IRISH HARBINGERS OF DEATH AND REAPERS OF THE SOUL

celtic-harbinger-of-death.jpg

Many a conversation in Ireland starts with ‘do you know who’s dead?’ Death is a normal topic of discussion any self-respecting Seanchái (Irish Storyteller) will include death and haunting in his tale. In modern day Ireland the customs of old still remain and the event is treated with weighted respect and tradition.  We seem to have a fascination and fear of our own mortal demise which stems back to our ancient roots and the safeguarding of the soul.

For the majority, it isn’t so much the dread of death itself, but what happens to the spirit and where it goes afterwards.  There have always been the takers of souls in the form of demons, fairies, spirits and other ethereal beings.  Over the centuries the Irish have got wise and found different ways to repel or hide from those looking to reap the soul and cast it to eternal damnation – or worse.

In order to find the right protection from these creatures of darkness, you have to know who they are and what they want.  Some are merely harbingers; others seek to harvest your very essence of being.  Those such as the Banshee will (mostly) just warn you that death is imminent, however there are two terrifying beings you should avoid at all costs.

SLUAGH

Once thought to be Angels that have tumbled from the grace of God, the Sluagh Sidhe actually have far more sinister origins and purpose.  Can you imagine how evil you have to be, that your soul is deemed too tainted for the fires of Hades and you are rejected by Satan himself? Well that is who the Sluagh are – souls of sinners not wanted by Heaven or Hell, destined to roam the Earth and take the departed for no reason other than the thrill of the hunt and to add to their ever growing number.

Unlike other Sidhe (fairies), the Sluagh are unable to walk this mortal coil.  They ride on the wind as a host, unable to touch the ground.  They travel as a flock and to all intents and purposes look like a conspiracy of ravens, which is probably one of the reasons the raven is seen as a portent of death.  As the howling wind and darkening sky take hold they close in and it is clear they are not bird like at all.  With wizened, leathery wings and gnarled, skeletal frames, these twisted creatures fly in from the west and seek out the homes of the dying.  This is why one of the traditions that still holds today is to close any westerly facing windows when a loved one is taking a last breath.

Sadly, not every innocent (or indeed not so innocent) soul escapes the clutches of the evil Sluagh and these misfortunes are caught up in the host of the soul hunters, not to touch the Earth again or reach Heaven or Hell for all eternity.

THE DULLAHAN

Headless horseman

The Dullahan and before him Crom Dubh, are descended from the god Crom Cruaich and are synonymous with dark rituals, death and folklore.

Crom Cruaich was first introduced to Ireland some time before the arrival of the Tuatha Dé Danann.  Tigernmas was one of the first High Kings of Ireland and as a Milesian brought the worship of this deathly idol to Ireland, building a shrine at the top of Magh Slécht in County Cavan in order to win favour from his god.

King Tigernmas and most of his troops mysteriously died on Magh Slécht on the night of Samhain, now known as Halloween, as they worshipped their dark, sacrificial deity.  As the centuries passed, Crom Dubh evolved from Crom Cruaich and became a worshipped figure in his own right.  He is still left ‘offerings’ in rural parts of Ireland today on Crom Dubh Sunday.

The darkest incarnation of the sacrificial god however, is the Dullahan, also known as Gan Ceann, meaning without a head.  Crom Dubh 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 by beheading that gave Crom Cruaich/Dubh his power.

For centuries the Celts have believed the head to be incredibly powerful, both the sacred and physical resting place of the soul.  Warriors would decapitate their foes and keep them to ward off evil and gain more power.  Those believed to have died as deviants would have stones placed in their mouths to stop the evil soul escaping.  It is no surprise therefore, that one of Ireland’s most feared unearthly beings incorporates all of the Celtic beliefs over the ages.

Gan Ceann is a part of the ‘Unseelie court’ of the fairy realm, filled with the nastiest and darkest of the Sidhe and his job is to reap your soul.  He carries his head in the crook of his arm, black eyes darting from the mottled, decaying flesh stretched thinly across his skull, searching for his prey.

The Dullahan carries a whip made from the spine of a human corpse as he stands on his wagon.  The wheel spokes are made of thigh bone and covered with dried human skin and the coach is pulled by a jet black horse with eyes of glowing embers.

The headless horseman has supernatural vision and when he senses a soul for the taking he holds his head high, seeing across landscapes, through windows and into the darkest corners of the most remote homes.

The soul taker does not stop for anyone and all locks swing open, no one is safe.  If you get in his way, at best your eyes will be lashed out with his whip or the Dullahan will throw a bowl of human blood upon you.  The stain cannot be removed and you are marked as his next target.

Certain festivals increase the power of The Dullahan and this is a time to stay in and draw your curtains tightly.  If you are out in the still of night, there is no protection from this agent of death.  He does however fear one thing – gold. Throwing a piece in his path may make him back off for a while and may be the only thing that will save you.

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 he finds his quarry and speaks their name aloud, their spirit is brought forth to be devoured.

So we closed our west facing windows and turned mirrors so souls were not trapped.  We paid Sin Eaters to take our transgressions and clear a path to Heaven. We left food as offerings to the Sidhe and the departed that they may look favorably upon us.  We hired Keeners to cry at wakes so as not to invoke the Hounds of Hell, sent to collect the dead and take them to eternal torment.  All in the name of saving our souls.

The fate of the spirit is of more concern to the Irish than death itself and over the centuries protection of the soul has taken precedence over anything else. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what protections are put in place however, as the malevolent search for souls by the Dullahan and the Sluagh is too powerful and relentless.  All we can do is the best we can in this life, maybe close the odd window at the right time, oh, and carry a bit of gold in our pockets – just in case!

BANSHEE

Abhartach

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.  For those who have been strong enough not to succumb to either? She will rip you to death with her bare hands.

THE FOXES OF GORMONSTON

 

 

Gormanston 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.

HELLHOUNDS

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

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 chaperons, 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.

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.

 

Raven

Raven

So we closed our west facing windows and turned mirrors so souls were not trapped.  We paid Sin Eaters to take our transgressions and clear a path to Heaven. We left food as offerings to the Sidhe and the departed that they may look favorably upon us.  We hired Keeners to cry at wakes so as not to invoke the Hounds of Hell, sent to collect the dead and take them to eternal torment.  All in the name of saving our souls.

The fate of the spirit is of more concern to the Irish than death itself and over the centuries protection of the soul has taken precedence over anything else. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what protections are put in place however, as the malevolent search for souls by the likes of the Dullahan and the Sluagh is too powerful and relentless.  All we can do is the best we can in this life, maybe close the odd window at the right time, oh, and carry a bit of gold in our pockets – just in case!

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THE DARK EMERALD ISLE -MAGIC, MYTHS AND MONSTERS

Triqetra

For generations, children of Ireland have been reared on mythology and folklore. Of course to us they are far more than the tales of ancient legends, they are where we are from and define who we are now.  From Cú Chulainn to Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Salmon of Knowledge to the triple goddess The Morrigan, giants, demi gods and creatures from the ethereal realm have always been a part of our lives.

Most of Ireland’s regional and national festivals evolved from the gods and goddesses of ancient times, especially from the Tuatha Dé Danann, deities deemed as the forefathers of Irish culture and civilization.  Of course the Formorians, a wild and altogether darker and more sinister supernatural race, still have their part to play.

The goddess Brigid is immortalized in the spring feast of Imbolc and Saint Brigid’s Day, while Lughnasa is the harvest festival in the name of the god Lugh.  Lugh was actually the son of a king of the Tuatha Dé Danann and his mother a Formorian.  His games known as the Tailteann were a test of strength and agility among his people.  Today these games have become known as the Gaelic Games, played in every village, town and county throughout Ireland.

Lughnasa

Fear is at the source of the majority of folklore tales and practices, particularly in relation to death and the protection of the soul as well as safeguarding against the ethereal creatures of darkness. The festival of Samhain is a prime example, taking place at the end of October intertwining the light and dark, shielding against bad spirits and misfortune, but also welcoming back the dead with open arms.

The fear for celebrants was that malevolent spirits and evil entities could also cross with their loved ones as could the Devil himself.  As well as the dead, homeowners had to contend with the fairies travelling abroad to create mischief.  Gifts in the form of food or milk would be left on doorsteps to guarantee a fairy blessing and anyone foolish enough to not do so would be subject to pranks by the cheeky wee folk at best and victim to a fairy curse at worst.

Without a doubt the most terrifying of these supernatural beings are the harbingers of death.  Crom Dubh was the sacrificial god associated with death and slaughter and his incarnation was The Dullahan, a part of the ‘Unseelie court’ of the fairy realm.   The Unseelie fairies are those deemed the most evil and malicious of all the otherworld entities. Also known as Gan Ceann, meaning without a head, The Dullahan hunts the souls of the dying in the night.

 

Dullahan

Dullahan

Banshees have forever been known as portents of death and the goddess Clíodhna was the very first of these wailing spirits seeking death for revenge and torment as well as calling on those due to die. Individual families often having their own personal Banshee heralding a death to this very day.

From these gods and goddesses an entire culture and belief system has grown, with Ireland being home to a myriad of ethereal creatures and spirits, from both the ‘good’ Seelie Court and ‘sinister’ Unseelie Court.

Once again fear is the driving force behind the behaviour and response to these creatures and their accompanying threat, with fortification rites being fundamental.  Druidic runes for example focus on strength, energy, health and protection.  The markings on runes tend to come from Ogham, an ancient language of Ireland uncovered by archaeological finds over the centuries by way of Ogham Stones.  These Stones have been found all over Ireland, usually associated with burial stones of ancient kings and warriors, however they are not of the past – Druidic practices are not just ongoing in modern Ireland but growing in popularity.

In previous centuries much of the population of Ireland couldn’t read or write and hexes, protection spells and rituals involved symbolism to get the point across.  A Piseóg is a curse, placed on feuding neighbors, competing farmers and so on.  Often recognized by a circle of eggs found in the hay or a talisman placed on a wall, they are set to bring misfortune on the home.

egg piseóg

The power of the Piseóg lies in fear, a farmer would be so terrified of the curse he would destroy his own crops and cattle.  But these curses can’t still be happening today can they?  Tell that to the terrified man in Kerry I spoke to recently, who found a circle of eggs on his boundary wall and hasn’t slept properly since, his mind trying to figure out who would curse him and why.

What of the cute and friendly leprechaun? Don’t kid yourself! There are several types of leprechaun and not all of them guard a crock of gold! Around for over 1000 years, the leprechaun is descended from the Tuatha Dé Danann and are a part of the Sidhe or Fairy family.  The name Leprechaun has two sources, both from old Irish.  The first is ‘Leath Bhrogan’, meaning shoe maker and the second is Luacharmán meaning small body.

Leprechauns like to keep themselves to themselves and really don’t like mortals – or each other.  Very much loners they are happiest in their own intoxicated company, however there is one you should be afraid of and that is the Fear Dearg which translates as ’Red Man’.  Recognized by his blemished yellowy skin, Fear Dearg is dressed head to foot in red and his greatest delight is your fear and dread.  He has the ability to make your nightmare a reality.

leprechaun

Of course this is all just the tip of the iceberg.  We have Fairy Shock Troops riding the wind, devastating farmlands and cattle just for kicks, spirits of the eternally damned wandering the earthly realm looking for Irish souls to steal, serpents, mermaids and hellhounds.  We have the Púca, a shapeshifting creature who terrorizes the night and ghosts, demons and the Devil himself.

If you thought Saint Patrick had driven all the paganism and darkness from Ireland, you would be wrong. Far from Christianity banishing these beliefs and rituals, the early monks actually documented these mythological events into such manuscripts as the Book of Leinster and the Annals of the Four Provinces.  Instead of turning the Irish away from their gods and goddesses, the clergy fashioned their stories into those of Saints such as Saint Brigid.  This is why Christian and Pagan stories are intertwined in much the same way Irish History and Mythology can never be separated and why we are great storytellers, it’s in our blood, heritage and very essence of being.

Ireland is a land rich in mythology and folklore, mixed with dark history and truth, bound neatly in fear, magic and excitement.  Welcome to the Emerald Isle!

 

IRELAND’S STRANGEST LAWS

dublin-four-courts

Ireland is a nation with a long, bloody and somewhat peculiar history with laws to match. Over numerous centuries we have been subject to Pagan Law, Brehon Law, Church Law and more than a few dubious by-laws to name just a few. Of course, being Irish we like to amuse and have the craic and some of our bygone regulations do just that! Here are my strangest Irish Laws!

Suicide

Up until 1993 Suicide was a punishable offence under Irish Criminal Law. More bizarrely, until 1964, the penalty for Suicide was…death by hanging.

Witchcraft

Florence-Newton

The Witchcraft Act of 1735 stated that “Any person who shall pretend or exercise to use any type of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or pretend knowledge in any occult or craft or science shall for any such offence suffer imprisonment at the time of one whole year and also shall be obliged to obscursion for his/her good behaviour.” This meant that whether you were a Master Sorcerer cursing thousands or a charlatan soothsayer, the penalty was the same. This Act was not revoked until 2006.

Murder and Theft

Killers and robbers were for centuries given trial by way of ‘ordeal by water’. Prisoners were cast into the nearest deep body of water and if they floated they were acquitted. That sounds fair until you realise that a millstone was tied to them before they were tossed into the murky depths.

For a long time, execution was deemed the last resort for a murderer as it was felt a financial penalty would be more useful. There were two types of fine payable. One was a fixed rate regardless of the deceased. The second was an honour fine and the amount was based on kinship and status. In the event the murderer was unable to pay the fine, the victim’s family took ownership of the convicted felon and had a few options. The first was to just keep the murderer until payment was given. The second was to sell him on. The final choice was to kill him – of course then you have to pay his family and so it goes on…

Marriage

Handfast

Until the 1920’s in Teltown, County Meath, if a man and a woman walked towards one another on Saint Bridget’s Day, they could pronounce themselves legally wed.

Brehon Law was first documented in the 8th Century and related to many Pagan customs and ceremonies. There were several levels of ‘marriage’ relating to status, property and so on making it very complicated. Divorce and dissolution of marriage however, were a much simpler affair! A woman could call an end to her marriage after one year for a myriad of reasons including pretty much boredom. She would walk away with all she brought with her, plus everything she gained during the marriage including property provided she was a good wife. A man was legally allowed to hit his wife, however everytime he did he had to pay for it. Quite literally in fact to the point where some wife beaters would be left penniless!

Trinity College Doctrine

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It has been for centuries, illegal to walk through the Trinity College Campus without carrying a sword. Oddly enough it doesn’t seem to get enforced much! Of course, if you were a stickler for the rules, carrying that sword gave you entitlement to drink wine as you sat your exams.

As if carrying that sword didn’t give you enough power, it is said that on one day a year Protestants were able to climb the Trinity bell tower called the Campanile and shoot a Catholic. Not sure what degree that would be for!

Fast and Penance by Law

In 1815 an order came from Ireland that the people of Ireland were to offer up a prayer of thanks for the Battle of Waterloo.

Prior to this in 1665, a law was issued that the people of Ireland should fast and give penance on the first Wednesday of each month in a bid to rid London of the Bubonic Plague. With the Great Fire of London not far behind, you would wonder what the Irish were praying for!

Beyond The Pale

The Pale was an area outside of Dublin City Centre which the English used as the base for their rule in Ireland and became full of English settlers. In 1590 a law was passed to prevent the sale of horses in The Pale and the penalty was death. The reason? The Crown did not want the English settlers trading with the Irish Clans who lived…wait for it…beyond The Pale! Yes, that’s EXACTLY where that saying comes from!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE CURSES, RITUALS AND MAGIC OF LOUGH GUR

Lough Gur Feature Image - Liam McNamara

Deep in County Limerick, nestled at the foot of Knockadoon Hill and Cnoc Áine, lie the mystical waters of Lough Gur. The lake itself is replenished by a series of underground springs and forms the shape of a horseshoe, which ties in nicely with the tale I am about to tell.

The land surrounding Lough Gur has history more than 6000 years old and has been a place of worship and settlements dating back to the Neolithic period.  Throughout the Bronze Age and Iron Age it was home to local tribes and this continued into early Christianity and Medieval times.

As well as the discovery of Beaker Pottery, a more substantial find was discovered in the shape of what is now known as the ‘Sun Shield of Lough Gur’. Straight out of the Bronze Age, this Yetholm-type piece of armory originates from the Scottish Borders and is one of only a handful that remain in the world.

The concentric circle design of the shield imitates that of a sun, which lends itself to the overall purpose and ceremonial importance of Lough Gur and the lands that touch the waters.

Within the grounds of Lough Gur stand two castles – Bourchier’s Castle was built for Sir George Bourchier, son of the Earl of Bath during his time in Ireland in the late 16th century.

Lough Gur castle - Liam McNamara

The other is a Norman fortress known as the Black Castle. It was used during the Desmond Rebellion after the Earl of Desmond relinquished his English attire and status and rejoined his Irish bretheren.

Ireland’s Stonehenge

Stone Circle Grange - Liam McNamara

The Stone Circle of Grange is the largest of its kind in Ireland and is also known as ‘Lios na Grainsi’ or ‘Stones of the Sun’. It pre-dates much of Stonehenge and has been a place of mystical, ceremonial and sacrificial significance for centuries.

With standing stones averaging a height of over nine feet, the circle of continuous uprights spans a diameter of just under one hundred and fifty feet. There are a total of 113 standing stones and the entire structure is banked and custom made for ritualistic purpose.

Crom Dubh

The largest stone of this awe-inspiring construction is more than thirteen feet high and is called Rannach Crom Dubh, or the division of Crom Dubh and weighs more than forty tons.

Crom Dubh is descended from the god Crom Cruaich and is synonymous with dark rituals, death and folklore.

Crom Cruaich was first introduced to Ireland some time before the arrival of the Tuatha Dé Danann.  Tigernmas was one of the first High Kings of Ireland and as a Milesian brought the worship of this deathly idol to Ireland, building a shrine at the top of Magh Slécht in County Cavan to win favour from his god.

King Tigernmas and most of his troops mysteriously died on Magh Slécht on the night of Samhain, now known as Halloween, as they worshipped their dark, sacrificial deity.  As the centuries passed, Crom Dubh evolved from Crom Cruaich and became a worshipped figure in his own right throughout Ireland, with Lough Gur clearly no exception.

Druids and Festivals

The entire area is soaked in druidic symbolism and ritual intent. Overall the circle is a giant astronomical calendar, in full alignment of the summer solstice. The stones themselves carry an acoustical phenomenon whereby the circle resonates with sound at certain points.

The celebration of the summer solstice continues to this day along with the festival of St, John’s Night Eve on 23rd of June.

The eve of the feast of Saint John the Baptist has been celebrated in Lough Gur since the formation of the early Christian fort known as Carraig Aille.

A bonfire would be ignited at sunset on 23rd June and kept aflame until the small hours of the following morning. Prayers and ritual blessings would take place to ensure plentiful crops and to protect against drowning for the coming year.

Celebrations continued through the night including music and dance as well as games to prove prowess, strength and agility among the men. Women would be invited to jump the fire and the way in which the flames responded would supposedly reveal infidelity and misdeeds.

Áine – Queen of the Fairies

Aine

Áine is the Irish goddess of summer and prosperity, although her story is synonymous with the winter festival of Samhain.

Born of the Tuatha de Danann, Áine was said to be the daughter of The Dagda, an all-powerful god who was a father figure with immense potency and influence. He is also tied strongly to Crom Cruaich and Crom Dubh.

8th century text tells of Ailill Olom, King of Munster attending the festival of Samhain. He lay down to rest on what is now known as Cnoc Áine or Knockainey. When he woke, Ailill discovered all the grass had been stripped clean from the mountainside during the night.

Bewildered, the son of Eoghan Mór sought an explanation from a seer after travelling to the province of Leinster. Fearcheas mac Comáin was so fascinated by this strange turn of events, he journeyed with Eoghan back to Munster in time for the following Samhain celebrations.

As they held vigil on the Limerick mountainside, Ailill fell asleep.  Believing themselves to be unseen, the King of the Sidhe appeared with Áine at his side. As a hidden Fearcheas crept up and murdered the Fairy King, Ailill awoke and saw the incredible vision of exquisiteness before him. Overcome with lust, he raped Áine and in fury and anguish she tore off his ear.

The outraged goddess had reaped the ultimate revenge on her power-hungry aggressor. Under ancient Irish law, no man was fit to rule unless his body was complete. By tearing off Ailill’s ear, she had forced him to rescind his crown.

Geróid Iarla and the Curse of Lough Gur

Lough Gur Main - Liam McNamara

The Fairy Queen was a bewitching beauty who continued to have mortal men lusting and coveting her as the centuries passed.

Áine came down from her throne on the mountain and removed her mystical cloak to bathe in the spring waters of Lough Gur. The Earl Fitzgerald was passing by and was enchanted by her naked form. Determined to have her, he took her cloak which left her with no choice but to do his bidding.

Their night on the banks of the lake resulted in a son who became known as The Magician. Áine returned to her land of the Sidhe and her son was raised by Geróid Iarla on the condition his inherent magical abilities were not to be encouraged in any way.

As a young man, Geróid discovered he could shrink himself into a bottle and jump back out again. When he showed his father, the old Earl could not contain his astonishment and in his excitement the young man jumped into the Lough, transformed into a goose and was never heard from again.

In absolute dismay, the goddess came down from her throne and cursed the man responsible for the loss of her son. The Earl Fitzgerald was imprisoned beneath the lake and every seven years he rises from the waters astride his horse shod in silver.

As he rides around the lake he looks hopefully at the horseshoes of silver on his mare’s hooves. It is said that when the silver is finally worn away, Geróid Iarla can walk among mankind once again.

As for Áine, she continues to watch over the sacred lake and is sometimes seen at Samhain, celebrating the magic and mystery of Lough Gur.

Lough Gur 3 - Liam McNamara

The incredible photographs within this piece are kindly provided by the talented Irish photographer Liam McNamara of Ireland Through My Lens Photography. Follow his work here:

https://www.facebook.com/Irelandfrommylensphotography/

 

 

GODS OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS – LUGHNASA, CROM DUBH AND SAINT PATRICK

Lughnasa

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-by-Bryan-Perrin

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

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.

balor

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

Tailteann

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’.

Bilberry Sunday

bilberry

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

croagh patrick.jpg

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. 

ST. STEPHEN’S DAY AND THE KING OF ALL BIRDS

WrenBoys

‘The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,

On St. Stephen’s day was caught in the furze.

His body is little but his family is great

So rise up landlady and give us a trate.

And if your trate be of the best

Your soul in heaven can find its rest.

And if your trate be of the small

It won’t plaze the boys at all.

A glass of whiskey and a bottle of beer

Merry Christmas and a glad New Year.

So up with the kettle and down with the pan

And give us a penny to bury the wran.

Although there are many variations of the infamous Wren Boys’ song, these particular words are the ones I recall being sang to me by my mother at Christmas time. The history of the Wren Boys and Wren’s Day is a long and complex one with a myriad of potential meanings and beginnings. It must be said however, that the tradition itself is very much a stalwart of the Irish Christmas and one that is still very much a part of St. Stephen’s Day celebrations today.

What are Wren Boys and Wren’s Day?

Wren Boys historic

Wren’s Day or Lá an Dreoilín can be dated back in one form or another to the second century and probably started in connection with Samhain as opposed to Christmas. Usually found in rural areas, this tradition and celebration centres around the wren, an iconic bird in Irish Mythology and Pagan and Christian religions.  On St. Stephen’s day, boys use to dress up in brightly coloured clothes and were known as the Wren Boys.  Others would dress in suits made from straw and be known as ‘Mummers‘.

Until the early 20th century, a real wren would be hunted and placed in a makeshift cage at the top of a pole that would be carried by the Wren leader. The challenge in the hunt of course is that the wren is scarce in winter! The Wren Boys and the Mummers would march through small townlands and villages, demanding money to keep the bird alive. At the end of the day the money would be used to throw a celebratory gathering for the townsfolk.  The boys would be joined by musicians and would hand out feathers to those who donated for good luck.

The pole would take centre stage at the celebrations, being bedecked in ribbons, evergreens and flowers and the locals would dance around it. As times began to change, the real wren was replaced with a fake bird, that would be hidden for the Wren Boys and Mummers to find as opposed to hunting the wren.

So why the Wren?

Celtic Mythology

Clíodhna

Clíodhna was a Celtic goddess of feasting and hunting, with her home in Munster and was believed to be the original Banshee. Whilst Clíodhna had a regal reputation and was worshipped, she also had a sinister side.  She would lure men through her beauty and powers of seduction and they would drown off the coast of Cork, where she resided.  Finally, one man discovered her secrets of magic and power and devised a way to destroy her.  Realising this Clíodhna transfigured into a wren and made her escape back to the Other Realm.

Druids

Druid

For centuries those who practise Paganism have revered the wren and viewed it as a symbol of divinity and wisdom. The wren was considered so precious by the Druids, that curses were cast upon those who sought to steal eggs or hatchlings, leaving homes destroyed and bodies mutilated.  The wren would also be used in the Pagan practice of Divination, each chirp and sound deemed a message for the Druid High Priests.  Indeed, the Irish word for wren, Dreoilín, translates as ‘Druid Bird and as Samhain approached, the wren was a symbol of the old year and the robin a celebration of the new.

 Christianity and Saint Stephen.

Stoning Saint Stephen

Although Saint Stephen was not Irish, he became a patron saint and the subject of an Irish National Holiday. One of the original deacons selected by the Apostles, Saint Stephen was outspoken with his teachings and distaste for the hypocrisy of the Jewish Authorities.  A warrant was issued for his arrest and while in hiding it is said that a wren gave away his location by chattering and flapping its wings.  Stephen was captured and stoned to death, making him the first official martyr of Christianity.

It was these events that enabled the Christian Clerics in Ireland in the Dark Ages to convince people to turn against Paganism, citing the wren as a symbol of evil.

The Wren of Treason

There are two events in Irish history where the wren is said to have caused the demise of Irish forces. Once during the Viking invasion, Irish soldiers had an opportunity to stage an attack as the enemy slept. A single wren landed on the drum of a soldier and began pecking at crumbs, creating a cacophony that awoke the Vikings and led to the slaughter of the home forces.  The very same turn of events occurred centuries later during a planned ambush on Cromwellian troops.

 Wren’s Day in Modern Ireland

Dingle-Wren-Day

As with most Irish Folklore and Tradition, the origins are an entwining of Christianity, Paganism and Celtic Mythology, so the definitive meaning of the wren and Wren’s Day will never be truly known. The practice continues however in small towns and particularly parts of Sligo, Leitrim and Kerry, with Dingle having an extraordinary display of costume and colour every St. Stephen’s Day and in prior years would put on a display of early combat.

The Wrens and Mummers now consist of men, women and children and the focus is very much on traditional music, with the Wrens travelling between pubs and collecting money for charity and performing in retirement homes and hospitals.

So whatever the reasoning behind the tradition of the Wren Boy, it is one that remains in Irish culture and the Wren itself is forever associated with Irish religion, folklore, myth and tradition.

Wren

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.