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St. Patrick’s Easter Surprise on Beltane Eve

St. Patrick’s Easter Surprise on Beltane Eve

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher recounts St. Patrick’s Easter surprise on the Hill of Slane on Beltane eve. Thus did he break the druids’ taboo and end their reign over King Lóeghaire of Tara.

The Beltane Taboo

Many are the legends and stories of St. Patrick. Some are myth. But others are certainly true. What follows is a fictionalized account of what might have happened on Beltane eve. This retelling is through the eyes of Coll, one of Patrick’s followers. It’s based on my novel of Christian historical fiction, The Bonfires of Beltane.

Coll’s Account of the Events on Beltane Eve — An Easter Surprise, Indeed

What can I say about Beltane eve that has not already been whispered to astonished ears around cooking fires or repeated to stunned men over flagons of ale? I witnessed the events myself. I was a follower of Patrick’s. I heard him speak the inspiration that broke the druids’ taboo and ended their reign. And I was there when the chief druid, Ohran, incited the mob against us. Thus do I tell my tale.

Among Tara’s ancient traditions there was a taboo related to Beltane eve, the night on which the spirits of the Otherworld leave their dark realms and walk the earth. To celebrate that night, of course, we used to light bonfires on hilltops all across the land. But in Tara, the druids had long taught that if ever anyone in the realm lit a bonfire before the king’s, the reign would end.

Our small band of followers had only recently arrived in Tara. Patrick’s goal was to bring the gospel to yet another pagan land. Earlier on the trail, we’d met Fedelm and Eithne, King Lóeghaire’s daughters. Then and there, they converted to the Christian faith. This news greatly displeased the king, in whom ancient tradition had congealed like dried blood. The chief druid, Ohran, also met us with stony glares and harsh words. And when he realized the danger we posed to his worship of the dark spirits, he threw threats against us like daggers.

Days later, God sent Patrick a dream which saved us all from a fiery death. Patrick woke us in the middle of the night, ushering us from the hut with all haste. Later, the entire village watched as flames engulfed the thatch and lit up the night. When Ohran saw us standing alive across the yard, his tiny dark eyes bored into us as if stares alone could kill. Then we knew the arson was of his making.

The Hill of Slane

The next day, we set up camp on the Hill of Slane, a good ten miles from Tara, where Patrick proceeded to preach and gather converts.

As Beltane approached, Patrick thought it might be close to Easter. “Let us use the occasion,” he said, “to celebrate instead the death and resurrection of Christ.” This, of course, was in direct opposition to the druids’ pagan ceremony.

At Patrick’s instruction, we worked all day, chopping and mounding a great pile of timbers on the hilltop. Much to my puzzlement, we also collected a torch for each of the two hundred souls committed to the work.

Evening came with great anticipation. When night had barely blackened the land, Patrick lit flame to the pile. At the same time, we looked toward Tara. The hill was dark.  Patrick’s blaze had gone first into the night. The taboo was broken.

Ten miles separated us from the Rath na Ríogh, Tara’s Fort of Kings, and we knew it would be a while before anything happened. We waited, breathless, while Patrick prayed. What occurred next, I learned later from a believer in town.

The Bonfire That Went First Into the Night

The druids saw the bonfire first. Ohran confronted Lóeghaire, and within earshot of many, warned that our fire  must be put out that very night. “Or,” he shouted, “their flame will become a blaze that will ignite your entire kingdom.”

The king was aghast. He ordered men to collect weapons and ride to Slane. “Put out that fire!” he ordered. “Then kill every last man and woman who lit it.” But as Ohran left to gather a throng, the king said he feared his own daughters would be among the slaughtered. Later, we learned he drank himself stocious with mead in his rooms.

Ohran gave a fiery speech before a great crowd, filling them with revenge and malice. The enraged mob rode the distance to our hill and dismounted below us.

From our vantage on the hilltop, we saw the grim-faced men begin to climb, bearing swords, sickles, and knives. At Patrick’s orders, we had brought not a single weapon to the fight. “We must trust only in God,” he’d said.

The End of the Fight

We gathered for a short prayer then lit the two hundred torches we’d made earlier. We ran to the ridge overlooking the slope, held the flames high, and, as Patrick had commanded, we shouted seven times, “Halleluiah! Gloria Deo Christus!”

What happened next was astonishing. The advancing throng paused, looked up the hill, and halted. Some began dropping torches and weapons. Others began running toward the trail. Horses reared and followed. Then the whole mob broke and ran in panicked flight back to Tara.

We stared, dumbfounded. What they’d seen, of course, was not a rag-tag group of believers from the village standing with torches on the hilltop. Nay, they beheld instead a grand army of God’s angelic host, bearing swords of light, covered with blazing armor, blowing trumpets that shook the ground with thunder and drove fear into every heart. They saw a vision from God, sent to protect Patrick’s mission of converting a people lost to pagan spiritual darkness.

Aye, my friends, the  night belonged to God. And that is what happened on Easter eve in the land of Tara. And I was there to see it.

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. The preceding story comes to you condensed from that book. To learn more about his book, click on the link.

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Ancient Celtic Centers — The Hill of Tara

Ancient Celtic Centers — the Hill of Tara

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher begins a series called “Ancient Celtic Centers”, taking a firsthand look at Tara, the hill of legend, the ancient seat of as many as 124 Irish kings.

Peering Back Into Time

When we peer back into Ireland’s distant past, what were the great centers of power, culture, and legend? Where did the kings of the provinces hold court? What was it like to walk among them? Today, we begin a series that proposes to go back in time to the earliest centers of Irish culture.

The Hill of Tara — the Rath na Riogh

The rain has stopped and the sun is out. So with a bit of imagination and guesswork, let us go back 1,600 years and climb the muddy trail to the Hill of Tara as a guest of the Rí Cóicid, the King of Brega, current ruler of the Laigin.

A sword-bearing warrior bows and introduces himself as Fionn mac Barra, in service to his lordship. He leads us up the well-traveled slope toward the Rath na Riogh, the Fort of Kings. At the top, an earthen wall ringed with wooden spikes greets us. Sweating from the climb, we follow him across a wooden drawbridge, through the high walls, and over another short bridge. Below us, hugging the inside earthen berm, is a deep, vertical ditch filled with rainwater and spikes.

“A drainage system?” we ask.

Fionn grunts and waves a hand. “Any clan foolish enough to broach the walls with sword in hand will meet with this.”

As if in confirmation, we notice temporary log bridges at various intervals, leading from the outside wall to the inner enclosure. Would the defenders pull them away if the walls were breached?

The Forradh, the Royal Seat

As we face the inner yard, our jaw drops. Before us rises the Forradh, the Royal Seat, of which we’d heard so much. Tall oaken pillars ring a massive circular structure the size of which we’ve never seen on Ériu, this land of farmsteads and tiny villages. The timbers support a structure at least sixty yards in diameter, faced with pine, and topped with a high thatched roof. Surely, within that building lies a great center of power and rule. No wonder the Kings of Tara fancy themselves as rulers over all Ériu. Though none of the other clans would ever agree with that claim.

Fionn leads us farther, toward a huge earthen ringfort even bigger than the Forradh. “Cormac’s fortress,” he says. He leads us up a series of wooden ramps to the top. From here, we look out over all of the Rath na Riogh, spreading nearly 950 yards across the hilltop. Nearby, a large conical, thatched structure rises beside the Forradh.

“The druid temple,” says Fionn under his breath. “Advisors to the king, keepers of law and tradition. Donna ever get on their bad side.”

Nodding, we look beyond the earthworks to the north and south. There, we find, still atop the hill, two other raths, or ringforts. Farther out, the countryside spreads green and hilly in all directions. Halfway to the horizon, smoke rises from four nearby ringforts. Sheep and cows from these small farmsteads dot the surrounding  pastures.

The Lia Fáil, the Stone of Destiny

The Stone of Destiny

Fionn touches my shoulder and leads me down the inside steps to a central yard. To one side stand two smaller roundhouses of timber and thatch. In the yard’s center, Fionn stops before an obelisk standing head high. “The Lia Fáil,” he says in a low voice, hinting of reverence. “The Stone of Destiny.”

I suck in breath and stare. Who hasn’t heard of this? In ancient antiquity, the Tuatha Dé Danann themselves brought this magic stone to our island. Every king since then has been crowned before it. Only the rightful king can strike it with his foot and make it sing with joy. All others are pretenders to the throne. But—we wonder, secretly—have any of them ever dared strike it in public?

“The king will see you now,” says Fionn. An open doorway leading into one of the roundhouses beckons. From within comes the smell of old furs, thatch, and pine smoke from the room’s central fire.

“Enter,” booms a commanding voice. We step inside.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of historical fiction set in ancient Celtic Ireland in the time of St. Patrick. (Click on the link above to find out more.)

Sources for this post were Pagan Celtic Ireland by Barry Raftery, The Course of Irish History by T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin, and Wikipedia.