I was travelling Ireland in an old campervan which I affectionately call the Scooby Van (because that's the first thing that came into my head when I saw it). When I had first woken up and looked out the window the stars were twinkling on the horizon and the milky twilight of the morning sky had shown promise. However, this had all changed in just a short time.
My eyes squinted as I tried to make out the scene unravelling before me. A woman with fiery red hair, wearing a long golden dress, stood proudly in the center. Shadowy figures dressed in flowing robes and cloaks, each carrying a long wooden staff, stood around her. One figure in particular stood out. He was a balding man who wore large glasses and had a long goatee beard. He was dressed in a white robe covered with a heavy brown cloak. His staff was tall, and a beautifully carved snake slithered upwards to where three long feathers adorned the top. These people, I had learned, were the Druids.
Suddenly, out of the mist appeared a woman in a long blue dress, her tousled blonde hair glistening as the morning light illuminated the droplets of moisture formed by the morning dew. She handed me a flower and smiled. I smiled back nervously, not sure whether or not I had just been selected as the virgin sacrifice to the gods in order to ensure the continuation of the sunrise. She then moved on and began to hand flowers to the others one by one.
The people around me began to move forward and form a line. I followed. The line moved slowly in a clockwise circle around the woman with the red hair, and each person lay down their flower at her feet. I followed dubiously, and copied their actions before hurrying back to the edge.
Up Into the Old Capital of Ireland
I was at the Summer Solstice Festival on the Hill of Tara in County Meath, Ireland. At first glance this hill seems like just another collection of Neolithic monuments, but it is in fact the ancient capital of Ireland. Before the English came there were three levels of kingship: the High King, who ruled over the entire country, the Provincial King, who ruled one of the four provinces, and the Petty King, who ruled over a small settlement. Because of its strategic importance, Tara became the traditional seat for the High King. This small, seemingly insignificant hill holds many of the secrets to Ireland's ancient past and if it could talk, would have one hell of a story to tell.
The mound we were standing around is known as Cormac's House, after one of the 142 High Kings to rule from here. Tara features heavily in many of the Irish legends and these ceremonies were routinely practised here by the Druids. The Druids were the pagan priests and advisors to the kings. But they were more than this; they were healers, magicians, law–makers, and astronomers to name but a few. It was claimed that the Druids possessed the power to predict the future. Thus the kings would consult them before going into battle. Druidry died out with the coming of Christianity.
Or so I thought!
When the ceremony ended everyone dispersed. An old man with wild hair and round glasses sitting on the bridge of a rather long nose was trying to keep control of his dog.
"You know, last year when I was here my dog kept running into the ceremonies and jumping up at the druids during their performance. Dey weren't happy!" he told me.
"Sure, dey take dis all very seriously," said the man next to him, a plump farmer–type in a dirty old raincoat.
"But it's just a re–enactment, surely," I replied.
"Ah no, dey are all proper druids," he replied.
"There's a fella lives down in Johnstown, near here," he said. "In his field a fairy ring has appeared and he simply refuses to plough it. The Irish are still very superstitious, and if you plough a fairy ring you will destroy their abode and it could invoke terrible consequences."
It seemed there was more to this ceremony that meets the eye. For some reason, the movie the Wicker Man came to mind.
A Poet Farmer, Fairies, and a Phallic Rock
I returned to the van for breakfast before heading off to the next feature, the Ceremony of Water at Saint Patrick's Well. This ceremony was lead by Yamman Brady. Although not a practising druid it seemed, Yamann was flanked on either side by them as he gave his speech about how we as humans are comprised largely of water and how water is the giver of life. As he spoke the same druid in the brown cloak stood nearby, looking strangely serene. When Yamann invited others to say a few words, I expected this man to step forward. Instead, he remained silent. Others stepped forward to sing songs, recite poetry and offer prayers. To my surprise, the chubby farmer from earlier stepped forward and recited a lovely poem he had apparently written himself. The thing about Ireland is that it's always full of surprises. Seemingly ordinary folk often reveal hidden talents when you least expect it.
After the Ceremony of the Air, lead by an American druid at the Royal Seat, I remained behind afterwards to take a closer look at the strange, almost penis–shaped, stone protruding somewhat dramatically from the centre of this particular mound. This is the Lia Fáil, a ceremonial stone believed to have been brought here by a mysterious race known as the Tuatha dé Danann. Tradition has it that the Lia Fail was used during the coronation of the High King and would emit a loud roar across the whole of Ireland when the right heir to the throne touched it. I made sure no–one was looking, then placed my hands upon the stone and closed my eyes. Not a sound could be heard, so I crossed being High King of Ireland off my list of potential destinies.
Lunchtime came and everyone headed to Maguires, the local café and bookshop. Before I knew it I found myself surrounded by Druids and Witches; not an everyday occurrence. I was introduced to Adge, the Druid in the brown cloak I had kept seeing at the ceremonies. A newspaper sat on the table with a photo of Adge in front of the Lia Fail. The first line stated that Adge was a 21st century Druid. Up until now I hadn't heard Adge talk; he had just remained a shadowy figure in the background of each ceremony. This big man had a powerful, oddly intriguing presence. His long wooden staff lay beside him, beautifully carved and painted. He really did look like some mystical Irish Druid. This illusion was shattered somewhat when Adge greeted me with a deep booming voice laced with a thick accent from Cornwall, in southwest England. He had come to Ireland during a troubled time in his life, when he was looking for a new direction. Soon he met a group of people who belonged to a druidic grove in Leitrim and thus began his journey into the world of druidism.
The red–haired woman from the first ceremony was Gina McGarry, originally from America but with Irish ancestry. Gina told me she would be reciting many of the Irish legends on her goddess walk later and insisted I come. How could I refuse?
Out of the corner of my eye, I couldn't help noticing a small group of fairies prancing around outside. I shook my head, believing I was imagining things. Perhaps these people were starting to get to me. I wandered outside to see for myself, and found that it was actually three girls dressed up ready for the next event; fairy stories with Janet Farrer. For the next couple of hours I was taken into the world of Irish legend with Janet's fairy stories, followed by Gina's fascinating walk around Tara as she related the stories of the Irish goddesses, Brigid, Maeve, Boann, Grainne and Macha.
Druids and Development
I was exhausted by this time, but it seemed that a nap was out of the question. As I headed back to the van I was once again stopped by a Druid handing out information leaflets explaining how the government was planning to build a motorway through the Tara–Skryne valley. They were protesting against this. He also produced a drawing which mapped all the Neolithic monuments in counties Meath and neighbouring Louth. This drawing illustrated how all the ancient monuments are aligned with the rising sun at various times of the year, associated with pagan festivals. A line had been drawn at each of the associated times between the sun and the monument, and every time the line intersected with Lambay Island in Dublin Bay.
The day culminated with everyone gathering in the churchyard for the Celebration of Fire. Druids carried banners and flags for all the countries that had participated in the festival. Fire torches were lit and people sang as they made their way to the intersection point of Tara's two main mounds, where everyone formed a large circle. A torch was lit in the centre of the circle, and each druidic grove announced the country they were from, gave thanks and recited a ritual of their own.
As I staggered back to my van, my eyelids felt like lead weights had been tied to them. It would have been nice to have said that the day had led me down the path of true enlightenment; I might have avoided stepping in the ritual offerings from the sheep that roam freely over Tara. I couldn't quite figure out if these people were mad or not. The Druids were an ancient people, and pagan beliefs preceded the modern day Christian beliefs. So are these people any madder than the modern day priests? I didn't think so. In fact, given the choice, I would choose the pagan way (aside from sacrificing virgins of course. That would be a terrible waste). The pagan way was to be connected with the elements of earth, air, and water; all the basics of nature that ensure our survival. Although I couldn't see myself parading around in flowing robes and chanting, I did see more sense in worshipping these.
All things said and done, it was nice to see that Ireland's ancient traditions were being revived, and hadn't been completely stamped out by the Christian church or the English. This festival is a brilliant way of illustrating Tara's importance in Irish history. Tara was the ancient capital of Ireland, and this festival can help visitors to understand that Tara is more than just a green hill with lumps upon it. The fight to save Tara from the motorway continues even now. As I drifted off to sleep in the old beat–up Scooby Van, I couldn't help thinking that at least my van fitted in here, even if I hadn't, and that to destroy Tara would be to cut the heart out of Ireland, historically and culturally.
Ian Middleton is a travel writer and photographer who is author of Mysterious World Ireland, as well as several e–books. In the summer of 2003 he hiked solo for 280 miles across Ireland, from Wexford to Donegal, to aid asthma research.
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