The Foremothers Speak
by Sage Starwalker and a Featured Foremother
MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Zine for Goddess Women Near & Far
Derg, St. Patricks Purgatory in Donegal,
Our featured foremother this issue is the Earth herself, or at least one specific piece of Her -- Loch Derg (or Loch Dearg or Lough Derg), the largest and southernmost lake on the Shannon River in Ireland.
What follows is inspired by Vicki Noble's article in this issue, "Tuning into Earth Energies," and Fiana Sidhe's "spotlight" on the goddess Cliodna (pronounced klee-nah). In my research for images to illustrate Fiana's tale of Cliodna, I discovered what remains of a powerful sacred earth site and a chilling story of the lengths to which dominant spiritual and civil institutions went to destroy it.
Loch Dearg, Last Stronghold of the Druids in Ireland
Fiana's tale of Cliodna describes Her as both a Goddess and "the daughter of Gebhan, Irelands last Druid" and names her earthly home as "a Marble Castle on Loch Dearg, Lake of the Red Eye." This Goddess/real woman profile is typically Celtic, and Cliodna's association with a real-world earthform (an Irish lake), sent me in search of the "real" side of this story. Celtic history, however, seems to me to be somewhat like the famed mists of Celtic landscape and literature -- it materializes out of thin air, exists as a borderland between myth and reality, and both illuminates and obscures the pre-Christian origins of those of us who long to reconnect with our Native European roots. It is also the record of the oppression of a tribal people and the cultural appropriation and obfuscation of our spirituality. Christine O'Keefe tells us that Loch Dearg was "the last stronghold of the Druids in Ireland" and that St. Patrick's campaign to drive the "serpents" (popularly understood to be Druids and/or pagans) out of the British Isles ended there. Dearg apparently means "red" and, according to O'Keefe, "Legend says he killed the lake monster and its blood dyed the water red."
Loch Dearg is a 32,000-acre lake, twenty-five miles long and nine miles wide at its widest. This must have been a mighty battle, indeed, if "dearg" refers to spilled blood coloring its waters. But what about the alternate meaning, cave? W.Y. Evans Wentz, author of the 1911 opus, "The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries," identifies the cave as a pagan place of ritual and of contact with the underworld:
The Catholic Church itself sheds light on the sacred cave found on an island in Loch Derg in its official Loch Derg website, where it gives the alternate and popular name of Loch Derg, "St. Patrick's Purgatory":
The historical record admits that the sacred islands of Loch Dearg have been the destination of Christian pilgrims for over 1500 years, despite civil and ecclesiastical attempts to stop the pilgrimages. Evans Wentz and diverse archaeologists tell us that caves all over Europe have been sacred sites from Paleolithic times to the common era. Though there seems to be no scholarly record recording pagan pilgrimages to the sacred cave in Loch Dearg, the intersection of history, mythology and folklore allow us to infer that Loch Dearg was such an important site to the Druids that they made their last stand there. Myth tells us that Cliodna's home on Loch Dearg had "crystal-gemmed walls." (Christine O'Keefe) Though there will be no proof, in my lifetime (if ever), that the sacred cave had crystal-gemmed walls that awed pagan pilgrims and attuned them to earth energies, in my mind's eye I see Merlin there, and my ancestors, returning home, to the womb of the Mother, in sacred pilgrimage.
Today, Cliodna is a minor deity of mythology, a faery Queen of Southwest Ireland, alive in the heart of Celtic enthusiasts, in mythology, and in reports of Cliodna's sacred hill, Carrig Cliodna in County Cork, and of a landmark, Tonn Cliodna, on the Irish Coast. It is possible, today, to make a pilgrimage to Cliodna's home, though such pilgrimages are done under the auspices of the Catholic Church and involve rigorous regimens of prayer and fasting. I think I'll go only in my mind's eye, seeing the waters not red with the blood of the ancients, but blue and green and lapping on the shores of an island; seeing, through the mists, a crystal-lined cave, home of Goddess and pagan pilgrim.