Listen to the Land Speak: a journey into the wisdom of what lies beneath us, by Manchán Magan, Gill Books, 338 pp, €22.95, ISBN: 978-0717192595
In Listen to the Land Speak, Manchán Magan takes us on a journey of enchantment as he explores the richness of the Irish landscape through visits to ancient sites, while evoking history, myth, legend, folklore and the Irish language. The book is organised into forty-one discrete chapters, each a stand-alone which explores a single topic ‑ ranging through rivers as goddesses, sacred trees, Tír na nÓg, Samhain, Tlachtga, Crom Dubh, sun lines, holy wells, bogland, workhouses and ringforts. In doing so he traverses thousands of years of history and numerous roads, rivers, lakes and ancient sites. As he encounters Lough Gur in Co Limerick, for example, he marvels at the beauty and energy of the landscape ‑ both as it was, how it has been overlaid by the processes of development, and, more recently, how it has been resurrected through heritage projects and new discoveries. He reads and listens to myths and stories about the goddess Áine as creator of the land, Saint Patrick, and the Earl of Desmond. He imagines the land speaking to us, offering new origin stories and mystical insights, writing that landscape is mnemonic ‑ enabling us to remember.
This topical approach allows Magan to wander and imagine, to speculate and draw associations, to call on discourses as disparate as science, agriculture and myth. It can all occasionally seem too fragmented, with sometimes minimal information and too much reliance on readers’ prior knowledge. But it allows for a text that is poetic and inspiring, leaving the reader in search of more. Despite its disparate structure, there are several themes presented throughout the book.
Magan’s central theme is that the weave of landscape and myth offers a wealth of wisdom that can bring us to a deeper connection with ancient spirituality and cosmology and inspire a true appreciation of ancient Ireland – when, he suggests, the land was revered and associated with goddesses, when ancient cairns (for example Newgrange) could be seen as wombs, when there was a nature-centred animistic worldview. He brings an awareness of the destruction that has been wrought through the passage of time as we moved through Christianity, colonisation and famine to modern economically driven development. Language, spirituality, mysticism, nature and ancestral ways are his abiding interests; he contends that our colonial legacy has detached us from the richness of myth and legend, and also from our connection with the land. He is unsparing in his view of colonisation as oppressive, destructive of landscape, people and culture, and sees that remembering and reconnecting can be part of a healing process.
Curiously, Newgrange – or Brú na Bóinne – is only mentioned in passing, perhaps because of his interest in discovering and uncovering. New discoveries from the bend of the Boyne very much reinforce Magan’s image of a living landscape and culture. These demonstrate that Brú na Bóinne was a complex ceremonial landscape. Remains have been found of a feasting hall, a cursus for processions, all kinds of small cairns, barrows and henges. A new cairn about half the size of Newgrange has been discovered. Evidence in the landscape of a very large wooden henge (circle) that is 500 ft in diameter just beside the mound of Newgrange was caught on camera. Various other archaeological techniques have helped to paint a picture of a huge gathering place that some archaeologists now call a congregational site. Archaeologists are no longer sceptical about ritual, ceremony and astronomical alignments, although they are still reluctant to speculate about the nature of cosmology, ritual and ceremony in ancient times.
Magan’s book provides a rich tapestry for imagining the culture of ancient pre-Celtic Ireland. His writing is full of the enthusiasm of discovery, but that can sometimes give the impression of his being the first, and possibly only, person to discover ancient sites or propose a goddess or earth-centred ancient spirituality. Of course it would be impossible, and it is not even desirable, for him to document sources. But it is surprising, given his obvious erudition, that there is no reference list at the back of the book (unlike 32 Words for Field, which provides a chapter of references). This would allow some acknowledgement of pioneers such as Marija Gimbutas, who argued in the late 1980s that Newgrange was a womb and posited a European-wide culture in the Neolithic period that was centred on the earth as woman/goddess, or Michael Dames, who wrote a groundbreaking book on myth and landscape in Ireland. It would also be helpful for readers to provide some guidance into the complex world of Irish mythology. (I would recommend Marie Heaney’s telling of the classic myths in Over Nine Waves and Anthony Murphy’s website Mythicireland.com.) In his final chapter Magan hails the rising of feminine energy, necessary to overcome the erasure of agency and frequent dismemberment and rape in goddess stories that are a legacy of patriarchy as well as colonisation and that have motivated several retellings.
Magan’s visionary book is published amid a rising tide of interest in Irish myth, legend and ancient times. This has been invigorated by the forthcoming national holiday in February which is associated with Brigid, seen as both goddess and saint, and with the festival of Imbolc, a manifestation of Magan’s and others’ visions of the resurgence of the feminine. Numerous contemporary writers, artists, musicians and healers are part of a host of people fascinated by and drawn to ancient sites, finding their way into Irish Celtic mythology and ritual, developing new ways of being that are grounded in landscape and myth as well as in re-imaginings of cosmology and the living earth. Listen to the Land Speak is a wonder-full example of writing that can hold space for the religious and the spiritual, the shamanic, the druidic, the pagan and the secular.
Ger Moane is Associate Professor Emeritus of Psychology in University College Dublin. She has published extensively on postcolonial psychology and the Irish psyche, as well as on gender and sexuality, notably in her book Gender and Colonialism: A Psychological Analysis of Oppression and Liberation. Recently she has written and published several works of fiction and creative non-fiction about ancient Ireland.
We are making some changes at the drb. From 2023 we will publish three times a year. The reduced frequency means we will be concentrating on our core activity, the long-form review essay. The first of the three issues to be published next year will appear in February. Blogs will continue to appear between issues. We wish our readers and contributors a very happy Christmas.