldn’t be much of an emblem, now, would it?

Aeddan, forever known as Máedóc, died on this day in 632, (or in an alternative account 626) and is buried on Lough Melvin’s shore in County Leitrim. Give him a thought before you turn out the light tonight.

 

 

On This Day: The One-Armed Man

In a list of saints native to the British Isles, today is the day of Nathalan, (?-678), who legend says was a wealthy man who became a hermit near Aberdeen, in Scotland, supporting himself by cultivating his smallholding:

‘which work approaches nearest to divine contemplation.’

Couldnt have had cows, then.

Born into a noble Pictish family, he produced surplus food to help pilgrims and the needy of the area. So far so good. Saintly material.

But, when the crops failed one summer, Nathalan cursed God for the wet weather. (Seems like nothing has changed climate wise in those parts.) Full of remorse, he repented by having one arm chained to his side. The only key to the padlock he dispensed into the depths of the River Dee. He then set off on foot to do penance in Rome. At least he still had one arm free to thumb a lift in case he grew too weary.

Arriving in Rome months later, he bought a fish in the market. When he cut it open, guess what he found inside? Only the key to the padlock on his chained arm. How’s that for a divine sign of forgiveness?

On hearing of this miracle, the Pope had Nathalan made into a bishop (some say the Bishop of Aberdeen). The poor fish is never mentioned again though. Such is the fate of fish throughout history.

He returned to Scotland, (Nathalan, not the fish), establishing a second church at Coull, in the Howe of Cromar, and another at Cowie near Stonehaven.

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Cowie Kirk, originally dedicated to St. Nathalan.

 

An old Cowie rhyme states:

‘Atween the Kirk and the Kirk ford,

there lies St. Nathalan’s hoard’

His hoard or treasure is believed wrapped in a bull’s hide, tied with a rope which, according to folklore, will hang anyone uncovering it.

Think I’ll leave the spade in the shed then.

Arthur

I love learning about the various legends, myths, folklore and traditions of the British Isles.

No story has endured, or captured the imagination, as that of King Arthur. The image that holds today is the romanticised, medieval invention-the good  King and his chivalrous knights of the round table, based in the fantastical court of Camelot.

I have read a few books about Arthur, and he seems to have been claimed by just about everybody-the Welsh,the English,the Scottish, even the Croatians. It reminds me of how you can read countless books about Jack the Ripper- every learned author goes over the same material and then pushes a different suspect as the final unmasking of the unidentified killer.

I have just finished reading another book on Arthur-Christopher Hibbert’s King Arthur. I agree with his conclusion, shared by many, that the legendary Arthur that we are acquainted with today is based upon a real, historical flesh and blood figure who lived here in Dark Age Britain.

A figure who, infuriatingly, is lost in the mists of time, camouflaged by legend. Hibbert relates the story of how, in the 1890’s, a group of antiquarians gathered upon South Cadbury Hill, site of a Neolithic fort that was still in use around the time of the original Roman occupation of Britain. They were looking for signs of a reoccupation of the fort in the late fifth or early sixth century, trying to establish a connection between South Cadbury Castle and the legend of Camelot. An old man approached them and anxiously asked them if they were there to take away the sleeping king from the hollow hill.

Time and legend serves to thwart the serious searcher, but there are a few tantalysing  clues to be found.

What we do know is that Rome, being squeezed on all sides by Germanic tribes, recalled her legions one after another from Britain to help defend her borders. Suddenly the Romanized, tamed Britons were left to take care of their own defences. With Picts swarming down from the north, and Scotti marauding from Ireland in the west, the beleagured Brits were then faced in the the south and east with the pillaging and raiding of the Angles, Jutes and Saxons. The Britons fell back onto old tribal loyalties and connections but were no match for the warring invaders.

In 446 they sent a desperate plea for help to Rome, addressed to Aetius, the Roman General in Gaul:

To Aetius, three times consul, the groans of the Britons; the barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two forms of death, we are either massacred or drowned.

But the plea was in vain. They had to look to their own defences. As the Saxons gained more and more ground, Bede writes:

Public and private buildings were razed, priests were slain at the altar; bishops and people alike, regardless of rank, were destroyed with fire and sword, and none remained to bury those who had suffered a cruel death. A few wretched survivors captured in the hills were butchered wholesale, and others, desperate with hunger, came out and surrendered to the enemy for food, although they were doomed to lifelong slavery even if they escaped instant massacre. Some fled overseas in their misery; others, clinging to their homeland, eked out a wretched and fearful existence.

Then came forward a tribal leader named Ambrosius who stood up to the invaders. Gildas, writes that other tribes flocked to him ‘as eagerly as bees when a storm is brewing.’ It seems under Ambrosius the Britons prevented the Saxons from taking the whole Kingdom, suffering defeats but also victories too. But what would happen once this strong leader was no more? Would the alliances and the defiance hold?

Now comes the first of one of the few historical references to Arthur. Nennius, writing in the ninth century about the time after Ambrosius’ death:

In those days the Saxons grew in numbers and prospered in Britain..Then Arthur the warrior and the kings of the Britons fought against the Saxons, but Arthur himself was the ‘dux bellorum’, the commander of battles. The first battle was on the mouth of the river which is called Glein. The second, the third, the fourth, and the fifth upon another river, which is called Dubglass, and is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was upon the river which is called Bassas.

The seventh battle was in the wood of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth was the battle by the castle of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried upon his shoulders an image of the Blessed Mary, the Eternal Virgin. And the heathen were turned to flight on that day, and great was the slaughter brought upon them through the virtue of the Blessed virgin, His Mother.

The ninth battle was fought in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was waged on the banks of the river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was fought in the mountain which is called Agned. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon where in one day nine hundred and sixty men fell in one onslaught of Arthur’s. And no one laid them low but himself alone. And in all these battles he stood out as victor.

Some of the sites listed here are now lost to us, and others have been guessed at using ancient language and place names. This account suggests the various tribal kings were involved in the battles, but it was Arthur as Commander of Battles who led the attacks/defences.

In the book Hibbert suggests that Arthur led in the manner of Romans of old, leading a mobile, disciplined cavalry and an organised response to the more aggressive but (unorganized ) fighting style of the Saxons.

He also attempts to explain the confusing account of Arthur going into battle with an image of the Virgin Mary on his shoulder. This could be a mistranslation of an original text. The Welsh word for shoulder ysgwydd is almost identical to the word for shield ysgwyd. Carrying an image on his shield appears more plausible, and could account for the next reference to Arthur, from a list in Latin written in the tenth century, but taken from sources at least as early as those used by Nennius. The Annales Cambriae (Annals of Wales) mentions only Arthur’s last battle (of those named by Nennius) in the year 516:

The battle of Badon in which Arthur carried the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ, for three days and three nights on his shoulders, and the Britons were victorious.

Then, in 537:

The battle of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut were slain; and there was death in England.

There are two other hints of the existence of a real life Arthur, from before the examples given above. One is an indirect reference, in an epic poem written by the Welsh bard Aneurin, called Gododdin, written way back around 603. In it, describing a battle between the Saxon invaders and desperate Britons, when extolling the remarkable bravery of a British hero, he adds:

although he was no Arthur.

Another clue is the sudden popularity of the name Arthur in the late sixth and early seventh centuries. One hundred years before Anuerin wrote his poem, the name was virtually unknown on these shores. Think today of obsessive fans naming their sons Cantona, or Lennon, etc, after the heroes of modern times.

The romanticised, legendary telling of Arthur is a wonderful, captivating story- Merlin, the sword in the stone, Excalibur, the Lady of the Lake, the Grail Quest, the Knights of the Round Table, Guinevere and Lancelot, Arthur’s doomed fight with his traitorous son before being taken to Avalon, where he sleeps until his country needs him again.

But for me, this scarcely sighted Romano-Briton  is a more fascinating figure.  A figure who rallied and resisted the Saxon invaders, who won a decisive battle at Badon which effectively ended the Saxon threat for a generation.

A figure whose roots are lost in the mists of time and obscured by the shadows of the Dark Ages. But there are just a few glimpses to be had of the flesh and blood man who would one day become known to us as Arthur, our once and future king.

Red In Tooth And Daw

It is that time of the year again when an attempt to vegetate in front of the television set may result in us being compelled to actually open the blinds and peer outside, maybe get out in the garden or, if we are truly touched by the adventurous spirit, get our boots on and  seek out the more scenic parts of our country.

To get involved with the outside world.

Yes, Springwatch is back on. This programme, and its sister programme Autumnwatch, is partly responsible for a public increase of interest in our indigenous wildlife. We have also recently had a shorter-run Winterwatch, with a promised Summerwatch too this year. So that covers just about everything then.

We are nine episodes in, with live cameras and twenty four hour web cams set up in a variety of locations around the British Isles to document many different species of our wildlife, showing how they have faired through the winter months and the struggle they face to breed and survive among a changing world and predation.

We have been treated to, among many others, ospreys and otters, finches and foxes, warblers and weasels, dippers and dolphins, buzzards and bees. We have marvelled at feats of endurance and display, persistence and guile.

And among all this impressive footage, who do you reckon have been the villains of the piece?

That’s right, the jackdaws.

There is a bird box set up in a barn, and two jackdaws have nested there, raising two chicks. The parents are doing a masterful job of mucking in and spreading the load. No single parent or free loader in this set-up.

The problem is when the two parents are off foraging for food. In their absence, two other adult jackdaws have been entering the nest box and going about the process of systematically attacking the defenceless chicks. Time after time, day after day, they have come in and merciless pecked at the two cawing chicks, as they huddle together in the corner trying to find some kind of protection. It only ceases when one or both parents return to eject the invaders from the box. The problem is that they need to go and find food for the young ones, and as soon as they do the deadly duo come back in and the whole sickening spectacle begins again.

Over and over.

Viewers throughout the country have been horrified, dropping their digestives into their cups of tea as they reach for their phones to tweet their disgust

The theory given is that these two intruders are lower down the..ahem..pecking order in the jackdaw hierarchy, and want the nest box for themselves to breed in. They have even been bringing in nesting material of their own. Talk about cheek.

The one thing going for the chicks is their size. They are close to fledgling. If they had been younger it would all have been over with by now. And they are beginning to fight back themselves. Like bullied kids the world over, they have their tipping point.

I know that wild life is just that-wild life. Red in tooth and claw. I mean we have recently seen a young meadow pipit taken by a grass snake as the rest scatter from the nest in a desperate attempt at survival. But at least that was quick. The young jackdaws are being subjected to constant, prolonged attacks.

Having a front row seat to witness this violent drama has caused me to  feel a little uncomfortable about the title of my blog. Do I really want it associated with such, well, animalistic thuggery?

And what would I change it to? What if I kept it along the wildlife line, but chose something nice, inoffensive, cute even?

What about a rabbit? Everybody loves rabbits. Rabbits are lovable. Cute? Check. Fluffy? Check. Not psychotic? Check.

Right then, I will have a blog name incorporating the word rabbit and something else, something that would not cause me to waiver after watching a single episode of Springwatch or Watership Down.

But before I could make that connection, a memory came to me. My Dad, saying very casually to my Mum:

“Rabbits sometimes mate with rats in the wild.”

I can’t for the life of me remember the context of that conversation, and I am convinced he was pulling her leg. But my Mum never ate rabbit again.

Now I have another vision. The horrific sight of those attacks on the poor, defenceless chicks has now been replaced by another, unwholesome image.

Rabbits mating with rats.

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That’s it. I’m sticking with jackdaws.