Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Irish Merlin (with a dash of Arthur thrown in)

I sometimes teach on magic in the Middle Ages and I continue to be fascinated by a man who is not at all well known but has been characterised by some as Ireland’s own Merlin. A fourteenth century (c. 1338-1398) nobleman, politician, poet and (supposedly) adept of the Dark Arts. His name was Earl Gerald FitzGerald the Earl of Desmond (a large chunk of southern Ireland) and he, an Anglo-Irish lord, wrote his poetry in Irish. The Irish know him as Gearóid Iarla and he was an admired writer. 

Here is a translation of what is probably his most famous poem, Mairg adeir olc ris na mnáibh or Against Blame of Women

Speak not ill of womenkind
‘Tis no wisdom if you do,
You that fault with women find
I would not be praised of you.

Sweetly speaking, witty clear
Tribe most lovely to my mind,
Blame of women I hate to hear
Speak not ill of womenkind.

Bloody treason, murderous act
Not by women were designed.
Bells o’erthrown nor churches sacked
Speak not ill of womenkind.

Bishop, King upon his throne,
Primate skilled to loose and bind
Sprung of women every one
Speak not ill of womenkind.

For a brave young fellow
Hearts of women oft have pinned,
Who would dare their love to wrong?
Speak not ill of womenkind.

Paunchy greybeards never more
Hope to please a woman’s mind,
Poor young Chieftains they adore
Speak not ill of womenkind.

So, a man well-disposed to liking the ladies and versed, it would seem, in courtly love. Culturally, he was also heavily influenced by his Gaelic neighbours and kin (his family intermarried with the Gaelic Irish and he was surrounded by Gaelic Irish retainers and servants). Poetry was an acknowledged art form in the Gaelic world and also a powerful weapon. It was believed, for example, that a wronged poet’s satire could exact physical harm on a target (including death).  Poetry could be used as a vehicle for magic and poets were both revered and feared.

This brings me on to the magical aspects of Earl Gerald’s story. He was supposedly a great magician and had a room in his principal castle  (possibly Lough Gur) that was used for sorcery.


Legends abound about his exploits. It was said that he could jump in and out of a bottle. That he could shape-shift and, very interestingly, that his mother was an Irish goddess, Áine. Close to Lough Gur is Knockainey which was a place sacred to the goddess who was a sovereignty goddess of Munster (the region in which the Desmond lordship lay). Some folk tales say that he, along with Black David FitzGerald and Donall O Donnchu learned magic in a school run by the devil. Popular legend had it that Gerald eventually disappeared from one of his Munster castles (supposedly because his wife saw him performing sorcery and expressed such screaming dismay that he instantly disappeared. Apparently his shape-shifting involved some very disturbing shapes). The story is that one day he will return, in the hour of Ireland’s greatest need (much like Arthur for Britain) and that he is magically alive under Lough Gur where, once a year, he emerges on a white horse (a classic fairy motif) and can be glimpsed by those brave enough to wait and have a look. Interestingly folklore in County Louth, on the east coast of Ireland, holds that Gerald and his knights lie asleep in a hill and that only a six-fingered man can wake them up when Ireland needs them.

I always think of Inigo Montoya when I ponder that!

Ireland awaits…





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The Abelard and Heloise of Ireland – sort of

One of the most beautiful and heart-felt poems ever written in the vast corpus of Irish literature was (reputedly) written by a woman. Her name was Liadan and the poem she wrote tells of her lost love, another poet, a man called Cuirithir. The poem is called Comrac Liadaine ocus Cuirithir (The Meeting of Liadan and Cuirithir) and has been dated to the 9th or 10th century. The poem describes how Liadan was torn between Cuirithir’s love and serving God. And, yes, it’s a medieval love story hence the ‘love of God’ theme. It’s a story that is compared to that of Abelard and Heloise but, as Abelard has always appeared to me as a craven sort of soul, I get the comparison but don’t fully welcome it.

Anyway this (almost) love story is the story of a woman’s difficulties when it comes to choosing between earthly and spiritual love. The poem reflects the difficulties of reconciling desire and duty for a woman; of choosing between a solitary but welcome path (as a poet and intellectual serving God) and a path shared (as a cherished wife and mother with a physically and intellectually compatible man). For a female poet like Liadan, the choice was undoubtedly a difficult one.  Let’s not forget, she was a writer. She was a woman used to composition and the time needed for that. At any time (and especially in early medieval Ireland) life as a wife and mother would have spelt an end to her creativity, her need to express herself through poetry.

Or she could choose marriage to a fellow poet. It is unlikely that his creative juices would have been dried up by marriage and children.  I can imagine her married to him, seething with resentment and frustration, churning butter, holding a baby, embroidering clothes (a very important job in medieval Ireland) staring at her husband as he gets ready for a ‘poetic tour’ and leaves her and all her creativity behind. It’s hard to believe that she didn’t also envisage a similar type of scenario but we are told that she did agree to marry Cuirithir but put off the wedding until after she finished her ‘poetic tour’ – a last flourish of her talent maybe? However, she is said to have become a nun (or taken a vow of chastity) on her return after which he visited her. He also took a vow of chastity, in despair at his lost love and in the hope they could still be in some way together. Following this both poets put themselves under the spiritual guidance of St. Cummine who gave them various tasks it seems in a bid to be ‘soul friends’ rather than lovers. One of them was to be put in bed with a novice between them to make sure that nothing happened. It seems that the saint was unaware that Liadan had taken the veil and the wannabe lovers found this task ‘difficult’. Eventually they were allowed to speak but not to meet and eventually Cuirithir went on a pilgrimage. It seems he was probably banished by his saintly mentor for asking could he and Liadan meet. When she, broken-hearted, followed him, he sailed away and she died on the stone on which he prayed. Later St. Cummine placed the stone over her grave as a marker. Small comfort for lost love 😦

Excerpts from Comrac Liadaine ocus Cuirithir

Without pleasure

the deed that I have done;

The one I loved I have vexed.

It were madness

not to do what he wished

Were it not for fear of the king of Heaven.

Not profitless

to him was that which he desired,

To reach past pain to Paradise.

A small thing

vexed Cuirithir against me,

My gentleness to him was great.

i am Liadan;

I loved Cuirithir,

It is true as is said.

A roar of fire

has split my heart;

For certain, without him, it will not live.

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