I was going through my old vinyl collection and came across a LP from the Cork Black Metal band ‘Primordial’ that was released in 1995 called “Imrama”. It has a beautiful cover art depiciting a druid meditating in the centre (why the depictions of the rare statue of Boa Island, co. Fermanagh is used is beyond me but artistic licence is what it is) of a stone circle which reminds me of the 9m diameter Reenascreena stone circle (also known as the ‘Ring of the Shrine’) 18km away from Drombeg in West Cork. Now the metal scene is not for everyone but Irish mythology is used a lot by Irish metal bands as well as Irish traditional music bands. Sometimes especially in the Irish metal scene, traditional musical instruments are used in harmony with the music and the end result brings us on a ‘journey to the Otherworld’ or as the title of the album which is spelled ‘imrama’ and this written piece ‘immrama’.
‘Immrama’ is by definition, a collection of a type of story dating from the 8th Century onwards and written by the learned classes such as the filí (bards and poets) and the early Christian monastics. They mainly concern a hero’s voyage to the Otherworld of Irish pre-Christian lore and will contain more Christian and classic European elements than the earlier 7th Century ‘echtrai’ which contained mainly native elements. Echtrae means adventure (the modern Irish word is eachtra) and immram means voyage (modern Irish is iomramh). Normally the tales are based on a course setting off from the west coast of Ireland for either the pursuit of adventure or fulfilment of destiny and reaching mythological islands on the way. They either stay on these lands or return.
This isn’t an exhaustive list as there are many written legends be it local folklore or canon sagas which have evolved and integrated themselves into Irish culture during the past millennium. Some are more famous than others, some are the originals, some have no basis in manuscript but local folklore, and even more so, setting sail from the western shores as a starting point only has changed to mysterious doorways of the rath, dolmen, stone circle, certain caves and even palaces that lie beneath large bodies of water such as the Lough in my native Cork city which boasts of a submerged castle where the eternal hosts cater to their guests since the fateful night of a deluge from a local well. The Legend of the Lough – Ballyphehane Info Pod (19162016committee.org) . I must point out that the king has a different name on the older tale which can be viewed at the Lough itself, being ‘Coire’. Even they are just ancient tales which may or not have any historical truth, they are sources for inspiration. Some are very cynical stating that no one can navigate the Atlantic Ocean in a curragh but it has been done by people inspired by the tales. In May 1976, Timothy Severin and a crew of 3 others set sail from the Dingle Peninsula, county Kerry for roughly 7,200km in a custom replica boat made of of leather hides, oak, ash and leather thongs and reached Newfoundland in North America staying true to the navigation route described in the 8th Century Latin texts of the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis Across the Ocean in a Leather Boat – The Washington Post Tim Severin: Writer and explorer best known for the Brendan Voyage (irishtimes.com) . There has been a lot of similar successes including a 70yr old who completed it in a kayak Pensioner, 70, paddles across Atlantic Ocean in kayak for the third time | London Evening Standard | Evening Standard and many others such as ‘I dug deep’ – Gavan Hennigan on crossing Atlantic in record time (irishtimes.com) .
‘Immrama’ can mean many things to us but ultimately it is the journey that we take to reach a goal be it how we perceive our own unique individual paths or an actual physical adventure or journey that is path of our path. A good example was the recent trip I took with my family to Carrigapooca castle and stone circle just off the N25 on the west side of Macroom town in county Cork. Preparation involves researching how accessible the site is, it’s history and whether or not it is on private land (will permission from land owner be needed). I am always cursing ‘Google Maps’ because it doesn’t update the maps (and not give the best or safest route), There’s a by-pass under construction near to the site and it was going to be trial and error to get there. And it was. I finally managed to locate the farmyard entrance eventually as the castle was easily seen from the road but not the way in. I got permission from the Healy family who also gave me the key to the door of one of the most haunted castles in Ireland and directions on which fields to take to get to both the stone circle and castle. The small one, my partner and her guide dog, Kali, had great fun crossing the fields, getting stuck in the nearby bog, and watching me grip an electrified fence (a shocking experience) by accident until we reached the base of the castle. It is very impressive and has a long history relating to the MacCarthy’s. It is a 14th century military Norman style castle that is four storeys high that is built on the Carrig an Phúca or ‘rock of the spirit/shíde’. The nearby land is called Lissardnasig (Old Irish for <geographical-feature> of the Shíde) on one side and Gleannarua (Glen of the Reds) on the other side. There is also a hoax associated with the castle that became viral and I am not going to entertain it. It’s ridiculous beyond belief. The stone circle is only a field away with solitary Holly trees hiding the site from view. Once I got to the top of the stone steps, I was hampered by a lock on the door that was heavily weathered and untouched since the lockdown (or it could be the Púca having a laugh at my expense and keeping me out). Believe me, I tried my best with it but unfortunately not to be. We had a family picnic at the base of the castle and then made our way over to the stone circle. I was disappointed with the neglect of the Bronze age site but it has been there since roughly 1800 to 1500 BCE and in the middle of a worked field. A lot of the stones have fallen over and the concrete sign with “‘fógra’(notice) property of National Heritage Council” face down in the mud. One of the portal stones was erect as was the axial and the centre quartz stone (never came across a d-style stone circle with one of these in the centre before) more or less in roughly the correct position for observing the sun rise during the solstices. I brought back the key to the owner and explained the situation with the lock in which she agreed that it needed replacing. Okay, I couldn’t get into the castle and the stone circle wasn’t a good example of one but the journey wasn’t wasted. The trek to it was fun. It was inspiring to see a building built upon a rock outcrop and imagining how any siege could successfully take the castle. It was picturing the sun rise strike the quartz pillar onto the axial stone on a clear solstice morn and how it would like. A door shuts but another opens. It’s still a story to tell.
I still find it an important part of Irish culture and heritage and told it’s tale on live feeds on social media pages as well as writing this here. Despite the negatives, the journey has its positives also. We all have personal ‘immrama’ that contain sorrows and joys, monotony and enjoyment. Never underestimate what you do and what your goals are on your own path.
Is mise le a meas,
Seán Ó Tuama.