Whatever curious and interesting subject strikes my fancy, be it silly or serious, gets posted for your reading pleasure.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Martyrdom by Passion (and a Brain-Ball): an Irish Legend

One day I was glancing through a booklet entitled "The History of St. Patrick's Parish and Church" of San Francisco printed in 1976 for the 125th Anniversary of the same.  Stained glass windows are one of my favorite decorative arts, and as the booklet features passages describing adornments of the sacred edifice, which was greatly influenced by Irish Catholic heritage, I was curious to see what I would find.

In addition to the attention given to the stained glass windows depicting Irish saints, such as St. Patrick founding his main diocese in Armagh pictured here, (Photo credit: Justin Zolli ) I discovered there are a series of Tiffany glass windows in the upper clerestory of the church that feature history and legends of the ancient pagan past of Erin, a gesture to the culture and traditions of Ireland before Christianity become the religion of the isle.

I was surprised at first, but then, this artistic nod to the ancient past in the Catholic Church is not unsual either depending on the pagans honoured by this gesture of recognition.

 It is no secret that the Vatican has masterpieces depicting the pagan past of Italy and Greece in its hallowed halls, and a handful of heathens have been given the distinction of being represented in the Sistine Chapel ~ the Nine Sybils ~ prophets and prophetesses that did not belong to the Jewish faith yet also predicted the coming of Christ.

I mention this rare honouring of the pagans because there is one stained glass window of St. Patrick's that could be described as a 'Sybil' where Irish history is concerned: the 'martyrdom' of King Conchobar (Conor) mac Nessa of Ulster.  

His story is often declared nothing more than a mythical legend, but ancient cultures like the Celts had a rich tradition of oral history that obviously morphed into legend, for as they say, myths usually have a basis in fact. Where fact ends and mythical stories and elaborate additions begin, we do not always know.  That is the delightful mystery with which the ancient tales continue to fascinate us.

Let us travel back to the ancient past of the warrior Celts: honour was won by daring feats of valour and great deeds in battle. The heads of defeated enemies were hung up as trophies displaying the number of men slain by a warrior indicating prowess in battle. Decapitating people and tossing their heads about was a manly thing to do it seems.

According to one legend, the warriors of Connacht and Ulster were staying in the home of Mac Dá Thó in Leinster as a guest. During a feast the soldiers held a contest with each other to determine who had the right to carve the hero's portion of the roast and thus commenced boasting of their mighty deeds. Cet mac Mágach of Connacht silenced them by reminding them how he had bested them all in his great exploits in battle and was about to carve the hero's portion when another warrior entered the scene, Conall Cernach of Ulster who was late to the party. Cet had to admit defeat when presented with Conall's list of deeds, but tried not to lose face entirely by claiming if his brother Anlúan was there, he would have to give him the honoured portion, for Anlúan was the best warrior among all present. What did Conall Cernach do? Reach into a sack and throw its contents at Cet ~ the head of Anlúan. End of contest. Conall got the lion's share of whatever they roasted that night.

However, the most fearsome and magically potent weapon a warrior could have was a 'brain-ball' to sling at his foes. A brain-ball was made using, (you guessed it), the brains of an enemy slain in battle and mixed with lime, which was then left to harden into a projectile. No doubt they were the most sought after weapon depending on whose grey matter went into the mix: the warrior Cet of Connacht re-enters our story as he dared to sneak into Ulster and steal a prized brain-ball from the King's treasury in Emain Macha. The ball was made from the brains of King Mesgedra of Leinster, and Cet kept it with him wherever he went.   A rare weapon like that couldn't be thrown at just any old common warrior you know!

King Conor Mac Nessa of Ulster mentioned earlier received that dubious honor, getting struck with his own weapon, for it was he who killed King Mesgedra of Leinster and had the brain-ball made as Mesgedra's head was too big to carry back as a trophy. One day the Connacht warriors raided King Conor's land and stole his cattle. A battle was eminent when Conor overtook the warrior-thieves in Westmeath. Conor was eager to prove himself in battle, but Cet who was lurking in ambush shot him with the dreaded brain-ball with his sling, which lodged right in King Conor's forehead.

However, he did not die. Fintan the physcian realised the best thing to do was not to touch it, for to remove it would bring on the King's death. In the end, the brain-ball was sewn into place with gold threads matching the colour of the king's hair to ensure it wouldn't move. The King was advised never to exert himself in any violent activity that could dislodge it, including horse riding, for if it moved it meant certain death.

According to the legend, the King lived for another seven years following this advice and had to forego the warring exploits he was accustomed to.  It is at this point we find a curious twist to his legend.

One mid-day the sky darkened, and troubled by the sight King Conor wished to know what this omen meant. 

He summoned his chief Druid to explain what was happening, and entering into a trance in a sacred grove the priest described a scene that horrified even the hard core, gore-accustomed Celtic king: the Druid saw a hill in a distant land upon which three crosses stood, on the three crosses there were human forms nailed, yet one of them was like unto the Immortals. In some accounts we hear the King was also allowed to see the vision.

The King recognised the scene was an execution and asked the Druid "if the one likened to the Immortals was a criminal?”

“Nay,” answered the Druid, “but the Son of the Living God,” and still in a trance he proceeded to relate the full details of Christ's execution.

The thought of mortals daring to kill this Immortal was too much for King Conor, and in a fury over so foul a deed he drew his sword with the cry: “Thus would I deal with His enemies!” and rising to battle-fury pitch, proceeded to hack the oak trees in the sacred grove despite the danger to his own life.

The passionate outburst dislodged the brain-ball, in some accounts we read that the ball literally burst into pieces with his exertions, and King Connor died wishing he could have defended the Christ while symbolically eradicating the hold of druid paganism over Ireland just before the Apostles began to spread the Faith.

To further seal his honour as the destined pagan, it is said he was born on the same day as Christ, (although not the same year).

Is this an early Medieval romanticised addition to the legend, or a tale of a true occurence that was rendered into myth at a later age? I will leave for the reader to decide.

As a result King Conor became honoured as the Druid pagan who ended up becoming a martyr for Christ by blood and courageous desire, and in a way, a Sybil of the new Faith brought centuries later by numerous missionaries and saints, including St. Patrick,  who would transform the Emerald Isle into the Island of Saints and Scholars.

(Image: King Conor's Vision, St. Patrick's Church San Francisco. Photo by Justin Zolli.)

Here are other St. Patrick's Day / Irish themed entries you may find interesting:

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