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Deepening our Storytelling Skills by Connecting with our Ancestors

Updated: Apr 11, 2021

In 2017, I had the opportunity to connect more deeply with my ancestors whilst living in Ireland. During that time I learnt more about the ways of my ancestors, the Joyces in West Ireland and spent some time in the mountains of Connemara where my Joyce ancestors lived as cow and sheep farmers in remote, mountainous land. I wanted to find out more about my family history for a Steiner project I was making and later discovered a beautiful quote by storyteller Martin Shaw from Snowy Tower: Parzival and the Wet, Black Branch of Language, which I felt mirrored my intentions in finding out more about my ancestors.

"Part of our work as story carriers could be to look at this generational thread. It's part of getting clear about our internal weather. My own work in approaching it has meant reaching backward into the family history...As an oral storyteller it is important to understand what moods you authentically inhabit - humour, anger, grief - and knowledge of a family's migrational route assist greatly with figuring out what you are carrying. It's not all battles and high flying too - what got covered up? Who went mad, embezzled, was promiscuous? What are the inner constellation of the family, the depressions and melancholy? This deepens the picture, and you as a story carrier."

I deeply respect these views and I also feel that it is important to ensure that I connect with 'enlightened ancestors' - ancestral karma can be heavy and it is important to be connected with enlightened spirit guides of Christ consciousness in order to balance out those energies and the lessons and growth which can come from connecting in with our ancestral history.

Venturing up to Ballynahinch castle, I discovered more about the broader history of the Joyces, including stories of bloody massacres and battles over castles, a Pirate Queen, a magical hen that guarded a castle and a curious meeting with Queen Elizabeth I. I hadn't encountered this side of the Joyce past before and was keen to find out more.

I believe that ancestral healing is important in living a conscious life since we can inherit ancestral karma and limiting beliefs which can get passed down through the generations. We can also inherit gifts from our ancestors and bring their energies into our stories or allow these characters to inspire our storytelling. We may feel drawn to a certain tale since it carries the energies and archetypes of our ancestors. In her book, The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog, American writer Patricia Monaghan spoke about the importance of connecting to the stories of our ancestors and our 'home' and the local places in which we dwell: "Such stones remind us of what it is to be rooted, not in "nature" as an abstract whole, but to a specific place with its specific seasons and to the culture that stems from it. For to know the divinity of a specific place allows us to perceive, by extension, the divinity in all the world. The Wintu shaman Flora once offered this advice for wholeness: "Whoever has sacred places must wake them up." I have tried to do this...Tried to wake them up, the way the dindsenchas poets did when they called out place-names and their myths."

Patricia knew that she needed to connect with her Irish ancestry and described the sentiments of the American Indian scholar, Vine Deloria: "non-Indians can only have an aesthetic appreciation for the American landscape, because we cannot appreciate "walking along a riverbank or on a bluff and realizing that their great-great-grandfathers once walked that very spot."" In many ways I agree with this sentiment however I do feel that connecting with our own ancestors 'opens doors' for us and can allow us to feel at home wherever we are, due to our interconnected nature and consciousness. Being in touch with my ancestors and the land has been an important part of my journey. I later discovered that this was a topic that storyteller Martin Shaw had reflected upon in his book, Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia, in which he had considered how many people were flocking to India in search of something, which suggested to him that this was a sign of trouble for a person’s own indigenous mythology and culture. Shaw believed that the overly-developed spiritual striding of young people suggested that their parents or elders had let them down.

In 2017, I returned to the mountain where my ancestors once lived - and had chance to learn more about the challenges they would have faced before a lightning storm tragedy struck the family and they were compelled to sell their land. It was hard to learn about the poverty they experienced but it was also an eye-opener to understand how they lived in the elements, thriving by beautiful and atmospheric landscapes and at one with nature. There is something awe-inspiring about the mountains there but I also felt currents of sadness and tragedy. I wrote a blog about what happened but the energies still felt very heavy within me and I decided that I wished to focus on broader themes here regarding the Joyces. Sadness is definitely a mood I naturally gravitate towards and can feel inspired by and so it is important for me to be mindful in keeping this in balance.

With these thoughts in mind, I would like to share some more stories about the Joyce clan with the intention of honouring what they experienced and may they be at peace.

The following is an extract from West or H-iar Connaught by Roderic O'Flaherty, Esq. (published in 1684,) which described the history of the Joyces and their relationship to the legendary O'Flaherty clan. Roderic was an Irish historian born in 1629, who inherited Moycullen castle and was the last chief of the O'Flaherty clan. He explained that the Joyces were originally from Wales and settled in Partry, County Mayo in north Connacht, in the thirteenth century. Connacht is a province in West Ireland, including the counties of Galway, Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon: the Seoaigh or Joyces of West Connaught...are enumerated among the Welsh tribes, who, according to that authority came to Ireland in the time of Dermod Mac Murrogh, King of Leinster. But these tribes did not settle in the western parts of Ireland until the century after. The Shoyes or Joyces settled in the district of Partry, west of Lough Mask, under the O'Flaherties, about the middle of the thirteenth century.”

Roderic O'Flaherty continued to explain that the O'Flaherties and Joyces in West Connacht lived in relative peace without any death for transgression or "misdemeanour", although he later said that this had not always been the case: “This was not the character of the “inhabitants” of West Connaught in more ancient times, when the very names of the O'Flaherties, the Clan Donoughs, and the gigantic Joyces, used to strike such terror into the hearts of the good people of Galway, that they had inscribed over the western gate of that town, “From the ferocious O'Flaherties, good Lord deliver us.” It is curious to observe how naturally the old Galweygians, who were mostly of English origin, afterwards coalesced with the Joyces, who were of Welsh descent, and even admitted them to all the priviliges [sic] of citizens; but the “mere Irish” the O'Flaherties, &c. they always treated as aliens and enemies. Thus in A.D. 1484, they represented the latter to Pope Innocent VIII. as “mountainous and wild people” whom “they were sometimes robbed and killed.”​​

Map of Connacht, West Ireland from West or H-iar Connaught by Roderic O'Flaherty, Esq. (1684) made for the Irish Archaeological Society, 1846. The map reveals the site of Ballynahinch lake above the castle.

The clan motto of the Joyces was Mors aut honorabilis vita or 'An honourable life or death,' whilst the O'Flaherties adopted the clan motto, Fortuna Favet Fortibus, or 'Fortune Favours the Brave.' Perhaps the most legendary stories are of Donal O'Flaherty who was married to Grace O'Malley (Gráinne Ní Mháille, also known as the Pirate Queen) and their battles with the Joyces.

In around 1546, when Grace was sixteen she was married to the fierce fighter Donal O'Flaherty or Dónal-an-Chogaidh (Donal of the battles.) Grace spent most of her time at the castles of Bunowen and Ballynahinch and had three children with Donal: Owen, Margaret and Murrough. It is believed that the Joyce Clan murdered her husband as revenge for his seizure of Hen's Castle on Lough Corrib and Grace took over as head of the family. Her piracy activities (a protection scheme on the waters) were infamous, as well as her meeting with Queen Elizabeth 1st in September 1593.​​

The Joyce coat of arms displaying two eagles. I find coat of arms very intriguing due to the symbolic language embedded in them and enjoy looking at the coat of arms of towns and cities in particular.

In her book, The Life of Grace O'Malley, Judith Cook wrote the following about Donal's feud with the Joyces: “A major bone of contention over the years was the right to a castle on an island at the head of Loch Corrib. After fierce fighting Donal finally took it, earning himself a new local nickname Donal an Acullagh, Donal the Cock, for his prowess in the field and arrogance afterwards. The castle became known thereafter as Cock's Castle. But his triumph was short-lived. At an unknown date in the early 1560s, the Joyces took their final revenge on Donal, tracking him down and killing him while he was out hunting. They then turned their attention to re-taking their castle. Possibly Grace had actually joined Donal in his newly acquired property, remaining there in the time immediately following his death, for certainly strong tradition has it that when the Joyces arrived with their forces, Grace was firmly ensconced inside with her own men and that she defended Donal's prize so fiercely that the Joyces finally gave up and went home. This has the ring of truth for the castle has been known as Caislean-an-Circa, Hen's Castle, ever since.”

Castle Kirk (Hen's Castle) is steeped in myth and it is believed that the O'Flaherties, (realising the difficulties of building on an island of such steep rock,) hired a witch to build it using magic. After one day and night of spells, the castle was erected and she left a magical hen there to guard it with the warning that as long as the hen was looked after, the castle would remain secure. The castle flourished until poor weather forced the inhabitants to eat all their food stocks until finally, in hunger, they decided to eat the hen. Shortly afterwards, the Norman knight, de Burgo sieged the castle and it fell into ruins.​​

Image of Castle Kirk from the Oughterard Heritage website.

The front of Ballynahinch castle - the present castle was built in the eighteenth century near the site of the original O'Flaherty castle on Ballynahinch lake - the O'Flaherty clan owned the entire estate.

The back of Ballynahinch Castle

Ballynahinch (Owenmore) River​​

A painting of Richard Martin 'Humanity Dick' - born at Ballynahinch Castle in 1754, he was a politician and campaigner for animals rights, and supported Rev. Arthur Broome to establish the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals and raised funds to pay of the society's debts.

Grace is a fascinating figure and it is said that during a meeting with Queen Elizabeth I in which they both spoke Latin, Grace turned down the Queen's offer to become a countess, stating that she had already attained the same status as the queen. Although the exact details of the meeting are not known, one legend recounts that the Queen offered Grace a finely-embroidered handkerchief which, after she had blown her nose, she threw into the fire to the surprise of the queen who explained that it should have been returned to her pocket. Grace replied, to a shocked court, that in Ireland they had a higher standard of hygiene. In the end, Grace's petition to continue with her 'maintenance of the sea' was granted and although she hadn't challenged Elizabeth's right to rule Ireland she had attained everything she sought – freedom for her son Tibbot (imprisoned by Sir Richard Bingham) and an end to Bingham's pursuit - for he had set out to destroy her and had taken the sword to any clan leaders who resisted English power, (including her son Owen who was murdered and Bingham had taken control of his castle.)

'The meeting of Grace O'Malley and Queen Elizabeth I' (an illustration from Anthologia Hibernica, vol. 11, 1793)

When Grace O'Malley was not at sea, she often lived in Renvyle Castle and it is thought that part of the castle was destroyed by a cannon shot from Grace's boat. It is believed that Renvyle Castle was built by the Joyce clan in the 13th-14th century and according to legend, the O'Flaherties stormed in on a wedding, massacring all of the guests, save for one to give account of the attack, before taking hold of the castle. After Donal's death, Grace remarried and bore a son, Tibbot, to Richard Burke (Iron Richard.) The marriage ended after one year and Grace took possession of his castle, Rockfleet, and it is believed that she died in 1603 at Rockfleet Castle, the same year in which Queen Elizabeth died. Interestingly, the first story I ever wrote as a child was about two faery tribes called the Tiggiwinks and the Umbláy - during a wedding between a Tiggiwink man and an Umbláy lady, the Umbláy clan stormed the church and killed everyone in sight. A handful survived by hiding underground in a secret passage under their house.

Image of Renvyle Castle from the Megalithic Ireland website

The coral beach near Carraroe village, overlooking the seas of the North Atlantic Ocean where Grace O'Malley, the Pirate Queen would have once roamed.

Horses of Connemara

At many levels I realised I was running away from the tragedy which happened to my ancestors up on the mountain and surrounding myself with these more spectacular stories of castles with magical hens. I knew of the poverty and hunger despite owning lots of land and that at some points my grandfather had been forced to eat grass during difficult times. An aunt had been struck by lightning as she cooked by the fire during a storm and was killed instantly. It was seen as bad luck and disrupted the whole family – they sold the house and land which later became a forest farm. In 2017, I returned to this mountain where my ancestors lived and camped in my tent near a stream. One night I experienced a terrible storm and mentally prepared myself for the worst up in that isolated place. I realised that I feared lightning up on that mountain.

It was not until later in 2019, that I became aware that in some cultures, being hit by lightning is a shamanic initiation and is highly revered. In the culture of the Lakota people of North America, the heyoka, (or sacred clown) must have experienced visions of the thunder beings of the west known as the Wakíŋyaŋ. In their mythology, the heyoka is a spirit of thunder and lightning.

“They have sacred power and they share some of this with all the people, but they do it through funny actions. When a vision comes from the thunder beings of the West, it comes with terror like a thunder storm; but when the storm of vision has passed, the world is greener and happier; for wherever the truth of vision comes upon the world, it is like a rain. The world, you see, is happier after the terror of the storm,” said Black Elk, a Lakota medicine man and second cousin of Crazy Horse, in John G. Neihardt’s account, Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux.

After realising that some cultures revered lightning, I began to investigate the phenomenon – lightning has great value in terms of allowing two electrically charged regions of the atmosphere to stabilise – it had a deep purpose and I needed to recognise that. In our language we speak of ‘being hit by a bolt of lightning’ when we realise something about ourselves or when we fall in love – we experience ‘electricity’ in loving encounters. A ‘bolt from the blue’ is a phrase used to mean a sudden, unexpected event. My perceptions were opening up. It is believed that the Altomisayoq who are the highest levels of shaman in the Andes in Peru must be struck by lightning. Often-times a shaman in an indigenous culture will pass through an initiation such as a near-death experience, an illness or be struck by lightning and will then need to find out how to heal themselves and pass through many initiatory phases such as transformation, death, receiving knowledge or power and re-birth. Gaining this knowledge and re-framing what happened has helped me to reconnect with this ancestor in a healthier and more compassionate way.

I later discovered that a distant relative was a storyteller (2nd cousin of my father) - Bina lived on a remote farm in West Ireland and her signature song was about a changeling; I have included the lyrics for the song 'fairy boy' in below. Finding out about Bina has been very healing for me since I did not meet many members of my family - my Irish grandparents died before I was born and since they had moved to England, we were separated from the Irish side. Not only did Bina love animals but she also deeply respected lore and folktales - to find a strong female archetype who honoured storytelling was a wonderful find and has deeply inspired me. I also hope to bring some of the magic of this enchanting place of West Ireland into my stories and writings and I hope this article inspires you on your own adventures with your ancestors.

A program about faery folklore with Bina (who is shown in the still at the beginning here) - in this footage, she sings the 'fairy boy' song:

"A mother came, when stars were paling, Wailing round a lonely spring; Thus she cried while tears were falling, Calling on the fairy king: "Why, with spell my child caressing, Courting him with fairy joy, Why destroy a mother's blessing? Wherefore steal my baby boy? O'er the mountain, thro' the wild wood, Where his childhood loved to play, Where the flowers are freshly springing, There I wander, day by day; There I wander, growing fonder Of the child that made my joy, On the echoes wildly calling To restore my fairy boy. But in vain my plaintive calling, Tears are falling all in vain; He now sports with fairy pleasure, He's the treasure of their train. Fare-thee-well. my child, forever, In this world I've lost my joy, But in the next we ne'er shall sever, There I'll find my angel boy."

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