Rending the Soul of Ireland

Carrying the Bones of the Ancestors – Nancy Lee-Evans, PhD

My father’s face came into view as I surrendered to a ceremony of ancestral remembrance.  He had died when I was almost four.  In recent years, I had become particularly aware of the spaces left by his absence.  I told him of my longing to have known him, to have the gift of his love and his guidance as I came of age.  Rather than responding with the tenderness I had yearned for, he looked me straight in the eye and said with intense earnestness, “I have given you everything you will ever need.  You are a Lee.  You have intelligence, courage, determination and heart.  It’s in your blood.  It’s in your bones.  You are a Lee.  That is all that you will ever need.  Now go do something with it.”

My father was a third generation Irish-American.  You will remember that his grandfather, James Lee, made the great Atlantic Ocean crossing in 1857 at the age of twelve and that with his ten year old brother Martin’s departure, he never saw his brother, father or mother again.  He remained in Brooklyn, eventually marrying Josephine Evans, and raised a family of twelve children as an illiterate street sweeper.

Prejudice was strong against the Irish then.  Signs were commonly posted saying, “No dogs, No blacks, No Irish.”  Nonetheless, his children prospered.  My grandfather, Joseph Lee, became a very successful builder in Brooklyn, gaining social prominence and even becoming commandant of the yacht club.  As I look at my extended Lee family, and my mother’s Irish family as well, I see an extended family of immigrants who applied their “courage, intelligence, determination and heart” to make good lives, strong families and a valuable contribution to the world.  We are good people.  What is it about these qualities that is in the “blood and our bones” of our Irish ancestry?  And why was the prejudice against my ancestors encountered so?

The Irish are a deeply spiritual people of great courage, determination and heart, who have lived in close relationship with the natural world for millennia.  They have an ancient history of artistic excellence and scholastic acumen that was renown throughout the late classical to early medieval Europe.  Their most honored citizens were poets, warriors, scholars and saints.  They accepted challenge and bore adversity through centuries with a singleness of purpose that has carried them from the grip of British oppression to the restoration of their freedom, culture and sovereignty.

Everywhere an Irish person looked, the landscape marked the legacy of their ancestors’ lives.  The legendary history of the people was preserved in the names and places of their land.  The genealogies kept by their bards assured them that they had belonged to this land for thousands of years.

The sacred permeated everything. There was no separation between the physical and the spiritual, this world and the Otherworld, the living and the dead.  Souls of the dead were reborn in the Otherworld and from there, born again in this one.[1]  Irish were so comfortable in this belief that repayment of debts could be promised in the afterlife.[2]  The land, seas and sacred balance maintained through spiritual practices provided abundantly for people, leaving time and resources to support the arts and music for all.

The poets, bards, doctors and druids were called the sacred class, because their art and practice stemmed from a twelve or more year study of the sacred principles of existence.[3]   Education was supported by patronage and was free to all men and women able to attend.  Education in the druidic colleges was renown throughout Europe for studies in Latin, Greek, philosophy, astrology, poetry, history, art, prophesy, divination, healing and medicine.  Education was supported by patronage and open to all men and women able to attend.[4]  With conversion to Christianity, many druidic colleges transformed into monastic colleges, and the tradition of outstanding scholarship continued.

Christianity was a remarkable fit for Ireland, but it was not without its darker side. The disciples of Christ had a great impact on indigenous Irish tradition by extinguishing the earth-based religion of the druids and eventually separating the Irish from the sacred oneness with All that Is.  While Irish tradition and the animist influence of converted druids kept the early Celtic Christian church of Ireland in close relationship with nature, the druids and their practices were viewed as wicked and blasphemous.  Eventually the druids were converted, killed, exiled or driven underground by the Christian clergy. Druids kept their oral tradition unwritten, even though Patrick is reported to have burned 180 druid books, and their spiritual practices and wisdom have been all but lost to us.  What remains is reported in grossly-distorted Christian perspective.

 Irish historian Seumas MacManus explains, in The Story of the Irish Race, that St. Patrick’s conversion of the Irish had a profound effect on the nature of the people of Erin.  Within a hundred years of Christian conversion, military raids across the seas all but ceased as the Irish people attuned to Christ’s message of Peace.[5]  In very real terms they turned from martial warriorship to spiritual warriorship.  Sadly, this made the Irish as vulnerable to the Viking raids that plundered their monasteries as the British had been to Irish raids after the fall of the Roman Empire.  

From fortified compounds around royal seats, Irish life transformed to a focus around monasteries where clergy, monks, nuns and lay people lived in common.  Many monasteries became centers of ecclesiastic study, earning Ireland the title, “The Isle of Saints and Scholars.”  Ecclesiastic art took center stage as the focus of artistic expression. Chalices and patens used to celebrate the Mass became surfaces of exquisite Celtic design.  Bibles, staffs and bells of the aesthetic Irish Celtic saints became valued treasures once these mystics passed on.  To express veneration, their sacred tools were encased in jewel-studded silver and gold,[6] all for the glory of God.

Without fortification, the Viking raided, raped and plundered the monasteries and their people in pursuit of these treasures.  A rein of terror persisted for 200 years.  The Viking Danes established the first and only foreign settlements on Irish soil, building the cities of Dublin, Waterford, Wexford, Cork and Limerick.  Among other things, the Danes brought the concept of private ownership of land.  In 1014, Brian Boru defeated the Norsemen at the Battle of the Weir of Clontarf, restoring Irish sovereignty once again.[7]  However, at its greatest point of union since the end of the O’Neil dynasty, Brian’s death at Clontarf left Ireland without leadership.

 Rome had great issue with Irish laws regarding divorce, child baptism, marriage customs and the persistence of the independence of the decentralized, monastic organization of their bishoprics, rather than submission to the papal authority in dioceses.[8]  By the mid 1100s, Norman King Henry II of England had designs on Ireland and requested that his brother, Pope Adrian IV, grant him lordship over Ireland.  In the Papal bull Laudabiliter issued in 1155, Adrian IV gave consent to Henry II to “extend the boundaries of the church, to restrain the prevalence of vice, implant virtue, propagate Christian faith among the Irish people.”[9]  This was said of a country that had been known as “The Sacred Isle” for 1500 years and whose devotion to Jesus Christ was second to none.

During a period of extended regional strife, Dermot Mac Murrough, deposed king of Leinster, persuadedthe Norman “Strongbow” Richard de Clare Earl of Pembroke to aid him in reclaiming his throne and conquering any other territory they could subdue. [10] Their success laid the foundation of the invasion of Norman King Henry II of England in 1172, which secured Leinster, Meath, Dublin, Waterford and Wexford under English claim.[11]  A Norman aristocracy was established to oversee the Irish territories.

Using the Church as their instrument of governance, the Roman Catholic Normans consolidated lands, built castles, assaulted the Celtic Church and suppressed its clergy.  Culturally, it was another matter.  The Norman aristocracy soon found the Irish culture to their liking.  To the consternation of the English, their Norman colonizing force took on Irish manners, speech, customs and laws.  Irish Historian Seumus McManus slyly comments, “the truth is the free-spirited, culture-loving, gracious comity of the Gaels and Gaelic civilization insinuated itself into the mind and soul of the Norman French [now governing England] and won from them eager capitulation.”[12]

Irish land ownership was tribal; the Norman system of land ownership was feudal. Under the Irish tribal system, tribal lands were sovereign and owned by the clan members collectively.  There were private holdings within tribal lands that could be bought and sold, but only to other members of the tribe and with the agreement of all members of the owner’s finé.  Tenants could rent land from the tribe or a private landowner.  Brehon law protected the rights of the people in the exchange of property.  In the feudal system, all land belonged to the king, who granted lands, baronies, to his nobles as “tenants-at-will,” who could be removed from their lands at any time without cause.  The tenants-at-will status extended to all landholders within the land grant area, who then became tenants of the noble. The common tribal lands were subsumed by the land grant and removed to the nobles' use.  When the O’Flaherty lands of West Galway were given to the Burkes, all tribal lands held privately within that area became tenants-at-will.  Property was paramount; the rights of the people were secondary.  The English conquest of Ireland had begun.

The English purpose would employ diverse means in their conquest of the Irish over the next 700 years.  Its colonization efforts would be thorough, brutal and nearly complete, had it not been for the strength of the Irish spirit.

1. Redefine the personal and national character at the Irish.

2. Remove all basic human liberties that would elevate the mind, heart and spirit of the Irish people.

3. Separate the Irish people from their God.

4. Criminalize all aspects of Irish culture.

5. Confiscate their property and land.

6. Implant English citizens in confiscated Irish land.

7. Transport native Irish to foreign lands.

8. War.

9. Genocide.

English justice was entirely designed to protect privilege, station and property of the English aristocracy.  Between the 14th and 18th centuries, English efforts to subdue Ireland became increasingly stringent.  In 1367, with the failure of the Normans to subordinate the Irish, the English parliament passed the Statute of Kilkenny, which outlawed Norman engagement in Irish language, customs, dress, religion, laws and marriage to an Irish person.  The King’s army enforced and dispatched offenders.  English law found the Irish were not subject to protection under the King’s law and allowed that Irish Catholics or “papists” could be beaten, punished or killed for any cause found by an English citizen.

To justify their ends, the English invented a fictitious Irish character, which was undisciplined, vice-ridden, licentious, dishonest, criminal, and incompetent. In outrage, the Irish took up armed resistance.  Their success and internal Norman division contributed to a loss of Norman control that minimized the impact of the Act of Kilkenny for another 200 years.

By the time of the reign of Henry VIII, the Irish were solidly and devoutly Roman Catholic.  The monasteries had lost much of their former glory, but nonetheless retained considerable wealth and land holdings.  Upon separating himself from the papacy, King Henry VIII ordered that all monasteries, monks, nuns and priests convert to the Church of England.  Many who refused were put to death; others were tortured, or turned out with nothing as the monasteries were dissolved and their resources confiscated.[13] 

Religion now became the dividing line between the Irish citizens.  The indigenous Irish were Roman Catholic, and their English landlords were Protestant.  King Henry VIII pressed for the utter subjugation of the Irish will and identity by passage of the Penal Laws.  Under this system of oppression, the Irish Catholics were forbidden to:

vote; practice their religion; receive an education; enter a profession; hold a public office; engage in trade or commerce; purchase, lease, or receive a gift of land; accept a mortgage on land to secure a loan; live in a corporate town or within five miles of one; own a horse worth more than five £; reap from his land a profit exceeding a third of the rent; be a guardian to a child; leave his child in guardianship to a Catholic; educate his own child; employ a Catholic teacher to come to his child; send his child to be educated elsewhere.[14]


Being among the finest horse breeders in Europe, the Irish could no longer legally own a horse worth more than five £.  Any Englishman could demand that an Irishman sell him his horse for five £ and, if he refused, was entitled to take the horse without compensation. The people who for millennia had held the highest standards of intellectual scholarship were forbidden their schools.  They held their schools anyway in the hedges, learning Greek and Latin as they always had.[15]  Even during these harsh times, farmers could be overheard bargaining a sheep sale in Greek.  Clandestine masses were held in the forests and hills.  Priests and teachers alike were hunted down, hung and then drawn and quartered.  Colonization had begun in earnest.

Colonization seeks to destroy the humanity of a people for the purpose of exploiting their bodies, lands and resources.  The story commonly told by colonizers to justify their actions and salve the conscience of their own citizenry is that their innate, more civilized superiority justifies and entitles them to subdue and civilize the barbarians in question.  Some English actually claimed that the Irish were not quite human and therefore base, untrustworthy, uncivilized and unable to govern themselves.  The English portrayed the Irish in speeches and tabloids as vice ridden and, above all, ungrateful for the paternal direction, guidance and discipline of their betters, the British.[16] 

 Professor William Edward Hartpole Leckey, a Protestant Irishman of British heritage and loyalty, in his History of Ireland in the 18th Century, wrote: 


The object of the penal laws was threefold: to deprive the Catholics of all civil life, to reduce them to a condition of most extreme and brutal ignorance and to dissociate them from the soil.[17]  [The Penal laws were] intended to make them poor and to keep them poor, to crush in them every germ of enterprise and degrade them into a servile race who could never hope to rise to the level of their oppressor.[18]


Mac Manus quotes Dr. Samuel Johnson's description of the Penal Code:

It was not the persecution of a sect . . . but the degradation of a nation.  It was the instrument employed by a conquering race to crush to the dust the people among whom they were planted.  And indeed when we remember that the greater part of it was enforced for nearly a century, that its victims formed at least three fourths of the nation and that its degrading and dividing influences extended to every field of social, political, professional and intellectual and even domestic life, and that it was enacted without the provocation of any rebellion, in defiance of a treaty which directly guaranteed the Irish Catholics from any oppression on account of their religion, it may justly be regarded as one of the blackest pages in the history of persecution.[19]


 In Laws Against Popery in Ireland, Edmond Burke describes the Penal Codes as “a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well-fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement of human nature, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man”[20]

And then came Cromwell . . ..

In response to Irish resistance to the increasing oppression of their people, The First Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland, Oliver Cromwell and his legions rolled through Ireland in a scorched-earth policy that killed every living thing in its path.  It was a campaign of genocide. 

MacManus quotes Pendergast in his “Cromwellian Settlement of Ireland:”

Ireland in the language of Scripture lay void as a wilderness.  Five-sixths of her people had perished.  Women and children were found daily perishing in the ditches, starved.  The bodies of wandering orphans, whose fathers had been killed and whose mothers had died of famine, were preyed upon by wolves.  In the years 1652 and 1653 the plague, following the desolating wars, had swept away whole counties, so that one might travel twenty or thirty miles and not see a living creature.  Man, beast and bird all dead, or had quit those desolate places.  The troops would tell stories of places where they saw smoke, so rare to see . . ..  If two and three cabins were met with, there were found none but aged men, with women and children . . . and their skins black like an oven because of the terrible famine. [21]


 Thirty thousand to eighty thousand of the remaining young Irish men, women, girls and boys were shipped off to slavery in the West Indies.  One hundred years later Gaelic could still be heard among the slaves of the Caribbean.[22]  In 1653 the English Parliament declared all native Irish lands to be the property of Cromwell’s troops and their financiers.  All Irish Catholics were to leave their lands and move to the rocky northwestern province of Connaught or die.  Removing the indigenous Catholic population opened the way for The Cromwellian Plantation.

The plantation system had begun in Ulster 30 years earlier when the Ulster kings fled the choice of loyalty to the English crown or death, a time know as the Flight of the Wild Geese.  Now it took on real force as the officers of Cromwell’s successful brigades, and those in the Crown’s favor, were rewarded for valued service with Irish land grants.  The Irish became tenants to the English landlords on lands they had once owned.  They were now subject to paying an annual rent and any improvements to their property, even if paid for by the tenant, increased the rent.  The indigenous population was displaced from the best lands with what they could carry to the bogs and mountaintops to eek out an existence.  It was land fit to grow little other than the hearty potato.

The Irish had always been a forest people.  Dense hardwood forests covered much of the island and was integral to their indigenous spiritual traditions.  Even the ancient Ogham language was based on trees.  To fuel the industrialization of Northern Ireland and remove a refuge for Irish resistance, the English leveled the forests of Ireland, to the devastation of her people.

By 1800 The Act of Union, passed by a Protestant Parliament of Ireland, had joined Ireland to Great Britain.  Among the provisions of the act was the continued disenfranchisement of Irish Catholics.[23]  Nonetheless, the persistence of the Irish struggle to regain sovereignty achieved small concessions during the 1700s.  Many of the penal laws had proved ungovernable and been repealed.[24]  They regained the right to an education, to hold a profession and to attend Trinity College in Dublin, opening the door to one of the most remarkable leaders in Irish history.  Daniel O’Connell became one of the first Catholic lawyers and the first Catholic elected to parliament.  He effectively defended Irish clients in English courts by brilliantly articulating the injustices of the English legal system to the jubilation of the Irish Catholics.  As his popularity grew, O’Connell led a successful fight, known as Emancipation, to restore the vote to the Irish Catholics.[25] Thus empowered, he campaigned to repeal the Act of Union that joined Ireland to England and the United Kingdom of Great Britain.  Years of organizing culminated in massive public meetings in support of Repeal all over Ireland.  From a population of 8,000,000, O’Connell drew 400,000 in Kilkenny, 300,000 in Mullaghmast, 400,000 in Mallow and 1,000,000 at Tara.  For four years of inspired Repeal solidarity, Ireland was sober and crime free.[26]

At this moment of greatest national unity and hope, the Great Potato Famine struck.  The potato blight fungus could decimate an entire field or turn a bin of harvested potatoes to mush overnight.  The blight hit the west coast hardest and lasted an interminable six years.  Wild resources were quickly exploited or withheld by the Baron.  Under English law, every living thing on the land belonged to the owner of the property.  Therefore all the game, wild edible plants and fish belonged to the Lord of the Manor, famine or no famine. 

Christine Kinealy reports, in This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-1852, that “at the beginning of the 19th century, Britain was the leading agricultural, industrial and commercial power in the world."[27]  Although potatoes accounted for one-third of all food grown in Ireland in 1845, a variety of other foods, including grains, were produced and exported from Ireland to Britain.[28]  As its major supplier of grain to England, three-fifths of the food produced in Ireland in 1845 was shipped to Britain.[29]  Exports sufficient to feed the Irish people were shipped to England faithfully throughout the famine. 

In times of crop failure, people usually turn to subsisting off another crop. Population had grown so rapidly and land had been divided into such small parcels that, for one-third of the Irish, potatoes were their only crop.  It was a significant staple for many more.[30]    With the failure of the potato crops, freeholders petitioned their landlords to postpone the rents due each year.  Many landlords agreed.  Many did not.  As the famine continued through six desperate years through 1852, rents mounted, landlords grew desperate, and starvation and disease claimed 1,500,000 to 2,000,000 Irish.

The British only kept death records of the famine for three years, from 1845 to 1848, reporting 700,000 deaths.  However, these numbers are generally considered to be an underestimation as entire families died leaving, no one to report their death.   Kinealy reports that “one million appears to be the most accurate calculation to date”[31] of additional unreported “excess deaths” estimated by Cormac O’Grada.

 The British Parliament, operating on a laissez-faire economic policy advanced by Adam Smith, maintained that supporting relief programs for the poor incurred indolence and abuse of the program.  Conservatives argued that relief should be withheld on the basis that it would interfere with the free market and compete with Protestant businesses.[32]  They justified their actions on the basis that the Irish economy and famine were a product of the flawed Irish character.  Having oppressed the Irish for 200 years with penal laws intended to thwart all enterprise and commerce and reduce them to destitution, the English Parliament failed to recognize their own contribution to the situation and provide sufficient resources for the aid the starving Irish.[33]  The conflict of compassion and economic philosophy would fatally compromise any effective response for Ireland, which was, at that time, part of the Great Britain.  Stephen Howe comments that,

Ministers and officials were ill-informed, slow and inconsistent in their reactions, riven and hobbled by dogma: free market dogma which insisted that state intervention must be counterproductive, providentialist religious dogma which saw famine as punishment for sins, and cultural-cum-racial dogma which blamed the supposedly idle and feckless Irish peasantry for their own ills.  Emergency relief and public works schemes were frequently a shambles, and food often did not reach those most in need.  Many died, quite simply, because of bureaucracy.[34]


The aid that was given was delivered in the form of grain distribution for purchase, soup kitchens, work projects and workhouses.  Workhouses were designed to be so unpleasant, so debasing, that only the absolutely destitute would avail themselves of the relief.  During the heart of the famine, only able-bodied people were admitted to the workhouses, and they died at a rate of 1,500 to 2,500 per week.  Thus, the workhouse became the death house, riddled with disease engendered by the famine; tuberculosis, typhus, and cholera.[35]

While the world responded to the Irish famine with an outpouring of money, food and organizational support, the English guarded their profits.  There was much concern in England about the financial liability of the growth of poor Irish populations before the famine.  As poverty increased, landholdings were divided down to be more affordable to rent.  Leased to the poorest cotters and laborers at as little as one-half acre, they had become marginal, cumbersome and inefficient . . . and fit for growing only potatoes.  A reorganization of the Irish economy was deemed necessary.  By raising Poor Taxes, Parliament shifted responsibility for sustained famine relief increasingly to the Irish Protestant landowners, who protested, and then acted.  The solution was simple; the land would be cleared of its Irish tenants to make way for other uses, such as cattle.  Starvation and emigration were acceptable means.[36]  Mullhall’s Dictionary of Statistics reports from official British statistics the eviction of 482,000 families from 1849 to 1882.[37]

The English response to the Irish potato famine was nothing short of the practice of genocide and dispossession of the indigenous people of their native land.  Having exhausted all means available to feed themselves, hundreds of thousands of Irish families were unable to pay their rents and were evicted.  To ensure that the destitute farmers would leave, their homes were “tumbled,” the chimney was torn down, and the house set afire.  Now in the cold and wet, the walking skeletons of the evicted died by the thousands on roadsides, their mouths green from eating grass.  Mass graves awaited them.  Those with the strength to travel found their way to the port cities of Dublin, Belfast, Waterford, Cork and Galway.

Some landlords paid the passage for their evicted tenants, but most of the emigrants relied on international charity to board ships bound for the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  The Emigration Commission estimated emigration from Ireland at 1,880,000 from 1846 to 1855. [38]  Another 6,000,000 left over the next 60 years, as those who had left succeeded and supported the passage of others.[39]  The most likely to survive, the strongest and brightest sailed away carrying the hopes of the people with them.

Many did not make it.  Ocean transports, dubbed “coffin ships,” often arrived with one-third to one-half of their passengers dead, and those who survived arrived penniless without community or family to turn to.  Many died soon after of malnutrition and disease carried along with them.  The exodus was as wrenching for the Irish people as the starvation of the famine.[40]  The exiled would write and sing of the loss for their homeland for generations to come.  Exile had always been the greatest punishment for the Irish.

I was sitting at the base of the Twelve Bens, a cluster of mountains in Connemara, County Galway, with Martin Walsh.  Martin is an Irish history scholar and the owner of a small Celtic park and museum.  One of his attractions is the former home of Dan O’Hara, the subject of a famous Irish song about the famine.  Galway was one of the hardest hit counties during the famine.  Martin told me Dan’s story:  He had improved his farm cottage by adding larger windows at his own expense in 1844.  For this contribution, his landlord raised his rent.   Unable to make the payments two years later, Dan, his wife and seven children were evicted.  They made their way to a ship bound for America.  His wife and three youngest children died on the Atlantic crossing.  Arriving in New York penniless and brokenhearted, Dan fostered his four remaining children out and soon died selling matches on the street corner.  Martin finished his story by saying he had looked around a few years before and found an Irishman or woman as head of state of Ireland, England, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  “Not bad for a bunch of penniless, incompetent, savages,” he added with fire in his eye.

  Three branches of my own family emigrated from the west of Ireland during these times. My maternal great-grandmother, Winifred O’Harrahey, met her husband, Tommy Townsend, from a neighboring sept in Donegal at an Irish social club in Brooklyn.  To the extent that they could, the Irish brought their culture with them.  They also brought the ravages of colonization.

The shadow of war, prejudice, famine and exile stalk us today.  My family has experienced the symptoms of post traumatic stress from the cultural, psychological and spiritual colonization: depression, anxiety, alcoholism, suicide, family violence and undermining issues of self worth.[41]  We have a recurring pattern of early parental loss and a complete ignorance of our heritage.  Like countless others, I grew up knowing only that my people left Ireland because of the potato famine and that Irish people were drinkers -- nothing more.  This story is part of the healing.

What, you say?  These symptoms are common, typical of Americans -- nothing unusual.  Yes, precisely.  We may hale from different eras and countries of origin, but the most common experience of America’s tired and poor is the fact of their colonization and emigration.  We have simply not looked back far enough for the source of our grief.

By the end of the 19th century, English cultural colonization had nearly succeeded in Ireland.  The Irish language was heard only in pockets of the western coast.  The proud history and great legendary tales of the Irish were all but forgotten.  The English had rewritten the Irish history to reflect the values and influence of the English occupation.  Had the story ended there, it would simply be another tragic tale of cultural annihilation and the extinction of a people in the name of progress and civilization.

Instead, the Irish continued to fight with “intelligence, determination, courage and heart” for their sovereignty, souls and homeland.  Supported by their prospering exiles, the Irish continued the battle for repeal of the union with Great Britain and independence. After the famine, world opinion became substantially sympathetic toward the Irish cause. With their rights to education restored, her intellectuals ignited a Celtic Renaissance that brought Irish culture back from the brink of oblivion.  Gaelic was reclaimed as a national language.  The heroic legends were translated and staged at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Music, art and prose honored the Irish spirit as their journalists promoted the Irish struggle for independence before the international community of nations.

World War I provided the opportunity to force a weakened, exhausted Britain to the negotiating table.  In 1922 Ireland accepted the compromise that would grant her self-governance as a free state.  In the bargain the Northern six counties of Ulster, with a large Protestant population and industrial base, would remain part of Great Britain. The lower 26 counties would become the Irish Free State.  Advancing the strategy again during World War II, Ireland became fully independent as the Republic of Ireland in 1948.[42]   After 50 years of continued violence over the status of the northern six counties, the Belfast Agreement brought about a coalition government of Catholics and Protestants governing side-by-side in Northern Ireland.[43]  Peace and sovereignty had been restored to Ireland and the prayers of my ancestors were answered.  The long road to healing could begin.

When I truly understood the horror of the Irish experience under English rule, I found myself telling the tale of injustice, enjoying occasions of Irish success and superiority.  Britain became to me the brutal tyrant, and I relished the occasion of British losses.  Hatred was finding root.  Then I realized what I was doing.

My husband is of English descent.  His forefathers arrived in Virginia in the early 1600s, holding land grants from the English Crown. They took part in battles that defeated and displaced the American Indians of Virginia.  One ancestor received his grant as a reward for service in putting down an Irish rebellion!  I had married the descendent of the oppressor of my people because he is a good man.  His family is loving, strong, courageous, tolerant and compassionate.  They fight for human rights and justice as decedents of the founding fathers of the United States. 

Hate my husband?  Hate our children?  Hate anyone, for God’s sake!  How could I live my life that way, and what would it serve?  Hatred had dug enough graves and broken enough hearts.  The blood of my people was spilled in the name of sovereignty, respect, tolerance and love of life.  The best way to honor their sacrifice is to live those values and tell their story.   

When I went to Ireland with my mother in 1996, I had this conversation more than once with an elder along the way:  “So are you visiting now?” an older gentleman would inquire. “I am,” I replied.  “And would you be Irish, now, and have family from here?” he would continue.  “Yes, I would.  My mother’s people are from Donegal, and her father is from Carrick-on-Shannon. My father is Irish, too,” I replied. “Well, now, that’s grand.  It’s just grand.  It’s so good that you’ve come home,” he said with a twinkle.  I realized then that the return of the lost generations is as important a part of the healing for the Irish left behind as it is for those of us returning.  

This is my prayer for forgiveness and healing of my people and all of those who have known the bloody knife of colonization.

Great Mother Anu, Brigit, Shining Ones and Ancestors.

May the wounds of our people be healed by the truth that can now be known.

May the ones crushed under the heel of oppression know that they are remembered. 

We hear your voices.  We are your dreams.

I reclaim your lost humanity and my own as I remember and live.

I will not trade hatred for hatred or blow for blow.

May all the generations together stand at the altar of forgiveness,

As a force for freedom, justice, truth, equality, peace and love.

May we shine this Irish blessing into the world

For the restoration of all to belonging in the Great Cauldron of Life.


[1]  Caitlin Mathews, The Way of the Celtic tradition (London: Element, 1989) 12.

[2]  Daithi O'hOgain, The Sacred Isle: Belief ands Religion in Pre-Christian Ireland (Whilton, Cork: Collins Press, 1999) 100. 

[3]  Mathews,  68-72.

[4]  Seumus MacManus, The Story of the Irish Race (Old-Greenwich, CT: The Devin-Adair Co., 1921) 217-218.

[5]  MacManus, Story of the Irish, 89.

[6]   Angus Konstram, Historical atlas of the Celtic World,(New York: Checkmark Books,2001) 146

[7] MacManus, 279.

[8]  Mary Condon, The Serpent and the Goddess: Women, Religion and Power in Celtic Ireland (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Pub., 1989) 136.

[9]  MacManus, 320.

[10]  Ibid., 323.

[11]   Martin Wallace, A Short History of Ireland, (New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1986) 28

[12]  Ibid, 334

[13]  Macmanus, 402.

[14]  MacManus, 458-9.

[15]  Gearoid O'Tuathaigh, Ireland before the Famine 1798 - 1848 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1972) 99.

[16]  David Harding, "Objects of English Colonial Discourse: The Irish and Native Americans," Nordic Irish Studies (Center for Irish Studies Aarhus) 4 (2005): 37-60.

[17]  William Edward Hartpole Leckey, History of Ireland in the 18th Century, as found in Seumus MacManus, The Story of the Irish Race (Old-Greenwich, CT: The Devin-Adair Co., 1921) 454.

[18]  Ibid., 461.

[19] MacManus, 454

[20] Edmond Burke,  Laws Against Popery in Ireland as found in Seumus MacManus, The Story of the Irish Race (Old-Greenwich, CT: The Devin-Adair Co., 1921) 454.  

[21] John P. Pendergast, Cromwellian Settlement of Ireland as found in Seumus MacManus, The Story of the Irish Race (Old-Greenwich, CT: The Devin-Adair Co., 1921) 430.

[22]  MacManus, 429.

[23]  O'Tuathaigh, Ireland before the Famine,   34.

[24]  Stephen Howe, Ireland and Empire: Colonial Legacies in Irish History and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) 34.

[25]  MacManus, 551-559.

[26]  Ibid., 580-1.

[27]  Christine Kinealy, This Great Calamity:The Irish Famine 1845-52 (Boulder, CO: Roberts Rhinehart Pub., 1995) 10.

[28]  Ibid., 5.

[29]  Ibid., 4.

[30]  O'Tuathaigh, Ireland before the Famine, 1972) 203.

[31]  Kinealy, This Great Calamity, 251.

[32]  Ibid,  7.

[33]  Ibid., 7.

[34]  Howe, Ireland and Empire, 39.

[35]  Ibid., 252.

[36]  Ibid., 216-217.

[37]  MacManus, 635.

[38]   Kinealy, 298.

[39]   Ibid., 297.

[40]   MacManus, 609-610.

[41]  Betty Bastien et al., "Healing the Impact of Colonization, Genocide, Missionization and Racism on Indigenous Populations," in The Impact of War Trauma on Civilian Populations, ed. S. Kripner & T. McIntyre (New York: Greenwood Press, 2001). 2-3.

[42], History of Ireland, April 1, 2009, History_of_Ireland#Free_State_ and_ Republic, (accessed April 1, 2009).

[43]  Republic of Ireland, " Northern Ireland Peace Agreement," Government of Ireland Department of the Taoiseach,, (accessed March 31, 2009).

The People of Erin

The People of Erin

Carrying the bones of the Ancestors by Nancy Lee-Evans, PhD

Plato called Ireland “The Sacred Isle” 400 years before the birth of Christ.  In the Christian era, it has been called the “Isle of Saints and Scholars.”  The sacred and the secular, the spiritual and the physical have been inseparably linked throughout its history.  This more than anything else has defined Erin’s people and culture.

The Irish tradition is a multi-layered evolution spanning 10,000 years of history and three major cultural impulses.  Ireland’s first inhabitants were Mesolithic hunter gatherers, who lived along the coastlines at the edge of the great forest that once covered the island.  About 4,000 years later, Neolithic farmers arrived to take up residence inland.  They were Goddess worshippers, whose primary legacy is the megalithic centers of their spiritual practice.  The second primary influence of Irish tradition was the Celtic culture that dominated most of northern Europe from the Bronze Age through the Iron Age, whose influence has been found in Ireland from 500 BCE.  Finally, Christianity developed in a very different, uniquely Celtic way in Ireland because of the nature of the Celtic tradition and its remoteness from Rome.

To understand why Celtic traditions are today found mostly along the Atlantic coast of Europe, we must understand Roman conquest.  The entire northern campaign of the Rome Empire was fought against the Continental Celtic tribes.  Rome ultimately conquered most of Europe, subjugating defeated cultures to the Roman model.  The now-modern countries of Ireland, Scotland and Wales and the regions of Cornwall, England and Brittany, France retained their Celtic languages, music, customs and spiritual traditions because they were beyond the reach of Roman occupation.[1]  However, the heritage of these Celtic countries reflects much of the indigenous culture of pre-Roman Northern Europe.   

Yet there is controversy over what constitutes a Celt.  The prevailing theory has held the central European Hallstatt culture was the homeland of the Celts.  This warrior culture’s pottery, fine metalworking, iron weapons, plows and tools were the mark of a distinct and sophisticated northern European civilization from 800 BCE.  With the horse now important culturally, the Celts dispersed throughout Europe during great, probably armed, tribal dislocations of the fifth century BCE.  A second Celtic cultural flourishing discovered at La Tène, Switzerland, utilizing distinctive curvilinear votive art, including the iconic torc necklace, persisted until the Roman conquest in the first century AD.[2]  The La Tène culture that had originated in the contemporary area of southern Germany, Austria and Hungary now extended to France, Holland, Spain, the Balkans, Turkey, Britain and Ireland. [3]

The case for Ireland is interesting.  The great majority of languages in Europe and Asia stem from a common ancestral Indo–European tongue.  These include, just to name a few, Sanskrit, Hindu, Persian, Old Slavic, Latin, Greek, Old German, English and Celtic.[4]  While the language of the proposed central European Celtic homelands is Indo-European Germanic, the Atlantic coastal Celts spoke and still speak Goidelic and Brythonic, those languages commonly understood to be Celtic.  Using classical sources such as Caesar and Herodotus, Stephen Oppenheimer makes a strong case for the true homeland of the Celts being southern France and northern Spain.  These are the people who identified themselves as “Celts.”[5]

Celtic is a linguistic term that refers to people who speak one of the oldest linguistic branches of the Indo-European languages.  There are two different though related Celtic language groups for the Atlantic and Continental Celtic people; Goidelic q-Celt for Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx Gaelic, and Brithonic p-Celt for Welsh, Cornish and Breton.  Gaulish, Eastern Celtic and Lepontic are now extinct.[6]  The q and p distinction can be seen in the Mac vs. Map suffixes of Irish and Welsh names, respectively.  This language division and genetic evidence indicate that the Atlantic coastal group is a different Celtic family of tribes than the Continental Celts, perhaps originating in Anatolia.[7] 

It appears that the spread of Celtic language, a signature of any cultural identity, came along the Atlantic route.  Recent genetic studies indicate it may have come with the original Neolithic and possibly Mesolithic settlers thousands of years before the emergence of the central European Celtic culture.  Assimilation of Celtic culture by the Irish would have progressed then, not by new migrations or by conquest, but by evolution in-situ influenced by trade and much more travel than is commonly thought of in these ages.[8]  It is the female line that represents the original settlers of Ireland.  Genetic studies have found that the most predominant female gene pool of the Irish came after a European withdrawal during the lesser Dryas, circa 8000 BCE, to the Basque region of northern Spain/southern France.  As post-glacial revegetation made the land more hospitable to human occupation, these Mesolithic people, and the Neolithic that followed them, migrated up the Atlantic coast of Europe.  They settled in the areas now considered to be the Atlantic Celtic nations or regions:  Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Isle of Man, Cornwall, England, and Brittany, France.[9]    

Genetic data also indicates that the Continental Celts originated in an inter-glacial withdrawal into the area of the Balkans.  Like their sister tribes to the southwest, the glacial retreat opened the way for a gradual expansion into eastern Europe reaching central Europe around 4000 BCE and then to England about 500 BCE.  This strain, however, had only significant impact on the eastern shore of England.[10]   

The male genetic composition of the British Isles is overwhelmingly Celtic, originating in the Basque region, with Ireland showing the highest percentages of an average of 88 percent and England a low of 64 percent.  Vikings contribute to the balance throughout the region with Saxon/Continental Celt adding to the English mix.[11] 

The earliest people to settle Ireland were a simple Mesolithic hunting and gathering people.  Food was abundant on an island forested in elm, hazelnut, lime and oak.  Besides the gifts of the sea, elk, deer, wild pig, waterfowl and aurochs, the ancestors of modern cows, flourished.  At strategic coastal locations, small timber-framed shelters were built, since there was little need to migrate seasonally in the moderate temperate maritime climate.[12] 

Meanwhile farming, a new era in human development, followed the Atlantic route to Ireland.  By settling inland from the coastal Mesolithic pioneers, the arrival of the Neolithic farmers caused little conflict.[13]  Indeed, neither group left any traces of the weapons of war.  Crop growing and animal husbandry marked the transition to the Neolithic period, along with the cultural innovation of pottery.[14]

Archaeologist Maria Gambutas describes Ireland’s Neolithic settlers as non-hierarchical matrilineal farmers, whose Mother Goddess Creatrix gave birth to the world and all of creation.  Having many names in many places, she was known in Ireland as Ana or Dana, later Bridget.[15]  Their lives revolved around the rhythms and cycles of nature, cultivation and the passages of human life.  They built great megalithic chambers for their spiritual practices and later stone circles and wells.  The landscape itself was the place of spiritual practice for, as a pantheistic people, divinity was experienced as immanent in all things.  Trees, groves, lakes, springs, mountains, glens and the sea all were places of reverence and offerings of thanksgiving to the Great Mother. [16]

A visit to these places still fills one with feelings of reverence and grace that are worthy of modern day pilgrimage.  One of the most dramatic places to experience this sacred connection of land and spirit is in the huge megalithic stone structures found throughout Europe.  These great passage tombs, stone circles and stone henges were astronomical and spiritual ceremonial centers constructed of huge five to forty ton megaliths, sometimes measuring twenty feet in height, as in Stonehenge.[17] 

Passage tombs or cairns are great mounds of earth covering a womb-like central chamber of great stones entered by a vagina-like passage.  Newgrange is a restored passage tomb in County Meath, Ireland, whose otherwise dark central inner chamber is pierced once a year by the dawn of sunlight at Winter Solstice.  Nearly as large as a football field, it was built 1,000 years before the Great Pyramids of Egypt![18]  The astronomical features of these monuments link them to ceremonies honoring the passage of the year, the equinoxes, the solstices and the spiritually-powerful midpoints between them, which are the high Celtic holidays of Imbolc, Beltane, Llammas and Samain. 

The presence of bones led early archaeologists to believe that these were graves, hence their name.  It is more likely that the bundled bones of ancestors were brought within the passage cairn for honor, respect and inspiration during ceremonies. The womb-like structure of the cairns lends credence to their use as the womb of the Mother, womb of the Earth, place of celebration and place where dana, life force, is very powerful.[19]  There are large shallow dish-like stones in the left and right niches of the central cruciform chamber of Newgrange that look like fertility or birthing stones, a feature common to indigenous peoples around the world.  Indeed, legend holds that the greatest of Celtic warriors, Cuchulain, was conceived there.[20]  

My personal experience was of the great dark silence of this place; the power of being held within hundreds of thousands of tons of earth.  Each time I have been to the transformative energies of Bru na Boinne, the Gaelic name for this ancient ceremonial complex, I have longed for a quiet time in which to deeply experience the energies of the inner chamber, possible only within a National Park docent presentation.  Each time I would leave somewhat disappointed, thinking that I hadn’t quite made the connection I had hoped for, yet I would find crossing the River Boyne to the visitors' center, back into ordinary time and ordinary reality, wordlessly unbearable and filled with tears.  On my last visit, I eased the transition by lying down on a bench to allow the energies, the dana of this place, to flush through my body, mind and spirit.  Renewed and somehow reoriented, I was then able to proceed on my pilgrim’s journey. 

When the Celts arrived in Ireland, they brought with them a patrilineal warrior culture and cosmology that in time embraced much of the Goddess worshipper’s farming and cattle-raising culture.  Women retained a remarkably high level of sovereignty.  They revered their ancestors as a source of inspiration and guidance and the tales of their exploits as a valuable source of wisdom.  The Celts had a rich oral culture steeped in poetry, music and ancestral legend stewarded by the bards.  Their stories imbue the landscape, history and the Irish people with their identity.

Irish traditions do not leave anything behind.  Each evolution in culture and spiritual practice brought with it the previous level.  Thus, the Goddess and the feminine aspect of divinity were not lost.  The Celtic gods did not displace the Goddess; rather, they joined Her goddesses in a pantheon to articulate Her many aspects.  Lugh was the god of light, sun and inspiration, a warrior and master of all skills.  Bridget was incorporated as the fire goddess of inspiration, poetry, healing, the arts, smithing, fertility and the harvest.  Her continence was articulated in the ancient way as the triple goddess of maiden, mother and crone.  Her continued importance is felt today in the holy wells and landmarks that bear her name and in the place Brigit holds in the hearts of the Irish people as goddess and saint. [21]

Ancestors were revered in the Celtic world as evidenced by the extensive genealogies kept by the bards.  As with the powerful connection to the land, this connection to one’s ancestors also supported one’s sense of belonging, a term ancestors understood to mean a spiritual as well as blood lineage.   In the Celtic way, they continue to reside in the spiritual Otherworld that exists beyond time and space . . . and also in the here and now.

Although landscape was essential to Celtic life and spiritual practice, the Celts' lives were defined as significantly by their relationships.  The Celts were a tribal people, organized in clans, led by chieftains, living on ancestral lands.  The Clan system functioned within a multilevel class system that defined tribal rights and responsibility based on land and property ownership.  There was a landed aristocracy supported by tenant farmers and slaves.  Nonetheless, all but slaves were members of the tribe, which guaranteed them protection, as well as access to common tribal lands, feasts and a share in the distributions of clan tribute.  There were also no homeless or hungry unless famine made all hungry.  Even slaves had a right to a house and land to cultivate within a system that favored their emancipation.  This was not a caste system, and it was common for a clan member to rise or lower one or two classes in a lifetime based on their effort and fortunes. [22]

Chiefs were elected from the most able members of the clan or fine, an extended family related to a single great grandfather.  The tuatha or tribal king was likewise elected from among clan chiefs, also related by a common ancestor.[23]   The king served ritually as consort to the Goddess, and the fertility of the land was the measure of his success.[24]  His duty was to serve justly with fairness and truth and to protect the tribe.  All clan chiefs served as warriors with their tenants joining as part of their responsibilities as foot soldiers.[25]  In a warrior society, there was much status and honor attributed to the deeds of battle.

The fine had many responsibilities with regard to its members and reciprocally required agreement of all members in decisions that affected them.  The adoption of new members, marriage partners and contracts that affected the clan needed consent.  Similarly, the fine was responsible for the debts and obligations of its members who could not pay.  All clan members contributed to the care of the old and infirm who had no children.[26]

Hospitality remains a core value of the Irish today stemming from its foundation in ancient times.  Vikings brought the concept of private land ownership and a few towns to Ireland between 800 and 1000 AD.  Otherwise, Ireland was decidedly rural with tuatha farms clustered within the greater unsettled tribal commons.  Travelers reaching the end of their day would simply knock on the nearest farmstead, confident of being received with good cheer, food from the cauldron that was never empty, and a bed for the night.  The guest was welcome for as long as he chose to stay.  To be unprepared to entertain the unexpected visitor was cause for great disgrace in ancient Ireland.  Irish historian Seumus MacManus tells us that, ”In the old Irish we find a man reckoned wealthy, not by what he had, but by what he would give.”[27]

On a grander scale, at points where several roads intersected was a public house of hospitality called a bruidean (breen).  This public house was supported by tribute from the local Tuatha kings and its own considerable resources of land to support crops and 100 to 200 each cattle, sheep and pigs.  The bruidean gave protection, food and lodging to all who came to its door at no cost.[28]

Heritage established one’s place in the world, one’s belonging.  To be clan–broken and cast out of the tribe was the worst of punishments.  It left a person shunned, without protection, standing or identity.  Exile, the final punishment, was to be forced to leave Ireland itself.  The Irish are singular in their love for their homeland.  The forced emigration of the 1800s from Ireland gives us countless laments in prose and song for the green hills of home.

One special form of friendship in the Celtic world was that of the anam cara, the soul friend.  This was a relationship of love, friendship and deep belonging to which one could truly open one’s heart, mind and soul.  Here secrets were safe.  This relationship was not primarily for lovers, but most often found between peers and mentors, as its primary quality was of spiritual counselor.[29]

The druids were the spiritual leaders, educators, healers, judges and lawmakers of the Irish tribal system.[30]  The multilevel druidic system trained bards, ovates and druids in schools or colleges of the highest quality.  At the first level of proficiency, the bards were inspired poets responsible for sustaining the extensive oral history of the Irish.  They created extemporaneous poetry for current record and recited over 350 legends, memorable deeds, histories and genealogies from memory.[31]   Ovates were the seerers who, through mastering the use of intuition and trance states, manifested the gifts of prophecy and healing.  At the highest level of training, the druid possessed the compassion and justice afforded by greater experience to make laws, render judgment, and serve as the spiritual and ceremonial leaders of the tribe.[32]  As brehon judges, they administered brehon law, a complex, finely-articulated system of law that was a model for enlightened justice designed to bring restitution to the victim, rather than punishment to the offender.[33]  Under brehon law, the universal practice of hospitality meant that there was virtually no hunger or homelessness.  All trades people and professionals were responsible for the outcome of their work.   Should the outcome of a doctor’s treatment be unsuccessful, the client must be compensated.[34]

Druids underwent a rigorous 20-year training that included many of the shamanic skills common to training spiritual leaders and healers in the indigenous world:  fasting, sleep deprivation, healing, trance states, divination, extended periods of time in nature and ceremony.  The purpose of these practices was to solidify communication with the spirits of nature, the ancestors and spiritual teachers residing on the Otherside.  They also gave the druids mastery of the elements as reported countless times in the ancient texts, such as the Book of the Taking of Ireland, the Lebor Gabála Érinn.[35]

The rights of women were well protected under brehon law, within the scope of the class system, in marked contrast to the chattel status of women on the continent.  Women owned property, which they retained if divorced, received an education and served as warriors, druids, poets, brehons and queens.  As property owners or tribal members, they had a vote in tribal decisions well before the birth of Christ.[36]  In fairness, it must be pointed out at the same time that the female slave did not fair as well.  She was a standard of value for paying tribute or compensation.

Education was held in such high regard that from the earliest days Ireland’s exceptional colleges drew students from all over Europe.  With the conversion to Christianity, Christian clergy replaced the spiritual leadership of the druids, while the roles of poet, bard, brehon, doctor, lawmaker and peacemaker continued as before.  These once druidic colleges became secular, bardic or ecclesiastical monastic schools.  They continued their excellent standard of education until the 1700s, graduating ollaves or professors in many fields.  Education was available to all.[37]

Professions were handed down through families in Ireland.  Thus, there were priestly families, who traditionally produced druids generation after generation.  These families held responsibility for the most sacred of places, which were often on their lands.  As Christianity began its conversion of Ireland, the same families then provided the Christian saints, who lived as the druids had, in the sacred holy places which nourished their spirits.  Monasteries tended to grow up around them as the Golden Age of Ireland took form.

Christianity came gently to the Irish people.[38]  The Celts had a long tradition of the noble sacrifice of a single warrior for the common good.  Therefore, Christ was embraced through his sacrifice and his good works for his people.  The Light of Christ merged with the profound relationship with nature of Celtic spirituality, rather than conquering or defaming nature as in the Roman model.  This is expressed symbolically in the Celtic Cross, which places the cross of Christ within the Circle of Creation.[39]  That relationship remained strong throughout the rise of the monasteries.  Original sin was not doctrine, celibacy was an individual choice, not a requirement of clergy,[40] and women participated in consecrating the sacraments.[41]  

Many Irish Christian monks came from a druidic background and brought with them their cosmology and beliefs.  A deep relationship with nature was characteristic of the Celtic saints, who believed, like their druid ancestors, that knowledge of God lay not with the study of the scriptures, but with God’s creation.[42]  They strove, by living a simple aesthetic life, to become one with that creation and their God.  Through fasting, prayer and strenuous spiritual exercises, they are said to have achieved ecstatic spiritual states and miraculous abilities.  Living in deep harmony with nature, they were often supported by animal friends, who would bring them food or messages and guide their way.  At Glendalough, there is a burraun, a hollow in a rock that catches rainwater.  Legend tells us that this is the place where a deer came each day to provide milk for St. Kevin to feed an orphaned infant.[43]

  Inspired by the devotion of Christian martyrs, but without the persecution and bloody trials that created the continental martyrs, the Irish monks chose the way of Green Martyrdom.  They removed themselves from the succor of the clan for a hermetic life.  Male and female alike, they lived in remote places to devote themselves to their spiritual practices.  Celtic scholar Ester de Waal explains the quality of these practices: “Creedal hymns and litanies celebrate the totality of creation and affirm personal involvement with it, so that God and his universe, plants and animals, men and women, all bound together in the unity of the created order, were a very important part of this heritage.”[44]  Sometimes monks chose to live together in a rough-hewn monastery in the model of Christ and the twelve apostles.  Typically, when numbers grew, a new abbot and twelve monks would set off to create another monastery.  Over time, monasteries grew from a collection of crude huts to a walled village.  Monasteries like St. Brigit’s of Kildare and St. Kevin’s Glendaloch became large communities serving as hospitals and universities to the countryside around them.  The abbot of these monasteries replaced the druid as the religious head of clan culture, while the chief remained the secular head and warlord.  Sometimes in small monasteries, these functions were combined in one hereditary position.  Smiths, bakers, weavers and farmers lived together with the monks within the monastery boundaries.  Householders would participate in monastic life, attending the daily cycle of prayers.[45]      

As civilization in Europe collapsed after the fall of the Roman Empire, European monks and scholars fled to the relative sanctuary of Ireland’s monasteries with their precious manuscripts, both sacred and secular.  The already-thriving Irish monastic scriptoriums became a luminous force where the literature of the Western world was preserved, copied and studied.  Scholarship, devotion and skill combined to produce exquisitely-illustrated illuminated gospel manuscripts.  The Books of Kells and Durrow produced in this Golden Age of saints and scholars are among the great treasures of Celtic art.  With books in hand, Irish saints founded dozens of Celtic Christian monasteries on the continent, restoring both scholarly excellence and spiritual brilliance to Europe.[46]

With the Norman Invasion in 1171, the Cistercian orders, attuned to Rome and its fall and redemption theology, made strong inroads with the Norman settlers.  Slowly we see the high Celtic crosses of Ireland first embellished at the cross/circle connection and eventually losing the circle altogether.  The circle was broken and all manner of sorrows followed for dear Ireland.[47]

Before we move on to that chapter in the story, let’s pause for one more window into the ancient Irish soul.  What were these people like?  A quote from Edmond Champion, an English Jesuit of the late 16th century, gave us this impression of the Irish:

The people are thus inclined; frank, amorous, ireful, sufferable of pains, infinite, very glorious, many sorcerers, excellent horsemen, delighted with wars, great alms-givers, surpassing in hospitality . . . they are sharp-witted lovers of learning, capable of any study where unto they bend themselves, constant on travail, adventurous, intractable, kind-hearted, secret in displeasure.[48]

All in all, a fair enough assessment of the people of Erin.


[1]  Nick Constable, Ancient Ireland (London: Parkgate Press, 1999) 40.

[2]  Barry Raferty, Pagan Celtic Ireland (London: Thames and Hudson, 1994) 10-11.

[3]  Angus Konstam, Historical Atlas of the Celtic World (New York: Checkmark Books, 2001) 21.

[4]  Colin Renfrew, Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987) 10.

[5]  Stephen Oppenheimer, The Origins of the British (London: Constable and Robinson, Ltd, 2007) 31- 49.   

[6]  Ibid., 87-90.

[7]  Ibid., 296. 

[8]  Ibid. 

[9]  Ibid., 132-136.

[10]  John Haywood, Atlas of the Celtic World (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001) 29.

[11]  Sykes, Saxons, Vikings and Celts, 289-290.

            [12]  Bryan Sykes, Saxons, Vikings and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland  (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006) 139.

[13]  Ibid., 142

[14]  Sean Duffy, ed., Macmillan Atlas of Irish History, ed. Sean Duffy (New York: Simon and Schuster Macmillan Co., 1997) 10.

[15]  Marija Gimbutas, The Living Goddesses (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999) 184.

[16]  Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989) xxii - xxiii.

            [17]  Paola Arosio and Diego Meozizi, Stonehenge, stonehenge.html (accessed 04 15, 2010).

            [18]  Midlands-East Tourism, Newgrange . . . a Step Back in Time (Mulllingar, Co. Meath, none), 2.

            [19]  Gimbutas, Language of Goddess, 151.

[20]  Midlands-East, Newgrange, 22.

[21]  Marija Gimbutas, The Living Goddesses (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999) 184.

[22]  P. W. Joyce, A Social History of Ancient Ireland, first edition, Vol. I (London: Dublin University Press, 1903) 155-156.

[23]  Joyce, 166

[24]  Michael Dames, Mythic Ireland, ed. Thames and Hudson (London, 1992) 202.

[25]  Joyce, 91

[26]  Ibid., 166-67

[27]  Seumus MacManus, The Story of the Irish Race, Revised Edition (The Devin - Adare Co., 1921) 288.

[28]  Ibid. 

[29]  John O’Donohue, Anam Cara, a Book of Celtic Wisdom (New York: Harper Perennial,1997) 13-17.

[30]  Daithi O' hOgain, The Sacred Isle: Belief and Religion in Pre-Christian Ireland (Wilton, Co. Cork: The Collins Press, 1999) 72.

[31]  P. W. Joyce, A Social History of Ancient Ireland, first edition, Vol. 1(London: Dublin University Press, 1903) 432-434. 

[32]  O’ hOgain, Sacred Isle, 71-72

[33]  P. W. Joyce,   History of Ireland, Vol 1,  199.

[34]  Ibid., 603.

[35]  P. W. Joyce, A Social History of Ancient Ireland, first edition, Vol. II,   (London: Dublin University Press, 1903) 227-230.

[36]  Seumus MacManus, The Story of the Irish Race, Revised Edition (The Devin-Adare Co., 1921) 151.

[37]  Peter Berresford Ellis, A Brief History of the Druids (New York: Carrol and Graf Publ, 2003) 158 - 161.

[38]  Thomas Cahill, How the irish Saved Civilization (New York: Doubleday, 1995) 151.

[39]  Rev. Marcus Losack, “Pilgrimage to Ireland : June 3 – 17, 2000,” Ce’ile De’, Annemoe, Co, Wicklow, Ireland.

[40]  Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (New York: Doubleday, 1995) 135.

[41]  Ibid., 175.

[42]  Ibid., 133.

[43]  Ester De Waal, Every Earthly Blessing: Rediscovering the Celtic Tradition (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Pub., 1991) 77.

[44]  Ibid., 64.

[45]  Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (New York:  Doubleday, 1995), 151 -157.

[46]  Ibid., __________.

[47]  Nancy Lee-Evans, Personal observations during Pilgrimage to Ireland, June 3, 2000.

[48]  Cahill, 150.


Mary had been a good girl all of her life. She worked hard, made sure that everyone was taken care of and longed for the love that always eluded her, even through a 30-year marriage to a “great guy”.  Since her body was the source of so much pain, she took her awareness elsewhere, living in her mind while being propelled through life by the storm of her emotions.  She was competent, intelligent, and empty.

What does it take to transform such fundamental alienation form Life? How does one come home? 

Transformation requires a fundamental change in worldview and way of life. It is different for everyone because we each are born with a different slate of gifts, challenges and purpose. Yet we each know that the wounds, sabotaging habits or emptiness within that preoccupy us take energy from our creative process and lead to unhappiness. Transcending this is our life’s work. Conscious or unconscious, it is what we all came here to do.

Becoming conscious of this process makes the difference of being tossed haphazardly on the winds of life and actively navigating them. I am not so foolish as to propose that we can control our fate or prevent difficulties or mistakes, but having a process and support system with which to face our challenges makes all the difference in the world. The blessing of transformational work is that as we moves in the direction of greater integration and wholeness each step of the journey is met with greater presence.

In my experience, transformation occurs most consistently and effectively within a comprehensive program of personal development and healing to achieve real core change. It takes continuity and a community to heal; a surrogate family within which one can find acceptance and safety. This is the container for healing where one experiences being loved even if we make mistakes, fail and hurt. It builds faith and compassion.

There are many programs for personal transformation. The best that I have observed or participated in have grounded one’s presence into the physical body. This is really where “home” is, and most of us are truly uncomfortable in our bodies. They establish a sense of community to nurture a sense of belonging; and cultivate spiritual awakening to give meaning and purpose to our lives. There is also a system for engaging the inner world that gives context and space to understand the forces that create and compel you.  

One very valuable system for understanding the process of human development is the chakra system. This 4,000-year-old Hindu system masterfully aligns the physical, mental emotional and spiritual aspects of development in a very coherent and accessible way. This energy system includes a finely articulated understanding of the electromagnetic glue that holds the body mind spirit together, the aura or Human Energy Field (HEF).

HEF has seven levels and chakras that surround and interpenetrate our body, all of its tissues and organs. Each level represents a level of being including the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, will, intuition and our beliefs. All of our experience, feelings, memories and intentions, both good and bad, process through our energy fields. A healthy field creates what we need effortlessly, magnetizing the universe to bring into manifestation what we need. Trauma, injuries, toxins and unhealthy physical, mental and emotional habits interfere with the functioning of the energy field and sometimes remain in our energy fields. The result is disease and disharmony in our relationships. The energy work of clearing and restoring the HEF dramatically enhances the process of healing by removing the energetic blocks and restoring harmony and balance.

It is important to begin the work with the lower chakras. Here we begin the process of building trust and faith, the first chakra task, and that of the first year of life. WE must feel safe in the world in our relationships and in our bodies, Since so few of us had the blessing of a harmonious family of origin, this can be hard work, made mush easier by the presence of a trusted community and teacher. This is the foundation upon which real transformation is built.

Mary didn’t know the first chakra was her greatest challenge when she entered the Anam Cara Program of Spiritual Development and Healing. It would be 3 years before she understood that she had been able to ground only for the sake of someone else. When it came to her own needs and emotions she was gone. She did not know then that tangible, experiential, spiritual connection can only happen when we are grounded. Her first chakra work did let her see the potential of her life and as she learned to ground she began to awakened to the presence of her Spirit in her life.

Following safety, to be is freedom to feel our bodies, our emotions and our sexuality. Abuse and repressive environments strangle creativity and authentic expression. Imagine the bright eyed assertive 2-year-old declaring ”Mine!” “Yes!” and the all powerful “No!”. Mary’s ability to say no was squelched by a rigidly disciplining father. As she became a teenager he found her emerging sexuality threatening, so Mary learned to hide not only her sexuality, but her passion and pleasure. Her work of reclaiming herself taught her that her emotions would not destroy her. Giving them safe conscious expression freed her energy and power.

From the right to feel flows the right to act and the ideas that drive those actions. This is third chakra work that takes us into our self-esteem and power. Who decides what I do? During this phase of her work Mary encountered a serious health challenge. She was forced to make critical decisions for herself and find a support system to help through the most difficult time. She found that she had to understand her needs to heal and that only she could know them. She learned how to listen deeply to herself.

Such work will inevitably lead us to the heart, the fourth chakra. Knowing and communicating our needs is the stuff of intimacy. It may not always be easy or positive, but there is a realness about it that builds connection. By this point she has opened completely to the gift of the love of her classmates as they witnessed and supported her in all the aspects of her life and returned it in equal measure. This great lesson of love becomes the crucible of her life; for God is love and only by knowing to truly love can we become truly human and spiritually alive. Having awakened to the truth held in her body, her emotions and her ability to stand on her own two feet, Mary faced her need for a real love in her marriage.

By now the critical period of Mary’s illness was behind her and she was taking stock of her life. This flowed naturally into the fifth chakra work of speaking one’s truth and she was ready. She had reached a point of understanding that she could no longer accept a “ looks great on the outside, empty on the inside” life or marriage. She did not want to leave her marriage and fought for its life. However, if need be, she could and would make it on her own. From this position of strength she brought her need for intimacy in her relationship to her husband, breaking an uneasy silence of many years. Slowly, things began to change.  

Mary’s intuition, her sixth chakra, was quite developed by this point since work on any chakra effects the others in a cumulative way. Her own growth and healing, as well as the intuitive energy work that is intrinsic to the Anam Cara Program, had fully awakened in her to an active spiritual life. She recognized her calling to be a healer working with sound. As is so often the case, the area of greatest inhibition becomes the doorway to our sacred vocation.

Mary’s rite of passage was attending her dearest friend’s lengthy death. She found that she understood the dying process, using her spiritual awareness and healing skills to ease her friend’s fear of dying. She actively represented her friend’s needs in the family decision making processes, facilitating equity and healing among the discordant family members. She crafted elements of the memorial service that facilitated and eased grief, brought everyone into the process and honored the best of her friend. She knew that her presence was critical to the process, yet held the reins leadership lightly.

Mary’s transformation is the slow miracle. It is a transformation that is lived, step-by-step over a period of years. It endures. Growing through a coherent system of self-awakening, Mary has become a woman of wisdom, substance, presence, confidence and love. She has reclaimed the fullness of her humanity. She has genuine gifts to give the world and is ready to give them.

published in Alaska Wellness, September/October 2007

Alchemy of the Soul

Paula touches her client softly, holding her in a reassuring, energetic embrace of support and love. Cultivating a deep level of safety, she gently encourages her client, Joy, to face the abuse she has avoided for 20 years.  The difference is that this time Joy is not alone in that dark room with her uncle. Paula helps Joy find the words she could not summon up so long ago. Paula encourages Joy to reclaim her body as her own, her voice as her instrument of authority. 
As Paula then helps to restructure Joy’s energy field, chakras torn from the trauma and leading to chronic reproductive system problems are rebuilt. Joy feels a calm, open-hearted centeredness that will leave her more open and confident in her marriage and relationship with men in general.  This is one of many experiences that Paula and Joy have shared in a 3-year journey of healing and self-discovery in the Anam Cara Program.   
The work is the process of Soul Alchemy.  It comes in a thousand forms—a thousand stories reflecting the uniqueness of each soul. While anchored in energy healing, Soul Alchemy is a much broader process that includes the exploration of human consciousness, spiritual awakening, group process, community building and sacred ceremony as the essential ingredients of transformation. 
Through Soul Alchemy, we understand the human consciousness element of the soul on a chakra by chakra basis. Through the first chakra, we explore our heritage, the stories of our ancestors, our initial nine months with our mothers as the first and most important of relationships, and our comfort in our bodies, its rhythms and needs.  Rich territory. The work continues through the remaining seven chakras exploring the stages of development and core aspects of identity and capability held within each.  With awareness comes choice.  Many of our students find their voice and, with it, the empowerment of greater authenticity.
A strong supportive community can create an emotional container in which real change can happen. Soul Alchemy has demonstrated time and again the power of the community to carry its members through.  These relationships become precious, carrying as they do a powerful sense of belonging.
Soul Alchemy takes its potency from a deepening relationship with Spirit.  We are in a constant dialog with Spirit, whether we know it or not.  Through spiritual practices that foster a direct experience of the divine, that dialog becomes conscious and our faith grows.  
All of our experience, feelings, memories and intentions—both good and bad—process through our energy fields.  A healthy field creates what we need effortlessly, magnetizing the universe to bring it into manifestation.  Trauma, injuries, toxins and unhealthy physical, mental and emotional habits interfere with the functioning of the energy field, resulting in disease and disharmony in our relationships.  The energy healing skills developed through Soul Alchemy dramatically enhance the process of healing by removing energetic blocks  and restoring harmony and balance to our body/mind.
Sacred Ceremony is a last key in the chain of Soul Alchemy. Through potent ceremonies such as re-birthing, reclaiming virginity and the medicine wheel, powerful experiences of the divine and healing happen. Lives truly change and souls  are reclaimed.  
These are the ingredients of Soul Alchemy. In Paula’s own words, “This work is my life-line to my soul!”

published in Alaska Wellness, September/October 2006

Pilgrimage as a Tonic

I remember being at Mary’s Church at the medieval monastery at Glendaloch, a national park of extraordinary beauty, lush woodlands, glimmering lakes, verdant meadows and tumbling streams. Mary’s Church lies outside the consecrated grounds of the monastery itself.  It was a women’s sanctuary and a place where those who were not baptized could be buried. Women running from whatever might compel them to leave all that they had ever known could find haven there, with the stillborn babies. The walls of this tiny, now roofless, stone church were of local schist mixed here and there with blood-red quartz.  

Our small group of pilgrims had come to pray with the very tangible spirits of that place for peace and justice.   Sitting on the gravel floor under the roofless sky I felt grief, though none had been with me on arrival.  As the others slowly left, I slumped   against the wall to let the tears come. In time, I found myself rising to step outside into the little graveyard filled with unmarked slabs of slate marking each grave.  As   tears streamed down my face, I found myself stroking the slate grave marker in front of me as the presence of a young woman came into focus.  She was on her knees at my feet, her arms wrapped around my waist as mine were about her.  I stroked her blond hair.  She wept in heartbreak, grief and relief for what she had had experienced, what she had left behind and what she hoped she would find here.  It was a moment out of time that moved me deeply.  I cherish its memory.

In this country, most spiritual seekers have heard of the vision quest as a method of gaining spiritual inspiration and direction. This is a central practice of Native American peoples in which, at a personal crossroads or as a rite of passage, the seeker spends three to four days fasting alone in the wilderness in pursuit of a vision from Spirit. The experience is life defining. 

Perhaps less understood in this country is the practice of spiritual pilgrimage. In many older cultures, pilgrimage has served much the same purpose as a vision quest. A pilgrimage may last for just a few days or extend for months, even years. As with all spiritual quests, it is the purpose that defines the pilgrimage.  Everything that happens—from the people met to the experiences encountered—is understood as a meaningful expression of the pilgrimage’s lessons.  

Pilgrims journey together.  It is a community affair, less about solitude than mutual support and giving witness to each other’s experience. As they settle into the journey, pilgrims reflect on life and become clearer about what is truly important. It is a time apart in which, at its best, a natural rhythm reasserts itself beyond the tensions and strains of personal life. If unhurried, the body unwinds its chronic holdings.  On pilgrimage to sacred places in nature, there are welcome opportunities for fresh air, sun and exercise that allow for the unique energies of one’s changing—and healing—to work on body, mind and emotions. In addition, many sacred sites are renowned for healing, such as Lourdes in France, the Chalice Well in England, and the many wells of Brigit in Ireland.

Sacred places are ‘sacred’ because they are luminal places, where heaven and earth meet.  There is an energy at such places that draws seekers, catalyzing transformation, remembering or visions. The old Celts of Europe called them “thin” places because the veils that separate the human experience from the divine are thinner there. Even today, it is possible to step away from the crowds and well-worn tourist destinations to find these ancient places of living spiritual presence. Indeed, the deeply feminine energies of stone circles, holy wells and ancient monasteries have transformed the world over (moved from end of sentence) lives in an unbroken tradition from the earliest days of honoring the Goddess through the modern era. 

To understand the transformative power of pilgrimage, it is useful to consider the spiritual traditions of the Celts, the ancestors of the modern European peoples. Dana or Danu, the Mother Goddess of the Celtic peoples, was—and is still—known as radiance, shining, brilliance, the water, fire, land, people and all of Creation.  She can be gentle and nurturing or challenging and even hostile.”

This word “dana” has a great synergy of meaning that gives insight into both the Celtic spiritual mind and the relationship between spiritual purpose and the energies of sacred place. besides being the name of the goddess creatrix, It is the Gaelic word for chi or prana, the energy that infuses all of life. There is also a third meaning for dana as expressed in the term “aois dana,” meaning the people of the dana, the gifted ones, healers, harpers, the people of vision. FRANK Mac Eowen in The Mist-Filled Path suggests that these ancient gifted ones are still available to us  and “are ready willing and able to aid, instruct and guide us in becoming…people who are seeking a spiritual way of balance harmony and ecological consciousness.”(1) 

To add to our understanding of dana, we might explore the root word, dan. Its meaning in Old Irish is craft, art, science, skill, or know-how. A later modern Irish meaning of dan is fate or destiny.  And with this, we see the interweaving of the meanings of dan and dana that formed the foundation of a pilgrimage.  A primal transformative spirit (Dana) working with the energies of life (dana), with the assistance and guidance of helper spirits (the dana) is actively rendering support for the fulfilling one’s skill or destiny (dan). These are the energies found in sacred sites that offer such profound opportunities for transformation!
Frank MacEowen, in The Mist –Filled Path, describes, her as “a life affirming goddess … and this complex of energies as a “prime initiator of cellular shifts in consciousness. If we have emotional blocks, encumbrances or limited ego perceptions we need to cast off,  they will facilitate the process, helping us to have more access to our spiritual selves rooted in the soul and soul of the earth.”(2) 

I was visiting Newgrange, the restored megalithic ceremonial cairn in County Meath,   Ireland, for the second time.  Once again I had been into the inner womb-like chamber of this great mother of an earth mound.  The docent’s flashlight mimicked the rising sun’s rays of winter solstice morning penetrating the otherwise lightless chamber for 17 minutes.  In a miracle of 5,000 year old engineering, light illuminated the magnificent 20-ton sandstones that form the walls and ceiling of the cairn, many carved in beautiful spiraling patterns and petroglyphs.   I pressed myself to the stones, melting into them and their ageless stories. Too soon we left the chamber for the sunlight,  before making our way back to the bridge that crosses the River Boyne and the busses.    I  balked at crossing the bridge meant leaving  this precious place and time for an all too ordinary reality. Already the power of Newgrange was reorganizing my energy fields! Dropping down on a park bench, I surrender to the energetic maelstrom.  the transformation took a mere `15 minutes. arising, my head had cleared, my heart aligned, my body centered and my destiny honed. cellular shifts of conscoiusness indeed.

[1]Frank MacEowen, The Spiral of Memory and Belonging: A Celtic Path of Soul and Belonging (Novato,CA: New World Library, 2004) 47
 2 Ibid, 45

published in Alaska Wellness, March/April 2006

Three Essential Viewpoints in Relationships

Real happiness is a good relationship.  Financial woes, illness, and most other hardships can be born if there is love and connection in our lives.   Good relationship need not be a mystery. There are three viewpoints that are present in  every good relationship,  I, You and Us.  Each aspect has unique needs that contribute to a successful, meaningful connection.
The I is the responsibility that we have for our own needs and wellbeing. One of the common patterns I have observed in my practice is that of the Accommodator or Caretaker. The accommodator typically gives ground to meet the other person’s needs and desires .    The assumption there is that, if I take care of you, you will take care of me. However,  the accommodator has often either chosen a self-centered person for a partner or does not make their needs known in the relationship.   They may even say “Well, what about me?”, and become resentful, but not voice this in the relationship. Their partner will be at a loss as to how to satisfy them. Years may go by as the accommodator literally shrinks from sight in the relationship, becoming invisible because, all too often, he or she has lost track of personal needs and boundaries all together.  All the Accomodator knows is   boredom and unhappiness.  It takes courage, to withstand the anxiety of not caretaking, to accept the responsibility of the I in relationship and to earnestly explore and meet one’s own needs.
The You in relationship is our awareness and understanding of the other person. It requires sincere listening, gratitude, and compassion. By listening well and asking thoughtful questions about the other person’s needs and viewpoint, we draw the other out.  One of the great gifts of a good listener is the opportunity it gives the speaker to articulate ideas and feelings that have not been brought to consciousness before.  The second element in the You aspect is honest support for your partner’s needs.  Giving a partner the freedom to be who they truly are one of the most precious gifts of life.
Gratitude and affection are the true grease of a relationship. We all need to know that we are valued and appreciated. Say thank you even for simple every day things. Touch can convey acceptance, appreciation, and support and soften an otherwise difficult communication. Together they keep mutual positive regard strong.
The Us  in relationship is the quality of togetherness   A living relationship needs time and attention to stay vital. In long term relationships, lives may grow separate  over the years and intimacy is lost.   I typically recommend that marriage partners  choose one of their partners interests  to share in  even if it’s not a strong personal interest and  that the couple develop one common interest other than children to share.   It is also valuable to understand your needs for dependence, independence and interdependence. What is the distance at which you can be healthy?   It will change person to person. 
You are the keeper of your heart. Relationship needs an investment of time,  attention and generosity of spirit to thrive, but the rewards are priceless.

published in Alaska Wellness, November/December 2003

Spiritual Integrity

Realize that you and I each will bring an aspect of
this new vision, and that’s what is important.

What is integrity? Is it keeping your word? Speaking your truth? Living your conscience? Taking care of your responsibilities? Integrity is really about wholeness and authenticity.

Each of us knows what is truth to us, yet we do not all hold the same truth. We have all experienced two or more people sharing the same event and reporting very different experiences. Are they lying? Perhaps they are, if there is some underlying motive. But most often, the inevitable differences are created by personal perspectives and world views – or, perhaps, soul views.

We each come into this life with a different purpose; we have different lessons that color the way we perceive the world and our experiences. It is absolutely essential that we live in integrity and truth. But how are we to know what is our truth in a world of so many truths? In this information age, we have access to so many masters in so many places and ages who have shed their light. Surely, they must have the answers. And they have, for their time. Some of it is still relevant today. Our task is to find the way that expresses our personal truth and bring that truth into the world through our life.

There is a tone that runs through the center of each of us, which knows our truth. It sounds unmistakably when we hear or awaken to the truth. Some people might perceive it as an illumination or a resounding tone; others might sense it as recognition, as when you finally remember that name you¹ve been trying to retrieve all night. Emotionally, we feel a quickening of excitement, sometimes with a touch of relief. The point is, the sensation is visceral. You feel it. It is important to know that feeling, because it will bring you home. Defining and refining the truth that is yours is your life’s purpose.

Seek out the great teachings of our time, but do not lose yourself. The importance of even the most renowned spiritual teacher is only in those teachings that resonate for you. Beware of trying to force yourself into a spiritual practice that doesn’t quite fit. It may not be yours. When you discount your inner truth as not as important as someone else’s or unworthy, we all lose. Does that mean you can’t persevere with a new spiritual practice a while to see if your old beliefs and habits are ready to shift? Of course, you can. Take what’s yours and lay the rest back down with respect. It may belong to someone else.

As the pieces of your truth begin to assemble, they will resonate stronger and stronger, drawing others to you. Ultimately, you will find pieces emerging spontaneously from within. This is the most exciting aspect of the journey, for you are now a direct link to the Great Mystery. At this point, you are the teacher of your truth, and its living example. Integrity is essential. It must be impeccable.

We live in extraordinary times. Life as we have known it is fundamentally changing. The institutions and ways of being that we have known are proving to be unable to meet the stress of environmental damage, population growth, social dissolution, war and famine that threaten our well-being and future. We are called by necessity or prophecy to invent a more responsible, humane culture. It is an enormous undertaking with profound consequences, the very contemplation of which is overwhelming.

And yet, each of us has a key. It is the truth – the individual truth that we each carry – that is our contribution. This is not a top down process. No one person has the whole picture. No one has to, for it is not any one person’s task to do alone. Rather, we each hold a thread of the tapestry that we are weaving together to create our collective salvation. You only have to do your piece. So, do it well. We are in this together.

Realize that you and I each will bring an aspect of this new vision, and that’s what is important. I need you and your truth. It inspires me. Perhaps my truth answers yours. So, listen to that tone and respond to it. Let it guide you. It will ultimately lead you to the purpose of your life. The journey is well worth the effort.

Published in Alaska Wellness, May/June 2003

Celtic Spirituality Part 3: Living the Sacred Life

"The three marks of a godly man: to seek knowledge,
to perform justice and to exercise mercy"
             -- Welch Bardic Triad

The Celts understood there was an unseen world that surrounded and interpenetrated everyday life. They lived in unbroken relationship to that world and were enriched by it. The Celts lived simultaneously on multiple levels of being, blending the physical, spiritual and symbolic throughout their activities and culture. People in the traditional Gaelic-speaking Western regions of Ireland and Scotland had prayers for everything they did: for greeting the day, going to bed, milking, looming, cooking, bathing, herding, banking the fire and setting out on a journey. There are countless prayers of protection that usually invoked the power of the elements of Nature or God. The Carmina Gadelica by Alexander Carmichael offers "The sacred Three, to save, to surround, to shield, the hearth, the house, this eve, this night, Oh! this eve, this night, and every night, each single night, Amen." The "three" in this case means the sacred Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit or equally, in earlier Goddess versions, the Maiden, Mother and Crone.

In the Celtic world, all of creation was ensouled, even the earth herself. The interplay of the five elements of earth, air, fire, water and spirit gave rise to each unique rock, tree and well of creation. The element of spirit was perceived as non-human, sentient, etheric beings who populated the landscape as fairies, sprites, leprechauns, elementals and dragons. Each had unique qualities that were respected and honored. Each sacred place in the landscape was linked, and still is, to one of those spirits as well as associated gods and goddesses to the legends of the land, for in Ireland every place is associated with legend. The sacredness of these places was a tangible sanctity that transcended time and space, allowing one to move into direct experience of the divine without the intervention of doctrine or dogma. As spiritual practice was held outside on sacred land, the power of the elements and the spirits of land and legend were an active, vital part of the practice, which enhanced the tangibility of their presence.

Since land was sacred, under Druidic law it could not be bought or sold. Rather, land was held in common by clans or families. Some priestly families held responsibility for the most sacred of places, often on their lands. As Christianity began its conversion of the Celtic world, the same families then provided the Christian saints, who lived as the Druids had, in these sacred holy places. Monasteries were often formed around these sacred places as the spiritual practice shifted focus.

A deep relationship with nature was characteristic of the Celtic saints, who believed, like their Druid ancestors, that knowledge of God lay not with the study of the scriptures, but with God's creation. By living a simple life, they strove to become one with that creation and God. Living in deep harmony with nature, they were often supported by animal friends who would bring them food, guide their way and bring them messages.

For many monks, male and female, life was hermetic. When monks chose to live together, it was in the model of Christ and the twelve apostles as an abbot and twelve monks in a rough-hewn monastery. Typically, when numbers grew, thirteen would set off to create a new monastery. Over time, monasteries grew from a collection of crude huts to a walled village. Monasteries like Kildare and Glendaloch in Ireland were whole communities. The abbot of these monasteries replaced the function of the Druid as religious head of clan culture, while the chief remained secular head and warlord. Smiths, bakers, weavers and farmers lived together with the monks. In addition to being spiritual centers, the monasteries served as hospitals and universities to the surrounding countryside.

Central to Celtic spiritual practice is the cycle of the ceremonial year. It represents the circle of Life and is, in itself, a symbol of creation. The solstices and equinoxes hold the position of the four directions representing the flow of life through the seasons and cycles of the sun. Cross-quarter days held midway between the solstices and the equinoxes are Celtic holy days.

Samain, the feast of the dead, is the beginning of winter and Celtic New Year. It is held traditionally at first frost as a time to honor ancestors and remember the dead. On this night, the King ritually wed the Goddess as a sign of his stewardship and the ongoing fertility of land and harvest.

Imbolc, on February 1, is a time of quickening that holds the promise of spring. Lambs are born in Britain and Ireland; snowdrops peek through the snow, and light has returned in strength and duration. This is Brigit's feast day and a time for honoring mothers.

Beltain celebrated the coming of summer, on May 1. The fertility of the land and people was celebrated by feasting, dancing around the may pole and much lovemaking. Fires throughout the land were extinguished at night to be relit from Druidic ceremonial fires. Stock was driven between the fires for purification before the embers were carried back to the hearths of the people.

Lughassa, held on August 1, celebrated the first fruits of the harvest. It was a time of feasting, games, stories, music and dancing. There were trade fairs where rents were paid, legal matters settled, and work found for the coming year. In acknowledgement of the fruits of the planting and the death that comes with harvest, the festival Corn King was ritually offered to be reborn in the first loaf of bread.

To the Celts, these festivals are not merely dates on a calendar. Rather, they coincide with changes in the land and psyches of the people. In a culture without division between the physical and spiritual, they provided an opportunity for spiritual expression and experience. So important were they that they were transitioned under Christian influence into the holy days of Candlemas (Imbolc); Easter (Beltain); the Ascension of Christ (Lughassa); and All Hallow's Eve and All Saint's Day (Samain).

The continuity of Celtic Spirituality is the source of its strength and relevance today. As we hear the spiritual call of Earth and Creation, we need not give up any foundation we may have in Christianity. Through an earth-centered focus of Celtic Spirituality, we may find ourselves revisiting a forsaken Christianity in a new, less encumbered light. This is the spiritual origin of most of us of European descent. Recalling our roots is a way to bring aspects of our beings that may have seemed destined to alienation back into harmony once again. 

Published in Alaska Wellness, January/February 2002

Celtic Spirituality Part 2: Shamanism

The purpose of these practices is to develop
the ability to perceive and communicate with
spirits of nature and the Divine.

Those familiar with Native American spirituality will find many similarities in the Celtic way, for it is grounded in honoring the Earth, Ancestors and the Spirits of the Land. For the Celts, life sprang from the Earth and was inseparable from her. Fertility of the land and abundance of game and harvest determined the prosperity of the people. In addition, spiritual connection to the land gave meaning and belonging to people. The spirits of one's home and landscape were honored in all ceremonies and called upon for blessing, protection and power. Their presence would guide the ceremony and increase the power and energy.

Honoring the Ancestors

Ancestors were revered in Celtic world as evidenced by the extensive genealogies kept by the bards. As with one's connection to the land, a connection to one's ancestors supported a sense of belonging. Knowing where your ancestors came from can give you a powerful anchor. One recent study revealed that ethnically-specific body rhythms and physical mannerisms were carried into the 5th generation after leaving the "old" country. Our heritage is literally in our bodies, bones and psyches.

The term ancestor includes a spiritual as well as blood lineage, for the spiritual teachers and guides of your spiritual lineage are also your ancestors. They reside in the spiritual Otherworld that exists beyond time and space. In the Celtic way, they live beyond or in the mists. One's relationship with teachers and guides of this realm must be nurtured and developed over time, just like any relationship.

Animal Totems

The shamanic aspects of Celtic spirituality were highly developed, and animal totems and allies were often used. Common totems included the deer, bear, badger, raven, eagle, swan, otter, mouse, boar, cat, horse, wolf, hound, eel and salmon. In Celtic legend, for example, the deer often leads the hero through the mists or into the enchanted forest to an Otherworld encounter. In both Irish and English legend, many seek to catch the Salmon of Wisdom. The one who eats the first bite of salmon becomes endowed with the gifts of poetry, prophecy and shapeshifting.

No totem animal is considered to be greater or lesser than another is, for each has its own gifts, strengths, and lessons to teach. In addition to clan totems, each person also had a totem that was known for their protection, guidance and inspiration. In times of need, a totem animal could be called upon for strength, clarity or courage. With an understanding of the specific characteristics of the various animals, their appearance in physical form or encountered while in dream, vision or trance could be interpreted as a message from Spirit.

The Lorica

One form of protection used in the Celtic world is the lorica. In legend and practice, the Celts called upon the forces of nature in its many diverse forms to serve and enhance themselves. One of the most famous of these is St. Patrick's breastplate:

I rise today
Through the strength of heaven
The light of the sun
The radiance of the moon
Splendor of fire,
Swiftness of wind,
Speed of lightning
Depth of sea
Stability of Earth
Firmness of rock.

You may wish to try using a lorica yourself, for it is a powerful shamanic practice that gathers energy and protection from the forms of nature called forth. You may call upon power animals, angels, ancestors, trees, or guides.

First, sit quietly and center yourself. Focus your intention on invoking strength and protection. Then, set one form of nature in each of the seven direction (these include the four compass points, plus above, below and within yourself). For example, you might say, "Bear before me; moose behind me; wolf to the left of me; badger to the right of me; eagle above me; salmon below me; and the clear light of Spirit within me." Most people feel a greater solidity and groundedness with using the lorica.

Druidic Training & Shapeshifting

The druids were among the highly educated priest class of the Celts who were responsible for an extensive oral history. They also underwent a rigorous 20-year training that included most of the shamanic initiations common to the indigenous world: fasting, sleep deprivation, ritual burial, forms of vision quest and extended periods of time in nature, trance/meditative states and ceremony. The purpose of these practices is to develop the ability to perceive and communicate with spirits of nature and the Divine. Druidic training was based in poetry, healing, prophecy and shapeshifting.

Though a Christian, Saint Patrick clearly had Druidic training. He used his famous shamanic breastplate to create a cloak of invisibility around himself and his eight monks in order to escape capture by an angry king's guard. The guard did not find Patrick, and saw only nine deer slipping away into the forest. There are many similar accounts of shapeshifting in the stories of the Celtic heroes and saints.

The ability to merge with Nature by bringing one's energy into synchronicity with that of the forest or an animal is the essence of shapeshifting. There are many degrees of success. One can merge to the point of being able to feel what it is like to be inside a bear's body. Or, one can be attuned so as to know the instincts and knowledge of the eagle. More masterful still is the ability to align one's energy with another life form so well as to be perceived as that life form. Finally, one could become so adept as to actually take on the physical form of another animal.

The Celtic access to the spiritual realms was through the thin places. These are points of transition where matter melds from one form to another. Thin places include the beach, where land and sea meet; doorways between inside and outside; dawn and dusk; life initiations, such as marriages, onset of puberty, birth and death; and the sacred places of the land where spiritual presence is felt. It was and is believed that it is easier to access Spirit in these times and places.

Shapeshifting Exercise

You might try reaching across the mists to experience a simple form of shapeshifting yourself. Choose a thin place and time to connect with a plant or animal. Bring your awareness to the core of your being and feel your connection to the Earth. Slowly, let awareness expand from your core to include your surroundings.

Now, focus on the plant or animal you have come to know better. Share with it your appreciation for its beauty and presence in your world. With your mind's eye, draw a circle around the perimeter of the plant or animal. With your intention, let your awareness sink into that shape. What do you notice? What is the feeling of this creature? Are you experiencing an emotion or perhaps a flow of energy? What is the experience of this creature's being? Can you feel differences in body structures -- skin, muscle, bone; bark, leaves, wood? Can you communicate with your plant or animal through images, feelings or words? Communication can be very subtle, so be ready to receive what comes in any form.

With practice your experience can become deeper and richer. In time, you can learn to merge yourself with another life form and access its knowledge and wisdom.

Part III of this series will further explore the shamanic elements
of Celtic Spirituality and their incorporation into a creation-based
Christianity that fueled the spiritual light of Europe for 700 years.

Published in Alaska Wellness, November/December 2001

Celtic Spirituality Part 1: In Search of the Goddess

If you are of European descent,
this is the heritage of your ancestors.

Celtic spirituality is the indigenous spiritual tradition of the European people. As such, it has much in common with indigenous cultures throughout the world. What is now known as Celtic spirituality is a three-layered tradition spanning 10,000 years. It began with the original peoples of Europe, Neolithic Goddess worshippers who had an extraordinarily sophisticated spiritual practice. The second layer of the tradition came with the Celtic tribes, who inhabited most of Europe from 500 BC to 500 AD. Because of the strength of the Celtic tradition in the British Isles, Christianity -- the third layer of the tradition -- developed in a very different way than in the rest of Europe. It merged with pre-Christian Celtic spiritually, thus developing a Christianity rooted in creation rather than having dominion over it. The depth of this tradition is what makes Celtic spirituality so accessible. It brings indigenous spirituality, the sacred feminine and Christianity together into a living spiritual practice.

To understand why Celtic traditions are primarily found today in the British Isles, we must understand Roman conquest. The entire northern campaign of the Roman Empire was fought against the Celtic tribes. Rome ultimately conquered most of Europe, applying its policy of replacing defeated cultures with the Roman model. The countries of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and the regions of Cornwall, England, and Brittany, France, retained their Celtic languages, music, customs and spiritual traditions since they were beyond the reach of Roman occupation. This Celtic remnant is representative of the pre-Christian culture of Europe. If you are of European descent, this is the heritage of your ancestors.

The foundation of Celtic Spirituality lies in the Goddess religions of Europe. These were matrilineal traditions whose Creator -- or Creatrix in the feminine -- was the Mother Godess. She has had many names in many places. In the British Isles, she was originally known as Ana, but later became Bridget, a name shared with the Celts throughout Europe.

The Goddess worshippers were a peaceful people whose lives revolved around the rhythms and cycles of nature. Their spiritual practice was expressed by honoring the spirits of the land, plants and animals, as well as Mother Earth. As with most other indigenous traditions, there was no separation between the physical and the spiritual. All life was an emanation from the Mother, and all of one's actions in life were directed to serve or thank Her in some way.

Archeologist Maria Gombutas of Harvard and UCLA describes the Neolithic Goddess worshippers as simple non-hierarchical farming, hunting and gathering people, who had no weapons for war. Their artifacts were food-producing tools and household items. They left simple, voluptuous goddess sculptures that were used as personal fetishes and talismans. The landscape itself was their place of spiritual practice. The evidence of this can be felt today in the sacred landscapes of the British Isles. Labyrinths were etched in stone and carved into the land. Sacred wells, stone circles, trees, groves, lakes, springs, mountains, glens and the sea herself, all were places of prayer, reflection and ceremony. Visits to these places still fills one with feelings of reverence and grace, and are worthy of modern day pilgrimage.

One of the most dramatic places to experience this sacred connection of land and spirit is in the huge megalithic stone structures found throughout central Europe and the British Isles. These great passage tombs, stone circles and stone henges were astronomical and spiritual ceremonial centers constructed of massive 20- to 40-ton stones, sometimes measuring thirty feet in length, as in Stonehenge. The famous sandstones sarsens of Stonehenge align with the midwinter and midsummer solstice sunrise. In addition, twenty three ley lines -- the earth's energetic meridians -- converge in its center.

Passage tombs are great mounds of earth covering a womblike central chamber of large stones entered by a serpentine passage. Newgrange is the renowned passage tomb of Ireland whose otherwise dark central chamber is lit once a year by the dawn of sunlight at Winter Solstice. This tomb is nearly as large as a football field -- and it was built 1000 years before the Great Pyramids of Egypt! While the presence of bones led early archeologists to believe that these were graves, it is clear from the womblike structure that they were in fact ceremonial chambers, much like gigantic sweat lodges into which the bundled bones of ancestors were brought for ceremony and perhaps storage. The astronomical features of these monuments link them to ceremonies honoring the yearly passage of time: the equinoxes, the solstices and the spiritually-powerful midpoints between them, which are the high Celtic holidays of Imbolc, Beltain, Llammas and Samain.

Who were the Celts?

The Celts rode into Europe around 500 BC from Asia Minor and the Russian steppes at the end of a great migration that had originated in the Far East centuries before. The Celts brought with them a warrior culture and cosmology that in time embraced much of the Goddess worshippers culture, including farming and cattle raising. The Celts organized themselves in clans, led by chieftains. Clans were close-knit groupings, with each member responsible for the actions of all other clan members to the level of second cousins. The Celts revered their ancestors as a source of inspiration and guidance; the tales of their exploits -- which fill volumes -- were held as valuable wisdom. Indeed, the Celts had a rich oral culture steeped in poetry, music and legend stewarded by the bards. Their extraordinarily fine gold work style has not been reproduced in modern times.

Celtic traditions did not leave anything behind. Each evolution in spiritual practice brought with it the previous level. Thus, the Goddess and the feminine aspect of divinity were not lost. She remains central to the Celtic world, right into the modern era.

The Celtic cosmology also included male gods. They were part of a pantheon of gods and goddesses who did not so much displace the Goddess as articulate Her many aspects. Lugh was the god of light, sun and inspiration, a warrior. The Green Man was lord of the plant world. Bridget was incorporated as the fire goddess of inspiration, poetry, healing, the arts, smithing, fertility and the harvest. Her continance was further refined as the Triple Goddess -- the maiden, mother and crone. Her continued importance is felt today in the holy wells and landmarks that bear her name and in the places where Bridgit is known in the hearts of the Irish people as goddess and saint.

Although landscape was essential to Celtic life and spiritual practice, the Celts were also defined by their relationships. Kings were elected to ritually serve as consort to the Goddess and the fertility of the land was the measure of his success. Heritage established one's place in the world. Genealogies of the clans were kept by the bards reaching back for millennia. One special form of friendship in the Celtic world was that of the anam cara, the soul friend. This was a relationship of love, friendship and deep belonging to which one could truly open one's heart, mind and soul. Here secrets were safe. It was a relationship not just for lovers, but equally for peers, students and mentors, as well as spiritual counselors.

As the masters of this oral tradition, the bards underwent a rigorous 20-year training that included most of the shamanic initiations common to the indigenous world. Because the bardic lineage was largely unbroken in historic times, a great body of Celtic oral history and legend was recorded. Drawing on a familiarity with indigenous practices, it is possible to glean an understanding of the highly shamanic nature that Celtic spirituality held in this era.

In the second article of this three-part series, we will more deeply
explore the shamanic elements of Celtic spirituality.

Published in Alaska Wellness, September/October 2001

Guidance: The Presence of Spirit in our Lives

We are never alone.
We all have guides.
Many of them are angels.

Spiritual guidance is one of the more mysterious topics in the world of healing. This is because we live in a culture that is grounded in the scientific method. As a society, we learn to disregard information that does not come from a concrete, physical source. Yet, spiritual guidance has been part of the human experience for millennia. It is the inspiration for countless profound moments in history. While we may not be witness to a burning bush that speaks with the voice of God, or be inspired to write the Declaration of Independence, we can develop our own personal relationship with Spirit that will enrich our life and sooth our soul. This is our birthright.

We are never alone. We all have guides. Many of them are angels. Most of us have heard of the guardian angels that protect children as they sleep. Actually, the scope of service provided by angels is much larger. Personal guardian angels (most people have several) are available to assist us in achieving our life's purpose. They can provide help in endless material and immaterial ways. The trick is, they are bound to respect our free will. They cannot interfere with our life, no matter how miserable we have made it, unless we ask. If we are unconscious about guidance in our life, our angels may spend a lot of time sitting around reading comic books. With an actual request for help, however, they can really go to town.

Prayer is a form of request. That's why it is so effective. It doesn't matter who it's directed to; since angels answer God's prayers, it only matters that we ask. We may also call angels to assist us with special problems such as getting home safely on icy roads or finding something. It is important to know that we can make our urgency known in an authoritative way for a just purpose. In those panic stricken moments when one's child is suddenly out of sight in a potentially unsafe situation, we might say, "I need help and I need help right now! Send ten angels to surround my child and keep her safe. Lead me to her now!" This has always worked for me, with my little one found calm and happy. There are legions of angels waiting to be requested for service and we have the right to call on them.

Guides or spiritual helpers can present themselves in many forms. Angels are common. They bring with them a high clear energy and devotion to human service. Power animals represent a more earth-connected form of helper that can provide very sophisticated information and support. The natural strengths and habits of the animal are also available to be called on -- the vision and speed of the falcon, courage of the bear, or gentleness and grace of the deer. Spiritual teachers such as Jesus, Buddha or Mary can be called on for guidance. Sometimes ancestors or previously incarnated souls that have had particular skills in an area that we are developing may inspire us. All are the voice of Spirit. The relationship is ours to develop.

In my classes, I love to invoke the student's guides so that they can feel and experience some kind of contact with their spiritual helper. Sometimes we will request the guides to move one place to the left, so that we can feel how different someone else's guide feels. This helps to establish a sense of reality about the presence of guides.

Besides protection, many of us desire an active relationship with our guides in which we can ask for specific direction and guidance. Should I get married? Go to graduate school? Take this class? What is the source of this pain? How can I support the healing of this disease? Any question can be posed to our spiritual helpers, although inquiries about future outcomes can only reflect potential resolutions based on the energy of this moment. Free will can always be exercised to make new choices; new choices produce new outcomes.

The response to our questions can come in a myriad of forms depending on our individual gifts. Information will come through the channel that is most open. For example, sometimes guidance comes through the physical pain. When all else fails, pain will get our attention. It demands attention. Pain is our body's port of last resort. Many times I have treated people for pain and uncovered the deep emotional and spiritual issues that were held by the pain. It is wise not to ignore pain, for the next step is disease.

Emotions are present to inform us about our experience. Hatred lets us know that something is toxic for us, and we need to get away or set boundaries around it. Envy informs us that there is something that we want to create in our lives. We don't need to take it away from someone else. We simply need to create an expression of that vibration in our lives. Disappointment and betrayal tell us that something is about to end or change. Longing calls us to our life's purpose or the next step of our path. If we are present for our emotions and attune to their messages, we are following guidance.

Intuition is that vague feeling about where we should go and what we should do. It is quiet and often overlooked, yet is linked to the instincts that can save our lives. It requires attention and respect. Most of us are aware of the ways that subtle senses are utilized to receive guidance. We may hear a song fragment, a poem, a sound or a quiet voice respond to our prayer or question. How do we know that this voice is guidance and not our egos? Guides are never critical, nor will they put us down or advise us to hurt someone else. A simple litmus test is whether following the guidance makes our life better. If not, it's our inner critic, not our inner guide. The bottom line is that if we are not comfortable with the guidance we get, we always have the option to say goodbye and ask for a different guide.

Spirit communicates in symbols. If we develop an awareness of personal and archetypal symbols, including (for example) the meaning of colors, shapes and numbers, these symbols may become a mutual language between us and our guides. For those with subtle vision, information can come in both literal and symbolic forms. It is common for people to see colors and images. For some, a whole movie-like scene will unfold. A careful study of the image can reveal the message. Remember that one's personal interpretation of a symbol takes precedence over someone else's. In receiving guidance, our own experiences are our foundation.

A relationship with one's guides can be a source of comfort, peace and understanding. The opening that can develop with practice brings with it a wonderful sweetness and sense of rightful belonging, even companionship. With patience, it will become the work of a lifetime.

Published in Alaska Wellness, January/February 2001.