Irish Druidry & The Modern Druid Movement

First published in Pentacle Magazine Jan 2014

Most druids and indeed pagans generally would be aware that druids existed in Ireland and fewer I suspect may know that druidry/druidism (draíochta in Irish means druidry, synonymous with magic generally) continued uninterrupted during and after the Roman period that changed the face of western Europe. The most common and well-known stream of modern druidry is derived mostly from Welsh sources, rediscovered during the romantic revival, however the druidry of Ireland has also had a huge impact on the survival of druidic knowledge and on the development of the modern movement itself.

The Romans swept through western Europe and in the process usurped the existing Celtic culture and their civilisation, beginning with Cisalpine Gaul and culminating with the colonisation of southern Britain. During this period the Romans outlawed what we now refer to as druidry/druidism and imposed their own religious and social structures, leading to an acceptable middle-ground of Romano-Gaulish and Romano-British deities that we know of from archaeology and written records.

The indigenous Celtic culture was assimilated or eliminated in all of Europe except Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the most western and northern parts of what is now England. Although the Romans had long been aware of Iuverna or Hibernia any plans to conquer Ireland were never enacted. Of all the countries in southern and central Europe, only Ireland remained completely untouched by Roman influence, few visited the country and solely for the purposes of trade or reconnaissance.

Likewise with Roman influence, Ireland was untouched by the Anglo-Saxons and like Scotland, was late to succumb to the influence of Norman culture and feudalism. The result of this isolation was that the existing Celtic structures of governance, social, economic and religious life continued much as they had since ancient times. Changes obviously occurred with the passing of time and also as a result of a gradual shift from Paganism to Christianity and the influence of Viking raiding and settlement in both Ireland and Scotland. However, the overriding cultural influence in both countries was that of the Gael, evidenced most clearly by the language (Gaeilge and Gáidhlig respectively), laws, dress and social structure.

Unfortunately, by the 18th century when the Druid revivalist movement began the link between mainstream society and Bardic/Druidic culture had been severed, with only a very small number of Irish individuals or triads continuing their ancient traditions in secret. Sadly, the last of the secret druids who had any recognisable claim to be hereditary seem to have died in the 1990s. Two Irish men I know of, via people who actually met or knew them personally, each claimed to be the last survivors of different triads  - three members: file (bard), fáith (ovate), druí (druid). Neither of these two men had an initiate or acolyte to pass on their knowledge to, so sadly whatever secrets they had to tell died with them.

Despite this setback of lost continuity, Ireland was to have a direct influence on the re-emergence of Druidry in Britain. John Toland, credited with founding the Ancient Druid Order (ADO), was born in 1670 and raised in Donegal (north west Ireland) in a Catholic family. After converting to Prostestantism at 16 he studied at Glasgow and Edinburgh universities, before moving to Holland and later England. From the outset of his writing career he caused controversy leading to attempts by the Irish parliament to have him executed for heresy.

As a political and religious maverick he was considered the first of the freethinkers, writing extensively on religion, history, social and political issues of the day. He claimed himself to be a pantheist, which was quite outrageous at the time, although he wrote only one book on the subject of druids and Celtic religion - History of the Celtic Religion and Learning Containing an Account of the Druids (1726). Toland was quite famous in his time but now is completely forgotten outside of academic and druidic circles.

Despite its Irish founder, ADO (founded in England, 1717) was largely based on romantic ideas derived from Greco-Roman accounts, fantasy and the emerging Welsh remnants of Bardism, especially the dubious work of Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams). Likewise the Ancient Order of Druids (AOD, founded 1781) was romantic with a roughly freemason structure.  Other similar groups sprang up in Wales and France and in USA The Ancient Order of Druids in America began in 1912.

It is was not until the mid 20th century that Irish druidic remains were brought to light outside of the Celtic Twilight (in Ireland) or the academic circles of Ireland, England, France and Germany. The man responsible for this new awareness of Irish sources and the re-emergence of Gaelic culture into the modern druid movement was a writer of  German and Irish parentage - Robert Graves.

Ironically Graves was a classicist and novelist, not a Gaelic scholar like his (Irish) father and grandfather (Bishop Charles Graves, member of the Royal Irish Academy and expert on Ogham and Brehon Law). In his 1948 book The White Goddess he made use of the largely unknown ‘Song of Amergin’ and the Irish Ogham alphabet, both of which date back to the pre-Christian period of Ireland.

Graves’ scholarship and theories were in part based on false premises and poorly researched, second-hand information leading to intense criticism of the book, in particular due to his ignorance of his own paternal family’s sound academic knowledge of Irish materials. Despite his fanciful shortcomings it should be acknowledged that Robert Graves single-handedly reintroduced Irish druidic sources to the mainstream of alternative spirituality and the druid movement that had largely forgotten their existence.

In 1964, Ross Nichols, the Chief Scribe of ADO left to form the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) having explored Celtic sources and travelled around much of Britain and Ireland. ADO did not welcome his ideas of moving away from Masonic structures and towards re-exploring neo-druidry’s Celtic roots, hence the formation of this new order which is now one of the largest in the world.

It was Ross Nichols (along with Gerald Gardner) who introduced the eightfold festival celebrations often referred to as the ‘Wheel of The Year’. Ross used Welsh names for the astronomical solar festivals of the solstices and equinoxes but he used the Irish names, derived from the ancient Irish pagan festivals, for the four remaining festivals. Modern archaeological research and examination of ancient written sources and folk survivals clearly demonstrates that all eight festivals were celebrated in Ireland, if not elsewhere. The dates and practices of the modern festivals may not tally with those celebrated by the ancient Irish druids, however prior to Nichols’ innovations there was no official recognition of these seasonal events across the druidic world.

Since that time OBOD and other modern orders such as Ár nDraíochta Féin (ARD), BDO, Henge of Keltria, Druid Clan of Dana and Ord Na Druí have all embraced Irish Celtic sources, the eight festivals and Irish language to varying degrees. Thanks to many translations from Gaeilge of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries the surviving mythology, Brehon law, poetry, place history (Dindshenchas), cosmology, ogham alphabet, tree and plant lore etc. has not only been preserved for the modern reader, but has provided a contemporaneous  non-classical source for the modern druid movement.

During the Elizabethan era spoken and written Gaeilge (Irish language) was outlawed on pain of death. Many ancient Irish books were found and burned, but some made their way to English aristocratic collections or museums. Many books were hidden, by the Irish, under floors or in walls in order to escape destruction by the English colonists.  Of course many manuscripts were forever lost, forgotten or destroyed but fortunately many did survive in ecclesiastic institutions (in Ireland and Europe) and among the aristocracy until the prohibition was lifted.

Academics began translating from ancient and medieval Irish into modern English, French or German from 18th century onwards – notable people we have to thank for this great legacy are Kuno Meyer, Whitely Stokes, R. A. S. MacAlister, P. W. Joyce, Eugene O’Curry, Augusta Gregory to name but a few. Without the pioneering work of these translators the annals and works of the ancient and medieval Irish, that preserved much of what we now know about druidic culture, would probably still be unknown and gathering dust in the world’s museums and university vaults.

Indeed a new wave of pagan authors such as Caitlín and John Matthews, R. J. Stewart, Alexi Kondratiev, Koch & Carey etc. have continued this exploration of the forgotten Irish, Scottish and Welsh translations, much to the enrichment of modern druidry and our understanding of the Celts in general. Sadly, what has been unearthed and translated is merely scratching the surface of what remains untranslated in university and museum archives. One can only wonder what gems lie waiting to be discovered? Unfortunately, as Irish Celtic scholar Daragh Smyth explained to me, the process of translating these texts into modern languages is highly specialised, slow, labour intensive and hence very expensive.

New translations and occasional new texts of Celtic source material do make it to publication from time to time (e.g. via C.E.L.T.) but there does not seem to be any organised programme or major investment in the process. Most ungratifying for myself and others is the fact that exploration of the Celtic texts seems to be confined to the world of academia with little or no access provided for the druid or wider pagan community. The academic world is generally not concerned with our religious or cultural practices except from a historical or anthropological viewpoint, so perhaps it is no surprise that some modern pagans’ desire for new verifiable sources is not taken seriously.

I am hopeful that this attitude might change in the future, regarding Irish sources and indeed with regard to all ancient texts that remain untranslated. Given the re-emergence of paganism and its new-found legal status I hope that increased respectability and acknowledgement will enable lobbying for the situation to change so that pagan linguists, scholars and writers may gain first-hand access to the ancient sources that are currently unavailable.

In time I see the modern druid movement being comprised of several distinct streams – Irish/Scottish, Anglo/Welsh, Breton/Gaulish based reconstruction as well as the existing international and revivalist based practices. The breadth of ancient Celtic thought and practice is only being fully revealed to modern pagans now in this 21st century, long after the re-emergence of the druids. It is an exciting prospect for the future, especially now that paganism is no longer illegal or disreputable. As I do with paganism generally, I look forward to seeing druidry evolve and continue to rediscover its ancient origins.