17 July 2015


Jo Kerrigan. Old Ways Old Secrets - Pagan Ireland. The O'Brien Press, 2015.

Jo Kerrigan grew up amid the wild beauties of West Cork. After some years working as a writer, journalist and academic in the UK, having studied Medieval History at Oxford University, she returned to home ground where she continues to write regularly for Irish and international newspapers and magazines.
In Old Ways Old Secrets - Pagan Ireland, she explores the old beliefs, legends, spiritual practices and sacred places that existed long before Christianity came to Ireland, and which still underlie its culture and unique character. So many of Ireland's traditions and festivals relate to the ancient past and the natural world.

The opening theme of the book is this: "In Ireland, the Otherworld and its spirits are taken for granted. Wherever you go, you will find evidence of ancient beliefs, customs and traditions."

In Part One, 'The Keepers of Power - Druids, Deities and Superheroes', we are introduced to the earliest known recorded history of Ireland and the Irish, the Lebor Gabala Erenn, known in English as The Book of Invasions and in Modern Irish as Leobhar Gabhala, compiled in the 11th Century from ancient narratives. This is now considered by modern scholars to be more mythology than accurate history, and an attempt to explain the origins of the Irish much as the Old Testament gives a history of the Israelites. According to this account, the first inhabitants arrived in Ireland in what is now County Kerry in the South West, 300 years after the Deluge. They came from Greece led by one Parthalon. Some 300 years later most of the descendants of Parthalon were wiped out by plague and Ireland was left empty for 30 years. Then came Scythians, otherwise known as Nemedians, descendants of Nemed, from the borders of Europe and Asia, who, soon after their arrival were viciously attacked by a particularly nasty-sounding tribe, the Fomorians, possibly early Norsemen who had weapons of mass-destruction. The Fomorians appear to have been sea-pirates rather than settlers.

Eventually, it is said, the Nemedians left Ireland in three groups, one to Northern Europe, one to the neighbouring island of Britain, and the third group to Greece. This latter group were the first to return to Ireland..... and became known as the Fir Bolg or Bag Men, from their sensible habit of carrying good, rich earth earth in woven bags wherever they went, so that they could be sure of making their land fertile. Small, dark, gentle farming folk, they cared for the land and worshipped the spirits of nature who made the rain fall, the sun shine, and the crops grow; the Nemedians who had gone to the Northern lands had spent their time perfecting the arts of divination, druidism and philosophy. A couple of centuries later, these emigrants came back as the skilled, wise and powerful Tuatha De Danann, or people of Danu, the great earth goddess. Powerful in the arts of magic, they easily overcame the unwarlike Fir Bolg.

Much later, the Celts, wandering westwards across Europe for many thousands of years, prepared to invade Ireland. They had long believed that their destiny lay in that green land, which to them was known as Inisfail. They finally made the voyage from the coast of northern Spain, with battleships and warriors, prepared to drive out whoever already lived in this land of plenty and seize it for themselves, for the Celts were a warlike people, always ready to fight for honour and glory as well as material gain.

The legends assert that the Tuatha De Danann yielded to the Celtic invasion by withdrawing gracefully and mysteriously into the very land itself, taking up their new habitations in grassy mounds and ancient hills, beneath thorn trees and stone circles. In other words, they seem to have become the inhabitants of the Otherworld, and it is said that they still ride out at the time of the great divisions of the year, such as the Celtic festivals of Bealtaine and Samhain. The great heroes of Irish legend often have some Tuatha De Danann blood in their veins, and their birth may be the result of a chance meeting between a young man or woman from this world and a bright figure from the Otherworld.

Sounds familiar? Redolent of many Greek Myths, and the stuff of Fairy Tales, where divine beings mingle with earthlings, this mixture of legend and factual history explains much of the unique Irish psyche. Nearer to our own troubled times, of course, come the cruel Norse invasions and heroic figures leading battles against them, but still the Norsemen have left their legacy in the form of coastal cities that they founded such as Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Waterford. Although viewed with horror by the Christian monks, who suffered badly at their hands, the Norsemen's beliefs blended easily with the Celtic ones.

Ruled harshly by English overlords for several centuries, the Irish people on the whole proved to be resilient and adaptable, where necessary continuing to practise their Catholic religion in secret, like their ancient ancestors, often returning to the ancient stones, circles and rocks where they had worshipped as pagans for thousands of years. The more they were oppressed, the more they treasured their old stories and songs, passing them on from one generation to the next. The final part of this excellent book records many of these traditional stories. It also has to be mentioned that the book is beautifully illustrated throughout by misty monochrome photographs by the author's partner which perfectly complement the spirit of Ireland and its people.

Jo Kerrigan's book is invaluable for anyone with Irish ancestry, such as myself, seeking to know more of its ancient history and myths, and of the many sites that we can visit to see and feel the legacy that lives on to this day. -- Kevin Murphy.

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