Ever wonder what is the Táin Bó Cúailgne? Or how to pronounce Táin Bó Cúailnge?! Here’s your guide, covering: a summary of the main storyline; the manuscript sources and recensions or versions it was recorded in; and even an audio reading so you can follow along!
I’ve written a review of the Táin before, here, or at least of one version of it.
When you’re a beginner though, it can be a little difficult to get your head around everything from the Táin Bó Cuilnge pronunciation, to the characters, to the locations and the action.
This is, after all, Ireland’s epic legendary tale, telling of the raiding of Ulster by the Connacht Queen Medb and a host of men and women from all over the island, to secure the Donn Cuailnge bull – which was the only match to her husband’s mighty Finnbhennach.
It is a long, long story, populated by many well known names of Irish mythology such as The Mórrígan, CúChulainn, Fergus Mac Roich, and of course Queen Medb and her husband Aillil.
Medb and Ailill had a disagreement one night (the Pillow Talk) as to who had the most wealth, due to him presuming that he was keeping her in a grand style – even with her being the original Queen of Connacht.
After rousing the household and counting it all, it was found they had an equal amount, except for Ailill having the white bull Finnbhennach (who had originally been in her herds, but decided he didn’t want to be kept by a woman, so the story goes).
Medb was a bit pissed off at this, on account of it changing the power dynamic in their relationship, according to Irish law and custom.
She sent envoys around Ireland looking for an equal or better bull, and found the match of him – the Donn Cuailnge on the peninsula of Cooley, in County Louth.
Then, her envoys messed up the treaty talks with the bull’s owner Dáire Mac Fiachna and put her in the position of having to go raid the bull.
Though she was warned against it by Fedelm the Prophetess, Medb was committed by then. She gathered an army from all the men of Ireland, and travelled from Cruachán in County Roscommon (Connacht), across counties Westmeath and Meath in the central province (Midhe), and on to County Louth in Ulster.
All along the journey (the Táin Trail) CúChulainn was trying to stop them – him being the only Ulster ‘man’ who was available, on account of the Curse of Macha. The majority of the action in the Táin Bó Cúailnge is fights between this boy, and various heroes that Medb has to send against him.
The Mórrígan makes a fair few appearances, as do her sisters, as there’s a lot of Otherworldly elements to the whole tale, and of course they’d be in the thick of all that.
Eventually, the brown bull of Cooley was located and taken back to Connacht, the two bulls fought each other from Rath na dTairbh at Cruachán, following a similar route as the Táin had taken.
Finnbhenach (the white bull) was killed, but the brown bull died too from the strain of it all, once he reached his home in Cúailnge.
Dublin, Trinity College, MS 1318 cols 573–958 = section of the Yellow Book of Lecan [s. xivex/xvin] pp. 17a–53a (facsimile) cols 573–644 Beginning missing.
Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, MS 23 E 25 (1229) = Lebor na hUidre [s. xi/xii] ff. 55a–82b Interpolated by H. End missing.
London, British Library, MS Egerton 1782 [1516-1518] ff. 88r–105v Interpolated. End missing.
Maynooth, Russell Library, MS C 1  pp. 1–76 Interpolated. Beginning and end missing.
Dublin, Trinity College, MS 1339 (H 2. 18) = Book of Leinster [s. xii2] ff. 53b–104b
Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, MS C vi 3 (740) [s. xvii] ff. 28ra–65vb
London, British Library, MS Egerton 93 [s. xv (?)] ff. 26r–35v. Fragment.
Dublin, Trinity College, MS 1319 (H 2. 17) [various] pp. 336–347, 334–335, 111–114, 348–349, 115–118, 350–351 Fragment.
Form – prose (primary), verse (secondary)
Source: CODECS main entry – here.
Want to hear the pronunciation? Go on a journey through the ancient Irish lore with me?
I’ll be adding episodes as often as possible to the playlist over on my YouTube Channel.
I’ll be reading from the English translation by Joseph Dunn (1914) with the Irish transcription of Ernst Windisch (1905) on screen side by side. If you want to get started yourself, you can find that here.
‘Ancient Ireland’, even if we limit it to Pre-Christian times, could be anywhere in an 11,000 year period, really. So, I will get a little more specific about the when as we go through this article.
First though, let’s clear up this term ‘Celtic’ that most folk associate with ‘ancient Ireland’.
I mean, you may think you know what that word means, but the way it’s used in modern Paganism is decidedly misleading, so you may also have gotten a bad idea somewhere along the way of what it’s really about.
It is an academic term, used to describe primarily certain similarities of language and culture between varying Indo-European tribes, over a period of many centuries. If you think it refers to anything that’s connected with the people and the culture of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, and Brittany, maybe even the Basque region of Spain… you’re not entirely wrong. But it’s just such a loose term, that it essentially means nothing in that context.
Historically, these were geographically diverse and non-homogenous tribes, with limited but identifiable simple commonalities.
Essentially, scholars have looked back on various groups of people, spread over quite vast areas, whose groups were all pretty darn uniquely identifiable from each other… and linked them together – loosely, as I said – with a label. Mostly this was to differentiate them from the ‘Classical’ people of Greece and Rome in Europe; everything else even sorta similar became ‘Celtic’.
The Bronze Age (beginning around 2000 BCE) was still in full flow in Ireland when the Iron Age was forming across ‘Celtic’ Europe. We had a brief Copper Age, and then it’s generally agreed that the Iron Age started about 500 BCE and continued on until the coming of Christianity to the island, which was 400 – 500 ish CE. So there was about a thousand years of this cultural and technological shift.
I’ll not get too much into the odd lack of archaeological evidence we have for this period, nor the distinctions between Hallstatt or La Téne cultures and how they differed in Ireland than the rest of Europe (though I will put some references in the comments below if you tell me you’re interested, because this is totally my nerd bag and I’d love to share that with you!).
By around 50 CE, with the Romans all over the place and Germanic people spreading out too through Europe, insular Celtic languages were pretty bedded down around the outskirts in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and Brittany in France.
By the 700s CE, these linguistic identifiers had formed a sort of cohesive cultural identity, with similar enough religion and art at least, to differentiate them from the people surrounding them. Things settled in these areas though and became quite distinctive from each other as we progressed through the Middle Ages, especially in Ireland as an island out on our own.
There’s even talk know about how our language has about as much in common with our Scandinavian neighbours as it does with our Celtic neighbours, showing a diversification and organic development that is unique to this land.
It was the romantic notions of the Celtic Revival in the 1900s CE that gave us this idea of a ‘Celtic Identity’, which has heavily influenced the modern Pagan movement, unfortunately. So, we’re going to think in terms of archaeological and historic periods, rather than Celtic notions, and damn anyone who’s not happy with me for that.
I mean, how about we deal with Ireland as her own thing for once, rather than as part of some fantasy made popular by bored imperialist colonisers over burdened with guilt about the atrocities their ancestors had carried out?
Chronologically speaking, for anyone who’s familiar with any of the Irish mythology, we can loosely connect the Stone Age and the Bronze Age with the Mythological Cycle of the lore – we’re talking Tuatha Dé Danann (pronounced ThOO-a-hah DAY-Dan-an), the Firbolg and the Fomorians.
Then the Iron Age is linked to the Ulster Cycle – Queen Medb (pronounced MAY-v), Cú Chulainn and the Red Branch Knights.
Between these two ages, there was a distinct shift, and although the Irish priesthood commonly known as Druids (though we’ll examine that in more detail shortly) appears through both eras, it’s with the social changes and the rise of warrior culture with a more hierarchical society that we can see them really rising to their peak power.
Scholars refer to an ‘Irish Dark Age’ of around 400 years in the middle of the Iron Age, between 100 BCE and 300 CE. This is evidenced by the aforementioned odd lack of archaeology, as well as pollen data pulled out of the bogs (naturally acidic Irish wetlands, in which the anaerobic environment and presence of tannic acids results in fantastic preservation of organic material, for thousands of years) which shows that human activity during this period was less than any other time, before or after.
A lot of what we know about Irish society during this period is gleaned from the stories in the Ulster cycle; although this is often said to be inaccurate as the stories were only written down many centuries later, by Medieval Christian monks, whose culture and biases inevitably coloured their recording.
That being said though, when we look at those stories critically, there are definitely elements there which match up with more contemporary descriptions and archaeological evidence of tribal cultures in mainland Europe at the time.
When we add what archaeological evidence we do have into the mix, we can at least begin to form a basic picture of how the ancient Irish lived in these periods, and what role their priesthood played within the society.
I’ve mentioned that society shifted into a warrior culture, and this makes sense when we think of the pressures that must have abounded in a ‘dark age’ of possible plague, famine, or other vast social and economic hardship (nobody really knows for sure what caused the stagnation during the Iron Age).
There were multiple small tuatha (‘tribes’), ruled by individual kings. The idea of a single ‘High King’ of Ireland, ruling from Tara or anywhere else, is most likely a much later romanticised medieval notion.
Scholars believe this may be where earlier spiritual practices became more institutionalised with a Pagan priesthood caste. They were moving towards standardised training and systematic dogma… which all can sound like nasty words to us freedom loving modern Pagan types, but really are mere descriptors without a positive or negative attachment, in essence.
It’s the wrongs that people have done with institutionalised systematic dogma that have caused so many problems for folk worldwide. Ancient tribal societies selected special individuals to mediate between them and the spiritual or Otherworld supernatural forces all around them, and modern scholars study this under the heading of ‘shamanism’. With the Celtic tribes, the older practices developed into Druidism.
‘Druid’ seems to have been used as a general catch all term for describing general Celtic, and also Irish specific, priesthood among contemporary commentators. Julius Caesar, for example, said the Druids were concerned with divine worship, performance of sacrifice, and interpretation of ritual matters.
The word Druid most likely comes from the Celtic root words dru (‘strong, great’), and wid (‘knowledge’). Greek geographer, philosopher, and historian Strabo, writing in his Geographica – first edition published in the year 7 BCE – talked about the bardoi (singers and poets), the ováteis (interpreters of sacrifice and natural philosophers), and the druídae (scholars of the science of nature and moral philosophy). He said these were the classes of men held in special honour.
In Ireland there were similar classifications with the Pagan Priesthood, which carried through the centuries.
The Bard was a minor poet, a reciter of tales and poetry who was held in lesser status than the others. The Fáidh was a prophet, one who had the insight and wisdom of the Otherworld and the future. The File was a poet – and the word still means that in modern Irish – but not in the way that we understand the term now. The original meaning for the word file is literally ‘seer’, and they were known to have mystical knowledge, particular rituals, and magical powers. The Druí was a magician, cognate to the ‘great wisdom possessor’ of the Continental Celts, a judge and advisor to the people, having practical technical knowledge as well as a direct line to those Otherworldly powers and beings, just like their shamanic ancestors.
In later centuries, the Fáidh, File, or Druid is often classed or discussed as a Fisidh (‘one who has the fiss’, which is a magical knowledge, an arcane wisdom, and is where the word Imbas also comes from – im-fhiss means ‘full/complete fiss’.) They are the keepers of history, the seers, prophets, and clairvoyant guides.
There don’t seem to have been any religious temples, in the classical sense, in Ireland. There were many large monuments and sacred sites, but these were mostly open air locations. Any that were enclosed, such as the great Passage Tomb at Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange, County Meath), were quite cramped – physical space wise, you wouldn’t be fitting a lot of live bodies into that passage and the chambers. It makes sense that any large scale community rituals, feast days, etc would have been conducted in the open air, with maybe an ‘inner circle’ element happening in an interior space within the broader context.
There is evidence towards this in the frequent descriptions of large scale gatherings and aontaí (‘fairs, assemblies’) on festival days, at important sites such as Cruachán (Rathcroghan, County Roscommon). Indeed, there are aontaí that continue to this day that may have their distant roots in ancient spiritual gatherings – see for example Puck Fair in County Kerry, though most folk will tell you it’s a pure modern event.
But here, they crowned a billy goat as the King and put him above on a pole presiding over the fair, and this was going on for years. So, I’ll let ye be the judge now on whether that one just might have the hint of a pagan root going back.
There’s also some evidence, both on the Continent and in Ireland, that Druids practiced and worshiped in forest groves. There’s references to places called neimheadh, or neimed in older versions of Irish, which means ‘holy, sacred, consecrated place’, has distinct connotations of privilege and power, and is often associated with sacred tree groves, which are open to the sky (the root word is the old Irish nem, ‘sky’).
There is sometimes the prefix fiodh, which means tree (or even a boundary tree in older Irish language versions) and the sacred places are described as fiodhneimhidh (plural), which are described as locations in which seers used to perform their rituals.
So what were the druids doing, besides running around in forest groves? Or sometimes, while running around in forest groves?! The following are some druidic practices that are well attested in the lore, and we can see a mix of both pastoral and sacerdotal functions (I define these explicitly in my Pagan Priesthood book):
There is a fascinating history of Pagan Priesthood through Irish history, which – I’m delighted to inform you – is still going well to this day!
A student in our Mórrígan Intensive Programme asked me for resources on the Brehon Law system the other day, and I had to be honest – I didn’t have them to hand.
It’s not an area I’ve really dug into yet, though I know there’s a lot to study.
But look, as a teacher, one of the most ethical things that I hold sacred is that if someone asks me a question I don’t know the answer to… I tell them that honestly, and then I go and do my best to find quality resources where they (and me, usually) can go learn about the thing.
I found a few of my own, but the internet is full of mischief, and if you don’t know what you’re looking for – or looking at – it’s hard to tell what’s reliable.
Luckily, I run a couple of Facebook Groups that are full of the smartest people I know, so I always know where to go for the best recommendations. And with this question, they did not let me down!
[Huge thanks to: Erynn Rowan Laurie, C. Lee Vermeers, Geraldine Byrne, Shane Broderick, Robert L. Barton, Pamela Holcombe… and to Elisabeth Marx for the original question.]
The Wiki Page is actually not bad, for starters, as Shane pointed out in the group post. I have mentioned elsewhere many times before; we don’t take Wikipedia info as definitive source material, but we can use the reference section as a good starting point for any research.
Fergus Kelly featured, as anyone who is even passing familiar with Early Irish Law will be entirely un-shocked by. Erynn kicked us off by recommending ‘A Guide to Early Irish Law’ (book, 2005) as the classic – excellent for reference but it can be a little dense for a read through. This was backed up by Geraldine and others.
‘Whodunnit? Indirect evidence in early Irish Law’ (article, 2015) by Fergus Kelly also got an honourable mention from Pamela, and I’d like to add this link to his article about the legal status of trees: ‘Brehon Laws’ on Forestry Focus.
There’s a book online, written by Laurence Ginnell in 1894, which may be of interest. It’s on my list to work through… if you’ve read it, let me know what you think in the comments? It’s called ‘The Brehon Laws: A Legal Handbook’.
The Irish History Podcast is excellent (I’ve recommended it elsewhere too), and they did an episode called ‘Brehon Law: From Divorce to Irish Sex Magic’, which interviews Dr. Gillian Kenny – who also helped me out with an article on Gaelic Marriage Customs. The podcast description reads:
“Divorce and sex magic are not things we associate with medieval Ireland. However for over one thousand years Irish society was governed by a unique and radically different legal system called Brehon Law. In this podcast I interview Dr Gillian Kenny who explains what Brehon Law was and how it worked. She challenges widely held misconceptions and explains how divorce existed in medieval Ireland given it was banned in modern Ireland until 1995!. And then of course there is the sex magic.”Listen to the Irish History Podcast on Spotify
I must say though, I actually do associate Medieval Ireland with divorce and sex magic. Quite regularly.
‘Cattle Lords and Clansmen’ by Nerys Patterson is a great book, which I’ve also recommended elsewhere, but Robert reminded me that it has a chapter on the Brehon Law system that… “takes a long view of the development and cultural context that can help to understand the specific laws as they exist within a system.”
For the more established scholar, we can move to Daniel Binchy’s edits of the ‘Corpus iuris Hibernici’, in seven volumes. You can see the CODECS listing for Volume 1 here. Liam Breatnach’s book – ‘A Companion to the Corpus Iuris Hibernici (Early Irish Law)’ – will help get you through.
Neil McLeod wrote a number of articles on the topic, which you can find indexed on CODECS here. C. Lee has found the 2 part “Interpreting Early Irish Law: Status and Currency” particularly useful.
And finally, Robin Chapman Stacey has two books that are a somewhat easier read, and very useful. They are:
What’s your favourite (or most useful) Brehon Law Resource?
If you have any other recommendations, or would like to add your opinion on the ones above, please feel free to leave a comment below!
The 1st of August (sometimes the 2nd) is Lúnasa (Lughnasadh, Lughnasa, Brón Trogain) – the harvest festival in Ireland.
In her excellent book, ‘The Festival of Lughnasa’, Máire MacNeill wrote:
“Garland Sunday and Domhnach Chrom Dubh are two of the many names of a festival celebrated by Irish country people at the end of July or the beginning of August. It marked the end of summer and the beginning of the harvest season, and on that day the first meal of the year’s new food crop was eaten. The chief custom was the resorting of the rural communities to certain heights or water-sides to spend the day in festivity, sports and bilberry-picking.”Publisher: Folklore of Ireland Council; Reprint edition (January 1, 2008)
Lughnasadh is mentioned in the old text, Tochmarc Emire, ‘The Wooing of Emer’ – which Kuno Meyer has dated to the 900s CE – along with a small piece on all the Fire Festivals:
“Bend Suain, son of Rose Melc, which she said, this is the same thing, viz., that I shall fight without harm to myself from Samuin. i.e., the end of summer. For two divisions were formerly on the year, viz., summer from Beltaine (the first of May), and winter from Samuin to Beltaine. Or samfuin, viz., suain (sounds), for it is then that gentle voices sound, viz., sám-son ‘ gentle sound.’ To Oimolc. i.e., the beginning of spring, viz., different (ime) is its wet (folc), viz., the wet of spring, and the wet of winter. Or, oi-melc, viz., oi, in the language of poetry, is a name for sheep, whence oibá (sheep’s death) is named, ut dicitur coinbá (dog’s death), echbá (horse’s death), duineba (men’s death), as bath is a name for ‘death.’ Oi-melc, then, is the time in which the sheep come out and are milked, whence oisc (a ewe), i.e., oi-sesc, viz., a barren sheep. To Beldine, i.e. Beltine, viz., a favouring fire. For the druids used to make two fires with great incantations, and to drive the cattle between them against the plagues, every year. Or to Beldin, viz., Bel the name of an idol. At that time the young of every neat were placed in the possession of Bel. Beldine, then Beltine. To Brón Trogain, i.e. Lammas-day, viz., the beginning of autumn ; for it is then the earth is afflicted, viz., the earth under fruit. Trogan is a name for ‘ earth.'”Kuno Meyer, Archaeological Review Vol. I, 1888
The festival of Lughnasadh began as a commemoration feast and games, started by the Tuatha Dé Danann God Lugh in honour of his foster mother Tailtiu, a Firbolg Queen.
Yes, they were warring tribes. Yes, Tailtiu took in the child of an enemy, and raised him as her own. There’s a lesson there, people, for modern Ireland.
In a fascinating entry recorded in The Schools Collection, from County Clare, we hear the following:
“Domnach Lunasa, or Lammas Sunday, the first Sunday of the Month of August, was the first – fruits day, and a great day on Buaile na Greine. On Laammas Sunday, called Domnach Crom Dubh, and anglicised Garland Sunday every household was supposed to feast his family and household on the first fruits, and the farmer who failed to provide his people with new potatoes, new bacon, and white cabbage on that day, was called a Felemair Gaoithe, or wind farmer, and if a man dug new potatoes before Crom Dubh’s Day he was considered a needy man, and hence this Sunday was called first – fruits Sunday.
On this day all went to Buaile na Greine with their contribution and their lons (or food supplies) to hold the fair.
The ceremonies consisted of strewing summer flowers on the altar and festive mound, of which we have been speaking up to this, under the name of Altóir na Greine, or Altar of the Sun, but which is on this day used as the altar of Crom Dubh.
The assemblage of this day is called Comthineol Chruim Duibh, or the congregation or gathering of Crom Dubh. And the day is called from him Domnach Chrom Dubh, or Crom Dubh’s Sunday, now called Garland Sunday by the English speaking portion of the people of the surrounding districts.
The name is supposed to have been derived from the practice of strewing garlands of flowers on the festive mound on this day as homage to Crom Dubh: hence the name Garland Sunday.
Assuredly I saw blossoms and flowers deposited upon it on the first Sunday of August 1844, and put some upon it myself as I saw done by those who were with me. I was then a mere lad, but very inquisitive. The assembly was at this time a mere gathering of boys.”The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0612, Page 323
According to MacNeill, the main theme that emerges from the folklore and rituals of Lughnasadh is a struggle for the harvest between two gods. One god – usually called Crom Dubh – guards the grain as his treasure. The other god – Lugh – must seize it for mankind. (Tailtiu may have been an earth goddess who represented the dying vegetation that fed mankind.)
The Tailteann Games, Tailtin Fair, Áenach Tailteann, Aonach Tailteann, Assembly of Talti, Fair of Taltiu or Festival of Taltii were the funeral games which Lugh started in her honour.
There is still a complex of ancient earthworks dating to the Iron Age in the area of Teltown where the festival was historically known to be celebrated off and on from medieval times into the modern era.
On a personal note, I’ve always connected very strongly with the Goddess Tailtiu. Indeed, I chose her as my avatar and screen name when I moderated a popular English Witchcraft forum, many years ago. The pronunciation was always fun (Tall-CHEW), and earned me the nickname of Chewy. So, nothing to do with Star Wars, if you remember me from those dim and misty times.
My first introduction to the Irish Pagan Community, back in… 1996, I think, was to represent the Goddess Tailtiu in a ritual re-enactment of a sacred procession, organised by Chris Thompson (of Story Archaeology fame).
This was in protest at the landowner attempting to dig up one/some of the mounds, and was filmed by the Nationwide programme, for our national broadcaster RTE.
So, no pressure then.
If anyone can source a copy of that segment, I’d be most grateful 😉
If you’d like to learn more about the history and practice of Pagan Holidays, or Pagan Festivals in Ireland, you can check out my blog post here.
Uncovering the layers of Irish Mythology. On this site, you will find a regular podcast and articles about Irish Pagan Mythology by the Story Archaeologists, Chris Thompson and Isolde Carmody. This is the essential primer with regard to Irish pagan Podcasts. To find out what Story Archaeology is, and how we apply this method to the exploration of Irish stories, listen to this introductory mini-episode.
This is the podcast from The National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin, and is a platform to explore Irish and wider European folk tradition across an array of subject areas and topics. Hosts Jonny Dillon and Claire Doohan hope this informal and friendly tour through the folklore furrow will appeal to those who wish to learn about the richness and depth of our traditional cultural heritage; that a knowledge and understanding of our past might inform our present and guide our future. Check it on Sound Cloud here.
A series of interviews with Neil Jackman and a number of Ireland’s archaeologists and specialists, to discuss the key periods in Ireland’s past, the different types of sites and artefacts and how people lived in the past. An insight into the profession and practice of archaeology, and the various techniques and scientific methods that help to build the picture of Ireland’s history. View the website here.
With Irish Pagan Author and Guide Lora O’Brien. Authentic connection to Ireland with a native voice on mythology, indigenous spirituality, archaeology, history, culture, society, storytelling, and travel round the island. This one ticks the box for Irish Pagan Podcasts specifically – the first series is a reading of a dissertation on the Mórrígan – Listen Here.
Behind the wall of grammar homework lies the amazing world of the Irish language, and Darach (that @theirishfor guy) wants to take you there. With a crack team of the internet’s soundest Irish speakers, Darach will explore topics like differences between the Irish and English versions of the Constitution, silent letters, Gaeilge and technology, how new words get added to the dictionary and which old words have fallen out. It’s an all slammer, no grammar half hour. Get it in your ears here.
It’s about the culture, history and politics of Ireland, with journalist Naomi O’Leary and lecturer Tim Mc Inerney. They tie current events to the history and culture that explain them. Get your passport to Ireland here.
Fin Dwyer is a historian, author and podcaster. There are hundreds of free podcasts on Irish History, including things like the story of the Norman Invasion to the Great Famine. Irish Pagans will be particularly interested in the Witches and Witchcraft series here.
If you like listening to Irish folk talk about topics relevant to Irish Paganism, or Paganism in general, you’ll enjoy my YouTube Channel here.
And if you want to know about Irish Paganism – Start Here!
This collection of quotes about druids and druidic practices is from an old Angelfire website that I unfortunately can’t find a credit for. Although the material itself is all public domain, I’d like to credit whoever first compiled it, so comment below if you know!
Sopater [late fourth-century BC] (via Athenaeus 4.160):
Among them is the custom, whenever they are victorious in battle, to sacrifice their prisoners to the gods. So I, like the Celts, have vowed to the divine powers to burn those three false dialecticians as an offering.
Timaeus [early third century BC] (via Diodorus Siculus 4.56):
Historians point out that the Celts who live on the shore of the Ocean honor the Dioscori above other gods. For there is an ancient tradition among them that these gods came to them from the Ocean.
Eudoxus of Rhodes [late third-century BC] (via Aelian On Animals 17.19):
Eudoxus says that the Celts do the following (and if anyone thinks his account credible, let him believe it; if not, let him ignore it). When clouds of locusts invade their country and damage the crops, the Celts evoke certain prayers and offer sacrifices which charm birds—and the birds hear these prayers, come in flocks, and destroy the locusts. If however one of them should capture one of these birds, his punishment according to the laws of the country is death. If he is pardoned and released, this throws the birds into a rage, and to revenge the captured bird they do not respond if they are called on again.
Artemidorus of Ephesus [late second-century BC] (via Strabo 4.4.6):
The following story which Artemidorus has told about the crows is unbelievable. There is a certain harbor on the coast which, according to him, is named “Two Crows”. In this harbor are seen two crows, with their right wings somewhat white. Men who are in dispute about certain matters come here, put a plank on an elevated place, and then each man separately throws up cakes of barley. The birds fly up and eat some of the cakes, but scatter others. The man whose cakes are scattered wins the dispute. Although this story is implausible, his report about the goddesses Demeter and Core is more credible. He says that there is an island near Britain on which sacrifices are performed like those in Samothrace for Demeter and Core.
Livy [first century AD] (23.24):
(216 BC) Postumius died there fighting with all his might not to be captured alive. The Gauls stripped him of all his spoils and the Boii took his severed head in a procession to the holiest of their temples.There it was cleaned and the bare skull was adorned with gold, as is their custom. It was used thereafter as a sacred vessel on special occasions and as a ritual drinking-cup by their priests and temple officials.
Nicander of Colophon [second century BC] (via Tertullian De anima 57.10):
It is often said because of visions in dreams that the dead truly live. The Nasamones receive special oracles by staying at the tombs of their parents, as Heraclides—or Nymphodorus or Herodotus—writes. The Celts also for the same reason spend the night near the tombs of their famous men, as Nicander affirms.
Posidonius [first century BC] (via Diodorus Siculus 5.28):
The teaching of Pythagoras prevails among the Gauls, that the souls of humans are immortal and that after a certain number of years they will live again, with the soul passing into another body. Because of this belief, some people at funerals will throw letters into the funeral pyre, so that those having passed on might read them.
(via Diodorus 5.31):
The Gauls have certain wise men and experts on the gods called Druids, as well as a highly respected class of seers. Through auguries and animal sacrifice these seers predict the future and no one dares to scoff at them. They have an especially odd and unbelievable method of divination for the most important matters. Having anointed a human victim, they stab him with a small knife in the area above the diaphragm. When the man has collapsed from the wound, they interpret the future by observing the nature of his fall, the convulsion of his limbs, and especially from the pattern of his spurting blood. In this type of divination, the seers place great trust in an ancient tradition of observation.
It is a custom among the Gauls to never perform a sacrifice without someone skilled in divine ways present. They say that those who know about the nature of the gods should offer thanks to them and make requests of them, as though these people spoke the same language as the gods. The Gauls, friends and foes alike, obey the rule of the priests and bards not only in time of peace but also during wars. It has often happened that just as two armies approached each other with swords drawn and spears ready, the Druids will step between the two sides and stop the fighting, as if they had cast a spell on wild beasts. Thus even among the wildest barbarians, anger yields to wisdom and the god of war respects the Muses.
(via Diodorus 5.32):
It is in keeping with their wildness and savage nature that they carry out particularly offensive religious practices. They will keep some criminal under guard for five years, then impale him on a pole in honor of their gods—followed by burning him on an enormous pyre along with many other first-fruits. They also use prisoners of war as sacrifices to the gods. Some of the Gauls will even sacrifice animals captured in war, either by slaying them, burning them, or by killing them with some other type of torture.
(via Strabo 4.4.4-5):
Generally speaking, there are three uniquely honored groups among the Gauls: Bards, Votes, and Druids. The Bards are singers and poets, while the Votes oversee sacred rites and examine natural phenomena. The Druids also study the ways of nature, but apply themselves to laws of morality as well. The Gauls consider the Druids the most just of people and so are entrusted with judging both public and private disputes. In the past, they even stopped battles which were about to begin and brought an end to wars. Murder cases especially are handed over to the Druids for judgment. They believe that when there are many condemned criminals available for sacrifice, then the land will prosper. Both the Druids and others say that the human soul and the universe as well are indestructible, but that at some time both fire and water will prevail.
(via Strabo 4.4.6):
Posidonius also says there is a small island in the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Loire River inhabited by women of the Samnitae tribe. They are possessed by Dionysus and appease this god by mysterious ceremonies and other types of sacred rituals. No man ever comes to this island, but the women sail to the mainland to have sex with men, then return. Each year the women take down the roof of a temple and build it again before dark, with each woman carrying a load to add to the roof. Whoever drops her load is torn to pieces by the others. They then carry the pieces of her around the temple shouting with a Bacchanalian cry until their mad frenzy passes away. And it always happens that the one who is going to suffer this fate is bumped by someone.
Julius Caesar [first century BC] (Gallic War 6.13-14,16-19):
Throughout all of Gaul there are two classes of people who are treated with dignity and honor. This does not include the common people, who are little better than slaves and never have a voice in councils. Many of these align themselves with a patron voluntarily, whether because of debt or heavy tribute or out of fear of retribution by some other powerful person. Once they do this, they have given up all rights and are scarcely better than servants. The two powerful classes mentioned above are the Druids and the warriors. Druids are concerned with religious matters, public and private sacrifices, and divination.
A great many young men come to the Druids for instruction, holding them in great respect. Indeed, the Druids are the judges on all controversies public and private. If any crime has been committed, if any murder done, if there are any questions concerning inheritance, or any controversy concerning boundaries, the Druids decide the case and determine punishments. If anyone ignores their decision, that person is banned from all sacrifices—an extremely harsh punishment among the Gauls. Those who are so condemned are considered detestable criminals. Everyone shuns them and will not speak with them, fearing some harm from contact with them, and they receive no justice nor honor for any worthy deed.
Among all the Druids there is one who is the supreme leader, holding highest authority over the rest. When the chief Druid dies, whoever is the most worthy succeeds him. If there are several of equal standing, a vote of all the Druids follows, though the leadership is sometimes contested even by armed force. At a certain time of the year, all the Druids gather together at a consecrated spot in the territory of the Carnutes, whose land is held to be the center of all Gaul. Everyone gathers therefrom the whole land to present disputes and they obey the judgments and decrees of the Druids. It is said that the druidic movement began in Britain and was then carried across to Gaul. Even today, those who wish to study their teachings most diligently usually travel to Britain.
The Druids are exempt from serving in combat and from paying war taxes, unlike all other Gauls. Tempted by such advantages, many young people willingly commit themselves to druidic studies while others are sent by their parents. It is said that in the schools of the Druids they learn a great number of verses, so many in fact that some students spend twenty years in training. It is not permitted to write down any of these sacred teachings, though other public and private transactions are often recorded in Greek letters. I believe they practice this oral tradition for two reasons: first, so that the common crowd does not gain access to their secrets and second, to improve the faculty of memory. Truly, writing does often weaken one’s diligence in learning and reduces the ability to memorize. The cardinal teaching of the Druids is that the soul does not perish, but after death passes from one body to another. Because of this teaching that death is only a transition, they are able to encourage fearlessness in battle. They have a great many other teachings as well which they hand down to the young concerning such things as the motion of the stars, the size of the cosmos and the earth, the order of the natural world, and the power of the immortal gods.
All of the Gauls are greatly devoted to religion, and because of this those who are afflicted with terrible illnesses or face dangers in battle will conduct human sacrifices, or at least vow to do so. The Druids are the ministers at such occasions. They believe that unless the life of a person is offered for the life of another, the dignity of the immortal gods will be insulted. This is true both in private and public sacrifices. Some build enormous figures which they fill with living persons and then set on fire, everyone perishing inflames. They believe that the execution of thieves and other criminals is the most pleasing to the gods, but, when the supply of guilty persons runs short, they will kill the innocent as well.
The chief god of the Gauls is Mercury and there are images of him everywhere. He is said to be the inventor of all the arts, the guide for every road and journey, and the most influential god in trade and moneymaking. After him, they worship Apollo, Mars, Jupiter, and Minerva. These gods have the same areas of influence as among most other peoples. Apollo drives away diseases, Minerva is most influential in crafts, Jupiter rules the sky, and Mars is the god of war. Before a great battle, they will often dedicate the spoils to Mars. If they are successful, they will sacrifice all the living things they have captured and other spoils they gather together in one place. Among many tribes, you can see these spoils placed together in a sacred spot. And it is a very rare occasion that anyone would dare to disturb these valuable goods and conceal them in his home. If it does happen, the perpetrator is tortured and punished in the worst ways imaginable.
The Gauls all say that they are descended from the god of the dark underworld, Dis, and confirm that this is the teaching of the Druids. Because of this they measure time by the passing of nights, not days. Birthdays and the beginnings of months and years all start at night.
The funerals of the Gauls are magnificent and extravagant. Everything which was dear to the departed is thrown into the fire, including animals. In the recent past, they would also burn faithful slaves and beloved subordinates at the climax of the funeral.
Cicero [first century BC] (On Divination 1.90): The practice of divination is not even neglected by barbarians. I know there are Druids in Gaul because I met one myself—Divitiacus of the Aedui tribe, who was your guest and praised you highly. He claimed a knowledge of nature derived from what the Greeks call “physiologia”—the inquiry into natural causes and phenomena. He would predict the future using augury and other forms of interpretation.
The practice of divination is not even neglected by barbarians. I know there are Druids in Gaul because I met one myself—Divitiacus of the Aedui tribe, who was your guest and praised you highly. He claimed a knowledge of nature derived from what the Greeks call “physiologia”—the inquiry into natural causes and phenomena. He would predict the future using augury and other forms of interpretation.
Pliny [first century AD] (Natural History 16.249,24.103-4,29.52,30.13): I can’t forget to mention the admiration the Gauls have for mistletoe. The Druids (which is the name of their holy men) hold nothing more sacred than this plant and the tree on which it grows—as if it grew only on oaks. They worship only in oak groves and will perform no sacred rites unless a branch of that tree is present. It seems the Druids even get their name from drus (the Greek word for oak). And indeed they think that anything which grows on an oak tree is sent from above and is a sign that the tree was selected by the god himself. The problem is that in fact mistletoe rarely grows on oak trees. Still they search it out with great diligence and then will cut it only on the sixth day of the moon’s cycle, because the moon is then growing in power but is not yet halfway through its course (they use the moon to measure not only months but years and their grand cycle of thirty years). In their language they call mistletoe a name meaning “all-healing”. They hold sacrifices and sacred meals under oak trees, first leading forward two white bulls with horns bound for the first time. A priest dressed in white then climbs the tree and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, with the plant dropping onto a white cloak. They then sacrifice the bulls while praying that the god will favorably grant his own gift to those to whom he has given it. They believe a drink made with mistletoe will restore fertility to barren livestock and act as a remedy to all poisons. Such is the devotion to frivolous affairs shown by many peoples.
Similar to the Sabine herb savin is a plant called selago. It must be picked without an iron instrument by passing the right hand through the opening of the left sleeve, as if you were stealing it. The harvester, having first offered bread and wine, must wear white and have clean, bare feet. It is carried in a new piece of cloth. The Druids of Gaul say that it is should be used to ward off every danger and that the smoke of burning selago is good for eye diseases. The Druids also gather a plant from marshes called samolus, which must be picked with the left hand during a time of fasting. It is good for the diseases of cows, but the one who gathers it must not look back nor place it anywhere except in the watering trough of the animals.
There is a kind of egg which is very famous in Gaul but ignored by Greek writers. In the summer months, a vast number of snakes will gather themselves together in a ball which is held together by their saliva and a secretion from their bodies. The Druids say they produce this egg-like object called an anguinum which the hissing snakes throw up into the air. It must be caught, so they say, in a cloak before it hits the ground. But you’d better have a horse handy, because the snakes will chase you until they are cut off by some stream. A genuine anguinum will float upstream, even if covered in gold. But as is common with the world’s holy men, the Druids say it can only be gathered during a particular phase of the moon, as if people could make the moon and serpents work together. I saw one of these eggs myself—it was a small round thing like an apple with a hard surface full of indentations as on the arms of an octopus. The Druids value them highly. They say it is a great help in lawsuits and will help you gain the good will of a ruler. That this is plainly false is shown by a man of the Gaulish Vocontii tribe, a Roman knight, who kept one hidden in his cloak during a trial before the emperor Claudius and was executed, as far as I can tell, for this reason alone.
Barbarous rites were found in Gaul even within my own memory. For it was then that the emperor Tiberius passed a decree through the senate outlawing their Druids and these types of diviners and physicians. But why do I mention this about a practice which has crossed the sea and reached the ends of the earth? For even today Britain performs rites with such ceremony that you would think they were the source for the extravagant Persians. It is amazing how distant people are so similar in such practices. But at least we can be glad that the Romans have wiped out the murderous cult of the Druids, who thought human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism were the greatest kind of piety.
Suetonius (Claudius 25):
(AD 41-54) Claudius destroyed the horrible and inhuman religion of the Gaulish Druids, which had merely been forbidden to Roman citizens under Augustus.
Lucan [first century AD] (Civil War 1.444-46,450-58):
Cruel Teutates pleased by dreadful blood,
Horrid Esus with his barbaric altars,
and Taranis, more cruel than Scythian Diana.
Oh Druids, now that the war is over
you return to your barbaric rites and sinister ways.
You alone know the ways of the gods and powers of heaven,
or perhaps you don’t know at all.
You who dwell in dark and remote forest groves,
you say that the dead do not seek the silent ream of Erebus
or the pale kingdom of Pluto,
but that the same spirit lives again in another world
and death, if your songs are true, is but the middle of a long life.
Silius Italicus [first century AD] (Punica 3.340-43):
The Celts known as Hlberi came also. To them it is glorious to fall in combat, but they consider it wrong to cremate a warrior who dies in this way. They believe he will be carried up to the gods if his body, lying on the field of battle, is devoured by a hungry vulture.
Historia Augusta [fourth century AD] (Alexander Severus 59.5):
(AD 235) The Druidess exclaimed to him as he went, “Go ahead, but don’t hope for victory or put any trust in your soldiers.”
While Diocletian was still a young soldier he was staying at a tavern in the land of the Tongri in Gaul. Every day he had to settle his account with the landlady, a Druidess. One day she said,” Diocletian, you are greedy and cheap!” Jokingly he responded to her, “Then I’ll be more generous when I’m emperor.” “Don’t laugh,” she said, “for you’ll be emperor after you’ve killed the boar.”
(AD 270) On certain occasions Aurelian would consult Gaulish Druidesses to discover whether or not his descendants would continue to rule. They told him that no name would be more famous than those of the line of Claudius. And indeed, the current emperor Constantius is a descendant of his.
Ausonius [late fourth century AD] (4.7-10,10.22-30):
You are descended from the Druids ofBayeux, if the stories about you are true, and you trace your sacred ancestry and renown from the temple ofBelenus. Nor will I forget the old man by the name of Phoebicius. Though he was priest of the god Belenus, he received no profit from the position. But nonetheless this one, who descended, it is said, from the Druids of Brittany, did receive a professorship at Bordeaux with the help of his son.
Botorrita Inscription (late second/early first century BC):
To Eniorosis and Tiato ofTiginos we dedicate trecaias and to Lugus we dedicate arainom. To Eniorosis and to Equaesos, ogris erects coverings of olga and to Lugus he erects coverings of the tiasos.
Tablet of Chamalieres (c. AD 50):
I invoke the god Maponos arueriitis. Through the magic of the underworld gods. C. Lucios Floras, Nigrinos the speaker, Aemilios Paterinos, Claudios Legitumos, Caelios Pelignos, Claudios Pelignos, Marcios Victorinos, and Asiaticos son of Adsedillos… The oath they will swear—the small shall become great, the crooked become straight, and, though blind, I will see. With this tablet of incantation this will be… luge dessummiiis luge dessumiis luge dessumiiis luxe.
Tablet of Larzac (c. AD 90):
—a magical incantation of women
—their ritual underworld names
—the prophesy of the seer ess who weaves this spell
The goddess Adsagsona renders Severa and Tertionicna enchanted and bound.
St. Patrick [fourth century AD] Confession:
It is remarkable that the Irish have indeed become a people of the Lord and are children of God. These people who up until now had no knowledge of God, but worshipped idols and followed disgusting religious practices.
Old Irish Law:
Sixth century—Oaths may be sworn in presence of Druids (Old Irish drui)
Seventh Century—Druid only has same rights as a boaire
Eighth Century—Protect me from the spells of women, blacksmiths, and Druids…
On this blog, and in the weekly Irish Pagan Resources emails through our community mailing list, we cover a variety of topics, including: Irish Mythology, Irish History, Irish Culture, Irish Spirituality, Irish Storytelling & Irish Travel.
Or, really, whatever catches my interest that week?!
I thought it might be useful to provide a monthly collection of Irish Pagan resources here, under each heading. If you have any further recommendations yourself, comment below!
First, a warning… When we’re looking for authentic resources in Irish mythology, we often come across obviously poor materials. If there’s sparkly gifs flashing, that’s your first clue. But some of em are sneaky.
This for example – Fairies of the Irish Mythology – from The Irish Fireside, Volume 1, Number 24, December 10, 1883
It may LOOK like ye olde academic quality source material. But the reality is that it’s a pompous piece of colonial crap, with butchered Irish language references and arrogant assumptions about the uncivilised native savage.
So, Britain’s in a right oul mess too, aren’t they? Seems like a good time to dust off this article – Northern Ireland, a Beginner’s Guide.
We’re still a bit of a mixed bag here when it comes to equality in our society. While we have the Gender Recognition Act, which is amazing for Trans people in our community, we also have the likes of the Iona Institute and Glinner polluting our air. I’m not going to link to them – look them up, or just trust me they’re vile.
Gotta recommend the Irish Pagan School here, as I am a co-founder!
Many online courses and programmes (free and paid), with new content from excellent native Irish teachers coming each month.
I learned a while back that my good friend Joe Perri of Wolf Mercury Photography had NEVER HEARD OF EDDIE LENIHAN. Honestly, it’s kinda put me in a panic – I mean, who else out there isn’t aware of out storytelling national treasure? In case that’s you… Eddie storytelling live in a Pub. His beard scares me, but you know, each to his own. (Check this one especially for the Biddy Early reference).
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to recommend any other Travel company than Land Sea Sky Travel. Vyviane is just too wonderful. Check out what’s on offer.
When you’re looking for authentic Irish Pagan Resources, it’s best to stick – in general – with native Irish sources. Check out my YouTube Video on Cultural Appropriation for more info!
“Pottage is not so much used in all Christendom as it is used in England”– Andrew Boorde, Dyetary (I542)
Pottage in England, came from the Old French pottage, meaning simply ‘potted dish’. I’m not sure how extensively Mr. Boorde had travelled in Ireland, but here it was craibechan for a stew and anraith for a soup, while porridge was leite, and any of them could be made in the same ‘potted dish’ method.
We’re talking one pot peasant food here, the type that starts with a single pot over an open fire, with anything that is to hand thrown in, and cooked for hours til it’s reduced to mush. The next day more water is added, more of whatever’s handy, and more mush ensues. In fairness, it’s tasty, tasty mush, and this type of soup or stew is still eaten in Ireland, and there’s never a truer word spoken than when someone smacks their lips, pats their belly, and says “It always tastes better the next day”.
This was a staple all through Europe, probably from Neolithic times at least, but definitely through the Middle Ages, because we’ve got the references and recipes to prove it.
There are records from the English Beaulieu Abbey, in I270, specifying daily allowances for the lay gardeners: “a convent loaf, a gallon of good ale, and four bowlfuls of the convent pottage”. There is a line in ‘Piers Plowman’ (c. 1377) which says: “Had ye pottage and pain (bread) enough, and penny-ale to drink . . . ye had right enough”. And in the 1500’s, the Fromond list of ‘Herbys necessary for a gardyn’ included no less than 49 herbs deemed suitable for pottage.
To make the pottage, the large metal pot or cauldron was hung over the hearthfire, filled with water or the stock from boiled meat, fish or foul, as available, and various other items added. John Harvey (Vegetables in the Middle Ages) details:
“It is various species of herbs that are consistently mentioned as ‘good pottagers’. In the pottage (‘porray’ or ‘sewe’) were usually cooked one or more of several vegetable foodstuffs, notably the leaves of colewort (Brassica oleracea), leeks (Allium porrum), both of them grown in the garden; or the field crops peas (Pisum sativum) and broad beans (Vicia faba).”(Harvey)
He references a Friar Henry Daniel, who frequently comments on ‘good pottagers’, e.g. borage (Borago officinalis), chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium), mallows (edible Malvaceae), several forms of orach (edible Atriplex), and turnip (Brassica rapa).
The cabbage and it’s cousins (Brassicae) frequently appear under various names such as Cale, Kale, Wild Cabbage, Colewort, Worts, Worties and Braisech in Irish. It’s interesting to note that Langland’s first version of Piers Plowman, written about I362, says; “I have porrets (young leeks) and parsley and many cole plants”, while in the version from about thirty years after we see what might indicate a diversification in the diet (or a move up in the author’s social status?), with the line changed to; “And I have porret plants, parsley and scallions; Chibols and chervils, and cherries”. Cherries, if you don’t mind!
In England the most common pottage flavouring was certainly Parsley (Petroselinum crispum), which carries not only huge health benefits, but also a stack of Medieval lore and superstition round it. In Ireland the Nettle (Urtica dioica) was most common and used regularly for its tremendous health benefits. That bit (health benefits) is, admittedly, supposition on my part, because Nettles taste of very little – other than slightly metallic and a little rank if you don’t get the fresh young tops. So I reckon the popularity must be attributed to medicinal rather than culinary value.
Wild Garlic (Ramsons, Allium ursinum or Creamh in Irish) on the other hand tastes divine. There’s little evidence of cultivation in Ireland, but sure there was no need to. Wild Garlic grows best in damp woodland areas and, well, that was most of Ireland. PW Joyce noted in 1906 that it was a common pot-herb, saying: “The facts that it is often mentioned in Irish literature, and that it has given names to many places, show that it was a well-recognised plant and pretty generally used”.
A recipe for this one really isn’t necessary. It depends on what you have available that was common in the Medieval country of your choice. Start with a stock or broth, add in some chopped meat (beef, mutton, pork, goat, venison, chicken, goose or duck – take your pick!) for a higher status feed. Finely chop some cabbage or kale, onions, leeks, wild garlic. A bit of turnip and a few peas or broad beans wouldn’t go amiss. If you’re going very posh you could add pepper, ground coriander or cardamom. Sage, rosemary and thyme were common enough though, so feel free to throw those in to taste, then some parsley or nettle tops, and let it boil softly for a few hours.
Try it with authentic Irish Soda Bread, but most importantly… don’t forget that it always tastes better the next day!
When just 1 year old, she sat on her kitchen floor in a pool of blood, beside a mother who would never move again.
This is not the opening scene of a modern crime tv show, but the start of life in 1890’s rural Ireland for one of the world’s most daring and trailblazing aviators, who became known in later life as Lady Mary Heath.
The story begins with her mother, an attractive tall brunette named Kate Theresa Doolin, who started her life in a respected farming family (though a few of them were known to have a fondness for the drink, but sure who didn’t in Ireland back then?) with land at Causeway, near Tralee in County Kerry. When working in a nearby town, young Ms. Doolin met a handsome, wild and often charming man called Jackie Pierce (John Pierce-Evans). She took a job as housekeeper for his uncle in Knockaderry, near Newcastle West in County Limerick, and later married Jackie in a ceremony in Dublin City.
Their daughter, Sophie Catherine Theresa Mary Peirce-Evans, was born on the 10th November, 1896. Just a year later, she was being gathered up from her kitchen floor by distraught neighbours, taken from beside the cooling body of her mother, who had been bludgeoned to death with a stout stick earlier that day, by Sophie’s own father Jackie.
John Pierce-Evans was found guilty (but insane) at the murder trial, and locked up, while his daughter was brought to live with her Grandfather in Newcastle West, and raised in a rather restrictive fashion by her two maiden aunts there. Though she showed an early talent and passion for sports, her female relatives discouraged and even outright forbid this ‘unladylike’ interest. Sophie’s schooling brought her to County Cork, County Armagh, and finally to Dublin, where she could play hockey and tennis and excel at both. Third level education took her to the Royal College of Science in Ireland, as one of very few women there, but the country needed educated farmers and so she was allowed in. Sophie gained a top-class degree in science, specialising in agriculture, and played for the college hockey team.
World War 1 brought her to England and France, serving as a dispatch rider for 2 years, and by the time she moved from Ireland to Scotland, her reputation for being an “unsuitable” influence on women preceded her. Just after the war, Sophie received a University placement in Aberdeen, and as she had married her first husband, started life in the UK as Sophie Mary Eliott-Lynn. Her Irish aunts were aghast at the thought of the bad impression she might make on her young cousins, writing to their mother with the admonition “For Mercy’s sake, Lily, don’t let Sophie get hold of the girls.”
Moving from Scotland to London in 1922, it was clear sports had a firm hold of her. She helped found a Women’s Association which became the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association in 1926, and she served as the joint secretary while continuously campaigning for the inclusion of a full women’s programme at the Olympics. She set a world record for the High Jump, and became the first women’s javelin champion in Britain. In 1925 she had travelled as a delegate to the International Olympic Council, and it was there she first took flying lessons. Her book (the first of its kind), entitled ‘Athletics for Women and Girls’, was published the same year. By 1926 she was representing the UK at javelin at the Women’s International Games in Gothenburg, and came 4th, throwing 44.63 metres. Her Irish records for the shot and discus were not bettered until the 1960’s.
From 1925 through to 1929, Sophie was probably the most famous Irish woman on the planet. Those first few flying lessons turned into a burning passion for aviation, and she shifted her pioneering spirit to the skies. Though Amelia Earhart had been firing imaginations and setting records since 1922, Britain was not ready to embrace female liberation, and Sophie fought prejudice and ignorance to become the first woman in Britain or Ireland to get her commercial pilot’s license. Her test included proving to a panel of men that she could control an aircraft… at all times of the month.
Her first marriage had not been a happy one, and she was estranged from her husband, Major William Elliot Lynn, when he died in early 1927. Immediately she sought a new husband, preferably one who could finance her flying until she could make a living from it, and made a list of the wealthiest British bachelors. On selecting and marrying Sir James Heath – who was 45 years her senior – on 11 October 1927, she became Lady Heath (though she is often referred to as ‘Lady Mary Heath’). By then she had already set a number of altitude records for small aircraft, and also for a heavy Shorts seaplane. Lady Heath landed quite spectacularly in the middle of a football match after becoming the first woman to parachute from a plane, and in 1927, was the first female pilot to win an open race.
American newspapers loved her, calling her “Britain’s Lady Lindy” (after Charles Lindberg), but her exploits also made the front pages in Ireland, Britain, South Africa, France and the Netherlands. She planned to fly home from Lecturing in South Africa to become the first pilot, male or female, to fly a small open-cockpit aircraft from Cape Town to London, landing at Croydon Aerodrome. Taking off in January 1928, it took her 3 months rather than her planned weeks, but on the 17th May her Avro Avian biplane made a successful if bumpy landing in England. Despite having piloted and maintained the plane through 9,000 miles, then 32-year-old stepped to greet the swarming crowd looking fabulous in heeled shoes, silk stockings, pleated skirt, fur coat and a cloche hat.
Lady Heath was determined to earn her way as a pilot. She would give joyrides at air shows, and she often flew back to Ireland, where thousands would gather on her arrival to see the airplane and pay her to go up in it, if they could afford it. She’s remembered in Ballybunion, County Kerry, where she’d go to visit her aunt Cis, by local lads who still say “she was good at the sales talk”; there’d always be more ready to go up with her once the last lot had shakily departed her plane. She turned that silver tongue to lobbying for a job as a commercial pilot, and eventually succeeded with the Dutch airline KLM. Though it didn’t last – the Dutch and British Press turned on her quite viciously and she was losing her public standing very rapidly – for a time she flew as first officer on European routes. Another record was achieved – she was the first woman to fly a commercial aircraft.
Surprised and hurt by the European backlash she had received, Lady Heath took up an invitation to lecture and promote flying in the USA. She had met Amelia Earhart when the American crossed the Atlantic and landed in London, and invited her to fly in the Avro Avian. Earhart had been so impressed she had promptly bought the biplane and took it back to America with her. Following across the Atlantic made sense, and by then the proper training of pilots and ensuring reliable equipment had started to feature strongly for Lady Heath.
In July 1929, she wrote an article for Scientific American magazine, entitled ‘Is Flying Safe?’ Worldwide, flying had become very popular, and in Britain by then graduating pilots had to have at least 10 hours of instruction before they were let go up, with hundreds of men and women becoming pilots each year. Lady Heath believed that well-trained pilots, and construction standards, were the most important factors of airline safety. In Britain, in early 1928, 45,000 flights had been made with no accidents reported. She could see that America had the fastest growing commercial airline industry, with Stout Air Services in business since 1925, and passenger safety was a big concern.
Only a month after her article appeared, on 29 August 1929, Lady Heath crashed her plane into a roof while practising a dead-stick landing at the National Air Races in Cleveland. She sustained a fractured skull, broken nose and internal injuries, with newspapers reporting that her recovery was unlikely. She did survive, but the accident ended her piloting career. Her second marriage ended too; she divorced Lord Heath in 1930.
After remarrying (an English airman G.A.R. Williams in 1931), and moving back to Dublin, she founded her own private aviation company. She also founded the Irish Junior Aero Club, teaching young pilots to fly, and forming the bedrock for the national Aer Lingus airline which followed.
Sophie Catherine Theresa Mary Peirce-Evans, the great Lady Mary Heath, died of head injury following a fall while on a tramcar in 1939 – the fall was thought to have been caused by an old blood clot – at the age of 42.
Pagan Holidays (Holy Days) worldwide are coming back to a more general use and understanding, with folk often asking questions about whether Christmas is a Pagan Holiday (it is, sort of), and observing the 8-fold Wheel of the Year.
The current Neo Pagan calendar (and its primarily Wiccan holidays) is ostensibly based off the ‘Celtic Wheel of the Year’, as the early creators and authors of our modern traditions were very fond of their romantic notions of Celtic culture, and very sure that it was ok to just… take what they wanted, and change or use it however they wanted.
*cough* Coilíní *cough*
The problem with this (one of the problems) is that we now have a sort of tangled, much mangled, view of the original pre-christian Irish Pagan festivals, that even many Irish Pagans adhere to.
In this post, I’d like to break this down a bit, and clarify some of the basics, so that we can (hopefully), start fresh. With a somewhat cleaner slate for Irish Pagan practice. Le do thoil.
To begin with, the ‘traditional’ eight Pagan Holidays, are actually 2 sets of four. So the wheel of the year is maybe 2 wheels, rotating side by side.
This can be a little confusing if you’re not used to considering things this way, but I do remember being quite frustrated back in my baby Pagan days by how the festivals seemed to just be copies of each other. Like, within the Wiccan traditions, there’s not a huge difference between how you’re celebrating the Summer Solstice (Litha) and Beltane, for example.
In my native practice, I break the focus, themes or concerns out as follows:
The Pagan Calendar names I use are in modern Irish, and the associated Gaeilge video is also my schoolgirl modern Irish pronunciation, to be clear.
Irish is a living language, and while I’m the first one to honour the Primitive Irish and Old Irish source material, they are different languages. We have modern Irish terminology for every single Pagan Holiday name, and a wealth of associated folklore and traditions within our living memory in Irish communities. So let’s use that.
Admittedly now, some of the folklore has gotten crossed over and shifted around with the Christian influences, eg. Summer Solstice bonfires now happen on St. John’s Eve, on the 23rd June, and the animal sacrifice tradition has moved from Samhain to St. Martin’s Day, on the 11th November. But that’s ok too.
At least the traditions still exist, and have grown and moved with the communities as we did.
Focus on Community, Hearth & Home, the Otherworld (an Saol Eile).
When people first walked this land, there were 2 seasons: summer and winter. They signified the change and move between camping grounds, as theirs was a Hunter/Gatherer lifestyle.
These times of moving and changing were dangerous and uncertain, and this still holds true in the primary Irish Pagan holidays of Bealtaine, and Samhain, which remain times of great change and uncertainty.
When the people settled, and began to farm the land, the seasons of Growth and Harvest were marked, with Imbolg and Lúnasa, and so began the 4 Fire Festivals.
[Download this Chart as a PDF Below]
Personally, I use the name Imbolg for this festival. That’s from the Irish i mBolg, meaning ‘in the belly’, for the pregnancy aspects (animals as well as humans, because if we get pregnant at Bealtaine we give birth around now). Imbolc is commonly used too though, and may have associations with washing or a ‘spring clean’ after winter, from Folc, meaning ‘bathe or wash’. I’m honestly not sure which language the term Oimelc comes from, though it’s been given to mean ‘ewe’s milk’. That would be Bainne na Caoirigh in modern Irish though, which doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
We have this clearly in old Irish as Belltaine (with various other spellings, the manuscripts weren’t always precise or standardised), meaning the month of May, or even ‘the month of the beacon-fire) according to the eDIL. It may have associations with an Old Celtic God Boleros, ‘the flashing one’ (Ó hÓgáin) or Balar/Balor in Ireland, he of the single, blazing destructive eye (often thought to be symbolic of the sun), and form the word Bealtaine from Balor’s Fire (tine).
There are multiple spellings out there, and I know some of them are based on the Gaelic language of Scotland, which I don’t speak. But as we still use the word Bealtaine in modern Irish for the month of May, and again – this is a living language, and it’d be great not to have to deal with bastardised or anglicised versions of it anymore please and thank you – let’s go with that eh?!
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Bealtaine
You’ll often see this written as Lughnasadh, and indeed, I’ve done so myself. As above though, I prefer the modern Irish spelling, and in Gaeilge, Lúnasa is the word for the month of August. I mean, I wasn’t joking about these Pagan holidays still being a part of our culture.
You’ll see references too, to Lammas, which we don’t have in modern Irish. My basic exploration of Old Irish suggests it MIGHT be a version of a ‘fine, handsome or excellent hand’ (from n. Lám and adj. Mass?)… but be warned, that is a very rudimentary look at a compound word! I definitely don’t use it as a Pagan Holiday name anyway.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Lúnasa
It’s not pronounced Sam-Hane. Never. I don’t care what your esteemed Elders passed down to you not-so-very-long-ago (in the grand scheme of things).
This is a LIVING LANGUAGE. Respect it, and the people who still speak it every day. Stop that Sam-Hane shit immediately.
It probably comes from the Old Irish samfuin, meaning ‘death of Summer’: eDIL. Samhain in modern Irish is the word for the month of November.
So yes, we know how to pronounce it properly. (Are you getting a sense for how many times I’ve had U.S. Pagans correct my pronunciation? Like, I’m not sure how to even communicate how infuriating that is, especially when it happens consistently!)
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Samhain
Focus on Community, Land & Sovereignty, this World (an Saol Sin – or Seo).
We know these times were important to our ancestors due, at least, to the sacred sites they constructed and used to observe and celebrate them. Massive monuments all over the island still attest to the power and value that was placed upon aligning ourselves, our communities, and our leadership, with these turning times of the Pagan year.
Please note: the common names Ostara, Litha, Mabon, and Yule, are at best culturally appropriated and co-opted into Neo Paganism, and at worst, carry entirely fabricated pseudo histories. I’m looking at you, Mabon.
They have NO place in native Irish paganism.
The Irish names below are simply the names of our seasons, as Gaeilge, and have always suited my personal practice around the Irish Pagan Holidays best.
[Download this Chart as a PDF Below]
The balance of day and night.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Earrach
Mid Summer, the longest day.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Samhradh
The balance of night and day.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Fómhar
Mid Winter, the longest night.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Geimhreadh
If you’d like more detail on any of the Irish Pagan Holidays, comment below and let me know. There’s already extensive sections in my books (see Publications – coming soon), but I can try and get some more blog posts and YouTube videos together for them if there’s an interest, and maybe even a wee course through our Irish Pagan School.
Let me know which of the Pagan holidays you want to see more on?!