Druids' Altars, or Cromlechs in Ireland

From The Irish Fireside, Volume 1, Number 17, October 22, 1883

Irish antiquaries agree that Druidism was the mode of worship followed by the inhabitants of this island previous to the introduction of Christianity by St. Patrick, and the many monuments that still exist of their superstitious rites prove this decision to be correct.

This worship the priests of the Druids carried on in consecrated groves of oak, or in retired spots, peculiar for their gloomy aspect, calculated to inspire sentiments of awe and reverence in the minds of those who resorted thither for the purpose of religious observances. Such places were evidently chosen in order to abstract the mind from outward objects, and to confine the entire attention to the rites going forward at the time; these rites were generally bloody ones, and not unfrequently human sacrifices, attended with every circumstance that could add a deep sensation of horror to the awful gloom and solitude that surrounded them.

Druids had their name from the Greek word signifying an oak, the tree sacred to Jupiter, or, as others say, from Deru, a Celtic word, which bears the same translation, because they performed their superstitions in the woods and groves of oak.

This religion, we are told, was introduced into Ireland from Scythia, and into Britain from this island. Much of magic was mingled with their rites, and it is related that St. Patrick burned near two hundred books in one fire that treated of their spells and incantations.

Doctor Ledwich tells us that Druidism was professed by all the Celtic tribes, how widely soever dispersed; its principal features, as might be expected, from people leading a sylvan life, were a veneration for, and a celebration of sacred rites in oaken groves.

Kildare was one of these sacred groves, and its name is derived from Kildoire, or Kildarragh, the burying-place of the oaks; and here was maintained the sacred or inextinguishable fire, preserved by a set of Druidesses from the remotest ages. This element of fire was adored by the Celts and Scythians, and by the Irish, as affirmed by Ledwich, General Vallancy, and others of undoubted authority. We are told the manner of exciting this fire in Scotland, but we are ignorant how it was procured in Ireland.

Besides Kildare, above mentioned, Derry was one also of these stations, as were Roscarbury and Lismore; at Clogher also was an extensive Druidic circle. On the sites of these groves and temples were erected, in process of time, Christian places of worship; for in the few first years, immediately succeeding the introduction of Christianity, the people met to worship the true God, on the spots where they had been wont to assemble in the times of Heathenism, at groves of oak, Druidic altars, and similar situations.

Many of these altars, above alluded to, are still existing in Ireland, and are commonly denominated Crom-leach--i.e., stone of bowing, or adoration, crom, in the Irish, signifying to stoop. It is known in the British language by the name of Crom-lech, that is, a crooked stone, so denominated not from being crooked in its figure, but from the slanting position it was generally erected in; the roof-stone being on an inclined plain, in order that the blood of the victim might flow the readier from it, and that by tracing the different meanderings of the sanguine stream in its descent, the priest might draw his auguries for good or evil. This is given us by Ware, but other authors will have it that they were originally called Caerum-lech (since corrupted into Crom-lech), from the Hebrew, Caerum-luach—i.e., a dedicated table or altar, the stones being placed like a table for sacred uses.

It seems not improbable that these altars bore a resemblance to those erected by Noah, and others, as mentioned in holy writ, being of rude unhewn stones, and the Hebrews having a positive command from the Deity for building theirs of such, see Exod. xx. 25. It is natural, therefore, to conclude that this custom of erecting altars of rough unhewn stones descended from the patriarchs, and that the Irish, and British altars, are the remains of that ancient institution. The word Crymmy in British, and Cruman in Irish, or more modernly Crom, both signify an act of bowing.

Many wild and romantic legends are told by the country people of these stones, or, as they are frequently called in Irish, Leaba-Calliagh, or Hags' Beds.

By many their erection is ascribed to the giants of the Fingalian race, and by others to the gentry or good people, alias, the fairies; and in all these lights they are held in extreme veneration, and no consideration could induce a peasant to remove one of these stones, were his necessity ever so great. This may, in some measure, account for their preservation down to the present enlightened period; and while we deprecate the superstitious origin assigned them, we heartily pray that the same respect may continue to prevail amongst the working classes, for a different motive; for we may ascribe the premature decay of many curious monuments of antiquity, in this island, to the innovating hand of modern pseudo-improvement, which, in order to come at building materials, has removed the chisseled stones to be found in monastic and castellated erections.