Situated in county Meath in the east of Ireland, is a magical place known as the Hill of Tara. When the Celts reigned and clans were constantly at war with each-other, this place was the sacred inauguration site for kings. Its history spans thousands of years and it was said if you controlled Tara, you controlled Ireland.
Tara was also strategically beautiful, as you could see one quarter of Ireland atop it, including all of the ancient east and important druidic sites like Loughcrew and Tlachtga.
The oldest part of Tara is a passage tomb known as the Mound of Hostages. It was built somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 BC and contains three small separate rooms that housed cremated remains. Just inside the entrance, there is a large stone carved with spirals. The most popular theory is that these engravings represent the sun, moon and stars, or were some form of calendar. The Celts had a series of holy days that we still celebrate today. The sunrise on the morning of the sacred Celtic day Samhain, which is the precursor to Halloween, illuminates the entrance of this resting place, paying tribute to the dead inside.
The Lia Fáil, which means stone of destiny, is another important relic at Tara. It is said when a future king touched the stone it would roar in approval. It was used as the coronation spot until 500 AD.
Tara has undoubtedly secured her spot in history and her fate is deeply intertwined with another Irish symbol: The Clover.
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Once a year on March 17th much of the world gets dressed in green and celebrates the life of St. Patrick of Ireland. Clovers, which are a type of trifoliate plant known as a Shamrock, adorn everything from cupcakes, to t-shirts, to pint glasses. While many use this day to get black-out drunk, there is more to this story than just Guinness and sleazy men in ‘Kiss Me I’m Irish” garb.
So how did the Shamrock become Irelands most famous unofficial symbol? That’s a tale that takes us all the way back to the time of the Druids.
Before I begin this history lesson, I would be remiss not to clear up the confusion between the shamrock which is a three leafed clover and is the most well known symbol of Ireland, and the four leaf clover which is a symbol of luck in (mostly) America. The latter also appears in Victorian Ephemera, so it is hard to say where it began exactly, but that hasn’t stopped a few American presidents from embarrassing themselves by confusing the two symbols.
The luck associated with the four-leafed clover comes from the rarity of finding one. Each leaf is said to represent something different, as outlined by this saying: The first leaf for faith. The second leaf for hope. The third leaf for love and the fourth leaf for luck.
Across Irelands lush green hills two types of clover dominate not only the ground, but also the minds of the Irish people. A survey conducted by an amateur botanist named Nathaniel Colgan in 1892 asked the citizens of eleven different counties to collect examples of what they considered to be the true shamrock. The two most picked types were Trifolium minus which is Yellow Clover, and Trifolium Repens which is a white clover. One can safely assume, when the study was repeated 100 years later with nearly identical results, that these were also the same clovers that held significant meaning to the druids.
Now, as much as I would love to give you a full run down of the Celtic and druidic history in Europe, we would be here for ages. I will however, provide you with enough backstory so you get a good understanding of how this group of people ended up in Ireland.
The story of the Celtic peoples begins in the mountains of Bohemia. Here, inside a cave, the skeletons of a king and all his wives were laid to rest. It is most well known example of human sacrifice by the early people known as the Keltoi. The female skeletons show signs of trauma and this heavily implies they did not die of natural causes. Horse skeletons are also littered around the chamber, and this animal would go on to be the most sacred of all the various Celtic groups in Europe.
As Europe moved into the bronze age, and the Russian steppes grew more and more dry, people moved further west. The Celts of this region (now Austria) were known as the Hallstat people. They are the earliest version of what we imagine when we think of the Celts.
Little by little, more groups of people headed westward and some began to occupy a little green island, that they would come to call Éire (Ireland).
The Gauls are the most important of the Celtic settlers in Ireland. They mixed with the indigenous Irish people and brought with them their religious beliefs which was spearheaded by the Druids. Their language, called Gaelic quickly took hold and it is still the national language of Ireland. From this point on in the episode, I will be referring to these people as either the Gaelic people, or Celtic people.
By this time, roughly around the 5th century AD, the romans had conquered western Europe and had established settlements in what is now Britain, wiping out the religions of the old and converting the people to Christianity. Oddly enough, they never invaded Ireland. The main reason the Romans didn’t venture to the island is it had no tactical advantage for them, and it was more beneficial to be “cautious” allies. The Romans did establish trade partnerships with the people of Ireland. Small sea routes were used and camps were built along the coast. Some of these structures survive today in the province of Leinster, and artifacts of course, have been found in Tara.
Because the Romans didn’t invade outright, the druidic religion was able to thrive longer in Ireland than anywhere else. Unfortunately for us, their traditions and beliefs were mostly shared orally, so we can never know as much about them as we’d like. What we do know, are written accounts by the romans, the most credible of these is by Ceasar, though it’s important to note that the motives and rhetoric of the Romans will be biased, even in praise.
Cesar spoke of the Druids as intellectual equals. He wrote 7 books about them and many pages focused on the beliefs and customs of these men and women. They were described as the religious leaders, the judges in disputes, and the scholars who had vast knowledge of the plants and cosmos. They studied for 19 years before they were considered full Druids and had to learn all about alchemy, medicine, law, and war.
I would like to take this opportunity to mention that despite popular belief, women were also druids. Men, especially those who belong to Abrahamic religions, have discounted and discredited the roles of women in ancient societies throughout the world, and that is no different with the Celts of Ireland.
The druids believed that all plants and animals contained a spirit. Clover, which was abundant in Ireland would have been one of the most important to the Druids. Not only were they lush and hardy, which represented fertility, they are a Trefoil (a three leafed plant) and three was their most sacred number.
Little did they know, this plant would also become symbolic of their conversion to Christianity, all thanks to a man named Patrick.
Funnily enough Ireland’s most famous and beloved figure, wasn’t actually Irish at all. He was a well to do roman boy, who was kidnapped by Gaelic pirates at the age of 16 and sold into slavery in Ireland in the year 403AD.
Ireland was an ever changing land. It was littered with different kingdoms and territories who were always at war with each other, and young Patrick must’ve known deep down that he would be forced to work as a shepherd until his early death. It was a horrific fate, one he wouldn’t be able to escape unless gifted a miracle.
Now of course we know Patrick did get his miracle, and he eventually escaped, but it was during these six years of slavery that he rebuilt his relationship with God, and became a devout Catholic.
According to Patrick’s memoir, called Confessio, he spent his days leading his masters flock around the rugged hills of clover, somewhere in the North of the island. It was here he learned the customs, practices and language of the Gaelic people. At the time it was about survival, but it was also foreshadowing what would become etched in history.
Day after day, Patrick prayed and repented for his past sins, hoping for a change in his luck. The only thing keeping him going was his faith in god. His strength of character must’ve been quite incredible and something to admire, even if you don’t agree with the tenet of the Catholic church.
The morning Patrick made his daring escape began like all the others. He was tending to the sheep when suddenly a great voice called out to him from heaven, and told him that a ship would be waiting for him at a distant port. This vessel would bring him back to Britain and what was now the crumbling Roman empire.
Now, Patrick had a fair understanding of his surroundings, but he definitely wouldn’t have known specific routes to take to get to this port. Escaped slaves were killed on sight, so this was a huge risk he was taking. He credits his safety during this terrifying journey to the voice he referred to as an angel, who guided him along roads and through woods, always evading capture.
When he finally arrived, the boat was in fact there, and he convinced the captain to bring him along even though he had nothing to offer them. I am sure an escaped slave would’ve fetched quite a finders fee, so it is a testament to how persuasive this young man really was.
I can’t even begin to imagine how Patrick must’ve felt when he reached the shores of his homeland. His joy would’ve been short lived though as he nearly starved to death during his journey back, but ultimately after weeks of struggle, he made it home, and his faith never wavered.
I suspect when his family saw him again, they would’ve been beside themselves. When you were taken as a slave, you never ever came back. It would’ve been like gazing upon a ghost. His parents begged him to never leave their home again, but Patrick knew he was destined for bigger things, and sometime after 432 AD, he asked to be sent on a mission back to the land of which he had escaped. He wrote in his later years that he heard the collective voice of the Gaelic people in a vision, asking to be saved by Christianity.
Patrick wasn’t the first missionary to be sent to the wild isle, but he was the only successful one. About 100 years earlier, a priest named Piladeus failed to spread the gospel in the area. He clearly didn’t have Patricks language skills or knowledge of the Gaelic ways on his side.
Little by little, Patrick worked his way through Ireland, spreading the word of the church and combining those teachings with the beliefs of the druids. He was friendly, and willing to listen to their concerns, which won over the Irish people quickly. Here was this roman man, who spoke their language and knew how to manipulate their customs to fit his message, I imagine it was quite a sight to behold.
Eventually, Patrick made his way to a place called Slane, which was in view of the mystical and powerful Hill of Tara.
The ruler of Tara at that time was a man called Lóegaire, and he was the son of Niall of the Nine Hostages, who is another powerful figure who I hope to discuss one day. Lóegaire was a great king who was steadfast in his Celtic beliefs. There are different versions of this legend, so I will share with you the one I like best.
Modern day witches celebrate a festival known as Beltane, which has its roots in Celtic tradition. This day signifies the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Druids would light great bonfires in honour of the god Bel and ask him to bring the longer, warmer days. It is actually this sacred day that would be adopted by the romans and be turned into the Easter fire that supposedly honours Jesus’s spirit.
Now, tradition and order was very important to the druids, and lighting a fire before them was a crime punishable by death. So naturally, Patrick decided to build a great fire that would be seen for miles, which included Tara. King Lóegaire was outraged and sent messengers to tell Patrick to extinguish the flames or face death. Little did he know that this was exactly what the holy man had wanted, and as the messengers arrived, he swiftly converted them to Christianity.
Well, after this happened a few times, the king was rightfully fed up, and went to confront Patrick himself. This is when the most famous of all the Irish legends takes place.
Patrick, with nothing but his words and a small green shamrock, convinced the king to spare his life. He pointed to the the three leaves of the sacred plant and used it as an analogy for the holy trinity: aka the father, the son and the holy spirit.
King Lóegaire was so impressed and moved by Patrick’s devotion for his god and his outright courage, that he not only pardoned him of his crimes, but allowed him to freely spread his gospel. While this powerful king never converted himself, it is said his wife did so happily.
Today, when you first enter the Hill of Tara, you are greeted by a statue of the saint along with a small chapel in his name, after all, whomever rules Tara, rules Ireland. And as you’ll come to learn in a few short moments, the Irish are steadfast in their devotion to their Catholic identity, never wavering even through invasion by the Protestant English and their British empire.
A lot of people incorrectly assume that Ireland is part of Britain, but it’s actually only a small portion of the country called Northern Ireland, that is still part of the British Isles. The rest of the island is an independent nation called The Republic of Ireland. I could probably speak for hours about the history of how this came to be, but I will try to keep it succinct and brief. Though if you’re interested I will include a booklist with the show notes.
In the late 12th century, the British successfully invaded Ireland, but of course they weren’t the first people to do so. The normans had invaded earlier and quickly mixed with the now catholic population. A population who had retained some of their Celtic beliefs and merged this with Catholicism to make a hybrid system that is completely and uniquely Irish.
Anyway, so Britain invaded and held power until 1949 when Ireland successfully won its country back (except for Northern Ireland). Throughout these 800 years, the Irish fought hard for their independence and their catholic identity, against the protestant English. Millions of people died but they never gave up in the fight against their oppressors.
And in the late 1700s one little plant, would yet again shake the emerald isle to its core.
The Society of United Irishmen, was a small republican rebel group that was formed in 1791 by three men named Theobald Wolfe Tone, James Napper Tandy, and Thomas Russell. They were dedicated to achieving emancipation for the catholic Irish people, and were supported by some protestant sects. Wolfe Tone himself was protestant, and was openly sympathetic to the cause even before forming the group.
During this time, catholics were brutalized by their protestant rulers. Any sort of dissent from the crown was punishable by death, yet the people still resisted. Men and women would pin Shamrocks to their collars in support of Irish identity. This practice was known as ‘wearing the green’ and if caught they would be severely beaten or killed.
The group grew rapidly, and by 1798 were ready to take their operation to the next level. Inspired by the French Revolution (and actually supported by the French who were themselves at war with literally everyone in western Europe) the Society of United Irishmen prepared for their own rebellion.
Like the great leaders before them, these rebel soldiers gathered at the Hill of Tara, and declared war.
He who controls Tara, controls Ireland.
Unfortunately, the group was met by the great British Army, and their French allies never showed, so they were slaughtered in the thousands. Some of their bodies still rest in a mass grave at Tara, and the stone of kings, the one I mentioned earlier, the Lia Fáil was moved to mark this spot in honour of them.
Now, even though this battle ended the United Irishmen sect in county Meath, new republican groups were ready to take their place, inspired by their comrades. And 150 years later when Ireland won (most of) it’s independence, I am sure the souls of the men who lay forever in Tara, were finally able to rest.
Of course the afterlife sees it’s fair share of clovers. When it comes to headstone symbolism, Shamrocks represent the Irish ancestry of families who immigrated to Canada, the USA, Australia and so on. It’s not just used for Catholic Irish from the Republic or the North either. Protestant Irish are also very proud of the small island from which they hail, and happily decorate their markers with the sacred plant.
In southeastern Ontario in the township of Elizabethtown, rests one of these protestant Irish families in the Pepper Family Plot. I actually stumbled across this cemetery while researching ones to visit as a day trip. Imagine my excitement when I took a look at this little family burial site of 8 graves, and discovered the lichgates are adorned with two shamrocks.
Information about the Peppers is scarce, so I have reached out to the local historical society and when I find out more, I will do a little update on my Patreon. However, there is something VERY special about one of the graves there. One of the Pepper girls, Lucy Annie married a man named John W. Lucas, and his headstone is the only one in Canada (as far as I can tell) adorned with the communist rallying cry: Workers of the World Unite.
I like to believe, because of this, that the Pepper/Lucas clan, would’ve been ardent supporters of the United Society of Irishmen. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get a good update from the museum.
So next time you get this card in a reading, you’ll know you have been given a blessing from that little green island, that has the courage and heart the size of the entire world.
This has been the Memento Mori Oracle Podcast. I’ll see you next Sunday for the wheel episode, more specifically, the ship wheel. A symbol of travel and exploration and lots and lots of ghosts.
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