Crawford Gribben on Ireland’s Ancient Religious TraditionsO
ne-night last week, I raised the blind and looked out of my bedroom window towards the field next door. It was a cold night, and the damp ground was breathing out along the length of our shallow glen. Mist was beginning to pool in clouds, no higher than the tops of trees. Some of the fog had gathered around a thorn tree, which stood broken and shattered in a recently cut-back hedge. The world in darkness took on unfamiliar forms. But they were only unfamiliar to me.
In the 1830’s, an ethnographic description of my townland noted that a thorn tree in that same field was a site for fairy dances. I understood it that night as I stood staring out of my window: my home was once a world of wonders.
Of course, Ireland has often been seen as an unusually sacred place. Ireland’s religious traditions are ancient. Take the site now known as Newgrange, for example. Built around 3200 BC, this massive passage tomb highlighted the cosmological commitments of Ireland’s earliest farmers, and seems to have been part of a network of constructions that stretched around the Atlantic seaboard in honor of the sun. Unexpectedly, perhaps, later populations were less interested in building with the permanence of stone. They might even have abandoned the ancient sacred spaces in pursuit of their new gods.
The populations that adopted Bronze and Iron Age technologies developed a ritual practice that involved the deposition in bogs of artifacts and bodies. The evidence provided by bog bodies that continue to be exhumed suggest something of the violence of this ritual culture. Yet sacred objects produced by these believers could be very finely wrought. The Broighter boat, a model of an ancient seafaring vessel, beautifully realized in gold, and buried 100 years before the birth of Christ, was most likely an extravagant offering to Manannán mac Lir, the Irish god of the sea. Ireland’s cosmology was distinct within the Celtic world—and it was millennia in the making.
Ireland’s religious culture had long been known to outsiders. Back in the sixth century before Christ, Greek geographers described Ireland as a “holy isle,” a place of supernatural possibility. While Romans administrators didn’t seem to pay much attention to the island they knew as Hibernia, Christian missionaries certainly did. Arriving after 431, Palladius, Patrick and other preachers encountered a religious culture that had no exact parallel elsewhere. They worked to undermine it – and to appropriate for the new faith whatever they could not destroy. In the middle of the fifth century, the religious world of ancient Ireland came to a sudden end. Or did it?
Christianity in Ireland might have become as idiosyncratic as the religious culture it replaced. In its earliest centuries, the Christian religion took over traditional sacred sites, holy days, and even co-opted an occasional deity: St Brigid was a sanitized version of an earlier Celtic god. As during the earlier moments of transition between religious practice, the spread of Christianity did not represent a sudden and spectacular cosmological revolution. When monasteries sprung up on traditionally holy locations, the new religion grew upon the institutions and infrastructure of the old.
The Irish church continued to be distinct. Over the next several hundred years, its liturgy and discipline developed in tension as much as in fellowship with European norms. In the sixth and seventh centuries, Irish monks calculated their own liturgical dates, so that Irish Christians might celebrate Easter on a different day from believers elsewhere, and perhaps even on different days from each other. And Irish clergy were often married – at least according to local norms. For its first one thousand years, the Irish church was never uncomplicatedly Catholic.
It was in an effort to make the Irish church Catholic that Adrian IV—the only English pope—warranted the Norman invasion. In the late 1160’s, this attempt to pull the Irish church into closer conformity to Rome was only partially successful. Cistercians and other European monastic orders introduced new architectural styles. But the Norman invasion also introduced some serious ethnic tensions. The Statutes of Kilkenny marked out the difference between the Normans and the Gaels, and it sought to keep the settlers from becoming more Irish than the Irish themselves. These cultural tensions erupted in witchcraft and heresy trials. But this apartheid failed. By the sixteenth century, the “Old English,” as the Normans had become known, mixed freely with the Gaels. A new wave of religious reformation, driven a more ambitious English administration, convinced Irish Catholics, irrespective of their cultural or ethnic background, that they had more in common with each other than they realized.
It was during the Protestant Reformation that the Irish church became fully Catholic. In the sixteenth century, agents of the state and its established church sought to impose Henry VIII’s new political and theological claims on his reluctant Irish subjects. But counter-arguments in favor of a Catholic reformation satisfied the majority of Ireland’s believers. As parallel hierarchies were established in competing episcopal structures, the Catholic reformation won out. For the next several centuries, the state church, and the dissenting groups that sprung out of its bosom, never represented much more than one fifth of the island’s population.
Yet, even as sectarian tensions erupted in the violence that marked the boundaries of religious communities, the pre-Christian cosmology continued to appeal. Divided by the reformation, believers preserved ancient ritual habits as traditional folkways. Catholics continued to visit holy wells, and to deposit valued items, just as their ancestors had done in sacred bogs. Protestants shared stories about fairies, and miraculous cures by charming, that made no sense in terms of their formal theological claims. Whatever some analyses of sectarian violence suggest, Ireland was never too Christian.
Perhaps it was never Christian enough.
Today, for many of those under the age of 30, Christian Ireland is as hard to imagine as the religion of Newgrange or Manannán mac Lir. Since the 1990’s, the social and moral claims of the churches have been thrown off with far more enthusiasm than the long history of Christian influence might have led us to expect. But that history was never venerable, as stories of violence, abuse and malpractice attest. When the language, institutions and ideals of a religion disappear—or when their hollowness is exposed—what kind of legacy will be enduring?
So, I shut my window and come in from the cold. By day, these fields are nondescript, divided by hedges, their grass mowed down by sheep. But sometimes, in a midnight transfiguration, we see the world as it might once have been—where tired ground for grazing was a place where fairies danced.
Crawford Gribben is a professor of history at Queen’s University Belfast, and author most recently of The Rise and Fall of Christian Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2021).