Ceann Bhinn Éadair or Howth Head is the suburbanised peninsula overlooking the northern half of Dublin Bay, a headland that is geographically dominated by three tall peaks, Binn Éadair or the “Summit of Éadar” (anglicised as the Ben of Howth), Sliabh Mhártain or the “Mountain of Mártan” (rendered into English as Shielmartin Hill or Shelmartin) and Dún Aill “Fortress of the Cliff” (variously called Dun Hill or Dunhill). Several smaller heights exist around these barren hills, the best known of which is a stony crag known as Carraig Mhór or the “Great Rock”. Originally this was anglicised as Carrickmore, however over the last century it has gained the more popular local English name of Muck Rock, probably influenced by folk-memories of the vast quantities of peat deposited on the site by labourers during the planting of the famous rhododendron gardens of Howth by the region’s 19th century aristocratic landowners. Carraig Mhór overlooks the grounds of Diméin Bhinn Éadair or “Howth Demense”, the large, semi-circular estate containing Caisléan Bhinn Éadair or “Howth Castle”, one of the older continuously inhabited homes on our island nation (albeit by the land-grabbing blow-ins from over yonder, mentioned above), and the grounds of the Deer Park Hotel.
However more importantly the demense is the site of a once great four thousand year old portal tomb, hidden in the woods and rhododendron plantings at the foot of Carraig Mhór. This monument originally consisted of a massive cap- or roof-stone held up by three smaller pillar-stones, covered with layers of earth and turf. The latter have long since been washed away, along with the remains of the interred, and the cap-stone has collapsed, but what is left amongst the tall ferns and exotic tress is eerily impressive.
The portal tomb at Howth is usually referred to in the English language as Aideen’s Grave, with the modern claim that it is named after a legendary noblewoman called Aideen, the daughter of Aengus, ruler of Howth, and the wife of Oscar son of Oisín of the Fianna. When her husband was slain in the battle of Gavra the princess died of grief at his loss and was buried in the monument that bears her name. The most famous account of these events in English comes from the pen of the 19th century Irish poet and antiquarian Samuel Ferguson in his narrative masterpiece, The Cromlech on Howth, an ode to the region and the mythology and literature which informed it. Unfortunately the author took considerable liberties with his indigenous source materials, principally the several texts relating the Cath Ghabhra or “Battle of Gabhair”. There the wife of Oscar is actually Éadaoin Fholtfhinn, the daughter of Aodh Uchtgheal, son of Aonghas Óg, and she came from Sí Bhinn Éadair or the “Otherworld Domain of Howth”. Meaning of course that she was one of the Aos Sí or Otherworld People, the native gods and goddesses of the Irish given literary form by Medieval Christian scribes. Her supernatural home and that of her family was probably equated with the formerly large cairn or burial-mound near Carraig Mhór, a monument roughly contemporary with the portal tomb in the Howth Castle estate.
Somewhat sadly Ferguson’s version of the area’s nomenclature has gained such popularity that even the Irish language version of the tomb’s name has been written as Uaigh Aoidín, a phonetic rendering into Irish of Aideen, an English rendering of the original Éadaoin (a somewhat unusual example of the one language influencing the other). Of course the title for the portal tomb should be, if anything, Uaigh Éadaoine “Éadaoin’s Grave”.
All this meandering leads me to my recent visit to the monument with my youngest sister and her suggestion that we pick and leave some flowers inside the tomb to the memory of those who once lay there. A small but meaningful gesture, perhaps.