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message 1: by Sean (last edited Oct 27, 2014 05:39PM) (new)

Sean (seanner) | 10 comments As an aging ex-Catholic and circumspect Christian, I have been considering possible ways of returning to the Church or at least cautiously edging a little closer.

I came across a lovely book, PRAYERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD, and I truly enjoyed browsing through the collected prayers and poetry. The prayers of my Roman Catholic youth were there including the Prayer to Saint Francis which I always thought made a lot of sense. In addition, there were prayers from the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Native America was proudly represented with beautiful prayers from tribal sages Chief Seattle and Black Elk. Some of my favorite poets were represented including W.B. Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, Rumi and Gary Snyder and I was reminded that there are some poems that can only be described as eavesdropping on a conversation with God.

I was particularly taken by some beautifully composed, lyrical prayers from the Celtic Christian tradition. These prayers, many of which date back to the Sixth and Seventh Centuries, were composed by early Christian aspirants living in the Celtic fringe of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The roots of Celtic Christianity can be traced to St. Patrick whose mission to Ireland in the Fifth Century must be one of the most successful and peaceful conversions ever known. The Irish established monasteries and within a few years had carried the new faith to Scotland, Britain and Wales.

With the fall of the Roman empire, the Celtic Christian church and its small monastic communities in the far west of Europe developed independently from the rule of Roman Catholicism. I was intrigued by the fact that early Celtic Christianity was a synthesis of pagan and Christian spirituality . From my reading, I have collected the following characteristics which may help to define Celtic Christianity.

1. The early Celtic Christians maintained a deep mystical connection with nature. They committed their lives, daily work and worship to the natural landscape and the changing season. The divinity of God was seen and experienced through the natural world. Predating the environmental movement by centuries, the Celtic spiritual ecology celebrated the earth as God's greatest gift to mankind. Man's stewardship of the earth is a sacred duty.
2. Celtic spirituality was related to an understanding and appreciation of beauty. Drawing on the rich storytelling traditions and artisanship of their pagan past, the early Celtic Christian church was known for its prayers, hymns, poetry, finely designed chalices, and illuminated manuscripts. The Celts celebrated beauty in all its manifestations and believed that it leads to the source of all creation, God.
3. Reflected in their spirituality was a profound appreciation for the spoken word. Drawing from the ancient bardic traditions of their pagan past, the Celtic Christians maintained a love of storytelling. It is a tribute to both the power of storytelling and the synthesis of ancient pagan and early Christian expression that the scribes of the early church lovingly copied both the gospels of the new testament as well as the myths and sagas of the gods and heroes of their ancestors.
4. There was a strong sense of community. This was reflected not only in the small monastic settlements that spread throughout the Celtic fringe but in ordinary families, as well.
5. In their prime, the Celts once dominated all of Europe. By the Sixth Century, they had been pushed to the very fringes of northwest Europe,s o the early Celtic Christians knew what it meant to be marginalized. As a result, the Celtic church taught compassion for the poor, the homeless, and the outcast. There was a strong sense of hospitality and the recognition of 'Christ' in each and every stranger.
6. In Celtic society there was an appreciation of women's unique gifts and leadership. With the coming of Christianity, the recognition of women's rights remained and the early Celtic church opened ministerial leadership roles to women.

As I continue my own personal spiritual search, I have to say that many of the characteristics of Celtic Christianity are very attractive. As an Irish American, I am pleased the Irish did their bit to save civilization. For people like myself who long to connect personal faith with relevance and responsibility, one of Christianity's oldest traditions seems like a fresh, new idea for a changing world.

Any thoughts?

All the Best, Sean

message 2: by Kevin (new)

Kevin As much as I like your analysis I'm afraid you may be overly enamoured by the Celtic ideal, something I have been guilty of myself.

I'm not sure I can really agree with the term Celtic Christian even, as they were still relatively pagan in their practices as well as their beliefs. Fortunately and unfortunately, these early account of Irish history are told solely through the eyes of the Christian monks so bias is an issue. Initially when the monks began to write, they solely copied and wrote works in Latin that were related to the Christian faith, hymns and scripture etc. Eventually, they begin to write in their native Irish as there is a move to a more secular approach to writing and literature as they start to look at the world around them. They began to record what was in their world, including the folklore and history of the people. I'll take Oisín in Tír na nÓg for instance, where several recordings of the tale where the ending has been manipulated. Some say he lived the rest of his life in Ireland, lonely and alone, while others say he met St.Patrick and converted to Christianity. Needless to say they were trying to pull a Christian curtain over the pagan world.

Celtic spirituality had as much to do with war and heroics as a respect for nature. The Irish were head hunters and savage fighters. There is a description by Gerald of Wales (1185 AD) he describes the Irish as "ignorant of the rudiments of the faith". He also goes on to describe an inauguration ceremony where a King bathes in the blood of a white mare. Beside this being a completely pretty barbaric, the white mare is a significant symbol of the pagan belief.

Even the tradition of the poet outside of the monastery is solidly pagan. Poets existed well before monks began to write themselves, and had supernatural powers. The role of the poet in society was not religious, their role was to their ruler/patron was just and fair. If so, the poet wrote 'praise' poetry about him. If not, he satirised him and ruined his reputation, thus dethroning him.

With regard to compassion for the poor etc. I agree to some extent, as this was expected of the King. However Irish society was heavily stratified and there was a large gap between the peasant and the nobility. Genealogy was of upmost importance, for example if one was to become an 'ollamh', his line of father, grandfather etc. must all have been poets.

As I have debated before on here, that the idea of the "Celt" is a modern construct abused even by the likes of Yeats.

I do not mean to attack your beliefs or any such thing, Seán, but I like to make sure people know the full story. Unfortunately, us old Irish folk weren't that attractive. :(

message 3: by Brian (new)

Brian O'Sullivan | 280 comments I'd have to agree with Kevin on this, Sean. Most of what we know of Irish 'Celtic' spirituality is extrapolated from the belief systems of contemporary cultures and documentation from a group of people who probably suffered from a strong bias based on their own beliefs. This was a trap that a lot of early Irish scholars such as Seathrún Céitinn (Geoffrey Keating) et al tended to fall into. Every manuscript ever written suffers from the bias or personal agenda of its author and the old saying "don't believe everything you read" holds just as well for the seventh century as it does for the 20th century.

message 4: by Thomas (new)

Thomas (tom471) | 1527 comments Mod
Interesting comments. Some of my Irish Keating cousins say that Geoffrey Keating is one of my ancestors

message 5: by Sean (new)

Sean (seanner) | 10 comments Kevin & Brian: Thanks for your responses.

On reflection, I would agree with you that my original post on Celtic Christianity comes off as a bit idealistic. As I mentioned, my attraction to Celtic Christianity - whatever the term currently means - was the result of my own careful consideration as to whether I wish to re-connect with the Catholic Church.

I'm sure that my process is familiar to other aging former Catholics. Recently, I have felt the need to be a part of a spiritual community. I attended mass with a lady friend. Despite the involuntary trembling and copious perspiration that I can only attribute to post-traumatic shock, I enjoyed the experience.

At this point in my life, as I consider any further commitment to the Church, I know that I must look to my own personal values and needs. I would include community, friendship and intimacy, empathy and compassion, the natural world and ecological consciousness, social awareness and corresponding responsibility and action, an appreciation of beauty and a desire to find expression for its many aspects, and the continued exploration of my own spirituality.

A chance reading of PRAYERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD led me to some prayers attributed to the 8th and 9th Century Irish Church. I connected with these simple, lyrical poem-prayers for the reasons I have noted above. The fact that they were Irish was a part of their attraction. I started reading about Celtic Christianity - whatever the term currently means - and was pleased to find that certain traditions of the early Irish Church corresponded with my own spiritual convictions and experience.

Here's my recent reading list:

I re-read Thomas Cahill's HOW THE IRISH SAVED CIVILIZATION and enjoyed it even more the second time around. I read Ian Bradley's THE CELTIC WAY and John O'Donohue's ETERNAL ECHOES.

Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong
How the Irish Saved CivilizationThe Celtic Way

I am aware that Cahill is taken to task because he is not an historian and his popular Hinges of History books tend to examine certain periods of history in isolation. But he is a fine storyteller and he has the ability to gain the general reader's interest and lead us into the time and circumstance of a particular subject.

I do not suggest that my reading has given me a definitive understanding of early medieval Irish thought or a scholarly command of Celtic Christianity - whatever the term currently means - but I do know that the prayers and poetry from that time have given me pleasure and a certain resonance for my own spiritual quest. I don't know if the characteristics of Celtic Christianity - whatever the term currently means - mentioned above can be accurately applied to life in post-Patrick Ireland but I have found these traditions inspirational for my own life some fourteen centuries later. The gentle synthesis of the new faith with the pagan past sparks my imagination and despite the old saying "don't believe everything you read," I would like to believe that there is some hope for this poor, old, battered world.

So, that's my apology - whatever the term currently means.

Kevin - I remember hearing the story of Oisín in Tír na nÓg in second grade. I loved the image of Oisín bidding farewell to Ireland and the Fianna and flying out on his winged horse over the Western Sea to the Land of Ever Young. Understandably, the second grade audience was devastated when Sister Saint Wet Blanket reduced our red-blooded Oisín to a wimpish lump of piety at Patrick's feet. At home, I shared my disappointment and my tough Mick father laughed and said, "The hell with that! Oisín took one look at auld Patrick in his funny pointy hat and he told the Saint to go take a running jump at himself for he was Oisín, son of Finn, and he came home to die in Ireland. and to turn to dust with Heroes!"

True enough, for old Irish folk, my old man wasn't that attractive but he could sure tag a cool ending to a tale.

Thanks again for this discussion.

Slainte, Sean

message 6: by Kevin (new)

Kevin Seán, I too am sorry if I came across as some vicious cynic hell bent on contradicting everything you say. To be honest, I just wanted to make sure you were not jumping into something without knowing another side to it! I myself had war with a college tutor about this when he started to argue the possibility that our Celtic background is a modern fabrication. I myself still don't mind being ancestors to a people that bathed in the blood of a horse!

I have to agree with you though, Irish people love the "land" and that love goes back millennia, spiritual or not, and that in itself is something rather beautiful.

Le meas,

message 7: by Barbara (new)

Barbara (bdegar) | 4626 comments Sean- I love your father's description of Oisin kicking St. Patrick's behind.
Kevin - the Irish renaissance and the Yeats and Lady Gregory crowd did much to resurrect the Celtic past but perhaps their romanticization of that heritage led to people like your college tutor dismissing it as a modern fabrication. My Yank countrypersons are among those who lap up the romantic view and last to know the literature and history of the time. If I am not mistaken it's The Tain that tells of Queen Maeve drowning her enemies in battle by peeing in the battefield.
The Vikings are also part of Ireland's past but seem to be tamely commemorated in the sidewalks around Christchurch, the Viking Dublin exhibit and Viking Splash boat ride. I prefer the Shetlanders' approach with Up Helly Aa where they dress as vikings and burn a boat every January:

message 8: by Sean (new)

Sean (seanner) | 10 comments Kevin & Barbara - Thanks for keeping up the chat.

Kevin - Thank you.

I see from your profile that you are a Limerick man. Back in better days, when the Atlanta, Georgia/Shannon direct flights were affordable, I always passed through Limerick and thought it was a great town. I walked around a good bit. I remember People's Park and King John's Castle. The walls of Limerick were impressive and, to my surprise and delight, the Lovely River Shannon really is lovely. I vaguely remember an evening in The White Horse Pub and a number of your fellow Limerick lads forcing me - forcing me, mind - to drink far more than I should.

Like you, I have had a number of university experiences that have been offensive.

I remember Selected Studies in English Literature, browsing the syllabus of English writers, dramatists and poets, and noting the inclusion of Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and W.B. Yeats. I swear to God, I kept my mouth shut as long as I could, but during one particular accolade extolling the genius of English letters, I pointed out that more than a few icons of English literature, are, in fact, Irish.

Well, the classroom got very quiet. The entire campus of the University of Virginia was cloaked in chastened stillness while I was fixed in the very firm and tenured gaze of my professor.

"Anglo Irish," was all he said before returning to the lecture.

My class participation was dismissed and Selected Studies in English Literature plodded on as I am certain it does to this day. It was not the last time I have grated under the suggestion that the Irish are too vacillating and pugnacious to achieve anything on their own. That really pisses me off and I'm thinking about doing something about it. Anybody with me?

Barbara - Queen Maeve was quite a woman. If I remember, she encourages the warriors of Ulster with the promise of wealth, property and 'her own friendly thighs.' What man could resist?

Happy Samhain,


message 9: by Kevin (new)

Kevin I think the pub you are referring to is The White House? Although it is also possible that there is a White Horse around as well haha. It's a lovely pub and draws a literature savvy crowd as they have a weekly poetry night. Us limerick folk aren't that bad :) don't mind what the papers say! :)

message 10: by Barbara (new)

Barbara (bdegar) | 4626 comments Happy Samhain to you!

Many academics in English departments are decades behind. They may even be among those who were slow to recognize the Ulster "Renaissance" Poets of the 60's and 70's as Irish. I teach my students that although Yeats is labeled the greatest Irish poet, I consider Seamus Heaney to be the greatest. Yeats was a great poet, but being Anglo Irish, he seems to be in two worlds. Heaney and Patrick Kavanagh are number 1 and 2 in my book which may make me something of a nationalist.
And I have strayed from the topic.

message 11: by Kevin (new)

Kevin It is often thought that if Patrick Kavanagh wrote about more political or universal topics he would easily have been awarded a Nobel Prize. I agree but that doesn't stop me loving his poetry either!!

message 12: by Barbara (new)

Barbara (bdegar) | 4626 comments Kevin wrote: "It is often thought that if Patrick Kavanagh wrote about more political or universal topics he would easily have been awarded a Nobel Prize. I agree but that doesn't stop me loving his poetry either!!"

I'd call that snobbery. Maybe his (in)famous battles and lawsuits in Dublin influenced this. And only in the last 10 years has anything other than the slim volume Collected Poems published by Norton in 1964 been available in the states.

message 13: by Serf (new)

Serf Kavanagh was always my favourite of the irish poets I studied I must say.

message 14: by Emma (new)

Emma Flanagan (emma89) @Barbara I'm glad your teaching them as Irish. It's nor unheard of in English universities for Joyce, Yeats, Heaney etc being described as English.

I always liked both Yeats and Kavanagh. Yeats is a classic Gaelic revivalist, or more his early work is. I can't abide the Lake Isle of Innisfree. And don't get me started on his plays. They are a love letter to Celtic Ireland. His later stuff like the Wild Swans of Coole while romantic is less gaelic revivalist. Kavanagh and Heaney portray a more realistic, less romantic Ireland.

message 15: by Brian (new)

Brian O'Sullivan | 280 comments Kavanagh has always been one of my favourite poets and I think he had a lot in common with the early Seamus Heaney - both had a great way of describing mud and the earthiness of an agricultural upbringing! Kavanagh also had a great book called the Green Fool based on his youth which is very funny/cynical and I highly recommend. My favourite story about Kavanagh was when he was informed that he'd won a famous literary prize (not sure which one). Apparently his immediate response was 'how much?'

I'm with Emma on the Yeats perspective. I'm sure his heart was in the right place and I admire a lot of his poetry but he couldn't speak Irish and tended to get a lot of his folklore material second hand (and Irish people will spin you any old yarn if there's money to be had for it!). As a result, he was never really a Gaelic revivalist along the lines of Douglas Hyde and co. but very much a romantic (Golden Dawn, anyone?). In terms of credible folklore he's up there with Darby O'Gill and the Little People.

@Sean - absolutely no need to apologise. If anything, I can be too blunt at times, I suspect and I've very much enjoyed reading your comments.

message 16: by Sean (new)

Sean (seanner) | 10 comments Friends: What a nice little thread this has turned out to be. Thank you.

Kevin - Yes, you're right. It is the White House Pub in Limerick where I misspent my Irish travels. The White Horse Tavern is in Greenwich Village in NYC and it is there where I misspent my time in New York. There's a White House in Washington D.C. where misspending knows no bounds but that is another topic for another time.

The White Horse Tavern has a literary history, as well. Jack Kerouac was supposedly banned for his marathon misspendings and Dylan Thomas famously downed his last drink and quipped “I've had eighteen straight whiskies, I think that's the record . . .” before gently stumbling out into that good night. The White Horse Tavern has some Irish connections as well. It was a hangout for the Catholic Worker Movement and the lads were known for drinking and singing and planning anarchy until Dorothy Day told them they were misspending far too much time in the joint and they should get back to work.

It's grand to hear from Patrick Kavanaugh fans. And speaking of the enduring echoes of Celtic Christianity, I have always loved:

'And I was six Christmases of age.
My father played the melodion,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary's blouse.'


All the best, Sean

message 17: by Barbara (new)

Barbara (bdegar) | 4626 comments Sean wrote: "Friends: What a nice little thread this has turned out to be. Thank you.

Kevin - Yes, you're right. It is the White House Pub in Limerick where I misspent my Irish travels. The White Horse Tavern ..."

Sean - I love A Christmas Childhood and Tommy Sands has a lovely musical version of the poem.
Emma - you nailed it pointing out that Yeats' plays were just awful.
Brian - the point about who the true Gaelic revivalists were is one I will remember. Hyde not Yeats who didn't speak Irish and took, it seems, what appealed to him from the Irish myths he came across. I think the superficial approach of Yeats to the Irish language heritage is what doesn't sit well with me. The airy fairy stuff.

Having made the distinction already between Anglo Irish and Irish literary traditions, I don't want to discount some of the great writing by so-called Anglo Irish writers such as Elizabeth Bowen. And writing Anglo Irish, I am not even sure how it is defined, and feel the definition may vary. Some may define it as Irish writers who have been labeled English or British, which isn't what it means at all.

message 18: by Clare (new)

Clare O'Beara | 148 comments This is a worthwhile topic for discussion. My main points of reference however are mystery novels, set in well-researched historical times.
Sister Fidelma is one good character, and a lady Brehon judge another, though the latter is not strictly about the Christianity of the time but includes it as one factor in people's lives.
My Lady Judge: A Mystery of Medieval Ireland
My Lady Judge A Mystery of Medieval Ireland (Mysteries of Medieval Ireland) by Cora Harrison
Absolution by Murder
Absolution by Murder (Sister Fidelma, #1) by Peter Tremayne

message 19: by Barbara (new)

Barbara (bdegar) | 4626 comments Clare wrote: "This is a worthwhile topic for discussion. My main points of reference however are mystery novels, set in well-researched historical times.
Sister Fidelma is one good character, and a lady Brehon ..."

Clare - I like both these series especially the Sister Fidelma books.

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