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Sacred Ireland - Introduction

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The Traveller's Guide to Sacred Ireland - click to order

The Traveller's Guide to
Sacred Ireland

A guide to the sacred places of Ireland,
her legends, folklore and people

Cary Meehan

Click to order this book



THE EARTH GIVES US LIFE and we are all drawn back, at certain times, to this potent source of our beginnings for a sense of nurture and completion. Those places where this sense of connectedness is strongest are the sites we term sacred. And, although our lives have evolved a long way from those of our neolithic ancestors, we are still touched, however unconsciously, by the same earth energies and the same miracle of life. This sense of the divine is reflected in every age, from the ancient cairns of prehistory to the great cathedrals of today.

The places described in this book are just some of these sacred sites and the experience of seeking them out has convinced me that visiting and connecting with these places is vital to the well-being of both ourselves and our planet. It is also a great pleasure.

Some of these sites are of national importance: royal palaces like Tara, sacred mountains like Croagh Patrick and the great passage cairns of the Boyne valley. Others are less well known.

There are spectacular dolmens, massive like Browne’s Hill or elegant like Legananny and court cairns with names like Creevykeel, Cohaw and Behy. There are hundreds of stone circles and stone rows, some in complex groups like Beaghmore and others, like Bohonagh, isolated on hillsides. Like the circles, wedge cairns are also from the Bronze Age. Labacallee in Cork is the biggest, its huge dark boulders like the limbs of an eccentric dinosaur.

Myths and stories associated with particular sites continue to illustrate an ancient understanding of the landscape and its energies: the Children of Lir spent 300 years as swans on Lough Derravaragh - itself the shape of a swan in flight. The caves of Kesh Corran in Sligo are seen as an entrance to the Otherworld and the place where the goddess, known as the Morrigan, emerges to do battle. The cairn-topped hills of the south are full of stories of the Fianna and their encounters with the fairy people of the hills. And then there is the Hill of Uisneach, the energetic centre of Ireland and place of many legends.

There are lakes and rivers still identified with pre-Celtic deities and small island sanctuaries which are places of fertility and power. Some of these islands have been Christianised by early saints: Devenish and White Island in Fermanagh, for example, Inchagoil in Galway, and Holy Island in Clare.

The locally venerated sites such as fairy hills, wells, trees and stones, are places which tradition has protected as gentle or fairy places. Fragments of these old traditions are still preserved in their folklore. Some of these were Christianised and became the sites of early monasteries, oratories, carved crosses, round towers and cross slabs. A number of them, like Glencolmcille, are important pilgrimage sites today. Others are deserted but seem to hold an echo, especially at dusk, of lives spent in contemplation and prayer. Islands with their monastic ruins are often still places of pilgrimage. A few are deserted, though not all. The Aran Islands, Achill and Tory have substantial populations.

Other early Christian sites were built and rebuilt into medieval monasteries with fabulous Romanesque carvings like Cong or Gothic arches, like Kilmallock. Some sites like Ahenny, Moone, Kilfenora, Kells, Clonmacnois and Monasterboice are famous for their beautiful carved crosses.

And there are many cathedrals, each different. St Canice’s cathedral in Kilkenny is a treasure house of late medieval figure carving. Killaloe and Tuam have beautiful Romanesque arches. St Brendan’s in Loughrea has the best collection of early 20th century stained glass in the country.

It may feel like a great leap in imagination to go from the neolithic passage cairns of 5000 years ago to the great cathedrals of today, but the variety of sites described above seems to link scattered fragments of human experience across time and space, allowing us a glimpse of our own origins. All are, like us, connected.

The flagstone at the centre of the small Bronze Age stone circles in Cork may have served the same purpose as the much earlier cap-stones on the neolithic dolmens in Waterford or County Down. The tiny early Christian oratory with its corbelled roof on the hillside in Kerry is descended from the chambered cairn at Loughcrew in Westmeath. The people who carved symbols on the great megaliths at Newgrange are ancestors of the stone cutter who decorated the high cross at Kilree in Kilkenny with concentric circles and spirals. And the deposits of human bone in a neolithic cairn are part of a tradition of relics as power objects which continued into Christian times. The power of such relics to confer grace and healing is still acknowledged in Ireland. In 2001 the relics of St Therese of Lisieux were brought here from France and taken on a tour around the country. Everywhere they went flowers were strewn along the roads and thousands queued to touch them.



OUR MAIN SOURCE OF EARLY HISTORICAL MYTHOLOGY is an 11th century book, called Leabhar Gabhála Eireann or The Book of Invasions of Ireland. It begins with the arrival of the first people to Ireland in the time of Noah and is the closest we have to a creation myth. We also have our most quoted historical text for the early Christian period, The Annals of the Four Masters. It was written in the 17th century and begins forty days after the flood in the year of the world 2240. At that time the date for the biblical Creation had been set at 4004 BC by the Bishop of Armagh, Bishop Usher.

Much of it is simply a record of names, dates, battles and disasters with some quotes from ancient sources a kind of early news bulletin, though less reliable. However, as it gets closer to modern times, more information is available. It is a much-used source of dates for early saints and the founding of their monasteries. Viking raids, accidents and fires are also listed.

Many manuscripts disappeared in the turbulent years of the 8th to 10th centuries, some destroyed in local raids or looted by Vikings. Of those that remain, most are illustrated copies of sacred texts copied by monks with perhaps some historical records about the monastery and stories about its founding saint or local ruler. These give texture and life to these early saints and some, like the Vita Colurnbae, written by Adamnan at the end of the 7th century, provide useful historical data of larger events. Then we have the stories or cycles: The Ulster Cycle, The Mythological and Fenian Cycles and The Cycle of The Kings. For the rest we have archaeology, folklore and our imagination.


The Ice Age in Ireland lasted over 1.5 million years, yet during that time temperatures fluctuated and, towards the end of this period, the mountains and much of the south was relatively ice free. The climate was able to support a tundra-like vegetation grassland with birch and willow scrub. The great elk, woolly mammoth, arctic fox and brown bear inhabited this landscape. They roamed from the Russian Steppes to the French Pyrenees and were hunted across Europe by early Stone Age or palaeolithic people. In Ireland they must have found a haven for no trace of human presence has been found for this time.

With the last glaciers gone, tundra spread right to the north across the scoured landscape and over the next few thousand years rising temperatures encouraged the spread of woodland: hazel and pine at first, then elm, oak, birch and willow. The large animals of the palaeolithic grasslands were displaced and by about 8000 BC most of the flora and fauna of Europe had spread right to the west.

With them came the first humans. About the same time the island of Ireland was set adrift from mainland Europe as melting glaciers flooded the oceans and covered the last land bridges to the east.


These early mesolithic people settled in this fresh new land on the western fringes of the known world. They lived along river valleys and lakesides where the forest cover was light. They were hunter-gatherers.

For a long time the only tangible signs of their presence were finds of small flint tools, called microliths. The flint was sourced in the calcareous limestone of the north east and this is where the first evidence of these people was found. Later finds were uncovered in the south in Offaly. Here chert was used instead of flint. Since then, other traces of these early people have been found around Dublin Bay and in the south west.

Post-holes at Mountsandel in the north east indicate dwellings made from bending and weaving poles into frames that could be thatched or covered with skins. There were food remains here from different seasons, indicating that they were not as nomadic as we think.

Flint tools in Ireland are significantly different from those found in Britain at this time, yet those found throughout Ireland seem to share a common provenance. This would seem to imply that their owners did not come from Britain at all. Perhaps they came from further south.

However, evidence has been found of a mesolithic presence at Carrowmore in Sligo around 7500 BC. So it is possible that they came from the west. Who knows what truths lie behind the lost civilisation of Atlantis, now buried beneath the ocean?

These people seem to disappear from our sights around 6000 BC. Then comes a later phase which lasted until about 4000 BC. Tools were now significantly larger.

Did the early mesolithic people leave or die out and were they replaced by newcomers?

There are plenty of questions and not many answers. And with no human remains from this time, it is a bit like chasing ghosts.

The authors of The Book of Invasions are quite transparent about giving the Irish Judaeo-Christian roots, but they also draw on knowledge and folk memory of the time. According to this source, the first people to inhabit Ireland were of the family of Noah. Three ships set sail to escape the flood, though only one arrived safely. In it were Cesair, grand-daughter of Noah, with fifty of her women and three men: Bith, her father, Ladra, the ship’s pilot, and Fionntán.

They came ashore on the Dingle Peninsula in Kerry. The story goes that they divided the women between the three men but Bith and Ladra soon died, leaving Fionntán with responsibility for all the women. He fled and Cesair died soon after of a broken heart and all the women with her. Only Fionntán was left and he is said to have lived on for 5500 years, changing shape over time. He lived as a salmon, then an eagle and a hawk, witnessing the events of history so that they could later be written down by historians of such works as The Book of Invasions.

The next people to arrive here fared little better. They were also from central Europe, this time from Greece and led by Partholán, a prince who had killed his father, the king. He came with his three sons who each introduced skills previously unknown in Ireland: the first, hospitality; the second, cooking and duelling and the third, brewing. Their father, meanwhile, cleared four plains, having brought with him the first four oxen. However, they only survived for 550 years before being wiped out by plague, except for one, Tuán mac Cairill, who lived on for many years in various animal guises to be a witness to this time.


And so to neolithic times when, according to the archaeological record, human activity began to alter the face of the landscape. These people came with a new energy. They cut down trees, grew crops, grazed animals and erected huge stone structures or megaliths which were central to the new culture.

In recent years in the Ceide Fields in Mayo, in the west of Ireland, a network of dry-stone walls, dating to around 3000 BC, was discovered beneath the bog. These field walls follow the contours of the hills above the north Mayo coast, covering an area of about four square miles, evidence of a highly organised agricultural society and a large one at that. It is estimated that a group of maybe 300 people came here and established this farming community.

Where did these people come from? How did they manage to bring enough animals - cattle, sheep, goats and pigs - to provide genetically viable groups? And why?

We have assumed that successive groups of people came to Ireland from the east and landed in the east. It was assumed that they came with difficulty in small perilous boats and would have needed to see their destination before they set out - a kind of island-hopping. We have also assumed that the passage cairns of the Boyne Valley in the east were the earliest in the country. It now seems that the Sligo cairns, in the west, may be much older. And as we wake up to the vision and skill of these megalith builders, we realise that they could have travelled any distance they chose with the sky to guide them in boats built with great skill from the forests of Europe and North Africa. And if they settled in the west, it was probably by choice.

Local tradition and the early writings say that both Cesair and Partholan arrived in the west. And, of course, we have the Ceide Fields in Mayo - the biggest neolithic community yet discovered. Perhaps this is where Partholan set to work with his sons. Nor were these neolithic people confined by our shores. Stone axes from Rathlin Island and Antrim have been found from the north of Scotland to the south of England. And English and Welsh axes have been found in Ireland.

According to our mythological history, Nemhedh arrived next with his wife Macha and four sons. They cleared twelve plains and four lakes and he is credited with building a fort in South Armagh (‘Ard Mhacha’, meaning ‘Macha’s height’). And so appears the first of many of Ireland’s deities. Macha has a number of guises but she is very much a northern goddess.

Nemhedh is also credited with lighting the first fire at Uisneach, the centre of Ireland. This is the first mention of conflict with another, already present culture, the Fomoire or Formoriaas. This may be a conflict between the hunter-gatherer mesolithic people and the new neolithic farmers with their earth moving, wallbuilding activity.

We do not know how long the Formorians had been in Ireland but they are cast as giants, demonic and malevolent. They have each only one eye, one arm and one leg. Pushed to the coastal fringes by Nemhedh, they become cruel pirates, collectors of brutal taxes, including the children of their victims. They are said to have cut off the noses of those who could not pay. This tax was collected each Samhain (Halloween), a time when people are vulnerable to incursions from a malevolent Otherworld.

Nemhedh defeated them at first, but eventually after his death, his followers fled, scattered across Europe, some northward, others to Greece. The Formorians remained on the western fringes and they continue to be associated with Tory Island, off the Donegal coast, into modern times.

The next and fourth invasion included three groups, all descended from the followers of Nemhedh who had spent long years in servitude in Greece after their flight from the Formorians. The best known of these were the Fir Bolg.

The Fir Bolg are said to have come to Uisneach, in the centre of Ireland, and from there they divided the country up into its five Cuigedh (fifths) or provinces. The four provinces still radiate out today from that central point at Uisneach, with the fifth division being the land around Westmeath. Each province was ruled by one of five brothers responsible for prosperity, order and justice for all. This formed the basis of sacral kingship, a concept that survives to this day on some of the islands and in certain remote parts of the country.

And so, throughout neolithic times, invasion myths repeat and fall away like incoming waves in a mathematical pattern: the three sons of Parthalón; the four sons of Nemhecth; the five brothers of the Fir Bolg.

The Megaliths

Neolithic people were responsible for the great megaliths, the cairns and temples of prehistory. Archaeologists have called them tombs because they have found cremated bone deposited in them, but they are surely the cathedrals of prehistory. Perhaps people in the future will look at the ruined churches of today and see only the remains of the dead in their special sarcophagi.

It is ironic that they should have come to be associated with the dead when it is much more likely that they were places which ensured the continuity of life. Once you have seen a passage cairn as the belly of the goddess complete with reproductive organs, it is hard to see them in any other light. Small smooth round balls have been found in their recesses, and even decorated phalluses. We can never know the exact nature of their ceremonies, but everything points to an association with rebirth and regeneration, rather than death. It is possible that the bones of their ancestors acted as power objects. Perhaps placing them in the womb of the cairn, where they would be touched by a shaft of sunlight at an especially potent time, ensured the continuing cycle of the year or even the rebirth of that powerful ancestor. Maybe, for some initiates, entering the ‘belly of the goddess’ was part of a potent initiation rite. It is interesting to note that one of these neolithic groups was called the ‘Fir Bolg’ which means the ‘belly men’ or perhaps the ‘people of the goddess’.

All the neolithic megaliths: dolmens, court cairns and passage cairns, have certain things in common. There is a chamber with portals which separates it from the outside world. Often these chambers are roofed in dramatic or seemingly extravagant ways like the cap-stone on Browneshill Dolmen in Carlow, or the great mound of cairn material covering the chamber at Newgrange in Meath. This must have served to further separate the inside space from the outer world. Their astronomical and earth alignments would have further focused the energy inside the chamber, making them potent places indeed.

Sometimes, even from this distance in time, that power still lingers.


By 2000 BC metal workers had arrived in Ireland and with them a whole new culture. Most of Ireland’s copper came from Munster. Ross Island in Killarney was the site of the first copper-working and the copper mines on the slopes of Mount Gabriel in Cork were a rich source of ore. They would have heated the ore with fires before shattering it with stone mauls and drawing it to the surface. Wealth was measured in cattle and the prestige of bronze artefacts. This would have been a relatively peaceful and prosperous time. These people built stone circles and rows as well as wedge cairns a little lower down than the earlier megaliths, for weather conditions had deteriorated since neolithic times.

Then, between 1159 and 1141 BC, there was a catastrophic weather change. Tree ring readings show us that there was no summer growth for 18 years. This was the time of the fall of Troy, and the beginning of the Dark Ages in Greece. Everything was cold. Nothing ripened.

Around this time we see sacrificial pools, such as the King’s Stables at Armagh. Bronze and gold objects were deposited, as well as animal and human sacrifices. Dark times made people more religious and more warlike. There was a new concern with death and fertility. Large hill-forts began to appear, and crannogs - both places of safety in a dangerous time. Hill-fort walls followed the contours of the hill and were often huge.

By 800 BC society had begun to recover and even grow wealthy. Fabulous objects of beaten gold appear: discs patterned with more discs, sun images upon sun images, and neck ornaments shaped like crescent moons, called ‘lunuli’. The best place to see their work is on the ground floor of the National Museum, Dublin, where a gold collection is on permanent display. The sun discs from Tedavnet in Monaghan have double concentric borders surrounding an equal-armed cross, a universal image which would not be out of place in a Christian church.

But the landscape was undergoing a change. Increased rainfall created waterlogged conditions in the once fertile farmland, now denuded of its forests. Many areas became slowly smothered under a deep blanket of bog.

Modern turf cutting this century has given us a glimpse of what lies hidden. In mid-Ulster, in particular, where the stone circles are often low, there have been some extraordinary finds. At Beaghmore, in County Tyrone, turf cutters have revealed a complex of seven stone circles and at least nine stone alignments. One circle is studded with 884 small stones. At nearby Copney, one circle has been uncovered which had been filled with stones set radially and with a hollow centre which may have held a cist. These seem similar to the radial cairns of Cork and would have been constructed around the same time.

In our mythological cycle these metal workers with their Druidic arts and their new, magical technology, were the Tuatha Dé Danann. They were the Tribe of the Goddess Danu or Anu. Her male counterpart was the Daghdha, the great father. The Tuatha De Danann arrived in a mystic cloud and landed at Lough Corrib, Galway and on the mountain of Sliabh an Iarainn, Leitrim. They brought with them four talismans:

  • The Stone of Destiny or Lia Fal which was used at the inauguration of the kings at Tara. It was said to roar when the rightful king was inaugurated.
  • The Spear of Lugh which would always ensure victory.
  • The Sword of Nuadha from which no-one could escape.
  • The Cauldron of the Daghdha from which no-one would go away unsatisfied.

On their arrival, they demanded the kingship of Ireland from the Fir Bolg. When it was not forthcoming, they fought and beat them in the First Battle of Magh Tuiredh and drove them west into Connacht.

However, in the battle, Nuadha, the king of the Tuatha Dh Danann, lost his arm. It was impossible for the king to have any bodily imperfection, so he gave the kingship to Bres the Beautiful instead. Bres’s father was a Fomorian, though his mother was of the Tuatha Dh Danann. This turned out badly as Bres did not display any of the kingly virtues besides his physical beauty. He was neither hospitable nor generous, and he humiliated the Daghdha and Oghma by setting them to work building his fort and collecting wood for his fire.

In the meantime, the tribe’s healer, Dian Cécht, had made a silver arm for Nuadha. The fingers moved and it was much admired, but one of Dian Chcht’s sons, Miach, was a better healer than his father and he decided to try and restore the king’s own arm. He took it and brought it to him and set it against his body with incantations. The first day he put it against his side and the second day against his breast, until it was covered with skin. The third day he took bulrushes blackened on the fire to put on it and after that, the king’s hand was completely healed. However, Miach’s father, Dian Cecht, was angry with his son for performing a better cure than he could and he killed him. Herbs grew up from his grave, 365 of them over each joint and sinew, according to their usage. Miach’s sister spread her cloak and collected the herbs carefully, laying them in order so that she would know their use. But Dian Cécht discovered what she was doing and mixed them up. The knowledge was lost and to this day has not been found.

Meanwhile Nuadha, being whole again, wanted to take back the kingship from Bres as he was proving such an unworthy successor. But Bres was not willing to give up his position and he went to the Formorians, his other kin, for help. This time Nuadha and the Tuatha Dé Danann had to fight the Formorians and Bres. But help was at hand. It was at this moment that Lugh appeared at Uisneach, while Nuadha and his household were gathered waiting for the Formorians to come and collect their taxes.

‘Lugh’ means ‘the Shining One’, and he saves his people. He is always young and handsome, and associated with wealth and abundance. His festival is Lughnasa, the harvest time of year when young people go berry-picking, dance and make love. His epithet, ‘Lamhthada’, means long-armed and, like the Indian god Savitar of the Wide Hand, it means he has great power and generosity.

His grandfather was Balor, the chief of the Formorians, whose stronghold was on Tory Island off the coast of Donegal. Balor had been told that he would die at the hands of his grandson, so he kept his daughter Eithne imprisoned in a tower on the island so that she would not come into contact with any men and so could bear no children. Of course it did not work and she conceived triplets with Cian, another of the sons of Dian Cecht. When Balor discovered his grandchildren, he ordered them to be drowned but Lugh was rescued and fostered by Manannan mac Lir, the Son of the Ocean. Lugh came of age just in time to rescue his father Cian’s people from certain defeat at the hands of the Formorians as Nuadha tried to win back the kingdom of Ireland from Bres.

Back at Uisneach Lugh was at first refused entry to the king’s palace even though he identified himself in turn as a smith, a wright, a warrior, a musician and more. Each time he was told that the tribe already possessed someone with that skill. It was only when he said that he possessed all these skills together that he was allowed to enter. Nuadha then challenged Lugh to play chess. When Lugh had won every game, he was allowed into the king’s household and after proving himself the Oghma’s equal in strength, Lugh showed his skill as a harper by moving the company to laughter, tears and finally to sleep. After this, he was given the kingship of Ireland so that he could lead the Tuatha Dé Danann against the Formorians. The battle was called the Second Battle of Magh Tuiredh.

The Tuatha Dé Danann used all their magical arts to help win the battle. And Lugh came face to face with Balor, his grandfather. Balor’s eye was so great that it took four men to raise the lid and when it was uncovered, its venomous gaze could kill. Lugh cast a sling-shot straight into the eye which drove it right to the back of his head from where it disabled Balor’s own army. Balor died, the prophesy was fulfilled and the Tuatha Dé Danann won the battle. The Formorians were expelled from Ireland forever and Bres escaped with his life in exchange for advice on the best times for ploughing, sowing and reaping.

And so Ireland prospered for many years with Lugh as king, the perfect embodiment of divine authority. In time he seems to have been replaced by the Daghdha and he becomes a shadowy figure, occasionally encountered when some wrong needed to be righted or some wisdom given. This was a time of prosperity when humans and gods were still closely related and both moved easily between the seen and unseen worlds. But then came the next invasion. This time it was the Milesians, or sons of Mil. They came originally from Asia Minor where they had lived for thousands of years.

IRON AGE 300 BC - 500 AD

It is generally accepted that the new wave of Celtic migration reached Ireland around 300 BC and with it the new iron technology. These newcomers are associated with the so-called royal sites or centres of ceremony and administration - Emhain Macha in Armagh, Dun Ailinne in Kildare, Tara in Meath, Rathcroghan in Roscommon and, of course, Uisneach. There are some 30,000 ring-forts or fairy forts in Ireland dating to this time. These were Iron Age farmsteads, some built in stone where it was plentiful or where status or enmity demanded, but most had earth banks, probably topped with a wooden palisade. Many were in use up until medieval times (not to be confused with the Bronze Age hillforts). They also built long earthworks which have been thought of as boundaries, such as the Dorsey and the Black Pig’s Dyke, as well as track-ways across the bog, like the Corlea track-way in Longford. Ornamented ritual stones, like the Turoe and Castlestrange stones, are also of this period as well as many carved stone heads. Ogham (pronounced om) writing evolved around 300 AD. It was based on the Roman alphabet and remained in use till the 7th century.

There is a sense now of kinship groups and families living in separate homesteads, of regional centres of power, boundaries and communication networks. This fits in with the mythological stories of this time.

The sons of Mil, called the Milesians or Gaels, are said to have landed in the south west of Ireland at the feast of Beltaine. At Sliabh Mis in Kerry they met Banba, a queen of the Tuatha De Danann and wife of Mac Cuill, Son of the Hazel, with her Druids. Some time later, they met a second queen and she was Fodhla, wife of Mac Cecht, Son of the Plough. And when they came to Uisneach, they met Eriu, wife of Mac Greine, Son of the Sun.

They travelled on to Tara and found these three grandsons of the Daghdha, who shared the kingship of Ireland, quarrelling among themselves. The Milesians were surprised at this as all about them was so rich and prosperous, so they challenged them to give up the kingship or fight for it. The three kings were not ready to fight, so the sons of Mil made an offer. They returned to their ships and sailed out the length of nine waves from the shore. It was agreed that if they could land again, in spite of any enchantments the Tuatha De Danann could make against them, then the kingdom would be theirs.

At first the Tuatha Dé Danann raised a storm against their ships. The ship of Donn, one of the sons of Mil, perished, as it was said that he had not given proper respect to Eriu when they met earlier at Uisneach. In the end, five of their ships were destroyed and only three were left. Then Amhairghin called out to Eriu, asking that they might come to her again, and the storm abated. He was the first to put foot on the shore this second time and as he did so, he sang to her:

I am the wind on the sea;
I am the wave of the sea;
I am the bull of seven battles;
I am the eagle on the rock;
I am a flash from the sun;
I am the most beautiful of plants;
I am a strong wild boar;
I am a salmon in the water;
I am a lake in the plain;
I am the word of knowledge;
I am the head of the spear in battle;
I am the god that puts fire in the head;
Who spreads the light in the gathering on the hills?
Who can tell the ages of the moon?
Who can tell the place where the sun rests?

- Lady Gregory’.s Complete Irish Mythology

Then Amhairghin and the Milesians crossed Ireland and, though they had battles to fight, they had won acceptance from the spirit of the land in the form of the three goddesses (queens) and the number of their dead was slight compared to the Tuatha Dé Danann. The final defeat of the Tuatha Dé Danann came about at Tailtiu (now Teltown, Meath), home of the great earth goddess of that name. She is said to be the foster-mother of Lugh who instigated the first festival and games there at harvest, later to be known as Lughnasa.

In spite of the Milesian victory, the Tuatha Dé Danann still held power over the land and they withheld her fertility till the Gaels made a settlement with them. The Tuatha Dé Danann took the underworld and the Daghdha, their leader, divided the hills and cairns among them. And so they retreated from the seen world and became the goddesses and gods, or fairy people of later times.

The time of the Milesians or Gaels is the time of the great heroic tales. But above these is the constant presence of the Goddess in her various guises. Maebh is probably the best known and associated with Tara and the high kingship as well as Cruachain in Connacht. There is Macha in Ulster, Boand by the Boyne, Aine in Munster and the Cailleach Bearra, Aoibheall and Cliodna in the south west. Also there are the three great Goddesses of war: Morrighan, Badhbh and Nemhain who personify frenzy and destruction as well as transformation and regeneration.

The Ulster Cycle, also called The Heroic Cycle, and first written down in the 7th century, tells of the deeds of COchulainn and the Red Branch Knights and the great feud between Connacht and Ulster, called the Tam Ba Cuailnge. The stories of Fionn and the Fianna are from this time. The Fianna are a band of heroes in the same Romantic tradition as the Knights of Arthur. They hunt across Ireland righting wrongs and coming up against the magical arts of the beautiful women of the sidhe. Finally OisIn, Fionn’s son, and his companion, Caoilte Mac Ronan, live on into Christian times, just long enough to travel with Patrick and tell him all that went before.

The High Kings of Tara

The Gaels or Celts stayed faithful to the goddess through her sacred marriage to the king. The most famous of these ceremonies was the Feis Tembra, the feis at Tara, where for many years the land of Ireland was personified by the goddess Maebh. She was the consort of no less than nine high kings. No one could be high king without her approval.

A Tarbhfheis was also called for in choosing the high king. This involved the killing of a bull. The meat and broth was then eaten by someone who would sleep with Druids chanting over him while he dreamt of the next king. Finally, the Stone of Destiny would cry out when the right king was inaugurated.

Long after the stone ceased to be used, Brian Boru used it again in the 10th century to add credence to his claim to the high kingship. It was said to have cried out then for the last time in Ireland. Across Ireland every tuath or small territory had its sacred stone, representing the spirit of place, upon which every local chief was brought to power. The power of the inauguration stone lasted right into the 17th century. When Elizabeth I sent Mountjoy against Hugh O’Neill (Ui Néill), the last Gaelic chief of Ireland to hold out against the English crown, Mountjoy went to Tullyhogue in Tyrone and smashed the inauguration stone of the O’Neills. This marked the end of sacral kingship in Ireland and the end of the O’Neills.

But to go back to the Iron Age... Roman power was gradually declining towards the end of the 3rd century and Britain had fallen prey to attacks from those closest to her borders. Irish chieftains were raiding across the water and expanding their territories eastward. The kingdom of Dalriada in the north-east extended into northern Britain and Scotland, creating a route for some of the first Irish missionaries.

Most famous of raiders was Niall of the Nine Hostages who is said to have controlled land through hostages taken from the Scots, Saxons, Britons and French, as well as Irish. He is credited with capturing the young Patrick and bringing him back to Ireland as a slave in the middle of the 5th century.

By the 5th century Ireland was divided between the two strongest families, the Ui Néill, sons of Niall, in the north and the Eoghanachta, based at Cashel in the south. For roughly the next five centuries this divide replaced the old five provinces and the Ui Néill ruled at Tara till displaced by Brian Boru in 1002.

Early Christian Ireland 400 AD - 800 AD

We know there were Christians in Ireland early in the 5th century, for Pope Celestine I sent Palladius to be their bishop in 431. These early Christians made converts and built the first churches on land given to them by local rulers.

There are accounts of their adventures and the miraculous feats they performed in most local lore. Sometimes their challenges backfired and they had to flee for their lives. But these events are remembered across the country where Christian faith caused wells to spring up and the imprints of saints’ knees or feet to appear in stone. These eatly converts understood the power of place in peoples’ lives so it was natural for them to build churches on sacred sites, blessing the wells and carving symbols of the new religion on the old stones. And so, quite naturally, a new mythology of place began to overlay the old.

Patrick escaped a life of servitude in Ireland and went to Europe where he became a priest. By the time he returned to Ireland, there would already have been many converts to the new faith with Palladius as their bishop. Small groups of Christians in rural Ireland had naturally evolved into autonomous communities - a monastic system. Patrick took as his mission the spread of Christianity across the country. He founded many churches, each time leaving them in the care of a trusted follower. His name is linked to churches everywhere and, while he probably did not found them all, his influence was certainly widespread.

Patrick also focused his attention on places of power. We see him challenging the High King at Tara when he lit the pascal fire at Slane. Across Ireland at that other great seat of power, he is said to have converted the King at Cashel with his illustration of the Trinity, using a shamrock. He was even said to have fasted against God for forty days and nights on Croagh Patrick in a clever mix of Celtic and Christian tradition which won him responsibility for the souls of the Irish at the Day ofJudgement. In exchange, he tried to banish the pagan spirit of Ireland in the form of a great serpent. In this he was less successful. (It was an old Celtic tradition to petition for a change of heart from a more powerful opponent by fasting outside their dwelling till they relented. This accounts, in part, for the power of the hunger-strike in the modern Irish psyche.)

Many Christian concepts must have seemed quite familiar to a 5th century Irish population. At the centre was the Sun King, the Son of God, magician and leader of his tribe. Lugh was just such a figure, personification of the sun, perfect hero and saviour of his people.

The standing stone already had a magical function as a link between worlds. The famous Crom Dubh, covered with gold and silver, and smashed by Patrick as he challenged the old gods, was one of these. It is now in the Cavan County Museum in Ballyjamesduff. In early Christian stonework the Christ figure was represented with outstretched arms joining heaven and earth, bridging the great divide, also forming a link between worlds. He is smiling and relaxed, fully clothed and exuding love and compassion. The 500 year evolution from this to the monumental stone crosses of the 12th century, with their emphasis on the crucifixion and suffering, illustrates the journey from Celtic to Medieval Christianity.

The Sacred Tree

The Sacred Tree was already familiar. In Celtic myth all trees have special virtues. The hazel by the sacred well at the centre of the world dropped berries into the water. To eat one of these was to gain the wisdom of the goddess. These berries had been eaten by the salmon, hence its spots and hence the Salmon of Knowledge.

As the berries dropped in the water, it bubbled. These bubbles were called ‘na bolcca immaise’ or the ‘bubbles of mystic inspiration’. All wells were linked to this one at the centre of the world so that the magic could happen, or the salmon appear at any of them.

Many stories from the lives of the early saints show a great reverence for trees, following the Celtic tradition. Such was Colmcille’s respect for the oak trees of Derry that, rather than cut them down, he allowed the first church to be built without an east-west orientation.

There were five sacred trees in Ireland from prehistoric times, each with different virtues. Stories of the lives of Saints Molaise and Moling both tell of the fall of EO Rossa, the yew tree of Ross in Carlow. The 12th century Book of Leinster contains a litany recounting the tree’s virtues in metaphor. The saints treated the wood with great respect. Moling used a portion of it to roof his oratory.

The monastery at Lorrha founded by St Ruadhán in the 6th century became one of Munster’s most famous monasteries on account of the Tree of St Ruadhán. It was reputed to give enough food to sustain all the monks at the monastery and visitors as well. Its fame continued into medieval times.

The Golden Age

While Europe was experiencing its Dark Age from 600 to 800 AD, it was a golden age in Ireland. Some saints founded hermitages in remote places, on islands in the far west. The monastery on Skellig Michael was founded around 600 AD on a cone of rock, 8 miles off the Kerry coast. Even today it is often inaccessible. The cluster of beehive huts is reached up slate steps 700 feet above sea level. It is a magnificent place, but only people driven by spirit would contemplate living there.

However, most of the early saints chose populated areas on fertile land beside roads and waterways. A typical monastery before 800 AD would have included a small wooden church with an enclosure of domestic buildings to the west. Stone remains from this period would be cross-inscribed pillar stones such as the Reask pillar in Kerry. The abbot or spiritual leader of this monastery might well have been the local chief who ruled over, and was responsible for, all within his domain. His sons would have succeeded him. Some were ordained, some not. Many were married. The chief was patron and the fortunes of the monastery would rise and fall with their chief. In many ways this left the monks free to pursue a spiritual life without having to be responsible for temporal matters.

It was a time of purity of vision, of art and learning. Students in Ireland were studying and preserving what was being lost in Europe. Manuscripts were written, initially in Latin, later in Irish, on spiritual and secular subjects: gospels, nature study, liturgy and legends. Irish monks went abroad as missionaries to places in Europe where Christianity had become weakened and corrupt. As monasteries grew in the 7th century, the practice of illuminating manuscripts spread. The 7th century Book of Durrow is a copy of St Jerome’s Vulgate and illuminated in the La Téne style with curvilinear abstracts, tightly coiled spirals, and interlacing. Monks became skilled at metal-work and enamelling.

At this time Pope Gregory was concerned that the Irish church was out of step with Rome. The dating of Easter was a sore point. In 625 AD the Council of Nicaea had decreed that the date of Easter was to be standardised throughout the Christian world. The Celtic church was very reluctant to conform. Eventually the south of England, led by Canterbury, conformed. Ireland and the north of England only followed suit in 664 AD, after it was accepted at the Council of Whitby. This marked a triumph for conformity over individuality and a defeat for Celtic Christianity. Ever since then, Easter Day has been celebrated on the Sunday after the first full moon following the Spring Equinox.

In the absence of towns, the monasteries grew in importance and sometimes held the balance of secular power. They became centres of population, trade and politics, as well as learning, craftsmanship and religion. They began to accept gifts of money and land, and rivalry between powerful Celtic families drew them into conflicts. For the first time, a battle over land quarrels is reported in the Annals. By the 8th century there was a slow decline in purity and strength of purpose.

The Céli Dé movement was formed to try to rekindle the spirit of the earlier monasteries. Important sites such as Armagh, Kells and Clonmacnois started building stone churches. This was also the time of the first purpose-built carved stone crosses.

An attempt was made to centralise power again at Armagh and this seems to have involved a revival of interest in the role of St Patrick and his connection with Armagh.

However, towards the end of the 8th century the Viking raids began and for the next 50 years their coastal raids overrode all other concerns. By the middle of the 9th century, they had established bases on inland lakes and had begun plundering the heartland. Here is a verse penned at the time:

Bitter is the wind tonight
As the sea’s hair is tossed white,
On a night like this I have no fear
Of fierce sea roving warriors.

There were many atrocities but folk memory still shudders at Ota, whose husband Turgesius led a raid against Clonmacnois. She is said to have desecrated the high altar by using it for pagan oracles. In 867 AD the northern Ui Néill took on the Vikings with the help of the Bachall fosa (the Staff ofJesus) and a Relic of thefl Cross. All settlements north of Dublin were destroyed. Central and southern Ireland now took the brunt of the raiding, but at least the country as a whole was no longer in danger of being conquered. By 880 AD unrest at home in Norway created a lull in the raids.

The last hundred years had taken a heavy toll. The art of illuminating manuscripts did not survive and metalwork and enamelling also suffered a decline. Only stone carving continued to develop. The scriptural crosses were carved towards the end of the 9th and into the 10th centuries.

Another effect of the raids was the huge increase in Irish monks crossing to Europe, often with books and other valuables, to save themselves and their possessions from destruction. Unlike the 7th century missionaries, these monks did not set up their own religious houses, because Europe was in recovery now and had a new diocesan system. The Irish monks had to fit in and some were accused of heresy, but their learning, their manuscripts and their art contributed to the cultural life of Europe and they wrote on a wide range of subjects. By the second half of the 9th century, they were renowned across Europe.

Early in the 10th century the Norse renewed their attacks. This time the Dal Cais in Clare took them on. The long bitter struggle that followed, lasting until the end of the century, created a folk hero out of one of the Dal Cais brothers, Brian. He went on to take Munster from the Eoghanacht and Tara from the Ui Néill, becoming High King. His full title was Brian Boromha (pronounced Boru) and he had united the country for the first time in centuries. However, in his last battle, fought at Clontarf to curb Viking dominance in Dublin, he was killed minutes after victory. The year was 1014.

There followed a time of unrest in Ireland with different families vying for control. Monasteries grew wealthier. Some were ruled by hereditary coarbs. These coarbs were traditionally descended from the original followers or servants of the founding saint. They were often lay, and corruption was rife. The Norse had mostly become Christian but they wanted their own bishops and institutions. By the end of the 11th century, there were calls for reform and the setting up of a diocesan system along European lines.

One of the leaders of this reform was the new Bishop of Armagh, Malachy.

Over time a new system was put in place with Armagh, Tuam, Cashel and Dublin as the four diocesan centres. It seems to have been a time of revitalisation as the effects of the reforms were finally felt: round towers were being built and high crosses carved. These new crosses showed newly important bishops carved in stone alongside images of Christ. There was a new interest in pilgrimage and in relics, and fine metal shrines were produced to house them. However, Malachy is remembered not for this, but for introducing the first Cistercian monks to Ireland. He had stayed with Bernard of Clairvaux while travelling to Rome and was so impressed that he left some of his monks there. In 1142 Malachy’s monks returned home with some of Bernard’s Cistercian monks and a French architect to build the first Cistercian abbey at Mellifont. By the time the huge building was consecrated in 1157 with an assembly of kings and bishops, a number of daughter abbeys had already been founded.

Mellifont was built in the new Romanesque style and other examples quickly followed. They had round-headed doorways, multiple arches and windows, all carved with designs from a variety of cultures: Celtic, Greek, Roman, Scandinavian and Oriental. Western Europe was being influenced by travel along the trade routes following the crusades. Art and architecture were particularly influenced. Oriental faces began to appear on Romanesque buildings.

Cormac’s chapel at Cashel in Tipperary is our finest Romanesque building.

The medieval imagination is brought alive in the stonecarving of the Romanesque period when Sheela-na-Gigs, Mouthpullers, Mouth-spewers and figures from the medieval bestiaries appeared, incorporated into ecclesiastic architecture.

The Cistercians were soon followed by the other European orders: the Augustinians, Dominicans and Franciscans. Monks flocked to join them, attracted by their strict rule and aesthetic idealism and especially by their freedom from local power and corruption. Celtic eclectic monasticism seemed to have run its course. Some of the old monasteries were absorbed by these new orders. Others became cathedrals ruled by bishops and some became parish churches. Some still flourish in towns and cities throughout the country. Others now lie deserted.

Around the same time as the consecration of Mellifont, Pope Adrian IV granted the overlordship of Ireland to Henry II of England, giving him freedom to send his Norman barons to Ireland. Thus began the Norman occupation which was to replace much of Irish tribal society with medieval feudalism. Their architectural legacy was the Norman castle, while their descendants dominated Leinster in the east and the rich lands of Munster in the south.

The move from Romanesque to Gothic was later in Ireland than in Europe. Boyle Abbey in Roscommon is a fine example of Transitional style, built in 1161, with both round-headed and blunt pointed arches.

By the late medieval period there were still some monasteries being built, now in the Gothic style. The Franciscan Kilconnell Abbey, founded in 1400, is a fine example. There followed a period of medieval stone carving and figure sculpture in Ireland which peaked between about 1480 and 1560. The greatest of these carvings are in Kilkenny, with the best single collection at St Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny city.

In England in 1534, Henry VIII made himself supreme head of the Church, thus removing the ultimate authority of the Pope over spiritual and doctrinal matters. This was soon extended to Ireland where Henry made himself head of the established Church of Ireland. The Reformation was sweeping across Europe at this time. There were demands for reform within the church and an end to corrupt practices and the misuse of wealth. Anti-clerical feeling was strong. This meant that, particularly in England, in spite of his opposition to these reformers, and his obvious personal motives, Henry found a certain support for his new role. Monasteries across England and Ireland were ‘dissolved’ and their wealth transferred to the English crown. The anti-clerical reform movement was not strong in Ireland, however, and the established Church of Ireland with Henry as its head, was really only accepted by those loyal to the English crown. In some places local landowners rented monastic buildings back from the king and the monks continued much as before.

The 16th and 17th centuries were turbulent times. In the middle of the 16th century, between 1563 and 1585, the powerful Norman Geraldine family rebelled against English rule. The rebellion failed and their lands were tranferred to new English Protestant settlers in 1586.

By the end of the century, the last of the Gaelic chiefs were crushed in Ulster. The Nine Years’ War ended with their defeat at the Battle of Kinsale and their flight from Ireland in 1603. This was known as the ‘Flight of the Earls’. Their land, and that of their followers, was granted to new Protestant, English and Scottish settlers which extended the English feudal system into the heart of Ulster. This resulted, particularly in Ulster, in a polarisation along religious and political lines that would mirror the new religious divide between Protestant and Catholic in 17th century Europe. Cromwellian excesses in the middle of the 17th century remain imprinted on the folk memory in Ireland.

Roman Catholicism remained the religion of the native Irish. It was suppressed until 1829. In spite of this, it has continued as the dominant religion in Ireland and after 1829, new churches were built and continue to be built up to the present time. The Anglican Church in Ireland, called the ‘Church of Ireland’, generally retained the old churches, many of which were built on early monastic sites which, in turn, were built on even more ancient sacred sites. In areas where there were significant numbers of Scottish settlers, Presbyterian churches were built from the 17th century.

A small number of these churches are mentioned in this guide. There are hundreds more, far too many to mention here but many that are well worth visiting.

All places where people seek the Divine become sacred places.



A note from the author
How to use this book
Irish Words used in Place Names
Helpful Definitions of Terms
Myth and History: the Origins of the Sacred Landscape
Goddesses, Gods and Pilgrimage in Ireland












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