Winter Solstice in the House of the Dagda

The front door to the house of the Dagda (Newgrange), 2010. Photo by Sue.

It’s the last evening before the solstice, and I’m thinking of the people who are coming from all over Ireland right now to gather at the house of the Dagda, or Brú na Bóinne, also known as Newgrange.  We were in the Boyne River valley during our last week in Ireland this past summer, and visited Newgrange once again.  For those who don’t know the site, it’s one of two passage tombs in Ireland that have that rare and amazing feature:  a roof box.  This is the upper shaft above the doorway that serves as a door for the ray of sunlight that enters the chamber on Winter Solstice morning.  The sun shines down the long passageway and illuminates the inner chambers of the tomb for a short period of time on that morning, as well as a few mornings on either side of the Solstice.  Here is a helpful site for further information.

This year, the event promises to be more spectacular than usual, as there is a total lunar eclipse occurring the night/morning of the Winter Solstice, depending on your time zone. Whether I’ll be waiting up to see it, here in the pacific northwest, is up to the condition of the skies.  I think it will be too cloudy.

Do you know the story of the Dagda and his harp?  It is from the account of the Second Battle of Moytura, and the manuscript (here in a translation by Whitley Stokes) is rich in details about the coming of Lugh, the Dagda’s exploits, and the war between the Fomoire and the Tuatha de Danaan.

Here is the excerpt of interest:

“Now Lug and the Dagda and Ogma pursued the Fomorians, for they had carried off the Dagda’s harper, whose name was Uaitne. Then they reached the banqueting-house in which were Bres son of Elotha and Elotha son of Delbaeth. There hung the harp on the wall. That is the harp in which Dagda had bound the melodies so that they sounded not until by his call he summoned them forth; when he said this below:

Come Daurdabla!
Come Coir-cethar-chuir!
Come summer, Come winter!
Mouths of harps and bags and pipes!

Now that harp had tow names, Daur-da-bla “Oak of two greens” and Coir-cethar-chuir “Four-angled music.”

Then the harp went forth from the wall, and killed nine men, and came to the Dagda. And he played for them the three things whereby harpers are distinguished, to wit, sleep-strain and smile-strain and wail-strain. He played wail-strain to them, so that their tearful women wept. He played smile-strain to them , so their women and children laughed. He played sleep-strain to them, and the company fell asleep. Through that sleep the three of them escaped unhurt from the Fomorians though these desired to slay them.”

If you’d like to see an English translation of the description of Newgrange from the Metrical Dindsenchas, which is the book of the lore of place names in Ireland, take a look here, and ponder this marvelous place on the eve of the Winter Solstice.  I’ll leave you with a photograph of Newgrange I took in July of 2010 while standing on the top of Dowth, another passage tomb in the Boyne River valley.


Newgrange from the top of Dowth. Photo by Sue, 2010.


A Harper’s Final Resting Place at Lough Gur

While traveling in County Limerick in June, I visited Lough Gur, a site steeped in historic significance and folkloric-mythic associations. To our delight, it also turned out to be the burial site of the 17th century harper, Thomas Connellan.

First there is the prehistory: Lough Gur was a busy settlement site over 5,000 years ago. In an afternoon we visited the ruins of a burial dolmen, medieval hut circles, and the impressive Grange stone circle.

Teampall Nua, Lough Gur.

While stopping to walk in a shade-dappled churchyard at Teampall Nua, the New Church, we happened upon a stone placard on the side of the ruined stone church which read, “In an unmarked grave ‘sleeps’ Thomas O’Connellan, renouned poet-harper of Cloonamahon, Co. Sligo, who died in Bourchier’s Castle, Lough Gur in 1698 A.D.” We had found a harper’s gravesite. As I walked the grounds of the handsome, roofless church, I reflected on the curious shock it must have been for the people of the castle to have a visiting harper perhaps unexpectedly die. How could Connellan have known that he would end up in a lonely churchyard at the edge of Lough Gur? Gazing at the low hills and the shimmering water, and then toward the mountains, I recognized that one could do much worse than be buried in this place. Apparently, three centuries later, the local people honored Connellan with a graveside ceremony at Teampall Nua. And now for the eerie folkloric connection: Evans-Wentz, in that classic text, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, writes that the fierce goddess Aine, of Lough Gur, keened Connellan the harper at his funeral. That would surely have rattled the bones of the living!

Now here is a perplexing chronological conundrum: Connellan’s death date is cited as 1698 at the gravesite, but according to Colm O’Baoill’s 1970-72 article, “Some Irish Harpers in Scotland,” the date of death should be 1717. Simon Chadwick’s reliable Early Gaelic Harp Info site states that dear old Connellan (Thomas, that is, and not his brother William) was made a burgess of the city of Edinburgh around 1717. Hmm. Might the dates be wrong, or was it a posthumous honor? Note, too, the Scottish people’s honoring of an Irish harper.

The stone at Teampall Nua.

Who is Thomas Connellan, anyway? He was a harper whose works included Limerick’s Lamentation (known in Scotland as Lochaber No More), Celia Connellan, Lady Iveagh, and the Dawning of the Day. I pulled out my copy of Edward Bunting’s 1840 edition of The Ancient Music of Ireland, and took a look at the Belfast harpers who played any of Connellan’s tunes at the festival: Arthur O’Neill and Charles Byrne played some of Connellan’s tunes for Bunting.

I recognized that my small repertoire does not yet include a tune by Connellan. Having visited this lonely, most beautiful place, I must learn one of his tunes.

Lough Gur from the churchyard where Connellan is buried.


Visiting the O’Ffogarty harp

During my travels in Ireland, I visited the O’Ffogarty harp, a big, grand, 17th century low-headed instrument that resides in the upstairs room at the public library in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, Ireland.

The O'Ffogarty harp in Thurles.

How I itched to play a few of the bass strings on this enormous old harp.  The soundbox is massive at the base, and contains six soundholes, some of which are decorated with thin, concentric circles.  Although not all of the repairs to the harp are in good condition, it is clear that some of the bands added to stabilize the harp’s cracked soundbox have either fallen off or have been removed over the centuries.

The harp is located upstairs in the Co. Tipperary library at Thurles, in a large, modern silver community arts center called The Source.  Simon Chadwick’s top notch Early Gaelic Harp Information site provides excellent information on the O’Ffogarty harp.  While you’re there, be sure to click on the links to the high quality photographs of this instrument taken by Ann and Charlie Heymann.

Incidentally, I found the staff at the library very gracious and accommodating when I expressed an interest in seeing the harp.  They permitted me to go behind the barrier into the stacks, and also permitted photography without a flash.  One of the librarians or archivists set out Armstrong’s book for me to browse, which was, from this librarian’s point of view, very well done!  Armstrong’s book, Musical Instruments, Part I: The Irish and the Highland Harps, published early in the 20th century, is now out of copyright, and may be found electronically here.


The scroll on the O'Ffogarty harp

Design of some of the O'Ffogarty's soundholes.

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