AGHABOE ABBEY AND THE FLAMES OF IRISH HISTORY

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Few people have heard of Aghaboe Abbey, in County Laois – I only came across it on the way to Kilkenny by chance! Strange because it is one of the most important ecclesiastical sites in Irish history.

It was founded in the 6th century by Saint Canice (also known more famously as Cainnech) who was one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, a group trained by Saint Finian to ‘educate’ and convert the pagans of Ireland to Christianity. Over the next 200 years Aghaboe Abbey evolved into not just an important Christian place of worship, but a recognised seat of education, commerce and farming.

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Saint Canice was actually a Druid descent of the high kings of Ulster and his conversion to Christianity led to not only the construction of a monastery and in later years, a cathedral in his name, but an entire city – for Kilkenny is so named from ‘Cill Chainnigh’ or ‘Church of Cainnech.’

canice

Ironically, despite the Church’s persecution of Galileo in the 17th century to the point he was tried and convicted of heresy, one of the first Abbots of Aghaboe Abbey was Saint Virgilius in the 700s – some nine hundred or more years before the Italian astronomer.

Saint Virgilius was one of the earliest documented astronomers in Irish history. He also had the nickname of the ‘Geometer’ due to his extensive geographical knowledge.

Feargil

Saint Virgilius finally left Ireland in 745, choosing to reside in France and become advisor to the Royal Court. He used the work he collected on canon law at Aghaboe Abbey to elevate Pippin the Younger to the status of King before moving on to Salzburg and the construction of the first Cathedral where the famous Baroque building now stands. Saint Virgilius’s original Cathedral was struck by a bolt of lightning in 842, in a twist mirroring the fate of Aghaboe Abbey.

At the start of the 10th century Viking invaders plundered and burned Aghaboe. It took some 150 years to complete rebuilding and at this time relics of Saint Canice were enshrined within. Fire seemed to be the arch-nemesis of this site as the Abbey was razed to the ground once more by flame in 1116.

Either unlucky or by design, the Abbey once again suffered destruction in the 13th century, seemingly due to its proximity to a Norman fortress and ongoing conflict with a local clan. On its further reconstruction, it became an Augustinian priory and then finally at the time of suppression and dissolution of monasteries in the 16th century it was under the Dominicans and remains so to this day.

In the 18th Century a Church of Ireland Church was built adjacent to the current ruins and as close as possible to the very first foundation stones of the Abbey itself. The Church was built sympathetic of its immediate neighbour and incorporated some of the Priory stones as well as the construction of its bell-tower in Medieval proportions.38542098_292090438007379_3380123770004963328_n

 

The remains of Saint Canice are buried within the grounds. The day I chose to visit I was in total solitude and it is one of the most intriguing locations I have visited.

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While a sense of serenity and grace were very much evident, the weight of history and destruction very much carried on the gentle breeze, landing firmly on my shoulders.

 

 

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GRIEF, GHOSTS AND GOTHIC REVIVAL AT DUCKETT’S GROVE

Ducketts Grove

Although only ruins now, the outline of the towers and turrets of Duckett’s Grove stand resplendent against the horizon and surrounding countryside of the estate to which they have belonged for nearly two centuries.

Duckett’s Grove was originally a modest two story house built in the style of its day in the mid eighteenth century by a descendant of the Duckett family, who arrived to the townland of Kneestown in County Carlow some 100 years previously.

As the family grew in wealth and social standing in both Carlow and Dublin city, it became clear that the somewhat ordinary family home was insufficient to meet the Duckett needs. Owner William Duckett, married an heiress by the name of Harriet in order to further his aspirations of grandeur.

William Duckett

William Duckett

In 1830 therefore, the services of Thomas A Cobden, renowned architect were secured and work began on making Duckett’s Grove a Gothic revival masterpiece of epic proportion, with regal arches, neo-gothic oriel windows and grotesques added to the majestic towers and imposing structure.

One of the only photographs of Ducketts Grove before the fire of 1933.

One of the only photographs of Ducketts Grove before the fire of 1933.

Now believing his home was suitable for his social needs, William Duckett began to throw lavish parties inviting the socialites of Dublin to mingle with local gentry and the Duckett family. William was somewhat of a philanderer and married his second wife, Maria Thompson in 1895 when he was 73 years old, bringing her and her daughter Olive to reside at Ducketts Grove.

William passed away in 1908 and was buried in the family plot at nearby Knocknacree. Maria continued to live in solitude at the mock Gothic castle as she and her daughter had become estranged. Finally Maria abandoned the property in 1916 to live in Dublin.

In a twist, when Maria died she was still so furious with Olive, that in her will she left nothing but what was known as the ‘Angry Shilling’ to her absentee offspring.

Not wishing to be done out of her inheritance, Olive went to court and in a week and a half long hearing, it was revealed that mother and daughter had a tempestuous and physically violent relationship, much to the shock of the Dublin city social scene. Maria was given a cash settlement and the Ducketts of Duckett’s Grove were no more.

Originally purchased by a farmer’s collective, bickering and greed over shares led to default on payment and the Land Commission stepped in and took over. During this time in the early 1920’s the IRA made use of Duckett’s Grove for training purposes and it was the base of its flying column, a mobile armed unit of soldiers.

Despite the nature of its use post-Duckett, the great house was well maintained until it was brought to a smoking shell by way of a catastrophic fire on 20 April 1933 – the cause of which was never discovered.

Although nothing but a husk, it would seem that the events within Duckett’s Grove have left their mark, with several agitated spirits being witnessed over the decades, making the building ruins a hotspot for numerous paranormal investigations, including America’s Destination Truth in 2011.

The most notorious entity identified is the Duckett’s Grove Banshee. Banshees have forever been known as portents of death, with most connected to families and more than a few of these wailing spirits seeking death for revenge and torment.

Banshee

Banshee

In this instance, the Banshee is the result of a Piseóg, a curse placed on the house and family to bring about death, despair and financial ruin. This particular curse was cast by the angry grieving mother of a young girl who had been having an affair with William Duckett and was riding on the estate when she fell from her horse.

The bringer of death can be heard shrieking on the wind through the ruins of Duckett’s Grove from the towers for two days and nights, with stories of those that heard her suffering fatality and family tragedy. Noted accounts include a woman who dropped dead in the grounds and a worker in the gardens who heard the feared cry and whose mother died the follow morning.

Servants have distinctly been heard working in what was formerly the kitchens and pantry and a phantom horse and carriage has rolled up to the former entrance.

Disembodied voices, bangs, floating balls of light and spectral shadows are just a few more of the paranormal phenomena to occur in the Carlow castle. Apparitions of various figures, believed to be members of the Duckett family have been seen, including what is believed to be the ghost of William Duckett himself, riding a horse on his estate.

The Ducketts had extremely strong ties to the Protestant church and a vocalised hatred of Catholicism, so some investigators have provoked heightened paranormal responses from the entities of Duckett’s Grove, by bringing Catholic relics such as rosary beads to investigations.

Now Duckett’s Grove is open to the public, with visitors touring the extensive gardens and woodlands. For those who look at the Gothic skeleton that remains, it is a statuesque reminder of the opulent and lavish lifestyle that used to be lived within.

Ducketts

For those who are braver, the ruins provide a hive of paranormal occurrences to be witnessed from the brightest and busiest of tourist days to the dead of night.

With a family history of materialism, violence and infidelity, and with a Duckett family motto of ‘Let us be judged by our acts’, it is little wonder therefore that this noble family and those whose lives they touched remain the eternally restless residents of Duckett’s Grove.

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!

BELTANE – A MAY CELEBRATION OF FIRE, FLOWERS AND FERTILITY

Bealtaine fire

Despite Christianity coming to Ireland’s shores in the 5th century, rural Ireland has never let go of her Pagan ceremonies, superstitions and belief in the prevalent spirit realm and faeries. As a part of this way of life, certain times of the year are deemed the most powerful and are to be recognized as such by way of protection and prosperity rituals, with Beltane being no exception.

Beltane, or ‘Bealtaine’ as it is known in Ireland, marks the start of summer, halfway between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice and translates as ‘Bright Fire’. As is true with all Celtic festivals, Beltane is celebrated in alignment with the heavens and the moving of the seasons, with the last day of April or the first of May usually selected as the official day to light the Beltane fires and so begin the customary rites of the season.

The most notable Beltane Fire in Ireland was lit on the Hill of Uisneach in the County of Westmeath, known as the mystical navel of Ireland. Cattle would be driven between two Beltane fires as part of a purifying ritual to safeguard the herd and families would take home embers to light their own hearth fires for continued protection. In the event you were to remove an ignited piece of turf from a house, you would remove the blessing of the home and doom the family to bad luck.

The fires were merely the beginning however. In nature as Spring is very much the mating period and a time for birth, many of the rituals were fuelled with sexual energy in an effort to increase fertility among the clans. An effigy of a woman known as the May Baby would be attached to the Maypole, a phallic symbol. The effigy would be covered in the flowers of the season as well as straw and ribbons, while a male and female of the community would dress up and dance around the Maypole in a crude and lurid manner. These displays of vulgarity were believed to increase fertility and help those who were trying to conceive.

As with Samhain, Beltane was of vital importance to the farming communities of Ireland and the practices accompanying the festival were reflective of this fact. In earlier times, cattle would be herded to the nearest fairy fort and the blood of the livestock would be spilled in order to appease the spirits and Hawthorn and Rowan twigs would be placed across the horns of the herd to prevent milk thieves, as the right curse could cause an entire summer’s milk to be stolen from the cows.

Herbs would be gathered on the first day of May and they would be boiled with hair from a cow’s tail. It would be carefully preserved with a small amount being placed inside the churn and inside of the pails before milking and churning commenced. This was believed to guard against disease and ensure a healthy production of dairy produce for the season. Of course if you wanted to ensure the demise of your neighbour’s farm, you would cast a malevolent curse by placing three grains of corn into balls of yellow clay and position in each corner of their field.

Switches and brooms were to be made and stocked before May as any put together during this month would bring further bad luck and milk was poured across the threshold to keep out the faeries. The May Bush or May Bough would be created from the branch or part of a Rowan or Hawthorn tree, placed outside the house and decorated with rags and ribbons. This would ward off evil spirits, mischievous faery folk and bring a good harvest to the homestead. The task of adorning the May Bush was often given to the children to keep them occupied and out of the clutches of the faeries!
The gathering of May Flowers was also of great importance and a task that once again fell to the children of the community. Posies would be put together and placed in front of homes, on cattle and in wells for protection and good fortune.

Perhaps the most permanent reminder of the festival of Beltane is the ancient Beltany Stone Circle in Donegal. As the name suggests, it is believed this circle of stones was the site of the celebration of Beltane. The central stone is the only one to be decorated and faces towards the hill known as Tullyrap. On May Day, the sun rises above the hill in alignment with the circle and appears from behind the decorative stone, a sign of renewed energy, vitality and promise for the summer.

So whether you are gathering flowers, dancing around a Maypole or lighting a Beltane fire, you are wished good luck and all the blessings of Beltane – and remember to keep an eye on infants born on this May Day, as they are believed to possess the power to see the faery folk!
Beltany