Áine is the queen of the fairies; her name means bright, joyful, or melodious. She is likely the deity known in an earlier period as Anu or Danu, the mother goddess of Munster (Mumhan), in the south of Ireland. Knockainy or Cnoc Áine (Hill of Áine) was her home near sacred Loch Gur.
The Enchantment of Gearóid Iarla
One of the many stories collected by Yeats in the south of Ireland:
In old times in Ireland, there was a great man of the Fitzgeralds. The name on him was Gerald [Garret], but the Irish that always had a great liking for the family, called him Gearóid Iarla. He had a great castle or ráth at Mullymast [Mullaghmast]. Whenever the English government were striving to put some wrong on the country, he was always the man that stood up against it. Along with being a great leader in a fight and very skillful at all weapons, he was deep in the black art and could change himself into whatever shape he pleased. His lady knew that he had this power, and often asked him to tell her some of his secrets, but he never would tell her.
She wanted particularly to see him in some strange shape, but he put her off and off on one pretence or other. But she wouldn’t be a woman if she didn’t persevere; and at last he let her know that if she took the least fright while he’d be out of his natural form, he would never recover it till many generations of men would be under the mould [earth]. So one beautiful summer evening, as they were sitting in their grand drawing room, he turned his face away from her and muttered some strange word, and while you’d think he was clever and clean out of sight and a lovely goldfinch was flying about the room. He flew in circles and left the room. He returned and flew to her bosom, followed with a fierce hawk on his tail. She screamed and the hawk struck a wall. But Gearóid disappeared and she never saw him again.
Once every seven years the Earl rides round the Curragh of Kildare on a steed whose silver shoes were half an inch thick. When these shoes are worn as thin as a cat’s ear, the earl may return to the society of the living and fight a great battle against the English and reign as king of Ireland for two score years.
Horse & Silver Horseshoes – Pixabay
Himself and his warriors sleep beneath the Ráth of Mullaghmast. There is a table running through the middle of the cave. The earl sits at the head and his soldiers in armour on each side of the table, their heads resting on it. Their horses wait saddled in stalls on each side. When the day the miller’s son, born with six fingers a hand, blows his trumpet, the knights will awake and prepare for battle.
Loch Gur by Cnoc Áine
Loch Gur is a small horse-shoe-shaped lake in south-eastern Limerick around whose shores a great number of largely prehistoric monuments remain…many of them on excavation proved to be Stone Age dwelling places, and our knowledge of the way of life of the people living around 2000 B.C. is derived from sites excavated here. There are some burials sites and some excavations belonging to the early Christian period. (Harbison , 152-5)
Cnoc Áine = Knock Ainy = the Hill of Áine
Cnoc Aine is a round hill about 165 yards high (161 metres) sickle-shaped; the area around the hill was called Deise Beag (Little Desmond, Desmond in miniature)
Her principal sídh (fairy hill) was Cnoc Aine, her sanctuary hill, and nearby was Loch Gur. There were ceremonies held annually on St John’s Eve, the longest day of the year, mid-summer in Gaelic terms. On the eve, (the day starts at nightfall, not midnight as it does in English terms). Men used to gather on the hill with bunches of straw and hay tied on poles. These cliar were lit and carried in procession around the hill then around the little moat at the summit. Afterward people ran through the fields and among the cattle with torches which brought luck in the year following. The torches were symbolic of Aine’s climb to the highest point in the sky and were about to decline. A day of joy and sadness; some reports call it her funeral at which the fairies or ‘good people’ emerged from every lios (enclosure) and ráth (hilltop fort) and trooped to Cnoc Áine. Áine was at the front directing everything. (Dames 1992, 62-63)
She was the wife, daughter or granddaughter of Manannán mac Lir, the chief god of the sea. Wife of Manannán is likely the oldest version. Munster people believed her father was Eogabal (yew god? horse god?) and her brother was Fer I (Man of Yew). Other sources say she was the daughter of Cuilenn the Smith or of a king of Scotland. Her sister was Grian, the goddess of the sun. (Grian is the word for sun in Gaelic.)
Áine was the wife of Fionn MacCumhail (Finn MacCool), known simply as Fionn in the oral tradition. Fionn refers to a person with white-blond hair and very fair skin. Fionn is associated with the sun; he may be the same god as Lugh (Bright One) or the Dagda (the Good God, good at doing things) in origin. Áine had lovers such as the Earl of Desmond.
Many families claim descent from Áine; to be considered noble among the Gaels, a family had to be descended from pagan gods. When the Gaels became Christian, these supposed ancestors became legendary heroes or fairies.
Ceremonies for Áine
Ceremonies were held every year at Cnoc Aine at the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, mid-summer in Gaelic terms. Aine aged with the agricultural year; she was a young woman in spring, mature in summer, and old in winter. The midsummer festival celebrated her prime. In English the event is known as St John’s Eve and St John’s Day, now celebrated on 24 June. The people of the local area gathered and were organised into ranks by a member of a family who still lived on the hill in the late 19th century. They believed that the fairies also gathered on the same day. Villagers tied bundles of hay and straw on poles to make a cliar (bunch, group, band) and lit them to give light to the people going in procession around the hill. Afterward people carried their cliar through the fields.
Note: Desmond comes from Deas Mumhan = South Munster; the ‘-ster’ ending on the provinces of Ireland dates to the Viking Age 800 – 1100 when the Norse controlled good bits of the Irish coastlands.
Note: The Tuatha de Danann are the People of Anu. Danann means ‘of Anu’. Compare the older words for Scotland and Ireland:
Alba (subjective) = Scotland
Albann (possessive) = of Scotland eg. righrean na h-Albann = kings of Scotland
Albainn (prepositional) = (in) Scotland eg. ann an Albainn = in Scotland
Eriu (subjective) = Ireland
Eireann (possessive) = of Ireland eg. sluagh na h-Eireann = people of Ireland
Eirinn (prepositional) = (in) Ireland eg. ann an Eirinn = in Ireland