Rathmore, Co. Kerry
Druidic rituals were enacted at The City, up to the time when we were Christianized. It is possible that it was here at The City that the last stand of Irish paganism was made against the advancing forces of Christianity. In that far distant age this area was a great stronghold of pagan die-hards who flourished under The Paps at Cathair Crobh Dearg.
To Cathair Crobh Dearg is left a legacy of a religious nature, unique and strange, to this day. Right down through the ages, through Druidism and Paganism and through many mutations of human searching, religious ceremonies have been enacted on this barren windswept site. This chain of events has remained vibrant and alive – one of our cherished last remaining links with those days long past.
Dan Cronin, In the Shadow of the Paps, 20011
An interactive map will appear when you click the button to enter full-screen mode.
Ten different views will take you through the features in the City of Shrone and up to both summits of the Paps of Anu.
Click here for the tablet version.
At the eastern edge of Co. Kerry, nearly spilling over into Co. Cork, is an area known as Sliabh Luachra, meaning the fertile or shining hill. An area of great tradition in Irish poetry and literature, its focal point is the ancient enclosure of Cathair Crobh Dearg, also known as The City. From there, the trek to the summit of the Paps of Anu can take a couple of hours. The climb traverses a difficult terrain, with boggy areas followed by a zigzag course through the thick gorse. The path also takes you into a “liminal zone,” an area defining the boundary between different geographical planes, and metaphorically between the real world and the realm of magic.2 Perhaps more so than any of the places visited during the creation of Voices from the Dawn, The City and the Paps of Anu sit squarely on that precipice between experience and imagination, the Twilight Zone of Irish archaeology and mythology; a “thin place” of spiritual discovery.
Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.
The New York Times, 3/11/20123
In the virtual-reality tour of the sites (above, left) the initial viewpoint is located by the “Our Lady of the Wayside” statue. Look down to see the crosses traced by many generations of pilgrims on the megalithic altar. Hotspots will lead you to a presumed megalithic tomb, an ancient cairn, and the holy well. Other hotspots lead out of The City and up the slopes to both summits of the Paps of Anu (Dhal Chích Danann), culminating in a 360° view from atop the 694 m (2,277 ft) summit of the eastern Pap. This VR tour is most effective when viewed in full screen mode, which enables the interactive map.
The City, or The City of Shrone (from the nearby village) is known in Irish as Cathair Crobh Dearg. This translates to “Red Claw’s Enclosure,” so named from one member of a triad of pagan war goddesses, who, once her persona was absorbed by Christianity, gave her name to one of the saints revered in the area, St. Craobh Dearg. There may be a resonance of the triple-goddess Morrígan tale here, as St. Craobh Dearg is one of three sister saints, the other being St. Gobnait, the beekeeper-saint of Ballyvourney, and St. Lasair; whose holy wells are still visited for cures.4 The City contains, within the 157 m (515 ft) circumference of its ancient walls, a historical stratigraphy in its stone: a possible ruined megalithic tomb, an ogham stone, an earthen mound, a bubbling holy well, a penitential station, a primitive cross-inscribed stone altar, a 19th-century cottage, and a modern “Our Lady of the Wayside” statue of the Virgin Mary.
And towering above all this are the perfectly proportioned twin peaks of the Derrynasaggart range, the Paps of Anu, the cairn-tipped mountain—the breasts of the mother goddess to the Tuatha Dé Danann.5 On a clear day the peaks seem directly connected to the stones of The City, forceful reminders of how landscape features may determine the placement of such places of power. On a day when the weather forces the clouds down and obscures the tops of the Paps in a milky mist, their supple green hills yet reach high into the liminal realm, touching the heavens.
…As mountains, they possess a unique range of properties beyond their physical appearance, which make them distinctive places in the landscape…Many of these holy mountains can be shrouded in cloud, thus adding to their mystique…This combination of low cloud or fog and oblique sunshine can occasionally produce a visual phenomenon known as a “brocken-spectre.” This occurs when the sun projects the shadow of the observer onto low-lying cloud, and this shadow may be surrounded by a rainbow-like halo. Occurrences such as these on mountains may also have enhanced both their eeriness and their holiness.6
Frank Coyne, Islands in the Clouds, 2006
The paired sanctity of The City and the Paps of Anu is attested to by the lack of other ancient ritual remnants in the vicinity. As Frank Coyne, the archaeologist who conducted in 2001 some limited excavation on the Paps noted, there are no barrows, ring-ditches, standing stones or other ceremonial monuments nearby. Perhaps, Coyne suggested, the mountains were so sacred that allowing other monuments, especially on the upper slopes, would have been considered a desecration.7
The walls of Cathair Crobh Dearg are in some sections more than 4 m (13 ft) thick, and, except on the south, remain over 1.5 m (5 ft) high. Parts of the wall to the south have been destroyed, perhaps during festivals in previous centuries, when itinerant traders may have used stones from the wall to anchor their tents. The nearly circular wall was likely rebuilt in recent times. In 1841 John O’Donovan noted the ancient remains within the Cathair, labeling two remaining stones of a megalithic tomb as a “cromlech” (a dolmen, or portal tomb). For many generations a “pattern day” was celebrated on May Day, centered at The City’s holy well. Cattle were driven here, often from some distance away, and were made to circle around the well. This was reputed to “have virtue to preserve them from all contagious distempers during the ensuing year.”8
O’Donovan recorded the tradition, which continued into the 20th century, but eventually was curtailed, perhaps due to fears of spreading infectious livestock diseases.
A legend of the area may have originated in the pattern day tradition of the cattle. As retold by Dan Cronin, it describes how a valuable bull, belonging to a nobleman, was stolen during one May Day celebration. Search parties were sent out in all directions until they discovered, on a flat stone near Ballyvourney, the “clear impression of the bull’s hoof, a man’s bare foot and the impression of the stick that he carried.” With these clues, the thief was apprehended and the bull recovered the next day.9
When you stand in the middle of the Cathair you get great feeling of satisfaction that you’re standing here on one of the most ancient places on earth where religious ceremonies of one kind or another have been enacted for the past six or seven thousand years, without a break…Tell me another place you’ll find that. You’ll find them, all right…but they’re long since broken, the sequence is broken. But not at Cromlech Cathair Crobh Dearg…There is no place in Western Europe more ancient, functioning the same length of time, as Cromlech Cathair Crobh Dearg.
Dan Cronin, 1999 (from video, above right).10
The holy well of Cathair Crobh Dearg, while it may no longer host a May Day parade of cattle around it, is still regarded as a font of healing for many of the pilgrims visiting the site. They drink from the basin after reciting the required prayers, and take the water home in bottles for recourse when needed. Originally, the well was located further to the south, not within its modern enclosing wall.11 When the water table is high enough the holy water noisily bubbles up from its depths, as if animated from below. It is easy to understand how visitors in earlier times (or even today) could find its percolating waters suggestive of magic. According to Celtic legend, as the berries of the sacred hazel tree dropped into the well at the center of the world, they produced na bolcca immaise, the “bubbles of mystic inspiration.”12 Video of the bubbling well water may be seen in the interview with Michael Dineen, above left.
The City may have been one of the first locations in Ireland to be populated, but there is no occupied residence now within its walls. The last denizen of Cathair Crobh Dearg was Paddy Quinihan (Counihan) who in the 1930s was the deerhough (caretaker) of the holy well. His abandoned home still stands in The City, and may be viewed in the VR tour and in the gallery below.13 Who was the first person to make his home in the city? The excavator of the site feels that the body of myth associated with The City demonstrates pagan origins for the continuing religious activity there, as the feast of Bealtaine morphed into a modern May Day celebration.14 However Frank Coyne’s research into the purposes of the (apparent) megalithic tomb there was inconclusive. The 1 m- (3.3 ft-) tall by 1.5 m- (5 ft-) long standing stone, with its carefully placed packing stones, is clearly associated with the adjacent outcrop of bedrock. But modern disturbances at the site made it impossible to find datable material other than some charcoal from a nearby pit, dated to 60 BCE – 420 CE.
This standing stone, according to Dan Cronin, was believed to have been “broken by alien rulers” long ago, originally being larger and with Ogham inscriptions.15 Coyne speculated that if a covering cairn was once heaped above it, its stones may have been incorporated into the cashel walls, or used to build the other modern structures found within the enclosure. He draws some comparisons with Co. Down’s Ballynahatty Giant’s Ring, where a small megalithic tomb is situated within a large embanked enclosure.16
The possibility exists that a late prehistoric enclosure was constructed here, around an earlier cairn or cairns, presumably containing burials of early prehistoric date, possibly broadly coeval with the cairns on the summits of The Paps. The cairns would have been a focus of ritual regarded as sacred…At a much later stage the extant cashel feature may have been constructed utilising stone from the earlier cairns, the monument being subsequently Christianized.
Michael Connolly, “Fields of View: The archaeological landscapes of Mount Brandon and The Paps,” 200617
The Goddess Anu
The twin mountains overlooking The City are nearly equal in height, at 694 and 690 m (2,277 and 2,264 ft). Each features a small—still unexcavated—cairn at its peak. These structures, perhaps sheltering burial cists or even miniature passage tombs, appear from a distance to provide each of the breasts of the goddess with perfectly-proportioned and forthrightly tumescent nipples. Lost in prehistory are the circumstances that linked these peaks, and their stone monuments, with the goddess Anu.
Anu, Anann, or Danu is known in Celtic mythology as the mother goddess of the fifth group of mythical invaders of Ireland, the Tuatha Dé Danann (peoples of the goddess Danu), who defeated the Fir Bolg. They were eventually vanquished themselves by the Milesians, identified as the Irish of today, and forced to live underground in the mounds of the Sidhe, the realm of the fairies. As early as the 10th century, Cormac’s Glossary referred to Anu as “mother of the gods of Ireland.”18 While Anu/Danu was an earth goddess in Ireland, who brought agricultural prosperity to Munster, on the continent her veneration is linked to water, as she gave her name to rivers across Europe, including the Danube. Various aspects of the goddess Anu are linked in Irish folklore with the fairy queen Áine, who is still celebrated today on Knock Áine in Co. Limerick.19 Although this goddess of abundance is not further explained in any of the mythic tales, Christianity enveloped the spirit of Anu and may have wrapped her within the persona of St. Anne, the grandmother of Jesus, with her numerous holy wells.20 Yet there remain devotees today of the original incarnation of this goddess.21
The local folklorist, Dan Cronin, believed that the original architects of The City were these very Tuatha Dé Danann, who “erected the circle of stones surrounding The City…”
Here they performed their rituals and cast their magic spells. Theirs was the first enactment of a semi-religious nature to be performed at The City.
[Anu] was the greatest of the Danaan goddesses, the mother of the Irish gods as she is called in an early text. A daughter of the Dagda, like him she was associated with all the ideas of fertility and blessings. But who were the Tuatha De Danaan? Real invaders? An aristocracy of poets, artists and musicians? Or a hierarchy of pagan gods? Yet, whatever they stood for, they could never be erased from the Irish mind. Legend has [put them] into a hidden world of immortality and everlasting youth. So two Irelands were created, the earthly and the unseen.22
In folklore Anu is also connected with the Morrigan, who (see above) is noted as the precursor for the three saints revered in the area, and particularly for St. Craobh Dearg, whose name is found in the Irish term for The City of Shrone: Cathair Crobh Dearg. The Morrigan, while not visible in her goddess form, can in folklore be seen as a crow, or a raven, specifically as the “battle crow” (Badbh Cath), a goddess of war and destruction. It may or may not be coincidental that ravens may be noted at times soaring above the cairns on the summit of The Paps, riding on the thermals high into the sky.23
Worship and Festivals at The City
According to Dan Cronin, in the earliest days celebrants of the goddess would climb up to the top of the Paps of Anu for their “fertility and immortality rituals.” To this day climbers will find that other visitors to the mountaintop cairns will have left offerings of one sort or another.24 Likewise in Cathair Crobh Dearg, the walled enclosure beneath the twin peaks, the sense of the sacred passed down through the generations, from the Tuatha De Danaan to the Milesians, and from the Milesians to ourselves. The great Celtic cross-quarter day of the spring season, the May Day celebration of La Bealtaine, was honored in The City, perhaps with the pagan custom of driving cattle between an idol of Baal and a burning pyre. Could this have been the origin of the 19th-century custom, described above, of driving cattle around the holy well? Among other Bealtaine observances in Ireland, it is honored nationwide as a celebration of creativity for all ages.
In The City, as Cronin imagines it, the pagan May Day was a great celebration with both religious and secular components, a “meeting of sages and chiefs of The Kingdom,”25 with sporting events, music, and games. It was similar to those held throughout the land, celebrating other gods and goddesses, at Tara, Tailteann, Emain Macha, Uisneach, and the Hill of Slane. The difference, as Cronin continues, is that the other festivals “have all long since ceased to function and are now but a memory, yet The City Festival goes on,” (while greatly transformed).26
On May Day, The City and its surroundings were a hubbub of activity. The music of pipes and fiddles re-echoed from the hills and valleys, and the lowing of cattle mingled with the sweet music of the harp. Jesters and jugglers plied their respective trades, with everybody trying to make themselves heard. It is very evident that ale was brewed here in plenty. Champions were performing feats of valour while throngs of admirers looked on. All of the aforementioned activities were enacted right up to the restrictions brought about by the outbreak of World II, as a result of which nothing but the religious side remained.27
It is unclear when and how the pagan Druidic rituals presumably enacted at The City were supplanted by the new creed of the followers of Jesus. Dan Cronin explains that locally St. Cuimín ( 589 – 661) was the first Christian apostle in the vicinity of Cathair Crobh Dearg, where some legends recount “great battles being fought” until the Druids were finally dissipated. Historians, however, understand that the transition of Early Christian Ireland out of its antecedent pagan faiths was generally a peaceful one.28 Whether it was by carrot or by stick, the ritual practices in The City were eventually transformed into those of St. Patrick and his fellow evangelists.
In his Confessions, St. Patrick mentioned but one specific pagan cultic practice, that of sun worship. He insisted that anyone in Ireland who adored the sun would perish eternally.29 Yet the c. 10th century Cormac’s Glossary notes that a symbol of the sun was carved on some altars. The predominant image found carved on the rude altar stones at The City is that of the Celtic Cross, the simple cross within a circle that is so easily seen as a sun symbol (see photograph in gallery below). Pilgrims and other visitors to the site have traced and retraced these symbols until they are incised deeply into the rock, a ritual practice creating what may be noted as communal multi-generational folk art. Can it be that in tracing this symbol on the “megalithic altar” at Cathair Crobh Dearg today’s visitors are unknowingly affirming the site’s original sacred purpose?30
The City’s most enduring Christian observance lies in its use as a “penitential station,” where pilgrims make a ritualized passage around the features of the enclosure while reciting specific prayers. In the early days of Christianity in Ireland, penance was often achieved by temporary self-deportation to a foreign land; but in time this practice was supplanted by local pilgrimage to sacred sites as a penitential activity.31 According to Dan Cronin, the Christian ritual of Penance was a continuation of an older penitential rite carried on within the walls of The City.32
The secular May Day festivities at Cathair Crobh Dearg were augmented in 1925, for the first time in modern memory, with the inclusion of a Mass celebrated by Fr. William Ferris of Rathmore. His sermon makes clear the symbolism of that moment:
The pagan danger is now past. Paganism is dead, or rather all the best elements in it have been absorbed into Christianity. It would therefore be criminal negligence on our part to allow this storied stream of age-old enthusiasm to perish. Miracles, which characterize a Shrine like Lourdes, are not much in evidence at The City, yet the favours, received in an old established Shrine like The City, may be less showy but more substantial. For over several centuries The City has been sanctified by the prayers of throngs of pious Irish worshippers. It was a holy place before Palestine became the Holy Land. Even perhaps 3000 years prior to that far-off date, The City was famed as a place of worship.. the most sacred spot on earth, having behind it seventy centuries of unbroken worship.33
When the advent of World War II, with its economic restrictions, caused the end of the communal festival at Cathair Crobh Dearg, all that remained of the event were the penitential rites, observed by the occasional visitor on any day of the year, and by a small crowd celebrating Mass there each May Day.
In 1983 a local affiliate of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, the Irish cultural organization, working with the parish priest in nearby Rathmore, Canon Patrick Doherty, reintroduced music and dance to the May Day festival at The City, along with the celebration of Mass at the ancient megalithic altar. A large crowd from across the area attended (see photo in gallery above). This celebration continues, as may be witnessed in the image gallery from the 2010 May Day event, linked from the photo collage, below left.
To the Paps of Anu, and the Cairns
For any visitor limber enough to make the effort, a trip to The City becomes more deeply rewarding when accompanied by the three-hour up-and-back hike to the summit of the eastern Pap. More adventuresome walkers can pick a path from there to the western peak. During this trek the connection between the ruins in the walled enclosure in The City and the prehistoric burial cairns on the mountains above becomes palpable and personal. While we accomplished the feat directly from the car park at Cathair Crobh Dearg, a more congenial route may be found off the N22 from Killarney to Ballyvourney, exiting at the village of Clonkeen, passing through the village and then finding the narrow road leading into the Clydagh Valley, in the direction of Glannafreaghaun Lough. Park your vehicle here, and then walk up the boreen to the left, past the tree break, and then hike up the steep hill to the summit.34 The same unimproved road to Glannafreaghaun Lough (known locally as the Slyggudal Pass) may be accessed from east of The City.
The cairn is visible from the base of the mountain, before disappearing from view as one ascends the mountain. It only becomes visible again approximately 50m (165 ft) from the peak of the mountain, re-appearing on the final approach to the crest of the mountain, when it emerges dramatically. Once the cairn is reached, views are spectacular on all sides.35
The matching nipple-like cairns on the top of each peak belong to the class of monuments archaeologists term “summit cairns,” which have been shown to be deliberately positioned for maximum visibility both from the domestic areas in the valleys below, and from other peaks out to the horizon. More than 1,600 cairns are recorded nationwide, their types ranging from burial or ceremonial cairns, such as those on the Paps, to pilgrimage stations and boundary markers. The cairn on the eastern Pap is the larger, 4 m (13 ft) tall, with a diameter of 16 m (52.5 ft). The western cairn was originally around half that size.36 Archaeologist Frank Coyne, who completed some rescue excavation and stabilization work in 2001 on the western Pap cairn, found evidence of potential (collapsed) entranceways to the cairns, which may have been constructed as small passage tombs. He concluded that the cairns are “probably prehistoric in origin” and likely date from the Bronze Age or earlier. “There is little doubt, he added, “that the mountaintops of both The Paps…were utilized for ritual in prehistory.” 37
Whoever they were, whatever they called her, she is beautiful. Photographs do not do justice to her loveliness: the way the Paps rise from the Derrynasaggarts, slightly separated from the ridge that curves up to them like a belly; those breasts pointing skyward, the breasts of a woman in her prime, not the tender buds of youth or the soft breasts of age, but full and firm, sensual and motherly at once. The breasts separate slightly, so you know the woman is languidly stretched out. There is no head, nor arms nor legs, only breasts and a belly, but it is enough. Enough to suggest that somewhere there is a head we might cradle, somewhere arms that might embrace us, somewhere a womb from which we might emerge, children of earth.
Patricia Monaghan, The Red-haired Girl from the Bog, 200338
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The City and the Paps of Anu, Co. Kerry
Nearest Town: Rathmore
Townlands: Gortnagane (City) and Derrynafinnia (Paps)
Latitude: 52° 2′ 25.2″ N
Longitude: 9° 15′ 21.4″ W
In the Shadow of the Paps