Some places we are drawn back to, again and again. There’s something special about them we can’t quite explain. Church Mountain is one of these places. For centuries, this sacred summit has attracted pilgrims, both pagan and Christian, and now, hikers and heritage-enthusiasts who come for the panoramic views and the mountain’s fascinating history.
Surrounding the ruins of the medieval church that gave Church Mountain its name lie the remains of a much larger, much older monument: a prehistoric cairn, most likely a former passage tomb. As most Irish passage tombs date back to the Neolithic period, the presence of this passage tomb strongly suggests that the sacred or ritual significance of Church Mountain likely predates Christianity by thousands of years.
Furthermore, several prominent scholars have argued that Church Mountain represents one of Ireland’s most important Lughnasa sites. Lughnasa is an ancient Gaelic harvest festival, typically celebrated on August 1st, halfway between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox. Meaning “the assembly of Lugh”, Lughnasa is dedicated to the Celtic god Lugh, a legendary warrior associated with craftsmen, kingship, and the harvest, who is said to have held the first Lughnasa festival to commemorate the death of his foster-mother Tailtiu. Each year at Lughnasa, Ireland’s pre-Christian communities would gather to mark the beginning of the harvest season with feasting, religious ceremonies, and athletic competitions. Along with Imbolc, Bealtaine and Samhain, Lughnasa represented one the four main Gaelic seasonal festivals, and thus one of the most important days of the year.
The advent of Christianity in Ireland supposedly brought an end to such pagan festivities. In the twelfth century, a Christian church was built on top of the existing prehistoric cairn which was considerably altered by the church’s construction. According to local tradition, this medieval church was built on the site of a much older church founded by St Palladius, the first Irish bishop, who preached Christianity in Ireland before St Patrick. Though the supposed link to Palladius may be based more in folklore than fact, the decision to build a new church on top of a pre-Christian ritual site was surely meant to symbolize Christianity supplanting native pagan traditions.
But despite these efforts to suppress paganism, the ostensibly Christian customs which later came to be associated with Church Mountain bear striking resemblance to older pagan
traditions. As late as the eighteenth century, there are reports of local people making pilgrimage to Church Mountain on Lammas Day (August 1st) as a form of penance. Upon reaching the summit, pilgrims would visit the holy well (at this time known as St Gad’s Well) and listen to a priest read prayers from the hilltop altar. Although these activities were given a veneer of Christian piety, they clearly harken back to older traditions: Lammas Day falls on the same day as Lughnasa and is also linked to the first harvest, and the supposed ‘saint’ associated with the holy well, St Gad, is just a variant of the name of the mountain itself, Sliabh an gCod.
For Christian pilgrims, much like their pagan forefathers, Church Mountain had a powerful draw as an innately sacred place. Standing amongst the ruins on the mountain’s summit, gazing across the vast Wicklow landscape, the modern visitor may well sense something special here too.
This post was created in collaboration with HeritageHiking, a citizen heritage project showcasing the unique history and mythology of the Wicklow Mountains. To discover more hidden stories of the Wicklow Mountains, check out @heritage_hiking on Instagram.
Note: the trail proposed above is NOT an official marked trail under Sports Ireland. Although the route is of relative easy access, adequate mountain gear and navigational skills are highly recommended.