• Ali Isaac

The Mysterious Deaths of Eithne and Fidelma

Updated: Mar 19

Eithne and Fidelma were sisters who lived in the time of St Patrick. Their story is incredible, although it may be argued that the two young women themselves were not. They were pagan princesses, daughters of Laoghaire, High King of Ireland in 432AD, when Patrick is said to have lit his paschal fire in defiance of the King, pagan custom and ritual.

When Patrick first approached the King, the sisters, known as Eithne the Fair, and Fidelma the Red, were not at court. Following tradition, they were fostered out at Cruachan, also known as Rath Croghan, in the province of Connacht, made famous as the royal residence of Queen Medb.

There, the two girls were in the process of being educated by two Druids, Maol and Caplait, who were said to be the wisest men in all of Ireland at that time. Clearly, then, they were being trained as Druids, an education which is believed to have spanned over twenty years.

Incredible Irish Women. The Mysterious Deaths of Eithne and Fidelma.

It seems that, so far from Tara, the girls were unaware of the arrival of Patrick, or the new religion he preached. This strikes me as odd; the Irish were travelling and trading across Europe as early as the Bronze Age, yet by the fifth century they were unable to travel and carry important news within their own country?

In any case, Patrick certainly had no trouble traversing the Irish wilds, for he and his priests journeyed into Connacht from Cavan, where he had just defeated the evil pagan God, Crom Cruach, at Magh Slecht, crossing the River Shannon at the great monastic site of Clonmacnoise. He then headed on into Connacht, finally stopping at a well near Tulsk called Cliabach, although today it is known as Ogulla Well.

There he found the two young maidens, Eithne and Fidelma bathing. The girls did not know who Patrick and his entourage were, and were struck with curiosity. They thought the men might be visitors from the Otherworld. Patrick began to tell them of his God, and the Kingdom of Heaven.

The two young princesses were so taken with Patrick’s preachings, that they immediately begged to be converted, and so Patrick baptised them with the cold clear waters of the Well of Cliabach. But that wasn’t enough for Eithne and Fidelma, for next they took the veil and became ‘holy virgins’, or nuns, and then they took Communion, after which they fully expected to meet this wondrous God.

They were disappointed, though, because nothing happened. Here is what Patrick said to them:

‘As long as you are clothed in this mortal flesh you cannot see the Son of God. Before you can see Him in the brightness of His majesty, the vesture of this corruptible body must be laid aside.’

The Book of Armagh, a 9th century text

A page of text from the Book of Armagh.Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=214933
A page of text from the Book of Armagh.

What does this mean? As another Catholic explanation gently informs us, ‘they slept in the Lord’. Still not clear? Well, this is what happened:

‘At these words the virgins, burning with a still more ardent fire of love, earnestly asked that [ … ] , laying aside the burden of the flesh, they might be transported into that Presence which, above all things, they longed to behold.

‘The holy man [St Patrick], to whom the divine decrees were revealed, assented, and the virgins, having received the saving Viaticum, lay down on the same couch, and, as if resting and sweetly reposing in the Lord, passed to that marriage feast of the Heavenly Spouse so ardently desired.’

He carried a couch with him on his journey across Ireland? Excuse me, I get a bit distracted by details, at times.

So it was that these two pagan princesses, daughters of the High King of Ireland, Druids in training, surrendered their lives after renouncing their original  religion and calling. For three days, the people of Ireland mourned their loss, then buried the girls beside the well where they had been baptised, although it is said that their relics were later moved to the church at Armagh.

Meanwhile, the Druids entrusted with the girls’ care and education were furious with Patrick. When they confronted him , accusing him of removing the princesses from their family and traditions and causing their deaths, Patrick calmly explained the Faith to them, and they were converted, becoming monks.

Eithne and Fidelma are listed in the Martyrology of Tallaght as saints, and their feast day is given as the 11th of January, so it is perhaps fitting to remember them at this time of year. However, they differ greatly from other Irish saints, especially female saints, in that they never performed miracles or good works, or founded religious sites, or spent time in a religious establishment.

Church at Tulsk, named after Eithne and Fidelma
Patrick founded a church in Tulsk, named after Fidelma and Eithne. This is the church which stands on the site today.

I admit, I am fascinated by this story, but there are many issues with it. For example, it is not at all certain that Laoghaire really was High King of Ireland, or that he is a historical personage at all. His reign is listed in the Annals of the Four Masters as 429–458 AD, but these early records were written retrospectively, as the Four Masters were actually active in the seventeenth century.

My curiosity, though, lies with the girls: as apprentice Druids, why did they turn so readily from their customs and beliefs? Why did they turn their back on their people, their family, their high status as daughters of the High King? And most importantly, how did they die? And why did they become saints, having never committed a saintly act or lived a saintly and Christian life?

To me it sounds like the cover-up of an unlawful killing, the sainthood conferred as consolation, a way of making amends with a grieving family, which coming hot on the heels of the atrocities at Magh Slecht, would not surprise me. We’ll never know what happened to those poor girls, but we do know that no-one spontaneously drops down dead from wishing to see the face of God.

Of course, that is a literal interpretation, and the old stories were often designed to teach, their real meaning hidden beneath layers of symbolism and wordplay. One might say that the story was intended to convey a spiritual message, that it was merely the old pagan aspect of the girls which died, and that they were reborn anew as Christians.

This would have been cause enough to inspire the grief of family and clan, and would make sense were it not for the fact that the story, whilst in all forms being vague about the manner of their deaths, is explicit in informing us that the two bodies were buried beside the well, and later their remains taken to Armagh as saintly relics.

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