The Power of Place: Ireland’s Inis Mor is rich with Celtic Spiritual Tradition
Dara Molloy is a Celtic priest whom I met this summer when visiting the Aran Island of Inis Mor, off Galway and the West Coast of Ireland. Dara authored "Legends In The Landscape, A Pocket Guide to Inis Mór, Árainn," which provides a wonderful introduction to the area’s history of rich Celtic spiritual traditions and a lore-filled road map to the significant cultural sites across the island.
Dara is not only a knowledgeable guide to Celtic mythology--he is actively engaged in bringing that ancient wisdom to life today through celebrating significant life passages with pre-Christian rituals. He has performed ceremonies at a lake edge in Donegal, on a boat on the river Corrib in Galway, on an uninhabited island off Dingle County Kerry, at the cliff edge at Dun Aengus on Inis Mor, at the foot of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, and on The Burren in County Clare.
Dara, a former Catholic priest, is also the author of “The Globalisation of God: Celtic Christianity's Nemesis,” about how Celtic Christianity was displaced by Roman Catholicism.
Dara first discovered Inis Mor in the early 1980s, and the island’s pull on him served as a life-changing catalyst. Like him, I too have an appreciation for the power of place and a deep affinity for landscapes imbued with a sense of spirituality. I hope you find this conversation with Dara as inspirational as I did! Enjoy!
Meg: Could you tell me a little bit about the history of the Celtic spiritual tradition?
Dara: According to our tradition, we had five major invasions, all landing on top of one another over maybe thousands of years, and the last one being the Celts. That’s our oral background, because none of that was recorded until the Celtic monks began to write everything down. They collected all these stories and they wrote them down for the first time.
The way we can access this history is to look at our landscape, where we have all these ancient markings, the main one being Newgrange in County Meath outside of Dublin. Newgrange is 5,000 years old, older than the pyramids in Egypt, and it’s some type of a burial mound and hollow in the middle, where it seems like bones of the dead were left. It’s totally dark inside but there’s a narrow passageway, and above it there is a little tunnel through which light can travel. But the only day in the year in which light actually travels through it is on the shortest day of the year, which is around the 22nd of December.
On that day, when the sun rises, if the sky is clear the sun actually lights up the whole air chamber in a most amazing way. So bones that have lain in darkness for 364 days on the darkest day of the year have the light on them. It’s an approximation of life after death, and thousands of years before Christianity ever proclaimed it. So that’s one of our most amazing sources of the tradition. We have many, many more, both on the landscape and also then in the mythology.
Meg: Can you tell me a little bit about your duties as a Celtic priest?
Dara: I have committed myself to a spiritual journey in my own life and to offer some type of a spiritual service to others. In offering this service, I draw on the Celtic Christian tradition as well on the pre-Christian tradition, which is polytheistic. There were many, many gods and goddesses in that latter tradition, stories and beliefs and approaches and rituals that I try to find a way of making relevant and meaningful for people today. I've developed rituals and tell stories and try to encourage people to think about different ways of putting words on their spiritual experiences using this Celtic tradition. That’s really my life. My energy goes into creating ceremonies for people. Wedding ceremonies are my biggest request, but I also do other ceremonies like renewal of vows, like birth of a child, rites of passage of children as they grow older, or for people who are sick or dying.
The Power of Ritual to Create Connection!
Meg: Could you share one or two examples of what might be involved in one of your ceremonies?
Dara: One thing that I've discovered through doing these ceremonies is the power of ritual, when the ritual is carefully structured and performed with a connection with the people involved. It can't be just an empty ritual.
Most of my life was spent struggling with empty ritual and trying to make it not empty. I was a Roman Catholic priest and I was performing the rituals of the Roman Church, which were very defined and were very inflexible. You had to perform them and that was it. People either benefited from it or they didn't, and most people probably didn't, not in a direct way, anyway. The rituals I'm performing now are ones that I'm constantly honing with feedback and with a connection to the people in whose presence I'm performing the ceremony.
I'm very aware of that connection, of how it’s working with them. It’s a bit like theater but it’s more. In fact, theater originated from religious ritual. That’s the history of it. Religious ritual was meant to be something engaging, something that would transport you. Words will only bring you so far, and then words won't bring you any further. Ritual will bring you out of your conscious head into some other place in your body, and you can actually feel these things happening in your body if ritual is touching you at a deep level--in your gut, for example.
To give you a practical example, I performed a ceremony recently in which there was what we call a hand-fastening, or a tying of the knot, for the bride and groom. You take a sacred cord, you get their four hands layered on top of one another, they face each other, and then you tie this knot around their hands and you say some nice words as you do it. Afterwards the bride came to me and said, “All of the ceremony was lovely and I really felt engaged throughout it. But it wasn't until you tied the knot that I realized deep down in my gut what was happening to me.”
There was some fundamental change, not just in her life but in actually who she was. That’s the level that the ritual affected her. We use different words trying to describe these deep experiences that we sometimes have. A penny dropping is one. The eureka experience but it’s more than just your head adjusting to a new idea. It’s something deep down inside you that’s going ‘Whoa, I’ve just felt myself change fundamentally’.
Meg: I found fascinating the descriptions in your pocket guide about the power struggles that seemed to have existed in the early monastic community on Inis Mór, particularly between St. Enda and St. Breacan. Can you describe the way of life of these monastic communities? I think they are generally viewed as warm and fuzzy and yet people are people.
Dara: St. Enda and St. Breacan are both saints but the stories about them show so much of their human side--the jealousy, the envy and the shenanigans that went on between them, which weren't very edifying. That’s what I like about the stories of the Irish saints as distinct from the other saints which are canonized by Rome, where you get the impression they're not human at all, they're so perfect and so saintly.
In the particular case of Enda and Breacan, you had a sort of competition, because there’s no doubt that Enda was the key person on Aran. He was the first monk to come ashore. He brought with him a large troop of monks, over 100 of them, which he had gathered up from other monasteries he had founded, and he’d brought them all out to Aran because he felt that Aran was a better place for the whole monastic adventure. Enda chose Aran because it was such a remote island. The Irish monastic idea was one that had been inspired by the hermits who lived in the desert of Egypt.
There’s no doubt that Enda certainly had an incontestable claim to primacy on Aran because of his history coming here, and no other monk had been here before him. Breacan, on the other hand, is a bit of an upstart. His monastery is founded the furthest away from the monastery of Enda on the small island of Inis Mor. There are about 8 miles between them. But this gives Breacan a little bit of independence. He probably was quite a good leader in the human sense—he developed quite an operation. He had lots of monks and he had lots of people coming on pilgrimage to his monastery straight across the sea from what we now call Connemara. I think he was building up a bit of a reputation for himself. Also he didn't originate on Aran. Most of the monks that came to join Enda were young monks who were starting out their monastic life, so Aran would be the first place they'd come to. They would have been young and inexperienced, whereas in the story of Breacan it seems that he was an abbot in other monasteries before he came to Aran so he had a bit of experience under his belt.
One story of Breacan is his dispute with Enda regarding the whereabouts of the boundary between his monastery and Enda’s monastery. It is clear in this story that Breacan is quite greedy. In order to settle the dispute, they arranged to rise at dawn and say their morning prayers and head towards one another on horseback, but at walking pace. Wherever they would meet, that would be the agreed boundary between the two of them. But Breacan being greedy begins to trot his horse. Meanwhile, Enda, who’s on the far side of the hill, can't see him coming on his horse. However, he has this Druidic sense that Breacan is cheating by trotting his horse. So that’s one particular Druidic gift that Enda has.
The other Druidic gift that Enda has he now brings into play, because he puts a spell on Breacan’s horse, and the horse gets stuck with his feet in the ground and can't move another inch until Enda comes upon him and that becomes the boundary mark. Breacan is prevented from traveling too far and stops exactly where the boundary should actually be. Four hoof marks of the horse were marked in the limestone for all to see for centuries to come, up until something like the 1940s, when the first tarmac road was laid and those horseshoe marks were covered by the tarmac. But the parish priest at the time felt this shouldn’t be forgotten and so he got a plaque cut, and he put the plaque on the wall where the hoof marks were, and it says on it, “Creig na Chóíre” or the Hill of Justice. So that plaque is still there marking the spot.
Meg: Speaking of hills, when we met, you mentioned the spiritual significance of “high places.”
Dara: One of the key insights that the Celtic spiritual tradition has had, both Christian and pre-Christian, is this notion that if you're looking for a sense of god or a sense of the divine, then you're more likely to have that sense in a high or thin place, or in a thin time. So it’s not just any old time or any old place, you must go on a pilgrimage to find the right place or choose the right time if you really are searching for the divine or sense of the divine.
This insight directs you towards a liminal place, and by that I mean a place that connects two different elements, such as earth with sky or earth with water or earth with sea. A cliff edge would be a good place, and clearly a high mountain would be a good place. That’s why so many of the mountains all over the world are sacred. A high place in the Celtic tradition is where you can get a sense of the divine by going up to the very top of some hill or some mountain. On Aran, in the past, people tended to build their homes on high places. These were the ring forts. They did that possibly both for spiritual reasons and for reasons of defense. So both practical and spiritual.
There are also liminal times. This is a tradition in many cultures. For example, the best time to pray is at dawn or at dusk, just as the sun is rising or setting, when there’s a change coming between the darkness and the light. Mid-day would be another time. In the course of the year, the night between spring and summer, the night between summer and autumn and so on, are also liminal times. That’s why Celtic festivals were celebrated at these change moments. The four major Celtic feasts are all to do with the change in seasons.
Celtic Beliefs on Life After Death & Taking Golden Road
Meg: Can you share some Celtic beliefs about death?
Dara: For the Celts, death meant moving into another world. Your life didn't end with death. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that the other world often was thought of as being out to the west. Ireland is on the very western edge of Europe, and when you look out to the west you're definitely looking out at sea. You're looking at a different medium than the land and as far as you know there’s nothing out there, all you can see is the horizon.
So somewhere out there over the mysterious horizon is this other world, and the only way to get to it is to travel on what they call the Golden Road. The Golden Road is that road of light which is laid down on the water when the sun is setting on a bright evening. That road, when you are looking at it, always lands at your feet, no matter where you stand on the shore. So that’s the invitation to head off into the other world, but you can't really take that road until your moment has come. So that’s a lovely visual tradition of going into the other world and how you get there and there are stories then about it in the old Celtic mythology.
For example, there was a particular horse that could bring you to the other world. That horse could walk on the water as well as walk on the land. The story of Cuchulainn illustrates this. Cuchulainn was the famous warrior who fell in love with a goddess called Fand. Fand lived in the other world. She lured Cuchulainn away from his earthly life on her white horse, and the two of them galloped off across the sea to the other world, where he no longer had a sense of time, and where there was never any suffering or death. So he lived there like almost forever. He lived there for hundreds of years and never got older. But at a certain point he gets lonely for his family and he wants to come back, so he comes back alone on the horse. When he’s back on the mainland looking for his family he can't find anybody because hundreds of years have gone by, and eventually he falls off the horse, and as soon as he touches the earth, he becomes a very, very old man and begins to die. He never gets back to the other world in the way that he did the first time.
In the Celtic Christian tradition, these ideas are inherited and played with and developed. So, for example, one of the places in the pre-Christian story, where everybody gathered on their way to the other world, was at an island ruled by the god Donn, There is an island off Kerry called the Island of Donn, and that’s where all the souls of the people of Ireland gathered on their way to the other world. But when Christianity came in, they picked another island not very far from the Island of Donn, and they called it Skellig Michael, Michael being the guardian angel of the gates of heaven. From then on, all the souls would gather at Skellig Michael on their way to the other world or to heaven.
Another aspect of that story that people believed was that after you died, you had one week in which the angels of God and the angels of the devil fought for your soul. So within that week, it was most important that everybody here on earth prayed for your soul so that the good angels won the battle and your soul got away from the bad angels and was brought to heaven. But there are many, many other little traditions around death connected with all of that.
Meg: Can you share a little about the history of lore of the ancient fort on Inis Mor, Dun Aengus?
Dara: Dun Aengus is the Gaelic for the Fort of Angus. Angus was the king of a tribe of people called the Fir Bolg, who came to live on the Aran Islands when they were driven out of the mainland of Ireland by a tribe who’d come in after them called the Tuatha De Danann. The Tuatha De Danann then were defeated by the Celts. So the Fir Bolg were a tribe—in our legends, there are five tribal invasions of Ireland, and the Fir Bolg represents the third one, the Tuatha De Danann the fourth, and the Celts the fifth.
So the Fir Bolg are driven out of Ireland by the Tuatha De Danann after their defeat in a battle, and they're allowed to live on some of the islands around the coast, including the Aran Islands. Now you have to imagine what that sort of tribal structure would have been because it most likely was a three-tier structure. There was an upper class from whom the kings and queen, their spiritual leaders, or the leaders of the army, would be chosen. Then from the middle class would come all the people with skills and knowledge and masters of various crafts and all that sort of thing, the people who were able to make the swords or the pottery or the clothes or houses or transport, whatever else needed to be done. The lower class were the workers, unskilled people, laborers, and possibly they had slaves as well, so that would be a lower class again with no rights at all.
Even though they might have settled all over the island, their leaders would have needed to have been housed in a place that looked intimidating, and also that looked impressive. The people would have needed to have kept a pride in their leaders and respect for them, so they had to be given sort of an exalted location in which to live. There’s no doubt that the place they chose for their palace was Dun Aengus, because there’s nowhere quite as impressive on the island.
Their fort had three functions. First, it was domestic, so it had to house the king and queen and the other leaders in a domestic base, so they had to be able to cook there. They had to have water. They had to have food and they had to have homes that they lived in and so on. That all happened inside the inner circle of the forts. There are three circles of stone around that fort. They lived within the inner circle.
The second function of that fort would have been military. The island is 10 miles off the coast. They would have had guards on the high points to watch out, and if they saw any invader threatening to come upon them, they would have had plenty of time to prepare. Their first line of defense would have been to keep the boats from landing at all. The second place line of defense would have been on the beach itself. If the enemy managed to get ashore, battle would have been fought right there on the beach. Only have been if that didn't succeed then everybody living on the island would have retreated back behind the stone walls of the fort; that would have been the last stand. If it came to the worst, some of them might have chosen to jump over the edge and commit suicide rather than allow themselves to be either caught as slaves or to be slain by the enemy. The military purpose of the fort was very effective; I doubt if it was ever defeated in all its time. It was there as a living fort, a place where people lived in for something like two and a half thousand years. In the last thousand years it hasn't been lived in, and it’s three and a half thousand years old.
The third purpose would have been as an outdoor temple. The role of the king and queen was not just to provide leadership, but to also be the host for all the celebrations. Whenever a big festival took place such as at the solstice or equinox or even for a wedding or a sports day, the king and queen would be the host for that event. There were ritual associations with each of the four seasons, sometimes lighting a big bonfire. There is a platform in the middle of that fort on the cliff edge. It’s a natural structure but they could have cut it away to the shape it now has. Everybody gathered around looking up. So an outdoor temple, if you like.
Meg: Can you give an overview of the 14 villages on Inis Mor?
Dara: The island is about 10 miles long but is never more than two miles wide, and in some cases it’s only about a quarter mile wide. It’s like a sausage. The back of it is exposed to the Western Atlantic, so very, very rough, very, very wild. Nobody lives there. It’s too exposed. It’s made up of these sheer cliffs that drop down into the sea, and even on the top of the cliffs all you get is bare rock. Virtually nothing grows over that side of the island because the sea throws up its saltwater onto the land and it’d be very hard for anything to survive.
We all live on the northeast side and we’re spread out all across the 10 miles. There’s no real favorite place, but if there is, I suppose it would be the place where there’s a sheltered harbor. This is Killeany Bay, and we have two villages, one at each end of that bay, Kilronan at one end and Killeany at the other end. Interesting, they're both called after a saint, so Kill meaning the cell of the saint, and Ronan and ‘Eany’ meaning the name of the saint. It’s where these two particular monks, Ronan and Enda, each put their hermit huts, and villages grew up around that.
These villages initially might have grown up around a monastic community but also there was a practical requirement that the village had to be close to a water source, water which they could drink and use for domestic purposes. Water is difficult to find on the island, because it disappears under the ground when it rains. Anywhere where there is a well, you have to make use of that, and because you have to fetch that water every day, you're not going to build your house too far from it. Even the hermits, when they built their hermit huts, chose a place where they were near enough to drinking water. That’s one of the clues to the location of each of the 14 villages. If you go to the village and look around, it won't be long before you find the well, which would have been the source of their water, and kept the village houses close together.
In each of the villages you might find not only the well for their drinking water, but also a sacred site for a bonfire. This bonfire is a sacred celebration of mid summer. It is very, very ancient, and it is celebrated on what’s now called St. John’s Eve, June 23rd. This festival marks the solstice. It is a celebration which originates in pre-Christian times as a celebration of mid summer but it then takes on a Christian layer of meaning by being connected with the birthday of St. John the Baptist. John’s birthday the following day. On ‘Bonfire Night’ the small community of people living in that village gather to light the fire as the sun goes down. As the sun disappears, the light of the fire takes its place and that fire then is to be kept lit until the sun reappears the following morning. The fire connects the setting sun to the rising sun on the shortest night of the year.
The Christian element attached to it relates to the gospel story that St. John was born six months before Jesus. We know this from Luke’s gospel. The two birthdays are six months apart. There is a phrase in the gospel where John the Baptist, during the course of his preaching, says about Jesus that Jesus must increase and he, John the Baptist, must decrease. So you have this reflected in what happens with the sun, because after the birthday of John, the sun decreases, and after the birthday of Jesus, the sun increases. It is a lovely reflection of that particular mythology in the peoples’ seasonal life.
The Tradition of St John’s Festival
Meg: Is the St. John’s Festival celebrated today by the villages?
Dara: Yes, very much so. Every year there’s a bonfire in each of the villages and it’s faithfully kept as the tradition, with everybody gathering at sunset, and the younger people staying up all night. It’s a lovely celebratory occasion, and some communities make a real thing of it. They bring out food and drink and they play music and they sing songs. We chat and meet with one another in a way that mightn’t happen throughout the rest of the year in the sense of everybody meeting with one another.
Meg: Your pocket guide refers to the Aran Islands as having likely been part of a pilgrimage route. Can describe why that would have been?
Dara: One of the challenges within the monastic movement in Ireland was on the one hand to find a place that you could call remote that would be equivalent to a desert, and on the other hand a place which could offer practical hospitality. If it was so remote that it couldn’t be got at, there wasn't much point. The monasteries that were most successful were the ones that got that balance right between inaccessibility and accessibility. Aran was a particularly good example of that, because on the one hand it looks very remote, in the Atlantic Ocean way off the beaten track. And yet it’s obviously very accessible because people constantly came out here as pilgrims and still do to this day.
In medieval times, it was accessible because the main east-west route across Ireland was a natural road created by the receding ice. If you can imagine the whole country covered with ice, and then, as it melts it melts first of all in the south and then gradually melts further north. At one point in its melting it dropped a big mound of sand across the middle of Ireland in a straight line. That mound offered a natural road across the middle of country. Ireland was bog, very impassable. You couldn’t walk in it. It was very dangerous. But this mound—it is called an esker by the geologists—stretched the whole way from the east coast to the west and offered a natural footpath. That is the way people traveled. This esker also became a boundary between kingdoms, so actually it was a safe place to travel because you weren't walking across the middle of some enemy’s kingdom, you were walking across his boundary, which would probably be safe enough. It not alone offered passage but it offered safe passage.
A lot of monasteries grew up on this particular boundary and on this route. The monastery was a place of hospitality and a place of welcome for these people traveling, and therefore this esker became a natural pilgrimage route.
When the pilgrim arrived at the west coast then, you hit the sea, and the Aran Islands is only a short hop across by boat. Travelling by sea or river was very common in those days. So that makes the Aran Islands central, and yet remote. And that’s one of the reasons it became such a great and very popular place of pilgrimage.
These pilgrims were joining the dots. The dots are monastic communities founded on the inspiration of a charismatic saint. When you visit that monastery you're visiting the spirit of the founder, and the first thing you do is go and visit the grave of the founder, and you try to imbibe the spirit or the inspiration of that founding saint at that place. When you are finished there you move on and go to the next one. That was sort of the spiritual journey that these pilgrims were making. This is the way people were taught in those times. You connect one holy place with another holy place. You connect up all the energies in that way, and you do it through pilgrimage.
Meg: I visited Na Seacht dTeampaill, or the Seven Churches monastic site, while on Inis Mor and saw the gravestone inscribed as being of the “Seven Romans.” Can you explain that?
Dara: The explanation is that the Irish monasteries became so famous all over Europe due to the pilgrimaging or wandering of the Irish monks who went all over Europe at that time. During this period the rest of Europe was suffering its Dark Ages, but Ireland was celebrating its Golden Age. These very educated, very saintly monks traveled all over Europe and made Ireland a very attractive place to visit. Europeans then began to come to Ireland, and the Irish monasteries became like foreign universities for these people. The Irish monasteries both in Ireland and across Europe provided the education necessary to young Europeans for the rebuilding of Europe. Students needed the Irish to give them all the lost knowledge, to teach them again how to read and write, and to make all the books and the skills of civilization available to them which had been lost in Europe through the Dark Ages. This is an explanation for the Seven Romans being buried way out on the outskirts even of Aran in this monastery of St. Breacan. They must have been pilgrims from Rome who unfortunately had a tragic end and were buried there.
Meg: You told me that on your first visit to Aran you knew instinctively that that was your home.
Dara: People have this experience on occasion. For example, when they meet the right person to be their life partner. A person might be at lots of parties, they work in a big office with lots of people. They’ve been searching for a partner for years and can’t understand why it hasn’t happened. Suddenly this person is in front of them, and even before they speak, a chemical reaction takes place and something really serious is happening here. It is that sort of experience except in my case it wasn't to do with finding my life partner, it had to do with finding a place.
It was something that was missing for me for a number of years. I knew I was in the wrong place. In fact, I knew I was in the wrong place from the day I was born, in a sense, as soon as I became aware. I didn't feel comfortable in Dublin, where I grew up. And then I went on this spiritual path into the Roman Catholic priesthood and into a religious community. When I got through that and qualified and was appointed to a school, it was quite clear to me that this was not what I was meant to be doing. This was not what my life was about. I had to find another way to be a priest or religious.
I didn't even have the words to describe it but it was a spiritual way of life I was looking for, and not just to live a spiritual life, but to be of service to others in it. I knew that what I was living at the time was not what I wanted or needed or was made for. But there was nothing on the horizon that appealed to me. There were no other options that I saw anywhere that said come this way, this is the way to go, do this. So I was caught.
By accident, which is the way these things happen, I brought a group of young people to the Aran Islands for a holiday in 1982. We camped on the island, and almost as soon as I arrived I began to see the remains of the old hermit huts and Celtic crosses and holy wells and churches and monasteries. I heard the people speaking the Gaelic language, which is our old heritage. And I realized hey, this is my spiritual heritage out here. I would love to live out here in the wilds with the sea pounding up against the shore, with the winds blowing in off the Atlantic Ocean, with beautiful scenery around, immersed in my own culture, in my own native language. This is what my life could be about.
One of the ways I describe it is you have the binoculars up to your eyes but they're not focused so you can't see. Then you adjust the dial and eventually they become focused and you see everything so clearly. That was my experience. Suddenly everything became clear. It was totally obvious to me that I had to move to this island and to begin to live the life that would be inspired by the Celtic monks who had lived here one and a half thousands years ago.
Meg: What happened from there up through 1996 when you parted ways with the Catholic Church?
Dara: My transition was a process of becoming deinstitutionalized because I had become aware that my mind had been formed and trained. In fact, the word used for our training was formation. Another word would be brainwashing. I had been trained to think in a certain way, to believe certain things were more important than other things. I had been trained to be obedient to others, to not do my own thing, but rather to be more directed by others than by myself. Moving to the Aran Islands, which took a few years by the way, was a process of disentangling myself from aspects of the institutional church, which I no longer required and which in fact were suffocating me and holding me down.
Meg: What was it like when you finally moved to Aran?
Dara: On arrival here what excited me most was that now there were no expectations. There was no agenda. There was no business plan. I wasn't handed a job description. Everything was blank, and that’s the way I wanted it. I wanted to put my roots down into this rich heritage of culture and spiritual tradition, and I wanted to allow myself to grow on this fertile soil, and to see what happened to me, to allow it to happen organically.
As I did that, I settled into a very simple lifestyle of prayer and work, and hospitality. I was learning that hospitality was absolutely central to the Celtic spiritual tradition and always had been. Hospitality meant welcoming anybody who was also searching and looking, so that led to me moving into a little wooden hut out on the grounds of the house that I had rented, and allowing the house to be the house of hospitality for all my guests, who came in increasing numbers. Later, I formed a non-profit company and purchased another house on the island, which was much bigger. I got some of my volunteers to run that for me.
Meg: I know that’s a long Irish tradition of hermits. Could describe that tradition?
Dara: Ireland was covered with monasteries at one stage. It was at its peak in the 7th-8th century. They were all over the country and were so numerous that, on average, were likely only 10 miles apart. We had 10 of them on this small island at one stage. These monasteries were modeled on the idea of a community of hermits. Everybody in the community was independent and following their own spiritual path. To express that, they each had their own hermit’s hut, but they chose to live close by to each other to make things more efficient and to allow for the better possibility of survival. They prayed together in a common chapel and they also worked together. They also made facilities available for guests. That was the structure of these early monasteries.
Within those monasteries there were always a few monks who felt they needed to be a bit more removed from the social interaction. These monks moved maybe a mile away from the central community, and lived a little bit apart. Not because they had fallen out with anyone but because they were living another aspect of the monastic hermit life, which involved being alone. There’s always that tension in all of us. If there are too many people around us we want to get away on our own. If we are away on our own too much, we need a bit of human contact. So there’s always that pull in us for both sides of the equation. These other monks who moved out to the edge were called the anchorites and they took on a particularly penitential style of life out there on their own.
When we read the stories of Irish saints, it is clear that most of them began as anchorites, as hermits living totally on their own in a very wild and remote place. Because of their particular charisma and personality, they drew towards them other people who chose to be hermits living around them, and so a community was formed. These saints generally ended up as the founders of a small community of hermits. That is the typical story of the Irish saint, both male and female.
Meg: The Celtic tradition has many gods, one of whom is Manannan, the Celtic god of the sea. Can you tell me about Manannan and the tradition of multiple deities?
Dara: Manannan, the Celtic god of the sea, is one god among many gods and goddesses in the whole pantheon of Celtic deities. If you know anything about ancient cultures who had polytheistic beliefs, you know that not only had they many gods and goddesses, but that these deities married one another and had children, so some of the deities spoken about are the offspring of other gods and goddesses, and the whole thing a bit like a family tree. There are lots of stories that involve one god interacting with another god. Some do good things and some do bad things. The god of the sea, Manannan, is one of those.
People who are ignorant sometimes say, “Oh, these ancient people, they just worshiped the sea and the sun and the mountains and the trees, and that’s why it’s so irrelevant to us, because we’re not going to worship the sea and the trees and all that.” But that’s actually a total misunderstanding. What these ancient people were trying to give expression to was their sense of the divine in these places.
Living here beside the sea, I see it in all its moods. I see it calm, I see it wild, I see it blue, I see it gray, I see it ruffled, I see it at high tide, I see it at low tide. I see it in winter and in summer, be it hot or be it cold. There are huge variations in the sea, and in a way it could be seen as a living thing. Certainly if you have a creative, imaginative mind, you can build all those experiences you have of the sea and all that sense you have of it, into a personality. And that’s what they did.
They built their sense of the sea and the mystery of the sea into a personality, in fact into a few personalities. Because they had Manannan, who was one god of the sea, and they also had Lir, who was Manannan’s father, another god of the sea. Manannan is depicted as this god who lives on the sea, on a boat. The boat knows its own direction. You don't have to have a sail or rudder or anything on it. It knows where to go. So you just get on board and off it goes. And Manannan had a horse. When you think of the sea you can think of white horses and the big waves. So this is where the ideas of Manannan come from. They reflect the character and personality of the sea. Also Manannan could play tricks. He could make things appear and disappear, which is definitely the case living here on the island. Sometimes we can see the mainland and sometimes we can't. And also Manannan in those cases was stealing some of your land, and that’s another factor. The sea can come in and cause coastal erosion. So this is another aspect of Manannan. Manannan is formed out of what the sea does and the type of personality that you could attribute to the sea.
There are many, many goddesses of the land. Some of them of the rivers, some of them the mountains, some of them just of the fertile fields, and all that they personify. So this is what this Celtic polytheistic pantheon was made up of. By looking at it and studying it, we can find a vocabulary and a language to get back in touch with our experiences out in nature, with trees, with rivers, with mountains, with different seasons, with the equinox, with the solstice, with the tides and the sea and so on. I find this very rich and very helpful.