LUGHNASA – THE IRISH FESTIVAL OF HARVEST

   Lughnasa

As the evenings grow shorter, thoughts start to turn to autumn and like the other seasons, the Ancient Irish celebrated with a festival.

ORIGINS

There are four festivals in total, Samhain to mark the end of harvest and the start of Winter, Imbolc to celebrate the start of Spring, Beltane brings forth Summer and Lughnasa (or Lughnasdh) marks the start of Harvest.

Unlike the other celebrations, the festival of harvest is not a celebration of fire, but of water and the earth and a crossing from the light into the dark.

Although perhaps the least known, Lughnasa was quite possibly the most important celebration. It marked the beginning of the harvesting of the land and the acceptance of the rites and offerings by the god Lugh were crucial for the successful reaping of crops for the winter.

THE GOD LUGH 

Lugh in battle

Lugh in battle

Lugh was an ancient High King and god. His father was of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the supernatural race of people who excelled in the Arts, Sciences and Medicine to name a few. His mother was of Formorian race, demi-gods who celebrated chaos and wildness.

The couple’s marriage was forged through the need for a coalition and Lugh was born. As he grew older, Lugh joined with King Nuada of the Tuatha Dé Danann to defeat the Formorians and their evil leader Balor, during the battle of Magh Tuireadh at Tara.

Although highly intelligent and gifted, the Tuatha Dé Danann were unskilled in agriculture. At the point of victory, Lugh forced the remaining King Bres on the battlefield to promise to teach the super-race how to farm the lands in return for his life.

Lugh’s foster mother was a fertility goddess named Tailtiu, who was said to have died of exhaustion after clearing the land and preparing the fields of Ireland for the sowing of crops.

Upon her death the Aonach, a congress brought together on the death of a king or queen, was convened and the funeral traditions commenced.

THE FIRST FESTIVAL AND THE TAILTEANN GAMES

Tailteann

As was the way, the gathering was a place for games, remembrance, celebration and the proclaiming of new laws.

The funeral pyre was lit, mourning songs and chanting began and the first Tailteann Games took place in honour of Lugh’s foster mother in the place now known as Teltown in County Meath.

As a testament to both the Tuatha Dé Danann and Formorians as well as Lugh’s own strengths as both a warrior and master craftsman, the games were contests in both physical and mental agility.

Competitions for physical prowess included athletics, swordfighting, archery, horseracing and swimming, while other challenges were in the Arts. Storytelling, song and dance were of high importance and awards went to the best smiths, weavers and armourers of the day.

CERMONIES AND TRADITIONS

From the time of the first festival, new laws were passed.   One such law was the Brehon Law for marriage. On the day of Lughnasa, there would be a mass wedding among clans and that marriage would stand good for one year and one day, after which time it could be nullified if either party so wished.

To symbolise the onset of harvest and in offering to Lugh, the cutting of the first corn would take place and it would be carried to the highest point and laid as a tribute. Bilberries would be gathered and eaten with every meal and there would be the ritual sacrificing of an old bull, the flesh shared among the celebrants.

In later years, the introduction of Christianity saw some changes to the festival with pilgrimages to Holy Wells and climbs to the top of Croagh Patrick becoming a longstanding part of Lughnasa celebrations.

CURRENT FESTIVITIES

Although Lughnasa is largely forgotten by all but New Age Pagans, its various incarnations still survive to this day.

Reek Sunday is the last Sunday in July and is the day that dedicated Christians climb to the top of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo. For centuries it was a place of Pagan Pilgrimage and would have been the site of the placing of the corn, however due to its associations with Ireland’s Patron Saint, it has become the focal point of the Catholic year in Ireland at the time of Lughnasa.

Reek Sunday

Reek Sunday

Bilberry Sunday ties directly into Lughnasa, with the first picking of the Bilberry and the tradition of matchmaking and courtship. Having died out, it is now in the infancy of revival and celebrations take place on the last Sunday in July at Bri Leith in County Longford.

bilberry

Crom Dubh was not just known as the sacrificial god from whom the terrifying Dullahan was born, but was also a god of fertility and human sacrifices were made in exchange for fertile land and bountiful cattle. Thankfully the sacrifices are no more, however the last Sunday in July is referred to as Crom Dubh Sunday in rural areas and mountain climbs and celebrations in the name of the dark crooked one take place.

Crom-Dubh-by-Bryan-Perrin

Puck Fair is Ireland’s oldest known fair and takes place each August in Kilorglin, County Kerry. Although records would have it date back to the beginning of the 17th century, it is purported to have evolved directly from the first festivals of Lughnasa.

This theory has more substance with the fertile symbol of the Goat being the embodiment of Puck Fair. For three days every August celebrations take place, beginning with the capturing of a wild goat from the mountains which is placed in the centre of the town.

On these days there are well established horse and cattle fairs, street markets, music, food and celebration.

On the last day a queen is chosen and together with the goat they parade through Kilorglin as the King and Queen of Puck, after which the goat is released back into the wild.

Puck

As is traditional with all Ancient Irish festivals, Lughnasa begins at sunset on August 1st and that time is fast approaching. Despite living in a time where the importance of farming and agriculture are lost among our modern distractions and blinkered vision, the celebration of Lughnasa remains in many guises as a firm part of Irish culture.

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CELTIC HARBINGERS OF DEATH

Celtic Harbinger of Death

For centuries clans and bloodlines have been forewarned of imminent death within their walls by way of portents and harbingers.

I first learned of such things as a child when my mother would tell me of the banshees and the accounts of local families here in County Limerick, who would have strange phenomena occur during times of impending bereavement.

In Ireland it is extremely common for creatures and ethereal beings to appear in the days and moments preceding the demise of a relative. The most terrifying aspect is that one of these harbingers attaches itself to a lineage and hangs over them forever more, particularly when it comes to the families of high social standing and nobility.

THE FOXES OF GORMONSTON

 

Gormonston Castle

 

In Irish Peerage the title of Baron or Viscount of Gormonston belongs to the patriarch of the Preston family and has been around since the late fourteenth century, their residence being Gormonston castle in Drogheda, County Meath.

The castle remained in the family until the 1950’s when it was sold to a Holy Order to create a school. Prior to that however, it was the location of one of the strangest occurrences for generations.

With the first instance reported in the seventeenth century, it was documented that the foxes in the surrounding countryside would know when the head of the Preston household was dying, even if that fact was unbeknown to the family themselves.

Arriving in twos and amassing under the window of the Viscount’s bed chamber, the foxes would howl and cry all night long. Servants would do their utmost to drive the animals away, only for them to return to their place of vigil.

Once the Viscount had passed away, the foxes soundlessly faded into the night.

fox

BANSHEES

 

Banshee

Banshee

Banshees have forever been known as portents of death, however there have been sightings of these wailing spirits seeking death for revenge and torment.

This evil being has the appearance of a wretched old hag, dress shredded, matted grey hair, pointed rotting teeth and long, yellow fingernails. If she sets her mind to have you as her prey, she will stalk you, forcing you to listen to her soul wrenching scream of despair until you go insane and your own soul is lost in the depths of her evil cry.

Of course of you are lucky, you will have a quick death by looking into her blood red eyes, filled with enough loathing and agony to kill you instantly. Those strong enough not to succumb to either, are ripped apart with her bare hands.

More often than not however, the Banshee is a herald of despair and even as a child I heard tales and indeed the chilling cries through the still of the night that led to the report of a death the following morning.

In the early sixteenth century in Bunratty Castle in County Clare, it was reported that a visitor to the O’Brien family home was staying in a room overlooking the river and was woken by a piercing scream. Upon investigation the guest was horrified to see a pale deathly face floating at the window, dishevelled red hair cascading over her face.

The following morning the Lady told of her experience, to be told a family member had died in the castle in the night. The Banshee was believed to be the spirit of the wife of a worker drowned in the river by a former castle Lord, with her revenge being to bring death to descendants of the Castle.

In Dingle on John Street, the Hussey family were settled in for the night when their blood ran cold. The pitiful gut-wrenching cry of the Banshee was at their door. Thankfully due to their lowly status, it would appear to have been a case of mistaken identity, as the Banshee left and the following morning a well to do man in the fishing village, also called Hussey, was found dead.

HELLHOUNDS

 

Shuck

Shuck

Shucks, or Devil Dogs have long been written about in Irish history. They are black as the night, large, with glowing red eyes, some with cloven hooves instead of paws. Sometimes they are raised to protect treasure such as the one that breathes fire at Castle Biggs in Tipperary, others simply to forewarn of death.

Quite possibly the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles, they are seen in rural and isolated areas, although once your eyes set on the Shuck the mark of death is upon you.

In Kanturk, County Cork a local man by the name of Foley was walking home when he encountered the hell beast on the road, eyes glowing and snarling. He stood terrified as the Shuck brushed up against his leg. Unable to sleep that night, he told his family of his encounter and died just a few days later.

ORNITHOMANCY

 

Raven

Raven

Crows and Ravens have long been emblematic of death, made all the more foreboding by their predisposition to feed on carrion, the decaying flesh of animals, as well as their black plumage.

These birds were purported to be chaperones, guiding the souls of the departed into the next world as well as conduits between this world and the spirit plain.

In Ireland there are references going back to ancient times and in Celtic folklore, The Morrigan is symbolised by a crow. She is a goddess of battle, strife and sovereignty and a harbinger of doom for those men who cross her path.

 

The Morrigan

The Morrigan

No corporeal weapons were needed in order for the Morrigan to take her prey. She relied solely on magic and her ability to shapeshift at will and is known primarily for appearing as a crow to those at death’s door.

The belief has continued over the centuries that when a single raven or crow has appeared at a house, tapping on the window, a death within was looming.

In the late eighteenth century there is an account of the Ross-Lewin family in Kilchrist, in County Clare being terrorised by their own messenger of death. The father of the household was away on business and his children went to spend the evening with friends.

On returning home, they passed the old abandoned church where they saw an old hag crying and waving her hands in the air.

Thinking her crazy the terrified youth went towards her only for the old woman to vanish. They sped home and told their mother of their encounter and the matriarch expressed her fears of a death in the family.

At that moment an enormous raven landed on the window sill and tapped three times on the pane. A few days later the family were in mourning as news reached them of the death of Mr Ross-Lewin.

Of course birds of ill-news do not end there. Thrushes flying in the window and settling and white owls seen during the day are also signs of a bereavement in the home.

THE COACH OF DEATH AND THE DULLAHAN

death coach

By far the most fearsome of all the harbingers is the Headless Horseman and his Cóiste Bodhar. Unlike the other portents who are seen as messengers of death and attached to bloodlines, the Dullahan is Death and he has no master other than the sacrificial god, Crom Dubh. He will not be stopped and his malevolent call to the dying is a summoning of their very soul.

The Dullahan is believed to be an incarnation of Crom Dubh. The god did not want to be denied human souls following the introduction of Christianity and so disguised himself as the one without a head, a tribute to the sacrifices through decapitation that gave Crom Dubh his power.

He rides through the darkness on the blackest steed with glowing red eyes, breathing flame and sparks from its nostrils. The Dullahan carries a whip made from the spine of a human corpse as he stands on his coach, with wheel spokes of thigh bone and covered with dried human skin. Some say the carriage is headed by six horses, black as the darkest soul, however the rider is always the same.

The headless horseman lights his way with candles embedded into skulls, his own incandescent head that he carries, a beacon in the dead of night. He has supernatural vision and when he senses a soul for the taking he holds his head aloft, seeing for miles across fields and forests, through windows and into the darkest and dingiest of rooms.

The Dullahan is only permitted to speak once on each ride and that is to utter the name of the person who is going to die. When the horseman stops, he has found his quarry and speaks their name aloud, bringing forth their spirit to be devoured.

 

Dullahan

Dullahan

So all are harbingers of death, however with the exception of the Dullahan, are these messengers of doom a horror to be feared with the knowledge of what is to follow, or rather an old family friend, come to warn of loved ones being taken into the eternal night?

 

 

INDEPENDENCE DAY SPECIAL – 7 TRANSATLANTIC TALES OF TERROR!

As 4th July celebrations are well under way and the United States of America celebrates Independence since 1776, I took a look at 7 infamous creepy connections between the USA and Ireland and the UK.  Each starts or ends in America and each case is more chilling than the next!

Typhoid Mary, New York

Typhoid Mary

Mary Mallon was born in Cookstown, County Tyrone in 1869 and left to begin a new life in America at the age of 15.  With a nature talent for cooking, she began to take up placements in wealthy homes as a cook – and that’s when her reign of terror began.

Based in New York, from 1901, Mary left a trail of sick and dead as she moved from post to post.  Impossible to trace as she would leave as soon as typhoid took hold, she eventually changed her name as she continued to spread the disease and avoid detection.

Typhoid Mary was quarantined for the last time in 1915 and sent to Riverside Hospital on Brother Island in New York, where she remained until her death in 1938.  While only 3 deaths were officially attributed to this silent killer, many more have been linked.  Typhoid Mary continues to haunt Brother Island, proclaiming she has done nothing wrong.

Bridget Sullivan, maid of the infamous Lizzie Borden, Massachusetts

Lizzie Borden

Lizzie Borden

Bridget Sullivan was a 26 year old maid from Ireland and working for the Borden family in Fall River, Massachusetts.  In 1893 she was the star witness for the prosecution in the case against Lizzie Borden – on trial for the gruesome murder of her father and stepfather.

Both were axed multiple times in the family home, the motive being Lizzie resented a will change in favour of her stepmother.  Due to a lack of evidence, Lizzie was acquitted.

The murder house is now a B & B and is such a hotbed of paranormal activity that Ghost Adventures and Ghost Hunters TV Shows have filmed here.  Disembodied voices and apparitions are rife, however the most meaningful sighting is that of Bridget Sullivan doing her chores and trying to speak – perhaps to say what really happened that day.

RMS Queen Mary, Long Beach, California

RMS Queen Mary

The Queen Mary was a Cunard Cruise Liner built in England to compete with European superliners.  Her maiden voyage was her assigned route between Southampton and New York in 1936.  With the outbreak of the Second World War she was seconded to military service and used to ferry and deploy Allied Forces.

After more than 30 years of service, including wartime, the Queen Mary left Southampton for the last time and docked in Long Beach.  In 1971 she was officially opened as a tourist attraction and then a year later as a hotel.

In recent years she has been the subject of several paranormal investigations including television’s Ghost Hunters.

Listed in Time Magazine as one of America’s Top Ten Haunts, RMS Queen Mary is subject to the sounds of ghostly child laughter and the apparition of a sailor killed in the engine room.  There are also reports of unidentified spectres and the spirits of crew members who died when the Queen Mary collided with the HMS Curacoa just off of the coast of Ireland.

With almost 50 official deaths on board in her lifetime and more still undisclosed by the military, the British ship Queen Mary may well be one of America’s most haunted places.

Francis Tumblety, suspect in the Jack the Ripper Murders, New York and Maryland

Francis Tumblety, Jack the Ripper suspect

Francis Tumblety, Jack the Ripper suspect

Francis Tumblety was an Irish born American citizen who practiced as a doctor of sorts.  With a seeming distaste for women, he gained wealth and social standing but not without incident, as he was arrested for being involved in the Lincoln assassination.

It was while he was in London in 1888 however, the murders of five prostitutes took place that were attributed to the unknown killer labelled Jack the Ripper, and Tumblety was a prime suspect.

Having been arrested for an unconnected charge by the Metropolitan Police, he absconded and fled back to the United States once he discovered he was being investigated for the Whitechapel Murders.

The matter was publicised and Scotland Yard pursued Francis, however no extradition ever took place – Jack the Ripper was never caught.

Doctor Crippen, Murderer, Michigan.

Dr. Crippen

Hawley Harvey Crippen was a homeopathic medical practitioner in the United States.  Upon the death of his first wife, he moved to New York and remarried Cora Turner.  Together they moved to England in 1895.

Unable to sustain a decent career as his time was spent socialising and managing his wife’s failing stage career, they moved to an address in Holloway, London and took in lodgers to supplement their paltry income.

Following a January party at their home in 1910, Cora disappeared, with Crippen claiming she had returned to the U.S.

On further investigation, Scotland Yard began to suspect Crippen of foul play but there was no evidence and no body.  Spooked by the enquiries, Crippen went on the run and boarded a ship called the Montrose, bound for Canada.

Following a further extensive search of the house, human remains were discovered, buried beneath the cellar.  A wanted notice had been put out for the fugitives and the captain of the Montrose recognised Crippen and his lover.

A wireless telegram was sent to Scotland Yard and Chief Inspector Dew in charge of the case pursued on a faster ship arriving ahead of the Montrose.

Crippen was arrested and returned to London, where he was convicted and hanged on 23 November 1910.  His waxwork is one of the most notable exhibits in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors in London.

Goody Glover, Witch, Boston, Massachusetts.

Massachusetts Witch Trial

Massachusetts Witch Trial

Ann ‘Goody’ Glover was born in Ireland and during the time of the Cromwellian wars was arrested alongside her husband because of her Catholic faith.

The pair were sent to Barbados as slaves, where her husband died, tormented for his religion.  Ann and her daughter found themselves in Boston in 1680, where she took work as a servant in the home of John Goodwin.

In 1688, as the maniacal puritan obsession with wiping out sorcery was beginning to take hold, the children of the house all took ill.  The doctor attending stated that it could only have been caused by witchcraft and Goody was accused.

The eldest daughter stated that she became sick immediately after an argument with the housekeeper.  At trial Ann Glover refused to speak anything other than Irish and as such her testimony was invalid and further proof that she was a witch.

Goody Glover was convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to hang in November 1688.  While undoubtedly mentally unwell, in later years the Irish Catholic was deemed to be have been persecuted for her faith and on the 300th anniversary of her execution was memorialised and given her own commemorative day on 16th November in recognition of the injustice done.

Roanoke, the Lost Colony, North Carolina

Lost Colony of Roanoke

During the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh was tasked with founding a settlement on the east coast of North America.  In 1584, the first meetings took place with local natives on Roanoke.

The first attempt at settling were fraught with battles with indigenous dwellers and the lack of a relief fleet.  Finally Sir Francis Drake rescued the remaining settlers and returned to England.

In 1587, led by the artist and appointed Governor John White, 115 British men, women and children, including his own granddaughter arrived at Roanoke to create a new colony.  When they landed, they discovered that the few settlers who had remained previously had disappeared, only a single human skeleton remaining.

Terrified they tried to reboard the ship, however the Captain refused them passage and insisted they remain behind as instructed.  As unrest continued, Governor White returned to England to beg for leniency and the return of the settlers.

Due to the Spanish war and bad weather, White was unable to return to Roanoke until the summer of 1590, where he found nothing.  Not one colonist, one tool, the fort completely dismantled.  The men, women and children of the Roanoke British Colony had completely vanished.

The only clue was the word ‘CROATOAN’ carved into a tree.  Both English and Spanish forces began a hunt for the lost settlers, carrying on until at least 1600, believing the colony to have relocated, however they were never found.

Theories of slaughter by natives, integration with locals or relocation abounded, however no bodies, evidence or artefacts were ever found.  To this day the 115 remain the lost Colonists of Roanoke.

Happy 4th July!