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  • Writer's pictureHugh MacMahon

Ireland’s legendary Eternal Flames – Three, Four or More?

When following up on one of our previous locally resident saints, Mainham (also of Kil-mainham, Dublin), I discovered he had an ‘eternal flame’ burning in his Dublin monastery back in the 7th century.

Maelruan of neighbouring Tallaght said of Mainham, ‘To thy successors great prerogatives shall belong, and in Ireland thy fire shall be the third on which privilege shall be conferred, that is, the fire of the elder of Lianan of Kinvarra, the lively and perennial fire of Innismurray and thy fire at Kilmainham.’

I checked Innismurray to see if there had been a perpetual flame and indeed there is a ‘House of Fire’ (Templenatinny) with the location of the fire marked.

So far I have not found any mention of a perpetual flame in Kinvarra (there could be transcription errors involved) but the existence of such a flame in St Brigid’s Kildare up to the Reformation is well documented. (Maelruan’s prophecy mentions only three, why was Brigid’s omitted?)

Fire has been a sacred symbol for people all over the world since earliest times with famous ‘eternal flames’ in Persia, Jerusalem, Greece (Olympus) and Rome (the Vestal). It represented the heat, light and energy that are basic for life. This vitality must never be allowed to die out lest the safely of the people, city or household be put in danger. Usually guardians were stationed to watch over it and reignite it if necessary. Brigid’s fire in Kildare had sixteen attendants.

The practice would have come to Ireland in very early times and was easily adopted by the first Christians. They took the acknowledgement and reverence of the sacredness expressed in the attitude to fire a step further by recognising God as the ultimate source of its vitality. They continued the fire customs with a slight change in emphasis.

Later ‘perpetual flames’ came to symbolise a past event or a commitment that the people did not want forgotten. In Ireland today there are examples in the National Memorial in St Stephen’s Green, the ‘Universal Links on Human Rights’ near Amiens Street and post-Famine emigration at the JFK Eternal Flame in New Ross.

It was Mainham’s road sign that started me on the road to discover the three ‘Perpetual Fires of Ireland’ which put the country on the same cultural level as Greece, Rome and Jerusalem. How many more such under-researched traces of our national heritage have we neglected?

If you have come across any ‘eternal flames’ or further information on the three mentioned by Maelruan, let me know. Today our efforts to recover our heritage may not amount to much but at least we are ‘keeping the flame alive’!

(Mainham was noted for more than his ‘eternal flame’. He had a remarkable life and left a prophecy that has an intriguing message for today. To find out more, see future blogs on the Facebook pages of ‘hugh macmahon’.)


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