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 Colleen Bawn – Murder on the Shannon

Shannon-Estuary-Colleen-Bawn-John-Moylan

 

Shannon-Estuary-Colleen-Bawn-John-Moylan

Shannon Estuary by John Moylan. Murder location of the Colleen Bawn

Born into a Limerick farming family in 1803, Ellen Hanley’s life was snuffed out in a cold, calculated murder at only fifteen years of age.

Living in the village of Bruree, Ellen’s mother passed away when the girl was no more than six years old and she moved in with her uncle. Ellen grew into a young lady of incredible beauty that was equally matched by her warmth, quick wit and intelligence.

It was not long before she courted the interest of a certain gentleman of distinction by the name of John Scanlan, John himself was in his twenties and very much a socialite of shallow persuasion which would ultimately lead to Ellen’s bitter end.

John Scanlan pursued Ellen relentlessly and begged for her hand in marriage. Ellen had grave misgivings about both the age gap and their different social standing, but John would not take no for an answer. In the summer of 1819, John Scanlan and Ellen Hanley were wed in Limerick city.

True to his form, John grew bored of his child wife within just five weeks of marriage and began to hatch a plot to make her disappear, so he could renew his carefree, lewd lifestyle.

John and his servant Stephen Sullivan schemed and ultimately planned the murder of the new bride.

John Scanlan convinced Ellen to take a boating trip on the River Shannon with his servant, leaving from the shores of Glin Castle. Sullivan boarded the boat complete with loaded musket and murder in his heart, however when the time came he was unable to shoot the innocent beauty.

When John Scanlan saw the boat return to Glin with two people on board he was outraged. He filled Stephen Sullivan with whiskey until he was so drunk he agreed to go ahead with the murder plot. Once again Sullivan rowed Ellen out into the Shannon Estuary and with the threatening words of his master ringing in his ears, the callous servant shot Ellen point blank.

Without an ounce of remorse, Stephen Sullivan stripped Ellen Hanley naked and took her wedding ring, stowing them away in the boat. She was weighed down with rocks and her young, broken body was dropped unceremoniously overboard. Fifteen-year-old Ellen Hanley was enshrouded in the inky black waters of the River Shannon.

Scanlan and Sullivan toasted their successful murder as weeks had passed and they were convinced they had got away with their heinous deed. This was not to be as on 6th September 1819, the porcelain white corpse of the missing Ellen was washed up in Kilrush, County Clare.

So horrific was the discovery of the slain child bride, the people of County Clare and County Limerick became frenzied in anger and dismay and the two guilty men fled.

A huge manhunt was begun and before long John Scanlan was captured. The Scanlan family were a family of high standing in social circles and they were not having their name dragged through the mud. They hired the great Irishman Daniel O’Connell, known as ‘The Liberator’ for his work in bringing emancipation to Irish Catholics in later years.

With his family name and the best barrister in Ireland behind him, John Scanlan sat smugly through his trial fully expecting to be acquitted. He could not have been more mistaken.

Scanlan was found guilty without question of the pre-mediated murder of Ellen Hanley. A horse-drawn carriage was commissioned to take the condemned man to Gallows Green in County Clare. The horse bucked and refused to cross the bridge over to Gallows Green and John Scanlan made his last living steps walking to the gallows to be hanged. John Scanlan was executed on 16th March 1820.

The story does not end here, for just a few months later, manservant Stephen Sullivan was caught, and his Limerick trial made front page news. He also was found guilty and sentenced to execution. In a last-minute fit of conscience, Sullivan recounted the events surrounding the murder of Ellen before the Hangman placed the noose around his fated neck.

In the small, rural Burrane Cemetery near Kilrush the body of the Colleen Bawn, Ellen Hanley is buried. Colleen Bawn is Irish for ‘white girl’.

Ellen lies beneath a Celtic Cross donated by the local community with an epitaph that says:

‘Here lies the Colleen Bawn

Murdered on the Shannon

July 14th 1819. R.I.P’

Over time the curious and the ghoulish have chiselled away bit by bit taking morbid keepsakes until nothing much more remains. The story of the Colleen Bawn lives on almost two hundred years after her untimely death in plays, novels and musical interpretations. It seems that the macabre nature of her demise will never be forgotten.

The Colleen Bawn

Thanks to John Moylan for his outstanding shot of the River Shannon. More of John Moylan’s photographic work can be found here:

https://www.johnmoylanphotography.com/

 

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/

 

 

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.