Irish Literature

From Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions, 1894

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Our sources of knowledge concerning the Druids are from tradition and records. The first is dim, unreliable, and capable of varied interpretation. Of the last, Froude rightly remarks—"Confused and marvellous stories come down to us from the early periods of what is called History, but we look for the explanation of them in the mind or imagination of ignorant persons.—The early records of all nations are full of portents and marvels; but we no longer believe those portents to have taken place in actual fact.—Legends grew as nursery tales grow now."

There is yet another source of information—the preservation of ancient symbols, by the Church and by Freemasons. The scholar is well assured that both these parties, thus retaining the insignia of the past, are utterly ignorant of the original meaning, or attach a significance of their own invention.

Judging from Irish literature—most of which may date from the twelfth century, though assuming to be the eighth, or even fifth—the Druids were, like the Tuatha, nothing better than spiritualistic conjurers, dealers with bad spirits, and always opposing the Gospel. We need be careful of such reports, originating, as they did, in the most superstitious era of Europe, and reflecting the ideas of the period. It was easy to credit Druids and Tuaths with miraculous powers, when the Lives of Irish Saints abounded with narratives of the most childish wonders, and the most needless and senseless display of the miraculous. The destruction of Druids through the invocation of Heaven by the Saints, though nominally in judgment for a league with evil spirits, was not on a much higher plane than the powers for mischief exercised by the magicians.

Such tales fittingly represented a period, when demoniacal possession accounted for diseases or vagaries of human action, and when faith in our Heavenly Father was weighed down by the cruel oppression of witchcraft.

Still, in the many credulous and inventive stories of the Middle Ages, may there not be read, between the lines, something which throws light upon the Druids? Traditional lore was in that way perpetuated. Popular notions were expressed in the haze of words. Lingering superstitions were preserved under the shield of another faith.

Then, again, admitting the common practice of rival controversialists destroying each other's manuscripts, would not some be copied, with such glosses as would show the absurdities of the former creeds, or as warnings to converts against the revival of error?

Moreover,—as the philosophers, in early Christian days of the East, managed to import into the plain and simple teaching of Jesus a mass of their own symbolism, and the esoteric learning of heathenism,—was it unlikely that a body of Druids, having secrets of their own, should, upon their real or assumed reception of Christianity, import some of their own opinions and practices, adapted to the promulgation of the newer faith? No one can doubt that the Druids, to retain their influence in the tribe, would be among the first and most influential of converts; and history confirms that fact. As the more intelligent, and reverenced from habit, with skill in divination and heraldic lore, they would command the respect of chiefs, while their training as orators or reciters would be easily utilized by the stranger priests in the service of the Church.

But if, as is likely, the transition from Druidism to Christianity was gradual, possibly through the medium of Culdeeism, the intrusion of pagan ideas in the early religious literature can be more readily comprehended. As so much of old paganism was mixed up in the Patristic works of Oriental Christendom, it cannot surprise one that a similar exhibition of the ancient heathenism should be observed in the West. O'Brien, in Round Towers, writes—"The Church Festivals themselves in our Christian Calendar are but the direct transfers from the Tuath de Danaan Ritual. Their very names in Irish are identically the same as those by which they were distinguished by that earlier race." Gomme said, "Druidism must be identified as a non-Aryan cult."

Elsewhere reference is made to the Culdees. They were certainly more pronounced in Ireland, and the part of Scotland contiguous to Ireland, than in either England or Wales.

Ireland differs from its neighbours in the number of allusions to Druids in national stories. Tradition is much stronger in Ireland than in Wales, and often relates to Druids. On the other hand, it differs from that of its neighbours in the absence of allusions to King Arthur, the hero of England, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany. Rome, too, was strongly represented in Britain, north and south, but not in Ireland.

It is not a little remarkable that Irish Druids should seem ignorant alike of Round Towers and Stone Circles, while so much should have been written and believed concerning Druidism as associated with circles and cromlechs in Britain and Brittany. Modern Druidism, whether of Christian or heathen colour, claims connection with Stonehenge, Abury, and the stones of Brittany. Why should not the same claim be made for Irish Druids, earlier and better known than those of Wales?

As megalithic remains, in the shape of graves and circles, are found all over Europe, Asia, and northern Africa, why were Druids without association with these, from Japan to Gibraltar, and confined to the monuments of Britain? Why, also, in Ossian, are the Stones of Power referred to the Norsemen only?

In the Irish Epic, The Carrying off of the Bull of Cualnge, the Druid Cathbad is given a certain honourable precedence before the sovereign. That the Druids exercised the healing art is certain. Jubainville refers to a MS. in the Library of St. Gall, dating from the end of the fourteenth century, which has on the back of it some incantations written by Irish seers of the eighth or ninth century. In one of them are these words—"I admire the remedy which Dian-Cecht left."

Though a mysterious halo hangs about the Irish Druids, though they may have been long after the Serpent-worshippers, and even later than the Round Tower builders, tradition confidently asserts their existence in the Island, but, doubtless, credits them with powers beyond those ever exercised. The love for a romantic Past is not, however, confined to Ireland, and a lively imagination will often close the ear to reason in a cultured and philosophical age.

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