Phallic Worship in Ireland, It has been asserted that Cromcruach, the principal deity of the ancient Irish, was a phallic god, but I can find no conclusive or even substantial evidence as to Whether or not phallicism reached a greater degree of ecumenity, and was prosecuted with more realism in Ireland than in England and Scotland, it is a fact that there existed, at any rate until comparatively recently, a greater and more striking volume of evidence of its practice in the shape of actual sculptural and other representations of the cult.
Up to the close of the eighteenth century there were to be observed in all parts of the country, and particularly in the places of worship, phallic pillars, signs, carvings and sculptures of the most flagrant description. Hannay truly says : ” As in the case of the Greek coins and Nismes sculptures, these sculptured nudities, placed so prominently on the churches, were not the mere impulse of a private citizen in erotic moments; they were the symbolism of a cult, and a belief expressed deliberately by the Church authorities or magistrates. Had such ideas not been held and respected by a large part of the population they would never have been allowed to be exposed in such a public position. 1 On the island of Innis Murra, off the coast of Sligo, is one such phallic monument. It consists of an erect pillar, surrounded by a stone wall. The island itself has been held sacred from the times of paganism until the beginning of the nineteenth century. 2 The Earl of Roden refers to a stone on the island of Inniskea, off the coast of Mayo, which is ” wrapped up in flannel and adored as a god.” 3
The figure illustrated (see plate xxn) is of a pillarstone standing on the Hill of Tara. It was removed from a place with the significant name of Bel-Pear. ” I believe,” says Keane, ” it to be identical with Baal-Pehor of the Scriptures, which, like the Priapus, Muidhr and Mahody, was the emblem of the sun as the source of generative life.” 1 Another somewhat similar stone, called “Cloich Greine,” which means literally “the stone of the sun,” was found at Innis-Maidhr, County Sligo 2 (see plate xxn); and there is yet another phallic pillar at Arghabulloge, County Cork: it is known asSt. Apropos of the phallic figures found in Irish churches, the anonymous author 4 of the ” Essay on the Worship of the Generative Powers during the Middle Ages of Europe,” appended to the 1865 edition of Payne Knight’s Discourse on the Worship of Priapus, says : It is a singular fact that in Ireland it was the female organ which was shown in the position of protector upon the churches, and the elaborate though rude manner in which these figures were sculptured, show that they were considered as objects of great importance. They represented a female exposing herself to view in the most unequivocal manner, and are carved on a block which appears to have served as the keystone to the arch of the doorway of the church, where they were presented to the gaze of all who entered. They appear to have been found principally in the very old churches, and have been mostly taken down, so that they are only found among the ruins. People have given them the name of Shelah-na-Gig, which, we are told, means in Irish, Julian the Giddy, and is simply a term for an immodest woman; but it is well understood that they were intended as protecting charms against the fascina- tion of the evil eye. We have given copies of all the examples yet known in our illustrations of Shelah-na-Gigs (Series I and II). The first of these was found in an old church at Rochestown in the county of Tipperary, where it had long been known among the people of the neighbourhood by the name given above. It was placed in the arch over the doorway, but has since been taken away. Our second example of the Shelah-na-Gig was taken from an old church lately pulled down in the County Cavan, and is now preserved in the museum of the Society of Antiquaries of Dublin. The next, which is also now preserved in the Dublin museum, was taken from the old church on the White Island in Lough Erne, County Fermanagh. This church is supposed by the Irish Antiquaries to be a structure of very great antiquity, for some of them would carry its date as far back as the seventh century, but this is probably an exaggeration. The one which follows was furnished by an old church pulled down by order of the ecclesiastical commissioners, and it was presented to the museum at Dublin by the late Dean Dawson. Our last example was formerly in the possession of Sir Benjamin Chapman, Bart., of Killoa Castle, Westmeath, and is now in a private collection in London. It was found in 1859 at Chloran, in a field on Sir Benjamin’s estate known by the name of the Old Town, from whence stones had been removed at previous periods, though there are now very small remains of building.
This stone was found at a depth of about five feet from the surface, which shows that the buildings, a church no doubt, must have fallen into ruin a long time ago. Contiguous to this field, and at a distance of about two hundred yards from the spot where the Shelah-na-Gig was found, there is an abandoned churchyard, separated from the Old Town field only by a loose stone wall.”
Brash refers to a Shelah-na-Gig over a doorway of Kilnaboy church. The same authority mentions similar carvings on the doorway of the old church of White Island in Lough Erne, and over a window in Ballyvourney church. ” Many others,” he says, ” are known to exist.” 1 The majority are defaced or mutilated in some way, but there is a perfect specimen, showing a Shelah-na-Gig ” struggling with two dragons, on the ornate and possibly eleventh-century sill at Rath Blathmaic church.” 2 The holed stones of Ireland were as famous as those of Cornwall and of India. There were many such for the finding, and they were all held in the greatest veneration. One stone, called Cloch Deglain, on the strand of Ardmore Bay, County Waterford, was visited by afflicted men and women who had sufficient strength to creep through the aperture. They came from all parts of the country, and there was scarcely a distemper for which creeping through the holed-stone was not considered to provide a certain and quick cure. 3 O’Brien, in referring to this old method of seeking regeneration, which is representative of the act of issuing from the womb, terms these holes in the rocks, Devil’s Yonies (Cunni Diaboli). 1 Brash is of opinion that the superstition in England, Scotland and Ireland, as in India, was of phallic origin and significance. He says: “In Ireland ample evidences are not wanting to show that phallic dogmas and rites were very extensively known and practised in ancient times. It is patent in the existing folk-lore of the country, in some everyday customs of the peasantry, and in the remains of midnight plays and ceremonies practised still in remote districts at wakes and such-like occasions.” 2 He adds that the triangular shape and the peculiar arrangement of the stones at various places also are not without their significance.