During May for thousands of years people have been coming to Shrone in Kerry a place of pagan beliefs, faith, customs, music and dancing.

Dan Joe Cronin tells Áine O'Connor about this ancient place, and why people have been coming on pilgrimage here for seventeen centuries.

For the best part of two millennia, people have come and gone here. The City, or Cathair Craobh Dearg, is an ancient stone ring fort in Shrone, County Kerry near the Paps of Anu mountains.

We're all holy people here.

Like most ancient sites on this island, its original pagan intentions were subsumed into Christianity, and it is now a place of pilgrimage on Lá Bealtaine, or May Day. Similarly, the fort’s name came from one of a triad of pagan war goddesses, who later became St Craobh Dearg.

The pilgrimage is held on 1st May, but people also come here up until the 12th of May. Local folklorist and expert on the site Dan Cronin explains what the pilgrimage entails,

You start at what is known as the Gap here. Certain prayers are said there, and then it’s up to an individual themselves to say what prayers they like going around the outside of the wall, of the outer wall three times, and then they come in and say their prayers inside, in the circle, in the cathair. There are various stations marked with crosses...I think in pagan times, these marks were circles, and there’s one of them still to be seen here, on one of these stones...

Although the pilgrimage was a serious day with an emphasis solely on spiritual matters, Dan Joe Cronin says that it was also a great social occasion, with music, dancing, sporting games played, and plenty of merriment, once the prayers were completed. The economic constraints of the Second World War brought an end to the festival side of the pilgrimage,

Fifty years ago, say, they came from Cork city on May Day with all their games, all the rest of it, the place would be thronged with people...jesters and jugglers, and all the voices mixed together. Harp players, this was a great place for harps. And a lot of old relics have been dug up and found around the place, harp tuning keys, various other things.

Pilgrims coming from far away did not always bring luck to local people however, as one man discovered to his detriment. Despite offering hospitality to a pilgrim who called to his house, some misfortune would always befall an animal on the farm once the man had left. This went on for a few years until the man talked to his neighbours, who told him to secure all his farm buildings and prevent anyone from accessing them. Once he had done this, the visits stopped, and he found had no more recurring problems with his livestock.

In addition to the various prayers said in the City, pilgrims also reverence the statue of Our Lady of the Wayside and drink water from the holy well and fill bottles with it to bring home. Lastly, they leave something behind at the base of the statue, such as a coin, but in days gone by, items such as ribbons, hairpins and handkerchiefs would be left behind.

It was a pagan aspect of the thing. They were leaving their troubles behind them, I presume.

In the past, folk beliefs and certain practices relating to animals were taken very seriously in this part of Ireland. A sick cow would be driven into the City on May Eve, and left overnight in the hope that she would be cured the following morning. New milk was poured over the door to the cow byre, and the family home, to protect the profits of the farm.

On the morning of May Day, whitethorn and golden cups flowers were placed around the well, to prevent anyone skimming the water from the top, and depriving people of the luck, protection and healing which was associated with this water, when drawn on that day.

This episode of ‘Next Stop’ was first broadcast on 18 May 1977. The reporter is Áine O’Connor.

'Next Stop’ was a weekly programme from and about the provinces highlighting items of general interest of concern. Programmes included a viewers’ service with exchange of ideas as a way of comment and reaction.