October 2018 - Lora O'Brien - Irish Author & Guide
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NeoPaganism – a Brief History of our Modern Pagan Religion

NeoPaganism

Just like the question of how we do our Paganism – the other question of how it all began is a little… contentious. In some camps.

We know of course, that what we’re doing now in our various spiritual traditions is derived from, and continually inspired by (even in some cases closely related to), ancient sources.

There is an unfortunate history of ‘fakelore’ within the early movement however, that has caused considerable damage, and I’d hope we have, as communities, moved on from all that. I’m talking about those made up stories that involve initiation or training by a Grandmother, Grandfather, or other relative who is said to have instructed some of our community elders in the secret, millennia-old traditions of their ancestors.

Maybe there’s the odd one of these that’s true, but even at that, we’ve no way of knowing how far back these ‘secret traditions’ go. I mean, how do you really KNOW that your Granny wasn’t a scammer, if she told you a story like this?

My own Nana has told me stories about older relatives who were doing what I’d class as magic spells and seasonal observances, and my Granny on the other side told me that my tales of the Good Neighbours here in Ireland (the fairies, but we generally don’t like to call them that out loud) were exactly what her granny was doing on the daily, when she’d visit with them on their farm.

None of that means we have a family tradition of ancient witchcraft, or fairy doctoring, through either of my bloodlines.

It’s sad that folk feel so insecure in their own communities or beliefs that they invest so much energy in upholding such stories. Just get on with things as they are, will you?

Decolonising our NeoPaganism

We have a contemporary religious movement right now that can support or even revive traditional, indigenous, or native religions; if we make sure the work we do to decolonise our NeoPagan spiritual practice is in line with modern standards of it not being cool to just take things that don’t belong to you, and do what you fancy with them.

The early roots of NeoPaganism lie in the romanticist and national liberation movements that developed in Europe from the 1700s CE to the early 1900s.

The work of scholars and scoundrels such as Johann G Herder, George MacGregor-Reid, Douglas Hyde, WB Yeats, Alexander Carmichael, JG Frazer, Jacob Grimm, Aleister Crowley and Charles G Leland (listed here in no particular order of preference or endorsement!) led to an interest in folklore, folk customs, occultism, and mythology, and to a growth in cultural self-consciousness and pride.

How many of those dudes were a part of the native cultures from which they drew so heavily, and ultimately profited off (whether in money or credibility)?

Leland, mentioned above, was perhaps the earliest to write specifically on a modern witchcraft tradition, when in 1899 he published ‘Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches’, which is supposed to contain the traditional beliefs of Italian witchcraft as gifted to him by his ‘witch informant’, a woman named Maddalena. This one has definitely been disputed as ‘fakelore’, but some still believe it to be true… either way, it had a specific and measurable influence on the development of Traditional Wicca in Britain.

Anthropologist Margaret Murray – an early feminist – added fuel to the slow burning fires when in the 1920s when her books theorised that the witch trials of Early Modern Christendom were an attempt to extinguish a surviving pre-Christian, pagan religion devoted to a Horned God. Again, this is still much disputed, but again, we can see that her work had a huge influence over the development of Wicca.

Gardner – the Grandaddy of NeoPaganism

And that is where we can definitively pinpoint the beginning of contemporary NeoPaganism – with a guy called Gerald Brousseau Gardner. He was a retired British civil servant, who lived from 1884 to 1964, and had spent much of his adult life in Malaysia (with a three year stint in Borneo), becoming fascinated with a variety of occult beliefs and magical practices.

He returned to England in 1936, at the age of 52, with his first book, ‘Keris and Other Malay Weapons’, published that year. He wrote his second book, the fiction work ‘A Goddess Arrives’, inspired by the long holidays to Cypress he had to take to endure the English winters, and it was published in 1939.

We really get to the start of all this though with his move to the New Forest region in 1938, and came into contact with the Rosicrucian Order Crotona Fellowship, and the Rosicrucian Theatre near Christchurch.

The Wiccan Roots of NeoPaganism

The story goes that he met a coven of ‘the Old Religion’ there, and was initiated into the tradition of “Wica”, which he claimed (in his book ‘The Meaning of Witchcraft’, published 1959) came from the Anglo Saxon words ‘wig’ (an idol), and ‘laer’ (learning); giving us ‘wiglaer’ – which was shortened into ‘Wicca’, or in Saxon ‘Wica’. Doreen Valiente later claimed it came from the Indo-European root ‘Weik’, which relates to things connected with magic and religion.

There’s a couple of theories now as to who might have initiated Gardner into this Old Religion.

Originally, it was told as Old Dorothy Clutturbuck, who Valiente later proved had actually existed at least, whether she was a witch or not remains unclear. Or it might have been a woman known as Dafo, whose real name was Edith Woodford-Grimes. The latest research though, by the excellent scholar Philip Heselton, makes a strong case for a woman called Rosamund Sabine, known as ‘Mother Sabine’.

You can see, perhaps, why there’s some suspicion regarding the veracity of Gardner’s claim? He went on to publish more books:

  • 1949: High Magic’s Aid (fiction, but perhaps only published as such because witchcraft was technically illegal in England until the law was repealed in 1951)
  • 1954: Witchcraft Today
  • 1959: The Meaning of Witchcraft

Other notable names around at the inception of Wicca were Eleanor Bone (1911-2001), and Sybil Leek (1923-1983), who each have their own origin stories and subsequent books published, which are worth a look at.

With a priestess, Doreen Valiente – and heavily influenced by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (started in 1888), and in particular the work of the occultist and magician Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) – Gardner started his specific practice of witchcraft, which became (Gardnerian) traditional Wicca.

Besides Doreen Valiente, those involved in Gardnerian Wicca at the start there were Jack Bracelin, Pat and Arnold Crowther, Lois Bourne (Hemmings), Monique Wilson and Campbell “Scotty” Wilson.

Traditional Wicca as we Know it

Gardner was followed by Alex Sanders (1926-1988), who founded the Alexandrian tradition of Wicca in the 1960s. Alex claimed to have been initiated by his Grandmother as a child, and indeed he did have a family background in the esoteric, but we do know that he was probably initiated into Gardnerian Wicca in 1963 through the Crowthers’ line, but not by them personally, and he sort of ran with things in his own way from there.

From his line came the author Stewart Farrar (1916-200, initiated in 1970 at the age of 54), and his wife Janet (1950- ), who have perhaps had the most influence through all of this in the development and promotion of the practice of traditional Wicca to the wider world, through their many books as well as a stable media presence.

Indeed Janet and her husband Gavin Bone continue to write and teach on Pagan topics worldwide, at the point of writing, from their base in Kells, County Meath, Ireland.

English occultist Roy Bowers, known most commonly as Robert Cochrane (1931-1966), is another who claimed to have been born to a hereditary family of witches, with practices stretching back to at least the 1600s CE and a grandfather who was the last Grand Master of the Staffordshire witches… all of this has been dismissed by his own family, and his wife Jane.

He started a coven, the Clan of Tubal Cain, in the early 1960s with a newspaper advert. Him and the Gardnerian lads and lasses were not friends, and there was a lot of to and fro between them through the years, but sure we don’t need to go into all that here.

And that’s basically where it all began.

Of course there have been many others involved, for good or ill, and apologies to anyone who I’ve left out in this brief recap.

My own initiation, for what it’s worth, was in 1996 (aged 18) by Barbara Lee and her ex-husband Peter Doyle, both of whom trained and worked with Janet and Stewart Farrar directly, and I went on to gain my Third Degree before leaving that tradition, in my early 20s, and eventually finding my way to formalising my own native Irish NeoPaganism.


 

Learn About Irish Pagan Beliefs

 

Irish Pagan Holidays

Irish Pagan Holidays and Pagan Festivals

Pagan Holidays (Holy Days) worldwide are coming back to a more general use and understanding, with folk often asking questions about whether Christmas is a Pagan Holiday (it is, sort of), and observing the 8-fold Wheel of the Year.

The current Neo Pagan calendar (and its primarily Wiccan holidays) is ostensibly based off the ‘Celtic Wheel of the Year’, as the early creators and authors of our modern traditions were very fond of their romantic notions of Celtic culture, and very sure that it was ok to just… take what they wanted, and change or use it however they wanted.

*cough* Coilíní *cough*

The problem with this (one of the problems) is that we now have a sort of tangled, much mangled, view of the original pre-christian Irish Pagan festivals, that even many Irish Pagans adhere to.

In this post, I’d like to break this down a bit, and clarify some of the basics, so that we can (hopefully), start fresh. With a somewhat cleaner slate for Irish Pagan practice. Le do thoil.

The Wheel of the Year

To begin with, the ‘traditional’ eight Pagan Holidays, are actually 2 sets of four. So the wheel of the year is maybe 2 wheels, rotating side by side.

This can be a little confusing if you’re not used to considering things this way, but I do remember being quite frustrated back in my baby Pagan days by how the festivals seemed to just be copies of each other. Like, within the Wiccan traditions, there’s not a huge difference between how you’re celebrating the Summer Solstice (Litha) and Beltane, for example.

In my native practice, I break the focus, themes or concerns out as follows:

  • The Fire Festivals – with Community elements, but a focus on Hearth & Home, and the Otherworld.
  • The Cross Quarters – with Community elements, but a focus on the Land & Sovereignty, and this World.

The Pagan Calendar names I use are in modern Irish, and the associated Gaeilge video is also my schoolgirl modern Irish pronunciation, to be clear.

Irish is a living language, and while I’m the first one to honour the Primitive Irish and Old Irish source material, they are different languages. We have modern Irish terminology for every single Pagan Holiday name, and a wealth of associated folklore and traditions within our living memory in Irish communities. So let’s use that.

Admittedly now, some of the folklore has gotten crossed over and shifted around with the Christian influences, eg. Summer Solstice bonfires now happen on St. John’s Eve, on the 23rd June, and the animal sacrifice tradition has moved from Samhain to St. Martin’s Day, on the 11th November. But that’s ok too.

At least the traditions still exist, and have grown and moved with the communities as we did.

Irish Pagan Holidays – the Fire Festivals

Focus on Community, Hearth & Home, the Otherworld (an Saol Eile).

When people first walked this land, there were 2 seasons: summer and winter. They signified the change and move between camping grounds, as theirs was a Hunter/Gatherer lifestyle.

These times of moving and changing were dangerous and uncertain, and this still holds true in the primary Irish Pagan holidays of Bealtaine, and Samhain, which remain times of great change and uncertainty.

When the people settled, and began to farm the land, the seasons of Growth and Harvest were marked, with Imbolg and Lúnasa, and so began the 4 Fire Festivals.

Lora O'Brien - Irish Pagan Holidays - Fire Festivals

[Download this Chart as a PDF Below]

IMBOLG

Personally, I use the name Imbolg for this festival. That’s from the Irish i mBolg, meaning ‘in the belly’, for the pregnancy aspects (animals as well as humans, because if we get pregnant at Bealtaine we give birth around now). Imbolc is commonly used too though, and may have associations with washing or a ‘spring clean’ after winter, from Folc, meaning ‘bathe or wash’. I’m honestly not sure which language the term Oimelc comes from, though it’s been given to mean ‘ewe’s milk’. That would be Bainne na Caoirigh in modern Irish though, which doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Bolg or https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Folc

BEALTAINE

We have this clearly in old Irish as Belltaine (with various other spellings, the manuscripts weren’t always precise or standardised), meaning the month of May, or even ‘the month of the beacon-fire) according to the eDIL. It may have associations with an Old Celtic God Boleros, ‘the flashing one’ (Ó hÓgáin) or Balar/Balor in Ireland, he of the single, blazing destructive eye (often thought to be symbolic of the sun), and form the word Bealtaine from Balor’s Fire (tine).

There are multiple spellings out there, and I know some of them are based on the Gaelic language of Scotland, which I don’t speak. But as we still use the word Bealtaine in modern Irish for the month of May, and again – this is a living language, and it’d be great not to have to deal with bastardised or anglicised versions of it anymore please and thank you – let’s go with that eh?!

Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Bealtaine

LÚNASA

You’ll often see this written as Lughnasadh, and indeed, I’ve done so myself. As above though, I prefer the modern Irish spelling, and in Gaeilge, Lúnasa is the word for the month of August. I mean, I wasn’t joking about these Pagan holidays still being a part of our culture.

It’s most likely connected to the Old God Lugh, (lug in old Irish can be ‘magnificent, heroic, warlike’: eDIL), and Lugnasad is ‘the festival of Lugh, the first of August’: eDil.

You’ll see references too, to Lammas, which we don’t have in modern Irish. My basic exploration of Old Irish suggests it MIGHT be a version of a ‘fine, handsome or excellent hand’ (from n. Lám and adj. Mass?)… but be warned, that is a very rudimentary look at a compound word! I definitely don’t use it as a Pagan Holiday name anyway.

Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Lúnasa

SAMHAIN

It’s not pronounced Sam-Hane. Never. I don’t care what your esteemed Elders passed down to you not-so-very-long-ago (in the grand scheme of things).

This is a LIVING LANGUAGE. Respect it, and the people who still speak it every day. Stop that Sam-Hane shit immediately.

It probably comes from the Old Irish samfuin, meaning ‘death of Summer’: eDIL. Samhain in modern Irish is the word for the month of November.

So yes, we know how to pronounce it properly. (Are you getting a sense for how many times I’ve had U.S. Pagans correct my pronunciation? Like, I’m not sure how to even communicate how infuriating that is, especially when it happens consistently!)

Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Samhain

Irish Pagan Holidays – the Cross Quarters

Focus on Community, Land & Sovereignty, this World (an Saol Sin – or Seo).

We know these times were important to our ancestors due, at least, to the sacred sites they constructed and used to observe and celebrate them. Massive monuments all over the island still attest to the power and value that was placed upon aligning ourselves, our communities, and our leadership, with these turning times of the Pagan year.

Please note: the common names Ostara, Litha, Mabon, and Yule, are at best culturally appropriated and co-opted into Neo Paganism, and at worst, carry entirely fabricated pseudo histories. I’m looking at you, Mabon.

They have NO place in native Irish paganism.

The Irish names below are simply the names of our seasons, as Gaeilge, and have always suited my personal practice around the Irish Pagan Holidays best.

Lora O'Brien - Irish Pagan Holidays - Cross Quarters

[Download this Chart as a PDF Below]

EARRACH – THE SPRING EQUINOX

The balance of day and night.

Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Earrach

SAMHRADH – THE SUMMER SOLSTICE

Mid Summer, the longest day.

Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Samhradh

FÓMHAR – THE AUTUMN EQUINOX

The balance of night and day.

Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Fómhar

GEIMHREADH – THE WINTER SOLSTICE

Mid Winter, the longest night.

Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Geimhreadh


[Click to Download FREE Gift – both Diagram Charts as a PDF – No Email Required!]

If you’d like more detail on any of the Irish Pagan Holidays, comment below and let me know. There’s already extensive sections in my books (see Publications – coming soon), but I can try and get some more blog posts and YouTube videos together for them if there’s an interest, and maybe even a wee course through our Irish Pagan School.

Let me know which of the Pagan holidays you want to see more on?!

An Irish Pagan Altar

Some of the most common questions on Irish Pagan Beliefs I see, revolve around the Pagan Altar. What is it? How do you make one? What direction should a Pagan Altar face?!

I figure it might be useful to show you what I do, as a starting point. (Spoiler alert, there’s no pentagrams! The post image was a RUSE!) So, here’s mine, currently, and my answers to a few of those questions besides.

What’s on my Pagan Altar?

My Irish Pagan Altar - Lora O'Brien

Back, left to right:

  • Mini bottle of Mead, a sacred drink to the Irish. This one is for the symbolism, rather than the offering, and it has sentimental value too as it was a gift from my partner.
  • Dropper bottle of Men’s Sacred Water, a gift from Justin Moffat (who is an excellent Guide at Uisneach, an important Irish Sacred Site).
  • 2 red pillar candles; the colour is symbolic of both my Goddess, the Mórrígan, and the Irish Otherworld in which we walk and work.
  • Crow painting, painted and gifted to me by my first ‘Witch Daughter’ initiate, Caroline 💞
  • Square candle holder, usually containing a daily devotional white candle flame; Red and White are the 2 colours of the Irish Otherworld, so they fit here. The holder was a gift from my Mammy, and reads “Take a deep breath, relax, you’re home now”. She gave it to me when I moved down to join my family in County Waterford, after many years in County Roscommon.
  • A travel compass, so I can always find my way back to Ireland. This was a gift from the Cauldron of the Celts and Vyviane of Land Sea Sky Travel, after I guided a tour for them here in Ireland.
  • Crow skull, a treasured gift from my friend Brianna 💜
  • 2 glass vials with cork stoppers, containing clay mud from the Síd ar Cruachán (the Cave of the Cats), and water from the Ogulla Well, both sites of the Rathcroghan Complex, in County Roscommon – home of the Mórrígan and Queen Maedbh.

Front, left to right:

  • Adge’s Wand – a long ago gift of a bog oak and quartz snake carved wand, the personal tool of our own Fluid Druid, Adge, before he left us.
  • Beater for the Bodhrán (native Irish drum) you can just see in the bottom left corner. I often use these as part of my daily devotions.
  • Offering dishes (pictured with sage, which was a gift though I don’t personally use it, and there are sustainability and appropriation issues to consider if you do!)
  • Scented candle with bright copper lid, because I really, really like nice smells and shiny things!
  • Carved wooden bowl and spoon, with blended herbal incense packages – all gifts from the Caludron of the Celts, and Land Sea Sky travel.

Not pictured, see the video for… Offerings glass, painted and gifted by my Witch Sister, Rhiannon, who died a long time ago and is still missed every day, and remembered every time I see it. 💔 Also, Blackthorn branches and Crow feathers collected during my Monthly Site Visits, which are in containers up above, on either side of my Pagan Altar.

How to make your Pagan Altar

As you can see, this isn’t too difficult.

I found the chest in a second hand shop for about 20 quid, and the drawers make handy storage for candles, lighters, and other assorted shite.

Fire is vital when practicising Irish Pagansim, in my opinion, as the hearth and home fires are SO much a part of our culture (and for many other reasons which are beyond the scope of this post… ask me in the comments if you’ve any questions!). So, be sure to have some sort of live flame on there whenever possible.

Connection to place is very important too, so have something that represents the place/s that are important in your practice.

Representation of deity is good – seriously though, don’t get caught up on finding the ‘perfect’ statue or painting. It probably doesn’t exist, to be honest. The gods are essentially formless, and anything after that is us trying to visualise them so that we can build relationship. Stick to the basics as you begin, and see what develops over time.

Ritual tools are optional, depending on your tradition and practice. I have 2 really large carved walking staffs, one bog oak and one yew, that obviously don’t fit on my Pagan altar. I have an athame with a carved Blackthorn handle, that was very special to me when I was an 18 year old in a Traditional Wiccan Coven, but doesn’t have a place in my current native Irish practice.

The most important thing for any Pagan altar is to find and use items that are special to you, that make sense to you.

What direction should a Pagan Altar face?

I don’t even know what direction my altar is facing.

That compass is purely symbolic… I’m probably dyspraxic, and spend a lot of my magical life (and far too much of my mundane life) wandering in and out of the Otherworld. I very rarely know what direction I’m facing in this world!

Unless it’s a specific part of your tradition (in Alexandrian Trad Wicca as I was initially trained, for example, it goes in the North), it doesn’t matter what direction your Pagan Altar is facing.

Just put it wherever works for you, in your home, so you can see and connect with it every single day. I promise, that’s more important than getting it ‘right’ by anyone else’s standards or rules.

How to use a Pagan Altar

As I said, connect with it every day, in some way.

Some days, that will be giving it a bit of a dust or a tidy, and maybe lighting a tealight/votive candle.

Other days, you might be sitting in front of it for an hour or more, using divination or Journeying, perhaps for communicating with a God or Goddess.

And sometimes you may do rituals – like celebrating the seasonal cycles, rites of passage, or devotion to Deity – and decorate it with extra special or symbolic items for the duration.

These are all good uses of a Pagan Altar, and if you’re working alone, or just starting to figure out your Irish Pagan practice, experiement with what seems right for you.

Take notes, keep a record; watch for patterns over time and improve as you go.

Seriously though. Do something every day.

Irish Pagan Practice (or any Pagan practice, to be honest, but especially the Irish stuff) is about building relationship. To do this, you need to show up consistently, and do the Work.

It doesn’t always have to be big work, or important work, or hard work. But it’s all part of the Work.


Learn about Irish Paganism, Magic and Spirituality from a practicing Draoí, a Native Irish Priestess of Ireland.

Take a Class –

Introduction to Irish Paganism

Irish Faith Healers & Folk Cures

Faith Healers recommend a Stolen Bride's Breakfast Bread

Visiting Faith Healers for ‘Getting the Cure’ was – and still is – a big thing in Ireland.

There’s copious amounts of folklore around herbs, faith healing, and various other remedies in the Irish tradition, but if you didn’t grow up here you might be surprised to learn that Irish people still believe.

I’m 40 years old now, and I can honestly say that every time a family member has been seriously sick, from warts to cancer to mystery ailments – has been taken to a faith healer, or been given a traditional folk cure in some form.

(Ok, warts maybe don’t count as ‘seriously sick’… unless you’re a young teenager and your hands are covered in them. Then talk to me about what’s serious or not.)

Lets look at an example of the lore around Irish Faith Healers and Folk Cures:

There are various kinds of home-cures.

It is mostly old people that has these cures and some of those cures, are often better than the cure a doctor could give you.

Edward Gormley of Esker has the cure of the strain. The cure consists of a piece of thread which Mr. Gormley gives to the person, who wants the cure made, before giving the person the piece of thread, he holds it in his hands and says certain prayers in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. He makes this cure between sunrise and sunset.

There are several other people in this locality who has the cure of the strain as well as Mr. Gormley, James Quinn of Clontumpher has the cure of the thorn. The cure consists of different kinds of mixtures, all mixed together along with certain kinds of prayers, which Mr. Quinn says over the mixture this mixture is to be put on the spot, where the thorn, is supposed to be, and after a couple of days the thorn will come out.

Paddy Callaghan of Esker has the cure of the warts, any person who has warts on their hands or feet, can get them cured easy. Mr. Callaghan makes the cure on Tuesday and Thursday evening before sunset. He rubs his hands on the wart and while rubbing says certain kinds of prayers, he then tells you to rub washing-soda on the wart every evening and morning and in about a fortnight or so the wart disappears.

Edward Gormley (Esker), has the cure of the heartache also. Rose Tynan (Esker), has the cure of the burn.

When Edward Gormleys Father was dying he left him (his son) the cure of the strain. And when Edward Gormley dies, he can leave the cure to any of his sons he likes.

John Quinn Drumlish makes the cure of the ring worm.

Some people often gets the cure of the hoopen-cough. It is very peculiar cure and it is very hard got. If a child in any house has the hoopen cough and if two people gets married of the same name, during the time that the child is bad.

The cure is for some person to steal a piece of cake that was left after the bride’s breakfast and give it to the child to eat, it is said that the cure is no good unless the bread is stolen with out the Bride or groom or anybody at the breakfast knowing it. Nobody is to see the bread a stealing or know about it, except the person who is stealing it, and the people in the house where the child is sick.

Some people has great belief in this cure and more people have no belief in it at all. Long ago the old people would be very angry with any one who would say they would not believe in it. Some people say that when a child has the hoopen-cough the best cure is, is to keep giving it butter and sugar, that it is by far the best cure.

The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0760, Page 236
Image and data © National Folklore Collection, UCD. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5009172/4994159

 

Do you believe in Faith Healers?

It works, whether you do or not. Maybe that’s due to a placebo effect – the Faith Healers could trigger the body’s healing mechanism. Maybe it’s a genuine Irish magic, that we haven’t figured a way to quantify or explain through our scientific methodology. Yet.

However you feel about it, the laying on of hands by Faith Healers with ‘the Cure’ has been shown, throughout the centuries, to end a lot of suffering.

And sure, if you’re suffering, or a loved one is… why wouldn’t ya give it a go?


 

Learn more about Irish Magic…

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Gaelscoileanna – Education through the Irish Language

Gaelscoil - Irish Language school in Ireland

Most of us will know, or at least know of, a child who attends a gaelscoil.  These Irish language medium schools are those which function in accordance with the usual rules of the Department of Education, just like a regular school, except that Irish is the language of instruction and the language of communication amongst teachers, children and management.  

In short, everybody speaks ‘as Gaeilge’, all the time. To quote the web site of the voluntary national organisation ‘Gaelscoileanna’;

“Irish is the living language of Irish-medium schools, both within the classroom and without.”

There were more than 30,000 pupils receiving all-Irish education in 158 primary schools and 36 post-primary schools (outside the Gaeltacht regions) in Ireland in 2006.  With the opening of Gaelscoil Liatroma in County Leitrim, on 1st September 2005, all-Irish education at primary level was finally available in every county.

The first gaelscoil – Scoil Bhríde, in Ranelagh – opened it’s doors in 1917, and is still one of the 29 primary and 8 secondary gaelscoileanna which operate in Dublin.  

What is the attraction of education through the Irish Language?  I spoke to parents, teachers and pupils from around the country, to find out… 

[Note: this article was first published in our national press, 2006]

Irish Language in Ulster (North)

In Ulster, 23 year old Community Artist Seán Pól Ó Fhlannigáin started attending an Irish nursery school in 1984.  The primary school he attended was the only one in Northern Ireland at that time. Bunscoil Phobail Feirste is in west Belfast, where it first opened in 1971.  

Seán was also a pupil at an Irish language secondary – Meanscoil Feirste, located on Bóthar na bhFal, or the Falls Road as it is more commonly known, from 1991 on.  When it first opened it’s doors, there were 9 pupils. There are now over 600. Catering for an eclectic mix of races, religions and creeds, the Meanscoil is described as “a mixed school of non-denominational religion”.

Now receiving grant aid and state backing, Irish language schools in the North have come a long way from their beginnings.  Like other gaelscoileanna, the first ones in Ulster were started by determined parents. As well as paying fees to cover the teacher’s salaries, buildings, and equipment, the parents did most other things within the schools.  

This included driving and supervising on school buses, cooking for the pupils, and cleaning the schools. One resolute family made the journey from their home in Derry to the gaelscoil in Belfast every day, a round trip of 150 miles.

Seán says he knew growing up that his school was different, but that he always thought it to be different in a good way.  

He would hear his peers complain about their teachers, and give them nick-names – while in his school the teachers were known by their first names.  Although discipline was important, there didn’t seem to be the same animosity or rancour between teachers and pupils in the Gaelscoil.

His teachers also had huge interest in folk music and traditional sports, and so the extra curricular activities available were rich in Irish culture.  He remembers little trouble arising from attending an Irish language school, even though Gaeilge is considered a foreign language in Northern Ireland, and there was a time when speaking it would have said more about your affiliations than your linguistic skills.

The UK government has now recognised that many of its citizens wish to educate their children through Irish, and has granted financial aid and status accordingly.  

Seán finds his extra language skills to be a definite bonus to his teaching career, and he enjoys the ability to express himself in what he considers to be his native tongue.  He still meets with friends who are also fluent Irish speakers, and can often be heard engaged in a comhrá when in his local pub.

Irish Language in Munster (South)

In Munster, Catriona Ní Fhiachra has a 6 year old daughter, whom she decided to send to the local Gaelscoil Philib Barún, in Tramore, County Waterford.  

She gives her reasons for choosing this school above others in the area; “There are small class sizes, which is important because it imparts a feeling of family and community.  We get a good range of extra curricular activities, and there is better equipment and facilities than in a lot of other schools. There is the option, later on, of my daughter doing her Leaving Cert through Irish, and gaining extra points.  And besides the benefits of gaelscoil educated children being able to pick up foreign languages very quickly, because they are used to multi-lingual study – it is important to keep our own language alive.”

Though not educated in a gaelscoil herself, she says the Irish she does have is all coming back to her now.  

Catriona is very pleased with the caring attitudes of teachers, and with her daughter’s progress in the school.  She says she wants her daughter to go to a school where “everybody knows your name.”

Irish Language in Connacht (West)

In Connacht, Orla Ní Chuinneagáin was interested in gaelscoileanna even before the new Roscommon bunscoil advertised for a principal in 1999.  Having written her college thesis on Irish-medium schools, she was already aware of how things operated when she applied for, and won, the position.  

She explained the process involved in starting up the gaelscoil; “There was a founding committee, of about 6 or 7 people, who were parents or would be parents.  Just ordinary local people with an interest in Irish. With the bare minimum requirement of students, and temporary use of the Girl Guide’s centre as a premises, they raised funds through raffles and events, and received loans from parents (which have now been re-paid) to get things off the ground.  The committee visited existing schools, and spoke to those who ran them, in Longford and Ballinasloe. The first planning meeting was in October 1999, they advertised for teachers in July 2000, and the school opened in September 2000.”

There is no government aid available until there are a minimum of 17 pupils and a premises, and even then it is only a temporary sanction at first – they help with 75% of the rent.  

For anybody wishing to start a gaelscoil in their area, Orla offers the following advice;  “Talk to parents who have already done it. Look around established schools, and get advice and aid from the ‘Gaelscoileanna’ organisation (www.gaelscoileanna.ie).  You will need to apply a year in advance of your proposed opening date. Make sure you have the numbers required, and meet the government standards – they are getting stricter on that now.”

Gaelscoil de hÍde, County Roscommon, moved to a new premises with a long term lease, and proudly opened its doors to 98 pupils in September 2005.

Irish Language in Leinster (East)

In Leinster, Cillian Ó Síaghail recently graduated from Scoil Oilibhéir in Dublin.  Although the school is only 5 minutes from his house, the closest one available, there was just one other child from his housing estate in attendance with him.  

When asked if he ever got a hard time from other kids about going to a Gaelscoil, he replied; “They just asked me if we had to do everything in Irish. I’d say that we do, and they’d just say – hate that!  They thought Irish was really hard.”

And yet, having grown up with an older sister and brother who also attended the Gaelscoil, he was quite used to the language and didn’t find it a problem. In fact, he feels quite confident about his future Junior and Leaving Cert exams in the subject.  

I was dying to know, after his total immersion, did Cillian actually LIKE Irish? His response speaks volumes; “I’m glad that I know the nation’s real language.”

 

Pádraig Pearse maintained that a country without language is a country without soul – “Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam”.  He might rest easier knowing that at least 30,000 children are more comfortable with our nation’s language, thanks to their Gaelscoileanna.

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