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GREAT IRELAND IN NEW ENGLAND
Janet Burnham, Bethel, Vermont
Strange as it may sound, there is some quite convincing evidence that Irish Culdee, or Celi Dei, Monks and other European settlers may have preceded the Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers as the first permanent European settlers in New England by well over a millennium (see Nyland, O’Meara, 1994 and Pyle 1991). The Berbers and the Basques are known to have explored the Atlantic for 10,000 years and almost certainly were in North America long before the time of Christ (see Sanders, 1985). Robert Pyle in All That Remains records that the colonial settlers in Northeastern America encountered blond Iroquois tribes that may have been the same group responsible for carving the Horse Creek Petroglyph of West Virginia, which has recently been translated by Edo Nyland as a Libyan Ogam inscription.
In New England there is a ruined complex of approximately 30 stone buildings at North Salem, New Hampshire. It is speculated that whoever built the complex might have sailed up the Merrimack River as far as what is now Haverill where they would have been stopped by a natural barrier, the falls. Then traveling inland a short distance from Haverill one comes to the site where the North Salem community was constructed.
Unfortunately, in the early years of the twentieth century a self-styled archeologist monkeyed with the North Salem site. He moved stones with a bulldozer. He put stones where he judged they should go. He didn’t do any of the minute examination that is part and parcel of today’s carefully examined and mapped historical sites. Still, even if the stones were not returned to their proper places, the basic ruined site still exists…it’s just been rearranged. It’s still possible to see very clearly that someone was there, someone who was very used to building and working with stone.
So, who built North Salem? Who worked with stone? Not the Amerindians. Early settlers? If early European settlers did build North Salem, why would this be the only place where they used such an abundance of stone? Stone is not in short supply in New England. They could have built innumerable communities of stone if that was their preferred building material.
There are further clues on the site. One structure called the Y cavern is thought to have been a place of worship. It has a niche that could have served as an altar.
There’s a large flat table stone weighing 18 tons or thereabouts with a continuous groove incised all around the outer perimeter. There’s a channel cut in one side to drain whatever is being caught in the groove. Was it blood? Or could it have been grape juice? Under the stone slab is what appears to be a hidden speaking tube, which would allow someone in the adjoining stone house to speak and have their voice seemingly emanate from the stone. It is known that the Culdee Monks had oracles. Could this have been a site where the resident oracle spoke with a disembodied voice when an animal had been sacrificed?
There are also two wells on the site. One shaped like a saltcellar - getting wider as it descends into the earth - has a plentiful supply of water. The other, a small perfectly round well, is only eleven feet deep and never has more than 6 inches of water at the bottom. It is thought to be a fairy well, hundreds of which are to be found in Ireland.
Fanning out into New England from North Salem are numerous individual “caves” throughout western Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire and eastern Vermont. These “caves” appear to have been constructed in much the same manner, as are the buildings at the North Salem site. There are a total of approximately 65 of these man made caves known and recorded. More of these in a moment.
What further proof of Irish Culdee Monks in America is available? One place to look is the Norse sagas. They state that the Irish reached American before Leif Ericson. The Norse sagas are stories of daring deeds, indeed, boastful recountings. It doesn’t seem reasonable to suppose the Viking story tellers would credit the Irish with being in America before their great hero Leif Ericson…unless it were simply undeniably true.
One Norse sage tells of a Viking named Ari who was baptized by Christian priests in America. Further, the Icelandic sagas refer to a place on the American mainland as Great Ireland. They also mention seeing white men dressed in robes, carrying lighted torches and chanting hymns that disappeared into a hole in the ground.
Let’s see how well we can retrace the Monks route to the New World.
Sometime around the year 795 AD the Vikings or Norsemen began to raid the islands and coasts of Scotland and Ireland. They found the religious communities with their prized religious relics to be easy pickings. Further, the Vikings were not noted for their kindness but for their ferocity. They terrified the people of Europe who offered a special prayer for help against the Vikings: “God, deliver us from the fury of the Northmen.” The Norsemen very often killed the people they defeated including women and children. The word “berserk” which means insane comes for the Viking’s word for warrior.
Eventually of course some of the Vikings would stay in Ireland. The Vikings founded the towns of Dublin, Wexford, Waterford and Limerick. The red hair for which the Irish are famous can most likely be attributed to Viking or Pre-Viking Libyan ancestors.
But before the Northmen settled down to become assimilated into the people of Ireland, the religious communities tried to protect themselves from these fierce marauders. One of their means of defense was to build stone towers. From the towers approaching Viking ships could be seen. Perhaps the most famous stone tower is at Glendalough. The entrance to this 103-foot tower is 10 feet off the ground. Was this a stronghold in time of siege or simply a bell tower? No one can say for certain.
There’s a record of the Monks journeying in hide-covered boats called coracles to Iceland. An Irish Monk named Dicuil who wrote the history of the world in 830AD wrote it down. There’s a further mention of the journey in the FLATEYJARBOK a collection of Icelandic sagas written in the 13th century.
Did the Irish Monks leave Ireland for Iceland to escape the Norsemen? Perhaps. From the Icelandic Book of Settlement (LANDNAMAABOK) there’s this: “Before Iceland was peopled by the Northmen there were in the country those men whom the Northmen called papas” (priests). “These were Christian men who would not remain here among heathens, and the people believed that they came from the West, because Irish books and bells and crosiers were found after they left…” Another opinion on why the monks left Ireland suggests that the Norsemen were not antagonistic to the Irish population but rather came to their assistance Edo Nyland, pers. commun.). They terrorized and chased out the Benedictine monks who were destroying the vibrant Irish civilization. The records of these incidents unfortunately come only from the Benedictines who wrote everything down while the Irish did not.
This time the Monks sailed to Greenland. The Greenland colony lasted for 108 years, from 874AD to 982AD. This, too, is documented in the Icelandic sagas.
In 982 AD Eric the Red was expelled from Iceland for three years for murder. He and his band of Vikings sailed into Greenland to serve out his exile. Again, the Monks sailed on, out of reach of the Northmen. This time they sailed to New England.
The Culdees, or Celi Dei, which means “servants of God” were the Christians of Ireland before St. Patrick. Their brand of Christianity mixed old pagan beliefs with the newer ideas of the European Catholic Church. The Culdees disliked ecclesiastical management. Beyond an Abbot, or headman, they felt that each was a man of God with no need for anyone else to whip them into shape. To know God was their complete sustenance for which they disciplined their bodies to endure the hardships of hunger, cold and deprivation. They owned no personal property except the clothes they wore. And they lived as recluses or in small loosely organized groups.
Continental European Christian leaders took a dim view of these Irish Culdees who were Gnostic or Coptic Christians who did not use the Judaic Talmud in their holy book but rather only the early Gospels of Christianity of which they had far more than we have in our bible of modern times. For example, the Gospel of Thomas, of the Gospel of Jesus was not acceptable to Rome. Emissaries were sent to Ireland to “straighten out” these misguided Christians. The report came back that the Irish were “impossible” and the Irish church completely decadent.
So what happened to the Culdees? Where did they go? It is theorized that the Culdees who remained in Ireland were eventually assimilated into the Augustinian order. One of the last mentions of the Culdees was in the 16th century when their deaths are recorded in church documents.
How about the American branch? Since it is known that Gnostic monks never were celibate, perhaps some of their number intermarried with the Amerindians. There is even some mention of white priests among the Aztecs. And then of course if many were celibate they simply died out.
Back to the caves that have been found in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. These man-made stone shelters are not natural caves. They were built of stone laid up without mortar sometimes in rectangular shape, sometimes in a beehive (conical) shape. Huge capstones weighing perhaps one half to one ton each form the roofs of the caves. The interior dimensions vary from approximately 5 x 6 feet to 8 x 20 feet. Interior height is approximately 5 feet, 2 inches in most. A large lintel capstone covers the entranceway. The tops of these structures are usually covered with earth, which makes them seem to disappear into their surroundings…. and gives them more of a cave-like appearance. It was suggested by Edo Nyland (pers. commun.) that they probably were religious structures, designed like New Grange in Ireland to measure the solstices. If they believed in reincarnation then the caves were the womb of the deity where rebirth took place. This same group or their predecessors also may have been responsible for writing the Horse Creek Petroglyph in West Virginia that has been dated to 600-700 AD.
To be fair there are people…some of them very learned…who say these “caves” were built by the early settlers in the region as “root-cellars” in the 18th and 19th centuries.
While some of the structures are near houses, many of them are not. One is on top of a mountain one half mile from the nearest habitation. Some are 100 or 200 yards across fields from the nearest “first” house on the property. The deep snows of winter would make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reach the “root-cellar” on the top of the mountain in winter. Even the “root-cellars” that are closer at 200 yards are too far away from the house to be easily accessed in winter. Almost without exception Colonial root cellars were built under the house or within a few steps of the house.
There’s one Vermont “root-cellar” with a smoke hole in the roof. Again, no root cellar ever had a fireplace.
There is the suggestion that these cave “root-cellars” were built to protect the early settlers from the Amerindians. This cannot be so. Even though the caves are topped with dirt and from some angles could be taken for natural rises in the land, certainly no Amerindian who earned his living following invisible trails in the woods, would be fooled for a moment.
One elderly gentleman in Windsor County Vermont on whose property stands one of the stone “caves” says that it was there when his grandfather settled the land. His grandfather was the first to clear the land for farming. When his grandfather came to the virgin tract, the cave was there!
A thousand years and more is a long time to try to trace a slender thread back through history. Still, a pretty plausible case can be made to support the idea that Irish Culdee Monks were the first European settlers in New England. And it can further be said that they came to these shores for the same reasons that those who followed in their footsteps came…for freedom to live and work and worship as they chose.