Cor Deiseal, (pronounced kor dy-ash-al) comes from the words deis meaning ‘right-hand’ and deas meaning ‘south’. It refers to the curious movement, or procession, in a clockwise direction, thus following the course of the sun. These days, it is most commonly practised by Christians at religious sites such as Holy Wells, and also by modern pagan groups.
Liscannor Well, near the Cliffs of Moher, is dedicated to St Brigid, and is located on the site of the ancient burial ground of the Uí Bhrian clan, the Kings of Dál gCais. Several Pattern Days are celebrated there; St Brigid’s Eve, The Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven on 15 August, and surprisingly, the Domhnach Chrom Dubh, a nightly vigil held at the end of July.
Crom Dubh, also known as Crom Cruach, was a pagan deity represented by a stone idol which was said to have been worshipped in pre-Christian times in Ireland by the sacrifice of first-born children. Fortunately, St Patrick saved the day and put an end to this slaughter by destroying the idol, and driving out the demon which inhabited it. So it seems rather strange that Christian people would be celebrating such a deity.
The Pattern is a rather complex one, but involves circumnavigating the site of the well deiseal, or sunwise, keeping the statue on your right, whilst saying particular prayers at certain stations on your knees.
Clearly, this is a ritual adopted by Christians from our early ancestors. The ancient Irish and Celtic peoples were incredibly knowledgeable with regard to the skies and celestial bodies, and we know that their calendar was divided not just by the seasons, but by the movements of the sun, stars and earth.
To move forward in a sunwise direction is to follow the cosmic order; the sun brings warmth and light, nurturing the growth of crops and livestock, and is therefore seen as positive, fortunate, and indicative of good luck and prosperity. To move against that, to move in an anti-clockwise direction, is called tuathal, and is thought to bring bad luck.
This ritual movement was often used in conjunction with prayers, incantations, charms and spells. It is quite likely that the Tuatha de Denann used it when they set up the healing well at Heapstown at the Second Battle of Moytura. Their physician, Dian Cecht threw into the water one of each of the 365 herbs found in Ireland, and along with his sons and daughter said incantations over the water as the wounded and weary warriors bathed after battle. When they emerged, the men were whole and fit and ready to return to the fight.
There is a strange story of Lugh chanting a spell over his army just before the battle commences; apparently, he went ‘around the men of Ireland on one foot and with one eye closed’, and he probably did it deiseal-wise.
According to Seán Ó Duinn in his book, In Search of the Awesome Mysteries, at Samhain, groups of masked men dressed as the ancient Gods, or the Sidhe would rampage through villages demanding food ad drink from house-holders. In those days, most homes had a central hearth. If the house-holder was generous, the masked men would line up and proceed around the hearth fire deiseal-wise, keeping the fire on their right, to bring the inhabitants good fortune for the following year. If the house-holder was mean, the men would proceed tuathal-wise instead before leaving. This was certainly an early version of today’s ‘trick or treating’.
I came across another strange custom which took place in Scotland at New Year. A man wrapped in a cow-hide would be driven wildly around their village by a group of companions. They would do this three times deiseal-wise around each house until they were let in. The house-holder would offer refreshments, and in return the men would give him a piece of sheep, deer or goat meat called a ‘breast-stripe’, which the house-holder would then burn at the hearth. Each person would inhale the smoke in turn, thus warding off the danger of fairies, witches and demons. It seems to me that there are elements here which far pre-date Christianity, the representation of ‘the wild hunt’, animal sacrifice, the cleansing and purification rituals of fire and smoke.
In Ireland, there are places where echoes of the sunwise ritual still remain to this day. Tempo (An Tlompú Deiseal in Irish) is a small village in Fermanagh. Many ancient monuments can be found in the area, such as the Doon Stones with their rock art, stone rows, bullaun stones, and a burial site dating back a thousand years. Clearly, this was a place of significant activity in ancient times, perhaps of a religious nature, given its name.
In Tipperary, there is a village called Modeshil, (Magh Dheisil in Irish). It too bears prolific marks of the past in a multitude of Holy Wells, moated sites, ancient settlements and even a Holy Tree.
Perhaps there’s even some innate sense of the deiseal within us all that we’re no longer aware of; I don’t know about you, but clockwise movement feels more natural to me. When I massage Carys’s little tummy, I use a clockwise circular motion called ‘the sun and the moon’, and this encourages the natural movement of the gut. Our home is laid out in a clockwise design as we move through the day, from the bedroom where we awake, to Carys’s room, to the kitchen, to the living room where we retire at night, and finally back to the bedroom to sleep. I’m sure you can think of your own examples you probably never noticed before.