‘The Pre-Christian Belief System in Ireland’

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On 9 October 2012, the Centre was pleased to welcome Edel Bhreathnach (University College Dublin), who discussed ‘The pre-Christian Belief System in Ireland’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Edel drew upon archaeological and literary sources to present a vivid picture of the pre-Christian belief system in early-medieval Ireland. When introduced to early Ireland, Christianity soon became the dominant force in society, with a new language and ideology changing the ritual of the ‘sacred, the cosmological and the commonplace’. Many attempts to discover what existed before this dominance have been strongly based around a Christian framework, with only very vague notions of gods and druids.

Religions differ in many details but it has been argued that there are some essential truths in the wider context. A need for religion is often a response to social interaction, with ritual associated with events like birth, death, weddings or even the desire for a bountiful harvest. Religion can also be subdivided into ‘abstract theoretical’ (conception of a creator god) and the ‘popular intuitive’ (daily domestic life).

This wider religious context is important as much of Edel’s lecture focused on a co-existence between paganism and Christianity and there were also several examples of Christianity working with a pre-made pagan (or universal) framework.

An example of this was the rite of passage of birth and re-birth. St. Patrick was famed for his mass baptisms which initiated an individual into the church. These baptisms would have been memorable pageantry that appealed to the senses, perhaps long dulled by habitual pagan ritual. Pre-Christian rituals are evidenced in holy wells, later often used for Christian baptism. An example is a well at the source of the Boyne which had heavy mythological significance. It was said that whoever drank from the well gained the power of divination and the legendary Fionn mac Cumhaill obtained this ability by doing so. A spring in the west of Ireland, visited by St. Patrick, was worshipped like a god hitherto his visit. Another example is a spring/well in Limerick with a deliberate deposit of a human skull and surrounded by animal bones and hazelnuts. The latter are found all across sites like this in Ireland and Edel pointed towards them harbouring seemingly magical properties.

Another pre-Christian belief was the ‘protective rite’, in which a druid would ward against every evil (symbolised by a wolf) by drawing magic circles around a child. Again showing possible continuation in Christianity, these incantations were relatively similar to St. Patrick’s protection rite, such as ‘…it is a breastplate of faith…it will be a breastplate for his soul after death’.

The transition from child-adolescent-adult was another important rite of passage. For women, this could be a very public proclamation of their new fertility upon their first menstruation. For men, the transition from boy-man was seen as a death of the first natural life and a rebirth into a life of knowledge.

There were other rites of passage in pre-Christian belief, such as the process of being named and the event of death. Regarding the latter, there were many shrines and monuments in the pre-historic landscape and genealogies/ancestral groves were considered extremely important. In the 5th/6th centuries, females were buried in old ancestral groves, perhaps to emphasise the continued legitimisation of a territory. In a Bronze Age enclosure, a male skeleton was uncovered buried with an antler thyme, which was a probable kin heirloom.

Overall, Edel emphasised that although Christianity was the dominant force once it was widely accepted in Ireland, it did not wipe out these earlier beliefs.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Our seminar series continues next Tuesday 16th October, with the second of our ‘Vox Populi’ lectures. Steven Reid will discuss ‘What Andrew Melville Really Thought of James VI: Popular Sovereignty and the Role of the Magistrate in Early Jacobean Scotland’. 

Please note the change in venue for this seminar, it will be held at 5.30pm in Room 412 of the Boyd Orr Building. All welcome!

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