We were driving through the Cavan countryside last weekend, and whizzed past this little gem! We almost crashed whilst we did a double take, then turned around and drove back to have a closer look.
St Fethlimidh’s Cathedral is only located a few kilometres outside of Cavan town on a beautiful wooded hillside close to Lough Oughter, but if felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, it was closed and locked up, so we weren’t able to go inside.
St Fethlimidh was the son of Carill, and great-great-great grandson of Nial of the Nine Hostages. His mother was Dediva, whose grandfather was Dubhthach moccu Lughair, Chief Ollamh of Ireland, and royal poet to High King Lóegaire mac Néill, so he was descended from an illustrious lineage. He also had seven brothers and sisters; all of them bar one were also saints…
I suppose that depends on what you mean by ‘giant’. The Oxford Dictionary is vague: ‘An imaginary or mythical being of human form but superhuman size’. It backs this up with, ‘An abnormally or extremely tall or large person, animal, or plant‘.
If you Google it, you will be told that Irish mythology is full of stories of giants. Despite popular belief, search a little more deeply, and you’ll find this is not true. More often than not, it is folklore which tells of giants, as last week’s post explains; Fionn mac Cumhall reduced to hiding in a crib dressed as a baby, even though he was so large he was responsible for building a road across the sea to Scotland, which we now know as the ‘Giant’s Causeway’; the giant witch-hag falling to her death as she leaped from crag to crag, carrying boulders in her apron which formed the cairns of Loughcrew, and so on.
Clearly, from these examples, Irish giants were… well, fecking gigantic! But how ginormous is a giant, exactly? Here’s an interesting story, which might give us a clue.
DNA extracted from the teeth of a man named Charles Byrne, from Northern Ireland, who lived in the 18th century, proves that he had a genetic mutation which resulted in extreme growth. He was 7ft 7 ins tall when he died in the 1780s aged just 22. His skeleton can still be seen at the Hunterian Museum in the London headquarters of the Royal College of Surgeons.
What’s so intriguing about this case, is that the DNA matched with that of five Northern Irish families still living in that area today, and scientists believe they all inherited the gene mutation from the same common ancestor who lived up to 66 generations, or 1500 years, ago. Who knows, perhaps in the future, it will be traced even further back. If so, then perhaps we have just found the origin of the giant stories in Irish folklore. (You can read the full story here.)
The Tuatha de Danann were said to be tall, slender and powerful, although they were never described as giants. The Fomori, a sea-faring race who battled against the arrival of the Danann, were led by a King known as Balor, said to be a giant with one eye in the centre of his head which could kill people with one look.
Although the Fomori are portrayed as nasty and despicable, and really quite ugly, it is only Balor who is described as a giant. I would also dispute their ugliness; Elatha was so beautiful that when he appeared over the sea to Eriu in his silver boat, she consented immediately to sleep with him. Their resulting son, Bres, was also beautiful; in fact, that is the very meaning of his name.
Balor locked his daughter, Ethne, away in a tower on an island after hearing a prophecy that he would be killed by his own grandson. Despite this, Cian of the Danann comes to her and they sleep together. She gives birth to triplet sons, but Balor orders them to be thrown into the sea. One of them is rescued by Birog, a druidess, and he grows up to be Lugh, God of Lightning. At the Second Battle of Moytura, Lugh does indeed kill his grandfather with a spear through his evil eye, and so the prophecy came to pass.
My favourite giant story, however, concerns the origins of the five sacred guardian trees of Ireland. I can’t help feeling that this myth has really really ancient origins. One day, a tall stranger, some say a giant ‘as high as a wood’, came to the court of the High King at Tara bearing a branch from which grew three fruits, an apple, an acorn, and a hazelnut.
The stranger’s name was Trefuilngid Tre-eochair, meaning ‘of the three sprouts’. From the description, he was clearly a descendant of the Otherworld;
“As high as a wood was the top of his shoulders, the sky and the sun visible between his legs, by reason of his size and his comeliness. A shining crystal veil about him like unto raiment of precious linen. Sandals upon his feet, and it is not known of what material they were. Golden-yellow hair upon him falling in curls to the level of his thighs.”
He requested of Conan Bec-eclach, a just and brave High King, that all the men of Ireland be assembled, and from them he selected seven of the wisest men of knowledge from each ‘quarter’ of the land, and also seven from Tara.
He taught them all about their history and heritage, and shared with them his knowledge, but during that time, not a drop of wine or morsel of food passed his lips, for he was sustained purely by the fragrance of the fruits of his branch.
When his work was done, he gave the fruits from his branch to Fintan, the White-Haired Ancient One, who extracted seeds and planted them in each quarter of the land, and one in the centre, at Uisneach. The trees which grew from these seeds became the five sacred trees of Ireland.
Searbhan was a giant who protected a sacred rowan tree in the forest of Dubros (in Co Sligo), upon which grew magical berries which had the power to restore youth to the old. During their flight from jealous Fionn mac Cumhall, Diarmuid and Grainne entered the forest, looking for a safe place to sleep. Being quite pregnant by this time, as soon as Grainne laid eyes on the glossy red berries, she was consumed with an insatiable craving for them.
Inevitably, Searbhan refused to give her any, causing Diarmuid to attack him in anger. The giant swung his huge club, but Diarmuid was a mighty warrior of the Fianna, and not only did he dodge nimbly out of the way, but he managed to relieve Searbhan of his weapon, and kill him with it.
Here in Co Cavan, folklore local to the Burren tells the tale of two sibling giants, Lugh (an important and well loved character from mythology, borrowed yet again) and Lag, who both fell in love with the same female giant. To see decide which one of them should win her, they challenged one another to jump over a wide chasm. They both succeeded. Lag then decided he would jump the chasm backwards, and of course, he fell to his death. He was buried in a wedge tomb beside the chasm, which to this day is known as ‘the Giant’s Leap’.
COMING SOON: Conor Kelly’s Guide to Ireland’s Ancient Places, an exclusive free gift for all newsletter subscribers, featuring all the sites and locations upon which The Tir na Nog Trilogy is based. WANT ONE? It’s FREE, and coming to a newsletter near you soon! All you have to do is sign up to my Marvellous Myths newsletter.
Can anyone guess where I’m going? I just got my super-duper, brand spanking new #Bloggersbash tee-shirt, and I’m so excited, because the moment I put it on, it suddenly felt REAL! The Bloggers Bash is really happening, people, and it’s less than two and a half months away. It’s already nearly a year since the last one. This year, it’s going to be bigger and better than ever. Watch out, London, here we come!
I’d like to say a very special thank you to George and Margy ofCavan Teesfor printing my lovely Bloggers Bash Tee-shirt… you all want one of your own now, don’t you? Make sure to stop by their blog; not only do they print and sell tee-shirts, but they feature the most beautiful photography of our beloved Co Cavan too.
If you want to know more about the Bloggers Bash, have a look at Sacha’s Blog.
There has been much debate over whether the Celts practised a Cult of Heads. Even now, experts are divided over the issue. It’s easy to jump to conclusions; a severed head depicted in Celtic artwork does not a macabre ritual make. Such ‘evidence’ must be interpreted and so conclusions are arrived at through speculation. However, it’s fair to say that the severed head makes many appearances in the ancient stories of Ireland.
According to Greek philosopher and historian Posidonius (died c. 51 BC), Roman author Livy (died c. AD 17) and Greek historian Diadorus Siculus (died some time after 36BC), the Celtic warriors of Europe struck off the heads of their enemies in battle and strung them from their horses bridles. Later, they would be displayed around their homes, or enbalmed in cedar oil and stored in a chest as war trophies. Sounds mighty gruesome to me, not to mention just a little unhygienic, but perhaps I’m just being squeamish.
Could the same thing have happened here in Ireland?
Well, in the Tain Bo Cuilnge, Cuchulainn is described as returning home from battle swinging 9 enemy heads in one hand, and 10 in the other. Nice. Later, when he is killed, the heads of the 10 men involved in his slaying are taken in revenge and presented to his wife Emer, who accepts them. Not a souvenir I’d like to see on my sideboard, but I guess they did things differently in the Iron Age.
Mac Dathó was a King of Leinster who owned a magnificent guard dog named Ailbhe. Queen Medb of Connacht and King Conchobar of Ulster both desired possession of the hound, so Mac Dathó invited both parties to a feast. The warriors of both sides start contesting among themselves over who was the greatest warrior entitled to the curadmír, or hero’s portion of the meat.
Cet of the Connacht men emerges as the most likely candidate, until Conall Cernach arrives from Ulster. Cet concedes to him, saying, “If my brother, Anlúan, was here, you would not be getting the curadmir, for he is the better warrior.” Conall replies, “But he is here!” and pulls Anlúan’s head from his belt and throws it at Cet so hard, he is splattered with his brother’s blood. In the end, there is a fight for the dog, and even the poor old mutt ends up decapitated.
There is a really strange story about the death of Conchobar mac Nessa, King of Ulster. Meisceidra, King of Leinster had been killed in single combat by Conall Cernach; he removed the brain and preserved it by mixing it with lime. Presumably, this hardens soft tissue. Later, the brain-ball was stolen by Cet mac Mágach, who fired it at Conchobar from his sling. It lodged in the King’s head, but surgeons were unable to remove it without causing more damage, so they sewed up the wound with the brain-ball in place. The King survived for seven years, but upon hearing of the death of Jesus, had such a fit of anger that the brain burst from his head and he died. Luckily, the blood baptised him, and he went to heaven… notice any Christian intervention in this story, anyone?
Death by brain-ball. That one should have made it into my 5 Weirdest Hero Deaths post; sorry Medb, but it even beats your death by cheese!
Evidence of ‘trepanning’, or brain surgery in which holes were made through the skull has been found on human remains going back into the Bronze Age. In Ireland, there is the story of Cenn Fáelad mac Aillila, who in 636AD sustained a severe injury to his head at the Battle of Magh Rath in Co Down. He was brought to Tuaim Dreccon, a monastic school in Brefffni, now Co Cavan, where he received treatment from Saint Briccin, a renowned scholar and surgeon.
According to The Cycle of Kings, “the virtue is not that the brain of forgetfulness was taken out of the head of Cenn Fáelad, but in all the book-learning that he left after him in Ireland.”
Not only did he make a recovery, but his memory improved to such an extent that he became word-perfect. He stayed on to study Brehon Law, Poetry, and History, and produced three great scholarly works on Law, Grammar and History.
St Oliver Plunket was a Roman Catholic bishop (born in Loughcrew, believe it or not) falsely accused of conspiring against the state and offending God by practising his false religion. He was hung, drawn and quartered in 1681 for his crimes, and his head brought to St Peter’s Church in Drogheda, where it has remained ever since, and can still be viewed today. A pagan tradition adopted by the Christians? Apparently, he’s not the only headless saint.
These stories indicate a reverence for the head as a tradition which has endured through the ages in Ireland, even if their origins were lost.
Last year, I learned of a ‘cult’ of head worship which had been going on in my area well into the C19th. The Corleck Head is a carved stone head now housed in the National Museum in Dublin, but with a fine replica in the Co Cavan Museum in Ballyjamesduff. It’s not just any old carving, though; it has three faces, which is indicative of triune goddess worship.
It was unearthed in a small quarry on Corleck Hill near Bailieborough in Co Cavan in 1855. Standing 32cms high, made from sandstone, each of the three faces are 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?
The Stone Head of Brigid was said to have been worshipped as a triple deity at a shrine on top of the neighbouring 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. Eventually, her stone head was brought into the local church, where she was canonised as St Bride of Knockbride.
Unfortunately, this treasured idol went 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. It is also said, however, that she lies buried beneath the foundations of the new church.
It’s thought that the Celts may have honoured the head as the seat of the soul. Taking an enemy’s head may not therefore have been seen as the violent act we imagine. Perhaps it honoured their bravery in battle. Perhaps it was a gesture of possession, preventing the enemy’s soul ascending to the Otherworld. Perhaps it belonged neither to the physical world or the next, but somewhere in between. Perhaps it signified accumulating wisdom.
But what of the talking heads? There are tales in Irish mythology of disembodied heads which, weirdly, continue to speak after their death.
Conaire Mór was a High King of Ireland, who had a long and peaceful reign. However, things start to go wrong when events conspire to make him break some of his geisa (taboos). He is attacked whilst staying at Da Derga’s hostel. After slaying many enemies, he asks his champion, Mac Cécht, to bring him some water. As the warrior returns with the drink, he sees two men lop off Conaire’s head, and enraged, he kills them both. Conaire’s head carries on talking, drinks the water, and composes a poem in honour of Mac Cecht’s loyalty and prowess.
After the Battle of Allen, the Leinstermen are celebrating their victory over the men of Ulster. Baethgelach is sent to the battlefield to obtain a trophy head. There he hears the most beautiful, ethereal singing, which leads him to the severed head of young warrior, Donn-Bo. Baethgalach persuades him to sing for his king in exchange for being returned to his body afterwards. He sings so sweetly and sadly for the King of Leinster, that the whole court is moved to tears. Beathgalach then returns with him to the battlefield, where they locate Donn-Bó’s body, and the two parts are magically joined together and made whole once more.
Back to the Tain, and Sualtam is sent to rouse the men of Ulster to fight against Medb’s forces. In a freak accident, the sudden jolting of his horse causes his shield to slide, slicing his head clean off. His head continues to call for the Ulstermen’s assistance, however, and it is this which finally brings them to Cuchulainn’s aid.
Finally, Fothad Canainne was a man who quite literally lost his head over a woman. He was chieftain of the Connacht branch of the Fianna, and fell in love with the wife of Ailill Flann Becc, who was leader of the Munster Fianna. They eloped, and Ailill came after them with his men. Nearly all were killed, and the poor woman, finding her lover’s severed head, picked it up and carried it to where his body lay. Fothad’s head then spoke to her, leaving her with a verse in memory of his life and sad end.
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.)
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.
Replica of Killycluggin Stone close to location of discovery.
Close up of La-Tene designs on replica stone
The actual Killycluggin Stone in the Co Cavan Museum, Ballyjamesduff. It is in two pieces; someone has attempted to effect a repair with concrete.
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 stones forming the circle are hidden among trees.
inside the stone circle
Site of the Killycluggin stone discovery.
The entrance stones face east and now lie recumbent.
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 Patricks Church at Kilnavert
First sentinal stone leading to the nearby monument
Oliver approaches the monument
Bright sunlight blessing the ancient stones.
The second sentinal stone looking towards Cuilcagh
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.
This is the first time I have taken part in Hugh’s Photo Challenge, but as soon as I read his post on this week’s challenge, this image popped into my head.
Lough Ramor is a huge lake just five minutes drive from where I live. I used to go there often for a walk with Indi, my dog. In my early years of writing, being there always solved my writer’s block, and it’s so serene, it always calms me, whatever turmoil has gripped me. Walking beside water, or even floating on it, be it river, lake or ocean is always so relaxing.
I took this picture quite some years ago on my first ever Samsung Galaxy-S phone, and was amazed at how it turned out. Since then, I have always had a Samsung Galaxy, and the camera has got better and better.
Lough Ramor (in Irish, Loch Ramhar) is a large natural lake of 741 hectares situated near Virginia, County Cavan. In 2011, it was designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA) by the EC under the Natura 2000 wildlife habitat conservation programme.
According to mythology, Lough Ramor was named after an ancient chieftain called Cenal Muinreamhair, which means ‘fat neck’; although this sounds somewhat insulting, it actually refers to his bulk of muscle and great strength!
Here are some more images of Lough Ramor, all of them suggesting ‘calm’.
River Blackwater which feeds into the lake
Frozen solid during the winter of 2010
Want to join the fun? Here’s what you need to do.
1. Take or choose a photo that you’ve taken that for you denotes, calm.
2. Create a new post on your blog entitled “Hugh’s Weekly Photo Challenge: Week 16 – “Calm”
3. Add the photo(s) you have taken to the post and tell us a little about what you are showing.
4. Create a pingback to Hugh’s post or leave a link to your post in the comments section of his post (not mine!) so that other participants can view your post.
It is customary to decorate our homes with evergreens at Christmas; love it or hate it, it is a tradition we are all familiar with. Yet whilst these evergreens have become symbolic of the Christian faith, it is interesting to note that their use at mid-winter stretches even further back in time to our earlier pagan ancestors .
This is not to belittle Christian Christmas celebrations in any way, but for me personally, it is so intriguing to discover the origins of our myths and traditions, and sometimes, they can be quite surprising.
As I have become more aware of the Celtic calendar, I have grown to enjoy and anticipate mid-winter. Nowadays, it does not come with the harsh struggle for survival our ancestors faced, but the dark and cold and near-death of winter are a stark reminder of just how fortunate we are. I love that the solstice means longer brighter days are already on the way. I love that a few weeks later, it will be Imbolc, the first day of Celtic spring.
These dates were held as auspicious and celebrated by the ancient peoples. Despite its darkness and hardship, these festivals, brightened with their huge fires and sense of community working together, must have made the winter pass more quickly.
I described winter as a near-death, and indeed so it must have seemed; the sun was distant and weak, unable to warm earth or air, unable to hold back the night; trees wept leaves like tears; plants melted into the earth, inert beneath frozen or sodden ground; birds flew away; animals hibernated or migrated. The only vivacious sign of life flourishing in the land whilst all else wasted, was the evergreens. No wonder they became a beacon of hope, a symbol of endurance and survival. No wonder people brought them into their homes as a reminder.
The following are my five favourite evergreens…
the holly king – cuillean (kwill-un)
I adore the glossy vibrant green leaves and bold red berries of the holly! I know the leaves are fearsomely spiky, but just looking at holly is enough to brighten even the dullest grey winter’s day. Nowadays, we hang it in wreaths on our front doors to bid a cheery Christmas welcome to visitors, but our ancient ancestors believed it protected their homes from lightning. How? Well if you missed it first time around, you can read all about it here in my post Tree Lore in Irish Mythology | Holly, King of Winter.
mistletoe – drualas (droo-ah-lus)
Beloved of the Druids, mistletoe was also known by the name of ‘All-Heal’ as its medicinal properties were thought to be extremely varied. This is what Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian of the C1st AD wrote about mistletoe…
“The druids – that is what they call their magicians – hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a hard-timbered oak…. Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon…. Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things,’ they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to a god to render his gift propitious to those on whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons.”
Mistletoe was used by our ancient ancestors for its powers of protection, healing, fertility, and good luck. It was seen as a symbol of freedom, for it wasn’t earthbound like the trees it grew upon.
When it chose the venerated and mighty oak as its host, the King of the Forest, revered by the Druids, the message was powerful; the oak, solid, male, sturdy; the mistletoe upon its arm, female, fertile. Together, they signified unity and partnerships, a symbol of fertility and renewal founded on solidity and strength. In fact, it is said that so profound and respected was this pairing, battles would be stopped if the warriors came upon them during their combat.
Here’s a little known fact; the church banned the use of mistletoe for hundreds of years due to they extent to which it was venerated by the pagans. It regained popularity among the Victorians for kissing beneath, thus reviving the association of the white berries with peace, fertility and so with love.
Here’s another little oddball fact; remember the bog-body named Lindow man found near Liverpool? Apparently he died, or was killed, after ingesting mistletoe pollen. Interesting.
ivy – eidhneán (eye-naun)
Queen to winter’s Holly King. The Ivy represents growth, renewal and connection. It was greatly admired for its determination to survive, and its propensity to return, no matter how seriously damaged, much like the human spirit.
Its Irish name derives from a word meaning cord for the way it spiralled around trees and clung on vigorously. If you have ever tried to pull ivy from the trunk of a tree, you will know just how tenacious and strong it is!
Incidentally, the spiral is also a popular symbol found in much of Ireland’s ancient rock art. It is thought to perhaps symbolise eternity. In much the same way, ivy found growing on a dead tree, or the tree which in winter appears to be dead, was thought to symbolise the soul living on beyond the death of the body.
In the past, ivy was seen not just as a symbolic plant, but as a healer too; it was used to treat corns, burns and scalds, as well as to stop bleeding and reduce inflammation.
the scots pine – péine albanach (pain-uh alb-an-ah)
The Scots Pine is a native Irish evergreen tree which was widespread thousands of years ago. Pollen and pine stumps have been found standing in bogs where they originally grew dating to seven thousand years ago. It is thought that human action on the land and climate change were responsible for their decline. Fortunately, the Scots Pine was re-introduced to Ireland 150 years ago, and is flourishing here once again.
The Scots Pine was listed in the Brehon Law as a ‘Chieftain tree’ with the name ochtrach. It was also known as ‘the sweetest of woods’, which would seem to indicate that it may have been aromatic when burned. Certainly its needles were dried and burned with juniper for cleansing and purification purposes, and it was used in the bonfires of the Winter Solstice celebrations.
Medicinally, its resin was used to treat respiratory problems, and for its antiseptic and disinfectant properties.
In Irish mythology, when tragic heroine Deirdre of the Sorrows and her lover Naoise perished, it was said that Scots Pines grew out of their graves and intertwined.
juniper – aiteal (at-al)
The juniper is a native evergreen of Ireland that has an association with Christmas through an old Italian legend. The story goes that as Jesus and his family fled from Herod, the juniper trees stretched out their branches and enlarged their leaves to hide their passage. In honour of this, boughs were cut and used to decorate homes at Christmas.
In Ireland, it was known as ‘the yew of the rock’, because it flourished in barren, open rocky places rather than in the heart of the forest. It was also associated with the west wind, which is the direction in which the Otherworld is located, and would therefore seem to have magical connotations.
In fact, its soft aromatic wood was used by our ancient ancestors in their sacred fires for purification purposes, and the fragrant smoke was thought to aid clairvoyance and stimulate contact with Otherworldly beings.
The familiar blue-black berries take two years to ripen, and are used to flavour gin and meat dishes. They have a very strong flavour… less, is definitely more! Juniper berries were used in iron-age cooking, and you can read more about this in my post, Eating Like the Ancestors, an Experiment in Iron-Age Cuisine.
But the berries also contained healing properties; they were thought to aid digestion, and were used for stomach ailments. Here in Co Cavan, where I live, juice was extracted from the berries and administered specifically to cure dropsy (oedema). It was used in childbirth to stimulate contractions, and also in abortions.
You can read more about the origins of Christmas in my other seasonal posts;