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Editorial: The Foremothers Speak
by Sage Starwalker and a Featured Foremother
Vol 2-1
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Lough Derg
courtesy of FJP Photos
Sacred Sites: Loch Dearg

Lough Derg, St. Patrick’s Purgatory in Donegal,
Christendom’s purge. Heretical
Around the edges: the centre’s hard
As the commonplace of a flamboyant bard.
The twentieth century blows across it now
But deeply it has kept an ancient vow.
(Patrick Kavanagh, Irish poet, 1904-1967)

Our featured foremother this issue is the Earth herself, or at least one specific piece of Her -- Loch Derg (or Loch Dearg or Lough Derg), the largest and southernmost lake on the Shannon River in Ireland.

What follows is inspired by Vicki Noble's article in this issue, "Tuning into Earth Energies," and Fiana Sidhe's "spotlight" on the goddess Cliodna (pronounced klee-nah). In my research for images to illustrate Fiana's tale of Cliodna, I discovered what remains of a powerful sacred earth site and a chilling story of the lengths to which dominant spiritual and civil institutions went to destroy it.

Note to our readers: A few months after this article was published, Patricia Monaghan sent the "geographical note" (below) to me, published here at her request -- a very polite way of saying that I got my Lochs confused. Fortunately, you have the note so you won't make travel plans and be disappointed, and now Pat is a regular writer for MatriFocus.

Always one to keep up on my reading (NOT), I've just been perusing the Samhain issue. As I know you archive your issues, I thought I'd draw attention to a slight and very understandable geographical confusion in the Sacred Sites article. Just to make it easy on the tourist, there are two Lough Dergs in Ireland, one up in Ulster (where St. P's Purgatory and Station Island are) and one at the end of the Shannon River near Limerick. Cliodna is associated with the latter, as she's a Munster land-goddess/fairy-queen. Some great goddess stuff is connected with the other Lough Derg, where there supposedly dwells a female serpent. It's very easy to get these two lakes confused. I've not been to the Ulster one, but Cliodna's lake is wide and beautiful. It is near Slieve Echtghte, the mountains of the hag, and a lot of sites associated with Grian/Grainne, the sun goddess.

Loch Dearg, Last Stronghold of the Druids in Ireland

Fiana's tale of Cliodna describes Her as both a Goddess and "the daughter of Gebhan, Ireland’s last Druid" and names her earthly home as "a Marble Castle on Loch Dearg, Lake of the Red Eye." This Goddess/real woman profile is typically Celtic, and Cliodna's association with a real-world earthform (an Irish lake), sent me in search of the "real" side of this story. Celtic history, however, seems to me to be somewhat like the famed mists of Celtic landscape and literature -- it materializes out of thin air, exists as a borderland between myth and reality, and both illuminates and obscures the pre-Christian origins of those of us who long to reconnect with our Native European roots. It is also the record of the oppression of a tribal people and the cultural appropriation and obfuscation of our spirituality. Christine O'Keefe tells us that Loch Dearg was "the last stronghold of the Druids in Ireland" and that St. Patrick's campaign to drive the "serpents" (popularly understood to be Druids and/or pagans) out of the British Isles ended there. Dearg apparently means "red" and, according to O'Keefe, "Legend says he killed the lake monster and its blood dyed the water red."

The famous Irish text, Acallan na Sanorach (Colloquy of the Ancients) explains the name of the lake (dearg - red) as derived from the blood of the last great serpent, which Patrick slew here. Some recent authorities prefer to read Derg as a form of the Irish deirc, making the name mean: the lake of the cave. Some form of cave on Station Island was the focal point of the pilgrimage until 1780 when a chapel replaced it. (Lough Derg)

Loch Dearg is a 32,000-acre lake, twenty-five miles long and nine miles wide at its widest. This must have been a mighty battle, indeed, if "dearg" refers to spilled blood coloring its waters. But what about the alternate meaning, cave? W.Y. Evans Wentz, author of the 1911 opus, "The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries," identifies the cave as a pagan place of ritual and of contact with the underworld:

The curious custom among early Irish Christians, of retiring for a time to a cave, seems to show the lasting into historical times of the pagan cave-ritual now surviving at Lough Derg only. The custom seems to have been common among the saints of Britain and of Scotland ; (4) and in Stokes’s Tripartite Life of Patrick (p. 242) there is a very significant reference to it. In the Mabinogion story of Kulhwch and Olwen there seems to be another traditional echo of the times when caves were used for religious rites or worship, in the author’s reference to the cave of the witch Orddu as being ‘on the confines of Hell’. A cave was thus popularly supposed to lead to Hades or an underworld of fairies, demons, and spirits.... (Testimony of Archaeology)

The Catholic Church itself sheds light on the sacred cave found on an island in Loch Derg in its official Loch Derg website, where it gives the alternate and popular name of Loch Derg, "St. Patrick's Purgatory":

  • 1100 - Lough Derg in possession of two islands with religious associations, a larger called Oileán na Noamh, and a smaller known as Station Island. Station Island had the great attraction of a cave, said to have been utilised by Saint Patrick
  • 1186 - Henry of Saltry in Huntingdonshire writes of Knight Owein’s Pilgrimage and Purgatory - 150 copies of this text still survive in libraries across Europe
  • 1497 - Saint Patrick’s Purgatory closed by order of Pope Alexander VI
  • 1600 - A report by Franciscan Friar- Michael O’Cleary makes the first mention of women doing the Pilgrimage.
  • 1632 - Under the Franciscan friars, the pilgrimage was non-violently suppressed by order of the Privy Council for Ireland
  • 1632 - October Anglican Bishop of Clogher, James Spottiswoode, personally supervised the destruction of everything on the island.
  • 1704 - Act of Parliament imposed a fine of 10 shillings or a public whipping as a penalty for coming to such places of pilgrimage
  • 1790 - The cave was filled in and was replaced by a chapel
  • 1795 - The most notable disaster - a boat carrying 93 passengers sank, close to Friar’s Island, a very short distance from the quay at Station Island. Only three pilgrims survived.
  • 1826 - Over 15,000 pilgrims came to the Island
  • 1846 - On the eve of the Great Famine, 30,000 pilgrims came.
  • 1860 - The number of pilgrims had dropped to a tenth of the 1846 figure, where it remained for the rest of the century.
  • 1960 - Sir Shane Leslie, Glaslough, generously handed over all title to the lake and its islands to the Diocese of Clogher. This in effect left the Catholic Diocese of Clogher in secure possession of St. Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg.

The historical record admits that the sacred islands of Loch Dearg have been the destination of Christian pilgrims for over 1500 years, despite civil and ecclesiastical attempts to stop the pilgrimages. Evans Wentz and diverse archaeologists tell us that caves all over Europe have been sacred sites from Paleolithic times to the common era. Though there seems to be no scholarly record recording pagan pilgrimages to the sacred cave in Loch Dearg, the intersection of history, mythology and folklore allow us to infer that Loch Dearg was such an important site to the Druids that they made their last stand there. Myth tells us that Cliodna's home on Loch Dearg had "crystal-gemmed walls." (Christine O'Keefe) Though there will be no proof, in my lifetime (if ever), that the sacred cave had crystal-gemmed walls that awed pagan pilgrims and attuned them to earth energies, in my mind's eye I see Merlin there, and my ancestors, returning home, to the womb of the Mother, in sacred pilgrimage.

Today, Cliodna is a minor deity of mythology, a faery Queen of Southwest Ireland, alive in the heart of Celtic enthusiasts, in mythology, and in reports of Cliodna's sacred hill, Carrig Cliodna in County Cork, and of a landmark, Tonn Cliodna, on the Irish Coast. It is possible, today, to make a pilgrimage to Cliodna's home, though such pilgrimages are done under the auspices of the Catholic Church and involve rigorous regimens of prayer and fasting. I think I'll go only in my mind's eye, seeing the waters not red with the blood of the ancients, but blue and green and lapping on the shores of an island; seeing, through the mists, a crystal-lined cave, home of Goddess and pagan pilgrim.

Graphics Credits
+ Lough Derg, courtesy of FJP Photos

Celtic Folklore: The People of the Mounds
Celtic Gods & Goddesses
Christine O'Keefe's Legends of St. Patrick

Christine O'Keefe's Monster/Faery Page

Christine O'Keefe's St. Patrick's Place Names
Lough Derg
MountShannon/Places of Interest
Testimony of Archaeology
The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries

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