Bending The Boyne: A novel of ancient Ireland
Bending the Boyne
by J.S. Dunn
. The novel is
based in ancient Ireland about 2200 BCE. The author J.S. Dunn became interested
in the megaliths of the Boyne Valley and who built them and why. With the coming
of metals and marine traders, the communities and mounds fell into disrepair.
Bending the Boyne
tells the story of what happened, drawing on the
rich characters from early mythology: Boann, the Dagda, Cian, and others.
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Bending the Boyne
draws on 21st century archaeology to
show the lasting impact when early metal mining and trade take hold along north
Atlantic coasts. Carved megaliths and stunning gold artifacts, from the Pyrenees
up to the Boyne, come to life in this researched historical fiction.
2200 BCE: Changes rocking the Continent reach Eire with the dawning Bronze Age.
Well before any Celts, marauders invade the island seeking copper and gold. The
young astronomer Boann and the enigmatic Cian need all their wits and courage to
save their people and their great Boyne mounds, when long bronze knives
challenge the peaceful native starwatchers. Tensions on Eire between new and old
cultures and between Boann, Elcmar, and her son Aengus, ultimately explode. What
emerges from the rubble of battle are the legends of Ireland's beginnings in a
totally new light.
Larger than myth, this tale echoes with medieval texts, and cult heroes modern
and ancient. By the final temporal twist, factual prehistory is bending into
images of leprechauns who guard Eire's gold for eternity. As ever, the victors
will spin the myths.
In the following extract the intruders are the Beaker
people who arrived and camped at the Boyne mounds which we know today as
Extract from Bending the Boyne
The flaming head of the ancient one tipped above the horizon. The rising sun
took Boann into its warm, golden embrace. She stayed until the rays hid the
glittering void, ending her vigil of the stars. All in her village would be
stirring and she should return to her father's house. With longing, she glanced
back toward dawn over the waves.
She saw it then, a speck out on the vast ocean. With her hand shading her eyes
she could see the large boat, crammed black. Sparks of light glinted from metal:
the fearsome long knives.
Boann scrambled down the mountain slope to warn the Dagda. She soon found him, a
dignified figure herding sheep and lambs on the grassy river plain.
"You're sure that it is an intruder boat?" He cast a wary look to the east.
She nodded. "I am sure that I'm sure."
"What can this mean? Arriving with equinox, the cursed warriors!" The Dagda
raised his staff, its red stone macehead gleaming. "I'll rouse the elders and
send our scouts."
He sped away on his long legs, leaving the surprised flock milling around her.
Never had she seen the Dagda swear, or run as he did now. His news would cause
turmoil in their village. She had better fetch water before returning there.
Feet flying, she hurried north to the smaller river.
Mist hung thick over the stream. In the grey stillness, she thought herself
alone. She retrieved her clay pot among ferns, lifting their damp scent with it.
Auburn hair cascaded over one shoulder as her torso leaned toward the water to
fill the jug. Another time she might have glimpsed her face on the water's
placid surface but now she paid it no heed. A bird twittered and flapped in the
copse, and her head jerked up, alert.
Behind her a twig snapped under heavy footfall, then another. She felt the
noise, she heard it to her core: danger. She spun around, eyes wide, and a
pungent odor struck her nostrils. A bulky shadow lurched from a stand of
hazelnut and her every muscle leaped into action. His knife sliced at her net
shawl but she pulled and ran away from the smell, away from the intruder. She
outpaced his shadow, leaving branches whipping behind her in the mist.
She gripped the fragile pot while her legs raced through gorse and bracken and
over rocks, this way and that. Only a fox could have pursued her. After a good
distance, Boann broke her stride, sank into dense undergrowth, and listened.
Other than her ragged breathing, a strange quiet smothered the woods.
Shaking, she rose and stared down at the water jug in her arms. My mother's
favorite. Head spinning, she fought an urge to be sick. Her legs stung from
nettles. Water blotched her soft skin tunic and thorns had scraped it. Her good
shawl lay somewhere behind, ruined. She'd have another, Sheela could make her
another shawl but not by this sunset.
Sure that no one followed, Boann turned and found a path that led to the
dwelling shared with her father. She slowed to a walk, heart still racing.
Glad she was to reach their home, its old but solid walls of drystacked stone.
She left the slab wood door open behind her and slipped inside. Hearth smoke
furled up through the roof hole in the thatch, silently reminding her to appear
calm before her father Oghma. Ever since her mother had passed to the spirits,
his temper could flare. She heard Oghma fussing with his mallets and stone
chisels behind a woven willow screen, already up and about.
She swallowed hard; what could she do to distract him before telling him about
the boat, much less her attacker? Her quick hands took pieces from braids of
drying flowers and potent herbs. She threw hot stones into a skin bag of water
to set it boiling and snatched up a clay cup incised with chevrons, the symbol
for the Swan stars. Boann admired the cup as her father entered the room.
"Is it herbal water you're having? Are you taken ill?"
"It is close to my time with the moon. The brew eases me." She stepped in front
of the emptied water jug lying at her feet. Not even a sharp look came her way.
She took a deep breath and told him. "Another big boat arrives. Just so, with
spring equinox." Boann stood still as a deer, deflecting scrutiny.
"Yes, the Dagda stopped here in haste. More of them, it hardly seems possible!
Perhaps now Cian will return to inform the elders. He is long overdue." His
mouth set in a hard line.
So the news of another boat shook Oghma as well. He did not speak of Cian to
her, had not mentioned him during all the winter. She would not tell her father
that she had been on the mountain with Cian through the night. Already that
seemed long ago.
"We must go on as we have done. Why would these intruders bother us on the
equinox?" She hadn't meant to sound defiant, the wrong note with him; she
"The Dagda and I agree that the people should gather to celebrate. With Cian, or
With or without you.
Before she could bring herself to tell him of her attacker at their stream, her
father said he must be going. His expression softened. "We'll just have to be
ready for them. Our scouts left for the coast." Oghma patted her head as if she
were still a child, and set out to join the Dagda and the other elders. At the
open door, dust motes swirled in the early light: her bits of hope dashed to the
floor only to rise and float again.
Her people must hold their ceremony. Their village at the river Boyne led the
starwatching, the center of a network whose strands connected all the tribes on
the island, tensile yet strong like a spider's web. A tear in the right place
could bring down our web;
she shivered and moved closer to the hearth fire. They
must hold their spring rites and mark the equinox stars. All the elders would
have to agree on it, though. Estranged from the elders as he was, Cian might not
return that evening.
The elders including her father supervised at the immense stone-lined passage
mounds set in clearings, three emerald mounds spaced in a rough triangle along
the wide river plain.
Their Boyne starwatching complex had been active for centuries. The ancestors
who dreamed and planned these mounds were long deceased. Their descendants
completed the work in stages and returned to older villages in the northwest, or
began new villages elsewhere. Final alignment and carving of the stones
proceeded bit by bit.
Many Starwatchers declared that their grand mounds at the Boyne would never be
duplicated. And, replied some, these mounds would never be finished. Their
banter belied an unspoken fear. Fear had arrived with the intruders and their
long bronze knives.
* * *
The village hummed with talk of more intruders arriving. A community of herders,
basketmakers, netmakers, toolmakers, scrapers and tanners, and not one among
them who'd fought in battle. Oghma saw his people working with a new urgency. He
nodded at the bowmaker who was steaming pliant yew for bows, and again at the
young man close by hewing hard ash for tools. The latter put down his flint adz
and caught up with Oghma.
They had gone but a few steps together when the toolmaker asked, "Is there any
word from Cian?"
Oghma shook his head.
"I don't mean to trouble you."
"It's no bother, Tadhg."
They stopped and faced one another, the toolmaker visibly tense. Oghma placed
his hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Some wood has flexibility and some has
strength. Let us hope that Cian has both qualities."
The two men regarded each other. "If he lives," Tadhg said. He clasped Oghma's
arm briefly, then Oghma moved on.
His people had little use for making weapons. Stacks of hides, rushes, willow
stems, wool and bast, sinew and bone, awaited their artful hands. All, even
scraps, would be made into useful items. He saw a woman, hair greying at her
temples, bundling rushes to make a broom. It would have a sleek wooden handle,
welcoming to the touch. He blinked hard, flooded with a vivid memory of his wife
sweeping the flags around their hearth, and turned away.
He looked to see that livestock had been secured inside holding pens. He checked
stores of cereals and roots, and hid his dismay at their depleted food supply in
this young season of the sun. That meager amount would have to suffice in the
Villagers interrupted him with whispered queries about the boat sighted at dawn.
"The scouts will tell us where they landed, and how many of them." Oghma
reassured each person, not mentioning Cian, and making his voice sound
He ordered a few young fellows to break from what they were doing and help Tadhg
make pikes, wood poles sharpened into a spear point. "We may need those, and
At the far edge of the clearing around their dwellings, he came upon the open
pit fire where their potter fired her vessels. Her ritual acts with fire
transformed raw clay into ceramic. Pots held water and food essential for life,
and pots enfolded their death-ashes. The wet smell of the clay and the coals'
peaty aroma mingled and reminded him of women, of good things cooking, of the
hearth. Transfixed, Oghma watched the potter's agile hands.
From the pliant brownish-red clay, she shaped a bowl with wide shoulders and
squat body, then smoothed this pot with a curved bone and set it aside to cure.
She was young and pretty but focused on her work, like his Boann.
"A pot created on this dawning holds good luck," he said.
She looked up and smiled. "May this equinox favor us all, Oghma. Your visit
He smiled in return, putting on a glad face for her. "Fair lass! Have you
decided yet on a marriage?"
"Has Boann chosen, and is there any man left for me?"
"You'll both be spoiled for choice this evening," he teased her back.
She picked up a cured pot to decorate its leathery surface, and he caught his
breath. If the vessel were less than perfect, the potter must discard it and
begin again. Using a bone comb, she made intricate grooves meet flawlessly
around its girth. The master potter showed her well-before taken by the fever,
and now who could she take on as her own apprentice? He helped to stoke the kiln
then wished her luck again, secretly humbled. Unlike her firing of clay, he
didn't have to risk putting his handiwork into hot coals.
He hurried on toward the river, to their sacred landscape of mounds that
proclaimed the Starwatchers' beliefs. These huge mounds stood taller than a tall
tree and spanned many trees across. His carving with stone chisel and mallet
gave meaning to the mighty upright stones lining the passages and to the
boulders forming the high kerb around the outside. His painstaking labor suited
Oghma, it contented him.
But on this equinox, the impending boat loaded with men and deadly weapons from
afar irritated him like a thorn. The foreigners' small camp on the southwest
coast of Eire, far from the Boyne, had not seemed a threat. For a time,
Starwatchers accepted the intruders' seasonal presence and their odd probing in
the earth. Upon seeing copper, the Starwatchers hoped to learn how these
strangers turned red-hot stones into a material that shone like the sun and
cooled to the color of a shadow moon. They allowed the miners to come and go in
peace at that far coast. Then with the past summer, armed intruders appeared in
their bloated ships at the Boyne's mouth and traveled inland.
Starwatcher scouts followed the strangers who searched along the Boyne, poking
at outcroppings and leaving behind piles of shattered and scorched rocks. Scouts
monitored the dirty smoke rising from inside the intruders' new camp. The
intruders wandered ever farther from their camp and began to take cattle and
game as they pleased, despite the coming winter.
Starwatchers avoided contact, fearing the metal knives-and fever. His people
suffered. The strangers brought the death of his wife and others, too many
others. Then Cian quit his own people to live among the warriors, a thing almost
unthinkable. What should be done to protect their children? Should the
Starwatchers confront these intruders? The elders deliberated and watched the
intruders' comings and goings.
Will we tolerate another boatload of armed strangers, Oghma asked himself.
His green eyes were clouding, his stone chisel slipping in his hand. Over his
seasons, he buried two wives, and of his children only Boann survived. Twice as
many Starwatcher men survived beyond the age of twenty-five suns than did women;
his people cherished their scarce women, and all children. He had lived a long
time and only the Dagda counted more suns among those at the Boyne. While a
young man, Oghma measured in the night skies and tracked daylight with the
astronomers. Led by his mentor who was descended from the revered ancestor Coll,
he learned to style the stones at the great starchambers with crisp precision,
completing work on each stone at fairly regular intervals. But that was decades
Through that dark winter, he grieved but continued carving at the mounds, as
resolute as the raindrops wearing down the island's granite slopes. Pain shot
through his joints in the damp chill, his shins stuck to the freezing soil as he
knelt. His lean shoulders became stooped, and his thick dark hair whitened.
Oghma toiled on in order to finish carving the massive kerbstones, with a quip
to the Dagda that the stones might finish him first.
All his hopes rested on Boann. In time, he might see his grandchild. He was glad
enough to see newborn lambs and the promise of flowers on this bright morning of
the spring equinox.
When he learned from the Dagda's lips of the untimely boat, he told the Dagda,
"We people of Eire want for nothing. We have mastered the rhythms of the soil,
of the salmon from the ocean, and especially those of the sky. Even the least
clever among us know how to prosper here. From sun to sun, we produce enough to
sustain us while we study the heavens. We should celebrate spring equinox, our
time of planting signaled by the Seven Stars."
The Dagda agreed. "Despite our trials, we can show gratitude for spring's
arrival. Never mind what the ocean brings to our shores. On land these intruders
cannot travel any faster than Starwatchers."
How many warriors arrived this time? They trusted in their scouts and the
Starwatchers who lived at the coast, to alert the Boyne. Oghma hastened along
the path to the mounds, his brow furrowed.
The Dagda told him that it was Boann who sighted the new boat bristling with
more intruders and weapons. She'd rushed from Red Mountain to tell the Dagda,
then she rushed to bring water from the stream, Oghma told himself. That would
explain why Boann looked so rattled, something amiss. He did not want to pry.
She returned with little water, but he brushed that aside, a trifling thing. At
least she'd had a fine sunrise to watch. It did trouble him that she watched
many a sunrise and sunset, more than her share. She displayed little interest in
any of their young men.
"She secludes herself more and more with the astronomy. That's not a healthy
state of affairs for a young woman," he told the Dagda. "Often when I speak to
her she doesn't hear me."
"Don't you see it? She takes after you, she escapes in the stars and her work,"
the Dagda said. "She's had the same losses, after all. Give her time to recover,
let her spirit heal."
He heard the Dagda's kind and good advice like a thunderclap. So that was it,
Boann still grieved for her mother, as did he. As to Cian's absence, Oghma saw
little reason for Boann to feel any loss. He had but faint hope for his
apprentice, an indifferent pupil of stone carving, a dreamer. But surely Cian
would respect the equinox, rejoin his people at their starwatch.
The young people would dance in the firelight and pair off in the ritual of
spring. Perhaps a young fellow from another village would catch her eye. But not
Cian, that one would never do for Boann. Oghma tutted disapproval.
Cian once asked him, why did the ancestors build their great mounds? Not "how,"
he recalled the question, but "why." Oghma did not answer. It was better for
young Cian to find his own answer to that question.
The ancestors' history told Oghma precisely why they built their mounds. To
ready himself for the equinox, he recited their tradition now on his way through
oak woods to the passage mounds. He recited verses of their deeds and lineage as
they would have been told to Cian, and all Starwatchers. Back to Griane, our
first astronomer, he thought. Griane, who set the first upright marker stone to
show us the seasons of the sun and freed us from hunger. Oghma offered a short
invocation for the spring sunset that all Starwatchers would observe that
"May the coming season bring us bounty, thanks be to Griane."
He waved away a cloud of midges under the oaks' emerging yellow-green canopy.
From the corner of his eye, he saw a red fox flash through the undergrowth. "It
is an honor to carve the stones!" he called after it. Could Cian change his
shape into a fox?
Oghma snorted. What nonsense these intruders do believe: shapeshifting.
He flicked his hand again at the midges.
Fox or not, Cian could
have warned us that more foreigners would arrive.
There stood the warrior camp, visible when he approached the central mound's
clearing, and he frowned at this affront on their landscape. He liked to rest
beside the Boyne at twilight and gaze at the central starchamber, at its
shimmering white quartz around the dark granite entrance. These days his view
was partially obstructed by the intruders' camp: a banked, circular earthwork
topped with a palisade of crudely peeled logs. The camp's size and fortification
spoke a threat from a hostile presence, a threat that his Starwatchers had yet
The Starwatchers' pikes would be useless against those high walls. Oghma knew
it, sure as the sun made little green apples. He implored the ancestors for
wisdom to guide the elders.
At the standing stone to the southeast of the central mound, he spotted the
elders talking and laying out sightlines for that sunset using cord stretched
between wood posts.
"Once in every generation was often enough to receive visitors from far across
the waves. These haven't brought any women or polished axes to exchange. Just
what have these latest blow-ins brought to us?" Oghma heard the question as he
"We'll find out soon enough," came the Dagda's reply, calm and deliberate.
"We made the right decision to go forward with the equinox feast," Oghma added.
He saw the children playing in the clearing, laughing and running in the misty
morning. With a premonition, he saw it all as if held inside a chunk of clear
quartz: his villagers bent to their tasks, their precious children beside the
flowing river, their carefully constructed mounds.
Oghma would make sure that the children assembled enough reed torches before
dusk. After watching the stars in utter dark, the people took up torches so that
no one need stumble on their way back to the village. He would supervise
stacking the wood for the great bonfire to be lit after their vigil, the signal
to Starwatchers at distant sites. If the adolescents collected wet or green
wood, their beacon fire would be smoky and its effect diminished.
He would see to it that the Boyne fire blazed when it should with the other
fires, lit first at the island's center, its navel, and then to the four sacred
directions. He would see Boann enter into the ranks of their astronomers. He
raised his head in pride.
"Let these intruders see our fires, and hear our pipes and dancing."
"And if their warriors venture forth?" the Dagda asked.
No one had an answer.
2010 J.S. Dunn, USA. All rights reserved.
Bending the Boyne Bibliography
of recent academic books
and journal articles in mythology, archaeology, archaeo-genetics, archaeo-linguistics, metallurgy,
and ancient astronomy practices and seafaring.
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