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!

 

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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

Trinty-College.jpg

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WITCHES OF IRELAND PART 1 – ALICE KYTELER, THE BLACK WIDOW OF KILKENNY

alice

Long before the publication of Malleus Maleficarum, attention was brought to bear on the small medieval town of Kilkenny in the Kingdom of Ossory.  One of the earliest ever recorded witch trials took place in the early 14th century against a local businesswoman and serial bride by the name of Alice Kyteler – and what a sensational trial it was.

So who was the local entrepreneur and femme fatale who caused uproar in the Irish legal system and brought the Ecclesiastical authorities of Ireland to their knees?

THE BLACK WIDOW

Alice Kyteler’s family were Flemish brokers and they had settled in Kilkenny sometime towards the end of the 13th century with just one child, a daughter.  Alice learned the ropes of the family business and grew up to be very shrewd, so it came as no surprise that her first husband was an affluent local businessman and financier by the name of William Outlaw.

Believed to have married in 1280 when Alice would have been only sixteen or so, they went on to have a son, also called William.  The banker’s wife groomed her son for great things and by an early age he had gained positions of authority within the local community.  By 1302 William’s father was dead and Alice was already onto her second marriage.  Husband number two was another moneylender by the name of Adam le Blund, from the market town of Callan on the Kilkenny/Tipperary county borders.

Both parties were already wealthy before the union, however marriage brought them a new level of power and prosperity.   The couple’s wealth and status had left feelings of acrimony running high in the parish and rumours had already began to circulate that Alice’s first husband had not died from natural causes.  The locals were convinced that Alice and Adam had in fact, committed murder.

The fire of fear and distrust aimed at Alice Kyteler was beginning to take hold, however it would appear that Alice and the events surrounding her insisted on adding fuel to the growing flames.  In 1307, Adam le Blund relinquished all legal entitlement to his own wealth and gave what was effectively full Power of Attorney to his stepson William, together with the complete nullification of William’s debts agreements.  This incident was deemed all the more suspicious as Adam had offspring of his own from a prior marriage and was in seemingly good mental and physical health.  Two years later he was dead.

1309 saw Alice wed for the third time.  Richard de Valle was an affluent landowner from the neighbouring county of Tipperary and once again the marital union was short lived.  A seemingly fit and well Richard died mysteriously, leaving all his wealth to Alice.  The son of the unfortunate deceased, also called Richard, kept hold of the assets and was the subject of legal proceedings, as the widow demanded her rightful wealth.

By the time Alice Kyteler married yet another wealthy landlord, Sir John le Poer, the local rumour mill was in overdrive and the whispering of foul play continued.  In frighteningly similar circumstances to her first three husbands, John’s health began to decline, in spite of his relatively young age.   John’s finger nails and toe nails were discolouring and falling out, he was rapidly going bald, and the little hair he had left was devoid of pigmentation.  As his ailments increased and his already poor health took a decided turn for the worse, two game changing events took place.  First of all, with no regard for his own blood kin, John made a will bequeathing all his money and assets to Alice and her son William.  The second, fearing for his life, John turned to the church for help. By 1324 he was dead and the whispers had turned to shouts of witchcraft.

KYTELER’S INN

kytelers-inn

Despite marrying prosperous landowners, Alice insisted that she remain in her birthplace on St. Kieran’s Street in Kilkenny.

As a rich wife and ultimately an incredibly wealthy serial widow, Alice did not need to work, however her focus was on building and maintaining a thriving business.  She continued with her practice of moneylending, made easier by having the perfect location to conduct her affairs.

Kyteler’s Inn wasn’t just any old hostelry. It was a meeting place for local businessmen who all vied for the attention of the bewitching Alice, showering her with gifts and money.   It should therefore come as no surprise that this was the very place Alice set eyes on her ill-fated husbands to be.

Whilst the attention of so many of the wealthy local male population was scintillating for Alice, she was a canny businesswoman first and foremost.  She hired the most luscious and alluring of young women to work in her premises, enticing men from their wives and responsibilities and spending their money in Kyteler’s Inn, making her establishment the most successful in Kilkenny.

It was also here in the inn that Alice was said to work her sorcery and that her patrons were bewitched by Alice and her alleged coven.

SORCERY, THE CHURCH AND THE LAW

Contrary to popular belief, the Church often turned a blind eye to sorcery, accepting that some forms of Malficium were minor offences and that the medical benefits offered by those who practiced such arts outweighed the ‘crime’.  As such, any issues relating to witchcraft were dealt with by the local authorities and not the Church, except in the case of direct heretical doctrine.

Unfortunately for Alice, this all changed when Pope John XXII came to the Papal Throne in 1316.  He was genuinely terrified of witchcraft and was convinced his life was in jeopardy, leading to the granting of sweeping powers to his Inquisitors.

Pope John XXII published a definitive list of practices that would constitute heresy and subsequent prosecution by the Church, particularly in relation to demon worship and pacts with the devil.

pope-john-xxii

Unfortunately for Alice, this canon law reached Ireland and in particular, Richard Ledrede, the Bishop of Ossory.

ACCUSATIONS, ARRESTS AND ABSCONDING

Whether out of bitterness of being cheated from their respective inheritance or genuine concern that Alice Kyteler was indeed a witch, the children of her last three deceased husbands joined together and called upon the assistance of Richard Ledrede.

Richard was a devout Christian and fanatical with seeking out and punishing heretics.  He was unhappy that respect for the Church and canon law were fading and that the law of the land took precedent.  He had the necessary background to implement Church doctrine and proceed with charges of heresy against Alice and her son William Outlaw, however he was up against resistance from local law enforcement and Alice’s very powerful contacts.

Having heard the allegations from Alice’s stepchildren, Ledrede went ahead and charged Alice, her maid Petronella and her son William with heresy.  The charges included denying the Faith, desecration of the church with black magic rituals, sorcery, demonic animal sacrifice, murder, controlling members of the local community with potions and spells and fornicating with a demon known by many names including Robin Artisson, in exchange for power and prosperity.

Richard’s first attempt at arrest was thwarted by the Chancellor of Ireland, Roger Outlaw, a relative of Alice’s first husband.  He advised Ledrede that there could be no warrant issued for the arrests without the accused having first been excommunicated for at least 40 days and a public hearing.  Meanwhile the well timed intervention of another relation by marriage, Sir Arnold de Poer, senior steward of Kilkenny allowed Alice to flee to Dublin and saw the imprisonment of Richard Ledrede.

While Richard was in prison, the whole of the diocese of Ossory saw an embargo on funerals, baptisms and marriage.  As the majority of the population believed in Hell and eternal damnation, the public outcry was too much and the Bishop of Ossory was released.

Incarceration left Ledrede incensed and he heightened his efforts to prosecute Alice, her son and maid by involving the Justice of Ireland, who insisted upon a full witch trial.

William Outlaw pleaded guilty to the charges of heresy, illegal money lending, adultery and perverting the course of justice.  His punishment was to attend three masses a day, donate to the poor and agree to reroof the cathedral with lead.

WITCH

In the meantime, Alice had absconded and the trial continued in her absence.  The alleged depths of her depravity and heresy began to be revealed to the court.  The witch Kyteler was said to have used a human skull to brew her potions, with ingredients including parts of corpses, the innards of fowl, worms and insects and the clothing of deceased infants.  The concoctions were said to rouse her innocent victims to do her bidding, with acts of love, hatred or murder.

Alice and her coven were said to have conducted black masses in the churches, sacrificed and dissected livestock to bargain with demons at crossroads and Alice herself was accused of continued carnal relations with a powerful demon in order to maintain her position of influence over the local community.

The final accusations were of the murder of each of her four husbands.  Evidence regarding her last husband, John le Poer was put forward.  He had no nails, they were ripped from their beds and left bleeding, all bodily hair had fallen out and he was completed withered away to a skeleton at the time of his death.

While Alice had disappeared, some say to England with the help of her well positioned male acquaintances, her maid was not so fortunate.

Petronella de Meath was tortured repeatedly in Kilkenny Jail until she confessed to being a witch and a member of the coven of Alice Kyteler.  On 3rd November 1324, Petronella was the first woman in Ireland to be burned at the stake as a witch.

burning-at-the-stake

THE LEGACY OF ALICE KYTELER

So what of Alice? Well Alice Kyteler was never heard of again – whether she used witchcraft to cloak her whereabouts or was helped abroad by calling on infatuated men of position we will never know.

What we do know, is that the accusations and the trial were very real indeed.  They remain documented as they have been for centuries and the trial changed the balance of law and power back in favour of the Church.

The most exciting revelation of this account is that the locations remain.  The Jail still stands, bars on windows.  As you stand on the street, peering into the eerie darkness of the cold, cramped cells, a shiver runs up your spine at the realization there could be something ethereal staring back at you, perhaps the tormented blackened soul of Petronella de Meath.

Kyteler’s Inn is still the most famous hostelry in Kilkenny and the spirit of Alice is said to remain, watching over her establishment and the revelers within for eternity.

So was Alice Kyteler indeed a witch, or just the most successful and richest business woman in medieval Ireland? Perhaps if you come across her in Kyteler’s Inn, you can ask her yourself!

alice-sculpture

I shall leave you with Alice, immortalised in the words of W. B Yeats:

"A sudden blast of dusty wind and after
Thunder of feet, tumult of images,
Their purpose in the labyrinth of the wind;
And should some crazy hand dare touch a daughter
All turn with amorous cries, or angry cries,
According to the wind, for all are blind.
But now wind drops, dust settles; thereupon
There lurches past, his great eyes without thought
Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks,
That insolent fiend Robert Artisson
To whom the love-lorn Lady Kyteler brought
Bronzed peacock feathers, red combs of her cocks."

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ON TRIAL FOR WITCHCRAFT – IRISH WOMEN OF SORCERY OR POWER?

Witch trial

Were some of Ireland’s most powerful and notorious women in actual fact Witches? Or were they victims of their own success falling foul of the jealous and fearful?  Let’s take a look at three of the most well-known ‘Witches’ to be put on trial and find out!

DAME ALICE KYTELER

Alice Kyteler

In Kilkenny you will find Kyteler’s Inn, the home and business of Alice Kyteler.  Alice was the first person to be accused and charged with witchcraft in Ireland in 1324.  A moneylender in the town, Alice was married a total of four times, with each husband dying under mysterious circumstances, leaving her more wealthy each time.

Kyteler’s Inn was a meeting place for local businessmen who all vied for the attention of the bewitching Alice, showering her with gifts and money.  With her staff of luscious women, the premises were by far the busiest in Kilkenny.

As local envy and suspicion reached its peak, the surviving children of Alice’s four husbands had her charged with using poison, Sorcery, favouring her first born, denying the faith, blasphemy and animal sacrifices to the demons of the underworld.

Alice had many connections and her manipulative ways meant that she managed to avoid arrest for some time.  After several twists including her accuser, the Bishop of Ossory being jailed himself, Alice was finally imprisoned to await trial.

First up for trial was Alice’s maid, Petronella de Meath who was tortured and confessed to practising Witchcraft with her mistress.  Petronella was found guilty and burned at the stake.  Alice’s first son William was also found guilty of among other things, perjury, extortion and heresy, however his was a more lenient sentence of three masses a day for a year and feeding the poor.

In 1325 Alice escaped, only to be tried in her absence and found guilty of Witchcraft.   Alice Kyteler remained at large, never to be heard of again.  Did she use magic to finally be rid of the threat of execution, or was she simply a smart woman, able to use her skills and charm to be a success and escape the stake?

Kyteler's Inn, Kilkenny

Kyteler’s Inn, Kilkenny

FLORENCE NEWTON, THE WITCH OF YOUGHAL

witchtrial

Another sensational witch trial for Ireland was that of Florence Newton in 1661.  She was accused of enchanting Mary Langdon, the maid of a prominent figure in the town called John Pyne.

Florence had called to the house during the winter of 1660 asking for meat from the master’s table.   The maid refused and the slighted beggar left muttering curses.  When Florence met Mary Langdon on the street, she grabbed her and gave her a vicious kiss, after which time Mary became violently ill.  She suffered seizures and visions and the house of her master became subject to poltergeist activity.

When Newton was brought into Mary’s presence her sickness became worse and she began vomiting needles and nails.  Mary claimed that Florence would appear in visions, sticking pins into her body.

Newton was also accused of causing the death of her jailer through sorcery, as his widow accused Florence of kissing her husband on the hand shortly before he dropped dead.

So important was the trial of the Witch of Youghal that the Irish Attorney General came to Cork to preside and it was assumed that Florence was found guilty and hanged.  You see, despite well-kept records of the beginning of the trial, the remainder of them vanished completely so we will never know exactly what happened to Florence Newton.  Did she also use Sorcery to survive?

BIDDY EARLY AND THE MAGIC BLUE BOTTLE

blue bottle

Biddy Early was born in 1778 in Kilenena, County Clare and took her mother’s maiden name.  Ellen Early taught her daughter herbal cures, however both parents died when Biddy was sixteen and she was left in poverty and living in the poorhouse.

Marginalised for being aloof, rumour had it that Biddy had been talking to the fairies since she was a child and could control them at will.  A good looking woman, Biddy met the first of her four husbands at market, a man twice her age.

Already making a name for herself as a healer, Biddy also opened a successful Shebeen, were the local folk would drink illicit alcohol and play cards.  Within five years her husband Pat had died from alcohol consumption and she married her stepson John who also died from alcohol related issues. Her third husband died in 1868 when she was 70 and in 1869 she married a man in his thirties in exchange for a cure.

Biddy’s healing powers seemed to have centred on a mysterious blue bottle that was supposedly brought to her by a dead relative from the fairies.  No one was allowed to touch the bottle and only true believers would receive help from Biddy.

If she knew you had been to a physician you were thrown out and priests in disguise would be regularly hunted away as they tried to get to the root of her power.  Biddy publicly denounced the Catholic Church and was accused and charged with Witchcraft in 1865, which was very unusual this late on.

Fear took hold of those who had agreed to testify and Biddy was acquitted.  On her deathbed she repented and at her funeral a gathering of priests asked the community to pray for the soul of Biddy Early.

Her cottage stands in ruins and her grave in Feakle is unmarked, however her blue bottle was not to be seen after she died.  Did the fairies reclaim the source of Biddy Early’s power?

The Ruins of Biddy Early's Cottage, County Clare

The Ruins of Biddy Early’s Cottage, County Clare

Skilled, manipulative and powerful all three, but were they Witches? That knowledge is lost forever, by way of Witchcraft or otherwise!   

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