Originally published in Touchstone magazine, July 2007
Over the last twenty years there has been a slow and steady increase in paganism in Ireland which has gathered pace in the last few years. This article is an examination of that re-emergence of paganism and a look at what direction it might take in the future. 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.
The second person, who lead the other main strand in neo-paganism, was Ross Nichols. Nichols was a contemporary of Gardner, the two men knew each other and some say that they were in fact good friends. What is definite is that Ross Nichols was chairman of the Ancient Druid Order (a freemason like druid order) however he left the order and established the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) which was set up as a vehicle for returning to celtic spirituality.
OBOD fell into chaos for some time following Ross’s death, however his successor Philip Carr-Gomm eventually took up the reins again in 1988 and has continued the process of exploring celtic spirituality in a modernized form of druidry, gradually moving away from kabalistic and Masonic forms of ritual. This 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 seems to have taken place in a slightly different way to in Britain.
Wicca has become very popular in Ireland, but as elsewhere it has subdivided into several strands such as Faerie and Celtic Wicca. As with the original Wicca these are primarily based on a combination of Kabala based magical systems (originating from Jacobs ladder, Key of Solomon etc) with elements of Celtic and Neolithic goddess worship. The Celtic/Faerie Wicca strands would tend to incorporate somewhat more of the native celtic elements than Gardnerian/Alexandrian Wicca, however they still operate within the basic semitic magical tradition.
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. England itself, where the revival seems to be strongest is the country which is least celticised, due largely to the influence of the Romans and later on the Saxons and the Normans. Ireland, in contrast to England, despite conquest and many attempts at cultural genocide has retained the bulk of it’s celtic cultural heritage and still retains the native language in pockets round the country (an gaeltacht). As a result of the strong cultural heritage in this country the druidic revival in Ireland seems to be split to some degree. There are those who take a nationalistic or purist approach to druidry and those who are somewhat more eclectic in their approach.
The main 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 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.
The divide between the pan-celtic and eclectic druid is not clear cut, it is more of a continuum with druids appearing at any point between the two extremes and in fact peoples’ ideas and beliefs are prone to change over time as their knowledge and experience changes. At one end the purist is hell-bent on preservation of celtic practice to the exclusion of all else, those who take this approach often have extreme political beliefs as well, which is clearly demonstrated in the alliance between celtic purists and those on the political far right. At the other end there is the ‘anything goes’ druid who like a magpie will absorb or assimilate anything that they find useful, even if it flies in the face of the tradition that they have chosen to follow.
Fortunately the bulk of druids in Ireland seem to fall somewhere in the middle, they have a respect and reverence for the ancient traditions of the Irish druids and a genuine desire to rediscover celtic wisdom, however, they realize that in the modern world respect and tolerance for other spiritual paths is essential. There is at present some conflict between the two camps, with derision being heaped on ‘eclectics’, foreign traditions and those who follow non-celtic paths by a small but extremely vocal and politically motivated minority. The bulk of Irish druids it would seem do not wish to be involved in this conflict and wish to just practice their beliefs as they see fit. It may be the case that their practices are a synthesis of several different traditions, but at the end of the day we have to ask ourselves if intention is of lesser importance than technique? I personally would have more time for those of pure intention who lack skill and knowledge than I would for the erudite but arrogant bigot!
The world has become a very small place, no-one can live in total isolation any more. While I value and wish to protect celtic culture from being overrun by other cultural values I think that it is essential that we remain tolerant and open minded, as I believe that failure to adapt and partake in exchange with other cultures eventually leads to cultural death.