The Coffin Stone

(by Gerry Moss, from IMC Newsletter Summer 2011)
"Most walkers frequenting the Wicklow hills will be familiar with The Coffin Stone, that cluster of boulders just above the saddle between Djouce and War Hill … The origin of The Coffin Stone’s proper name dates back to the dawn of history, to a time when those mystical, mighty hunter-warriors, Na Fianna, roamed across Erin’s green isle, in pursuit of deer, derring-do, dust-ups and damsels-in-distress … I feel it is only right that I should pass this story on, so that the legend be kept alive."

Most walkers frequenting the Wicklow hills will be familiar with The Coffin Stone, that cluster of boulders just above the saddle between Djouce and War Hill. According to the late J.B. Malone, it bears the distinction of being the only natural rock feature marked and named on the old O.S. Sheet 16, half-inch-to-the-mile map of Dublin and Wicklow (back in the old days Sheet 16 was the preferred choice of the impecunious Dublin hill walker as it covered almost twice the territory of the one-inch Wicklow District map). If J.B. said so, then we can take it as being so, for there was no one knew the Dublin and Wicklow mountains better. He was, during his lifetime, regarded as the Doyen of Dublin hill walkers, encouraging and inspiring generations of Dubliners to take to the hills through his regular weekly article in the Evening Herald. This series ran for almost forty years, from the late 1930s right up until 1975, and each article included a sketch map, drawn by J.B. himself, of the route described. His first book on walking in the Dublin mountains, The Open Road, was published by Independent Newspapers as long ago as 1950, and is now something of a collector’s item. It was he who, away back in 1966, first came up with the idea of The Wicklow Way, and he persevered to see its eventual opening, in 1981, as Ireland’s first long-distance trail. After his death, in 1989, a memorial stone was erected in his honour near the section of the walk overlooking Lough Tay.

Recently, while out rambling in that area, I met an English couple just down off Djouce, and they expressed disappointment at the fact that there was nothing about The Coffin Stone that remotely resembled a coffin. I explained to them that this was a classic example of how, down through the centuries, an old, original name can sometimes become garbled beyond recognition (another example is the common usage of Kathy Gallagher for Carrickgollogan, that little hill above the Ballycorus lead mines).

The origin of The Coffin Stone’s proper name dates back to the dawn of history, to a time when those mystical, mighty hunter-warriors, Na Fianna, roamed across Erin’s green isle, in pursuit of deer, derring-do, dust-ups and damsels-in-distress (though not necessarily in that order), and I first heard the story of how it came to be named at my mother’s knee. I feel it is only right that I should pass this story on, so that the legend be kept alive. Are you sitting comfortably?

It seems Fionn Mac Cumhaill left his base in Glennasmole one cold winter’s morning, to go stag hunting. He was on foot, as was the great Fiannaíoct tradition, and was accompanied by his two faithful hounds, Bran and Sceolan (I imagine Bran may have been so called because of his regular habits, but I’ve no thoughts on the other one). Anyhow, they raised a stag on the slopes of Kippure, and it took off, across what J.B. used to call ‘the heather deserts’, in the general direction of the Tonduffs and Glensoulan, with Fionn and the hounds in hot pursuit.

Then, this being Ireland in winter, the mist came down and the rain came on (which only goes to show that, global warming or no, some things never change), and, to cut a long story short, the poor divil got lost.

Now, before you start snorting in derision, it should be pointed out that this was long before maps were invented, so, no Sheet 16 or 1" Wicklow map for our hero, nothing more than a few scratched directions, in Ogham script, no less, on a bit of slate tucked into the waistband of his underpants.

True, as a young lad Fionn had inadvertently been the first to chew on the Salmon of Knowledge, a snack that bestowed upon him a wide ranging fund of facts (which would have made him a popular choice for any team participating in a Pub Quiz but, alas, this was so long ago that, incredible as it may seem, pubs had not yet been invented). On that fateful day poor Fionn discovered something most of us would have guessed anyhow – salmon know damn all about navigating the Wicklow hills in thick mist.

As far as a compass was concerned, such a thing had never been heard of, not even those little brass roundy ones with the jittery needle, that seem to have been with us forever. Not that a compass would have been of much use anyhow, as this was so long ago that the North Pole hadn’t even been invented. Of course, he, like the rest of us, was an expert at steering by the sun and the stars, but a fat lot of use that is when the mist is so thick you can hardly see your hand in front of your face. As regards this old wives’ tale of moss being found only on the north side of the tree trunks, the truth is, here in Ireland, moss can be found all over the bloody shop.

So, let’s take a closer look at the poor man’s dilemma, for a dilemma it certainly was. For starters, he was very poorly equipped to deal with the harsh conditions and his outfit would certainly not have come up to the standards required of those striving for Mountain Leader Award qualifications. But, in his defence, it should be noted that this was long before the IMC, MCI, BOS, AFAS, the BMC or the MLA ever existed. Well, they couldn’t have, could they, as this was so long ago that the alphabet hadn’t even been invented. In fact, to give you some idea of just how far back we are going, this was long before Cliff Richards had even been born.

Fionn’s colourful outfit was much the same as we used to see Irish dancers sporting at the Fleadh Ceoil and Irish dancing competitions up and down the country not so long ago (come to think of it, the lads in Na Fianna probably were responsible, willy-nilly, for the whole idea of Drag Hunts and, interestingly, the tradition of dressing in gaudy garb while stag hunting persists to this very day, as anyone who has witnessed the half-mounted gentry of The Ward Union Hunt in action can verify).

To begin with, on his feet Fionn was wearing, would you believe, open-toed sandals. But, fair is fair, while we are all agreed that these are notorious for letting the bog-water in, the more astute among you will be aware that they are equally brilliant at letting it back out again. This being long before buckles were invented, the sandals were held on by long thongs wound about the muscular calves of his legs, and tied off just below the knees. Fine for a big hefty lad like him, but how did us skinny little geeks manage? Needless to say, in those far off days our comely Irish maidens had not yet discovered an altogether more questionable use for the same thongs.

Above the knee he wore one of those familiar, but highly unpractical, saffron, multi-pleated kilts. Can you imagine the state of him, coming home of an evening, having spent the day hopping and lepping across the bog, the brake and the mireland, and telling his poor Ma that he wanted all those pleats ironed back in before he stepped out for work again next morning? Those same kilts were a regular heart-scald for Irish mothers, that’s for sure, and it’s no wonder that the popular ballads of the time depicted them as frail little women with silvery hair, toil-worn fingers and brows all furrowed and wrinkled with care. There is no doubt that the introduction of the ubiquitous nylon tracksuit bottoms was a major contributor to the disappearance of the traditional, long-suffering Irish Ma, and the emergence of your modern, care-free, Irish Mum.

Next, we come to that thorny old question, the subject matter of which has been a rich source of material for juvenile comedians since time began, namely, what was worn beneath the kilt? Well, let’s not beat about the bush here, the man was wearing standard Na Fianna issue deerskin underpants. To find out more about how these were worn, we must turn to Brian O’Linn, that grand old ballad so popular in Fionn’s time, and I quote:

Brian O’Linn had no boxers to wear,
So he got a deerskin for to make him a pair,
With the skinny side out and the hairy side in,
Sure they tickle me fancy, said Brian O’Linn.

Well, yes, I expect they did. Here, I believe, we have a pointer as to why, in those far off days, Ireland’s population was at least twice what it is today. There’s no doubt but that the introduction of the cotton underpants had a calming influence upon the young men of more modern times and brought great relief to our hard-pressed Irish colleens.

The kilt was topped off with a rather effeminate-looking, white, long-sleeved blouse. But before you start in with the snide remarks, remember, he had to have somewhere to pin all his dancing medals. To complement the blouse he wore, draped elegantly over the shoulder, a short green cloak, fastened by a rather bling brooch of the finest gold, the long spike of which may have been useful for removing stones from horses’ hooves. What useful function the cloak served has baffled folklorists and historians for years, but let’s face it, they are not the most practical of people. To me, the solution is blindingly obvious. The clue is in the colour: snot-green, as James Joyce would have described it. Here we have nothing more than an extra large hankie, for an extra large man, in a very practical colour and, as there were no pockets in his outfit, he kept it handy there by his shoulder. The whole ensemble was topped off with a swish and highly fashionable hair band, keeping his gleaming, shoulder-length locks in place. You see, it’s not for nothing he was known among his mates as Finn McCool.

So, to keep a short story even shorter, just as it was getting dark, he stumbled upon what we now know as The Coffin Stone. By this stage the rain had turned to sleet and he was soaked to the skin, so he was only too glad to crawl underneath for a bit of shelter. As the darkness deepened, and the mist thickened, he resigned himself to spending the night in this dripping, confined and chilly refuge. What with the cold and the damp, he began to get a dose of the shivers, and felt a bout of flu coming on. To try and gain some crumb of comfort, he used one dog as a pillow and the other as a rudimentary hot water bottle. Not that hot water bottles, as we know them, were in existence back then, as rubber trees had yet to be invented.

But, with true native cunning, the lads in Na Fianna had come with the ideal solution to those long, cold winter nights. Known colloquially as ‘hot water bottles with ears’ they had several advantages over your modern, synthetic article. Most importantly, perhaps, there was no stigma or embarrassment whatever for men in admitting to using them. Indeed, some hardchaws actually boasted of having more than one in the bed of a night. Can you imagine? Also, they were widely available and if you were unlucky enough to have mislaid yours, there was always the possibility of borrowing your neighbour’s (especially if the boss happened to be away at the time). Best of all, they were made of long-lasting, one hundred percent organic material, and had a wonderfully soft, natural feel to them, something which proved to be a constant source of delight to the lads. They were remarkable for retaining their heat too and, if you were really lucky, you might find yourself having one of those models that was even hotter in the early morning light than it had been the night before. Last, but by no means least, if they did show signs of cooling off itself, they could always be conveniently topped up, and all without having to put a foot to the cold floor.

On that bitter night in question, however, our poor hero could draw little comfort from all of this, as he lay stretched out on the cold, damp earth, his hair thick with mist and dog fleas; his chest white with frost; his feet like two blocks of ice and him shivering, sneezing and wheezing to beat the band. But perhaps it is best to let him tell it in his own words – for those very words have become enshrined in the annals of Irish folklore and handed down from generation to generation, for years and years and years.

It was only brutal – he said – sure I never got a wink of sleep, wasn’t I awake all night with the coughin’.

And there you have it.