Tag Archives: Irish

A Curious Absence of Saints

I have wandered the hills and valleys of Ireland, driven along its rocky coasts and roamed the quiet midlands.  In my travels, I have stopped to explore every monument of stone and ruined churchyard to be found along my path, often altering that path considerably in the hope of encountering some new mystery to explore.

Along the way, I have taken several thousands of pictures.

While I am careful that the photography not intrude upon my more visceral experience of a place, I strive to document each location to the best of my ability.  The photos are touchstones, reminders of places I fear I may never see again.  And in that spirit I try to be as thorough and faithful to the place and time as possible.

I was therefore, quite surprised to learn, as I went scanning through my photos just the other day, that my collection suffered from a curious absence of saints.

Saint Patrick?Saint Patrick, in particular, was nowhere to be found.

I only went looking because I noticed that my next blog post, the one you are reading now, was due to publish on March 17th, and it occurred to me that I really should write something about St. Patrick’s Day.

Not feeling particularly motivated, I thought I would dig up some of the photos I’d taken of his various statues in Ireland, and use those for inspiration.

Click…click…click…scroll…scroll…scroll…, nothing!

I sat back from my screen, perplexed.  That couldn’t be right.  I mean, I know for a fact that there is a statue of St. Patrick standing near the entrance to the Hill of Tara.  I’d photographed every inch of that ancient seat of kings, as well as the little churchyard that sits next to it, during my first visit in 2005.  I remembered walking past that stark white statue with the little metal fence around it, not once, but twice!

And so I checked again: hills, grass, tower, graves, passage tomb, sheep, standing stone, circling ravens…, no statue.

Church at Tara

Okay, so then where else?  I searched my memory for other encounters with Ireland’s patron saint…, a-ha!  there was Saint Patrick’s Cross which stands among the mighty ruins on the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary.  Surely I had a photo of that, and even if it’s not really a statue, it would give me something to work with…,

Scroll…scroll…scroll…, nothing.

View from Rock of Cashel

“How,” I wondered aloud to myself, “can this be.”

I tried to think back to all the other cathedrals, graveyards and ruins that I have visited.  Surely there had to be…, I know that one had a statue…, Maybe there was a plaque…,


The Rock of Cashel

There are no monuments to Saint Patrick, no statues or shrines, recorded anywhere in my camera-rolls.  And I think the reason for this must be because I just don’t see him.

I’ve heard his story again and again, since childhood, but it has never really made any lasting impression upon me.  

I was taught that I should like St. Patrick because he was ‘the’ Irish saint.

But was he, really?

There is nothing in the mythology surrounding Pádraig that touches me or even rings true to my ears.

I have tried to see the young man, captured, bound and sold into slavery, only to give himself over to Christianity and escape his captors, led across the wilds of Ireland and back to the sea by a mysterious voice.  Yet it seems as if I have heard that story before, attached to other names and places.

And then there is the great teacher, who is said to have stood upon the Hill of Tara among both the greatest kings and wisest Druids of that land, and explained to them the mystery of the Christian Trinity through the example of the wild shamrock which grew unnoticed underfoot.  Strange, that they should be so easily won over, these wise men, when triplicate gods and goddesses were already known throughout the land, and the shamrock already known for both its symbolic and medicinal qualities.

Then, of course, there is the mighty “warrior for god” who appears in the later tales.  No meek teacher this Patrick, he duels his enemies with holy magic, tossing them into the air like some midichlorian pumped Jedi Knight.  

Let’s not even mention the thing with the snakes.

Over the years I have seen him first as a saint, then as a villain, and now he hardly seems important at all.  From what little we truly do know of him, it seems clear that almost nothing which has been believed about him is true.

So why then, should we celebrate the anniversary of his death (if indeed we even have that detail correct)?

More than once, I have been told that celebrating Patrick’s Holy Day is an important part of my Irish heritage, and that, as a grandchild of the diaspora, I should do whatever I can to maintain those cultural links with my distant kin.

How much honor do I bring to my ancestors by pretending to celebrate a Catholic feast day?  None, I think.

The truth is, I don’t need Saint Patrick, whoever he was, to help me celebrate my Irish heritage.  I do that every day.

I think I’ll get by just fine without the silly parades and the mass inebriation, which have become the American standard in holiday celebrations.

Yeah, I’ll wear the green – but I do that once a week (at least) anyway.  I like green.

And you can be sure that I’ll raise a glass, to you and to yours, and to bridging the miles that lie between myself and the one place I’ve ever known that truly feels like home.

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Filed under About this Blog, Holidays, Ireland, Photography, Religion, Spiritual Journey, Traditions, Travel

Lugh: A Prelude

Lughnasadh, the Celtic celebration of the first harvest, arrives this week, and I could not be more busy.  It’s my own fault, after a fashion.  I requested a couple days off from work this week, to celebrate the holiday, but I didn’t want to sacrifice any of my vacation time in the process, and as a result my work schedule has been unforgiving.

I had intended to post a retelling of one of my favorite stories from Irish mythology, “Lugh at the Gate” in which the god is kept waiting outside the gates of Tara while the Tuatha dé Danann consider the finer point of his résumé.  Time, however, has not been on my side, and the story, told from the perspective of a curious bird who watches the proceedings, is still happily rewriting itself in my brain.

And so, all I have to share with you this week, is this:

Lugh: Pen & Ink

This (not quite finished) illustration, in ink on paper, is of the god Lugh.  It’s a little rough, but it’s been a while since I worked in this medium, and I’ve never done so using a quill-pen, which I insist on doing when working in my codex.

What goes on the rest of the page, and the pages around it?  Perhaps the same story I had hoped to post here.  Or maybe something else.

In the back of my mind I hear a ritual chant growing, a celebration of the talents of the “Many Skilled God.”

The spirit is there and the inkwell is full.  I need only the time.

A blessed Lughnasadh to you all!



Filed under Art, Celtic Polytheism, Holidays, Mythology, Religion, Spiritual Journey, The Gods, Traditions

Guinness in a Plastic Cup

“You don’t take enough time for yourself.”

Friends and family remind me of this from time to time, usually as I am hurrying from one unfinished project to another while fretting over a dozen more which seem eternally out of reach.

They are not wrong.

We all need to give ourselves a little break from time to time, which is why I always look forward to our yearly trip to Fair Park in Dallas for the North Texas Irish Festival.  It’s nice to just roam around with my camera, taking in an afternoon of music, shopping and people watching.  And so for the moment I shall take a step back from my weekly musings and allow you to share, just a bit, in my yearly indulgence.

The best part of the Irish Festival is the musical talent of new artists putting a modern spin on traditional favorites.

Truly, the best part of the North Texas Irish Festival is to be found in the music!  Everywhere you go there are talented of Celtic artists putting a modern spin on traditional favorites.

Kids and dogs are always a magical combination.

We were talking to a vendor who was working the festival for the first time and his impression of what made this one different from other conventions was summed up in two words: “Dogs and Beer.”  The show is certainly a dog-lovers treat with every possible breed roaming the grounds to the delight of adults and children alike.

Animal rescue groups of all sorts (from cats and dogs to wild raptors) are very popular at the Irish Festival.

Animal rescue groups of all sorts (from cats and dogs to wild raptors) are always a popular attraction and make for some otherwise rare photo opportunities.

I sometimes refer to the Irish Festival as “Guinness in a Plastic Cup”.  The obvious reason is that this is how beer is served at the festival – something of a crime against nature.  The metaphor runs a little deeper, though.  There is an almost artificial quality to much of the show.  It’s easy to look at the show with a cynical eye and see crowds of “Plastic Paddys” glomming onto a culture they know little about while buying all manner of shamrock studded ticky-tack.

At the same time, there is a rich, wholesome quality to the show which the cheap plastic packaging does nothing to diminish.  Everywhere you look there are craftsmen, dancers, artists and musicians, who could no doubt make more money in conventional pursuits but who struggle daily to make ends meet for the love of their art and the desire to share it with others.  Many of us who attend have a genuine pride in their Celtic heritage and a desire to preserve that deeper connection with their history and their ancestors.

Visiting the North Texas Irish Festival may not satisfy that deep yearning for the homeland which many of us feel.  Think of it as instead as the biggest “support group” you could imagine, meeting on the first weekend in March.  It’s therapy, with beer and food and music.  Who cares if it comes in a plastic cup!


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Filed under Culture, Modern Life, Photography, Travel

Immersed in Irish

Dia daoibh a chairde!

A question that is sometimes asked of those of us who follow a pagan religious path is: “Do you believe in magic?”  Usually, this question is rooted in popular fictionalized depictions of paganism and maybe a smattering of good ol’ biblical “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” hoopla.  It is also a question that belies an all too typical lack of understanding where the word “magic” is involved.  There are many kinds of magic in the world and one of the most common (and powerful) is language.

The power of language, the thing that makes it magical, is it’s ability to shape a shared consciousness and identity.  For example, when we speak of the Celts we are not discussing a single race or tribe.  The Celts were a collection of peoples spread across Europe (from the British Isles in the west to the highlands of Asia Minor in the east) linked together by a shared linguistic heritage.  This heritage is survived today within the Six Celtic Nations (the six regions where Celtic languages are still spoken).  These nations are Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, Wales and Brittany.

Unfortunately, the power of language to unite can also be used to dominate and enforce the will of one culture over that of another.  Certainly the English understood this power, as demonstrated by their efforts to eradicate the Irish language during their occupation of the island.  The language we speak guides the way in which we think and shapes the culture in which we operate.  If you kill the language, you eliminate the culture and the desire within it’s membership to resist occupation from outside forces.

This same sort of thinking exists today in the political efforts to single out those immigrants (legal and otherwise) within the U.S. who do not speak English.  Treat Spanish speakers like second-class citizens and they will be more likely to raise their children to speak English.  English speaking children will be less likely to see themselves as different than their fellow citizens and will be more likely to toe-the-line (whatever that line may turn out to be).  These sorts of efforts are usually packaged as “improving the economic prospects of the children” but what it really comes down to is control by a single mono-culture.

In Ireland, this strategy almost worked.  Had the Republic of Ireland not gained it’s independence in 1922 it is hard to say if there would even be an Irish language surviving today.  As it is, despite being a required course of study in Irish schools, only a tiny fraction of the Irish population speak the language on a daily basis.  Many parents still believe the lie that Irish is the language of the impoverished, working-class poor and imprint in their children a desire to learn “better” languages, like English or German.

Tá mé ag foghlaim Gaeilge go mall.

As a Celtic Reconstructionist, my goal is not simply to foster a return to the gods and traditions of our ancestors but to preserve and grow the living Celtic culture that exists today.  We do this by contributing with time or money to cultural causes and organizations, and where possible by learning and promoting the various Celtic arts, crafts, music, dance and most importantly language.

For the past several years I have been making efforts to learn to speak (and read) Irish.  It has been hard going, made even more difficult by the absence of Irish speakers in my own area.  Computer programs, iPhone apps and audiobooks are all good tools but still my progress has been very slow.  I falter on all but the most basic phrases.

This weekend I was fortunate to attend a Two-Day Irish Immersion Event held by the DFW Gaelic League at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth.  There I found myself surrounded by new friends both young and old, men and women from various backgrounds and walks of life who all had one thing in common – a desire to learn the language of their ancestors.  As I listened to the ebb and flow of conversation among the more experienced speakers I thought I would feel my own efforts diminished.  Instead, with their friendly encouragement, I only grew more determined to increase my proficiency.  By the end of the event several of us were discussing the possibility of starting an ongoing class in the Fort Worth area.  Celtic culture will grow anew even in places as far removed from it’s homeland as Texas.

So yes, I do believe in magic.  Magic is, at it’s heart, the art of effecting change through the power of will.  Language shapes the way we see the world around us, it guides the changes we seek to make and provides the community through which those changes may occur.

Slán go fóill!

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Filed under Culture, Magic