The Religion of Ancient Erinn—The Druids and their
Teaching—The Irish were probably Fire-worshippers—The Customs
of Ancient Erinn—Similarity between Eastern and Irish Customs—Beal
Fires—Hunting the Wren—"Jacks," a Grecian game—"Keen," an Eastern
Custom—Superstitions—The Meaning of the Word—What Customs are
Superstitious and what are not—Holy Wells—The Laws of Ancient
Erinn—Different kinds of Laws—The Lex non Scripta and the Lex
Scripta—Christianity necessitated the Revision of Ancient Codes—The
Compilation of the Brehon Laws—Proofs that St. Patrick assisted
thereat—Law of Distress—Law of Succession—The Language of
Ancient Erinn—Writing in pre-Christian Erinn—Ogham Writing—

Antiquities of pre-Christian Erinn—Round


astern customs and eastern superstitions, which undoubtedly are a
strong confirmatory proof of our eastern origin, abounded in ancient
Erinn. Druidism was the religion of the Celts, and druidism was probably
one of the least corrupt forms of paganism. The purity of the
divinely-taught patriarchal worship, became more and more corrupted as
it passed through defiled channels. Yet, in all pagan mythologies, we
find traces of the eternal verity in an obvious prominence of cultus
offered to one god above the rest; and obvious, though grossly
misapplied, glimpses of divine attributes, in the many deified objects
which seemed to symbolize his power and his omnipotence.

The Celtic druids probably taught the same doctrine as the Greek
philosophers. The metempsychosis, a prominent article of this creed, may
have been derived from the Pythagoreans, but more probably it was one of
the many relics of patriarchal belief which were engrafted on all pagan
religions. They also taught that the universe would never be entirely
destroyed, supposing that it would be purified by fire and water from
time to time. This opinion may have been derived from the same source.
The druids had a pontifex maximus, to whom they yielded entire
obedience,—an obvious imitation of the Jewish custom. The nation was
entirely governed by its priests, though after a time, when the kingly
power developed itself, the priestly power gave place to the regal. Gaul
was the head-quarters of druidism; and thither we find the Britons, and
even the Romans, sending their children for instruction. Eventually,
Mona became a chief centre for Britain. The Gaedhilic druids, though
probably quite as learned as their continental brethren, were more
isolated; and hence we cannot learn so much of their customs from
external sources. There is no doubt that the druids of Gaul and Britain
offered human sacrifices; it appears almost certain the Irish druids did

Our principal and most reliable information about this religion, is
derived from Cæsar. His account of the learning of its druids, of their
knowledge of astronomy, physical science, mechanics, arithmetic, and
medicine, however highly coloured, is amply corroborated by the casual
statements of other authors.[144] He expressly states that they used the
Greek character in their writings, and mentions tables found in the camp
of the Helvetii written in these characters, containing an account of
all the men capable of bearing arms.

It is probable that Irish druidical rites manifested themselves
principally in Sun-worship. The name of Bel, still retained in the
Celtic Beltinne, indicates its Phoenician origin; Baal being the name
under which they adored that luminary. It is also remarkable that Grian,
which signifies the sun in Irish, resembles an epithet of Apollo given
by Virgil,[145] who sometimes styles him Grynæus. St. Patrick also
confirms this conjecture, by condemning Sun-worship in his Confession,
when he says: "All those who adore it shall descend into misery and
punishment." If the well-known passage of Diodorus Siculus may be
referred to Ireland, it affords another confirmation. Indeed, it appears
difficult to conceive how any other place but Ireland could be intended
by the "island in the ocean over against Gaul, to the north, and not
inferior in size to Sicily, the soil of which is so fruitful that they
mow there twice in the year."[146] In this most remarkable passage, he
mentions the skill of their harpers, their sacred groves and singular
temple of round form
, their attachment to the Greeks by a singular
affection from old times, and their tradition of having been visited
by the Greeks, who left offerings which were noted in Greek letters.

Toland and Carte assume that this passage refers to the Hebrides,
Rowlands applies it to the island of Anglesea; but these conjectures are
not worth regarding. We can scarcely imagine an unprejudiced person
deciding against Ireland; but where prejudice exists, no amount of proof
will satisfy. It has been suggested that the Irish pagan priests were
not druids properly so called, but magi;[147] and that the Irish word
which is taken to mean druid, is only used to denote persons specially
gifted with wisdom. Druidism probably sprung from magism, which was a
purer kind of worship, though it would be difficult now to define the precise limits which separated these forms of paganism. If the
original pagan religion of ancient Erinn was magism, introduced by its
Phoenician colonizers, it is probable that it had gradually degenerated
to the comparatively grosser rites of the druid before the advent of St.
Patrick. His destruction of the idols at Magh Slecht is unquestionable
evidence that idol worship[148] was then practised, though probably in a
very limited degree.

The folklore of a people is perhaps, next to their language, the best
guide to their origin. The editor of Bohn's edition of the Chronicle of
Richard of Cirencester remarks, that "many points of coincidence have
been remarked in comparing the religion of the Hindoos with that of the
ancient Britons; and in the language of these two people some striking
similarities occur in those proverbs and modes of expression which are
derived from national and religious ceremonies."[149] We are not aware
of any British customs or proverbs which bear upon this subject, nor
does the writer mention any in proof of his assertion: if, however, for
Britons we read Irish, his observations may be amply verified.

The kindly "God save you!" and "God bless all here!" of the Irish
peasant, finds its counterpart in the eastern "God be gracious to thee,
my son!" The partiality, if not reverence, for the number seven, is
indicated in our churches. The warm-hearted hospitality of the very
poorest peasant, is a practical and never-failing illustration of the
Hindoo proverb, "The tree does not withdraw its shade even from the

The celebration of St. John's Eve by watchfires, is undoubtedly a
remnant of paganism, still practised in many parts of Ireland, as we can
aver from personal knowledge; but the custom of passing cattle through
the fire has been long discontinued, and those who kindle the fires have
little idea of its origin, and merely continue it as an amusement. Kelly
mentions, in his Folklore, that a calf was sacrificed in
Northamptonshire during the present century, in one of these fires, to
"stop the murrain." The superstitious use of fire still continues in
England and Scotland, though we believe the Beltinne on St. John's Eve
is peculiar to Ireland. The hunting of the wren[150] on St. Stephen's
Day, in this country, is said, by Vallancey, to have been originated by
the first Christian missionaries, to counteract the superstitious
reverence with which this bird was regarded by the druids. Classic
readers will remember the origin of the respect paid to this bird in
pagan times. The peasantry in Ireland, who have never read either Pliny
or Aristotle, are equally conversant with the legend.

The common and undignified game of "jacks" also lays claim to a noble
ancestry. In Mr. St. John's work on The Manners and Customs of Ancient
, he informs us that the game was a classical one, and called pentalitha. It was played with five astragals—knuckle-bones,
pebbles, or little balls—which were thrown up into the air, and then
attempted to be caught when falling on the back of the hand. Another
Irish game, "pricking the loop," in Greece is called himantiliginos,
pricking the garter. Hemestertius supposes the Gordian Knot to have been
nothing but a variety of the himantiliginos. The game consists in
winding a thong in such an intricate manner, that when a peg is inserted
in the right ring, it is caught, and the game is won; if the mark is
missed, the thong unwinds without entangling the peg.

The Irish keen [caoine] may still be heard in Algeria and Upper Egypt,
even as Herodotus heard it chanted by Lybian women. This wailing for the
deceased is a most ancient custom; and if antiquity imparts dignity, it
can hardly be termed barbarous. The Romans employed keeners at their
funerals, an idea which they probably borrowed from the Etruscans,[151] with many others incomparably more valuable, but carefully
self-appropriated. Our wakes also may have had an identity of origin
with the funeral feasts of the Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans, whose
customs were all probably derived from a common source.

The fasting of the creditor on the debtor is still practised in India,
and will be noticed in connexion with the Brehon Laws. There is,
however, a class of customs which have obtained the generic term of
superstitions, which may not quite be omitted, and which are, for many
reasons, difficult to estimate rightly. In treating of this subject, we
encounter, primâ facie, the difficulty of giving a definition of
superstition. The Irish are supposed to be pre-eminently a superstitious
people. Those who make this an accusation, understand by superstition
the belief in anything supernatural; and they consider as equally
superstitious, veneration of a relic, belief in a miracle, a story of a
banshee, or a legend of Finn Mac Cumhaill. Probably, if the Celts did
not venerate relics, and believe in the possibility of miracles, we
should hear far less of their superstitions. Superstition of the
grossest kind is prevalent among the lower orders in every part of
England, and yet the nation prides itself on its rejection of this
weakness. But according to another acceptation of the term, only such
heathen customs as refer to the worship of false gods, are
superstitions. These customs remain, unfortunately, in many countries,
but in some they have been Christianized. Those who use the term
superstition generically, still call the custom superstitious, from a
latent and, perhaps, in some cases, unconscious impression that there is
no supernatural. Such persons commence with denying all miraculous
interventions except those which are recorded in holy Scripture; and
unhappily, in some cases, end by denying the miracles of Scripture.

To salute a person who sneezed with some form of benediction, was a
pagan custom. It is said to have originated through an opinion of the
danger attending it; and the exclamation used was: "Jupiter help me!" In
Ireland, the pagan custom still remains, but it has been Christianized,
and "God bless you!" is substituted for the pagan form. Yet we have
known persons who considered the use of this aspiration superstitious,
and are pleased to assert that the Irish use the exclamation as a
protection against evil spirits, meaning thereby fairies. When a motive
is persistently attributed which does not exist, argument is useless.

Devotion to certain places, pilgrimages, even fasting and other bodily
macerations, were pagan customs. These, also, have been Christianized.
Buildings once consecrated to the worship of pagan gods, are now used as
Christian temples: what should we think of the person who should assert
that because pagan gods were once adored in these churches, therefore
the worship now offered in them was offered to pagan deities? The
temples, lite the customs, are Christianized.

The author of a very interesting article in the Ulster Archæological
(vol. ix. p. 256), brings forward a number of Irish customs for
which he finds counterparts in India. But he forgets that in Ireland the
customs are Christianized, while in India, they remain pagan; and like
most persons who consider the Irish pre-eminently superstitious, he
appears ignorant of the teaching of that Church which Christianized the
world. The special "superstition" of this article is the devotion to
holy wells. The custom still exists in Hindostan; people flock to them
for cure of their diseases, and leave "rags" on the bushes as
"scapegoats," ex votos, so to say, of cures, or prayers for cures. In
India, the prayer is made to a heathen deity; in Ireland, the people
happen to believe that God hears the prayers of saints more readily than
their own; and acting on the principle which induced persons, in
apostolic times, to use "handkerchiefs and aprons" which had touched the
person of St. Paul as mediums of cure, because of his virgin sanctity,
in preference to "handkerchiefs and aprons" of their own, they apply to
the saints and obtain cures. But they do not believe the saints can give
what God refuses, or that the saints are more merciful than God. They
know that the saints are His special friends, and we give to a friend
what we might refuse to one less dear. Lege totum, si vis scire totum,
is a motto which writers on national customs should not forget.

Customs were probably the origin of laws. Law, in its most comprehensive
sense, signifies a rule of action laid down[152] by a superior. Divine
law is manifested (1) by the law of nature, and (2) by revelation. The
law of nations is an arbitrary arrangement, founded on the law of nature
and the law of revelation: its perfection depends obviously on its
correspondence with the divine law. Hence, by common consent, the
greatest praise is given to those laws of ancient nations which
approximate most closely to the law of nature, though when such laws
came to be revised by those who had received the law of revelation, they
were necessarily amended or altered in conformity therewith. No
government can exist without law; but as hereditary succession preceded
the law of hereditary succession, which was at first established by
custom, so the lex non scripta, or national custom, preceded the lex
, or statute law. The intellectual condition of a nation may be
well and safely estimated by its laws. A code of laws that were observed
for centuries before the Christian era, and for centuries after the
Christian era, and which can bear the most critical tests of forensic
acumen in the nineteenth century, evidence that the framers of the code
were possessed of no slight degree of mental culture. Such are the
Brehon laws, by which pagan and Christian Erinn was governed for

The sixth century was a marked period of legal reform. The Emperor
Justinian, by closing the schools of Athens, gave a deathblow to Grecian
philosophy and jurisprudence. But Grecian influence had already acted on
the formation of Roman law, and probably much of the Athenian code was
embodied therein. The origin of Roman law is involved in the same
obscurity as the origin of the Brehon code. In both cases, the mist of
ages lies like a light, but impenetrable veil, over all that could give
certainty to conjecture. Before the era of the Twelve Tables, mention is
made of laws enacted by Romulus respecting what we should now call civil
liabilities. Laws concerning religion are ascribed to Numa, and laws of
contract to Servius Tullius, who is supposed to have collected the
regulations made by his predecessors. The Twelve Tables were notably
formed on the legal enactments of Greece. The cruel severity of the law
for insolvent debtors, forms a marked contrast to the milder and more
equitable arrangements of the Brehon code. By the Roman enactments, the
person of the debtor was at the mercy of his creditor, who might sell
him for a slave beyond the Tiber. The Celt allowed only the seizure of
goods, and even this was under regulations most favourable to the
debtor. The legal establishment of Christianity by Constantine, or we
should rather say the existence of Christianity, necessitated a complete
revision of all ancient laws: hence we find the compilation of the
Theodosian code almost synchronizing with the revision of the Brehon
laws. The spread of Christianity, and the new modes of thought and
action which obtained thereby, necessitated the reconstruction of
ancient jurisprudence in lands as widely distant geographically, and as
entirely separated politically, as Italy and Ireland.

Those who have studied the subject most carefully, and who are therefore
most competent to give an opinion, accept the popular account of the
revision of our laws.

The Four Masters thus record this important event:—"The age of Christ
438. The tenth year of Laeghairé. The Feinchus of Ireland were purified
and written, the writings and old works of Ireland having been collected
[and brought] to one place at the request of St. Patrick. Those were the
nine supporting props by whom this was done: Laeghairé, i.e., King of
Ireland, Corc, and Daire, the three kings; Patrick, Benen, and
Cairneach, the three saints; Ross, Dubhthach, and Fearghus, the three
antiquaries." Dr. O'Donovan, in his note, shelters himself under an
extract from Petrie's Tara; but it is to be supposed that he coincides in the opinion of that gentleman. Dr. Petrie thinks that "little doubt
can be entertained that such a work was compiled within a short period
after the introduction of Christianity in the country, and that St.
Patrick may have laid the foundations of it;"[153] though he gives no
satisfactory reason why that saint should not have assisted at the
compilation, and why the statements of our annalists should be refused
on this subject, when they are accepted on others. A list of the
"family" [household] of Patrick is given immediately after, which Dr.
O'Donovan has taken great pains to verify, and with which he appears
satisfied. If the one statement is true, why should the other be false?
Mr. O'Curry, whose opinion on such subjects is admittedly worthy of the
highest consideration, expresses himself strongly in favour of receiving
the statements of our annalists, and thinks that both Dr. Petrie and Dr.
Lanigan are mistaken in supposing that the compilation was not effected
by those to whom it has been attributed. As to the antiquity of these
laws, he observes that Cormac Mac Cullinan quotes passages from them in
his Glossary, which was written not later than the ninth century, and
then the language of the Seanchus[154] Mor was so ancient that it had
become obsolete. To these laws, he well observes, the language of Moore,
on the MSS. in the Royal Irish Academy, may be applied: "They were not
written by a foolish people, nor for any foolish purpose;" and these
were the "laws and institutions which regulated the political and social
system of a people the most remarkable in Europe, from a period almost
lost in the dark mazes of antiquity, down to about within two hundred
years of our own time, and whose spirit and traditions influence the
feelings and actions of the native Irish even to this day."[155]

But we can adduce further testimony. The able editor and translator of
the Seanchus Mor, which forms so important a portion of our ancient
code, has, in his admirable Preface, fully removed all doubt on this
question. He shows the groundlessness of the objections (principally
chronological) which had been made regarding those who are asserted to
have been its compilers. He also makes it evident that it was a work in
which St. Patrick should have been expected to engage: (1) because,
being a Roman citizen, and one who had travelled much, he was probably
well aware of the Christian modifications which had already been
introduced into the Roman code. (2) That he was eminently a judicious
missionary, and such a revision of national laws would obviously be no
slight support to the advancement of national Christianity. It is also
remarked, that St. Patrick may not necessarily have assisted personally
in writing the MS.; his confirmation of what was compiled by others
would be sufficient. St. Benignus, who is known to be the author of
other works,[156] probably acted as his amanuensis.

The subject-matter of the portions of the Seanchus Mor which have been
translated, is the law of distress. Two points are noticeable in this:
First, the careful and accurate administration of justice which is
indicated by the details of these legal enactments; second, the custom
therein sanctioned of the creditor fasting upon the debtor, a custom
which still exists in Hindostan. Hence, in some cases, the creditor
fasts on the debtor until he is compelled to pay his debt, lest his
creditor should die at the door; in other cases, the creditor not only
fasts himself, but also compels his debtor to fast, by stopping his
supplies. Elphinstone describes this as used even against princes, and
especially by troops to procure payment of arrears.[157]

One of the most noticeable peculiarities of the Brehon law is the
compensation for murder, called eric. This, however, was common to
other nations. Its origin is ascribed to the Germans, but the
institution was probably far more ancient. We find it forbidden[158] in
the oldest code of laws in existence; and hence the eric must have
been in being at an early period of the world's civil history.

The law of succession, called tanaisteacht, or tanistry, is one of the
most peculiar of the Brehon laws. The eldest son succeeded the father to
the exclusion of all collateral claimants, unless he was disqualified by
deformity, imbecility, or crime. In after ages, by a compact between
parents or mutual agreement, the succession was sometimes made alternate
in two or more families. The eldest son, being recognized as presumptive
heir, was denominated tanaiste, that is, minor or second; while the
other sons, or persons eligible in case of failure, were termed righdhamhua, which literally means king-material, or king-makings. The tanaiste had a separate establishment and distinct privileges. The
primitive intention was, that the "best man" should reign; but
practically it ended in might being taken for right, and often for less
important qualifications.

The possession and inheritance of landed property was regulated by the
law called gavelkind (gavail-kinne), an ancient Celtic institution, but
common to Britons, Anglo-Saxons, and others. By this law, inherited or
other property was divided equally between the sons, to the exclusion of
the daughters (unless, indeed, in default of heirs male, when females
were permitted a life interest). The tanaiste, however, was allotted
the dwelling-house and other privileges.

The tenure of land was a tribe or family right; and, indeed, the whole
system of government and legislation was far more patriarchal than
Teutonic—another indication of an eastern origin. All the members of a
tribe or family had an equal right to their proportionate share of the
land occupied by the whole. This system created a mutual independence
and self-consciousness of personal right and importance, strongly at
variance with the subjugation of the Germanic and Anglo-Norman vassal.

The compilation of the Brehon laws originated in a question that arose
as to how the murderer of Odran, Patrick's charioteer, should be
punished. The saint was allowed to select whatever Brehon he pleased to
give judgment. He chose Dubhthach; and the result of his decision was
the compilation of these laws, as it was at once seen that a purely
pagan code would not suit Christian teaching.

The Celtic language is now admittedly one of the most ancient in
existence. Its affinity with Sanscrit, the eldest daughter of the
undiscoverable mother-tongue, has been amply proved,[159] and the study
of the once utterly despised Irish promises to be one which will
abundantly repay the philologist. It is to be regretted that we are
indebted to German students for the verification of these statements;
but the Germans are manifestly born philologists, and they have
opportunities of leisure, and encouragement for the prosecution of such
studies, denied to the poorer Celt. It is probable that Celtic will yet
be found to have been one of the most important of the Indo-European
tongues. Its influence on the formation of the Romance languages has yet
to be studied in the light of our continually increasing knowledge of
its more ancient forms; and perhaps the conjectures of Betham will, by
the close of this century, receive as much respect as the once equally
ridiculed history of Keating.

It is almost impossible to doubt that the Irish nation had letters and
some form of writing before the arrival of St. Patrick. There are so
many references to the existence of writings in the most ancient MSS.,
that it appears more rash to deny their statements than to accept them.



The three principal arguments against a pre-Christian alphabet appears
to be: (1) The absence of any MS. of such writing. (2) The use of the
Roman character in all MSS. extant. (3) The universal opinion, scarcely
yet exploded, that the Irish Celts were barbarians. In reply to the
first objection, we may observe that St. Patrick is said to have
destroyed all the remnants of pagan writing.[160] Cæsar mentions that
the druids of Gaul used Greek characters. It appears impossible that the
Irish druids, who were at least their equals in culture, should have
been destitute of any kind of written character. The ancient form of
Welsh letters were somewhat similar to the runes of which we give a
specimen, and this alphabet was called the "alphabet of the bards," in
contradistinction to which is placed the "alphabet of the monks," or
Roman alphabet. The alphabet of the Irish bard may have been the
Beith-luis-nion, represented by the Ogham character, of which more

The difficulty arising from the fact of St. Patrick's having given abgitorium, or alphabets, to his converts, appears to us purely
chimerical. Latin was from the first the language of the Church, and
being such, whether the Irish converts had or had not a form of writing,
one of the earliest duties of a Christian missionary was to teach those
preparing for the priesthood the language in which they were to
administer the sacraments. The alphabet given by the saint was simply
the common Roman letter then in use. The Celtic characteristic
veneration for antiquity and religion, has still preserved it; and
strange to say, the Irish of the nineteenth century alone use the
letters which were common to the entire Roman Empire in the fifth. The
early influence of ecclesiastical authority, and the circumstance that
the priests of the Catholic Church were at once the instructors in and
the preservers of letters, will account for the immediate disuse of
whatever alphabet the druids may have had. The third objection is a mere argumentum ad ignorantiam.



It is to be regretted that the subject of Ogham writing has not been
taken up by a careful and competent hand.[161] There are few people who
have not found out some method of recording their history, and there are
few subjects of deeper interest than the study of the efforts of the
human mind to perpetuate itself in written characters. The Easterns had
their cuneiform or arrow-headed symbols, and the Western world has even
yet its quipus, and tells its history by the number of its knots.

The Quipus

The Quipus

The peasant girl still knots her handkerchief as her memoria technica,
and the lady changes her ring from its accustomed finger. Each practice
is quite as primitive an effort of nature as the Ogham of the Celtic
bard. He used a stone pillar or a wooden stick for his notches,—a more
permanent record than the knot or the Indian quipus.[162] The use of a
stick as a vehicle for recording ideas by conventional marks, appears
very ancient; and this in itself forms a good argument for the antiquity
of Ogham writing. Mr. O'Curry has given it expressly as his opinion,
"that the pre-Christian Gaedhils possessed and practised a system of
writing and keeping records quite different from and independent of the
Greek and Roman form and characters, which gained currency in the
country after the introduction of Christianity." He then gives in
evidence passages from our ancient writings which are preserved, in
which the use of the Ogham character is distinctly mentioned. One
instance is the relation in the Táin bó Chuailgné of directions having
been left on wands or hoops written in Ogham by Cuchulainn for Méav.
When these were found, they were read for her by Fergus, who understood
the character. We have not space for further details, but Professor
O'Curry devotes some pages to the subject, where fuller information may
be found. In conclusion, he expresses an opinion that the original
copies of the ancient books, such as the Cuilmenn and the Saltair of
Tara, were not written in Ogham. He supposes that the druids or poets,
who, it is well known, constantly travelled for educational purposes,
brought home an alphabet, probably the Roman then in use. "It is, at all
events, quite certain that the Irish druids had written books before the
coming of St. Patrick, in 432; since we find the statement in the
Tripartite Life of the saint, as well as in the Annotations of Tirechan,
preserved in the Book of Armagh, which were taken by him from the lips
and books of his tutor, St. Mochta, who was the pupil and disciple of
St. Patrick himself."

Ogham stone

Ogham stone



We give two illustrations of Ogham writing. The pillar-stone is from the
collection of the Royal Irish Academy. It is about four and a-half feet
high, and averages eleven inches across. It was found, with three others
similarly inscribed, built into the walls of a dwelling-house in the
county Kerry, to which it is believed they had been removed from the
interior of a neighbouring rath. The bilingual Ogham was found at St.
Dogmael's, near Cardiganshire. The Ogham alphabet is called beithluisnion, from the name of its two first letters, beith, which
signifies a birch-tree, and luis, the mountain-ash. If this kind of
writing had been introduced in Christian times, it is quite unlikely
that such names would have been chosen. They are manifestly referable to
a time when a tree had some significance beyond the useful or the
ornamental. It has been supposed that the names of the letters were
given to the trees, and not the names of the trees to the letters. It is
at least certain that the names of the trees and the letters coincide,
and that the trees are all indigenous to Ireland. The names of the
letters in the Hebrew alphabet are also significant, but appear to be
chosen indiscriminately, while there is a manifest and evidently
arbitrary selection in the Celtic appellations. The number of letters
also indicate antiquity. The ancient Irish alphabet had but sixteen
characters, thus numerically corresponding with the alphabet brought
into Greece by Cadmus. This number was gradually increased with the
introduction of the Roman form, and the arrangement was also altered to
harmonize with it. The Ogham alphabet consists of lines, which represent
letters. They are arranged in an arbitrary manner to the right or left
of a stemline, or on the edge of the material on which they are traced.
Even the names of those letters, fleasg (a tree), seem an indication
of their origin. A cross has been found, sculptured more or less rudely,
upon many of these ancient monuments; and this has been supposed by some
antiquarians to indicate their Christian origin. Doubtless the practice
of erecting pillar-stones, and writing Oghams thereon, was continued
after the introduction of Christianity; but this by no means indicates
their origin. Like many other pagan monuments, they may have been
consecrated by having the sign of the cross engraven on them hundreds of
years after their erection.

During the few months which have elapsed between the appearance of the
first edition and the preparation of the second edition, my attention
has been called to this portion of the history by four or five eminent
members of the Royal Irish Academy, who express their regret that I
should appear to have adopted, or at least favoured, Mr. D'Alton's view
of the Christian origin of the round towers. I cannot but feel gratified
at the interest which they manifested, and not less so at their kind
anxiety that my own views should accord with those of the majority. I am
quite aware that my opinion on such a subject could have little weight.
To form a decided opinion on this subject, would require many years'
study; but when one of these gentlemen, the Earl of Dunraven, distinguished for his devotion to archæology, writes to me that both
Irish, English, and Continental scholars are all but unanimous in
ascribing a Christian origin to these remarkable buildings, I cannot but
feel that I am bound to accept this opinion, thus supported by an
overwhelming weight of authority. It may, however, be interesting to
some persons to retain an account of the opposing theories, and for this
reason I still insert page 115 of the original edition, only making such
modifications as my change of opinion make necessary.

The theories which have been advanced on this subject may be classified
under seven heads—

(1) That the Phoenicians erected them for fire temples.

(2) That the Christians built them for bell towers.

(3) That the Magians used them for astronomical purposes.

(4) That they were for Christian anchorites to shut themselves up in.

(5) That they were penitentiaries.

(6) That the Druids used them to proclaim their festivals.

(7) That the Christians used them to keep their church plate and



Contradictory as these statements appear, they may easily be ranged into
two separate theories of pagan or Christian origin. Dr. Petrie has been
the great supporter of the latter opinion, now almost generally
received. He founds his opinion: (1) On the assumption that the Irish
did not know the use of lime mortar before the time of St. Patrick. For
this assumption, however, he gives no evidence. (2) On the presence of
certain Christian emblems on some of these towers, notably at Donaghmore
and Antrim. But the presence of Christian emblems, like the cross on the
Ogham stones, may merely indicate that Christians wished to consecrate
them to Christian use. (3) On the assumption that they were used as
keeps or monastic castles, in which church plate was concealed, or
wherein the clergy could shelter themselves from the fury of Danes, or
other invaders. But it is obvious that towers would have been built in a
different fashion had such been the object of those who erected them.
The late Mr. D'Alton has been the most moderate and judicious advocate
of their pagan origin. He rests his theory (1) on certain statements in
our annals, which, if true, must at once decide the dispute. The Annals
of Ulster mention the destruction of fifty-seven of them in consequence of a severe earthquake, A.D. 448. He adduces the testimony of Giraldus
Cambrensis, who confirms the account of the origin of Lough Neagh by an
inundation, A.D. 65, and adds: "It is no improbable testimony to this
event, that the fishermen beheld the religious towers (turres
), which, according to the custom of the country, are
narrow, lofty, and round, immersed under the waters; and they frequently
show them to strangers passing over them, and wondering at their
purposes" (reique causas admirantibus). This is all the better
evidence of their then acknowledged antiquity, because the subject of
the writer was the formation of the lough, and not the origin of the
towers. Mr. D'Alton's (2) second argument is, that it was improbable the
Christians would have erected churches of wood and bell towers of stone,
or have bestowed incomparably more care and skill on the erection of
these towers, no matter for what use they may have been intended, than
on the churches, which should surely be their first care.[163]

The cromlechs next claim our notice. There has been no question of their
pagan origin; and, indeed, this method of honouring or interring the
dead, seems an almost universal custom of ancient peoples.[164] Cremation does not appear to have been the rule as to the mode of
interment in ancient Erinn, as many remains of skeletons have been
found; and even those antiquarians who are pleased entirely to deny the
truth of the historical accounts of our early annalists, accept their
statements as to customs of the most ancient date. When the dead were
interred without cremation, the body was placed either in a horizontal,
sitting, or recumbent posture. When the remains were burned, a fictile
vessel was used to contain the ashes. These urns are of various forms
and sizes. The style of decoration also differs widely, some being but
rudely ornamented, while others bear indications of artistic skill which
could not have been exercised by a rude or uncultivated people.


We give a full-page illustration of an urn and its contents, at present
in the collection of the Royal Irish Academy. This urn was found in a
tumulus, which was opened in the Phoenix Park, near Dublin, in the year
1838. The tumulus was about 120 feet in diameter at the base, and
fifteen feet high. Four sepulchral vases, containing burnt ashes, were
found within the tomb. It also enclosed two perfect male skeletons, the
tops of the femora of another, and a bone of some animal. A number of
shells[165] were found under the head of each skeleton, of the kind
known to conchologists as the Nerita littoralis. The urn which we have
figured is the largest and most perfect, and manifestly the earliest of
the set. It is six inches high, rudely carved, yet not without some
attempt at ornament. The bone pin was probably used for the hair, and
the shells are obviously strung for a necklace. We give above a specimen
of the highest class of cinerary urns. It stands unrivalled, both in
design and execution, among all the specimens found in the British
isles. This valuable remain was discovered in the cutting of a railway,
in a small stone chamber, at Knockneconra, near Bagnalstown, county
Carlow. Burned bones of an infant, or very young child, were found in
it, and it was inclosed in a much larger and ruder urn, containing the
bones of an adult. Possibly, suggests Sir W. Wilde, they may have been
the remains of mother and child.[166]



The collection of antiquities in the Royal Irish Academy, furnishes
abundant evidence that the pagan Irish were well skilled in the higher
arts of working in metals. If the arbitrary division of the ages of
stone, bronze, and iron, can be made to hold good, we must either
suppose that the Irish Celt was possessed of extraordinary mental
powers, by which he developed the mechanical arts gradually, or that,
with successive immigrations, he obtained an increase of knowledge from
exterior sources. The bardic annals indicate the latter theory. We have
already given several illustrations of the ruder weapons. The
illustration appended here may give some idea of the skill obtained by
our pagan ancestors in working gold. This ornament, which is quite
complete, though fractured in two places, stands 11-1/2 inches high. It
weighs 16 oz. 10 dwts. 13 grs. The gold of which it is formed is very
red. It was procured with the Sirr Collection, and is said to have been
found in the county Clare.[167] Our readers are indebted to the kindness
of the Council of the Royal Irish Academy, for the permission to depict
these and the other rare articles from the collection which are inserted
in our pages.

The amount of gold ornaments which have been found in Ireland at various
times, has occasioned much conjecture as to whether the material was
found in Ireland or imported. It is probable that auriferous veins
existed, which were worked out, or that some may even now exist which
are at present unknown. The discovery of gold ornaments is one of the
many remarkable confirmations of the glowing accounts given by our
bardic annalists of Erinn's ancient glories. O'Hartigan thus describes
the wealth and splendour of the plate possessed by the ancient monarchs
who held court at Tara:—

"Three hundred cupbearers distributed
Three times fifty choice goblets
Before each party of great numbers,
Which were of pure strong carbuncle,[168]
Or gold or of silver all."

Dr. Petrie observes that this statement is amply verified by the
magnificent gold ornaments, found within a few yards of this very spot,
now in the possession of the Royal Irish Academy. We shall see, at a
later period, when the cursing of Tara will demand a special notice of
its ancient glories, how amply the same writer has vindicated the
veracity of Celtic annalists on this ground also.

A remarkable resemblance has been noticed between the pagan military
architecture of Ireland, and the early Pelasgian monuments in Greece.
They consist of enclosures, generally circular, of massive clay walls,
built of small loose stones, from six to sixteen feet thick. These forts
or fortresses are usually entered by a narrow doorway, wider at the
bottom than at the top, and are of Cyclopean architecture. Indeed, some
of the remains in Ireland can only be compared to the pyramids of Egypt,
so massive are the blocks of stone used in their construction. As this
stone is frequently of a kind not to be found in the immediate
neighbourhood, the means used for their transportation are as much a
matter of surprise and conjecture, as those by which they were placed in
the position in which they are found. The most remarkable of these forts
may still be seen in the Isles of Arran, on the west coast of Galway;
there are others in Donegal, Mayo, and in Kerry. Some of these erections
have chambers in their massive walls, and in others stairs are found
round the interior of the wall; these lead to narrow platforms, varying
from eight to forty-three feet in length, on which the warriors or
defenders stood. The fort of Dunmohr, in the middle island of Arran, is
supposed to be at least 2,000 years old. Besides these forts, there was
the private house, a stone habitation, called a clochann, in which an
individual or family resided; the large circular dome-roofed buildings,
in which probably a community lived; and the rath, intrenched and

But stone was not the only material used for places of defence or
domestic dwellings; the most curious and interesting of ancient Irish
habitations is the crannoge, a name whose precise etymology is
uncertain, though there is little doubt that it refers in some way to
the peculiar nature of the structure.

The crannoges were formed on small islets or shallows of clay or marl in
the centre of a lake, which were probably dry in summer, but submerged
in winter. These little islands, or mounds, were used as a foundation
for this singular habitation. Piles of wood, or heaps of stone and bones
driven into or heaped on the soil, formed the support of the crannoge.
They were used as places of retreat or concealment, and are usually
found near the ruins of such old forts or castles as are in the vicinity
of lakes or marshes. Sometimes they are connected with the mainland by a
causeway, but usually there is no appearance of any; and a small canoe
has been, with but very few exceptions, discovered in or near each

Since the investigation of these erections in Ireland, others have been
discovered in the Swiss lakes of a similar kind, and containing, or
rather formed on, the same extraordinary amount of bones heaped up
between the wooden piles.

The peculiar objects called celts, and the weapons and domestic utensils
of this or an earlier period, are a subject of scarcely less interest.
The use of the celt has fairly perplexed all antiquarian research. Its
name is derived not, as might be supposed, from the nation to whom this
distinctive appellation was given, but from the Latin word celtis, a
chisel. It is not known whether these celts, or the round, flat,
sharp-edged chisels, were called Lia Miledh, "warriors' stones." In
the record of the battle of the Ford of Comar, Westmeath, the use of
this instrument is thus described:—

"There came not a man of Lohar's people without a broad green spear, nor
without a dazzling shield, nor without a Liagh-lamha-laich (a
champion's hand stone), stowed away in the hollow cavity of his
shield.... And Lohar carried his stone like each of his men; and seeing
the monarch his father standing in the ford with Ceat, son of Magach, at
one side, and Connall Cearnach at the other, to guard him, he grasped
his battle-stone quickly and dexterously, and threw it with all his
strength, and with unerring aim, at the king his father; and the massive
stone passed with a swift rotatory motion towards the king, and despite
the efforts of his two brave guardians, it struck him on the breast, and
laid him prostrate in the ford. The king, however, recovered from the
shock, arose, and placing his foot upon the formidable stone, pressed it
into the earth, where it remains to this day, with a third part of it
over ground, and the print of the king's foot visible upon it."

Flint proper, or chalk flint, is found but in few places in Ireland;
these are principally in the counties of Antrim, Down, and Derry. In the
absence of a knowledge of the harder metals, flint and such-like
substances were invaluable as the only material that could be fashioned
into weapons of defence, and used to shape such rude clothing as was
then employed. The scarcity of flint must have rendered these weapons of
great value in other districts. Splitting, chipping, and polishing, and
this with tools as rude as the material worked on, were the only means
of manufacturing such articles; and yet such was the perfection, and, if
the expression be applicable, the amount of artistic skill attained,
that it seems probable flint-chipping was a special trade, and doubtless
a profitable one to those engaged in it.

When flints were used as arrows, either in battle or in the chase, a bow
was easily manufactured from the oak and birch trees with which the
island was thickly wooded. It was bent by a leathern thong, or the
twisted intestine of some animal. The handles of the lance or
javelin—formidable weapons, if we may judge from the specimens in the
Museum of the Royal Irish Academy—were also formed of wood; but these
have perished in the lapse of ages, and left only the strangely and
skilfully formed implement of destruction.

Among primitive nations, the tool and the weapon differed but little.
The hatchet which served to fell the tree, was as readily used to cleave
open the head of an enemy. The knife, whether of stone or hard wood,
carved the hunter's prey, or gave a deathstroke to his enemy. Such
weapons or implements have, however, frequently been found with metal
articles, under circumstances which leave little doubt that the use of
the former was continued long after the discovery of the superior value
of the latter. Probably, even while the Tuatha De Danann artificers were
framing their more refined weapons for the use of nobles and knights,
the rude fashioner of flint-arrows and spear-heads still continued to
exercise the craft he had learned from his forefathers, for the benefit
of poorer or less fastidious warriors.


The urn and necklace, figured at page 154, were found in this tomb.