‘Ancient Ireland’, even if we limit it to Pre-Christian times, could be anywhere in an 11,000 year period, really. So, I will get a little more specific about the when as we go through this article.
First though, let’s clear up this term ‘Celtic’ that most folk associate with ‘ancient Ireland’.
I mean, you may think you know what that word means, but the way it’s used in modern Paganism is decidedly misleading, so you may also have gotten a bad idea somewhere along the way of what it’s really about.
It is an academic term, used to describe primarily certain similarities of language and culture between varying Indo-European tribes, over a period of many centuries. If you think it refers to anything that’s connected with the people and the culture of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, and Brittany, maybe even the Basque region of Spain… you’re not entirely wrong. But it’s just such a loose term, that it essentially means nothing in that context.
Historically, these were geographically diverse and non-homogenous tribes, with limited but identifiable simple commonalities.
Essentially, scholars have looked back on various groups of people, spread over quite vast areas, whose groups were all pretty darn uniquely identifiable from each other… and linked them together – loosely, as I said – with a label. Mostly this was to differentiate them from the ‘Classical’ people of Greece and Rome in Europe; everything else even sorta similar became ‘Celtic’.
The Bronze Age (beginning around 2000 BCE) was still in full flow in Ireland when the Iron Age was forming across ‘Celtic’ Europe. We had a brief Copper Age, and then it’s generally agreed that the Iron Age started about 500 BCE and continued on until the coming of Christianity to the island, which was 400 – 500 ish CE. So there was about a thousand years of this cultural and technological shift.
I’ll not get too much into the odd lack of archaeological evidence we have for this period, nor the distinctions between Hallstatt or La Téne cultures and how they differed in Ireland than the rest of Europe (though I will put some references in the comments below if you tell me you’re interested, because this is totally my nerd bag and I’d love to share that with you!).
By around 50 CE, with the Romans all over the place and Germanic people spreading out too through Europe, insular Celtic languages were pretty bedded down around the outskirts in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and Brittany in France.
By the 700s CE, these linguistic identifiers had formed a sort of cohesive cultural identity, with similar enough religion and art at least, to differentiate them from the people surrounding them. Things settled in these areas though and became quite distinctive from each other as we progressed through the Middle Ages, especially in Ireland as an island out on our own.
There’s even talk know about how our language has about as much in common with our Scandinavian neighbours as it does with our Celtic neighbours, showing a diversification and organic development that is unique to this land.
It was the romantic notions of the Celtic Revival in the 1900s CE that gave us this idea of a ‘Celtic Identity’, which has heavily influenced the modern Pagan movement, unfortunately. So, we’re going to think in terms of archaeological and historic periods, rather than Celtic notions, and damn anyone who’s not happy with me for that.
I mean, how about we deal with Ireland as her own thing for once, rather than as part of some fantasy made popular by bored imperialist colonisers over burdened with guilt about the atrocities their ancestors had carried out?
Chronologically speaking, for anyone who’s familiar with any of the Irish mythology, we can loosely connect the Stone Age and the Bronze Age with the Mythological Cycle of the lore – we’re talking Tuatha Dé Danann (pronounced ThOO-a-hah DAY-Dan-an), the Firbolg and the Fomorians.
Then the Iron Age is linked to the Ulster Cycle – Queen Medb (pronounced MAY-v), Cú Chulainn and the Red Branch Knights.
Between these two ages, there was a distinct shift, and although the Irish priesthood commonly known as Druids (though we’ll examine that in more detail shortly) appears through both eras, it’s with the social changes and the rise of warrior culture with a more hierarchical society that we can see them really rising to their peak power.
Scholars refer to an ‘Irish Dark Age’ of around 400 years in the middle of the Iron Age, between 100 BCE and 300 CE. This is evidenced by the aforementioned odd lack of archaeology, as well as pollen data pulled out of the bogs (naturally acidic Irish wetlands, in which the anaerobic environment and presence of tannic acids results in fantastic preservation of organic material, for thousands of years) which shows that human activity during this period was less than any other time, before or after.
A lot of what we know about Irish society during this period is gleaned from the stories in the Ulster cycle; although this is often said to be inaccurate as the stories were only written down many centuries later, by Medieval Christian monks, whose culture and biases inevitably coloured their recording.
That being said though, when we look at those stories critically, there are definitely elements there which match up with more contemporary descriptions and archaeological evidence of tribal cultures in mainland Europe at the time.
When we add what archaeological evidence we do have into the mix, we can at least begin to form a basic picture of how the ancient Irish lived in these periods, and what role their priesthood played within the society.
I’ve mentioned that society shifted into a warrior culture, and this makes sense when we think of the pressures that must have abounded in a ‘dark age’ of possible plague, famine, or other vast social and economic hardship (nobody really knows for sure what caused the stagnation during the Iron Age).
There were multiple small tuatha (‘tribes’), ruled by individual kings. The idea of a single ‘High King’ of Ireland, ruling from Tara or anywhere else, is most likely a much later romanticised medieval notion.
Scholars believe this may be where earlier spiritual practices became more institutionalised with a Pagan priesthood caste. They were moving towards standardised training and systematic dogma… which all can sound like nasty words to us freedom loving modern Pagan types, but really are mere descriptors without a positive or negative attachment, in essence.
It’s the wrongs that people have done with institutionalised systematic dogma that have caused so many problems for folk worldwide. Ancient tribal societies selected special individuals to mediate between them and the spiritual or Otherworld supernatural forces all around them, and modern scholars study this under the heading of ‘shamanism’. With the Celtic tribes, the older practices developed into Druidism.
‘Druid’ seems to have been used as a general catch all term for describing general Celtic, and also Irish specific, priesthood among contemporary commentators. Julius Caesar, for example, said the Druids were concerned with divine worship, performance of sacrifice, and interpretation of ritual matters.
The word Druid most likely comes from the Celtic root words dru (‘strong, great’), and wid (‘knowledge’). Greek geographer, philosopher, and historian Strabo, writing in his Geographica – first edition published in the year 7 BCE – talked about the bardoi (singers and poets), the ováteis (interpreters of sacrifice and natural philosophers), and the druídae (scholars of the science of nature and moral philosophy). He said these were the classes of men held in special honour.
In Ireland there were similar classifications with the Pagan Priesthood, which carried through the centuries.
The Bard was a minor poet, a reciter of tales and poetry who was held in lesser status than the others. The Fáidh was a prophet, one who had the insight and wisdom of the Otherworld and the future. The File was a poet – and the word still means that in modern Irish – but not in the way that we understand the term now. The original meaning for the word file is literally ‘seer’, and they were known to have mystical knowledge, particular rituals, and magical powers. The Druí was a magician, cognate to the ‘great wisdom possessor’ of the Continental Celts, a judge and advisor to the people, having practical technical knowledge as well as a direct line to those Otherworldly powers and beings, just like their shamanic ancestors.
In later centuries, the Fáidh, File, or Druid is often classed or discussed as a Fisidh (‘one who has the fiss’, which is a magical knowledge, an arcane wisdom, and is where the word Imbas also comes from – im-fhiss means ‘full/complete fiss’.) They are the keepers of history, the seers, prophets, and clairvoyant guides.
There don’t seem to have been any religious temples, in the classical sense, in Ireland. There were many large monuments and sacred sites, but these were mostly open air locations. Any that were enclosed, such as the great Passage Tomb at Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange, County Meath), were quite cramped – physical space wise, you wouldn’t be fitting a lot of live bodies into that passage and the chambers. It makes sense that any large scale community rituals, feast days, etc would have been conducted in the open air, with maybe an ‘inner circle’ element happening in an interior space within the broader context.
There is evidence towards this in the frequent descriptions of large scale gatherings and aontaí (‘fairs, assemblies’) on festival days, at important sites such as Cruachán (Rathcroghan, County Roscommon). Indeed, there are aontaí that continue to this day that may have their distant roots in ancient spiritual gatherings – see for example Puck Fair in County Kerry, though most folk will tell you it’s a pure modern event.
But here, they crowned a billy goat as the King and put him above on a pole presiding over the fair, and this was going on for years. So, I’ll let ye be the judge now on whether that one just might have the hint of a pagan root going back.
There’s also some evidence, both on the Continent and in Ireland, that Druids practiced and worshiped in forest groves. There’s references to places called neimheadh, or neimed in older versions of Irish, which means ‘holy, sacred, consecrated place’, has distinct connotations of privilege and power, and is often associated with sacred tree groves, which are open to the sky (the root word is the old Irish nem, ‘sky’).
There is sometimes the prefix fiodh, which means tree (or even a boundary tree in older Irish language versions) and the sacred places are described as fiodhneimhidh (plural), which are described as locations in which seers used to perform their rituals.
So what were the druids doing, besides running around in forest groves? Or sometimes, while running around in forest groves?! The following are some druidic practices that are well attested in the lore, and we can see a mix of both pastoral and sacerdotal functions (I define these explicitly in my Pagan Priesthood book):
There is a fascinating history of Pagan Priesthood through Irish history, which – I’m delighted to inform you – is still going well to this day!
A student in our Mórrígan Intensive Programme asked me for resources on the Brehon Law system the other day, and I had to be honest – I didn’t have them to hand.
It’s not an area I’ve really dug into yet, though I know there’s a lot to study.
But look, as a teacher, one of the most ethical things that I hold sacred is that if someone asks me a question I don’t know the answer to… I tell them that honestly, and then I go and do my best to find quality resources where they (and me, usually) can go learn about the thing.
I found a few of my own, but the internet is full of mischief, and if you don’t know what you’re looking for – or looking at – it’s hard to tell what’s reliable.
Luckily, I run a couple of Facebook Groups that are full of the smartest people I know, so I always know where to go for the best recommendations. And with this question, they did not let me down!
[Huge thanks to: Erynn Rowan Laurie, C. Lee Vermeers, Geraldine Byrne, Shane Broderick, Robert L. Barton, Pamela Holcombe… and to Elisabeth Marx for the original question.]
The Wiki Page is actually not bad, for starters, as Shane pointed out in the group post. I have mentioned elsewhere many times before; we don’t take Wikipedia info as definitive source material, but we can use the reference section as a good starting point for any research.
Fergus Kelly featured, as anyone who is even passing familiar with Early Irish Law will be entirely un-shocked by. Erynn kicked us off by recommending ‘A Guide to Early Irish Law’ (book, 2005) as the classic – excellent for reference but it can be a little dense for a read through. This was backed up by Geraldine and others.
‘Whodunnit? Indirect evidence in early Irish Law’ (article, 2015) by Fergus Kelly also got an honourable mention from Pamela, and I’d like to add this link to his article about the legal status of trees: ‘Brehon Laws’ on Forestry Focus.
There’s a book online, written by Laurence Ginnell in 1894, which may be of interest. It’s on my list to work through… if you’ve read it, let me know what you think in the comments? It’s called ‘The Brehon Laws: A Legal Handbook’.
The Irish History Podcast is excellent (I’ve recommended it elsewhere too), and they did an episode called ‘Brehon Law: From Divorce to Irish Sex Magic’, which interviews Dr. Gillian Kenny – who also helped me out with an article on Gaelic Marriage Customs. The podcast description reads:
“Divorce and sex magic are not things we associate with medieval Ireland. However for over one thousand years Irish society was governed by a unique and radically different legal system called Brehon Law. In this podcast I interview Dr Gillian Kenny who explains what Brehon Law was and how it worked. She challenges widely held misconceptions and explains how divorce existed in medieval Ireland given it was banned in modern Ireland until 1995!. And then of course there is the sex magic.”Listen to the Irish History Podcast on Spotify
I must say though, I actually do associate Medieval Ireland with divorce and sex magic. Quite regularly.
‘Cattle Lords and Clansmen’ by Nerys Patterson is a great book, which I’ve also recommended elsewhere, but Robert reminded me that it has a chapter on the Brehon Law system that… “takes a long view of the development and cultural context that can help to understand the specific laws as they exist within a system.”
For the more established scholar, we can move to Daniel Binchy’s edits of the ‘Corpus iuris Hibernici’, in seven volumes. You can see the CODECS listing for Volume 1 here. Liam Breatnach’s book – ‘A Companion to the Corpus Iuris Hibernici (Early Irish Law)’ – will help get you through.
Neil McLeod wrote a number of articles on the topic, which you can find indexed on CODECS here. C. Lee has found the 2 part “Interpreting Early Irish Law: Status and Currency” particularly useful.
And finally, Robin Chapman Stacey has two books that are a somewhat easier read, and very useful. They are:
What’s your favourite (or most useful) Brehon Law Resource?
If you have any other recommendations, or would like to add your opinion on the ones above, please feel free to leave a comment below!