Creideamh (Religion)

Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh

Feis Shamhna - the festival of Samhain. The Meascán Méabha, Cnoc na Riabh, Contae Shligigh, Éire

Feis Shamhna – the festival of Samhain. The Meascán Méabha, Cnoc na Riabh, Contae Shligigh, Éire (Íomhá: © Seán Monaghan, http://www.atasteof-ireland.com)

A pale yellow sun has sunk below the grey horizon here in Baile Átha Cliath and the Feis Shamhna is upon us, the sunset-to-sunrise festival of Samhain which marks the start of the winter in the ancient Celtic calendars of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man (and probably the rest of the Celtic world too). The event gives us the Christianized All Saints’ Day or All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween) and is popularised as the Celtic New Year in contemporary culture. Whether that was also the original meaning is much debated though certainly Samhain was one of the four great quarter-festivals of the Gaelic year, alongside Imbolg, Bealtaine and Lúghnasa (or Lúnasa), and one of the two dividing points on the calendar between the winter and summer halves of the year (the other being Bealtaine in May).

Importantly, compared to all the other seasonal celebrations, Samhain was the supernatural festival par excellence. This was the time when the barriers between the two worlds that made up the Celtic cosmos, that of gods and men, were lowered. Though the preternatural could intrude into the natural at any time it was at Samhain that it was most often encountered and around which the most Otherworldly tales clustered. In purely practical terms of course, as the commencement of the winter season, it was also the period when communities battened down the hatches and prepared to wait out the increasingly dark and dismal days ahead. Cattle and other valuable livestock were brought down from their hillside pastures and placed in pens or fields closer to home. Winter grazing foods, such as mast, were gathered along with berries and fruits. Fences and ditches were repaired, roads and trackways cleared, roofs and walls refurbished. Warfare came to a halt for several months (theoretically at least) and people tended to stay close to their homesteads and fortresses foregoing travel.

Not only did Samhain symbolise the start of the winter it was also the setting of the last major market-festivals until Imblog in February, a final opportunity to exchange or purchase goods, including harvest surpluses for those lucky enough to have produced them. This facilitated great communal festivities across Ireland and the Gaelic nations between kings and their people where loyalties were renewed and legal disputes settled or placed into arbitration. From these and many other traditions we get the Feis Shamhna and a legacy that remains one of the Gaelic peoples’ greatest contributions to popular Western culture.

Below are a series of articles on the indigenous literatures of the peoples of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, focusing primarily on the Irish tradition.

Tuatha Dé Danann

Na Fomhóraigh

Lucharacháin

An Sí

Na Fathaigh

Na Bocánaigh, Na Bánánaigh

Na Púcaí

Na Péisteanna

Na Murúcha

Seanchas Agus Litríocht na nGael

Na Fianna

An Gal Gréine

About these ads

The Fatal Strain: Cultism

Leila Ida Nerissa Bathurst Waddell, one of Aleister Crowley's "Scarlet Women", c.1913

Leila Ida Nerissa Bathurst Waddell, one of Aleister Crowley’s “Scarlet Women”, c.1913

I’ve always been interested in clandestine military, political or religious groups, be they revolutionary movements, secret societies or arcane cults. Growing up in Ireland one is imbued in a culture where such organisations are integral to the social history of the nation, at least from the 18th century onwards (and arguably much earlier if one were to reach back to the era of the promiscuously exuberant Fianna of Medieval Ireland and Scotland). I was raised in a country where the Buachaillí Bána and the Irish Republican Brotherhood were part and parcel of the education syllabus and the Orange Order and Apprentice Boys part and parcel of the nightly news. How could one escape a fascination for the esoteric in such a milieu?

Even the more outrageous cults hold an interest for me, especially the practitioners of early 1900s “magick”. The kinks in human psychology that led the likes of W.B. Yeats to fall for the allure of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or allowed Aleister Crowley to get away with his deviant shenanigans are intriguing. When I was younger I used to read the Fortean Times for fun and I still recommend it, especially when it’s at its most humorously cynical. I suppose that is why I am also prone to the literary and artistic genres of Fantasy and Science-Fiction (though the former also owes an awful lot to growing up with the tales of the Aos Sí – as indeed does J.R.R. Tolkien). One of my favourite Science-Fiction books is Frank Herbert’s seminal Dune and there is plenty there to wet one’s cultic appetite, from the Bene Gesserit to the Fremen. Herbert wasn’t the first author to posit the society of the “witches” but he was certainly one of the more imaginative and convincing (I’ll diplomatically gloss over Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, unashamed literary jackdaw that he was – and I won’t mention Terry Brooks!).

All of which rambling serves as an introduction to this article by Jeff Sharlet on the secularist website Killing the Buddha investigating a highly secretive Christian-based society in the United States known simply as the Fellowship. If you have any interest in religion, cults and the power of the Evangelical Right in regions of the US I highly recommend a read.

An Creideamh Sí

Tuatha De Danann - Carn T, Cairn Loch Craobh, Sliabh na Cailli, Loch Craobh, An Mhi, Cúige Laighean, Eire

Tuatha Dé Danann – Carn T, Cairn Loch Craobh, Sliabh na Caillí, Loch Craobh, An Mhí, Cúige Laighean, Éire (Íomhá: Séamas Ó Sionnaigh 2009)

Militant atheist and secularist though I am I still respect religious beliefs as a vital component to the cultural heritage and identity of countless peoples and nations around the globe. Far too often non-believers find it necessary to denigrate the practices of faith adhered to by believers. This is simply a form philistine atheism. There is a beauty and an integrity to religious traditions that one should cherish. They form part of the greater whole of Human civilization which belongs to and enriches the lives and intellects of us all.

In an Irish context, despite my antipathy to the Christian faiths, I still enjoy the architectural beauty of many church buildings or admire the devotion of those who make the long walk up Sliabh Mis or suffer the purgatory travails of Loch Dearg. Why on earth would one belittle such customs or such experiences? Are they any less valid than the desire of those who follow their own traditions by pilgrimaging to some far away destination, be it an Ibiza club or a New York department store? We each of us seek our own form of solace, be it spiritual, social or retail.

Such is the human condition.

Therefore I embrace the traditions of my pre-Christian Celtic ancestors as much as I can – or as much as one can given the limitations of the sources of information available. When asked my religion I have always replied none. When pressed by those who insist that something must have come before nothing I reply that my faith is that of the Fiannaíocht. I could, I suppose, just as easily have stated that my faith is the Creidheamh Sí, a more recent label for a many-faceted thing. In any case tradition, more than belief, is what I respect. Unfortunately in this shallow and venal dystopian republic of ours believing in anything Irish, anything of Ireland, is frowned upon. Or ridiculed. Unless it comes from the mouth and pen of a poet. And even he or she must, perforce, toe the official line: such things are of our past, not of our present or future. Some argue that the great concrete furrow that scars the many-hedged fields and woods around Teamhair na Rí, spouting modernity and fumes, was a test for we contemporary Gaels. If so it was a test we failed.

In any case, via Kathryn Nic Dhàna, the folklorist and ethnologist Dr. Jenny Butler discusses the living tradition of the Creideamh Sí below.

Fionn And The Man In The Tree

Fionn mac Cumhaill: "Finn heard far off the first notes of the fairy harp" (Íomhá: Stephen Reid, 1910)

Fionn mac Cumhaill: “Finn heard far off the first notes of the fairy harp” (Íomhá: Stephen Reid, 1910)

One of the more mysterious mentions of the legendary hunter-warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill in the indigenous literatures of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man is “Finn and the Man in the Tree”, a short 8th century Old Irish text containing several Latin words or phrases. It is found in the Seanchas Mhór, an important compendium of Medieval Irish law tracts, where it is used to illustrate the divinatory practice of iomas forosna (“illuminating knowledge”). The first part of the story explains how Fionn acquired this ability by catching a finger in the door of a Sí or Otherworld residence (alternative origins for the skill exist in other texts). The second half shows Fionn using this preternatural skill to identify an exiled member of the fianna, Dearg Corra, who is discovered sitting in a tree with three animal companions nearby, a blackbird, a stag and a bowl-bound trout. In a study for the e-Keltoi journal William Sayers argues that the literary motifs used in the tale refer to an Irish and Celtic division of the universe into three parts or worlds. He describes this as a:

“…tripartite cosmos that is also represented symbolically in the blackbird, stag, and trout.

Although the evidence is allusive and never as explicit as a statement of preserved prior belief, durable sets of motifs and far-reaching homological correspondences among these sets suggest an archaic Celtic conception of an equilibrated tripartite cosmos comprising 1) the sky or heavens, 2) the earth’s surface, the human world, and 3) the underearth and undersea. Christian theology, with its linear, rather than cyclic, time, and hierarchy of heaven above and hell below, modified the pagan worldview in both subtle and far-reaching ways and the synthesis as we meet it in the learned and narrative Irish texts of the early Middle Ages is distinctive. The two spatial co-ordinates—vertical and horizontal—organize cosmological motifs in early Irish literature: “vertical” but not necessarily hierarchized triadic sets and their “horizontal” extensions through homological correspondences that may vary in scalar terms. We may imagine a grid with such groupings as 1) elemental dimensions (heaven; earth’s surface; underearth and undersea); 2) social estate (kings, priests, lawmen, poets, historians; warriors; hospitallers, cultivators, herdsmen, hunters); 3) body parts (head, eyes, faculty of speech; arms, upper torso; lower torso, legs); 4) royal sins (injustice, sacrilege; cowardice, misuse of military force; economic extortion, sexual abuse); 5) punishments (hanging; wounding with weapons; pits, prisons); 6) colors (white; red; blue/green/black); and so on.

Three understudied reflections of the tripartite cosmos and its homological extensions that may be reviewed prior to a reconsideration of “the man in the tree” are water-fowl in early Irish narrative, the incantatory human stance called corrguinecht, and standing stones, sacred trees, and other expressions of the axis mundi. Water fowl often occur in the run-up to the central action of several Irish tales. They are elusive, when hunted by Cú Chulainn and his fellow Ulstermen in Serglige Con Culainn (The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn), or tauntingly joined by chains of red gold as they fly overhead. Such birds are hypostases of women from the síd or “fairy mound”. In linking the water fowl motif with cosmic organization, we may identify the bird’s trifunctionality in its ability to fly in the air, walk on land, and stand or swim in water. The crane, to take one gawky but graceful example, thus comprehensively resumes the inherent verticality of such phrasings as heaven, earth, and undersea. In early Irish texts the magic-working technique called corrguinecht (perhaps with an allusion to corr “crane”) is an attribute of superior figures (euhemerized gods) and of sorcerers. A vow or curse is given greater efficacy by the practitioner, with one eye closed, reciting in one breath into the fist of one hand, while standing on one leg (on occasion by a doorpost, see below). The three cosmic components are here implicated in the following equivalences: eye, breath (head) = sky; fist (as part of the arms and torso) = earth’s surface; leg = underearth, all joined along the axis of the human body. The vertical position is combined with a reduction of the binary or dual (in a sense, horizontal and lateral) to the unitary, in what seems both a sacrifice and compensatory intensification of power (cf. the potent one-eyed and one-armed figures of many earlier and medieval literatures, not least Norse Óðinn and Týr). While not always an inimical or anti-social act, corrguinecht is performed alone and seeks to alter the course of events. The vertical axis that informs most allusions to a tripartite cosmos is also to be found in a variety of other metonyms, miniatures, or compressions of various kinds—all instantiations of the fundamental cosmic integrity.

To move closer to the anecdote of Finn and Derg Corra, the widespread conception of a cosmic or world tree—its roots in the underearth, the tips of its branches in the heavens, and the ceaseless activity of our best-known world throughout its boughs and foliage—has homologues in the various sacred trees (bile) of early Ireland that also served, it is believed, as traditional territorial boundary markers. Standing stones may offer a fainter echo of this conception. A similar linearity is telescoped in the image of the doorpost to a hall, which has two coordinates, since, with its lintel and threshold, it also marks, horizontally, a limes, a threshold between the civilized, hierarchized, ruled Within of the royal hall and the wild, amorphous, and unruly Without of the forest, moor, and shore. In exercises of metonymical sacralization it would seem that almost any site on earth could be chosen and given provisional but heightened status as a kind of omphalos, an entry to, or contact point with, the whole cosmic force-field.”

While I agree with most of the analysis offered here (and I recommend reading the article in its entirety) I am less than convinced that the pre-Christian Irish, Scots and Manx believed in the concept of an axis mundi (a Latin term used in modern studies of ancient mythologies to indicate a world tree or world pillar that normally lies at the geographical centre of the universe, often binding different levels of it together). There is no denying that sacred trees (and groves) were part of Gaelic and Celtic culture in general. The Irish language uses the words bile “scared tree” and crann beatha “tree of life” to indicate trees that were held to be of great significance, usually in association with mytho-historical legends. Many Irish kingdoms had a bile within their territory, often in a central region, which was venerated by the local population and held to be of import to the kingdom’s well-being (military raids to cut down or burn these trees by external enemies were not unknown well into the historical era). Such trees were usually associated the Otherworld People, the Tuatha Dé Danann and Aos Sí, and this along with their origin-stories was normally why they were given such prestige and respect. A distant echo of this survived into the 20th century with the untouchable “fairy trees” that used to proliferate across the Irish countryside (though it is debatable if such a tradition still survives in these venal times).

However that does not mean that every tree was sacred or held to be of significance to the gods in pre-Christian and early Medieval Ireland. Timber and wood were essential materials in the ancient Irish economy and indeed many woods and forests were privately owned. By the 8th century CE some of the great monastic-towns had become mercantile corporations with a considerable investment in forestry, in the process taking ownership of many hitherto wilderness lands (which of course placed them at odds with the youthful or property-free hunter-warrior bands of the historic fianna who traditionally regarded such regions as their own). So while some trees were honoured most were not.

Likewise the use of galláin or standing-stones to indicate the sites of ancient burials or battles, sacred areas or as boundary markers, was a mixture of the religious and the practical. The stones were clearly of some significance and some could be carved or inscribed with Ogham writing but one rarely reads of anything approaching worship. It should be stressed that contrary to some popular modern myths neither the Irish nor the Celts in general believed in “nature spirits” or that all trees or stones had some form of animate life. Yes, certain stones could cry out at the touch of a king or such-like, but they were very much the exception and the thinking behind it not readily reducible to that of spirits within.

By far the most common division of the universe in the Gaelic traditions of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man is the duality presented by the surface world and that of the subterranean/submaritime Sí or Otherworld (depending on the context the Irish word Sí means both “the Otherworld” in general and specifically a single “Otherworld residence, territory”). While the surface world is the home of mankind the latter form’s the home of the ancient gods and goddesses of the north-western Celts albeit carefully rearranged and disguised in literary dress as the Tuatha Dé Danann and Aos Sí by the Irish monastic scribes. The Otherworld People lived in a parallel world beneath our own, with its own sky, sun, lands and seas, only of far greater beauty and wonder. This idealized version of the world above was reached in part through the ancient burial mounds and other prehistoric monuments that dotted the landscapes of western Europe and which were often presented as the concealed residences of the leading lords or kings of the Otherworld folk (hence the dual meaning of the word Sí). Alternatively it could be reached through caves, under springs or lakes, under or across the sea, through mists or simply though sudden revelation.

Nowhere does the actual sky or firmament feature as a cosmological abode. The Celtic pantheon most assuredly never dwelt in the heavens. The Celtic heaven, if we may name it as such, was below the ground and sea or it invisibly weaved its way throughout the lands of humankind. Thus the encounter with and revelation of Dearg Corra’s identity probably has more to do with revealing the presence of the Otherworld in this world than in some tripartite “sky-earth-underworld” allegory (despite the symbolic love of triads in the Celtic and Gaelic civilizations). This does not discount the importance of the day-time or night-time skies as a basic fact of nature and thus requiring a place in any ancient cosmology. The pre-modern Gaels must have had some explanation for the sky above and indeed such creatures as the Bocánaigh and Bánánaigh were inhabitants or beings of it. Likewise birds in flight or the movement of clouds could be used for divination or predicting the future (the outcome of a battle or such like). And of course the ancient Irish oath calling for the skies to fall upon the earth along with earthquakes and floods implies some sort of understood myth. But the sky, as far as one can tell, was the lesser of all the Irish literary motifs or symbolic tags.

Even in the florid descriptions of the Otherworld, where significant tress and groves abound, there is no mention of a tree that has roots and branches reaching through all the worlds or which lies at the cosmological centre of all the worlds. And while there may have existed the Ail na Míreann or great stone at Uisneach, the ancient centre of Ireland, the concept of a single “world tree” on the lines of a Yggdrasil or a world pillar seem absent from most accounts, even in allegorical terms.

Below is the original Old Irish text for the anecdote known to modern scholars in English as “Fionn and the Man in the Tree” from Kuno Meyer’s 1904 Revue Celtique edition:

Fo chosmailius dorigne Finn húa Baiscne. In tan búi in fian oc Badamair for brú Siúire dodechaidh Cúldub mac húi Birgge a síd ar Femun ut Scotti dicunt co mbert a fulacht núadaib. Co teóra aidchi amin degéni friu. Isin tres fecht iarum norat Finn co luid riam i síd ar Femun. Fortngaib Finn la techt isa síd co torchair allda anall. A ndosreng fris a láim fritninnle in ben asin tsíd & escra fliuch ina láim iar ndáil isin úair riam & doinsort a comlaid frisa síd co ndruid Finn a mér itir in comlaid & in ursain. Gabais iarom a mér ina béolu. A donic as afrithisi foopairt dicetal. Fortnosmen an imbas condebert: ‘Tair Femen fuigial formuig meis mui muic cetson sirchrand sirlúath laith find sra aulad Cúlduib chanmae.’ 

Cinn ree iarom dobertatar mná braite a Dún Iascaich a tír na nDésea. Dobreth ingen álainn léo. Atecoboride menma Find in ben dó. Focairdd sí menmain for in gilla búi léo .i. Dercc Corra mac húi Daigre. Ar ba hé a abras-side. Céin fonnuithea fulacht léo léim & doléim in gilla tarsin n-indiu. Tre sin didiu carais an ingen é & asbert fris laa n-aill ara tísed cuice i lighe. Ní foét són Dercc Corra déag Finn. Atagegai domnid1 dó. Cotsáid fri Finn & asbert: ‘Fortaprom ar écin!’ Asbert iarum Finn fris: ‘Éirgg es’, ol sé, ‘de m’ inchaib & rotbia essomon trí laithi & teóra n-aidchi & fomcialta-sa ó suidhiu inund!’ 

Luid didiu Derc Corra for loinges & arfoét caill & imtighed for luirgnib oss n-allta (si uerum est) ar a étrumai. Laa n-aill didiu do Find isin caill oc a cuingidh-som co n-aca Find in fer i n-úachtar in craind & lon for a gúalainn ndeis & find-lestar n-uma for a láimh clí, osé co n-usce & hé brecc bedcach and & dam allaith fo bun in craind & ba hé abras ind fir teinm cnó & dobered leth n-airne na cnó don lun nobíth for a gúalaind ndeis, no-ithed feisin al-leth n-aill & doicsed a uball asin lestar n-uma búi for a láimh clí & norandad i ndé & docuireth a leth don dam allaid búi fo bun in craind. No-ithad som iarom in leth n-aill & no-ibed loim fair den uisce asin lestur huma búi for a láim co mbo comól dó frisin n-iich & a n-oss & in lon. Friscomarcar didiu a muinter do Finn cia bo hé hisin crunn, ar nínathgéntar som dáigh celtair díclithe búi imbe. 

Is de dobert Finn a hordain ina béolo. Addonich as eisib afrithisi fortnosna a imbus & dichan dicetal co n_eipert: ‘Con fri lon lethcno contethain cotith in dithraib Dercc Corra comól fri hich ni ba filliud fabaill a uball fín mblais cona fricarbaith mac úi co dedail Daigre.’ ‘Dercc Corra mac húi Daigre’, ol sé, ‘fil isan crund’.

What follows is my updated translation of the Myers’ original:

“When the fiann were at Badhamhair on the edge of the Siúr, Cúldubh the son of Ó Birghe came out of the Otherworld residence on Feimhean and carried off their cooking from them. For three nights he did this to them. The third time however Fionn knew and went before him to the Otherworld residence on Feimhean. Fionn laid hold of him as he went into the Otherworld residence, so that he fell inside. When he withdrew his hand, a woman met him [?] coming out of the Otherworld residence with a dripping vessel in her hand, having just distributed drink, and she jammed the door against the Otherworld residence, and Fionn squeezed his finger between the door and the post. When he put his finger into his mouth. When he took it out again he began to chant, the iomas illumines him and he said… [text never translated]

Some time afterwards they carried off captive women from Dún Iaschaigh in the land of the Déise. A beautiful girl was taken by them. Fionn’s mind desired the woman for himself. She set her heart a servant whom they had, even Dearg Cora son of Ó Daighre. For this was his was his practice. While food was being cooked by them, the servant jumped to and fro across the cooking hearth. It was for that the girl loved him. And one day she said to him that he should come to her and lie with her. Dearg Crra did not accept that on account of Fionn. She incites Fionn against him and said: ‘Let us set upon him by force!’ Thereupon Fionn said to him: ‘Go from here,’ said he, ‘out of my sight, and you shall have a truce of three days and three nights, and after that beware of me!’

Then Dearg Cora went into exile and dwelt in a wood and used to go about on shanks of deer for his lightness. One day as Fionn was in the wood seeking him he saw a man in the top of a tree, a blackbird on his right shoulder and in his left hand a white vessel of bronze, filled with water, in which was a jumping trout, and a stag at the foot of the tree. And this was the practice of the man, cracking nuts; and he would give half the kernel of a nut to the blackbird that was on his right shoulder while he would himself eat the other half; and he would take an apple out of the bronze vessel that was in his left hand, divide it in two, throw one half to the stag that was at the foot of the tree, and then eat the other half himself. And on it he would drink a sip of the bronze vessel that was in his hand, so that he and the trout and the stag and the blackbird drank together. Then his followers asked of Fionn who he in the tree was, for they did not recognise him on account of the cloak [hooded-cloak?] of concealment which he wore.

Then Fionn put his thumb into his mouth. When he took it out again, his iomas illumines him and he chanted an incantation and said: “’Its is Dearg Cora son of Ó Daighre,’ said he, ‘that is in the tree.’”

Seanchas – Irish, Scottish And Manx Mythology And Folklore

Cairn Loch Craobh, Sliabh na Caillí, Loch Craobh, An Mhí, Éire, Meitheamh 2009 (Photo: Séamas Ó Sionnaigh)

Cairn Loch Craobh, Sliabh na Caillí, Loch Craobh, An Mhí, Éire, Meitheamh 2009 (Photo: Séamas Ó Sionnaigh)

For those of you with an interest in early, middle and early modern indigenous Irish literature and post-Medieval folklore (Irish and Anglicised-Irish), here is a collection of my articles, long and short (though two are unfinished). Naturally it covers the national traditions of Scotland and the Isle of Man too.

Tuatha Dé Danann
Na Fomhóraigh
Lucharacháin
An Sí
Na Fathaigh
Na Bocánaigh, Na Bánánaigh
Na Púcaí
Na Péisteanna
Na Murúcha
Seanchas Agus Litríocht na nGael
Na Fianna

Of course some may prefer the Hellboy version of these things…

 

A Resurgence Of Anti-Irish Racism In The United States – Or Harmless Stereotyping?

“The usual Irish way of doing things”, an 1871 caricature by Thomas Nast

When most people speak of racism against the Irish they automatically think of Britain and more specifically England. The history of anti-Irishness in our Anglo-Celtic neighbour is a long one, with Medieval roots. It was the Norman-French invasion and conquest of Britain in the 11th and 12th centuries that gave it real impetus. Up to that time Ireland and England generally enjoyed close relations. From the 6th century onwards northern English aristocrats regularly married off their children into the Irish (and Scottish) royal houses in the hope of cementing alliances with the dominant Gaelic powers of the Irish Sea region. Ironically when the Norman-French lord William the Bastard took (stole?) the throne of England it was the Irish that the indigenous English turned to for help. Harold Godwinson was the last native English king of England until his death in the Battle of Hastings in 1066 fighting the Norman-French invaders. But in his youth he had lived for a time as a political exile in Ireland with his father Godwin the Earl of Essex, while his sister Edith of Wessex, the wife of Edward the Confessor king of England, was noted as a fluent Irish-speaker. Returning to England Harold maintained his family’s strong links to Ireland, securing from his allies a mixed Irish and Scandinavian-Irish force which fought alongside the English at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, three weeks before the catastrophe at Hastings.

Following the death of Harold at the hands of the Norman-French his sons and their supporters fled to Ireland seeking refuge with the powerful magnate Diarmaid mac Maoil na mBó, the king of Laighin. From there the English exiles launched several attacks on “Occupied” England using Irish and Scandinavian-Irish fleets and armies, striking across the southern counties (one target was the affluent sea-port of Bristol whose mercantile classes later became closely associated with the Norman-English campaigns in Ireland). Eventually the exiled English princes disappeared from the pages of history, almost certainly blending into the milieu of Irish aristocratic families. Another irony is to be found in the possibility that the descendants of the last native English king of England may be living in unknowing anonymity in Ireland.

Anti-Irishness on the island of Britain took a firm hold with the paranoia of the Norman-French ascendancy which displaced the English nobility. For them Ireland was a political, military and economic rival, and they looked on at the Gaelic-Scandinavian trading networks that dominated the region with envy – and avarice. The country was also increasingly a place of refuge for anti-Norman interests, English, Scottish and Welsh. The latter in particular filled the Irish royal courts as petitioners for military and financial aid including such notables as the Irish-born Gruffydd ap Cynan, later king of Gwynedd, and the exiled Rhys ap Tewdwr, king of Deheubarth. Even some Norman-French lords looked to forge bonds with their Irish counterparts, the seditious activities of the powerful de Montgomery brothers, Arnulf de Montgomery (Earl of Pembroke) and Robert de Montgomery (Earl of Shrewsbury), leading indirectly to the Norman-British incursions into Ireland of the late 12th century, culminating with the invasions of 1169 and 1171.

The Norman-British and later British wars in Ireland gave official form to the anti-Irish bigotry that has forever since plagued Irish-British relations. Over the centuries as printing became widespread and what we now recognise as popular culture emerged, be it literary, artistic or theatrical, discrimination or hatred towards all things Irish became the norm in Britain. Even the advent of radio, film and television had little effect on this regressive ideology. Only in the last two decades did overt anti-Irishness become frowned upon – at least in the liberal left media. Yet even here quasi-racist opinion pieces or articles on the Irish are not unknown and matters relating to Ireland seem forever slanted as if through a distorting mirror. Hostility and disdain towards the Irish is a subconscious undercurrent throughout much of British society in the same way that anti-Semitism is felt if not always expressed in Europe (at its most banal the otherwise inexplicable dislike in England for people with red hair or “gingers” stems from the stereotypical image of Irish people in 18th and 19th Britain, a sort of lingering folk-memory).

Unfortunately wherever the British went their prejudices went with them. The United States, despite its origins and later development, retained a strong British influence in its founding language, culture and religion that made animosity to the Irish inevitable. The presence of so many English colonists along with their Protestant religious beliefs meant that Irish settlers and their Roman Catholic faith were at best distasteful, at worse positively provocative. These attitudes were given a militant infusion with the later migration of Scots-Irish (or Ulster-Scots) settlers from Ireland. Shaped by the conflict-ridden Anglo-Scottish colonial plantations in Ireland the Scots-Irish brought with them a ready resort to bloodshed wrapped up in a puritanical Protestant fundamentalism that created a seismic shift in the emerging American society. For a significant number of these new Americans to find the old Irish (and Catholic) foe in their new home was unacceptable and they developed an intolerant culture of Irish people that persists in some parts of the United States to the present day.

These two factors, more than anything else, blossomed into the anti-Irish racism that became so dominant in American society in the decades surrounding An Gorta Mór or the Great Famine in Ireland of the mid-1800s. During the American Civil War the Confederacy was notable for the high levels of Scots-Irish descendants participating in the Confederate forces and government, whereas the newer Irish filled the ranks of the Federal armies (and thereby assured entry to wider acceptability in American society). Radical anti-Irish and anti-Catholic groups like the Native American Party or the Know-Nothings and the later the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) traced their origins to these times.

It has often been said that when John F. Kennedy was elected to the White House in 1961 the moment had been reached when Irish-Americans were finally accepted as American. Looking back at those rose-tinted times through the myth of the new Camelot, however tarnished around the edges it has subsequently become, the whirlwind of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice Kennedy’s successful candidacy whipped up in the United States has long since been forgotten. If you think the indignation and outright hysteria that greeted the election and presidency of Barack Obama is something new think again. It finds eerie parallels in the administration of JFK.

Over the last five decades anti-Irish (or Catholic) bigotry in the US was largely relegated to the fringe. It rarely manifested itself, except through a sort of vague mockery or satire. Even when offensive stereotypes of Irish people were presented it was not always with prejudicial intent. Simple ignorance, more often than malice, was to blame when offence was given. If the makers of the American televisions series, Sons of Anarchy, were told that their Irish characters and storylines are racist (which they explicitly are) no doubt they would be astonished. Of course, being unaware of being racist is itself no excuse. Unthinking or unconscious bigotry isn’t any more acceptable than the self-conscious kind. Though, in fairness, one should mention that the Irish psyche is so twisted by years of British colonial rule and a self-loathing felt by many that Ireland’s public service broadcaster, RTÉ, actually shows the grotesquely offensive Sons of Anarchy on late night television. But then RTÉ has long been little more than a subsidiary of British TV stations like the BBC and ITV.

Recently though discriminatory views in the United States about Ireland and the Irish have found a new, if extremely fertile, ground to take seed in. The American Christian Right have embraced and promulgated a series of bizarre theories about Ireland as the “greatest enemy of Israel in the Western world” that have gained a wide audience. In particular militant Protestant fundamentalists, some of whom have links to the separatist British Unionist minority in Ireland, have taken to the internet in their trollish droves to disgorge gigabytes of misinformation wrapped up in this conspiratorial nonsense. Regardless of fact or reason, in clear contradiction of known history, they distort, misrepresent and falsify Irish and Jewish relations to such an extent that in some quarters unbelievable lies have become accepted truths. Their falsehoods are now beginning to insinuate their way into the mainstream of American news media and politics – yet few challenge them.

That serious matter I will return to soon but for now, this. From CBS News a clearly unimpressed movie review of the sequel “Taken 2″ by a staff writer with the Associated Press, starring the Irish actor Liam Neeson. Here is an excerpt:

“There was something primal about “Taken,” a father putting all his brains and brawn into saving his little girl, and doing it with startling ferocity and ingenious trade-craft. Neeson just looks like he’s yawning his way through a light workout here, using one big Irish paw to snuff bad guys and holding the other one out to the studio for his paycheck.”

Big Irish paw? Considering the infamous 19th and 20th century representations of Irish people in Britain and the United States as simian-like creatures, apes and monkeys or sub-human Untermenschen, this is hardly the best choice of words to use. Would Denzel Washington be referred to as dispatching his enemies with his “big black paw”? One imagines not. A passing simile, obviously made without malicious intent, yet still revealing of the English language and American culture as it views Irish people.

Lá Fhéile Bríde Shona Daoibh!

Its the first of February and the first day of Spring in the Irish calendar so happy Lá Fhéile Bríde to you all. Or as some of us prefer to say, happy Iombolg! Above is the image of a Crosóg Bríde, “Bríd’s Cross”, a traditional Christianised Iombolg symbol formed from rushes or more rarely straw. Below is a slightly less Christianised symbol that may have been associated with the goddess-turned-saint, Bríd. It is a Síle na gCíoch “Síle of the Breasts” and it sort of speaks for itself.

The rise and fall of the Knights Templar in Ireland. (via Irish History Podcast)

The great and informative Irish History Podcast carries a piece on the Knights Templar in Ireland…

The rise and fall of the Knights Templar in Ireland. When we think of the Knights Templar, we picture the Middle Eastern Crusades or Dan Browne’s fantasy novel the The Da Vinci code. However this fascinating organisation were very much part of European society in the 12th and 13th century with houses, called preceptories, in most kingdoms in Medieval Europe. After the Norman Invasion of Ireland the Templars became a part of Norman society here for nearly 150 years. However like their counterparts a … Read More

via Irish History Podcast

Bugger And Bedamned!

I was going to write something about this inanity but I really became too annoyed.

‘A controversial conference promoting a therapy that claims to help people “turn away” from homosexuality…’

Seriously?

Yes, people have a right to their beliefs, religious or otherwise, and also the right to promote them (I suppose – democracy an’ all that). But honestly, some things are just so utterly stupid as to be beyond words.

Jesus was a bachelor, preached love and peace, never had a girlfriend or got married, hung around on a regular basis with twelve men, and even kissed one of them (not to mention asking another to poke him with a finger!). How would Christians feel then if people were to claim that Jesus was gay?!

Live and let live. Hetro, Homo, Bi, Pan, or shagging sheep. Enjoy your life. You’ll be dead soon enough. There is more important things, like, oh I dunno, saving the planet from environmental catastrophe or feeding the starving millions, than who you put your penis into (or who you allow to put their penis – or anything else – into you!). Live a good life, respect each other, and try to do as little harm along the way as you can. What more do you want?