Tír na Trí (Land of Three) is the curious and absurd story of three Irish siblings in Gaelic times: Fergal Mac Tíre, a moody warrior with Kingly aspirations; his half-brother Fiach Mac Tíre, a sensitive File (or sacred poet) in training; and his half-sister Fionnuala Nic Thíre, a Wild Woman who enjoys using her arcane magic skills to troll the new Faith.
This comic strip is a work of fiction and does not intend to be a faithful, factual representation of Irish history, traditions, customs, archaeology, etc. For a realistic study of Gaelic Ireland, feel free to check out my suggested reading list or articles.
Season 01: Kingship
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Remember, never offend a Poet. He’ll getcha.
This is one of them jokes that you either immediately get, or you have to read the thing twice or thrice to get it 😀
The complex and yet deeply misunderstood role of the institution of Poetry in both Pre-Christian and Christian Ireland is still way away from the reaches of this simple webcomic. It is is easy to understand, however, that in a society as psychotically obsessed with rank and hierarchy as Gaelic Ireland, reputation was EVERYTHING, and it was everything in very concise, factual ways: everything and everyone had an “honor price” which pretty much defined not only your role in society but also how good or crap you had it – moreover, your behaviour could impact your honor price and make you slide up or down the social ladder. The wrong step could turn a King into a Beggar in a wink.
Being praised or made fun by Poets would have really great or extremely shitty consequences. Mythologically, we read about Poets that could blemish, disfigure or even kill their victim with a well-composed verse of spite. Apparently this was also true Historically: According to the Annals of the Four Masters, in 1414 AD the O’Higgins of Meath claimed that a tyrant had died 5 weeks after they satirized him. In reality, satires probably had a psychological impact on their subjects – having your reputation tainted (and by extension your wealth, social position and honor price) would’ve been logically a great source of stress, which in turn causes distraction, which brings about accidents. And strokes.
“There survives a treaty signed on June 23rd 1539, whereby Tadhg O’Connor was allowed to hold Sligo Castle as Manus O’Donnell’s sublord. Two special sanctions were stipulated if O’Connor broke the terms. The archbishop and clergy of Tuam would excommunicate him and his men; and the O’Cleary and Ward poets would satirize him and would see to it that the poets of all Ireland did likewise! This treaty was witnessed by several clergymen in Latin and by three poets in IRish (the terms of accord are in Irish also). “The text of the agreement,” as its editor Maura Carney correctly observes, “shows that the satire of poets was considered an effective sanction, on par with excommunication”. -“The Christian Druids” by John Minahane
Turns out there is a whole literary genre in Old Irish of texts that elaborate on exactly what makes a Good or a Bad king. It has the very charming name of “Speculum Principum” (‘Mirror of Princes”). The earliest one that survives is called ‘Audacht Morainn’, and in it, the mythical judge Morann gives advice about Kingship to his foster-son. It is presumed to have been written around 700 AD, and introduces the concept of ‘Fír Flathemon’, the King’s Justice, the description of a perfect King:
“He is just and merciful, and cares for his people. Through his justice, plagues are warded off, peace reigns, enemies are kept away, the land and animals are fertile, fish are plentiful.”
The text goes on to describe several “levels” of Kingship, from the perfect ‘fírfhlaith’ (a True Lord) down to the terrible ‘tarbfhlaith’ (a Bull Ruler). This text focuses on the qualities of a good king, but defines the ‘tarbfhlaith’, the bad ruler, as:
“The Bull Ruler, then, is not a man worthy of love. He strikes and is truck, he injures and he is injured, he attacks and is attacked. Harsh, unfortunate the beginning of his reign; hateful, waning its middle; unstable, impermanent in the end. […] ‘Not welcome’, says everyone to the sons of that king, ‘the rule by your father was never good to us’.”
I love how ridiculously important was reputation for EVERYTHING in Ancient Ireland.
“Irrespective of authorship, ‘Audacht Morainn’ provides us with valuable information about the role of the king in pre-Christian Irish society, which seems to be valid also for the early Christian period. Pre-Christian Irish society is generally regarded as rather violent and warlike, yet the present text paints a different picture by adopting a generally unmilitaristic attitude: the central idea is that the welfare of the king and his tribe depends on the king’s justice (fír flathemon), which protects them from misfortune and ensures prosperity.” (University of Texas, Old Irish Online, Lesson 6).
Pretty sure King Fergal won’t make it past the Bull King level 😀
It only took me 30 strips to get cheeky and start giving out about the (lack of) duty of care towards the most unique example of Human legacy this island is lucky to have.
Remember what matters.
Don’t be rushin’ to put your cart in front of this High Horse.
A scholar with a higher commitment than mine would probably be able to interpret more profound meta-meanings in the old stories, but I can’t just get over the seemingly random nature of some legendary characters’ géasa or prohibitions.
Take poor old king Conaire Mór in the story “The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel” (random note: I can’t believe no one in modern Ireland has thought of opening a hostel called “Da Derga’s”), for example. Among his many prohibitions, he is not allowed to go righthandwise around Tara or lefthandwise around Brega; he cannot let a woman or man enter a house in which he is after sunset; and my favourite in terms of randomness: ‘Thou shalt not sleep in a house from which firelight is manifest outside, after sunset, and in which light is manifest from without’.
f course, the whole story is about how Conaire is forced by fate itself to unwillingly break each and every one of his taboos, which leads to his death and the destruction of the aformentioned hostel (if Insurance was as prevalent in Gaelic Ireland as it is nowadays, one can only wonder if their policies include “self-fulfilled prophecy of doom” as a valid reason for a claim).
Some of the taboos are downright unavoidably cruel: ‘And three reds shall not go before thee to the Red’s house’, but then when on his way to the Hostel of the RED God, he finds that there’s three riders clad in red colors riding ahead of him. I mean, seriously, why even bother!?
Even though, as usual, we actually have NO IDEA what the Druids did or did not do during a Chief or King’s inauguration, the ritual shown here is called a “Tarbh Feis”, and we find it in the story “The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel”. In this story, it is used to discover who will be the next King (though the story specifically says that what is consumed is a broth, not the raw flesh).
Regardless, there are several vague references in the medieval literature to rituals that often included eating the raw flesh of an animal in a quest to gain insight or access to concealed information, one of the most known being the “Imbas Forosnai”.
Weather raw or in broth form, I believe we can safely presume anyway that the priestly caste of the Gaelic order often suffered from bouts of food-intoxication 🙂
A very colorful aspect of legendary and pseudo-historical Irish kings and heroes was the imposition of taboos (“géasa” in Irish) – prohibitions and obligations the breaking of which would bring disgrace, dishonor and even death. Legendary kings oftentimes had what seems to us as random prohibitions. Conaire Mór is, amongst other geasa, prohibited from killing a bird and he must never walk clock-wise around the Hill of Tara. Other times, a horny lover could apparently just put the object of his desire under a geasa to ellope with her: In the tale “Deirdre of the Sorrows”, the titular Deirdre really gets the hots for the warrior Naoise and puts a geasa on him that he should run away with her. Apparently it was also forbidden for the High King of Ireland to still be in bed at sun-rise.
And these were not necessarily just cultural no-nos – oftentimes some sort of force of fate was at play, where the consequent breaking of geasa would undeniably lead a person’s destiny becoming doomed: As Fergal up there reminds us, oftentimes these prohibitions were ridiculously unavoidable and self-fulfilling. Cú Chulainn meets his undoing because he had a taboo on him about consuming the flesh of a dog; but (conveniently for his enemies) he also had a prohibition about refusing hospitality. Thus, all that his enemies had to do to bring down one of the mightiest Irish warriors to ever walk the hills of Ireland (and one who had the power to HULK out, at that) was simply offering him a big warm dish of ol’ Dog Shtew, which he couldn’t refuse, so that by eating it he damns himself and is spiritually weakened for an incoming fight in which he is horribly murdered.
And that’s Old Ireland Logic for ya 😀
Let this be your friendly reminder of the (not totally confirmed but extremely likely) Ancient Irish custom of “Sughaim Sine”, also known as homo-social nipple-sucking.
This traditional way of showing friendship, fealty or loyalty was so prevalent that even St. Patrick HIMSELF attests to it in his ‘Confessio’: While escaping from Ireland in his time as a slave, Patrick seeks safe passage to England from a bunch of sailors who ask him to lick their nipples. Patrick refuses to engage in this ‘pagan custom of friendship’ and is thus denied from boarding the ship by the now angry captain.
And thus this trilogy of Imbolg nonsense comes to an end!.
I lost mine last year.
Oh, Goddess, do forgive me.
Here at Deercún HQ we are strong supporters of the “Stoned Ape Theory”. This theory posits that psychoactive substances like psilocybin had a fundamental role in our transformation from tree-dwelling primates to couch-dwelling humans.
While we lack any concise, hard evidence for it, there are plenty of reasons to suppose that psychoactive mushrooms had a huge role to play in the development and flourishing of ancient European cultures. From the visually enthralling neolithic carvings in many of Ireland’s ancient sites; to folklore stories full of strange visions, mystical beings and time warps.
(Fun fact: mediaeval societies were not totally foreign to the experience of tripping: Rye bread was a common part of a peasant’s diet, but it also had a strong tendency to develop a psychoactive fungi called “ergot”, the compounds of which served to create a synthetic version of it which is nowadays commonly known as “acid”).
Of course, any “hard” evidence for magic and the practice of what we think of as “druidry” is scant and filtered by Christian men of learning, but it has been strongly suggested by people with more impressive academic credentials than mine that hallucinogenic experiences are responsible for many of the concepts that became the founding blocks of ancient civilizations: notions of justice and equalities, the idea of zero, the principles of thermodynamics and the evolution of animism into polytheism… all of these and more are believed by many to have been first conceptualized after someone taking a bunch of ‘shrooms and going off.
Imagine going on a trippin’ journey and coming back with the novel concept of a number that means that there’s no numbers!
The HIGH King speaks only one language and it is most definitely NOT Gaeilge.
One of my favourite things about Gaelic Ireland is that they understood that just because someone is good at Kinging, it is definitely NOT guaranteed that their offspring will be too, so they invented a semi-democratic system called “Tanistry”, whereby leaders were elected from a logically small yet varied enough pool of noble-blooded individuals.
Though it still fostered petty dynasties and inter-tribal rivalries, this system AT LEAST allowed a little bit of accountability to rulers and tyrants would be -and often were- duly deposed by the people.
In the case of local Chieftains, obtaining the endorsement of the current High King would definitely swing the vote in their favour. Unless it was the HIGH King, in which case you might as well be talking to a bush tree.
They don’t be callin’ him “Your HIGHNESS” for nuthin’.
All hail King Niall of the Nine Sausages. It is said he got that nickname due to his liking of inlaid cured meats for breakfast and his custom of requesting 9 sausages of each of his vassals every month.
Sillyness aside, I was doing some research on the heraldry symbology of the O’ Neill dynasty for this strip: The Red Hand of Ulster. Of supposed pagan origins, this is a symbol whose ownership has a long history of being contested, and it is first recorded in the 13th century as a symbol of the Hiberno-Norman earls of Ulster.
It is known nowadays as the coat of arms of the O’ Neill family, and there’s an interestingly gruesome yet epic legend behind it. It tells of a time when Ulster had no king, and a boat race of nobles was set up to determine who would rule the province. Whosever’s hand touches the land first would win. In some versions, it is Niall himself who is contesting the race against his own brothers. Being bested right before the end of the race, Niall decides to chop off his own hand and throw it towards the coast with all his might over the other contestants, thus winning the race and becoming King.
Funnily enough, legend has it that in ancient Ireland a maimed man cannot be King, so unless some Tuatha Dé Dannan physician was around to make him a Silver Hand we’re not too sure the story holds up too strongly 🙂
Fun Fact: There is an OGHAM inscription on the lintel of the entrance into Oweynagat cave (located within the expansive Cruachán complex in Co. Roscommon), which reads, in Latin, “VRAICCI MAQI MEDVVI”, which in turn translates to “OF FRÁECH, SON OF MEDB”.
Ogham stones were mainly used as memorials, which means that it was probably standing somewhere nearby before someone, God knows how long ago, decided to use it to hold the portal into the cave.
The inscription is taken by many to be actual proof of the existence of the legendary Queen Medb but, what most people don’t know is that the form on the ogham indicates very clearly that this Medb was a MALE, and not the famously ferocious Queen of Cruachán who went to war over a bull (JP Mallory, “In Search of the Irish Dreamtime”).
Just one of the many fun and misleading colors in the painting that is Irish archaeology 😀
Cattle raiding (a fancy name for “trespassing uninvited into the land of a neighbouring tribe to steal their bovines”) was apparently so prolific in Gaelic Ireland, that it is its own medieval literature genre, alongside Adventures, Voyages, Wooings, Deaths, Conceptions and Feasts. The best known one of them all being, of course, the ‘Táin Bó Cúailnge”, a story of violence and sorrow which reminds us that it is probably never a good idea to go to war over a bull, no matter how virile it may be, and specially if your Seer answers “I behold them bathed in red” every time you ask her how will your army fare in the conflict.
And here for a bit of a backstory, and how exactly was it that Fergal came to own and love the severed head of an Ulsterman, how did it go missing, and the reason for this unforgivable feud between Fergal and Fergus.
Will the Fairy Guards be able to pick up the trail of the missing head that went cold so long ago? Is Fergus being sent on a purposeless goose hunt? Is the Morrígan the first and foremost suspect in this crime?
Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!
If one is to look at both the mythology and the Annals, it is easy to imagine that if not head-hunting, decapitations at least were common enough in Iron Age Ireland. It is said of the Ulster hero Conall that he never slept a whole night without the head of a slain Connacht warrior under his bed, and Queen Maeve was warned by her Seer that her war against Ulster would leave behind decapitations go leor.
The Annals of Ireland report very few accounts of beheadings in the first 300 years AD, but the reports on the custom seem to pick up wildly around the 700s, peaking quite a bit around the 800s with the coming of the Vikings, and stick at a stable pace among the Irish from the 900s to the 1200s. As with everything else about Ancient Ireland, it is hard to know what is truth, what is propaganda, and how all that we know is affected by all the evidence that is now lost.
We do have some reasons to believe that the ancient Irish could’ve seen the head as being the receptacle of the soul, and capturing your enemy’s head as a trophy would certainly be an efficient way to let others know who’s Boss; but again, we’ve no evidence of what those rowdy lads and lasses thought of or believed in, for the simple reason that we have no written record of such ruminations. All we can do is theorise, like JP Mallory does, that head-taking was definitely prevalent later in time if it wasn’t so already in the Iron Age (there’s evidence for two Iron Age decapitated males within Knowth in the Brú na Boinne complex).
Mallory remarks that “when the Irish set about translating classical works such as Dares Phrygius’s anaemic account of the Trojan War, they couldn’t resist inserting instances of head-taking that were never there in the Latin original”.
Personally, I can only think of the impracticalities of putting a severed, rotting (and probably excreting weird smelling fluids) head under one’s bed each night, and what exactly could be worth going through so much bother for.
Fun Fact: The name in Irish for the Irish Police translates to “Guardians of the Peace”, but there is apparently already an element of “fairyness” there:
Now sadly I don’t have the book on me to quote directly, but as @manchanmagan points out in his delightful “32 Words for Field”, the ‘sí’ bit of the modern Irish word for “peace”, ‘síochan’, is quite likely connected to an old term for fairy, ‘síoth’, from which the modern forms like “síd” or “sí” come in turn. The “-chan” part of the word, according to the Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language, is probably from ‘caín’ (fair, or gentle).
So there you have it. I am now advocating for the official name in English of the Irish police to be changed to “Guardians of the Gentle Fairies” 🧚🏻♂️🚔🧚♀️
There exists a bizarre in-tale in the 9th century version of “The Battle of Moytura” which, as Mark Williams puts it, “is also perhaps the most disconcerting episode in the entire medieval Irish corpus, for it encompasses force feeding, female-on-male fisticuffs, defecation, and the outdoor copulation of titanic beings (twice)”.
In it, after having sex with The Morrigan, The Dagda is sent by Lugh to spy on the Fomorians before the big battle. After being monstrously ill-treated by them and being force fed a gargantuan portion of porridge on pain of death, the Good God meets the daughter of the Fomorian king Indech, who demands a piggy-back ride back to her father’s house. For some reason, she goes on to beat him up in exchange, which in turns causes him to literally crap himself. Of course, this being an Irish mythological tale where no cause has a logical effect, they proceed to have a poetic battle of wits, which The Dadga wins. The girl, clearly aroused by both defecation AND poetic prowess, ends up having sex with him and then changes sides, offering a great supernatural help to the Dagda against her own people.
One’s gotta wonder if the well-known “Dagda’s Club” was something he carried over his shoulders or between his legs 😝
The path of true Kingship never did run smooth.
I may need to get a +18 content warning if I keep at this carryon.
Sheela-na-Gigs are one of the early Celtic Christian world’s most bedazzling, contradictory and fascinatingly endearing characteristics. Found hiding in the corners of many a broken mediaeval Irish church, they mock our sense of reality with their unapologetic genital exposure in the House of God. There’s many theories, but I still can’t wrap my mind around the reason why a pious, missionary organisation would allow, let alone endorse, the use of this figure in an ecclesiastical context.
Usually associated with Silé, St. Patrick’s legendary wife, these curious effigies are also thought to be remnants of an ingrained devotion in the Irish spirit for the Goddess form, so strong that not even the Grace of the Creator could totally erase it from their immortal souls. Even allowing that, it is still puzzling to imagine the situation in which one of those went up the wall of the church. Was the Abbot present and all-G about this thing decorating his monastery? Did the monks giggle as they passed by it? Was it some kind of twisted, primitive form of pornography?
In all seriousness though, I do believe Sheela-na-Gigs are very strong evidence of how little we actually understand the complex mindset and layered mystic nature of Christianity in Ireland before the authoritarian yoke of the Roman Church came running behind the Normans like a hungry raven over a battlefield with the sound of a thousand raspberry blows under its wing.
There are bridges we didn’t know we’d have to cross until we have to cross them. And there are old granny feet we didn’t know we had to rub until we had to rub them ☉ ‿ ⚆
As per Fiach’s suggestion, Fergal’s journey to obtain the blessing of the Sovereignty of Erin brings him face to face with An Cailleach, a divine archetype who probably is the only pre-Gaelic divinity we have evidence for. She does not appear in any of the medieval mythological writings as a character (the association of King Niall’s Hag of Sovereignty and An Cailleach is completely my own), but her prolific presence in place-names, toponymic associations and heavy folklore hints to the very real possibility that An Cailleach is indeed a very real, very old and most of all indigenous to the ancient traditions of this island, before the incoming of both the Gaels and the Celtic Christians.
But the real question remains: will Fergal lay with her to obtain her blessing? Will she become a beautiful maiden come morning? Why do the old stories seem to encourage the concept of exchanging sexual intercourse for political power? WHAT ARE TEACHING OUR CHILDREN!?
Fun fact: Though Irish mythology set in the late Iron Age (like the Ulster and Finn cycles) describes powerful longswords, Irish archaeology tends to unearth short ones. As JP Mallory has demonstrated, the longest Irish sword found has a total length of 66.7 cms. For comparison, that’s shorter than the shortest Viking sword found in Ireland (dismissed as a toy sword by some), which is still 10cms longer.
Kids, don’t forget to measure up your mythology against your archaeology for a much more multi-layered, in depth and genuine experience of the Gaelic tradition 🌟
In all fairness to Fiach, tough there’s scarce evidence for the horse-mating ritual, the theme of the Sovereignty of Erin as a hideous hag can be traced to the scéal “The adventure of the sons of Eochaid Mugmedón”. In it, the youngest of a band of brothers during a hunt is the only one to accomplish what the others couldn’t: Kissing an old hideous hag in exchange for well-water.
Not only does he kiss her, but even agrees to lay with her right then and there. Upon awakening, he finds the hag transformed into a beautiful woman, Erin’s Sovereignty herself, who bestows upon him and his descendants the divine rule of Kingship for generations to come. You might’ve heard about this young, eager, gerontophile king-to-be as he later became known: High King Niall Noígíallach (of the 9 Hostages).
Even though the factual evidence on this one is flimsy, I like to believe (and so seem to do most experts) that homosocial nipple-sucking was totally a thing in Gaelic Ireland 😁
The practice was apparently known as “sughaim sine”, and it could’ve been a way to pledge loyalty and submission to one’s Overlord. For common men, an expression of friendship and fealty. Or love, of course.