Saint Patrick and the Cult of Crom Cruach #stpatricksday

Saint Patrick and the Cult of Crom Cruach www.aliisaacstoryteller.com
Saint Patrick and the Cult of Crom Cruach
http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! When I moved to Ireland, I was surprised at how low key the celebrations over here are. Whilst many towns and villages hold a parade of sorts, generally composed of a few floats and tractors, with a bit of face-painting and waving of flags for the kids, Paddy’s Day seems more of a holiday from work to spend drinking and eating with family and friends. I think it’s seen more as a bit of a reprieve from the deprivations of Lent, rather than a celebration of the Saint’s holy day.

He’s not even a saint. You do know that, right? At least, he was never officially recognised as one by the Pope. A little detail like that never stopped the Irish from making him their patron saint, however, or building a huge multi-million euro tourist industry around him, based on a bunch of  lies  imaginative stories.

He never used a shamrock to preach Christianity to the pagans. It’s more likely that he was a slave trader, rather than a poor unfortunate slave. He hung around with rich widows, convincing them to enter the nunnery whilst donating their wealth to funding his empire building more churches. And his only surviving writing exists in two letters, which protest his innocence over some unspecified mis-demeanour. His behaviour towards Ireland’s High King was inflammatory, to say the least. Christians were already living in Ireland by that time, probably as a result of peaceful immigration, and integration with foreign traders. Besides, Bishop Palladius had already been sent by Pope Constantine 1 to tend to the Christians of Ireland.

Still, it cant be denied that St Patrick has become a powerful symbol of Ireland and Irishness around the world. Here is one astonishing story about him which is said to have happened very close to home for me, at a place known as Magh Slecht. (I first posted this story in January last year.)

The Irish shamrock, which doesn’t even really exist!
how saint patrick ended human sacrifice in ancient ireland

Sandwiched between the Woodford and Blackwater rivers lies an area of Co Cavan known as Magh Slecht (pronounced Moy Shlokht), which means ‘Plain of Prostrations’. Overlooked by the scenic Cuilcagh Mountain and distant rounded shoulders of Sliabh an Iarainn, this panoramic vista of gentle rolling countryside is packed with an unusually dense concentration of megalithic monuments, including cairns, stone rows and circles, standing stones, fort enclosures and burial sites.

I had long known about the legacy of Magh Slecht, but it was a chance discovery reading through a translation of an old document, looking for something else entirely, which claimed that this iconic site was located in the county where I live.

I went to meet local historian, Oliver Brady, who recently assisted on an archaeological investigation of the region. We first went to see a replica of the Killycluggin Stone, which is located on the side of the Ballyconnell – Ballinamore road only 300m from where it was found. The original can now be seen in the County Cavan Museum in Ballyjamesduff.

The stone’s surface is covered in simplistic scrolling designs of the Iron-Age La Tene style, and, Mr Brady suggests, was probably once richly decorated with gold and colourful paint. These carvings look somewhat like stylised faces to me, or birds, but they have never been definitively interpreted. It looked very… well… innocent and unassuming, if such a thing can be said of a stone, particularly one with such a dark and turbulent history.

In fact, this stone is similar in style to the Turoe stone, a rare aniconic iron-age pillar stone found in Co Galway, about which little is known.

This particular stone was discovered buried in the ground in pieces in 1921 by the landowner, close to the Bronze-Age stone circle at Killycluggin. It is thought that originally it would have stood at the centre of the stone circle, which currently consists of eighteen standing stones, many of them fallen, and has a diameter of 22m.

Tall trees now encircle the stones protectively, casting them into deep shadow. Moss has draped a delicate mantle of soft green over them, shielding them from sight, and brambles bristle like a guard of honour; if you didn’t know what you were looking for, you could be forgiven for missing it altogether. A fine view of Cuilcagh dominates the horizon to the north, and the two entrance stones, once proud but now recumbent, look towards the rising sun in the east.

The circle and the stone share a dark and mysterious past, according to Irish mythology, for they have been identified as the site of pagan human sacrifice and the worship of the Sun-God, Crom Cruach.

Crom Cruach is also known as Crom Dubh, or Cenn Cruach, among other names. The meaning is elusive; Crom means ‘bent, crooked, or stooped’, while Cenn refers to the head, but also means ‘chief, leader’. Cruach could mean ‘bloody, gory, slaughter’ and also ‘corn stack, heap, mound’.

We know that there was a cult which worshipped the stone heads of their patron Gods and Goddesses in other areas of Co Cavan from finds such as the Corleck head, although nothing similar has been recorded as being found at Magh Slecht.

The ancient Irish considered the head as ‘the seat of the soul’, and warriors were said to have collected the heads of their vanquished enemies after battle as trophies. There are many tales of decapitated heads continuing to talk and impart great wisdom to the living.

The legend of Crom Cruach is a sinister one. The ancient texts of the Metrical Dindshenchas claim that the people of Ireland worshipped the God by offering up their firstborn child in return for a plentiful harvest in the coming year. The children were killed by smashing their heads on the stone idol representing Crom Cruach, and sprinkling their blood around the base. This stone idol has been identified as the Killycluggin Stone.

The manuscript describes the site as twelve companions of stone surrounding the idol Crom Cruach of gold. Other documents, such as the Annals of the Four Masters and the Lebor Gebála Érenn, confirm this, although none of them can be taken as a historically accurate record. They also describe how Saint Patrick put an end to this practice.

The story goes that one Samhain, the High King Tigernmas and all his retinue, amounting to three quarters of the men of Ireland, went from Tara to Magh Slecht to worship. There, St Patrick came upon them as they knelt around the idol with their noses and foreheads pressed to the ground in devotion. They never rose to their feet, for as they prostrated themselves thus, they were, according to Christian observers, slain by their very own God. This was how Magh Slecht won its name.

St Patrick destroyed the stone idol by beating it with his crozier. It broke apart, and the ‘devil’ lurking within it emerged, which the priest immediately banished to Hell.

The Stone does in fact bear evidence of repeated blows with a heavy implement at some point in antiquity, and was deliberately removed from its central position within the circle and buried. A sign now marks the site of its long repose.

St Patrick led the survivors to a nearby well, now known as Tober Padraig, and baptised them all into the Christian faith. He then founded his church adjacent to the well.

St Patrick’s Church still stands in the townland known as Kilnavart, from the Irish Cill na Fheart, meaning ‘church of the grave/ monument’, and indeed there is a megalithic tomb, flanked by two sentinel standing stones, no more than 250m from it.

The present church was constructed in 1867, replacing an older, thatched structure with clay floors. Interestingly, the church rises from the site of an prehistoric circular fort, once known as the Fossa Slecht, possibly the home of a local chieftain.

The site of the holy well, however, has sadly fallen into disuse, and lies somewhere close to the church in a patch of wasteland between two houses, and to which there is currently no public access. It is said that St Patrick moved from the stone circle to the holy well on his knees. Whilst not far, it can’t have been an easy journey.

Although the legend surrounding this site is quite gruesome, it should be noted that this is the only mention of human sacrifice occurring in ancient Ireland according to the early literature.

There are also some conflicts within the story; Tigernmas, for example, is listed in the Annals as having reigned for 77 years from 1620 BC. If this is so, he could not have been at Magh Slecht at the same time as St Patrick, who came to Ireland in the C5th AD.

In my view, this smacks of Christian propaganda. St Patrick was on a crusade to convert Ireland. If the Christians couldn’t reason with the local people and persuade them to give up their pagan Gods, they would absorb them and build churches on their holy places. If that didn’t work, they would punish them, denounce their practices as witchcraft, even kill unbelievers in the name of God, if necessary. We know these things happened; history tells us they did.

Magh Slecht was clearly an important site in relation to religious activity and rites of sovereignty, the number of ancient structures located there are evidence of this. Perhaps the High King, whether it was Tigernmas, or someone else whose name time has erased, refused to obey St Patrick. The priest obviously wanted to lay his claim on the site very badly. Perhaps he came there with an army. Perhaps the men of Ireland died in the act of their devotions because a holy army fell on them while they were unarmed and at prayer. Perhaps there was slaughter at Magh Slecht, pagan blood was spilled, not in sacrifice to Crom Cruach, a God feared by his worshippers, but because he was so beloved by them, they refused to give him up.

Indeed, there is some debate over the identification of this cruel deity with the character of Crom Cruach. In some stories, he is represented as a pagan chieftain who eventually converted to the new faith, and as such was well known to St Patrick, and even considered as his friend.

In Co Kerry, it is told that St Brendan asked Crom Cruach, a rich local chieftain, for help with funding the building of his church. As an ardent pagan, Crom refused but gave St Brendan his evil-tempered bull instead, in the hope it would kill the Christians. They, however, managed to tame it, and suddenly afraid of their power, Crom agreed to convert to their faith. Before doing so, the monks punished him by burying him for three days with only his head above the ground.

The Ronadh Crom Dubh, or ‘the staff of Black Crom’ is a standing stone associated with a stone circle at Lough Gur in Co Limerick, where offerings of flowers and grain, not blood and death, are left at harvest time.

Crom Cruach/ Dubh has a festival day on the last Sunday of July called Domhnach Chrom Dubh, where vigils and patterns are held at holy wells around the country in his memory. An association with St Brigid is recognised in an all-night vigil still held on Crom’s feast day at her holy well in Liscannor near the Cliffs of Moher.

This seems surprising when one thinks of the terrible deeds once committed in his name. It would imply he was loved and respected to be thus remembered into modern times, rather than a God who was feared and hated.

As I stood blinking in the bright sunshine in the centre of the plain of Magh Slecht, having relived its legacy at each prehistoric structure, with the green fields vibrant against the blue sky, Sliabh an Iarainn and Cuilcagh a hazy purple smudge on the horizon, I was struck by the great sense of peace and serenity which lay over the land.

These monuments practically stand in people’s back gardens, yet from the road which meanders by, they cannot be seen. They are, in effect, hidden in plain view. It seemed to me that nature, the age-old Gods, the Sidhe, perhaps Crom himself, had all conspired to keep them safe.

Our ancestors certainly knew how to pick a site. It was hard to equate this place with such a perpetual dark scene of violence. I couldn’t help but wonder if such events had ever taken place at all. Perhaps it wasn’t children who were sacrificed here, but truth.


I would like to thank Mr Oliver Brady for taking the time to show me around the magnificent Magh Slecht. If you would like to know more about this site, archaeologist Kevin White has undertaken a very comprehensive study of the area.

Other posts relating to Saint Patrick’s Day

Patrick, Saint or Sinner?

St Patrick was a Slave-Trader and tax-Collector

Symbols of Irishness

The Harp in Irish Mythology


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31 thoughts on “Saint Patrick and the Cult of Crom Cruach #stpatricksday

  1. Here in the US, St. Paddy’s day is just a fun holiday where people drink green beer, wear green clothes, and eat corned beef and cabbage for dinner. I look forward to having corned beef and cabbage for dinner every year followed by a delicious Reuben sandwich a day or two later. It is interesting to learn some of the history behind the holiday.

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  2. I sat down to read this properly and was shocked at my lack of knowledge. St. Patrick wasn’t a saint and he might have been a slave trader! I don’t quite understand the St Paddy nonsense over here in the States – not so bad in Texas – but I do remember going to mass on St Patrick’s Day. Thank you for such an well written and researched blog. Even if you have ruined St. Paddy’s for the Yankees… 🙂

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  3. Hope you had a great St Patrick’s Day, Ali. Is it true that St Patrick originally came from Britain? I’ve read that somewhere else and also about him ridding Ireland of all snakes, but then it goes on to say that Ireland has never had any snakes.

    At least, in Ireland, St Patrick’s Day is a national holiday. In the UK, we Welsh don’t get St David’s Day as a holiday and nor do the English on St George’s Day or the Scots on St Andrew’s Day. The Welsh and Irish countryside look so similar, although I’ve not as yet come across any mysterious rocks or stones.

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  4. Hi Ali, well yes, I don’t think Patrick was actually a saint, and perhaps this is a bit opportunistic of me, but I feel particularly up for being in a great mood today regardless. So, Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you! It’s like the American Thanksgiving, I guess… a wonderful reason to celebrate… do we really need a reason to have a great time, ever?… even though the origins of the why of it are really nasty.

    Human sacrifice? No, it never happened, and if it did it would have been thousands of years ago, not in the common era. And certainly, children have always been too revered. Even the children of your enemies, you’d raise them. There were far too many reasons for children to be taken from the world, killing a child could be grounds for exile which is worse than dying.

    I would think that, had this story about Patrick been at all true, baptizing the survivors would have simply added insult to injury. Do you think Patrick would have survived it? To be brutally honest, I’m not sure he would. Sacrificing truth instead, I think is very very likely. There are parallels in some ways between this story and the way the god of the Old Testament handled children… asking Jacob to sacrifice Isaac, killing the first-born children in Egyptian households. I might be making a stretch of it but it begs the question of who is interpreting whose culture in light of their own, and for what purpose? Do you know any more about this particular god? He sounds rather mysterious. The Tuatha De Danann for instance could be violent; most of them were warriors who fought for their people, but they never forgot their honor. Even the suggestion to sacrifice children would have dishonored them. There is certainly none even in our current age who demands sacrifices… choices, sure, values, not sacrifices. They might not even be gods, but if they are, they’re definitely not that kind of god, never were.

    Okay those were a lot of opinions at you!

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  5. WellSarah said it all, didn’t she? Fascinating. I suppose St P is another example of Churchill’s First Law of History ( I just made that up) ‘history will be kind to me because I will write it’. Control history and you control the truth.

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  6. Happy St. Pat`s day to you hope the luck is on your side for the rest of the year. A great tale today, I have heard of the old god, chieftain or whatever he was but as usual, can`t remember where or why. lol For those of us who are away from our family, this was always a tradition in ours which my Grandfather started, he would send a fresh shamrock to us every St. Pat`s day as a reminder of who we were and that home is never far away.

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    1. I think thats a lovely tradition started by your grandfather, Adele. It just goes to show how much the Irish immigrants loved and missed their homeland, and their desire to keep their heritage alive.

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  7. Truly fascinating stuff Ali.Irish history and tradition may be wrapped up in so many tales but at least it is recorded in some way. You’re always both entertaining and educational.
    xxx Gigantic Hugs to you xxx

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  8. Thanks for giving us another dose of the real Patrick on this day of all days. Puts things in perspective. St Paddy’s day has become just another international money-spinning day, particularly for certain breweries. We just had the day off school, went to mass, sang rather warlike hymns, wore great bunches of shamrock and went round to my great-grandma’s for a knees up. The parades with the green hair and funny costumes are something else entirely.

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    1. Warlike hymns? Interesting. Like all special occasions, they have been consumed by commercialism so that they barely represent what they were originally. Sad but true. People just want to make money out of them.

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  9. So. Hmm. Well… There is so much truth here I barely know where to begin. Here? If they couldn’t “persuade them to give up their pagan Gods, they would absorb them and build churches on their holy places. If that didn’t work, they would punish them…even kill…” Or here? “seemed to me that nature, the age-old Gods, the Sidhe, perhaps Crom himself, had all conspired to keep them safe.” How many places, deities, dates were taken? Oh that phenomenal last line hit me: “Perhaps it wasn’t children who were sacrificed here, but truth.” I can picture you standing in that sacred space. So peaceful, beautiful, full of history and mystery. Great post. 💚

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    1. Thank you Sarah. If anything terrible had happened there, time had erased it completely. It was so serene, otherworldly even, because cars were driving up and down the road, people totally oblivious of the site they were driving through. Its a secret kept in plain view. Its quite bizarre. And you can’t stand there and not be affected. Its clear why the ancients chose it for a sacred site. It hasn’t lost any of that.

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      1. Yes. It’s ‘otherworldly’ is what I was imagining. And the world passes by while you’re immersed in magic. A lot of places like that across the pond. *sigh* Amazing. Here, we just get green beer. 😜

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