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Irish Myths and Irish History

Much of the ancient Celtic mythology made the conversion from the pagan Ireland of the Druids and before to the Ireland so troubled by too many conquerors. The Christianity of St. Patrick and that of the later church are barely recognizable, so how did so many Irish stories make the passage through the eons? Land of saints and sinners, er, scholars indeed, it is now as it always has been, and there is often little difference to be found between the old myths that were saved from around the 6th or 7th century onward, when collections of ancient poetry and prose were preserved in writing (as the monks were wont to do), up to and including the present time. God bless these holy men, who in true Irish fashion compromised with the past, pagan friends, neighbors, and indeed, ancestors, and so these oral histories, legends, and holidays are incorporated into Irish life to this very day.

Don’t believe it? What about Halloween? Have you ever been kissed under the mistletoe? Thank a Druid.

Iona, Thomas Cahill tells us in “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” was where the monks kept the flame of knowledge alive during the Dark Ages. Paradoxically, Iona was a sacred island of the druids, whose custody of Irish spiritual life would be replaced by Roman Christianity. When the Romans invaded Britain, the druids held out and pulled their strings from there for some years before their power was broken. After that, and until Patrick, the Druids’ last stronghold was in Ireland.

The Druids were the high priests of the Celts. They were responsible for the social fabric of Celtic life. They were required to advise and teach the kings and chieftains, doing what druids did: supervising rituals, divining the future, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, law, and the history of the Celts themselves. According to Caesar, the training of a druid took twenty years, but it was a lifetime job, so no doubt a good druid learned much every single day.

Maybe there are some things you don’t want to know about the druids, but I am assured that human sacrifice was not one of their practices. I can see how St. Patrick, with his message that the ultimate sacrifice had already been made by Christ, could make a strong point for conversion. As Christianity unfolded in Ireland, so the druidic control over society went by the wayside, but the early Christian leaders absorbed many of the pagan holidays, rituals, and beliefs into the new faith.

The druids, for their part, had been the learned teachers of the Celtic societies of Gaul, Britain, and Ireland. The word “druid" means "knowledge of the woods." The oak is the symbol of the druid.

Where did the monks get their information to pass on through the generations? In pagan Ireland, during the druids’ times, much was written about the druids (and druidesses) by the learned classes in Gaul, Britain, and Ireland, so it is well known that they were judges and teachers. Under the order of the druids, there was an established hierarchy for the dissemination of information. The oral history of the Irish people was communicated to the ruling class by the “ollam,” [highest rank] “fili,” [official storytellers, historians, or genealogists] among whom the familiar “bard” (the most well-known designation of Irish storyteller) was a mere novice. It took a dozen years and the memorization of 350 stories for a fili to achieve the status of ollam, which was the highest rank, whether it was the law, history, or any of the druidic traditions. The ollam had to be a diviner as well as a storyteller. This means that, like other high-ranking druids, he would have practiced telling the future. The Celts were keen to find the truths, and using the occult to do so was not considered profane until after St. Patrick, who taught that using divination was “giving offerings to demons.” This suggests to me that he believed in the occult as much as any “superstitious peasant,” and there are many examples of divination, and the acquisition of knowledge through other means magical.

How dare I say such a thing? Is this lunacy? No, it’s Lughnasa. Can’t you feel it? August brings the celebration of the Celtic god, Lugh, and his is the harvest festival, a grand fair day, which in Ireland is celebrated with feats of strength and endurance (thank you, Mr. Guinness), horse-racing, dancing, sport of all kinds. Some might enjoy the full moon and climbing to the tops of hills to pray; others are drawn to lakes and holy wells.

It is simple to compare early, or pagan, Irish life to the natural affinity of the Irish personality. The analysis is not difficult thanks to the accurate picture of pagan life left by Christian monks who wrote out the ancient stories for posterity only to have them copied and recopied into the history of the world long after Ireland had been converted: lock, stock, and barrel.

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