Legends of the Western Islands
IN the islands off the West Coast of Ireland the inhabitants are still very primitive in their habits, and cling to their old superstitions with a fanatical fervour that makes it dangerous for any one to transgress or disregard the old customs, usages, and prejudices of the islanders.
Curses heavy and deep would fall on the head of the unbelieving stranger who dared to laugh or mock at the old traditions of the ancient pagan creed, whose dogmas are still regarded with a mysterious awe and dread, and held sacred as a revelation from heaven.
The chief islands are Aran and Innismore, the latter about nine miles long. The cattle live on the fine grass of the rocks, and turf is brought from the mainland. The views are magnificent of sea and mountain, and the islands contain a greater number of pagan and early Christian monuments than could be found in the same area in any other part. of Europe.
Some of the Duns or forts include several acres. The walls are cyclopean, about sixteen feet thick and from eighteen to twenty feet high, with steps inside leading to the top. Amongst the monuments are cromlechs, tumuli, and pillar stones, those earliest memorials set up by humanity. The Irish call these huge stones Bothal, or house of God, as the hebrews called them Bethel, or God's house.
Dun Aengus, the greatest barbaric monument of the kind in existence, stands on a cliff three hundred feet above the sea. It is a hundred and forty-two feet in diameter, and has two cyclopean walls fifteen feet thick and eighteen high. The sea front measures a thousand feet, and several acres are included within the outer wall. The roof of the dun is formed of large flag-stones, and the doorway slopes, after the Egyptian fashion, up to three feet in width at the top. A causeway of sharp, upright stones jammed into the ground leads to the entrance.
This fort was the great and last stronghold of the Firbolg race, and they long held it as a refuge against the Tuatha-de-Danann invaders, who at that time conquered and took possession of Ireland.
All the islands were originally peopled by the Firbolg race many centuries before the Christian era, and the Irish language, as still spoken by the people, is the purest and most ancient; of all the dialects of Erin. Afterwards so many Christian saints took up their abode there that the largest of the islands was called Ara-na-naomh (Aran of the Saints), and numerous remains of churches, cells, crosses and stone-roofed oratories, with the ruins of a round tower, testify to the long habitation of the islands by these holy men.
There is an old wooden idol on one of the Achil islands called Father Molosh--probably a corruption of Moloch. In former times offerings and sacrifices were made to it, and it was esteemed as the guardian or god of the sacred fire, and held in great reverence, though but a rude semblance of a human head. Many miracles also were performed by the tooth of St. Patrick, which fell from time saint's mouth one day when he was teaching the alphabet to the new converts. And a shrine was afterwards made for the tooth that was held in the greatest honour by the kings, chiefs, and people of Ireland.
The stupendous barbaric monuments of the islands, according to Irish antiquarians, offer the best exposition of early military architecture at present known, and are only equalled by some of those in Greece. There are also many sacred wells, and the whole region is haunted by strange, wild superstitions of fairies and demons and witches; legends filled with a weird and mystic poetry that thrill the soul like a strain of music from spirit voices coming to us from the far-off elder world. The following pathetic tale is a good specimen of these ancient island legends:--