Sunrise at the Raven’s Beak

The recent heat wave, a short taste of summer, still only provided one clear enough sky for observation on the morning of July 24.  The sun rose from behind the hills of Inishowen Head at Srúb Brain (Shrove), just a few days away from making her appearance out of the sea.
Placenames of Inishowen are hard to come by in ancient Irish texts, so finding Srúb Brain mentioned in manuscripts for nearly a thousand years is a refreshing if curious surprise. What was so importance about this place and why was it chosen? All most of us know today about Shrove is that is has a rather photogenic lighthouse.

One of the oldest of these references must be the Voyage of Bran son of Febail, seemingly linking father and son to Lough Foyle (Loch Feabhail), although Febail might not necessarily be Bran’s father. The name Febul seems to originated from fé (mod. Ir. faoi) meaning woe, calamity, grief and buille – blow, stroke, to strike, leaving as a result the fear inspiring name of the misery/grief striking. And there is such a person in relation to Aileach fitting this description – Fea, alleged war goddess and wife of Neid, after whom Aileach Neid is named.
In the Voyage of Bran no actual indications are given as to the homeland and background of Bran, except perhaps for one at the very end, when he and his fellow travellers are seized by homesickness. On their subsequent return from the Otherworld they arrive at the shore of the duly named Srúb Brain where an assembly is held (in dáil i Sruib Brain, Kuno Meyer, edited and translated, pp. 32-35). Unwilling to leave their boat for fear of touching land, he is calling out to the gathered: “I am Bran son of Febal.”, only to receive the reply, that such person is unknown amongst them but for a story of old about the journey of Bran.
Ensuring the faithful details of his travels, he then relates the adventures in his own words, writes them down in ogham, bids farewell and was never seen or heard of again. At least not this Bran.

In a perhaps an even older poem, (7th/8th century) The conversation of Bran’s druid and Febul’s prophetess above Loch Febuil, Bran is king of the lost kingdom in Lough Foyle. In his now submerged realm he had a stronghold, an entrapped troop of hundreds of women and wonderful ‘pure treasures which are beside Srúb Brain’. Noted with curious allure, the grief striking (Fé Buille) has now a prophetess and is dark and rich in horses.

One narrative naming Srúb Brain, standing out for its oddity, can be found in the Metrical Dindshenchas and the Rennes Dindshenchas (tale 54). In it Cú Chulainn is chasing a flock of black birds (bran – raven) from Dundalk (Co. Louth) all the way to an ancient rock (sen-charraic, Irish version Metr. Dinds. paragraph 10, last line), apparently situated on the unstated shore of Lough Foyle, where he kills the birds with sling stones, severs neck from shoulders, bathes his hands in the birds’ blood and places their beaks (srúb – snout, beak, nose; eDIL) on the above mentioned rock. Hence the name – Srúb Brain, the Raven’s Beak.

Sunrise Raven’s Beak

Comparing a flock of birds with a ‘monstrous marvellous’ and ‘bright-winged enormous host‘, words otherwise used for warriors or an army attacking, could refer in the winding and wiggling ways of the Metrical Dindshenchus to an actual battle. It does seem slightly excessive to pursue invading birds, driving them back to where they may have come from and slaughter them all.  And did not Bran’s druid lament that he ‘was not a man of little knowledge until I was defeated in battle’. Two battles at Srúb Brain are mentioned in the manuscripts, one of them may actually recall the slaying and submission of people attributed with birds (eagle, raven) located within the ‘rough places of Ulster’ in the very inventive tale of The Adventurers of Conall Gulban (Echtra Conaill Gulban). But this one will require another post. Sadly, both of them are mythical but could echo a faint trace of a real battle, or battles, fought, the antagonists and cause vanished and/or merged into the dense mist of the tale telling tendency, too often perceived as our past.
The much shorter mentioning is in The Book of Lays of Fionn (edited and translated by Eoin McNeill) where a list of battles is included in the story of The shield of Fionn (Fionn mac Cumhaill/Finn McCool):

“The battle of Carraig, the battle of Srubh Brain, and the battle of
Beann Eadair, the battle of Sliabh Uighe that was not slack,
and the battle of Magh Malann.”(p. 138)

Srúb Brain has also been quite frequently used as territorial division as found in the  Lebor Gabála Érenn, part V:  ‘Over the north side, a progress without sorrow, Eremon was taken as high prince; From Srub Brain, which verses adorn, Over every tribe to the Boyne.’*  leaving one contemplating why this place was chosen, as it is not the most northern extent of what is now known as Inishowen. But by turning the 1661 map accordingly, all becomes clear, showing Srúb Brain as its most easterly point, which agrees perfectly with the geographic and mental understanding of the ancient Europeans, where the point of the rising sun is up and therefore east.  Maps up to the 1500’s retained this orientation.

* Disagreed with R.A.S. Macalister’s translation and opted for this one instead from the Irish Texts Society (close to the bottom of the page).

Hollar/Parson map of Inishowen, 1661

One last remark on the subject and the matter of ‘Srúib Brain, which verses adorn’ –  praising poems, which seemingly got lost. But perhaps a tender deduction can be made that it actually refers to what is called the kingdom of Aileach with Srúib as it furthest extension to the east. This one of course is based on the one swallowed by the sea or more likely by a defeat as in the ‘battle of Móin Daire Lothair won over the Cruithin’ … when ‘Cenél nEógain and Cenél Conaill were hired, being given the Lee and Ard Eolarg as recompense’. The latter is also known as Carn Eolairg from The conversation of Colum Cille and the youth at Carn Eolairg, having Lough Foyle, ‘the sea to the east’, where Inishowen lies today.
A very intriguing king of Srub Broin was cited by George Petrie in his History and Antiquities of Tara Hill: “Sligi Midluachra was discovered by Midluachair, the son of Damairne, son of Dupaltach, son of the (unnamed) king of Srub Broin, at his going to the fes of Teamur.” But since the king of Aileach is also called the king of bright Loch Febuil, it is not such great leap that he would be called king of Srub Broin, the point of the kingdoms most easterly extend.

What a sunrise.

Related post: As the sun rose from the sea – Beltane 2013

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3 thoughts

  1. Great post and stunning pics, as always. I don’t know about you but in the second and last photos I can definitely see a Ravens Beak in the shape of the headland silhouette …

    I wonder though, if you’re trying to shoe-horn Fé & Buil just a tad.

    feb (febai/feba/feib) has a lot of attested usage in eDIL: ‘way, manner, kind; excellence, distinction, used of external condition, prosperity, appearance, and also to denote a high degree of a quality or state’… which also gives rise to: febach/febas: ‘excellence, excellent quality or condition’.

    Loch Fabail…The Lake of Excellence/Prosperity?

    • Much appreciated, Vox, and yes, the headland looks remarkably like a raven’s beak in these two photos.
      My take on febuil originates from the idea that Lough Foyle should be named after a goddess, local or otherwise, as seems to be the case with the lough on the other side (Swilly – Súilí). I had a go at it last year in the post As the sun rose from the sea (link on bottom of this post).
      Of course that could be just wishful thinking and it would be great if the proper name could be established. On your side of the argument is the spelling in the manuscript of the Lough Foyle Colloquy Texts itself: feb(h).
      I would wonder if the victorious would leave a name of such distinction in the landscape of the defeated, my research on the Echtra Conaill Gulban says no. Apart from that the origin of the name might be Pictish/Cruithne, in which case your line of interpretation would be closer.

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