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. 

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THROUGH THE GATES OF HELL – DARE YOU ENTER HAUNTED WICKLOW GAOL?

Wicklow Gaol

Situated in Ireland’s Ancient East, the County town of Wicklow is shadowed by the imposing and sinister Wicklow Gaol.  For more than three hundred years, prisoners have been subjected to torture and hardship and the three storey building with sprawling foundations and walls of granite has witnessed some of Ireland’s must oppressive and historical events.

Today the location is a favourite venue for tourists and Paranormal Investigators alike and members of the public can participate in night tours and lockdowns. This Saturday July 2nd you can join Paranormal Researchers Ireland for a Charity Ghost Hunt in aid of Pieta House and the Wicklow Hospice Foundation, but before you do, let’s find out some more about Wicklow Gaol, listed as one of the world’s ‘Top Ten Haunted Locations.’

HISTORY OF WICKLOW GAOL

Since 1702 there has been a prison on the site at Kilmartin Hill.  The existing buildings were constructed over the remnants of the first gaol and were gradually expanded over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Rebellion of 1798 brought ongoing notoriety to the prison as freedom fighters were jailed before trial and exile or execution.  This pattern continued through the Famine, Easter Rising of 1916 and the Irish Civil War.

1798 Uprising

 

In the mid-nineteenth century overcrowding at Wicklow gaol brought expansion as the authorities feared the granite walls themselves would collapse under the pressure. Britain was forced to bring about changes due to European Prison Reform and that included the gaols of Ireland and as a result, facilities now included classrooms, workrooms and proper medical quarters.

The prison was downsized in 1877 and renamed a ‘Bridewell’, which was a remand prison for those awaiting trial and sentencing for petty crimes.

Wicklow Gaol had been dormant for sometime, however the Irish Civil War of 1922-23 brought the prison back into use for political prisoners, primarily members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Sinn Féin, including Erskine Childers, notable Irish Nationalist and gun smuggler,

The early twentieth century also brought in a change of use to an army barracks. It became home to the Cheshire regiment, which in a strange twist of fate, was founded thirty years previously by none other than Hugh Childers, cousin of one of Wicklow Gaol’s most famous prisoners.

Finally, in 1924 the Gates of Hell closed on the prison as it fell into disuse and disrepair, until such time as it was respectfully restored and opened to the public.

CRIMES, PUNISHMENT AND EXILE

The prison was used for years for general convictions, however the 1798 rebellion saw its use change to include the incarceration of political prisoners.  Many inmates, from those rebelling against the crown to petty thieves were taken from Wicklow Gaol to the convict ships and exiled to distant lands such as Australia. A replica of the deck of the convict ship HMS Hercules, has been built inside the gaol.

There was no segregation within the prison as such and people who had stolen to provide food for their families in times of hardship found themselves sharing with the mentally ill, murderers and political prisoners.

Those who were exiled may have deemed themselves lucky, as the torture and methods of execution, poor conditions and suffering were unpleasant and unending.

Prison reforms introduced rehabilitation through education, although attempts at segregation, silence and torture were the preferred methods of atonement.

Torture devices included the everlasting staircase, a treadmill of sorts designed for maximum fatigue, breaking of spirit and isolation and a shot drill, a metal ball that was required to be held for periods of time suited to the prison guard, or else loss of rations would be enforced.

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Flogging was by far the most favoured form of punishment, especially due to increased numbers of local workers being imprisoned for drunk and disorderly conduct.

When it came to execution, in the early eighteenth century prisoners would be hanged from the gallows arm jutting out of the prison walls.  After death, the head would be severed from the body which would be buried.  The head would then be scavenged and eaten by the gaol’s ‘pet’ hawk.

Other bodies would be unceremoniously dumped at sea, until the problem became enough for local fishermen to threaten to stop fishing due to pollution.

DISEASE,  DIRE CONDITIONS AND DEATH

Overcrowding was a consistently major problem and expansion just couldn’t keep up with demand, peaking at an inmate population of almost 800 being housed in just 77 cells.

As a result, the spread of disease was rife and death wasn’t far behind. Often if a prisoner died of an infection they were left in the crowded cell, the rotting and diseased corpse bringing about the hideous deaths of those within the four walls, prison guards or ‘turnkeys’ just looking on, afraid to enter for fear of becoming a victim themselves.

The Great Famine (1845-1952) brought around a very different kind of problem. Upstanding citizens would commit crime in order to be incarcerated in Wicklow Gaol, as prison reforms guaranteed them shelter and regular meals – life staples they could not get on the outside.

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There were no asylums or care facilities for the mentally ill in Wicklow, so the insane were mixed in with the general population.  The women prisoners would be responsible for the welfare of these inmates.

Attempts were made to ‘employ’ prisoners for local work such as making nets for fishermen, however this practice stopped due to a growing fear of authorities that these items would be used in an attempt to escape.

INFAMOUS INMATES

Some of Ireland’s most famous rebel sons and at least one daughter were incarcerated for their attempts to bring about political change and create a Free State.  This included Billy Byrne, mounter of several ambush attacks during the 1798 rebellion who was tried and then hanged at Gallows’ Lane.

James ‘Napper’ Tandy worked long and hard for political change, however after a short imprisonment he was exiled to France despite being convicted of treason.  It is believed Napoleon may have exerted some influence, hence his designated place of exile.

Erskine Childers was a London born author and avid sailor. A firm believer in Ireland as a free nation, Childer’s used his yacht the Asgard to smuggle guns into the east coast of Ireland.  His arrest was made after being found in possession of a gun, a gift from Michael Collins. Childers was convicted and executed by firing squad on 24th November 1922.

Childers

HAUNTINGS

Wicklow Gaol has been the subject of paranormal activity for centuries and has attracted worldwide interest from paranormal investigators. Those brave enough to join the Paranormal Researchers Ireland team for a lockdown will find themselves at the centre of a myriad of supernatural experiences.

At least one medium has entered Wicklow Gaol and claimed to have made contact with Erskine Childers, however there have been many witnesses to other phenomena.

A young child is regularly seen in the former school room and can also be heard. Other ‘inmates’ of the spectral variety are seen shimmering in and out of cells and along walkways.

On the replica of the Hercules deck, visitors are overcome with a sense of foreboding and eerie mists circle unsuspecting visitors.

Certain cells have been the epicentre of extraordinary paranormal occurrences including smells from stagnant to the sublime, female apparitions in black floating and sounds to terrify the hardiest of souls.

A ghostly prisoner can be seen on the walkway, hands behind his back and the eerie sounds of long gone children fill the ancient prison.

DARE YOU ENTER THE GATES OF HELL?

Wicklow Gaol

If the history, supernatural and darkness aren’t enough to scare you, along with the life-size waxworks and real life players, then you may just be up to the challenge! Wicklow Gaol in conjunction with Tina Barcoe and Paranormal Researchers Ireland welcome you to participate in a paranormal, historical and memorable Ghost Hunt.  For further details, follow the links below:

Wicklow’s Historic Gaol

Paranormal Researchers Ireland

My thanks to Wicklow Gaol website