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.