LANDS OF CELTIC LEGEND: THE BRIDGE OF FOLKLORE BETWEEN IRELAND AND SCOTLAND

At the narrowest sailable point there are barely 12 miles between the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland and County Antrim in the north of Ireland and on a clear day you can see from one to the other.

As they are both Celtic countries in close geographical proximity it is not surprising that culturally there are so many similarities.  Ireland has been an island nation since the dawn of time, however the Kingdom of Scotland was not established until the 9th century.  Of course that isn’t to say there wasn’t anything there as the Picts and the people of Dál Riata would clearly point out!

In terms of folklore there are some distinctly Scottish ethereal beings and mystical tales of course, however many seem to have been ‘borrowed’ from their Irish counterparts over time.  So how did the Irish infiltrate Scotland and what magic and stories of the supernatural did they leave behind?

Dál Riata and Immigration

This Gaelic dominion dates back to 400 A.D and covered a part of the west of Scotland and the north east of Northern Ireland.  The Picts were much further to the north of Scotland and didn’t converse in the same Gaelic tongue as their neighbours.

After the Roman’s left Britain, the realm was quickly taken over by an ever mounting population of Irish immigrants and other Celtic speaking communities.  Safe in the knowledge they were protected by vast numbers of kinsman, the official seat of Dál Riata was moved across the sea from Ireland to Scotland.

By the 7th century, Saint Patrick had carried out his work trying to rid Ireland of Paganism and Saint Columcille had taken it upon himself to bring the same to Scotland by setting up a monastery on Iona to promote Christianity.

This, together with an influx of Norse and Saxon immigrants diluted the strong pagan Celtic gene pool and much of the established Gaelic influence faded away.  By the time Scotland was established as a kingdom in the 10th century, the Picts had overrun and more or less eliminated the people of Dál Riata.

In Ireland many of the pagan beliefs and superstitions did not succumb to Christian conversion and stood the test of time.  Although not as strong due to a mix of cultures influencing life in Scotland, many traditions and myths remained although largely hidden and confined to more rural areas.

So what was left behind?

Fionn Mac Cumhaill, Benandonner and the Giant’s Causeway

One of the first mythological tales any young Irish child learns just happens to be Scottish too.  Fionn was an Irish giant who was in an ongoing battle with his nemesis across the sea, a Scottish giant by the name of Benandonner who was larger and much more dangerous.  Temper rising, Fionn began to break off pieces of the Antrim Coast and throwing them into the sea to build a series of stepping stones across the water to finish off Benandonner.

Fionn learns that Benandonner is coming for him and is terrified so hatches a plan with his wife to scare off the intimidating ogre once and for all.  Dressed as an infant, Fionn is tucked up in a crib as the Scottish giant arrives to the house.  Benandonner looms over the helpless Oona as she informs him that Fionn is on an errand.  Making pancakes, she puts iron into some of the batch.  Handing one to Benandonner that contains the iron, he takes a bite and his tooth is broken.

Oona looks on disdainfully and says her husband eats them without any trouble.  She then proceeds to feed an untainted pancake to the ‘infant’ who gobbles it down without a bother. The giant feels the teeth of the ‘child’ and is bitten for his trouble!

Realising that if this was the offspring of Fionn, his rival must indeed have strength and power beyond anything he could imagine.  Benandonner runs back across the Causeway in terror, smashing the hexagonal shaped basalt columns as he went, leaving only that on the coast of Antrim to ensure Fionn did not follow in his wake.

The Pirate Queen of Connaught and the Gallowglass Warriors

Gallowglass

Of course the most interesting tales are those with solid historical foundation.  So what happens when you take a group of Scottish mercenaries and have them led by Ireland’s most fearsome female?

Having pillaged and plundered their way across Europe, the Vikings began to invade Britain and began to settle in the Hebrides.  The Norsemen were intelligent enough to know the benefits of interacting and becoming part of communities and began to marry local Gaelic speaking women.  These mixed marriages led to the part of the population known as Gael -Gall, translating as ‘foreigners who speak Gaelic.’

In the mid thirteenth century, the King of the Hebrides presented a hundred or so warriors born into the Gael-Galls as a gift to the King of Connaught in Ireland.  They became known as the Gallóglaich (foreign young warriors) and helped to bring the Norman Invasion of Ireland to an end in Carrick-on-Shannon in the year 1270.

As a result of this Irish Kings began to hire the Gallóglaich over the years and centuries to fight not only invading forces but each other in the battle for supremacy.  The Scottish mercenaries were not cheap but they were certainly effective and got the results they were paid for.

Standard dress code was a padded jacket covered in mid length chain mail and an iron helmet.  Traditional Gallóglaich weaponry consisted of a two handed sword similar to a claymore, spears, darts and the double headed Sparthe Axe, a throwback to their Viking heritage.

They would number approximately 80 men for each engagement and there would be two young lads for each warrior to carry supplies and backup weaponry.  Such was their reputation and standing, it would not be long before a fiery red-headed female Irish pirate would come hiring.

Grace O’Malley was born into a successful family who thrived on trade and shipping, otherwise known as piracy.  Grace was not to be thwarted in her attempts to become a part of her father’s thriving business.  So determined, she cut off her long red locks and became known as Grace the bald or ‘Granuaile’.  She proved her worth on a voyage with her father when their ship was boarded by pirates.  Undeterred and unfearful, the feisty young girl climbed the rigging and jumped screaming and clawing onto the back of the unsuspecting pirate in order to protect her father.

The young woman was married at sixteen to an affluent and aspiring man in order to expand the family empire and they lived at ‘Cock’s Castle’ in Lough Lorrib.  Under attack from a rival clan, Grace’s husband Donal was murdered and the aggressors were sure of their victory.  They were wrong. The furious widow got her men to strip the castle roof of lead and make shot to fire on her husband’s killers.  The Joyce clan were so impressed, they retreated and renamed the homestead ‘Hen’s Castle’ a name still used today.

The experience hardened Granuaile and while increasing her holdings and piracy reputation, she married once again for money and prestige.  Cleverly she wed under ‘Brehon Law’ which meant the marriage was binding for one year only, after which time any dissatisfied party could divorce and retain marital assets.  On their first anniversary, Grace divorced her second husband and kept Rockfleet Castle for herself as a strategic stronghold.

Any one crossing Granuaile personally was destroyed as she was a vengeful woman yet she always maintained her control of the shores and seas of Ireland.  This was not enough for the fire-haired pirate and she began to raid islands off the coast of Scotland and to operate a protection racket on the high seas where people would pay for safe passage.

Grace believed her own men were not up her standards, so also hired the Gallóglaich as their brutal but effective modus operandi was exactly what she was looking for.  Together they went on to destroy Spanish invaders and even take on the Crown in her ongoing strive towards total domination of the seas and coastline.

The unformidable Pirate Queen retired to Rockfleet Castle at the top of her game and died in her seventies leaving her reputation of fear and notoriety firmly intact.  Although historic, the story of Grace O’Malley became more and more a part of Irish folklore, becoming immortalised in poems, songs, books and plays, her links to Scotland never forgotten.

Borrowed or Shared? Celtic Women of Folklore

The great blues guitarist B.B King once said “I don’t think anybody steals anything, all of us borrow.” Never a truer word has been spoken when it comes to folklore.  It would be impossible to have two such similar nations without a crossover of ethereal beings and legends, although taking into account age and history, it is likely that Scotland did much of the borrowing!  Let’s take a look at some of the most popular characters from Celtic folklore.

The Divine Hag

Cailleach Beare (or Bheur) is a crone goddess associated in Ireland with the Beara Peninsula on the South West coast but equally so with the Scottish Highlands were she was said to drop rocks randomly from her wicker basket and used the mountains as stepping stones.

Her time of power is from Samhain to Beltane and she is the goddess of winter.  She would raise brutal arctic storms, snow and ice and the hag carried a magic staff that turned the greenery she touched to the grey withered death of winter.

Cailleach Beare is hideous and terrifying, with a blue face, long pointed teeth and filthy, bedraggled hair.  As her season comes to a close, she turns into a block of stone until winter returns once more.

The Omen of Death

banshee

The Irish Banshee or Scottish Bean Nighe is the ultimate harbinger of death.  Both words mean fairy woman and carry with them tales of being disguised as a washer woman, washing the bloodied clothes of those about to die.  This particular account of the Banshee can be traced back to the Irish Goddesses ‘The Morrigan’ and ‘Clíodhna’, Queen of the Banshees.

Although known as death portents, there have been sightings of these wailing spirits seeking death for revenge and torment.

The traditional description of the fairy death bringer is that of a wretched old hag, dress shredded, matted grey hair, pointed rotting teeth and long, yellow fingernails.  If you become her chosen victim she will torment you ruthlessly, making you hear her soul wrenching scream of despair until your own soul is lost in the depths of her evil cry after a descent into madness.

Of course of you are lucky, you will have a quick death by looking into her blood red eyes, filled with enough loathing and agony to kill you instantly.  Those strong enough not to succumb to either, are ripped apart by her withered bare hands.

More often than not however, the Banshee is a benevolent herald of despair, her chilling cries through the still of the night leading to death and anguish.

Cait Sidhe – One Borrowed from Scotland!

Cait Sidhe

There is one tale that is definitely more rooted in Scottish Folklore than Irish yet still features in tales from both sides of the water.

The Cait Sidhe or Cat Sith is inscrutable and very little is known although there is more to glean from Scottish lore.  The creature seems to stem from the Highlands of Scotland yet pops up in exactly the same form in Irish culture.

The fairy being is in the shape of a large black cat with a white spot and is believed to be a soul reaper. Traditions include putting out fires so as not to entice the Cait Sidhe with heat and distracting it from the body of the recently deceased with games and puzzles.

On the feast of Samhain, many homes would leave out milk so that the Cait Sidhe would bless the home for the coming year.  Those who didn’t would be cursed and the milk from their cows would run dry.

One explanation of the existence of the Cait Sidhe is that it is a witch. It is said that certain witches have the ability to transform into a feline up to eight times while retaining the ability to change back.  Should the witch decide to change a ninth time, she is destined to stay in that form of the forever.  Perhaps why a cat is said to have nine lives.

These of course are just a few of the many historic links and tales of folklore and legend that straddle the Celtic nations of Ireland and Scotland.  There may be arguments over origins, traits and ownership and indeed there should be as it keeps the folklore alive.  What is not up for question is that the histories and folklore of Ireland and Scotland are inextricably intertwined.  One cannot exist without the other and as such define us as two different lands but one very solid, mutual Celtic culture.

 

 

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THE DRUID’S CURSE OF MOOREHALL

Moore Hall Front

Overlooking Lough Carra in County Mayo stands the burned out family manor of one of the most influential families in Ireland.  A burned out shell that has touched on the worst parts of Irish history and was said to have been built on an ancient curse.

George Henry Moore was a prominent Irish Politician in the eighteenth century and both he and his descendants rose to distinction in military, political and cultural fields. Moore himself emigrated to Spain following the implementation of the penal laws and rose to prominence gaining a place in the Spanish Court.  He set up a business trading in brandy and fine wines, which afforded him the luxury of having enough money to build his own mansion upon returning to Ireland.

With many sites to choose from, George Moore settled on Muckloon Hill overlooking Lough Carra.  Locals vehemently warned against such a location as the land was deemed to be cursed.  In around 400 A.D The King of Connacht, Brian Orbsen was slain by his enemies.  The King’s Druid, Drithliu, however made good his escape.  He sought sanctuary on Muckloon Hill but failed to outrun his pursuers who caught up with him and Drithliu bled out on the shores of the Lough.

The stubborn landowner went ahead regardless and Moorehall was built by Waterford Cathedral architect John Roberts, with Moore taking up residency in 1795.  Shortly afterwards George Henry Moore suffered a stroke and was left blind. And so the curse of Moorehall had begun.

George’s son John trained as a lawyer and was made President of Connacht which was a Republic at the time of his commission in 1798.  Unfortunately, his position was a short-lived affair following the appointment of Command-In-Chief of Ireland, the1st Marquess Cornwallis in direct response to the Irish Rebellion.  John was arrested by the Lord Lieutenant and was given the death penalty.  George Moore used some of his fortune to secure the best lawyers he could find and had his son’s sentence commuted to a deportation order.  While on remand awaiting the transport ship John succumbed to the injuries he sustained in custody.  Just a few months later George Moore was also dead.  The curse had struck again.

The next owner of Moorehall was also named George Henry Moore.  His money was made in horseracing yet not without tragedy.  In 1845 his brother Augustus was jockeying a horse by the name of Mickey Free in the English Grand National.  He fell from his horse during the race and died.   George himself won the Gold Cup the following year and used the money to buy grain and cattle for his famine struck tenants.  It was documented that not one of the people on Moore land became victims of the Famine.

George Augustus Moore was to be the last resident owner of Moorehall and the great grandson of the man who had built the very same.  Born in 1852, he went on to study the arts and become a prolific writer as well as a founder of the Abbey Theatre.  George’s social circle included Oscar Wilde, folklorist Lady Gregory and occultist and esteemed writer W. B Yeats, all regular visitors to his grand ancestral home.

George Augustus Moore

While George was residing in England at the height of the Irish Civil War, the anti-treaty IRA took umbrage at his cousin Maurice’s political stance and after commandeering Moorehall, set the mansion with explosives and burned it out.  Was this the final part of the curse?

Apparently not.

The facade remains, exposed to the elements.  Creeping tentacles of ivy crawl through the dark soulless voids where the windows once reflected the beauty of the sky and the Lough.  If you pass through the undergrowth and the age weary tunnel at the rear of the once majestic building, you can see the lowest level of Moorehall, left much as it was in 1923, whatever remains within peering up into the twenty first century sky.

Visitors to the cursed site describe ominous sensations and the overwhelming feeling that they are being watched by some unseen presence.  There have been reports of hearing children’s laughter and seeing shadows darting through the remaining structure. The woods themselves that encompass the fallen noble home are said to have an oppressive and foreboding silence within them.

Historic tragedy has befallen the residents of Moorehall over generations, which has directly led to accounts of paranormal activity within the ruins and the tale of a serpent like creature known as a péist dwelling in the waters of Lough Carra. It should also not be forgotten that the Moore family are interred close by in their ancestral vault. Included is John Moore who’s body was not located until the mid-twentieth century where he was brought home and laid with his kin following a full military send off.

Moore grave

So could the murder of an ancient Druid on Muckloon Hill have created a curse so strong that is has spiraled down through the centuries?  Is part of that curse that the Moores’ remain in residence for eternity? No one will ever know for sure.  No one but a Druid named Drithliu.

 

 

 

ON THE TRAIL OF THE IRISH VAMPIRE

Vampyre

“The last I saw of Count Dracula was his kissing his hand to me, with a red light of triumph in his eyes, and with a smile that Judas in hell might be proud of.” 
― Bram Stoker
Dracula

For generations there has been a fascination with the vampire, creature of the night and blood sucking demon.  The origins of such a demonic entity stretch back to ancient civilisations and trail across countries and oceans – from Ancient Greeks writing of blood drinking revenants to current sightings of the South American Chupacabra.

Modern folklore and popular culture have ultimately taken tales and accounts from 18th Century Europe and created a distinctive, deadly and dark evil force that has spawned countless best-selling books, TV shows and films.  Transylvania in Romania is recognised as the number one hotspot for discovering the legend of the Vampire, however unknown to many, Ireland has an historic and altogether dark Vampiric trail of its own dating back to the 5th Century at least!

ABHARTACH – VAMPIRE CLAN CHIEF

Abhartach.jpg

During the 5th Century in what is now known as Derry, the area was in a constant state of battle between rival clans seeking power and dominion over one another.  The leader of one of these clans was the cruel and twisted Chieftain Abhartach.  His name roughly translates as dwarf and he was believed to either be such or had several deformities.

Regardless of either Abhartach was a formidable opponent and vicious warrior.  He was the definition of pure evil and such was the clan chief’s passion for darkness and depravity he was feared as a powerful and sadistic sorcerer.

So much so in fact, that his own clan cowered in his presence and plotted his demise.  They hired the services of a rival Chieftain who slew Abhartach and buried him in a solitary grave standing upright, as was the tradition for warriors of that time.

Celebrations were short-lived however, as a somewhat disgruntled Abhartach returned from the grave the following night, demanding fresh blood from his clan to sustain his life.  Clan Chief Cathan was both perplexed and furious that his efforts had failed and knew his reputation was at stake.  Once again he killed the dwarf and buried him exactly as before.

In scenes reminiscent of the accounts of Rasputin, it would appear Abhartach was immortal as he returned to his village once again to seek vengeance and drink the blood of his people.

Convinced that Abhartach was indeed wielding some black magic influence, Cathan sought the advice of a Druid Priest and finally cut down the wicked creature with a sword carved from the Yew tree, possibly the most powerful mystical reference for Druids.

Abhartach was interred for the final time head first, never to resurface – or so we are led to believe.  In the current area of Derry known as Glenullin, there is a location known as the Giant’s Grave which is itself is interesting when one thinks of the dwarf Chieftain.  It is also known as Abhartach’s Sepulchure, or Leacht Abhartach. Upon the grave lies a weighty boulder and through it grows a thorn bush, the thorn being another important Druid symbol.  If the Vampire Chieftain does indeed lie within, one most hope he does not rise again.

DEARG DUE AND VAMPIRIC RETRIBUTION

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Arranged marriages have always been prevalent in Irish culture, particularly to increase power and wealth between families.  The story of the Dearg Due is no exception.  A girl in Waterford with exceptional beauty was born into such a family.

As fate had it, she was humble and content and sought love in the arms of a local farm hand.  They made plans to wed and have a family of their own. Her cruel father however, was fuelled by avarice and prosperity, regardless of the cost to his own kin.  He gave his daughter to a notorious vicious and nasty clan Chief in exchange for land and riches.

With the marriage set and the young woman condemned to a life of cruelty, the wedding day she had dreamed of had become a horrific nightmare. On the day of the wedding the reluctant bride was a vision of blinding beauty, dressed in red and gold.  As all the guests revelled long into the night, the girl sat alone, angry and bitter – damning her father to hell and vowing to seek revenge on those who had cost her love and life.

The Chieftain turned out to be far more abusive and controlling then his new wife could ever have imagined.   To him the poor girl was nothing but a trophy to be locked away for his pleasure only, savouring the knowledge she was his and his alone.  With a complete absence of hope and only darkness ahead, she simply existed – no longer eating or drinking, her life gone long before her body gave in.

Her burial was poorly attended and without ceremony.  Her wicked husband had taken another wife before she was even cold and her family were too engrossed in their wealth and greed to give her a second thought.  Only one man grieved for the tragic young woman, her lost love. He visited her grave every single day telling her of his undying love and praying for her return.

Unfortunately, his love was not the driving force for her resurrection – revenge was the force that pulled her from her grave on the first anniversary of her death.  Consumed with hatred and the need for retribution she burst from her coffin and headed home.  As her father lay sleeping she touched her lips to his and sucked the worthless, selfish life straight out of him.

Revenge not yet sated, she called upon her callous husband finding him surrounded by women, fulfilling his lustful desires, oblivious to the dead bride in the room.  In a furious rage she launched on the Chieftain sending the women screaming.  His former wife was so full of fury and fire that she not only drew every breath, but drained every ounce of blood from his twisted and cruel body.

The scarlet liquid surging through her, leaving her more alive than she had ever been and she had a hunger for blood that could not be sated.

The corpse bride used her beauty to prey on young men, luring them to their demise with seduction, the promise of her body their reward.  Instead she sank her teeth into their exposed necks and drank their blood to quench her thirst and desire, but it was never enough.  The warm elixir gave her strength and immortality and drove her to her next quarry.  That is until the terrified locals restrained her and buried her in a mystical place known as Strongbow’s Tree.

The Femme Fatale’s lustful yearning can only be satisfied on the day she died, so on the eve of her anniversary locals would gather and place stones upon her grave so that she would not rise and fulfill her blood-lust.  Sometimes though the rocks are dislodged, forgotten or her insatiable desire is stronger than any boulder could ever be. That is when she can walk into the night, ill-fated men falling victim to the beauty and bloodthirstiness of the Dearg Due.

DEVIANTS – THE RISING OF THE DEAD

zombie ireland

The Kilteasheen Archaeological Project was a joint effort between Sligo Institute of Technology and Saint Louis University. They were tasked with searching for a Medieval Bishop’s Palace in use until abandonment following the arrival of the Plague in the middle of the 14th century.  They began their excavation beneath flagstones in quiet fields in Kilteasheen, County Roscommon in 2005.

The first shock discovery was that directly under the stones were the crushed skeletons of many humans, piled several deep in shallow graves.  The shallowness, together with the positioning of the flagstones indicated that the builders knew they were building directly on top of a graveyard containing upwards of to 3000 corpses.

It was further discovered that on the perimeter of the graveyard were two further burial plots.  Once excavations began it became clear that these were no ordinary interments.  The deceased had been buried in a manner conducive to what is historically known as a deviant burial. Once the skeletons were revealed, the violent, horrific nature of their post-mortem treatment became clear.

The men had been buried during different time periods.  There were no genetic similarities and their ages varied by some twenty or so years, however they were connected in a most disturbing manner.  Each body was subjected to the breakage of arms, legs, hands and feet.  These limbs were then folded inwards and bound around a large boulder.  Both men had a rock wedged so firmly into his mouth that his jaws were close to snapping apart.

These men were not being laid to rest, they were being grotesquely violated and weighted down to ensure they would not return from the dead.  The other interesting observation was that the men had not died of natural causes.  Blade marks were clearly visible upon the bones.

In medieval times it was believed that the mouth was the portal to the soul.  By placing an object such as a stone into the mouth of the deceased, the corrupt soul that had departed could no longer return.  By breaking and binding the flesh and bones, the deviant could not walk among the living again.

The extent of mutilation together with the stone in the mouth of the dead pointed to one possibility.  That the people who carried out these actions believed they were in the presence of vampires.  It was believed at first that the archaeological team were on a Black Death site, as it was thought plague was spread by vampires and the violent nature of the burials was consistent with those thought to be involved in vampirism.

Bone dating however, showed that the corrupt corpses had gone through the most gruesome of rituals centuries before the Black Death took hold.  So long before Vampires were written into folklore, before they were romanticised and turned into best-selling stories, the undead were believed to be walking among the Irish, bringing sickness and death to animals and people alike.   In a small village in the West of Ireland, locals were using every ritual and method they had to make sure it didn’t happen to them.  In Kilteasheen the Deviants would never rise again.

THE DUBLIN MAN AND THE ULTIMATE VAMPIRE

Bram Stoker

In 1897, a fifty-year-old Dublin man by the name of Bram Stoker published a book with a simple cover and a simple title.  That book was Dracula.  From humble beginnings, the gothic horror novel was initially met with lukewarm public interest but to great critical acclaim.  Like many writers, Stoker was forced to maintain a day job and published his most recognised work during his time as manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London.

Book Dracula

The book itself was set between the seaside town of Whitby in England where Stoker had holidayed and Eastern Europe, which the writer had never visited.  So where did his inspiration come from?  After making acquaintance with a Hungarian writer, he became fascinated by the folklore tales from the regions of Eastern Europe and took it upon himself to conduct detailed research into the tales of vampirism from those very localities.

Interestingly however, Stoker was said to have visited Killarney in County Kerry and in particular the ruins of 15th century Muckross Abbey and graveyard.  The ruins of the church, cloister and graveyard are well preserved and stand in the shadow of ancient Yew trees.

The site contains a graveyard and was the burial place of local chieftains.  Three of Ireland’s great poets of the 17th and 18th century are entombed here which could well be reason behind the famous Irish writer’s visit.  There are two local accounts that Stoker may well have heard that may have been catalysts for ‘Dracula’ as Stoker was in Killarney prior to the creation of the world’s most famous vampire.

The first account is of a religious hermit named John Drake lived in the deserted Friary for more than a decade in the 18th century.  He had no worldly goods and slept only in a coffin left in the grounds.   The second is the legend of the Brown Man, a newly wed whose bride came looking for him one night, to find her husband knelt over a recently dug up corpse, feasting on its flesh.

With so much in the way of centuries old Irish folklore and legend pertaining to the vampire, together with anecdotes and tales Bram Stoker picked up on his Irish travels, it would not be a far stretch to surmise that this in part contributed to the spark of creation that became ‘Dracula.’ 

 

 

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."

 

 

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. 

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.

ROUTE 666 – ON THE TRAIL OF THE DEVIL IN IRELAND

beast

Of course you can’t have all these dark tales and history without the Devil having contributed, so I took a look at the lasting trail Lucifer left behind him in Ireland. Let’s follow Route 666.

Route 666, On The Trail Of The Devil In Ireland