Tailtiu, the Church of St Patrick and the Eastern Fort

I started 2017 with a trip to Teltown. It was the morning after the night before, and I looked like it, but I didn’t bring you here just to admire my good looks (ahem); I have something far more interesting to show you…

Tailtiu, the Church of St Patrick, and the Eastern Fort. www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

No, that’s not me, but I can see the resemblance. Ok, not really. 😁 She’s Tailtiu, last Queen of the Fir Bolg. Some say she was the King of Spain’s daughter, or even that she was of Egyptian origin, and that her name was Neffertiti. In which case, I suspect she may have  looked a little different to the woman in my image…

Her husband, Eochaidh mac Eirc, was killed by the Tuatha de Danann in the First Battle of Moytura, when they invaded Ireland. After their victory, in order to establish good relations with her and her people, the Danann gave her one of their noble-born sons, Lugh, to foster. This was common practice in ancient Ireland.

Tailtiu retired to the area located on the River Blackwater between Navan and Kells now known as Teltown. In Irish, its name is Tailten. Here she established her home, and set about the back-breaking task of clearing the land for farming.

Meanwhile, she loved Lugh as if he were her own, lavishing care and attention on him. She found for him all the best tutors, and had him trained not just in the arts of battle and strategy, as befitting a high-born son, but in music, poetry, healing, the secrets of the forge, and many other skills besides.

When she died, Lugh was heart-broken. He buried her beneath a great mound at her beloved Teltown, and set up the Tailten games, known as the Oenach Tailten, in her honour every year at Lughnasadh (August 1st), that she might never be forgotten. This festival continued on, in some form, well into the nineteenth century.

Teltown is a vast and complex ancient site of some significance dating to the Iron Age. Features include the remnants of mounds, ring forts, earthen ramparts, artificial lakes, and an ancient roadway, but much of these have been erased from the landscape through the actions of farming over the years.

I came to see Donaghpatrick Church, and Rath Airthir, which means ‘the Eastern Fort’. Donaghpatrick, from Domnach Pádraig, meaning the ‘church of St Patrick’. According to legend, Conaill, brother of the High King Laoighre, gave the land to St Patrick after his baptism.

It’s kind of hard to imagine that the Irish would have handed over such an important site so willingly, but not so hard to imagine why Patrick would have wanted it. What better way to stamp out pagan activities than to establish a Christian church right there in the middle of it all?

In fact, there are six churches in total, though not all are still in use. Donaghpatrick is itself very intriguing. It appears to be constructed upon a mound or platform, possibly an earlier ancient one, and contains a standing stone, and the old medieval font from the previous church in its grave yard. It is built upon a medieval tower house, which has a strange stone head embedded three quarters of the way up one wall, slightly offset to the right.

The magnificent Rath Airthir

But most wonderful of all, if you stand with your back to the church, Rath Airthir faces directly opposite, in a field just across the road. It is a trivallate ringfort, meaning it has three ramparts circling it, and stands at around 30m (98ft) in diameter. The ramparts could not be seen from this angle, but even so, it really is quite spectacular.

Apparently, Rath Airthir has been identified by archaeologist Michael Herity as the Tredua (triple rampart) fort of Tailtú, as noted in the Metrical Dindshenchas: ‘the Tredua of Tailtiú, famed beyond all lands, where the Kings of Ireland used to fast that no disease might visit the land of Erin.’ (see Voices from the Dawn)

This, coupled with the triple rampart, seems to me to be ritual in nature, possibly the site of some ancient Kingship purification rite, but don’t quote me on that… it’s just my guess, I’m no expert.

I was gutted when I walked up the road and found a sign on the gate prohibiting entry. As much as it maddens and disappoints me, one has to respect the wishes of private landowners; trespassing does not win their favour.

Rath Airthir was, on this occasion, only to be admired from afar.


Happy New Year to you all!
Athbhliain faoi shéan is faoi mhaise daoibh!
(AH-VLEE-in fwee hayn iss fwee WISH-uh deev)


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The Stone of the Big Man

I drove past it three times. Eventually, I stopped in the local village shop for a bottle of water and directions.

The young woman behind the counter gave me a friendly smile. “We’re always after getting visitors in looking for that stone,” she said. “Sell a lot of bottles of water that way.”

cuchulainns-stoneThe little old man who was flirting shamelessly with her when I walked in took me outside and pointed out the way, then mounted his equally ancient push-bike. “Used to pick ‘taters in that field when I was a lad,” he added. “The whole village turned out for it.” He gave me a wave and pedalled slowly off.

Surprisingly for Irish directions (I’m sure you know the old joke – ‘Hmmm… well, I wouldn’t start from here…’ 😭), they were spot on. A couple of minutes drive up the road, and over a stile on the right… how could I have missed it?

Because the bloody sign was tiny and hidden by an overgrown hedge, that’s how, and the stone was way off at the other end of a huge field and couldn’t be seen from the road.

It was well worth the trip, though. That thing is HUGE!

Clochafarmore, or Cloch an Fhir Mhóir in Irish means ‘the stone of the big man’, and is located in the townland of Rathiddy, at Knockbridge, in County Louth.

You might be thinking GIANT, and in a way, you’d be right… this particular man was a giant in reputation, if not in physicality. You probably know him as Cuchulainn, legendary hero of Ulster.

Cuchulainn was born Setanta, son of lightning God, Lugh Lámhfada and the mortal princess, Dechtire, who was the sister of Ulster king, Conchubar. Even as a child, he showed great skill beyond his years in the sports of wrestling, hurling, and the arts of warriors.

When he was seven, he went to train at the court of the king. It was during this time that he earned the name of Cuchullain – Cullain’s Hound – by killing Cullain’s fiercest guard  dog as the brute leaped to attack him.

But everyone knows that story, so I’m not going to tell it here. As everyone also knows the other story he’s most famous for, the Tain Bo Cuailnge, or the ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’, in which Queen Medb of Connacht starts a war with Ulster over possession of a bull, and how Cuchulainn holds off her army by fighting a series of single combats with Medb’s choicest warriors.

No, I’m not going to tell that one, either. You don’t have the time, and I don’t have the blog space for that epic.

But I will tell you how the Cloch an Fhir Mhóir got its name….

After a visit to his mother, Cuchulainn was returning to battle against the men of Connacht when he came across a woman crying and washing his bloody clothing in a stream. No matter how much she scrubbed at it, she could not wash out the stain of blood, and he knew it was an omen of his death.

He continued on his journey and after a while came across three old women roasting a dog on spits made from rowan wood, and they bid him sit down and eat with them. Cuchulainn was now in a quandary, for he was honour-bound by two geasa: never to eat dog meat, and never to refuse hospitality when it was offered.

So he decided it would be more dishonourable to refuse the food, and sat down with them to eat. But no sooner had the first bite of dog-flesh passed his lips, and he felt a weakness claim his body, and he knew this was an omen of his impending death.

After his meal, he continued on his way and soon came across his enemy who were arrayed in battle formation against him; they made a wall of their shields and strengthened it with their strongest men in the centre, and their Druids prepared to take his spears from him, for they had a prophecy in which three kings would be killed by those spears.

When Cuchullain saw them, he ordered his charioteer, Laeg, to drive straight at them…

“and Cuchulain came against them in his chariot, doing his three thunder feats, and he used his spear and his sword in such a way, that their heads, and their hands, and their feet, and their bones, were scattered through the plain of Muirthemne; like the sands on the shore, like the stars in the sky, like the dew in May, like snow-flakes and hailstones, like leaves of the trees, like buttercups in a meadow, like grass under the feet of cattle on a fine summer day. It is red that plain was with the slaughter Cuchulain made when he came crashing over it.”

from Lady Gregory’s The Death of Cuchulainn

“Give your spear to me,” called one of the Druids.

“You are not so much in want of it as I am myself,” Cuchulainn growled in reply (love that… Lady G.’s words, not mine, however😜). With that he cast the spear at the Druid, and it went through his head and killed the men also on either side.

Lugaid, Cuchulainn’s enemy, retrieved the spear and cast it at Cuchulainn as he charged by on his chariot, but his aim was not true, and it pierced Laeg, and so it was that the King of Charioteers was killed that day by the Hound’s very own spear.

“Give me your spear,” demanded a second Druid, and Cuchulainn dutifully cast it at him. It passed through his head, and Erc took it this time, and fired it at Cuchulainn, but he charged by in his chariot too quickly for Erc. The missile missed and went through his horse, the great Grey of Macha instead, and so it was that the King of Horses died that day by Cuchulainn’s second spear.

“Give me your spear,” yelled a third Druid, and without delay, Cuchulainn hurled it at him as hard as he could, and it passed clean through the unfortunate man’s head. Lugaid siezed the weapon and threw it, and this time it found its mark: it passed through Cuchulainn’s body, and as he watched ‘his bowels came out on the cushions of the chariot’ he knew he had received his death wound.

‘Then he gathered up his bowels into his body’ and tied himself with his belt to a tall pillar-stone standing close by so that he would meet his death standing on his feet like a warrior.

His enemies gathered at a distance but did not dare approach; no one would be foolish enough to meet the great Cuchulainn in close combat, even with his death wound upon him. Three days they waited, until finally the Morrigan landed on his shoulder in her guise of black raven feathers, and they knew he was dead.

And so it was that the prophecy was fulfilled, and the great King of Heroes was killed by his very own spear.

Stones such as these are thought to have been set up in the bronze age, possibly as memorials to some special person or event, or perhaps as territorial markers. I’d also like to point out that not everything vaguely cylindrical and upstanding has phallic significance.

The area in which Cuchulainn’s Stone is located is named An Breisleach Mor in Irish, meaning ‘the Great Carnage’, and the field is still known locally as the ‘Field of Slaughter’.  Perhaps there really was a battle which took place there in the far distant past.

A bronze age spear head was found near the stone some time in the 1920s, and handed over for safekeeping to the parish priest, a Fr Seamus Quinn, after whom the local GAA pitch was named, and subsequently was lost. It’s a nice touch, though… another of those little life coincidences which connect us to the stories of the past.

Cloch an Fhir Mhóir stands over 3m (10ft) tall, and 1.3m wide. It has a deep fissure in it, which looks as if it could have been caused by a lightning strike, at least to my fanciful imagination, which would be fitting, since the Hound’s father was Lugh. I can imagine Lugh lashing out at the stone in fury and sorrow after his son was so cruelly killed there.

It’s a very peaceful place, full of light and space and wind and sky, set on top of a rolling hill, with a wonderful wide panoramic view across the valley. I leaned with my back against the stone, like the hero once did, and could almost see the approach of the army, watching and waiting fearfully for death.

No crow landed on my shoulder, and so far I’m still here…


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The Truth About Irish Mythology

I learned something devastating last week, and it was not what I wanted to hear.

There is no such thing as Irish Mythology. It doesn’t exist.

Me last week, when I found out the truth about Irish mythology...
Me last week, when I found out the truth about Irish mythology…

Truth hurts, right? I wanted to crawl into a hole and cry. I actually want there to be some possible reality in heroes like Cuchulainn and Fionn mac Cumhall; in great ancient kings like Cormac mac Airt and Nuada of the Silver Hand, and in powerful women like Medb. I want the tales of Druids and magic and battles and tragic love to be based on some elusive fact. Not only do they help me escape from the horrors and hardships of the modern day world, but in looking back, those stories give me hope for the future: they tell us that even in dark times, there is a light in humanity that still shines. And that elusive quality, like mist drifting over still water, is what draws me in… I lost myself in that mist, and drowned in that water, and it was like swimming in wine… my favourite white sparkly kind! 😋

So what do we have, then? Those stories must come from somewhere.

What we have is a bunch of texts written during the medieval ages. Whilst they may be masterpieces in themselves, and they truly are, there is no evidence that they are anything more than the fiction of talented and imaginative medieval writers.

Think about it: those stories were written down between six and nine hundred years after the events they tell were supposed to have taken place. What did medieval scribes know about the Iron age? They had no books or writings from the peoples of that time, no archaeology to give them an insight. All they had was their imaginations.

I know what you’re thinking; what about the oral tradition these stories were copied from?

We have no evidence that such an oral tradition existed. Even if it did, and non-literate societies all have an oral tradition, so more than likely it did exist, but even so, we still have no evidence. We can make assumptions, but assumptions are not reliable, they are just guesswork.

And, as my lecturer explained, anthropological studies in non-literate communities in Africa, for example, have shown how stories from the oral tradition are subject to change, not only from one re-telling to another, or embellished in the individual style of each storyteller, but altered in quite monumental ways, from one generation to the next. If you ever played the game of Chinese Whispers as a child, you will know exactly what this means; words that are not recorded in some physical way are subject to distortion. It’s inevitable.

We cannot assume that these medieval scribes were fixing these spoken words in ink on vellum. It is quite likely that they were, but there is no evidence of that. What we have are faded manuscripts written by medieval scribes collected into ancient books preserved by subsequent generations and interpreted as history.

Even as late as the 1980s and 1990s, scholars believed that these texts offered a ‘window on the Iron age’. No one looked at them critically. But since then, a new way of thinking has developed. Archaeologists’ findings do not support the view that these medieval texts are describing the Iron age, and this has made people look more closely at the medieval writings. What they found was that these texts actually reflect medieval society; more than likely, they are commenting on their own society, but setting events in what they believe, or imagine, the Iron age to be like.

But why? Why would they do this?

Perhaps it was safer to criticize society by displacing it, and setting it in an earlier, far distant time.  Perhaps it is pure imagination, or speculation. Perhaps they wondered what Ireland was like before Christianity and civilization came and saved it. Maybe they wanted to show how tough and dangerous life was then. Maybe they just wanted to tell a good story. We just don’t know.

Maybe I should close this blog, get my coat, and go home.

But all is not lost, for I am the Guardian of Irish Mythology, remember?

In Celtic and Irish Medieval Studies at the moment, we are reading the 1st rescension of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Cattle Raid of Cooley, probably the most famous and well scrutinized of all tales of Irish mythology. It’s crazy-mad stuff, and I love it! I do wonder if these scribes were high on magic mushrooms when they were writing… perhaps that’s something a few of us modern writers should try. LOL!

Anyway, as you will know if you have been following this blog, Queen Medb is made out to be something of an egotistical, battle-crazed, irrational harlot who goes to war over possession of a big brown bull, just to prove a point to her husband, which is that she is just as equal as he in terms of wealth.

This story does not show women, particularly powerful ones, in a very flattering light. Medb consistently makes irrational decisions and judgements throughout the story and is rescued each time by the logic of her male companions, such as her husband, Aillil, and her lover, Fergus.

As my lecturer says, this story is designed to prove that women make bad leaders in battle, and bad Queens in general, that the female mind is incapable of strategy, logic, wisdom etc.

I don’t deny the story does this… it’s obvious. But I wonder why, in the Christian world of medieval Ireland, where women had been living a subservient and domestic role in society for hundreds of years, why was this message necessary? Women did not hold military power, and Queens were such in name only, usually through marriage. What was happening in the wider medieval period which necessitated the reinforcement of this message concerning a woman’s proper place?

Medb is given an inglorious death (click to read my post on 5 Weirdest Hero Deaths); she is killed by a cheese (yes, a cheese!) hitting her on the head while she is vulnerable and unprotected, just a weak and unaware woman bathing in a lake. A fitting end for the terrible Queen?

Could the Táin really have come from the tattered remains of a much older, perhaps popular, story after all, in which a Queen really did lead a battle? Was it taken and manipulated by medieval scribes to show that no; women make terrible leaders and should never be allowed such power? There is no evidence, so in my new guise as a student, I should not even be suggesting this. But I’m going to anyway.

The earlier part of my course focused on archaeology of the peoples labelled as ‘Celtic’ who lived in central Europe. We looked at the evidence of burials under huge mounds, particularly , at the most high status burials. Among them there are burials of women which clearly show they are of very high status indeed, equivalent to their male counterparts at the time; the burial of the ‘Princess’ at Vix, for example, and the chariot burials of women at Wetwang (video) in Yorkshire.

These are Iron age female burials, but they are not Irish Iron age female burials. However, they do indicate that some women could rise to power and hold as much wealth as men at that time.

I see no reason then to doubt that Ireland could have had its own powerful Queens during the Iron age, and if it did, undoubtedly there would have been stories circulating about her. Many of them may have been lost, perhaps deliberately, as they did not describe the ideal Christian woman. Others, such as the Táin, may have been retained, and ‘adapted’ to teach the true nature of a woman, and her proper place.

I’m just a newbie student at the beginning of my studies, but I think you know by now that I don’t just accept what I’m told, I question it. I’m quietly taking all this new information in, and digesting. The cogs are whirring, albeit loudly and rustily. I have no evidence to support that last paragraph, but I’m sure going to look for some.

By the way, scholars who believe that the medieval texts do in fact refer to the Iron age are called ‘nativists’; those who don’t are called ‘antinativists’. Apparently, people get quite passionate and heated during conferences and debates, even leading to fisticuffs! Who knew mild-mannered and studious bookish people and scholars could get so aggressive over their points of view? A little bit of the spirit of Cuchulainn still lives on in those who study him, I guess. 😂


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Conor Kelly and The Fenian King | An Excerpt

So sorry if anyone just received a blank post notification from me… somehow in the seconds between finishing this post and hitting the publish button, wordpress managed to lose my entire content. There have been some weird things going on at wordpress lately,,, gremlins in the machine?

Ali Isaac - Conor Kelly and the Fenian King

Hugh from Hugh’s Views and News has very kindly featured my book, Conor Kelly and the Fenian King as his Book of the Month… cue sparkly lights and glitter! Yaaay! Thanks, Hugh! In tandem with this, you can find the book at only 99c/ 99p on Amazon, and completely FREE on Smashwords and associated retailers. And now, here is an excerpt…


Chapter Forty Two – The Disappeared

the present day…

 

Conor coughed and spluttered as the dust rose in clouds around him, then admonished himself; his body and lungs were safe in his aunt’s little Micra at the bottom of the hill. As a free roaming spirit, he couldn’t be harmed by clouds of dust, or collapsing masonry, or landslides, or whatever it was that had caused Sidhe Finn to cave in.

But Ciara could. What if she was killed, crushed beneath a fallen orthostat? What if…

Conor felt waves of panic swell inexorably through him like the tides of the sea. He couldn’t find her. He couldn’t see her. Even with his spirit eyes and his supernatural senses, he couldn’t detect any sign of her presence. It was as if she had simply vanished.

But that was impossible. Maybe she had got up and wandered outside, dazed and confused. Maybe she had a head injury, and didn’t know where she was. She could be out there, floundering about in a state of bewilderment.

Oh my God! She could fall off the cliff and plunge to an untimely death in the quarry…

He had to get out, had to find her. He took another quick look around. Many of the orthostats had fallen inward, held up from the floor only by the central pedestal which supported the coffin. A couple of the ancient stones had cracked in two. The coffin had been smashed into matchwood, but Conor saw no evidence of bones. Fortunately, much of the loose rubble which traditionally comprised the infill between the chamber ceiling and the mound had been removed by Aylmer’s builders, and replaced with blocks and mortar, thus forming a secure foundation for the tower. The old mortar had cracked and crumbled in places, releasing some of its bricks, but had mostly held firm. The devastation was not as terrible as he had expected.

But his heart jumped into his mouth when he realised that one huge, carved orthostat had collapsed directly onto the spot where Ciara had crouched the last time he had seen her. Its fall had not been halted by the softness of a body beneath it; no pool of blood lay spreading on the ground around it. The relief Conor felt on observing that was short-lived. Where was she?

Beside the stone, the flagstone with the Ogham symbol lay smashed into several pieces. It had been lifted from its resting place, and placed beside a small pit. Which, Conor noted with disappointment, was completely empty. Had Ciara found the missing mouthpiece and removed it? Or had she lifted the flagstone to find only an empty space and a sense of despair? He had to find her. Where was she?

Convinced at last that the chamber was completely empty, Conor allowed himself to drift up through the ceiling and into the circular chamber above. The stairs leading down from the entrance had collapsed into nothing more than an unstable pile of rock. He floated over it and out through the devastated doorway.

It was dark. The weak wash of moon and stars showed Conor that the hillside was deserted. After the explosions and collapse of the tower, it was eerily silent, almost as if nature itself was shocked at this traumatic turn of events.

He wandered around the remains of the tower, dejected and overwhelmed with guilt. There was no sign of Ciara.

Am I to blame? Did I cause this with the ferocity of my lightning attack on the tower? Or was it the quarry? I’m surprised the hill didn’t collapse years ago after such extensive mining. Surely it was an accident just waiting to happen; we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time…weren’t we?

Pushing his way carefully between the yellow gorse bushes, Conor stood on the edge of the cliff and contemplated the drop. Was Ciara down there, broken and battered and bleeding? Far beneath him, a tear trailed down his face as, in the car, his inert body responded to his desolation.

The only way to find out was to leap down after her. Even knowing that he could not fall or be hurt, it took Conor a good few moments to find the courage to jump over the edge. He found it much easier to control his descent this time around. As the ground rushed up to meet him, he saw that the quarry men were running about in a panic. Alarms were sounding, people were shouting, but the drills were silent, and the trucks which transported rock and rubble lay abandoned.

Hmmm…looks like there’s been a bit of a disaster down here.

Conor levelled out a couple of metres from the ground and glided slowly along the base of the cliff, searching for Ciara. Eventually, elated, he had to conclude she had not fallen. His only other option was to search the path on his way back to the car. Perhaps she was already waiting there for him. With his spirits lifting, Conor retraced his journey. But Ciara was not there.

For what felt like the hundredth time, he wondered where on earth she was.

The car was waiting on the far side of the car park, just as they’d left it. Conor felt anxious now; for Ciara, and also for himself. His body was lying in wait for him on the back seat, but what if he couldn’t get back into it? He hadn’t stopped to contemplate how that part of the process was achieved. He might not be able to do it. What then? He had been outside of his body for quite a long time. He might not be able to readjust to its rhythms and limitations.

He went first to the front of the car, half expecting to see Ciara sitting there, impatiently waiting for him. She wasn’t.

What do I do now? Do I re-join my body, and wait? Or do I go out looking for her again? I’m really tied by my mobility if I re-enter my body at this stage. But the longer I leave it, the harder it’s going to get.

Conor wavered between his choices. Then the decision was snatched from him. When he looked in at the rear window, his body was gone.

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allen-collageAylmer’s Folly and Sidhe Fionn are real places. I visited them when I was researching for this book. You can read about them in my post, Almu | Home of Irish Legendary Hero Fionn mac Cumhall.


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From Goddess to Grotesque

We probably have a false impression when we think of the Irish Celtic pagan Goddess. If she originated with the Tuatha de Danann, who are popularly considered to comprise Ireland’s pantheon of Gods and Goddesses, then she must have been tall and beautiful, fair or red haired, blue eyed, pale skinned. Terrible and gorgeous, all at once.

Whilst a woman like this may appear desirable, if she were a fertility Goddess, you might expect that she would show signs of fecundity, the firm round belly of pregnancy at least. Maybe something like this…

You probably wouldn’t be expecting this…

sheelanagig

This little charmer is an example of a sheelanagig,  commonly thought to represent pagan fertility Goddesses. They are usually found on churches above doors or windows, although some have been found in the walls of buildings, possibly removed from their original location. This one was found somewhere in Co Cavan, and is now on display in the Co Cavan Museum.

The word ‘sheelanagig’ first appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 1840–44 with reference to a stone carving in Co Tipperary. The origins of the word are much debated, as it does not directly translate into Irish. Here are a couple of suggestions; Sighle na gCíoch, meaning ‘old hag of the breasts’, (although most sheelanagigs are not depicted with breasts); Síle ina Giob, meaning ‘Síle on her hunkers’. It is thought that the term may never have been used for the carvings when they were in use, but came into popular use during the nineteenth century.

It is popularly believed that the Goddess has a triple aspect, that is maid-mother-crone. I don’t know why this is so, but I suspect it is a modern interpretation. In Irish mythology, the triune Goddess is usually represented by three sisters, such as the Morrigan composed of the sisterhood of Macha, Badb, and Nemain. Eriu, Banba and Fódhla are another example, who collectively represent Ireland’s sovereignty.

Brigid, most well-known and beloved of all the Irish Goddesses was said to have had two sisters also called Brigid, but the interesting thing about her triple aspect is that it represented her skills; poetic inspiration, the fire of the forge, and her healing power. Definitely not maid-mother-crone.

Just thinking logically for a minute… why would a fertility Goddess be represented by a dried up old crone? Surely she would be better represented by a nubile and fertile young maid, or the ripe swelling mother? In fact, if you look at the carving again, there is no suggestion of femininity other than the vulva. If she does represent a Goddess, I kinda get the feeling she’s been seriously demoted.

There are stories in the mythology, though, where an old hag demands kisses or sex of a young man, and if he obliges, she transforms into a beautiful young woman who bestows the sovereignty of Ireland upon him and his line.  This is shape-shifting, however, not a representation of maid-mother-crone.

Foe example, when Niall and his brothers are out hunting one day, they stop at a well for a drink. The well is guarded by an ugly old hag who offers to exchange a cup of water for a kiss. The brothers refuse in disgust, but not Niall… he’s willing to sleep with her, he’s so desperate for a drink! She immediately transforms into a beautiful young woman, identifying herself as the sovereignty of Ireland, and confers the right of kingship upon him and his line.

This is a motif which often appears in the old stories, the deal usually sealed with the newly appointed king accepting a cup or drink from the Goddess. Perhaps it refers to an ancient half forgotten kingship ritual, but it does not explain the ugly old sheelanagig.

A more plausible interpretation is that these carvings were placed on churches to warn an illiterate congregation against the evils of female lust. It is thought the tradition was probably brought over from Europe by the Normans during the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland in the twelfth century. Sheelanagigs have been found not only in Ireland, but all over central and western Europe.

Whatever their intended meaning, we cannot now know. Personally, I don’t like them. To me, they are crude caricatures, parodies of the female. They make me shudder, and if anything, they seem to mock all that is woman, not glorify it.

From Goddess to Grotesque indeed.

The Hill of Slane | Faces in Strange Places

The Hill of Slane is famous for its role as the place from which St Patrick first defied the pagan Kings. The story goes that one day in AD433, possibly in spring around the time of the festival of Bealtaine, as darkness fell across the land, King Laoighaire prepared his Druids to light the sacred bonfires at the royal site of Tara.

However, before they could do so, a golden bud of flame burst forth on the distant hill of Slane. Furious that such a sacred rite could be so flagrantly disregarded, the King sent his warriors and a number of Druids to extinguish the fire and bring the culprit to him.

The fire was not put out, however. The Druids claimed that Patrick’s power was mightier than theirs, and they were unable to extinguish it. They warned the King that if St Patrick’s fire was not put out, it would burn forevermore in Ireland.

Impressed with the stranger’s magic, and the strength of his religious conviction, Laoighaire allowed Patrick to continue his mission. Even stranger, Erc, the King’s chief Druid and adviser was so enamoured of Patrick’s might, that he converted to Christianity at once, and became the first Bishop of Slane.

Surprisingly, Erc was said to have been buried under a dolmen, the remains of which can still be seen in the graveyard at Slane today. This is a decidedly un-Christian burial more in line with his pagan roots. Which begs the question, why? If the remaining stones really are what is left of a dolmen, of course, and I’m not convinced that they are. I’ll let you decide.

Wherever there is a Christian church, there was once a pagan sacred site before it, and Slane is no exception. In amongst the trees to the west of the hill lies a motte of Norman origin upon which once stood a castle. Beneath this motte there is a burial mound believed to be that of Sláine, a king of the FirBolg.

It was Sláine who was responsible for clearing the land so that the mounds of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth could be built. Quite a legacy.

Sláine, son of Dela, was said to be the first High King of Ireland. He landed at Wexford Harbour at the mouth of the River Slaney with his four brothers and 5000 men. They carved Ireland into five provinces and ruled one each, with Sláine ruling over them all. Unfortunately, he didn’t live long: he died at Dind Ríg in Co Carlow and was carried back to Slane to be buried. He was succeeded by his brother Rudraige.

Newgrange and Knowth can be seen from Slane, and the Hill of Tara is only shrouded from view by a belt of woodland. Clearly, this area was once a very significant one.

According to legend, a holy well is located near Sláine’s mound, which was used as a well of healing by the Tuatha de Danann for their warriors during battle, much like that of Heapstown Cairn at Moytura.

Sadly, the mound and well lie beyond sight on private land, and cannot be accessed by the public.  I have heard that there are some large trees growing through the motte and mound, and that their roots are causing terrible damage. There does not seem to be any plan in place to repair the damage in the near future, so once again, a precious site of enormous value to Irish heritage is being allowed to crumble into obscurity.

A tomb with a view. You can see Newgrange, Knowth, Tara environs, the town of Drogheda, the Mary Macalees Bridge, the sea...
A tomb with a view. You can see Newgrange (red arrow), Knowth, Tara environs (yellow arrow), the town of Drogheda, the Mary Macalees Bridge, the sea…

Despite this, a visit to Slane is well worth it. The remains of the church, its tower, and the monastic college are impressive, and the uninterrupted views of the spreading landscape under a big sky just make you want to soar! The atmosphere is serene, and the light and energy of the site is compelling.


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