Chapter 2: Dancing with them that brung you
Thig crìoch air an t-saoghal, ach mairidh gaol is ceòl (the end of the world will come, but love and music will endure) Scotish/Gaelic Proverb
“Who so ever asks me of my birth…I will tell them I am born of Irish Princes who ruled in Donegal a thousand years ago; I am descended from the High Kings of Ireland, and my name is Clann ÓDochartaigh of Inishowen!
Hannigan: Handy, as in useful, helpful — Delay, as in to make someone or something late
Like the Irish god Lugh, foster son of Manannan MacLir and grandson of Balor of the Evil Eye, my father was known by many names and titles: engineer, breadwinner, artist, dad, the fixer, builder, enforcer, soldier, inventor, and fount of knowledge. Because I’ve stated my father was great, and possessed arête, as well as a mercurial temper and chauvinistic attitude, I have to prove it. One of the places to look for evidence is the past. That’s where you find details about actions and repercussions, answers to secrets and mysteries, and in our case, a tangled tree of Irish, Scotch, and Welsh ancestors that left their usurped, troubled homelands and crossed the Atlantic in the mid and late 1800s.
The title of this chapter has a twofold meaning. The first meaning is about manners, about fealty. The second, deeper meaning, is about embracing and learning about the lives of those whose DNA flows within you, before turning to other sources for answers. I knew my deep dive would involve trips to ancestral homelands, libraries, cemeteries, and place names spoken of long ago by relatives.
My first visit to our Irish homeland in the late 1970s was terribly short. It was a six hour layover in Dublin enroute to France. In those pre-security days, one could deplane, leave the airport, and get back on the same plane hours later. A taxi took me to Dublin’s not so fair city, and the driver pointed out sites I jotted down in a small red notebook. When we arrived at St. Stephen’s Green, I squealed for the driver to pull over. This is where over 200 Irish protesters holed up in 1916 until they realized the Brits were occupying the upper windows at the Shelbourne Hotel and had rifles aimed at them. The driver offered to let me pop out and take a look or visit the adjacent Dandelion Market. I took a few pictures, poked my head into the lively market, and then we headed back to the airport. I knew I would return, though I didn’t realize it would be nearly 20 years later. My father never visited Ireland; more telling, he seldom acknowledged his Irishness.
The Gaelic version of my father’s Irish Clan name, Hannigan, is OhEanain or OhEanachain, of which Anadh and Oannachain are derivatives. The ‘O’ simply means ‘son of.’ One ancient source says the ‘ean’ part of the name means ‘bird,’ and ‘eanach’ means ‘a marshy place.’ The Clan, thought to originate in and around Sligo, Limerick, or Tipperary, dispersed around 1150 ACE, when the Normans invaded.
Today Ireland has four provinces, however, once it had kingdoms, each ruled by a King/Chief, with a High King at Tara. These clans/kin fought among themselves and stole each other’s treasures, including wives, servants, jewels, and cattle. The British Norman (Gallo-Frank origin) invasion was precipitated around 1168-70 by Diarmait Mac Murchada (aka Dermod), the disposed king of Leinster. High King Rory O’Connor (descended from the legendary Conchobair) ousted Dermod because he’d stolen the wife of the King of Breifne (now Leitrim). Dermod enlisted help from English King Henry II. Henry sent him Earl Richard de Clare, the 2nd Earl of Pembroke (aka ‘Strongbow’). Dermod’s daughter Aoife was given in marriage to Strongbow to seal the deal. Two mercenary armed invasions followed.
The Normans integrated with the native Irish. By 1173, English King Henry added ‘Lord of Ireland’ to his many titles and began the long battle to subdue and extinguish all the Irish Clans. It would get worse. England would try in coming centuries to strip the Irish of their land, their language, their titles and names, and their legacy. The Roman Church would vie for their souls and attempt to remove all traces of their pagan heritage. What they couldn’t remove, and what my relatives brought to America was their love of blarney, myths and poetry, eloquence, music, dancing, freedom, the land, and poteen.
The Hannigan’s did disperse, and to this day are still dispersing. Perhaps like birds, we flew off and blended into marshy places in and around the North/Northeast part of Ireland. In the early to mid-1800s, many Hannigan kin or septs, went to Scotland, around Barrhead. Some of those Hannigan’s came to America in the 1870’s and 80’s. A few, we think, migrated to Australia. Due to a preponderance of blond and red hair, freckles, and fair skin, it’s likely that while in Ireland, we intermingled with gallowglasses, elite Norse-Scot mercenary warriors whose name is derived from Gall Gaeil or galloglaigh (young foreign Gaels).
Some families put names within surnames. Did earlier Hannigan’s provide clues, telling us we are of people that take flight (birds) and live in marshy places? Another interpretation of our name means ‘delay.’ Who or what might we have delayed to gain that moniker? With the Vikings, Normans, and other Clan Chiefs invading, as well as earlier raids by Formorians and Milesians, I’m thinking we delayed our enemies from doing something.
My dad’s mother was a Dougherty, of which there are over 250 variations of the name. They claim to be descendants of Cenél Conaill (kindred of Conall), a branch of the Uí Néill, who claim descent from Niall of the Nine Hostages. Their kingdom was known as Tír Conaill (Donegal), though some went to Fermanagh (Enniskillen). Different Dougherty septs interpreted their surname to mean: world ruler, hurtful, descendant of messengers, courageous, or devotees of (pagan) Brigid.
Our list of ancestors don’t stop with the Hannigan’s and Dougherty’s. The matriarchs of our lineage added other Irish and Scotch names: McAleer, Houghton, Collins, Ballatyne, McKee, Maloy, and others… By tracing these names and listening to my grandad’s stories, I discovered the glorious myths that are part of our heritage. I’ve researched and embraced myths of many other cultures, but still think the richest, most magically imbued mythologies in this world are about the races that once lived in Eire.
My grandad only hinted at stories about the marriage between human solar kings and the land—personified by a powerful, lusty lunar goddess. I entered a few notes about the singing sands of the North, the Green Stone Rath of the Sun, and the good god called the Daghdha, High King of the Tuatha de Danann. I wished I had kept better notes. It took decades to discover the singing sands were at White Park Bay, where shore sand mixes with cliff chalk. When the wind blows a certain way, it ‘hums.’ Nearby are caves that served as passage tombs with strange carvings etched in the stone.
When I read the story about the De Danann superhero Lugh, whose festival is celebrated on August 1 (as was my father’s birthday), I imagined my dad might be Lugh’s talented descendant, from the Dougherty side of the family. Lugh was the grandson (on his mother’s side) of the infamous Fomorian chief, Balor of the Evil Eye. It was foretold he would kill his grandfather, and he did, via a carefully aimed slingshot. Lugh fought for the De Danann’s, though acceptance into their clan wasn’t easy.
A man from Donegal, Seumas MacManus, in The Story of the Irish Race, says Lugh’s father was Scal Balb of the de Danaan. His adopted father was seagod Manannan MacLir. Lugh was skilled in all arts. He sought admission to the Court of Tara, telling the gatekeeper he was a carpenter, champion, harper, poet, magician, cupbearer, physician… The gatekeeper wasn’t impressed until Lugh said perhaps you have men with any one of these skills, but I have mastered ALL of these skills. Go ask your king if that is reason enough to admit me. It was. Lugh was appointed Master of the Arts and Science. Ah, those days of yore! Sadly, despite all the similar skills my dad mastered, he wasn’t admitted to many inner circles. He didn’t seek admittance into any fraternity. His father, on the other hand, was a joiner: Hibernian Society, Firefighter’s clubs, Plumber’s Union, and undoubtedly several clubs whose main interest was drinking and restoring Ireland’s past grandeur, figuratively speaking.
The Green Stone Rath of the Sun turned out to be Grianan of Aileach in Donegal, a royal site of the Ui Neil Clan (of which Dougherty is part of). It was much harder to identify, and required three trips to the Emerald isles before I found it. From the ringfort’s remains, on a clearish day you can make out Loughs Swilly and Foil, a large burial mound, and the borders of Derry. Legend says the fort was built by the Daghdha, and Formorian giants, sea creatures, and other fierce beings that once roamed and swam in its rough water. My grandad brought back for us, on one of his trips to Ireland, Celtic crosses representing the sun-god Invictus. Though Christians would claim these crosses as their own invention, the symbol is pagan, and much older than Christianity. The four arms represent dawn, noon, twilight, and midnight; or the energy of the physical self, nature, the inner self, and the divine self; or NEWS (North, East, West, and South); or…
The only other place I recall my grandad telling me about (other than Tara) was a tiny isle off the north shore of Lough Erne in County Fermanagh, heavy with faery lore and old faery trees, an old graveyard and scarred stones (Caldragh), and stories about leprechauns. It’s called Boa Island, named after Badb, a Celtic goddess of War. She sometimes appears in the form of a crow or wolf. There is a carved stone there, incorrectly called the Janus stone, that may have magnetic properties. Pendulums held above the stone swing wildly, then in a circular manner. Could there be a meteor inside?
In childhood, my brother and I had our own recollection of what our names meant. For me, I wrote Hannigan but saw Hand-igan; we were handy, hands on crafty people. My brother saw his grandmother’s name as Dough-erty, people of bread, breeding, money! In hindsight, it’s a good thing that after multiple marriages and divorces, I kept my birth surname. Philologists tell us a true name expresses a true nature. Ancestry research sites say surnames sprung up around the 12th century, first appearing as nicknames (often given by peers), later as family designators. When people were illiterate, their names were not written down. Many credit invading Norman barons for introducing surnames, which were particular to a region, to the patois spoken by its people, to their knowledge of the names of saints, Greek, Roman, or Germanic gods, professions, or physical attributes. Having a surname meant one could be counted—and taxed!
When I was six and my brother three, we lived in Ohio. On long walks in the woods adjacent to our house, my father would point out all sorts of interesting things—camouflaged bird nests, scat from opossums and deer, and how you could tell the age of a tree by counting its rings. Decades later I recalled the enormous tree stump he showed us with its spokes and circles radiating from its center. I tried to create a family tree with my parents at the center and all the family branches spreading out from that center. It was a confusing mess once I got beyond two generations. Genealogy seemed more like trees experimentally grafted to other trees, with branches straining to touch the limbs of other trees; reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam finger on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Or perhaps our genealogy is more like a deck of cards. Our parents and grandparents give us four different suits. Then it gets more complicated; it becomes more of a magician’s card trick; or it morphs into a larger deck of Tarot cards full of mysterious symbols we strain to interpret and connect to our generation.
With my mother’s Welsh family origins, I discovered there was a ‘patronymic’ system where one took the father’s forename as a child’s surname, causing changes with each generation. This continued in some Welsh areas until the mid-17th century. So Evan Thomas could be the son of Thomas Rhys, who was himself the son of Rhys Davis (aka Evan ap Thomas ap Rhys ap Davis). In Welsh, ‘ap’ means ‘son of.’ I also learned a word used to describe the Irish, “gaelic,’ is derived from a Welsh word, ‘gwddel,’ which means marauder—the Irish often raided the west coast of Wales.
Do the names we inherit and pass on, in nearly original or vastly modified form, mean a part of our tribe survives, or are surnames simply meant to convey stability, to allow us to be counted at a moment in time—in a Doomsday book, or on a mortgage, census, or Income Tax form? A name is typically the first piece of information we share with another person. Symbolically, it evokes our dead ancestors and reveals clues about our origins. There’s an entire art devoted to naming called Onomancy. To name is to claim…to name is to know…to know is to control—if one knows how.
Should we also create a unique name, known only to a few—that imparts our soul or spirit name? Or should that special name remain ineffable, unspoken? Long ago, we were allowed to choose a 2nd name—as part of a rite of passage; it was often matched to a totem, a place name, or something we showed a strong affinity for. It was our magical name; it became part of our true character, an anchor point, a source of strength.
My Irish/Scotch ancestors loved to dance, drink, sing, and tell stories. There may even have been a Seanchai or two in our dense branches. Seanchai’s were custodians of the oral tradition of passing myths and important aspects of history from past generations to present ones. Celtic folk once danced jigs, reels, circular carols (a Norman dance), Heys, Rinnce Fada (long dance), Trenchmorecelli, river dances, free form… to the tune of bagpipes, harps, and lilting voices. They danced vigorously, and went wildershins around coffins at wakes. It all melded together, the singing, dancing, and melodious music of fiddle, harp, and drum. It charmed birds from the trees and the aos si and faeries from the Otherworld.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that Irish dancing became disciplined, more prose—less poetry of motion. Reasons for restraints introduced included the English and churches suppression of cultural, fluid Sean Nos forms of dancing and the emergence of the dancing master, a teacher who travelled between villages and towns. The origins of Irish dancing using the legs only is attributed to stories that include Queen Elizabeth I wanting to see the Irish dance jigs, but the dancers weren’t allowed to raise their arms towards the queen; or the Irish hid their love of dancing by keeping their upper body still while standing behind a bar or a hedge, and moved only their feet. Luckily, there were also Hedge Schools, gatherings where Irish culture and Gaelic was taught and passed on in secret.
There are few secrets about how the Irish left and returned to their homeland—via coffin ships and luxury liners, planes, cattle boats, and currachs bound for Wales and England—with a trunk and carpetbag, or nothing but the rags on our backs. Still she calls to us—like a Greek Siren or willful mother—she even calls to those of us with diluted Irish blood. We are both resented and envied by those that stayed and endured colonization, famine, all types of repression. We imitate those that came before us, and sing about a love of the land, old tragedies, stolen treasures…..about bending the knee so many times it aches when we stand erect.
We leave so we can return and feel the rush again, imagine a past pageantry, and envision a future when Ireland is whole again, though I’m uncertain what that looks like—freedom, love made visible, a glow of being? We drink, curse, dance, sing, fight each other, and search for roots, for proof they existed and passed on intangible gifts—the opportunity to grow and thrive, an ability to leap over tall hurdles, draw galloping horses, bend a body like a pretzel, persevere, create works of art, recognize truths and lies, dare, will, stumble, and rise again above the madness.
Sometimes it’s like searching for a lost article under a streetlamp, not because we lost it there, but because the light is better under the streetlamp. Sometimes we find a tangible piece of evidence that brings wild joy or exquisite pain. Sometimes, I feel the full weight of the debt I owe my father, his parents, his father’s father, mother, aunts, uncles, cousins, and Ireland itself. That drives me back to work. That’s when sometimes I swear I see wee blurs of figures dashing from one shadow to another, or diving between pillows and throws. I detect an odor of roses, freshly turned soil, or the pungency of peat. A book I’ve been looking for falls from a bookcase, and a bird outside my door warbles How are Things in Glocca Morra this fine day?