Donal Óg, gloves of the skin of a fish, shoes of the skin of a bird

When the Irish poet read the poem, the poem became his. It is his voice that reads the poem to me now. I have gone on to read it aloud to others, so vital does it seem to me, so honest. It’s possible these others may be reading the poem from time to time and hearing my voice or the voices of any and all the people they’ve heard read it. “Donal Og” is a fairly famous poem. It’s been translated numerous times (my favourite version is Lady Gregory’s, the translation I first fell in love with) and, as one of the great Irish ballads, it’s been sung and recorded over a good few generations. The poem in its original Irish has been dated to the 8th Century. We know “Donal Og” means “Young Donald”; we assume the speaker is a she. But Anon? Anon is a fabulous mystery. Anon is the poet who let loose the poem. Thinking about Anon this past month I’ve imagined what it would be like to publish a whole book as Anon, what things it might free me up to say, how unaccountable I’d be to anyone or anything. Sitting down with yourself and working as a poet is a privilege, but imagine, just imagine, saying something so well, so powerfully, that as a thing-in-itself the poem might go on speaking crucially: outlasting its need for a name and that name’s claim on an interval in history.

It is late last night the dog was speaking of you;

the snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.

It is you are the lonely bird through the woods;

and that you may be without a mate until you find me.

You promised me, and you said a lie to me,

that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked;

I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you,

and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.

You promised me a thing that was hard for you,

a ship of gold under a silver mast;

twelve towns with a market in all of them,

and a fine white court by the side of the sea.

You promised me a thing that is not possible,

that you would give me gloves of the skin of a fish;

that you would give me shoes of the skin of a bird;

and a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland.

When I go by myself to the Well of Loneliness,

I sit down and I go through my trouble;

when I see the world and do not see my boy,

he that has an amber shade in his hair.

It was on that Sunday I gave my love to you;

the Sunday that is last before Easter Sunday.

And myself on my knees reading the Passion;

and my two eyes giving love to you for ever.

My mother said to me not to be talking with you today,

or tomorrow, or on the Sunday;

it was a bad time she took for telling me that;

it was shutting the door after the house was robbed.

My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe,

or as the black coal that is on the smith’s forge;

or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls;

it was you that put that darkness over my life.

You have taken the east from me; you have taken the west from me;

you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;

you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;

and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!

(Trans. Lady Gregory)

This version of an anonymous 8th century Irish poem was translated by Lady Augusta Gregory. For me it’s the poetry equivalent of an earworm, a catchy song you can’t stop humming along with.

The unusual syntax lends it a striking rhythm and the repetition – you promised me; you promised me – makes it easy to memorise, hard to forget. The pleasure is in the shape and the sound, as much as the old, sad story (the lament of the young woman betrayed, those impossible broken promises familiar from so many ballads and folk songs) – or the wonderful imagery: gloves of the skin of a fish; shoes of the skin of a bird. This is a mysterious, magical poem that begs to be read aloud.


1. Introduction

The evolving relationship between humans and dogs has attracted significant research interest. This is partially because dogs were the earliest domesticated animal, but many people today have a close connection to this species fuelling interest into the origin of our familiar companion. The bond between humans and dogs developed to the extent that both species benefited in some manner and, for many millennia, dogs have been important in the lives of humans. The extent to which people found dogs a source of protection and comfort, as well as hunting tools are important questions as to how the early alliance flourished (Perri, 2016, Lupo, 2017, Guagnin et al., 2018).

In this paper, we present evidence from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) settlement of Shubayqa 6 in northeast Jordan where the close relationship between humans and dogs is evident. This reciprocal tie involved dogs extensively scavenging through waste discarded at the settlement and, in return, they may have provided humans with the means to hunt more effectively, as well as offering security and early warning of danger. Based on the longer-term patterns of faunal exploitation in the region, the cooperation between humans and dogs may have started earlier in the final stages of the Natufian at a time when widening of the resource base has been repeatedly linked to climate change and population expansion depleting environmental reserves (Bar-Yosef and Belfer-Cohen, 2002, Stutz et al., 2009). The importance of the Younger Dryas (∼12,900–11,600 cal BP) as an influence on subsistence strategies has been questioned in recent years (Maher et al., 2011a, Caracuta et al., 2016) and the use of new hunting techniques offers a different factor that should be considered in the interpretation of these developments. It is impossible to assess the level of companionship dogs afforded people from the archaeological record, but this should also be born in mind (Manwell and Baker, 1984). Although cultural attitudes to dogs vary significantly, dogs may well have been more than just hunting tools. However, a main reason for humans to tolerate dogs living amongst them in large numbers would probably have been to utilise their hunting abilities. The question, therefore, is how did the use of dogs influence hunting and the prey targeted as people learnt to hunt more effectively with their new companions?

2. Background


Gregory Shushan has previously studied near-death experiences [NDE] in early Christianity, the Vedas, and as a methodological issue in the comparative study of religions. In this book, Near-Death Experience in Indigenous Religions, Shushan provides exhaustive research on textual accounts of Indigenous traditions in North America, Africa, and Oceania. Shushan characterizes Indigenous societies using terms of difference appropriate to the dynamism and variety of traditions covered by this global category–they did not produce written religious texts, they have diverse beliefs particular to their locations, with internal variations consistent with oral cultures and dynamic developments over time. Given that he is providing a compilation of written sources, Shushan acknowledges this as a study of crisis situations. These accounts are found in the records of missionaries and anthropologists from the 17th to the 20th century. “In general, the societies were first studied during periods of religious, cultural, social, and/or physical crises due to multipronged colonialist assaults on their land, resources, bodies and souls—which partly entailed the destruction or transformation of traditional beliefs and practices” (12). His methodological emphasis, therefore, is to provide accounts that are culturally contextualized to accurately represent the Indigenous hermeneutics of religious experience particular to the respective regions. Shushan identifies NDE as “exceptional experience” that he is not reductively explaining away in terms of cognitive science, for example, but rather through interdisciplinary research questions that build a more accurate description of the power of these experiences in the organization of communities, toward the fundamental question “what happens to us when we die?”



Rannoch Moor is a wide, elevated bowl that sits in the Central Highlands of Scotland. Rimmed by mountains, it’s a chalice that held some of the last ice of the last ice age. Ten thousand years later it’s still rising, a few millimetres a year: a long, slow decompression after the burden of a mile’s depth of ice. No roads cross the moor, but there is a railway line and the Glasgow to Fort William train trundles over it four times a day.

When the ice melted, the trees returned. The Black Wood of Rannoch survives as a fragment of the forest that once covered the moor. It would have been home to various flora and fauna including bear, elk, lynx, aurochs, red deer, wolf, and human. In the space of a few centuries, we chopped down the forest for timber and cleared the land of most of its wild animals. Legend has it that in the late 16th century, Domhnal mac Fhionnlaigh, a renowned local hunter and bard, killed all the remaining wolves of Rannoch. I prefer Jim Crumley’s version, which can be read in his book The Last Wolf (2010), where, rather than being killed by man, the last wolf takes herself off to a remote, wild place on the moor and dies of old age. Either way, by the 18th century, wolves were extinct throughout Scotland.


Some kind people have organised this GoFundMe appeal and made some contributions, so if any readers feel inclined to help me with this Terrain Hopper project and thus earn my gratitude, here’s the link, please pass it around like a hat, across the wild turbulent invisible expanses of vastness out there, called the internet. This is not something I’ve ever done before, so it’s an interesting new exploration…

I had an idea. I think it is fresh, but probably others have had the same thought before me. It has to do with time, and whatever constitutes who, or what, I am, and you are.

If, say, you begin at a particular time, say, 9pm, and spend an hour in some activity, until 10pm, are you the same person as the person you’d be if you’d spent that hour following a different activity ?

Seems a simple question that some annoying child might ask. But let’s take a look.

There’s an almost infinite number of possible actions that ‘you’ might have done during the course of that hour, and some of them would have, potentially, dramatic effects upon your subsequent existence.

You could be quite passive and doze in a chair by the fire, or you could go and rob someone at gunpoint, or you could seduce you best friend’s wife, or dance or play piano or cards or, if you’re Jordan Peterson, tidy your room….

Pretty much anything that any human being has ever done is available as an option….

And that’s kind of weird. Does anybody see it that way ? Probably, most just follow a habit or perform a necessary task, unaware that they could choose from other possibilities. Compelled, like a train following a track.

But this is karma, or one meaning of that term. Because if you do one thing, A, then the result is going to be B. And if you do a different thing, C, then the result is going to be D. If you wash the dishes then you’ll have clean plates and pans, but if you don’t, well, they stay dirty, but you did something else, for whatever reason and motive.

And the result is that you yourself will be, or be on the way to becoming, a slightly different character. The increments accumulate. If you go to the fridge for comfort food, you put on weight. If you do press-ups, you get stronger muscles. You can look at porn or read Voltaire, get drunk or struggle to master a musical instrument. Whatever it is, you can choose to make something of yourself, for better or worse

If you wish to advance your social standing, then you need to train yourself and develop skills and learn new and difficult stuff. There’s a hell of a lot of people out there, all competing for advancement and opportunity. A person who disciplines themselves to learn something will gain an advantage over those who don’t or can’t.

That’s fairly trivial and obvious. Obviously, it makes it much easier if you follow a path that gives you pleasure, satisfaction, a sense of achievement and accomplishment.

This is where zen meditation comes is. No sense of achievement or attainment. Just sitting absolutely still doing nothing. Well, not absolutely nothing, because your heart still beats and you breath. It’s not quite the same as being asleep. Or dead. But it gives a sort of gauge of reference for all other possible activities and ways of being.

Of course, it’s not that simple, zen meditation is not just ‘one thing’, there many different things that can be practiced.

For example, you might sit in lotus posture for an hour without any thoughts, just focussed on your breaths, completely single-minded, without letting your attention waver.

You, the reader, might consider such a practice to be absurd, a pointless waste of time. But unless you’ve actually tried it, unless you can actually DO it, you have no real insight or understanding as to what is involved. A person who can do this is not the same as a person who cannot do it, or someone who has never even tried.

When you CAN do it, then you can choose whether to arrange flowers in exquisite harmony, or whether to be a master of violent combat, like Musashi, or whether to assist the suffering of unfortunate people or animals, or whatever else your own personal calling might be.

An interesting topic to explore would be how this stuff relates to the Judaeo-Christian tradition as illuminated by Jordan Peterson in his Biblical series and also Jay Dyer’s work, because, as far as I’m aware neither have much knowledge of Buddhism or Taoism. Maybe I’ll get around to that if a future essay.

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