Irish Druids And Old Irish
From the earliest time, the sun
has been the object of human adoration. But
the common flame itself, being destructive, yet beneficial, while ever mounting
upward as if disdaining earth contact, became with most races of mankind a
religious emblem, if not a Deity.
Pyrolatreia, or fire-worship, was once nearly universal. The Moloch of the
Canaanites, Phœnicians, and Carthaginians, was the divinity of various nations
under different names Moloch was not the only deity tormenting simple maids and
tender babes with fire The blazing or fiery cross, in use among Khonds of India,
was well known in both Ireland and Scotland The Egyptians, with more modern
Africans, have reverenced flame.
The Irish assuredly were not behind the most cultured peoples in this
respect. The sanctity of their places for fire was notorious. The ancient
lighting of fires was attended with solemn ceremonies. Even now, the trampling
upon cinders in a household is regarded, in some way, as an indignity to the
head of the establishment.
According to the old records of the Four Masters of Ireland, a curious
spectacle was witnessed one St. George's day, having reference to this curious
superstition. At Ross Dela, now Ross-dalla, of Westmeath, a tower of fire blazed
up from a belfry for hours, while a great black bird, accompanied by a flock of
smaller birds, kept flying in and out of the fire, the smaller taking shelter
under the wings of the leader. When the great bird had finished its fiery
purifications, it took up an oak tree by the roots, and flew off with it.
Persia was once the high seat of fire-worship. The Parsees of India were
refugees from Persia at the time of the Mahometan conquest of that country, and
these still retain the old fire religion. The natural flames that issued from
the earth, and were regarded as divine, have pointed out to the practical
moderns the mineral oil deposits of Baku. At the Sheb-Seze, or Fire-feast
of Persia, says Richardson, birds and beasts were let loose with inflammable
material about them.
American Indians, in some cases, retain this custom of their ancestors.
Squier notes the supreme, holy, Spirit of Fire, Loak Ishte-hoola-aba, and
the ignition of new fires at the solar festival. The priests got fire by
friction. The Pawnees had a sacrifice of human beings in the fire at the vernal
equinox. The Aztecs had a god of fire in Xiuhteuctli. The image of Hercules, the
sun-god, was solemnly burnt once a year at Tarsus.
The Scriptures have many references to this worship.
A story is told in Maccabees of a priest who took sacred fire from the altar,
and hid it in a cave. Upon Nehemiah sending for it, water only was found; yet,
when the liquid was poured over an altar of wood, the whole burst into flame.
Phené remarks--"The British spire now fills the place, in the plains, of
the once aspiring flame which ascended from the hill-altars."
The Perpetual Lamps of the ancients sanctioned the same idea. No less
than one hundred and seventy Roman, Arab, and Medieval writers record the
finding of such lamps. In 1540 a lamp was reported still burning in the tomb of
Cicero's daughter. Lights were buried in urns. Herodotus speaks of lamps in the
tombs of Egypt. Augustine wrote of lights inextinguishable by either rain or
wind. Asbestos wicks of lamps were known in Greek temples. Madame Blavatski says
that Buddhist priests made use of asbestos wicks. Dr. Westcott, who records
instances of Perpetual Lamps, adds, "There formerly existed an art that has
Ireland was not without her perpetual fire. St. Bridget and her nuns, in
maintaining a constant flame in Kildare, were but continuing a very ancient
heathen custom. Tradition says that Druidesses did the same, also, in sacred
Kildare. As there was an Irish goddess Bridgit, Higgins remarked that the deity
had become a saint, when the disciple of St Patrick founded her nunnery at
Kildare. The Welsh ecclesiastic, who wrote of the Norman) Conquest of Ireland,
says of this fire, that though ever recruited with fuel, "yet the ashes
have never increased" It was fed with the wood of the hawthorn. The place
of the fire is described as being twenty feet square, with a stone roof.
The virgin Daughters of the Fire were Inghean au
dagha; but, as fire-keepers, were Breochwidh. The Brudins, a
place of magical cauldron and perpetual fires, disappeared with Christianity.
Those flames were devoted by the Celts, &c. to Hestia, who stood in the
place of Vesta. Being in the Brudins now means in the fairies. The
Greek Pyrtaneium was, like the Brudins, a public feeding-house, where the
fire never went out. The baptism of fire was an Indian institution. The
Mexicans, Virginian Indians, and Peruvians, had their perpetual fire of a
religious character. A curious sect arose once in Spain, that burnt a cross on
the forehead of the child in baptism.
Lucius Florus said of Numa Pompilius, "He appointed a fire to be kept up
by the Vestal Virgins, that a flame in imitation of the stars might perpetually
watch as Guardian of the Empire."
The Archbishop of Dublin, in 1220, shocked at this revival of fire-worship,
under the mask of Christianity, ordered the Kildare fire to be extinguished. It
was, however, relighted, and duly maintained, until the suppression of the
nunnery in the reign of Henry VIII. As an old poet sang:--
"The bright lamp that shone in Kildare's holy fane,
The Parsees of India have such a fire that has burned for twelve hundred
years. This is at Oodwada, near Bulsar, which is much frequented by Parsee
pilgrims during certain periods of the year. The writer once questioned a Parsee
in Bombay on this matter. The gentleman repudiated the idea of Fire or
Sun-worship, declaring that he saw the Deity better by that symbol than by any
And burned through long ages of darkness and stain."
As the Egyptian priests were said to acknowledge the same, it is possible
that the Irish priests recognized in sun and flame but symbols of the invisible
Mrs. Bryant, however, asserts that "there is more trace of sun and
fire-worship in the peasantry lingering among us to-day, than in the Bardic
literature of the remote Iris past." Dr. Waddell, in Ossian and the
Clyde, has no doubt of fire-worship being extant in Ossian's days. Dr.
O'Brennan thinks that the Gadelians or Gaels everywhere they went established
fire-worship. The Gabha-Bheil was an ordeal by fire.
Two sects were said to be in the island--the Baalites, or fire adorers, and
the Lirites, or devotees of water. O'Kearny tells us--"It is probable that
very violent contentions we once carried on in Ireland by the partizans of the
rival religions, who were accustomed to meet and decide the quarrels at the
place set apart for battle." The Samhaisgs, were devoted to
fire-worship, and the Swans to Lir worship.
May-day in Ireland was very strictly observed, as it has been in Babylon ages
before. "Even now," says Mrs. Bryant, "in remote places, if the
fire goes out in a peasants house before the morning of the first of May, a
lighted sod from the priest's house to kindle it is highly esteemed." On
that day they once burnt hares, from a fancy that they stole the butter.
The eve of May-day was a trying time, as fairies we then extra frolicsome in
stealing the milk. For preventative, the cows were driven through fires, as in
distant pagan days. According to Hone (1825), in Dublin, folks would cast
horses' heads into the bonfire; horses were sun animals. May-eve rejoicings were
known by the name Nech-na-Bealtaine. According to the Book of Rights,
Ultonian kings were not to bathe on May-day. O'Conor remarks that the May fire
ceremonies were transferred by St. Patrick to the 24th of June. John Baptist's
day. Leaping through fire symbolized human sacrifice.
Beltaine, or Baaltinne, was the Roman Compitalia, or glad times, for
their beginning of the year. The Tailtean games of the Irish were said to
have originated from Tailte, wife of Mac Erc, the last Firbolg king, killed in
the Battle of Moy-tuir. May-eve was, with some, Neen na Bealtina, Baal's
Keating, writing on the Fair at Uisneach, of Meath, says, "This
fair, or assembly, was held on the first day of the month of May; and they were
wont to exchange or barter their cattle and other property there. They were also
accustomed to make offerings to the chief god which they worshipped, named Bel;
and it was a custom with them to make two fires in honour of this Bel in every
cantred of Ireland, and to drive a couple of every kind of cattle in the cantred
between the two fires as a preservative."
Easter-time was duly celebrated in pagan as it is now in Christian times. The
joyful season of awakening summer was being celebrated on Tara hill, at the very
moment when St. Patrick was lighting his Easter fire on Slane hill, within sight
of the King and his Court.
The Book of Rights informs us that "Patrick goes afterwards to
Fearta Fear Feic. A fire is kindled by him at that place on Easter Eve. Laegaire
is enraged as he sees the fire, for that was the geis of Teamhair among
the Gaedhil." The King had, according to custom, ordered all fires out, as
no fresh blaze could be kindled but directly or indirectly from his own fire.
This incident in the life of the Saint is the most interesting of his career,
but can only be briefly referred to here. It was when standing on the site of
the royal palace at Tara hill, and looking across the beautiful country to the
distant hill of Slane, that we seemed to realize the legend. Druids had
forewarned the King of the coming of strangers, but were as much astonished as
he was at the sight of a blaze afar, when no light could be raised but by the Sovereign's
Orders were issued for the arrest of the bold intruders. St. Patrick and his
shaven companions were brought into the presence of the Master of Fire. Then he
told his tale and lighted a flame in Erin never to be quenched. The story, as
given us there by a bent old woman of seventy years, will not be soon forgotten.
Leaning on her stick with one hand, and pointing over the almost deserted region
to the hill of the Saint's fire with the other, heaving a sigh over the departed
glories of Tara, she might have been taken for a Druidess herself.
That Paschal fire was the victor over pagan fires, with their abominable
Midsummer fires served as sun charms to keep up the heat. Midsummer Eve,
however, afterwards nominated as John the Baptist's Eve, was a great fire-day
far and wide. Von Buch, the traveller, speaks of seeing custom observed within
the Arctic Circle.
An old writer about Ireland remarked--"A stranger would imagine the
whole country was on fire." Brand writes of the Vigil of St.
John--"They make bonfires, run along the streets and fields with wisps of
straw blazing on long poles, to purify the air which they think infectious by
believing all the devils, spirits, ghosts, and hobgoblins abroad this night to
hurt mankind." One, writing in 1867 said--"The old pagan fire-worship
still survives in Ireland though nominally in honour of St. John. On Sunday
night bonfires were observed throughout nearly every county the province of
As Easter Day was of old devoted to Astarte, the East goddess, so was St.
John's Day to Baal. But the eve of the first of November was the Hallow Eve or Samhain,
when the fires were a thanksgiving to the sun at the end of harvest.
Keating, who notes the sacred fire lighted by the Archdruid on
Usnagh Hill, Kildare, tells of the fires on the hill of Ward, Meath County, on
the last day of October. Some old writers identify this period, rather than
Easter, as that of the meeting of St. Patrick and the King. The Samhain
feast received a Christian baptism as the feast of the Annunciation of the
The festival known as the Lucaid-lamh-fada, or festival of Love, had
no connection with the fires. It was held from the first to the sixteenth of
August, in honour of the sun and moon, when games, more or less accompanied by
greetings of the two sexes, were duly celebrated.
Baal or Bel is associated with the fires. Beltane was the Lucky Fire
through which cattle were passed for purification. Spenser declared that in his
day the Irish never put out a fire without a prayer. The Gabha-Bheil, or
trial by Beil, subjected the person with bare feet to pass three times through a
fire. A festival is mentioned, when birds and other creatures, previously
caught, were set free with lights attached to them. There was an old Irish
prayer, Bealaine, corrupted to Bliadhain. Then we have Bealtinne,
or Baal's fire; the cromlech, near Cork, of Bealach magdadhair; aiche
Beltinne, the night of Baal's fire; Baaltinglas; Beilaine,
circle of Baal, &c.
Mrs. Anna Wilkes, in Ireland, the Ur of the Chaldees, sees in the
Irish and Hebrew word ur, the sacred fire. A fire-priest was Ur-bad,
or Hyr-bad. The perpetual fire in the monastery of Seighir, says the
Tripartite Life, was at the place where St. Patrick first met St. Kieran. The Rinceadh-fada
was a sacred dance of the Irish at Beil-tinne, like dances recorded of Phœnicia
and Assyria. At Uisneach, the Navel of Ireland, where the Druids
lighted the first fire of the season, courts were regularly held till long after
The Venerable Bede records that even in his lifetime many of the Irish were
given to fire-worship. Fraser assures his readers that "in the south of
Ireland, the wayside beggar whose appeals for charity have met with a liberal
response, can think of no benediction so comprehensive as 'May the blessing of
Bel rest upon you! "'
Culdees, the recognized successors of the Druids in Ireland and Scotland, are
said to owe their name--cal, gal, or ceill--to the word meaning preserver
of fire "It is still lucky," writes one, "for the young
people to jump over the flames, or for cattle to pass between two fires"
Another says," Our forefathers sent their sons and daughters through the
fire to Moloch" In Toland's day firebrands were cast about the fields of
corn at Midsummer Eve, the survival prayers to the fire-god to give heat for the
harvest perfection he calls the November fire, Tine-tlached-gha, or
fire-ground. And yet, Arthur Clive considered fire-worship oppose alike to
Druidism and the faith preceding it.
In the Book of Rights, so ably reproduced by J. O'Donovan, there are
four seasons described--Earrach, Samhradh, Foghmhar, and Geimeridh which he
finds to be "undoubtedly Irish words not derived from the Latin through
Christianity" Fires were lighted at Bealtaine the beginning of Samhradh The
summer end fires, Samhain, were known by the name of Tlachtgha. The new
fire was produced by the wheel and spindle, with tow. The wheel, a solar symbol,
must be turned by the spokes in direction of the sun's daily course.
As Scotland, especially the western part, was largely peopled from Ireland,
it would not be surprising to recognise Baal or fire-worship there.
All Hallow Eve ceremonies are well known, and especially
the passing through the fire, although the Council of Constantinople, 680,
expressly prohibited the heathen practice of leaping through the fire. The Rev.
Alan Stewart, referring to such fires in his parish of Kirkmichael, famous for
its Druidical circle, said, "The practice of lighting bonfires prevails in
this and the neighbouring Highland parishes." These were the Tinegin
Regular Baal-fires continued in Ayrshire till 1780, and milkmaids still like
to drive their cows through the flames with a rowan stick. The proper way to
light the fire is by friction. S. Laing writes of "the Bel-fires which,
when I was young, were lighted on Midsummer night on the hills of Orkney and
Shetland. As a boy, I have rushed, with my playmates, through the smoke of these
bonfires, without a suspicion that we were repeating the homage paid to Baal in
the Valley of Hinnom."
One cannot help remembering the passage in Isa. l. 11--"All ye that
kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks, walk in the light of
your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled." Virgil records a prayer
to Apollo at Soracte:--
"Whom first we serve, whole woods of unctuous pine
The poet did not add that such devotees first applied a special ointment to
Burn on thy Heap, and to thy glory shine;
By thee protected, with our naked soles,
Thro' flame unsinged we pass, and tread the kindled coals."
The Scotch Beltane, till lately, was observed in the Hebrides with something
more heathen than the fire. The people lighted the fire by the old fashion of
friction with two pieces of wood, and then ate the consecrated cake indulged in
by pagan Syrians. The Scotch had the mixture of eggs, milk, and oatcake. This
was broken up, and distributed among the assembly. Whoever got the black
bit, hidden in the cake, was considered worthy of sacrifice to Baal, as
the cailteach bealtine. He was pushed into the fire, though soon rescued,
and afterwards had to leap three times through the flames. The term Beltane
carline was ever a name of reproach.
In other places, at the Bealtine, a trench was cut round the fire, the young
men assembled in the circle, and cast lots who should be the threefold leaper.
Before eating the consecrated oatcake, a libation, in heathen style, was poured
upon the ground. The Scotch generally are not now so given to sacramentarianism.
Dr. Donald Clark conceives that the Beltane is not derived from Baal.
The Isle of Man, coming more under the influence of Ireland than any
neighbouring land, has survivals of the old worship. Waldron asserts, "Not
a family in the old Island, of natives, but keeps a fire constantly burning--or
the most terrible devastations and mischief would immediately ensue" Train,
in his account of the people, writes--"Almost down to the present time, no
native of the Isle of Man will lend anything on either of the great Druidical
The Deas-iul dance, anciently in honour of the sun, is, still
practised there, going, like the sun, from east to south, in its course, not ear-tuia-iul,
or going round by east to north. Fires were kept up on the first of November, as
Plowden, another historian of the place, remarks that--"The Scotch,
Irish, and Manx call the first day of May Beiltein, or the day of Baal's
fire." A newspaper of I837 has this paragraph--"On May-day the people
of the Isle of Man have, from time immemorial, burned all the whin bushes in the
Island, conceiving that they thereby burn all the witches and fairies, which
they believe take refuge there."
In like manner, in the Isle of Lewis, they had the custom of Dessil
(right hand), or Dess, from carrying fire in the right hand about houses
and the stock. When a murrain occurred among the cattle there, all fires were
formerly put out, and a fresh flame obtained by the rubbing of two planks
The Gaelic Councils tried in vain to arrest this fire devotion. James I. of
Scotland has left a poem on the custom--
"At Beltane, quhen ilk bodie bownis
that is, at Beltane all went to the play or games at Peebles.
To Peblis to the play--"
In Cornwall, another part under Irish influence, Midsummer Eve was kept up
with fire rejoicings. At Penzance, until a few years ago, on that eve men
carried two barrels on poles. Others had torches and rockets, and girls held
flowers. All at once all joined hands, and ran through the streets, crying out,
"An eye! an eye!"--when an eye was opened by a pair, and all passed
through. The old country dance was one in the same style.
No one needs reminding how far Wales, long under Irish rule, had similar fire
customs. At Newton Nottage, till very recently, people leaped through the
Midsummer fires. Of this custom, Theodoret, in condemnation of it, admitted that
it was held as an expiation of sin. Great fires were kept up formerly on the
noonside rock of Brimham, a Yorkshire Druidical locality.
France, especially in Brittany, has survivals of fire-worship. Such fires
were useful to bless the apple-trees, and forward the harvest. A Breton priest
was once called Belec, which means a servant of Baal. Outside Paris, Baal
fires were lighted on St. John's Eve. Flammarion, in 1867, wrote--"In the
evening the bonfires in honour of the feast of St. John were lighted all around
Angoulême, and men and women
were dancing before them, and jumping over them almost all night."
Russia and India have their leaping through the flames. In the first, a straw
figure of Kupalo, a sort of representative of vegetation, was thrown in the
fire. Germans had a straw image of the god Thor. In Mexico, babes on their,
fourth day were passed through fire.
Sonnerat had this account of the Darma, a Feast of Fire in
India--"It lasts eighteen days, during which time those who make a vow to
keep it must fast, abstain from women, lie on the bare ground, and walk on a
brisk fire. On the eighteenth day, they assemble on the sound of instruments
their heads covered with flowers, the body daubed with saffron, and follow in
cadence the figures of Darma Rajah and Dobrede his wife, who are carried there
in procession. When they come to the fire, they stir it to animate its activity,
and take a little of the ashes, with which they their foreheads, and when the
gods have been three times round it, they walk, either fast or slow, according
to their zeal, over a very hot fire, extended to about forty feet length"
Fire-worship may be the purest form of idolatry; flame, so nearly immaterial,
ever moving, always aspiring is a type of the spiritual,--is useful, although
dangerous. But no form of idolatry could be more cruel than fiery adoration of
the grim Moloch Symbols are agreeable to fancy, and often helpful; but they may,
and repeat do, lead men to crass idolatry.