Ghosts of the Battle of the Boyne

‘Battle of the Boyne’ Painting by Benjamin West, created 1778

Today marks the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland. The bloody conflict took place on 1st July 1690 (converting to the 11th in the Gregorian calendar, which was not adopted by Ireland until 1752) and although taking place on Irish soil, it was a fight for the Crown between James II of England and Ireland and the infamous William of Orange.

Prelude to Battle

Portrait of James II by Peter Lely

The deposed King James II was the last Catholic monarch who had converted to Catholicism and he had borne a Catholic male heir. Staunch Protestant, William of Orange and his noble peers overthrew the Catholic King to prevent a Catholic hierarchy. The Battle of the Boyne was an attempt by the deposed King James to regain his crown and this battle was just a part of the Williamite War in Ireland.

Portrait of William of Orange by Sir Godfrey Kneller

The Jacobites fought for Irish sovereignty and Catholic tolerance in the name of James, whereas the Williamites sought to enforce and maintain a Protestant hold under the sovereignty of William of Orange and his wife Mary, who was ironically, the Protestant daughter of James II.

William marched south from County Antrim with his forces, gathering additional troops en route, many led by his second in command, Duke Fredrick Schomberg. In total, William commanded a multi-national army of some 36000 soldiers, including highly trained infantry.

James lay in wait with his troops forming a line of defence along the banks of the River Boyne, close to Drogheda in County Louth. His own troops were considerably less, forming an army of 23500, made up primarily of Irish, with the addition of French troops and some English and Scottish Jacobites.

Bloodshed On the Banks of the Boyne

The battle took place at the favoured River Boyne crossing at Oldbridge, a strategic point now marked by the Mary McAleese Boyne Valley Bridge and at Roughgrange. The latter location proved to be formidable as a deep and swamp like portion of the river, preventing the two sides from engaging in close quarter fighting. Instead, many watched as aerial artillery took the stage.

Crossing the Mary McAleese Boyne Valley Bridge, photo by Ann Massey

At Oldbridge, the Duke of Schomberg chose to enter the waters with his cavalry and drive back the Jacobite foot soldiers. James II sent his son with a Jacobite cavalry to counter attack and the Williamites began to suffer heavy losses, including Duke Frederick, who was fatally wounded while riding his horse through the murky waters, attemptng to rally his troops. He is buried in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, his Latin inscription written by renowned Irish writer, Jonathan Swift.

While the Jacobites fought well, they were inevitably forced to retreat, possibly due to a lack of military leadership experience and of course, numbers. They incurred most fatalities, albeit it a small mortality rate of just over 2000 from both sides. Unheard of for a battle of this magnitude, it was partly due to incredible skill of the Jacobite cavalry, maintaining a tight defensive retreat, helped by the reluctance of William of Orange to be responsible for the death of his father-in-law.

While it was believed that some Irish troops eventually abandoned posts and chose life to fight another day over dying for a foreign crown, many Jacobites retreated to Limerick to continue their fight for James II.

Aftermath and the Declaration of Finglas

Williamite forces set up camp in the area of Finglas, as they arrived successful into Dublin. Here William of Orange created the Declaration of Finglas, announcing that any Jacobite foot soldier renouncing their allegiance would be pardoned providing they did so by 1st August, a deadline that was extended for three further weeks. It may seem like a generous offer, however it was a divide and conquer tactic to separate Jacobite leaders and the officers of James II from their troops.

Instead of ensuring submission, it riled the Catholic commanders, who continued their battle for Catholicism, albeit a futile endeavour.

While political advancement and battles continued for the next year or so and the Protestant hold over Ireland gripped tighter, an air of despondency and death loomed over the River Boyne and the ancient location still holds the souls of the departed for its own. Who are the ghosts of the Battle of the Boyne and what links are there to landmarks nearby?

Spirits of War

The Boyne Valley itself is one of the most mystical and ancient locations in Ireland and is home to the likes of Newgrange, the Hill of Tara, Slane Castle and of course the site of the Battle of the Boyne, which centred around Oldbridge and Roughgrange. It spans the counties of Meath and Louth, while sitting on Dublin’s doorstep and has been the enigmatic landscape for paranormal activity over centuries.

It is little wonder therefore, that the supernatural imprint of such an historic battle remains on the bloodied fields and banks of the River Boyne, as well as radiating out to other nearby landmarks.

James II and the Hanged at Athcarne Castle

Athcarne Castle, 1820

Athcarne Castle in County Meath is a late sixteenth century Elizabethan mansion house with castle style turret, that has served as home to the noble Bathe family for generations. It is believed that James II chose this stately home as his residence for the night before battle, with his defeated spirit continuing to wander through the crumbling stone walls. It’s location is only a few miles from the site of the legendary battlefield and the cries of fallen soldiers can be heard screaming in the night. A hanging tree, solitary and weighted with death, stands in the grounds, the twisting, writhing shade of a condemned soldier seen dangling ethereally in the moonlight. A bloodsoaked young spirit, stalks the castle boundary, her demented gaze both terrifying and desperate in equal measure, It now lies as a forlorn ruin, holding helpless souls captive in its shadow.

Saints and Heroes of Duleek

Saint Mary’s Abbey, Duleek, photographer anon.

Saint Mary’s Abbey in Duleek, has been a religious location since Saint Patrick founded a monastic settlement in the fifth century. It was also the place where the slain body of Brian Boru was taken before his final journey to Armagh following his death at the Battle of Clontarf.

Sir John Bellew was granted the title of Baron of Duleek in 1688 for his loyalty to James II and continued to fight in his name after the defeat at the Battle of the Boyne. The Baron lost his life during the Battle of Aughrim on 12th July 1691, one of the bloodiest battles on Irish soil. His broken corpse was returned to Duleek in County Meath and lies eternally in the shadow of the tower.

Talbot Tragedy at Malahide Castle

Malahide Castle, photo by Ann Massey

Malahide Castle Estate in North County Dublin dates back over 800 years and was the home of the Talbot dynasty which continued almost unbroken until the death of Milo Talbot in 1973. His sister Rose, unable to maintain the imposing castle and grounds, sold the historic landmark to the State.

Talbot Family Coat of Arms, photo by Ann Massey

On the morning of the Battle of the Boyne, fourteen Talbot men sat to breakfast in the Great Hall of the Castle, before leaving to fight for the Jacobites. They never returned, well not corporeally at least, bar one. There ghostly forms remain within their family home, kept company by a myriad of supernatural forces, from the shade of a heartbroken court jester to king slayer Myles Corbett, his armoured spectral form disintegrating before your eyes.

Great Hall at Malahide Castle, photo by Ann Massey

Sadly, much of the battlefield itself has been built over, with houses and businesses, all in the name of ‘progress’, despite the pleas of historians. Many of the homes on the site in Oldbridge however, have had individual reports of everything from poltergeist activity to the apparitions of children within their walls.

Winter Solstice – New Hope and Newgrange

This year sees the Winter Solstice in Ireland a day later than usual, on 22nd December. Today that extra 24 hours may not seem a big deal, but thousands of years ago, it was an additional day lived in fear of long dark nights.

So what exactly is the Winter Solstice and why was it so important to our Celtic ancestors and their hopes for the future?

What is a Winter Solstice?

It is important to understand that all our festivals and traditions in Ireland are born from our farming heritage. A necessary way of life dating back to the Tuatha Dé Danann, our ancient race of Demi-gods. Everything we knew related to the seasons, the cycle of life and death, sowing and reaping, harvest and regrowth.

The term ‘Solstice’ actually stems from two Latin words – ‘Sol’ meaning sun and ‘Sistere’ meaning stand still. A point in the Northern Hemisphere where the day reaches its shortest in terms of light and the night is the longest by way of darkness. For a farming nation, this was not the end, but the beginning.

Agriculture and Paganism

This rural way of life was mirrored in the beliefs of the Druids and so many pagan rituals and festivities were borne of necessity. In a year that was measured by solar and lunar movement this moment was a fundamental turning point – the rebirth of the sun.

A fear was instilled from generation to generation, that as the light faded it would not return. Superstition and a need for ritual and tradition were the only ways to hold back the darkness for a nation at the mercy of the seasons and the sun.

It was a time when ancient trees were revered by pagans as they were believed to hold the power, the magic, the key to life and death. It was said that the battle of light and dark was between the Holly King and the Oak King. At the Winter Solstice the Oak would defeat the Holly and thus light would begin returning to the world.

Mistletoe was considered mystical and potent in protection so it would be cut from its habitat, growing on other strong trees such as the oak and offered up for blessings to be brought upon the home.

Origins of Christmas

Candlelight was a vital weapon against the encompassing darkness and the evil that lurked within, a tool to banish the malevolent. The Yule log, adopted from our Norse fellow pagans was lit and surrounded by evergreens such as ivy and mistletoe.

Food was shared among neighbours, produce that was easily preserved such as fruit, nuts, and baked goods that were full of spices for warmth and longevity. Harvested grains and fruits had completed their fermentation process and were handed out as alcoholic beverages and gifts were given to those who helped most in the community. This is all beginning to sound very familiar!

Newgrange

Each year on the Winter Solstice, as the sun begins to rise, a lottery selected chosen few are given the chance to experience the ethereal wonder inside the inner chamber of a Neolithic structure older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. An event that was first witnessed in recent times by Professor M. J. O’Kelly on 21st December 1967. The first such occurrence in over 5000 years.

Newgrange sits in the Boyne Valley in County Meath, Ireland and is to all intents and purposes, an ancient temple. A convergence of astrological, spiritual, religious and ceremonial importance.

It is a mound structure stretching over one acre and is held in place by 97 kerbstones, covered in Megalithic artwork. It is just one of a series of such structures following the path of the River Boyne, however it is the most imposing and significant one of all.

From the home of the Tuatha Dé Dannan to the burial site of the ancient Kings of Tara, speculation as to the rhyme and reason for Newgrange continues – its past shrouded in mystery.

As with many pagan and particularly Druidic locations in Ireland, it succumbed to Christianity. The Cistercian Abbey of Mellifont was founded close by and the surrounding lands were procured as farmland, known as a Grange.

The inner passage at Newgrange is 19 metres in length and leads to a room laid out in the shape of a cross known as a cruciform chamber. The discovery of burned and decayed human remains as well as tools, show us that the monument was much more than a way of measuring the seasons, it was a monument to life and death.

As sunrise begins, and as the weather allows, a thin ray of light creeps along the exterior of the tomb and in through a narrow opening. Like an outstretched hand it reaches along the inner passage and explodes into a ball of light, marking one of the most significant astronomical moments in the Druid calendar. This is until once again, Newgrange is overwhelmed by darkness, a reminder of how little control we have over the sun and the onset of night. For today however, we have a new Winter Solstice and new hope is upon us.

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.

GRACE O’MALLEY – THE PIRATE QUEEN OF IRELAND!

Sea Queen of Connaught  When it comes to pirates, the Irish knew a lucrative industry when they saw one and some of our greatest pirates were women! This account is that of Grace O’Malley, the Sea Queen of Connaught!

Grace O’Malley – The Pirate Queen of Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Image of the goddess Brigid

Image of the goddess Brigid

BRIGID THE GODDESS

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

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

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

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

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

IMBOLC

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Saint Brigid

Saint Brigid

BRIGID THE SAINT

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

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

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

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

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

 

BRIGID’S CROSS

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

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

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

Brigid's Cross

Brigid’s Cross

 

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

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

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