Jul 30, 2010

From the Writers of Old Part Two

Biography has always been highly extolled. It has frequently been compared with other kinds of composition, and pronounced peculiarly entertaining and instructive. The utility of it has been even ranked above the advantages resulting from gincral history; for the aim of all history should be to describe and exhibit persons impartially as they are, that goodness may excite admiration, and vice abhorrence. Upon this principle, individual representations are obviously superior to general and aggregate.

Charlotte Brooke said that in 1816 in her book with the very long title of:
Reliques of Irish Poetry: consisting of heroic poems, odes, elegies, and songs, tr. into English verse: with notes explanatory and historical; and the originals in the Irish character. To which is subjoined an Irish tale [Mäon]

Jul 28, 2010

From the Writers of Old

I thought it would be interesting to post snippets of what authors of historical pieces on Ireland have written. This one is from The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland By Seumas MacManus, published in 1921.

And the fourth century Istrian philosopher Ethicus in his cosmography tells how in his travels for knowledge he visited "Hibernia" and spent some time there examining the volumes of that country—which, by the way, this scholarly gentleman considered crude.

That travellers' tales were about as credible in those far-away days as they are in days more recent, is evident from some of the curious things related about this Island by the early Latin writers —oftentimes grotesque blends of fable and fact. The Latin writer, Pomponius Mela (who was a Spaniard and flourished near the middle of the first century of the Christian Era), says in his cosmography books: "Beyond Britain lies Iuvernia, an island of nearly equal size, but oblong, and a coast on each side of equal extent, having a climate unfavourable for ripening grain, but so luxuriant in grasses, not merely palatable but even sweet, that the cattle in very short time take sufficient food for the whole day— and if fed too long, would burst. Its inhabitants are wanting in every virtue, totally destitute of piety."

The latter sentence is quite characteristic of the Latin writers of that day, to whom the world was always divided into two parts, the Roman Empire with which exactly coincided Civilisation and the realm of all the Virtues, and the outer world which lay under the black cloud of barbarism.

History is colored by those who write it, don't you think? Ancient Ireland was not barbaric, and was even more advanced in some areas such as laws and women's rights. But I had to stop and think. Was this author bias because he was writing about his homeland? It's something modern day historians have to keep in mind when reading historical writings.

Jul 26, 2010

What the Monks Did

Much of what is known about the early Celtic period comes from the early Christian era (mostly the 5th-10th centuries) because that is when writing was introduced in Ireland. The Norse raids that began in the 10th century brought some of the work to a halt and destroyed countless volumes of what remained in Ireland. Thankfully, the Irish monks brought many manuscripts to the European continent where they survive today.

The Celtic monks took the work of writing and reading on as a sacred duty and produced numerous hand-written manuscripts in the scriptoriums of ancient monasteries. But that is not to say that these people did not have stories previous to the introduction of reading and writing. They certainly did and they were passed down generation to generation. Oral storytelling was so revered that the role of the poet, the gatekeeper of the stories, was highly respected, especially in ancient Ireland. He who holds the stories of the past, holds the key to the people’s understanding of themselves.

Jul 25, 2010

Reek Sunday

Today thousands of pilgrims are climbing a mountain in Ireland, as they have been doing for an amazing 5,000 years! Over the course of a year, it's estimated that one million visitors make the climb.

The mountain is Croagh Patrick. It's approximately 2,500 feet, located in County Mayo. On Reek Sunday, the last Sunday in July, pilgrims climb the mountain in honor of the patron saint, St. Patrick.

The mountain is locally known as the Reek, which Wikipedia says is a Hiberno-English word for a "rick" or "stack." In my book, Celtic Wisdom, I mention the legend that has compelled folks to make this pilgrimage for centuries.

"...the legend involves Caoranach, the pre-Christian female monster depicted as a snake. The legend says that when this being attacked Patrick on his mountain, the holy man threw his bell and knocked her all the way to Lough Derg. Scholars note that Lough Derg is never mentioned in Patrick's own writings and neither is the mountain he allegedly climbed. Another legend, very similar to the first, says Patrick climbed to the top of Eagle Mountain and fasted there for forty days, being tempted by the devil. He defeated the devil, also known as a serpent in the biblical account of Adam and Eve."
This may have been where the idea that Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland came from.

The remains of an ancient church at the base of the mountain has raised speculation that Patrick founded a church there. Whether or not Patrick visited the mountain hardly matters to the many people who choose to make the journey. They do it for their own spiritual renewal, to pray for themselves and for hurting loved ones. They do it with pain sometimes (many go barefoot and inclement weather is always a possibility.)

Certainly some climb the mountain basically for the view and the beautiful surroundings.

Today there is a visitor's center at the base of the mountain, and a chapel at the summit. Have you been on this pilgrimage? If so, please tell us about it. If you've been on a similar pilgrimage, let us know that too.

Jul 21, 2010


Another reason that the Celts never focused on the creation of the world might be seen in the fact that they were more concerned with what happened at a place, the human history of it, rather than how the landscape came to be.

The Irish bards memorized and recited many stories, among them what is called Dindshenchas, the tradition or lore of places. Early Irish manuscripts recount the origin of place names in poems, and this was certainly copied down from oral traditions. This knowledge was a type of storytelling map, guiding people from physical place to place based on what happened there in the past, or at least the legend of what happened there. An example from a poem about Tara:

Thenceforward it was called Druim Cain,
the hill whither chieftains used to go,
until Crofhind the chaste came,
the daughter of all-famous Allod.

Jul 19, 2010

Celts and Creation

Let’s begin at the beginning, long before the man who became known as St. Patrick left Britain to spread Christianity to the Emerald Isle. The beginning is when the earth was created and we have an account of creation in the Bible in the Book of Genesis. It is the story the ancient Celts related to and repeated in their own books. They had no creation myth of their own. Perhaps that is because their history is one of migration—at least that is where their early myths begin.

The Celts (admittedly a modern word used to refer to the people of the Celtic nations) originated in Central Europe or perhaps even India. What is clear is they were not of Greco-Roman origin. In the centuries before what is now called the Common Era, they came eastward from such regions as Germany, France or Gaul, and Spain, according to archeological evidence and language patterns. Irish myth as recounted in the Lebor Gabála (The Book of Invasions) states that tribal groups (or gods) came from Spain under the direction of Nemed mac Aganomain. The Fir Bolg came from Greece along with others. Then the tribe of the Tuatha Dé Danann (literally the tribes of the goddess Danu) came and conquered the others. Lastly the sons of Mil, or the Milesians, came to Ireland and defeated the Tuatha Dé Danann—assumingly bringing Christianity along with them—and the Tuatha Dé Danann were forced to live underground. These are the people who eventually evolved into the mythical fairy race living in hill forts and in other underground places.

These stories reside right along beside the Biblical account of Creation in the Irish texts. Were these myths then Christianized? Perhaps, but an actual starting point for the creation of the world did not seem to be essential to the pre-Christian Celts’ storytelling.

Jul 14, 2010

More From the Carmina Gadelica

In the last half of the 19th century Alexander Carmichael collected poems, prayers, and songs from the people of the Highlands of Scotland and the Scottish islands and translated them from Gaelic to English. His collection is known as the Carmina Gadelica, or Songs in Gaelic. Although it’s clear that Carmichael used a style of English popular in his day, the translations still give us a glimpse into the spiritual beliefs of the people.

Rune of the Muthairn
Thou King of the moon,
Thou King of the sun,
Thou King of the planets,
Thou King of the stars,
Thou King of the globe,
Thou King of the sky,
Oh! Lovely Thy Countenance
Thou Beauteous Beam.

Look. Creation is all around whether you find yourself in the wilderness or in a big city. The miracle of life is repeated over and over in a continual exhibition of the nature of the Creator. Seeing this takes no knowledge of doctrine. It doesn’t even require the ability to read. What it does require is to be aware and attentive to every aspect of the natural world—the sunrise, animals, people, the stillness of the nighttime, the roaring sound of a thunderstorm. Look not only with the physical senses but also with the heart. If you’ve ever gazed at the beauty of the Cliffs of Moher, for example, and realized the smallness of your body compared to the mighty cliffs, you saw it with your eyes, but you also felt it—the vastness, the awe, the incredible miracle that such a place could exist. This is the beginning of opening oneself to the spiritual realm, the world the ancient Celts walked in every day.

Jul 12, 2010

Celts and Nature

Celtic scholar Oliver Davies, writing in his book, Celtic Christianity in Early Medieval Wales, explains the Celtic reverence for nature this way:

“Far from worshipping stones and rivers…the early Celts…were acknowledging the life force as it is manifested in these and other phenomena.”

Stand at the bank of a rushing mountain stream and watch and listen. Is there not life there? Does it not flow with an intensity and tenacity for survival that echoes that of humans? This acknowledgement of the life force of nature was present in the Celts long before Christianity arrived. Christianity defined the Source of this life force.

As Alister MacGrath, a world-renowned theologian, writes in his book, An Introduction to Christianity,

“Theologically, Celtic Christianity also stressed the importance of the world of nature as a means of knowing God.”

He uses St. Patrick’s breastplate as an example.

The virtues of the star lit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lighting free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea
Around the old eternal rocks.

The importance of nature in one’s spiritual life is one of the things that we can learn to appreciate through the ancient Celtic example. As Davies says, “…nature appears as a theme to an unusual degree, and enjoys its own autonomy, rather than purely serving the human ends of atmosphere and mood as an imitation of the classical mise-en-scéne.” I believe Davies is referring to the modern tendency to see nature as only what is before our eyes and what exists to meet our physical needs. The Celtic view was quite different. Nature is a creation of God, and as such, God exists there. Even more, it is the revelation of God, the proof that he exists and continues to create with each new child born, each new spring flower, each dawning of a new day. The Celts believed that without God’s touch, without the presence of his essence, there would be no life. There is much to be learned from creation—much that is, to be learned about God from it.

Jul 9, 2010


Kildare means "Church of the Oak." It's the place where St. Brigid established her duel monastery (both men and women) on land granted to her by the king of Leinster.

Kildare was a sacred place long before Brigid came, and long before St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland. Oaks were sacred to the pre-Christian Celts, and Kildare was one of those treasured spots.

Brigid is said to have tended a sacred flame at Kildare. From Celtic Wisdom, Treasures of Ireland:

"It is said that the sisters tended a continuously burning fire there for centuries. In Brigid's lifetime, she and nineteen other sisters perpetuated the fire. After Brigid's death it is said that no one was needed to tend the fire on the twentieth night; it continued as if Brigid herself was tending it. The fire pit was surrounded by brush and no man was allowed to enter. Some sources say that in the year 1220, fearing the practice was pagan, an archbishop ordered the fire to be extinguished. It was soon relit and continued on until the Reformation, when it was smothered once again."

Today the flame is still burning. It was relit in 1993. You can read about that here.

Watch this YouTube video at St. Brigid's Cathedral. The church dates much later than St. Brigid, but it's still very old and beautiful.

Jul 7, 2010

My Ancestral Home

One of my ancestors, Nancy Little McCoskey, was born in Downpatrick, County Down, Northern Ireland, so of course I became interested in learning more about Downpatrick.

From P.W. Joyce's Irish Place Names:

Downpatrick takes its name from the large entrenched dun near the cathedral. [My note: Dun, or Down, means fortress.] In the first century this fortress was the residence of a warrior of the Red Branch Knights, called Celtchair, or Keltar of the battles, from whom it is called in Irish authorities, Dunkeltar. By ecclesiastical writers it is commonly called Dun-da-leth-glas, the fortress of the two broken locks (glas) or fetters. This long name was afterwards shortened to Dun or Down, which was extended to the county. The name of St. Patrick was added, to commemorate his connexion with the place.

Downpatrick is one of the oldest towns in Ireland. It was noted on Ptolemy's map in the 2nd century, although it wasn't what we think of as a town until the 18th century, and that's when my ancestor was born there.

The following came from this web site: http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~rosdavies/PHOTOSwords/DownAll.htm

In 1703 Edward Southwell, Chief Secretary of Ireland, married Elizabeth, daughter of the Earl of Ardglass, thus acquiring the Manor of Down. He decided to develop its economic potential; he controlled the waters of the Quoile river and reclaimed the marshes, built a harbour and customs house and reconstructed the streets of the town. His son, who succeeded him in 1730, continued his work and through their efforts, Downpatrick changed from a derelict town of less than 1,000 inhabitants into a prosperous commercial centre for the barony. The first Court House was built in 1737 at a cost of £3000.

The Littles were tenant farmers, so I expect Downpatrick was given as Nancy Little's birthplace because it was the closest recognizable location. I imagine she was born on a farm.This church is in Ballee. It's Presbyterian and was built in 1721, 50 years before the Littles immigrated. It's possible they attended here or at a similar church.

Downpatrick is a beautiful place, which I plan to visit soon. I'm sure I'll contemplate Nancy Little while I'm there. She was quite a woman. She came to America with her parents and four siblings, leaving her older sister Mary behind who was indentured until she could pay for the passage. Later Nancy married John McCoskey and traveled through the Cumberland Gap with her parents, her husband, and her children to the wild lands of Kentucky. Her parents and her husband died in Kentucky and Nancy moved again, bringing her hoard of children to the wilderness of Indiana where her younger brother lived and where she and John had purchased land. She was apparently a shrewd business woman, but other than what I can assume about her character from her actions, I know nothing about her. In her old age she relocated once again, this time to the wild west (Texas) with one of her daughters.

Downpatrick is not "where it all began." That's a phrase my husband and noted a lot while watching the television series, Who Do You Think You Are? The people who were searching for their roots on that show always seemed to find a place in a foreign land and say, "This is where it all began!" Nancy's father was born in Scotland and if I could keep tracing generations back, I'd end up with Adam and Eve, wouldn't I? But still, finding a place where one of your ancestors was born always makes you feel like you've come home--it's a type of connection to the past that grounds you in the present. Know what I mean?

Jul 5, 2010

The Meaning of Ireland

Ireland in Irish is Éire or in old Irish, Ériu, which is the name of a goddess. In fact, many of the names of places in Ireland are derived from the names of gods or goddesses, such as the River Shannon, named for the goddess Sinann.

The English version of the name is Erin, and you've heard this in the phrase Erin go bragh, or "Long live Ireland!"

As a result, the name Erin is popular for girls, but even the name Ireland has been used. Alec Baldwin and Kim Bassinger named their daughter Ireland, and I once signed a copy of Brigid of Ireland for a pregnant woman who planned to name her baby Ireland.

Caesar called Ireland Hibernia in Latin, which means wintery. He thought the island was at the end of the earth. You've probably heard of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, and that's where the name comes from.

The ancient Greeks used the name Ierne, and it appears on Ptolemy's map around 150 AD.
Postage stamp from Ireland.

Like so many other things about Ireland, the name is filled with mystique and romance. But basically, the name refers to mother earth from which comes all life.


It's the one place on earth
that heaven has kissed
with melody,
and meadow,
and mist.

Jul 2, 2010

Ancient Irish Harpers

Ancient Irish harpers played for kings and were much revered. At the left is a closeup of a harper on the Durrow High Cross from the 10th century. At the right is an illustration of a harper on the High Cross of Castledermot as found in P.W. Joyce's A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland, published in the early 1900's. According to Joyce:

"...the harps of the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries were of medium size or rather small, the average height being about 30 inches; and some were not much more than half that height. Probably those of the early centuries were of much the same size--from 16 to 36 inches."

That makes sense since these musicians--better referred to as poets--traveled around with their harps, probably strung over their backs.

The Brian Boru harp, held at Trinity College in Dublin, didn't belong to Ireland's last high king, but rather dates to the 14th or 15th century. Even so, it is small in size. Harps became large in more recent time periods. This harp is the one depicted as Ireland's national symbol.

If you've ever had a Guinness, you've seen the harp.