Sacred Lodges and Smoke Walkers.

sweat lodges

This article was written by @ (c) David Halpin from Circle Stories

Sweat lodges seem to have been used in every indigenous culture for both healing and ritual purposes involving communicating with departed ancestors and spirits.
That said, there is a distinction to be made in terms of each individual culture’s ceremonial approach to these constructions as well as the term ‘sweat lodge’ itself.
Often, the building of a place of ritual is a task which requires both the respect and knowledge of a people’s traditions and taboos.
So, comparing a sweat lodge ceremony of the many North American indigenous cultures and that of the Australian Aboriginal tribes and the various European peoples is not, nor indeed should it be, considered the same.
Ireland’s tradition in this respect is without surviving written or oral evidence yet the similar practices of indigenous cultures thousands of miles apart may be able to help us in understanding the possible rituals which may have taken place at our own sacred sites.
In this context we can also look to the San people of Southern Africa where we do have examples of oral tradition describing both sensory deprivation and isolation trances used to achieve higher-consciousness states.
I recommend David Lewis William’s book, The Mind in the Cave, for those who want to look more into this, as well as the collection of San lore traditions collected by German Philologist Wilhelm Bleek and his sister-in-law, Lucy LLoyd, and later continued by Bleek’s daughter, the anthropologist, Dorothea Bleek.

A clochán, then, is a small beehive-like stone hut dating back to at least the Bronze Age.
The corbelled roofs of clocháns are also found on many types of Neolithic structures all across Europe. Knowth, as an Irish example, contains fantastic spiralling stonework.
Another famous site is that of the settlement on Skellig Michael. Initially believed to be hermetic cells, today archaeologists and anthropologists see a deeper ritualistic and, indeed, more ancient function behind these structures.
According to the archaeologist Lloyd Laing, “There can be little doubt that these buildings belong to a long-established Celtic tradition though there is at present no direct evidence to date the surviving examples before 700AD.”
Laing is speaking specifically about Irish clocháns here but in fact, outside of Ireland there is a long documented tradition of similarly shaped buildings.
The beehive huts of Harran date before 2000 BCE, for example.

As Laing correctly observes, the clochán does indeed belong to an ancient Celtic tradition but the Celts themselves inherited their use from older people including the Scythians, Thracians and the Kurgans, as postulated by Marija Gimbutas and Andrew Sheratt of The University of Oxford. Sheratt researched similar 5’500 year old structures in Eastern Europe which contained cannabis incenses and ‘smoking cups’ found to hold traces of charred hemp seeds.

An interesting line of thought is to think again about the so called ‘fulacht-fiadh’ in this context. A fulacht fiadh is a small horse-shoe shaped mound containing charcoal enriched soil and usually a heat-cracked stone or stones.
When it comes to clocháns, many archaeologists have noted the difficulty in carrying hot stones and water in through the tiny entrances. Perhaps if the earlier versions were built over fulacht-fiadhs using animal skin and sods this might explain the now absent covering and the fulacht fiadhs themselves? This idea was also suggested by Professor Michael J. O’Kelly (Early Ireland – An Introduction to Irish Prehistory. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. pp. 223–227.)
There is no agreed consensus on the etymology of fulacht fiadh among Irish historians.

Looking for early evidence of sweat lodges and rituals involving steam we find a very telling description of Scythian and Thracian shaman. They are described, both men and women, as ‘Kapnobatai’ which translates as ‘smoke walkers.’
When in these altered states the Kapnobatai would divine prophecy and speak to the dead.
An interesting aside relating to witchcraft is that the Scythians were known for the conical hats, some made of gold, and which have been discovered in graves said to be those of shaman. Perhaps there is a link to the origin of the witch’s cone hat here?
Writing about a Tarin mummy from 800 BCE, Elizabeth Wayland Barber, the American professor of archaeology and linguistics observes, “Yet another female – her skeleton found beside the remains of a man – still wore a terrifically tall, conical hat just like those we depict on witches riding broomsticks at Halloween or on medieval wizards intent at their magical spells.”

The clochán on Slievegad is badly damaged at this point. The site itself also contains an ancient cairn whose stones were later used to build a Christian church inside the original structure. If it ever had an alignment it is no longer determinable but it is interesting to imagine what once took place on this mountain.
Speculating, we might imagine that before a particular constellation appeared overhead at night an ancient shaman-type figure conducted the appropriate ritual in the clochán before directing their thoughts to the spirits and stars.
Perhaps this was the natural order and the veil between the Otherworld and earthly world was one that was seen to be permeable?
Placing a monument high on a mountain top may have demonstrated both the reaching towards a higher realm as well as giving the ‘smoke walker’/ shaman-type figure, the isolation required for such journeys.
As the trance took hold, the participant’s consciousness would fall into a psychedelic state where the ancestors and spirits waited.

Might there even be a connection to the sidhe here in that the legends tell us that they retreated into the mounds and underworld?
Maybe the clocháns and cairns were the entrances to these spirit-places where the participant crossed the threshold between the physical and non-material and in a heightened state entered the Otherworld?
What we notice with the many types of sweat lodge and site is that even though the means to achieve sacred consciousness mindsets were different, the purpose behind the rituals share the same ecstatic and transcendent consequence.

(C.) David Halpin.

The Mythic Consciousness and Fairy Archetypes


The article was written by David Halpin of Circle Stories

I recently read Alan Garner’s excellent book The Owl Service.
I won’t spoil the story in case people want to look it up and read it themselves but the premise behind it is interesting when it comes to examining both fairy lore and fairies themselves.

In this case we will have to be aware that using the term ‘fairy’ has a connotation for people which is only the surface level of how they are rooted in landscape and myth.
Also, it’s worth keeping in mind that ‘fairy’ does not only refer to one class of non-human being but potentially a whole diversity of otherworldly forms, including the place or places of fairy.

What is interesting is how here in Ireland many fairy encounters might reflect a recurring conflict, property or aspect of a tradition and local population.
This draws the fairy experience from the personal, through to the communal, and into the mythic and collective memory.
This can seem like an abstract concept but, for me, it is only because of how hard it is to define the fairy purpose that this is so: folklore tells us that fairies are outside of our understanding of time in the first place.
It is akin to tying ourselves in knots if we try to restrict ‘themselves’ to how our physicality shapes and filters our sensory experience.

In The Owl Service something archaic and powerful is occurring: the myths associated with the location where the story is set begin to manifest through the characters who live there.
The novel is set in Wales and so the archetypes which appear feature in the Mabinogi.

The main narrative they unconsciously re-enact involves that of Blodeuwedd, a woman created from flowers and oak by the magicians Math and Gwydion.
She is made for a man who is cursed to take no human wife but she ultimately betrays him for another man.
Blodeuedd is then transformed into an owl for inducing her lover to kill her husband.
There is much more to the myth, obviously, but in The Owl Service three teenagers in contemporary times find that the myth is recurring again through their lives and it is hinted that it is a never ending cycle which will repeat again once this story has completed.

Of course, the idea that we relive mythic narratives all the time is nothing new. Thinkers like Joseph Campbell, for example, have written extensively on this subject with ‘the hero’s journey’ motif perhaps most identifiable in this context.
However, it is the agency and individual consciousness of the mythic archetypes which separate the fairy aspect from the more philosophical and perhaps abstract understanding of such concepts.

In Irish fairy lore, for example, fairies often appear in the form of communal fears or concerns such as the association with the dangers of childbirth at a time when infant mortality and that of pregnant women was very high.
There is an interesting reversal here, though, in that it is usually the human midwife who helps the supernatural being as opposed to the other way around.
One explanation for this is that it is a psychological reinforcement regarding the strength of women themselves and their ability to overcome the dangers of labour.

We can see a similar emergence with respect to the sickness of animals thought to have been struck by elf shot or fairy darts. The fear of the community encompasses the folkloric traditions of fairy association in this instance with various remedies and cures carried on in order to thwart the evil or negative influence.
Again, the security of knowing that a particular ‘spell’ or work of a bean feasa or fairy doctor can overcome the sickness creates a communal strength and confidence even within the landscape where such perils lie permanently on the periphery of daily life.

These fairy dangers seem steadfast in Irish folklore to the point where fairies seem to lose any sense of individual identity and instead occupy a force akin to what Garner writes about in The Owl Service. It is the archetype of fairy behaviour and influence which penetrates into the consciousness of the community, as opposed to any single fairy being.

Perhaps the mythic influence is inescapable for all of us and it is a matter of using the stories and wisdom in order to transition ourselves to a more beneficial place in our own personal narrative.
Understanding the lore as a construct or landscape in which we can navigate ourselves past dangers and pitfalls is why such stories remain so potent and relevant.
And yet, we still have the enigma of fairy and mythic agency to explain: often it is the beings of the Otherworld who deign to pass us on the wisdom in the first place.
So, do we put this down to the deeper wisdom of our subconscious or should we go further and perhaps consider that there is a plethora of further levels and worlds awaiting us once we find the way in?
I don’t have any answers but I do enjoy thinking about such questions!

(C.) David Halpin.

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What are Irelands Portal Dolmens? What lessons can we learn from our ancient past?

Throughout Ireland, there are hundreds of mysterious rock formations known as Portal Dolmens. For many, these Dolmens take on a supernatural aura with people believing that these structures contain the spirits of our ancestors.  
The very name evokes images in the mind of a portal into the next world, the spirit world. For the Celts, that’s what these structures were, a place where the mortal remains of their loved ones were to rest for eternity.  
Maybe its the mind playing tricks but when you walk around these locations you can almost sense that something significant happened here many thousands of years ago.
One of the most recognizable features of a Portal Dolmen is the huge capstone, or roof stone, which is wedged in place by a number of smaller stones underneath. The capstone provides a stunning sight for any visitor to one of these places. These Dolmens are known by a diverse array of names: Giants Graves, Cromleachs, Stone Tablets. 
 In Ireland, these structures have become associated with myths, fairies, legends, and giants. These Dolmens are connected to some of the most legendary figures in Irish history, figures such as Finn McCool and Cuchulainn.
Dolmens are widespread throughout Europe and they are indicative of the Celtic era were the Celts were one of the largest tribes in Europe. Ireland has some of the finest examples of Portal Dolmens not only in Ireland but in Europe too. Usually, Dolmens have an entrance feature, known as the portal, and it was down through this passage where the remains of their loved ones were placed.
Originally, most of these Dolmens would have been covered with masses of smaller stones but in most cases very little remains when it comes to these stones. There are many fine Dolmens that can be seen throughout in Ireland but in the Louth and South Armagh area we are blessed with having some of the finest in Ireland and further afield.
The prevalence of these Dolmens in the South Armagh North Louth area is a testament to the areas deep historical and cultural roots that stretches back into the annals of time.
Portal Dolmen Ireland
In an archaeological dig of the Poulnabrone Dolmen in County Clare the remains of 33 people where found buried underneath the structure. Carbon dating of the bones suggested that the people buried there all lived between the years of 3800 to 3200 BC. Some of the items found during the dig included a stone axe, jewellery, quartz crystals, weaponry, and pottery.
 The testing also revealed that all but one of the adults found at the scene were under the age of 30. There are many theories as to why the people who were buried there died at such a young age.
Historians have speculated that in the Celtic era the practice of ritual sacrifice was pretty widespread and that the sacrifice of a young, fit, and health male would have been seen as an offering that would have been worthy of the god’s approval.
But the evidence gathered from the Poulnabrone Dolmen suggests different, with children’s teeth gathered at the site showing signs of illness and malnutrition.
Other evidence from the site indicates that the people who were buried there had a very physically demanding lifestyle and they were not being fed an adequate diet which would have aided in the recovery from their physical exertions.
Another fascinating discovery was that some of the bones showed evidence of major physical injury.  Two of the bodies had skull and rib cage fractures which had healed over time.  A male hip bone showed evidence of having been pierced by the tip of some projectile and the evidence suggests that this hip bone injury had not healed before the time of death.
A large proportion of the bones showed signs of arthritis in the upper body. Historians are pretty sure that the bodies would have left to decompose in some protected location because there are no signs of animal bite marks on the bones. 
A common custom at the time was the practice of “defleshing” where the body was cut of meat and was then burned so as to preserve the corpse from the mutilation by animals.
In humble view, the majority of the bodies found in the tomb in Clare were more than likely warriors who were placed in the tomb in recognition of their valor and bravery in battle.
To these men death in battle is glorious,
And they consider it a crime to bury the body of such a warrior;
For they believe that the soul goes up to the gods in heaven,
If the body is exposed on the field to be devoured by the birds of prey”.
(Silius Italicus (2nd c. AD) Punica 3:340-343)
Ballykeel Dolmen


The Ballykeel Dolmen in South Armagh is a fine example of a tripod dolmen. An interesting fact about this Dolmen is that the capstone had originally fallen of the top but it was reerected during excavations in 1965. This capstone is over 3 meters long and it has a peculiar notch on it, which is very similar to other Dolmens which are seen throughout Northern Ireland.


Proleek Dolmen

Situated on the grounds of Ballymacscanlon Hotel is the Proleek Dolmen, which dates from around 3000BC.  It is believed that the portal of the tomb, the entrance, points directly towards the nearby Slieve Gullion Mountain and that the tomb is alignment with the setting of the sun during the summer solstice. Legend has it that the massive structure was carried to its location by a Scottish giant. This Scottish giant challenged local Irish warrior king Finn McCool to a one on one duel but unfortunately for the giant Scotsman he was no match for Finn who quickly dispatched the Scotsman to his maker.  Local tradition has it that the Scot is buried in the wedge tomb that is located only a few feet away from the Dolmen.

Brownes Hill Dolmen Carlow
This Dolmen has a capstone which is estimated to weigh over 120 tonnes! The capstone is the largest known Captsone in Ireland.  It’s quite remarkable to comprehend how the Celts, without the help of any mechanical equipment, managed to move such a gigantic stone right up into the air and place it on top of the smaller stones that make up the base of the Dolmen.

Poulnabrone Dolmen Co Clare

Earlier on in my blog, I wrote about some of the fascinating finds that where discovered at the Poulnabrone. This Dolmen truly is one of the most remarkably preserved Dolmens in Ireland.  At the setting of the sun, or at any other time of the day, the Dolmen can make for a real panoramic photograph.  The region where it lies, the Burren,  has a vast reservoir of historical remains and structures, with 70 tombs and nearly 500 forts. The sheer quantity of megalithic tombs and forts in the area is a sure sign of the Burrens importance during the Celtic era.


These Dolmens are nearly always situated in places of outstanding natural beauty. In Armagh, you have the stunning background of Slieve Gullion Mountain.

A suitable time to visit a Dolmen and experience their full magnificence is when the sun is setting or rising.  The orange glow of the sun as it shines its rays down through the eyes and heart of the Dolmen is a breathtaking sight to behold.
At Ballykeel Dolmen and other tombs around the locality, a visitor can witness Slieve Gullion slowly beginning to eat the last dying rays of the sun, until the dusk and darkness of the night begins to tighten its grip.  And what a darkness of the night it must have been for the Celts with packs of wild hungry Wolves roaming throughout the countryside seeking to tear someone limb from limb.
The howls of these fearsome animals in the dead of the night must have pierced the hearts of the Celts. Not only had the Celts to contend with Wolves, they also had to keep an eye out for other rival tribes, who would have stalked the night waiting for a chance to slit a rival tribesman’s throat.
It’s no wonder that when it comes to the “modern man” that one of the most common dreams we all experience is where we are getting chased. These dreams are a fingerprint on our DNA, a fingerprint of a bygone era where all sorts of ghouls and bloodthirsty animals chased us.
Just like how our bodies have evolved over the centuries, so have our minds.  The well known “fight or flight” phenomenon goes back to this evolutionary past. For our ancestors, this fight or flight phenomenon was very real.  Run and maybe you live. Fight and maybe you die. Sit still and do nothing and die for sure.Our genetic heritage demands that we do something.
Nowadays, for the most part, we no longer have to run and fight to survive  but still this etching, this imprint on our DNA lives on. The practicality, the usefulness, of this evolutionary byproduct is questionable to say the least but yet, we can’t get away from it.  
Overall, I think its safe to say that these Portal Dolmens, these relics of a bygone age, have not only left a lasting imprint on our landscape but the people who inhabited them, have left a lasting imprint on our DNA.  
This article was compiled by local SEO blog content writer Seamus Hanratty. Local SEO in Ireland is great way to grow traffic and help build local SEO traffic.  

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Lesser spotted Monaghan! What secrets lie hidden in the depths of the Drumlin Belt?

Monaghan is a county with a rich history that stretches back thousands of years. During the Celtic era the original name for parts of Monaghan was the  Oriel County meaning  “those who give hostages” or “the hostage givers.”  The area is also associated with the ominous-sounding the “Black Pigs Dyke” which was a huge timber structure and earth embankment that ran for miles along the frontiers of the county.

Historians reckon that the Black Pigs Dyke was a structure which was used to keep out Cattle raiders and other undesirables many thousands of years ago. All in all,  you know if you’re entering a place that is renowned for Hostage takers and Black Pigs Dykes its a pretty sure bet that you’re entering into an area where traditionally strangers feared to tread. And some still do.

Only a short number of years ago if a man from a few miles outside the parish dared to venture into another parish or townland he would have been known as “a blow in”. He was a leper, wearing the mark of Cain. Passports would have been required. Passport control comprised of a thump on the jaw. If the stranger walked into a pub in the next village the music would fall silent and everyone would turn around with their jaws pinned to the floor with astonishment almost as if an alien from outer space had just entered the building and ordered a pint of the black stuff. But times have changed. Nowadays, Monaghan is a modern vibrant county where law-abiding people from all over the world are welcomed.

In my previous blog, I gave an overview of some of the more well-known sites in Monaghan, but in this blog I will focus on some of the lesser-known hotspots that lie hidden right under our noses.

The Monaghan way

The Monaghan Way is a long-distance walk which starts in Clontibret and stretches all the way to Inniskeen. The walk encompasses over 33 miles and takes in some of Monaghan’s stunning scenery. Ok, it isn’t exactly akin to the world-famous Camino de Santiago which goes from the Pyrenees in France right into the heart of Spain but the Monaghan way has its own sort of romance.

Them French and Spanish aristocrats can have their fancy vineyards and olive trees.  Can you get a decent pint of Guinness on the Camino?Of course not. Anyways, vineyards, white white, red wine, pints of the black stuff, it doesn’t matter what beverage is on the table we’d drink the bastards under the table!

Imagine an elite squad of drinkers assembled from the cream of Ballybay, Castleblayney, Carrickmacross, Magheracloone, Inniskeen, etc. It would be like a whose who of the best in Ireland. An all-star champions league squad. We wouldn’t be going for national honours we’d be going for world titles. The big time. A one on one face off against the Russians with the final being held in the wilds of Siberia.

In the ultimate finale, The Monaghan boys would be led out to the theme song from from the hit 80’s TV Show the A-Team, “Ten years ago a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a round of drink they didnt pay for. These men promptly escaped from a maximum-security stockade and proceeded to drink every alcoholic beverage in sight. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as drinkers of fortune. If you have a beer and no else can drink it….if you can find them….maybe you can hire…… the  A Team.”

It would be an inevitable world title victory for the boys in blue and white. Champions. But there’s much much more to Monaghan besides our warrior-like drinking abilities.

Big figures


Monaghan is home to and associated with some of the greatest literary and political figures in world history and one of those figures is the literary titan Oscar Wilde.

Wildes sisters are buried just outside Monaghan at Drumsnatt Church of Ireland. The inscription on the headstone reads,  “In memory of two loving and loved sisters, Emily Wilde aged 24 and Mary Wilde, aged 22, who lost their lives by accident in this parish, Nov 10th 1871. They were lovely and pleasant in their lives and in death they were not divided.”

Oscar Wildes father Sir William was a notorious philanderer and when the children where born out of wedlock they where sent away to be looked after by a relative, Ralph Wilde, who was the Rector of Drumsnatt church.
The girls were tragically killed in a fire but their deaths were kept under wraps in order to prevent Sir William from experiencing any embarrassment from the Dublin media.   Another unusual connection that Monaghan has is to Sir Winston Churchill. Sir Shane Leslie who was born near Glaslough was the first cousin of the legendary political leader.

Off the beaten track

In Monaghan, there are loads of small little villages and townlands that at face value don’t seem to offer much but when you dig a little deeper you begin to see that these places have a rich and vibrant history. Clontibret in north Monaghan is one of these places.

When one thinks of Clontibret the image that automatically floats into the mind is of a field abandoned amongst masses of other fields. A barren desert of nothingness except for cattle and farm animals wandering aimlessely about the place. A verifiable nuclear holocaust of dung, cattle, and dodgy diesel. But as is so often the case with Monaghan appearances can be very deceptive.

In 1595 Clontibret became the battleground between forces led by Hugh O Neill of Ulster and Sir Henry Baegnal. O Neill delivered a stunning victory by massacring over 700 of Baegnals most elite troops. In tribute to this victory the areas GAA team was named after O Neill and the team have continued their namesakes winning ways by amassing over 17 Monaghan senior titles.

A testament to the areas of grand ambitions is local man John O Neill who in 1866 and armed with only a motley crew of a few hundred soldiers invaded Canada and tried to take the country under the control of the Fenian Brotherhood.

Needless to say, O Neill’s crackpot scheme ended in complete disaster but the Clontibret man couldn’t be faulted for his aiming too low in life. In the late 1980s  Clontibret was the scene of much controvesy when Peter Robinson and a gang of loyalists invaded the area in an attempt to highlight the lax Irish border with Northern Ireland.

Not far away from Clonibret is the lovely little village of Glaslough, a place that has recently won the prestigious Irish tidy towns title. The village has some stunning Georgian buildings that really make it stand out. During the summer months, Glaslough comes alive with a vast array of stunning flowers and shrubs.

Monaghan is also home to a number of top-class golf courses, including Mannan Castle, Nuremore, Concra Wood, and Rossmore. So if you don’t buy into the Mark Twain saying that “Golf is a good walk spoiled” then the county could be the perfect place for you to swing your body into action.

In Monaghan town, You could always take a tour of the very underrated museum which comes equipped with a 12,000-year-old Irish deer skull that was found in Lough Muckno. Whilst there set your eyes on the 12th Century Cross of Clogher, Bronze age weapons, tools, and loads more.


Carrickmacross Monaghan
In Carrickmacross pay a visit to the 19th century Saint Josephs Church and amaze at the world-famous Harry Clarke stain-glassed windows. A guided walking tour of the town will give you an in-depth overview of the history of the place.

Outside of Carrickmacross, you could always take a sneaky look at Shirley’s Castle. A spooky gothic looking castle that wouldn’t be amiss in Bram Stokers horror Dracula.

Nearby, in Shirley’s Forest, you have Kilrock which comes equipped with a stone seat that is locally known as Finn McCools seat. The giant stone seat is etched into a small cliff face and resembles the indentations where a giants ass may have sat at some stage.  And if all of this touring sets your stomach rumbling the Farney County might just be the place for you to satisfy your appetite.


Mushrooms are to a Monaghan Man are what Cocaine is to a Colombian. The lifeblood of the economy. In Monaghan, when young kids are attempting to discover their origins, they aren’t told that they where found under a cabbage patch, they are told that they where discovered inside a punit of Mushrooms. Ok, I might be exaggerating slightly but the Mushroom industry is an integral part of the border economy.

But the Farney cuisine extends much further than Mushrooms with some top-notch food to be eaten the length and breadth of the county, The Court House in Carrickmacross is a Michelin winning restaurant. Ginos Chip Shop in Carrickmacross has caused many a man to suffer a premature cardiac arrest but the delicious fast food is usually worth any coronary blockage.

The Batch Loaf in Monaghan town has a reputation that precedes it. In the same town, The Indian Restaurant Monaghan Spice is listed as being one of the top 50 Indian Restaurants in Ireland.

Myths and fairies

If you’d like to veer off into the mythical or supernatural you could always check out some of the many fairy forts that populate the countryside.

These Forts are spread throughout the entire county and are usually recognised by a round circle of trees located in the middle of a field.

According to Duchas the last sighting of a fairy in Monaghan was over 100 years ago. “The fairies once dwelt in a forth called Clontreat Forth, situated on the by-road leading from Clones to Newbliss. They used to go out into Ferguson’s fields to play in the late hours of the night. They played round a lone-bush. The man who was living in Ferguson’s house often heard them at play…John McGuirk saw a fairy in a hole in the ground on the 19th  October, 1918 and that was the last fairy seen about the forth.”

If you’re visiting one of these fairy forts just be careful not to disturb it as the vengeful wrath of the fairies is legendary!



With a history stretching back thousands of years, there is much to see in Monaghan and in my previous blog I have gone into more detail on some of our more famous sites and landmarks but If you’re a tourist visiting the place or anyone else for that matter you’ll have to attend a Gaelic Football match. Gaelic games are the glue that keeps small places like Monaghan together. It’s Integral to our identity.

Our common ancestral heritage waged on the battlefields has been transported into sports . Now we wage war on the football field.  The stroke of a foot and the kick of a ball over the bar are the way we inflict damage. No longer do we need Black Pig Dykes to keep raiders out all we now need is the timing of a shoulder as an opposition player crashes onto the muddy ground causing their supporters to groan in horror when they lose the ball.

Our swords and knives have now become the midfielders and forwards who act in union, in harmony, to crash the ball into the opposition  net.  A stab to the gut of the invading posse. Our defenders become our shields.   Like a baying mob, the crowd roars its approval as they smell opposition blood, they smell victory.  The manager stands on the sidelines directing, orchestrating, urging his troops on like a latter-day Hugh O Neill. A name inscribed on the cup becomes like the scalp from yesteryear.

The spoils of battle. A triumphant victory parade is held through the centre of the town or village as the cup is held aloft for all to see. Victorious warriors. “Did you see the point he put over the bar?” They whisper in awe. The troops have returned home from the trenches victorious. Champions. Kings of the Gaelic football field. The true essence of the Farney County.

Check out my previous blog on Monaghan here.

Is Slieve Donard the Jewel of the Mourne Mountains?

Slieve donard
As you drive across the Mourne Mountains towards Newcastle Co Down your mind can sense that something special is about to unfold. Nearly everywhere you look a spectacular mountain pops up from the earth’s crust beneath the background of a clear blue sky. A jet darting across the sky gives the impression of a shooting star, a shooting star promising omens of a glorious day.A journey through these hills is a bit like going for a 5 course meal in some Michelin Star Restaurant where the starters are just mouthwateringly delicious. Awakening every sense and taste bud of your body. You’re left flabbergasted with each new dish that is placed before your eyes. The next dish couldn’t be any better than the last, it couldn’t, could it?? But it always is.

As you travel into the heart of these hills the suspense is slowly built up, and then bang. The waiter removes the cover from the last bit of food and there she is- the main course itself, Slieve Donard standing in all her majestic glory. The mountain is a masterpiece of nature carved out of the rock, granite, volcano, and sea ice. It dominates the surrounding landscape for miles around. At the bottom of the main street in Newcastle, she stands there with her chest puffed out rising magnificently into the heavens.  Make no mistake about it, Slieve Donard sits on the throne of Newcastle Co Down.

There are numerous ways in which to start your trial up the mountain but the one I took is the most one which is via parking at Slieve Donard carpark and making your way to the trail which starts at the end of the park.  The initial trail up the mountainside is an enclosed rocky pathway that in many ways resembles an 18th-century cobbled street. After a few minutes of hiking you come across the ominous-sounding bloody bridge which has a lovely waterfall running down between it. The Bloody Bride is a place where a massacre was said to have taken place during a rebellion that occurred in 1641. One real noticeable feature during the first phase of your hike is that of waterfalls rushing down the side of the mountain. These waterfalls provide a hypnotic and soothing sound.

Once you clear the forest you’re then out in the open and there before you stands Slieve Donard standing at 2790 feet and Slieve Commedagh standing at 2,516 feet. As you make your way up towards these mountains, in the distance, small flashes of silver catch your eyes. For the first time hiker, you might be forgiven for mistaking these flashes for a motherload of silver or gold but upon closer inspection, you realize that these flashes are small trickles of water flowing down the mountainside.

Isn’t it amazing to think how these small little trickles of water will morph into streams, slowly growing momentum, slowly gathering pace, then bit by bit all of these streams will join in union to create a river and then this river will expand into a raging torrent that can cut through rock and spread out throughout the countryside like the life-giving arteries of the human body?   In total, the Mournes gives birth to 19 separate rivers, most notably, the River Bann and the River Lagan.  It’s remarkable to think that these mighty rivers humble origins all began with a single trickle of water flowing down the Mourne Mountains.

Local legend has it that the Mourne Mountains was the place where Saint Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland. There is also said to be a stream located in the Mournes known as Saint Patricks stream where the legendary Saint was said to have knelt down and drank some water. Legend has it that when Saint Patrick’s hand touched a rock on the stream that to this day his handprint can be seen upon this rock.

When you hike your way up between the Slieve Donard and Commedagh the first thing that catches your eye is the Mourne Wall. The immense and powerful Wall was built between 1904 and 1922 using local granite and which was hauled up to the top of the mountains. The wall which runs for 22 miles encompasses 15 summits and includes the biggest mountain of them all Slieve Donard. Its awe-inspiring thinking of the sheer audacity and iron will of the men who set out to accomplish the task of hauling masses of granite up a mountain, thousands of feet into the air, and then to build a wall which stretches across the 15 highest mountains in Ulster.

When you stand at the wall and look to the other side of it the views are simply breathtaking.  It’s almost like you’re stepping foot inside one of Van Goghs or Michangeloes masterpieces only these masterpieces are second rate garbage compared to the reality that mother nature has put in front of you.  It’s not surprising that they have filmed  TV shows like Game of Thrones show on these slopes as  hiking the mournes is like stepping foot inside your own real-life fairytale.

When you’re standing at the wall and peering up at the summit of Slieve Donard it does seem like the peak could be reached in only 5 or 10 minutes but this illusion is very deceiving because the last end of the trek to top of the summit is very steep and if you’re not prepared it will have you tested to the last.

But the hike up this last section provides you with one spectacular view after another. Just when you think that you’ve seen it all another revelation is at hand. A previously undiscovered snow-covered peak catches your eye. A ray of sun blasting its way through a pit of blackness in the sky becomes almost like a message from god himself. A sudden breath of a wind clearing away all the clouds, and nature, like a  master magician, reveals another trick to a stunned audience. Words can never do it justice. If there is a god she is up here amongst the hills. This is my chapel. My church. I kneel at the alter of the nature’s craftsmanship.

Hiking Ireland
When you finally reach the top of Slieve Donard You can’t but help smile. You’re at the very top of Ulster.  Of the 2 million people in Ulster not a single soul is standing higher. At the summit, in the distance, you can see the Isle of Man, Snowdonia Mountains in Wales, and the Lake District. Masses of green and golden fields populate the horizon. To the east there’s Dundrum Bay which stretches all the way to Saint Johns Point. There’s several miles of beach that reaches all the way into a seemingly limitless horizon. On a good day the yellow cranes from the Harland and Wolfe Dockyards in Belfast can be seen.

This is the ancient province of Ulster shaped by men like:  Cuchulainn, Finn McCool, Henry Joy McCracken, Owen Roe O Neill, Hugh O Donnell, Edward Carson, Ian Paisley, Bobby Sands, George Best, and the list goes on and on. This land has borne witness to some of the momentous and tragic moments in Irish History. In 1798 Belfast born Presbyterian Henry Joy McCracken and a dozen or so other protestants set up the group called the United Irishmen a group that pledged to end English rule over Ireland by any means possible. Their motto was to “unite Catholic, Protestant, and dissenter. ” Predictably, the 1798 rebellion ended in disaster with McCracken meeting his doom at the end of a hangman’s noose. These days the Mourne Mountains unites people from all creeds, orange and green united in our love of the great outdoors.

As you descend from the mountain you will be afforded more time to soak in some of the sites you may have overlooked on the way up. Depending on how fast you’re going you should reach sea level within the hour. When you come down from the mountain your mind is swimming with endorphins. A creamy pint of Guinness is the cherry on top of the large cake that you’ve been consuming all day. The first gulp of the Guinness is a thing of bliss as it flows down your welcoming throat. Conversations flow free and easy.

The town itself, Newcastle, is a town that has something for everyone. Amusement parks, water parks, the seashore, restaurants, bars. At the end of the town stands the impressive gothic-looking Slieve Donard Hotel. For anyone who likes a bit of golf they can always decide to go for a round of Golf in the famous local golf course, the Royal County Down, which has hosted tournaments as prestigious as the British Open and the Irish Open. Four time major winner Rory Mcilroy counts the course as his most favorite course in the whole world.

But Newcastle in spite of its stunning surroundings is a town that has been on the receiving end of its fair share of tragedies. In 1843 a  fleet of local fishing ships sank resulting in 73 men reaching a watery grave. References to the tragedy at the time stated that, “Newcastle town is one long street entirely stripped of men.” One of the most famous residents of Newcastle is a man called Harry Ferguson, who in 1910 became one of the first Irishmen to fly an engine-powered plane. Newspaper reports at the time stated that “He flew a distance of almost three miles along the foreshore at a low altitude varying between fifty and five hundred feet.” His solo Plane ride is commemorated with a large plaque which is located along the Newcastle shoreline.

But all of this is a secondary aftershow to the main course itself, Slieve Donard. She stands there, proud, defiant, unbroken, enduring. A symbol of strength and power.  She stood here a thousand years ago and will stand here a thousand years into the future when we’re all dead and gone.  And us mere mortals,  temporarily full of life, full of delusional self-importance will register not even a flicker in the great passage of time.  The Mourne Mountains rekindles your spirt, revitalizes your heart. Redemption is poured amongst these treasured hills and Slieve Donard, for me anyways, is the ultimate Jewel in the crown.

Reading the Tay: Samhain, Divination, and Speaking to the Dead

This article was written by (c) @ David Halpin Circle Stories

As we approach the time of Samhain I thought I’d take a look at some of the ways in which divination has been practiced in Ireland over the years. While some of these methods are ancient, others are much more recent. The art of reading tea leaves has a relatively short history in Irish folklore in comparison to Ogham divination or scrying through the flames of a fire, for example. And yet, it is a tradition which turns up regularly in the folklore archives as well as in the oral histories of families.

There are numerous accounts of travellers conducting readings in the rural areas of Ireland in the folklore archives but, in my own case, I know of tea leaf readers who were well known in Dublin city going back to the early 20th century. The actual name of this method of divination is Tasseography, although I have to admit that I never heard of it being called this when I listened to the incredible stories of dire predictions and foresight as an awestruck child.

When I have written about this subject before, some people have mentioned that herbal drinks may have served the same purpose before tea arrived in Ireland. We know that wise women and cunning folk certainly brewed potions, medicines and drinks so perhaps divining the pattern of the ground leaves of plants may have worked in the same way.

In that context, tea leaf prophecy is simply part of a wider art of pattern reading which is observed in every world culture and tradition. Whether we look to the example of reading the innards of animals or the flight pattern of birds, this art of magical prophecy was an auspicious hand upon the shoulder of Kings, Queens, Druids and magicians.

As I have mentioned before in previous articles, the Irish Druids also used cloud divination, ‘Neldoracht’, and Geoffrey Keating writes of another method of divination called Tarbhfeis, where the seer was wrapped in a bulls skin to produce a more powerful trance state.

Other examples of divination throughout the world include the Greek oracles, listening to the rustle of leaves upon sacred trees, the I Ching, Tarot and, of course, Astrology. Indigenous people also see a correspondent relationship between divination and the landscape. Reflections of future events might manifest in the behaviour of animals or the changing path of a stream or river, for example.

Perhaps it is fair to say that tea leaf reading is a less ambitious incarnation of some of these more complicated and far-reaching techniques, or maybe I am wrong about that? A fascinating work which examines the potentially connected reasoning behind all of these disciplines is Robert Temple’s book, Oracles of the Dead: Ancient Techniques for Predicting the Future.…/…/1594770859

Tea only arrived in Ireland in the early 19th century but it wasn’t until decades later that the poorer people had access to it at all. There are many accounts in the Duchas archives of how poorer people tried to consume it as a dish when they first came across it.

The methods of reading the leaves do vary but, as a very simple explanation, the cup is often understood as a microcosm of the universe and life of the person inquiring their fortune. In this context we can also notice some astrological parallels, perhaps. The person seeking their fortune will drink most of the tea before being asked to swirl the remaining tea three times. The reader will then work their way through the pattern of tea leaves clinging to the inside of the cup from the edge and rim downwards, travelling through the near and far future of the querent.

Of course, it should be noted that this is not the only method, and often a particular reader will incorporate their own beliefs and universal outlook into their reading. There is very much a rural and urban divide, I notice, with some of the older country readers openly calling upon fairy helpers whereas some of the city readers will say that the recently deceased will offer them advice. Perhaps, as we have seen throughout Irish folklore, the division between these definitions is far too murky to even comment upon. Biddy Early, who was well known for her ability to communicate with the good people, possessed a bottle which she would shake before examining the particles within it to tell a persons future. This example from the Duchas archives describes these particles being similar to tea leaves.

Another ancient mention of Irish divination occurs in the text the Cogadh Gaedhel re Gaillaibh . In this case the seer is a woman named Otta who used the church at Clonmacnoise for her oracle workings. She would seat herself in a high chair upon the altar where she would enter her trance states.

When it comes to tea leaf reading, though, there is one rule which should never be broken and that is cutting open a tea bag in order to use the leaves. This is said to give a corrupt reading and bring bad luck upon both the reader and querent. Whether this is because it is seen to be altering a predestined pattern or simply contaminating a more authentic technique depends upon who you ask, I find. One thing is certain, though, tea leaf reading or ‘reading the tay’ is still an ongoing and popular method of fortune telling in Ireland today.

(C.) David Halpin.

#samhain #divination #halloween #irish #thegoodpeople #fairies #celt #druid #heathen #witch #witchcraft #banshee #fortunetelling #fortean #folklore #ireland #tealeafreading #mythology #megalith #standingstone #stonecircle #dolmen #carlow #wicklow #irelandsancienteast

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The Caul Bearer: Those who see Beyond the Veil

In Irish lore and custom a person born with a caul was considered to be someone both lucky and magically powerful. They were said to have the ability to foresee the future as well as being able to travel easily to the Otherworld and communicate with spirits. Some caul bearers were healers and had an ability to dowse for water as well as protecting the harvest from evil forces. Interestingly, within Scottish folklore a caul was a sign of a person having been ‘marked’ by the fairies in a darker context, and was sometimes associated with changelings. Personally, I have found that with older lore a caul is considered a blessing, whereas with later Christianised folklore, as we shall see in this piece, the caul was often seen as a sign of witchcraft.

The caul itself is a membrane which is formed when part of the amniotic sac breaks away and forms a type of mask or veil upon a child’s head. The caul was usually kept by the family and sometimes used in rituals concerned with placating dark forces as well as fairies and magic. One reasoning for the attribution of supernatural powers was that the caul represented the veil between worlds and so if a person was born behind a caul this symbolised their ability to venture between the human an non-human worlds. Perhaps one of the more famous uses of a caul was that it was said to prevent a person from drowning. This led to many Irish fishermen paying large sums to those who were prepared to part with their caul. In this example from the Irish folklore archives a family is offered money from a sea-captain for their caul but they refuse to part with it.

A “Caul” is said to be very lucky. If baby is born with caul, the caul is taken with the baby when it is being baptised. When I was a little one I saw a baby’s caul in our own house. We kept it drawn out stretched upon something to keep it so. I remember a sea-captain advertised for a baby’s caul – he would give £5 for one and that was big money in those days but my mother wouldn’t sell the one she had. People were going out to America in those days on the ‘coffin ships’ and someone was always looking for a bit of the caul as it was considered to be very lucky. We cut off a bit now and then for those going by sea and by degrees, the whole caul melted away.” Original source here:

Another example of a supernatural link to cauls is an association with mermaids who were said to wear a caul themselves. In many stories if a person were to manage to steal the mermaid’s caul then the mermaid would be unable to return to the sea until they retrieved it again. We see this type of theme in many other tales of magical folk from the ocean, in particular the various types of seal-person who might be captured by stealing their sealskin. Here is an example from Irish folklore.

“The mermaid is supposed to be half a woman and half a fish, and always lives in the sea convenient to the coast. Tradition says she is very handsome with a beautiful head of green hair. She is seen sitting on a rock brushing her hair. She wears a “caul” and if this is snapped from her, she has no power of getting down to the sea again. Once upon a time early in the morning a man was out bathing, and the wind blew the “caul” towards him. The mermaid screamed, and the man went and caught her and took her to his home. He hid her “caul” and he married her. For three years she lived with him never speaking one word. One day they were cleaning down some loft. The “caul” was found. The mermaid snatched it, put it on her hair, and made out to sea, and was seen no more.” Original source here:

The belief that a caul bearer had supernatural abilities is not limited to Ireland. In fact it is a worldwide tradition which was also demonised throughout the inquisition. With the spread of Christianity, in many indigenous traditions the luck and power for good associated with a caul was turned into something demonic. Perhaps the most famous example of this is that of the “Good Walkers” or benandanti of Northern Italy around the 16th century. However, it is believed that although their activities were recorded at this time the benandanti were part of a much older and pre-Christian folk and visionary cult or tradition. The benandanti were people who were born with a caul which signalled their ability to participate in spiritual battles against evil forces in order to protect crops and fruits of the land. The Italian scholar Carlo Ginzburg has documented the history of benandanti in his ground-breaking work, The Night Battles, which I highly recommend.

The Catholic church questioned members of this group and in the end saw no distinction between the benendanti and witches, but this went against everything the benandanti said about themselves. In their own words they were people who battled witches. For the benandanti, their spirit excursions during the wheel of the year and “ember days” (times of the year when the crops were planted and sown, harvested and reaped) were undertaken for the good of the community and not in order to cause destruction.

There are many parallels between the shamanistic-type vision quests of the benandanti and examples of spiritual travelling and the wise-women of Irish folklore, not least the often cited description of having been born with a caul. There are also links to the The Wild Hunt and the seasonal parade of fairies and the dead. Another interesting parallel is that the benandanti say that they left their bodies in order to fight witches and in some examples that Ginzburg mentions there are also accounts of dead benandanti being present at the battles. As I have written about on many occasions, there is a strange overlap between the fairies and the dead in Irish lore in this context. Indeed, this association turns up everywhere we find fairies, from Europe to indigenous accounts in the Southern Hemisphere. For more on this:

In the folktale The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs, which was collected by the Brothers Grimm in the 19th century, we see yet another example of the caul being associated with travels to spiritual realms. The tale itself contains many symbols scholars associate with older myths as well as visionary motifs such as entering the Otherworld, prophecy, witches and pre-destiny. You can read the story here:…/the_devil_with_the_three_gol…

Returning to contemporary Ireland, I myself have heard of people being born with a caul who have gone on to become healers and in other cases being associated with an almost otherworldly talent in whatever they pursue.

In the accounts of the previously mentioned benandanti they maintained that they were visited by a figure at night who commanded them to partake in the battles against evil. Here in Ireland, though, there is a hesitancy to label fairies ‘good’ within such a black and white context. Whether that is a difference between cultures and the good people or, perhaps, a particular trait of how we interpret their actions and motives is hard to tell. Either way, if a person is born with a caul, folklore seems to tell us that they have a good chance of hearing from the fairies at some point whether they want to or not!

(C.) David Halpin.


1. Haroldstown Dolmen, Co. Carlow.

2. Athgreany stone circle, Co. Wicklow, exhibiting a definite autumnal turn.

3. A misty morning near the summit of Turlough Hill, Co. Wicklow.

#caul #fairytale #faeries #fairies #witch #witchcraft #irish #ireland #wicklow#dolmen #irishfolklore #folklore #pagan #paganism #stonecircle #megalith#fortean #superstition #mermaid #selkie #banshee #druid #holywell #elves#mythology #shamanism #carloginzburg #folkmedicine #celt #celtic#wisewoman

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The Irish Keening Tradition: Singing the Soul Home

This article was written by David Halpin of Circle stories

Keening, which was once an integral part of the Irish grieving process, began to vanish from before the 1880’s. In many academic papers it is implied that keening was strong until the mid-20th century but the Irish folklore archives contradict that view. There are still isolated accounts of keening taking place but it is now extremely rare. There have also been some recent attempts to bring back this ancient practice and perhaps we will see a resurgence at some point. There are a few different reasons for why keening disappeared but two in particular seem to form the basis of opinion for many of today’s researchers.

The first reason is that keening was always considered a pagan practice and the church felt that it had no place in a Christian ceremonial context. Keening and a form of death wailing is found in indigenous cultures from Europe to the Americas and throughout Australia, Africa and Asia. In some traditions there is a form of wordless cry but in others there is a recounting of the persons deeds and traits; a plea at times and perhaps an attempt to sing a scar upon the memory of those left behind in order to never forget.

In ancient Greece mourners called Goetes would howl and chant next to the dead in order to secure safe passage to the heavenly realms. Although the term ‘Goetes’ is sometimes said to mean ‘sorcerer’ or ‘magician’ its original translation was to ‘moan’ or ‘howl’. It was believed that these shamanistic-type ‘songs’ somehow attached to or carried the soul of the dead person and helped to navigate its way past the obstacles and dangers of the underworld. Although the term ‘shamanistic’ is often used outside of the original cultural context, in this instance there is a direct relationship to the Asian forms of chanting and singing at the funerals of the dead. We can trace many of the practices of appeasing ghosts, for example, from Asia to Mesopotamia and onto Greece. We see a separation of sorts when we look at the Buddhist prayers or reading from The Tibetan Book of the Dead/ the Bardo Thodol (Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State) and the many indigenous and non-formal Asian funeral practices. (Personally, I would tend to think that all cultures and indigenous magicians knew this art of keening/ chanting for the dead and there is no real need to look for one original source of the tradition.)

In Ireland the Banshee is a fairy associated with death and keening. Rather than go over a description I’m sure most readers know already I thought I would mention another specific interpretation of this supernatural being associated with keening you may not have heard of, The Bow. From the Irish folklore archives, “The Bow is said to be the demon of the air. The old people in Ireland always believed in the bow. It is said that she is a small woman and that when she was a girl she had a long head of hair which she was always combing. She was very proud of her hair and it is said that when she died she was too bad to go to Heaven and too good to go to Hell and God sent her on this earth to cry after certain people when they die. She makes her path through the fields and on the hills. She goes around at night crying and keening and her cry is like the cry of a young child…” Full account of The Bow here: (Notice the description of The Bow as being not good enough for heaven, nor bad enough for hell which is also applied to the Christian explanation for the origin of fairies.)

Returning to why keening disappeared from Ireland, Marie-Louise Muir, who made a BBC documentary about keening called Songs for the Dead believes that it was the giving way to the keening women, in particular, at funerals which angered priests. When this happened the church felt that its authority was being undermined by something more archaic and, indeed, authentic. The primal nature of keening perhaps resonated with people more than the reciting of memorised and formalised prayer. Of course, for the priests, giving way to a woman, and one who in their view might be uneducated and an advocate for superstition, was something that had to be stopped. An example of an account of keening here: “Long ago when a person died the old women of the neighbourhood would come into the wake house crying over the corpse and reciting the praises of the dead man or woman. This would generally be repeated from time to time until the corpse was taken to be buried…”

It is this difference in social context which contributes to the second main reason for the demise of keening. People began to believe that keening was something that *should* be left behind as it was part of the old Ireland. In many cases people felt embarrassed about the keening women themselves. As I have mentioned, it was usually a specific person who led the keening. This woman was very often associated with folk-cures, fairies and the old ways. As Muir goes on to say about this factor, “People said they didn’t want to be part of this regressive, backward-looking culture — ‘I want a bit of modernity.” In this account from the Irish Folklore Archives we have an example of the keeners being laughed at and deciding not to keen at the next funeral. “John F Senior made a laugh of the keeners and said if they did not stop they’d waken his father. There was a laugh and the keeners felt so wronged that they refused the next funeral.”

A recent fictional account of the keening tradition can be found in Hannah Kent’s novel, The Good People. The scene in question is when the village ‘Bean Feasa’, Nance Roche, comes to keen at Nóra’s husband’s wake. The suspicion and embarrassment of the villagers is palpable as Nance begins the keen and makes those gathered reflect on who they are and where they come from. However, maybe it is how Nance reminds them of where they are ultimately going which instigates a more subtle separation between her customs and those of the village. The practice of keening was raw and emotional as opposed to the quiet repetition of the rosary. While many saw the outpouring of keening grief as cathartic and all-encompassing instead of liturgical and formal, others felt self-conscious and ashamed of it.

Today, when we think about our ancient, megalithic monuments aligned to the sun and stars you sense that perhaps the ancient Irish people were well aware of the necessity to preserve a universal perspective of death and lamentation. These sacred places point outward in some ways, yet they also draw light down from solstice dawns and cradle it momentarily within their stones as if to acknowledge the fragility and wonder of life. Then, from around the 1850’s as the church discouraged keening, the traditional Irish funeral took on a more sombre tone and celebrating a life and death often became a custom of inward constriction. For the ancient Irish, and the keening women, though, death was a moment of outward release.

(C.) David Halpin.


1. Boleycarrigeen stone circle on a misty morning.

2. Ireland’s only Viking Hogback Stone in the grounds of St. James’ Church, Kildare.

3. The Ring of the Rath, Co. Wicklow.

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Doors to the Otherworld: The Fairy Folk of Ancient Wicklow

“At this Rath in Krishuna it is said the fairies gather on certain nights. They ride on the wings of the wind and retreat at cockcrow to the rath of Mullaghmast in Kildare. The people of this neighbourhood are said to keep a black cock in order to defeat the more evil minded of the fairies and to preserve them from harm.”

This is a description of the fairy parade from an account regarding the locality of Kilranelagh, Co. Wicklow.

Kilranelagh is an ancient Wicklow site probably best known for its ancient graveyard within which lies the remnants of much older previous Pagan structures, including megaliths and a cairn. And, of course, Kilranelagh is the site of an ancient Holy Well and sacred spring which I have written about before and which is now dedicated to Saint Briget. I thought I’d post this picture of the spring which gives an indication of how primal it must have seemed to our ancestors. Truth be told, if you can block out the sight of the much later gravestones, as ancient as they are, the site becomes much more functional and understandable as a sacred space. For example, we have a pure water spring emerging from the earth on a high hilltop. The remnants of a megalithic structure stand close by, perhaps as a type of ritualistic companion, which would have been the case in other cultures and traditions, certainly. The site is surrounded by further cairns, raths and stone circles all of which emphasise the importance of this place to ancient people, even if today we cannot fully understand the true context.

Unfortunately, here in Ireland, much information regarding the ‘old ways’ has been lost or processed through the filter of later religions. We do still have the ongoing and recorded experiences of those who visit these places, though. What should we make of those when they describe otherworldly beings and doorways into magical worlds? Fairies, ghosts and strange lights in the woods are continuing motifs in the lore of Kilranelagh and the surrounding countryside but what is most fascinating are the various layers of folklore experience and how they interact.

For example, cups are placed at this well so that newly interred children can offer a drink of water to the spirits who have always resided here. So, already, before Christian people took to burying their dead here, the site was already connected in some way to the Pagan Otherworld and much older deities. If we return to the excerpt I posted at the top of this piece we see that not only do the spirits and fairies emerge from the nearby rath, but they have the means to travel to other sacred sites by following fairy roads.

We should not make the often cited mistake of believing the fairies or Aos Sí are the vanquished Tuatha Dé Danann. The ancient mounds and sites of Ireland are much, much older. Ireland’s spirits and indigenous deities were here long before any later conquering people. For our ancestors, the movement of spirits was often tied to their evolution, perception-wise. Spirits were believed to be within things, but not the things themselves. In this way a sacred site, once venerated might lose its power, or, as has been recorded, a spirit of a place might travel some distance in order to manifest when a previous sacred site is destroyed. This is best demonstrated by the example of fairy trees and their destruction. The fairies, in these instances, seem still quite capable of exacting revenge even when the tree is gone.

Returning to this specific locality, Kaedeen Mountain, which towers over Kilranelagh, has its own stories of strange bright lights and fairies who seem to enjoy transporting local people away for a day or two before returning them seemingly unharmed. All of this lore barely scratches the surface of what has been recorded here and hints at multiple levels of perception still to be processed. The motivations of the good people, of course, can also only be guessed at. Maybe our ancient ancestors, without the distractions of contemporary life, were better able to attune themselves to these sacred sites and their function. Perhaps we shouldn’t underestimate their choice of places to better experience the Otherworld and the doorways into it.

Of course, another perspective might be that it is not us who chooses these places as being sacred at all, instead it is the places, and the associated spirits, themselves, who choose us.

(C.) David Halpin.


1. Kilranelagh’s ancient Holy Well, now named after Saint Briget.

2. View from the ruined cairn upon Keadeen Mountain.

3. Entrance to Seefin monument, Co. Wicklow.

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Ireland’s First Witch Burning: Petronilla de Meath

(c) David Halpin @ Circle Stories

There is a famous Jonathan Swift quote about how the law impacts upon the rich and poor in unequal measure which reads, “Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.”

This interpretation was certainly the case three centuries earlier when Irish law decreed that Petronilla de Meath was to become the first woman to be burnt to death following accusations of witchcraft on November 3, 1324. Because witchcraft was not yet listed on the statute books in Ireland the term used to convict Petronilla was actually ‘Heresy’.

Petronilla de Meath, a maidservant, was 24 years old when she was accused and convicted of being an accomplice of her employer, Dame Alice Kyteler, who was the real and intended target of the accusations. Alice Kyteler was a powerful noblewoman who had outlived three husbands and was onto her fourth marriage when her various stepchildren came together to bring accusations of sorcery, murder, and witchcraft. The probable reason for this was just how powerful and rich Alice Kyteler had become at her step-children’s expense and some of them felt that she had cheated them out of their rightful financial legacies. But because Kyteler was, by this time, so well connected and influential in her own right, she was able to flee Ireland and escape the charges. Unfortunately, this left her workers and servants, including Petronilla de Meath, to face the fury and wrath of the accusers and the Bishop of Ossory, Richard de Ledrede.

During her incarceration, Petronilla was tortured and flogged and brought through six different parishes to be humiliated and persecuted before she eventually confessed to the charges brought against her. Considering the punishment and pain being inflicted upon her it is surprising that Petronilla even lasted as long as she did before conceding to the accusations.

Many of these charges were typical of the time and were concocted based upon church superstition and a wilful attempt to suppress and distort ancient folkloric practices and cures. These accusations included the sacrificing of animals and burying their remains at crossroads so as to conjure demons. Petronilla was also charged with making potions from the body parts of children and participating in lustful associations with an entity who appeared as a dark-skinned man and who could transform into a cat.

In 1233, Pope Gregory IX had issued the Papal Inquisition against heresy which clergymen and church leaders were using to suppress ancient and indigenous European pagan beliefs and practices. Included in this decree was a description of a black cat which Pope Gregory claimed would appear to witches and heretics. This demon would then supposedly transform into a shining man with cat’s legs that the sect’s members would proceed to kiss on the hindquarters before a group orgy would ensue. Catholic teachings would then be banished from the minds of these neophytes and witches as they pledged loyalty to heretical deities. Pope Gregory’s edict also describes the ingestion of toad emissions to replace the Eucharist and it is interesting that included in the charges against Petronilla is the claim that she concocted potions to influence and kill.

Toad emissions were also associated with flying ointments and another of Petronilla’s later confessions was that she and Alice Kyteler would rub a ‘magical’ potion on a wooden stick which would then enable them to fly.

Aside from the typical symbolism of the witches’ familiar included in the charges, there are also specific Irish folkloric associations which remind of a fairy being called a Púka, or Pooka. This was an Irish spirit or elemental often thought to be able to change shape and they are usually associated with ancient places and pagan sites.

There are many variants of the etymology of Púka which link it to similar fairy spirits in Scottish, French and North European lore. Another version is the English Hobgoblin, ‘Puck’ or Robin Goodfellow. One explanation for this is that the word itself comes from the Old Norse term ‘Pook’ which is most often translated to mean ‘nature spirit’.

Some descriptions of the Púka speak of a black horse or cat, whereas others describe a demon or fairy exhibiting both human and animal physiology, so today we can appreciate how people at the time might have also noticed this archetypal succession.

As is often the case with myths and legends, though, many descriptions exist with slightly different cultural translations. Depending on where you live, a Púka might be helpful or mischievous, good or bad, or, most likely a mix of many trickster-type characteristics. For Petronilla and her fellow accused this was just a further proof of their guilt, unfortunately, and a tangible way to influence not only the well-off gentry but the rural poorer population who would have been well aware of Ireland’s spirit lexicon.

It is beyond imagining what Petronilla must have gone through during her long and torturous incarceration and we can only wonder how she lasted through such a period of suffering, agony, and distress. Finally, Petronilla’s short life was brought to a grizzly end when she was burned at the stake before a huge gathering of onlookers in Kilkenny on November 3, 1324. It has been suggested that Petronilla’s son, Basil, was also accused of witchcraft but, somehow, Alice Kyteler managed to have him smuggled away and save his life. Whether this is true or not is hard to say as it has never been proven one way or another.

Today, the inn where Petronilla worked for Alice Kyteler is still standing and has become a tourist attraction in its own right. Some guests have claimed to see the ghost of a lady on the premises and although this apparition is often cited to be Lady Kyteler herself, one must wonder whether Petronilla de Meath has more reason to impress her life-story upon the patrons visiting the location of her accusations and the town of her eventual demise.

During Ireland’s civil war many buildings were destroyed which included libraries of historical and legal documentation relating to trials and criminal charges.

To this end it is impossible to say how many women were ultimately accused and convicted of witchcraft and heresy in Ireland. Based upon popular academic opinion the number is deemed to be quite small compared to other European countries, but we really have no way of knowing for sure. While the sensationalism of witch burning is something that might sear itself onto the consciousness of a town or village, it was often the case that many of those accused of witchcraft were punished by other means. Women were banished from their homes and sent out into an unforgiving landscape where they would die a slower and less visible death.

What we also know is that many of those accused of witchcraft were also associated with fairies and spirits of the land.

Perhaps this also created an environment of both respect and wariness within rural populations and, of course, many of these ‘wise-women’, the Bean Feasa as they were known, were often the same women a family would turn to in times of childbirth, sickness, and for remedies and cures pertaining to love, healing and curses. Ireland’s recorded figures relating to witch burnings may be incomplete, but remembering the case of Petronilla de Meath we at least have the chance to imagine the terrible injustices that strong and independent women had to face.

(C.) David Halpin.

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