This is a question that comes up a lot – what are some Pagan Symbols used by the (Celtic) Irish?
It’s kind of a tough one to answer, as we don’t have an extant [surviving through the ages] Irish Pagan tradition, per se. We have a whole lot of Irish mythology, of course, and even more Irish folklore… but no complete system for what it all means, or how to use it.
In modern Irish Paganism, we use many of the same Pagan Symbols as do those in other communities, all over the world. Some of the general Pagan symbols you’ll see at any Irish Wiccan coven meeting or Druid convention include:
Any or all of these symbols can be (and are!) used by modern Irish Pagans.
When we look back a little further into our tradition and lore, we have 2 main sources for native Irish Pagan symbols – stone carvings and manuscripts.
Now, either of those may have been influenced by Christianity, and so not count as truly Pagan, perhaps. It depends on the context for them.
That being said though, everything in Ireland is a little bit Pagan, even still… so we can put that one aside, now that we’re aware of it, and look at the sources.
The best example of this, I’d say, is the Ogham alphabet – our Celtic writing system (and I use Celtic here, and through this post, because much of what we have in Ireland on this topic is common across other Celtic cultures).
Ogham appears both carved in stone, and in multiple manuscripts, so it’s ticking both boxes there. With regard to how old this Celtic alphabet might be: we know it existed as a monument script (there’s that early stone carving), in the 400s CE [Common Era].
It was designed for the Irish language, so we can place in at pre Christian times, probably, through that – if it was just made for the monks, they would more like have designed it through Latin.
It’s back to the stone carving folks, and this time, let’s look at our monuments. One of the more famous ones is Brú na Bóinne, with the 3 great passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth.
Built by the Dagda, so they say (and you can read some fascinating stories on that guy right here), these monuments have stood in Ireland for over 5,000 years, and when they were being built, symbolic artwork was a big part of their construction.
Some of it is spectacular: wonderful combinations of spirals, lozenges, chevrons, triangles and arrangements of parallel lines and arcs. It occurs particularly on the structural stones of the tombs but also occurs on some artefacts that have been found within and around them.
Knowth alone has about 45% of all the art known from Irish tombs and nearly 30% of all the megalithic art in Europe.
[Images courtesy of World Heritage Ireland, © 2010 Dept. Environment, Heritage & Local Government.]
In short, we don’t know. Great answer, right?
We do have theories, of course.
Whatever their original purpose, we can utilise them now for any of these reasons as fits with our personal practice. The Irish Pagan symbols that remain to us are an incredibly valuable connection to our ancestors, and the wisdom of ancient Ireland.
I’d love to learn what Pagan symbols call to you, or which ones you make use of? Let me know in the comments below!
If you want to get some focused guidance on where (or how) to start exploring an authentic Irish spiritual practice, I’ve just released 2 Beginners’ Classes on the Irish Pagan School…
Hopefully, those options give you something solid to be getting going with. If there’s anything else I can do for you, let me know?
It’d be fair to say that the Irish have always had a bit of a wanderlust. Which goes someway to explaining why Irish Genealogy is so popular.
Sometimes, our travel has been caused more by necessity than the desire to see new sights. Although I guess if your sights at home were as horrific as in say, the time of the Great Irish Famine, it’d give you a bit of a desire to put your eyes on fresh horizons too.
We hear a lot about the 70 million Irish diaspora world-wide, and though it’s not easy to see how exactly that figure was calculated, it seems to be based on the folk who self-identify as ‘of Irish descent’. Is that you?
Obvious part first, do your research at home. Get together with family members (if you can) and see what you’ve got – stories from Grandma and Aunty Mary, and any written or printed materials like letters, wills, diaries, photographs, and certificates.
You can access many of your country’s genealogical record repositories online, and you can get advice from your local library on birth, death and marriage records held by civil authorities, as well as where to find census returns, city directories, church records (baptism, marriage), gravestone inscriptions, newspaper obituaries, wills, naturalisation papers and passenger lists.
All set now for a trip to Ireland? Great!
If you don’t know a home county, town or parish for your ancestor/s yet, and you want to carry out your own research here, start in Dublin city with the National Library of Ireland (check them online at www.nli.ie), the National Archives (with a free genealogy advice service) and the General Register Office research room which may hold the birth, marriage and death records of your Irish ancestors.
You can also check the census database (for 1901 and 1911) at www.censusnationalarchives.ie, the database of church records for parts of counties Dublin, Cork, Kerry, and Carlow at www.irishgenealogy.ie, and the database of Griffith’s Valuation property survey from the mid 1800’s at www.askaboutireland.ie.
If you’d prefer some professional support, the county genealogy centres (search for ‘Roots Ireland’ to find them) can be useful, though some counties’ staff are better than others. Better is the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland (APGI) is an all-Ireland professional body, with members based in the Republic and Northern Ireland. Professional genealogists and records agents will access the sources in the Dublin and Belfast repositories for you, while county genealogists will carry out research using their county databases of parish records, land records, graveyard inscriptions and census returns, as well as using local knowledge and contacts to pinpoint that elusive Irish ancestor.
All of this will, hopefully, lead you to the place your Irish ancestors left from.
Visiting your Irish family’s place is a very special experience – walking where they walked, seeing the house they were born in, the graves of their people, the church they worshipped in, the pub they drank in, and the village or town where they went about their day to day business.
That is an incomparable experience, and well worth the research and time it takes to get you there.
It’s 2 years since myself and my sister set off on my first Patreon site visit, and I thought I’d share a version of the report for the anniversary!
I’ve been aware of the site, peripherally at least, since I saw a picture in Daragh Smyth’s ‘A Guide to Irish Mythology’ (1996 edition), in the entry on Druids – where he makes reference to Druid divination “by means of ogam, carved on wands of yew”, and then on the next page is a drawing tagged – “Cave entrance at Drumloghan, Co. Waterford, showing ogam stones in place.” Mysterious, eh?!
Obviously not mysterious enough to warrant further investigation at the time though, because I didn’t.
When I moved to Waterford in March 2016, I missed my cave terribly (the Cave of the Cats, at Rathcroghan, Co. Roscommon). I had a vague recall of the ogham being interesting, so I googled ‘ogham cave’, and found it. Pretty sure I posted a link to my author page round that time, but I was in the throes of book jail and couldn’t afford to give it much time. Even so, I determined to visit.
The site I looked at around that time simply said: “Located 3.5km north of the village of Stradbally, this is one of Waterford’s most interesting sites. Known locally as the ‘Ogham Cave’, it was discovered by a farmer in 1867. Ten Ogham stones were found built into the walls and roof of a souterrain measuring 3.5 m long, 1.5m wide and 1.2 meters in height.
In 1936 five of the stones were erected each side of the now exposed souterrain with just three remaining as roof stones. It is thought that the stones were pilleged from local cemeteries for the construction of the souterrain which could have been used for storage or defence from invasion around 800-900AD.
The site, which is enclosed by a wooden fence, is located out in the middle of a field normally used for cattle grazing.” http://www.prehistoricwaterford.com/products/drumlohan/
Myself and my sister Jay set out on this adventure one rainy Saturday morning in July. I had Google Maps directing on the phone (it’s a marked site you can get directions to, by road) and she’d found these ones:
“From Kilmacthomas, Co Waterford, take the N25 west, at the first crossroads take a left for Stradbally at the second crossroads take a right then the next right, about 300 metres down this road you will come to a gate with a house next to it. Go through this gate and follow the path the stones are about 200 metres down this path in a field on your left hand side.”
I refused to look at the site info from where she’d got the directions, wanting to go in cold, as it were.
All seemed well.
We were in fine form, and had even the use of a posh and luxurious Lexus for our adventure, as my cousin Catherine (who’s like a sister to us as well sure… and also Jay’s actual work boss, by the by) was away for a few weeks and definitely wouldn’t be using it that day.
We were driving happily along that main road there (the N25) when Google informed us we had reached our destination. Eh, no. Obviously we hadn’t.
Realising Google was a little confused by the lack of actual roads or pathways to the site, we abandoned that and looked again at the written directions.
Getting awful confused by talk of crossroads and farm tracks, we found what we figured must be the closest farm yard, based on the Google ‘You Have Reached Your Destination’ marking point, and drove up that lane.
It was obviously a working farmyard, so we did the respectful thing and pulled in off the lane so we could go in and ask directions, and possibly permission to access the land, if that was required. Local knowledge and respect are always the way to go when accessing Irish sites, as most of them are based on private (and often working farm) land. I mean, I have social anxiety issues and I still went and knocked on a stranger’s door… that’s how important this is!
We were directed to the forest track down the road by a smiling Saturday farmer, with assurances it was ‘just down there’, and got back in the car to drive off on our merry way. Um…
The Lexus is heavy! With slick road tyres! It was raining, a lot!
Luckily, the farmer had a 4×4 and some straps for towing, so he came outside and hauled us out. We were mortified of course, but it was all very good natured. We got turned around and back on the road.
Found the forest track. Examined the car for damage (none, phew). Walked the forest track.
My first proper pic of the day was the solitary Foxglove we encountered in a drainage ditch along this lane. The Fairy Fingers (digitalis) were enchanting me all day, but this one for some reason was waving to me (physically moving, as well as energetically waving) to get my attention as we walked, so I stopped to say hi, and take a picture (below).
Continuing along the lane, we were awful confused to reach the dead end there.
There was some rubbish dumped, including somewhat bizarrely, a broken beehive. But no track or trail or gods forbid a finger post sign, to tell us where the site was.
There were large red overhead barriers at the end, something to do with forestry machinery I believe… but nothing else. I was feeling drawn to a place that MIGHT have been a way through, but Jay pointed out that a particular tree wasn’t just one season’s growth, and likely indicated that there was no use pushing our way through brambles to try and get to the other side… the direction I felt the site to be in.
We walked back up the lane, and figured we could find the site from the original written directions, but we’d need to start from the farmyard where we’d got the car stuck.
Leaving the car parked safely where it was, we walked along the main road (google maps helpfully telling us we’d reached our destination somewhere round the middle again, thank you very much). We were hoping to spot a way in from the road, but it was pretty dense forestry and undergrowth, so it looked like a return to the farmyard was inevitable.
Embarrassing though. So, we walked a bit up their lane, but hopped a stone wall into the fields beyond, and crouch ran across the open space to a point we recognized, a large erratic boulder that was mentioned on some directions she’d seen that I can’t actually find now… it’s all a little hazy.
Talk about stepping on a stray sod somewhere along the way and begin turned around? We wandered those fields for the guts of 2 hours in the rain and wind, I kid you not.
Eventually, I hit on the brain wave of taking out google maps again, and turning on the satellite view to get some idea of the terrain, and although the data wasn’t quite up to date, that at least gave us the general direction to be hitting for. Thankfully her map reading skills and spatial orientation abilities are on point, as mine as severely challenged, I will admit.
And we found it!
And it was wonderful!
We recorded the first video (under the thorn tree in the ‘fairy cave’ once we had it in sight, but before we approached. Then we went over, wandered around a while, sat down into it, examined the ogham and talked. It was very still and quiet down in it, and I don’t think that was just due to the relief of being out of the bluff and bluster of the windy hillside fields. I got a feel of burial, which didn’t make sense.
Jay recorded another video, inside the cave. Then she graciously departed and went and sat on the hillside by the hedge, while I lay down in the space and Journeyed to the Otherworld location of that site.
When I came back to this world, I recorded a quick extra video that unfortunately lost the sound… that may or may not have been technical difficulties. Well, it was definitely technical difficulties, but whether it was a random glitch or Otherworld interference is anyone’s guess. Then it was time to leave.
The Otherworld Journey was a little odd, but not uncomfortable.
I lay down, closed my eyes, and went through my usual process – going inside myself, through the blackness, path to the beach, out across the ocean… and I landed on the Otherworld Ireland. From here I travelled ‘as the crow flies’ to the location of this site, and set down to visit.
The ‘locals’ there were very much unused to visitors. Such a kerfuffle! I sat, and waited for things to calm down and natural curiosity to take the place of that initial ‘wtf is this?’ It did, in little time. The stones were originally all laid across the hollowed souterrain, and this was the case in the Otherworld too. But there was a mirror/shadow of the stones stretching out along a boundary a little distant, at the same time. There was a definite burial energy showing up on that side too, for me.
As I lay there under the originals, I got a strong sense of ‘Protection’ – but it was very unclear, shifting, and confused to me as to whether the stones were meant for protection of something inside the ‘cave’, or protection of those across the landscape from something within. I got a sense that the thing being protected from, in either case, was something very different, with an ‘alien’ feel to it (unusual, not extra-terrestrial) – i.e. so vastly different as to be almost incomprehensible to the locals.
I said thank you, and left the Otherworld. Returning to this world, I found a large lump of moss lain across my chest, with no easy or obvious way it could have gotten there.
When I was home, I visited the SMR Database (always my first port of call) at www.archaeology.ie, to see what is available in the known record.
On their map, we can see the red dots representing points of interest in the area. The top dot on right hand side is the Ogham Cave, which is helpfully marked ‘ogham’.
The note reads:
“The souterrain (WA024-033004-) associated with the perimeter of ecclesiastical enclosure (WA024-033003-) at N contained ten ogham stones which are now preserved at the site. This is on the fourth lining stone on the W side which Macalister (1945, vol. 1, No. 281) read as: DEAGOS MAQI MUCO[I……]NAI.” – ‘Archaeological Inventory of County Waterford’. In this instance the entry has been revised and updated in the light of recent research.
This stone has been studied as part of the ‘Ogham in 3D’ project undertaken by the School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. To access details go to the following website: http://ogham.celt.dias.ie/search.php?ciic=281
The line of three dots underneath is the mentioned ecclesiastical site (bottom, centre circle) which I hadn’t been aware was there before our visit, with an unknown artefact previously classified as a millstone in the grounds, and a bullán stone near the boundary edge.
The ecclesiastic/church site entry is as follows:
Situated on a gentle S and SE-facing slope overlooking a river basin to the S and E. This is an early ecclesiastical site, but there are no known historical references. Subcircular grass-covered area (dims. 40m E-W; 35m N-S) defined by an overgrown stone field bank (Wth 2m; int. H 1m; ext. H 1m) which is truncated at SE by a NE-SW field bank. There is no evidence of a church or that the enclosure was used for burial (WA024-033002-), but this is very likely. There is a cairn (diam. 4m; H 0.5m) (WA024-033019-) in the centre, and a millstone and subrectangular bullaun stone (WA024-033005-) of Old Red Sandstone (dims. c. 1m x 0.7m) with a single basin (diam. 0.4m; D 0.18m) are also at the site. An outer boundary of an ecclesiastical enclosure (WA024-033004-) is visible as an eroded bank (Wth c. 6m; H 0.2m) with traces of an outer fosse (Wth 4m; D 0.2m) SW-NE (diam. c. 130m). Traces of field banks (WA024-033020-) connecting the inner and outer enclosures were present c. 1980 (SMR file). There is a souterrain (WA024-033004-) with associated ogham stones (WA024-033006- to WA024-033015-) on the outer boundary at NW. (Kirwan 1985; 1987)
As you can see – the ‘church’ assignment is not definitive. But there is a cairn, and a hollowed stone.
You will see in the Report folder a file you can download, which is a copy of the article from the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland by William Williams, entitled “On an Ogham Chamber at Drumloghan, in the County of Waterford”.
[Source: The Journal of the Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland, ThirdSeries, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1868), pp. 35-39]
In this, he speaks of local knowledge at the time (1868), claiming the church site to be:
“an ancient cemetery, if not actually of Pagan origin, at least long disused, except for the interment of unbaptized children, suicides, and any others not considered entitled to burial in consecrated ground.”
He describes the discovery of the Ogham Cave, only a year or so before he wrote the paper:
“Mr. William Quealy, a very intelligent and obliging young man, on whose land the cemetery is situated, and who, too, gave practical proof that he is no stranger to the exercise of the national virtue of hospitality, directed his men, a few weeks since, to demolish the remains of the external fence above referred to. In the progress of the work they came upon a long stone which crossed the foundation of the fence; and having noticed some earth to fall into the ground by its side, they removed it, and found underneath a moderately large chamber, which contained nothing but loose earth and a few small stones. Having failed to turn up the much-coveted hoard of gold, they proceeded with the work of demolition, and took little further notice of the matter. Intelligence of this important discovery having been brought me a few days later, I visited the spot in the month of August last, and was agreeably surprised at finding that the chamber thus accidentally broken into was an ogham cave”.
Also in your Report folder is another research article, published by the Old Waterford Society publication ‘Decies’, issue XXVIII, Spring 1985; this is entitled “The Ogham Stones at Drumlohan, Reconsidered”, by E.M. Kirwan.
On the Ogham stones, they write:
“When the ogham stones were discovered at Drumlohan, it was evident immediately that they had been used primarily as building materials in the construction of the underground chamber in which they were set. There are ten stones that have been inscribed with ogham and the question of the actual origin of these stones remains open. It is quite certain that they had been inscribed long before being used as supports and roofing stones, and it is supposed that they came from the immediate vicinity. The exact age of both underground chamber (souterrain) and ogham stones is uncertain.”
There is a detailed look at the Ogham inscriptions and translation opinions too.
“The readings of the Drumlohan oghams show little consistency. The main difficulties have been due to parts of the stones being missing; not reading the whole length of the stones; but more frequently, the difficulty has been in interpreting the forms of the ogham genitive case. A shortened account of the various readings should be of help in trying to put these ogham stones into historical perspective.”
|First Lintel||Of M. boy of G. descendant of M.|
|Fourth Lintel||(monument) of Calunovix, son of the Kin of Litus or Lith|
|Fifth Lintel||(monument) of MacInissen the Good|
|Sixth Lintel||(monument) of Cunalegis, son of C. of the Legs, descendant of Quects|
|Eighth Lintel||Fractured, partial – Dag, or Lag|
|East 1st Lining||(Monumentum) Birmaqui generis Rothae|
|East 3rd Lining||MAQI NE(TA-SEGAMON)AS – possibly|
|East 5th Lining||DENAVEC(A MU)OI MEDALO|
|West 1st Lining||CORRBRI MAQUI X, or BRO(INION)AS|
|West 4th Lining||Older inscription – SOVA(L) (I)NI|
|West 4th Lining||Newer inscription – DEACOS MAQI MUCO(I…)NAI|
Not all of the Lintel or passage Lining stones have Ogham inscriptions on them, hence the gaps.
“Passing out of the old cemetery to the west, the eye is at once attracted by the remains of a broad circular rampart. This external ring appears to have been con centric with the cemetery, and of about thrice its diameter. It can be easily traced from N. to S. E.; and although the remainder is now quite obliterated, I have no doubt that originally it surrounded the cemetery. Nay, more, fortified by the presence of the ogham cave, shortly to be described, and of a fine rock-basin which lies at a few yards distance from the cemetery, I have no hesitation in stating that this great external ring was an open-air Pagan temple.” (Williams)
It was easier to orientate ourselves off the road way from that point, and we figured out which direction the car was parked in and tried to make for that, but came to a boundary that we couldn’t cross. We ended up standing by the boundary ditch and fence across from that particular tree that wasn’t just one season’s growth, having spotted those large red barrier things for the forest machinery… that way through was indeed unpassable, so thank you Jay for saving me from the bramble push and pull, but it was heartening to realise that while my spatial awareness and road negotiation leaves a lot to be desired, my internal ‘magic stuff is this way’ compass is absolutely spot on.
We decided to go up and around, to try and hit the road from the other side and further down, as neither of us relished the idea of the crouching run back across that farmer’s land. And so we did, and we found a laneway, leading to a gap in the hedge, and ended up at the top of the hill again, in the field behind someone’s back garden, with the road running in front of their house.
As we were about to swing out that way, and back along the road, when Jay noticed a gap in the hedge on the other side of their house, in what looked like forestry, and wondered if that, possibly, was the forest we’d parked in, and if the gap might lead us back onto the forest path?
Lo and behold, it was and it did.
Looking back up the hill…
And back on the forest path laneway, where did we end up?
Coming through a gap and over the drainage ditch to be greeted by my first little foxglove friend.
I shit you not, that energy waving at the start was about trying to show me the right way in.
All in all, the research to attempt to explain (or even confirm) my personal gnosis on site showed up some interesting academic analysis and opinion. There is no consensus there, of course, but the ancestral boundaries are certainly indicative of protection, while the local folklore points to burial tradition.
I would propose that my uncertainty between protecting within from without, or without from within, may be rooted in the re-purposing and re-locating of the stones. Boundaries were strong. I have no doubt that there was a sacred or even magical element to these carvings, and the placement at these sites.
This was an important place to our ancestors, and that can still be felt in the stone bones and echoes.
Ok, so legally, you can’t. Or at least, you can’t in most places.
In the Wicklow Mountains National Park, wild camping is allowed (with sensible restrictions), except in Glendalough. You can check information on this area here.
A lot of folk camp on the beaches of Ireland, and some are more favourable than others. Fallmore near Belmullet in Mayo, Baginbun Beach near Feathard in Co. Wexford, and Wine Strand or Ventry Beach along the Dingle Peninsula in Co. Kerry are all recommended, though I’ve not camped on any of them personally.
Generally, you have to be aware of trespassing on private land. If there’s a spot you’d really love to camp at, knock on the door of the nearest house and ask who owns it, then ask for permission. Offering a wee donation is always a good idea.
State owned land is technically public property, but the rangers and lifeguards and such obviously get first say in what you can and can’t do there. For beaches, there’s legal access to the foreshore – which means ‘the bed and shore, below the line of high water of ordinary or medium tides, of the sea and of every tidal river and tidal estuary and of every channel, creek and bay of the sea or of any such river or estuary. The land above this can be privately owned so if you have to cross above the median High Water mark you may be trespassing.’ (Further Info)
For his birthday one of the years, my son asked for a family camping trip, “away from people”. His requirements were a river, and trees. And no people. Did we mention no people? He was very clear.
I hadn’t done a wild camp in many years, so, cue frantic research scramble to see if the laws had changed. Not a lot, it turns out.
We were leaving from Dublin on Friday afternoon, and had to do the food shopping first… so somewhere within 2 hours drive of the capital was necessary, to ensure that we had time to find a place, park safely, hike (with all the gear) to a suitable spot away from the road, pitch the tent and set up camp before dark.
Wicklow Mountains camping was out for me, with the boy along. To be honest, I’m still hearing there’s a rash of break-ins to cars at popular parking spots – look for broken glass on the ground around any intended parking to check if there’s been windows broken there recently. It’s also a popular spot for a gang of lads to get cans and head out to of a Saturday night, for drunken fun and frolics.
None of that seemed like a recipe for a peaceful family trip, or an enjoyable birthday for him, so we went a little further afield.
I’m not going to say exactly where – the internet is full of horrible people after all, as well as all you lovely types – but what I did was choose a general location with national parkland (it was the Slieve Bloom Mountain region for us this trip), and source a few potential parking spots around an area I liked the look of.
We headed out, drove about a bit and found a nice spot at the head of a trail. Parked up, did a recon mission and found a place where folk had camped before (slightly flattened land and the remains of a fire pit) in a river valley that was, admittedly, a horrible hike to and from the car – but is absolutely gorgeous.
Site chosen, we hiked back up to the car, loaded up the essentials for the camp set up and first night (it took two trips), and pitched the tent. We had to re-set the fire pit a little, and I double lined it to prevent scorched earth around it. I dug a small trench latrine or ‘cathole’ away from the tent site, and even further from the river, and we’d brought water for our drinking, washing and cooking in 5L containers.
We didn’t light a fire that evening, and were absolutely eaten by midgies, and wrecked from travelling and set up, so it was an early night, with the sounds of the river burbling nearby, and wind through the treetops to lull us to sleep.
If you’re going to attempt a trip like this, there’s a few things you should know…
All campers should aspire to minimising their impact on the environment by conforming to the following code of conduct:
Catholes for disposal of human waste must be located at least 30m away from watercourses and 50m from walking routes. Human waste must be buried or carried out of the site. No evidence of latrine use should remain visible. All toilet paper and hygiene products must be carried out.
Campfires are not permitted in the National Parks. The issuing of permits for campfires is suspended pending review.
Failure to comply with this code will result in withdrawal of permission to camp. In such cases National Park Rangers will demand that the visitors break camp.
As with most things, it all boils down to common sense, and respect.
Just don’t be a dick, ok?
(There’s a presumption that American Tourists are) …insensitive rude people who think the only way to do things properly is their way. This presumption isn’t limited to Irish People of course. But I find I have to prove myself to not be “one of those Yanks” before people will trust me and open up. However, it is ALWAYS worth the effort. – My friend Kass McGann, of Reconstructing History.
We’ve all met them.
The ones who make us cringe a little inside. The ones who presume we’re idiots and proceed to explain how things should be done right. The ones who are loud and brash and rude.
But, #NotAllAmericans… amirite?!
Actually, yeah. Thankfully that stereotypical USA Tourist in Ireland is only a sliver of the tourism trade here – we had 1,294,000 total visitors from the USA in 2016. They weren’t all insensitive eejits, or we’d have had a feckin’ riot on our hands like. There’s only so many times a proud people can bear being called cute or quaint.
So, for those of you travelling to Ireland who have a genuine love and respect for the land and people, who would love to seriously connect here… how do you do it right?
Ok so this one could fall into the category of giving your Irish hosts a wee ego stroke, coz we do love the sound of our own voices, for the most part. Fair enough.
But it’s also about hearing the stories. Given half a chance, most Irish folk will blether away for hours with story after story, all leading into each other and weaving round in a fierce tangle of history, culture, experience, and plain old gossip.
It’s actually amazing when you catch someone in a good flow and just leave em off. They’ll chat for hours, especially if there’s drinks to hand to whet the whistle a wee bit and keep things flowing smoothly.
And not just one to one either. Take a bus, or go sit in a busy cafe or pub up at the bar. As a writer, and someone genuinely fascinated by people – I do this a lot. Irish people are most often emotive, and passionate, and so feckin’ funny you’ll be hard pushed not to give away your eavesdropping by cracking the fuck up laughing.
You’ll learn a lot when you listen.
My friend Kass again, she reckons this is the way to go. She explained:
acting like you’re a guest in someone else’s house is a good idea. I think we Americans go about the world with a “customer is always right” attitude and that doesn’t help when you’re trying to get to know another culture. I once knew a man in an Irish guest house who went into the landlady’s kitchen UNINVITED to “teach her how to make eggs properly”. I could have cried. I was completely embarrassed even though I didn’t know the guy.
Yeah, all of us working in tourism have met that guy.
Things are gonna be different in another culture. Sometimes, really really different. AND THAT’S OK. It will happen, so just go with it.
You’re (hopefully) travelling here to experience Irish culture, not try to turn it into American culture. We eat our fucking eggs differently, ok? (Um, some of us also curse a lot, in case you hadn’t noticed. Best get used to that one too.)
Don’t be that guy.
Hospitality is a big deal in Ireland.
Like, a really big deal. I’m not sure how to emphasise this appropriately enough, so you should go an watch Mrs. Doyle’s Best Bits. You don’t feel like it? But sure, whyever not? Go on and watch her now. Ah you will. Go on, Go on, Go on. Go On.
There now. See what I mean?
The thing is though, when someone offers, it’s polite not to snatch the hand off them for a sandwich or a cuppa, no matter how starving or parched you’re feeling. You do the polite refusal. Then they ask are ya sure? You might think you’re safe enough to say yes the second time… but no. You politely refuse again. It’s only on the third time, when they ask are ya REALLY sure, then you can say “Ah go on so, I will, thanks”.
I don’t know why. It’s just how it’s done.
Oh, and don’t forget the crucial thing when this happens in a pub situation. Someone in a group will be feeling flaithulach and get a round in. Yes, I know ye all said ye’d stay on your own and not buy into getting rounds of drinks. It’s just a thing that happens sometimes. Unless you’re stingy, and nobody wants to be stingy.
So, even if you’re still, really, definitely not getting into rounds… you HAVE to buy that person a drink back. Yup, even if they don’t ever wet their lips with it. You just have to.
On that note… Take this Test and figure out if you’re Stingy or Flaithulach, so you can be prepared for these things. You might want to warn folk.
It’s for the best.
For a decade, I guided at and professionally managed a major Irish spiritual/sacred site; a vast archaeological complex of sites actually, with a ceremonial history stretching back as long as there have been people on this island. I started as a part time tour guide there, many moons ago, and I’m still requested to guide many of the ‘Spiritual Tourism’ groups and individuals who visit Rathcroghan.
There’s two sides to the ethical issue around all this.
First: my own boundaries and guidelines. Spiritual guardianship of these sites is very much a part of the ‘work’ I do for my matron deity here (that would be the Mórrígan), right along with the instruction to “get real information out there”. I have a very personal deep down connection to this place, to these energies, stories, and gods… so it’d be very tough for me to coldly take cash and pimp out my paganism to gullible groups. On the other hand, there are so many genuine seekers coming here, more each year, and if I’m not helping them find a genuine experience, somebody else will.
So, I have to walk a very careful line between giving too much of my personal spiritual self to strangers, and supporting them in their journey, as is my job (both everyday mundane, and in a priestess capacity).
Second: there’s the community I work in. The Visitor Centre I managed there is a local community initiative, with a voluntary board of directors, and it’s often tough for them to understand all the facets of the spiritual side of our business. ‘Spiritual tourism’ is still a fast growing sector, with the highest spend per visitor of any other special interest group, so they can see the practical side to marketing this aspect carefully and responsibly. However, when I ever held spiritual events there, or featured in the media for this market, there was – every time – a local kerfuffle in the community with regard to the “witch that runs the centre”, or for example after our international ‘Goddess Gathering’ on year, I had to deal with open hostility from a particularly short sighted, narrow minded, ignorant fool of a local politician – because I “brought witches to the village”. The fact that the available accommodation was booked out 3 towns over, and the pubs did a roaring trade all weekend, was apparently less important to him than that.
Petty politics aside – there’s a balance to be kept there too, this is after all their place more than mine, and without community support and involvement we’re at nothing. Money talks, as they say, so it’s been up to me during my professional career to make the case for commercial and economic benefit in supporting the spiritual tourism market.
It’s not been easy, I must admit, but my attitude – both personally and professionally – has always been to make the case openly that Paganism is not wrong, or indeed even very different to the Ireland of not so long ago, and to be an open door as far as people’s questions or concerns need to be addressed. We’re not doing anything wrong here, quite the opposite in fact… and slowly, slowly, the Irish communities are changing.
All of that shifts and changes dramatically when you introduce spiritual tourism which does not consider the native community or landscape, does not support or integrate the local thoughts and experience, and in fact is merely there to add an air of false authenticity to their cultural appropriation and commercialised, shallow nonsense.
This stuff is complicated, and sensitivity to the indigenous climate and community concerns is essential. If you’re coming on a tour to Ireland, please choose your operator carefully. Question them before you give them your money, on how much is going to support the native guides, resources and communities from which they are profiting.
Don’t be involved in the pillaging of native energies or resources.
That’s not very fucking spiritual now is it?!
This is Brian Boru’s Fort, Ballyvally, Co. Clare, in the South West of Ireland. The Record of Monuments and Places (RMP) number is CL045-031. For your Sat Nav, the GPS co-ordinates are approximately 52.819486, -8.451598, and it’s in Irish State ownership, so you don’t have to get permission to walk the site.
Brian Boru (Old Irish: Brian Bóruma mac Cennétig; Middle Irish: Brian Bóruma; modern Irish: Brian Bóramha; c. 941 – 23rd April 1014) was an Irish king who ended the domination of the Kingship of Ireland by the Uí Néill. He is the O’Brien ancestral progenitor.
Brian belonged to the Dál gCais (or Dalcassians), a newly styled kin group of ultimately Déisi origin who occupied a territory north of the Shannon Estuary, which today would incorporate a substantial part of County Clare and then formed the core of the new kingdom of Thomond.
To visit his home today, you can fly straight into Shannon Airport and be here within the hour, and I highly recommend booking into Glocca Morra B&B, just down the road in Ogonnelloe. There’s an excellent atmosphere, with consistent top reviews for the host there, Mike, who just can’t do enough for you when you stay, and with the views over Lough Derg, fresh coffee and scones on arrival, and healthy countryside walks, you won’t want to be leaving. It’s worth a trip into Scarriff though, to visit the gorgeous little health food and gift shop, the Grainey, and the Irish Seedsavers Project.
From Killaloe, you’re taking the R463 for Scarriff, and driving to approximately to the co-ordinates 52.818708, -8.456329. Park safely (unfortunately, the only available parking is by the side of the road), and you’ll see a shaded woody laneway in to the right, with an information panel on the entranceway, and a sign pointing to ‘Brian Boru’s Fort’. Follow that lane to the end, and you will see the monument off to your left.
See my YouTube videos of our family visit:
In 1798, the United Irishmen Rebellion – between May and September – led to over 20,000 deaths, and some estimates would place the toll as high as 50,000. The Irish were still suffering under the Penal Laws, a system of rule which was called “a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man”, and they’d simply had all they could take.
Vinegar Hill was the base camp for the Wexford Irish Rebels, an estimated troupe of about 20,000 men and women, and even some children who were there seeking shelter, God love them. The Irish were armed, for the most part, not with firearms or black powder, but with long wooden pikes – a spear between 10ft and 22ft long (up to about 6m), topped with a spearhead of iron or steel. On 21st June, 1798, about 15,000 British troops, well armed with musket and cannon, attacked the rebel camp in an attempt to crush the insurgency completely. The Rebel Irish were woken to an artillery bombardment just before dawn, and though they tried at least twice to charge the British lines and break through the encircling forces, they were driven back each time.
A detachment of about 5,000 British soldiers were, at the same time, trying to take the bridge across the River Slaney at Enniscorthy. Although the Irish were slowly driven out of their barricaded buildings in the town, they held the bridge. There are recorded tales of stalwart leadership and valorous women, as well as the ensuing horrific atrocities. Though the Irish had to abandon the hill, the town, and make a tactical withdrawal to re-group the rebellion to the West and North, the battle wasn’t quite the defeat to the Wexford rebels that is often depicted. You can get the full story and decide for yourself at the distinctively designed National 1798 Rebellion Centre, located just off the N11 and N30 roads. They are open all year round, and an adult ticket is just €5.50, but check their website for times and full details.
This is Vinegar Hill, in Templeshannon, Co. Wexford, in the South East of Ireland. The Record of Monuments and Places (RMP) number is WX020-032. For your Sat Nav, the GPS co-ordinates are 52.503266, -6.553774, and it’s in Irish State guardianship, not ownership, so you don’t have permission to walk the site out across the hill, unless you meet the landowner.
The closest hotel is the Riverside Park Hotel, which can be busy and a bit noisy on weekends but great for those who want to experience some of the culture in historic Enniscorthy. There’s a great B&B not too far away on the other side of town, Teach Failte, which does a fantastic breakfast and has a warm family welcome. For something good to eat, the Bailey Café Bar is in a handy location, with free parking, and does a very busy lunch trade for good reason. Treacey’s Hotel does a great Sunday lunch and The Alamo is hard to beat. You’re spoiled for choice round here!
From Enniscorthy, head out over the river to the R744, turning off to the right at first crossroads (signposted ‘Vinegar Hill’). You’re following those brown heritage signs out the road, until you reach GPS 52.500836, -6.547658, and there’s another one there pointing up a narrow lane. Follow it to the end, and you’ll be looking out across the hill where the battle took place.
I went down to this little child, because she was a child… I got down on my knees in the aisle, and I asked her was she ok? She said, “No”. She was upset, and she said, she had had an abortion that afternoon in London. Now if you know anything about flying, you don’t fly after having a tooth out, for fear of haemorrhaging. Now she’s sitting in her seat… there was nobody with her, she was on her own… because of the severity of the matter, we had no choice, we couldn’t wait to get back to Dublin. That plane was diverted into Liverpool. And my memory… was of that girl – the ambulance men came on, they very discretely looked after everything, and nobody knew anything, they took her off – and she SCREAMED, all the way down on that stretcher, for us not to tell her parents back in Ireland.
That was an experience from the 1980’s, told by Derry-Ann Morgan, a former employee of Ireland’s national airline, to the crowd of activists, protestors and passers-by attending a Pro-Choice Rally on a very cold Saturday in May 2013, in Ireland’s capital city. That a girl of 15 years old would be subjected to such trauma, on finding herself pregnant in circumstances that simply did not allow for her to birth and raise a child, is unthinkable. But sure, that was 30 years ago. So much has changed in Ireland since then!
Highlights from the 80’s here on the island include an amendment to the Irish constitution, just to be sure to be sure than none of our poor wee Irish babbies might get killed unnecessarily. Driven by fear of abortion in other countries, the 8thAmendment in 1983 made it illegal for a woman to travel for an abortion, and illegal to even provide information, or speak to a pregnant woman in Ireland about how or where she could travel for abortion to another country. That same year, it was reported that an Irish mother of two named Sheila Hodgers was refused treatment for her progressive cancer, even down to not being allowed proper pain medication, due to the risk it posed to the foetus she was carrying at the time. Her husband repeatedly requested an abortion, but was refused. The hospital had to abide by a code of ethics drawn up with the Catholic Church, which would not even allow for a Caesarean section, as there was a chance of damage to the foetus. Following a premature labour, the baby died a few hours after birth, and Ms. Hodgers lasted only two days longer.
It’s a good thing the Government of Ireland has managed to wriggle out from under the thumb of the Church in 2017, so a travesty like that couldn’t possibly happen again, isn’t it?
Oh no, wait, they haven’t yet.
When the death of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian dentist residing in Ireland, hit the news, the nation, and the world, was shocked. Ms. Halappanavar died in October 2012, after she had sought help at the University Hospital in Galway as she was suffering a foetal miscarriage at 17 weeks. On being told the foetus was not viable, Savita requested an abortion, but was then informed the hospital could not perform an abortion under Irish Law as the foetus’s heart was still beating. A few days after, Ms. Halappanavar was diagnosed with septicaemia, leading to multiple organ failure, and death of both mother and foetus.
This happened despite the 1992 ‘X Case’ in which the Supreme Court decided that a pregnant woman could have an abortion to save her life, including from suicide – which was based on the case of X, a 14 year old girl who had been made pregnant by rape, and wanted the right of an abortion. This led to the 13th, and 14th Amendments of the Constitution, stating that the prohibition on abortion would not limit the freedom of pregnant women to travel out of the state, and that the prohibition of abortion would not limit the right to distribute information about abortion services in foreign countries. Neither of which was of any use to Savita, whose husband reported that a nurse in the hospital told them their repeated requests for abortion had to be denied, because “Ireland is a Catholic country”.
How horrific. How utterly, incomprehensibly tragic all of that is. Janet, who has been a pro-choice activist in Ireland for 24 years, recounts what she views as the best experience for a woman in Ireland today:
At 5 to 7 weeks… they illegally obtain the medical abortion pills online… they order them, risking charges for importing a Class A drug without a license, and with their partner or friend take them over the course of a weekend and have an abortion at home with everything they might need, or booked into a hotel room.
And what, in her experience, is the worst experience for an Irish woman who faces the choice today?
It is not to do with if they have travelled, or how far along they were, or what type of abortion they have had. It is simply the isolation which comes with not having anyone to talk to about the experience… We know that 150,000 women who gave Irish addresses have travelled to the UK, it may be more… That is so many women passing each other each day and not knowing they have that shared experience, and being unable to support each other.
The Pro-Choice Rally in May 2013 was timed to coincide with a 3 day Government committee hearings on proposed new legislation, following publication of the ‘Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013’. Dr. Sinead Kennedy of the ‘Action on X’ group, organisers of the rally, spoke of her feeling with regard to the Bill, and the debate that surrounds it:
We had the spectacle beginning yesterday of politicians debating the merits of allowing women lifesaving abortions. Debating how many years in prison – 5, 10, 15, 20 – vulnerable women in difficult situations will be subjected to, if they try and access abortions here in this country. Listening to politicians who seem to think that they’re bishops back in the 1950’s, who think that women are no more than vessels or incubators.
We need to tell this government that we will not accept legislation that excludes suicide. Women will not be subjected to panels of 3, 4, 7 doctors (to decide if they may have a termination). This is outrageous, it is barbaric. And women must not and will not be criminalised in their own country, for accessing abortion. (This Bill doesn’t provide) access to abortion for women who are victims of rape or incest, it doesn’t provide access for women who have fatal foetal abnormality, it does nothing to address the issue of when a woman’s health is in jeopardy because of her pregnancy – and more than that it doesn’t do ANYTHING to address the 5,000 women who travel abroad every single year to Europe, who are criminalised in their own country, and treated like exiles. And we will not tolerate this anymore.
It is surreal to think that under the proposed legislation, a 14 year old rape victim such as the girl in the X case, who is proven to have taken abortion pills in Ireland, would be subject to a 14 year prison sentence. Her attacker, if convicted, would be likely to face a 7 year jail term, the current average. As reprehensible as the situation is though, Dr. Kennedy is satisfied that things are moving in the right direction. She said that this legislation is the bare minimum we need, and while it is highly restrictive, and insulting that we have to stand out and demand this, it is nevertheless an important defeat for anti-abortionists. This, finally, is a step in the right direction.
The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 now defines the circumstances and processes within which abortion in Ireland can be legally performed. It allows for abortion where pregnancy endangers a woman’s life, including through a risk of suicide. It was signed into law on 30 July by Michael D. Higgins, the President of Ireland, and commenced on 1 January 2014. To determine whether the pregnant person is truly at risk, her case is put before a panel of up to 4 doctors and specialists, who must concur on the ruling.
There are no restrictions or checks in place for the religious beliefs of any of those doctors.
In a conversation with Katherine O’Donnell, director of the Women’s Studies Centre at University College, Dublin, she speculated:
Besides women who are ‘out’ about needing terminations for medical reasons, there is no big visible presence of women who have chosen to terminate pregnancies for other reasons, it is left to a few activists and organisations (such as Choice Ireland and Doctors for Choice)… so many thousands of Irish women annually terminate pregnancies, but there is no visible mass movement. We seem to have as many Irish women who are saying they were ‘hurt by abortion’ or that abortion is harmful, as those who are affirming it as a positive choice in their lives. If even a small fraction of Irish women told their abortion stories, I think it might be the way to unlock the long impasse where the argument about abortion goes into arcane abstractions rather than lived lives.
In 2013, it was estimated that 12 women leave Ireland every day to secure an abortion, while countless others are taking pills purchased online. Abortion is the most common gynaecological procedure an Irish woman is likely to have. It is variously estimated that between one in 10 and one in 15 Irish women of reproductive age have had an abortion. An Irish woman is more likely to have had an abortion than appendectomy or tonsillectomy.
It is time for Ireland to accept that the Abortion War will not be won by anything but safety and support for Ireland’s women, and the right – regardless of the situation – of an Irish woman to make the best possible choice she can for her own life.
You can provide support and keep up to date at the Abortion Rights Campaign Ireland Website.
[A version of this article was first published in Ms. Magazine, in the Summer issue of 2013, researched and written by Lora O’Brien.]