Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Fort on the Hollow Hill

High atop the royal hill of Aileach, at the gateway to my own fair Inishowen, sits the fort of An Grianan. It is a place of myth and magic, cutting through the mists of time to transport receptive visitors to an otherworldly age… And to hell with how cheesy that sounds; it’s only cliched ‘cause it’s true, goddamit!

In fact, Grianan is so steeped in legend and history that I’ve been putting off this post ever since I started blogging.  The only reason I’m writing it now is because I said I would the other day. Why so reluctant? Because there’s so bloody much to say about the place! 

How could I describe to you just how utterly amazing it is without telling absolutely everything about it? And how could I do that without boring the arse off everyone bar those with a very particular interest in pre-Celtic Irish monuments?  (Or those from Donegal, who’d probably already know everything I had to say anyway.)

So I’ve decided I’m not going to - describe each myth and chronological event associated with the fort right up to the present day, that is. Besides, there’s already a wonderful website and blog dedicated to doing just that, hosted by a lovely German girl I know named Bettina Linke. Ever since Bettina moved to the area many years ago she’s committed herself to the promotion and protection of An Grianan with unparalleled passion.  With a book on the way, she’s now even set herself to translating Old Irish poetry about the site in her spare time. That’s dedication for you!

Anyhow, instead of getting bogged down in the details, which is what happened each time I sat down to write this post over the past couple of days, I’m just going to run quickly through the facts and move swiftly on to the folk tales. Those of you still interested in finding out more afterwards can then call over and pay Bettina a wee visit.  I’ll try my best to keep this as succinct as possible, though be warned - I do tend to drift when it comes to subjects I care about. Right, let us begin…

Inside An Grianan II

More important than Tara- FACT.

To sum it up in a sentence, An Grianan of Aileach is an iron age ringfort, built on the remnants of a much earlier fortification (thought to be up to 5000-years-old, in your face Pyramids!), with the current stone structure undergoing heavy restoration in the nineteenth-century following it’s destruction during a conflict between two Irish chieftains in 1101. Phew! That was a long sentence. But the place does have a long history, and an important one at that.

Indeed, it is my guess that if it wasn’t for its geographical location Grianan would likely be as famous as Newgrange, and undoubtedly more well-known than Tara. For, just like that other royal hill - and that’s all it is these days, a hill, with hardly any visible fort worth talking about - Aileach too was seat to the High Kings of Ireland at various points over the centuries, and for an even longer period served as the centre of power and culture for all Ulster. (And we still have our fort intact.)

It is also interesting to note that while Grianan shares good company with other sites of high mythological and historical regard, such as Emain Macha, in that it is one of only a handful of Irish locations to be marked on Ptolemy’s 4th century map of the world, Tara gets no mention on the famous document. Mmm…

As I said, the reason most of you have probably never heard of it till now is down to where it is. For one it’s relatively far away from the major airports, and secondly it’s also only a few miles from the border with Northern Ireland,  which meant the area was shunned for decades by foreign tourists afraid of getting blown-up. (Kind of silly really considering the chances of getting blown-up in Donegal were so miniscule it was ridiculous.)

Anyway, enough about all that ‘real’ stuff, I want to talk about the stories!  

Inside An Grianan

Built by the king of the fairies, no less.

As I’ve said, it would be easy for me to ramble on and on about the ‘true’ history of Grianan, which in itself is pretty darn interesting,  but it’s always been the myths and legends surrounding the place which have captured my imagination. And there’s certainly no shortage of them.

The word ‘Grianan’ comes from the Irish word for ‘sun’ and one thing that is agreed upon by archaeologists is that the original structure was most likely built by pagan sun worshipers. That’s fair enough, but it’s who these sun worshipers were that’s most intriguing; ask anyone round here and you’ll only get one answer - An Tuatha De Danann. The Children of Danu themselves.

Now I think I know you, my dear blog readers, well enough at this point to assume that most of you are already well acquainted with this mystical race, and their gods and leaders. Many of you will probably also be aware that they were, in fact, the descendents of Ireland’s fairy aristocracy. (Those who aren’t as familiar with this can find a wee bit more about it in my introductory blog post, and then of course there’s always Google.)

Anyway! One of the most famous tales regarding the origins of Grianan states that it was built by no less than Daghda himself, High King of the Tuatha De Danann who later achieved godly status. The story goes that, following their invasion of Ireland in pre-Celtic times, it was at the hill of Aileach that the Tuatha De Danann first made contact with the natives of their new land. They must’ve liked the spot, or it must’ve already been an area of some significance, for when Daghda’s own son, Aeah, was slew in battle it was here that the god king buried him and built the fort to protect the grave.

Other tales also hint that Daghda’s predecessor,  Nuada of the Silver Hand,  may also be interred beneath the mound.  Indeed, it is what is under the fort rather than the stones themselves that hold the deepest magic and mystery.

Take the little portal pictured below for example, one of several in the interior wall. When we were little the gates weren’t there and we used to crawl inside. My mum used to go crazy at us, though claustrophobia usually got the better of me before I ventured far enough to make her really mad. Now that they’ve been sealed off to curious children and I’ve grown much too large, I often wonder what I would’ve discovered if I’d been a little braver.

A Gateway to Fairyland

You see another of the local legends of Grianan, and one which is inextricably tied to Irish fairy mythology in general, tells of an extensive network of tunnels that run from these little holes in the wall deep down into the hill. Within there is believed to be a hollow where a band of Tuatha de Danann horsemen still slumber, waiting for the day when “the sacred sword” is removed and they can awake to reclaim their ancient lands.

A more detailed account of this tale can be found here on Bettina’s blog, though as a child I always heard the Irish nationalist version in which the sword was British rule and those inside would only wake once Ireland was united again. Considering Ireland as a whole entity has for the most part only ever been united while under British rule, you’ll have to forgive me if I declare this to be bollocks. ‘Ireland’ of the past was an island of five provinces, those again divided into kingdoms, and not one unified state in the modern sense. But once again I digress…

As you might imagine from it’s name, An Grianan is also associated with other ancient Irish sun dieties such as Lugh and Gráinne, though I’m not going to talk about them now. A little tale I will relate is one from my dad, who often tells of how after a night out partying in his younger days he and a friend decided to go up to Grianan to watch the sun rise. Now it’s very likely considering the context of the story that what he saw may've been in some way influenced from the previous night’s indulgences, but he swears that from his position atop the stone walls he saw the sun dancing in the sky - looping and diving, jumping forward and falling back. In fact, to this day he finds it hard to describe his experiences of that morning exactly. And I’ve heard others tell similar stories so there must be something in it.

Well my friends, you’ll be happy to hear that I’ve finally exhausted myself and have to decided to wrap this thing up now. God, this was a post and a half! Believe me when I tell you I could’ve written twice as much. Anyway, thanks to anyone who stuck with me to the end and sorry for rambling on so much. I just want Grianan to get the recognition it deserves for being so super amazingly awesome. 

I suppose every little corner of the world hides it’s own treasures, and we all like to defend our own wee plots. What about you folk, do any of you have any little under-appreciated gems nearby? I’d love to hear about them!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Adding An Old Grungy Feel to Photos: A Gimp Tutorial and Two Free Textures

Ok, so today I’m taking a wee break from my usual sort of posts to instead bring you a little photo-texturing tutorial. I’ve had a number of questions both online and offline regarding my recent Flickr photos, and I thought this would be the clearest way of answering them.

Be warned though, since I’m still only a relative beginner at this whole carry on myself, this will pretty much be a case of the blind leading the blind. I’m sure there’s probably much better and easier ways to apply this technique, and the instructions I’m about to give are based on a process learnt simply from messing about and experimenting. That’s what it’s all about really, playing around with your photos until you get the look you want.

It should be noted that while I happen to use Gimp, the method is pretty much the same for any programme that supports layers etc.  For anyone who isn’t aware of it, Gimp is image editing software pretty similar to Photoshop. While not quite as sophisticated as PS, it does have one major plus - it’s totally free! Download it here.    

Before we begin, here are the two textures I used in the tutorial - click on the thumbnails for the larger size. Feel free to use them in your work as you please, though if you do a little credit or link would be much appreciated :) 


I tend to make my own, but there’s tons of places on the web that offer really lovely free-to-use textures. It’s important to choose the right one to suit your photo, and that will just depend on your own personal taste. Anyway, let the lesson commence! 

Open the photo you wish to texturise.  I’m using one I took of An Grianan of Aileach a few months back, but which I thought was a bit boring on its own. (By the way, for my regular blog readers, I’ll be doing a post on this magical place very soon!)

Next, open the texture of your choice as a new layer [File > Open As Layers]. I’m using the first of my textures above.

Resize the new layer if needed [Tools > Transform Tools> Scale]. At this stage it will look like this:

To ‘blend’ it with your photo, play around with the layer mode and opacity in the right-hand window, shown below, until you like what you see. Here I’ve chosen ‘multiply’ mode and an opacity of 70%.

At the minute the image is still looking quite dull. You could experiment with the curves or colour balance at this stage to brighten it up, but to make things simpler I’m just using another texture. In this case it’s my second, lighter, one above.

As in step one, open the texture as a new layer and set the mode and opacity. This time I’ve selected the ‘overlay’ mode at 90%.

Finally, once you’ve achieved a look you are happy with, simply flatten the image for saving as a JPEG [Image > Flatten Image]. It’s that easy!

This is only a very basic method but hopefully it’ll provide anyone starting off with a good basis from which to proceed. As I said, I’m still only learning  myself. There’s tons of much better and advanced tutorials out there on the interweb, and while most of them are for Photoshop even us lowly Gimp users can learn a lot from them. At the end of the day, though, in my experience experimentation is the way to go; the more you mess about with your photos, the more you’ll learn.

Well, I hope that I’ve helped enlighten those of you who were asking about this. And if not maybe somebody somewhere might learn something from it. If anyone’s interested, I’ve some more Grianan photos processed in the same way over on my Flickr page, and I’ll be back here soon with a wee post on the ring fort - one of my most favouritest places in the whole wide world :) 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Pencil Vs Camera

Hello all you lovely blogging folk, how’s everyone doing this evening then? Having a fantastic week I hope. My own’s been a bit up and down; it started off super busy and positive until today when my usual yucky back trouble brought any productivity to an abrupt halt. Ah well - unpleasantness and pain aside, at least it’s given me a little time for some guilt-free blogging. And excused me from the remaining chores of the epic spring clean Himself and I began a couple of days ago. Silver linings and all that!

Anyhoo, I’m actually in the middle of preparing a post in response to a few queries I’ve had regarding photo texturing. It’s taking much longer than I’d anticipated, though, so in the meantime I thought I’d share these wonderfully imaginative ‘Pencil vs Camera’ images by Belgian-based artist Ben Heine. I was especially interested to read that this guy is actually a trained journalist who’s  “many years of graphic exploration, artistic experience and his very own vision of the world” led him to the career he has today.  It’s all a little inspiring for this particular unemployed hack :)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh!

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh!

Just calling in to say a quick happy St Patrick’s day to you all! It’s never been my favourite holiday to be honest; there’s always a great festive feeling here during the day, but by this time in the evening it just gets messy.

In saying that I have always been fascinated by young Pat and the role he played in moulding paganism into the modern day Irish Catholicism we have today (I’m a boring auld fart, I know). Time is pressing this evening , though, so I can't get into it right now. Instead I’m going to cheat and point you in the direction of my Paddy’s Day post from last year - it’s one of those long-winded rambling ones so if you’re needing some help falling asleep I’d thoroughly recommend it ;)

Anyhow, I hope everyone's well and I plan on getting caught up with your comments and posts really soon. In the meantime here’s another wee shamrock photo:

Sunshine Shamrocks

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Wet and Windy Weekend

The Giant's Causeway on a Rainy Afternoon I

Hello folks! How’re you all this evening then? I’ve just about warmed up again after a weekend off gallivanting ’round the countryside. My god it can rain in this place! We were up at the Causeway Coast for a friend’s hen and seriously, the weather was wild. Would blow the head off ye, as they say round here. Great fun though!

Anyway,  while it didn’t spoil the craic too much, the bone-saturating-sogginess did mean we weren’t able to show off how utterly spectacular a spot it is to any of the English girls who’d come along.  And that the photos I’d planned on taking to show it off to you guys didn’t come out quite so scenic either! Typical, the weather’s beautiful now everyone’s away home again.

Ah well, sure it’ll give me a good excuse to head back some day during the summer; it’s only up the road from me really but my lack of transportation means I’ll have to wait for the tourist buses to start up again. For now these dreary shots will have to do. (Click on each of them for one or two more in Flickr.)
The Giant's Causeway on a Rainy Afternoon II

The Giant’s Causeway
On a clear day you can actually see both Scotland and Donegal at the same time from here. I’m not going to get into the myth and legend of the place now, if you’re not already familiar with it ask Google. All I’ll say is that it’s a place of many happy memories for me. We used to go up all the time when we were wee and the stones and stories made for hours of fun.

Mussenden Temple I

Mussenden Temple
I always thought this place was just a little tourist attraction, built back when the area was one of the most popular tourist destinations in Victorian Britain, but when I looked it up there I found out it’s actually much older. Turns out it was originally a library built as part of a larger estate in the 1700s, the ruins of which you can access quite easily. Usually - when we were up at the weekend the field you have to traipse through to get to it was just too mucky. 

Mussenden Temple II

You know, when I was at college I used to get the train that goes through the tunnel directly underneath the temple all the time and that part of the journey was always my favourite. On down the track a little bit the cliffs are lined with waterfalls, so as you travel past you have the crashing Atlantic waves on one side and those on the other. It’s magical. I really must grab my sister’s SLR and head up there some sunny day.

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
 What can I say, I’m just a big chicken. A chicken with vertigo, who gets dizzy changing a light bulb. So no, I didn’t cross it. I’ve never crossed it, and probably never will. This time I actually bought the ticket to cross, but on the subsequent walk from the kiosk to the bridge I realised the only reason you had to actually buy the ticket was because The National Trust, who never charge admission fees, obviously must have to pay huge public liability insurance for the site. When I got there I asked the guy if anyone had ever fallen off, and he answered ‘not today’.  You might say that’s just a corny joke but when I pressed him he wouldn’t answer anything else! Hmmm… So no, I didn’t cross it. Pity too, apparently the wee island on the other side is really very pretty. 

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Fun Little Book Game!

Bargain Books
 [Warning: Random post-pub post.]

So today was World Book Day! Or rather yesterday was, I’m just home from my Thursday pub quiz and only now realised it’s actually tomorrow (I’m in the future, yippee!). Anyway, a friend of mine posted this to Facebook earlier and the responses were such fun I thought I’d try it out here. It’s a game! 

 To play all you have to do is grab the closest book you have to hand, open to page 56 and post the 5th sentence either to your own blog or in the comments below. Don’t say what book it is or anything and let me and whoever else wants to play guess.  Seriously, this is good craic! 
Oh, and by the way, you’ll notice the distinct lack of cynicism on my part between this post on World Book Day Vs. my previous one on National Tree Week. Maybe those couple of beers tonight had an affect on me after all :) Ahhh - women, trees and now books. It’s been a good week! 

p.s. Whoops! As just pointed out by the lovely Sydnii, I forgot to include my own.  (That'd be the beer again.) Here we go: "True to his word, Miller eschewed a drink, but he appeared happy enough surrounded by the high spirited pub-goers."  

p.p.s I've no idea what's going on with the mad spacing and font sizing on my posts recently, it's not intentional. Apologies.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Barking Mad

Kathy in the Woods

So it’s the start of National Tree Week everybody! Great, right? Well please forgive this particular leaf lover for not getting too over excited.  Sure I’m all for celebrating our wooded wonders and I give a big virtual pat on the back to those lovely folk over at the Tree Council of Ireland, they do good work. But I’m afraid I’m going to have to kick off their well intentioned week with a rant. 

You see I’m finding it very hard at the minute to muster up any national pride in the way our country cares for trees, especially since it’s recently been revealed that we’re planning on selling them all off! Well, maybe not all of them exactly, just our remaining forests.  Over a million acres to be precise. Kind of ironic when you consider the theme for this year’s week is ‘Celebrating Forests for People’.

Regular readers to this blog will have heard me lamenting our embattled trees before. Irish trees were arguably the biggest losers of the Celtic Tiger era and its head long rush towards development and ‘progress’, and I had hoped the recession might have provided them with some respite from the builders’ bulldozers. Unfortunately that appears to have been a rather naive notion.

Yup, Ireland’s forests are now up for sale along with everything else in the country, reduced to nothing more than a commodity to be monopolised by private investors.

In fairness, the plan isn’t necessarily to chop all the forests down. Well it is actually, but not in the way you might think. Apparently interest has been expressed in the prized lots by a Swiss finance company called Helvetia Wealth, who own the International Forestry Fund. Interestingly, the IFF is now chaired by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern (those of you after a cynical chuckle should read the laudations for him on their website).  
Speaking of their website, after reading it one could be forgiven for being a tad optimistic about the future of our forests; lots of talk of sustainability and ethical and environmental consideration, pictures of bluebell carpeted woods, details of how entire local economies can flourish around the forests themselves… It all sounds quite reasonable, doesn’t it?

You’ll have to pardon my scepticism, but I find it hard to be convinced that a multinational corporation driven solely by profit garnered from timbering has the best interests of our country’s natural heritage at heart.  My suspicion was further heightened by the ‘terms and conditions’ you have to agree to before even logging into their site, basically a disclaimer which warns that not everything on the website should be taken as set-in-stone fact. I think that one was aimed at the investors, but it still takes the shine out the silver lining I highlighted above.

You know it’s issues like this that have me itching all the more to get my journalism boots back on. So far the Irish media have paid little attention to the plight of our forests, but I suppose why would they if it wasn’t sent out pre-explained in a press release? Investigative reporting was already on its last legs but I think the recession has finally killed it off. Newsrooms are just so short staffed theses days that editors can’t afford to give their reporters the time needed to look into these things properly. Ah, but I digress…
Back to the trees! So I realise a lot of you fellow inhabitants of this soon-to-be-not-so-emerald isle will already be up to speed on all this thanks to the petition doing the rounds on Facebook. Those of you from further a field that are interested can find out more here at The Woodland League, where you’ll find a copy of the petition to our president. Feel free to sign it! The more countries that say no to this carry on, the harder it’ll be for leaders to get away with it elsewhere. And doubt for a second that similar shenanigans aren’t afoot in your own respective backyards!

The British public have already shown that it’s possible to get governments to change their minds on these matters, now it’s Irelands turn to take back the trees. We’re only a little country, and from what I can see our leaders rarely listen to anything we say, so we could do with all help we can get. I thought maybe I might be able to rally some international support from all you lovely blogger folk? Especially you American ones, our government has always done everything you Yanks have told it to ;) So sign up, pass it on, and help us save our forests! The Irish nation thanks you in advance.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Couture Cutlery

I take no credit for today’s find whatsoever, all I did was open an email from a friend and follow the link to the loveliness. (Thanks Roxanna!) In fact, after having had a right nosy thorough the masses and masses of said lovelines I realised I’d already briefly encountered the work of The Hairy Growler over at a certain fairytale blog of inspiration. So no doubt a lot of you did too. 

No matter, though, for even if you have already come across Mr Growler’s stunning recycled silversmithing over at Ruthie’s place another wee run over to his webpage wouldn’t do any harm. Due to the one-off nature of his pieces the site is constantly updated, so much so that regular visitors are encouraged to refresh their browsers so they don’t miss anything. And for those of you who, like myself, are only properly discovering his wonderful work now then I strongly recommend checking it out. So many pretty things to ‘ooo’ and ‘ahh’ at!

Made entirely from recycled Victorian tableware and pre-1919 silver coins, every single piece in each of the many collections is as beautiful as it is unique. The Hairy Growler claims to bring “the magic of myth” and “the twinkle of nature” to his jewellery design, and he’s certainly not exaggerating. The man’s a magician, just look at what he can do with spoons! 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Folk Tales and Fairy Art

It’s just occurred to me that I’ve spent three out of my past five posts blogging about how I’ve not been blogging.  Sorry about that - next time just tell me to shut up, go away and come back when I’ve got something better to say.  Anyhow, I hope the treat I have in store for you today will make up for my recent boring transgressions.

You see, my friends, I think I’ve found my new favourite blog. It’s only very new, a wee baby blog really, but I’m already hooked.  The creation of Dublin artist Eimear Brennan, the ever so aptly named Drawn to Fairytales is definitely one for the bookmarks folder. A veritable treasure trove of fantasy art and mythology, Ms Brennan’s site is more than just somewhere to view her wonderful work. It is a little glimpse into Fairyland itself.

With each of picture posted we are brought on a mini-journey through Celtic legend and Otherworldly charm; using folkloric anecdotes and fairy stories recollected from her childhood Eimear conjures up a magical world which we are all invited to visit. Her illustrations (which you can view more of here) tell tales in themselves, but Eimear’s words accompany them so perfectly.

Maybe the reason I’m so enamoured with Eimear’s blog is because she posts about things that really resound with my own interests and experiences, like her tale of visiting holy wells as a child before really understanding their significance (something I’ve been meaning to post about for ages). Or this link to a radio interview with the wonderfully wise Eddie Lenihan she recently shared, which explains the true nature of Irish fairies so well I’m raging I hadn’t come across it before my recent guest post over at The Whimsical Cottage! It really is an absolutely adorable documentary, well well worth a listen. Seriously, fire it on and snuggle down with a hot mug of tea. It’ll be the most enjoyable and informative 40 minutes of your evening.

Before that, though, don’t forget to call over and say hello to Eimear! Oh, and here's just another brief example of the loveliness also awaiting you over her gallery:

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