I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Tallaght, before Babel


An impressive and scholarly book, The Destruction of Da Dearga’s Hostel by Ralph O’ Connor, which has just been published by Oxford University Press, brings to mind the beautiful Glenasmole in Co Dublin.

Some of the legendary Irish sagas are set in Glenasmole, which is located a mile or two beyond Tallaght, and indeed ancient stories were still being told there in the middle of the nineteenth century. At least two of the hills surrounding the glen, near the boundary between Dublin and Wicklow, bear traces of the old tales. Seafin and Ballymorefin almost certainly refer to some adventures of the great Fionn Mac Cumhaill which have since been lost. Many of the old sagas that mention Glenasmole are concerned with hunting and feasting but two of them, “The chase of Lough Leane” and “The Destruction of Da Dearga’s Hostel”, involve identifiable aspects of the glen’s topography.

The road into Glenasmole from Oldbawn passes through Bohernabreena, which means “the road of the hostel”. As a result some scholars, such as Eugene O’Curry and Eoin Mac Neill, identified the area as the location of Da Dearga’s hostel. Other scholars suggest a location further along the Bohernabreena road and close to the point where the Dodder rises, it being the only point visible from the coast and consistent with the tale.

The legend tells of what befell Conaire Mor, high king of Ireland, and his retinue as they were making their way through Glenasmole along the Slighe Cualann, one of the five roads which radiated from Tara. They rested in Da Dearga’s hostel, through which the river Dodder flowed and where they were provided with food and accommodation. Pirates, including foster brothers of Conaire who were on the coast, saw the lights, found out who was there, surrounded the hostel and a great battle followed. The hostel was set alight and eventually the king fell dead. He had brought an age of plenty to Ireland but this ended with his false judgement to support his delinquent foster brothers (or perhaps foster sons). This led to him breaking various trusts with the otherworld. It was because of these breaches of trust with the supernatural that he was defeated, allowing the robbers to enter the hostel and cut off his head.

In the introduction to his book O’Connor gives some fascinating background information on the Irish sagas. Irish prose sagas, he explains, which “testify to a remarkable creative fusion” between inherited local tradition and both biblical and classical learning are a phenomenon without parallel in Europe in the early and central Middle Ages. They were probably written down for the first time on parchment in the eighth century, but existed orally for a very long time before stretching “from the Gaelic early Christian period back into mythic past”.

O’Connor speaks of debate over the sagas’ “ultimate roots”. Historians, he says can trace them back to the fifth century, whereas others see a connection with the “Continental Celts” of the first millennium BC. “Nor need we stop there,” he adds “These roots have been held by some to reach further still. Nobody knows who the Indo-Europeans were, but their view of the world, some claim, underpins many Western cultures, some of which may preserve vestiges of this immeasurably ancient past. Traditions from its eastern and western extremities, recorded in the Sanskrit and Irish languages, provide intimations of a common tongue and, with it, a common world view. Like the world before Babel this unity has been fragmented, lost forever in deep time. Yet the fragments remain. The quest to understand more about the primeval roots of Western civilisation can lend those fragments an almost numinous aura.”

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