Banner: Knocknarea sunset
Full moon rising, viewed from Queen Maeve's cairn on Knocknarea in County Sligo.
The full moon rising over Copes Mountain in County Sligo, viewed from Queen Maeve's cairn, the huge neolithic passage-grave on the summit of Knocknarea.

The Red Woman at Knocknarea

As ever, she wore red head to heel, a long loose gown of flowing silk as bright as fire, with dagged sleeves and deep slashes in the bodice that showed glimpses os a darker blood red fabric beneath. Around her throat was a red gold chocker tighter than any maester's chain, ornamented with a single red ruby. Her hair was not the orange or strawberry color of common red-haired men, but a deep burnished copper that shone in the light of the torches. Even her eyes were red.... but her skin was smooth and white, unblemished, pale as cream. Slender she was, graceful, taller than most knights, with full breasts and narrow waist and a heart-shaped face. Men's eyes that found her did not quickly look away, not even a maester's eyes. Many called her beautiful. She was not beautiful. She was red, and terrible and red.

A Clash of Kings, George R. R. Martin, 1998.

It is a strange and fascinating phenomenon to see old characters from Irish mythology and folklore resurrected and recycled by the modern entertainment industry–who often don't realize what they are actually doing. The most obvious examples are Lugh of the Long Arm and his grandfather, Balor of the Strong Blows, who were recycled as Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, the backbone characters of the Star Wars trilogy. Star Wars, a space western itself was a kind of knock-off version of the novel Dune by Frank Herbert, where Paul Atreides and his grandfather the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen are another version of Lugh and Balor.

The Red Woman, played by Carice van Houten, who appears in A Game of Thrones.
The Red Woman, played by Carice van Houten, who appears in A Game of Thrones.

How did these stories end up on the west coast of America, one might well ask. A clue lies in the story of the Red Woman, another character from Irish mythology who has become world famous thanks to her appearance in A Game of Thrones, the popular fantasy novel by Goerge R. R. Martin. The character of the Red Woman named Melisandre actually appears in the second novel in the series, A Clash of Kings, published in 1998.

At once the Fianna loosed their hounds on it; and scarcely were they giving tongue in a good chorus, when the Red Woman came on them. Whatever wonder the beast was, the woman was greater. She was more than mortal-big in stature; her hair was redder than a carbuncle stone when the light shines through it, her garments were the color of red embers; and her face had a glory of flame, like the sun in his rising.

The Shining Beast, Ella Young, 1929.

The Game of Thrones version of the Red Woman is surely based on Ella Young's story, the Shining Beast, which was published in the U.S.A. in 1929, in a collection called the Tangle-coated Horse. The Shining Beast itself was a retelling of the story called the Red Woman from the Irish mythological cycle, published by Lady Agusta Gregory in her Gods and Fighting Men in 1904. In the Red Woman, the Fianna are invited into Knocknarea, where they are recieved by the King of the Mountain, who feeds and entertains them. Things could happen quite differently within enchanted mountains, as Fionn found out at Kesh Corran:

It was a wonderful sight and a great deed this binding of the Fianna, and the three sisters laughed with a joy that was terrible to hear and was almost death to see. As the men were captured they were carried by the hags into dark mysterious holes and black perplexing labyrinths.

The Enchanted Caves of Kesh Corran by James Stephens.

Maud Gonne.

Maud Gonne, who was used and saw herself as a female personification of Ireland, may have been the model for Ella Young's version of the Red Woman, which in turn may have influenced George R. R. Martin's Red Woman.

There was only a minimum of the conventional enchantress about her. She wore chic clothes carelessly; choosing hats was a bother; so she wound veils around her head, turban fashion. She used, as far as one could see, no cosmetics. Beauty alone could never have won her the lasting devotion of men and women, or the tribute of immortal verse that Yeats had given her...... She had three qualities that I have seen in all the real charmers I have known: she had a romantic personality; she had rich emotions; and a warm heart – indeed, one of the winning things about her was her affection for other people.

Mary Colum speaking of Maud Gonne. Image colourisation by Old Ireland in Colour.

Ella Young was a contemporary of W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, AEON, Maud Gonne, Fr. Michael O'Flanagan W. Y. Evans Wentz and Douglas Hyde. Young, who was born in Antrim in 1867, has a life-long interest in Irish mythology, and began collecting stories and folklore about the same time as Yeats. She published her first book, the Coming of Lugh, in 1909. The book was illustrated by her room-mate and good friend, Maud Gonne, who used her son Sean MacBride as a model for the young Lugh of the Long Arm.

Fionn and his men were gaining on the Beast. Bran’s jaws were snapping close to it, and the other hounds were hard upon Bran, when the Beast shook himself and shook a great shower of blood upon the hounds and upon the men of the Fianna, so that they were red from head to foot: but for all that they held to the hunt, and as the sun climbed into the sky they saw the Beast stagger to the Mountain of the King— that was called among the Fianna, Cnoc-na-riagh—and when the Beast touched the mountain there came an opening at the foot of it and the Beast went in. When the Fianna reached the mountain the Red Woman was standing there. She had neither hurry nor concern on her.

The Shining Beast, Ella Young, 1929.

Young left Ireland in 1925 and moved to the west coast of the U.S.A., where she lived for the rest of her life. She became the James D. Phelan Lecturer in Irish Myth and Lore at Berkeley University, a post she held for ten years.

Wherever she went, she was received enthusiastically, especially by the young people of America. They loved this white-haired lady with the eyes of a seer that appeared to be lighted from within. She spoke with a melodious voice; when she spoke everyone listened. She had a thin, wispy quality that made her appear as the apparition of the very spirits she described. Indeed, her skin had an almost translucent quality.

It is highly likely that Ella Young's Red Woman is in part a description of her great friend Maud Gonne. This, I suspect, is how the stories of Lugh of the Long Arm, soon to become Luke Skywalker, and the Red Woman arrived in California. There can be little doubt that Young's homage to Maud Gonne has informed George R. R. Martin's character Melisandre:

The Red Woman stood by the King’s chair. Her garments gave out a red light as though her body within them were flame, her countenance was too bright to look on, her hair that spread stiffly on either side of her face had the splendor of ruby stone.

The Shining Beast, Ella Young, 1929.

The Red Woman

Lady Gregory's version, first published in 1904.

ONE time the Fianna were in Almhuin with no great work to do, and there came a very misty morning, and Finn was in dread that sluggishness would come on his men, and he rose up, and he said: "Make yourselves ready, and we will go hunting to Gleann-na-Smol".

They all said the day was too misty to go hunting; but there was no use in talking: they had to do as Finn bade them. So they made themselves ready and went on towards Gleann-na-Smol; and they were not gone far when the mist lifted and the sun came shining out.

And when they were on the edge of a little wood, they saw a strange beast coming towards them with the quickness of the wind, and a Red Woman on its track. Narrow feet the beast had, and a head like the head of a boar, and long horns on it; but the rest of it was like a deer, and there was a shining moon on each of its sides.

Finn stopped, and he said: "Fianna of Ireland," he said, "did you ever see a beast like that one until now?" "We never did indeed," said they; "and it would be right for us to let out the hounds after it." "Wait a while," said Finn, "till I speak with the Red Woman; but do not let the beast go past you," he said. They thought to keep back the beast then, going before it; but they were hardly able to hinder it at all, and it went away through them.

The Glen of Knocknarea.
The Glen of Knocknarea.

And when the Red Woman was come up to them, Finn asked her what was the name of the beast she was following. "I do not know that," she said, "though I am on its track since I left the borders of Loch Dearg a month ago, and I never lost sight of it since then; and the two moons that are on its two sides shine through the country all around in the night time. And I must follow it till it falls," she said, "or I will lose my own life and the lives of my three sons that are the best fighting men in the whole world."

"We will take the beast for you if you have a mind," said Finn. "Do not try to do that," she said, "for I myself am swifter than you are, and I cannot come up with it." "We will not let it go till we know what sort of a beast is it," said Finn. "If you yourself or your share of men go after it, I will bind you hand and foot," said she. "It is too stiff your talk is," said Finn. "And do you not know," he said, "I am Finn, son of Cumhal; and there are fourscore fighting men along with me that were never beaten yet."

"It is little heed I give to yourself or your share of men," said the Red Woman; "and if my three sons were here, they would stand up against you." "Indeed it will be a bad day," said Finn, "when the threat of a woman will put fear on myself or on the Fianna of Ireland." With that he sounded his horn, and he said: "Let us all follow now, men and dogs, after that beast that we saw."

What the Ballynahatty woman may have looked like.
The Ballynahatty woman, one of a large colony of the first farmers to arrive in Ireland, is a contemporary of the people who built the monuments at Carrowmore and Knocknarea. Ancient DNA has traced the ancestry of these people back to ancient Anatolia. Reconstruction by Elizabeth Black.

He had no sooner said that word than the woman made a great water-worm of herself, and made an attack on Finn, and she would have killed him then and there but for Bran being with him. Bran took grip of the worm and shook it, and then it wound itself round Bran's body, and would have crushed the life out of her, but Finn thrust his sharp sword into its throat. "Keep back your hand," said the worm then, "and you will not have the curse of a lonely woman upon you." "It is what I think," said Finn, "that you would not leave me my life if you could take it from me; but go out of my sight now," he said, "and that I may never see you again."

Then she made herself into a Red Woman again, and went away into the wood.

The Old Red Woman, played by Carice van Houten, who appears in A Game of Thrones.
When the Red Woman, played by Carice van Houten, takes off her enchanted necklace, she is revealed to be an incredibly old woman, a version of the Witch, Hag, or Cailleach named Garavogue who built the monuments at Carrowmore, and lives in her house on Sliabh Da Ean.

All the Fianna were gone on the track of the beast while Finn was talking and fighting with the Red Woman; and he did not know in what place they were, but he went following after them, himself and Bran. It was late in the evening when he came up with a share of them, and they still on the track of the beast. The darkness of the night was coming on, but the moons in the sides of the beast gave a bright light, and they never lost it from sight.

They followed it on always; and about midnight they were pressing on it, and it began to scatter blood after it, and it was not long before Finn and his men were red from head to foot. But that did not hinder them, and they followed him on till they saw him go in at the foot of Cnoc-na-righ at the breaking of day.

Sunset viewed from Moytura in County Sligo.
Summer solstice sunset: looking from Shee Lugh on Moytura. Sun is setting behind Knocknarea.

Inside Knocknarea

When they came to the foot of the hill the Red Woman was standing there before them. "You did not take the beast," she said. "We did not take it, but we know where it is," said Finn.

She took a Druid rod then, and struck a blow on the side of the hill, and on the moment a great door opened, and they heard sweet music coming from within. "Come in now," said the Red Woman, "till you see the wonderful beast." "Our clothing is not clean," said Finn, "and we would not like to go in among a company the way we are," he said.

She put a horn to her mouth and blew it, and on the moment there came ten young men to her. "Bring water for washing," she said, "and four times twenty suits of clothes, and a beautiful suit and a crown of shining stones for Finn, son of Cumhal." The young men went away then, and they came back at the end of a minute with water and with clothing.

The poetess and mystic, Ella Young.
A photograph of the poetess and mystic, Ella Young, who brought Irish mysticism and mythology to California in the 1920's. Young published her version of the Red Woman, which she called the Shining Beast, in 1929. Her stories went on to influence writers such as Jack Vance and George R. R. Martin.

When the Fianna were washed and dressed, the Red Woman brought them into a great hall, where there was the brightness of the sun and of the moon on every side. From that she brought them into another great room; and although Finn and his men had seen many grand things up to that time, they had never seen any sight so grand as what they saw in this place. There was a king sitting in a golden chair, having clothes of gold and of green, and his chief people were sitting around him, and his musicians were playing. And no one could know what colour were the dresses of the musicians, for every colour of the rainbow was in them. And there was a great table in the middle of the room, having every sort of thing on it, one better than another.

The king rose up and gave a welcome to Finn and to his men, and he bade them to sit down at the table; and they ate and drank their fill, and that was wanting to them after the hunt they had made. And then the Red Woman rose up, and she said: "King of the Hill, if it is your will, Finn and his men have a mind to see the wonderful beast, for they spent a long time following after it, and that is what brought them here."

A cave in the north side of Knocknarea.
A cave in the north side of Knocknarea.

The king struck a blow then on his golden chair, and a door opened behind him, and the beast came through it and stood before the king. And it stooped down before him, and it said: "I am going on towards my own country now; and there is not in the world a runner so good as myself, and the sea is the same to me as the land. And let whoever can come up with me come now," it said, "for I am going."

With that the beast went out from the hill as quick as a blast of wind, and all the people that were in it went following after it. it was not long till Finn and his men were before the rest, in the front of the hunt, gaining on the beast.

And about midday Bran made the beast turn, and then she forced it to turn a second time, and it began to put out cries, and it was not long until its strength began to flag; and at last, just at the setting of the sun, it fell dead, and Bran was at its side when it fell.

The Red Woman from Ella Young's version of the story called the Shining Beast, published in 1929.
The Red Woman from Ella Young's version of the story called the Shining Beast, published in 1929.

Then Finn and his men came up, but in place of a beast it was a tall man they saw lying dead before them. And the Red Woman came up at the same time, and she said: "High King of the Fianna, that is the King of the Firbolgs you have killed; and his people will put great troubles on this country in the time to come, when you yourself, Finn, and your people will be under the sod. And I myself am going now to the Country of the Young," she said, "and I will bring you with me if you have a mind to come." "We give you our thanks for that," said Finn, "but we would not give up our own country if we were to get the whole world as an estate, and the Country of the Young along with it." "That is well," said the Red Woman; "but you are going home empty after your hunt." "It is likely we will find a deer in Gleann-na-Smol," said Finn. "

There is a fine deer at the foot of that tree beyond," said the Red Woman, "and I will rouse it for you." With that she gave a cry, and the deer started out and away, and Finn and his men after it, and it never stopped till it came to Gleann-na-Smol, but they could not come up with it. Then the Red Woman came to them, and she said: "I think you are tired now with following after the deer; and call your hounds off now," she said, "and I will let out my own little dog after it." So Finn sounded a little horn he had at his side, and on the moment the hounds came back to him.

The Glen of Knocknarea.
The Glen of Knocknarea.

And then the Red Woman brought out a little hound as white as the snow of the mountains, and put it after the deer; and it was not long till it had come up with the deer and killed it, and then it came back and made a leap in under the cloak of the Red Woman. There was great wonder on Finn; but before he could ask a question of the Red Woman, she was gone out of sight. And as to the deer, Finn knew there was enchantment on it, and so he left it there after him. And it is tired and empty the Fianna were, going back to Almhuin that night.

Equinox sunset over Knocknarea
A magical moment at the equinox sunset as the sun's disc drops behind Queen Maeve's cairn on Knocknarea, on the Wild Atlantic Way in County Sligo. The vewing platform is a large neolithic cairn, one of two on Carns Hill just outside Sligo town.