Don’t be put off by the name. Nicker (Co. Limerick, Ireland), meaning “the rabbit warren” (an coinicéar in the original Irish), is a very unique place. Along with Glencolmcille and Leacht Benáin, half way up Croagh Patrick, the grotto behind Nicker parish church is one of the most spiritual and mysterious places I’ve ever been. The immediate surroundings of the grotto are enveloped in a cone of silence; there’s no birdsong, the wind doesn’t disturb the branches of the trees and there’s not a peep from the nearby roadside or fields. It seems as if time is standing still.
I was directed there by a retired geology lecturer acquaintance of mine.
“A mini Giant’s Causeway,” he called it.
“The grotto is built on an old volcanic stack,” he explained. “The basalt cooled into the same hexagonal forms as up in Antrim. It’s less extensive. Less spectacular. But worth a visit if you’re in the area.”
Taking him up on his recommendation, I did pay Nicker a visit and he was right — it was worth a visit. But however curious and other-worldly the roughly hexagonal columns of matt-black rock were, it wasn’t just these that piqued my interest or gave me the impression I was somewhere unique. Nor was it was the Lourdes grotto itself — an ambitious monument, considering the tiny village which it serves. In spite of its sheer size and scale — the way it was built into the hillside’s bare rock, the cave underneath it, the crucifixion scene on the hilltop above, the sculpted stations of the cross leading up and down from it — it wasn’t this that arrested me during my visit to Nicker grotto. What took my breath away, what startled and surprise me, was the great sense of calm, transcendence, of being at one with my surroundings that the location instilled. I’ve been to many grottoes in my time (I have more than a passing interest in grottoes), many holy places, and very few had every moved me to a state of mind even approaching what I felt that day. So I did a bit of digging.
It turns out Nicker is located in a very special part of the world — a part of the world that has long been a centre of ritual and worship, both pagan and Christian. Nearby Pallasgreen (in Irish “Pailís Ghréine“, meaning stockade of Gréine [Grian in English]) derives its name from the ancient Irish goddess, Gréine. Can we make the bold assumption that the palisade in question was some sort of ceremonial structure similar to the wooden henge unearthed in the south of England recently? To the southwest of Nicker is Knockgrean hill (the hill of the Grian — Cnoc Gréine in Irish). Who was this Gréine? Meaning “sun”, it is thought that Gréine was either the sister of the Irish pre-Christian sun goddess, Áine, or one of her alternative manifestations. Another theory runs that, because of Áine’s association with midsummer rites, it is possible that Áine and Gréine may share a dual-goddess, seasonal function. The year’s “two suns” may each be represented by one of the sisters: Áine, the light half of the year and the bright summer sun (an ghrian mhór), and Gréine the dark half of the year and the pale winter sun (an ghrian bheag). It is intriguing that the Nicker “complex” is only about seven from Áine’s hill, Cnoc Áine (Knockainy).
So, could it be the case that the day I visited Nicker, I picked up on something of the ancient spirituality of the area, some residue of the centuries of rite and ceremony that must have taken place there? The sites at Nicker Hill, Knockgrean and Pallasgreen must have had central roles in the lives of the men and women of the entire region in pre-Christian times. Perhaps in the place where the grotto now stands, or on nearby Knockgrean or below in Pallasgreen, grand rites were celebrated during the winter solstice, with crowds of people travelling from all over County Limerick and beyond to participate? Is it possible that something of the magic and power of these rites survives in Nicker? Or maybe Nicker Hill and surroundings always exuded a special energy and it was this (or the strangeness of the geological formations) that inspired our ancestors to centre their sun worship around it?
Just as with thousands of pagan sites around Ireland, from holy wells to holy mountains (Croagh Patrick used to be the mountain of the god, Crom Cruach, before Patrick staked his claim with his forty days and forty nights of fasting), Nicker was appropriated and sanitised by the new religion, Christianity. A church was built below the volcanic stack that held such fascination for our ancient ancestors and then a grotto was built on the stack itself. So what we get is a new layer of belief and ritual being constructed on the old one, without the latter ever having being fully obliterated. This is what made the Celtic Church so unique and allowed religious practice and the folklore of Ireland to have such a pagan undercurrent all the way up to historical times. What says it all for me is the fact that Nicker is in the civil parish of Grean — a parish named after a pre-Christian goddess.