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Ancient Celtic Center — St. Kevin Finds God in the Glendalough Valley

Ancient Celtic Centers — St. Kevin Finds God in the Glendalough Valley

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher takes us on a visit to Glendalough in ancient, Celtic Ireland.

Walk through Glendalough valley in the Wicklow Mountains of southeastern Ireland and you will feel the presence of God in the trees, the lakes, and the hills. It’s a place of serenity, beauty, and isolation. Perhaps that’s what drew Kevin, later called a saint, to the place.

Glendalough, Well Worth the Visit

Glendalough means “valley of two lakes” and is well worth visiting. My wife and I drove there the same day we flew into Dublin from Minneapolis—a bad idea after an overseas flight. Still, Glendalough was a pleasant surprise. Alas, all my pictures of Glendalough were lost with my camera somewhere on the Ring of Kerry.

Keeping to the vein of my series on ancient Celtic centers, let us read another long-forgotten and recently discovered missive from a visitor to that ancient place at the very time St. Kevin was alive…

In the Month of June, in the Year of Our Lord Five Hundred and Ninety Two

To the Most Honored Ninean mac Neas, Abbot of Aill Farraige Monastery

Day One.
Travel through the drumlins has left me somewhat ill-used and pining for my bed back at the monastery. For two days, our chariot bounced like a baby on its mother’s knees over the wooden bog roads. Still, I arrived safely in Glendalough, valley of the two lakes, weathered, shaken, but alive.

Glendalough Lake

Day Three.
I am struck by the serenity of this place. Each morning I walk beside the quiet waters of lakes nestled between silent blue and green mountains. A light mist often hovers over far banks, where green pines march down to meet the shore’s edge. No wonder Kevin chose this valley for himself. Of the great man himself, I have seen or heard nothing.

Day Four.
In the valley, a small community of aspiring holy men has sprung up. Newcomers live in one of two large communal roundhouses, and this is where I make my bed. Some longer-term residents have built for themselves beehive huts of stone, big enough for only one person. These are in imitation of the cell Kevin created for himself, piling stone upon stone. Their goal is isolation, meditation, and closeness to God. I begin to feel a sense of peace come over me.

Day Five.
I have learned why we haven’t seen the great man. They tell me he often spends time alone somewhere on the mountain. At night, he sleeps in a cave cut in the cliffs above one of the lakes. I’ve heard it’s an austere room, big enough only for one person to lie down. During the day, he sits alone somewhere on the mountaintop, praying and meditating, preferring to commune with God, rather than with his fellow man. They tell me that for seven years this was how he lived before the arrival of all these other supplicants. Now he occasionally returns to such a hermitage. Did you know that he was born of noble parents in Western Wicklow?

Day Six.
Another man arrived today, joining a growing community of men. All seek closeness with God and retreat from the world. They come because of Kevin, of whom we have seen nothing.

Day Nine.
Today, I had my first sight of Kevin. His time of seclusion is apparently finished. He came walking slowly through the holy settlement nodding and bowing as each man approached. Barefoot, wearing only a deerskin tunic, his hair a wild mass of uncut locks, he reminded me of an illustration of John the Baptist in one of our newly copied manuscripts. I write this by candlelight, after sitting all evening in a wide circle around this most holy of men. He spoke to us at length of the greatness of our Lord, how God made the valleys, the animals, the trees, and the lakes. His love for all things wild and untouched shines through. I could listen to him all day and not tire. Every so often, he stops to read from an enormous Bible, either a Psalm or the gospel of John.

Day Ten.
Kevin walked among us today, talking with each man individually. He encouraged us, told us of the love of Christ for all men, and bowed to each of us. My heart fills with joy at the teaching he has given us.

Day Twelve.
I regret to inform your lordship that I will not be returning to serve again as your aide. Such a peace and sense of calm have pervaded my soul that I have decided to remain here in Glendalough. I know this report is shorter than you wished, but I must end it and hand it to a traveler leaving tomorrow for Galway. He promises to divert his path to our monastery over the western cliffs. I hope I can trust in his word and that you will receive it. Forgive me, but this is the life I have chosen.

From Muireach mac Flannagan, Now a Humble Servant to Kevin of Glendalough

Keywords: Glendalough, St. Kevin, Celtic center, Celtic Ireland

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, click on the link.

Sources for this post were Wikipedia and the Glendalough Hermitage Centre.

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Ancient Celtic Centers — Cruachain of Connacht

Ancient Celtic Centers — Cruachain of Connacht

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher continues his series on ancient Celtic centers with Cruachain, the ancient seat of the kings of Connacht in northwest Ireland. We’ll also look at the mythological Cath Bóinde, the tale of Medb, the warrior queen.

Artist’s Conception of Rathcrogan

Today, the plain of Rathcroghan holds an astounding 240 archaeological sites and monuments. They range in age from 4,000 BC to AD 400. Including burial mounds, ringforts, and a cave, they testify to a site of huge importance to Connacht’s Celtic history.

Thirty feet high and 94 yards in diameter, the Rathcroghan mound was probably the location of the palace of the ancient kings.  Surveying shows that the fort was built on top of two concentric stone rings from an earlier time. Mythology describes the Cruachain palace as a great round building with wooden pillars supporting a second story. Inside was a maze of rooms paneled in red yew. The royal hall and bedroom occupied the house’s center.

The Cave of Oweynagat, Gateway to the Otherworld?

Oweynegat, Entrance to the Otherworld?

Also interesting is the nearby cave of Oweynagat that the Celts believed was a gateway to the Otherworld. In the distant past, its entrance lay inside an earthen mound. Later on, a 60-yard underground passageway was built to the cave opening. Celtic mythology says that on Samhain eve, Otherworld creatures emerged from Oweynagat to ravage the countryside. The Ellen Trechen, a three-headed monster, once laid waste the surrounding region until the poet and hero, Amergin of Ulster killed it. Later from the cave also came small red birds and herds of pigs with powers to wither everything they touched. The pigs were hunted down by the mythical figures Ailill and Medb.

The Cath Bóinde — The Tale of Medb, the Warrior Queen

Of the history of Cruachain and what went on there, we know little. But the mythological tale of  The Cath Bóinde does tell us much about Medb (Maeve), whose exploits centered around Cruachain as Connacht’s ancient capital.

Medb’s father, Eochaid Feidlich, was reputedly the High King of Ireland. When Eochaid married her to Conchobar mac Nessa, king of Ulster, she became unhappy with the marriage. After bearing him a son, Medb left him. Her father then gave her sister, Eithne, to Conchobar. But after Medb’s sister became pregnant, Medb murdered her.

Her father then dethroned Tinni mac Conri, the king of Connacht, and installed Medb in his place in the palace of Cruachain. But Medb and Tinni soon became lovers, and she gave back to Tinni some of his power.

Meanwhile, the kings and queens of Ireland’s provinces gathered at Tara. There Medb’s first husband Conchobar raped her. This resulted in a war between Connacht and Ulster. As the Connacht army retreated, Eochaid Dala (a different Eochaid) excelled in battle and saved it from destruction. This Eochaid then became Medb’s next husband and king of Connacht. She claimed her qualifications for a husband were “an absence of meanness, jealousy, and fear.” But Eochaid wasn’t enough, and Medb’s promiscuous ways quickly returned. She soon took Ailill mac Máta, her chief bodyguard, as her next lover. When Eochaid discovered the liaison, he challenged Ailill to single combat, but Eochaid lost. The result? Ailill married Medb and became the king of Connacht with Medb as his queen.

Sordid affairs, indeed.

Next week, we’ll learn more about Cruachain by looking at the Tale of the Táin, where Queen Medb challenges Ailill to compare her wealth with his, leading to the great cattle raid on Ulster.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, click on the link.

Sources for this post were various Wikipedia articles.

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Ancient Celtic Centers — Emain Macha and Navan Fort

Ancient Celtic Centers — Emain Macha and Navan Fort

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher continues looking at ancient Celtic centers of culture and power, centering today on Emain Macha, the seat of the kings of Ulster.

Navan Fort, Northern Ireland

Navan Fort Roundhouse

If you ever travel to Northern Ireland, be sure to stop at Navan Fort near Armagh for a day or an afternoon. Here you will find a museum giving a detailed audio history of the site; a replica of an ancient roundhouse, with actors and actresses dressed in period costumes and serving as guides; and the archaeological site of Emain Macha, seat of the ancient Ulster kings. I found it fascinating. My wife, not so much.

Emain Macha, Home of the Kings of Ulster

With a bit of imagination and borrowing from the archaeological and historical record, let us now visit the Emain Macha of 1,600 years ago, shortly after St. Patrick’s arrival. Let us imagine what might have been…

For three days we’ve traveled from our tuath on the eastern shore, plagued by near-constant rain. Only moments ago, our cousin Airril mac Dubh met us in the forest. Now we burst out of the trees into sunlight. Above us lies the hilltop center of Emain Macha. Great earthen ramparts surround the nearly 800 foot long hill. We follow Airril up the ramp. At the top, we admire the commanding view of the hills around. Sheep and cows from a few nearby roundhouses dot the countryside.

The Druid Temple

Model of the Druid Temple

On the hillock itself sit two great structures. The first is an enormous, round building at least 120 feet in diameter. Upright planks surround the bottom, above which a cone of thatch rises to a great height. In this land of Ériu, it is the largest building we have ever set eyes upon.

“The druid temple,” whispers Airril. “And today, the druid Cormag will make a sacrifice to Danu.”

“Have you heard of the Roman traveler named Pádhraig?” I asked. “He brings news of a new God in the world. One whose Son he sacrificed once and for all, a sacrifice to end all sacrifices. I heard him speak over at Strangford Loch.”

“Nay. But best not talk of such around Cormag. Sure and certain, he’d take a dim view of it.”

On our left and right are smaller roundhouses, a few vegetable gardens, and a horse stall. Women are just now dropping heated stones into a pit, wrapping beef, turnips, and onions in wet leaves, and laying them on top of the stones. Soon, they’ll fill the pit and wait. Perhaps later we’re in for a feast?

The Palace

Airril brings us to the next building, another round structure as wide, but not as high as, the temple. Built of sturdy oak pillars, faced with pine between, and topped with thatch, it can only be the palace of Forga mac Dallán, King of the Ulaid.

“Do you ken he’s got a Barbary Ape inside?” asks Airril. “Chained to pole it is.”

“What kind of creature is that?”

“The king traded gold and silver for it from a distant land. But ’tis like the parody of a man. As if the druids had cast a spell on someone and ended up with . . . that.” Airril stopped at the open doorway, apparently lost in thought. “The king’s gone hunting, so I’ll take you in now for a look. But think, my cousin. Here lived the legendary Conchobar mac Nessa, King of Ulster, and his wife, Queen Medbh. Conchobar was the child of Queen Ness and the druid Cathbad.”

The Tale of Conchobar and Deirdre of the Sorrows

“Aye,” we respond, remembering well the sad tale. “And when the druids tell King Conchobar of the baby Deirdre and how beautiful she would one day become, he steals her and raises her from a child for his wife. But when she comes of age, she runs off to Pictland of the Scots with Naoise, her lover. But Conchobar brings her back, kills her lover, and marries her. Distraught, Deirdre commits suicide.”

“You ken well the tale of Deirdre of the Sorrows. Happened right here at Emain Macha.”

We  shudder. How many tales of sorrow and woe haven’t we heard from our past. And at the center of every one stands a druid. We nod to Airril all the same. Soon, we must tell him what we heard from the Roman Pádhraig—the story of Jesu, the Son of the One True God.

For certain it is that when my countrymen hear of Him, the druids’ days will surely be numbered. I follow Airril into the palace.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in AD 432 at the time of St. Patrick. (Follow the link above to learn more about his book.)

Sources for this post, with apologies, are from Pagan Celtic Ireland, by Barry Raftery, St. Patrick of Ireland, by Philip Freeman, and Wikipedia.