Welcome to Tir na nÓg – The Land of Eternal Youth.

Land of Eternal Youth

Every self-respecting Irish man or woman knows the story of Tir na nÓg. Often simplified and romanticized as the ‘Land of Eternal Youth’, this island is believed to be the home of the demi-god race known as the Tuatha Dé Danann.

The origins and location of this enigmatic island remain as mysterious as ever. So how did Tir na nÓg become the sanctuary of a lost race of warriors and where is it now?

THE TUATHA DÉ DANANN          

As the more cultured of the races of ancient Ireland, their diplomacy and education meant they frequently had the upper hand over rivals such as the Fir Bolg and arch nemeses, the Formorians. All this was set to change however, with the arrival of the Milesians.

The Milesians waged into a fearsome battle against the Tuatha Dé Danann and they were never going to settle until they had complete and utter domination over their rivals. Being the civilized nation they were, the Tuatha did everything they could to negotiate and seek peace and harmonious accord.

With no truce in sight the Tuatha did everything in their power to keep their stronghold, including invoking a mystical tempest to destroy the enemy. The crafty Milesians called upon a daughter of the Tuatha, the goddess Eriu and claimed the land of Eire as their own.

What happened next to the Tuatha Dé Danann is a matter of speculation, however the outcome was always the same. A land of their own outside of space and time.

Regardless of how they got there, it goes without question that the Tuatha went underground. And this is where it gets interesting.

TIR NA NÓG

Think Lord of the Rings and the Undying Lands, but do remember which came first. Tir na nÓg is a land of beauty, natural abundance and first and foremost, immortality.  WHERE it is – well that’s another question altogether.

Generally, it is thought to lie on the Wild Atlantic Way off the west coast of Ireland, somewhere beyond the Aran Islands. It has to be remembered however, that it is a place made of mystical energy and its location is intangible.

Historical records show a Dutch navigator who settled in Dublin in the 17th century recorded seeing an island much described as Tir na nÓg. He sighted it off of the coast of Greenland which is some 1500 miles from the Aran Islands.

The island that appeared was protected by potent witchcraft and anyone trying to approach was pushed off course by powerful tempests and drowned at sea. Terrified to meet the same fate, the intrepid explorer made a full turn and headed south only to find the same island emerging on the horizon once again.

The terrain itself is a veritable landscape of waterfalls, mountains, forests and lakes. If you took the most beautiful and awe inspiring Irish vistas they would not hold a candle to what awaits in the land of the Sidhe.

MANANNÁN MAC LIR

Manannán mac Lir is the Irish sea god and protector of Tir na nÓg. Much like Poseidon and Hades, his guardianship means the Land of Eternal Youth is well protected from unwanted visitors and the Merrow folk will raise the warning if anyone dares to cross the oceanic boundaries. If Manannán mac Lir permits, every 7 years a fortunate few will be blessed to see the land of Tir na nÓg emerge from above the waves.

mannan

REACHING THE LAND OF THE TUATHA DÉ DANANN

Legend says the goddess Danu assisted in the escape of the cultured race by hiding them beneath the mounds of the earth, otherwise known as sidhs, and disguising their location with magic. These sidhs were portals and the Tuatha Dé Danann became known as ‘Aes Sidh’ or ‘people under the mound.’

Today that translates as ‘Sidhe’ or ‘faeries.’

As well as via coastal trickery, Tir na nÓg can be reached through one of the many magical faery portals dotted around the Emerald Isle. In fact, there is one not ten miles from my door called Knockfierna which translates as the ‘Mountain of Truth.’

At certain times of the year such as Samhain, the veil separating ourselves from the Otherworld is at is thinnest and that is when access becomes possible. Remember though, all that glitters is most definitely not gold.

OISÍN AND TIR NA NÓG 

a lovers II

Oisín was a formidal warrior, one of the Fianna and the son of the legendary Fionn mac Cumhaill. What I should have mentioned is that the Sidhe were a devious lot and in particular the ‘A Leannan Sidh’ or faery sweetheart. She is known for luring unsuspecting male humans to Tir na nÓg, with them never to return home.

In this instance Niamh, daughter of Manannán mac Lir, failed in her mission. Whilst Oisín had fallen in love with his femme fatale, she in turn had fallen in love with the greatest poet Ireland had even known. Niamh carried him back to her land and they lived blissfully together. Time was an unknown quantity to those residing in Tir na nÓg and Oisín was shocked to find three hundred years had passed.

Desperate to see what was left of his people, Oisín travelled back on a white steed with Niamh’s blessing. Her only warning was that he should not touch the land of humans, for that would be his demise, as mortality would take hold.

On arrival Oisín was devastated to discover all that he had held dear was gone. Miserable and lonely, he turned his magic horse towards Tir na nÓg. Just before he entered the waves he saw an old man needing help to move a boulder. Guiding his horse Embarr, he assisted in what would be his last act of kindness.

Oisín fell from his steed and instantly began to age. It is said Saint Patrick found him and before the Fianna warrior died of old age he recounted his tale of Tir na nÓg.

The Land of Eternal Youth has fluid boundaries and magical wards protecting the Tuatha Dé Danann from harm and invasion. They keep themselves to themselves if you leave them be. If. Of course when the veils between worlds are at their thinnest, you may catch a glimpse of Tir na nÓg. If you are taken by a Leannan Sidh and find your way home, just be sure you never set foot on this mortal coil again, because it will be the last thing you ever do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE DARK EMERALD ISLE -MAGIC, MYTHS AND MONSTERS

Triqetra

For generations, children of Ireland have been reared on mythology and folklore. Of course to us they are far more than the tales of ancient legends, they are where we are from and define who we are now.  From Cú Chulainn to Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Salmon of Knowledge to the triple goddess The Morrigan, giants, demi gods and creatures from the ethereal realm have always been a part of our lives.

Most of Ireland’s regional and national festivals evolved from the gods and goddesses of ancient times, especially from the Tuatha Dé Danann, deities deemed as the forefathers of Irish culture and civilization.  Of course the Formorians, a wild and altogether darker and more sinister supernatural race, still have their part to play.

The goddess Brigid is immortalized in the spring feast of Imbolc and Saint Brigid’s Day, while Lughnasa is the harvest festival in the name of the god Lugh.  Lugh was actually the son of a king of the Tuatha Dé Danann and his mother a Formorian.  His games known as the Tailteann were a test of strength and agility among his people.  Today these games have become known as the Gaelic Games, played in every village, town and county throughout Ireland.

Lughnasa

Fear is at the source of the majority of folklore tales and practices, particularly in relation to death and the protection of the soul as well as safeguarding against the ethereal creatures of darkness. The festival of Samhain is a prime example, taking place at the end of October intertwining the light and dark, shielding against bad spirits and misfortune, but also welcoming back the dead with open arms.

The fear for celebrants was that malevolent spirits and evil entities could also cross with their loved ones as could the Devil himself.  As well as the dead, homeowners had to contend with the fairies travelling abroad to create mischief.  Gifts in the form of food or milk would be left on doorsteps to guarantee a fairy blessing and anyone foolish enough to not do so would be subject to pranks by the cheeky wee folk at best and victim to a fairy curse at worst.

Without a doubt the most terrifying of these supernatural beings are the harbingers of death.  Crom Dubh was the sacrificial god associated with death and slaughter and his incarnation was The Dullahan, a part of the ‘Unseelie court’ of the fairy realm.   The Unseelie fairies are those deemed the most evil and malicious of all the otherworld entities. Also known as Gan Ceann, meaning without a head, The Dullahan hunts the souls of the dying in the night.

 

Dullahan

Dullahan

Banshees have forever been known as portents of death and the goddess Clíodhna was the very first of these wailing spirits seeking death for revenge and torment as well as calling on those due to die. Individual families often having their own personal Banshee heralding a death to this very day.

From these gods and goddesses an entire culture and belief system has grown, with Ireland being home to a myriad of ethereal creatures and spirits, from both the ‘good’ Seelie Court and ‘sinister’ Unseelie Court.

Once again fear is the driving force behind the behaviour and response to these creatures and their accompanying threat, with fortification rites being fundamental.  Druidic runes for example focus on strength, energy, health and protection.  The markings on runes tend to come from Ogham, an ancient language of Ireland uncovered by archaeological finds over the centuries by way of Ogham Stones.  These Stones have been found all over Ireland, usually associated with burial stones of ancient kings and warriors, however they are not of the past – Druidic practices are not just ongoing in modern Ireland but growing in popularity.

In previous centuries much of the population of Ireland couldn’t read or write and hexes, protection spells and rituals involved symbolism to get the point across.  A Piseóg is a curse, placed on feuding neighbors, competing farmers and so on.  Often recognized by a circle of eggs found in the hay or a talisman placed on a wall, they are set to bring misfortune on the home.

egg piseóg

The power of the Piseóg lies in fear, a farmer would be so terrified of the curse he would destroy his own crops and cattle.  But these curses can’t still be happening today can they?  Tell that to the terrified man in Kerry I spoke to recently, who found a circle of eggs on his boundary wall and hasn’t slept properly since, his mind trying to figure out who would curse him and why.

What of the cute and friendly leprechaun? Don’t kid yourself! There are several types of leprechaun and not all of them guard a crock of gold! Around for over 1000 years, the leprechaun is descended from the Tuatha Dé Danann and are a part of the Sidhe or Fairy family.  The name Leprechaun has two sources, both from old Irish.  The first is ‘Leath Bhrogan’, meaning shoe maker and the second is Luacharmán meaning small body.

Leprechauns like to keep themselves to themselves and really don’t like mortals – or each other.  Very much loners they are happiest in their own intoxicated company, however there is one you should be afraid of and that is the Fear Dearg which translates as ’Red Man’.  Recognized by his blemished yellowy skin, Fear Dearg is dressed head to foot in red and his greatest delight is your fear and dread.  He has the ability to make your nightmare a reality.

leprechaun

Of course this is all just the tip of the iceberg.  We have Fairy Shock Troops riding the wind, devastating farmlands and cattle just for kicks, spirits of the eternally damned wandering the earthly realm looking for Irish souls to steal, serpents, mermaids and hellhounds.  We have the Púca, a shapeshifting creature who terrorizes the night and ghosts, demons and the Devil himself.

If you thought Saint Patrick had driven all the paganism and darkness from Ireland, you would be wrong. Far from Christianity banishing these beliefs and rituals, the early monks actually documented these mythological events into such manuscripts as the Book of Leinster and the Annals of the Four Provinces.  Instead of turning the Irish away from their gods and goddesses, the clergy fashioned their stories into those of Saints such as Saint Brigid.  This is why Christian and Pagan stories are intertwined in much the same way Irish History and Mythology can never be separated and why we are great storytellers, it’s in our blood, heritage and very essence of being.

Ireland is a land rich in mythology and folklore, mixed with dark history and truth, bound neatly in fear, magic and excitement.  Welcome to the Emerald Isle!

 

THE CURSES, RITUALS AND MAGIC OF LOUGH GUR

Lough Gur Feature Image - Liam McNamara

Deep in County Limerick, nestled at the foot of Knockadoon Hill and Cnoc Áine, lie the mystical waters of Lough Gur. The lake itself is replenished by a series of underground springs and forms the shape of a horseshoe, which ties in nicely with the tale I am about to tell.

The land surrounding Lough Gur has history more than 6000 years old and has been a place of worship and settlements dating back to the Neolithic period.  Throughout the Bronze Age and Iron Age it was home to local tribes and this continued into early Christianity and Medieval times.

As well as the discovery of Beaker Pottery, a more substantial find was discovered in the shape of what is now known as the ‘Sun Shield of Lough Gur’. Straight out of the Bronze Age, this Yetholm-type piece of armory originates from the Scottish Borders and is one of only a handful that remain in the world.

The concentric circle design of the shield imitates that of a sun, which lends itself to the overall purpose and ceremonial importance of Lough Gur and the lands that touch the waters.

Within the grounds of Lough Gur stand two castles – Bourchier’s Castle was built for Sir George Bourchier, son of the Earl of Bath during his time in Ireland in the late 16th century.

Lough Gur castle - Liam McNamara

The other is a Norman fortress known as the Black Castle. It was used during the Desmond Rebellion after the Earl of Desmond relinquished his English attire and status and rejoined his Irish bretheren.

Ireland’s Stonehenge

Stone Circle Grange - Liam McNamara

The Stone Circle of Grange is the largest of its kind in Ireland and is also known as ‘Lios na Grainsi’ or ‘Stones of the Sun’. It pre-dates much of Stonehenge and has been a place of mystical, ceremonial and sacrificial significance for centuries.

With standing stones averaging a height of over nine feet, the circle of continuous uprights spans a diameter of just under one hundred and fifty feet. There are a total of 113 standing stones and the entire structure is banked and custom made for ritualistic purpose.

Crom Dubh

The largest stone of this awe-inspiring construction is more than thirteen feet high and is called Rannach Crom Dubh, or the division of Crom Dubh and weighs more than forty tons.

Crom Dubh is descended from the god Crom Cruaich and is synonymous with dark rituals, death and folklore.

Crom Cruaich was first introduced to Ireland some time before the arrival of the Tuatha Dé Danann.  Tigernmas was one of the first High Kings of Ireland and as a Milesian brought the worship of this deathly idol to Ireland, building a shrine at the top of Magh Slécht in County Cavan to win favour from his god.

King Tigernmas and most of his troops mysteriously died on Magh Slécht on the night of Samhain, now known as Halloween, as they worshipped their dark, sacrificial deity.  As the centuries passed, Crom Dubh evolved from Crom Cruaich and became a worshipped figure in his own right throughout Ireland, with Lough Gur clearly no exception.

Druids and Festivals

The entire area is soaked in druidic symbolism and ritual intent. Overall the circle is a giant astronomical calendar, in full alignment of the summer solstice. The stones themselves carry an acoustical phenomenon whereby the circle resonates with sound at certain points.

The celebration of the summer solstice continues to this day along with the festival of St, John’s Night Eve on 23rd of June.

The eve of the feast of Saint John the Baptist has been celebrated in Lough Gur since the formation of the early Christian fort known as Carraig Aille.

A bonfire would be ignited at sunset on 23rd June and kept aflame until the small hours of the following morning. Prayers and ritual blessings would take place to ensure plentiful crops and to protect against drowning for the coming year.

Celebrations continued through the night including music and dance as well as games to prove prowess, strength and agility among the men. Women would be invited to jump the fire and the way in which the flames responded would supposedly reveal infidelity and misdeeds.

Áine – Queen of the Fairies

Aine

Áine is the Irish goddess of summer and prosperity, although her story is synonymous with the winter festival of Samhain.

Born of the Tuatha de Danann, Áine was said to be the daughter of The Dagda, an all-powerful god who was a father figure with immense potency and influence. He is also tied strongly to Crom Cruaich and Crom Dubh.

8th century text tells of Ailill Olom, King of Munster attending the festival of Samhain. He lay down to rest on what is now known as Cnoc Áine or Knockainey. When he woke, Ailill discovered all the grass had been stripped clean from the mountainside during the night.

Bewildered, the son of Eoghan Mór sought an explanation from a seer after travelling to the province of Leinster. Fearcheas mac Comáin was so fascinated by this strange turn of events, he journeyed with Eoghan back to Munster in time for the following Samhain celebrations.

As they held vigil on the Limerick mountainside, Ailill fell asleep.  Believing themselves to be unseen, the King of the Sidhe appeared with Áine at his side. As a hidden Fearcheas crept up and murdered the Fairy King, Ailill awoke and saw the incredible vision of exquisiteness before him. Overcome with lust, he raped Áine and in fury and anguish she tore off his ear.

The outraged goddess had reaped the ultimate revenge on her power-hungry aggressor. Under ancient Irish law, no man was fit to rule unless his body was complete. By tearing off Ailill’s ear, she had forced him to rescind his crown.

Geróid Iarla and the Curse of Lough Gur

Lough Gur Main - Liam McNamara

The Fairy Queen was a bewitching beauty who continued to have mortal men lusting and coveting her as the centuries passed.

Áine came down from her throne on the mountain and removed her mystical cloak to bathe in the spring waters of Lough Gur. The Earl Fitzgerald was passing by and was enchanted by her naked form. Determined to have her, he took her cloak which left her with no choice but to do his bidding.

Their night on the banks of the lake resulted in a son who became known as The Magician. Áine returned to her land of the Sidhe and her son was raised by Geróid Iarla on the condition his inherent magical abilities were not to be encouraged in any way.

As a young man, Geróid discovered he could shrink himself into a bottle and jump back out again. When he showed his father, the old Earl could not contain his astonishment and in his excitement the young man jumped into the Lough, transformed into a goose and was never heard from again.

In absolute dismay, the goddess came down from her throne and cursed the man responsible for the loss of her son. The Earl Fitzgerald was imprisoned beneath the lake and every seven years he rises from the waters astride his horse shod in silver.

As he rides around the lake he looks hopefully at the horseshoes of silver on his mare’s hooves. It is said that when the silver is finally worn away, Geróid Iarla can walk among mankind once again.

As for Áine, she continues to watch over the sacred lake and is sometimes seen at Samhain, celebrating the magic and mystery of Lough Gur.

Lough Gur 3 - Liam McNamara

The incredible photographs within this piece are kindly provided by the talented Irish photographer Liam McNamara of Ireland Through My Lens Photography. Follow his work here:

https://www.facebook.com/Irelandfrommylensphotography/

 

 

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. 

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.

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!