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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