Folklore: Sexuality in an Irish Graveyard

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St Olann’s Cap is the name given to another station in the St Olann’s pattern (held on September 5th), located in the graveyard at Aghabullogue. Although the site where the graveyard is currently located was originally an important pre-Christian site (in other words, it existed pre-5th century) and records show two successive Church of Ireland churches located there from the late 1600s, it’s not so clear how long St Olann’s cap itself has been around.

From the  carved marks on the ‘corners’, the stone is obviously an Ogham stone (Ogham is the earliest form of writing in Ireland. It dates to around 4th century A.D. and was in use for around 500 years or so).  What’s interesting with this stone, however, is the “cap” placed on top of the larger stone to create a form of phallic symbol. Because of it’s shape, the stone was associated with fertility rituals but also with a number of other female illnesses (barrenness, headaches etc.). From the smoothness of the upper  quartzite “cap”, it’s obvious that the “cap” was repeatedly rubbed by human hands as part of the ritual, similar to the way fertility symbols are treated in many other early cultures around the world.

Although St Olann’s Cap is fascinating in itself, the reason I love this place is because of the story associated with it in the late nineteenth century. At that time, the Church in Ireland was flexing its ecclesiastical muscle by sanitising many of the early Irish pagan elements it had earlier incorporated into rituals designed to convert the population. Disapproval by the Irish clergy of the ‘sexual’ nature of the stone (and its popularity) led to the local priest arrogantly desecrating the site ” (with a fanatical disregard not really that different from the actions of the Taliban in blowing up the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001).

Although originally, consisting of two superimposed stones, the priest removed the upper one. Within days of him doing so, the stolen stone was replaced by the current Caipín Olainn (Olann’s Cap) which has remained there ever since.

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