Originally published in The Cauldron, May 2012
Druidry or Druidism no longer exists in its original form; unlike some forms of paganism or other religions the continuity through successive generations was broken. However, this happened in some countries at a much later date than one might expect. In Gaul and most of Britain the Druids were obliterated by the Romans: in Gaul Druidry and the native language were lost by the 5th century AD, in England and Wales it may have survived a little longer, although rapidly declining with the supplanting of the Celtic church by the Roman Catholic church in the early 7th century.
In Ireland there was a gradual transition after the arrival of Patrick in approximately 432AD. Far from being an instantaneous conversion, archeological evidence from burials proves that Celtic paganism and Christianity co-existed for at least two hundred years. In Scotland, Christianity made inroads after Colm Cille (Columba) was exiled to there in the mid 6th century, from Ireland.
Despite a formal switch of allegiance to Christianity the royalty and nobility retained most of the structure of Celtic and Druidic culture, largely unchanged. Apart from the religious functions, Bards, and (O)Vates in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Armorica (Brittany) and Cornwall continued to perform secular functions with many of the Druid class becoming Christian monks or priests, although some may have continued their own religious practices informally.
This situation continued unbroken until the arrival of the Normans in what is now England in 1066. The Normans quickly consolidated their initial success by invading Wales, northern England and then Ireland. Attempts to conquer Scotland met with occasional success but they were unable to retain control for significant time periods. The Normans saw the indigenous cultures of the British Isles as a threat and so did their utmost to Anglicize their new colonies, hence as well as military and political domination they imposed cultural domination on all of their territories.
The result of this cultural domination was a gradual erosion of Celtic culture in first England, Wales and eventually Ireland. In Ireland it took several centuries to colonize the majority of the country, however in 1607 the ‘Flight of the Earls’ dealt a hammer blow to Gaelic culture, in particular the Bardic schools that received patronage from nobility until this time. In Scotland a similar system with Bardic schools existed, but after Scotland lost its independence in 1707 the Gaelic culture collapsed.
So from this potted history, one can see that Druidry and Celtic culture in general declined gradually, but going into free-fall from the baroque period. Strange as it may seem, it was in England that the seeds of the modern Celtic revival were sown. Irish born philosopher John Toland is credited with beginning the first Neo-Druid order in England. An Druidh Uileac Braithreachas or The Druid Circle of the Universal Bond, later becoming the Ancient Druid Order, is claimed to have begun in 1717.
This order, and other subsequent orders were heavily influenced by Freemasonry and were often run by Freemasons whose ideas were of the Romanticist Movement, which tended to idealize and romanticize the ancient Celts. In the early 18th century most of the early Gaelic and Welsh texts had not been translated into English, archaeology was in its infancy and the remnants of oral Druidic culture remained solely with the downtrodden and poverty-stricken Celtic speaking peoples of the British Isles. So one can easily believe that the early revivalists based their ideas on fantasy mostly and otherwise on the writings of the Greeks and Romans. After the publication of the partly forged Barddas by Iolo Morganwg in 1862, a Welsh element to the revival developed, although originally part of the anti-monarchy Welsh nationalist movement.
It is only really from the second half of the twentieth century that any serious attempts have been made to reintroduce genuine Celtic culture into the centre of the Druid movement. This process began in earnest with the departure of Ross Nichols from the Ancient Druid Order and his formation of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids in 1964.
Since then, various other orders around the world e.g. in Britain, France, North America and Ireland have continued Ross’s work of re-Celticizing Druidry. It is indeed unfortunate that the last of the genuine Celtic pagan remnants in Scotland and Ireland seem to have vanished with the demise of the Irish Triads (3 members) and the Gáidhlig bards in the Scottish Isles, given the renewed interest in Celtic survivals. What has been happening though, is a re-invigoration of the Celtic languages amongst the Druid communities, a re-discovery of the Gaelic literature and a renewal of the traditional knowledge in music, art, herbalism, mysticism and religious observances.
Sadly, due to a huge loss of Druidic lore and wisdom this process remains difficult. However, widely reduced and scattered as it is, there is still a considerable amount of genuine Celtic remnants in both the early literature, folklore and cultural survivals. Neo-Druidry is finally re-establishing itself as a genuine Celtic spiritual path and moving away from its somewhat misguided and romantic beginnings. This process is far from complete as various groups and orders differ in ethos from strict reconstructionist to pan-theological revivalists, meaning that there is no unified approach to the evolution of Druidry.
However, regardless of these differences, the general trend seems to be towards an honest re-evaluation of the roots of Druidry in an attempt to give it the continuity and credibility to take a distinct role within the more general Pagan revival. Whilst it is important to remain open and respectful of all other spiritual paths, I see it as an enlivening and necessary step for the future of Druidry that it continues to redefine itself in terms of its ancient Celtic past.