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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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St. Patrick’s Disastrous Baptism of King Aengus at the Rock of Cashel

St. Patrick’s Disastrous Baptism of King Aengus at the Rock of Cashel

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher brings to life the story of St. Patrick’s disastrous baptism of King Aengus at the Rock of Cashel.

Many are the legends surrounding the life of St. Patrick. Are they all true? Most probably not. Some, like his supposed banishment of snakes from the island, are clearly fiction. Ireland never had any snakes. But others, like the story I am about to tell, could well have come to pass in one form or another. It occurred at the ancient Celtic center called the Rock of Cashel

Let us now go back to AD 450 and look in on a baptismal ceremony told through the eyes of a certain Finnean mac Eoran, cleric in training to the great evangelist Patrick from Roman Britain…

Patrick at the Rock of Cashel

How grand and jubilant did the day begin! What honor and glory this ceremony would bring to our Lord! And how little did I know what a surprise events would bring!

Rock of Cashel Today

For two months, I had been with Patrick at Cashel in southern Munster. King Aengus himself had requested my master come and preach to him. Aengus had heard of Patrick’s miracles of healing and how he’d smitten the idol of Crom Cruach in the north, breaking it to pieces with his crozier. So he wanted to hear about Jesu and the God of Light from the lips of the great man, himself.

Patrick’s teaching to the king was plain and straight-forward. The king pondered Patrick’s story of the Son of God, and, after some questions and discussion, agreed to the ceremony.

Thus did we stand in the courtyard of the king’s rath under cloudy skies, surrounded by a colorful retinue. From miles around came the Rí Tuatha, these kings of clans with their sons and subordinates. Everyone wore their best. Striped leggings of finest wool. Bright plaid tunics. Artfully crafted brass brooches. And more silver and gold torcs hanging from necks than I’d ever seen.

Before the ceremony, the king himself gave a short speech, enjoining the company to follow him. And as I glanced over the assembled, I saw many eager nodding heads. I had no idea of the disaster that would soon change their minds.

A Royal Baptism

Then came the event itself. The king had insisted he be baptized inside his rath on Cashel Rock, not down in a forest stream where we usually performed such rites. “Let history know,” he’d said, “that it was in this place I sought my Savior.” To accommodate his wishes, we’d ordered a hole dug in the square, whose sides and bottom servants lined with flat rocks, then filled with water. It was a baptismal fount fit for a king.

Dressed in loose flowing tunics, Patrick and the king stood before the fount. Patrick bore his favorite crozier and gripped its hooked handle, embedded with jade and emeralds. Its pointed spike dug into the earth beside him.

“Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?” boomed Patrick’s voice of authority.

“I believe,” said the king.

“Christ Jesu was born of a virgin called Mary. He was murdered by Pontius Pilate, the ruler of distant Palestine. He died, was buried, and on the third day rose again, alive from the dead. Then he ascended into heaven where even now he sits at the right hand of God the Father. Do you believe this, Aengus, King of Cashel, Ruler of Munster?”

“I believe.”

“And do you believe Christ Jesu is the Son of God?”

“I believe,” responded the king.

The Clonmacnoise Crozier

Then Disaster Struck

And so it went. It was proceeding well—until disaster struck. Patrick had reached the end, and as he prayed, he closed his eyes. Then he did something that even today, as I write these words, I shake my head with disbelief and horror, while at the same time, I struggle to suppress my laughter. What did Patrick do? In the middle of his prayer, he lifted his crozier high and brought it down. Hard. Sending the spike through the center of King Aengus’s foot.

The king stifled a cry of pain. Patrick kept on praying. I heard the crunch, opened my eyes, and looked with drooping jaw at the king’s foot as it bled profusely. But Aengus, stoic that he was, kept silent.

Patrick finished his prayer, passed the crozier to me, and stepped into the water up to his chest. Only then did he notice the king’s wound. What did Patrick do next? For some moments, he stared at the damage. Then, as if nothing had happened, he lifted his eyes to Aengus and beckoned him enter the water. The king doffed his tunic. Naked, Aengus limped into the water where Patrick baptized him.

To this day, Patrick never said a word about the event. The king thought it was all part of the ceremony—this stabbing of the foot—and merely went along with the procedure. Unfortunately, we received no further requests for baptisms that day. All those previously eager souls were nowhere to be found. It wasn’t until weeks later that I and my fellow clerics, after much quiet convincing, brought half the king’s court down to a forest stream, where Patrick dunked them—with their feet intact.

And that ends my tale of the baptism of King Aengus at the Rock of Cashel.

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

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Staigue Fort — for a Celtic World Under Attack

Staigue Fort — for a Celtic World Under Attack

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at Staigue Fort, the builders who built it, and the ancient Celtic world that required such massive defensive structures. We’ll also look at spectacular Dun Aengus fort on Inishmore.

They Needed How Many Forts?

What kind of world was it that possessed the ancient Irish to build some thirty to forty thousand ringforts across their land? What were they defending against? Who were their enemies? And what were the forts like?

A ringfort, for those unfamiliar with the landscape of ancient Ireland, was a fort constructed of overlapping stones, laid one on top of another, rising to heights of over 15 feet (5 meters). Some archaeologists have postulated they existed for ceremonial purposes. But clearly, most existed for defense.

Staigue Fort in County Kerry

Staigue Fort, County Kerry

Staigue Fort still stands today in County Kerry. (Had I not lost my camera somewhere on the Ring of Kerry, I could show you my picture of the place, taken after sacrificing my shoes crossing a field of sheep dip to get there. Alas, we must resort to a stock photo.) The fort was built around AD 300 – 400. It’s 90 feet in diameter, probably big enough to house a local king, his tuath (clan), and animals. A countryside replete with stones provided the builders with plenty of material. Large stones were laid one upon another, without mortar, until the defensive walls rose nearly 18 feet high (5.5 m) and 13 feet thick (4 m) at the bottom. A tapered doorway supported by timbers or stone admitted entrance. Inside, stone stairways led up to terraces on the high walls.

What kind of danger would possess a king to gather his tuath and animals into such a fort? Most likely an attack by a rival clan. Or news of cattle raiders in the area. Cattle, of course, was the basis on which the ancient Celtic economy was built. The clan must have stocked enough to feed the animals for days. Of beef for themselves, they would have had plenty among the sheltered herd.

We can only imagine the king (Rí Tuath) and his people standing on the balustrade, looking down at his enemies, mocking them, perhaps hurling a spear or two, followed by a shower of stones. Then walking down the stone staircase to grab a bowl of steaming pottage from a cauldron simmering over a fire in the inner yard.

The Ollamh Builders

The position of builder, itself, was an honored one. A “master builder” or Ollamh builder (ollamh is now the word for professor) oversaw his under-craftsmen while constructing the forts. For their services, kings, both big and small, paid such men a yearly fee equal to twenty-one cows. The Brehon Laws gave later honor to the position, classifying nineteen different tasks and specifying the payments for each. For instance, if the king wanted a new kitchen, the price paid to the Ollamh builder was equivalent to six milk cows.

Dun Aengus, a Ringfort by the Sea

Dun Aengus Fort, the author’s picture

Another impressive structure is Dun Aengus on Inishmore of the Aran Islands in County Galway on Ireland’s western coast. The first stones may have been laid as early as 1000 BC, with the current ruins dating to 200 AD. With walls 12 feet thick (4 meters) and rising to a reconstructed height of 18 feet (6 meters), and commanding a promontory overlooking the sea, it would have presented a formidable defensive posture. Its walls protected an inner area of 14 acres (6 hectares).

Mysteries Aplenty

What mystery such forts present us with. What kind of world required so many forts with such high walls and grand depths? Surely, the reason must have been constant danger of attack or theft. Did they always have time to usher everyone inside?—all their cattle, sheep, and goats? What happened when they didn’t? Was the tuath then in danger of starvation during the long winter ahead? Did their enemies presume to lay siege or to climb the battlements? How many died in the defense on both sides? Or did the attackers simply give up on the fort and ravage the countryside?

These are questions about whose answers we can only guess. Or perhaps a story will find your author, revealing what might have happened so long ago.

Keywords: Staigue Fort, ringforts, Celtic, ancient Ireland, Dun Aengus

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

Sources for this post were Wikipedia and The Celts by Peter Beresford Ellis.