Saturday, September 18, 2021

Iron Age Pagan Idol Discovered in Irish Bog


The Gortnacrannagh Idol unearthed in Roscommon bog, Ireland, 2021. Photo: courtesy Archaeological Management Solutions/European Association of Archaeologists


Archaeologist working on the route of the N5 Ballaghaderreen to Scramoge Road Bypass in Co. Roscommon have discovered a 1,600-year-old wooden pagan idol. The discovery was made in the townland of Gortnacrannagh, about six kilometres from the prehistoric royal site of Rathcroghan.

Rathcroghan was an ancient site of power and the prehistoric royal capital of Connachta, one of the five ancient Irish kingdoms. The area is home to more than 240 archaeological monuments, including Neolithic and Bronze Age burial mounds, ringforts, and earthworks, and was known as a place of ritual gatherings. It is also said to have been the site of the capital and palace of Queen Medb. According to the Ulster Cycle, a group of legends set in the first century BC, Medb was a powerful warrior who at one time ruled much of Ireland.

Gortnacrannagh Idol

During the excavation of the wooden idol, archaeologists found an animal bone and what is thought to be a ‘ritual dagger’. The blade did not show evidence of use suggesting that, perhaps, it was made specifically for animal sacrifice. The Gortnacrannagh Idol remained intact due to the waterlogged conditions of the bog.

The “Gortnacrannagh Idol” measures over two and a half meters (8.2 ft.) high. Less than 15 similar idols have been found in Ireland and this one represents the largest discovered to date. The 1,600-year-old wooden pagan idol was carved from a split oak tree trunk during the Iron Age, which in Ireland occurred between 500 BC - 400 AD. The idol has been radiocarbon dated to between 252 and 413 A.D

A human-shaped head was carved at one end of the artifact and the body was marked with several horizontal notches. Dr Eve Campbell, Director of the AMS excavation site, told the Irish Examiner that ancient Celtic cultures regarded wetlands “as mystical places where they could connect with their gods and the Otherworld.”

Other Irish Wooden Idols

The Winter 2003 issue of Archaeology Ireland reported the discovery of a prehistoric alder-wood ‘figure’ in Kilbeg townland, Ballykeane Bog, County Offaly. The discovery was dated to the Bronze Age. ‘Red Man’ of Kilbeg was one of seven probable alder-wood idols deposited in the raised bogs of east Offaly in the early/late Bronze Age The wooden idol was carved from curved alder roundwood (231 cm long, 16cm maximum diameter). It had been worked to a point at one end. Eleven notches 3cm apart had been cut across its width. It was radiocarbon dated to 1739-1530 BC.

Prior to 2001, only three prehistoric idols were known from Ireland all of which were recovered from wetlands. The oldest figure was recovered from the early medieval ‘royal’ crannog at Lagore, County Meath. It was 47cm in height and dated to the Early Bronze Age (2135-1944 BC). The second Bronze Age figure was dated to 1096-906 BC was discovered by turf cutters at Ralaghan, County Cavan. It was carved from yew and was 114cm in height. The third idol was discovered in Corlea, Co Longford. It was 5m tall and made form ash roundwood. One end was carved to a point while the other end has a carved neck and bulbous head. This item was incorporated within the sub-structure of an Iron Age (148 BC) trackway at Corlea.

“The lower ends of several figures were also worked to a point suggesting that they may once have stood upright,' stated wood specialist Cathy Moore. 'Their meaning is open to interpretation, but they may have marked special places in the landscape, have represented particular individuals or deities or perhaps have functioned as wooden bog bodies, sacrificed in lieu of humans.”

AMS archaeologist Dr. Eve Campbell, who directed the excavation of the site, said that the idol was likely to be a pagan god. 

"The Gortnacrannagh Idol was carved just over 100 years before St. Patrick came to Ireland — it is likely to be the image of a pagan deity. … Our ancestors saw wetlands as mystical places where they could connect with their gods and the Otherworld. The discovery of animal bone alongside a ritual dagger suggests that animal sacrifice was carried out at the site and the idol is likely to have been part of these ceremonies."

The idol is being conserved at University College Dublin and will eventually go on display at the National Museum of Ireland.

An early reconstruction of the Shigir Idol from 1894. Photo: courtesy Sverdlovsk Regional Museum 

The Shigir Idol

The most famous prehistoric wooden sculpture is the 12,500-year-old Shigir Idol, uncovered in a Russian peat bog which is the oldest known example of ritual art in the world. The incredible wooden sculpture was pulled from a peat bog in the western fringes of Siberia, Russia, 125 years ago. The Shigir idol is 2.8 meters (9.2 feet) long, though it was originally 5.3 meters (17.4 feet) before lengths of the artifact were accidentally destroyed during the Soviet era.

Head of the Shigir Idol, the world's oldest known wood sculpture. Photo: courtesy Sverdlovsk Regional Museum 

Doogarymore Wooden Wheel

In 1968/9 two warped fragments of pre-historic block wheels from the same period were found in the Roscommon bog. The National Museum of Ireland declared that these two artifacts were the earliest evidence of the wheel being used for transport on the island.

Doogarymore Wooden Wheel.
Photo: courtesy Flickr

The idol is now in University College Dublin, undergoing a three-year programme of preservation. The idol will be given to the National Museum of Ireland once the project is completed. Meanwhile, the AMS will make a replica of the Gortnacrannagh idol and donate it to the Rathcroghan Centre, where it will go on display.


The discovery of an Iron Age wooden idol near the ancient royal site of Rathcroghan has shone a light on pagan Ireland around a hundred years before the arrival of St Patrick. The Gortnacrannagh Idol remained intact due to the waterlogged conditions of the bog. It is thought that it may have formed part of an animal sacrifice. Less than 15 similar idols have been found in Ireland and this one represents the largest discovered to date.

For further information see:

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Scientists hail stunning 'Dragon Man' discovery


Dragon Man Skull
Photo: BBC News Website
            Recently, the BBC News Website reported that Chinese researchers have unveiled an ancient skull that could belong to a completely new species of human. Scientists claim that it is our closest evolutionary relative among known species of ancient human, such as Neanderthals and Homo erectus. The specimen represents a human group that lived in East Asia at least 146,000 years ago.

Although the skull was found at Harbin, north-east China, in 1933, it only came to the attention of scientists recently. Prof Chris Stringer from London's Natural History Museum, a leading UK expert in human evolution, and a member of the research team, said:

"In terms of fossils in the last million years, this is one of the most important yet discovered… What you have here is a separate branch of humanity that is not on its way to becoming Homo sapiens (our species) but represents a long-separate lineage which evolved in the region for several hundred thousand years and eventually went extinct."

This remarkable discovery has the potential to rewrite the story of human evolution. Analysis suggests that it is more closely related to Homo sapiens than it is to Neanderthals.  Researchers have assigned the specimen to a new species: Homo longi, from the Chinese word "long", meaning dragon. The skull is huge compared with the average skulls belonging to other human species. Its brain was comparable in size to those from our species.

Artist's impression of what Dragon Man may have looked like
Photo: BBC News Website
            The Harbin human cranium is one of the best-preserved of all archaic human fossils, and important for understanding the diversification of the Homo genus and the origin of Homo sapiens. It represents a new human lineage evolving in East Asia and is       a member of the sister group of H. sapiens.

Around 100,000 years ago there were several different groups of humans including modern humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans.


The Neanderthals thrived in Europe for around 300,000 years before modern humans arrived. Excavations in Ibex, Vanguard, and Gorham’s Caves in Gibraltar have revealed evidence of Neanderthal occupation dating to possibly as late as 28,000 years ago. This makes Gibraltar the most recent Neanderthal occupation site yet discovered.

Reconstruction of what Neanderthals may have looked like
            Current research shows that Neanderthals were, and continue to be, an integral part of modern humanity. Our prehistoric cousins did not completely disappear from the earth, as their presence can still be identified within modern DNA. A jawbone from a man who lived 40,000 years ago reveals that six to nine percent of his genome is Neanderthal, the highest amount ever found in a modern human specimen. This remarkable find indicates that a Neanderthal was in his family as close as four generations back in his family tree - potentially his Great-Great Grandfather!


The Denisovans were a mysterious human species living in Asia before modern humans like us expanded across the world tens of thousands of years ago. Until recently, the only fossils came from a few fragments of bone and teeth from a single site in Siberia - Denisova Cave.

Artist's impression of a Denisovan

"In many ways, Denisovans resembled Neanderthals but in some traits, they resembled us and in others they were unique," said Prof Liran Carmel, a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Scientists have found evidence that the Denisovans lived at high altitudes in Tibet, passing on a gene that helps modern people cope at similar elevations Present-day Sherpas, Tibetans and neighbouring populations have a gene variant, which was probably acquired when Homo sapiens mixed with the Denisovans thousands of years ago.

Professor Jean Jacques Hublin, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said:

"We can only speculate that living in this kind of environment, any mutation that was favourable to breathing an atmosphere impoverished in oxygen would be retained by natural selection."

Nesher Ramla Homo Type

Researchers working in Israel have identified a previously unknown type of ancient human that lived alongside our species more than 100,000 years ago. They believe the remains uncovered near the city of Ramla represent one of the "last survivors" of a very ancient human group. The finds consist of a partial skull and jaw from an individual who lived between 140,000 and 120,000 years ago. The scientists have named the newly discovered lineage the "Nesher Ramla Homo type".

Skull fragment and jawbone found near Ramla in Israel
Photo: BBC News Website
            The team thinks that early members of the Nesher Ramla Homo group were already present in the Near East some 400,000 years ago.


Humans and chimpanzees are very closely related and separated about 7.4 million years ago. There is only a 1% difference between the chimpanzee genome and our own suggesting that we have a common ancestor.

A re-evaluation of early human remains and artefacts from Morocco has suggested that the advent of Homo sapiens may have to be put back by 100,000 years. Archaeologists and palaeontologists believe that the oldest of the fossils comes from 300,000 to 350,000 years ago.

Recent discoveries show that humans left Africa many times prior to 60,000 years ago, and that they interbred with other hominins in many locations across Eurasia. Around 50,000 years ago, an improvement in the global climate, leading to the appearance of habitable lands where once there was desert, may have provided the opportunity for modern humans to spread into Europe.

The Harbin skull represents a new human lineage evolving in East Asia and is a member of a sister group of H. sapiens that lived at least 146,000 years ago.

For more information see:

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Irish Farmer Stumbles on ‘Untouched’ Ancient Tomb


Newly Discovered Tomb, Dingle
Photo: National Monuments Service, Ireland
Recently, a farmer conducting routine land improvement work uncovered an “untouched” ancient tomb on the Dingle Peninsula on Ireland’s southwest coast. The County Kerry farmer stumbled on the structure after turning over a rock and spotting a stone-lined passageway underneath it. Human bone fragments and a stone which may have been smoothed by human hands were also uncovered at the site.

Growing up in Ireland in the fifties and sixties, it was not unusual to read local newspaper reports of archaeological discoveries by farmers draining the land or undertaking other work. In those days much of the work was done by hand before JCBs became common place. People like my father received a Government grant to drain a field which often entailed digging up large pieces of bog oak. Many years later he would receive another grant to plant the same field, effectively, putting the wood back again.

The structure appears to consist of one large chamber with a second chamber off it. Archaeologists from the National Monument Services and the National Museum visited the site after being alerted by the farmer. Experts say the grave is in its original state and contains human remains, making it a unique archaeological find. The site’s exact location has not been disclosed to ensure it remains undisturbed.

It is very well built, and a lot of effort has gone into putting the large cap stone over it,” archaeologist Mícheál Ó Coileáin told the Times. “It’s not a stone that was just found in the ground. It seems to have some significance.

Archaeologists from the National Monuments Service and the National Museum visited the site after being alerted by a farmer.
Photo: Courtesy RTE
Archaeologists say the tomb is "untouched" and that some of its unusual features, including a mysterious oval-shaped stone inside, indicate that it could be an early example of an ancient burial.

Bronze Age

The tomb appears to be a "cist" or chamber tomb, consisting of an underground stone-lined structure built to contain one or several burials and capped with a large stone. Typically, such burials date to the Bronze Age, commencing around 2500 B.C. Only the central part of the structure has been unearthed so far, so the exact layout of the structure remains uncertain. However, what has been seen so far appears different from other ancient tombs in the same area.

"Given its location, orientation and the existence of the large slab your initial thought is this is a Bronze Age tomb," Mícheál Ó Coileáin told RTE. "But the design of this particular tomb is not like any of the other Bronze Age burial sites we have here.”

Another possibility is that the structure may be a souterrain (underground chamber) associated with the early Christian period. The presence of several ring forts in the area supports this theory. Souterrains were used for storage or for shelter but further research will be required to establish who built this megalithic structure and when.

The newly discovered tomb seen from the south-west.
Photo: National Monuments Service, Ireland

Ancient Irish tombs

The Dingle Peninsula is home to several wedge tombs dating back to the early Bronze Age. There have been several impressive finds in mid-Kerry and the Tralee area in recent years, indicating much older habitation than previously thought.

Ireland has thousands of ancient monuments and tombs. The most famous is the passage tomb at Newgrange, beside the River Boyne, which is aligned so that the rising midwinter sun shines down its internal passage and illuminates a chamber deep within. Recent research found that one of the Bronze Age people buried inside the Newgrange tomb was the son of parents who were probably brother and sister - a practice not uncommon in ancient royalty.

Newgrange is one of many tombs in the area known as the Brú na Bóinne Neolithic cemetery, which is listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Megalithic tombs are to be found throughout Ireland with concentrations in Co Sligo including Carrowmore and Carrowkeel cemeteries. Some megalithic tombs date from more than 5,000 years ago, making them older than both Stonehenge in England and the oldest pyramids in Egypt.


The Dingle stone structure is believed to be an ancient tomb, possibly dating from the Bronze Age, although this remains to be confirmed. The fact that it appears to be in its original state and contains human remains and a hand-worked stone, makes it a unique archaeological find. Further work will be required to establish the function of the structure, who built it and when.

For further information see:

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Cave Discovery changes Irish History

Reindeer bone fragment from Castlepook Cave, Co Cork, Ireland. 
Source: RF Carden / UCD School of Archaeology

            The discovery of a reindeer bone in a Cork cave shows that there was human activity in Ireland 33,000 years ago, more than 20,000 years earlier than previously thought. The bone fragment, from a hind leg reindeer femur, was found at Castlepook Cave, near Doneraile, in north Cork, over a hundred years ago. The cave was excavated by Naturalist Richard Ussher and a team between 1904-1912. The discovery is set to dramatically alter our understanding of Irish human history.

The story of the discovery was disclosed as part of a documentary entitled The Burren: Heart of Stone by Lahinch based filmmaker, Katrina Costello, broadcast on RTÉ 1 recently. In the TV programme, Dr Ruth Carden, Adjunct Research Fellow with the School of Archaeology, UCD tells how the discovery of the ancient bone fragment left her astounded. Narrated by Brendan Gleeson, the documentary traces the history of the region through prehistoric times exploring rock formations, early farm settlements and ecology.

It was not until the femur fragment was sent for analysis that scientists realised the significance of their discovery. Microscopic examination of the bone fragment revealed a series of tiny chop marks consistent with butchery using flint or stone tools.

 Hunter-Gatherer's Camp at Irish National Heritage Park
Image: Wikipedia


Hunter-gatherers practiced fishing and hunting animals and gathered nuts and berries. They mainly lived in short-term wooden settlements, which they abandoned when local resources were exhausted. Dr Cardin thinks it is likely that the hunter-gatherers would have followed and lived off the migrating reindeer herds to Ireland across wide expanses of lands and water bodies which are now under the sea, in the North-West European region.

In 2008 Dr Carden commenced work on a large research project involving antiquarian collections of animal skeletal remains. The research involved 60,000 bone fragments excavated from at least 11 limestone caves across Ireland in the late 1800s to mid-1900s.

Radiocarbon Dating

Radiocarbon dating of the femur showed it to be 33,000 years old. Up to now the earliest evidence of human activity in Ireland was a butchered bear bone found in a Co Clare cave dated to be 12,500 years old. This fascinating discovery has changed our understanding of human history in Ireland and northwest Europe. Dr Carden said:

Fragment of Bear Bone from Cave
County Clare

“This bone just changed Irish human history. We have humans coming into Ireland 33,000 years ago, which changes everything for Ireland and changes north Western Europe as a whole.”.

DNA Analysis

DNA examination of bones showed the Irish hunter-gatherer people had dark or black skin with blue eyes and were taller than the early farmers who replaced them. A study by researchers at the University of Copenhagen in 2008 showed that people with blue eyes have a single, common ancestor. Between 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, every human being had brown eyes, but a genetic mutation caused this phenomenon to occur.

Around 6,000 years ago the next wave of settler inhabitants arrived, with different skin profiles. Bone fragments found in the Burren caves and megalithic tombs shows a direct link between the hunter-gatherers and the settlers who arrived after.

“The caves are like time capsules of discovery.  In ancient times, caves were spiritual places of ritual and sacrifice. Dr Ruth Carden’s discovery changes Irish human history. It just blows North-Western Europe open in terms of human movement,” Costello said.


The discovery that humans came into Ireland 33,000 years ago, changes how archaeologists think about North Western Europe during the Upper Palaeolithic period. This remarkable discovery is set to re-write Ireland’s settlement history showing that humans were hunting in Ireland much earlier than previously thought.

This is particularly exciting given that experts have only recently started to appreciate the extent of human occupation in Ireland during the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age (8,000 – 4,000 BC) with about twenty important sites identified around Ireland.

For further information see:

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Sligo bids for UNESCO World Heritage Site status


Carrowmore Tombs, County Sligo
(Public Domain)
            Queen Maeve’s cairn stands proudly on top of Knocknarae Mountain overlooking Sligo bay. This iconic monument is part of a Neolithic landscape in County Sligo, which includes Carrowmore, Carrowkeel and Knocknashee. Recently, RTE News reported that a bid is to be made to UNESCO for World Heritage status for this vast Neolithic complex. Experts now say that this connected landscape of passage tombs deserves international recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Sligo Neolithic Landscapes Group has joined forces with Sligo County Council in making the case to government to be nominated for UNESCO designation. The aim is for Sligo’s rich Neolithic heritage to be afforded the same recognition and protection as Skellig Michael and Brú na Bóinne which are already designated as World Heritage Sites.

Dr Robert Hensey, chair of the Sligo Neolithic Landscapes Group says that the monuments, including Queen Maeve's Cairn and the megalithic cemeteries of Carrowmore and Carrowkeel have few counterparts in the world. UNESCO World Heritage Site status would put Sligo on the international stage, according to Dorothy Clarke, Director of Services with Sligo County Council.

More than 6,000 years ago, the Neolithic or Stone Age peoples of Western Europe began to build stone monuments over their dead as tombs and ceremonial places. This was the beginning of what has become known as the megalithic tradition of the Neolithic period.

Listoghil - Tomb 51
Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery

Carrowmore, Co. Sligo, is the largest cemetery of megalithic tombs in Ireland and is also among the country’s oldest, with dates ranging between 4,500 – 3,500 BC. Archaeologists have recorded over sixty tombs of which some thirty are visible today. The oldest tombs at Carrowmore were built more than 2,000 years before the pyramids of Egypt. Carrowmore megalithic cemetery covers an area of about one square kilometre.  Most of the tombs have been arranged in an oval-shaped layout and the entrances tend to face the central part of the cemetery.

Archaeologists believe that the earliest monuments were built by people who were mainly hunter-gatherers but were turning to cattle breeding. The rich marine resources in this area made it possible for people to settle down on the peninsula and develop a relatively stable settlement pattern as hunter-gatherers, probably as early as 8,000 – 9,000 years ago (7,000 – 6,000 BC). Fishing, hunting for seal and other mammals, and the gathering of shellfish contributed to the development of a social structure normally found among farmers.

Listoghil Tomb
Inner Chamber

Carrowkeel Neolithic passage tomb cemetery is situated in south County Sligo, near the village of Castlebaldwin. A total of 14 tombs have been recorded in this cemetery. The tombs are between 5400 and 5100 years old (3400 to 3100 BC). Six more passage tombs are located close by in what archaeologists call the Keshcorran complex.

Carrowkeel Megalithic Cemetery
            The mountain range containing Carrowkeel Cemetery is called the Bricklieve Mountains, which means the speckled mountains in Irish. This may refer to their appearance when more quartz rock survived on the outside of the cairns, causing them to sparkle in the sun. The Carrowkeel cairns are built on hilltops at altitudes between 240 and 360 meters.

A common feature of Irish cairns is that the passage of one monument is frequently oriented to another prominent cairn, as well as the rising or setting position of the sun and moon. This occurs at several of the Carrowkeel cairns. For example, Cairn B opens towards Knocknarea and ruined Cairn M is oriented to Kesh Cairn.

Carrowkeel - Cairn G

The Hut Sites

Nearby, at Mullaghfarna, archaeologists have identified more than 150 small stone lined hollows with entrance features which are believed to be Neolithic huts or enclosures. This prehistoric village is likely to have been connected to the Carrowkeel cairns and may have housed the workers who built the passage tombs, or perhaps their descendants, who attended some ancient ritual there.


Knocknashee Mountain showing two cairns
Bing Image
            Knocknashee Mountain is in south west Sligo. It is surrounded by ringforts, mounds, and megalithic chambers. Two large Neolithic cairns, measuring about 20 meters in diameter and 2.5 meters high, are situated within a huge enclosure on top of the mountain. Some thirty circular structures believed to be the foundations of huts have also been identified close to the two cairns. These structures range in diameter from seven to ten meters and several have features thought to resemble to doorways.

Archaeologists do not know what ritual function, in addition to acting as burial places for the dead, the passage tombs served for these cultures. A reverence for the sun is suggested by the alignment of many of the passages to the rising or setting of the sun on yearly solstice or equinox events.

It is known that the Megalithic tradition died out about 5,000 years ago when it was at its peak. Well known monuments such as Stonehenge, Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, were all built around this time.


County Sligo has a rich Neolithic heritage stretching from Lough Gara with its crannogs in the south to Creevykeel Court Tomb in the north. World Heritage Site status for the Knocknarea, Carrowmore, Carrowkeel and Knocknashee complex of monuments would bring significant benefits to the County, especially from a tourism perspective. It would also in help to preserve and protect this unique Neolithic landscape for future generations.

For further information see:

Sunday, January 31, 2021

St Brigid (450-525 AD) – Feast Day: 1st February 2021

Saint Brigid's Cross
Traditionally made from rushes

               Today, 1st February, we celebrate the feast day of St Brigid of Ireland. Originally, this was a pagan festival called Imbolc which marked the beginning of spring.

Who was St Brigid?

St Brigid is one of the Patron Saints of Ireland, together with St Patrick and St Colmcille. She was born in Faughart, north of Dundalk, Co Louth in Ireland, approximately 450 AD and was the founder of the first monastery in County Kildare. Her father was a pagan chieftain of Leinster named Dubthach and her mother was a Christian slave named Brocca.

Dubthach’s wife insisted that he get rid of the slave girl. He sold Brigid’s mother to a poet but not the child in her womb for whom he was responsible. Later, the poet sold Brigid’s mother to a druid. As Brigid was filled with the Holy Spirit, she could not digest the druid’s ‘unclean’ food and

‘thereupon he chose a white cow and set it aside for the girl, and a certain Christian woman, a very God-fearing virgin, used to milk the cow and the girl used to drink the cow’s milk and not vomit it up as her stomach had been healed. Moreover, this Christian woman fostered the girl’.

When she was young, St Brigid wanted to join a convent. However, her father insisted that she marry a rich man to whom he had promised her hand. According to legend, Brigid prayed that her beauty be taken so no one would want to marry her and her prayer was granted. It was not until after she made her final vows that her beauty was restored. 

Brigid enlisted God’s help again to convince her father to give her land on which to build a convent. Her father agreed to give her as much land as her cloak could cover. It is said that the cloak grew to cover 2,000 acres of land! One of five ancient roads in Ireland that lead to Tara passed through Kildare.

Saint Brigid's Cathedral
Kildare, Ireland

According to tradition, around 480 AD Brigid founded a monastery at Kildare (Cill Dara: “church of the oak”), on the site of a pagan shrine to the Celtic goddess Brigit. Her monastery developed a reputation for hospitality, compassion and generosity. It was known as the ‘City of the Poor’. St Brigid worked with the sick, poor, and outcast.

As monastic communities grew, they attracted a resident local community. The monasteries provided for the spiritual needs of local families and taught the children. The monastery and the village grew together. The monks undertook tasks such as the creating and copying of literature and highly specialised metalware.

St Brigid’s Rush Cross

On one occasion, St Brigid was sitting by the sick bed of a dying pagan chieftain comforting him with stories of her faith in God. She told him the story of Christ on the cross while at the same time picking up rushes from the ground to make a cross. Before he died, the chieftain asked to be baptised. People made similar crosses to hang over the door of their homes to scare off evil, fire and hunger. Word spread of St Brigid’s kindness and faith and the making of the cross from rushes that we know today became associated with her name.

Saint Brigid as depicted in
Saint Non's Chapel,
St Davids, Wales

It was said that St Brigid could miraculously milk her cows three times a day to provide a meal for visitors. According to the Celtic tradition, the guest was seen as Christ and hospitality was extended in that spirit.

Brigid later founded a school of art that included metalwork and illumination. It was at this school that the Book of Kildare, which Gerald of Wales praised as "the work of angelic, and not human skill," was beautifully illuminated. Sadly, this book was lost three centuries ago.

We can also see the merging of pagan and Christian art as Christianity gradually replaced paganism. For example, two of the grave slabs at Carrowntemple, Co. Sligo, bear art of the Early Christian period that is derived from the Celtic art of the preceding Pagan Iron Age. One of these is remarkably close to a design in the Book of Durrow and is datable to c. 650 AD.

The Celts worshipped hundreds of gods and goddesses. In some respects, the nature of the Celtic religion helped in the development of Christianity. Their belief in the indestructibility of the souls of the dead helped in understanding the resurrection of Christ. The Celts also had their own sacrifices and ritual meals which, in a sense, mirrored aspects of Christian message.

Brigid’s enduring legacy

St Brigid still lives on 1,500 years later in the minds and hearts of the people of Ireland. Her monastery grew and grew and people from all over Ireland came here, many of whom joined the monastery. St Patrick and St Brigid paved the way for Christianity in Ireland and later to Europe.

Hundreds of holy wells are dedicated to St Brigid in Ireland. Early Irish texts suggest that holy wells may have remained associated with non-Christian rituals and were even protected by the old religion. For example, it is believed that wells were used instead of baptisteries in Ireland, which may explain the large number of holy wells throughout the country.

More places names in Ireland are named after St Brigid than St Patrick himself. St Brigid is associated with fertility on the land. Straw doll-like effigies of St Brigid known as Breedeag were used to bless homes.

St Brigid’s relevance today.

St Brigid appreciated the importance of the land, nature and the seasons. At a time when our planet is threatened by global warming and climate change, Brigid reminds us of the need to confront these challenges now. Today, we can learn from her example of compassion, kindness, generosity, and hospitality, as the World deals with the consequences of poverty, war, population displacement and the current Covid-19 pandemic.

On February 1st, 525, St Brigid died of natural causes. Her body was initially kept to the right of the high altar of Kildare Cathedral. In 1185, John de Courcy had her remains relocated in Down Cathedral. Today, Saint Brigid's skull can be found in the Church of St. John the Baptist in Lumiar, Portugal. The tomb in which it is kept bears the inscription,

"Here in these three tombs lie the three Irish knights who brought the head of St. Brigid, Virgin, a native of Ireland, whose relic is preserved in this chapel. In memory of which, the officials of the Altar of the same Saint caused this to be done in January AD 1283."

In 1905 Sister Mary Agnes of the Dundalk Convent of Mercy took a purported fragment of the skull to St Bridget's Church in Kilcurry. In 1928, Fathers Timothy Traynor and James McCarroll requested another fragment for St Brigid's Church in Killester, a request granted by the Bishop of Lisbon, António Mendes Belo.

For further information please see:

Sacred Heart Messenger, February 2019 – article by John Scally

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Ballaghaderreen to Kilfree Branch Line – A Brief History


Ballaghaderreen Railway Station

            Many excellent photographs of the now closed Ballaghaderreen to Kilfree Junction branch line have appeared on Facebook recently. I grew up close to Edmondstown Station and have happy memories of travelling on the line.

On Saturday, 6th December 1862 the prospectus of the Sligo and Ballaghaderreen Junction Railway (S&BJR) was published. The following year plans for the proposed branch line were presented to the Parliament at Westminster. The bill became law when Queen Victoria affixed her signature to the relevant documents on the 13th July 1863.

The Sligo & Ballaghaderreen Junction Railway was authorised to build a branch line connecting Ballaghaderreen to the newly opened extension of the Midland Great Western Railway (MGWR) from Longford to Sligo. On 31st October 1874, an advertisement was issued by the MGWR announcing the opening of the branch line on 2nd November.

Opened in 1974

The new railway line opened as planned in 1874, just five years before the apparition at Knock, Co Mayo, in 1879 and was operated by the Midland and Great Western Railway. It cost £80,000 to build. The first train from Kilfree to Ballaghaderreen was driven by Ben Partridge, an English man from Kent, who married and settled down in the town.

However, after trading at a loss for two years, the S&BJR sold its interest in the line to the Midland Great Western Railway for £24,000 in 1877. The Sligo and Ballaghaderreen Junction Railway lost its identity and was absorbed into the Midland system.


The distance from Ballaghaderreen to Kilfree Junction was nine miles. The speed restriction was 25mph and half an hour was the time allowed. There were two intermediate halts on the branch line - Edmondstown and Island Road. Excellent views of Lough Gara were visible between Island Road and Kilfree Junction.


Dublin - Ballaghaderreen Railway Timetable

            The basic passenger service was three or four round trips per day apart from the “Emergency” when the service was reduced to one round trip. Between 1947 and the line’s closure in 1963, the service decreased to two round trips in the morning and early afternoon. Most services were mixed passenger and freight.

Ballaghaderreen Station

The stone-built station building at Ballaghaderreen still exists but is in a very derelict state. Part of the platform also survives. The goods shed, used by the GAA, remains complete with its typical long cattle bank platform.

Edmondstown Station

Edmondstown Station c1960

Opening in November 1874, Edmondstown Station had a single storey station building, complete with an attached waiting room. The station only had one platform and an adjacent level crossing.

 Island Road Station

Island Road Station

            Island Road railway station opened on 1 July 1909 and consisted of a station masters' house and small waiting room. The station was situated next to the gated level crossing on Island Road in the townland of Tawnymucklagh, and about 1/2 mile from the village of Monasteraden. The station is now in use as a private residence, with the waiting room, station house and platform largely intact.

Kilfree Junction

Kilfree Junction

            Kilfree Junction was located on the Sligo line in the townland of Cloontycarn between Boyle and Ballymote. The station was not located near any significant settlement, the nearest, Gorteen in County Sligo, being over 6km away. The station had three platforms: two served a passing loop on the main line and the third was used by the branch line. The station had sidings and turntable for turning round engines coming from the branch line. There was a signal box and a house for the station master.


            During the Irish War of Independence (1919 – 1921) trains were regularly stopped on the branch line by the IRA, British soldiers, and the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). In May 1921, a train was hi-jacked and used to shoot at the RIC Barracks in Ballaghaderreen


The blizzard of 1947 was one of the most memorable episodes of the history of the Branch Line. The Railway system north and west of the Longford was snowbound. Ballaghaderreen town and district was isolated, with snow piled up to ten feet high on the roads. After several days and the threat of a food shortage, a snow clearance committee was organised. A group of 150 men boarded the train at Ballaghaderreen and working in relays proceeded to clear the snow from the line.

Post War

After the Second World War, better main roads, and an increase in road transport for transporting goods led to financial problems for the Railway system. Eventually, the Railway Company was obliged to reduce spending and resorted to a reduction of its service on uneconomic routes. The tragic news of the looming closure of the Ballaghaderreen to Kilfree line was delivered to the people of Ballaghaderreen. Organised protest against the closure was unsuccessful and the line finally closed on 2nd February 1963.

Closed in 1963

Train about to depart Ballaghaderreen Station for Kilfree Junction

            The last return passenger trip departed Ballaghaderreen at 11:50 on 2nd February and was hauled by 0-6-0 steam locomotive 574. I joined the 160 children and 30 adults who made the journey marking the sad end of an era. The train was seen off by as many spectators. The return journey from Kilfree Junction started with the bang of detonators and a local band played a farewell tribute. The last train was a special cattle train hauled by Locomotive B133 leaving Ballaghaderreen at 15:22.