Incredible Irish Women | The Mysterious Deaths of Eithne and Fidelma

Incredible Irish Women. The Mysterious Deaths of Eithne and Fidelma

Eithne and Fidelma were sisters who lived in the time of St Patrick. Their story is incredible, although it may be argued that the two young women themselves were not. They were pagan princesses, daughters of Laoghaire, High King of Ireland in 432AD, when Patrick is said to have lit his paschal fire in defiance of the King, pagan custom and ritual.

When Patrick first approached the King, the sisters, known as Eithne the Fair, and Fidelma the Red, were not at court. Following tradition, they were fostered out at Cruachan, also known as Rath Croghan, in the province of Connacht, made famous as the royal residence of Queen Medb.

There, the two girls were in the process of being educated by two Druids, Maol and Caplait, who were said to be the wisest men in all of Ireland at that time. Clearly, then, they were being trained as Druids, an education which is believed to have spanned over twenty years.

Incredible Irish Women. The Mysterious Deaths of Eithne and Fidelma.

It seems that, so far from Tara, the girls were unaware of the arrival of Patrick, or the new religion he preached. This strikes me as odd; the Irish were travelling and trading across Europe as early as the Bronze Age, yet by the fifth century they were unable to travel and carry important news within their own country?

In any case, Patrick certainly had no trouble traversing the Irish wilds, for he and his priests journeyed into Connacht from Cavan, where he had just defeated the evil pagan God, Crom Cruach, at Magh Slecht, crossing the River Shannon at the great monastic site of Clonmacnoise. He then headed on into Connacht, finally stopping at a well near Tulsk called Cliabach, although today it is known as Ogulla Well.

There he found the two young maidens, Eithne and Fidelma bathing. The girls did not know who Patrick and his entourage were, and were struck with curiosity. They thought the men might be visitors from the Otherworld. Patrick began to tell them of his God, and the Kingdom of Heaven.

The two young princesses were so taken with Patrick’s preachings, that they immediately begged to be converted, and so Patrick baptised them with the cold clear waters of the Well of Cliabach. But that wasn’t enough for Eithne and Fidelma, for next they took the veil and became ‘holy virgins’, or nuns, and then they took Communion, after which they fully expected to meet this wondrous God.

They were disappointed, though. Here is what Patrick said to them:

‘As long as you are clothed in this mortal flesh you cannot see the Son of God. Before you can see Him in the brightness of His majesty, the vesture of this corruptible body must be laid aside.’

The Book of Armagh, a 9th century text
A page of text from the Book of Armagh.Public Domain,

A page of text from the Book of Armagh.

What does this mean? As another Catholic explanation gently informs us, ‘they slept in the Lord’. Still not clear? Well, this is what happened:

‘At these words the virgins, burning with a still more ardent fire of love, earnestly asked that [ … ] , laying aside the burden of the flesh, they might be transported into that Presence which, above all things, they longed to behold.

‘The holy man [St Patrick], to whom the divine decrees were revealed, assented, and the virgins, having received the saving Viaticum, lay down on the same couch, and, as if resting and sweetly reposing in the Lord, passed to that marriage feast of the Heavenly Spouse so ardently desired.’

He carried a couch with him on his journey across Ireland? Excuse me, I get a bit distracted by details, at times.

So it was that these two pagan princesses, daughters of the High King of Ireland, Druids in training, surrendered their lives after renouncing their original  religion and calling. For three days, the people of Ireland mourned their loss, then buried the girls beside the well where they had been baptised, although it is said that their relics were later moved to the church at Armagh.

Meanwhile, the Druids entrusted with the girls’ care and education were furious with Patrick. When they confronted him , accusing him of removing the princesses from their family and traditions and causing their deaths, Patrick calmly explained the Faith to them, and they were converted, becoming monks.

Eithne and Fidelma are listed in the Martyrology of Tallaght as saints, and their feast day is given as the 11th of January, so it is perhaps fitting to remember them at this time of year. However, they differ greatly from other Irish saints, especially female saints, in that they never performed miracles or good works, or founded religious sites, or spent time in a religious establishment.

Church at Tulsk, named after Eithne and Fidelma

St Patrick established a church at Tulsk in honour of the two sisters, Eithne and Fidelma. This is the modern church which stands there today.

I admit, I am fascinated by this story, but there are many issues with it. For example, it is not at all certain that Laoghaire really was High King of Ireland, or that he is a historical personage at all. His reign is listed in the Annals of the Four Masters as 429–458 AD, but these early records were written retrospectively, as the Four Masters were actually active in the seventeenth century.

My curiosity, though, lies with the girls: as apprentice Druids, why did they turn so readily from their customs and beliefs? Why did they turn their back on their people, their family, their high status as daughters of the High King? And most importantly, how did they die? And why did they become saints, having never committed a saintly act or lived a saintly and Christian life?

To me it sounds like the cover-up of an unlawful killing, the sainthood conferred as consolation, a way of making amends with a grieving family, which coming hot on the heels of the atrocities at Magh Slecht, would not surprise me. We’ll never know what happened to those poor girls, but we do know that no-one spontaneously drops down dead from wishing to see the face of God.

Of course, that is a literal interpretation, and the old stories were often designed to teach, their real meaning hidden beneath layers of symbolism and wordplay. One might say that the story was intended to convey a spiritual message, that it was merely the old pagan aspect of the girls which died, and that they were reborn anew as Christians.

This would have been cause enough to inspire the grief of family and clan, and would make sense were it not for the fact that the story, whilst in all forms being vague about the manner of their deaths, is explicit in informing us that the two bodies were buried beside the well, and later their remains taken to Armagh as saintly relics.

Whatever your take on this ancient mystery, the deaths of these two pagan princesses makes for an incredible tale, one worth the telling.

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35 Comments on “Incredible Irish Women | The Mysterious Deaths of Eithne and Fidelma

  1. Pingback: On Wells: Saints & Sinners | Holy Wells of Cork

  2. Pingback: Eithne and Fedelma: ‘Unfinished Business’ | aliisaacstoryteller

  3. Pingback: Incredible Irish Women | The Mysterious Deaths of Eithne and Fidelma – brengunzzz

  4. These daughters of Laoghaire mac Néill bear mythologically important names
    Eithne (Ethniú) was the mother of Lugh.
    Fidelma (Fedelm) was the name of the woman of the Sidhe who prophesied the fate of Medb’s army during the Táin. Fedelm introduced herself as “The Prophetess Fedelm, from he Sid of Cruachan, a poetess of Connaught am I.”

    I wonder if St. Patrick made use of figures from Irish Mythology. Mythology carries the religious beliefs of a people and the models of proper behavior. If Patrick stated that these two woman
    accepted Christianity, then the common people might follow their example

    In “The Death of Cuchulain” (8th century) the spirit of the hero drives his chariot over Emain Macha singing of the coming of the Christ.

    Upon learning of the crucifixion of Christ Conchobar mac Nessa called upon Ulster and Ireland to march on Rome and punish the Romans for the brutal death of an innocent man.

    Conchobar raged until he collapsed and died. The church held that the king had died in defense of Christ and was therefore saved.

    (I hope the church hierarchy doesn’t read this!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lol! I hope they do! 😂 Yes, I wondered about the significance of the names, and whether Fidelma was the same woman. Eithne I hadn’t considered, as it was a different Cycle and time period. Allegedly. Also, wasn’t that Eithne the daughter of Balor of the Fomori? Not that it would prevent her being borrowed and placed elsewhere to emphasise a Christian viewpoint! They did that a lot! 😂 Poor old Conchobar. What an end. He was supposed to be the height of kingliness and yet turned into a bit of a tyrant at the end. Like Cormac. Who was also given a Christian end. And even Fionn mac Cumhall, although he gets the King Arthur treatment, rather than a definite end. Love this stuff… it’s so mysterious and maddeningly wonderfully open to interpretation! 😂💕


      • I have to do a better job of proof-reading!
        Eithne was the daughter of Balor and the wife of Cian. Their son, Lugh, killed Balor.
        Poor old Conchobar?
        The blood of Deirdre and the sons of Uisneach are upon his hands.
        He drove away many of his champions of the Red Branch, some of whom joined Medb.
        Perhaps his rage over the death of Christ purged Conchobar of his sins?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Well the flow of his own blood baptised him when he died so he could ascend to heaven. Sounds like he was forgiven to me. 😊 What I meant was how the mighty fall in these old stories. They all start out with the scribes singing their praises, then they are seen to be wicked pagans who eventually find God before they die. Ah but it all makes for a great story! 😊


          • Perhaps these stories functioned like the mediaeval Mirror for Princes.
            How the king/prince should rule so that his rule is praised by his people and remembered as a “golden age.” If he rules ill his name will become synonymous with tyranny and evil will stalk the land.


  5. Lots of interesting comments and I too agree with your version of events – dangerous to be beautiful young women at any time and that couch sounds highly suspicious. Wonderful image though. And many congrats on your 5th birthday 🙂


  6. To me, it just felt like they didn’t finish writing the story. Weird. Maybe that was intentional? As others have said, maybe it was a cover-up? And were the two girls and Patrick all laying on the same couch at the same time? Why? Since their deaths were “as if resting and sweetly reposing in the Lord,” maybe Patrick poisoned them? The story certainly leaves a lot open to speculation, doesn’t it?


  7. That’s certainly a curious tale Ali – all the more interesting for being able to speculate maybe. That Patrick fella sure had a silvery tongue.
    I love that image of the two women.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. A troubling story. Human sacrifice, perhaps?
    St. Patrick and Cromwell? At Least Patrick didn’t round up men. women, and children and ship
    them off to the Barbados as slave labor.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is very true. Although he once was a slave himself, so perhaps he was anti slavery. Interesting that you mention human sacrifice. He came to Cruachan and met the girls directly from Cavan where he defeated pagan God Crom Cruach, to whom the pagan Irish were sacrificing their first born children. Three quarters of Ireland’s warriors died in that encounter, although not at his hands but by their own God, apparantly. Another strange story involving the man himself.


  9. Definitely a fascinating post, Ali. I cannot imagine what their fate was? Suicide? Did they die at the hands of someone who heard they had denounced their own faith? Perhaps the Druids entrusted to care for them? Was it at St. Patrick’s hands? Perhaps to hasten their journey to see God? And, if he were truly a holy man, why did he “lay down on the same couch” with Eithne and Fidelma? I think this story has more questions than answers. ♥️♥️

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know, it’s really intriguing and very mysterious. I have read so many religious versions of this story, which comment on how beautiful it is, and how wondrous and joyous the ways of God… don’t they see anything just a little bit unusual and maybe sinister about 2 girls meeting a priest, immediately dying somehow, and being called saints for it? No priest would get away with that now!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. They were barbaric times and killing was an acceptable act in and outside the church , these days it is acceptable in times of war or by terrorists seeking their way. Maybe these beautiful young girls were involved in fornication with some priests since their morals may not have been Christian ones. It certainly has all the qualities of cover up and deceit. Could it be the unsavoury acts of these priests were covered up by the church a practice that we know still occurs to this day.


  11. What a strange, mystical tale, Ali. I had all the questions you had, after reading about them. I’m with you – I think they were slain and this story evolved to deflect from that and weave an air of mystery and religiosity around them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is a strange one, isn’t it? And right up your murder mystery street! You should write a book about it! 😃 I bet you could solve it.


    • Haha! Sorry about that. It’s just that Patrick fella winds me up. Although he probably never existed, at least not in the role in which he is portrayed. I know his legacy is totally manipulated by the church at Armagh, who were in competition for supremacy. But still. And yes, it really is a powerful story, whatever your point of view. I’m going to have a look at your post tonight… those windows are beautiful and uplifting. 😊


  12. A very strange tale beautifully told Ali. As the police of our time might say, something just doesn’t add up.I’d be tempted to take Patrick in for a grilling and if I couldn’t get him for murder I’d go for assisting a suicide which also carries heavy penalties.For me his reputation is heavily tarnished now.
    xxx Hugs Galore xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lol! The saint certainly does not behave in a saintly manner. But then he’s not actually a real saint… none of our Irish saints are. Hope all is well with you… must pop round for a virtual cup of tea and catch up on all your news. Huge hugs, David! 😙

      Liked by 1 person

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