5. Worship of Idols.

Idols were very generally worshipped. The earliest authentic document that mentions idols is St. Patrick's " Confession," in which the great apostle himself speaks of some of the Scots (i.e. Irish) who, up to that time, "had worshipped only idols and abominations." Elsewhere in the same document, as well as in many other ancient authorities, the practice of idol-worship is mentioned as a thing well known among the Irish; and the destruction of many idols in various parts of the country was an important part of St. Patrick's life-work.

Cromm Cruach

There was a great idol called Cromm Cruach, covered all over with gold and silver, in Magh Slecht (the 'Plain of Prostrations '), near the present village of Ballymagauran, in the County Cavan, surrounded by twelve lesser idols, covered with brass or bronze. In our most ancient books Cromm Cruach is mentioned as the chief idol of the whole country, and as being "until the coming of Patrick, the god of every folk that colonised Ireland." In a very old legend, found in the Dinnsenchus in the Book of Leinster, it is related that many centuries before the Christian era, King Tigerumas [Teernmas] and crowds of his people were destroyed in some mysterious way, as they were worshipping it on Samain Eve - the eve of the 1st November.In the main facts regarding Cromm literature is corroborated by the Lives of St. Patrick. In the Tripartite Life it is stated that this idol was adored by King Laegaire, and by many others; and that Patrick, setting out from Granard, went straight to Magh Slecht, and overthrew the whole thirteen. They were all pillar-stones: and the remains of them were in Magh Slecht at the time of the compilation of the Tripartite Life (eighth to tenth century): for it states that they were then to be seen, buried up to their heads in the earth, as Patrick had left them.

In the Dinnsenchus it is stated that, down to the time of St. Patrick, the Irish killed their children in sacrifice to Cromm Cruach in order to obtain from him plenty of milk, corn, and honey. But this statement is not supported by any other authority, though Cromm Cruach is mentioned often enough: it stands quite alone. In such an important matter the Dinnsenchus is not a sufficient authority, for it is a comparatively late document, and the stories in it, of which this is one, are nearly all fabulous - invented to account for the names. Besides, St. Patrick knew all about this idol; and if children were sacrificed to it down to his time, it would be mentioned in some of the numerous Lives of him. It may then be taken as certain that the Dunsenchus statement is a pure invention, and that this horrid custom of direct human sacrifice to idols or gods, though practised by the Gauls, never reached Ireland.

As Cromm Cruach was the "king-idol" of all Ireland, there was a special idol-god, named Kermand Kelstach, that presided over Ulster. This stone-idol was still preserved as a curiosity in the porch of the cathedral of Clogher down to the time of the annalist Cathal Magnire (died 1498), as he himself tells us.


were worshipped in other parts of Ireland as well as at Moy-Slecht and Clogher. The Dinnsenchus, after speaking of Cromm Cruach and the other twelve, remarks that from the time of Heremon to the coming of the good Patrick of Armagh, there was adoration of pillar-stones in Ireland: a statement which we find also in other old authorities. In the Brehon Laws, one of the objects used for marking the boundaries of land is stated to be "a stone of worship." This interesting record at once connects the Irish custom with the Roman worship of the god Terminus, which god was merely a pillar-stone placed standing in the ground to mark the boundary of two adjacent properties - exactly as in Ireland. Even to this day some of these old idols or oracle-stones are known; and the memory of the rites performed at them is preserved in popular legend.


The Irish - like the Scottish Highlanders - had an idol called Bél [Bail], whose worship was celebrated with fire-ceremonies. There was a great meeting held at Ushnagh (in present Co. Westmeath) every year on the 1st May, when two fires were kindled in Bel's name, with solemn incantations, by the druids; and cattle were driven between the fires to protect them against the diseases of the coming year. On this occasion, moreover, the young of cattle were offered to the idol. These pagan ceremonies were practised on May Day, all through Ireland, in imitation of those at Ushnagh, and were continued down to late times,

We know, from Scriptural as well as from other authorities, that the Phoenicians had an idol-god named Baal or Bé1, which they worshipped with great fire-ceremonies, and which they introduced to all the surrounding nations. Seeing that Ireland was well known to the Phoenicians, that the Irish god Bé1 is identical in name with the Phoenician god, and was worshipped with the same fire-ceremonies, it is obvious - though we have no direct authoritative statement on the point - that the Irish derived the name and worship of their god Bél-either directly or indirectly-from the Phoenicians.

The Irish, like the Continental nations of the Middle Ages, paid great reverence to their arms, especially swords, amounting sometimes to down-right worship, which accounts for the custom of swearing by them. This oath, which was very usual in Ireland, was quite as binding as that by the elements. The reason is given in " The Sick Bed of Cuculainn ":-" Because demons were accustomed to speak to them from their arms ; and hence it was that an oath by their arms was inviolable."

6. Worship of the Elements.

Elemental Worship in General.

In the Lives of the saints and other ecclesiastical writings, as well as in the lay literature, we have ample evidence that various natural objects were worshipped by the ancient Irish. But this worship was only partial, confined to individuals or to the people of certain districts, each individual or family or group having some special favourite object. We have no record of the universal worship of any element. There is reason to believe that it was not the mere material object they worshipped, but a spirit or genius supposed to dwell in it: for the Celts of Ireland peopled almost all remarkable natural objects with preternatural beings.


The worship of water, as represented in wells, is often mentioned. The Tripartite Life, and Tirechan, in the Book of Armagh, relate that St. Patrick, in his journey through Connaught, came to a well called Slán, which the heathens worshipped as a god, believing that a certain 'prophet' had caused himself to be buried under it in a stone coffin to keep his bones cool from fire that he dreaded; for 'he adored water as a god, but hated fire as an evil being." This prophet was of course a druid. More than a century later, in the time of St. Columba, as will be found mentioned in next chapter, there was a well in Scotland which the pagan people "worshipped as a divinity." These healing wells were generally called by the appropriate name of Slán [slaun], which means 'healing.' It is to be observed that well-worship was not peculiar to Ireland: at one time it prevailed all over Europe.

The Sun

That the sun was worshipped in Ireland - at least partially, like some other natural objects - is made certain by several passages in our ancient literature. St. Patrick plainly intimates this when he says in his Confession - speaking of the Irish - that all who adore the sun shall perish eternally. This is a contemporary statement: for the saint is evidently denouncing a practice existing in his own time. We have a more specific account in Cormac's Glossary; but this entry is four centuries later, and records, not contemporary custom, but one existing long before the time of the compilation of the Glossary. It states that Indelba (' Images ') was the name applied to the altars of certain idols: and that these altars were so called because "they (the pagans) were wont to carve on them the forms (Irisb, delba) of the elements they adored: for example, the figure of the sun." One of the three last Dedannan kings of Ireland, as we are told, was named Mac Grena (' son or devotee of the sun ') because his god was the sun.


That fire was worshipped by some of the Irish appears from the statement in the Tripartite

Life that Laegaire's druid accused St. Patrick of having fire for a god, which shows that the idea of fire-worship was familiar. We have already seen that fires were kindled by the druids at Ushnagh in honour of the god Bél, and that fire played a prominent part in certain pagan festivals. Many of these fire-ceremonies - now quite harmless - have descended to our own time, some signalising the 1st of May, and some the eve of the 24th June, when the people light open-air fires as soon as dusk comes on, so that the whole country is illuminated.

Elemental Oath

No doubt this ancient elemental worship was the origin of the very general pagan Irish custom of swearing by the elements, or, in other words, giving the elements as guarantee: an oath which it was believed very dangerous to violate, as is shown by the fate of Laegaire, king of, Ireland in the time of St. Patrick. In an attempt to exact the Boruma tribute from Leinster, he was defeated and taken prisoner by the Leinstermen: but was released on taking the usual oath, giving as guarantee - i.e., swearing by - the "sun and moon, water and air, day and night, sea and land," that he would never again demand it. But in open violation of his oath he invaded Leinster (A.D. 463) for this same Tribute in less than two years: whereupon - as the Four Masters express it - " the sun and wind killed him because he had violated them": "for" says an older authority, the Book of the Dun Cow-"no one durst violate them at that time."

7. The Pagan Heaven and a Future State.

Names and Situations

There was a belief in a land of everlasting youth and peace, beautiful beyond conception, and called by various names : -Tir-na-nÓg [Teernanogue]], i.e., the 'Land of the [ever-]youthful people ' : 1-Bresail, or I-Brazil, the 'Land of Bresal': Mag Mell [Moy Mell], the 'Plain of Pleasures': and several others. Sometimes it is described as situated far out in the Western Ocean: sometimes it was deep down under the sea or under a lake or well: sometimes it was in a hollow shee or fairy-hill. The inhabitants were the side [shee] or fairies, who were immortal, and who lived in perfect peace and in a perpetual round of harmless pleasures.

But it was not for human beings,' except a few individuals who were brought thither by the fairies, as will be told below.

This pagan heaven legend did not escape the notice of Giraldus Cambrensis. He tells the story of the Phantom Island, as he calls it, off the western coast, and how, on one occasion when it appeared, some men rowed out towards it, and shot a fiery arrow against it, which fixed it. To this day the legend remains as vivid as ever: and the people believe that if they could succeed in throwing fire on it from their boat, it would fix it, as happened before the time of Giraldus.

Immortality of the Soul

We know from classical writers that the ancient Gauls or Celts taught, as one of their tenets, that the soul was immortal; and that after death it passed from one human body to another: and this, it appears, applied to all human beings. But in Irish literature I cannot find anything to warrant the conclusion that the pagan Irish believed that the souls of all men were immortal. A few individuals became immortal in Fairyland, and some other few lived on after death, appearing as other men, or in the shapes of animals, as will be presently related. But these are all palpable exceptions, and are put forward as such in the legends.

A few persons were brought by fairies to the happy other world, and became immortal: and the time passed there so obscurely and pleasantly that a whole century appeared only the length of a year or so. Once a person got to Fairyland he could never return, except, indeed, on a short visit, always in a boat or on horseback, merely to take a look at his native land: but if once he touched his mother earth, the spell of youth and immortality was broken, and he immediately felt the consequences. Bran, the son of Febal, had been sailing with his crew among the happy islands for hundreds of years, though they thought it was only the length of an ordinary voyage. When they returned to the coast of Kerry, one man jumped ashore, against solemn warning, but fell down instantly, and became a heap of ashes. Ossian, the son of Finn, did not fare quite so badly when he returned to Ireland riding an enchanted steed, after his 300 years' sojourn in Tirnanoge, which he thought only three years. Traversing his old haunts, the wonder of all the strange people he met, for his size and beauty, he on one occasion, in trying to lift a great stone, overbalanced himself, and had to leap to the ground, when he instantly became a withered, bony, feeble old man, while his fairy steed galloped off and never returncd.


The foregoing observations regarding the pagan Irish notions of immortality after death apply in a great measure to their ideas of metempsychosis. In our romantic literature there are legends of the re-birth of human beings : i.e. certain persons, commonly heroes or demigods, were re-born, and figured in the world, with new personality, name, and character. Thus Cucalainn was a re-incarnation of the Dedannan hero-god, Lug of the Long Arms. In other cases human beings, after death, took the shapes of various animals in succession, and re-appeared as human beings. Mongan of Rathmore Moylinny, king of Dalriada, in Ulster, in the seventh century - a historical personage - was fabled to be a re-incarnation of the great Finn mac Cumail of the third century. This same Mongan went, after death, into various shapes, a wolf, a stag, a salmon, a seal, a swan; like the Welsh Taliessin. Fintan, the nephew of Parthalon, survived the deluge, and lived in the shapes of various animals successively for many ages, after which he was re-incarnated in the sixth century as a man named Tuan Mac Cairill.

This Tuan was a celebrated sage, and no wonder, for he witnessed all the remarkable things that happened in Ireland from the time of Parthalon, a lapse of some thousands of years, and related everything to St. Finnen of Magh Bile.

These stories are scattered, and have no thread of connexion ; they do not coalesce into a system : they are told of individuals, in palpable exception to the general run of people, and many of them are stated to be the result of magical skill. There is no statement anywhere that all persons were re-born as human beings, or underwent transformations after death. Stories of a similar kind are current among most early nations. There are accordingly no grounds

whatever for asserting that the ancient Irish believed in the doctrine of general metempsychosis; and this is also O'Curry's conclusion.

8. Turning 'Deisiol,' or Sunwise

The Celtic people were, and still are, accustomed to turn sunwise - i.e. from left to right - in performing certain rites; and the word deisiol [deshil] was used to designate this way of turning: from dess now deas, 'the right hand': dessel or deisol, 'right-hand-wise.' This custom is very ancient, and like many others, has descended from pagan Christian times. It was, indeed, quite as common among the Christian people of Ireland as among the pagans: and no wonder; for the great apostle Patrick, as well as several other eminent Irish saints, showed them the example. For instance, St. Patrick consecrated Armagh, as St Senan did Scattery Island, each by walking sunwise with his followers in solemn procession round the site.

9. The Ordeal.

The use of the ordeal for determining truth or falsehood, guilt or innocence, was developed from prehistoric times in Ireland: but the germs were, no doubt, brought hither by the earliest colonists. The Irish had their own ordeals, in which were some peculiarities not found among other nations of Europe. Most originated in pagan times, but, as in England and elsewhere, the ordeal continued in use for many centuries after the general adoption of Christianity.

In the Book of Ballymote there is a list and description of twelve different kinds of ordeal used by the ancient Irish. Among these were the following :-

"Morann's Collar"

of which the common version of the legend is this - The great brehon or judge, Morann, had a collar, which, if placed round his neck, or round the neck of any judge, contracted on his throat if he delivered a false or unjust judgment, and continued to press more tightly, ever till he delivered a righteous one. Placed on the neck of a witness, if he bore false testimony it acted similarly, until it forced him to acknowledge the truth.

"The Adze of Mochta"

the metal head of an adze was made red-hot in a fire of blackthorn or of tlie quicken-tree, "and the [tongue of the accused] was passed over it: it would burn the person who had falsehood: but would not burn the person who was innocent."

The "Three Dark Stones"

A bucket was filled with bog-dust, charcoal, and other kinds of black stuff, and three little stones, white, black, and speckled, were put into it, buried deep in the black mass, into which the accused thrust down his hand: if he drew the white stone, he was innocent: if the black one, he was guilty: and if he drew the speckled one, he was half guilty."

The "Caldron of truth"

was a vessel of silver and gold. "Water was heated in it till it was boiling; into which the accused plunged his hand: if he was guilty, the hand was burned: if not, it was uninjured.


- in several forms-was very common as an ordeal.

"Luchta's iron"

the druids having first uttered an incantation over a piece of iron, put it in a fire till it was red-hot. It was then placed in the hand of the accused: and "it would burn him if he had guilt: but would not injure him if innocent."

"Waiting at an altar"

The person was to go nine times round the [pagan] altar, and afterwards to drink water over which a druid's incantations had been uttered. "If the man was guilty, the sign of his transgression was made manifest in him [by some bodily disfigurement]: if innocent, he remained unharmed." Observe the striking resemblance of this last to the Jewish ordeal for a woman suspected of misconduct, as we read in the Book of Numbers, chapter v.

10. The Evil Eye.

From various passages in some very old documents, it may be inferred that the belief in the evil eye was very prevalent in Ireland in old times. The great Fomorian champion, Balor of the Mighty Blows, had a tremendous evil eye called Birach-derc ('speary-eye': bir, 'a spear'). It was never opened except on the field of battle; and one baleful glance was enough to enfeeble a whole army of his enemies, so as that a few brave men could put them to flight.

The Tale of the Second Battle of Moytura relates how he came by his evil eye. When he was a boy, his father's druids used to concoct their spells in a room carefully closed, 'cooking sorcery' over a fire in a caldron, from some horrible ingredients, like Shakespeare's witches in "Macbeth." The boy, curious to know what the druids were at, climbed up and peeped through an opening, when a whiff of foul steam from the caldron blew into his eye, and communicated to it all the baleful influence of the hellish mixture. But this eye, powerful as it was, was not proof against the tathium or sling-ball of his grandson Lug of the Long Arms. At the Second Battle of Moytura, Baler was present, prepared to use his eye on the Dedannan army. But Lug, who was on the side of the Dedannans, kept on watch ; and the moment the lid of the Cyclopean eye was raised, and before the glare had time to work bale, he let fly the bard ball from his sling, which struck the open eye with such force as to go clean through eye, brain, and skull.

These observations may be brought to a close by the remark that the superstition of the evil eye has remained among our people - as among others - down to this day.

11. Geasa or Prohibitions.

There were certain acts which people were prohibited from doing under penalty of misfortune or ill luck of some kind. Such a prohibition was called geis or geas [gesh, gass : g hard as in get, gap]: plural geasa [gassa]. A geis was something forbidden. It was believed to be very dangerous to disregard these prohibitions. Because Conari the Great, king of Ireland in the first century of the Christian era, violated some of his geasa - most of them unwittingly - the peace of his reign was broken by plunder and rapine; and he himself was finally slain in the sack of Da Derga's Hostel. Some geasc were binding on people in general. Thus, on the day of King Laegaire's festival, it was geis for the people to light a fire anywhere round Tara till the king's festival fire had first been lighted. It was geis for anyone to bring arms into the palace of Tara after sunset.

The most interesting of the geasa were those imposed on kings: of which the object of some was obviously to avoid unnecessary personal danger or loss of dignity. For example, it was a geis to the king of Emain (i.e. of Ulster) to attack alone a wild boar in his den : a sensible restriction. According to the Book of Acaill and many other authorities, it was geis for a king with a personal blemish to reign at Tara: so that when king Cormac mac Art lost one eye by an accident, he at once abdicated. The reason of these two geasa is plain enough. But there were others which it is not so easy to explain. They appear to be mere superstitions - obviously from pagan times - meant to avoid unlucky days, evil omens, &C Some kings, were subject to geasa from which others were free. The king of Emain was forbidden to listen to the singing of the birds of Lough Swilly, or to bathe in Lough Foyle on a May Day. The king of Ireland and the provincial kings had each a series of geasa. To the king of Ireland it was forbidden that the sun should rise on him while lying in bed in Tara, i.e. he should be up before sunrise; he was not to alight from his chariot on Moy Breagh, on a Wednesday; and he was not to go round North Leinster left-hand-wise under any circumstances. Many others of these kingly geasa may be seen in my larger " Social History of Ancient Ireland" vol. i., pages 311-812.

It is well known that geasa or prohibitions were, and are still, common among all people, whether savage or civilised. They flourish at this day among ourselves. Some people will not dine in a company of thirteen, or remove to a new house on a Saturday, or get married in May : what are these but geasa, and quite as irrational as any of those enumerated above?

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