Pagan Holidays (Holy Days) worldwide are coming back to a more general use and understanding, with folk often asking questions about whether Christmas is a Pagan Holiday (it is, sort of), and observing the 8-fold Wheel of the Year.
The current Neo Pagan calendar (and its primarily Wiccan holidays) is ostensibly based off the ‘Celtic Wheel of the Year’, as the early creators and authors of our modern traditions were very fond of their romantic notions of Celtic culture, and very sure that it was ok to just… take what they wanted, and change or use it however they wanted.
*cough* Coilíní *cough*
The problem with this (one of the problems) is that we now have a sort of tangled, much mangled, view of the original pre-christian Irish Pagan festivals, that even many Irish Pagans adhere to.
In this post, I’d like to break this down a bit, and clarify some of the basics, so that we can (hopefully), start fresh. With a somewhat cleaner slate for Irish Pagan practice. Le do thoil.
To begin with, the ‘traditional’ eight Pagan Holidays, are actually 2 sets of four. So the wheel of the year is maybe 2 wheels, rotating side by side.
This can be a little confusing if you’re not used to considering things this way, but I do remember being quite frustrated back in my baby Pagan days by how the festivals seemed to just be copies of each other. Like, within the Wiccan traditions, there’s not a huge difference between how you’re celebrating the Summer Solstice (Litha) and Beltane, for example.
In my native practice, I break the focus, themes or concerns out as follows:
The Pagan Calendar names I use are in modern Irish, and the associated Gaeilge video is also my schoolgirl modern Irish pronunciation, to be clear.
Irish is a living language, and while I’m the first one to honour the Primitive Irish and Old Irish source material, they are different languages. We have modern Irish terminology for every single Pagan Holiday name, and a wealth of associated folklore and traditions within our living memory in Irish communities. So let’s use that.
Admittedly now, some of the folklore has gotten crossed over and shifted around with the Christian influences, eg. Summer Solstice bonfires now happen on St. John’s Eve, on the 23rd June, and the animal sacrifice tradition has moved from Samhain to St. Martin’s Day, on the 11th November. But that’s ok too.
At least the traditions still exist, and have grown and moved with the communities as we did.
Focus on Community, Hearth & Home, the Otherworld (an Saol Eile).
When people first walked this land, there were 2 seasons: summer and winter. They signified the change and move between camping grounds, as theirs was a Hunter/Gatherer lifestyle.
These times of moving and changing were dangerous and uncertain, and this still holds true in the primary Irish Pagan holidays of Bealtaine, and Samhain, which remain times of great change and uncertainty.
When the people settled, and began to farm the land, the seasons of Growth and Harvest were marked, with Imbolg and Lúnasa, and so began the 4 Fire Festivals.
[Download this Chart as a PDF Below]
Personally, I use the name Imbolg for this festival. That’s from the Irish i mBolg, meaning ‘in the belly’, for the pregnancy aspects (animals as well as humans, because if we get pregnant at Bealtaine we give birth around now). Imbolc is commonly used too though, and may have associations with washing or a ‘spring clean’ after winter, from Folc, meaning ‘bathe or wash’. I’m honestly not sure which language the term Oimelc comes from, though it’s been given to mean ‘ewe’s milk’. That would be Bainne na Caoirigh in modern Irish though, which doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
We have this clearly in old Irish as Belltaine (with various other spellings, the manuscripts weren’t always precise or standardised), meaning the month of May, or even ‘the month of the beacon-fire) according to the eDIL. It may have associations with an Old Celtic God Boleros, ‘the flashing one’ (Ó hÓgáin) or Balar/Balor in Ireland, he of the single, blazing destructive eye (often thought to be symbolic of the sun), and form the word Bealtaine from Balor’s Fire (tine).
There are multiple spellings out there, and I know some of them are based on the Gaelic language of Scotland, which I don’t speak. But as we still use the word Bealtaine in modern Irish for the month of May, and again – this is a living language, and it’d be great not to have to deal with bastardised or anglicised versions of it anymore please and thank you – let’s go with that eh?!
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Bealtaine
You’ll often see this written as Lughnasadh, and indeed, I’ve done so myself. As above though, I prefer the modern Irish spelling, and in Gaeilge, Lúnasa is the word for the month of August. I mean, I wasn’t joking about these Pagan holidays still being a part of our culture.
You’ll see references too, to Lammas, which we don’t have in modern Irish. My basic exploration of Old Irish suggests it MIGHT be a version of a ‘fine, handsome or excellent hand’ (from n. Lám and adj. Mass?)… but be warned, that is a very rudimentary look at a compound word! I definitely don’t use it as a Pagan Holiday name anyway.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Lúnasa
It’s not pronounced Sam-Hane. Never. I don’t care what your esteemed Elders passed down to you not-so-very-long-ago (in the grand scheme of things).
This is a LIVING LANGUAGE. Respect it, and the people who still speak it every day. Stop that Sam-Hane shit immediately.
It probably comes from the Old Irish samfuin, meaning ‘death of Summer’: eDIL. Samhain in modern Irish is the word for the month of November.
So yes, we know how to pronounce it properly. (Are you getting a sense for how many times I’ve had U.S. Pagans correct my pronunciation? Like, I’m not sure how to even communicate how infuriating that is, especially when it happens consistently!)
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Samhain
Focus on Community, Land & Sovereignty, this World (an Saol Sin – or Seo).
We know these times were important to our ancestors due, at least, to the sacred sites they constructed and used to observe and celebrate them. Massive monuments all over the island still attest to the power and value that was placed upon aligning ourselves, our communities, and our leadership, with these turning times of the Pagan year.
Please note: the common names Ostara, Litha, Mabon, and Yule, are at best culturally appropriated and co-opted into Neo Paganism, and at worst, carry entirely fabricated pseudo histories. I’m looking at you, Mabon.
They have NO place in native Irish paganism.
The Irish names below are simply the names of our seasons, as Gaeilge, and have always suited my personal practice around the Irish Pagan Holidays best.
[Download this Chart as a PDF Below]
The balance of day and night.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Earrach
Mid Summer, the longest day.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Samhradh
The balance of night and day.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Fómhar
Mid Winter, the longest night.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Geimhreadh
If you’d like more detail on any of the Irish Pagan Holidays, comment below and let me know. There’s already extensive sections in my books (see Publications – coming soon), but I can try and get some more blog posts and YouTube videos together for them if there’s an interest, and maybe even a wee course through our Irish Pagan School.
Let me know which of the Pagan holidays you want to see more on?!
This blog has a lot of new visitors, and I’m really glad to see that! But I also don’t want to be fooling anyone into being a part of a community with me if the fit isn’t right either, you know?
So, I figured I’d give ye a little dose of who I really am, like right down to the core. And if you don’t like that for any reason, and are actually a racist (whether you call yourself that or not) just jog on. Simple!
First off, I use a lot of sweary words. My son (12yo) got a bit scandalised a while back hearing me chatting with Eilís on a ‘Your Irish Connection’ — Check it Here — interview on my Youtube Channel, because I was cursing – “That’s not very professional Mam!”, says he. Well… it is what it is.
Second off, it’s not just my personal belief and lived experience that all people are equal and deserve the same human rights and safe community and care… it’s a fundamental part of the Irish experience. There’s a whole lot of bullshit floating around in the European Heritage communities that’s basically, and sometimes overtly (I’m looking at you Carolyn Emerick, mega shitehawk and peddler of appropriative racist codswallop), white supremacy, fascism, and neo nazi nonsense.
That’s not who the Irish are, or ever were.
Look, we’re not perfect. Modern Ireland can be really ignorant at times, and our lack of exposure to other cultures can be painfully obvious in the unthinking attitudes and beliefs of the people – but as a nation we truly, genuinely care for our fellow people all over the globe. We’re ranked the ninth most generous country in the world, and given the economic climate of the last few years, that’s pretty fucking cool.
It goes back further than modern charitable donations though. Even back to a time when we were on the brink of another famine, severely under the thumb of english rule and SUFFERING… we were still aware and working to support the civil rights movement in America.
Consider a quote from Daniel O’Connell, in 1843:
“How can the generous, the charitable, the humane, and the noble emotions of the Irish heart have become extinct amongst you? How can your nature be so totally changed as that you should become the apologists and advocates of the execrable system which makes man the property of his fellow man – destroys the foundation of all moral and social virtues – condemns to ignorance, immorality and irreligion, millions of our fellow creatures …? It was not in Ireland that you learned this cruelty…Over the broad Atlantic I pour forth my voice saying come out of such a land you Irishmen, or if you remain and dare continue to countenance the system of slavery that is supported there, we will recognize you as Irishmen no longer!”
– Daniel O’Connell. (irishamerica.com/2011/08/the-irish-abolitio…)
Irish people have ALWAYS held kinship with the minorities, the downtrodden, the immigrants, the unwanted, the pillaged, the ethnically cleansed. We have been them, and our hearts remember. Our warrior spirit fights alongside those who need our support.
Here’s your Irish Connection Resources on this topic, mo chairde. [click the headlines for links]
(by O’Connell, Daniel, 1775-1847. Publication date 1860. Topics Slavery — United States)
Frederick Douglass Photograph: MPI/Getty Images
Tom Chaffin, writing for the Irish Times, assesses the influence of his time in poverty-ridden and religiously divided Ireland, on the anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass. To the end of his life, he fondly remembered his 1840s lecture tour of Ireland and the welcoming reception he had been accorded. And though many Irish-Americans often opposed his civil rights efforts, he also viewed the Irish, in both Ireland and America, as a persecuted people.
To get an Irish Resources email like this (though usually a little less grumpy?! No promises mind you) delivered to you each Monday, join our Community Mailing List for your Authentic Irish Connection…
A version of this article on the Rag Tree in the Irish Tradition first appeared as a guest post on the Call of the Morrigan community blog in 2016.
So, I’ve worked for the last 14 years as a professional tour guide to the sacred sites of Ireland, and let me tell ya, I’ve seen some shit. And some of that involves the Rag Tree tradition.
Or rather, the mangling of our rag tree tradition!
8 of those years were spent managing the sites and visitor centre at the royal complex of Rathcroghan, Cruachan; which (as many of you know, unless you’re believing the nonsense that there’s no Morrigan sites in Connacht), is where the Mórrígan ‘resides’ – Her primary site in Ireland is the Cave of the Cats, Uaimh na gCait.
This site is an ancient cave, worked by human hands in later times, known as the primary physical entrance to the Irish Otherworld, which Medieval Christian scribes referred to ‘the Gates of Hell’ due to the unfortunate amount of monsters and demons (to their perception) which flowed out from this hole in the earth on an all too regular basis.
I’m probably telling y’all stuff you already know here, if you’re folk who are interested in Herself. Although, I’ve also seen some pure shite being said by folk who claim to know all about Herself… so a quick recap never does any harm. I’ve been Her priestess for 13 years, and I know how hard she pushes us to do the work, and how important real information is to Her.
But what you might not be aware of, and what I’d really, really, like you to be aware of (and tell all your mates), is the absolute misconceptions and horrific disrespect that Pagan or ‘spiritual’ visitors to Ireland show at our sites.
In Ireland, we have long had the custom of the ‘Raggedy Bush’ or Rag Tree, and there’s similar in Scotland, with what they call ‘clooties’ tied to certain trees.
The trees are Hawthorn, one of our most prominent native trees/bushes – Crataegus Monogyna, or in Irish, the Sceach Gheal. The Irish name literally means something like, ‘that which makes the hedgerow bright’, and when it’s covered in colourful rags it sure does. Most often, there’s a particular hawthorn, growing near a particular holy well, and this is the local Rag Tree.
Occasionally there’s no well or spring to be found, but my theory on that is that there used to be one and it’s gone now, or that the misconceptions around Rag Trees stretch back further than your average modern American tour group, and some fecker just decided at some stage that a single growing hawthorn was actually a Rag Tree, way back in the mists of time, and it stuck. Now, that doesn’t mean there’s no magic there today… just that it probably didn’t start out that way. The water nearby is a pretty important part of the magic here.
What’s it all about then? Well, basically, the tradition goes that you take a piece of cloth from a sick person, tie it to the tree (often with prayers), and the sickness disappears as the rag rots away. The water nearby is most often a holy or healing well, which helps of course.
Sounds simple enough, right?
From a magical perspective, we’ve got sympathetic magic in the rotting of the fabric – the visual representation of the illness losing power and strength and eventually disintegrating. We’ve got an energetic loop that’s formed between the sick person (it has to be an item they’ve worn while ill, so imbued with their DNA or essence) for illness to flow to the tree, and back the way then with the healing energies from the water, through the roots of the tree.
Make sense? Sure!
You know what doesn’t make sense though? Folk who come along and tie their rubbish to the rag tree. Or tie strings or cloth so tight they damage the tree branches. I’ve removed everything from crème egg (candy) foil wrappers to junk jewellery rings to plastic covered wire wrap ties from the branches of our Rag Trees on this island. Not cool people, not cool. That, at least though, can be written off as ignorance of a ‘quaint’ local tradition they want to be a part of, by people who are really just here for lip smacking the Blarney Stone and the Guinness.
What’s more worrying is the visitors who come to sites where there’s no Rag Tree, on supposed spiritual pilgrimage, and tie their shit to whatever tree happens to be there.
The Cave at Cruachan is a prime example of this. I was a guardian there for 13 years, and for 8 of those I was paid to be in and out of it most days of the week. There’s a hawthorn that grows over the mouth of the cave, but it’s a relatively young one. Maybe 20 or 30 years old is all. It’s a fairy tree in the sense of it being smack bang over the mouth of a Sidhe dwelling, and it’s definitely magical… but it’s not a Rag Tree.
Every week though, there’d be some new bit of tat tied to it. One tour group got a nylon umbrella off their bus, ripped it to bits, and tied the bits to the tree. Then they left the umbrella carcass in the field, got on their bus, and drove off.
There were obviously some who wanted to leave an ‘offering’ at the site, to connect themselves there in some way, and perhaps that’s how some of the cloth strips got into the tree. Maybe some were even cloth from the garments of sick people. But this is not a healing site.
In my experience – personally, and collected from feedback of those who energetically interacted with the site – the entities at this site will gleefully follow any connection you choose to make there, go right back to source, and tear down anything weak that they find there. Ostensibly ‘for your own good’, of course, but they are absolutely merciless about it… if you lay a pathway for them they will follow it.
This is not a good thing, for most people. Especially unprepared people. People who maybe think that Irish entities and Sidhe spirits are essentially pleasant and good natured, full of the craic, and harmless to let in. People who are perhaps sick, and not at full energetic defensive strength.
There was once a baby’s bib tied through the branches of the hawthorn tree at the Morrigan’s Cave. Just take a moment, and let that sink in for yourself.
You see now why I might be a bit ranty on this topic? Can we not do this anymore?
My best advice is to take local advice. If you want to find a real Rag Tree, there’s websites and books that will tell you where to begin your search, but first and foremost you should be talking to local people.
Get exact directions. Check that the tree you think might be the one is actually the one.
DON’T tie things that are not biodegradable to the trees – to any tree?! Tying strings and straps around our trees that stay there for years – I’ve literally seen the poor trees trying to grow around the shite that has been tied to them – will, in the worst cases, literally strangle and kill the branch it’s tied on, and sicken the whole tree.
And remember, just because some eejit has tied something to it before you got there, doesn’t make it a Rag Tree.
Please, be sure?
… This ‘Irish Accent’ shit though.
And leprechaun hats and lucky charms and a ‘Brigid Oracle’ machine and ‘Irish Yoga’ memes – well, begosh and begorra sure aren’t all the Oirish quaint and charming funny drunks?!
Ok, so that’s the frustrated rant part over. Well, the rant part at least. Ok, so I MAY rant again before we’re done, I’ll not lie to ye. It’s all relatable enough for those born here, and for most folk who genuinely seek an Irish connection though, I’d say.
This is where it gets a little more complicated. I’ve talked tongue in cheek about 9 Signs That You Might Be A Plastic Paddy before, and the reaction was interesting.
I get the fragile sense of connection, the lack of belonging, that is so very prevalent in the United States. I can empathise with it, even if I haven’t lived it.
But the American craving for roots is the direct cause a whole pile of shite being put out in the world that is not healthy and not doing ye any favours. Y’all need to fix that, and it starts with YOU.
For example, the Asatru Folk Assembly (I’m not going to link them and provide traffic to their shite) in 2016 – and this was even before the Oathbreaker became President 45, if I remember correctly – made a statement that runs like this:
Today we are bombarded with confusion and messages contrary to the values of our ancestors and our folk. The AFA would like to make it clear that we believe gender is not a social construct, it is a beautiful gift from the holy powers and from our ancestors. The AFA celebrates our feminine ladies, our masculine gentlemen and, above all, our beautiful white children. The children of the folk are our shining future and the legacy of all those men and women of our people back to the beginning. Hail the AFA families, now and always!
What’s that got to do with being Irish? I’m glad you asked!
Besides the fact they named their hall ‘Newgrange’… this racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic poison is prevalent in many groups who claim to follow a Norse or ‘Celtic’ spiritual path. Most recently, folklore author Carolyn Emerick (again, not linking to her filthy shit) has been outed and widely – sensibly – called on it by the general Pagan communities that she hitherto fed off.
Now, I work a lot with Irish ancestry. Every day, I would say, between personal work with my own ancestors and facilitating authentic connection to Ireland for folk who are feeling that, often because of family history and ties. I worked for many years in the Irish heritage tourism industry, where ancestral lineage is perhaps the number one reason folk report they are visiting Ireland from America and Britain, primarily.
I truly get that ancestry is important, is my point. And I get that it’s interesting and exciting to trace your DNA, or your family tree; to find those roots here when you may have felt rootless your whole life. I have given you a nice set of awesome instruction on how to connect to your Irish ancestors on this blog, as a support for those wanting to do the work.
You may want, even feel the need, to relate yourself to this land and these people who are, let’s face it now, possibly the coolest tribe in the world, and to thrill at a sense of belonging that is proven and measurable.
This is where it starts to get a little dodgy though. Because, for the most part, people are ridiculous. Not you, I hope, but people generally really are. This ‘proven connection’ becomes purity, becomes elitism, becomes all out racism. All too easily.
And that can be true from folk who are born here, by the way, as well as mouth breathers from across the seas on either side of us, who decide they are ‘Irish’ and that makes them better than everyone else because CúChulainn.
Oh, and that those of us on the island are doing it wrong.
*long suffering sigh*
Irish DNA, bloodlines or proven ancestry, at the end of the day, doesn’t mean shit.
We’re not some chemistry marks on a page, some cherished photograph snapshot of the cultural highlights your ancestors left behind – we’re a living breathing culture, a people who continue to grow and change, but who also hold safe our heritage right here within our day to day lives.
I’ve said it from my first day on the internet, and I’ll keep saying it til ye fucking get it… Irish DNA isn’t what makes you Irish. (I’m gonna go ahead and include the spiritual aspect of all this right in here, but it’s just as relevant without. Your mileage may vary.)
Being Irish is about the land and the people, and yes, the language.
I get roasted in book reviews all the time because I keep banging on about the language, and how it is a valuable expression of Irish heritage and magic.
At it’s most basic, we all speak English because colonialism, oppression, genocide, and RACISM. When a native person tells you that it would be respectful for those seeking spiritual (and ancestral) connection to their land to maybe try and make an effort to include a few indigenous words and phrases, correct pronunciations and such – the correct response is not to dismiss and ridicule them.
Learn how to spell and pronounce the native terminology you want to use. FFS, seriously.
Learn how to address the Gods you seek in their native tongue. Learn how to say the names of indigenous people and places. Is it really too much for you?
Is your sense of belonging really that shallow that you get upset and offended and downright hostile when you are called out on this shit we are bombarded with day in and day out? Is that necessary, or warranted?
And you other folk who are lucky enough to have been born on this blessed isle… learn your own history.
Our version of a creation myth is the Lebor Gabála – the BOOK OF INVASIONS. Like, our own history is literally about waves of people coming to Ireland and making things interesting. Sometimes, that didn’t work out so well (I’m looking at you, 700+ years of English oppression), but for the most part it’s been really good for us. This land is shaped and fed by her people, and she takes care of us if we take care of each other.
This is important, and many Irish have forgotten it. Ireland is made of many tribes.
A couple of years back, a black woman of my aquaintance received absolutely vile racist abuse as she curated the @Ireland account on Twitter. More recently, the Waterford Rose of Tralee – my friend Kirsten – is receiving awful abuse, both online and in person. Things have been going downhill fast in Britain and America, and there’s stirrings of outright bigotry becoming more open here in Ireland too.
This is not our heritage. This is certainly not our spirituality.
Folk who were not born here often, in my experience, appreciate Ireland in a way many Irish fail to do. They have come to visit, or live here, and they breathe our island in fully and deeply. They speak the language because they want to connect to the soul of Ireland and they’re willing to put the work in to do that. They look around that small rural village you grew up in and despise, but they see the charming architecture, the hidden mysteries in the landscape, the value of community support that they’re often not even included in as ‘blow ins’.
You also forget, perhaps, or conveniently misplace in your mind that us Irish have exported generations, have solved our problems many times by leaving this land. (OK, so those problems were most often not of our own making, because again with the colonial oppression, but still.)
Is that how you want them treated?
So, you don’t have to be born here to be Irish. But the blood in your veins doesn’t make you so either. It’s about living the culture, putting in the work and the effort to connect, the respect and reverence for our history and heritage.
The other side of this coin is the importance of indigenous wisdom and experience. And again, this is where things are taking out of context and blown out of proportion by idiots.
I can say all of the above and still froth frustrated at the dismissal of an Irish person’s opinion or experience by non-native spiritual seekers who talk over us, disregard our advice or concerns, and profit from our resources at our expense.
Me getting angry at this and calling you on it doesn’t make me elitist, or some sort of aryan purist – and writing me off as such is a way of silencing my valid protest at your disrespect. Do you find yourself agreeing with #AllLivesMatter too?
But it happens all the time. At least weekly for me, but sometimes daily.
A Facebook friend made a very good point recently when someone was getting het up at the idea of not getting a free pass to follow any spiritual path they please, as and when they wanted… my friend asked (paraphrasing): What are you offering to this native spiritual path? What support are you giving to the indigenous people whose culture you wish to take from?
This resonated very deeply for me, particularly as I’m a big proponent of just doing the fecking work on your spiritual path. This story too – the Dagda’s Work, speaks strongly to me on this point.
None of this is about your surname, what title you claim, what country your ancestors came from, or where you happen to have been born this time round.
Do you patronise unique Irish businesses, eat local foods, and work with Irish tour guides when you visit? (OK that last one is a blatant plug, but whatever.)
What do you DO, every day, that makes you think you can call yourself Irish?
This has always been a difficult one for me. We are in so many respects, a young Spiritual community here in Ireland, and I was very young (16-18 years old) coming to it first, although I slotted in with a long standing group and mentor from my 18th birthday, so I guess I was in the thick of it from my first community forays.
The BNP (Big Name Pagan) notion is an American one really, maybe English; we don’t have it here, except more recently to use it ironically, to maybe slag each other when we get ‘too big for our boots’ – or rather, when we do something (like a national media interview, or present to a big conference/audience, publish a book, etc) that might put us in danger of getting ahead of ourselves, as the Irish say.
That being said, there are of course those in the community who (whether they admit it or not, even to themselves) crave or grow to need the inevitable ego boost that comes with the BNP experience. Let’s be honest, it feels good to be adored and sought after, who wouldn’t enjoy that? Thing is, if you’re feeding off that with no responsibility, or even awareness in some cases, you get mad addicted to it. And it obviously becomes very unhealthy very fast.
I very much relate to what Peter Dybing says in his article ‘Killing the Big Name Pagans‘: “During my years in the community the most influential people on my path have always been community members who are doing the work”.
That is why I lead, when I lead – because there’s work that needs to be done, and I have a somewhat natural (though developed by years of practice, and many mistakes!) ability to get stuff done, to help people figure things out, and to solve problems when other people are stumped.
There is a part of me that LOVES being centre stage, being adored, being right – and I get that ‘fix’ for myself in very aware and consensual ways; so that need in me doesn’t bleed into the work I do on a day to day basis.
Now, part of that work, the work I do and the work that my community looks to me for, IS to be a ‘BNP’ on occasion. I am a writer, a teacher, an activist, an event presenter, a guide – and I often speak for those who can’t speak for themselves, particularly in the context of rural Ireland’s restricted views around religion and spirituality, equality, or personal liberty of choice.
Maybe if my life was different, and I hadn’t spent a good 10 years being firmly grounded by having kids and animals and country life – cleaning up piss and snot and shit and puke on a regular basis makes it tough to be all that self important – maybe I’d be different, more in danger of getting ahead of myself. But maybe not, because I am usually the one moving chairs, cleaning toilets, singing songs, making sure everybody has what they needed… and listening, observing, waiting to be called to work.
Because leadership is service, and priesthood is the responsibility on all levels, to the best of your ability, to ensure your community is being cared for, worked for, spoken for – when their own voices are silenced.
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?!
Not terms you’d want to be used about you if you’re serious about your Irish heritage.
Well, more serious at least than a green leprechaun hat and getting pissed as a fart on Paddy’s Day.
So, how do we avoid such labels?
How do you know if you are making a tit of yourself when you tell people you’re Irish? How do you know if you make the grade?
I don’t believe it’s all about being born here, but ya gotta understand the culture. Walk it as well as talk it like. Irish American is a different thing to being Irish – not better or worse, but definitively different.
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.]