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The search for a lost heritage

Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth, by Mark Williams, Princeton University Press, 2016. 578 pages.

Like many people who have worked hard to understand how our Celtic ancestors lived, I regularly grapple with a smoldering fury. No matter what thread to the past we try to follow, we find it broken. “Broken” is too weak a word. The thread wasn’t merely snipped cleanly in two. Entire centuries have been deliberately hacked from the record and have been lost to us. We owe a huge debt to scholars such as Mark Williams who spend their lifetimes trying to reconnect the threads.

From genetic testing, because I carry the genetic marker for the Uí Néill family (carefully studied because it’s a royal genetic marker and is common in Ireland), it can be said with high confidence that my ancestors were in Ireland (probably the north of Ireland) before Patrick. For that reason, I take very personally the cultural catastrophe that the church brought to Ireland.

In this book, Williams brings us up to date on what scholars of the written record can tell us about pre-Christian Irish history, insofar as Irish history can be deduced by studying the rich body of Irish literature that was produced from around 500 to 1400 A.D. The catch, though, is that this literature was produced in the church’s monasteries, in the centuries after Patrick. Though surely the literature contains some older, pre-Christian elements, no clear or consistent picture of the past can be reconstructed from it. The stories are muddled, often contradictory, and they have been polluted with Christian allegory and snippets that appear to have come from Bible stories. And obviously, for someone who was writing in, say, 1200 A.D., the trail had gone cold, because the Christian subjugation of Ireland was well under way by 500 A.D.

Like it or not, that’s where things stand. The Celtic people of Western Europe know next to nothing about their pre-Roman past because the Celtic past was systemically expunged and can be glimpsed now only through a Christian fog. Williams acknowledges that those of us who make an effort to reconstruct the Celtic past have no choice but to speculate. Williams seems to respect that speculation, but he wants the speculation to be grounded in a scholarship that is up to date.

He mentions a movement that began in the 1980s that he calls Celtic Reconstructionism. “Celtic Reconstructionists,” writes Williams, “have tended to ally subjective feelings with thoughtful investigations of the writings of classical authors, archaeology, and comparative Indo-European mythology.” That’s pretty much my method, so I suppose I am a Celtic Reconstructionist. Most reconstructionists, I think, are searching for a religious practice with which to replace the poverty of Christian theology. My purpose, on the other hand, is to make use of the Celtic past in my novels and to encourage people to think about how the world would be very different without the imperial Roman religion, which was imported from a little cult in the Middle East and which is based on very thin and very silly texts. In his notes, Williams even includes a link to the web site of a Celtic Reconstructionist in Scotland whose work he clearly respects. Here’s the link, for those who might like to follow up: Tairis: A Gaelic Polytheistic web site.


  1. Henry wrote:

    I am reading a book,Sarum by Edward Rutherford. For me its great, because I do not know the history of England. In the year A.D. 427 a young nobleman meets a monk who is on his way to convert the heathen in Ireland (I don’t know what its known (as a country) as in that time at this moment). The nobleman is busy at the time fighting off the Saxons with his village (I think slaves), so he turns down the Monk invitation to go with him. I am amazed/shocked with the history of England. The books been around since 1987.

    Wednesday, April 12, 2017 at 7:04 pm | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    That would be Patrick, whom I see as a fanatic and born persecutor, like Paul of Tarsus.

    Thursday, April 13, 2017 at 8:24 am | Permalink
  3. Henry wrote:

    More research for me – Paul of Tarsus
    Thank you

    Thursday, April 13, 2017 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

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