Tag Archive | Easter Fires in Ireland

“Burning and Scorching”: The Easter Curse of St. Patrick

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For centiuries, great ritual fires were burned during the high festivals of the ancient Celtic world. And then the upstart Patrick lit his own in defiance of tradition . . .

Church historians and hagiographic scholars have claimed that St. Patrick, then a bishop ordained by the pontiff, was the center of a dramatic confrontation on the occasion of the Christian Easter in 433 AD.

The date was May 1, and the site was the Hill of Slaine, ten miles distant from the High King’s domain at Tara.

At that time Patrick had been in Ireland only about a year, but he had been held as a slave for six or seven years when he was much younger. His master Milchu had been a high druid, and historians believe that Patrick must have learned much about the druids and the religious life of the people of Ireland, along with a thorough knowledge of the language and culture.

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Whether white-robed (according to Roman scribes) or not, the druids were a hugely powerful class, second only to kings in ancient Ireland. Who besides Patrick would dare hurl a curse back at them?

The Festival of Beltaine, in honor of the sun god Bel, was one of the two most sacred observances in the Celtic world. Huge fires were lit all over the island, signifying (among other beliefs) purification and rebirth through the power of great Bel. The high king when Patrick was in Éire was Leary, a stubborn and devoted pagan, who surrounded himself with scores of druids.

Leary’s purification fires, of course, were to be the highest and most sacred in the country, and Patrick well knew it. According to these historians, Patrick probably spent several months planning a fire that would not only rival Leary’s, but would awe and convert thousands on the occasion of the Christian Easter, which coincided with Beltaine.

Patrick was not only stubborn and highly intelligent, he must have been a very courageous soul to flout the power of the highest power in the land.

In my novel THE WAKENING FIRE, I imagined what happened on that fateful day, May 1, 433 AD and told it through the eyes of the main female character Caylith. After Patrick set his huge bonfire, King Leary angrily sent for the upstart to be brought before him on the sacred Hill of Tara.

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[Incensed that the meddling priest has lit a high Easter bonfire in defiance of his Beltaine ritual fire, High King Leary speaks to the bishop Patrick: ]

“Me druids tell me ye would usurp the laws of our land. Ye would defy the ancient Brehon precepts, an’ ye would replace our gods with yours. How do ye plead on those counts?”

“I plead only to my God,” Patrick said evenly. “I speak to kings, and to common men alike. But I plead only to Christ, that he forgive your ignorance and hold you to his bosom in his mysterious love and compassion.”

I felt warm admiration for Patrick. In all the time I had known him, I had rarely seen even a trace of anger. But now I saw it slowly building in his eyes, and in his very demeanor, in spite of his mild words.green paddy 330

“Then I must bid me guards take ye to confinement.”

“Even as Herod did, would you so dismiss me?”

I saw Leary’s face change then, and a flicker of fear or alarm in his eyes. “If I but believed the lies ye spread about a man who died an’ walked again, then yes. Even as Herod.”

Patrick’s tone changed then, and for the first time he spoke softly, in the fatherly tone so familiar to me. “Thousands of your subjects believe those lies, O King. Would you call them foolish? Misguided? Or do they see something that perhaps you are missing? That Christ is love. Is é grá Chríost. That he asked not for special treatment. That he sought only to teach others about God’s love and forgiveness. That he did indeed die and live again, even as your own god Bel, whom you celebrate as the sun. And so I also celebrate Christ, also the son—the son of God.”

Leary’s voice was almost pleading now. “Then why do ye flout me laws, priest? Why do ye set your own fires to be higher than me own? How does that show love?”

“I must love all men, even as my Lord Christ loved. I cannot show you more love than I show your worthy fair-faced advisor.” And he gazed directly at one of the most ugly men I had ever beheld, a hairy-faced druid whose lower lip seemed to emit a constant stream of dribble. A ripple of laughter drifted through the room.

The druid stepped in front of Patrick then, and he stood on one foot and extended his bony arm, and with the other hand he held one eye shut. “Dóite agus loisceadh ort!

“Burning and scorching on ye,” whispered Liam. I heard the note of awe in his voice. The druid’s high-pitched voice screeched almost as effectively as Talon’s own squawk had echoed in this room several months ago. Even I was mildly impressed.

Then Father Patrick drew himself up to the extent of his slight frame, and his own eyes began to crackle and burn. His tonsured head shone like a ritual fire in the bright light, and his voice rang out as though he were shouting at his enemy from a high rampart.

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When Patrick utters his own curse in answer to the druid, everything changes. What words does he speak that spare him and change the mind of stubborn King Leary?

Guess you’ll just have to read The Wakening Fire

SirenBookStrand http://www.bookstrand.com/the-wakening-fire

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May Day! May Day! The Pagan World is on Fire!

The most important–and most dangerous–Easter in centuries took place the first week in May, AD 433. That was the date agreed on by most historians when St Patrick, then Bishop Patrick of Armagh, lit his huge conflagration on the Hill of Sláine. Only moments later, apparently, the fires of Beltane sprang into the night sky to rival Patrick’s, lit by the druids of High King Leary himself on the sacred Hill of Tara 10 miles away.

Why were the fires so important both to the pagans and to Patrick? Why would this particular date from the long ministry of Patrick be remembered 1500 years later?

To begin with, as most people know, the Festival of Beltane was one of  the two most important observances in the Celtic year. It signified a time of rebirth, the eternal renewal of life. The other–equal and opposite–was Samhain, six months later,  the symbolic end of the year, of the death of what once lived. The birth/death cycle figures as part of probably all religions, no matter where in the world, wherever signs of spring and winter give mankind alternate hope and despair.

Beltane belonged to Bel, the Sun, and figuratively the Sun of God. Patrick knew that well, and he knew all the subtleties of the religion of the pagan Gaels. . . . His own fire would be lit instead to glorify not the Sun of a god, but the Son of God.

Patrick had arrived in Ireland probably the previous year, consecrated Bishop and sent by the Pontiff himself to spread the word of Christ. Patrick apparently wasted no time at all inserting himself in the volatile politics of the day. He had been a slave some twenty years earlier and knew both Gaelic and the druidic rituals. In fact, his master had been a High Druid.

So it is probable that Patrick planned the Easter fires several months in advance of Beltane. The fires themselves were made of huge piles of detritus–chunks of peat, old cow hides and pieces of horn and hooves, human waste–all the stuff that we in this modern world call “garbage.” Anything that would burst into flame was set into huge piles, all over Ireland. There are theories that this ritual burning was a natural way of clearing  the country of possible disease.

And so Patrick must have directed the building of a huge fire a mere ten miles away from the sacred hill of High Kings, the very Tara where kings and sons of kings had ruled Ireland for countless centuries. A fire set that close would be seen, and no doubt reviled, by the King who lived so close and who forbade any fire be set at the same time as his own.

Patrick was, in a word, stubborn. He must have known that only a huge conflagration would be seen and become legend in this land of Kings and Druids. And so he planned for months. And before the fires of High King Leary could be lit, Patrick gave the signal to light  his own.

And all, er, heck broke loose.

Here is the scene, as captured by Erin O’Quinn in my second novel The Wakening Fire.

Liam turned to me. He leaned across and caught my lips inside his warm mouth, withdrawing with an effort. “Cat, me father will direct the lighting of the fire. Come outside.”

We left the hall hand in hand before the others had completed their dinner and before the king stood, the signal for everyone to leave. “Take you to see the fire of Beltane,” he said. We walked in the approaching twilight around the twin hills of Tara, opposite to where the mead hall stood on a low rise.

“I remember this spot,” I told Liam. “This is where the king pronounced his judgment. Yes, there is the Lia Fáil, the stone of destiny.”

“Tall fire to be lit…there,” said Liam, directing my gaze to the horizon where I knew stood the huge, white, earthenwork structure I had seen last September. Torin had called it Sí an Bhrú, and I knew it was almost as ancient the hills themselves.

“Important,” said Liam. “Older than druids. Me father…stand here, by the stone, the Lia Fáil. His signal starts the fire.”

“Let us be sure to stand close to him, Liam. I know he will be angry. You and Torin must stand ready to respond.”

He put his arm around my shoulder and brought me close against his body. “Not worry, Cat. Torin comes. I see Father, and a crowd. We…almost ready.”

The sun had not yet set, but I saw that we were only minutes away from seeing its shining orb disappear under the far hills. Leary stood with a score of white-robed, bearded priests—his latest collection of druids. Torin and Swallow joined us. “When the druids drop their hands,” Torin said, “Father will take his cue. He in turn will signal, and his order will be carried along the entire distance, passed along to those tending the fire.”

  I saw that not only those from the mead hall, but thousands of people had already converged on Tara’s twin hills and spread over the surrounding area. Unusually for such a large crowd, there was absolute silence. It was as though everyone awaited the druids’ signal, and Leary’s royal command.

The druids, dancing around the Lia Fáil, had their hands raised to the setting sun. But before their hands dropped to their sides, a loud shout escaped Leary’s mouth, and I looked where he looked. I saw a blaze not on the site pointed out by Liam, but beyond, on the distant hill of Sláine, ten miles away. It seemed to light the entire sky, and I began to tremble.

Just then, the druids dropped their hands, and Leary shouted again. This time, after the space of a score of heartbeats, another huge blaze tore at the evening sky. This was the king’s fire. It was, in a sense, the rival fire, the adversary of Christ.

Was it bigger, and better, than Patrick’s? Who in the world would know? I knew only that the king was wild with rage. I pulled at Liam’s hand, and we ran to where the king stood with his small army of druids.

I heard a brief exchange among them, and I turned to Torin, who stood at my other side. “Tell me,” I implored him.

Torin’s eyes were clouded. “Father asked who would so dare defy the law. His druids spoke as one. ‘The priest called Patrick. And unless ye stop him now, the fire ye see before ye will never be quenched.’ And then Father called for his immediate arrest. He is to be brought here shortly.”

I bowed my head, and the sobs began deep in my stomach and rose to my throat, stopping my words and my very breath. The last thought I remembered was, “O God, bless Patrick.” And then my world went dark.

 Watch for The Wakening Fire coming Tuesday, May 15 from SirenBookStrand.com