Julie Ormonde, author of a new book called Constellation Stories of Ireland is on a one-woman crusade to make the constellations in our sky makes sense to Irish people. She is doing this by re-writing the stories behind them and giving them new storylines that Irish people can connect with.
In February 1996, my four children and I (plus a dog!) moved down from the bright lights of Dublin to live in the wilds of the Kerry countryside. Shortly after the move I experienced my first view of a night sky as dark as nature intended it to be. The Moon was in its ‘new’ phase, meaning that it rose and set with the sun leaving the night and the stars without any light pollutive competition.
After seeing this dark sky full of stars, I became a guide for stargazers in this region in Kerry. With the aid of a powerful green laser beam, I guided a group of stargazers around the star patterns in the night sky. And it was then that the idea behind Constellation Stories of Ireland came to me.
The Constellation tales we are familiar with today mostly come from Greek and Roman mythology. These “modern” stories have replaced the older stories and perhaps the history of numerous other indigenous cultures that have come and gone throughout human history. Legends told and re-told around many trillions of cooking fires are now silent, mostly lost or forgotten to the ages.
As I related the familiar ancient Greek and Roman constellation stories about Orion and Hercules, I paused in the telling, suddenly realising that the ancient people of Ireland would not have been familiar with them. They had their own tales to tell about their own heroes, gods and tragedies.
The more I thought about it the more I realised it would be interesting to attach Irish legends to the constellations as a way of re-introducing the stories of Ireland’s ancient past to a new generation. The resulting book, Constellation Stories of Ireland is a way of re-discovering the legends of ancient Ireland through the medium of sky patterns we now call constellations.
The book contains 12 tales covering Cú Chulainn, Oisín, the Children of Lir etc, all are ancient, some are more popular than others, yet somehow they manage to retain the echo of another era, when the world was at the crossroads of what we now call modern civilisation.
Below is an extract from the book.
The Big Plough and the Little Plough
There was a time when Ireland like the rest of Europe (including North America) was covered in ice this time is known as the great ice age. Off the coast of Ireland there was an enchanted Island called Hy-Brasil on which the great ice had not touched. Here grew Ireland’s great trees under the protection of Manannán the guardian of the gateways between worlds. For 10,000 years the ice lay on the land before at last releasing its wintery grip.
A small clan called the Muché lived in Ireland’s extreme south west coast where the ice had not intruded. Their fishing boats were small made of animal skin and tree bark and could hold only two people.
One day a father named Blis and his daughter Úma were out fishing on what is now called Ballinskelligs Bay. Suddenly a great wave swept under the boat raising it high into the air. The father and daughter, terrified for their lives, tried to jump from the little boat but felt themselves held fast by an invisible force.
The thundering sound of the wave echoed right through to their bones. They could see nothing but a thick milky white fog. For what seemed like many hours Blis and Úma awaited their fate with dread until as suddenly as it had started, the sound stopped, the mist lifted, and the wave shrank gently landing the boat onto a sandy shore.
Shaking with fear the father and daughter stepped from the boat. The sensation of the warm white sand against their bare feet felt so wonderful all their concern and dread faded, replaced by a feeling of joy.
“Are we dead father?” Úma asked in wonderment. “Yes,” replied her father. “I think we have passed into paradise. Being dead is not so terrible after all, now is it?”
They walked through the land seeing many wonders until at last they came upon a great boulder facing out into the bay where their little boat still bobbed up and down in the water and there they sat down to rest.
Just as they were about to doze, a shimmer of light coming out from the forest drew their attention. Now fully alert they witnessed the light take the shape of a very tall man wearing a cloak appearing to capture and reflect all the colours around him. The stranger wore a hat made of leaves from which dangled flowers and fruit and nuts to which colourful butterflies and bees flittered.
“My name is Manannán,” he said, with a voice that sounded like wind rushing through storm hit trees. “I am servant to the island, the trees, the wind, the sea, the sky and the great Earth Mother herself.” He revealed that they were not dead, but had been chosen by the great community of trees to bring their offspring back to the land from which they had first set root. He told them that the great giver of cold had gone elsewhere to deliver her freeze and that soon the land would be free to grow and flourish as the great Goddess of the Earth had intended.
“How long have you been here?” Bliss enquired.
“To me one year, to you five thousand, now enough of this questioning,” he said, before making them demonstrate and repeat all he had told and taught them.
Satisfied that his work was completed, Manannán smiled at the father and daughter cradling each of their heads within the cup of his large hands.
“Time for a new age,” he said, before adding in the softest of tones; “Soon after you return each of you must leave your homestead and tread a different path. You will not meet again for many many years. Though you will have done a great service to the Earth still mankind will forget all about you.”
“That the tress and the Island remember will be our reward,” Bliss fervently replied.
“Then they have chosen well,’ were Manannán’s last words before vanishing in shimmer of light. Father and daughter looked at each other, their eyes filled with pride and wonder before a sense of deep tiredness overcame them and they lay down to sleep.
You can order the book here.