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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ON THE TRAIL OF THE IRISH VAMPIRE

Vampyre

“The last I saw of Count Dracula was his kissing his hand to me, with a red light of triumph in his eyes, and with a smile that Judas in hell might be proud of.” 
― Bram Stoker
Dracula

For generations there has been a fascination with the vampire, creature of the night and blood sucking demon.  The origins of such a demonic entity stretch back to ancient civilisations and trail across countries and oceans – from Ancient Greeks writing of blood drinking revenants to current sightings of the South American Chupacabra.

Modern folklore and popular culture have ultimately taken tales and accounts from 18th Century Europe and created a distinctive, deadly and dark evil force that has spawned countless best-selling books, TV shows and films.  Transylvania in Romania is recognised as the number one hotspot for discovering the legend of the Vampire, however unknown to many, Ireland has an historic and altogether dark Vampiric trail of its own dating back to the 5th Century at least!

ABHARTACH – VAMPIRE CLAN CHIEF

Abhartach.jpg

During the 5th Century in what is now known as Derry, the area was in a constant state of battle between rival clans seeking power and dominion over one another.  The leader of one of these clans was the cruel and twisted Chieftain Abhartach.  His name roughly translates as dwarf and he was believed to either be such or had several deformities.

Regardless of either Abhartach was a formidable opponent and vicious warrior.  He was the definition of pure evil and such was the clan chief’s passion for darkness and depravity he was feared as a powerful and sadistic sorcerer.

So much so in fact, that his own clan cowered in his presence and plotted his demise.  They hired the services of a rival Chieftain who slew Abhartach and buried him in a solitary grave standing upright, as was the tradition for warriors of that time.

Celebrations were short-lived however, as a somewhat disgruntled Abhartach returned from the grave the following night, demanding fresh blood from his clan to sustain his life.  Clan Chief Cathan was both perplexed and furious that his efforts had failed and knew his reputation was at stake.  Once again he killed the dwarf and buried him exactly as before.

In scenes reminiscent of the accounts of Rasputin, it would appear Abhartach was immortal as he returned to his village once again to seek vengeance and drink the blood of his people.

Convinced that Abhartach was indeed wielding some black magic influence, Cathan sought the advice of a Druid Priest and finally cut down the wicked creature with a sword carved from the Yew tree, possibly the most powerful mystical reference for Druids.

Abhartach was interred for the final time head first, never to resurface – or so we are led to believe.  In the current area of Derry known as Glenullin, there is a location known as the Giant’s Grave which is itself is interesting when one thinks of the dwarf Chieftain.  It is also known as Abhartach’s Sepulchure, or Leacht Abhartach. Upon the grave lies a weighty boulder and through it grows a thorn bush, the thorn being another important Druid symbol.  If the Vampire Chieftain does indeed lie within, one most hope he does not rise again.

DEARG DUE AND VAMPIRIC RETRIBUTION

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Arranged marriages have always been prevalent in Irish culture, particularly to increase power and wealth between families.  The story of the Dearg Due is no exception.  A girl in Waterford with exceptional beauty was born into such a family.

As fate had it, she was humble and content and sought love in the arms of a local farm hand.  They made plans to wed and have a family of their own. Her cruel father however, was fuelled by avarice and prosperity, regardless of the cost to his own kin.  He gave his daughter to a notorious vicious and nasty clan Chief in exchange for land and riches.

With the marriage set and the young woman condemned to a life of cruelty, the wedding day she had dreamed of had become a horrific nightmare. On the day of the wedding the reluctant bride was a vision of blinding beauty, dressed in red and gold.  As all the guests revelled long into the night, the girl sat alone, angry and bitter – damning her father to hell and vowing to seek revenge on those who had cost her love and life.

The Chieftain turned out to be far more abusive and controlling then his new wife could ever have imagined.   To him the poor girl was nothing but a trophy to be locked away for his pleasure only, savouring the knowledge she was his and his alone.  With a complete absence of hope and only darkness ahead, she simply existed – no longer eating or drinking, her life gone long before her body gave in.

Her burial was poorly attended and without ceremony.  Her wicked husband had taken another wife before she was even cold and her family were too engrossed in their wealth and greed to give her a second thought.  Only one man grieved for the tragic young woman, her lost love. He visited her grave every single day telling her of his undying love and praying for her return.

Unfortunately, his love was not the driving force for her resurrection – revenge was the force that pulled her from her grave on the first anniversary of her death.  Consumed with hatred and the need for retribution she burst from her coffin and headed home.  As her father lay sleeping she touched her lips to his and sucked the worthless, selfish life straight out of him.

Revenge not yet sated, she called upon her callous husband finding him surrounded by women, fulfilling his lustful desires, oblivious to the dead bride in the room.  In a furious rage she launched on the Chieftain sending the women screaming.  His former wife was so full of fury and fire that she not only drew every breath, but drained every ounce of blood from his twisted and cruel body.

The scarlet liquid surging through her, leaving her more alive than she had ever been and she had a hunger for blood that could not be sated.

The corpse bride used her beauty to prey on young men, luring them to their demise with seduction, the promise of her body their reward.  Instead she sank her teeth into their exposed necks and drank their blood to quench her thirst and desire, but it was never enough.  The warm elixir gave her strength and immortality and drove her to her next quarry.  That is until the terrified locals restrained her and buried her in a mystical place known as Strongbow’s Tree.

The Femme Fatale’s lustful yearning can only be satisfied on the day she died, so on the eve of her anniversary locals would gather and place stones upon her grave so that she would not rise and fulfill her blood-lust.  Sometimes though the rocks are dislodged, forgotten or her insatiable desire is stronger than any boulder could ever be. That is when she can walk into the night, ill-fated men falling victim to the beauty and bloodthirstiness of the Dearg Due.

DEVIANTS – THE RISING OF THE DEAD

zombie ireland

The Kilteasheen Archaeological Project was a joint effort between Sligo Institute of Technology and Saint Louis University. They were tasked with searching for a Medieval Bishop’s Palace in use until abandonment following the arrival of the Plague in the middle of the 14th century.  They began their excavation beneath flagstones in quiet fields in Kilteasheen, County Roscommon in 2005.

The first shock discovery was that directly under the stones were the crushed skeletons of many humans, piled several deep in shallow graves.  The shallowness, together with the positioning of the flagstones indicated that the builders knew they were building directly on top of a graveyard containing upwards of to 3000 corpses.

It was further discovered that on the perimeter of the graveyard were two further burial plots.  Once excavations began it became clear that these were no ordinary interments.  The deceased had been buried in a manner conducive to what is historically known as a deviant burial. Once the skeletons were revealed, the violent, horrific nature of their post-mortem treatment became clear.

The men had been buried during different time periods.  There were no genetic similarities and their ages varied by some twenty or so years, however they were connected in a most disturbing manner.  Each body was subjected to the breakage of arms, legs, hands and feet.  These limbs were then folded inwards and bound around a large boulder.  Both men had a rock wedged so firmly into his mouth that his jaws were close to snapping apart.

These men were not being laid to rest, they were being grotesquely violated and weighted down to ensure they would not return from the dead.  The other interesting observation was that the men had not died of natural causes.  Blade marks were clearly visible upon the bones.

In medieval times it was believed that the mouth was the portal to the soul.  By placing an object such as a stone into the mouth of the deceased, the corrupt soul that had departed could no longer return.  By breaking and binding the flesh and bones, the deviant could not walk among the living again.

The extent of mutilation together with the stone in the mouth of the dead pointed to one possibility.  That the people who carried out these actions believed they were in the presence of vampires.  It was believed at first that the archaeological team were on a Black Death site, as it was thought plague was spread by vampires and the violent nature of the burials was consistent with those thought to be involved in vampirism.

Bone dating however, showed that the corrupt corpses had gone through the most gruesome of rituals centuries before the Black Death took hold.  So long before Vampires were written into folklore, before they were romanticised and turned into best-selling stories, the undead were believed to be walking among the Irish, bringing sickness and death to animals and people alike.   In a small village in the West of Ireland, locals were using every ritual and method they had to make sure it didn’t happen to them.  In Kilteasheen the Deviants would never rise again.

THE DUBLIN MAN AND THE ULTIMATE VAMPIRE

Bram Stoker

In 1897, a fifty-year-old Dublin man by the name of Bram Stoker published a book with a simple cover and a simple title.  That book was Dracula.  From humble beginnings, the gothic horror novel was initially met with lukewarm public interest but to great critical acclaim.  Like many writers, Stoker was forced to maintain a day job and published his most recognised work during his time as manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London.

Book Dracula

The book itself was set between the seaside town of Whitby in England where Stoker had holidayed and Eastern Europe, which the writer had never visited.  So where did his inspiration come from?  After making acquaintance with a Hungarian writer, he became fascinated by the folklore tales from the regions of Eastern Europe and took it upon himself to conduct detailed research into the tales of vampirism from those very localities.

Interestingly however, Stoker was said to have visited Killarney in County Kerry and in particular the ruins of 15th century Muckross Abbey and graveyard.  The ruins of the church, cloister and graveyard are well preserved and stand in the shadow of ancient Yew trees.

The site contains a graveyard and was the burial place of local chieftains.  Three of Ireland’s great poets of the 17th and 18th century are entombed here which could well be reason behind the famous Irish writer’s visit.  There are two local accounts that Stoker may well have heard that may have been catalysts for ‘Dracula’ as Stoker was in Killarney prior to the creation of the world’s most famous vampire.

The first account is of a religious hermit named John Drake lived in the deserted Friary for more than a decade in the 18th century.  He had no worldly goods and slept only in a coffin left in the grounds.   The second is the legend of the Brown Man, a newly wed whose bride came looking for him one night, to find her husband knelt over a recently dug up corpse, feasting on its flesh.

With so much in the way of centuries old Irish folklore and legend pertaining to the vampire, together with anecdotes and tales Bram Stoker picked up on his Irish travels, it would not be a far stretch to surmise that this in part contributed to the spark of creation that became ‘Dracula.’ 

 

 

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

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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. 

MYSTICAL SKELLIG MICHAEL – STAR WARS AND SO MUCH MORE!

Skellig Michael Co. Kerry Aerial survey works south peak

Skellig Michael

What do ancient Spanish invaders, Gannets and Luke Skywalker have in common? They have all set foot on the mystical and enchanting island of Skellig Michael.

Now famous both on Earth and in a galaxy far, far away, this world heritage site off of Ireland’s Ivereagh Peninsula in the Atlantic Ocean has a history dating back thousands of years.

ABOUT SKELLIG

Skellig Michael is one of two islands alongside Small Skellig which make up the Skellig Islands, reachable by boat from the fishing village of Portmagee in County Kerry. The name derives from the Irish ‘Sceillic’ which means ‘Steep Rock.’
The name is not misleading as the imposing natural formation stands more than 700 feet above sea level.
Star Wars aside, Skellig Michael is noted for not only incredibly well preserved archaeological sites of interest, but for the incredible amount of breeding birds it is home to. Rare birds such as gannets, puffins and artic terns draw in Ornithologists from around the globe.

SKELLIG MICHAEL AND THE MILESIANS

The origins of Skellig Michael are shrouded in mystery; however there have been documented accounts of the craggy outpost in ancient texts and annals. One such event dates back to 1700 B.C.

King Milesius spent many years absent from his homeland of Spain in pursuit of greatness and knowledge in places such as Egypt. He was welcomed as a hero upon his return and drove out hostile nations attempting to gain control.
As Spain fell victim to famine, Milesius found himself heavily influenced by the words of Cachear the Druid as well as his own superstitious beliefs. In order to appease the gods and his people, the King ordered members of his family to head up a scouting mission to a green and bountiful land that became known as Ireland.

Although his sons were successful in their conquering of Ireland and Milesius himself came to be known as ‘The Father of the Irish Race’, the initial expedition party ended in tragedy. The Chief Leader was a son of Milesius, called Ir. Unlike those who followed in his footsteps, Ir was doomed to never set foot on the Irish mainland.

During a stormy crossing, his ship crashed with the waves onto the rocks of Skellig Michael and he and his crew were drowned, the unforgiving natural wonder their final resting place.

THE MONKS OF SKELLIG MICHAEL

Monastery

Saint Finnian of Clonard, also known as Fionán, was one of Ireland’s first monastic saints and he was responsible for the education and training of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland in County Meath in the sixth century.

It is believed that during this time Fionán founded a monastery on Skellig due to its remoteness and isolation from civilization. The actual location of the monastery on the island was selected for durability and access to building materials.

It was sometime between here and the 11th century that the monastery and Church were dedicated to Saint Michael, giving the large rocky habitat its name.
Monks continued to live, work and pray in solitude on Skellig Michael, believing their removal from general society brought them closer to God. Nature had a different opinion however, and as the centuries passed, conditions on the island become intolerable.

In the 1200’s, the Order of St. Augustine relocated to Ballinskelligs Abbey, however Skellig Michael remained under their authority and became a site of pilgrimage until the dissolution of the Catholic Church in Ireland under the command of Queen Elizabeth I of England.

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY OF SKELLIG MICHAEL

Lighthouse 1

Despite its isolated and hostile demean or, Skellig Michael was gaining European attention. It was known to the Spanish Armada during their attacks on the Irish Atlantic coastline and was documented on charts and maps of Europe during the Middle Ages.

In 1578, Queen Elizabeth granted the island of Skellig Michael to the Butler Family who maintained control for a further number of generations, until it was purchased by Irish authorities in the nineteenth century as a matter of maritime safety.

It was at this point that not one, but two lighthouses were built to combat the combination of stormy high seas and the perilous rocks that had caused the deaths of so many sailors – too late for Ir!

SKELLIG MICHAEL TODAY

steps

Skellig Michael has become a must visit location for naturalists, ornithologists, archaeologists and tourists for decades, not being deterred by the cantankerous ocean crossing from the Kerry mainland or the intensely steep ascent.
Once there, the remains of the monastery, St. Michael’s Church, the Monk’s Graveyard and over a hundred crosses dominate the rugged landscape.

In order to ascend to the monastery, one must climb 618 steps where you will stand at more than 600 feet above sea level; however the reward far outweighs the endeavour as you stand surveying incredible scenery, one with the depth of Irish history, the elements and nature, not to mention standing on the same craggy, remote site as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars!

Skellig Michael climb

George Bernard Shaw describes Skellig Michael best by calling it an ‘Incredible, impossible, mad place…’
 May the Force of Skellig Michael be with you.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ROUTE 666 – ON THE TRAIL OF THE DEVIL IN IRELAND

beast

Of course you can’t have all these dark tales and history without the Devil having contributed, so I took a look at the lasting trail Lucifer left behind him in Ireland. Let’s follow Route 666.

Route 666, On The Trail Of The Devil In Ireland

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.