Story Of the Story Week 3

Briefing Note 7

About Celtic Christianity

We have looked in earlier Briefing Notes at the particular circumstances of the “conversion” of the Irish and the important fact that Patrick did not have the Roman Army to back him as was the case in the rest of Europe. We also explored how he did not have recourse to the Greco Roman style of rhetoric with its form of ‘argumentation’ and logic. In short, he had to work with the existing cultural stories to find a way to relate to the indigenous population.

It is no surprise then that what emerged was a very different entity from the Romanised Christianity. It was a Christianity imbued with much of the Irish cultural forms, practices and indeed stories. It was a creative coming together of a “hybrid” form of religious practice. This form is now called Celtic Christianity. Such are its characteristics that it is of considerable appeal to many in modernity who have become disillusioned with the established church. 

The Irish Christianity, then, was probably the first non-Romanised Christianity to develop in history. It emerged in part because of Ireland’s remoteness. And this distance from the ‘centre’ was to remain important. For centuries after the fall of Rome, in the late 5th century, the Roman Church had little influence on the development of the Irish Church.  Ireland was too far away and too small to matter. So let us look in more detail at this ‘hybrid’ religion, and indeed world view and belief system. 

This was a Church not worried about the eradication of the native culture and ways.  Indeed had it been it would have been in no position to do anything about them anyway. The long established relationship of the people with time and place was not to change. The festivals of the Ancient Irish such as Imbolg, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain continued to be celebrated and in some cases became woven into the Christian year.  The 1st of February was a pre Celtic festival but became associated with Brigid.  She in turn was both goddess and then saint.

The emergent Celtic Christianity effectively wove together many of the characteristic ways of being and thinking central to the Ancient Irish.  See table below for a comparison of many of the differences.  Most notably the style of persuasion of the Irish as we have seen, was more based on poetry and story. It was an oral form.  The Roman was more prose and a written style.  The Celtic style was rooted in narrative, the Roman more in reasoned argument.  The Celtic would build on emotional bonds whereas the Roman focused on a rational connection.

Of particular interest to the modern world is a number of salient features of Celtic Christianity.  Most important is the fundamentally different relationship of the religion to the land, to the earth.  For the Celts, (as for the American Indians) the concept of the ownership of land was completely alien.  The land was a ‘commons’, owned by everyone used by everyone. Perhaps more accurately the land owns them.  The Old Testament/Genesis attitude to land, ‘dominion over’ did not take hold. The Pre Christian Irish revered and respected the land as equals. They saw the natural world as a source of wisdom, sustenance and an equal, 

Not disconnected with this thinking is the idea of separations between religion and life, between priest and people, between god and man so characteristic of the Christian belief system.  For the Ancient Irish the divine was everywhere, the priest was of the people and theirs was an imminent god not a transcendent one.  In addition and from a gendered point of view women were very much part of the Church.  Their culture had been a “goddess” culture. One of the most prominent figures, Brigit, was an Abbess.  They still had the idea of the “goddesses” and archetypal figures such Macha, the Morrigan. All this would have infuriated the. patriarchal views of the Roman Church. 

In many ways Celtic Christianity, then, is a weaving together of the Pre Christian ways of the Irish with the stories and legends of the Christian world, but with a focus on those that suited them.  Indigenous cultures tend to be very confident in their compendium of stories and will only embrace the new when a new story fits their cultural frames of reference.  Those that don’t, they either ignore or it simply passes over their heads. Thisparticular form of Christianity, Celtic Christianity flourished in Ireland for centuries.  And in modernity it represents, for many, a compelling form of worship that addresses many of the concerns with established religions.

Particularly appealing aspects of Celtic Christianity are the environmental dimension of this church, the inspiration and respect of the natural world, the distributed power organisation which gives primary importanceto the local, the gendered dimension and the role of women in the church. Also fundamental are the non-separation of the divine with human life, the immanent rather than transcendent god(s), and the affirmative attitude to humans. The table below pulls together some of the characteristic 

In the next briefing note we will look at the influence of the Irish in the 5th to 10th centuries and explore the assertion that the Irish ‘saved civilization’ (see Thomas Cahill’s book).

  Archaic ManMedieval IrelandWestern Man
TimeRevolt Against Historical TimeMythical superlative Historian Linear view of progress through time
HumanityValorisation of human existence Values of the ‘non chosen’Christian view of man as sinful
CosmosCosmos and society periodically regeneration Circular view of time annually reviewedContinual progress
ExemplarsExemplar models archetypal paradigms Archetypal figures in myths as exemplarsGod/Jesus as the exemplar
Parts / WholeElements are part of a coherent whole Objects/Place as meaning – DindsenchasBinary / Cartesian thought
Meaning MakingObjects/Act acquires meaning by participation No separation of objects/ nature (Myth)Objective pragmatic
CentreSymbolism of the CentreFifth Province as Sacred Centre Political power as control
JourneyRead to Centre difficultOn going challenge – civil wars and fifths Obedience/ following rules and authority
MythMyth/Ritual togetherMyths regularly shared at community ritualsMyth as lie / ‘disease of mind’ and Christian Myth/Ritual
TraditionValue of Traditional cultural forms and practicesConstant repetition of mythic themesRespect tradition but to reinforce hierarchy and current power

Briefing Note 8

Ireland’s huge influence in Europe – 6th – 10th centuries

There is a story of the story that achieved National Bestseller status in the US. It is Thomas Cahill’s book “How the Irish Saved Civilization”.  The central argument of the book is that the Irish before Patrick were a violent people who practised human sacrifice and slavery.  The Gods they worshipped were carnivorous and bloodthirsty and the Druids practiced evil craft and power.  Christianity and St Patrick offered a superior moral frame of reference which the Irish adopted. 

Cahill points out then how the Irish also embraced writing, their monasteries becoming serious producers of books, manuscripts.  The monastic centres in Ireland became centres of education and learning attracting many students from Britain and Europe.  The material copied included Christian texts, the indigenous ‘oral’ stories and myths in the vernacular and also the great texts of the classical world.

Under the inspiration of leaders like Colmcille and the way of the ‘white martyr’ many of the scholarly monks took the path of exile.  They spread out throughout Europe, bringing their books, re-established literacy in the Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire.  As Cahill puts it “they reestablished literacy and breathed new life into the exhausted literary culture of Europe …. And that is how the Irish saved civilization”.

What is emerging from the first two Bard “Story of the Stories” is a different narrative, a different ‘story of the story” at least concerning Cahill’s portrayal of the Irish. This ‘story’ does raise a lot more questions than answers but it does offer an alternate potential explanation of how the Irish people evolved over the centuries.  Let us retrace some of the steps.

In week one of the Bardic Tradition: the story of the Stories we looked at the Lebor Gabála Érenn (LGE), the Book of Invasions.  This text is very important because it tells the Irish ‘in the beginning’ story.  We looked at how the Native Indigenous Tradition of the stories of Cesair through to the Tuatha de Danann was ‘cut off at the stem’ by the compiler of the text and placed in the Universal Myth or Origin based in the Old Testament. We then looked at the content of the Native and the Universal and found two fundamentally different mythologies: one essentially feminine, matriarchal and goddess based and the other more masculine, patriarchal with a single god who was from the start judgemental and primitive and of a sinful humanity. This native tradition, shamanic and goddess did not feel overtly violent! 

In recent Bard Mythologies Program we did oral tellings of the Hebrew Myth as outlined in Genesis I-XI and held this together with some of the Stores from LGE. The feedback was that the Hebrew God as portrayed was considerably more violent than the Celtic Gods (Daghda, Lugh and Ogma).  After all he is intent on wiping out all of humanity! Except, that is, Noah and those selected for the Ark. Why? Because humanity is ‘evil’ and ‘wicked’.  The differences between the two mythologies are stark. They were laid out in a table (Briefing Note 3).

Cahill’s book presents Patrick as transforming the violent, human sacrificing, warrior people.  The text Accalamna Senorach, which we told at the Event presents a very different story of the relationship of two spokespeople for the Christian and Pagan worlds.  At the encounter of Patrick and Caoilte, “Victory and blessing wait thee, Caoilte, for the future of thy stories and thyself are dear to us ….. a good story it is that thou has told us there, and where is Brogan the scribe?… here holy cleric be that tale written by thee” (see Zimmerman – the Irish Storyteller p 38).

It seems very possible that the attitude of Patrick to the Native Tradition was far more favourable than hostile.  And the exploration of the two styles of rhetoric at Event 2 of the SoS program pointed to the likelihood that Patrick’s style of persuasion was much more based on the Native Story/identification approach than the Greco-Roman argument based rhetoric.  It seems likely the Irish would have had little time or connection with the mythology of the Old Testament.

Moving on to another important influence which is the figure of Brigit.  She was both goddess in the pre-Christian world and Saint in the Christian.  In a recent presentation from Theologian, Mary Condren, the difference between Brigid and Christian worldview was clearly delineated.  Mary spoke to a Compassion (Mercy) based theology in contrast to a Sacrifice (Guilt) based theology.  (See table at the end for differences). Also we suggest listening to the Mary Condren Mythic Minds evening on the Bard WebSite.

Building on this insight we potentially have an important explanation of the reason for the success of the Irish inin Europe during those centuries following the fall of Rome.  The Cahill explanation is built on the mission of the scholarly monks accompanied by their Manuscripts.  An alternative explanation for the successes can be built by looking at a fundamental Ritual at the core of Christian practice. In particular, the Irish developed a form of confession that was entirely a private affair between penitent and priest.  In the Roman Catholic church confession was a public matter, a sin against the church to be displayed in the public domain.  In practice what this meant was a public shaming of the sinner which if committed again meant excommunication and damnation.  On the other hand the Irish confession was more based on the Brigidine Compassion/Mercy than the Roman Guilt/Sacrifice.  What we learn is that this more ‘compassion/mercy’ based ritual was very well received by the peoples of Europe.   

They were other characteristics of the approach of Brigid that were significant.  She did not follow the political structure of Christianity that was based on the urban Roman administration, the diocese and the bishop.  Hers was a more local decentralised community based approach.  And furthermore not a bishop (male) but an abbess(female) would also have been a source of contention.

A further Briefing Note will address the enormous role of white martyrdom (as distinct from red/bloody and green (hermit) martyrdom) and the very significant place of figures such as Colmcille and Columbanus.  What they did in creating monastic centres throughout Europe was an extremely significant

contribution to a European culture struggling with a “dark age”. 

For now we are left with a hypotheses.  It is that the main reason for the success of the Irish was less to do with writing, texts and more to do with the different styles of persuasion, more story/identification based than argument/logic based.  Their connection was invariably with the ordinary people than those in power.  Their ritual of the confession more based on identification than shame.  It was a bottom up, community based transformation built on story and the word/book, built on a creative weaving together of Irish/Hebrew/Classical insight and learning and particularly on a very different experience of the ritual of confession. It was compassion that was so effective at connecting with ordinary people.

See “The Dew of Mercy or the Blood of Sacrifice: The Choice facing Human Civilization” Mary Condren.

Sacrifice and Mercy – Understanding Brigid’s World view

THE SACRIFICE (Guilt)PATTERN-the Christian ImaginaryTHE COMPASSION (Mercy)PATTERNthe Goddess (Brigit) Imaginary
COMMUNITY First there is a community, the collective ‘we’COMMUNITYFirst there is a community,the collective ‘we’’
POLLUTION/FALL The individual’s sense that he/she is in some way cast out and excluded through some fault/sin for which he/she must atone.SEPARATION The individual has a sense that he/she is in some way separated perhaps because of illness, misfortune or poverty.
SACRIFICE There is an act of sacrifice through which the individual atones for their misdeed.  Something is offered.COMPASSION/MERCY There is an experience of compassion, (the welcoming cloak) through which he/she feels included, accepted, loved.
RITUAL The ritual transforms the sacrificial offering into something holy and therefore supernatural.RITUAL The ritual is one of re-entry, return, e.g. Prodigal son.  The experience one of joy and love.
SACRAMENT The sacrifice becomes a sacrament, something offered from the altar to the very person whose gift it is.SACRAMENT The sacrament is celebratory, particularly of women, creativity, cooperation and prosperity/abundance in a context of renewal. 
ARCHETYPE Yahweh, the all powerful strong manEve, Jezebel, (Old Testament) ARCHETYPE Brigit (Celtic), Demeter (Greek) 


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