The Naomhóg of Inishkea

“…I used to wear a smock that was ever-renewed…”

A thousand years after the writing of the ‘Lament’ by its unknown Irish author, there came yet another age in Ireland in which a new religious order (Protestantism) was trying to supplant another (Roman Catholicism). It was the years following the Great Famine (late 1840’s) when many of the traditional customs and social institutions of Irish-speaking society had all but collapsed, a situation from which Protestant cultural evangelism was trying to seek an advantage.

In 1851, Robert Jocelyn, the 3rd Earl of Rodan (an ‘Old Irish’ Protestant Tory who despaired of the state of Catholic Ireland) published a book entitled: “Progress of the Reformation in Ireland – Extracts from a series of letters written from the West of Ireland to a friend in England, in September 1851” (Published by James Nisbet, London 1851). The author’s design was to provide intellectual ammunition for the Protestant cause and his book’s themes sought to link the Irish language culture (and its subjoined oral culture and Atlantic Celtic tradition) with ignorance, the seeds of famine and, all tied in of course, with ‘popery’. In the following extract from this book he refers to the apparent discovery of practicing heathens on the islands of Inniskea (Inishkea):

About seven miles distant from Bingham Castle, in the Atlantic, is the Island of Inniskea, containing, I believe, about 380 inhabitants. They have very little intercourse with the main land, and their state of spiritual darkness is deplorable. It is hardly to be credited that amongst the British islands heathen idolatry is to be found, and that a stone, carefully wrapped up in flannel, is brought out at certain periods to be adored by the inhabitants of Inniskea. When a storm arises this heathen god is supplicated to send a wreck on their coast. This statement I received from Mr. Campbell (Ed: folklorist and gaelicist J.F. Campbell of Islay) and others. He told me he had him self recently visited the island, and seen the idol in question.

Since writing the above I have had a communication from a gentleman who lives in the neighbourhood, and who more than corroborates Mr. Campbell’s statement. He says: “The islands of Inniskea, which form the northern point of entrance to Blacksod Bay, are inhabited by a population of three hundred and eighty human beings, who support themselves chiefly by fishing and the produce of their potato plots, the most infirm and indigent deriving their principal subsistence from shell-fish and sea-weed. They all speak the Irish language, and among them is a trace of that government, by chiefs, which in former times existed in Ireland. The present chief or king of Inniskea is an intelligent peasant named ‘ Cain.’ His authority is universally acknowledged, and the settlement of all disputes is referred to his decision. But his people are indeed a wild race! skilled only in the semi-barbarous customs of their forefathers. Occasionally they have been visited by wandering schoolmasters, but so short and casual have such visits been, that there are not ten individuals who even know the letters of any language.

” To this dark spot the light of the Gospel has never been permanently extended, and save during the few and necessarily short visits of the clergyman of the parish, seldom have they heard of eternal life as the free gift of God through Jesus Christ, and even these visits were unprofitable from their total ignorance of English. Though nominally Roman Catholics, these islanders have no priest resident amongst them, they know nothing of the tenets of that Church, and their worship consists in occasional meetings at their chief’s house, with visits to a holy well, called in their native tongue, ‘ Derivla.’

” Gloomy as is the description already given of this people, there is yet a darker shade to be unfolded. Here the absence of religion is filled with the open practice of Pagan idolatry, as fearful to contemplate as that prevalent on the banks of the Ganges. In the South Island, in the house of a man named Monigan, a stone idol, called in the Irish ‘Neevougi’ has been from time immemorial religiously preserved and worshipped. This god in appearance resembles a thick roll of home-spun flannel, which arises from the custom of dedicating a dress of that material to it, whenever its aid is sought; this is sewed on by an old woman, its priestess, whose peculiar care it is.

Of the early history of this idol no authentic information can be procured, but its power is believed to be immense; they pray to it in time of sickness; it is invoked when a storm is desired to dash some hapless ship upon their coast; and again, the exercise of its power is solicited in calming the angry waves, to admit of fishing or visiting the main land. The following instance will illustrate the faith reposed in this flannel-covered god:—some time ago, during a succession of boisterous weather, a native of the island became so ill that his life was despaired of, and as the invocation of the idol seemed insufficient to restore him to health, his relations were most anxious to bring the priest from the main land to calm his dying moments, but the storm was so terrific that they dare not venture without their god to guard them on their perilous voyage; most reverently, therefore, they placed it in the boat, and their mission being successful, they declared to one of the Scripture-readers that solely to this idol’s presence was their safety attributable, and even the ultimate and unexpected recovery of the sick man was ascribed to the exercise of its power. This is one of the many wonders said to be wrought by this stony god, and will suffice to show the extent to which Paganism prevails in this island.

Such is a brief outline of the melancholy state of this portion of the West of Ireland, it speaks too forcibly to an enlightened community to need comment; it forms, too, a powerful appeal to the sympathies and principles of every Christian to aid in cleansing the stain of Heathenism from our shores.

Quite something, isn’t it?

However, this was not the first (or last) literary mention of the ‘idol’, as it gets a mention in Caesar Otway’s (pre-famine) ‘Sketches in Erris and Tyrawly’ (Pub. William Curry, Dublin and Longman, London, 1841) – an account of the Mayo peninsula in Ireland’s far West.

“… they have what is better called by some the Neevoge or as others pronounce it Knaveen; both mean the ‘little saint’, and I prefer the latter pronunciation which may not be a bad derivation for the English word knave, Latin gnavus, a knowing fellow. For the Knaveen of Inniskea must be a knowing one indeed, for by his instrumentality, the natives consider they can raise or allay a tempest, raise a storm when a ship nears the island, and so they may get in a wreck or allay it when their own boats are out at sea in a gale of wind. The Knaveen is a stone image of the rudest construction, attired in an undyed flannel dress which is every New Year’s Day renewed. Of course, the ‘Knaveen’ has his annals, one event of which may be worth stating: – Some years ago a pirate, happening to land on the island, amused himself by setting fire to the houses of the people all of which burned, but too readily, save one; and the ferocious leader thus seeing one house untouched, urged on with menaces his followers to consummate their destructive doings by burning this also; but they could not; as often as they applied fire to it out it went: they might as well burn one of the ocean rocks. Observing this he ordered the house to be diligently searched, and finding the ‘knaveen’, he commanded that the holy image should be smashed to pieces with a sledge. Perhaps he was told of the knaveen’s power not only of arresting fire but of raising wind and as he often roved along the coast he, of course, did not desire to leave the storm compeller in the hands of those to whom he had been so cruel. Thus having had his wicked will the pirate sailed away, it is hoped, never to return. But the natives, the moment he was gone, collected the fragments of the saint, bound them together with thongs of sheepskin, and to keep him warm and pleasant, dressed him out in a suit of flannel which, as we have already stated, is renewed from year to year. It is however considered that the ‘knaveen’ has never fully recovered the treatment he received from the pirate’s sledge hammer, nor are they quite so sure of his power over the elements Perhaps after all this is not so much the fault of the idol, as of their failing faith. He still, however, is fervently kissed and had in reverence by all.”

Otway’s account is, like Jocelyn’s, a third-hand description of what was supposed to be going on at Inniskea. The accounts appear to have different sources, and contain a few minor differences:

Otway’s idol is referred to as a masculine ‘saint’, albeit important to point out that the Irish word Naomh (pron. ‘Neev’ or ‘Nave’) more properly and originally means ‘holy’ rather than ‘saint’, and the ‘Neev’ of ‘Neevogue’ might otherwise come from Niamh, meaning ‘Bright’. Robert Jocelyn’s account seems to portray the idol as more feminine. Those familiar with the Fenian legends (in particular those from the 12thC Acallam na Senórach or ‘Tales of the Elders’) might recognise the name or appellation Niamh (daughter of Manannán mac Lir) who conducts the poet Oisín to the Isle of  Tír na nÓg in west towards the setting sun.  The association of a female spirit with tides and storms and the Irish ‘Sea-God’, as well as the association of the region with St Brendan (affiliated with Christianising the Atlantic islands)  is highly interesting.

Caesar Otway’s account prefers the name ‘Knaveen’ (Irish: Naomhín), the pronunciation of which he parallels with the English word ‘Knave’, suggesting it was pronounced ‘Nay-veen’, and which he says was used more often than ‘Neevoge’, perhaps reflecting local variations in pronunciation. Jocelyn refers to ‘Neevougie’ and doesn’t mention the other name, which is after all merely another diminutive version ‘Naomh’ or ‘Niamh’.

Otway suggests the idol had different parts, held together by sheepskin thongs and a flannel suit, on account of some traditionally-supposed assault upon it by a ‘pirate’ with a hammer. As ‘Niamh’ sometimes refers to ‘gilding’ and pre-Christian Irish idols (such as the one at Clogher – meaning ‘gold-stone’) were reported to be gilded at one time, it is possible that the ‘pirate’ story refers to a historic plundering of the idol for its gold which left it smashed.

In 1959, English author Terence Hanbury White published an account (‘The Godstone and the Blackymor’ Pub. Jonathan Cape) of his travels in the west of Ireland, including visits to North and South Inishkea, where he wished to discover more about locals referred to as the ‘Godstone’ under its Irish name Naomhóg (White’s interpretation of ‘Nee-vogue’). He was told that the idol had also been associated (in the famine period) with potato fertility causing the islanders of South Inniskea to steal the idol from the North island, but that it had supposedly been cast from the Carraigín Dubh rocks into a pool in Portavally harbour by a catholic priest called ‘Big Paddy’ O’Reilly in the 1890’s. White had difficulty finding locals willing to speak to an Englishman about the stone and said that many seemed ashamed of its history, no doubt in the light of the negative publicity generated by it in the 1840’s and 1850’s. He was drawn from this to speculate that the stone was more a pre-reformation Christian relic – though this is somewhat unlikely if it had been disposed of by a priest.

As well as the stone being associated with crop fertility, control of the weather and being capable of warding off fire, White also found from elderly informant Owen McGinty that the stone was small – weighing 2 or 3 pounds – and of a greenish colour, being the shape and size of a smoothing-iron. It was wrapped in cloth – McGinty said red, rather than undyed – and was originally from Colmcille’s chapel on North Inishkea but eventually came to be transferred to and kept in a niche in the gable-end of a house on South Inishkea. It was prayed to for health, and bought outside when fine weather was required. He also says it was dressed in new ‘clothes’ three times a year and that the clothes were made from a first-fleece of the year. The tales suggesting it to be a pagan idol were laargely dismissed by catholic laity (who claimed it to be ‘saint’s pillow’, a cross, an image of the virgin/a woman, a brown and white spotted stone) and official missionaries who ‘proved’ that the Naomhóg was nothing but a broken terracotta statue of the baby Jesus – somewhat at odds with the other descriptions that White was able to collect. Given that the official approach of post-famine Romanism was to dispel any links to the syncretic pagan past this is unsurprising. White’s investigation left him with many confusing stories as to the reality of the nature of the stone, that its contentious religious significance had done much to obscure.

The west of Ireland can certainly be a barren and mysterious place, which preserves many old pagan traditions which seem to merge easily with decayed Christian ones. In more modern times it has been associated with some of the strongest survivals of traditional Irish language culture. However, this reputation for the ‘wild’ or ‘ancient’ appears to have been constant from some of the earliest times:

Gerald of Wales was a 12th/13th century monk who wrote a polemic account of Ireland in support of its political and religious subjugation by those Anglo-Norman clients of continental papal power. His 1188 book – Topographia Hibernica – contains a story of meeting Irish people in boats off the Atlantic coast who apparently claimed to never have never heard of Christianity! Robert Jocelyn’s (if not so much Otway’s) account contains echoes of this and, like Gerald’s, we must suspect it was designed in part to service evangelical ambitions rather than act as an introduction to the Irish dead-pan – later Catholic missionaries certainly did, and sought to destroy the ‘Neevogue’ from memory. Nonetheless, the theme of the annual renewal of clothing on a stone idol supposed to have power over fire and water seems distinctly pagan, and brings us back to themes of the ‘Lament of the Seantainne Bérri’ whose cloak was ‘ever-renewed’.

Those familiar with the late 17thC A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland’ by Martin Martin (first published 1703) will recognise echoes of the apparent Inishkea ‘paganism’ in the reported propitiation of a pagan ‘sea-god’ called ‘Shoney‘ in Lewis who supposedly controlled the bounty of the sea. ‘Shoney’ may well mean ‘Old One’ (as in Seantainne) and it is possible that ‘Neevoge’/’Naveen’ and ‘Shoney’ might represent the same pagan character, who appears again and again in legend and folklore under a protean multitude of names…

Of course, an alternative interpretation of the Naomhóg is that it represents the remains of a saint’s statue or relic broken up by the Vikings during their seemingly religiously-motivated 8th century attacks upon Christian centres around the coasts of Ireland and Britain. Whether this was a primitive form of Roman Catholic veneration or a pagan survival must remain debateable, but viewed in the context of apparently pagan practices and beliefs recorded throughout the Atlantic-Celtic regions between the 17th and 20th centuries it is suggestive of something not typically Christian!

Notes on the Inishkea islands:

North and South Inishkea lie off the Mullet Peninsula and are reached from the port of Belmullet. Mullet is part of the Barony of Erris in County Mayo and the Islands were soon abandoned following the loss of a group of the population’s youth in a fishery disaster during the 1920’s. The name was first attested as Insula Sancta Geidhiae (Inish Geidh) in the Lebor Bretnach – a later middle irish version of Nennius’ 9thC Historia Brittonum –  after a supposed eponymous female saint (St Geidh), and in the text associated also with a ‘wonder’: a miraculous female Crane (Grus grus) supposed to have stood vigil over the Island since time immemorial. The Irish word for ‘wind’ is gaoithe – pronounced somewhere between ‘gay’ and ‘geayha’; considering the position of the Inishkea islands with their prevailing Atlantic winds would seem like a more likely etymology, and links somewhat to an association with a goddess of storms, sometimes represented as flying female spirit! That they were also referred to in the 19thC as ‘Inishgay’ would add credence to this etymology. Otway could find nobody who knew of the bird in the medieval fable.

The sea between Inishkea and Inishglora (an island associated with St Brendan) is associated with a legend of the occasional appearance of a magic island, supposed to sink/disappear when anything of the land touches it. Such legends occur throughout the Atlantic European provinces. Inishglora itself is also associated with the famous legend of the Children of Lir – supposed to have become human there once again, strangely echoing the legend of Oisin and St Patrick.

‘Naomhóg’ is also the name for a type of canoe-like curragh used on the west coast of Ireland, and of the type by which T.H. White was taken to Inniskea in 1940. The word Naimh as an adjective means ‘beautiful’ or can be used in the verbal sense to mean ‘to gild’, ‘to cover over’ or ‘to gloss’. It has these same meanings in Irish and Scots Gaelic.

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