If the body of Ireland is ‘The Emerald Isle’, then surely it follows that her veins are made of sapphire? The (true) story goes: that there is nowhere in Ireland that is further than sixty(ish) miles from the sea, and inland there are forty five thousand(ish) miles of waterways and a good pouring of lakes and ponds, then it’s no surprise that water appears central to many of our myths and stories. On a personal level, it’s the sea that is closest to my heart. I am lucky enough to live within walking distance, and regularly call upon it as a creative ally. Walking and taking in the beauty of the waves is wonderful, but I demand more. In order to get my ‘fix’ I have to dive in – no matter what the weather!
I belong to a wonderful group of women who swim regularly in the Atlantic Sea in Galway, Ireland. From all walks of life, the group sprung by chance when a bunch of us met on a charity dip, and has grown in strength from this. Our ‘dipping’ frequency ranges from those who occasionally plunge, to those who go twice or thrice daily! Some are ‘fair weather swimmers’, choosing to hibernate in winter, light fires, and offer ‘moral support’ via our what’s app group. But most of us try to get our toes wet all year round, plunging into in the wild winter waves, hands numb, teeth chattering, in and out in 5 minutes and feeling reborn. In summer the energy changes, we spend long days (when we can) bobbing in the calm (usually) July seas, feet up like otters, with wide smiles. The benefits of sea swimming are much lauded in the media of late — benefits like helping with blood pressure, arthritis, skin conditions, depression etc. One story that emerges consistently from all the articles I read though, is the story of community.
Our own little group of swimmers is a tight knit. Daily, we share stories of both our woes and our joys. We support each other’s lives and careers, and our chats have grown immensely from just “who’s for a dip at teatime?”.
This group reminds me a lot of our international community of storytellers, and indeed of storytelling itself — for many, a warm port in a rough storm. Many of my swimming group have come to love storytelling — some have grown up with it, or have discovered it through their kids, and others have stumbled in by coming to events at which I am telling or attending.
Lots of my swim pals have come to see me tell locally or at festivals and often bring their kids along to children’s sessions.
“When are we going to hear some stories about us?” One friend joked at a festival a year or two ago. Hmm.
Now while I do tell personal stories as part of my adult repertoire, most of my stories for ‘little folks’ are folk or fiction. This question sparked a flame however (or maybe it’s more appropriate to say it got my creative juices flowing!) Yes. It WAS time for a book on water stories. I’d been chatting to my publishers about a new children’s book and they agreed that this topic would be perfect — but where to start? What stories should I choose? There are so many water stories from Ireland, and I felt like a guilty parent having to choose between children as to who is the favourite! If truth be told of course I will pick favourites — I chose to retell some treasure old stories, the ones that still glowed neon in my mind since childhood, ones requested repeatedly by me from grandparents and teachers alike. But I also included new tales. I revisited some stories and let my writing guide them as if viewed through a new lens.
Some stories in the book are epic — tales of giants and goddesses, but some are simple ones; about family, and how we connect with each other. There are moral tales about manners, about spells gone awry. There are characters full of mischief who seem to dance on the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. There are stories of ‘holy’, wells presided over by both monks and pagan goddesses (and sometimes both). There is even a story of a puddle, a healing puddle, nestled deep in the hills of the West of Ireland. For a title I chose Wild Waves And Wishing Wells. When I’d finished the book, I looked back and felt happy enough that I had divided my ‘favouritism’ more fairly than I’d expected. The sea does still sing to me, but newly reawakened is my love for our beautiful rivers, lakes wells etc. These water stories definitely lean to the joyous, or the ones with a happier ending, as their intended audience is young, but I like to think that I’ve kept a sense of the melancholy alive — something that runs deep in our traditional water tales. That wistful feeling staring out to sea with the sound of a single bird overhead. Did I tell stories about my fellow swimmers? Well let’s just say a few names found their way into the stories. While I didn’t tell any modern tales, my wonderful illustrator Gala Tomasso drew a picture of our swimming spot for the back cover and I had no problem deciding to whom I should dedicate the book (thank you ‘Blackrock Babes’)!
The Giant’s Well
There’s a song that begins with the line ‘In Oranmore, in the County Galway’. This story is not the same as the song. It begins in a similar way, true enough, but is a very different tale.
In Oranmore in the County Galway, there is a place called Frenchfort. In Frenchfort, there is a little boreen with hedges on either side of it. There are an unusual amount of birds living in these hedges, and they sing very sweetly and loudly — most of the time.
At the end of this boreen there is a well. Local people talk about the well, and one thing they say is that it was not built by human hands…
A long time ago, near the well, there lived two giants. Their names have long been forgotten, or perhaps it was forbidden to speak them, as giants are magical creatures and often feared by people. So, for this story, I will call them Big She and Big He.
Big He and Big She grew up near each other (this was both unusual and fortunate, as there were not many giants in their area). As time passed, they fell very much in love, and the day came where Big He asked Big She to marry him. Of course, she said yes and was delighted with her lovely big husband.
The two of them settled in a (big) little cottage and were very happy together, doing big things and little things around the house and the garden and the village. Both of them liked to help people and would do things like lift big rocks, if a neighbour needed a field cleared (as they had big hands), or they’d help fix the roof on a cottage (because they were very tall), or they’d even defend the village against enemies (as they were very strong).
One day, Big He was called away to help another giant in a battle. It would be a long journey to this battle, even for a giant. Someone needed to tend the crops and the animals, so Big She stayed at home, and set about doing all the normal big things and little things on her own.
After the battle was over, Big He spent some time on the open road, travelling from village to village and meeting new people and helping them. He had never had adventures as a boy.
‘I think this lifestyle suits me better!’ he thought. ‘I don’t want to be tied down in a little village with animals and crops and doing the same thing every day. I’m going to have a big adventure. Big She has all she needs at home and will be fine there by herself!’
Now meanwhile, back in Frenchfort, Big She was patiently waiting for her husband. She was the one who had to stay and tend the animals and crops, remember? Each day she would look out the window of their (big) little cottage, hoping to see him pounding up the boreen. But each day the boreen was empty of her husband’s footsteps. His journey would take time, yes, but when the days stretched into weeks, and weeks into months, she knew something was very wrong. She feared that Big He had been injured in the battle, or maybe worse.
It was nearly a year after Big He had left home, when a travelling merchant came through Frenchfort. He met Big She, and of course, seeing that she was a giant, he struck up a conversation.
‘You’re the second giant I’ve seen this year!’ he remarked.
Big She’s eyes lit up when she heard this news. Could the other giant be her husband? Could it be Big He? She asked the merchant to describe the fellow.
‘He was big!’ said the merchant.
‘We are all big, sure aren’t we giants!’ Big She rolled her eyes in frustration. ‘Tell me more about him — his appearance, his clothes…
The merchant described the giant he had seen. Long black hair. Yes. Green eyes. Yes. Red boots. Yes. And a jacket with bird sewn into the pocket.
Big She let out an excited gasp, ‘It’s him! It’s him!’
Before he’d left for the battle, Big She he had sewn a little blackbird into Big He’s jacket pocket, to remind him of the hedges of Frenchfort. To remind him of his home. She asked the merchant for every little detail. Was he all right? Yes. Was he hurt? No. Had he lost his memory — for surely this was the only reason he hadn’t returned home to Frenchfort?
The merchant had to tell Big She the truth. He told her how he’d shared a mug of ale with the giant in a tavern. He told her how Big He had talked about his NEW life of adventure. He hadn’t mentioned a thing about Frenchfort, nor that he had a wife!
It was then that poor Big She began to cry. Why wasn’t Big He coming home? The more she thought about Big He, the more Big She cried.
Now she was a giant, remember, and each tear she shed was as big as a bucket. They trickled down her cheek like small rivers.
She cried so much that these rivers flowed down onto the ground and the waters began to rise.
She cried so much that the merchant and the villagers ran to climb the trees as they thought they would surely drown.
She cried so much that the birds in the hedges stopped singing, her sadness was so great.
Just when everyone thought she would flood the whole village with her tears, she took off her wedding ring and threw it to the ground. She flung it with such force that it made a huge hole where it landed, and all her tears began to flow down into it, making a giant whirlpool.
When she stopped crying, what was left was a very deep well full of giant’s tears.
Meanwhile, many miles away, Big He woke up in a hay barn with a sore head. He would often wake up with a sore head and a cold body, as this life of adventure was not all it was cracked up to be. He had been using his jacket for a pillow, and when he rolled over this particular morning, his eyes fell upon the bird sewn into the jacket pocket.
Not only did his head feel sore, but his heart did too. He missed dear wife, Big She.
‘How selfish I have been,’ he thought.
After a year of adventures and wandering from town to town, he realised that his days were empty without her by his side. He picked himself up and headed home, across fields and mountains and lakes, back towards Frenchfort, back to beg Big She’s forgiveness.
When he arrived at Frenchfort, he noticed how quiet it was. He noticed that all the birds had stopped singing.
His wife opened the door of the cottage, and this time it was Big He who burst into tears.
‘Please forgive me, my darling,’ he said. ‘I wanted a life of adventure, it is true. But it was empty without you — I have finally come to my senses!’
Now Big She was very angry — too angry forgive him. That night Big He had to sleep in the (small) shed of the (big) little cottage. In fact, for a month he slept in that shed, each night going to sleep with a jacket for a pillow and straw for a blanket.
Each night he would look at the little bird on his jacket, and hope that the next day would be different.
Each morning he got up and picked hundreds of flowers and put them by the door of the cottage for Big She.
Each morning he made a delicious breakfast of porridge and honey and put it
at the door of the cottage for Big She.
Each morning he wrote poems for her too and laid them on the doorstep. Poems telling her how selfish he had been, poems about how much she loved her, and poems begging her forgiveness.
Finally, after a month of flowers and poems and porridge, Big She opened the
door and spoke to her husband.
‘Now it is my turn to go on an adventure,’ she said.
Big He looked very sad. ‘You are leaving me?’ he said. ‘I suppose that is exactly what I deserve.’
But Big She turned to him and gave him a wink. ‘I suppose you can come too,’ she said. ‘As long as you keep writing poems for me and making me breakfast.’
Big He reached out to Big She and gave her the biggest hug Frenchfort had ever seen!
In that moment, as the two giants stood there in their embrace, the birds in the trees started singing again.
The next morning Big She and Big He left their animals and house in the charge of their neighbours, and set off on their adventures together. They would travel the land, helping people, where the help of giants was needed, but this time they would do it together.
Just as they were leaving the village Big He remembered the wedding ring. ‘Shall I dive down into the well and fetch it for you?’ he said.
‘No, husband,’ said Big She. ‘I will leave it where it is, for it only reminds me of my tears. You can buy me another one on our travels.’ And with that, the two giants left, and never returned.
You can still find their well though, in Frenchfort. It is down that little boreen, hidden behind some bushes. The locals will tell you that on a quiet day, if you drink from that well, the water is salty, and can fill you with sadness.
But if you drink from the well on a day when the birds are singing loudly, then the water is sweet, and your years will be filled with happiness and adventure.
We are blessed when we find a strong community that supports us and makes us feel authentic — whether that is a bunch of wild women who leap into waves in the West of Ireland together, an international community drawn together by their love of fairytales, or a room full of strangers listening rapt to another human telling a story, only for them to emerge warm hearted and more connected than anyone could ever imagine. Long live the healing power of the waves, and the power of the story.
Win a copy of Wild Waves and Wishing Wells: Irish Folk Tales for Children by Órla Mc Govern
The wonderful folks over at History Press have offered a copy Órla Mc Govern’s excellent new book for one lucky newsletter subscriber this month, with one also going to one of our Patreon supporters!*
What was the secret of The White Trout?
Who owned a great boat called ‘The Wave Sweeper’?
What gave the giant jellyfish its sting?
Here you will find the answers, as well as some traditional facts and modern musings. ‘Wild Waves and Wishing Wells’ is full of hidden story treasures, lost lore and watery whimsy.
These stories of the waters of Ireland have been selected by writer and storyteller Órla Mc Govern, and illustrated by Gala Tomasso. Dive in for adventures not to be missed.
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