The girl next door

Donegal Democrat

I grew up next to a Goddess. No, this isn’t going to be an article about awkward teenage years, about the second longest walk in the world, across the floor to ask her for a slow dance at the disco, and the longest walk of all, back again if she said no.

That’s another story, for another time.

But I really did grow up next door to a fully fledged pagan Goddess. Like all locals everywhere in the world though, I didn’t realise what was under (or above) my nose until I went away and returned as a tourist to my own home.

Sliabh Liag: Image by permission of Elaine Edwards
Sliabh Liag: Image by permission of Elaine Edwards

When I went away, I did my best to stay in touch with what I’d left behind. I’d devour books or articles about home, anything from history and politics to language and myth.

The myths led me down their own paths. What we know about the old pre-Christian religions of Ireland, we know because the Christian monls wrote down. That in itself is a remarkable tribute to their tolerance, that they recorded unorthodox beliefs, but unfortunately they didn’t record everything.

Gods over time become no longe Gods, but superhumans, and eventually mere humans, often transformed into saints or sinners as needs dictated.

There was both a Saint Bridget and a goddess of the same name, and the legends surrounding them both get intertwined, so that it becomes impossible to tell one from the other.

An account of a battle between St Colmcille and th demons in Glencolmcille, where Colmcille rides up on his chariot to the edge of te parish and flings his sword into the mist-shrouded Glen, might easily be an account of a battle fought by Cú Chullain.

Which brings me to the Goddess.

Colmcille’s battle with the demons, recorded in a 15th century biography by Manus O’Donnell, starts off by explaining that St Patrick drove the demons from Croagh Patrick and they fled to Glencolmcille, where Colmcille finally caught up with them and drove them into the sea.

To the locals in Mayo though, Croagh Patrick is still known as Crom Cruach, the Old Bent One.

Crom Cruach is one of those pagan gods we know about from monkish manuscripts.

The ancients often saw prominent features in the landscape as Gods. From Sionna and Boanne we get the modern rivers Boyne and Shannon for example, and Cnoc Aine in Limerick is one of several mountains named for a goddess.

There’s one geographic feature in Glencolmcille that can be seen from as far away as Mountcharles as you drive “in through”. Across Donegal Bay, you can see her from Bundoran. On a clear day, you can even see her if you’re standing on Crom Cruach, and standing on her you can see Crom’s distinctive peak.

I’m talking about Sliabh Liag, rising 1,972 feet high above the Atlantic breakers, or 601 metres in new money.

Sliabh Liag is just too damn impressive not to have been a Goddess at some point in her career. The only thing is, which one?

Well, in Glencolmcille, there are two mountains called Crockuna, and an inlet called Skelpoonagh Bay. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

Una, like Anu and Aine, is a variation on the name of the Goddess also known as Danu, of Tuatha Dé Danann fame.

So my humble unscholarly opinion is, when PAtrick drove the demons (or the druids who worshipped them) from Croagh Patrick, they headed to Glencolmcille, to Sliabh Liag, to the goddess they were able to see from Crom’s peak.

So who was Danu?

We actually know precious little of her, not even her name strictly speaking. In the Lebor Gabla Érenn (Book of Invasions) the Tuatha Dé Danann appear, but nowhere is the name Danu seen. It’s guessed back as being the name that would logically give the genitice form Danann.

Danu is the mother of a tribe of Gods but almost anonymous herself, unless you believe the train of thought that holds she went by many aliases, from Fáil to Mórrígan.

Sometimes I think that’s a pity. But then again, it also means I can imagine what I want about her.

Maybe she was a powerful war god, maybe a god of crops and animal fertility, maybe a quiet sovereign who stayed in the background, stepping in only when her powerful children annoyed the mortals too much.

Either way, before this summer is over, I want to do some tourist things.

In all the years I’ve lived next to Sliabh Liag, I’ve never walked across her top. I must get around to giving her a call.

After all, she only lies next door.

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