LANDS OF CELTIC LEGEND: THE BRIDGE OF FOLKLORE BETWEEN IRELAND AND SCOTLAND

At the narrowest sailable point there are barely 12 miles between the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland and County Antrim in the north of Ireland and on a clear day you can see from one to the other.

As they are both Celtic countries in close geographical proximity it is not surprising that culturally there are so many similarities.  Ireland has been an island nation since the dawn of time, however the Kingdom of Scotland was not established until the 9th century.  Of course that isn’t to say there wasn’t anything there as the Picts and the people of Dál Riata would clearly point out!

In terms of folklore there are some distinctly Scottish ethereal beings and mystical tales of course, however many seem to have been ‘borrowed’ from their Irish counterparts over time.  So how did the Irish infiltrate Scotland and what magic and stories of the supernatural did they leave behind?

Dál Riata and Immigration

This Gaelic dominion dates back to 400 A.D and covered a part of the west of Scotland and the north east of Northern Ireland.  The Picts were much further to the north of Scotland and didn’t converse in the same Gaelic tongue as their neighbours.

After the Roman’s left Britain, the realm was quickly taken over by an ever mounting population of Irish immigrants and other Celtic speaking communities.  Safe in the knowledge they were protected by vast numbers of kinsman, the official seat of Dál Riata was moved across the sea from Ireland to Scotland.

By the 7th century, Saint Patrick had carried out his work trying to rid Ireland of Paganism and Saint Columcille had taken it upon himself to bring the same to Scotland by setting up a monastery on Iona to promote Christianity.

This, together with an influx of Norse and Saxon immigrants diluted the strong pagan Celtic gene pool and much of the established Gaelic influence faded away.  By the time Scotland was established as a kingdom in the 10th century, the Picts had overrun and more or less eliminated the people of Dál Riata.

In Ireland many of the pagan beliefs and superstitions did not succumb to Christian conversion and stood the test of time.  Although not as strong due to a mix of cultures influencing life in Scotland, many traditions and myths remained although largely hidden and confined to more rural areas.

So what was left behind?

Fionn Mac Cumhaill, Benandonner and the Giant’s Causeway

One of the first mythological tales any young Irish child learns just happens to be Scottish too.  Fionn was an Irish giant who was in an ongoing battle with his nemesis across the sea, a Scottish giant by the name of Benandonner who was larger and much more dangerous.  Temper rising, Fionn began to break off pieces of the Antrim Coast and throwing them into the sea to build a series of stepping stones across the water to finish off Benandonner.

Fionn learns that Benandonner is coming for him and is terrified so hatches a plan with his wife to scare off the intimidating ogre once and for all.  Dressed as an infant, Fionn is tucked up in a crib as the Scottish giant arrives to the house.  Benandonner looms over the helpless Oona as she informs him that Fionn is on an errand.  Making pancakes, she puts iron into some of the batch.  Handing one to Benandonner that contains the iron, he takes a bite and his tooth is broken.

Oona looks on disdainfully and says her husband eats them without any trouble.  She then proceeds to feed an untainted pancake to the ‘infant’ who gobbles it down without a bother. The giant feels the teeth of the ‘child’ and is bitten for his trouble!

Realising that if this was the offspring of Fionn, his rival must indeed have strength and power beyond anything he could imagine.  Benandonner runs back across the Causeway in terror, smashing the hexagonal shaped basalt columns as he went, leaving only that on the coast of Antrim to ensure Fionn did not follow in his wake.

The Pirate Queen of Connaught and the Gallowglass Warriors

Gallowglass

Of course the most interesting tales are those with solid historical foundation.  So what happens when you take a group of Scottish mercenaries and have them led by Ireland’s most fearsome female?

Having pillaged and plundered their way across Europe, the Vikings began to invade Britain and began to settle in the Hebrides.  The Norsemen were intelligent enough to know the benefits of interacting and becoming part of communities and began to marry local Gaelic speaking women.  These mixed marriages led to the part of the population known as Gael -Gall, translating as ‘foreigners who speak Gaelic.’

In the mid thirteenth century, the King of the Hebrides presented a hundred or so warriors born into the Gael-Galls as a gift to the King of Connaught in Ireland.  They became known as the Gallóglaich (foreign young warriors) and helped to bring the Norman Invasion of Ireland to an end in Carrick-on-Shannon in the year 1270.

As a result of this Irish Kings began to hire the Gallóglaich over the years and centuries to fight not only invading forces but each other in the battle for supremacy.  The Scottish mercenaries were not cheap but they were certainly effective and got the results they were paid for.

Standard dress code was a padded jacket covered in mid length chain mail and an iron helmet.  Traditional Gallóglaich weaponry consisted of a two handed sword similar to a claymore, spears, darts and the double headed Sparthe Axe, a throwback to their Viking heritage.

They would number approximately 80 men for each engagement and there would be two young lads for each warrior to carry supplies and backup weaponry.  Such was their reputation and standing, it would not be long before a fiery red-headed female Irish pirate would come hiring.

Grace O’Malley was born into a successful family who thrived on trade and shipping, otherwise known as piracy.  Grace was not to be thwarted in her attempts to become a part of her father’s thriving business.  So determined, she cut off her long red locks and became known as Grace the bald or ‘Granuaile’.  She proved her worth on a voyage with her father when their ship was boarded by pirates.  Undeterred and unfearful, the feisty young girl climbed the rigging and jumped screaming and clawing onto the back of the unsuspecting pirate in order to protect her father.

The young woman was married at sixteen to an affluent and aspiring man in order to expand the family empire and they lived at ‘Cock’s Castle’ in Lough Lorrib.  Under attack from a rival clan, Grace’s husband Donal was murdered and the aggressors were sure of their victory.  They were wrong. The furious widow got her men to strip the castle roof of lead and make shot to fire on her husband’s killers.  The Joyce clan were so impressed, they retreated and renamed the homestead ‘Hen’s Castle’ a name still used today.

The experience hardened Granuaile and while increasing her holdings and piracy reputation, she married once again for money and prestige.  Cleverly she wed under ‘Brehon Law’ which meant the marriage was binding for one year only, after which time any dissatisfied party could divorce and retain marital assets.  On their first anniversary, Grace divorced her second husband and kept Rockfleet Castle for herself as a strategic stronghold.

Any one crossing Granuaile personally was destroyed as she was a vengeful woman yet she always maintained her control of the shores and seas of Ireland.  This was not enough for the fire-haired pirate and she began to raid islands off the coast of Scotland and to operate a protection racket on the high seas where people would pay for safe passage.

Grace believed her own men were not up her standards, so also hired the Gallóglaich as their brutal but effective modus operandi was exactly what she was looking for.  Together they went on to destroy Spanish invaders and even take on the Crown in her ongoing strive towards total domination of the seas and coastline.

The unformidable Pirate Queen retired to Rockfleet Castle at the top of her game and died in her seventies leaving her reputation of fear and notoriety firmly intact.  Although historic, the story of Grace O’Malley became more and more a part of Irish folklore, becoming immortalised in poems, songs, books and plays, her links to Scotland never forgotten.

Borrowed or Shared? Celtic Women of Folklore

The great blues guitarist B.B King once said “I don’t think anybody steals anything, all of us borrow.” Never a truer word has been spoken when it comes to folklore.  It would be impossible to have two such similar nations without a crossover of ethereal beings and legends, although taking into account age and history, it is likely that Scotland did much of the borrowing!  Let’s take a look at some of the most popular characters from Celtic folklore.

The Divine Hag

Cailleach Beare (or Bheur) is a crone goddess associated in Ireland with the Beara Peninsula on the South West coast but equally so with the Scottish Highlands were she was said to drop rocks randomly from her wicker basket and used the mountains as stepping stones.

Her time of power is from Samhain to Beltane and she is the goddess of winter.  She would raise brutal arctic storms, snow and ice and the hag carried a magic staff that turned the greenery she touched to the grey withered death of winter.

Cailleach Beare is hideous and terrifying, with a blue face, long pointed teeth and filthy, bedraggled hair.  As her season comes to a close, she turns into a block of stone until winter returns once more.

The Omen of Death

banshee

The Irish Banshee or Scottish Bean Nighe is the ultimate harbinger of death.  Both words mean fairy woman and carry with them tales of being disguised as a washer woman, washing the bloodied clothes of those about to die.  This particular account of the Banshee can be traced back to the Irish Goddesses ‘The Morrigan’ and ‘Clíodhna’, Queen of the Banshees.

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

The traditional description of the fairy death bringer is that of a wretched old hag, dress shredded, matted grey hair, pointed rotting teeth and long, yellow fingernails.  If you become her chosen victim she will torment you ruthlessly, making you hear her soul wrenching scream of despair until your own soul is lost in the depths of her evil cry after a descent into madness.

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 by her withered bare hands.

More often than not however, the Banshee is a benevolent herald of despair, her chilling cries through the still of the night leading to death and anguish.

Cait Sidhe – One Borrowed from Scotland!

Cait Sidhe

There is one tale that is definitely more rooted in Scottish Folklore than Irish yet still features in tales from both sides of the water.

The Cait Sidhe or Cat Sith is inscrutable and very little is known although there is more to glean from Scottish lore.  The creature seems to stem from the Highlands of Scotland yet pops up in exactly the same form in Irish culture.

The fairy being is in the shape of a large black cat with a white spot and is believed to be a soul reaper. Traditions include putting out fires so as not to entice the Cait Sidhe with heat and distracting it from the body of the recently deceased with games and puzzles.

On the feast of Samhain, many homes would leave out milk so that the Cait Sidhe would bless the home for the coming year.  Those who didn’t would be cursed and the milk from their cows would run dry.

One explanation of the existence of the Cait Sidhe is that it is a witch. It is said that certain witches have the ability to transform into a feline up to eight times while retaining the ability to change back.  Should the witch decide to change a ninth time, she is destined to stay in that form of the forever.  Perhaps why a cat is said to have nine lives.

These of course are just a few of the many historic links and tales of folklore and legend that straddle the Celtic nations of Ireland and Scotland.  There may be arguments over origins, traits and ownership and indeed there should be as it keeps the folklore alive.  What is not up for question is that the histories and folklore of Ireland and Scotland are inextricably intertwined.  One cannot exist without the other and as such define us as two different lands but one very solid, mutual Celtic culture.

 

 

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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.

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?

 

 

BRIGID – GODDESS TO SAINT, THE CROSS AND THE FEAST OF IMBOLC

The first day of February is upon us, and the instantly recognisable cross of St. Brigid is appearing everywhere in honour of her feast day.

So how did the Irish pagan festival of Imbolc and the goddess of Fire lead to the story of St. Brigid with one of the most recognisable crosses in the world?

 

Image of the goddess Brigid

Image of the goddess Brigid

BRIGID THE GODDESS

The deity Brigid was said to have been born at dawn’s first light with a crown of fire glowing from her head.  One of the supernatural race of the gifted known as the Tuatha Dé Danann, she was the goddess of the Spring, arts, crafts, poetry, medicine and the humble smith.

Her name came from the old Irish ‘Breo saighit’ meaning fiery arrow and where Brigid walked flowers and shamrocks grew and she radiated inspiration, knowledge and healing with the light that surrounded her.

Brigid married Bres, a king of the Tuatha Dé Danann but one at war with her own clan.  It was hoped their marriage would calm the tension between the warring families, however hostilities just increased.

Her son Ruandan lost his life in battle and so distraught was Brigid that as she sang and wept over her son’s body, her harmonic cries heard throughout the length and breadth of Ireland and so began the tradition of keening at the wakes of the dead.

Brigid then became devoted to healing and following the death of her child became the protector of children and childbirth.   Her shrine was created by an ancient druid oak in Kildare that was so sacred no weapon could be brought into it.  Her priestesses took care of her perpetual flame, the sacred fire of Brigid, one each day for nineteen days and on the twentieth day Brigid herself would attend the flame.

IMBOLC

This pagan festival marks the beginning of Spring and is at the start of February, midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.  The meaning is said to have come from the old Irish meaning ‘In the belly’.

It has been documented in detail in the earliest of Irish Literature and is affiliated with the goddess Brigid.

Brigid was said to visit homes at this time and a bed would be made and food and drink laid out to welcome her and invite her blessings.  Items of clothing would also be laid out to receive her divine touch.

Like the other festivals, the date of Imbolc pertains to the alignment of megalithic monuments with the sun such as the Mound of Hostages on Tara.

Feasts were had and fires lit as a part of the celebration and divination of Imbolc.  Candles and fires were lit in recognition of Brigid’s perpetual light and it was a time to look for portents of the future.

The wells of the goddess would be circled in the direction of the sun as prayers were given for good health.  The water was then taken for livestock, family and to bless the home.

 

Saint Brigid

Saint Brigid

BRIGID THE SAINT

Brigid was said to have lived from the mid-5th to the early 6th century, born into a druid family.  Her mother was converted to Christianity by St. Patrick himself and young Brigid was reared on the milk of a cow that appeared to her, a story also told in respect of Brigid the Goddess.

Brigid was a blessed and religious child, so it was no surprise that she pledged her life to God and began her path of healing.   After receiving the veil from St. Macaille, she went to Kildare and built a monastery for the monks and one for her nuns, becoming the first Abbess of Ireland in the late 5th century.

It is said that she chose this place to follow on the work of the goddess, taking on the perpetual flame as a symbol of the light of new Christianity which was still so alien to the Irish.

In another nod to the fire goddess, St. Brigid founded a School of Art specialising in metalwork and illumination, from which came some of the most impressive work of the time including the legendary Book of Kildare.

Brigid was revered largely due to her work with the poor and the sick, particularly women and this in turn lead to her veneration and sainthood.  There are wells throughout Ireland known as Brigid’s wells and the waters are said to be miraculous and promote healing and good health.  Pilgrimages take place to each of these shrines and they are as relevant today as they ever were.

 

BRIGID’S CROSS

It is thought that the cross itself was a symbol that far pre-dated Christianity and belonged to pagan protection rites.  That said, the story of the rush cross relating to St. Brigid is the one carried forward through the centuries.

Brigid was sat at the bedside of a dying chieftain and she distracted him by making a cross from rushes that lay nearby.  When she explained the meaning of the cross, the chieftain was said to have seen the light and was baptised there on his deathbed.

Today there are workshops and gatherings of folk who come together to make the rush cross in honour of St. Brigid and her feast day on 1st February and there are even on-line tutorial videos to teach you how to make them!

Brigid's Cross

Brigid’s Cross

 

There is no question that the legend of Brigid the goddess and the life of Brigid the Saint became inextricably intertwined from early medieval times and to this day it remains that way.

Whether you believe in Brigid the goddess, Brigid the saint or indeed both, the message of creativity, healing and new life is the same, leaving the darkness behind as we move forward into the sun.

I wish you a happy St. Brigid’s Day and the Blessings of Imbolc!