The Growing Pains Of The Irish Pagan Community (first published in Aontacht magazine, March 2016)
Unlike the UK and other modern countries, Ireland did not make Paganism legal until 1983 with the repeal of the witchcraft laws, something that has happened much earlier elsewhere – e.g. 1951 in Britain. Many Pagans may not consider themselves to be practitioners of witchcraft, but as far as the Irish government was concerned, to follow the ancient gods amounted to the same thing.
As a result of a two faith religious system (Catholic or Protestant), with little provision for, or consideration of, other religions, it was practically impossible to openly practice any form of Paganism in this country until after 1983. However, even long after being Pagan still often involved being shunned and derided by mainstream society.
In fact until 2006, some remnants of anti-witchcraft still remained, although no-longer in use: “Any person who shall pretend or exercise to use any type of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment, or pretend knowledge in any occult or craft or science shall for any such offense suffer imprisonment at the time of one whole year and also shall be obliged to obscursion for his/her good behaviour.” Technically anyone performing a ritual or pretending to do so (such as an actor) could have been imprisoned for a year and also been ‘bound over to keep the peace’.
In 2009 the Blasphemy Law in Ireland offered protection to all religions, including Paganism, with possible fines of up to €25,000 for blasphemous publication or speech. Although this seems somewhat excessive (considering you could be fined far less for running someone over whilst drunk driving) however it does offer Pagans and other minority religions a level of protection that was formerly completely absent.
The last few years have seen some dramatic changes for Pagans across Europe – since early 2015 Iceland has the first Pagan (Asatru) temple, in any Nordic country, for close to 1000 years. In 2010 Druidry/Druidism was officially recognised as a religion in the UK due to the efforts of Druid Network. Here in Ireland Celtic Druid Temple was recently(2015) recognised as a religious charitable organisation by the government.
Unlike other parts of Europe and USA, Ireland is still only beginning to achieve full legal and moral status for Pagan religion. Thanks to the work of Pagan Federation Ireland (PFI) legal marriages for Pagans have been able to take place since 2009, however with a large number of restrictions imposed. Now in 2015 Pagan Life Rites (PLR) is attempting to gain Legal Solemniser status for its clergy. PLR is the first solely Irish Pagan organisation (the Irish Order of Thelema is part of OTO) that is not run by an individual or a couple and hence marks a significant change for Paganism this country.
Since Paganism re-emerged in this country it has been dominated by the cult of personality – small organisations, covens, groves, schools, colleges, lyceums etc run by a charismatic individual or couples. Although this has its strengths on a personal level, such a structure has great weakness in that the organisation usually dies when the key people involved either move, retire or die. The history of modern Paganism in Ireland is littered with defunct groups and dead small organisations simply because they could not survive the loss of a key person(s). It is important to acknowledge the work of individuals and couples, many of whom have worked tirelessly for decades for the benefit of the Pagan community in Ireland. Without the hard work of these people there would have been no fledgling Pagan Community from which to develop a more mature community.
However, times are changing and Paganism in Ireland is necessarily beginning to adapt to being part of the wider world. Elsewhere in the world Pagan organisations have a proper structure that does not rely entirely on one or two charismatic leaders – a much healthier and generally a far more democratic and transparent situation that needs to be emulated in Ireland. I for one am glad to see a more mature structure beginning to establish itself in this country, as it is deeply unhealthy for a few individuals to have power over the direction and development of the Pagan movement. A few individuals usually contribute massively to Paganism here, while most people sit back and watch, but now is the time for that to change – a real community needs the willingness for widespread involvement and also opportunity and structure that allows for everyone to contribute and get involved.
I hope that we will see schools, orders etc. of Wicca, Druidry, Asatru, Shamanism and all forms of Paganism established that are run by a board, collective or a committee, and that are accountable to their members, students etc. Obviously too much bureaucracy is not good for any religious organisation, least of all Paganism, however it is high time that Irish Paganism matured. Ireland needs to join the rest of the Pagan world in organising itself in a way that offers the public a service and facilities that are transparent, fair, responsible and free of the nepotism, secrecy, infighting and competiveness that has mired Irish Paganism in the past. It is with great anticipation and excitement that I await Pagan Ireland moving beyond its teen-like growing pains and emerging as a fully-fledged adult in the greater world of religious multiplicity!
Note: since this article was written Pagan Life Rites and Celtic Druid Temple have succeded in having their clergy registered as legal solemnisers in Ireland, as of February 2016.