Saturday 6 February 2021

The City

Yesterday I came across an interesting paper by Frédéric Armao: "Cathair Crobh Dearg: From Ancient Beliefs to the Rounds 2017". It is an ethnographic study of the stone enclosure of Cathair Crobh Dearg, Co. Kerry (also referred to as the City). You can find it on Google maps here.

A 12th century source claims that "The city" was "the mansion of Credhe, fairy lover of Cael (a Fenian hero) and daughter of the king of Kerry", which was situated "against the mountain’s breast in the northeast"...

The mountains being explicitly referred to as the Paps of Anu. And Cathair Crobh Dearg indeed lies on the northeast of the Paps and is the only remarkable structure of its kind there...

Later tradition ascribes the building of the Cathair Crobh Dearg to the Saint Crobh Dearg(h) 🙂 face Who apparently had two sisters, Saint Latiaran and Saint Gobnait. This triad of Saints was a Christian equivalent of the original triad of goddesses Ana/Macha/Badb.

All three sisters had a holly well associated with them: 

Saint Gobnait, holy well in Ballyvourney, visited for Imbolc (Feb)

Saint Crobh Dearg, holly well in "Cathair Crobh Dearg, visited at Bealtaine (May) 

Saint Latiaran, holy well in Cullen, visited for Lughnasa (Aug)

The only Irish cross quarter day which was not holy to the Three Saintly Sisters was Samhain, the day of the dead (Nov)...I talked about the Irish cross quarter days in my post "Two crosses"

Bealtaine, 1st of May, mid Taurus, marked the start of the active, white part of the year, which lasted until Samhain (1st of Nov). Cattle was taken into the highland pastures after Bealtaine and was taken down from the highland pastures by Samhain ...

Which is why Bealtaine was the time when many rituals related to cattle protection and health were performed. The main being lighting two huge fires and driving the cattle between them. And another being driving cattle to holy wells where they were given holy water to drink...

Interestingly, all three wells associated with the Three Holy Sisters, had the reputation to heal cattle. Particularly the well at Cathair Crobh Dearg (The City) has been linked with the protection and/or purification of cattle for centuries. Maybe millenniums...

Cattle was driven, until the early 20th century, inside the enclosure of The City so they could drink the water of the well on Bealtaine morning. Sometimes the cattle were left in the enclosure during the night before Bealtaine...

It was believed that "The City could hold an almost infinite number of cows at Bealtaine: no matter how numerous the farmers and cattle would be, it was impossible to fill the enclosure of Cathair Crobh Dearg"...🙂

The spiritual and traditional significance of The City cannot be fully understood without knowing that from this enclosure you have an unobstructed view of two mountains (often qualified as holy by researchers and informants alike), Dá Chích Anann or the Paps of Anu.

The two twin mountains have been associated with the goddess (D)Ana/(D)Anu/(D)Anann both in folklore and mythology. 

Each of the Paps is topped with a large cairn, clearly visible from The City. This just emphasises the distinctive breast shape of the two twin mounds.

According to Frank Coyne, who performed detailed study of the area, "among many Neolithic and Bronze age structures found on the Paps, the most...distinctive are...the summit cairns...which are believed to be the earliest monuments to have been constructed on or around the peaks"

Coyne says that it is obvious that "...the builders wanted to shape and enhance the form of the mountains. The cairns, which...have a complex construction which must have taken a considerable amount of planning, evidently bear the shape of nipples..."

Excavation of the western cairn in 2001 failed to prove the presence of a burial under the cairn. This makes it clear that the cairns were built to anthropomorphise the landscape, and strengthens the sacred symbolism of the breasts...

Who was this Anu whose boobs Bronze Age Irish liked to stare at from the "The City"? She was one of the Three Goddesses Ana/Macha/Badb collectively known as the three Morrígna...

The 12th c. Lebor Gabála Érenn, says that : "...It is from the additional name of Morrigu, 'Danann' the Paps of Ana in Luachair are called, as well as the Tuatha De Danann..." Three goddesses, Three faces, Three names, Three phases of the same goddess, Dana...

D(Ana) was the goddess of fertility, basically Fertile Mother Eearth. The name Dana comes from the Irish "dán" meaning gift, which in turn comes from PIE "da" which means "to give" making her "the Giving One, the Giving Mother, Mother Earth"...

Munster, where according to the medieval sources "she is adored", owes its fertility to the "Mother-goddess of Ireland". The 10th century Cormac’s Glossary states: "Ana, the "mater deorum hibernensium" (the holy mother of Ireland)" and associates her with the Paps of Anu...

So if the "nipple cairns" date to Neolithic or Bronze Age, how old is The City? Coyne says: "placing of the cairns was deliberate as neither sits directly on top of the mountain but...slightly to the north, making them more clearly visible from the direction of The City”...

Which would then mean that something, some observation platform, point, must have existed in the place where The City stands now, at the time when the nipple cairns were built. Observation point from which the Paps of Anu could have been seen in all their glory 🙂

Coyne however ways that The City is "not dissimilar in size to the phase 2 enclosure at Uisneach" which dates to the Iron Age. And because both enclosures were the focus of the Bealtine celebrations, it would seam that The City is also an Iron Age construction...

That is possible. But, I would still argue that there is reason to believe that something existed on the site of the City at the time when the two "nipple cairns" were built on the Paps of Anu. Something later covered by the Iron Age enclosure. Here is why I think so:

Two large rocks (or “megaliths”) are located at the centre of The City enclosure. The stones are mentioned in the 1841 Ordnance Survey maps, which indicate that the “Cromlech” was occasionally referred to as a “memorial stone”.

Charcoal was discovered during the excavation and dated to 60BC-420AD. This demonstrates past activity on the site...And from this stone we have clear view of the boobs of the Mother Earth. But we have the same from any other stone lying around the Paps of Anu...

But there is a reason, I think, to suspect that it was from these stones, that the builders of the nipple cairns marvelled at their creation. And that The City was specifically built around this outcrop, to be "aligned" to the view of the Holy Cleavage.

At the northeast end of the City, inside the enclosure, a modern statue of the Virgin Mary was erected, according to the local records, in the 1930's. At her feet are half a dozen flat stones with Celtic crosses. How old they are is hard to tell.

Some ethnographic records state that an earlier altar of "Our Lady of the Wayside" stood there before and was built in the 13th or even 10th century...

Frédéric Armao, says that "the claim seems highly doubtful...and...indicates a wish on the part of the informants to inscribe this Christian tradition in the distant past of the island..." I would like to disagree with him on this.

I think that these stories are probably true, and that they describe early attempts at Christianisation of the site. Originally pagan sanctuary, dedicated to the Goddess (D)Ana, was turned into a Christian sanctuary dedicated to the Holy Mary. Mother Earth became Holy Mary.

The Christianisation of the site occurred gradually and peacefully, as often in an Irish context. 

Many priests preached sermons at the City in May as late as the 1920s. A very interesting statement was recorded in 1925, made by a certain Father William Ferris:

This doesn't mean that the Bealtaine gatherings at The City stopped in 1920's. During his ethnographic survey in 2017, Frédéric Armao noted that:

So local people, including the local clergy, preserved the memory of the original use of the site as the temple of the goddess (D)Anu. I believe that this original use of the City, was physically preserved in the positioning of the statue of the Holy Mary.

If the site was dedicated to the Holy Mary, why was the statue of "Our Lady of the Wayside" erected at the Wayside of The City enclosure and not at its centre? And why was it positioned right there where it is standing today?

I believe that the statue was erected on top of (or in place of) the old altar stone, which was aligned with the central stone, to point exactly at The Cleavage, the gap between the two Paps of Anu. 

Have a look at this:

1. The view of The City with the statue of the Holy Mary and the Central stone marked and connected with the arrow pointing to the Paps of Anu.

2. The view of The City with the statue of the Holy Mary and the Central stone marked and connected with the arrow pointing to the Paps of Anu. The arrow overlaps (for a short while) with the country lane which goes in the direction of the Paps of Anu.

3. The view of The City with the statue of the Holy Mary and the Central stone marked and connected with the arrow pointing to the Paps of Anu. Also marked are two observation points, one in front of the country lane and one behind the Holy Mary statue.

4. The view of the Paps of Anu from the front observation point at the beginning of the country lane.

5. The view of the Paps of Anu from the back observation point behind the Holy Mary statue.

6. The view of The City with the arrow pointing to the Paps of Anu

Interesting right?

My observation is based on map analysis and might not 100% precise. It would be cool if someone could actually perform the observation inside The City to confirm this...But it seems that Holy Mary is standing inside her City looking at her (perkier) younger self 🙂 (D)Anu...

The end: What are you looking at? 

Apart from Holy Mary, the only other current resident of The City. Pic by John Foley. All the other pictures are from the original article by Frédéric Armao...Apart from the maps and views related to the alignment of the Holy Mary statue...


  1. Wow, such a place! I thought of how Mother Earth's/Mary's teats nutrified the cattle symbolically just as the cows nutrified the people with their teats, very sacred duality.
    You wrote of ancient soccer/hockey games played between villages, I wonder if these cairns could have represented field goal posts physically or metaphorically?

  2. The "Magen David" is related to your 9th age sketch

    In Poland, the triangle pointing upwards is still in use to indicate the male toilet