Roderic O'Flaherty on the Idolatry of the Irish

Extract from Part II. of "Ogygia"

From The Cabinet of Irish Literature, Volume 1 (1880), edited by Charles A. Read

"We read that Ninus was the first who struck out an idolatrous mode of worship, in whose time, most writers say, the magician Zoroaster, king of the Bactrians, flourished. Pliny entertains some doubts whether magic be of such antiquity. Xanthus the Lydian, a very ancient author, reckons one hundred years only from Zoroaster to the passage of Xerxes in the seventy-fifth olympiad, which happened in the year of the world 3470, according to our computation; from which deduct 600, and Zoroaster lived in the year of the world 2870.

Herodotus Halicarnasseus, who lived in the year of the world 3504, relates that the two first and most ancient oracles were the Dodonaean in Greece, and the oracle of Jupiter Hammon in Lybia: the former was at Dodona, a very ancient city of Molossus in Epire, which was built near an oak grove, in which they say vocal oaks grew, which used to shake themselves as soon as the people that approached interrogated, and made a sort of noise expressive of the response which was made: there was a statue erected there, which gave the answers numerically from brazen kettles beat with a wand. The latter oracle was in the remote corner of Lybia, among the Garamantians, situated in vast deserts, scorched and sterile from the intense heat of the sun. After this there have others appeared in different places, the most celebrated of which were the Pythian or Delphic oracle in Greece, the oracle of Latona, of Hercules, of Apollo, of Minerva, of Diana, of Mars, of Jove, of Serapis in Egypt. In short, the devil disseminated numerous oracles through the globe, which were totally destroyed and silenced at the birth of our Redeemer, as the pagan writer Plutarch complains about the beginning of the second century.

The most celebrated of these oracles with us, beside the fatal stone now in the throne at Westminster, was Cromcruach, of which we have spoken before; and Clochoir (that is a golden stone), from which Clogher, a bishop's see, has taken its name, in Orgialla, where an idol made of a golden stone used to give responses. "This stone," says Cathald Maguire, canon of Armagh, "is preserved at Clogher, at the right side of the church, which the Gentiles covered with gold, because in that they worshipped the principal idol of the northern parts, called Hermann Kelstach." The idol Cromcruach, to whom King Tigernas, with all his people, devoted his life, was the prince of all the idols of the country, and had his station, till the subversion of idolatry in Ireland by Saint Patrick, in the plains of Moyleuct, which the kings and nobility of the kingdom adored with the highest veneration, and with peculiar rites and sacrifices; "because a foolish, ignorant, and superstitious people who worshipped him imagined he gave answers," as Jocelyn says, concerning the fall and destruction of this god. The author of the seventh life of St. Patrick thus says in Colgan: "It was an idol embossed with gold and silver, and had ranged on either side of it twelve brazen statues of less distinction. For thus the delusive Lucifer devised it, and suggested to his blind and infatuated worshippers, that he might receive the same adorations and honour on earth which should be poured forth to the Son of God and his apostles. But this usurping miscreant, not by any means an object of compassion, was subdued by the servant of the living God; and was publicly disrobed and divested of these honours which he had contaminated by usurpation, and at length tumbled to the earth with confusion from his elevated station. For when Patrick saw at a distance the idol standing near the river Guthard, and as he was approaching, threatened to strike him with the staff of Jesus, which he had in his hand, the statue began to fall down to the right, towards the west; it had its face turned to Temoria, and had the impression of the staff in its left side, though the staff did not touch it, nor did it even leave the hand of the man of God. The other twelve smaller statues were swallowed up in the earth to their necks, and their heads are to be seen yet as a lasting memorial of this prodigy, just over ground. He then commanded the devil, that leaving the statue he should appear visibly to them in his own shape, and called King Laogar, his nobility and subjects, to show them what a monster they adored. In this conflict of the holy man with the father of deceit a button happened to fall out of his coat, which, when he found in heath, they took care to have the heath pulled up, in which place, to this very day, that ground is free from heath, and is seen quite bare, producing nothing in the midst of the heath:" so far from Colgan. In commemoration of this memorable annihilation of idolatry, I believe the last Sunday in summer is, by a solemn custom, dedicated through Ireland, which they commonly call Donmach Cromduibh, that is, the Sunday of Black Crom; I suppose on account of the horrid and deformed appearance of this horrible spectre; others, with more propriety, call it St. Patrick's Sunday, in regard to this conquest over Satan.

I find no vestiges of Jove, or of any other god, whom other nations worshipped among our pagan ancestors. The names of three days of the week are called after the Moon, Mars, and Saturn, and (? but) I am of opinion that the cycles of the weeks have been introduced with the use of the Latin language, which was imported hither with the gospel. The two daughters of Laogar, king of Ireland, very great favourites with the Magi, while they lived with their foster-father, not far from Cruachan, the palace of Connaught, entered into a conversation with St. Patrick about God, according to the ideas they had imbibed of their own gods, not having mentioned one of their country deities. St. Patrick happened to be chanting his matins with three of his bishops and a great number of the clergy very early on a morning, at a fountain called Clabach, to the east of Cruachan, when the two princesses, at sunrise, came forth to wash their faces and view themselves in that fountain as in a mirror. Look back, you that are clothed in purple and pampered with the refined delicacies of luxuries quite unknown to the simplicity of ancient times, and behold the retired, unattended, but innocent walk of the royal ladies, in order to make use of this crystal fountain as a toilet to deck themselves. . . .

When the princesses saw these venerable gentlemen, clothed in white surplices, and holding books in their hands, astonished at their unusual dress and attitudes, they looked upon them to be the people Sidhe. The Irish call these Sidhe, aerial spirits or phantoms, because they are seen to come out of pleasant hills, where the common people imagine they reside. Saint Patrick, taking an opportunity of addressing the young ladies, introduced some divine topic which was concerning the existence of one God only. When the elder sister in reply thus unembarrassed inquired: "Who is your God? and where doth he dwell? does he live in heaven, or under, or on the earth? or is his habitation in mountains, or in valleys, or in the sea, or in rivers? whether has he sons remarkable for their beauty, and are his daughters handsome and more beautiful than the daughters of this world? are many employed about the education of his son? is he opulent, and does his kingdom abound with a plenty of wealth and riches? in what mode of worship does he delight? whether is he decked in the bloom of youth, or is he bending under the weight of years? has he a life limited to a certain period, or is he immortal?" In which interrogations there was not a word of resemblance or comparison between the pagan gods Saturn, Jupiter, Apollo, Venus, Diana, Pallas, Juno, and the unknown divinity. Nor did she allude in her discourse to that Cromcruach, the principal god of our heathen deities, or to any of their attributes.

From whence we may infer that the divinities of the Irish were local ones, that is, residing in mountains, plains, rivers, in the sea, and such places. For as the pagan system of theology taught, "as souls were divided with mortals at their birth, so fatal genii presided over them, and that the eternal cause has distributed various guardians through all nations," and that these topical genii never went to other countries.

The flamens or priests of our heathen worship were Druids, whom the Latins commonly call Magi, because they understood magic. Druis, in Irish Draoi, is derived from the Greek word drys, dryos, that is, an oak, or from the Celtic word deru, which imports the same, because they solemnized their superstitious rites in oak groves, or perhaps from the vocal oak grove of which we have spoken above. . . . They were held in the greatest esteem formerly in Gaul, Britain, and Ireland. Some assert there was a college of Druids in Gaul before the year of the world 2187. Julius Caesar, the conqueror of Gaul, has written a long treatise on them, from whom we have extracted what follows: "The Druids superintended divine worship, they order both public and private sacrifices, they explain articles of religion, they give a decisive opinion in all controversies, they appoint rewards and penalties, to be interdicted from attending their religious duties is the severest punishment. This is the mode of excommunication, they are enrolled in the number of the impious and abandoned, all desert them and shun their company and conversation, nor is equity or justice administered to them when they want it, neither is any honour conferred on them. There is one who is invested with unlimited authority; he is elected by the suffrages of the Druids. Sometimes they have bloody engagements concerning the sovereignty. Their order was first invented in Britain, as it is supposed, and from thence transmitted into Gaul, and now those who wish to attain a perfect knowledge of their rules and customs go thither to study. The Druids are never engaged in military affairs, neither do they pay taxes as other subjects; they do not think it lawful to commit the principles of their system to writing, and they generally use the Greek language in other matters. They advance this particularly as a tenet of their doctrine, that souls do not perish, but after their separation from bodies pass into and animate other bodies, and by this belief they imagine they are inspired with and excited to virtuous and noble actions through a contempt of death. They dispute on many things concerning the heavenly bodies and their revolutions; of the form of the earth, of the nature of things, of the attributes and power of the gods, and they instruct the youth in these matters." The island Mona, divided by a narrow sea from Britain, and quite different from that Mona which is also called Menavia and Mann, situate between the northern parts of Britain and Ireland, was the ancient seat of the Druids in Britain. Now it is commonly called Anglesey, as if the island of the English, the capital of which is Beaumorris.

The Druids strenuously opposed the gospel in Ireland, and we are told they predicted the arrival of St. Patrick in Ireland to the total destruction of their sect.