Folklore and traditions of Ireland have always been intertwined with Pagan, Celtic and Christian rituals, however there is no time more evident of this strange combination of beliefs than this very Sunday. As July ends and August begins, festivals pertaining to the gods Lugh and Crom Dubh as well as pilgrimages in honour of Saint Patrick have been taking place for centuries.
The common denominators for all of these celebrations and rites are harvest and fertility. Dating back to the earliest accounts of the Fir Bolg in through to recent times, the inhabitants of Ireland would do whatever it took to ensure a bountiful yield and enough produce to sustain them during the dark and unforgiving winter months.
As of today there are several recognised festivals that take place on the last Sunday in July and the first day of August, including the Pagan celebration of Lughnasa, Crom Dubh Sunday, Garland or Bilberry Sunday and the Reek Sunday Pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick.
All of them have definitive origins and purpose, so let’s take a look at them one by one, how they all link together and how they have survived in modern Irish Society.
Crom Dubh – The Sacrificial Fertility God
Crom Dubh is a name that evolved from the Fertility god Crom Cruaich and is synonymous with dark practices and folklore. It is believed that as well as the ritual slaughter of bulls in the name of the ‘Crooked One’, human sacrifices were also offered up to ensure prosperous crops and fat, juicy cattle.
Crom Cruaich was first introduced to Ireland some time before the arrival of the Tuatha Dé Danann, a cultured race of demi-gods. A Milesian known as Tigernmas settled in Ireland and was one of the first of the High Kings. He brought the beginnings of structure to the hierarchy, including a system of coloured clothing, the more dyes, the higher your status. He also introduced idol worship and in particular the worship of the sacrificial god.
The Book of Leinster describes the idol as a golden sculpture, surrounded by twelve stone statues. The shrine stood resplendent at the peak of Magh Slécht in County Cavan and was a place of worship for those who idolized the dark god of fertility and sacrifice. It is ironic and quite disconcerting that the king who idolized Crom Cruaich and brought him so many followers should die as a result of his actions. King Tigernmas and the vast majority of his troops mysteriously died on Magh Slécht on the night of Samhain, now known as Halloween, as they worshipped their dark, sacrificial deity.
Crom Cruaich was said to have descended into obscurity and his worship ended with the arrival of Saint Patrick. The man who brought Christianity to Ireland stood on a hilltop opposite Magh Slécht and cast out his staff known as Bachal Isu, across to the Idol of Crom Cruaich, causing it to tumble and the twelve surrounding stones were devoured by the Irish landscape.
Crom Dubh descended from Crom Cruaich and became more of a worshipped figure of mythology than a god. The practice of Crom Dubh Sunday, the last Sunday in July continued down through the centuries however, with gifts of crops and produce taken to the hillside and offered to the fallen dark one. The practice is still continued in some more rural and mountainous regions of Ireland.
The darkest incarnation of the sacrificial god Crom Cruaich however, is the Dullahan, also known as Gan Ceann, meaning without a head. The creature hunts the souls of the dying in the night.
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.
Lugh of The Tuatha Dé Danann
Lugh was not only one of Ireland’s early high kings, but a demi- god. His father was of the Tuatha Dé Danann and his mother was of the Formorian race, supernatural beings 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 Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh at Tara.
Once Lugh had slain Balor with a single slingshot to his evil eye of death, Bres turned to his traitor kin Bres who was alone, weak and injured on the field of battle and Bres began to beg for his life. Although highly intelligent and gifted, the Tuatha Dé Danann were unskilled in agriculture. At his point of victory, Lugh forced King Bres to promise to teach his people how to farm the lands in return for mercy.
Lugh’s foster mother was Tailtiu, a fertility goddess who died of exhaustion after clearing the rugged and barren landscape and preparing the fields of Ireland for the sowing of crops.
Upon her death the Aonach, a congress brought together on the death of royalty, was convened and funeral traditions commenced.
Tailteann Games and The First Festival of Lughnasa
As was the way with previous funeral gatherings, it 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.
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.
As the celebration of Lughnasa continued through the generations, the first cutting of the corn would be offered in tribute to Lugh, laid upon the highest piece of ground, a tradition that was previously reserved for Crom Dubh. As with so many Irish practices, they are not let go of lightly and the sacrifice of an aged bull would take place, a remnant of the worship to the fallen but not forgotten ‘Crooked One’.
During the early Lughnasa celebrations, Bilberries would be consumed at every mealtime, as the festival tied in with the harvest time for these blueberry like fruits.
This common practice evolved into its own ritual known as Bilberry Sunday. On the last Sunday in June for generations, the young men and women of rural Ireland would climb into the mountainous areas and pick the bilberries from the heather clad and rocky terrain. It was a painstaking and long process, so during the hours of work it became common for the single ones to pair off, matches made and courtship begun.
Reek Sunday and Saint Patrick
The practice of climbing to hilltops during the worship of Crom Dubh, then Lugh evolved further with the spreading of Christianity throughout Ireland
Reek Sunday takes place on the last Sunday in July and is the day that dedicated Christians climb to the top of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, many clambering barefoot over the rocky hillside to the summit, some two and a half thousand feet high in homage to Saint Patrick and to prove their commitment to their faith.
As is typical of all of Ireland’s Christian traditions it evolved from and is firmly intertwined with Pagan and Celtic practice. For centuries it was a place of Pagan Pilgrimage and would have been the site of the placing of the corn and sacrifice for both Crom Cruaich and Lugh, however due to its associations with Ireland’s Patron Saint, it has become the focal point of the Catholic year in Ireland, even though it falls at Lughnasa, a distinctly Pagan celebration.
So while the focal point of worship and ritual may have changed over the centuries, in an agricultural and fertile land the purpose remains the same – to pray for good health, fertile lands and a bountiful harvest for the winter months and of course to give thanks.
It has become clear that regardless of Christianity, the teachings of Saint Patrick and the move away from rituals and traditions of any kind in a busy and commercially driven Irish Society, the Pagan and Celtic elements of our heritage remain and will never be forgotten.