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Today (May 1) is Bealtaine; happy first day of summer to you all! But, what exactly is Beltaine?

The Wishing Tree at the Hill of Tara

The May Bush/Wishing Tree(s) on the Hill of Tara.

A short perusal of online resources about Bealtaine quickly conflates every “fire festival” tradition together in an unfortunate mish-mash. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I do like to know the difference between one festival and another and the later Christian traditions that have come to replace them. So, here’s a summary of what Bealtaine is really be about in an Irish context.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Brú na Bóinne World Heritage Site is made up of three major passage grave sites: Newgrange, Dowth, and Knowth. I’ve written about the first two already, so it’s time to explore the most-complicated of them all, Knowth: quite literally, a city of the dead.

Knowth passage grave

One of the satellite tombs at Knowth.
(Photo by Photolifer/Marc Gautier via cc license/Flickr)

Constructed contemporaneously with Newgrange, the Knowth site consists of a cluster of 18 smaller tombs around one huge central tomb. When I was a child, I used to peer through the gate to the site at the huge network of rectangular pits that marked the excavation that continued for decades before the site was finally open to visitors. It took the archaeologists five years of digging to discover the entrance to the first passage, and then another year before they found the second one. Eventually, archaeologists would spend over 40 years excavating Knowth, and the story they discovered was extremely complex.  Read the rest of this entry »

Distinguished historian Graham Robb is the latest to contract Celtomania, coming up with a fascinating theory that the ancient Celts possessed advanced knowledge of surveying and astronomy in his new book.

In The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the lost World of the Celts (published as The Ancient Paths in Europe), Graham Robb (author of Parisians and The Discovery of France) proposes a new theory that the Celts built their communities in Gaul and Britain (less so in Ireland) along precisely aligned solar pathways. Some of these ancient paths could have been formal roadways, but many may have only ever been well-worth tracks or simply maps in a Druid’s head. When the Romans conquered Gaul, they seem to have paved these pre-existing roads and traditional paths in Roman fashion, and over time a complex system of Celtic self-organization was obscured.  Read the rest of this entry »

I’m reading Graham Robb’s fascinating new book about rediscovering the ancient roadways of the continental Celtic world (it’s called The Discovery of Middle Earth in the US, and The Ancient Paths in Ireland and the UK) and I’ll review it soon) and interviewing another author for an article I’m going to post next week, so time is short right now. Here are some links to interesting new archaeological discoveries relating to Ireland and the ancient Celtic world in lieu of a longer post to get the week off to a good start.

County Kerry Snails: Early Immigrants from Central Europe

Cepaea Nemoralis (Wikimedia Commons, Photo: Michael Gäbler)

Cepaea Nemoralis (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Photo: Michael Gäbler)

Geneticists studying Irish snails have discovered a species in Co. Kerry which is directly related to snails in Europe. Cepaea nemoralis or Grove Snails, are not related to any other snail found in Ireland, but instead hail from the Pyrennes, and seem to have first appeared in Ireland 8000 years ago, along with the first continental Europeans. It’s thought these snails were deliberately brought as a delicacy, rather than being accidental passengers. This would have been before the land bridge connecting Ireland to Europe at the end of the last ice age was submerged and washed away. We Irish have rather lost the taste for snails since then.

Read more at Archaeology.org…

Read the rest of this entry »

Salt is essential to human survival. In Central Europe, the Celts were among the very the first salt miners, and grew wealthy from establishing an international salt trade. So, where did the early Irish get their salt?

Sea Salt after the water has evaporated in a natural salt pan

Sea Salt after the water has evaporated
in a natural salt pan.
(credit: Devar via cc license on Flickr)

There’s a fascinating chapter on Celtic salt miners and the European salt trade in general in Mark Kurlansky’s excellent book, Salt: A World History. He details how the Celts were innovators, who realized the importance of salt, and developed the means to mine it successfully in the Alps and other central European locations. They became very wealthy through the international salt trade, and their traders travelled all the way to the Middle East, North Africa, and China.

Read the rest of this entry »

The accepted theory that Scandinavian explorers were the first to discover the Americas, long before Columbus, has been taking a battering lately. There’s now more evidence to support the discovery* of North America by the Irish.

Medieval manuscript illustration of St. Brendan's  voyage to the New World. (source: wikipedia commons)

Medieval manuscript illustration of St. Brendan’s voyage to the New World.
(source: wikipedia commons)

An Irish village in South Carolina

When Spanish explorers first came to the Americas in the early 1500s, some explored the Carolinas and founded a settlement in Georgia around 1526. The settlement was near Charleston, South Carolina, and was populated by fairer-skinned, very tall people with beards — completely unlike the local Native American tribes. Relations between these agrarian settlers and the native population are recorded as being peaceful, and one fairly detailed account of their way of life was recorded by Spanish chroniclers at the time. Read the rest of this entry »

Long before Patrick came to Slane, the hill was a very important site to the pre-Christian Irish.

Newgrange and Knowth as seen from atop the Hill of Slane.

Knowth and Newgrange as seen from atop the Hill of Slane.

The first high king of Ireland is said to have been a fir bolg named Sláine. The Fir Bolg were one of the warrior races who inhabited Ireland before the Celtic tribes conquered the country. Sláine is said to have cleared the land at Bru na Boinne for the construction of the great tumuli of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. When he died, he was buried in a great mound on the top of a hill overlooking the Boyne valley, which was named Slane in his honor. As a consequence of his abilities and good deeds, a well on the hill was said to have the power to restore the dead and heal the wounded. 

The Fir Bolg were later dispossessed by the Tuatha Da Dannan, the god-like ancestors of the Irish Celts, but in these days many quasi-supernatural races are said to have fought over Ireland, and the Tuatha de Dannan then had to contend with the Formorians for possession of the island. During the second battle of Maige Tuired, the Formorians filled in the magic well on the Hill of Slane with stones in order to stop Dian Cecht, the Tuatha’s god of physicians, bringing their warriors back to life. Inside the churchyard you can still see what local tradition says is a holy well stuffed with stones. The same well? Well, that depends on how much credit you want to give to ancient legends.

The burial mound of Sláine is believed to be the “motte” you can see in a wooded area behind the church. The mound is fenced off from the rest of the site as it’s on private land, but new archaeological work has begun in the last few years, expanding what we know about the site. The mound is called the “motte” because in 1170, after the Normans came and quickly conquered the country, the local Norman lord built a bailey (a wooden “castle”) on top of the mound/motte. The countryside was littered with motte and baileys at this time, each probably housing a knight and his family and retainers, who administered the immediate vicinity on behalf of his lord. This motte overlooked another on top of the Knowth mound, and on a fine day would have been visible from a number of other mottes from as far east as Drogheda, and at least as far west as Navan. Both can be seen if you visit those towns, the one at Millmount in Drogheda (which I wrote about recently) now has a fine Martello Tower on top, although the one in Navan is overgrown.

Modern archaeological techniques have revealed the motte stands within a rath or ditch and bank, which was constructed on top of a much earlier ring barrow, a burial tomb possibly dating from the early iron age. An Earth Resistance Survey of the mound itself has revealed a stone layer on top which could have been a foundation for a fortified dwelling, and areas of low resistance inside the mound that point to it being a man-made structure, and raise the possibility of the remains a chamber or passage inside.

Even though visitors can’t explore the motte freely at the moment, the peaceful grassy surroundings of the hilltop churchyard and Friary make for an enjoyable stroll (if you have the weather) and there are plenty of carved stones, picturesque windows and broken but-climbable flights of stairs.


This is my second post about the Hill of Slane. Read the first part, “Exploring the Hill of Slane…
If you are interested in the Hill of Slane, you should also visit The Hill of Tara


Hill tops are perhaps the geographical feature that were re-used the most by succeeding waves of invaders over the centuries, and as such some sites can provide a comprehensive lesson in Irish history. One location that can serve as this microcosm of Ireland’s history is the Millmount mound in Drogheda, Co. Louth.

Millmount Fort (photo credit: infomatique via cc license from flickr)

Millmount Fort
(photo credit: infomatique via cc license from flickr)

The dominant feature of the town of Drogheda is the Millmount Fort. Built on a hill high above a bank of the river Boyne, the mound has been crowned by a succession of military, civic and religious buildings over the centuries.

Early History

The mound on which the present-day tower is built is shrouded in mystery, and thought to be of great historical significance. Tradition holds that it is the burial site of Amergin, the first great Celtic poet. No physical evidence of this connection has been uncovered, but given the rich variety of ancient tombs built on similar hilltops throughout the surrounding region, it appears likely that there was once a passage grave or burial mound atop the hill.

The Normans, as was their custom, built a motte, a crude guardhouse surrounded by a wooden paling, on top of this mound, whatever it was, in the 12th century. It’s been shown elsewhere (such as the nearby Hill of Slane) that old passage graves were readily reused for this purpose (and unsurprisingly so, as the graves — typically sited on high points — would already have been 2000 years old or more by the time the Normans arrived, and would have looked like nothing other than a convenient hill.

Over the years this motte was replaced by a small castle, presumably adapted and greatly expanded over the years, until it was breached by Cromwell’s forces during the bloody siege of 1649.


Probably the most hated name in Drogheda, if not all of Ireland is that of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England. During the English Civil Wars, Cromwell led a strong force to Ireland to defeat the joint Irish Catholic and Royalist Protestant forces. One of this first priorities was to secure the East coast ports to allow his troops to receive supplies from England. After arriving in Dublin, he turned his attention to Drogheda, which was a bustling port city.

One of the cannon outside the tower at the Millmount Fort.

One of the cannons outside the tower at the Millmount Fort.
(photo credit: infomatique via cc license from flickr)

Over nine days in September 1649, Cromwell’s forces besieged the walled town, and on the ninth day, having breached the walls in two places, Cromwell’s men entered the town and put to death all but a handful of the 2500 soldiers in the garrison, and between 800 (by Cromwell’s reckoning) and 4000 (by the accounts of later Catholic writers) civilians. The exact size of the slaughter is debated by historians, but there’s less debate about the brutality and ruthlessness of the treatment of the defenders in relation to contemporary standards of warfare at the time. Drogheda was the largest and most bloody slaughter of defeated soldiers and innocent civilians during the whole of the English Civil Wars, and only has one equivalent massacre in the whole of Europe during the 17th century. This is why Cromwell’s name remains reviled in Ireland to this day — when I was a child, I’d occasionally hear an older person mutter “The curse of Cromwell on him…” but it’s not an oath that many people use. During a meeting with the British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, in 1997, the then Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, walked out of the room and refused to return until a portrait of “that murdering bastard” Cromwell was removed. But for the removal of that painting, we may never have got the the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which was instrumental in bringing peace of Northern Ireland.

Take the guided tour at the Millmount museum and they’ll point out the places where the walls (mostly long gone) were breached, and the remaining landmarks that survive from the siege. The Martello tower that currently stands on the mound was part of a series of such towers built around Ireland during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) when it was feared that the French would invade Ireland as a stepping stone to England. Before the War of Independence, the British Army used the site as a makeshift prison.

The original Martello tower was occupied by Republican (Anti-Treaty) forces during the Irish Civil War in 1922. The Free-State Army shelled the tower on July 4, and destroyed it. The ruins lay basically undisturbed — an uncomfortable reminder of the vicious civil war — until 2000, when the city of Drogheda (bolstered by both Celtic Tiger money and post-Good Friday Agreement good will) restored it as part of the Millennium celebrations.

Today, the restored Martello tower forms part of the Drogheda Museum, and contains an exhibition about the many military engagements the town has seen over the centuries.


This week marks the feast of Lugh, the sun god of ancient Irish tradition.

Known as Lughnasadh or Lúnasa (in this case, it’s ironically the Irish spelling that appears closest to what most English-speakers would regard as the phonetic pronunciation — luu-na-sa). It is a harvest celebration, a ritual to give thanks for the bounty of the land, and to ask the gods’ blessings that the weather will hold long enough to gather it all in. (The traditional date is the night of July 31-August 1, but modern convenience has moved the date to whichever Sunday is nearest.)

leitrim view 2

Looking north from Carrowkeel Megalithic Cemetery. Ben Bulben is the long flat mountain in the upper left.

Origins of Lúnasa
Lúnasa is a curious festival, and there are different traditions regarding its origin in different parts of Ireland. All traditional festivals are based on older beliefs and practices, constantly over-written with new interpretations — All Saint’s Day is the Christian gloss on Samhain, now commercialized as Halloween; Easter was built on the foundation of Bealtaine, and, Candlemas one of the Christian attempts to overwrite Imbolc — but, much of what we know of Lúnasa appears to bear conscious witness to an earlier attempt to replace one set of beliefs with another. Some sources describe Lúnasa as the story of the sun god Lugh defeating the dark god Crom Dubh and making the world safe for humanity once again. (For a fascinating account of the surviving traditions honoring Crom Dubh, see Felicity Hayes-McCoy’s excellent piece on Crom Dubh Sunday on the Dingle peninsula in Co. Kerry.)

Stone FaceIn agricultural terms, the weather has been good enough for months that the crops have ripened (i.e. they’ve had enough sun — something you can rarely get enough of in Ireland) and famine (the old or dark god, the eternal enemy of hunter-gatherers or agrarian people) is defeated for the time being. In this case, it seems that Crom Dubh was once a major god, if not the major god, of Ireland before one of the waves of invasion came and replaced the power structure and began to teach that their gods were superior. Other origin myths tell of Lugh’s sorrow for the death of his foster-mother Tailtu, who expired after clearing the forests of Ireland to make way for farmland (suggesting that the tribes who imported the belief in Lugh and his brethern the Tuatha dé Dannan (gods of craftsmanship) were the first farmers, who replaced earlier nomadic tribes whose gods would possibly have been rather more barbaric and elemental in nature.

Tailteann Games
Lugh instituted a two-week tribal assembly of games, trading, and peaceful gathering in memory of Tailtu — who was buried on the Hill of Tailtu in Co. Meath, near where I grew up; hence that is the origin-myth that I learned as a child. A special peace was sanctioned by the Druids/Brehons for these assemblies, and any feuds and conflicts were to be set aside for the festival. Great sporting events took place in each tribe’s center of power, as champions tested themselves against each other in feats of strength, speed and skill. In Co. Meath, the Tailteann Games — said to be the continuation of the actual festival instituted by Lugh — were held as a kind of Irish olympics for centuries until the disruption of the Norman invasion. In other places, such as the Dingle peninsula in Co. Kerry, there is a tradition of horse racing on the strand.

The tradition of horse racing on the beach appears to be the modern descendant of what was originally the traditional event of “horse-swimming,” where man and horses completed a course that involved swimming across a lake or body of water, and which was apparently very dangerous and took the lives of men and horses every year. (Lough Owel in Co. Westmeath appears to have been the scene of a particularly notorious event for many years.)

The óenach (a traditional name for this kind of tribal gathering, and also possibly the name for the horse races themselves — “a contention of horses”) lasted for two weeks, culminating in the festival of the Lúnasa bonfires, and for these two weeks the peace held. New laws were set down and announced, bards presented new poems and performed new songs for the first time. There was also a custom of temporary or trial marriages being sanctioned at Lúnasa, but the Catholic church never adopted this practice for some reason. Echos of this custom can be seen in events like the Puck Fair in Kilorglin, Co. Kerry in early August, and in the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival in Co. Clare at the end of the month.

The emphasis on horse racing coupled with the tradition of trial marriages and emphasis on fertility may reveal earlier spiritual roots of Lúnasa. One of the continental proto-Celtic goddess is thought to be Epona, the horse goddess, a mother or fertility goddess whose attributes includes cornucopias, ears of wheat, and foals. Perhaps the óenaige are echoes of earlier festivals dedicated to Epona, or the rites enacted during these tribal gatherings reflect the early importance of horses and the horse goddess?

Horse racing at Bellewstown, Co. Meath.

Horse racing at Bellewstown, Co. Meath.

Note: There may have been as many as 80 sites for Óenach around the country, which reflects the multiple tribes and difficulties of traveling long distances at the time. My focus on the Tailteann Games and a few other locations reflects the limits of my knowledge. There are probably many different myths and traditions around Lúnasa as there were óenaige.

The Lúnasa festival is traditionally marked by a bonfire (as are most ancient Irish festivals), a feast, the ceremonial cutting of the first corn, picking of wild berries, and dancing. However, for Lúnasa, these usually take place on the top of a mountain, as the climb is symbolic of the sun god Lugh’s ascent to battle the dark god, and presumably honored the sun god by getting as close to him as possible. The mountain ascent has been absorbed into Christian practice as the custom of pilgrimage up holy mountains like Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo. Anyone who has seen Brian Friel’s play “Dancing at Lughnasa” will be aware of the Catholic Church’s dismissive attitude towards pre-Christian practices and beliefs, and also of their enduring power across the centuries.

Lúnasa was the occasion for the central festival of Irish culture for centuries, and its like (in terms of spiritual and administrative community) has never been seen since. However, the modern Irish summer is chockfull of festivals from Imbolc to Samhain; music festivals, arts festivals, book festivals, fleadh cheoil, matchmaking festivals, multi-day race meetings… they’re endless. So in that respect, the pre-Christian óenaige tradition is alive and well, and undergoing another metamorphosis of meaning.

The Brú na Bóinne complex of three neolithic tombs (Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth) on a ridge in the middle of the Boyne Valley is perhaps the most-famous archaeological site in Europe, and Newgrange is its poster child.

newgrange, bru-na-boinne

A side-view of Newgrange passage tomb.
(Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

Built around 3200 BC, Newgrange is a huge passage tomb on top of a small hill overlooking the river. On each side stand two other huge passage tombs, and numerous smaller mounds. Excavated and controversially restored in the 1970s, both Newgrange and Knowth contained numerous cremated remains and are decorated with a marvelous array of carved boulders; the interpretation of the images on these boulders still eludes archaeologists — so visitors can play amateur archaeologist trying to make a story out of the characteristic symbols and patterns.  Read the rest of this entry »

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