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Locating Conang's Tower
Jack R. Parnell
According to the myths, ancient Ireland was once held and ruled by a race called the Fomorians. The center of their power was an island tower-fortress named for their king: The Tower of Conand, or Conang. Scholars have long-wondered after the location of Conang’s tower. Wherever it was, so little remains that the question of its site remains up for debate. As is the case with nearly every ‘barbarian’ European tradition, the oldest texts at-hand are no older than the Christian scribes, whose monastic orders recognized the utility of committing the existing tradition to paper in a Christianized form. One may begin by studying Roderick O’Flaherty’s translation of the Ogygia from the original Irish, together with the Lebor Gabála Érenn, and the Annals of the Four Masters, all of which were first catalogued and composed by Christian scribes. While O’Flaherty was questioned on his particular account of the tower, he received enough defense that debate of the issue was taken up by later historians and linguists.
The tower figures most prominently into the story of the tragic fate of the Nemedians at the hands of the Fomorians. The Nemedians were so-called for their chief Nemed, whose lineage was traced back to the sons of the biblical Noah; an addition, which I suspect was incorporated by the monks. It’s worth noting that Nemed is a religious term in Old Irish related to the druids in particular, and so it’s likely that as a mythological hero, he needed to be reclaimed for Christendom.
When they arrived in Ireland from Scythia, having survived shipwreck and other tribulations, the Nemedians encountered the Fomorians. The myths tell us that King Conang and his Fomorians quickly subjugated the Nemedians, and forced them to submit to a particularly cruel tribute. Every year the Nemedians were made to give up two thirds of their annual produce, including children, at the field of Magh Cetne.
Eventually the Nemedians were bolstered with reinforcements from their Scythian homeland. They struck at Conang’s tower, then, as the myths say, both by land and by sea. The battle was fearsome. Portions of the fortress were captured and razed by the Nemedians. When the fighting subsided and following the departure of the Nemedians’ allies, they were attacked once again by Fomorian reinforcements. At that point both forces were so distracted by the battle on the strand, that they did not have time to respond to the spring tide rolling in. Those who remained of both armies drowned, nearly to a man. Only a scant few Nemedians survived. It was they who went on to split Ireland into thirds among themselves, according to lines drawn radiating from the island—called ‘Tor Inis.’
There is a wide spectrum of credulity afforded by modern scholars to the events of the Nemedian siege of Conang’s tower. Some historians do not even regard the Fomorians as a real people acting in opposition to the Nemedians, but rather, argue that they are simply symbolic of the callous, natural forces in the world—like death, or night. O’Flahtery is more open to the idea that the Fomorians were a true occupying force in need of an actual site for their fortifications. Committed to take that position, he and his later supporters set out to determine which of the many hundreds of Irish islands might be the legendary ‘Tor Inis;’ to locate the site of king Conang’s tower.
For etymological reasons Tory Island, in the far north of County Donegal, was quickly suggested as the probable location for the tower. Despite ongoing arguments about Tory Island being a poor fit for Tor Inis, it’s still generally mentioned as the ‘likely’ location by academic consensus. The argument proposes that ‘Torach,’ as it was referred to in the initial histories, is derived from the word for tower and so must therefore recall the legendary fortress of the Fomorians.
There are, however, some interesting counter-arguments supplied by a later author—Henry Morris—which suggest that it’s unlikely ancient authors would conflate Tor Inis and Torach without explicitly relating the two. That is to say, if a place was known by many names, it was the habit of ancient authors to name them all. We will not linger overlong on the finer philological points, for lack of expertise. Morris makes several further points about why Tory island is a poor location for the Tower, both of which are of interest.
First, Tory island is located some eight miles out to sea from the northern coast of County Donegal. The obvious question is how Tory island could have been assailed by ‘land and sea,’ as the Nemedians are said to have done at Tor Inis, when it’s surrounded by miles of open ocean. Secondly, the field of Magh Cetne—where tribute was to be rendered—is located in County Sligo, which is many miles south from the northern coast of County Donegal. One would would have had to cross the entire distance, and then undertake a journey by boat those eight miles out into the sea in order to reach Tory island. It makes little sense for overseers so cruel as to demand two thirds of the annual goods of Ireland, children and all, to undertake the logistics of delivery themselves. Morris makes special note of these poor logistics. More naturally, rulers would demand tribute to be rendered much more locally, as a rule of convenience. Take, for example, the establishment of the Danelaw. The proximity is a threat, so that the oppressed might look upon the dreadful grandeur of the force against-which they would have to revolt.
These two observations illustrate a tendency toward over-simplicity which is rather common to materialistic pictures of the past—dismissive as they occasion to be, of the descriptive language of the original texts, on the grounds that the chroniclers must have lapsed in their charge for some nonspecific reason. What doesn’t fit with the fashionable interpretation of the data is waved-away as ‘poetic’ or ‘symbolic’ by those with little interest in poetry and little understanding of symbolism.
Consider the excavation of Troy by Schliemann, which, created a substantive base for reevaluating the Illiad as an article of history. Before Schliemann plundered the site, Troy was considered by academic consensus to be an entirely mythological construction of ancient authors. A mistake, which is perhaps less rare than modern academics would like to acknowledge. King Arthur, cast as Lucius Artorius Castus, is a well-known example of a glove and a hand, though if it is one being made to fit, or made to fit is hardly conclusive.
Oral histories are often composed more holistically, in-tandem with legend and religion, than they are with specific attention to material fact. That composite picture, which Evola called the intersection of “history and superhistory,” grows hazy when the myth in question is inevitably passed through another cultural continuum (often more than once) before it comes at last under modern scrutiny. This is the particular case with Celtic legend. For the Celts, as with the vast majority of mythological canona, the stories were only put to the pen with the arrival of the Christian monks, as they came.
Despite the tendency for a myth to migrate around a region, geography is never an arbitrary feature. Where the goddess Aphrodite made landfall, or where Zeus was raised in secrecy are both events with disputed localities. So it comes to pass that several villages might claim to be the birthplace of a famous hero, or a dozen mountains named as the lair of the same dragon. According to the Cretans, for example, Zeus was born on Crete near Mt. Ida. Little known, however, is that the Arcadians believed—according to the poet Callimachus—that Zeus was born in Arcadia, on Mt. Lykaion. There is a ridge, there, which derives its name from the same word as “Crete” and, the Arcadians even point to a specific cave where Rhea gave birth—just as the Cretans do on Ida.
In the specific case of Conang’s tower academics fixate on the roots of place-names, almost exclusively. It’s an attitude that results in the advance of theories, which, hinge on strange convolutions of language and transliterations in order to justify their position. Tory’s impressive appearance from the coast, which might reasonably be described as ‘towering’, is poetic enough. The idea that the island lacks a beach for the legendary battle to play out; the battle which was the actual substance of the myth itself; can be set aside as flowery language, or as a flight of literary fancy invented by a genre author, not unlike we might find on an end-cap at the local bookstore.
Morris, for his part, suggests Dernish island in County Sligo for the likely home of Conang’s tower—for these reasons in addition to his own etymological redress of the situation. As it happens, Dernish is even more well suited to a fortress than Morris suggests in his own writings. Dernish is a tidal island, meaning that when the tide is low, it is accessible by land. This specific fact sets the stage for the distracted Nemedians and Fomorians to be swept away by the sudden spring tide. However, Morris doesn’t go further into this geographical point, perhaps thinking his argumentation already sufficient.
Unfortunately, Tory island is still broadly accepted as the home of Conang, so it will serve to consider more generally the purpose of a fortress. In locating the ideal fortress there is a misconception that it should be situated at the most desolate, furthest removed location. This concept labors under the illusion that there it would be the most difficult to assail. Aside from the fact that it would also be the most difficult to supply, it could not serve any function aside from some last futile respite. Futile, because no siege need be mounted on a distant mountain or desolate island if they can be deprived of resources from more arable regions. The primary utility of a fortress is as a force multiplier, allowing a smaller army to keep a larger at bay, while preventing that army’s passage around it with the threat of the garrison attacking their baggage train. So, broadly speaking, a fortress is best situated along a major artery of travel so as to control all movement through the area. The more centrally located the fortress, the broader its area of influence can be and the better it can serve as a deterrent to, or in mitigation of opposing armies.
The position of a fortress on a tidal island is hardly unprecedented. The coming and going of the tide allows the sea to form a more effective, and perilous moat than any man-made trench. That the drawbridge is only lowered on a tidal calendar is a small price to pay. The region hosts several famous fortifications on tidal islands to this day. Mont-Saint Michel in Normandy, Saint Michaels Mount in Cornwall, and Castle Tioram in Lochaber were all built on tidal islands. Mont-Saint Michel and Castle Tioram both served as seats for their ruling lords, and all three proved pivotal points of contention for ruling the regions in which they were situated. They manage this because they straddle well the line between defensibility of position, and adjacencies to major thoroughfares to threaten attack. Any fortress which cannot threaten attack on major roads for the movement of troops and supplies can be summarily circumvented at little cost.
Thus, while Tory is isolated at the far northern point of Ireland and adrift in the sea, Dernish by contrast is more centrally located. Still northerly, but stationed along the main coastal roads moving north and south and east while also defending Sligo bay. Only in consideration of the source material as an account of men, who must live as we live, and think as we think can the legend be resolved reasonably with its setting. Holding our ancestors at arms length, disdaining them as foolish, credulous, and fearful, is perhaps only to accuse them of what we most fear in ourselves. It’s an attitude that creates an academic distance across which we can discern precious little of our history, and because of which, we deprive ourselves of our inheritance.