It’s that time of year again… the Irish are preparing to party, big time, ‘cos there’s nothing we like more than celebrating the death of a saint. And all around the world, everyone wants in on the act.
Statue of the formidable St Patrick at the Hill of Tara.
Happy St Patrick’s day? Doesn’t look very happy, does he?
St Patrick gazing across the valley to the tower at Skryne
Despite controversy, Enda Kenny is already in the US preparing to hand over the customary crystal bowl of shamrocks to President Trump on Thursday. This is a tradition which was started back in 1963, and symbolizes the ‘special’ relationship Ireland has always had, and hopes to maintain, with the US.
The design of this year’s crystal bowl was inspired by the incredible scrolling knotwork illuminations of the Book of Kells, and features a series of intersecting trinity knots, and engraved shamrocks. It has a scalloped rim which reveals the full brilliance of the crystal. It’s the best bowl, Mr President, and now it’s yours. We know you like all the best things.
Over the past few months, politicians have called for the Taoiseach to cancel his visit to the US. However, even though Ireland does not share the President’s values, Kenny will go ahead with his visit, in order to maintain Ireland’s strong links with the American people.
It’s not just politicians, though; just under forty thousand Irish people (at the time of writing this post) signed the petition “Shamrock for Trump: Not in my Name“, and are still continuing to do so, minute by minute. Bit late now, folks.
Before anyone rolls their eyes and says something along the lines of ‘Let’s not sully a saint’s day with politics,’ let’s be totally honest here; religion has always been about politics and power. Don’t be naive. And don’t have a go at me… it wasn’t me who decided Ireland need to cosy up to the American President with a bowl of shamrocks every Paddy’s Day.
And by the way, Mr President… a shamrock is NOT a four leaf clover. I’ve seen you sporting that vibe on your green cap. Somebody must have given you some fake news and alternative facts. No surprise there.
If you want to read some posts about the original Paddy, instead of modern politics, you can take your pick from these…
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…
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.
View of Donaghpatrick Church across the River Blackwater
You can see the mound or platform the church appears to be sitting on from the rear of the graveyard
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.
The font and the standing stone.
The standing stone and me… just to add a bit of context so you can see how tall it is.
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?
The back of the medieval tower house attatched to the church
The mysterious stone head high on the front facing wall of the towerhouse
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.
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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I went to the Hill of Tara yesterday. I haven’t been in quite a while; the sun was shining, and I’d been cooped up in the house for a couple of days, and I just felt drawn, so off I went.
Going anywhere on my own these days is such a treat. And as I got nearer to my destination, I could feel the excitement mounting, until by the time I arrived, I was giddy as a schoolgirl!
In some ways, visiting Tara on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of July was a bit of a mistake; the Hill was packed. Not crowded, its much too big and open for that. But there was too much noise, human noise, and it was impossible to take a photo without it being invaded by unwanted guests.
Don’t get me wrong; we all have an equal right to be there. But somehow, I had mixed feelings over the way this ancient monument and symbol of our heritage was being used. Mostly, people were sunbathing, or kids were running gleefully up and down the bankings, climbing over all the ancient monuments.
Harmless, and yet I’ll admit that a part of me was appalled; they can do that anywhere, why come to somewhere special and fragile like Tara to do it? It seemed so disrespectful. On the other hand, it was good to see so many people congregating there, and enjoying the site. Tara has not been forgotten. It still draws people, and is still being used today.
I had a really good wander, and discovered parts of the site I had never been to before. But what I really came to see was these two fellows…
You might be wondering what’s so special about them… they’re just two stones in a graveyard, right? Well, yes… and no.
These two particular stones aren’t decayed headstones marking someone’s grave; they’re standing stones. According to legend, these are the two stones known as Bloc and Bluicne. As part of his inaugural ceremony, the newly elected High King had to drive his chariot at full speed towards these stones, and if his claim on the throne was honourable, and he was the rightful heir, the stones would recognise him as such, and move apart, allowing him safe passage between them.
I know what you’re thinking; sounds ridiculous. But these two stones weren’t the only ones on Tara… there were others, too. Remember the Lia Fail, also known as the ‘Stone of Destiny’, which cried so loud in recognition of the rightful King, its voice was heard all across the land? According to author Michael Slavin, ancient texts revealed the names of other sacred standing stones on the Hill of Tara, all now lost: Dall, Dorcha, Maol, in addition to the three previously mentioned. I love that they all had names, and that their names are still remembered.
The taller of the two stones was said to have a carving of the Horned God, Cernunos. If you look closely, you can see a raised indistinguishable area which could have been a carving, but it is badly eroded now, and unidentifiable.
I’d love to think this was true. However, there was once a headstone in this area of the churchyard called the ‘Cross of Adamnan’. Adamnan was a C7th saint. I’m sure he’d be turning in his grave if he realised the likeness on his gravestone had been interpreted as an image of a pagan fertility God! That thought made me chuckle on and off all afternoon. 😤
These two companion stones remind me of the two sentinels which guard the entrance to Brú na Bóinne’s Knowth; it’s thought that they represent fertility symbols, obviously the tall one is a phallus, and the shorter rotund one represents the rounded belly of the pregnant female form.
I’m just not convinced; we know from the stories and the grand monuments these people left behind that they were highly sophisticated and knowledgeable. They used complex engineering and calculations to build their cairns with lightboxes, and all their various other structures, all without the aid of computers and mechanisation, a feat most of us could not manage today.
Then in the next breath we accuse them of being so basic and crude as to worship their own penises and ovaries and immortalise them in stone. Ok, perhaps there are a lot of men out there today who secretly do worship their manhood and would love to see their body parts carved in stone, lol! But, you know what I’m saying.
Although Tara is most commonly thought of as the inaugural site of pagan kings, it also has strong Christian links. The church which stands there now is home to a Visitor Centre, and dates from 1822. It has a beautiful stained glass window. The first church was built in the early C13th, and was followed by a much larger one, the only trace of which remains is a crumbling section of wall, which you can see in this picture. You can also see Bloc and Bluicne close by.
Finally, I couldn’t mention the church without paying respect to the marble statue of St Patrick, which dominates the approach to the site. It’s weird; his eyes seem to follow you about and his gaze is piercing and none too friendly. Given all the things he is supposed to have done for his religion, I shouldn’t be surprised.
I have so much to show you and tell you, but it will have to wait for another day. Have a great week, everyone!
Saint Patrick has been gatecrashing quite a lot of my posts on Irish mythology recently, so I thought I’d give the poor man a page of his own!
He’s most famous for being Ireland’s patron saint, and is celebrated around the world, even by non Irish people, on the date of his death, March 17th, known as St Patrick’s Day, which is also an occasion for celebrating Irishness in general.
Although accepted as being active during the latter half of the C5th, his birth and death cannot be dated. Some records claim he came to Ireland in 432AD, and that he died in 462AD, others that he died in 492AD. The Annals weren’t compiled until the mid C6th, and combine stories seen as both historical and mythological, and unfortunately, as such, they cannot be relied upon for accuracy.
Patrick himself wrote two letters which survived into present times, in which he recounts parts of his life. These documents are known as the Confessio and the Epistola, and give us a great insight not only into his life and motivations, but also into life in Ireland at that time. You can read both documents here.
It is generally well accepted that Patrick was born into a Roman British family in the UK, possibly at Ravenglass in Cumbria, which is not far from where I come from, actually. His father was Calipurnias, and was a deacon.
When he was just sixteen, Patrick was captured by Irish raiders and brought to either Slemish (in Irish Sliabh Mis), a striking mountain near Ballymena in Co Antrim, or Fochill near Killala Bay (in Irish Cuan Chill Ala), the estuary of the River Moy, where he was sold as a slave, and subsequently worked as a shepherd for six years.
During this time, he seemed to go through some kind of spiritual epiphany, when he came to know God, praying up to a hundred times a day. (I would too, if I thought it might help me escape slavery and find my way back home!) In his Confessio, he claims he heard a voice in a dream instructing him to leave Ireland in a ship that was waiting for him in a port two hundred miles away.
Some say this port was in Wicklow. When he got there, there was indeed a ship about to sail for England, but the crew refused to take him at first. Patrick turned to prayer, which God duly answered, for before he had even finished his devotions, the Captain had a sudden change of heart, and agreed to take him on board.
After three days at sea, they landed, not in another port as expected, but in a strange wilderness where they wandered for twenty eight days without coming across any signs of civilisation. At this point, they had run out of food, and the crew asked Patrick to pray to his God to provide for them. Clearly, their own pagan Gods had forsaken them. Patrick readily obliged, and immediately they came across a herd of wild boar. They killed many and feasted for two days, before continuing their journey.
Patrick returned home and devoted himself to Christianity. After a few years, he had a vision in which a man named Victoricus (probably Saint Vitricius, bishop of Rouen) gave him a letter which came from the people of Ireland, begging him to return and teach them the new religion. It was a calling Patrick could not deny.
Returning to Wicklow, Patrick was met with hostility from the locals, and sought refuge off the coast of Skerries (where I first lived when I came to Ireland!), before continuing with his mission.
It is said that he founded his first church at Saul (in Irish Sabhall Phádraig, meaning ‘Patrick’s Barn’) in Co Down. Apparently, strong currents had swept his boat through Stranford Lough and into the mouth of the Slaney River. The local chieftain, Dichu subsequently converted and gave him the barn.
It was here that he was brought when he died, and was buried nearby at Downpatrick. St Patrick’s Memorial Church is reputed to be built on the site of his grave.
The Confessio and the Epistola are fascinating, because they seem to relate to some transgression for which Patrick was put on trial. It’s not clear exactly what happened, but it is thought that the writing of the Epistola resulted in Patrick writing the Confessio.
King Ceretic Guletic had taken some Christian Irish converts and sold them into slavery. Enraged, Patrick had tackled the King only to be confronted with ridicule. He therefore wrote the Epistola to Ceretic’s warband, effectively excommunicating them all. This leads to fellow Christians, once thought of as friends, making accusations against him which are not given in the letter, although he writes that he gave back all the gifts given him by wealthy women, that he did not take payment for all the baptisms he made although he made many thousands, or for ordaining priests, and that he himself paid for all the gifts given to the kings and judges; were these bribes to allow him to convert their clans, I wonder. In any case, this protestation of innocence and denial of receiving gifts and money smacks of financial misdemeanor to me. Perhaps St Pat wasn’t quite as saintly as we thought.
As well as his own letters, his life was recorded by two late C7th writers, Tírechán, and Muirchiu moccu Macthenni. Both drew upon the earlier lost Book of Ultán, written most probably by Ultan of Ardbraccan, who was Tírechán’s foster-father.
Interestingly, they portray quite a different figure from the good saintly character we have been led to believe. They claim he was something of a tempestuous warrior, attacking druids and their idols, and cursing kings and their kingdoms. This ties in well with some of the myths about him, which do not describe a peaceful benevolent man of God, but rather a zealous tyrant.
They also intimate that he targeted the conversion of females, preferably those of royal status and wealthy noblewomen, accepting gifts from them, and persuading them to become nuns and found religious orders, much to the chagrin of their families. He also targeted slaves and the poor, who were only too eager to find a way out of the drudgery and hardship of their lives.
There are many stories and legends in which St Patrick makes an appearance. He must have been a very busy man indeed, if he truly was involved in all the events he is credited with! I’d go so far as saying a fair bit of time travel must have been involved, and a sprinkling of Sidhe magic and portal manipulation, too, at times.
Most famously, Patrick is said to be responsible for driving all serpents from Ireland. This is an interesting story, because, according to naturalist Nigel Monaghan, keeper of natural history at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, “at no time has there ever been any suggestion of snakes in Ireland, so [there was] nothing for St. Patrick to banish.” He should know, having searched extensively through Irish fossil collections and records.
In the absence of a reptile population, this has been explained as a reference to ridding Irish shores of the Druids, who were known to revere the serpent, and the circle of life it represented. If he was as war-like as Tírechán and Miurchu claim, perhaps this story disguised an ugly truth, a battle or even a massacre… it would not be the first time in history that Christians waged holy war.
Closer to home, for me, is the story of Patrick saving the Irish from the worship of Crom Cruach on the plain of Magh Slecht. This is a grisly story involving the annual sacrifice of the nations every first-born child by smashing their heads on the idol stone known as the Killycluggin Stone, and sprinkling the blood around the stone circle in return for a good crop. Fortunately, Patrick showed up, smashed the stone, and banished the devil which flew out of it to hell.
As this was happening, ‘three quarters of the men of Ireland’ (the High King’s warband) and the High King Tigernmas were mysteriously slaughtered as they knelt in their devotions, allegedly by their own god, according to Christian observers. Sounds like the work of an army sweeping down upon them, to me.
We already know how sacred the number three was to the ancient pagans; it is a pattern seen repeated over and over again in all things considered important and powerful to them, such as the maiden-mother-crone aspect of certain female Irish deities, birth-life-death, mind-body-spirit, and so on. The pagans had long considered the shamrock as a sacred symbol, its three heart-shaped green leaves representing rebirth and the cycle of life. It comes as no surprise, then, that Patrick should choose to use it to illustrate the Christian Holy Trinity. Clearly, it was a symbol the pagans resisted giving up, and the church was very clever at adopting the pagan customs they couldn’t destroy, and usurping them to suit their own beliefs.
Today, there are many places in Ireland which still bear Patrick’s name. Croagh Patrick is a mountain in Co Mayo where he was said to have fasted for the forty days and nights of Lent before vanquishing the serpents of Ireland. At 764m, it is the third highest mountain in the county.
In pre-Christian times, it was called Cruachán Aigle, although it is not clear what this means. Once the site of pagan pilgrimage for the summer solstice, it is now climbed by thousands of people every year on the last Sunday in July, some of them bare-foot or even on their knees, in honour of the Saint. There is a little chapel on the summit where mass is said, and sadly, the side of the mountain has been heavily eroded by the passage of so many feet.
The Hill of Slane stands 158m high in Co Meath, and is said to be the burial site of Fir Bolg king Sláine mac Dela. A mound is located there, along with two standing stones which are all that remain of a pagan site. There are various other ancient sites on the hill, including the remains of a church or abbey. From here the Hill of Tara can clearly be seen, and it was here that St. Patrick was said to have lit a Paschal fire in defiance of the High King Laoire.
Patrick well understood the ancient sacred customs of the fire festivals; he knew that all fires across the land must be extinguished while the need-fire was kindled, and he knew that his fire on Slane would be easily seen by the King at Tara. The King demanded the fire was put out, but the story goes that even the Druids with all their magical powers were unable to extinguish it.
In the end, the King acquiesced to the saint’s higher power, and allowed him to continue his missionary work, although he did not convert himself. I’m surprised the King didn’t clap him in irons for his inflammatory (pardon the pun!) and disrespectful act, but perhaps he didn’t see the new religion as a threat. Patrick does make mention in his letters that he was once imprisoned for sixty days, but does not say what for; he also says he was often beaten and robbed. Small wonder…
I must finish by saying that Patrick has never formally been canonised by the Pope, and therefore is not actually recognised as a saint by some. In the early years of Christianity, saints were made on a local level by a local church very soon after their death… which perhaps explains why there are so many in Ireland.
St Patrick’s life is one of semi-historic, semi-mythological proportions. As with much of Ireland’s past, it is impossible to pull apart fact and myth. He pops up in the most unlikely places where I wasn’t expecting him. I believe that in many cases, the scribes who assembled the oral traditional stories into some order of a history for Ireland, who were mostly monks, tried to combat the wealth of pagan lore by tempering it with Patrick’s presence.
There is no doubt however, that this man made a huge impact on the people of this land, whatever your view.
Please note: I am not anti-Christian, or anti any other religion. I dislike oppression of any kind. Forcing religion on others is oppression, in my view. Many bad things have been done in the name of religion, and I’m not just talking about Christianity, both historically and ongoing, crusades and witch hunts, the expansion of Empire, for example. To ignore that is, well, ignorant. In Ireland we are still uncovering mass graves in cess pits at mother and baby homes, listening to stories of the ‘dying rooms’ and abuse of children on a huge scale by those who work for God, not to mention the dirty work of the Magdelane laundries. Sadly, large scale organised religion is as susceptible to the more ugly human traits of power, control and greed as any other organisation, it seems.
If you follow this blog, you will know how I like to visit the old places I learn about whilst researching Irish mythology; how I like to tread in the footsteps of our ancient ancestors, lay my eyes on the horizons they saw, feel what they felt when they looked out over their homeland. It helps me get a sense of who they were, and who we have become.
Certain places last year had a really powerful effect on me. Shee Mor was one of them. Another was Magh Slecht, which means ‘Plain of Prostrations’.
Sandwiched between the Woodford and Blackwater rivers lies an area of Co Cavan known as Magh Slecht (pronounced Moy Shlokht). 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 my very own county.
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.
Killycluggin Stone replica.
Replica of Killycluggin Stone on roadside
Scrolling La Tene style carvings
Looking towards the site of stone circle.
The real stone, broken, abandoned, ‘repaired’ with plaster
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.
This sign marks the spot where the Killycluggin stone was found. The remains of the circle can just be seen in the background.
The large entrance stones of the Killycluggin stone circle, now fallen, look east towards the rising sun.
Remains of the Killycluggin Stone Circle, hidden by trees.
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 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 in the townland of Kilnavert.
Lone standing stone at Magh Slecht.
Approaching the dolmen.
The megalithic tomb after which the townland is named.
The first standing stone overlooking the plain of Magh Slecht.
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.
On New Year’s Day, my lovely friend Jenni and I braved the howling wind and downpour for what has become our traditional annual exploration of what Co Cavan has to offer… and there’s a whole lot more than you might think. I can’t understand why this beautiful historic county is so undervalued in terms of tourism. But that is a post for another day.
Loughanleagh lies a touch beyond Bailieborough on it’s Kingscourt side. Its name comes from the Irish Lough an Leighis, which means ‘Lake of Cures’. This lake was renowned for the curative effect of its mud on skin complaints, and in days gone by, during the last two Sundays of July, people used to come in their thousands, seeking healing in the water.
It was said that the lake had magical properties, for its water level never rose or fell; that the water was deep but that there was no evident source; that there was no stream which drained from it; that the sun never danced on its surface; that it’s temperature never fluctuated, even in the most extreme weather conditions, and that it had never frozen.
Unfortunately, the lake no longer exists; years of sustained turf cutting has drained the water from its bed, but the memory of its power, and the associated legends linger on.
We walked the path known as Adrian’s Way. This route is 7km long, ascends and descends quite steeply in places, takes in exposed tops and woodland, passes the sites of three ancient cairns, and affords fine views over thirteen counties… during finer weather.
The stone circle
Cup mark said to be the imprint of St Pat’s knee.
Jenni walks the stone circle
Nature is confused – the gorse is flowering in january!
Jenni approaches the top of Moyer Cairn
Moyer Cairn, highest point at 1119ft.
Descending into woodland.
Moss hangs from trees like green beards.
Ok, not glam but soaked to the skin & almost blown off the top of Corraweelis Cairn
Mist blurs the heathery hills
Ork trail through the deep dark forest
According to folklore, the cairns were formed when an old woman known as the Cailleagh was carrying stones in her apron. She dropped some at Loughanleagh and also at Loughcrew, thus the ancient burial mounds were formed.
This character is thought to be a representation of the Morrigan. Like many female Irish deities, she was said to have had three aspects which corresponded with the cycle of her life; the maiden, the mother and the crone, or Cailleagh.
She was said to have once had a battle with St Patrick at Loughanleagh whilst he was preaching mass there. She approached in the form of a beautiful woman riding in a carriage. As she neared the congregation, she snatched a handful of berries from a roadside shrub (they were possibly bilberries, as they grow in abundance at Loughanleagh).
On eating them, she was transformed into a horrible monster, whereupon she immediately set about devouring people. St Patrick dropped to one knee and whacked her with his staff. She immediately exploded in a shower of tiny pieces.
There is a very well defined cup mark in a rock in the centre of a stone circle (more of a horse-shoe, really) near the spot where St Patrick vanquished this monstrosity. This is said to be the imprint of his saintly knee, as he knelt to deal the deadly deed.