Easter is the festival of the pagan Goddess of Spring, Eostre, or Ostara, which was adopted by Christians as the resurrection day of Jesus. In Ireland, the beginning of Spring is celebrated by the festival of Imbolc on February 1st, which also happens to be the feast day of the Goddess Brigid.
According to the Cath Maige Tuireadh and the Lebor Gabála Érenn, two ancient documents containing Ireland’s mythic origins, Brigid was a princess of the Tuatha de Danann, and daughter of the Dagda. She was married to the tyrant-king, Bres, who turned his back on the Tuatha de Danann in favour of his Fomori heritage.
Patron of poetry, smith-craft and healing, she was deeply loved and revered by our Irish ancestors. It came as no surprise to me, therefore, to learn of a cult which had worshiped Brigid from pre-Christian times well into the C19th… but what did blow me away was that this took place in an area of Ireland only ten minutes drive away from where I live.
In 1855, an extraordinary artefact was unearthed in a small quarry on Corleck Hill near Bailieborough in Co Cavan. This unusual early Iron-Age stone head was 32cms high, made from sandstone, and had three faces, each one almost identical with a narrow mouth, bossed eyes, and a rather enigmatic expression.
Corleck Hill, from the Irish corr, meaning ‘round hill’ and leac, meaning ‘flat stone/ rock’, has a long association with the worship of the old Gods. It is also known by another name, Sliabh na trí Dána, meaning ‘the hill of three Gods’.
In Irish mythology, the term ‘Trí de Dána’ refers to the Three Gods of Art; Goibniu the smith, Luchtaine the carpenter, and Credne the goldsmith. Could the stone head with its three faces represent this trio of skilled craftsmen/ deities, after which the hill of its resting place was named?
But what does this have to do with Brigid? Well, as one of the Danann, and daughter of the Dagda, she was contemporary with the Three Gods of Art. When the Denann invaded Ireland and fought against the Fir Bolg, Brigid was with them.
Now it gets really interesting; they settled in an area called Magh Rein. And guess where Magh Rein turns out to be? Only right next door to Magh Slecht (where St Patrick was said to have defeated Crom Cruach), on the borders of Co Cavan and Co Leitrim. From there, it’s not a long trek to Corleck, even without modern modes of transport.
Brigid’s festival was known to have been celebrated with huge fires on Corleck Hill at Imbolc. Even more intriguing, the Corleck head was not the only such idol to have been discovered there…
The Stone Head of Brigid was said to have been worshipped as a triple deity at a shrine on top of the nearby Hill of Drumeague. Interestingly, her triple aspect celebrated her skills as a poet, a smith and a healer, rather than the typical maiden, mother and crone of womanhood, and thus we see another connection with the crafts of the Trí de Dána.
It’s certainly possible that the Denann could have roamed into the region now known as Bailieborough in the search for raw materials to supply their trades. Perhaps the arrival of Brigid and the Three Gods of Art into their homeland so impressed the local people, that they honoured and remembered them in their rituals of worship.
When Christianity claimed Cavan, the head of Brigid was hidden in a Neolithic tomb. Brigid was well loved for her protection and care; it’s quite likely that her followers were reluctant to give her up for the new god. But eventually, perhaps inevitably, her stone head was brought into the local church, where she was canonised as St Bride of Knockbride.
Unfortunately, this treasured idol has since sadly gone missing, but there is a curious tale attached to its disappearance.
When the church was rebuilt in its current position, Fr Owen O’Reilly, who was the parish priest between 1840 and 1844, brought the head from the old church in the west of the parish to the new one in the east.
He claimed that as he was passing Roosky Lake, the head ‘jumped’ out of the carriage of its own accord and fell into the water, never to be seen again.
However, there is also a story which says it lies buried beneath the new church, nestled among the foundations, perhaps in the hope that she will continue to bring her blessing upon those who worship there.
It is interesting to note that at some point between 1832 and 1900, the passage tomb, stone circle and large 64m embankment which crowned Corleck Hill, was systematically demolished and removed. It could be that this was where Brigid’s head was originally hidden to keep her safe from Christian priests.
Whether this act of destruction was instigated by zealous Fr O’Reilly, who was so keen to banish Brigid’s influence, or was simply the effect of farming on the landscape, we’ll probably never know. Although I would add that cattle graze very happily around other ancient monuments in Ireland.
Although the stone head of Brigid is now lost to us, the Corleck Head can be seen at the National Museum of Archaeology in Dublin, and a fairly authentic looking replica stares rather disconcertingly out of a glass case in the local Co Cavan Museum.