Originally published in Brigid's Fire magazine, August 2010
Over the last twenty years there has been a slow and steady increase in paganism in Ireland which has gathered pace in the last decade. Wicca, introduced to Ireland by Janet and Stewart Farah, is perhaps more established than any other form of paganism here, although Druidry (also encouraged by the Farahs) has grown significantly in that time. The seeds of the pagan revival in Ireland were sown not here but in the UK in following the repeal of the Witchcraft act in 1951. Following this repeal two strands of esoteric thought emerged into the mainstream via two men who have become very well known in magical circles.
The first person was Gerald Gardner, author of several books, most notably ‘Witchcraft Today’ which blew the lid off what had until then been a religion practiced in total secrecy. It was Gardner who coined the term ‘Wicca’ and almost single-handledy created a new form of the ancient pagan religion that existed throughout Europe up until the middle ages. It is from Gardner’s foundation that the Wiccan religion has grown, evolved and spread throughout the western world.
Ross Nichols. a contemporary and friend of Gardner, was instrumental in the mainstream druid revival in the UK and played a part in its revival in Ireland via the Fellowship of Isis. Ross Nichols was chairman of the Ancient Druid Order (a freemason like druid order) which claims its origin in the 1700s. However Ross left the order in the 1960s and established the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) which was set up as a vehicle for returning to celtic spirituality. From this other splinter group other groups such as BDO formed and a number of other orders have since sprung up in the UK, America and beyond.The re-emergence that took hold in Britain transferred to Ireland to some extent, although this process was to some degree hampered by the much later repeal of the Witchcraft Act (1983) in the Republic. Subsequent to the British pagan revival, which is largely focused on British traditions, the Irish revival has gathered pace but this seems to have taken place in a slightly different way to in Britain.
The druid revival in Britain could be described as pan-celtic – it draws on the traditions of Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, Northern England, Brittany and Ireland. Druidry in England itself, lacking it’s own sources due largely to the influence of the Romans and later on the Saxons and the Normans, has tended to draw mostly on Welsh tradition.
Ireland, in contrast to England, despite conquest and many attempts at cultural domination has retained the bulk of its celtic cultural heritage and still retains the native language in pockets around the country. Druidry here was not suppressed by the Romans, who maintained only a trading relationship with Ireland, instead it was gradually absorbed and replaced by Christianity over a period of several centuries, seemingly with little violence. The remains of Druidic tradition here were still in evidence in the 17th century at the time of the demise of the Bardic schools following the flight of the Earls. In more recent centuries the total dominance of Catholicism largely eradicated Druidic thought and beliefs, but with some of the more secular aspects such as laws, folklore and some customs remaining but generally in a form that is detached from their original context.
From my observations of Druidry here most druids seem to fall into one of two camps -those who take a nationalistic or purist approach to Druidry, based on a desire to resurrect Irish practices and the other camp being those who are somewhat more eclectic. Many feel a desire to develop and unearth the indigenous Druidry rather than simply copying the established systems of non-Irish organizations such as ADF, OBOD or BDO etc. For others, the sources – modern or ancient, Irish or British, Celtic or multi-faith, is not so important, the spiritual journey and the attitude being of greater priority than concerns about cultural integrity, learning and technique.
One major ideological difference it seems would centre around the magical systems employed. Most of western esoteric tradition has its roots in kabalistic magic which originates in the middle east, however this is not the case with celtic magic. The druids and shamans of the pre-christian period had a system that shares some of the concepts found in kabalistic magic, alchemy and witchcraft and also in helenic and vedic culture. However the expression and practice of these concepts is in most western magic is often quite different from what we know of druidic culture. A basic example of this would the elements, kabalistic magic has 4, Chinese has 5 and Celtic magic had 3 – sky, sea and land, or 9 if you consider the concept of dúile.
There being a vast treasure trove of written material concerning early Irish culture and still existing folklore and tradition that could be said to be indigenous, some druids feel that there is no need to ‘borrow’ ideas from other pagan traditions, including those of the international druidic revival. Much as there is a strong case for continued rediscovery of Irish druidic heritage that is buried just under the surface, there is also a case for a more inclusive approach that also respects and values the contribution of other sources.
I personally believe that there is room to accommodate both extremes and those that fall between two stools. Although a fudged consensus pleases nobody, I think that as mature spiritual practitioners we should be able to ‘agree to disagree’ and find common ground where it does exist.
The Druidic community here is small and comprised of small orders and groves that usually work entirely independently. Following the demise of the Convocation of Druids of Ireland (CDE) there has been no umbrella organization either to represent the Druids of Ireland or even to provide networking opportunities to the Irish Druid community.
Consequently Irish Druidry remains isolated and somewhat stagnant. I feel that it is important that Druidry here develop its own unique character and find maturity as a path on its own terms, and this process can be facilitated by dialogue between the disparate groves and orders of this island. The disagreements and confrontations that have occurred in Irish Druidry in the last few years may have been a necessary part of a growing up process but they have done nothing to foster links within Ireland or abroad and this is a problem that is in need of addressing.
For some reason, Druidry in Ireland has been particularly plagued by politics and dogmatism. Perhaps when one looks at the turbulent and troubled history of this island, made worse by infighting and disunity, it should not be such a great surprise. Given that the groves and orders here are all relatively young it may take some time and communal efforts to re-establish a form of Druidry that can be identified as Irish. I hope that as this process happens and Irish Druidry gains maturity that its practitioners and organizations will have the self-confidence to be uniquely Irish yet also be respectful and open to interaction with international Druidry and other religious paths.