The Irish Christian Holy Men: Druids Reinvented?

The Irish Christian Holy Men: Druids Reinvented?

By Chelsea Shields-Más

Thesis, Mount Holyoke College, 2008

Abstract: My research explores the strategies of Christian missionaries for converting pagan Ireland’s warrior and druidic aristocracy in the 5th-6th centuries A.D. To this end, I have relied heavily upon Adomnán of Iona’s 7th century Life of St Columba, written over one hundred years after the saint’s death. To impress the Irish aristocracy, Adomnán presents Columba as a dynamic, powerful individual, capable of fantastic miracles and feats. The Life presents Columba as a super druid, a holy man par excellence, with all the pagan druidic powers, utilizing them for the good of the people and the spread of Christianity. Celtic hagiography is unique in its presentation of saints lives. Many elements hearken back to pre-Christian pagan times, especially in depicting the druids and their power versus the powers of the saints of God. Hagiographers were not historians, by any stretch of the imagination. Their goal was not to give an accurate representation of a man s life but to make him into an overpowering agent of divine force a revered, awesome individual, advancing Christianity against the powers of darkness. Their sole object was to provide edification by means of narratives abounding in marvelous incidents or striking traits of virtue, calculated to impress the mind of the reader and stir up his feelings to reverence and admiration. Saints lives were indeed a medieval form of propaganda, one of the many tools utilized by the Church to effect pagan conversions to the Catholic faith. This research also explores the pre-Christian construction of the Irish hero and how he fared in the era of the Christianization of Ireland. The Irish heroic legends give the modern reader a window into the lives of the Celts during the pre-Christian heroic age. These tales speak of great men such as the mighty Cúchúlaínn, the brave hero of the Irish epic, the Táin Bó Cuailnge. Vestiges of this rich, vibrant pagan society survived into medieval Christian Irish culture. Rather than convert the Irish outright, the missionaries found it necessary to combat the existing traditions by partially embracing them, or baptizing them, and then surpassing them. This approach was, to a large extent, necessitated by the deeply embedded culture of the warrior-hero and paganism that have been a part of Ireland for hundreds of years. Therefore Irish monastic traditions and practices are truly unique when compared to Christianity anywhere else in the world, and this affords the modern historian a glimpse back in time into an ancient and enchanting world where magic is commonplace, and heroes walk the earth.

Introduction:  Irish Christianity and its brand of monasticism are very different from Christianity anywhere else in the world. This is a result of the deeply embedded warrior hero and paganistic culture that had been a part of Ireland for hundreds of years. Christianity was relatively late in making its advances upon this far-flung, wild part of the world, which had never become a part of the Roman Empire which had conquered most of the known world at the time. The brave warrior was a central figure in the pagan Irish society, gaining fame and prominence through valor and great deeds. The exploits of perhaps the greatest warrior of them all, the mighty Cúchulainn, are detailed for time immemorial in the famous epic Táin Bó Cuailnge. The druids as members of the pagan “priestly class” were an important, high-status force in Celtic society. This class of druids was one of the most formidable groups that early Christian saints and missionaries had to face and overcome in order to establish firmly the roots of Christianity in pagan Celtic Ireland. But the powerful druids faced a challenge that would ultimately overcome them, with Christian missionaries and their strategies to defeat their pagan rivals, the Celtic priests.

Click here to read this thesis from Mount Holyoke College

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