Ireland – We Come with Baggage, and You’d Better Take the Time to Understand WHY Pagans Need History!
A lot of pagans coming to Irish paganism are naturally drawn to our rich cultural heritage. The stories, the gods, the heroes, are all attractive as is the existence of a living tradition of folk magic.
It’s easy to see the appeal.
But invariably the question arises of how to know if the website, book or article that sounds so plausible and which often delivers a large dose of confirmation bias, is accurate.
Lora O’Brien and the Irish Pagan School boast a host of indigenous magical and Pagan resources, authentic and academically reliable, from individual authors to the Irish Folklore Collection at Duchas.ie, but there is another basic resource that you need to tackle… learning Irish history, because pagans need history!
(This is a Guest Post by Geraldine Moorkens Byrne)
Not the sagas, exciting and all as they are. Not even the folk tales. The actual “this-is-what-happened-and-why,” of Irish history. Precisely because we have a living tradition of spirituality and magic, you cannot divorce it from its roots or fully understand it without doing some work on the factual history of Ireland.
Want to understand the attitude of modern Irish towards cultural appropriation or misrepresentation? Want to know why we roll our eyes when you say, “But I read it in Lady Gregory’s….?”
You can’t – without some understanding of our colonial past.
For 800 years we were effectively either at war with or occupied by our nearest neighbour, England. (Editors Note: a part of our Island is still colonised.)
Understanding this, and its effect on our culture and heritage, goes far beyond crying into green beer and singing rebel songs. To understand that complex relationship is to understand the current situation of our national language, our reluctance to accept lazy misrepresentation of our heritage, the fact that Yeats or Lady Gregory are not native sources, and the situation behind anti-nativism among many British writers (and some Irish ones too.)
No, no one expects you to do a degree in Irish History or even study slavishly for years. But if you are willing to wade through a book detailing some neopagan, new age, wiccan author’s imaginary relationship with Irish magic, you can have a read of some of these recommendations!
You’ll understand a lot more and you won’t get yelled at as often. Win, Win.
Examples of Why Pagans Need History
As an example, take the much-maligned concept of love magic. Wiccan neo-paganism will either sell you pink candles to burn or lecture you that it’s unethical. Yet folk magic in Ireland centered many charms and spells for attracting love, and this isn’t because we’re a wild, romantic, nation of amorous red-heads.
This is because for most women, in rural Ireland, being unmarried sentenced you to a life of drudgery and servitude to whatever male relative inherited the patch of land or the tenancy of the farm, and post Famine Ireland was obsessed with consolidating land, because the previous generation’s attempts to fairly subdivide among offspring contributed to the poverty and vulnerability of the populace.
Pre-Famine, in an attempt to provide each offspring with some means of living, parcels of land and tenancy were subdivided among them. This increased the precarious instability and poverty of the populace, a disaster when the decade of Famines occurred in the 1840s.
Post famine, that was a bitterly learnt lesson, and the eldest son took the land, with unmarried brothers and sisters becoming unpaid drudges, working for a roof over their head.
We know about the insecure position of unmarried people, right into the 20th century. We know the fear of being unprotected and unmarried was well founded for women, and the alternatives. We know the legacy of the Famine years stretched into every aspect of life and we know that the wise women gave spells and charms to those with a hope of snaring a husband, a home, some standing and independence.
When people come at Irish magical and spiritual traditions with the attitude of “What’s the Famine, lols? Sorry, can’t be bothered googling, but I don’t do love magic, lols,” it doesn’t inspire us to include or educate you. (Editor’s Note, again: And by the way, please don’t ever call it ‘The Potato Famine’!)
Another small example of why pagans need history; to illustrate how important some understanding of Irish history is, and how all the threads – Spirituality, Magic, Trauma, Oppression – connect, in ways that can be surprising is the use of blood and offerings in a mix of magical and spiritual practice.
Again, we can look to the Famine for some understanding of their importance and again while modern sensibilities may baulk at the practice, our forebears did not. Post Famine Ireland became obsessed with the ownership of land and consolidating land ownership. This led politically to the Land Wars, and socially, as explained above, to the practice of primo Geniture (inheritance of the oldest son) becoming utterly embedded in Irish practices for the first time.
In this context, protecting the crop and livestock, ensuring survival, through any means possible, was of huge importance to a traumatised society. In the absence of money for vets, and in fear of anything that might jeopardize the family’s stability, people relied on both spirituality – cleansing smoke on Lá Fhéile Bríd, priests blessing the crops or herds, sick animals brought to sacred wells and on patterns – as well as magic.
Magical cures, and charms, as well as protection from jealous neighbours and ill-wishers, were widely utilized and part of this was a custom of using blood as a purifying element. We see it in the tradition of killing a cockerel or pig and using the blood as a protective charm known as Bleeding for St Martin (de Tours) on November 11th, and we see it throughout the year in charms where blood is smeared on gateposts or spilled on the ground to “feed” the crops.
The British writers who recorded such activities dismissed us a superstitious, ignorant race.
When someone then gets their information from Lady Wilde, Lady Gregory, or some travelling Briton who thought t’was all very quaint, the real importance and cultural relevance of folk magic practices is lost. Without understanding that context you cannot understand the magic, or our attachment to the land, or our protective attitude towards culture.
And you can apply all of this to every post-colonial culture.
Interested in Native American rituals? Can’t understand why people call it cultural appropriation? Crack open a history book. It’s harder to fall for the legions of fakes peddling NA spirituality when you know how many massacres, how much oppression, how many broken treaties and land thefts there were and if your own ancestors were culpable.
Think Yoga is cool, especially that stuff with the goats? Read about India’s struggle for freedom and how the western colonisers pillaged their spirituality.
Recommendations for Pagans Who Need History
Rather than relying on other people’s UPG or articles about the energy at these places, read a decent book on Prehistory and Irish society –
- The Sacred Isle: Belief and Religion in Pre-Christian Ireland 1999 by Daithí Ó hÓgáin (Author)
- https://www.heritagecouncil.ie/unpublished_excavations/section9.html Burial in Prehistory, Ireland.
None of these are perfect or should be treated as some kind of unquestioned authority, but there are 3 decent, well researched, easily readable texts with authentic scholarship. Even understanding this much will protect the novice against most of the most exploitative sites out there.
Want to understand how Ireland turned from a Pagan to Christian country? Want to understand the process of syncretic, gradual change and the rise of the Celtic Christian Church based on a lot of pre Christian Irish principles? Didn’t know this was even a thing? Check out
- For an overview of how Christianity rose and spread across Europe in general, check out –
- The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark
- Early Celtic Christianity by Brendan Lehane
A lot of would be Irish Pagans are surprised that a study of Celtic Christianity can help them understand Irish paganism, but that era of Christian development not only shaped the medieval Ireland that recorded the ancient sagas but encoded within its dogma many fascinating glimpses into pre-christian ideals and philosophies.
Overall, you need a basic understanding of the trauma endured by the Irish nation and by the land itself, the damage done to our national heritage of language, the fact that many of our resources and texts were stolen and still are withheld from us, the way our Irish identities were devalued and how we were taught to mistrust and be ashamed of Irishness. You can’t understand that without some knowledge of the history, preferably from the Normans onward but crucially from the Act of Union to present day.
These recommendations are ideal to give you that grounding.
For Pagans Who Need an Overview of Irish History
- A Concise History of Ireland by Sean Duffy
- Ireland since the Famine by FSL Lyons
- The Making of Modern Ireland 1603-1923 by JC Beckett
- The History of Ireland by Niall Hegarty (also RTE TV Documentary of same)
None of these are overly dry or hard to understand. Most contain very interesting forewords that alone help bring the history into focus. None are 100% without flaw or bias but any of them would improve your grasp of the society and culture of which Irish Paganism is an indigenous, living part.
To understand Post Colonialism in an Irish setting, an excellent study serves as starting point: ‘Irish and Irishness, the Contextuality of Postcolonial Identity’. (Please note the talk of a better, evolving relationship with Britain within the closing paragraphs has been sadly overtaken by Brexit.)
For a larger, more comprehensive views read –
- Ireland and Postcolonial Theory, Edited by Clare Carroll, Patricia King (a collection of essays on the subject.)
Pagans Need History to Seek Connection
And lastly, if you are seeking connection to an area, particularly one you feel connected to ancestrally, check out any local history publications – in most areas of Ireland, there are a wealth of local, professional and amateur, social histories that are treasure troves of local stories, folklore, history and social insight.
In essence, for anyone seeking to connect with Irish spirituality or Magic or both, there are key areas that are vital to understand. Most obviously, our prehistory, the Old Irish society against which all those stories of Gods and Tuatha take place (and the change from a Pagan to Christian society.) But of equal importance, learn the basic social and political history that formed modern Ireland, because that is the setting for modern Irish paganism and Irish folk magic.
Understand how and why we are a post-colonial nation (on most of the island) and what that means for our language and heritage. Because knowledge leads to a deeper understanding and in turn, to a deeper connection to Ireland.
Geraldine Moorkens Byrne is a poet (File), and practitioner of indigenous Irish Witchcraft. She practices Draiocht Ceoil, the magic of words and sound, a traditional part of Irish folk magic and folklore. She has written Roscanna (Roisc) for many political and social causes, most recently – Ériu Addresses the High Kings – against a proposed misogynistic gathering in Ireland (subsequently published in Gods and Radicals journal.) She has also written and published articles on the origin and use of the Rosc. Geraldine is a founding editor of PPP Publishing, and has been published in many anthologies (e.g. Poems from the Lockdown, Harp Club and Cauldron, Small Things, Where the Hazel Falls, Jane Raeburn Anthology); magazines (e.g. Asia Geographic, American Dowser); e-zines (e.g. Poetry Life & Times, Prairie Poetry). Some of her poems – including “Bealtaine” & “Death of the Hero” – have been performed as theatre by groups in Ireland, Britain, & the USA. Her gorgeous children’s book Puddles, and her collection of poetry called “Dreams of Reality”, are both available on Amazon.
Her website is www.celebratingwords.com – Ceremonies, Creative Writing, Professional Services.
And for Poetry www.geraldinemoorkensbyrne.com