Before I tell you the tale of St. Patrick and the werewolves of Ireland I need you to clear your mind of St. Patrick’s Day parties, clovers, green glitter and beer. Good, now we can begin.
According to legend, St. Patrick once punished the Welsh king Vereticus by transforming him into a wolf. While St. Patrick was in Ireland he became so disgusted with certain tribes that continued to resist his efforts to convert them to Christianity that he cursed them and condemned them to become werewolves.
The spell fell on the poor tribesmen and caused them to turn into werewolves every seven years. They would stay in wolf form for seven years, then once the years passed they would turn back into humans, but only for another seven years, then it was back to wolf all over again. It was a horrible vicious cycle. Seven years as a wolf, seven as a human, seven as a wolf, seven as a human… until they died.
But during their seven years as a werewolf they weren’t denied the sacraments of the church. In 1191 a man named Giraldus Cambrensis recorded the testimony of a priest that swore that he once gave a sacrament to a werewolf.
Throughout the years, travelers to Ireland insisted that they had met entire families of werewolves and that they have even seen some people transform into wolves. Up until the end of the eighteenth century, Ireland was known as Wolfland.
This legend of St. Patrick turning unbelievers into werewolves could very well be a fabricated story used to scare people into turning to Christianity. This kind of thing was done quite often throughout the old world. They would tell the people that if they led sinful lives they would be turned into a vampire or werewolf or some other monster – that’s actually how we have many of the stories we have. Think of it as telling a child if he doesn’t behave the boogeyman will get him, same deal.
But who knows, maybe St. Patrick did turn the pagans into werewolves for not bringing Christ into their hearts.
A Tale of the Werewolves of Ossory
Several years before the arrival of Prince John in Ireland, a certain priest was travelling from the kingdom of Ulster towards Meath on some urgent and religious business. With him travelled a young boy, a novice at one of the religious houses in Ulster, as a kind of squire or helpmate on his travels. Their journey was a long and arduous one which took them through much strange and brooding country where the people still kept close to the old pagan ways.
One evening, as the sun was setting, they reached a great and sprawling wood which ran along the borders of Meath and was known far and wide as part of the ecclesiastical See of Ossory. Dark was coming quickly, and the priest decided that the edge of the forest might make a good place to camp for the night. Accordingly, he lit a small fire, both for warmth and to keep wild forest animals away, and he and the boy prepared a simple evening meal for themselves.
As night drew on, the violet sky overhead changed to a deeper hue and soon utter darkness spread across the entire countryside. The small fire burned low and the boy lay half-dozing whilst the holy man pored over his religious books. Whilst he was so doing, he suddenly became aware that the sounds from the neighbour ing woodlands, which had been quite loud at a time, had fallen away and an eerie silence pervaded the area. It was a strange thing and it badly frightened the priest for he was on holy business and was well aware that the Evil One was abroad on the road and was seeking to divert his path. Then, from the darkness beyond the fireglow came a voice, soft and gruff, but with a hint of urgency about it.
‘Father!’ it said. The priest looked towards the boy who appeared to be Iying fast asleep. Thinking that he had imagined it, he turned back to the pages of his book. But the voice came again, harsh and insistent: ‘Father!’
Rising, the priest closed his sacred book and walked to the edge of the fireglow. Standing there, he looked out into the darkness of the forest beyond.
‘Who’s there?’ he asked, grasping the crucifix which hung about his neck, for he was sorely afraid of the machinations of the Evil One. ‘Who calls me?’
For a moment there was silence, then the same harsh voice came again.
‘A penitent sinner who seeks only your blessing, Father’, it replied.
The priest clutched the crucifix even more tightly for he knew that Satan was the father of all lies, and that this might be a wily ruse to lure him into the darkness of the forest where he might be set upon by demons. Nevertheless, he took another step forward.
‘If you are truly a repentent sinner’, he said sternly, ‘step forward into the firelight and reveal yourself so that I may hear your sins and grant you absolution.’
There was a long pause and the darkness in front of the holy man appeared to deepen slightly. The voice came again.
‘I – I cannot, Father. I am under a severe curse and if you were to see me, you would find my appearance strange.’
It spoke with such pathos that the priest found himself quite moved. He peered against the darkness but could see nothing, save the movement of bushes in a light evening wind. When he spoke again, his tone was less stern and commanding.
‘In my travels all across this country’, he said kindly, ‘I have seen many awful deformities. I have seen lepers and those who were born with terribly twisted bodies and faces. I have looked into countenances which were almost too terrible to gaze upon and I have given succour to those who were most sorely afflicted. I have seen men living under the most terrible of curses. So I doubt if anything that you can show me will alarm or disgust me. I therefore ask you again to come forward and let me gaze upon you so that I can see to whom it is that I grant the Lord’s absolution.’
He waited but there was no response from the night for a long, long while. Then the voice came again, still harsh, yet breaking with emotion.
‘If you were to see me’, it told the priest, ‘you would be greatly afraid. And, in truth, it is not absolution for myself which brings me so close to your fire but rather it is to seek absolution for she who cannot come.’
The priest was puzzled but he answered earnestly and in the same kindly tone.
‘Tell me, are you diseased in some way?’ he asked.
‘After a fashion’, answered the voice. ‘But, Father, my form is so terrifying that you would be struck with fear if you were to behold it.’
The priest answered, using the same kindly tone.
‘I have God’s word and His goodness and power to protect me’, he said. ‘Why should I be frightened by one of His creatures? Please, I beg you as a priest, come into the light so that I may see you and give you the blessing for which you ask.’
By this time the boy had wakened and was now sitting by the edge of the fire looking out into the darkness with eyes that were wide and full of terror. He was only a novice and was unsettled by the strange, bodiless, growling voice. The priest motioned him to sit still and be quiet.
‘Come forward!’ he repeated. ‘You cannot frighten me!’
There was a movement in the darkness beyond the firelight and into the wan circle of brilliance came a huge grey wolf, its muzzle white and dripping and its tongue lolling out of the side of its mouth. The priest crossed himself in shock and the boy made to cry out but was struck dumb by terror.
‘There!’ said the wolf in that familiar voice. ‘Now you see me! Are you not terrified?’ The priest was fairly choking with fear but yet he shook his head.
‘I – I am protected by the living God Himself’, he managed to say, ‘but what sort of creature are you for I believe that there is more to you than the form which I see before me?’ The wolf looked at him with red eyes which glowed menacingly in the firelight.
‘As I told you, I am one who lives under a terrible curse’, it replied. ‘Once I was like you but am now forced to wear this terrible form for a period of seven years. Yet in my heart I am still a devout Christian in need of succour and blessing. And there are yet more of us out in yonder forest who are aMicted with the same curse.’ The priest composed himself slightly.
‘And yet, you worship God and openly and freely acknowl edge the sacrifice of His son for mankind at Calvary?’ he enquired. ‘You can acknowledge that with all your heart?’
The wolf stretched itself close to the fire and the boy ran back into the shadows and sat there, crouching in terror.
‘Aye and gladly’, said the creature. ‘Although we wear this ghastly form, we are as human and in need of salvation as any other people.’ The priest nodded thoughtfully, his initial terror beginning to fade.
‘But how came you by this fearsome form?’ he asked in wonder. ‘And why must you wear it for seven years?’ The wolf watched him warily.
‘I am a member of Clan Allta, a tribe of this region’, it answered, ‘and like yourself, Father, we are believers in Jesus Christ and in the power of His salvation. However, in times long past, we were cursed for some ancient sin by the blessed Abbot Natalis.’
The priest took in a sharp breath. He had heard of Natalis, who had come to Ireland shortly after the Blessed Patrick to bring the Word of God to a dark and pagan land. He had even read some of the holy man’s works. From what he had read, he had always imagined the holy man to be exceedingly severe and inflexible in his teachings and one who would brook no deviation from his own interpretations of God’s law.
‘The sin which my clan committed has long been forgotten’, went on the wolf, ‘but the curse is still in force. Every seven years two of us must lose our mortal form to wear the skin of the wild wolf and must live in the deep woods away from the rest of our clan. When the seven years are up we shed our animal form and regain our human shape and two others must take our place. It is a terrible burden, Father, and one which will never be lifted, for Natalis is long dead
‘My wife and I were chosen to take the wolf-shape over six years ago. We were old and it was assumed that the clan could do without us, and so we were driven out from among our people under the curse. Our time in wolf-shape had almost passed when some hunters, passing through these woodlands, aimed an arrow which struck my wife, grievously wounding her. Father, I fear that she is not long for this world and I would implore you to give her the final absolution before she dies.’
The beast looked at the priest with large and imploring eyes. ‘She lies in a place not far from here. I beg you, come and minister to her.’
The creature spoke so earnestly and with such passion that the priest could not find it in his heart to refuse.
‘Very well’, he said, motioning to the boy to remain where he was by the fire. ‘Lead me to where your wife lies and if she is truly a Christian, I will administer the final sacraments to her.’ At his words, the wolf sprang up and moved to the very edge of the firelight, waiting for the priest to follow.
‘Come then’, it said. ‘We must make haste for I fear that her hour may be passing even as we speak.’ Gathering up his religious books, the priest followed and the wolf made off into the darkness of the wood.
The journey deep into the forest was a dangerous one. The wolf moved swiftly and silently ahead of the old man, and the priest was now sure that any noises that had been made earlier were to alert him to the beast’s presence near his fire. The trail that they followed was a difficult path, pitted with holes and deep gullies which the priest often found awkward to negotiate. At length they came to a fork in the trail, marked by a lightning blasted tree. Close by there was a small river flowing and the roots of the ancient oak trailed over into the water.
‘Here we are’, said the wolf suddenly. The priest squinted in the gloom. There in a small cave among the jumbled roots lay an old she-wolf, as grizzled and thin as her mate. At his approach, she raised her ancient head.
‘See, my dear’, said the first wolf in a low and soothing voice, ‘I have done as I promised and have brought a priest for you.’
Kneeling down, the priest scrambled under the entrance to the cave and squatted beside the she-wolf. There was a great wound on her flank from which part of the shaft of an arrow still stuck out. The priest moved closer to the dying animal.
‘Who are you?’ he whispered. ‘What are you?’ The female further licked her head with some difficulty and blood bubbled between her wolf-lips.
‘My husband may have already told you’, she answered. ‘We are the Werewolves of Ossory, condemned to live in this guise for a season. We are sometimes hunted for our pelts which are extremely valuable and I have been wounded by hunters. I desire to die with the Holy Offices of a priest. Hear my confession and grant me your blessing, Father’. The priest nodded hesitantly.
‘You think we are evil’, went on the she-wolf. ‘You think that this is some trick of the Evil One, sent to lure you away from the sacred paths of the Church.’ The priest nodded again. ‘Yet we readily acknowledge the name of God, of Jesus Christ His Son and of the Virgin Mary. What creature of evil could do that? I tell you that underneath this fearsome form we are as human and as Christian as yourself, Father.’ The priest still seemed uncertain.
‘What will it take to convince you?’ asked the male wolf, rearing up on its hind-legs. ‘If I were to walk like a man would that set your mind at rest that we are truly human?’ The priest hesitated. ‘We will do anything to convince you, if you will hear my wife’s confession!’ The priest licked his dry lips uneasily.
‘You say that you are human’, he answered, ‘but … but I see only the animal. And certainly you speak like mortals and yet your words come in the rough grunts of the beast. If … if I could but see the human which you say lurks beneath the wolf-skin, then my mind would be at rest.’
The female wolf straightened herself painfully. The priest drew back in alarm but then saw that she did not mean to threaten him.
‘Very well’, she said. ‘In the name of the living God, behold my true face.’ And she brought her right forepaw to her jaws and began to gnaw and bite at the skin. Blood spurted out and part of the leg fell away to reveal the fingers of a human hand below. Raising the hand to its belly, the female wolf proceeded to rip and tear at the flesh there, pulling it back and opening it as though it was a hairy garment. The wolf-head seemed to fall away like a woollen mask and, beneath skin and membrane, the priest thought that he saw another, human head. This was the head of an old woman, thin and brown-skinned, narrow and with hair plastered across the sides of the face.
‘Jesu!’ he muttered, crossing himself. The woman’s ancient mouth worked to form words. ‘There, Father’, said the old lady’s voice. ‘Now do you believe? Beneath that wolf-body we are indeed human.’ She worked and tore through sinew and gristle, allowing her liKle head to poke out through.
‘Now, Father’, said the male wolf. ‘You have heard our tale, you know that we are human and are true believers. Will you hear my wife’s confession and grant her the absolution for which she craves?’ The priest sighed at the horror of it all and at the awfulness of the holy curse which lay upon the old couple. Sometimes, he thought, those who called themselves Christian were far worse in their ways than the pagans whom they sought to convert.
‘I will hear your confession’, he said slowly and with much sadness in his voice. He bent down as the male wolf moved away into the dark, and listened to the small, halting voice as the old woman made her final confession. Then he made the sign of the cross above her.
‘I grant you my absolution’, he said. ‘Go to meet your maker in peace.’ The she-wolf sank down into the darkness with a contented sigh.
‘Now, though my body dies in its present form’, she whispered, ‘my immortal soul shall be with God.’ And she laid her head down and sank into a deep and restful sleep.
At first light, the male wolf led the priest back to his campsite where the boy was waiting for him. Later, the beast led the two of them to the very edge of the forest so that they could continue their journey. As they were about to depart, the priest turned to the wolf and said:
‘Tell me if you know, will the invader remain in Ireland for much longer?’ He asked the question for he imagined that the wolf, being a supernatural creature, might have some knowledge of the future. The animal considered for a while.
‘On account of the grievous sins of our nation and the enormous wickedness of the people here, God has inflicted the rule of a foreign enemy upon them. As to whether they will remain, I cannot tell at present. Return to these woods upon your way back from Meath and I may be able to tell you.’
And he bid the priest farewell and loped off back into the forest. The priest called after him that he would return with all possible speed to hear the answer but by that time the wolf had returned to the dark woodland depths. Sadly, the priest turned and continued on his journey.
His business in Meath took him much longer than he had expected and so it was early in the following year before he journeyed back to Ulster. On his way, he stopped in the woods of Ossory but, although he searched, he could not find any sign of the wolf at all. Perhaps he had been killed by hunters or maybe he had moved on. Either way there was not a trace of him to be seen.”
From Beasts, Banshees and Brides from the Sea by Bob Curran