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Heritage Ireland

Biodiversity Week 2024 – Homes for Wildlife.


Welcoming National Biodiversity Week, Kieran O’Donnell T.D., Minister of State with Responsibility for the Office of Public Works, said:

I am delighted to welcome the arrival of National Biodiversity Week- celebrated by the OPW with over 40 events taking place at more than 12 of our heritage sites nationwide from 17 May to 26 May. Families around the country are spoiled for choice this National Biodiversity Week – there’s truly something for everyone, young and old. We are proud to be able to showcase our rich natural heritage across these sites, which are maintained by OPW staff to the highest standards of excellence. I wish to commend them for the hard work they undertake year-round and for organising such engaging and creative events across our magnificent historic houses, estates, castles, gardens, parks and prehistoric monuments.

A view over placid waters of Lough Gill and Parkes Castle
Parke’s Castle occupies a striking setting on the northern shores of Lough Gill in County Leitrim.

Families will find plenty to enjoy across the week, with a range of workshops, tours, trails and other fun activities on offer. Other events include in depth talks on biodiversity and conservation by leading experts. A full day of family-friendly fun is on offer at Céide Fields, Co. Mayo, where cliff-side telescope viewings, guided tours of the blanket bog and a wildlife scavenger hunt are open to the public free of charge.


Lorcán Scott, Biodiversity Officer at the Office of Public Works, said:

It is great to see such a diverse range of events across OPW sites, celebrating our rich biodiversity that exists throughout the country. Under the OPW’s stewardship, these sites support a myriad of habitats and species that we want to ensure are there for future generations to cherish. The theme for International Day for Biodiversity 2024 is ‘Be part of the Plan,’ with the implementation of our Biodiversity Action Strategy, the OPW is demonstrating we can play our part in addressing the global biodiversity crisis, and the expert work of our gardeners and guides play no small part in this mission.

Pathway with view of the Atlantic Ocean, at Ceide Fields, Co Mayo.
Céide Fields at the edge of Atlantic, Co. Mayo.

In John F. Kennedy Arboretum, Co. Wexford, children can learn through play about the wonders of our natural world by crafting a ‘mandala’, a circular design that radiates out symmetrically from its centre, in the heart of the woodland environment. In this interactive workshop, children can use plant materials sourced around the Arboretum, including rhododendron petals, fallen cones and palm leaves, to create their own unique, natural creations.


At Parkes Castle, Co. Leitrim, botanist and ecologist Dr. Dolores Byrne will lead a hands-on, family friendly exploration of the biodiversity around the castle and along the lakeshore at Lough Gill. At the lake, the whole family will learn about the steps we can take to preserve the biodiversity of this essential natural resource. Children will get the opportunity to collect invertebrates on the lakeshore, as well as a chance to meet and get to know Lough Gill’s bugs and fish.


Visitors to Glendalough Monastic Site, Co. Wicklow, can uncover hidden worlds in the biodiversity treasure hunt and be in with a chance to win an OPW Heritage Card. This card provides 12 months of unlimited access to over 50 OPW sites and visitor attractions with guided tours. While at Glendalough, visitors can hear first-hand from OPW guides about the importance of biodiversity in our built and cultural heritage.


These are just a few of the great events we are running for National Biodiversity Week 2024. This calendar of events is sure to engage and educate young children about the ever-growing importance of biodiversity, and the magical range of flora and fauna alongside which we all coexist. There’s a lot for grown-ups to learn as well, with talks and guided tours on offer from key specialists at the ‘International Conifer Conservation Programme’ at the National Botanic Gardens, Kilmacurragh, Co. Wicklow.




Cover image: A female kestrel sits on top of a wedge shaped tomb at Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery. The iconic outline of Ben Bulben mountain is visible in the backdrop. Photo by Sally Siggins.

A birch tree is surrounded by a mandala made from flowers, cones and leaves. Concentric circles are divided into segments. White rhododendron flowers feature.
A nature mandala made by visitors at John F Kennedy Arboretum

Women, Water and Wisdom in Celtic Mythology.

14 faces look out over Dublin City, their countenances ranging from pensive, to sorrowful, to jolly. These are the River God heads carved into the keystones of Dublin’s Custom House by Edward Smyth. They represent some of the major rivers of Ireland, and includes the Atlantic Ocean to signify Ireland’s wider trade. All of them have a story attached to them, many steeped in Celtic mythology.

The River Gods of the Custom House Credit Naoise Culhane

I have always had an interest in mythology, particularly the feminist readings of mythology and the role women play in this pseudo-history. I became fascinated by the stories connected to these Riverine faces, and even more interested by the fact that the stories attached to them, and the rivers they represent, were relating to women in our mythology. Yet Smyth designed all but one as male…

Upon researching some the myths behind Smyth’s River Gods, it became clear that most of the rivers, in Celtic mythology, are personified as goddesses, not gods, which raised the question as to why Smyth created 13 out of his 14 faces as men? There are unfortunately no sources to glean the thoughts of Smyth during his creation of the River Gods, but there is no denying that they are some of his best work; something which James Gandon (architect of the Custom House) was also aware of when he saw Smyth’s designs for the building’s statues.

Gandon had already hired an Italian man, Agostino Carlini, to design and create the majority of the statues on the Custom House. That was before Edward Smyth, an Irish sculptor hailing from Co. Meath, submitted his designs for the building. When he viewed Smyth’s designs, Gandon declared him equal to Michelangelo (a very high compliment indeed), gave Carlini his P45, if you will, and Smyth became the creator of nearly all of the statues you see on the building today.

Was Smyth aware of the mythological significance of the faces he created? Did he deliberately ignore the rivers’ female associations, or have no idea?

Some of these faces, and their stories, demonstrate a connection between women, water, and wisdom. This is tied to the tales of the fae folk, or the Tuatha de Danánn and their beliefs, and the goddesses they worshipped. While these mythological women are now hidden behind the male faces displayed on the Custom House, it is important to bring their stories back to the forefront and reveal how women, their association with water, and the search for wisdom all intertwine.



The one Riverine head out of the 14 on the Custom House that is represented as a woman depicts the River Liffey, or Anna Livia as she becomes known after James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. She is overlooking the river above the front door of the Custom House on the south façade. However, the two main Riverine heads that are of particular interest regarding their mythology are The Shannon (which flows from Cavan to Kerry) and The Boyne (which flows through Meath), and touching briefly on The Lagan (which flows through Belfast). All three are represented as men, as gods, but their mythological stories are very much connected to women.

The Shannon River God Head

The stories connected to the Shannon and the Boyne are found in the Metrical Dindshenchas, which explains the mythological origins of the rivers. The Dindshenchas is an early Irish text which reveals the origin of place names, and means ‘lore of places’. Within it there are two poems each given to the women linked to the creation of the two rivers: Sinann and Boand. These poems are said to date back to around the 10th or 11th centuries, and the stories are very similar.

The poems are exceptionally long, so below are sections[1] from the poems relevant to the connection between women, water, and wisdom:


Sinann I:

In the still Land of Promise,
that no storm of bloodshed mars,
the deathless maid gained the fame that was her undoing,
the daughter of bright Luchar, whom I celebrate.

A well with flow unfailing
is by the edge of a chilly river
(as men celebrate its fame),
whence spring seven main streams.

Here thou findest the magic lore of Segais
with excellence, under the fresh spring:
over the well of the mighty waters
stands the poets’ music-haunted hazel.

The woman of Luchar of full chastity
followed the stream of Segais
till she reached the river’s brink
and met destruction and utter frustration.

There the comely lady was drowned
and perished under heavy injury;
though the woman of warlike ardour is dead,
her noble name clave to her river.


Sinann II:

The maiden, — fair was her form, —
came on a day to the river
and saw — it was no paltry matter —
the lovely mystic bubbles.

The maiden goes on a lamentable venture
after them into the green-flowing river:
she is drowned yonder through her venture;
so from her is Sinann named.


Boand I:

As thrice she walked round
about the well heedlessly,
three waves burst from it,
whence came the death of Boand.

They came each wave of them against a limb,
they disfigured the soft-blooming woman;
a wave against her foot, a wave against her perfect eye,
the third wave shatters one hand.

She rushed to the sea (it was better for her)
to escape her blemish,
so that none might see her mutilation;
on herself fell her reproach.

Every way the woman went
the cold white water followed
from the Sid to the sea (not weak it was),
so that thence it is called Boand.


Boand II:

Thither came by chance the Dagda
into the house of famous Elcmaire:
he fell to importuning the woman:
he brought her to the birth in a single day.

Boand went from the house in haste
to see if she could reach the well:
she was sure of hiding her guilt
if she could attain to bathe in it.

the strong fountain rose over her,
and drowned her finally.

[1] Should you wish to read the entirety of the poems:

though the woman of warlike ardour is dead,
her noble name clave to her river.

The two poems on Sinann describe a well (Connla’s Well), which is surrounded by nine hazel trees, these hazelnuts contain magic, so that when they drop into the water they create “mystic bubbles” in the stream of Segais, which flows from the well. Sinann follows the stream in search of the one gift she does not possess – imbas, or wisdom – and is subsequently drowned. The river that is created from her drowning is named after her – The Shannon. Sinann has now become the river.

The well of imbas

When you delve into the words that are used to describe Sinann, the first poem focuses heavily on her virginal virtues: “The woman of Luchar of full chastity”/ “of the pure-white modest woman.” The second poem does the same, continuously referring to Sinann throughout as “maiden”, and noting her “fair form”. While the poems attempt to reduce Sinann to that of a pure, virginal maiden, they do tell us that she deliberately went to the well in search of knowledge: Sinann I says: “There lacks no desirable gift that I could not fancy as belonging to that noble lady save magic lore in its sequences/the deathless maid gained the fame that was her undoing.” While Sinann II says: “One night the maiden bethought her/that every sort of fame was at her command save the mystic art alone.” There is an autonomy here that Sinann possesses by choosing to seek out imbas forosna – the wisdom that illuminates.

Boand, like Sinann, also goes to a well in search of mystical knowledge. Poem I on Boand describes how the Segais well is guarded by her husband Nechtain, so that no-one but he and his cup-bearers can have access to the “mysterious evil” hidden within its waters. However, Boand challenges her husband’s rule and accesses the well; she is then attacked by the water, and drowned.

Poem II however is interesting in that it doesn’t describe Boand’s search for wisdom, but rather she goes to the well in the hopes of washing away her guilt for bearing the Dagda’s child, rather than her husband’s (which will be discussed further on). Boand appears bold and independent in her poems, challenging the water: “Hither came on a day white Boand (her noble pride uplifted her), to the well, without being thirsty to make trial of its power/As thrice she walked round about the well heedlessly.” Perhaps it is because Boand thought she could challenge the power of the water, that she is mutilated by it, rather than merely drowned, like Sinann. The river created from her drowning is now named after her – The Boyne.

We can see the surface story of how women, water, and wisdom connect: a woman goes to a well, to drink or bathe in its waters, in the hopes of gaining mystical knowledge. But how does it all intertwine on a deeper level? And why go to a well to receive wisdom?

The Boyne River God Head


To understand the deeper connection between women and water, we need to look at the Tuatha de Danánn and the Mother Goddess they worshipped. The Tuatha are a tribe of people living in Ireland around 1700BC, who have the ability to wield magic. It is this tribe who later become known as the Fae, or Faeries, as they reside underground in Síd, or faerie mounds (this is where the term banshee comes from, meaning woman from the mound). The Tuatha’s name literally translates to “Tribe of the Goddess Danu”, one of the Goddesses they worshipped.

Both Sinann and Boand are members of the Tuatha de Danánn, a people known for their wisdom, so it is perhaps for this reason that the two women go in search of the wisdom they feel they are owed as members of this tribe. But why go to the water in search of it?

To grasp the why, we need to look at their goddess, Danu. Danu is referred to as the Mother of the Gods, and has many gifts to her name. She is seen as the goddess of rivers, wisdom, and fertility. It is Danu who is responsible for the Tuatha receiving their renowned knowledge, passing her wisdom onto her people.

The various interpretations of the meaning behind Danu’s name helps solidify that connection between women, water, and wisdom, as words contain so much meaning.

In the Scythian language (which is a group of Eastern Iranian languages from the Classical – Late antique period) Danu is said to mean ‘river’. In Old Irish dán means ‘gift or skill’ – so in different languages, in different parts of the world Danu represents both water and wisdom. Her gift of wisdom is passed to her people, but also to her legitimate children, their names carrying the power of the mother: Écna means wisdom or enlightenment, and Érgna means understanding.

Danu is not only a wise-woman, but a powerful witch (not in the connotation as we understand witch today, but more like a druid). Sharon Paice MacLeod notes how many sources refer to the Tuatha goddess as a ‘bandruí or bantúathach’, which means a female druid, or witch.

Let’s say then that the well-water is connected to the goddess Danu, that it contains her wisdom, that it is imbued with powerful magic, thanks to her witchcraft. It makes sense then that Sinann and Boand would go to the water in search of magical wisdom – a gift which they wish to receive from their Mother Goddess.

But why then are they punished or drowned for their search? Danu is viewed as containing a duality within her, both as the nurturing, benevolent Mother Goddess, but also as the destructive Warrior Goddess. Archaeological findings often came across weapons and gold at the bottom of well or lake sites, signifying offerings to the gods. Neither Sinann nor Boand offered any gift or sacrifice to the goddess in return for imbas – folklore suggests that rivers demand a sacrifice – perhaps the goddess felt insulted that the women would take her gift without anything in return, and drowned them for their insolence.

However, it could also be argued Danu gave them the greatest gift of all – immortality. The benevolent side of Danu is shown in the tale attached to the River Erne, when Érne runs away in fear from the warrior Cruachu Olcai and is taken by the water in protection.

Interestingly, Sinann herself is already associated with water long before she becomes the river Shannon. Her grandfather is Manannán Mac Lir – the god of the sea. Her connections to water therefore are already solidified, and her fate, perhaps, pre-destined.

There is a further connection between women and water beyond the Tuatha de Danánn’s goddess. In the Dindshenchas Sinann I poem there is a line that says “Let us recount the entire journey whereon went Sinann of noble repute to Lind Mná Féile in the west”. The words to focus on here are “Lind Mná Féile”. In old Irish this translates to “Pool of the Generous Woman”. Therefore, the water that Sinann goes to in order to gain imbas has already been given a female personification. However, developing that link between women and water is the word “féile”. In old Irish it means something different to what it means to us As Gaeilge today. Today, it means festival, but in old Irish it has been found to refer to both male and female genitalia. Directly before the word is “mná”, meaning woman. We can therefore make the connection that “mná féile” is a reference to a woman’s genitals, further solidifying that association between women and water.

Given that both Boand and Sinann die upon arriving at the well, it signifies the idea of life and death. The Mother Goddess giving birth, but upon death the two girls return to the womb and are reborn as rivers themselves.

Boand’s story does the same thing, describing the Boyne as parts of Boand’s body after she becomes the river. She is called “the White Marrow” and “white-bellied Boand”, acknowledging how woman and water are one.

Her connections to water therefore are already solidified,
and her fate, perhaps, pre-destined.


We’ve already established the connection between women and wisdom in the form of the goddess Danu, but there are other representations of how the two link, mainly through the figure of Boand.

Claudius Ptolemy, a Greek astronomer and geographer, created a map of Ireland, in the 2nd century, on which the river Boyne is called Bouvinda. Again, this is where language is important because bó, in Irish, means cow. I don’t imagine Ptolemy was insulting Boand, but rather exalting her, because cows were sacred animals to the Celts. However, Vinda means wisdom, which means Boand herself, and the river she becomes, is wisdom personified.

Perhaps Boand is declared wise because she does not adhere to her husband Nechtain’s control, refusing to allow the well, and its knowledge, to be accessed by him alone.

In Sinann’s second poem she, or rather the river she becomes, is referred to as Sín Morainn, which means Morainn’s Collar. The story behind the collar is that whomever wears it is compelled to tell the truth. It links Sinann with truth-telling, a form of wisdom, to know and tell the truth of things.

Both poems on Boand make reference to an affair between her and a figure called the Dagda. The Dagda is one of the gods of the Tuatha de Danánn, said to be their chief or leader, and is well-known for his skill and wisdom. He also was in possession of a cauldron, meant to represent abundance and plenty. There are plenty of sources in Irish literature which associate cauldrons with wisdom; but a cauldron is also a vessel for containing water, and was sometimes given up as an offering to the gods. This is fitting given that Danu is associated with rivers, and The Dagda is Danu’s son. Boand gives birth to The Dagda’s son Oengus Óg, who becomes the god of love.

Oengus is often visualised with swans surrounding him. This is because he falls in love with Caer, a woman who takes the form of a swan, and who Oengus transforms into a swan for in order to spend his life with her.

The Lagan River God Head

This connects with the story of The Children of Lir (which the River God Lagan represents – with the swan heads carved onto the face), where four children of the Tuatha de Danánn are cursed to live 900 years as swans by their stepmother. Due to the stories associated with swans in Celtic mythology, they are viewed as a respected animal in Ireland today.

However, swans are also viewed as having a link between this world and the Otherworld.



In Nuala Ní Chonchuair’s poem “The White Mantle”, which is based on Caer, she describes her transition into a swan: “I seasonally adjust, slipping through the gap between this and the otherworld, where I wear a white mantle and I rush and slide on Loch Béal Dragan” Only when Caer is in swan form can she transfer between our world and the Otherworld, when she is one with the water. Perhaps it is for this very reason that the swans in the Children of Lir live for 900 years. Not because that was the curse put upon them, but because they lived as swans, connected to the water, which is connected to the Otherworld, a place between life and death. It is only when they leave the water and revert back to their human forms that the children die.

In Celtic mythology the Otherworld represents both the Faerie paradise realm and a spiritual realm for the dead. Either way you look at it, the Otherworld is representative of eternity because time works differently to reality – a couple of years in the Otherworld could equate to a day or two here. The Otherworld is viewed as the ultimate source of powerful knowledge – its access point? Under or across the water. It was seen as the living place of the deities; so if the Otherworld was the residing home of Danu, it is plausible that water would give access into the Otherworld and to Danu herself.

slipping through the gap between this and the otherworld

It makes sense then that if the Otherworld represents immortality and water is the access point, that Sinann and Boand live on in the water they were consumed by. It is not death for them, but a life in the Otherworld, and eternal access to the source of imbas forosna. Or rather they become imbas forosna, as they are now the access point to the Otherworld.

The Otherworld, however, is only accessible via specific points.

Sinann’s story notes how hazelnut trees surround Connla’s well, dropping their produce into the water. Hazelnuts are seen as a product associated with the Otherworld. Perhaps it is these that open the gateway through the water from our world into the Otherworld of Danu and other deities.

The stream of Segais is the water in which both Sinann and Boand attempt to receive imbas. Segais is specifically noted as being connected with wisdom and the Otherworld. And it is said that access to ‘immus na Segsa’, the great knowledge of Segais can be found there.


Within Celtic mythology there is an innate connection with water and its representation of wisdom through the goddess Danu, and the depiction of water as analogous to that of women’s bodies – as seen particularly in the stories of Sinann and Boand.

These mythological stories, although not reality, have bled into religious traditions, such as the worshipping at the Trinity Well on Pentecost Sunday – the well being the source of the River Boyne. However, female deities have been worshipped for their wisdom long before the male-centric focus of modern religions.

The connection between women, water and wisdom is an intrinsic one, one that seeps from our mythologies into our realities, and is inherently linked to the depiction of the Mother Goddess and her knowledge. But that’s not hard to believe, as the saying goes: “Mother knows best”.

Mother Knows Best


Arbuthnot, Sharon, 2021. The Medieval Irish Vocabulary of Sex and Reproduction: Insights from the Trotula and Other Medieval Texts.

Beck, Noémie. The River-Goddess in Celtic Traditions: Mother, Healer and Wisdom Purveyor in Mélanges en l’honneur de Pierre-Yves Lambert, 2015.

Carey, John, 1987. Time, Space, and the Otherworld. Jstor.

E.K., 1919. The Boyne and What it Stands for. Jstor.

Hopkins, Pamela, 1992. The Symbology of Water in Irish Pseudo-History. Jstor.

Hore, Herbert & Mac Ritchie, David, 1895. Origin of the Irish Superstitions Regarding Banshees and Fairies. Jstor.

Mac Cana, Proinsias, 1980. Women in Irish Mythology. Jstor.

MacLeod, Sharon Paice, 2006/2007. A Confluence of Wisdom: The Symbolism of Wells, Whirlpools, Waterfalls and Rivers in Early Celtic Sources. Jstor.

MacLeod, Sharon Paice, 1998/1999. Mater Deorum Hibernensium: Identity and Cross-Correlation in Early Irish Mythology. Jstor.

MacLeod, Sharon Paice, 2003. Oenach Aimsire na mBan: Early Irish Seasonal Celebrations, Gender Roles and Mythological Cycles. Jstor.

Ní Chonchúir, Nuala. The White Mantle.

Selling, Kim, 1998. The Locus of the Sacred in the Celtic Otherworld. Sydney Open Journals.

Spaan, David B., 1965. The Place of Manannan Mac Lir in Irish Mythology. Jstor.

The Metrical Dindshenchas.

Williams, Mark, 2016. Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

Winter Walks: Biophilia and its benefits.

In winter, the Irish landscape shines with a subtle beauty. Evergreen plants take centre stage. Deciduous plants bare their bones, providing elegant architecture. Delicate nodding snowdrops and hellebores emerge and many of our favourite scented plants are at their best – wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox), sweetbox (Sarrococca sp) and Daphne among them.

The botanical name for the classic snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, translates as ‘milk flower of the snow’. These seemingly delicate plants are actually rather tough as the shoots are adapted to pierce through frost-hardened earth. They contain anti-freeze which prevents ice-crystals from forming in the plant. Pictured: Galanthus 'Mrs MacNamara'

Increasingly, researchers acknowledge the importance of daily contact with nature. Studies in multiple disciplines indicate the value of plants both wild and cultivated on human well-being. Exposure to nature can help deal with stress, depression and inattentiveness. Green spaces also give us a space to come together, facilitating connection and community.

There’s nothing quite like wrapping up warmly and taking a winter walk in any of our garden and parkland sites on a crisp day. Studies establish that we benefit physically, mentally and socially from being surrounded by nature. These benefits may be explained through the concept of “biophilia”, which holds that human beings have an innate affinity for living and growing things.

Biologist Edward O. Wilson defines biophilia as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”. Due to evolutionary processes, humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. We are a novelty seeking and social species, always on the lookout for new sensations to share with other people. Such drives would have been of competitive advantage to our ancestors in expanding their range. As a consequence, we delight in the sheer variety of colours and sounds, scents and taste, textures and shapes of nature – and crucially, in the continuous change in all of these through the seasons and across habitats.

An image of Daphne bholua in bloom. There is a dusting of snow over the small purple blooms and long, vibrant green leaves.
Known as the plant with ‘the thousand-mile-scent' in Korean, it is often the sweet scent of Daphne that you notice first. It has been used to make paper in Nepal. Pictured: Daphne bholua

For most of our evolutionary history, we were deeply connected to the landscape and the rhythm of the seasons. As we began to urbanise, we strove to maintain the connection – from potted plants to pets to landscape paintings, we seek connection to the natural world.

Following the industrial revolution, wealthy landowners in Europe began to create controlled natural experiences – hunting and pleasure grounds. Examples in Ireland include the Phoenix Park and Doneraile Estate.

In the early Victorian era, planting schemes featuring annual flowers in a formal pattern were de riguer. However, by the later 19th century, this gave way to the ‘wild garden’ approach of Irish garden designer William Robinson.

A most influential and respected gardener and horticultural writer, Robinson strove for ‘honest simplicity’. He established plants in places where they would thrive and spread without becoming invasive. Using perennial plants, he utilised a painterly approach to colour and texture.

Robinson was perhaps ahead of his time as the ‘wild garden’ approach not only taps into our innate biophilia but also allows space for biodiversity.

Sites such as Altamount Gardens, Annes Grove, and Heywood Gardens bear the hallmarks of his style today.

See our leaflet on Historic Gardens for inspiration and planning a day out.



Wilson, E.O., 1984. Biophilia. Harvard University Press

Nelson, E.C. and McCracken, E.M., 1987. The Brightest Jewel: A history of the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin. Boethius Press, Kilkenny

Robinson, W., 2011. The Wild Garden: Or, Our Groves and Shrubberies Made Beautiful. Cambridge University Press.

The Rock of Cashel: Walking Amongst the Dead.


One of the most commonly asked questions on a guided tour of the Rock of Cashel is “Are there ghosts here?” While I myself have never seen or felt anything out of the ordinary there are members of the public who claim to have done so. Let’s face it, with such a mixed and often tragic history, if ever a place was going to be haunted then the Rock of Cashel would surely be a prime location.



The graveyard at the Rock of Cashel is one of the oldest active graveyards in Ireland. Historically the site dates back to the early fourth century when the Kings of Munster ruled high over the fertile planes of Tipperary, but the word Cashel derives from the gaelic word with the same pronunciation meaning a stone fortress. This suggests pre-Christian activity and, naturally, possible burials on the old limestone pedestal. Today, if you’re lucky enough to have had your name listed on the grave register from 1930, when your time finally comes you too could rest for eternity with Kings and Bishops.

Irish mythology has it that the Rock of Cashel was formed after the Devil took a huge bite out of the aptly named Devil’s Bit Mountain twenty miles north of Cashel. There is a large gap in the mountain between one outcrop ofrock and another small plateau. This was supposedly done to evade Saint Patrick who was banishing the pagan thoughts and customs that had ruled Ireland for millennia. In biting off this chunk of sandstone the Devil broke a tooth and as he flew south from the mountain he spat out the Rock of Cashel from his mouth to where it now stands. If this theory was to believed one of Ireland’s most iconic monuments was built on Satan’s tooth!

©Failte Ireland Courtesy Liam Murphy

The Massacre of Cashel

In the summer of 1647 the Baron of Inchiquin, Murrough O’Brien, the Irish commander of the Protestant army of Cork under the control of Oliver Cromwell, commenced a campaign against the Irish Catholic strongholds in Munster. He met with little resistance and was allowed to make a major push towards the ecclesiastical centre of Cashel. The attack on the Rock of Cashel commenced on the 15th September 1647. Initially, the Irish defenders managed to protect the Cathedral, holding off the attackers trying to get through the doors, but the Parliamentarians then placed numerous ladders against the many windows in the Cathedral and swarmed the building. For another half an hour fighting raged inside the grounds, until the depleted defenders retreated up the bell tower. In the end all the soldiers and most of the civilians on the Rock were killed by the attackers. The Bishop and Mayor of Cashel along with a few others survived by taking shelter in a secret hiding place. Apart from these a few women were spared, after being stripped of their clothes, and a small number of wealthy civilians were taken prisoner, but these were the exceptions. Overall, close to 1,000 men, women and children were slaughtered on that night. The bodies were said to be stacked six deep on the Cathedral floor according to one eyewitness.

The Audio Visual Theatre at the Rock of Cashel has been a hotbed of ghostly sightings over the years and the one common dominator is a young shawled child with long dark hair hunched over. Others have claimed to have heard screams and even footsteps following them in that same area. Recently, one lady had to leave the building because of all the negative energy she experienced and described the feeling of being choked by it. Everyone who had an encounter in the Vicar’s Choral all agreed individually that they were most definitely not made to feel welcome and that they should leave.

Could this possibly be the ghost of one of the young children put to death by Lord Inchiquin and his Parliamentarian forces in September 1647?

From within Cormac's Chapel we see a visitor in the entrance, looking up at the exterior of the building.
Inside Cormac's Chapel, Rock of Cashel ©Failte Ireland Credit Line: Courtesy Liam Murphy

Grave Robbers at the Rock of Cashel

“You can’t take it with you” is an old Irish saying that goes back generations and that is surely true if you are to believe the testament of the George Ryan from Inch, outside Thurles, in Co. Tipperary published in The Tipperary Gentry. The Ryan’s were a wealthy landowning family in the late nineteenth century and on one of his many trips home from Clonmel, Mr Ryan was passing the Rock of Cashel late at night on horseback with his servant. Looking up to the Rock, Ryan noticed a light shining from the grounds. Determined to see what it was he halted and told his servant to come with him. The servant was afraid and refused to go but Ryan told him he would shoot him if he did not so, under pressure, he agreed.

There was a woman in Cashel, who made a living from opening the graves of aristocratic ladies after burial, to rob them of their gold rings or any other valuable ornaments buried with them. When Mr. Ryan and his servant appeared beside her at the graveyard, the story is she struck Ryan with a dead persons arm across the face. The terrified servant ran away and Ryan grappled with and overcame the woman. He took out his pistols, marched her to Cashel town and gave her up to the Authorities. There she was later hanged for the robberies.


As we prepare for yet another Halloween, we follow in the footsteps of our Celtic ancestors who celebrated the ancient festival of Samhain to usher in “the dark half of the year.” Celebrants believe that the barriers between the physical world and the spirit world break down during Samhain, allowing more interaction between humans and inhabitants of the Otherworld. That can only mean one thing at the Rock of Cashel – it’s going to be an interesting night!

Samhain: The Roots of Halloween.

Every Halloween, people around the world dress up and take part in festivities, yet few are aware of its roots in the ancient festival of Samhain. In Irish folklore, the veil between our world and the supernatural draws thin at this time. It is a liminal phase, a turning of the year.



Samhain takes place roughly halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, marking a transition between the lighter half of the year and the darker half. Astonishingly, the ancient inhabitants of this island were able to plot and track the movements of the sun in the sky through the year. The Mound of the Hostages at Tara Hill is a 5,000-year-old Neolithic passage tomb. There, the rising sun illuminates the inner chamber at both Samhain and Imbolc (which coincides with Brigid’s Day – more on that in a future post). A similar phenomenon takes place in another Neolithic site in Co. Meath, the Loughcrew Megalithic Cemetery, also known as Slieve na Calliagh (Hill of the Witch). According to local folklore, the Loughcrew site was created by An Cailleach Bhéara, a powerful figure in Irish mythology. It was she who brought about winter, a necessary time to draw inwards before the rebirth of spring.

In Irish, Scottish, and Manx myth, the Cailleach is a divine hag and ancestor, associated with the creation of the landscape and with the winter. The word derives from the old Irish for ‘veiled one’.

Stone carvings, Hill of Tara, Co. Meath. © Government of Ireland National Monuments Service Photographic Unit

In Irish, Scottish, and Manx myth, the Cailleach is a divine hag and ancestor, associated with the creation of the landscape and with the winter. The word derives from the old Irish for ‘veiled one’.

The story of witches in Ireland can be traced back to Viking society, which shaped Ireland from about the 11th century. Women who could ‘see the future’, known as völva, had an esteemed place in society, as evinced by the Viking burial sites and mythology. The völva practised a kind of ecstasy magic known as seid. Their visions were induced through the use of hallucinogenic herbs, particularly those of the nightshade (Solanceae) family. A rare plant nowadays, henbane (Hyoscamus niger) is mostly found around archaeological sites in Dublin. Highly toxic, it is suggested that völva may have applied the herb and relatives such as deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) topically so that the chemicals were more safely absorbed. These two nightshades are also ingredients of the infamous ‘flying ointment’ which is reported as inducing a sensation of flying. Deadly nightshade was important herb employed by the witch healers as it inhibits uterine contractions when miscarriage threatens. The modern medication atropine was originally extracted from this plant. Atropine is used today to treat certain types of nerve agent and pesticide poisonings as well as some types of slow heart rate, and to decrease saliva production during surgery. Atropine eye drops are commonly used by eye doctors to dilate the pupils.

Viking Triangle, Reginalds Tower, Co Waterford. Photo Credit: Fáílte Ireland

Witch healers used Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) as a cure for dropsy and other heart related ailments. The precise mechanisms of how it worked were mysterious to medical administrators until an English physician, William Withering, investigated its affects. His attention was drawn to the foxglove and its properties in the first place when a wise woman cured his patient of dropsy with a tea made of it. The heart drug digitalin was later extracted from foxglove. Digitalin increases the action of the heart and makes it more regular. Like many of our most important plant medicines, it has the power to save a life and also to end it – for a healthy person ingestion of foxglove can be fatal.

Elder (Sambucus nigra) has been called “the medicine chest of the country people” as it can boost immunity and act as an anti-inflammatory. Despite these positive attributes, it often has a curiously negative role in folklore. It is said that to burn it will cause the devil to appear and that if you use its wood to make a cradle it is an invitation to the fairies to steal your baby and replace it with a changeling. Perhaps these stories are a testament to its medicinal properties which were perceived as magical.

Foxglove flowering in a hedgerow

The aos sí (faeries) are said to live underground in fairy forts, across the Western sea, or in an invisible world that co-exists with the world of humans. In folk belief and practice, they are often appeased with offerings, and care is taken to avoid angering or insulting them. They are seen as fierce guardians of their abodes —whether a fairy hill, a fairy ring, a particular loch or wood, or a special tree (usually hawthorn). You would be well advised not to harm hawthorn (𝘊𝘳𝘢𝘵𝘢𝘦𝘨𝘶𝘴 𝘮𝘰𝘯𝘰𝘨𝘺𝘯𝘢), for fear of incurring the wrath of the aos sí, who use this plant as a portal between their world and ours. To this day, lone trees in particular are left well alone. In some cases, hawthorns are revered as rag trees with powers of healing, especially if growing by water or on a ringfort. This deep-rooted reluctance to interfere with certain wild things has the benefit of preserving nature. Hawthorn is superb for wildlife, providing shelter as well as food for animals, particularly when part of a hedgerow. Hedgerow habitats occupy an interface between open grassland and close-growing woodland. They have become increasingly important for biodiversity in the face of habitat loss and fragmentation, and intensifying land use.  As well as a habitat in themselves, hedgerows also provide crucial links and landscape corridors for wildlife – many bats, for example, prefer not to cross open ground but use hedges and treelines to reach their insect-rich hunting grounds. Like Samhain, hedgerows occupy a liminal space, allowing some through while acting as a boundary for others.

Hawthorn tree in fruit - red berries alongside green leaves on a thorny twig
Hawthorn (𝘊𝘳𝘢𝘵𝘢𝘦𝘨𝘶𝘴 𝘮𝘰𝘯𝘰𝘨𝘺𝘯𝘢) in fruit

One of the widespread medicinal plants known in Ireland is Sphagnum moss. A biological engineer, it is the very fabric of our raised bogs. Its power of absorption allow it to hold up to twenty two times its own weight in liquid. This remarkable sponge-like quality comes from its cellular structure – 90% of its cells are larger, hollow, and dead. It is also antiseptic, containing bacteria and fungi such as penicillin. Humans learned to take advantage of this capacity, using it to soak up blood, pus, and other bodily fluids. In Native American societies, it was used to line cradles, acting as a natural diaper. In Viking Age Dublin it was used as toilet paper. It is said that after the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, the armies used it to staunch their wounds. More recently, during World War One, it was again employed on the fronts. Both sides collected the moss and made extensive use of it. Nurses then began using it themselves during menstruation. Thus Sphagnum is an example of a plant whose properties were noted and utilised independently by different people.

A biological engineer, Sphagnum moss is the very fabric of our raised bogs. Its power of absorption allow it to hold up to twenty two times its own weight in liquid.

Two visitors look at an exhibiton about bogs preserving the past in a visitor centre at the Céide Fields
Céide Fields, Visitor Centre, Co Mayo. Photo credit: Fáilte Ireland

Nowadays we are not as intimately tied to the land so we are less in tune with the shifting seasons. Yet as we face the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, we find ourselves noticing nature and its cycles more than we did before. This coincides with renewed interest in our natural and built heritage as well as in customs and festivities such as Samhain.

Low level winter light streams through the yews National Botanic Gardens of Ireland

Sagas & Scéals: The Hiberno-Norse of Waterford.


A young woman ambles down a dark and narrow laneway, followed by a shaggy grey dog. She is twenty, perhaps twenty-one, and wears a woollen smock fastened over a flaxen dress with iron pins. She walks out into the sun and into a sprawling market square. The ground beneath her has been beaten into mud by the crowd. The sky is dark and grey, brewing rain, but the threat of bad weather doesn't deter her, or indeed the other inhabitants of this city.
There are great canvas tents all along the square with wide, open doorways, sheltering salt-beaten traders as they sell fur, tooled leather, fruit, honey, vegetables, wax, jewellery.

Original illustration of the Kite Brooch by Breanna Kinsella

Góðan morgin*,” the girl calls to the old ostman selling bright green apples, waving, and he waves back. When he lifts his arm, a pendant catches the sunlight and glints around his neck; Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, in beaten, polished metal.
As they push through the throng, her dog goes to sniff at a stall where dried fish is being sold. He edges his head up to the wooden poles that the fish is hung from, daring to lick the side of a salted herring. The girl scolds him and pulls him away by the collar, and then apologises to the irate fisherwoman behind the stall: “Tá brón orm*.”
The market square is bustling with people hailing from both west and east of the North Sea. There are native Irish tentatively mingling with incoming Scandinavians, towns and cities filling up with ostmen, or ‘men from the east’. The girl calls her dog and they walk onwards, in through the hum of the crowd and the market, and into this new city built on the winter fjord.
She is part of a new and fast-growing cultural group appearing within Scandinavian settlements in Ireland. Her mother is an Irish freedwoman from the hills of the Déise; her father is an ostman from across the sea in Lochlann, or Norway. She is a Norse-Gael – perhaps better known as Hiberno-Norse – and thousands just like her populated the early medieval Viking towns of Waterford, Wexford, and Dublin.

Illustration of major Viking settlements in Ireland

Who were the Hiberno-Norse, and what impact did they have on the cultural, social, and archaeological history of Ireland?
According to the Annals of Ulster, Ireland was first introduced to these Scandinavian newcomers – more widely known as Vikings – in 795 A.D. A horde of Norwegian raiders made landfall at Rathlin Island off the coast of County Antrim, and summarily laid waste to the contemporaneous church there. The buildings were burnt to the ground and the church was pillaged for commodities like silver, slaves, and livestock. In the same year, the monks on Lambay Island in Dublin suffered a similar fate.
Being careful not to sanitise the Viking presence here too much – it’s always important to keep their violent appearance on our island in mind– one should take into account the very real and nonviolent impact that these newcomers had on the Irish once they ceased their raids and began to properly settle. There were, undoubtedly, Norse-Irish relationships, and subsequent marriages.
The Hiberno-Norse were the product of these relationships; people of mixed Irish and Norse ancestry. The group emerged in Ireland around the 9th century A.D., after the aforementioned Norse groups found their way down the Irish coast after settling in Scotland and the Isle of Man. Children of Norse and Irish parents then went on to grow up in a mixed-culture household and, more importantly, a mixed-culture society. Many were likely bilingual, speaking both Old Norse and Irish, and would have been exposed to the customs and stories of both parents’ individual cultures. It is also more likely that earlier Hiberno-Norse people had fathers from Scandinavia and mothers from Ireland, given that the majority of early Norse arrivals to Ireland were men.
This culture also gave rise to a class of in-demand mercenaries hailing from Norse-Gael clans – the gallowglass, from the Irish gallóglaigh, meaning foreign warriors.
In addition to this, the distinctive Hiberno-Norse art style began to emerge in jewellery and art, seen today in much of the archaeological finds associated with the culture, which produced fantastic craftspeople. An excellent example of this fine craftsmanship is Waterford’s kite brooch, a silver Hiberno-Norse brooch found during the excavation of the Waterford City Square Shopping Centre. The brooch itself dates back to around 1100 A.D., and is decorated with highly intricate gold filigree and amethyst-coloured glass gems.
Over time, the Hiberno-Norse people were Gaelicised to the point that their distinct culture disappeared. However, their imprint on Irish history was long-lasting, and endures today. For example, there are many areas in Ireland that still hold their Norse-Irish placenames.
– Waterford – from the Old Norse Veðrafjǫrðr; ‘winter port/port of the rams’
– Wexford – from the Old Norse Veisafjǫrðr; ‘fjord/inlet of the mud flats’
– Oxmantown, Co. Dublin – from the Old Norse Austmanna-tún; ‘Ostmantown’
– Ballygunner, Co. Waterford – from the Scandinavian name Gunnarr and the Irish baile (town); ‘the town of Gunnarr’
Additionally, there are several surnames present in the current Irish population that have Hiberno-Norse origins.
– McAuley – from the Irish Mac Amlaibh; ‘son of Amlaibh’, a Gaelicised version of Olaf.
– McAskill – from the Irish Mac Asgaill; ‘son of Asgall’, a Scandinavian given name.
– Macotter – from the Irish Mac Ottar; ‘son of Ottir’, a Scandinavian given name.
This autumn, the Office of Public Works will bring this rich culture to life by hosting a Halloween storytelling event like no other at Reginald’s Tower, Waterford; the vast Anglo-Norman successor to a Norse-built wooden watchtower constructed soon after the founding of Waterford in 914 A.D.
Sagas & Scéals is a storytelling event that will introduce visitors to Raghnailt, a Hiberno-Norse woman – complete with fully authentic costume – who will bring visitors on a storytelling adventure throughout the building. Reginald’s Tower will embrace the spookiest of seasons with pumpkins and skeletons galore, adding a ghostly ambience to the 12th-century stronghold.
Raghnailt is decidedly bilingual; she speaks both her maternal Irish and paternal Old Norse. As a child, she’ll inform visitors, her parents shared with her a myriad of stories and legends from their respective homelands, which she will then go on to recount throughout the event.
These tales include the story of Fenrir, the monstrous chained wolf of Norse mythology who, upon the advent of Ragnarok – the Old Norse doomsday – will break free from his binds and devour the sun; the medieval account of the werewolves of Osraige, the old Irish kingdom that lay in modern-day Kilkenny; the story of the horse-eared king Labraidh Loingseach; the terror of the infamous banshee; the Waterford vampire, the Dearg Dú; and many more.
The event will be aimed at giving a living personality to these distinctive people – not wholly Viking or wholly Irish, but something else entirely – and bringing to life some lesser-known myths of the Waterford area and beyond at the same time.
Details of the event and other related events can be found on the Reginald’s Tower social media pages closer to the time. Numbers limited – booking essential. Suitable for children 8+ years and above.
*Góðan morgin = Old Norse for good morning. Phonetic: goth-an mor-gin
*Tá brón orm = Irish for I’m sorry / my apologies. Phonetic: taw brone urm

Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find Them….


Cormac’s Chapel remains somewhat an enigma to scholars. Its mismatched blind-arcades, unfinished floral patterns, and off-centre chancel arch have kept historians occupied for decades arguing over the minutiae of the Chapel’s design. However, one of its most overlooked features, and one of its most interesting, is the collection of strange beasts carved throughout the Chapel. Inside and out, and dotted throughout the nave and the chancel are a collection of carvings showing strange creatures. These are commonly known as grotesques or chimeras. They are generally mythical beasts, or hybrid creatures showing animal and sometimes human features. These creatures can be found all across Europe and were generally carved on religious buildings between the 12th and 17th centuries, and protrude from the walls to make sure they stand out. They are generally associated with the rise of Gothic architecture in the later 12th century, so the grotesques found in Cormac’s Chapel represent an early example as the Chapel was built in the early 12th century between 1127 and 1134. Grotesques grew out of the tradition of the gargoyle which are similar in nature, often displaying fantastical creatures, but always around the termination of a waterspout. Cormac’s Chapel does, in fact, have one gargoyle on its outer wall, but the rest of the carvings are grotesques.

A grotesque with bug eyes with its lower face damaged

Inside the nave of the Chapel, several strange creatures can be seen including a horned lion, possibly a bat-like creature, and also a dragon-type creature with a human head clasped between its teeth. The damaged face of a bug-eyed grotesque can still be seen in the chancel arch. Inside the chancel, above the remains of the rare fresco paintings are other creatures reminiscent of horses baring their teeth, sitting next to more life-like human faces. Even some of the human faces that adorn the capital stones high up in the nave have a touch of the macabre as they pull faces and stick their tongues out.

A grotesque with its tongue sticking out
A lion-type creature with horns and the pillar in its teeth.

Outside, several grotesques adorn both the north and south walls, although these are so eroded by weather and time that their original form is now lost to us. However, the strange beasts are not confined to just grotesques and capital stones. Both north and south portals have tympana with carved scenes. The much eroded south tympanum displays the tentatively identified ox of St. Luke, while the north tympanum shows the lion of St. Mark. However, neither of these are mythical or hybrid creatures. It is the figure to the right of the lion that is of interest as it depicts a centaur – a figure from Greek mythology that was half-man, half-horse. It can only be speculated if the tympanum on the south portal once showed such a figure as well.

Detail of the tympanum on the north portal
Two fighting animals on a capital stone in the north doorway

There is no consensus on what the meaning of these grotesque carvings are. Some consider them to be merely decoration, expressing the imagination and whimsy of the period in which they were carved. Others have ascribed more religious connotations to them, arguing that as the church wanted sculptors to be preachers in stone, that these carvings were meant to teach people about sin and warning them not to be blasphemous. Another interpretation is that they were carved to ward away evil spirits from the buildings, and cast a watchful eye over the people. The truth may be somewhere in the middle. Whatever their intended meaning they still cast a watchful eye over Cormac’s Chapel today.

Grotesques and human figures in the chancel

Cahir Castle 50 Years Open to the Public.

In 1971, Cahir Castle opened its doors to the visiting public for the first time after a lengthy period of conservation and restoration by the OPW. Since then hundreds of thousands of visitors, both from the island of Ireland and around the world have walked its cobble-stoned paths and marvelled at its centuries old architecture, while being regaled with the rich history of the castle by our dedicated team of tour guides.
Why are so many people still being drawn to this picturesque corner of Tipperary, even during these current tumultuous times? Is it just the fact that Cahir Castle that has stood overlooking the river Suir for over 800 years and is widely considered as one of the finest examples of a Norman built castle in Ireland? Could it be the castle’s wonderful state of preservation or its role as a film set for so many Hollywood blockbusters over the last 50 years? Our visitors can retrace the footsteps of movie stars such as Richard Burton, Helen Mirren, Ryan O’Neil, Liam Neeson and Matt Damon. Or, finally, could it be the visitor friendly atmosphere of the town, with its picturesque appearance and plethora of restaurants and gift shops or, perhaps in truth it is all of the above and so much more.

Cahir Castle overlooking the River Suir
Cahir Castle overlooking the River Suir

The story of Cahir predates the castle. The native Irish had built stone fortifications here long before the first Norman knights made landfall in Wexford in 1169. One of the first references to a fort in Cahir comes from a manuscript written by the Mac Firbisigh family in the 14th century, which recounts ancient oral tales. The Great Book of Lecan describes the stone fort as belonging to a woman called Badamair in the 3rd century AD; she is still known as the first woman of Cahir to this day. She was the mistress of an Irish chieftain, Finn Mac Radamair. The book describes how an enemy of the chieftain attacked the fort killing Badamair, in an act of vengeance against her lover. The fort was called `Rath Badhamhrach` and it was said to have been destroyed during the assault.
The Normans were responsible for introducing stone castles to Ireland. Cahir Castle dates from the early 13th century when the Worcester family began the task of fortifying the island in order to solidify their control of the region and the river traffic that flowed past its walls. Positioned on a rocky island the castle would have been an awe-inspiring sight.
In 1375, the castle and its lands were granted to James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormond by Edward III, King of England. This influential family would hold sway over the castle and the surrounding area for almost 600 years.
One of the most interesting events of the castle’s history occurred in 1599, during the reign of Elizabeth I. In May of that year Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex and a favourite of the Queen, brought her army and two heavy artillery guns to batter the castle’s defences, the first use of such weapons against this mighty fortification. After just three days of heavy bombardment, the castle was captured. Visitors to Cahir can still see reminders from this momentous occasion, as there are two culverin balls embedded in the castle walls. The first of these can be seen in the North East tower overlooking the main entrance, while the second shot can be found wedged high up in the east wall of the keep, overlooking the middle courtyard. A superb large scaled model of the siege is the centrepiece of an exhibition about the event.

A cannon ball in the North East Tower
A cannon ball in the North East Tower

Unfortunately, for Robert Devereux, his victory at Cahir was one of the few successes of his campaign in Ireland and on his return to England with little to show for his costly efforts, he would fall from the Queen’s favour and feel the axeman’s blade just two years later.
Just 50 years later another famous character from history would also make his mark on the story of Cahir Castle. In 1650, Oliver Cromwell, along with part of his New Model Army, was cutting a bloody and brutal trail through the country when they arrived outside of the castle’s walls and prepared for war. Only this time, it was not his cannons that forced the defenders to eventually surrender, but his words. He wrote a direct letter to the Butler family that said:
“Sir, having brought my army and my cannon near this place, according to my usual manner in summoning places, I thought fit to offer you terms honourable to soldiers, that you march away with your baggage, arms and colours free from injury and violence. But if I be, not withstanding, necessitated to bend my cannon upon you, you must expect the extremity usual in such cases. To avoid blood, this is offered to you by your servant, Oliver Cromwell”
These words may very well have spared Cahir the same fate as other fortified defences that were decimated by Cromwell’s armies during this period. In 1652, the castle’s Banqueting Hall was the location of a meeting where the articles of agreement were signed between the local Confederate leaders and the Cromwellian commanders.

The Antlers of the Giant Irish Deer in the Banqueting Hall at Cahir castle
The Antlers of the Giant Irish Deer in the Banqueting Hall at Cahir castle

Another infamous event had occurred in the Banqueting Hall in 1627 when the then Lord Cahir’s son in law, Lord Dunboyne and a Butler relation James Prendergast were attending a function at the castle. The two men were in dispute over the inheritance of land and both became embroiled in an altercation that led to the death of Prendergast. Lord Dunboyne was subsequently arrested for murder and incarcerated in Dublin Castle, but a jury of his peers acquitted him of the crime.
Today, visitors can self-guide around the site, but to truly get to grips with the rich and vibrant history of the castle a guided tour is always recommended. The guides bring the castle’s history to life.

The portcullis and the trapping area within
The portcullis and the trapping area within

The castle has a myriad of features, which will capture the attention, one of which is the portcullis. Its winding mechanism and wooden gears are located within the Keep (main tower). The gate, a classic representation of a medieval castle is a favoured location for photographs.
The Banqueting Hall the heart of the castle is home to the oldest and the newest artefacts at Cahir Castle. High upon the north wall of this large room sit the impressive antlers of the Giant Irish Deer, which has been extinct for approximately 10,000 years, while the ornate fireplace, with a medieval shield embossed on its stonework, is in fact only a year old! The fireplace is a prop created for the movie, ‘The Last Duel’, directed by Ridley Scott, and is not made from stone at all but from plaster. The film has just been released.

The fireplace from the movie ‘The Last Duel’
The fireplace from the movie ‘The Last Duel’

It’s not just tourists that have availed of the guided tours at Cahir, there have been many celebrity visitors to the castle since it opened, included among them the actor Mel Gibson of Braveheart fame, the historian Dan Snow and in 1995 the then President Mary Robinson toured the castle.

There are plenty of things to see beyond the castle walls including the finely designed wooden carvings of the Inch Field as well as the famous sword in the stone, erected in honour of the local people who played extras in the Hollywood movie Excalibur, which was partly filmed at Cahir Castle in the early 1980’s
The river Suir, which surrounds the castle, is home to a multitude of wildlife, including a flourishing colony of geese, a family of elegant swans, as well as herons, and a host of ducks that flock to see if visitors have any treats for them. In the adjacent parkland grey squirrels leap from branch to branch in the mighty oaks and buzzards and sparrow hawks soar high above the castle.

One of the carved statues that can be viewed in the Inch Field
One of the carved statues that can be viewed in the Inch Field

The Castle on Film

Just outside the castle are information plaques dedicated to the movies filmed at Cahir Castle. The history of the last 50 years is mirrored by the list of films starting with the 1973 production of ‘Catholics’ that starred the Hollywood Actors Martin Sheen and Trevor Howard.

In 1975, the director Stanley Kubrick, famous for his Sci/Fi epic 2001 A Space Odyssey, started filming another cult classic. ‘Barry Lyndon’ was a period drama starring Ryan O’Neil, Patrick Magee and Hardy Kruger and several key scenes were filmed in Cahir Castle’s Banqueting Hall, inner courtyard and in the adjacent Inch Field.

Richard Burton, arguably one of the finest actors of his generation, came to Cahir Castle to film the movie ‘Tristan and Isolt’, which was released in the USA as Love Spell. Alongside Burton were many Irish actors such as Geraldine FitzGerald and Neil Tobin. Sadly, the film has slipped into the movie ether and is rarely seen today.

It was director John Boorman, who really put the castle and the town on the Hollywood filming map when he chose Cahir Castle as one of the sites for his cult fantasy epic ‘Excalibur’. The film took the mythical story of King Arthur and his Knights and the mercurial wizard Merlin and brought it to the big screen. Excalibur helped to launch the screen careers of many famous actors such as Nicol Williamson, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson. It grossed over 35 million dollars in America alone and even today many visitors come to see where many of the films iconic battle scenes were filmed.

In 2013, a new historical slant on the life of King Henry VIII, The Tudors, began filming with Cahir Castle featuring in several scenes over the productions four season run. Jonathan Rhys Meyers and, future Superman actor, Henry Cavill starred in the smash hit show.

In recent years, two new major Hollywood productions have used the castle as a location. In 2019 ‘The Green Knight’ began filming and its lead star, Dev Patel, famous for films such as ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and ‘The Exotic Marigold Hotel’ and Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl and Lara Croft) featured. The film was released earlier this year (2021).

During September 2020, another major movie started filming at the castle. Legendary director Ridley Scott brought his new blockbuster production to Ireland. ‘The Last Duel’ starred Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer and Ben Affleck in a tale about a desperate duel to the death set in medieval France.  It almost recalls the real life story of the previously mentioned event that occurred in the Banqueting Hall at Cahir Castle in 1627.

Cahir Castle
Cahir Castle

The mighty and well preserved Cahir Castle with its fascinating and rich history is always worthy of a visit, particularly this year in which it celebrates five decades open to the public.

Robert O’Brien joined the Office of Public Works as a tour guide in the summer of 2014, first working at Ormond Castle in Carrick-on-Suir before it closed for renovations, before moving on to Cahir Castle the following year.
Robert studied Creative Writing at Maynooth College in Kilkenny and has given Creative Writing workshops to adults and children over the years. He also studied horticulture at Kildalton College.
Robert is a keen historian with particular interest in the Crusades and naval operations during the Second World War. He lives in County Waterford.

“As you are now, So once I was”.

Samhain, the ancient Irish festival, marked the end of summer and the harvest season. It was an occasion to celebrate during a time of plenty before the harsh winter months brought shorter days, colder temperatures and a potential shortage of provisions. Huge bonfires were lit on hilltops in acknowledgement of the power of the ancient gods and in thanks for the bounty that had been reaped from the land. It was a time when the veil between this world and that of the supernatural thinned and could be crossed, an opportunity for portals to the other world to open and allow the supernatural residents found therein to visit our own realm. The souls of the dead could also return to the world of the mundane for a brief period of time on this night.

James Rice Tomb, Waterford
James Rice Tomb, Waterford

In more recent times the name Samhain has been replaced by the now familiar term Hallowe’en. Hallowe’en has become the great festival of the macabre, a time for horror and scares, an amalgamation of ancient and modern customs. Although a number of these customs have their origins in pagan traditions, now lost in the mists of time, the actual word Hallowe’en itself has a very different background as its roots lie in Christianity. In the early church the 13th May was a feast day designated for the remembrance of all martyrs, those known and unknown. Later this evolved to be a day to honour the memory of all saints and in particular saints that did not have a separate feast day of their own. Evidence for a change of date from the 13th May to the 1st November for this feast occurs during the reign of Pope Gregory III (731 – 741 A.D.) and in 837 A.D. Pope Gregory IV orders its general observance throughout the Church. So how does “All Saints’ Day” transform into the familiar word Hallowe’en? Hallow is an old word for a saint or a holy person, its origins lying in Old English, so All Saints Day was formerly called All Hallows Day, it occurs on the 1st November so the close of the day before, October 31st, is All Hallows Eve (or Evening) and abbreviated we then have Hallowe’en. All Saints’ Day is then followed on November 2nd by All Souls’ Day a day dedicated to remembering the faithful departed and so these two days have led, for many, to this time of year becoming the primary focus for commemorating the dead.

Of course commemorating the dead is nothing new and has been a preoccupation of humanity since time immemorial. Many of the wonders of the ancient world were built precisely for this purpose. The range in size and complexity of the structures built through the centuries to house the dead or dedicated to the memory of those who have passed is simply mind-boggling. On the one hand we have the pyramids, massive passage tombs or elaborate necropoli while on the other hand we have simple stone-lined cist burials or a standing stone to mark a burial spot. Scattered within the boundaries of many of our National Monuments are memorials to our dead and these take many forms, in shape, size and material used. Depending on the time period, affluence or beliefs of those interred these objects range from simple stone or wood markers to massive, monumental mausoleums. The ones we are probably most familiar with are the standard, stone tombstones that stand silent and stoic in the grounds and graveyards of our ruined churches, abbeys, priories and friaries. The decoration on these memorials can be quite plain consisting of a simple inscription, a name and maybe a date, however many are covered in carvings and decoration, all of it symbolic in some fashion and designed to deliver a message to those who view it.

Arma Christi in Kilfearagh, Co Clare
Graveslab with the Arma Christi

Particularly striking are the tombstones that are decorated with the Arma Christi, the “Weapons of Christ”, a collection of the symbols of the Passion. As a grouping of symbols their use dates back to at least the 9th century however it is during the 15th to 17th centuries, in Ireland at least, that they appear quite commonly on tombstones and a host of symbols can often be found carved on a single stone. Among the symbols commonly seen are a mix of the following: a crown of thorns, a ladder, the column Jesus was bound to when scourged and the ropes used to bind him to it, the scourges or whips, the hammer and nails, the pincers used to remove the nails after the crucifixion, the seamless robes Jesus wore and the dice the soldiers used to gamble for the robes, the spear that pierced his side, the rod with vinegar soaked sponge affixed, thirty pieces of silver, a bell, the rooster that crowed three times, a jar or jug, a lantern, the sword used by Peter to cut off the ear of the High Priest’s servant (and sometimes the ear itself is shown!). The sun and moon are often shown along with the Arma Christi and may represent the eclipse that took place on Good Friday or otherwise may be a simple, yet subtle, reminder of the passage of time.

Perhaps the most eye-catching of the medieval tombs that have survived to this day are the effigial tombs; there is something striking about seeing a depiction of a figure, lying in restful repose, dressed as they would have been hundreds of years ago. As to whether the representation is accurate or not is another thing, artistic licence is nothing new! Knights, ladies, ecclesiastical figures, wealthy citizens and merchants make up the majority of those depicted in this fashion, the commissioning of these elaborate memorials requiring a certain level of affluence. The appearance of effigial tombs in Ireland begins following the arrival of the Normans in the late 12th century, with the earliest surviving examples in the country dating to the late 12th and early 13th century. What is probably the oldest tombstone in Ireland with an inscribed date, the inscription records the year as being 1253, now stands within the 19th century chancel of St. Mary’s Church in Gowran, County Kilkenny. It depicts an ecclesiastic figure named Radoulfus, shown in his priestly robes, who died on March 19th of that year.

Long Man of Kilfane Effigy – near Thomastown
Long Man of Kilfane Effigy – near Thomastown

Normally a wealth of further carvings decorated the surrounds of these effigies and it is worth keeping in mind that traces of paint have been found on these memorials; originally they were quite colourful unlike the bare stone we are familiar with today. The effigy itself can be situated on a stone box, forming a box or chest tomb, the side panels of which tend to feature images of various saints and other figures, the Arma Christi or heraldic decoration and coats of arms. The figures shown on these side panels are, erroneously, generally referred to as “Weepers”, actual weepers were usually anonymous figures posed in mourning and praying for the soul of the deceased. In Ireland many of these “Weepers” are actually saints, and those sculpted are often depicted with a feature or attribute that allows them to be identified. John for example, the youngest of the apostles is usually depicted without a beard, unlike the other apostles who are shown with an abundance of facial hair, whereas James the Greater usually has one, or all, of the following; a pilgrim staff, pilgrim bag or scallop shell. The scallop shell being familiar today from the Camino to Santiago de Compostela where the apostle himself is reputed to be buried. Fittingly, as we approach Hallowe’en, many of the figures represented on these side panels are depicted with the instrument of their martyrdom and many of them met rather gruesome ends. St.  Catherine of Alexandria suffered many trials and tribulations before being sentenced to death, through the use of a spiked breaking wheel, before she was eventually beheaded. She is easily recognised on tomb surrounds as she carries or stands beside the spiked breaking wheel. In fireworks the Catherine Wheel takes both its name and form from this legend. Tradition has it that St. Simon was martyred by being sawn in half and so we see him depicted holding a massive saw. St. Bartholomew is said to have been skinned alive, before being beheaded, and is usually depicted with a flaying or fleshing knife in one hand while holding a sheet of his own skin in his other hand.

There have been certain times in history when death and mortality have become preoccupations for populations and subsequently these themes become an integral element of the psyche of succeeding generations. In particular, in the aftermath of cataclysmic events, such as wars and natural disasters there is a tendency for society to focus on mortality and the transience of the ephemeral frame. Perhaps the most catastrophic event to occur in Europe during the medieval period was the “Great Plague” or “Black Death” that struck in the mid to late 1340’s. During this outbreak it is reckoned that somewhere between one and two thirds of the population of the continent died (there is great variance in the estimates of the overall percentage of deaths but it is certain that there were massive numbers of casualties). In Ireland, the great plague struck the urban, economic centres of the country hardest, initially being brought from the continent via ship along the primary trade routes to Ireland and subsequently spreading inland, again following the commercial routes. As a result of the outbreak spreading in this fashion the areas worst affected were those where the Norman families had greatest control. John Clyn, a Kilkenny Franciscan, gives a contemporary account of events during the time of the plague. He ends his “Annals of Ireland” with the following poignant wish:

So that notable deeds should not perish with time, and be lost from the memory of future generations, I, seeing these many ills, and that the whole world encompassed by evil, waiting among the dead for death to come, have committed to writing what I have truly heard and examined; and so that the writing does not perish with the writer, or the work fail with the workman, I leave parchment for continuing the work, in case anyone should still be alive in the future and any son of Adam can escape this pestilence and continue the work thus begun.

Friar Clyn’s chronicle may have ended with the above plea, and its mix of futility and hope, but there is one further entry in his work, written in a different hand, it says simply: “Here it seems the author died”.

Friar Clyn is still known to us today thanks to the survival of his chronicles but the majority of those that fell victim to the plague were buried in mass graves, plots of land whose locations, in general, are now lost to the vagaries of time. The plague did not play favourites and the great and mighty were as likely as anyone to fall into its grip. On the north wall of the chancel of the ruins of the Cistercian Abbey of Knockmoy, in County Galway, is a surviving example of medieval wall painting. To the right of an image of Christ, the martyrdom of St. Sebastian is portrayed, two archers firing arrows into the saint’s body. During outbreaks of plague St. Sebastian was venerated and prayed to for protection and deliverance. Above this depiction of the martyrdom are six figures, three are of kings in their prime while the other three are crowned skeletons. These kings and skeletons represent the legend of “The Three Living and The Three Dead”, a reminder that death is inevitable for all. The legend also has a moral to convey as the Three Dead confront the Three Living encouraging them to repent and live good lives as their wealth and power will have no benefit in the grave. As James Shirley (1596 – 1666) writes in his poem “Death the Leveller”:

Death lays his icy hand on Kings,
Sceptre and Crown,
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made,
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.

Although death may level the field, the wealthy, however, could afford to have a memorial commissioned for posterity. A specific type of effigial tomb is said to have begun to appear in the aftermath of the Black Death and it takes a form that would fit in perfectly with our modern take on Hallowe’en being a festival of fear and a celebration of the morbid. These memorials are collectively known as cadaver tombs and to us today would appear to be the product of the fertile imagination of a horror writer. There are approximately a dozen known cadaver effigies remaining in Ireland. In the case of cadaver tombs the effigy does not depict the subject at the height of their powers and health but instead they are shown after the mortal coil has been shuffled off and decay has begun its work on the physical remains. Invariably shown with the burial shroud rolled away from the body, emaciated corpses in varying states of decay greet the viewer. As gruesome as this may seem the smaller details compound the overall effect. On the most decorative of the cadaver tombs we find a host of verminous creatures, writhing around the skeletal remains of the deceased, including include beetles, lizards, snakes and worms.

Jerpoint Weepers – St. Catherine of Alexandria
Jerpoint Weepers – St. Catherine of Alexandria

The finest cadaver tomb in Ireland is that of James Rice, now located within Christchurch Cathedral at the heart of the Viking Triangle in Waterford. James Rice was mayor of Waterford on multiple occasions and twice made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, a perilous undertaking in the 15th century. Due to the distinct prospect of dying while making the journey he commissioned his tomb in 1482, prior to a planned pilgrimage to Santiago for the jubilee year of 1483. He founded a side chapel of the medieval Cathedral in Waterford, dedicated to Saints James and Catherine, in order to house the tomb (the current cathedral was built by John Roberts in the 1770’s following the demolition of the earlier Gothic cathedral). James Rice survived the pilgrimage and is believed to have died around 1488. The tomb itself depicts the knotted burial shroud pulled open, revealing a decomposing effigy lying recumbent, eyes staring sightlessly upwards, one emaciated hand drawing part of the shroud across the body to protect the modesty of the deceased while a frog sits undisturbed atop the lower abdomen while worms crawl through gaps in his ribs. The tomb bears an inscription mentioning both James Rice and his wife Katherina Brown along with the following memento mori:

Whoever you may be, passer-by, stop, weep and read, I am what you are going to be, and I was what you now are, I beg of you pray for me, it is our fate to pass through the gate of death

Of course cadaver tombs and other memento mori were not directly intended as a means of causing fear but rather the intention was to deliver a message, literally “remember that you will die”. They offered the viewer the opportunity to reflect on their own mortality and perhaps resolve to make changes to live a better life. Although the cadaver tombs may have been the height of artistic expression of this philosophy the use of memento mori has continued to the modern day. Down through the centuries various symbols such as hourglasses, skulls and crossbones, upside down torches, the Danse Macabre, have been used to remind the observer that time is passing. The Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death, was a particularly graphic reminder that no matter a person’s station in life all must answer the call of Death. The earliest known depiction of the Danse Macabre was a mural in Paris, completed circa 1425. Typically in the Dance of Death a line or chain, sometimes a circle, of figures are depicted dancing their way to the grave with the living and the dead alternating as they advance hand in hand. All classes, from richest to poorest, are shown and it served as a reminder that all, be they Emperor, merchant or peasant, suffer the same fate and all are made equal in the presence of Death.

All memorials, in a sense, can be classed as memento mori. Although used to commemorate the dead they are tangible indicators of what is to come. They are reminders of those gone and in many cases are the only record remaining of those mentioned. It can be humbling to stand amongst the gravestones in an ancient burial ground, read a name and realise that you are possibly the first person in decades or even centuries to speak the name of that person aloud. By taking that moment to read that name you acknowledge that although now gone the person named once lived, a fellow human, whose only record of their life may be that which is inscribed on the stone before you. The classic memento mori ends with “As I am now, so you will be”, a note of finality, an admonishment that life is transient. However, we should never forget how the saying begins, we are simply the latest in a long line of generations of humanity that stretches back to prehistory, and it reminds us that we today have something in common with those now gone, for “As you are now, so once I was”.

James Barry is a native of Co. Waterford. Currently Head Guide in Reginald’s Tower where he has been working as a guide since 2002. Growing up next door to a graveyard sparked a lifelong interest in memorials to the dead.

Keeper of the Kings.

Mine is an unusual job. I am neither a butcher nor a baker nor a candlestick maker. You could be guessing for a year and a day and you’d never guess what I am. The word ‘unique’ is much abused, but my position here and now lays claim to it. I’d best start off by giving myself my correct title which is ‘Official Caretaker of, and Guide to, the Rock of Cashel, Hore Abbey, St. Dominick’s Abbey, in the City of Cashel, in the County of Tipperary, Ireland.’ That would sound fine in the mouth of a good herald.

Photo of Joe Minogue
Joe Minogue

That is a piece from an article written by my grandfather Joe Minogue and published by The Bell in 1942. In the same article he states that in 1942 he had held the job for close to twenty years. His brother had it before that and his father had it before him again. Between the three of them they had given, at that stage, the greater part of fifty years on the Rock.

My great-grandfather John Minogue was once a clerical student in Rome with a passion for archaeology. He later became an Inspector in the R.I.C. before taking up the position as caretaker and guide to the Rock of Cashel around 1892. After his death in 1922 his son, also named John, took up the position until 1926. My grandfather, Joe Minogue, took over the role in 1926 and held it until his death in 1957. Joe Minogue’s son Billy, my uncle, took over in 1957 and retired in the 1980s. My cousin, Michael O’Dwyer, also worked as a guide on the Rock during the 1980s. I started working on the Rock as a guide in 1992 and, apart from a short spell where I worked in England, have been here ever since. I became Supervisor in 2005. The Minogue family have been associated with the Rock of Cashel for over 120 years in total.

The family tradition of service to the Rock continued when my sister, Julieanne Slattery, started work as a guide in 2005. In 2007 she travelled to Australia but returned to the Rock in 2009. Growing up we both heard stories and sagas of historic battles between dynasties going back centuries, recounted so passionately by our Uncle Billy. One of Julieanne’s earliest memories was of our Uncle Billy standing outside Cormac’s Chapel conducting a guided tour. As a result, Cashel’s vast and fascinating history was never far from our thoughts, even when we lived overseas. In 2016 the fifth generation of our family, my son Cathal Moriarty, passed the walled chambers of the Rock as the newest addition to the guide staff.

Reading through the article my grandfather wrote in 1942, he also reflects that his knowledge of the Rock did not consist of surface patter. His father saw to that. He drilled the story of Cashel into them when they were young. The very odd time my great-grandfather was ill my grandfather would be allowed to conduct visitors on a guided tour around the Rock. On his return he had to render a strict account of his doings. Had he done this? Had he done that? Had he translated the Latin inscription at the Cathedral threshold? What had he said it signified Satisfied with my grandfather’s responses, my great-grandfather would cover himself up with the bedclothes and chuckle softly to himself.


Billy Minogue
Billy Minogue

In that article, my grandfather also asks the question, “Have I ever locked a person into the Cathedral at night?” “Well no, I haven’t” is his answer. When locking up for the night he would give a “Hello” in through the Cathedral door just to make sure there was no one inside. His ears were so finely tuned to the gentle noises of the buildings that he would know almost instinctively whether there was someone inside or not.

For my part I believe that a good tour guide is more than simply an imparter of historic information. I believe the job entails having as much enthusiasm in the delivery as it does in the acquiring of knowledge. I impress on guides that they are like actors on a stage delivering their lines in a way that makes their audience hang on every word. I tell the guides to enjoy what they’re doing and to interact with the visitors as much as they can on a busy site. Often you will find it’s the connection made at the end of a tour that leaves the best impression. Being at ease with people and imagining yourself a performer does indeed help as part of the job description.

Managing such a busy site can be a testing affair at times, even for the experienced, but, within the confines of the most sacred of Irish historical sites, the vast majority of working days are very pleasant ones. It’s hard not to be proud of Ireland’s wonderful and ancient history when you work in a place like this. Every day I have a feeling of pride. People are listening to your every word and will often applaud at the end. There are few enough jobs in this world where you get that kind of response.

HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, Minister Brian Hayes, HM Queen Elizabeth II, Elaine Moriart
HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, Minister Brian Hayes, HM Queen Elizabeth II, Elaine Moriarty c Maxwell Photography

Both my sister Julieanne and I felt a massive sense of pride to be present during the historic visit of HM Queen Elizabeth II and HRH the Duke of Edinburgh to the Rock of Cashel in May 2011. Before their arrival that morning I paid a visit to my grandfather’s grave on the Rock and pondered over what he would think of his two granddaughters welcoming the Royal couple to his beloved Rock.

I would like to conclude with a final piece from my grandfather’s article and, reading it, you will understand the pride he and our family still have today working on the Rock of Cashel:

That’s my story as best I can tell it. Ah, but I almost forgot. When next you pass Cashel I shall be resplendent in a uniform with a peaked shiny cap. If you cannot come, I would have you picture me against the background of my beloved Rock and the richest land in all Ireland thrown in a great circle about my feet. The rich land runs till it meets the mountains whose names I know like a prayer – Slievenamon, the Comeraghs, the Galtees, Knockagreena, Devil’s Bit. Those landmarks at the very least are unchanged and unchangeable since Oliol Olum or Aengus stood and contemplated them from Cashel before breakfast. The Kings are dead. I guard them. In truth, I am the Keeper of the Kings.

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