The Mysterious County Cavan Cult of Brigid

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, also known as the Hill of the Three Gods of Art

Corleck Hill, also known as the Hill of the Three Gods of Art


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.


The 'new' Church of Knockbride.

The ‘new’ Church 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.


Roosky Lake... who knows what secrets lurk beneath those still waters?

Roosky Lake… who knows what secrets lurk beneath those still waters?


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.



 

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34 Comments on “The Mysterious County Cavan Cult of Brigid

  1. Pingback: Goddess of Spring | aliisaacstoryteller

  2. Excellent piece (again) Ali. Nowhere else is the modern world so connected to the ancient times with legends – some more tentative than others – to weave those connections. Much as you say in the comments here. On some misty, drizzly days you could be standing in any century at all.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Lol! We just had a week of that drizzly misty weather Roy, but woke to a clear blue sky today! Its one of those days when I want to stand on a mountain, or be near water. We’re lucky in Ireland that we still have those stories to draw on. Many have been lost, but if you dig around a bit, you will still find some.

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  3. Brilliant post Ali. I do find it funny how many of the Celtic/Pagan festivals the early Christian Church adopted as their own significant festivals meaning the truth about the man they all follow would never be known.When was JC really born, when did he really die? All this because one Roman Emperor decided to Unify his Empire under one religion, one he didn’t even follow and one he thought would be easily managed because it was still fairly new.
    The Pagans had their beliefs in Brigid and other female Goddesses while Constantine and the Council of Nicea ensured no female gospels were included in the bible.That of Mary Magdalene, a woman close to JC was consigned to the Gnostic Gospels. The word of man was to be law. Pagan beliefs were to be buried, often at the point of a Roman sword. Had things been slightly different maybe our Islands would be Druid still?
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

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    • That is a powerful thought David! Yes, its certainly incredible that the actions of one man could have such far reaching consequences. I often wonder what Jesus would think if he saw how his teachings had been used, or perhaps misused is a better word. Why does religion, which teaches love and peace, behave so aggressively? I cant help feeling that religion is nothing but a tool to serve man, not God.

      Liked by 1 person

        • That’s a great idea! I for one would be happy to read them when you’re done! I was really sad to discover recently that a local historian who knew an enormous amount of myth and legend about my local area passed away before I had the chance to meet him. All that knowledge died with him. They used to get passed on from one generation to the next. That doesnt happen anymore. By writing them down we keep it alive. Good luck with this project, I think its a really wonderful venture!

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  4. Wonderful article! As a latecomer to the world religion scene Christianity stole, twisted and subsumed everything from Celtic, Wiccan, Roman, you name it. By taking over preexisting religions it was easier to take over Human minds…would Love to walk the steps of the ancients and see the world they saw.

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    • So would I! But I think we still can. Much has changed, true enough, but the world is still the same place. I feel very connected to the past when I see the stars at night, or the hills, mountains and rivers in a landscape… none of those have changed, our ancestors looked on them just as we do. We dont know quite what they thought or believed, but by reading the old stories and trying to get beneathe the layers added by successive generation of scribes, we get some idea. Combine that with the monuments they left behind, many of which are still standing, and we get enough of a glimpse to feel connected. At least, I do, but then I admit I also have a fertile imagination lol! And also, it always leaves me longing for more, as if its not quite enough… human nature, I suppose.

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  5. Wow… Very interesting bit of history/ mythology. I knew that Christmas was arrogated by the early Christians. I did not know about Easter

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, they adopted so much of pagan culture, I guess it was the only way to get some control over the unruly heathens lol! I dont think most Christians have any idea that most of their holy rituals are adopted from pagan ones… which, I must admit, always makes me giggle when I encounter a devout Christian criticising other religions!

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  6. I just love the fact that Easter is based on the festival of the pagan Goddess of Spring ~ Wonderful post on the ancient myths and stories, and it would be something to walk these lands back in the time of Brigid and Cavan…

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    • Thank you! I actually do feel connected in some way to the past when I visit these places. If you don’t know what happened there, Corleck Hill does not seem particularly impressive, and Roosky lake, though beautiful, seems just another lake. We have one for every day of the year in Cavan, so they say! Knowing their story, and the connection to the Denann people, adds such a powerful extra dimension, which I could really feel, and whether myth or fantasy, it didnt really matter. It was, is, real to me. I imagine its a similar experience to your mountain goats, it feels like being led on a journey of discovery, and things happen in the order they are supposed to when you are ready. I tried to find out for so long where Magh Rein was, never dreaming it was just down the road, and found nothing, so gave up. Found it quite by accident when researching something else…

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      • I think this is why so many people like to visit historical sites…great for learning, the imagination and like you say discovery. It becomes essential to who we are, and so your story of how you found Magh Rein is pretty great. The Chinese have a great name for it, yuan-fen (缘分).

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