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May.2014

WEISFJORD NEWS

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3AM HISTORY BY JOHN ORMONDE call it '3am History' because to me it's like when you cannot sleep because of questions running through your mind. It is the fascination I have with past events that asks, and hopefully answers, those kinds of questions that reveal the 'story' part of what we see or hear about in our own lifetimes. Kings, dates, battles and so forth have their place - but "so what?'. In what may or may not be an occasional or a regular column I will try and write about what I think makes 'real history' so fascinating. I hope you enjoy it also. Of Magic Wands and Epic Theologies. In such an apparently childish prop as the stage magician's wand is found the remnant of an entire civilisations quest for the sacred - and that is cause of wonder indeed. Ireland’s main belief system before the arrival, in the fifth century, of Christianity was animist-based and administered by the Druids. Despite conflicts in such beliefs - that not only humans were believed to possess a soul but animals, plants (especially trees) certain rocks, physical locations etc. did also, and that the religious leaders were considered, to be sorcerers possessing supernatural powers Ireland became the only land into which Christianity was introduced without any noteworthy bloodshed. The reasons for this are many, and among the most noteworthy are the following. Without diversity or competing internal cultures - the Celts enjoying complete hegemony in Ireland - only one philosophy and set of socio-religious mores had to be overcome, or absorbed, by the early church. Access to all levels of this society was enabled by the Celtic principle, embodied in law, that those who were most favoured by the gods had a duty to assist and care for those who were less provided for. Powerful and selfgoverning as they were, the Druids were not exempt from this rule. Running through the legal system , the famous 'Brehon Laws', which they themselves codified and administered were strong protections and duties regarding care of the poor, the disabled, the sick, weak powerless or old and to those who were strangers in society. In practice this meant that there was a strong obligation on those in power to treat people in general in a fair, honourable and generous manner. This meant that as well as finding common ground with the concepts of ‘Christian

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Charity’, early missionaries had at least some guarantee of at least an initial hearing where they could present the ‘Good News’ without fear of summary execution as happened in so many other cases. The Celtic belief in many gods were all-powerful and who could appear in many guises and under many names at first sight appears to be directly in conflict with a monotheistic belief but this was settled in a peculiarly ‘Irish’ manner. The argument was made that all-powerful god could easily manifest as simply one god and as such be, for all intents and purposes, the 'only' god. In other words, it really did not matter if there were other gods as any individual god had to the power to make one believe in only that single god. As a result of this 'anything is possible for the gods' approach, Christian monotheism was not as much of a hurdle to accept as it may first have appeared to be. In addition, the Celtic belief in a powerful goddess -who had not one but three aspects - was incorporated with St Brigit and the 'triple aspect' was an easy bridge to the Christian Trinity with the general awe and respect for various goddess making later devotion to Mary an easy transition. Of great significance to both Celt and Christian however was a shared belief in an Afterlife. This was in stark contrast to the Romans - the previous hegemonic power in Europe. The Celts, like the Christians, believed in an indestructible soul. If, unlike the Christians, believing it resided in one's head. They did agree that the afterlife had within it separate areas those which were happy paradises and those which were far less desirable. The main difference in opinion over these 'heavens and hells' however was in respect of how 'real' they were. In Christian belief the afterlife is purely spiritual, however to the Celts the 'Otherworld' was a parallel universe literally as physically real as this one. The Christian church could not eradicate this belief completely, so it incorporated it within what came to be known as the ‘Celtic Church’. The Celts believed that on one night of the year - the feast of Samhain - the two worlds came in physical contact and a doorway opened between them. This opportunity for the dead to re-enter this world and was a feared event. The warrior-oriented Celts had reasons to regard

with trepidation the return of dispatched enemies intent on revenge and so attempts were made to mollify the spirits by leaving gifts for them and tokens respecting their soul’s residence. Pagan Samhain became Halloween with its ‘treats’ and the carved turnip or pumpkin heads mollifying vengeful spirits while presenting the seat of the Celtic soul. So,

while t h e Druids and others may have initially resisted the encroachment of Christianity in Ireland, a shared sense of charity towards others, acceptance of a single god while acknowledging the power of the feminine aspect, a strong belief in a soul and afterlife made for common grounds and subsequently avoided bloodshed. The Druids themselves were open-minded enough to investigate the new beliefs for themselves and many converted to Christianity as a result and became influential I spreading the new creed. Even among those who did not convert, disagreement was remarkably absent as evidenced by St. Patrick’s writings 'indicated that even Pagan lawgivers were inspired by the (holy) Spirit' (Seamus Mac Manus in his 'Story of the Irish Race,1994). St. Patrick - he was certainly not the first Christian in Ireland, nor even the first missionary. In Wexford itself we had St. Ibar who founded a Monastery on Begerin Island in 420. Bishops are sent only to existing congregations sufficiently organised and possessing enough priests to make a Bishopric necessary, and it was as a Bishop that Patrick returned

to Ireland having previously been a slave there. Patrick was not even the first Bishop to be sent to Ireland, that distinction belongs to Palladius, sent by Pope Celestine in the early 400's. Unlike Patrick however, Palladius did not have a very successful experience - according to some sources he was sent back to Britain soon after arrival being unhappy in Ireland and not liked by t h e

Chieftains. Patrick however was obviously a superb proselytiser and representative of what was considered to be a 'true Christian' by the Irish in general. His enslavement in Ireland had furnished him with knowledge of the language, customs and the power structure. The latter in particular was key to his success - if he did not spread Christianity quite as widely and effectively as commonly thought he certainly became irrevocably associated with 'successful' missionary endeavor. Simply put, Patrick knew enough to pay what was basically 'protection money' to local Chieftains and Druids in return for relatively unhindered travel through a much wider area than any previous carrier of the Gospel had been able or willing to cover. While at times he faced 'mortal danger,' overall his personal safety was pretty much assured. This and other ‘inside knowledge’ of how Celtic society operated, gained from his days in slavery, was key to Patrick’s success. He focused on carrying his message primarily to the sons and daughters of Chieftains, and in so doing converted the future rulers so that the ruled would have to follow. He also allowed the Celts to adapt Christianity into its

society rather than trying to enforce it on them in any rigid entirety. Irish society was flexible enough in its early beliefs to accept Christian beliefs into it’s thinking, now it was allowed to actually incorporate it into its social and religious fabric in a relatively flexible way. Orthodox it certainly was not , and the ‘Celtic Church’ went its own way until the 'Church of Rome' sufficiently recovered from the collapse of the Roman Empire to where it determined to bring the Irish back within its sphere of influence. And so in 1155 Pope Hadrian gave both his permission and his Blessing to Henry II of England in his plan to invade Ireland and consequently bring it back in line with the 'True Church'. This appears baffling when one considers that Hadrian's Papal Legates had actually reported to him in 1152 that the church in Ireland was basically in good order after self-righting some admittedly serious moral failings. However, politics being what is usually is the pursuit of power and riches or some other perceived advantage - the 'invasion' went ahead with the 1169 landing of a handful of Norman adventurers. For the 'Old' religion the times of accommodation and mutual respect was over. The next few centuries saw 'Orthodox' Christianity firmly emplaced and short shrift given to previous beliefs. At least on the surface. While we know little about the early Christian faith in Ireland even less is known about the Celtic religion. The main reason for this, ironically enough, was the fanatical determination of the Druids in guarding their sacred knowledge. (However, when one considers it took about twenty years of arduous training to become a Druid this protection of such hard won knowledge becomes rather understandable.) The main prohibiton being that nothing was committed to writing unless absolutely necessary. When it was essential to do so, a secret code was employed known as ‘Ogam, named after Ogmius the Celtic god of knowledge. As with so many other aspects of the times and circumstances this sacred alphabet was coopted by early Christian converts and adapted for the purpose of making simple memorial inscriptions on rocks - the Ogham stones. A fine reproduction of an Ogham stone can be seen at Irish National Heritage Park. It features the aspects most common to all. Ogham consisted of a Latin-based

alphabet of from one to five lines or notches inscribed, horizontally or diagonally, along the edge of a 'standing stone'. The inscription commemorates a person and their line of descent. This form of Ogham was used from roughly the fifth to the eight century. In Wexford also, we have four original Ogham stones which does not seem like much, and maybe in times past there were many others now lost or destroyed, but which actually represent roughly ten percent of the total number known in Ireland. As relations soured between the religions, many Ogham stones and other 'pagan' works were destroyed by zealous Christians. However, the Druids certainly did not waste their time inscribing their writing system on various stones. An 'alphabet' based around a core of five constituents is ideal to be represented by the fingers of one’s hand. In face to face meetings the Druids simply signaled to each other using their fingers to 'spell out' a message. Over longer distances they inscribed the marks on a stick –usually of Hazel or Yew - which was then sent by messenger to the recipient. Imagine the mystery presented to the average Celt in such a situation - he has traveled many miles to hand a simple stick with a few scratches on it to a Druid who subsequently announces news that will only be verified by word of mouth maybe days later. Of such actions are mysterious and powerful reputations made. Even without such apparent supernatural power, the awe in which Druid were normally held due to their learning and social status was legendary. A Druid’s person was literally sacrosanct in both theory and practice and thus it is easy to see how anything particularly associated with such powerful and influential personages would be included in that general sense of awe…and is remembered, albeit imperfectly. Every Magician waving a 'magic wand' therefore, is a reminder to those of us who realise it that 'faith' can long outlive the religion it is associated with - that outward symbols can be more powerful and long-lasting in the minds of men than the inward quest they formerly represented. So while the faith that the Druids promulgated is long forgotten, the memory certainly lingers on. John Ormonde

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