The goddess Aine and St Winifred

Time and again we see the myths of paganism subsumed into the narratives of hagiography in the early centuries of the Christian church in northern Europe. Another prime example of this can be found in the stories about ‘St Winifred’ – an early Welsh saint with an Anglo-Saxon sounding name, whose life is ascribed to the 7thC CE.

Winifred is interesting because her life, legends and veneration are full of the indicators of a pagan origin hinting at the Gaelic great goddess, known as Brigit or Aine. She is local to north Wales in the tribal areas of the Deceangli, known by medieval times known as Tegeingl – modern Flintshire. The Deceangli were a Celtic tribal polity of the late Iron Age whose origins are supposed to lie in part in Ireland. Winifred’s father, Tyfid ap Eiludd, is supposed to have been a chieftain among these peoples.

Although relating her floruit to the 7thC CE, the earliest hagiographies (surviving in the Laud and Cottonian manuscript collections) must stem from at least the 12thC, as the work of Giraldus Cambrensis (‘An Itinerary through Wales’) from that century makes no mention of Winifred’s Well and its supposedly famous shrine. The 12thC was an important period for clerical writers who were busily remodelling the more ancient and often syncretic traditions of the past in order to suit the anti-heretical world of new Christian piety, modelled around the example of the Cistercians. The recent Christianisation of Scandinavia (whose settlers had peopled Ireland and Britain) demanded such a modern narrative in order to disguise more overt pagan themes underpinning Christian piety from the eyes of the aware.

Winifred’s tale begins, suitably, with a tale of death and rebirth: An only daughter, she decides from an early age to dedicate her life to Christ, and convinces her father to allow her holy maternal uncle, Beuno, to build a church upon his land. One day while preparing for mass, a huntsman (Caradoc, son of a local prince) emerges from the woods and attempts to rape her or convince her to marry him, but being devoted to Christ she escapes and spurns him. In a fit of rage Caradoc pursues her to the threshold of Beuno’s oratory or church and decapitates her. The head rolls down a hill, and where it comes to rest a miraculous spring bubbles up from the ground. Luckily for her, Beuno arrives, kills Caradoc (his body melts into the ground) and contrives to magically join the maiden’s head back to her body, restoring her to life in god’s name. Beuno then his benediction, proclaiming that pilgrims who honoured the well would be healed of their ailments. Winifred takes holy orders, and Beuno says he must go, but instructs her to annually place a cape of her own fashioning upon a rock in the middle of the river issuing from the spring, and it would be conveyed, dry, with the rock to where Beuno would be staying (either Wales or Ireland depending on the tradition). The spring well supposed to have been created by Winifred’s decapitation is known as St Winifred’s Well at Holywell, and was an important location for pilgrimage in the later middle ages, during which time (up until the Reformation) such sites were of great economic importance to the church.

Pagan elements of the Winifred narrative:

The Christian legend about Winifred and Beuno seems wholly designed to replace a pagan narrative associated with a holy well: a typical site of Celtic worship. As such the details of the story, fantastical and grotesque as they seem, offer us a fascinating chance to understand what it was the Christians were trying to replace.

The Head: The apparent decapitation of Winifred is used here to explain the creation of the spring. That Beuno undoes the discombobulation is a narrative theme of negation typical of early Christian hagiographies – it is an act contrary to an underlying pagan narrative. This would imply that a head or something representing a head was once associated with the well, and would be removed occasionally. Similarly, the spring obviously predated Winifred’s supposed floruit, yet the narrative wishes it to start with her, rather than linking it to a pagan past.

The head was a potent symbol in the Iron Age Celtic world, depicted time and again in Celtic art and in accounts of Celtic warriors treasuring the heads of their enemies. Numerous examples of male and female carved stone heads from the Celtic era have been found throughout Ireland, Britain and Atlantic Europe, and sometimes in association with spring wells in an archaeological context.

Decapitated heads played an important part in the mythology of the Mabinogion (the head of Bendigeidfran, for instance). In the ‘Arthurian’ poem of Gawain and the Green Knight, the decapitated head of the tale’s eponymous adversary (Bertilak) – like that of Bran the Blessed – has an active life after its separation from the Knight’s body, indicating a supernatural provenance. This potent and pertinent theme of ancient Atlantic spirituality also occurs in the Ulster Cycle Irish tale Fled Bricrenn (Bricriu’s Feast) in which three contesting heroes have to submit to a trial by beheading with the disguised Manannan hypostasis – Cu Roi. The idea of a beheaded female, however, is largely absent from the mythological corpus.

Mobile Stones: The idea of a moveable holy stone associated with a river and the sea in this cultural region is hinted at in a number of medieval legendary and apocryphal tales. One of these can be found in the Irish version of the ‘Historia Brittonum’ of the monk Nennius, which discusses certain wonders to be found in the Isle of Man during the early medieval period:

“…The Wonders of Manann down here:

The first wonder is a strand without a sea.

The second is a ford which is far from the sea, and which fills when the tide flows, and decreases when the tide ebbs.

The third is a stone which moves at night in Glenn Cindenn, and though it should be cast into the sea, or into a cataract, it would be found on the margin of the same valley…”

The name ‘Cindenn’ contains an element which appears to represent the Gaelic word for ‘head’, which is ‘Cin’ or in modern Manx ‘Kione’ and in Irish, ‘Ceann’. The implication might be that in the Isle of Man during the period of the text’s writing, a stone (head?) was taken from a location near to a water source in a glen (valley) and placed in the sea before being returned to its location. The name Cindenn has not survived in the modern Isle of Man, so the location is unknown. However, most tantalising and curious reference is from an ancient Manx ballad, ‘Berrey Dhone’, which makes allusions to a magical female character who steals cattle and hides out on the high mountains within rocks referred to as ‘doors’. The ballad refers to her having ‘stone of/for her head’ (the Manx phrase in the song is ‘As y lhiack er e kione’). ‘Berrey’ is pronounced ‘Beara’, leaving no doubt that the ballad is referring to the ancient ‘Cailleach’ herself.

Holy Cloaks: The curious reference in the Winifred tale to an annual gift of a cloak (at midsummer) is another tantalising glimpse of a lost pagan tradition. The ‘cloak’ or ‘veil’ is, of course, an attribute of the eponymous Cailleach, whose name (we might speculate) might mean ‘covered stone’.

Death and Rebirth at the Holy Well: Winifred’s story starts with her martyrdom – something of a change to the usual story of Christian saints. However, she is promptly brought back to life by a male saint, an aspect of the story seeming to deliberately emphasise the power of the masculine over the feminine.  Rivers had female personifications in the Celtic world, with many legends associating them with magical females who stand guard over their sources – typically spring wells, which were deemed holy. It was believed that the life-giving waters of these springs flowed both to and (mystically) back from the Otherworld. I discuss this in some detail here.

Interestingly, the ‘decollation’ of St Winifride was celebrated on the summer  solstice – 22nd of June, which was her original festival day before it was moved to the 3rd November (Samhain) later in the middle ages, a date more suited to ‘witches’. Proof enough that ‘Winifred’ was a reaction to goddess worship…

Gifts to the Otherworld: The idea of a former pagan belief in an Otherworld river arising from Winifred’s Well is made explicit in the part of the narrative which has Beuno advising the saint to annually express her gratitude to him by casting a gift into the stream arising from the spring, safe in the knowledge that it will mystically travel to him in Ireland. One wonders if Beuno himself as well as Winifred was a Christian hypostasis of a pagan theme, rather than solely a male Christian character imposed upon a pagan female narrative. It was once a practice (according to an 18thC account by Thomas Pennant) to dedicate calves and lambs born bearing a special mark on their ear (a slit or nick called ‘Nôd Beuno’) to the saint at his church and supposed tomb at Clynnog in north Wales.

The Irish connection:

Being in the same region as the diocese of St Asaph, Winifred’s legend and the themes of her hagiographic narrative must in some way be culturally linked to that of the water-loving St Kentigern, also called ‘Mungo’. The Glaswegian saint’s legend mentions him sojourning in North Wales with Asaph during his spiritual questing in ‘Yr Hen Ogledd’ (‘The Old North’ Celtic polity of sub-Roman Britain during the early Anglo-Saxon pagan era): Northwest Britain, Southwest Scotland and North Wales were once part of a purer Celtish cultural polity connected to Ireland after the collapse of continental Roman administration.

Argument for Winifred as the goddess Áine:

The prefix of the name Winifred (‘Wini-‘) calls to mind the Celtic words for river: Abhain (Irish), Awin (manx) and Afon (Welsh) – all generally pronounced in a similar manner, and the ‘saint’ herself is strongly connected with the source of rivers. It has been suggested that the Irish goddess name Áine (pronounced ‘Awynya’ or ‘Awnya’) might also be connected to the word for ‘river’, as it also signifies a circle or cycle, as does the Latin word Annus, from which the goddess of the seasons, Anna Perenna was named.

Indeed, the Manx use of the name ‘Jinny the Winny’ and ‘Jinny the Witch’ (Jinny is pronounced either ‘djinny’ or ‘yinny’) for the supernatural female associated with Samhain (in Manx called ‘Hop-tu-Naa’ or Sowin) persists to this day, providing linguistic evidence of a connection between Winifred and the pagan goddess of the Gaels.

Another interesting link comes from the term ‘Awen’, familiar to students of neo-druidry and those with an interest in Welsh celtic reconstructionism. This is usually described as meaning ‘poetic inspiration’ and is indeed related to the previously mentioned Celtic word for river: it implies a flow of inspiration. If Cormac’s 10thC ‘Glossary’ is to be trusted, the triform Brigit was the pagan goddess of poetry among the Irish and she and Áine appear to be different aspects of a triple goddess of the annual cycle, represented by the Maiden (Brigit, goddess of spring), the Mother (Aine, goddess of summer) and the Crone (the Cailleach who represents winter). The multi-dimensional mystery of this triple formed goddess and her triple-formed consort must have been a core spiritual tenet of the druidic religion, now lost, but seemingly within grasping distance for us once again…

 

 

 

 

 

 

The epiphany of Bride – Delphic and Eleusinian aspects of the goddess Brigit

See my related articles here and here.

The 1st day of February (the 12th/13th by the old Julian Calendar) in Ireland is marked by two coincident ancient religious festivals – the Gaelic Celtic feast of Imbolc and the feast day if St Brigit (Bride) of Kildare.

It signifies the days when new life starts to become visible in the winter world – the appearance of the first flowers of the new year, the first buds on trees, and the mating and nesting of birds, and the birth of the first lambs of the year.

To the ancient Greeks, this ‘event’ of nature – new life starting push through from the dead soil – was given special significance in the very ancient myth of the maiden (Kore) Persephone who, after being abducted by the god of the dead, Hades, was allowed to make an annual return to stay with her mother – the fertile earth, personified as Demeter (literally meaning ‘mother goddess’). This myth had a central part in the ancient Greek mystery religions, most notably that at Eleusis, near Athens in Attica. It was one of the most fundamental myths of ancient Greek religion, with origins traceable into the Bronze Age.

As a mythic drama celebrating a returning junior fertility goddess, we have few clues that the old Celtic festival of Imbolc (first attested in writing in the 10thC Irish text known as ‘Cormac’s Glossary’) was a goddess festival – there are no references in medieval Irish manuscripts linking a festival named Imbolc to a ‘Persephone’ themed myth. However, the early Irish  Christian church created a festival of their own on this day which was an explicit celebration of a maiden – that of Brigdhe (Bride) or Brigit of Kildare, whose early hagiographic tale begins with her adoption into a christian household as a child where she immediately causes an increase in the family’s food supplies through a number of miracles. This tale echoes the practical medieval (probably much older) practice of re-hiring servants on the first quarter day of the new solar year, when farm work begins again, it having been suspended at Samhain or St Martin’s day by ancient Atlantic European tradition. The period between Samhain and Imbolc was a time of relative ease in the pre-modern empirically-minded subsistence world: harvests had been gathered and stored, animals slaughtered and their meat cured and preserved. There was little need of servants or slaves to manage the heavier manual work and they were alleviated of their duties until the restarting of the Atlantic agricultural cycle, which undertook its first ploughing of fields from the start of the Imbolc quarter. This theme is echoed in the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia (where slaves feasted with freemen) and at the Greek Summer Kronia (when it was too hot to work) and Winter Dionysia which was held around the same period as the Saturnalia. Nature was the book which gave the instructions!

Of course, we have little evidence that Greek religion directly influenced northern Europe’s Celtic peoples, although every reason to suspect from the galvanising cultural and military explosion of the ‘Belgic’ movement of the Celts into the Balkans and Greek territories from the 4thC BCE that they expressed some notable sympathy with certain Greek myths, and the iconography of the Eleusinian myths (pine trees and ears of corn) appears upon the coins of British kings of the Augustan period. Caesar Augustus was an Eleusinian initiate who fostered many British Celtic nobles at his court in order to acculturate them ahead of further Roman plans at expansion. The Irish did not apparently mint coins, or play much part in the Roman scheme of conquest, except during its christian phase when they rose meteorically in prominence. It appears then, that the ancient legends Irish monks enthusiastically wrote down may have shared a common root with those of the Greeks, lost in the mists of the late stone ages and their mysterious megalithic religious cultures.

Of course, Brigit was originally a pagan goddess. The author of Cormac’s Glossary (10thC) states this, and annotators of one of the surviving manuscripts (version ‘B)’ claimed that all of the Irish pagan goddesses were in fact Brigit, who had a typically celtic triple form. Here we have John O’Donovan’s translation of this:

 “Brigit i.e. a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. This is Brigit the female sage, or woman of wisdom, i.e. Brigit the goddess whom poets adored, because very great and very famous was her protecting care. It is therefore they call her goddess of poets, by this name. Whose sisters were Brigit the female physician (woman of leech craft), Brigit the female smith (woman of smith work), from whose names with all Irishmen a goddess was called Brigit.”

It was a simple step for christians to appropriate her as their most important female saint and ‘holy virgin’ who passed her apprenticeship as a cowherd, dairy maid and household servant. Because of her triple-form she was therefore characterised hailed in the hagiographies as one of the ‘Three Maries of Ireland’. In the continental medieval biblical narrative, the ‘Three Maries’ of the Bible (the ones at the tomb of Jesus) appeared to have subsumed another pagan triplicity – a common theme in the middle ages. Legends attached to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in Provence in the south of France claim these three Maries (Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Mary Salome) landed by boat there. Southern Gaul was, of course, a Celtic province with strong early links to Greek and Roman culture. It was also important in the development and spread of christianity among the Celtic peoples.

Bride and Aine, Persephone and Demeter:

In order to draw a clearer comparison between Bride and Persephone, we need to look at Persephone’s mother: Demeter. Is there evidence of an Irish equivalent?

Demeter represented the fruitful and fertile earth, and her child was therefore an example of her own self-begetting nature, and their legend an expression of the eternal (maternal) tragedy and joy of death an rebirth. As such, she an Persephone are two phases of the same idea, and it is to this concept we must link with the the triune nature by which the Celts conceived their gods. In fact, Demeter and Persephone were actually part of a mythological triplicity, completed by a third feminine goddess, Hekate, who was the sage ‘aid-woman’ who assisted Demeter in her search for her daughter. In later Greco-Roman art, she was depicted as ‘Hecate Triformis’ after the style of the Celtic divinities. Scholars have identified the cult of Demeter-Persephone-Hekate (the Eleusinian triad) and Artemis (sister of Apollo the Healer) with religious traditions extending back to the older ‘Potnia Theron’ goddess-character depicted so frequently in the art of the Minoan and Mycenaean ages.

How could this ancient Greek triplicity be considered coterminous with the Irish Iron Age triple-goddess Brigit, as described in Cormac’s Glossary? On the surface, Cormac’s triadic goddess expresses a function of knowledge and wisdom, healing and creative dexterity – a set of values more appropriate to Athena, Artemis and the Muses, and possibly to Aphrodite as wife of Hephaistos.

Brigit the Craftswoman/Woman of Smithcraft:

To make such a connection, we must understand how the ancient Gaels viewed the ‘blacksmith’ or ‘artifex’ archetype: This was essentially as the active process involved in reforging the world of nature – the ‘hidden craftsperson’ behind the ‘seasonal drama’.

Such a character exists in a profusion of forms in Ireland’s post-Christian mythology: As the smith known variously as Chullain/Cuillin/Gullion (an important character of the Ulster Cycle), as the Gobán Saor (an archetypal ancient smith and builder credited with raising many ancient structures, sometimes enjoying a legendary plasticity with the Cailleach Bheara), the high-literary ‘god-character’ Goibniu (smith of the Tuatha De Danann) and the euhemerised saints Gobban of Leighlin, Gobnait and the related St Latiaran of Cullin.

Even though most of these smith-archetypes of Irish Christian-era myth are male, the female is ever in attendance with them. In the case of St Laitiaran of Cullen’s sister saint, Gobnait, there is an explicit link with Brigit – her feast day falls on the 11th of February (Matyrology of Oengus), within a Julian calendar’s throw of the feast of Imbolc. Laitiaran and Gobnait were legendarily associated with a third sister-saint, again completing the ‘Brigitine’ triadic form.

In the famous medieval ‘Mythological Cycle’ tales of Ireland’s god-like ancestors, the male  triad Goibniu, Creidhne and Luchta (the Trí Dé Dána – Three Gods of Craft) are said in the tale Immacallam in dá Thúarad to be sons of Brigit of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and she the daughter of An Dagda. In the tale Tochmarch Etaine the Trí Dé Dána are said to have instead been Dagda, Lugh and Ogma, suggesting these were possibly of an older order, before the Age of metals. Goibniu was a master of blacksmithing, Creidhne a master of jewel-making and Luchta a craftsman in wood or builder (I.e. – a user of metal tools).

Slieve Gullion in County Armagh evokes the name of the smith-king of the Ulster Cycle tales from whom the hero Cuchullain is named. His daughter Tiobhal is described as ‘Princess of the Ocean’ in some late renditions of the myths linking Gullion/Cuillean to the Isle of Man and suggesting a connection with Manannan. At Slieve Gullion, St Brigit’s fosterling and acolyte, St Moninna (a reflex of the name of the Lake Lady of Arthurian legend, Niniane), was said by tradition to have founded the abbey at Kileavy on the slopes of the mountain, during the ‘reign’ of St Patrick. According to legend, she raised a foster-son called Luger, a name reminiscent of that of Lugh. The name ‘Kileavy’ may well be a rendering of the name of the site’s former pagan temple – Kil Aoife, after one of the names of Ireland’s famous ‘Fairy Queens’. Slieve Gullion is famously associated with the legendary folk-character Cailleach Beara, as well as the Lake Lady who turns Fionn into an old man when she bids him dive into the summit lake to find her ring. It was here Cuchullain fought the armies  of the Fairy Queen Medb. Curiously, there are few legends of a ‘male’ Gullion or Cuillain the smith, but more linking the named place to the aquatic otherworld female of Atlantic religious myth.

The healer and the poetess:

Whereas Brigit the Smith can be seen as a forger or re-forger and mystical renewer of life from the death processes of nature, Brigit the Healer fulfils a similar role within the world of the living – renewing from disease and allaying death. The same function is ascribed to the Delphic Greek god Apollo (often known among the ancient Celts as Belenos), brother of the ‘virgin huntress’ goddess Artemis. Artemis was herself not unlike the younger aspect of the Gaelic ‘Cailleach’ – a ‘mistress of animals’ and herds which was appended freely to the qualities of St Brigit of Kildare. Artemis has been likened to a ‘wild’ version of the ‘agricultural’ triad of Demeter-Persephone-Hekate and in some regards can be seen as a female likeness of Dionysus.

In the Delphic myth, Apollo symbolically conquered death and decay with the mystical act of slaying Python, from whose rotting corpse arose the inspiring fumes of prophecy and the fertility of the dead. Both he and his son Asclepius (the name implying the ancient onomatopoeic Indo-European word for ‘snake’) were the Greek divinities most often associated with the semantic field of the active healing arts and prophecy. Apollo was also strongly associated with the Muses – Greek goddesses of poetic inspiration, and it can be seen that there is an apparent similitude to the semantic fields of the Brigitine Triad mentioned in Cormac, in the form Brigit, Goddess of Poets. Of course, this represents a closer similarity in many ways to the Delphic religion of Apollo than the Eleusinian religion of Demeter and Persephone, although the Irish system shows evidence of links to both.

Artemis, Diana and Ireland’s Aine:

The Roman equivalent to ancient Artemis was Diana, whose name appears to be a composite of ‘Dea’ and ‘Anna’, meaning ‘Goddess of the Year’. Another Roman goddess possibly linked to her was ‘Anna Perenna’ and the Demeter-like ‘Dea Dia’, worshipped at Rome’s agricultural festival of Ambarvalia, in honour of Ceres. She was considered part of a ‘virgin triad’ of goddesses along with Minerva (Athena) and Vesta (Hestia). The name Diana has, as I have previously discussed, distinct etymological similarities with an Irish goddess: Áine (‘Awnya’) attested in both folklore and medieval written mythology, making her a figure of considerable interest to those studying ancient Irish paganism.

The name ‘Áine’ has connotations of the Irish word for ‘circle’: ain. The goddess was associated with the seasons and agriculture, and to the moon and the tides associated with them, and thus somehow to the mystical Gaelic ‘otherworld cycle’ linked to mountains, spring wells, lakes, rivers and the oceans. Apart from her similarity to the Roman Diana (whose cult was centred at Lake Nemi and supervised by the Rex Nemorensis – a priest taken from slave stock, probably Gaulish) she also was also a Gaelic fulfilment of the idea of Demeter/Ceres: The seasonal repetition of the fertility cycle. Just as Persephone was an aspect of Demeter, this makes the likelihood of Brigit relating to Áine in the same way quite high. Another aspect of Áine worth mentioning is her traditional role as a ‘sovereignty goddess’, from whom certain clans claimed ancestry – the Eoghanacht Aine, for instance: Such claims are based upon the link between the nurturing fertile land and the people – held to have been united at a far unspecifiable point in ancient history. Just like the Nile fed Egypt, the Irish (and indeed Celtic) concepts linking goddess and fertility revolved around springs and rivers, whose branching and snaking nature reflected the growth of plants. The etymology of the name of the river Shannon contains words for ‘Ancient’ and the goddess’ name – Seann Aine.

The Gaelic ‘goddesses’ of the pagan age were triform – one identity hid a multiplicity of names and aspects. The Gaels (and no doubt the wider body of Atlantic European Celtic peoples) were essentially duotheists, worshipping a male and female entity who can be identified through careful exegesis and critical appraisal of folklore, archaeology, literature and tradition, and from the names of places and land features.

 

Bridget, Croghan Hill and the Bog of Allen

The Bog of Allen (Móin Alúine) with Croghan Hill ('Cruachan Bri Eile') in the background

The Bog of Allen (Móin Alúine) with Croghan Hill (‘Cruachan Bri Eile’) in the background

“Then holy Patrick came to the well called Clébach, on the slopes of Cruachu to the east, before sunrise, and they sat beside the well,  and, behold, the two daughters of king Loíguire (Ed: Mac Néill), fair-haired Ethne and red-haired Fedelm, came to the well, as women are wont to do, in the morning to wash, and they found the holy assembly of bishops with Patrick beside the well. And they did not know whence they were or of what shape or from what people or from what region, but thought they were sidhe men or earth-gods or a phantom; and the maidens said to them: ‘Whence are you and whence have you come?’ and Patrick said to them: ‘It would be better for you to profess our true God than to ask questions about our race.’  The first maiden said: ‘Who is God and where is God and whose God is he and where is his dwelling-place? Has your God sons and daughters, gold and silver? Is he ever-living, is he beautiful, have many fostered his son, are his daughters dear and beautiful in the eyes of the men of the earth? Is he in the sky or in the earth or in the water, in rivers, in mountains, in valleys?’….”

The quote comes from the Book of Armagh and was originally written in the 7th/8thC by the Bishop Tírechán as part of his collected apocrypha about Patrick, collected from across Ireland in his time and before. The Hill of ‘Cruachu’ mentioned here (usually interpreted as being at Rathcrogan in Connaught) might actually have been the magnificent and significant hill of Cruachan Bri Eile/Ele (‘Hill/Rock of Bri Eile’) or Croghan Hill in Offaly in Leinster, which had distinct fairy associations:

Patrick's Well on Croghan Hill - The original Clebach?

Patrick’s Well on Croghan Hill – The original Clebach?

The hill of Bri Eile is referred to explicitly in the fairy-narratives of The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn from the manuscript Laud 610 (folio: 118Rb-121Va), believed to date from the 12thC: In this, after learning poetry through the mystical medium of the Salmon of Knowledge with the druid Finnecas (who lived on the Boyne, Fionn travels to defeat the notorious fairy woman of Cruachan Bri Eile…

“…. Finn went to Cethern, the son of Fintan, further to learn poetry with him. At that time there was a very beautiful maiden in Bri Ele, that is to say, in the fairy knoll of Bri Ele, and the name of that maiden was Ele. The men of Ireland were at feud about that maiden. One man after another went to woo her. Every year on Samain the wooing used to take place; for the fairy-mounds of Ireland were always open about Samain; for on Samain nothing could ever be hidden in the fairy-mounds. To each man that went to woo her this used to happen: one of his people was slain….” (Boyhood deeds of Fion mac Cumhaill – trans. Cross and Slover 1936)

'Old Croghan Man' - A self-sacrificial bog body from near Croghan Hill. 'The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn' state that the fairy woman of Cruachan Bri Eile took the life of a man from the parties that went to her at Samhain... Either she or the Bord na Móna were certainly fierce to him!

‘Old Croghan Man’ – A possibly self-sacrificial bog body from near Croghan Hill. ‘The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn’ state that the fairy woman of Cruachan Bri Eile took the life of a man from the parties that went to her at Samhain… Either she or the Bord na Móna certainly appear to have been fierce to him!

The association of this ancient bog-island with the mystical (and aquatic) is supported in some of the medieval Dindshenchas onomastic texts. Certain of these associate Cruachan Bri Eile with the source of the River Shannon, said to arise in a magical pool there (‘Rennes’ Prose Dindshenchas trans. Whitley Stokes):

59. SINANN.

Sinend daughter of Lodan Lucharglan son of Ler, out of Tír Tairngire (“Land of Promise, Fairyland”) went to Connla’s Well which is under the sea, to behold it. That is a well at which are the hazels and inspirations (?) of wisdom, that is, the hazels of the science of poetry, and in the same hour their fruit, and their blossom and their foliage break forth, and these fall on the well in the same shower, which raises on the water a royal surge of purple. Then the salmon chew the fruit, and the juice of the nuts is apparent on their purple bellies. And seven streams of wisdom spring forth and turn there again.

Now Sinend went to seek the inspiration, for she wanted nothing save only wisdom. She went with the stream till she reached Linn Mná Feile “the Pool of the Modest Woman”, that is, Brí Ele — and she went ahead on her journey, but the well left its place, and she followed it to the banks of the river Tarr-cáin “Fair-back”. After this it overwhelmed her, so that her back (tarr) went upwards, and when she had come to the land on this side (of the Shannon) she tasted death. Whence Sinann and Linn Mná Féile and Tarr-cain.

The implication of this is a connection between the Otherworld and the hill of Bri Eile through water. Connla’s Well is the same donor of Hazlenuts to the same Salmon of Wisdom eaten by Fionn mac Cumhaill in the Boyhood Deeds of Fionn mentioned above. The lore of the Dindsenchas is that she fell and died after emerging from the Otherworld, becoming the River Shannon. In the ‘Metrical Dindshenchas’ (Book of Leinster) Sinand is also described as a ‘daughter of Mongan’ (who might be interpreted as an incarnation of Manannan in the texts appended to ‘The Voyage of Bran’) and donates a magical stone to Fionn. In another eponymous verse, the poet recounts of Sinand that:

Lind Mna Feile, (I speak truly),
is the name of the pool where she was drowned:
this is its proper title inherited from her
if that be the true tale to tell.

This suggests that, in conjunction with the other legends, Sinand and Eile and even Bridget might be one and the same, and we might also interpret ‘Feile’ to be a literary fixation of the indigenous local tribal name ‘Failghe‘. Add local traditions about Aine into the mix and things certainly get more interesting! Are these all the same?

In the Ulster Cycle tales, ‘Eile’ was the ‘other’ daughter of legendary High King Eochaid Feidlech, whose more famous offspring was the fairy Queen Medb of Connaught, who features prominently in the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Medb was associated with another Cruachan – Rathcroghan in Roscommon – which has similar pagan connotations. Both Cruachans were the site of significant pre-Christian cemeteries, making their connection with the Otherworld strong.

Come to think of it, ‘Eile’ and ‘Allen’ seem to derive from a similar root too: In the middle-Irish tale Acallam na Senórach (‘The Colloquy of the Ancients‘), Aillen or Áillen mac Midhna of Sídh Finnachaidh (also the sídh of Lir) is the fairy whose fiery breath burns Tara each year until defeated by Fionn, confirming the link to the Cruachan Bri Eile and the name ‘Allen’. The ‘Hill of Allen’ in Kildare is also associated with Fionn, who was supposed to live there. The Slieve Bloom mountains are the other Fenian location of note – all lying on the periphery of this great midland bog or Eirenn…

Examining the etymology of ‘Eile’ and ‘Allen’ and considering the association with beautiful fairy women and St Bridget, it is fairly obvious that the derivation in álainn – ‘beautiful’. This makes ‘Cruachan Bri Eile’ mean ‘Rock of the Beautiful Brighde’.

Another place in the locality with goddess/fairy legends is ‘Cluain Aine’ (actual location uncertain), said by John O’Donovan in his edition of the ‘Four Masters’ to be near Croghan Hill. He translates ‘Cluain’ as ‘lawn, meadow or bog island’. Aine (‘Awnya’) is, of course, a name of the goddess encountered both in medieval legends and in placenames across Ireland.

'Connla's Well'

‘Connla’s Well’

The local tradition of Bridget being associated with Bri/Brig Eile is used in the Acta Sanctorum of the Bollandists (17thC):

“S. Maccalleus Episcopus magnus, cujus eccelesia est in Cruachan Brig Eile in regione Ifalgiae, et qui posuit velum candidum supra caput S. Brigidae

Saint MacCaille the great Bishop, whose church was at Cruachan Brig Eile in the district of the Hy Falgae (Offaly), placed the white veil on the head of Saint Bridget”

This may be based upon the following from the Bethu Brighde hagiography of the 8thC:

…On a certain day she goes with seven virgins to take the veil to a foundation on the side of Cróchán of Bri Éile, where she thought that Mel the bishop dwelt. There she greets two virgins, Tol and Etol , who dwelt there. They said: ‘The bishop is not here, but in the churches of Mag Taulach.’ While saying this they behold a youth called Mac Caille, a pupil of Mel the bishop. They asked him to lead them to the bishop. He said: ‘The way is trackless, with marshes, deserts, bogs and pools.’ The saint said: ‘Extricate us [from our difficulty].’ As they proceeded on their way, he could see afterwards a straight bridge there

The hill and its environs was once the stronghold of the powerful ruling Ua Conchobhair Failghe (“O’Connor Faly”), the most significant sept of the Leinster Uí Failghe, from which tribe modern Offaly derives its name.  This seat was at Daingean (Daingean Ua bhFáilghe – formerly Phillipstown) and was a regional capital until the start of the plantations and Flight of the Earls saw its importance decline.

The former power of the historic native rulers is illustrated by annalistic references to the Battle of ‘Tochar Cruacháin Brí Eile’ between the English and the men of Ua Fáilghe, and which took place in 1385 (Source: Annals of the Four Masters). The O’Connor Fáilghe were victorious, destroying and routing the English contingent. The name ‘Tochar’ (causeway) shows that there was an ancient bog trackway here (perhaps the one mentioned in Bethu Brighde), and it must have ‘come ashore’ at the hill or near O’Connor’s castle at Old Croghan village and connected outwards to other destinations. Cruachan Bri Eile was obviously once a powerful and strategic island fortress as well as a religious centre. Archaeological evidence of its importance goes back over thousands of years.

Saint Bridget was said to have come from among these peoples, so it is no surprise that hagiographers describe this as a site where she ‘received the veil’. Another site (of equal pagan importance) also lays claim to this, however: The Hill of Uisneach, visible from Croghan across the sprawling boglands of Allen:

“Mag Teloch, where holy Brigit received the veil from the hands of Mac Caille in Uisnech in Meath.” (Tírechán, Book of Armagh)

‘Teloch’ or ‘Tulach’ means a causeway – many used to criss-cross the boglands in ancient times and there was certainly one at Cruachan Bri Eile. Whatever place you believe the supposed ‘event’ may have happened (and it depends on the tribal loyalties of the writers), you can be certain that it occurred at some place associated with the goddess of the pagan past! The words Brig and Bri seem to link to St Bridget/Brighde, supposedly ‘given the veil’ at Cruachan Bri Eile by a saint whose name sounds suspiciously like a modified form of ‘Cailleach’, and who crops up later associated with the Isle of Man – the other ‘Hy Falga’.

There was once a church dedicated to Bishop MacCaille (said to be a nephew of Patrick) on the slopes of Croghan Hill, the remains of which are still visible on the eastern slopes. The Calendar of Cashel noted that his festival was celebrated there on the 25th of April – somewhat close to Beltain just as the surrounding bog and its pools were being pierced by flowers and new summer growth! The same day was celebrated in the Isle of Man at St Maughold’s Well on an elevated headland over the sea. The well once emptied into a stone coffin-shaped structure in which the ‘saint’ was said to sleep (like Sinand in the Linn Mná Feile at Bri Eile) and Maire MacNeil commented on the Manx Lhunasa celebrations once held there.

Morgan Le Fay and the enchanter Merlin. Even wizards were prone to the charms of the Goddess...

Patrick-MacCaille and Bridget-Eile-Aine?

Other interesting placenames attached to the hill in the medieval Dindsenchas are Magh Dairbhreach and Druim Dairbhreach (‘Plain of the Oaks’ and ‘Ridge of the Oaks’), also on the east side of the hill.

All text © 2014 The Atlantic Religion, except where stated.