How The Ancient Irish Lived As Pagans

When Ireland was pagan the people were taught their religion, such as it

was, by Druids. These druids were the only learned men of the time, and

they had in their hands all the learned professions--they were not only

druids, but judges, prophets, poets, and even physicians. They were the

only teachers, and they were employed to instruct the sons and daughters

of kings and chiefs in whatever learning was then known. They were also
advisers to king and people on all important occasions; so they were, as

we can well understand, held in high estimation, and had great influence.

They had the reputation of being mighty magicians, and could do many

wonderful things, as our old romantic stories tell, and as the people

firmly believed. They could raise a druidical or magic fog, which hid

things from view, or bring on darkness in the day, like the blackest

night; they could bring down showers of fire or blood, cause a snowfall

even in summer, till the ground was covered half a yard deep; and bring on

storms and tempests on sea or land. They could drive a man mad by their

sorcery--a power which was dreaded most of all by the people in general.

For this purpose the druid prepared what was called a 'madman's wisp,'

that is, a little wisp of straw or grass, into which he pronounced some

foul, baleful verses; and, watching his opportunity, he flung it into the

face of the poor victim, who straightway became a madman, or, what was

just as bad, an idiot--all beyond cure. Many other instances of the power

of their spells are related in old Irish tales.

They were often employed in divination, i.e., foretelling the future.

Sometimes they forecasted by observing the clouds or the stars, sometimes

by means of a rod of yew with Ogham letters cut upon it, often by

interpreting dreams, or from sneezing, or by the voices of birds,

especially the croaking of the raven, or the chirping of the wren. By

some or all of these means they professed to be able to tell the issue of

a coming battle, or whether a man's life was to be long or short, and what

were the lucky or unlucky days for beginning any work, or for undertaking

any enterprise; besides many other matters lying in the future.

The Greeks and Romans of old had--as we know--their augurs or soothsayers,

who forecasted the future, like our druids, and by much the same

observations, signs, and tokens. We must not judge those old people,

whether Greek, Roman, or Irish, too severely for believing in these

prophets; for although there are no druids or soothsayers now, we have

amongst us plenty of palmists and fortune-tellers of various kinds, who

make a good living out of those people who are simple enough to believe in


There were druids in every part of Ireland; but Tara, as being the

residence of the over-kings, was their chief seat, where they were most

powerful; and those who have read the early history of Ireland will

recollect St. Patrick's contest with them, in presence of king Laeghaire

[Laery] and his court, and how he put them down in argument.

The pagan Irish had many gods and many idols. Among other things, they

worshipped the Fairies, who were, and are still, called in Irish Shee.

The fairies dwelt under pleasant green little hills; and there they built

themselves palaces all ablaze with light, and glittering with gems and

gold. These residences, as well as the elves or fairies themselves, were

called Shee. Many of the old fairy hills all over the country are still

well known; and to this day there is a superstition among many of the

people that the fairies still remain in them, and that they also dwell in

the old lisses, raths, or forts that are found everywhere in Ireland.

The fairies were not always confined to their dwellings: they often got

out, but they were generally invisible. Whenever they made themselves

visible to mortals--and that was only seldom--they were seen to be very

small, hardly the height of a man's knee. People had to be careful of

them, for they often did mischief when interfered with.

Mannanan Mac Lir was the Irish sea-god, like Neptune of the Greeks and

Romans. He generally lived on the sea, riding in his chariot at the head

of his followers. He is in his glory on a stormy night, and on such a

night, when you look over the waste of waters, there before your eyes, in

the dim gloom, are thousands of Mannanan's white steeds careering along

after their great chief's chariot.

Angus Mac-an-oge was a mighty magician, who had his glorious palace under

the great mound of Brugh [Broo] on the Boyne, now called Newgrange, a

little below Slane in Meath. There were many other gods; and there were

goddesses also. Poets, physicians, and smiths had three goddesses whom

they severally worshipped, three sisters, all named Brigit. There were

also many fairy queens, who were considered as goddesses and worshipped in

their several districts, all living in their palaces under fairy mounds or


Many of these residences are still well known, such as Carrigcleena, a

circle of grey rocks near Mallow, where lived Cleena, the fairy queen of

south Munster; and Craglea, near Killaloe, where Eevin or Eevil, the

guardian fairy queen of the Dalcassians of Thomond, resided. The people of

several districts had local gods also, such as Donn, the king of the

Munster fairies, who had his airy home on the top of Knockfierna, near

Croom in Limerick; John Macananty of Scrabo carn, near Newtownards; and

Tierna, the powerful and kindly fairy lord, who lived in his bright palace

under the great carn on the hill of Carntierna, over Fermoy.

Besides those that were acknowledged and worshipped as gods or goddesses,

there were battle-furies who delighted in blood and slaughter; also

loathsome-looking witch-hags, and plenty of goblins, sprites, and

spectres--some harmless, some malignant--who will be found enumerated and

described in either of my two Social Histories.

The idols worshipped by the pagan Irish were nearly all of them stones,

mostly pillar-stones, which were sometimes covered over with gold, silver,

or bronze. The people also worshipped the elements--that is to say, water,

fire, the sun, the wind, and such like. The worship of wells was very

general. Most of those old Pagan fountains were taken possession of by St.

Patrick, St. Columkille, and other early missionaries, who blessed them,

and devoted them to baptism and other Christian uses; so that they came to

be called holy wells; and though they were no longer worshipped, they were

as much venerated by the Christians as they had been by the pagans.

It must not be supposed that each of the objects mentioned above was

worshipped by all the people of Ireland. Each person, in fact, worshipped

whichever he pleased. And it was usual for individuals, or a tribe, to

choose some idol, or element, or pagan divinity, which they held in

veneration as their special guardian god.

There was a belief in a pagan heaven, a land of everlasting youth, peace,

and happiness, beautiful beyond conception, called by various names, such

as Teernanoge, Moy Mell, I-Brassil, etc., which is often described as

being situated far out in the Western Ocean. It was inhabited by fairies,

but it was not for human beings, except a few individuals who were brought

thither by the fairies.

There is a pretty story, more than a thousand years old, in the Book of

the Dun Cow, which tells how Prince Connla of the Golden Hair, son of the

great king Conn the Hundred-Fighter, was carried off by a fairy in a

crystal boat to Moy-Mell. One day--as the story relates--while the king

and Connla, and many nobles were standing on the western sea-shore, a boat

of shining crystal was seen moving towards them: and when it had touched

the land, a fairy, like a human being, and richly dressed, came forth from

it, and addressing Connla, tried to entice him into it. No one saw this

strange being save Connla alone, though all heard the conversation: and

the king and the nobles marvelled, and were greatly troubled. At last the

fairy chanted the following words in a very sweet voice: and the moment

the chant was ended, the poor young prince stepped into the crystal boat,

which in a moment glided swiftly away to the west: and Prince Connla was

never again seen in his native land.



A land of youth, a land of rest,

A land from sorrow free;

It lies far off in the golden west,

On the verge of the azure sea.

A swift canoe of crystal bright,

That never met mortal view--

We shall reach the land ere fall of night,

In that strong and swift canoe:

We shall reach the strand

Of that sunny land,

From druids and demons free;

The land of rest,

In the golden west,

On the verge of the azure sea!


A pleasant land of winding vales, bright streams, and verdurous plains,

Where summer all the live-long year, in changeless splendour reigns;

A peaceful land of calm delight, of everlasting bloom;

Old age and death we never know, no sickness, care, or gloom;

The land of youth,

Of love and truth,

From pain and sorrow free;

The land of rest,

In the golden west,

On the verge of the azure sea!


There are strange delights for mortal men in that island of the west;

The sun comes down each evening in its lovely vales to rest:

And though far and dim

On the ocean's rim

It seems to mortal view,

We shall reach its halls

Ere the evening falls,

In my strong and swift canoe:

And evermore

That verdant shore

Our happy home shall be;

The land of rest,

In the golden west,

On the verge of the azure sea!


It will guard thee, gentle Connla, of the flowing golden hair;

It will guard thee from the druids, from the demons of the air;

My crystal boat will guard thee, till we reach that western shore,

Where thou and I in joy and love shall live for evermore:

From the druid's incantation,

From his black and deadly snare,

From the withering imprecation

Of the demon of the air,

It will guard thee, gentle Connla, of the flowing golden hair:

My crystal boat will guard thee, till we reach that silver strand

Where thou shalt reign in endless joy, the king of the Fairy-land![2]