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…
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.
I am the Guest Author featured in Blackheath Dawn Magazine today, and my Tir na Nog Trilogy is also represented in their Book Feature. So if you haven’t had enough Paddy’s Day fever yet, here is the link.
Next Tuesday is St Patrick’s Day, and in celebration of all things Irish, author Jane Dougherty and I will be giving away FREE copies of our book, Grá mo Chroí, ‘Love of my Heart’, Love Stories from Irish Myth.
Grá mo Chroí will be FREE for three days only from Monday 16th March until Wednesday 18th March, and you can get your free copy from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.
Happy Reading, and may the luck o’ the Irish be with you this Paddy’s Day!
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.