Ireland, which Ashling would have called Ériu. The green is Uladh. The arrows point to Armagh, the king’s seat in Ashling’s time, and Dublin, which didn’t exist as such until the Vikings founded it in the ninth century. (I wanted to show you where it is because of Grump’s birthmark, and because today it’s the capital of the Republic of Ireland.)
It’s winter, and the sun went down a couple of hours ago. Outside the walls of the small stone house are miles of bog and empty forest, the nearest human half a day’s walk away.
Ashling is warm, and her belly’s full. For that she is grateful.
In the center of the house is a fire burning low, flickering on the faces of everyone Ashling has ever loved. Someone is telling a story, learned from a bard at the last festival, about how the World began, or why the sun sets so early in winter, or where people go when they die.
A hunting dog is huddled against Ashling’s back. He’s not always friendly, but it’s a comfort having him there. Beyond him, even the inside of the house is dark.
It’s the fifth century (the 400s) in Uladh (pronounced Ull-oo), a northern kingdom on the island the English-speaking world now calls Ireland. Ashling, daughter of Maedoc, is fourteen years old, living with her family a couple of days’ walk from Armagh, the king’s seat.
Four months from now, she will be killed by Dál Fiatach raiders and will go to the Other Land, expecting to be given a new life. To her surprise, she will stay in the afterlife to serve the Lady for sixteen centuries, then will be sent back to the World as a banshee.
Where she’ll meet a boy called Conor, but that’s a different story. Let’s talk about her life in Uladh.
Uladh is the Irish name for the modern-day province of Ulster. In old Irish, Ireland was called Ériu, but Ashling rarely called it anything. Her distant ancestors were Celts who migrated from central Europe. But she didn’t travel much—just to the neighbors’ or to Armagh for the year’s four important festivals.
Christianity was only a rumor in Uladh at that time—any missionary activity was to the south. Ashling’s family and their neighbors honored a pantheon of gods believed to have inhabited Ériu before the Celts arrived. The gods now lived underground.
Ashling learned to spin and weave and cook, but also to fight with a sword. She was particularly good with cattle: During her last summer in the world, she lived with them by herself for two months at the summer pastures. She hated to see her cattle slaughtered, although she knew it had to happen.
As we know, she loved hog-slaughter.
A reconstructed crannog at Craggaunowen in County Clare, Ireland. The photo is from a blog post by archaeologist John Bedell, which also shows a real crannog being unearthed by archaeologists. http://benedante.blogspot.com/2012/11/drumclay-crannog.html
Maedoc’s family consisted of his wife and children as well as a few servants (perhaps slaves) and at least one foster child—sending your kids to live with another family was a common way of cementing a relationship with another household. The family home was a round wicker-work and plaster building with a thatched roof. Maedoc chose to protect his home and outbuildings by building them on a crannog, a manmade walled island in the middle of a bog. A single causeway connected the little island to solid ground, thus making it easier to defend from raiders.
Raiders were a fact of life.
Ashling’s people, the Uí Néill (pronounced Ee Nay-ill), were responsible for driving a dynasty called the Dál Fiatach out of the Armagh area and into the eastern part of Ulster. In the fifth century, Ériu was divided into many small kingdoms and tribes. Between late spring and early autumn, they raided each other’s cattle and fought for territory. Sometimes they even took slaves.
For example, Ashling once knew this guy named Declan, who . . .
But that’s a different story.