The Saint and the Sexy Beast

Devenish Round Tower

For this article, the author is obliged to David Fickett-Wilbar, whose paper ‘Rituals of the Horse Sacrifice in Betha Mholaise Daiminse’, in The Journal of Indo-European Studies deserves the full inspection of the interested reader.

Last week’s blog related the story of Tullyhogue Fort, where the O’Neill Mor, King of Tyrone, was inaugurated in the traditional Gaelic fashion: Being seated on a stone chair, having a sandal thrown over his head and then fastened round his foot and being presented with a white rod. Rituals identical or similar to this were practised all over Ireland until the sixteenth century and had been for at least a thousand years before then and yet there is some evidence that royal inaugurations had not always been this wholesome. The twelfth-century English historian Gerald of Wales recorded that a very different ritual was employed in his time, in the O’Neil’s own country of Tyrone.

The people of the country gathered in the place where the new king was to be inaugurated and a white mare was brought forward, symbolising (apparently) the sovereignty of the land. The king, in order to assume the sovereignty, had to assume the mare and did so in a fashion that is best left to the reader’s imagination. Things went from bad to worse for the shell-shocked animal, which was beheaded and dismembered and its pieces were put into a cauldron. The king climbed into the cauldron as well and, once they were both lightly stewed, the pieces of horsemeat would be handed around the assembly for consumption. The king then had to drink the water, using neither cup nor hands but simply by putting his face in it and quaffing.

Narrate that, Dimbleby.

The reader will not be astonished to learn that this account, written by a member of King Henry II’s chapel who made no secret of his disdain for the Irish and wrote his book in order to justify the English invasion as a civilising mission, has drawn a considerable amount of fire from Irish patriots as a crude and obvious piece of propaganda. Some have dismissed the ritual out of hand as an invention of Gerald’s own pornographic mind. More forgiving commentators have suggested that Gerald heard a myth from pagan times and misunderstood it as literally true and current.

There is, however, another school (most of them not Irish) who have had rather more time for the ritual, perceiving similarities in Roman and Hindu traditions to argue for the existence of an Indo-European king-making ceremony that survived in Ireland long after it had been superseded by different, more family-friendly practices elsewhere in the Japhetic milieu. In particular, it has been used to make sense of an otherwise unintelligible passage in the life of an obscure Irish saint.

Saint Molaise was an Irish monk operative in the first half of the sixth century, whose life is recorded in Gaelic and Latin hagiographies that, typically of their genre, are heavy with miracle and symbolism, Spartan on fact or reliable information. What is certain is that Saint Molaise was associated with Devenish Island in Lough Erne, where he founded a monastery the ruins of which decorate the isle today. The story of how he came into possession of Devenish is recounted in both his hagiographies but barely makes sense in either, until one considers that Lough Erne, though in the modern County of Fermanagh, was anciently in the kingdom of Tyrone, within which Gerald vaguely located his king/horse ritual.

The story goes that the local king, Conall the Red, was warned by his druid that Saint Molaise was planning to seize control of Devenish. The king rode a two-horsed chariot to the island to get there before him but, as he approached, the horses suddenly stopped beside an oak tree and would not move, as though paralysed. This was taken to be an ill omen and a young man of the king’s party suggested that, if the horses spontaneously looked eastwards, then Saint Molaise would be the rightful owner of Devenish. The horses did indeed turn east and galloped away.

Ignoring this mysterious setback, King Conall settled into a wicker boat and prepared to cross to the island, where Saint Molaise was waiting for him. The boat contained a cooked bull, the giving of food being a way of transferring land ownership in medieval Ireland. However, the bull was a trap, for the druid had poisoned it and Molaise would not enjoy possession of Devenish for long. Yet the king’s treachery could not be hidden from God.

The bull suddenly came back to life and leapt into the water, overturning the boat. The king swam back to the shore, where he was told that his two horses had drowned. Saint Molaise joined the party and the king begged the monk to resurrect his horses (monks can do that, apparently). Saint Molaise obliged and asked for the island in return but the ungrateful King Conall angrily refused, reminding the saint that it was part of his father’s patrimony and his father’s before him.

“Then neither you,” the saint blazed with holy fury, “nor your son nor any of your posterity shall have the dominion of this land!”

The king thought nothing of the haughty threat but no sooner had he turned his back than darkness impended on his vision. He had gone blind. His servants guided him back to his house, where he held a feast and sent a portion of food to Saint Molaise. The monk recognized the gift as conferring ownership of Devenish and, in exchange, he restored the king’s sight but his prophecy that none of Conall’s descendents would rule the land did come true, for Conall turned out to be the end of his line.

It is an obscure and difficult story but one must remember that in Ancient Ireland ownership of land was considered a form of sovereignty. Saint Molaise was asking to be made the little King of Devenish Island and many of the account’s non sequiturs and unexpected jumps in logic do make sense in the context of the royal inauguration rituals. Although in the story King Conall has good reason to ride hard to Devenish, racing horses was a feature of royal inaugurations recorded elsewhere in Ireland, while a sacred oak tree, to which the horses are apparently raced in this example, was a focal point for ritual. It may not be a coincidence that further to the south-east of the county is a mound called Sgiath Gabhra, “Horse’s Fort”, which was once used for the inauguration of the Maguire, King of Fermanagh.

The death of the horses also seems to echo the fate of the mare in Gerald of Wales’s account, which, like the story of Saint Molaise’s assumption of Devenish, ends with the new sovereign partaking of meat. That it was horse meat he ate is not made clear in the story but the poisoned bull meat that he nearly ate may have been inspired by Devenish itself, for its name, “Daimhinis”, means Ox Island. Alternatively, it may even have acquired that name in honour of the beast that Saint Molaise had had to consume in order to possess it.

In other words, although the two cannot be made to fit together perfectly, the legend of how Saint Molaise was given the lordship of Devenish does seem to echo the inauguration rituals of ancient Ireland, in which (presumably) the monk would have had to participate to gain the land. Of course, they were only a vague memory by the time the hagiographies were written and had almost certainly passed out of use when Gerald of Wales described them. One would certainly like to think that the king’s mating with sovereignty was only ever performed symbolically. The biography of a saint is naturally free of any reference to beastliness but Gerald of Wales, who had a very different point to make, was less coy.


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