GODS OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS – LUGHNASA, CROM DUBH AND SAINT PATRICK

Lughnasa

Folklore and traditions of Ireland have always been intertwined with Pagan, Celtic and Christian rituals, however there is no time more evident of this strange combination of beliefs than this very Sunday.  As July ends and August begins, festivals pertaining to the gods Lugh and Crom Dubh as well as pilgrimages in honour of Saint Patrick have been taking place for centuries.

The common denominators for all of these celebrations and rites are harvest and fertility.  Dating back to the earliest accounts of the Fir Bolg in through to recent times, the inhabitants of Ireland would do whatever it took to ensure a bountiful yield and enough produce to sustain them during the dark and unforgiving winter months.

As of today there are several recognised festivals that take place on the last Sunday in July and the first day of August, including the Pagan celebration of Lughnasa, Crom Dubh Sunday, Garland or Bilberry Sunday and the Reek Sunday Pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick.

All of them have definitive origins and purpose, so let’s take a look at them one by one, how they all link together and how they have survived in modern Irish Society.

Crom Dubh – The Sacrificial Fertility God

Crom-Dubh-by-Bryan-Perrin

Crom Dubh is a name that evolved from the Fertility god Crom Cruaich and is synonymous with dark practices and folklore.  It is believed that as well as the ritual slaughter of bulls in the name of the ‘Crooked One’, human sacrifices were also offered up to ensure prosperous crops and fat, juicy cattle.

Crom Cruaich was first introduced to Ireland some time before the arrival of the Tuatha Dé Danann, a cultured race of demi-gods.  A Milesian known as Tigernmas settled in Ireland and was one of the first of the High Kings.  He brought the beginnings of structure to the hierarchy, including a system of coloured clothing, the more dyes, the higher your status.  He also introduced idol worship and in particular the worship of the sacrificial god.

The Book of Leinster describes the idol as a golden sculpture, surrounded by twelve stone statues.  The shrine stood resplendent at the peak of Magh Slécht in County Cavan and was a place of worship for those who idolized the dark god of fertility and sacrifice.  It is ironic and quite disconcerting that the king who idolized Crom Cruaich and brought him so many followers should die as a result of his actions.  King Tigernmas and the vast majority of his troops mysteriously died on Magh Slécht on the night of Samhain, now known as Halloween, as they worshipped their dark, sacrificial deity.

Crom Cruaich was said to have descended into obscurity and his worship ended with the arrival of Saint Patrick.  The man who brought Christianity to Ireland stood on a hilltop opposite Magh Slécht and cast out his staff known as Bachal Isu, across to the Idol of Crom Cruaich, causing it to tumble and the twelve surrounding stones were devoured by the Irish landscape.

Crom Dubh descended from Crom Cruaich and became more of a worshipped figure of mythology than a god.  The practice of Crom Dubh Sunday, the last Sunday in July continued down through the centuries however, with gifts of crops and produce taken to the hillside and offered to the fallen dark one.  The practice is still continued in some more rural and mountainous regions of Ireland.

The darkest incarnation of the sacrificial god Crom Cruaich however, is the Dullahan, also known as Gan Ceann, meaning without a head.  The creature hunts the souls of the dying in the night.

The god did not want to be denied human souls following the introduction of Christianity and so disguised himself as the one without a head, a tribute to the sacrifices through decapitation that gave Crom Dubh his power.

Lugh of The Tuatha Dé Danann

Lugh

Lugh was not only one of Ireland’s early high kings, but a demi- god.  His father was of the Tuatha Dé Danann and his mother was of the Formorian race, supernatural beings who celebrated chaos and wildness.

The couple’s marriage was forged through the need for a coalition and Lugh was born.  As he grew older, Lugh joined with King Nuada of the Tuatha Dé Danann to defeat the Formorians and their evil leader Balor, during the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh at Tara.

balor

Once Lugh had slain Balor with a single slingshot to his evil eye of death, Bres turned to his traitor kin Bres who was alone, weak and injured on the field of battle and Bres began to beg for his life.  Although highly intelligent and gifted, the Tuatha Dé Danann were unskilled in agriculture.  At his point of victory, Lugh forced King Bres to promise to teach his people how to farm the lands in return for mercy.

Lugh’s foster mother was Tailtiu, a fertility goddess who died of exhaustion after clearing the rugged and barren landscape and preparing the fields of Ireland for the sowing of crops.

Upon her death the Aonach, a congress brought together on the death of royalty, was convened and funeral traditions commenced.

Tailteann Games and The First Festival of Lughnasa

Tailteann

As was the way with previous funeral gatherings, it was a place for games, remembrance, celebration and the proclaiming of new laws.

The funeral pyre was lit, mourning songs and chanting began and the first Tailteann Games took place in honour of Lugh’s foster mother in the place now known as Teltown in County Meath.

As a testament to both the Tuatha Dé Danann and Formorians as well as Lugh’s own strengths as both a warrior and master craftsman, the games were contests in both physical and mental agility.

Competitions for physical prowess included athletics, swordfighting, archery, horseracing and swimming, while other challenges were in the Arts.  Storytelling, song and dance were of high importance and awards went to the best smiths, weavers and armourers of the day.

From the time of the first festival, new laws were passed.   One such law was the Brehon Law for marriage.  On the day of Lughnasa, there would be a mass wedding among clans and that marriage would stand good for one year and one day, after which time it could be nullified if either party so wished.

As the celebration of Lughnasa continued through the generations, the first cutting of the corn would be offered in tribute to Lugh, laid upon the highest piece of ground, a tradition that was previously reserved for Crom Dubh.  As with so many Irish practices, they are not let go of lightly and the sacrifice of an aged bull would take place, a remnant of the worship to the fallen but not forgotten ‘Crooked One’.

Bilberry Sunday

bilberry

During the early Lughnasa celebrations, Bilberries would be consumed at every mealtime, as the festival tied in with the harvest time for these blueberry like fruits.

This common practice evolved into its own ritual known as Bilberry Sunday.  On the last Sunday in June for generations, the young men and women of rural Ireland would climb into the mountainous areas and pick the bilberries from the heather clad and rocky terrain.  It was a painstaking and long process, so during the hours of work it became common for the single ones to pair off, matches made and courtship begun.

Reek Sunday and Saint Patrick

croagh patrick.jpg

The practice of climbing to hilltops during the worship of Crom Dubh, then Lugh evolved further with the spreading of Christianity throughout Ireland

Reek Sunday takes place on the last Sunday in July and is the day that dedicated Christians climb to the top of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, many clambering barefoot over the rocky hillside to the summit, some two and a half thousand feet high in homage to Saint Patrick and to prove their commitment to their faith.

As is typical of all of Ireland’s Christian traditions it evolved from and is firmly intertwined with Pagan and Celtic practice.  For centuries it was a place of Pagan Pilgrimage and would have been the site of the placing of the corn and sacrifice for both Crom Cruaich and Lugh, however due to its associations with Ireland’s Patron Saint, it has become the focal point of the Catholic year in Ireland, even though it falls at Lughnasa, a distinctly Pagan celebration.

So while the focal point of worship and ritual may have changed over the centuries, in an agricultural and fertile land the purpose remains the same – to pray for good health, fertile lands and a bountiful harvest for the winter months and of course to give thanks.

It has become clear that regardless of Christianity, the teachings of Saint Patrick and the move away from rituals and traditions of any kind in a busy and commercially driven Irish Society, the Pagan and Celtic elements of our heritage remain and will never be forgotten. 

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.

DARK HISTORY: Ireland’s top 5 Strangest Murders from 5th to 19th Century

Sometimes the weirdest stories are not the paranormal or legendary ones, but real life.  In a country built on bloodshed it is not the massacres and executions, but the most innocent of locations and seemingly normal events that have lead to some of the most bizarre murders in Irish History.  From a Saint to a Cabin Boy, here are my 5 strangest Irish murders.

http://www.spookyisles.com/2015/02/irelands-top-5-strangest-murders/

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

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

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

 

Image of the goddess Brigid

Image of the goddess Brigid

BRIGID THE GODDESS

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

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

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

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

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

IMBOLC

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Saint Brigid

Saint Brigid

BRIGID THE SAINT

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

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

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

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

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

 

BRIGID’S CROSS

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

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

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

Brigid's Cross

Brigid’s Cross

 

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

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

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

SAINT PATRICK – MAN, MYTH, SAINT AND LEGEND

saint patrick

On March 17th every year, the whole world finds a little Irish inside of them and celebrates the anniversary of the death of Ireland’s Patron Saint, Patrick. This day has become a global commercial phenomenon, with even the most revered of world historical monuments lit up in green to celebrate a man whose life remains an enigma to many, the man and legend heavily intertwined.

Saint Patrick was born Maewyn Succat in the latter 4th Century in what was then known as Briton. From a high ranking Roman family, his father Calphurnius was a Deacon and his mother Conchessa had strong links with the Church.

It was odd therefore that the young Maewyn was not active in the Church and was not raised under religious doctrine. Also unusual for a family of such high standing, the boy received very little education -something he would reflect on with regret in later life.

Life was very much uneventful, that is until he turned sixteen. Taken prisoner by Irish Pirates, Saint Patrick was sold into slavery in Ireland. He was sent to work in the North of Ireland as a Shepherd for a Chieftain known as Milchu. Saint Patrick’s Master was a Druid Priest and in his years of captivity Saint Patrick became well versed in Pagan worship and practices as well as fluent in the native Irish tongue.

Witness to Pagan rituals and left with much time alone on the hills of Antrim, Saint Patrick turned to God in his hour of need and prayed long and hard. After six years, Saint Patrick received a vision, some say an angel, telling him to escape. Stowing away on a ship, Patrick found himself reunited with his family.

The ordeal of kidnap and slavery had changed the young man. After all he had seen and heard Patrick was determined to rid Ireland of Paganism and bring Christianity to the shores of the Emerald Isle. With focus and direction he set off for Auxerre in France to enter the priesthood and study under the guidance of Saint Germain. For many years Saint Patrick studied and prayed, never forgetting his ultimate purpose.

In 431 A.D, under the recommendation of Saint Germain, Pope St. Celestine I renamed Maewyn Patritius or Patrick in expectancy of him fulfilling his role as the Father of the Irish people- a role given after Pallidius had failed in fear to convert the Tribes of Ireland to Christianity and had abandoned his sacred duty.

Following preparations and further study, Patrick set sail for Ireland and for a renewed battle with the Druid Chieftains and their unrelenting warriors. Choosing to begin his work in the place of his enslavement, Patrick’s way was fraught with hostility and danger.

It was during this period of opposition that Saint Patrick came into his own. Speaking to the Irish in their own tongue, Patrick declared that their faith kept them enslaved under the power of the Druid Chieftains and that believing in God and living a Christian life would set them free.

Called to Tara to meet with the Great Chieftains, along the way Saint Patrick’s Crusade gathered strength in numbers, heightened by the apparent miracles he was performing and through his own charismatic speeches and humble manner.

The Oracles of the Druids had spoken of the messenger of Christ coming to Erin and they were more than prepared for Patrick’s arrival. They had demanded that all fires be extinguished until a new flame announcing Druid victory was lit in the Royal House. The meeting was at Easter, and Patrick set up camp on Slane Hill opposite Tara where he lit the Paschal fire as part of the Easter vigil.

Outraged the Druid Priests cried out that if their own gods did not quench the Holy flame that night they would be doomed for it to burn on Ireland’s shores forever. Many attempts were made by the Pagan’s to douse the fire, but it was all to no avail and Patrick remained unscathed despite the continued assaults on his camp.

Saint Patrick began his procession to Tara, with the Druids and their Magicians using all their power to block his path. So dark was the magic, the sky became covered with black clouds of apocalyptic proportions. Undeterred, the Bishop of Ireland prayed until rays of sunlight broke through and dispersed the clouds.

In a final attempt to retain control, the Arch-Druid Lochru, used his dark magic to rise high into the air. Saint Patrick prayed until the Priest was dashed on the rocks below. Knowing that a great power was in their presence and that their prophecy had come to pass, the High Kings gave their permission for Christianity to be preached to the people of Ireland. It was during his time at Tara that Patrick picked a Shamrock from the ground to use as a symbol of the Holy Trinity.

Saint Patrick began to travel the length and breadth of Ireland, facing resentment, imprisonment and violence every step of the way. Patrick’s reputation and news of his miracles began to spread quickly however, as more and more of the Irish turned their back on Paganism and were instilled with Christian hope and faith.

Having spent much time in Munster, baptising, teaching and founding Churches and schools, Patrick continued on, journeying to the hill now known as Croagh Patrick, a place of Holiness and Pilgrimage. Here he began a retreat of 40 days and nights of abstinence and prayer, all the while resisting temptation from the demons and darkness around him.

Having rid Ireland of Paganism, and having brought hope and peace to the Irish, freeing them of slavery, Saint Patrick was called to his eternal reward at the end of the 5th Century, on 17th March.

What of the snakes you ask? There are many stories and legends, whether true or parables to explain his work who can say? In his own writings “Confessio” and the “Epistola ad Coroticum” no mention is made of this particular miracle.

Most likely the snakes are an analogy for the Paganism that Saint Patrick drove from Ireland’s shores, what is fact and what is legend we will never know for sure. What we do know is that for over 1500 years, a Roman-Briton slave who returned to Irish lands to bring Christianity to the people has become a beacon for celebration, not just in Ireland, but throughout the world.

So on March 17th, raise your glass and remember the man, the myth and the legend, whatever your beliefs and enjoy being Irish, even if it is just for one day!

SLÁINTE!