It is a privilege to have been born in Ireland and have the freedom to explore the mystical landscapes, ancient ruins, and sacred locations associated with our legendary tales and mythical beings. In fact for quite some time, before I even considered myself a pagan, I was regularly visiting and unconsciously immersing myself in the spiritual energies that still resonate at one particular hallowed ground. Ireland is so full of heritage sites it’s fascinating to consider but here we will try to connect you to some of the ancient sacred sites of Irish mythology.
Sacred Sites of Irish MythologyThe Hill of Tara
The Hill of Tara is one of Ireland’s most well known locations for heritage tourism located 12km south of Navan in Meath, the county to the North of Dublin. We know that there has been human activity on the site since the late Stone Age, when a passage tomb was built there. It later became known as the seat of the high kings of Ireland.
In the mythology this is believed to be the seat of many kings from Cormac Mac Airt in the time of Fionn and the Fianna, right the way back to the Tuatha De Danann kings, Lugh, Nuada and before him Bres. It was said that the Dagda was the one who was set to dig the trenches of Rath Bres when that king demeaned the heroes of his mothers tribe in favour of his Fomorian father’s people.
Today there are still many tourists that visit this place and it is here that I myself found some peace in tumultuous times but walking its ancient hilltop and boundaries, feeling the draw of the land beneath my feet as my eyes gazed out across the provinces. The stories tell us of many fantastic things which happen around Tara and for me I cannot but wonder at the peaceful open energy of the space even in our more modern era. For me as I began to grow in my pagan spirituality, The Hill of Tara was not just a place of stories past, but of active sacred spiritual energies to be experienced and honoured in the present.
Brú Na Bóinne
Known all around the world for one of its more famous structures, none other than Newgrange Passage Tomb, the complex at Brú na Bóinne is more than just one fascinating structure. Situated in a fertile bend of the river Boyne is an area that is linked to some of the oldest occupation of people in the island. We can date the famous Newgrange tomb to 3200 B.C.E. making it older than the great pyramids at Giza. The area also contains two other equally fascinating tombs at Knowth and Dowth displaying the early ancestors’ amazing skill not just at creating these tombs, but also decorating with some of Ireland’s earliest art.
In the mythology the area was well known for its wealth and abundance. It was said that the Goddess Boann lived there and it was through a tryst between her and the Dagda that Oengus the Mac Og, or ‘Young son’ was conceived and born all in the passing of one day. When Oengus was later grown and seeking lands of his own, he inherited the lands of his mother by use of guile. His father the Dagda was then King in Ireland and though he helped Oengus win the land by trickery, he also ensured that Elcmar its previous owner was suitably compensated for the loss with lands equally as beautiful and abundant.
Walking these sites today is an experience that cannot really be described. Being surrounded by the open rolling hills of this beautiful landscape might be enough for most folk, but when we consider the many thousands of years that these monuments of our ancestors have stood, and see clearly still the engraved art upon the stones, few there are that would not be moved by the sacred nature of structures and spiritual significance that they still hold.
Across into the west of the island we find Rathcroghan, over 240 archaeological sites in but a few square kilometres. From Stone Age tombs and royal burial mounds to ringforts and places believed to be sacred sites of ceremonial inauguration. Many archaeologists are of the opinion that the first tribes came down into the west coast of Ireland long before the last great ice age had pulled back from the rest of the island. This might make some of the sites in Rathcroghan amongst the oldest places of occupation in Ireland.
In the mythology there is much that can be said of Rathcroghan as the seat of the great warrior Queen, Medb ruled all of Connacht. It was here that she held control of her province and extended her influence across the entire island. When the great heroes of Ulster were sent to her for judgment of their worth, she went into the dark Otherworldly cave of the Morrigan and brought out the three stones headed cats against which the warriors would be tested. From this tale the cave itself now carries the name ‘Oweynagat’ or Cave of the Cats.
It was upon the great main mound that she gathered all those loyal to her so that her invasion of Ulster could begin in Ireland’s great sage known as the Táin Bó Cuailnge, or the Cattle Raid of Cooley, at it was in Rathcroghan that the last battle between the two great bulls, the Finnbennach and the Donn Cuailnge, was decided, with the demise of the white bull.
Taking a tour of this place today is still inspiring to many pagans. Walking in the footsteps of so many great heroes of our legends and seeing the places that they stood and gathered makes them sacred sites in and of themselves, yet there is more here than just mounds of grass and rolling fields. The cave of the cats, said to be the ‘fit abode’ of the Morrigan Ireland’s Goddess of Battle Poetry and Prophecy, is still used by some as a sacred site of pilgrimage. Down in that darkness beneath the earth, a place where light does not reach and nothing lives or grows, some still choose to sit and open themselves to the Goddess to seek her attention and wisdom.
Emhain Macha, also known as Navan fort, can be found in the North of Ireland just two miles from Armagh City. It is from here that the kings of ancient Ulster ruled. Emahin Macha sits at the heart of the larger ‘Navan complex’, which includes the ancient sites of Haughey’s Fort an earlier hilltop enclosure, the King’s Stables a manmade ritual pool and Loughnashade a natural lake that has yielded votive offerings.
In the mythology the place features as a centre of both kingship and sacred practices most strongly during the cycle of Irish myth that carries the name of its most important tribe, the Ulster cycle. It is from here that king Conchobar mac Nessa, took the rule of the northern province. It was to Emhain Macha that a young Setanta journeyed to find his destiny and become Ulster’s most famous hero, Cú Chulainn.
In one version of the stories Emahain Macha gains its name from one of Ireland’s more famous Otherworldly Goddesses, Macha and a harm done against her. It was said that she came to this world and shared her life with a farmer and would bring him abundance and success and bear him children, as long as he never revealed her true nature to anyone. As with many old Irish tales the failing of men leads to tragic circumstances. When the now prosperous farmer came to a feast at the fort of the King in Ulster, he drunkenly professed that his wife could race faster than the king’s fine horses. Macha, heavily pregnant at the time, was dragged before the King and compelled to race. Despite her pleas, none in Ulster would stand up for her. Race she did, and win against those fast horses, yet as she crossed the finish line the birthing pains became too great and her twins were born then and there upon that field. As her mortal life left her, she cursed that nine generations of the men of Ulster would be struck down with birth pains whenever threat came against their land for no man of Ulster came to her defence that day. This is why Navan fort carries the name Emhain Macha, or the twins of Macha.
At this point I cannot speak from personal experience of this ancient and sacred site of Ireland, because I have not been there. Yet from what I hear from others who have walked its land, those who come in openness and honour invariably feel the energies of that space connect with them. I look forward to the day when I can place my feet upon that space and approach this place of both myth and history with a willingness to see where the journey takes me.
Where To Now?
If you think that Ireland’s Sacred sites are interesting, and might even be something you’d like to explore further, you can always: