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The Summer Sojourn of a Druid in Éire

I was supposed to go to Scotland last summer. I had spent a year putting together a tour but by June there were only nine participants, not enough to pay my way. They went along without me and had a wonderful time under the care and guidance of Jaimie George, a native Scot who lives in Glastonbury, England. As fate would have it I was destined for Eire. I received a completely unexpected call in late June from a Pagan gentleman named Robert who wanted to take his ten year old daughter to Ireland but had no idea where to go. I know the spirits meant for the trip to happen because I tried to talk him out of it three times. He offered to cover my expenses for a three week sojourn if I would just guide him and his daughter to the most sacred sites of pre-Christian Eire.

My schedule was clear for August so we departed on July 29, arriving in Shannon on July 30. That afternoon we were standing on a hill overlooking Lough Gur, a Bronze Age settlement where Celts had deposited many precious metal items into the lake in honor of the Gods. We found three concentric stone circles on the hill top and the view of the lake below was astoundingly beautiful. Later in the day we visited the Lough Gur stone circle which has been dated to 2,000 BC and is the largest stone circle in Eire. It was also the site of the Samhain bull sacrifice. The entrance to the circle is in the East. At Samhain the light falls in such a way as to leave exactly one half of the circle dark and one half light – a perfect configuration for the changing of the seasons. July 31, Lughnasad Eve, was my birthday. That day we began the magnificent drive down the Ring of Kerry, stopping at the Kenmare Druid Circle for a short ceremony. The circle is on a small hill near the center of town and is perfectly intact. In the center of the ring is an egg shaped stone which serves as an altar (it was probably a burial originally). We silently circumambulated the stones, touching each one and offering herbs, and then we held hands and said prayers of thanksgiving over the central altar stone.

The locals are well aware of the significance of the site and have left it perfectly intact for millennia (these days the Office of Public Works is in charge of such sites, formerly it was the Sidhe who guarded them. For thousands of years it was considered very bad luck to interfere with a Fairy Fort in any way and the monuments of the ancients were preserved for posterity). I had never been in Kerry and I can say without reservation that it is the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen. Lush forests completely carpeted in moss (even the trees and stones are covered in green) greet you as you enter the lake district. Later the vista of the ocean opens up and you are treated to craggy, heather covered mountains washing down to the sea. Wildflowers are everywhere, and of course, sheep.

As we approached Waterville on a small twisting road that hugged the coast we looked about half a mile below and spotted our first Celtic fort. The “Lower Stone Fort” is recently reconstructed by archaeologists and students and dates to the first century CE. The circular stone outer wall encloses a grassy central courtyard where animals were sheltered during the night, protected from cattle raiders. The outer walls of a round house are carefully reconstructed in the center. No one knows what the roof would have looked like – it could have been turf, thatch or leather. In any case it is now left open to the elements and the sky.

Further along the coast we spied the Waterville Stone Alignment, a row of dramatic, huge stones perched on a hilltop overlooking the sea. Naturally we climbed the hill and were treated to a magnificent view, sea on three sides and a lake or estuary on the other.

It happened that Lughnasad weekend is the date of the Cahirciveen music festival. We found a good B&B and stayed for a few days, enjoying the sea food and music. Robert opted for a bar that featured Country and Western tunes. His large black cowboy hat was a big hit and the band made many jokes about parking your horses outside, please. I opted for traditional sessions.

One night I heard the most magnificent band playing. There were fiddles and bourans, guitars, a concertina, a wooden flute, a tin whistle and a harp. Afterwards I was astounded to hear that everyone in the band was from Rome with the exception of the harpist who was German!

Cahirciveen is on the Iveragh Peninsula, named for Iver, a son of Mil who was murdered by the locals in the river that flows through the town in about 1,000 BCE. Mil was a Celtic tribal chieftain from Northern Spain and his sons were dispatched to avenge Iver’s death. Thus began the famous invasion of Ireland by the “Sons of Mil” who, accompanied by their Bard Aimergin whose poetry we still have, engaged the Tuatha De Dannan in battle and began the Celtic colonization of Eire (This account is from oral mythology. It is quite possible that there were Celts in Eire already but due to the prowess of the Milesian’s Bard only their deeds were recorded for posterity).

At Cahirciveen I was asked by an elderly Irish lady “How long are you home for?” and “Do you have a job in the States?’. It took me a while to understand what she meant – she thought I was Irish. This odd phenomena reoccurred everywhere I went. The owner of a B&B in Kerry complimented me on my good Irish name (Ellen has been a popular name in Ireland for much of this century). In Ulster I remarked that I never drank coffee, only tea. Everyone chimed in “that’s because you are not American”. Even Lady Olivia Robertson who has met me before and knows my books are published in the States took me aside and asked me if I was Irish. She said I had an Irish accent! Now I do have Scottish ancestry on my mother’s side but no Irish in me at all (except in my heart). I concluded that this was a past life spilling through (or else the Fairies had put a glamour on me so that I would fit in with the locals the better to further the plans of the Sidhe).

It is a well known fact that most of the “Holy Wells” in Eire were once venerated by pre-Christians and later re-dedicated to Catholic saints. One of the tasks we set ourselves to was the collecting of water from sacred wells which we would bottle and bring back to the States for healing work. Just outside of Cahirciveen is a well dedicated to Saint Forsey. The story related to the well is that he was a blind man who heard the sound of the waters, bathed his eyes in them, and had his sight restored. Thus the well is reputed to be very healing for the eyes.

The name Cahirciveen means “Civeen’s fort”. Civeen was a Celtic warrior woman who had a large fort at the site of the present town. It was dismantled to build the bridge that now spans the local river. The ancient Romans reported that the Celts made no distinction as to gender when it came to questions of sovereignty. Indeed we have the evidence of the many battle queens such as Maeve and Boudicca who stand as examples. The Dingle Peninsula, which was our next destination, was named “Corca Duibhne” in the original Irish, “Seeds of Duibhne”. Duibhne was the local Goddess.

We continued north up the coast road to Dingle and the “Fahan Group” of beehive huts. Five groups of beehive structures exist there in close proximity overlooking the sea. These huts were stone roofed and surrounded by circular protective walls as in the earlier forts. They are of a later date than the sod or leather roofed constructions. The style was adopted by the earliest Christian communities who lived in small family groups of married and single practitioners along with their children and herd animals (clerical celibacy was imposed by Rome some centuries later).

Near the town of Dingle we stopped to view the Gallarus Oratory and cross. The building is over 1300 years old and is a magnificent example of dry rubble masonry – perfectly sloped walls that lead to a pitched roof built entirely without the use of mortar. Then it was on to Kilmalkedar church with it’s stone sundial and Ogham stone. Ogham was the original alphabet of the Irish, it’s best known characters consist entirely of tree names though other names were used.

The church holds a special memory for me. As I approached it I saw a tiny wren perched on a flowering bush. I knew that the wren was sacred to the Druids so I took it as a welcome omen. I got closer and closer until I was about six inches from the little bird. Every time another person drew near the bird would fly away. When they walked off the bird would return and we would continue our non-verbal “conversation”.

According to tradition there was a contest among the birds to see which bird was the “King of Birds”. The title was to be won by whichever bird could fly the highest. The eagle, of course, felt that it would be no contest and eagerly took flight. But a tiny wren was nestled in the eagle’s feathers and when the mighty raptor could fly no higher the wren simply took off and proved that it flew the highest of all.

The lesson is that as a Druid one has to use one’s wits and intelligence to succeed. Brute force is not the highest option. Then it was on to the Glenansheer and Poulnabrone dolmens of the Burren, that mysterious, stony stretch of land where the earth is so rocky and poor that fields have to be constructed by hand using seaweed and organic compost. Even there the landscape holds a harsh beauty and one is especially aware of the interplay of clouds, rain, sun and wind, across the empty reaches of stone. We picked a somewhat unfortunate day to make a crossing to the Arran Islands. Fine weather had been predicted but rain set in for the duration and the waves of the sea were 20 feet or more. The tiny ferry was tossed unmercifully and everyone on deck was soaked with brine. We viewed Dun Aenghus, the “Black Fort” in a steady rain. Looking back I am grateful for that rain because it illustrated graphically the conditions that the islanders of the past and of today commonly experience. The Dun is the largest fort in Europe, consisting of three rings and perched right on the edge of a sea cliff, surrounded by rows of “dragon’s teeth”, a protective rampart of jagged stones projecting outward to repel invaders.

The ferry to the islands leaves from the town of Doolin, famous for it’s non-stop Celtic music sessions that go on for most of the year in the three local pubs. Young travellers hitch hike across Europe for the privilege of sitting in on the sessions.

Next I had a scheduled appointment to speak at a Pagan gathering in Cork, at Castle Pook, near Dunraile. We were hosted by local Pagans on a piece of land that was once part of a forest given to the Fianna as their fee lands for hunting. The Fianna were independent warrior-poet societies who helped defend local kings. In exchange they were given hunting rights and other privileges. As I am currently writing a novel about the Fianna it was an unexpected surprise to be hosted on their traditional lands for four days.

It was at the gathering that I first heard about the “Forest Druid” tradition which is the remnant of the native Irish religion. Apparently in Elizabethan times the island was still wooded to a large extent. The English gave the order for the vast oak forests to be cut down in a four year period, largely to make barrels. This left vast numbers of forest dwellers with no place to live, no place to find food, and no place to hide. Only sixty percent of the island’s people were baptized at that time and the forest dwellers comprised the bulk of the Pagan remnant.

A bounty was placed on the heads of forest dwellers equal to the bounty for the head of a wolf. I had heard the nick name “Wolf’s Head” applied to Robin Hood but did not fully grasp the significance until that moment. If one was a displaced forest dweller looking for food one automatically became a “poacher” and liable to be shot, just like a marauding wolf.

The Druid religion has traditionally placed a great significance on trees. For example, there are many Ogham alphabets, a bird Ogham, a pig Ogham and others. Yet the Ogham of the trees has received the most attention. The forest dwellers had their own holy people, not necessarily Christian, who understood the medicinal and esoteric aspects of the trees and herbs of the forests in which they dwelled. Today’s “Forest Druids” are attempting to piece together the ancient woods wisdom that was carried forward by their ancestors.

I was surprised to learn that the Forest Druids of both Southern and Northern Ireland are completely unaware of the ancient Celtic wisdom texts that American Druids study today. I plan to send excerpts from the Audacht Morainn, the Cauldron of Poesy, the Colloquy of the Sages and other texts to them as a small contribution to their reconstructionist efforts.

In my travels in Eire I have only met four Druids in person and I know of two others. Estimates are that there are between four hundred and a thousand Pagans in Eire at the moment. In common with the Pagan communities in most other countries, the average, generic Pagan of Ireland is a Wiccan or an eclectic solitary.

I got myself into a wee bit of trouble in one of my workshops at Castle Pook. I innocently asked the question “What is the difference between a Wiccan and a Druid in Ireland?”. I asked because I genuinely wanted to know how Irish Paganism was the same or different from the American and English varieties. As is often the case with a naive, innocent traveller, I had stepped into a mine field of sorts, without knowing it. There were howls of “How DARE you ask such a question?” and “Who do you think you are?” from the assembled Wiccans.

Just the day before I had given my usual tree workshop, discussing the herbal and mystical associations of many of the trees on the land and there had been nothing but approval and smiles. It was most puzzling.

The one Druid who was in attendance, Nial, spoke up and said “That is an excellent question and one that needs to be addressed”. He went on to explain to the group that Wicca was an Anglo-Saxon import while Druidism was the native religion of the indigenous Irish. This provoked more defensive posturing from the Wiccans who went on to insist that “there was no difference between Druidism and Wicca at all and what a useless question I had brought up” etc. The owner of the land echoed the Wiccan’s position by insisting that Wicca and Druidism were the same thing. At that point I realized the development of Paganism is so new in Ireland that these distinctions are poorly understood as of yet. It is a bit like walking into a Pagan gathering of the ’60’s in the US. After the gathering Robert, myself and Desiree, Robert’s daughter, were taken to the “Hag’s Bed” by Bev, the owner of the land at Castle Pook. This site, located in Labhacallee, is dated to 1500 BCE. Tradition states that the wife of the last Archdruid of Ireland is buried there. It is an intact gallery grave, located on the fee lands of the Fianna.

I have visited at least fifty gallery graves, cairns and barrows in the last decade, in Ireland, Scotland and England. This particular grave struck me in a direct and unusual way. I found myself overcome by a tremendous sadness and I began to weep. I felt as if I knew someone who had been buried there personally. It was a fresh, keening grief, felt deep in my guts. There was no intellectual fantasy component to the effect this grave had on me. It was overwhelming and real. The sadness stayed with me for days after.

Later in the day we visited a beautiful circle in Lisivigeen. It was completely surrounded by oaks and hollies, rowan and ash trees. The energy of the place was fresh and undisturbed and very green. It is situated on private land so one needs to get permission to see it. It is the sort of place one returns to in one’s mind when inner healing is needed.

Every time I visit Ireland I have to make the pilgrimage to Uisnech. On the road between Athlone and Mullingar it marks the exact geographic center of Eire. The kingship alternated between Uisnech and Tara and Uisnech was the home of the Archdruid. Each year at Beltaine runners came from every province in Ireland carrying torches. They would dip them into the sacred fire of Uisnech and carry the flames back out to the provinces.

There were about one hundred and fifty kingdoms in Eire at the time. The carrying of the fire to the provinces was a way of strengthening spiritual unity in a land of continual cattle raiding and warfare. The Samhain fire originated from Tara.

There is not much left to see at Uisnech. There is the huge Cat Stone, the hawthorns that dot the hillside, and the small lake nestled in the curve of a hill. But if one has a true heart one can feel the presence of the ancients still, in and around the old stone walls and amidst the wild flowers.

Then it was on to Castlepollard near Mullingar to the ancient (and unfortunately redecorated in 1950’s style) holy well sacred to Brighid. The waters there are reputed to heal arthritis, rheumatism and pain. We took pictures of ourselves and gathered more water for healing work. Robert and his daughter were always careful to make offerings at the wells, American or Irish coins were their usual choice. I carried a pouch of tobacco for such purposes.

Then we drove to the Proleek dolmen in Dundalk, a 2-3,000 BCE gallery grave and dolmen complex near the Northern border. The capstone on the dolmen weighs forty tons. Tradition holds that if one successfully places a pebble on top the Fairies will grant a wish. I got mine at the first throw.

I had been invited to speak at a second Pagan gathering in the North. In my previous visit to Eire I had studiously avoided the North, fearing for my safety and not wanting to support the occupying regime with my dollars. It was with real fear that I crossed the border.

In the weeks previous to the trip I had repeatedly e:mailed John and later called from Cork to see if the situation up there was safe. He repeatedly assured me that it was, the marching season was over and everything was calm.

As we crossed the border we realized we needed to change our money into English pounds so we stopped in Bambridge, about half an hour from John’s house, to exchange our money at a bank. As we pulled up I noticed that the windows of several stores across from the bank were boarded up and there were red posters reading “bomb sale” on several shop windows. Not wanting to believe what I was seeing I asked the teller if it had been a bomb. She said that yes, ten days before there had been a bomb. But it was OK because they had been given a fifteen minute warning, the department store was evacuated and only two people were hurt. Now this is the kind of thing that never gets reported in American newspapers.

I eventually saw that the way the Northerners deal with living in a war zone is to mostly be in denial. John felt perfectly comfortable in assuring me that everything was calm because this kind of thing is commonplace. The sad fact is that life in the North is very different from life in the South.

In the South everyone feels free to go to a pub at night. There are places to grab a bite to eat in every town and the locals stay up late into the night drinking and talking and enjoying the “craic”. In the North there are video cameras set up at pub entrances to record comings and goings. I was told we would have to drive half an hour to find a place to get breakfast. There is a constant and pervasive sense of sadness and tension. This has been going on for thirty years now so for most of the people it seems “normal” and they have no thoughts of leaving.

We were hosted by John at his farmhouse which turned out to be the Vicarage in which the poet Yeats’ grandfather lived. John took us to visit Emain Macha, the famous Navan Fort that is under intense study by archaeologists. In 94 BCE a large ringed structure that had been newly built was deliberately filed in with stones and then burned to the ground. Previously it had been the rath of the high kings of Ulster, of Macha and the Cattle Raid of Cooley and of Cuchulainn.

He also took us to Altanadevan in Augher, County Tyrone, now called the place where Saint Patrick heard confessions. There is a giant stone chair perched on a hill in a larch forest known as the “Druid’s Chair” hinting that the site was in use long before Saint Patrick. I have never seen so many shamrocks (wood sorrel) growing in one place. When I see these delicate plants in such profusion it tells me that the Fairy realm is near. This place too carried a green energy about it. There is a small well that is actually a hole in a rock near the chair. It is a classic “clootie” well and locals tie strips of cloth to the nearby trees as they petition for cures.

Then we drove on to Beagh Mor, “Big Birch Forest”, near Cookstown, which today is heather bog and farmland, not a birch tree in sight. The site features three pairs of stone circles and a circle of “dragon’s teeth” projecting from the soil.

My reception from the local Pagans in the North was quite different from what I had encountered at Castle Pook. “Catholic Pagans” and “Protestant Pagans” came together in a spirit of gentle camaraderie and seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say about American Druidism. the local Witches did not take offence to anything I said, in fact they said they wanted me to come back again. One person even offered to set up paying workshops for me in Belfast and Scotland so I could cover my flight costs.

It seems that the Pagans in the North have learned a costly and painful lesson. They have seen the very real consequences of sectarian violence and have become humble and tolerant as a result. I have to admit that I was charmed by them and was delighted at the prospect of returning – until the bomb went off.

We were in Ulster on “Bloody Saturday”, the day that the so- called “Real IRA” murdered twenty eight people – only six of whom were men, the rest were women, children and babies, both Catholic and Protestant. We had intended to stay on until Sunday but John’s wife was overcome with exhaustion and we felt it best that we leave a day early. We spent the morning packing and saying our goodbys. It was after one when we finally got into the car. The bomb went off at ten minutes after three.

I had entertained the idea of going to Donegal which would have taken us through Omagh on the day of the bombing. Somehow we were being protected because I had a strong urge to go South instead, to Newgrange.

That night we were in Slane, near Drogheda. It was August 15, the traditional day when the locals would visit the “Lady Well”. According to tradition the water disappears before and after that date. Leaves picked near the well on August 15 are said to have great healing virtue. Naturally we had to make the trek and that night I heard about the bomb.

Words fail me as I attempt to describe my feelings about the perpetrators of that disgusting and cruel act. One thing is for certain, everywhere I have travelled in Eire the people want only one thing – peace. Catholic, Protestant or Pagan they want it. North and South want it. The sub-human vermin who took the law into their own bloody hands do not represent the people of Ireland. They are the worst example of what happens when those who think themselves warriors seek to change the world by force of violence. It happens that there are Celtic Reconstructionist Warrior Societies in Ireland. They outfit themselves with period gear and have even gone so far as to build a fort for their war games. But when I asked one if he thought any of their warriors would have to draw blood to prove that they were a “real” warrior he was apalled at the suggestion. He said “Absolutely not”.

The sad fact is that the RIRA are either morons who made a terrible mistake or psychopathic killers. Some believe that since most of them are new recruits (the leaders wanted fresh troops with no known security profiles) the person in charge of parking the car that held the bomb either couldn’t find a parking space near the intended target, the courthouse, or panicked and left the car in the wrong place. When the warning was phoned in the police dutifully shepherded the people away from the courthouse and right on top of the bomb.

The second scenario is even worse because it assumes that the sub-human cretins who did this DELIBERATELY timed it to cause the most carnage, not caring who they killed. It was a busy shopping day and a parade was scheduled to be going through town at 3PM. Luckily it had been delayed.

The perpetrators of this heinous act are completely without honor. They are too cowardly to take on a military target. I see the situation up there as a war zone and I cannot fathom why the UN has not become involved. Thirty years of mayhem is enough. Does no one do anything because they are Irish and so who cares? Or is it because no one wants to embarrass the English by intervening? I was so upset by the carnage and the thought that one of my new friends could have been a target (John’s house is only forty minutes away from Omagh) that I actually went looking for a church service that Sunday morning. I wandered into Saint Patrick’s Church thinking it would be a Catholic Mass but it turned out to be Church Of Ireland (High Episcopalian, British Style).

What I really wanted was for someone to make sense of what had happened. I had to sit through the usual part about how we are all sinners and not worthy, etc, and all the usual exhortations to a male deity. Then the part I was waiting for, the sermon, began. The minister was a woman and she delivered the single most unemotional, calm and flat sermon I have ever heard. I kept thinking “how very stiff upper lip, how very English”. She spoke of Old Testament characters who had to face terrible ordeals and yet kept their faith. It was short and without any reference to the situation in Omagh.

I later spoke with an American woman who had attended a Catholic service that morning. She said the congregation was very emotional and the priest had to exhort them not to do anything rash. I later did what I always do when I get close to the Boyne river. I made a wreath of herbs and flowers and threw it in, uttering prayers of thanks to the Goddess Boann and to the salmon, for bringing me safely to the soil of Erin once again and for keeping me whole.

Next we travelled on to Newgrange, arguably one of the most important megalithic sites in Europe, along with Stonehenge. Newgrange is dated to 3,500 BCE making it older than the pyramids of Egypt. The people who worked on its construction lived in leather covered “wigwams” similar to the native American woodland cultures.

There are thirty seven mounds in the vicinity of the Boyne river valley. Two thirds of all the known rock carvings in Europe are found at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, three large mounds surrounded by carved curb stones. Newgrange is oriented to the Winter Solstice, Knowth to the Fall and Spring Equinoxes, and Dowth to the Midwinter sunset. They appear to be mortuary temples for the dead, temporary resting places where rituals were performed before final interment.

It has been estimated that it would take eighty men four days to drag a four ton stone the three kilometers from the quarry. Knowth has 1,600 stones of one ton or more. The quartz that is on the face of Newgrange came from 70 kilometers away in Wicklow and over one million sackfuls of small stones were brought from nearby riverbeds. Each trip took 70 minutes meaning that it took one and one quarter million human hours and forty years to build Newgrange alone.

Our final stop was at Lady Olivia Robertson’s castle in Wexford. She is a co-founder of the Fellowship of Isis and of the Druid Clan of Dana. Her castle, near Enniscorthy, is the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Ireland with sections going back to the 14th century. There is a holy well in the chapel under the castle and, you guessed it, we scooped up water to bring home. The water is reputed to impart clairvoyance. I took slides of every place we visited – not all of them are mentioned here. I hope to have a slide show ready by this winter. I believe we took in the full Irish experience, from the ecstatic joy of a rousing toe-tapping music session, to the dark tragedy of the North. When asked if I am Irish my reply is always “only in my soul”.

Slan agus siochain agus beannacht leibh

Saille/Willow (Ellen Evert Hopman)

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