‘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!
Uncovering the layers of Irish Mythology. On this site, you will find a regular podcast and articles about Irish Pagan Mythology by the Story Archaeologists, Chris Thompson and Isolde Carmody. This is the essential primer with regard to Irish pagan Podcasts. To find out what Story Archaeology is, and how we apply this method to the exploration of Irish stories, listen to this introductory mini-episode.
This is the podcast from The National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin, and is a platform to explore Irish and wider European folk tradition across an array of subject areas and topics. Hosts Jonny Dillon and Claire Doohan hope this informal and friendly tour through the folklore furrow will appeal to those who wish to learn about the richness and depth of our traditional cultural heritage; that a knowledge and understanding of our past might inform our present and guide our future. Check it on Sound Cloud here.
A series of interviews with Neil Jackman and a number of Ireland’s archaeologists and specialists, to discuss the key periods in Ireland’s past, the different types of sites and artefacts and how people lived in the past. An insight into the profession and practice of archaeology, and the various techniques and scientific methods that help to build the picture of Ireland’s history. View the website here.
With Irish Pagan Author and Guide Lora O’Brien. Authentic connection to Ireland with a native voice on mythology, indigenous spirituality, archaeology, history, culture, society, storytelling, and travel round the island. This one ticks the box for Irish Pagan Podcasts specifically – the first series is a reading of a dissertation on the Mórrígan – Listen Here.
Behind the wall of grammar homework lies the amazing world of the Irish language, and Darach (that @theirishfor guy) wants to take you there. With a crack team of the internet’s soundest Irish speakers, Darach will explore topics like differences between the Irish and English versions of the Constitution, silent letters, Gaeilge and technology, how new words get added to the dictionary and which old words have fallen out. It’s an all slammer, no grammar half hour. Get it in your ears here.
It’s about the culture, history and politics of Ireland, with journalist Naomi O’Leary and lecturer Tim Mc Inerney. They tie current events to the history and culture that explain them. Get your passport to Ireland here.
Fin Dwyer is a historian, author and podcaster. There are hundreds of free podcasts on Irish History, including things like the story of the Norman Invasion to the Great Famine. Irish Pagans will be particularly interested in the Witches and Witchcraft series here.
If you like listening to Irish folk talk about topics relevant to Irish Paganism, or Paganism in general, you’ll enjoy my YouTube Channel here.
And if you want to know about Irish Paganism – Start Here!
Normally, questions come in from my Mailing List or YouTube comments, and I’ll answer them in blogs or videos, but I was a little unprepared to be asked the question: “What are Pagan beliefs?” while attending a recent Irish activism event.
Caught on the hop, I guess, would be a better description, as it was out of the usual context in which I answer questions on Paganism. Really, I have been preparing for questions like this since I picked up my first book on Paganism in 1994, at the age of 16.
That was a wonderful start actually: Vivianne Crowley’s excellent title “Phoenix From the Flame: Living as a Pagan in the 21st Century”.
[Get your Copy Here – https://amzn.to/2WsxzAg]
This book was lauded as ‘a fresh look at the most ancient religion – Paganism – the vital, widely practiced alternative to mainstream religion that heralds a return to ritual and reverence for the earth’.
It certainly opened my eyes to a whole new world, as I now had a name for the unusual beliefs and inclinations I’d had all my life, even while mired in the very mainstream religious practices and beliefs of (then) Catholic Ireland.
I’d been carrying Pagan beliefs in my heart and in my soul, without even knowing what they were.
The top 3 basics, the things most Pagan Beliefs will align on, are Polytheism, Pantheism, and Reverence for Nature or Nature Worshipping. We’ll get into what these mean specifically, in just a minute.
Because first, it’s important to say that not all Pagan Beliefs do align, or even look remotely similar, in some cases. There are many traditions, and many different ways to be Pagan, and some Pagans don’t follow any tradition or any set way at all.
I shouldn’t have to say it, but sadly – it needs saying again – I do not here, nor do I ever attempt or presume to, speak for ALL Pagans, Irish or otherwise. This blog, as with all my writing and educational materials, are an expression of my own understanding and experience on a given topic.
Historically speaking, all of our ancestors were Pagan, as we understand it. It’s an umbrella term that we now use for basically anything non-monotheistic – ie, belief in more than one, or multiple Gods.
When the big ‘belief in one God’ religions started coming in, humanity moved away from pretty much everyone being Pagan. Before the Abrahamic religions came along, our Gods were many.
Which gives us the definition for the first term we used up there, Polytheism.
Polytheism is the worship of or belief in multiple deities, which are usually assembled into a pantheon of gods and goddesses, along with their own religions and rituals.
The definition of our second basic Pagan Belief – Pantheism – is a little trickier. This one is not specific to Paganism per se, so while many/most Pagans are Pantheists, not all Pantheists are Pagan.
Stick with me here.
Pantheism is the view that everything is part of an all-encompassing, immanent deity or Universal consciousness. All forms of reality and things within reality are then seen either modes of that Being, or identical with it.
What this means, practically, is that Pantheists see ‘God’ in everything – every rock, every river, every cloud, every insect, every elephant, every human.
The essence of all things IS divinity.
Pagans are pretty much down with this view in a majority, and it ties very well with the third of our basic Pagan Beliefs – reverence for Nature.
There are also some of those who follow the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) who may hold Pantheistic views… it all depends how you define God, right?!
Again, this varies, but there are a couple of mainstays.
Pagans will follow and attune to the natural year through both lunar and solar cycles. That is, the moon cycles – New, Waxing, Full, Waning, and Dark. And the sun cycles – Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter.
Depending on tradition and personal practice, there may be specific festivals, rituals, and observances that happen through these cycles.
Sometimes these cycles correspond with Deity, and a God or Goddess will be venerated or acknowledged as part of the celebration or observance.
[For example, many people work with the Mórrígan at Samhain (Hallowe’en). You can learn more about the Mórrígan at Samhain Here]
Another commonly held Pagan Belief is that the earth herself is sentient, and sacred, as well as all that lives upon her. The spirit of place is highly regarded to, with a particular reverence for certain ancient sites being widespread.
Perhaps the first thing that those only familiar with modern mainstream religions will find odd, or even unsettling, is the Pagan Belief in both Gods and Goddesses. There is a diversity and openness to deity in any form, or none, that is just not what many folk are used to any more.
Pagans can be members of traditions that venerate within certain cultural parameters. We see followers of Irish (most often spoken of as ‘Celtic’, even though this term is a little more complicated than they may understand), Norse, Egyptian, Greek/Hellenistic historic spiritual cultures or pantheons of Gods. As well as many others.
The questions of authentic connection to these cultures, and cultural Appropriation vs Appreciation, I have addressed elsewhere – please do go and find an awareness/understanding around these issues for yourself.
[Cultural Appreciation vs Cultural Appropriation on YouTube – https://youtu.be/8oC3dUqEXaY]
Some Pagans prefer to keep things much more open and unspecified, with beliefs in non personified or unnamed God and/or Goddess energies. We may see veneration of a ‘Great Goddess of All’, or a ‘Great Mother’, perhaps with a partner/consort ‘Great God’.
Many Pagans work with both Gods, and UnGods (though they may not call them exactly this name!).
These beings and entities that don’t quite fall into the Deity categories may include our own particular ancestor spirits, the dead in general, fairies or ‘Otherworld’ folk of many cultures, and the personification or anthropomorphisation of natural features.
That’s a long word.
It means attributing human characteristics, behaviour or personalities to natural elements; such as geographical locations (a river, a mountain, an ocean even a city), or broad spirit types (fire spirit, wolf spirit, death spirit).
Those are the most basic Pagan Beliefs, in my experience, which may or may not apply to ALL Pagans, but will be held sacred by most of us, most of the time, in some form or another.
And if you have any questions, I’ll be prepared for them in the comments below 😉
On this blog, and in the weekly Irish Pagan Resources emails through our community mailing list, we cover a variety of topics, including: Irish Mythology, Irish History, Irish Culture, Irish Spirituality, Irish Storytelling & Irish Travel.
Or, really, whatever catches my interest that week?!
I thought it might be useful to provide a monthly collection of Irish Pagan resources here, under each heading. If you have any further recommendations yourself, comment below!
First, a warning… When we’re looking for authentic resources in Irish mythology, we often come across obviously poor materials. If there’s sparkly gifs flashing, that’s your first clue. But some of em are sneaky.
This for example – Fairies of the Irish Mythology – from The Irish Fireside, Volume 1, Number 24, December 10, 1883
It may LOOK like ye olde academic quality source material. But the reality is that it’s a pompous piece of colonial crap, with butchered Irish language references and arrogant assumptions about the uncivilised native savage.
So, Britain’s in a right oul mess too, aren’t they? Seems like a good time to dust off this article – Northern Ireland, a Beginner’s Guide.
We’re still a bit of a mixed bag here when it comes to equality in our society. While we have the Gender Recognition Act, which is amazing for Trans people in our community, we also have the likes of the Iona Institute and Glinner polluting our air. I’m not going to link to them – look them up, or just trust me they’re vile.
Gotta recommend the Irish Pagan School here, as I am a co-founder!
Many online courses and programmes (free and paid), with new content from excellent native Irish teachers coming each month.
I learned a while back that my good friend Joe Perri of Wolf Mercury Photography had NEVER HEARD OF EDDIE LENIHAN. Honestly, it’s kinda put me in a panic – I mean, who else out there isn’t aware of out storytelling national treasure? In case that’s you… Eddie storytelling live in a Pub. His beard scares me, but you know, each to his own. (Check this one especially for the Biddy Early reference).
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to recommend any other Travel company than Land Sea Sky Travel. Vyviane is just too wonderful. Check out what’s on offer.
When you’re looking for authentic Irish Pagan Resources, it’s best to stick – in general – with native Irish sources. Check out my YouTube Video on Cultural Appropriation for more info!