Seven Eras of Tradition in Ireland
Though eras of tradition do not have a defined beginning and end we find that many of our travellers enter a comfort zone when we provide evolving traditions as a set of ages.
The dates we provide here should generally be regarded as extremely approximate except for the “cursing of Tara” in 463 AD which presented quite a defined turn in traditions.
Tradition Era 1 : Man Separates From Nature, Then Proposes Marriage To It.
6000 BC until about 1500 BC -
It was around 6000 BC when a long ice age melted fast and climate evolved into around 4000 years of global warming. What is now Ireland became divided from Britain by the creation of what is now the Irish Sea and Britain divided from the European continent by the North Sea and eventually the English Channel as it widened from being a river to being a sea.
At 6000 BC the people were hunter-gatherers relying on nature to provide their needs as required. These people were as human as we are today and with the same level of intelligence. The big difference was that a system of education had not yet developed and for education to develop a duplicable language was required. Instead, it is likely their intelligence was focused on the flow of nature. It was how they survived. Attunement to nature would have surely guided them to food, water and shelter. Within this attunement they must surely have understood the flows of nature through alignments. Points of alignment were possibly marked with large stones or piles of stones. Population would not have been large enough for construction.
From around 4500 BC the new warm climate would have turned nature to seed and created valley forests that crept up hillsides to higher levels over the years. These hunter gatherers were used to open spaces. They did not yet have the skills to navigate and hunt in woodlands. The challenge now was to remove this wood before the wood removed them and made them extinct. At this point the forests may have been regarded as a curse, but something happened to change them from a vision of curse to a vision of abundance.
The first attempts to control the growth of forests may well have started the first attempts to create rituals of protection using species of woodland that form boundaries around forests such as rowan, hawthorn, crab apple, dog rose and holly. These would have been burned to gain access to the bigger trees.
The apples of the trees of life had been picked and now mankind was to survive from his own management of nature rather than nature totally providing for mankind.
Bringing down trees needed tools and sharp tools and these were created from stone, particularly flint. The first industry evolved, the first cut into the earth, the mining of flint. The biggest mine in Ireland was the still volcanic island of Lambay, now in the Irish sea north eat of Dublin. Obtaining flint needed boats, better boats were made from wood, cut down with flint. The developments became synchronized.
Cut wood also became homes and even bridges. Permanent homes then created dependence on land nearby. Wood and stone inspired invention of tools, tools that could till and maintain land, so farming began.
By 3500 BC farming was well established and hunter-gathering became a supplement to farming rather than a way to survive. However, in these humble farming beginnings the people were aware that their new order of the land could be a fragile one so the inner call to ritual surfaced and became the first timely traditions.
What we know as goddess Morrigan today may have evolved from an imagery of the spirit that created the forests that threatened survival of man to the goddess that controlled the yields of the fields now sown by man rather than nature and animals reared by man rather than hunted.
Communication was vital to sustain man’s relationship with her, so the aligned pile of stones of the hunter gatherers became ritual standing stones, than became stone circles, that became stone circles with alters. The first of “wise men and women” followed their calling to teach others the way of the seasons, the creation of calendars and rituals that were appropriate for each phase of the calendar The first rituals were probably at times of full moon with special rituals at times of eclipses.
Abundant farming would have caused a rapid rise in population with more people learning more tool making and stone skills. This would have evolved into the first steps into bulk trading. Trading and better boat building would have also encouraged migration from other countries.
One of the new races to arrive and build communities in Ireland were the Firbolgs. Their origins come from different stories, which to me indicates that new people arrived from different directions. Perhaps the strongest stories are of tribes or clans that arrived from what is now Scotland. It is said they arrived with the first furnacing and alchemy skills, including the production of gold and the ability to use fire to make pots. They were also said to be small people. Today’s legends of leprechauns and their pots of gold must surely come from the legends of these people.
Because other races were arriving from the east and south it is said that the land, now Ireland, became to be considered as a place of regions of the different clans. The Firbolgs initiated a central place of trade and peaceful treaties. This place, in the centre of Ireland was later named as Midhe, with its centre being the Hill Of Uisneach in what is now Westmeath. The country of Meath is an evolved name from Midhe. It was from this centre that the first national High Kings were appointed.
Because the Firbolgs were probably the first to introduce the forge, furnace and kiln to Ireland they probably introduced fire rituals. It is said these people had red hair, hence the link of red hair to fire, but we cannot be sure if red haired people brought the forge or the image of red hair evolved from their skills. These people probably were also the first to establish a beginning and end of a year, the mid point between fall equinox and winter solstice, which today we call Samhain or Halloween. As ritual areas became more populated, stone circles became larger. It was at this point that mankind first established its first independence from nature.
By 1500 BC ritual had become an essential faith and veil between the connection of mankind and the goddess spirit of nature. Its timely practice established the cycles of tradition.
Tradition Era 2 : The Children Of The Marriage To Earth
about 1500 BC until about 1000 BC -
Two extremes of nature appeared to have occurred at this time, according to various shared records of archaeologists around the world. One is the cause of extreme dust from a comet that sent much of the earth into a kind of haze and smog for many years. The other is the fast rise of sea levels “the flood” that wiped out islands and lands around the Mediterranean.
Around the Greek Islands and the shores of what is now Turkey and the Black Sea two races had established trade links and settlements between the Black Sea and the Baltic sea. Both races had cultures that depended on each other yet were so different. One had developed a culture of order, legal system, currency and education while the other were almost nomads of the sea and waterways.
The nomadic sea people may well have ventured around Scotland for awhile, maybe hundreds of years before the “civilized” people, The Tribe Of Dan arrived there. It may be that the Firbolgs were once their slaves who escaped and the first land they came to was Ireland.
Eventually the Tribe Of Dan arrived on Irish shores from Scotland, and there may well have been more of them that came to the west of Ireland after escaping the rising seas that had taken their lands away.
Not only did the Tribe Of Dan bring an order of living, the first charters of laws, politics and even language, to Ireland their order of education had inspired rapid advances in science, understanding and wisdom.
They brought more advanced skills of bronze making and building skills. Bronze making introduced the first weapons capable of being used in battle and building skills were used to create the first temples for ritual. Stone circles became cairns dedicated by families and networks of cairns introduced the building of stone courts. By 1000 BC sacred courts became theatres of large ceremonies full of costumes and metals to inspire thanksgiving for the yields of human management of nature and to call upon the spirits to maintain abundance.
The faith of Brigid was born from Morrigan and alive as a guide through all traditions. Traditions of fertility, the passing from the old to the new and the flow of life from this to the other world without beginning or end. The first symbols, later to be known as the Celtic Cross, became part of ritual with the cross symbolizing the balance of this world with the otherworld and its circle showing no beginning or end.
Added to this was an exceptional knowledge and wisdom of the heavens, largely taught to them by the instincts of the nomadic sea people. Life became lived according to a wisdom of the trinity of the great spirit creator of the universe, its children being that of mankind, and its guiding spirit of the goddess or spirit of the earth that ensures a harvest each year.
The annual calendar introduced Imbolc, Bealtaine and Lughnasa named after Lugh, the high king who’s kingship established the new culture of the Tuatha De Dannan who’s order of laws, trade, currency, treaties and constitution were guided by ritual and traditions as guided to them by their new education order of seers and druids.
After about 200 years of Tuatha De Dannan high king rulership with the Firbolg culture still strong in Western Ireland and the sea people race of the Formorians still on the islands of North East Ireland, an invasion by the Milesians, from what is now Spain overcame the Tuatha De Dannan and became the new rulers.
Initially, they drove the Tuatha De Dannan to the “otherworld” but then entered into a time of poor yields and starvation. Their connection to the earth spirit was not there. After all, the Milesians were from a place known as the “Land Of The Dead”. Eventually the Milesians formed a treaty with the Tuatha De Dannan and they became a single united race.
While the Firbolgs and tribes before them had challenged nature to create space for human creativity the Celts, a modern name we now give to the union of the Milesians and Tuatha De Dannan introduced traditions of faith. They believed and served a goddess of nature that guided them through stewardship of the earth’s resources and what is created from them.
Tradition Era 3 : The Earth Spirit Separates From Mankind
about 1000 BC until about 50 AD -
Around 950 BC the high king Ollam Fodhla raised the levels of ritual, traditions and ceremony into grand theatre and pomp. He moved his residence of high kingship from what is now Tara to the hills of Slieve na Cailleach Bearra, now known at Loughcrew, as it is said he believed he was nearer the “goddess” there.
Ollam is said to have given the name to Tara from a Hebrew word meaning something like “the entry into the other world”. He believed it was too sacred to be a place of residence but was there as the sacred centre of the trinity of Ireland. During his long high kingship Ollam created a network of courts that created kind of orbits away from the court of the king.
Families had their sacred places to unite their differences into treaties and renew their vows to the appointed head of the family. Local court temples gathered family heads of a tribe to unite differences and then elect or vote to retain the head of the tribe. Tribal leaders would gather at larger clan courts to repeat the same rituals, clan leaders would do the same with regional kings and the regional kings vowed allegiance to their high king, or challenge him.
Ollam also gave this land its first known united name, after his last name, Fodhla. However, that was not fully accepted by people of Ulster who preferred Banba and the people of Munster who preferred Erin, so we know what won eventually.
Perhaps Ollam’s biggest legacy was encouraging the entire nation to increase their reverence and recognition of the goddess that he now referee to as Bearra, named after his own lost baby daughter who he believed had quickly passed on to be his guiding goddess. Perhaps her birth and death was on Slieve na Cailleach Bearra and that was why he moved his royal home to there.
Ollam commenced or widened awareness of a fire festival that commenced each Samhain at the source of the Yellowford river from Slieve na Cailleach Bearra to the Hill of Tlachtga where fire was shared amongst the druids of the nation to take home to their communities. The first fire was delivered to Ollam at Tara Hill.
Ollam also took the ritual of the harps, commenced by Tuatha De Dan king Lugh, to create a tri-ennial gathering of region leaders and their harpers. The harps were regarded as a veil to the goddess and the words of the bards who played the harps were words translated from messages of the goddess. Like with Lugh, the harps were also symbols of unity and peace. They performed during three days of feis, of feast and festival after all differences had been settles, all treaties formed and all judgments made.
The sound of harps were a celebration of the country being at peace so it could transfer from the cycle of one triple year to the next.
As the traditions of circles within circles evolved from the days of Ollam there was a fast decline in the reverence of the passage cairns. Family ritual became more and more of a living home event. Homes were being built larger, for one, so they had space for sanctuary. Part of this sacred switch from cairn to home was for safety and protection.
Ollam Fodhla has opened considerable trade with several nations across what is now Europe and the Middle East. The one unexpected trade was that of viruses and bacteria that traveled as far as the far east with some supplies. This entered the nation into an era of “plague”. Homes started to take on the appearance of fortresses and some were built on made made islands on lakes so visitors could be screened. The cairns then became merely tombs, places to place the “dead”.
There was a turn in climate during this time. The global warming had turned to global cooling. Farming yields reduced, trees were being cut faster than they could grow. Famine was increasing along with disease. Reverence for the other world from the ancient stone temples transfered to reverence for clean sacred healing water and healthy hardwood trees like oak, elm and ash that became precious for protected shelter. Rituals, ceremony, dances and meditation became more intense. The druids were turned to be miracle workers in healing and fertility of the land. Respect for the goddess also became more intense as it was believed that the suffering was due to her not being honoured correctly, but then she was rejected due to a new belief that a more powerful male spirit could be called upon to revive nature.
Meanwhile, not only were bronze weapons getting stronger and longer but trade in iron and steel had started with West Africa that supplied even stronger and more brutal weapons. The stronger the weapons the greater the inspiration to rage war rather than form treaties. The symbol of the head of the family had transfered from being a brooch of gold to the sword.
The earliest swords were made by women, the keepers of the fire under the guidance of the goddess. As trade increased with Africa their tradition of the male nature spirit arrived and dominated the goddess. The Green Man had arrived along with his seductive illusion of being the saviour of nature.
Tradition Era 4 : Reconciliation With The Goddess
about 50 AD until 536 AD -
Around 50 AD a new race entered Ireland, a Gaulish race said to have close blood and ancestry connection to the Firbolgs. They were known as the Goidels seeking to find a land to continue their Gaul traditions that were being wiped out by the Roman culture. This is the closest to what we now call the “Celts” after the Roman name of Kelts that had been given to the Gauls.
The Goidels were strong in battle and easily overcome the weakened Erin people to become the new high kings, with Tuathal as their first high king.
During Tuathal’s fragile high kingship he introduced the Gaulish language that became the Gaelic language spoke in Ireland today. He also introduced the naming of clans and tribes within clans so that a traceable ancestral heritage could be identified. By now, Britain had received its name of Britannica from the Romans after its tradition with Brigid was adopted by the Romans. Tuathal also revived reverence for Brigid once more.
As famine grew and the population grew too with access to powerful steel swords and lances this became an era of battle and less on education. Druids were called upon to be more advisors of battle rather than as teachers of farming and prosperity.
Meanwhile, the teachings of Christ were crossing Britain and had established a major centre of education in Wales. In desperation for food Ireland raided Britain, prosperous from Roman management, and brought back slaves from Britain too. Some of these slaves had been taught the teachings and scriptures of Christ. St. Patrick was the most famous. Other Christian monks came to Ireland and started to attract groups of “disciples” to form monastic communities that had brought prosperity though the middle east.
Inspired by the monastic way of community living, Cormac macAirt born within Cheish Corroan mountain now in Co. Sligo, became high king and formed a monastic style court on the Hill Of Uisneach, still regarded as Midhe. His entire life became so similar to those of King Arthur of England, but about 300 years before Arthur.
Cormac revived the traditions set by Ollam and turned Tara Hill into a Camelot that set an example for the rest of Ireland. As the big weapons were abundant Cormac macAirt’s reign was full of battles. Most of the battles were over trying to suppress battles while he established his policy of converting Ireland into a nation of prosperous and peaceful trading communities. It is said he did this inspired by the teaching of Christ and the ways of the monks. The druids of the regional kings challenged this as they could see their ruling of spiritual direction of their people coming to an end. Druids, by now, were inspiring the battles.
From the home, through the tribes and clans the rituals for the calling of the goddess thrived again and were shared openly without persecution. Unfortunately, after Cormac’s passing the country soon went back to the high kingship from Clan and Regional leaders who directed their rulership with the advice of their druids. Conflicts divided the country again, especially as the Southern O’Neill clan were now appearing to sustain exclusive rights to the high kingship,
Around 432, when Lóegaire mac Néill was high king the famous story of defiance by St. Patrick took place. Meanwhile, the daughter of a slave girl from Louth had entered druid training on Iona, Scotland, arrived in Derry and teamed with 19 women. They traveled to what is now Kildare to set up a monastic community to revive the spirit and values of the goddess spirit as shared by the Tuatha De Dannan. Named after this goddess, Brigid rekindled the fire of Brigid, brought about high yield farming, abundance of milk from cattle, production of metal work from women, taught women to be healers and raised the esteem and equality of women. She balanced this with a college for men, mainly for the craft of scribing the words of inspiration from herself and her women.
Unfortunately, the monastic orders of Patrick, commencing from Armagh, soon overcame the Brigid order and a male dominated Christian faith became the high king endorsed guiding faith of Ireland, though many clan chiefs did not accept this and they kept the old traditions and ceremonies alive.
It was over a hundred years later when Columcille embraced the old ways and traditions and clearly showed how the teachings of Christ were a higher teaching of these. The four fire festivals were embraced along with Easter as a time of resurrection. He shared teachings with song, poetry and working the land. His legacy was to set up schools of scribing to raise the level of education and ability for more people to read and learn.
Unfortunately, politics of high king Diarmait mac Cerbaill invaded the sanctuary of the monastic way of life and severely restricted the faith of Columcille. The result was a huge war in Co. Sligo that defeated Diarmait. No replacement king was appointed by ceremony at Tara but Columcille went for trial with the other priests to decide his future. From Tara he was exiled to Iona and was allowed to take the coronation stone with him, later to be known as the Stone Of Scone and used to crown Scottish kings.
The priests then “cursed” Tara to close its role as the “entry to the other world” that was identified by Ollam and the harps played there no more as written by Thomas Moore’s song “The Harps That Once Through Tara’s Halls.
Tradition Era 5 : A New Abundance, New Traditions
537 AD until about 1200 AD -
The exile of Columcille to Iona actually started a new era for Ireland. Priests trained on Iona returned to Ireland and founded prosperous monastic cities. Those who joined the new monastic communities enjoyed a more comfortable life with education, support and abundance. Traditions became a compromise of the old ways such as changing dates to fit in with the new Christian calendar. Reverence for Brighid became reverence for Mary, though Brigid of Kildare became sainted to attract her followers into the monastic communities. Songs and poetry were of joy and never of scandal.
Meanwhile the abundance of the monasteries were the envy of the clans sticking to the old ways. Instead of joining the new culture they plundered it. Often the Vikings were falsely blamed for the plunderings, but trading with Vikings was an asset for increasing prosperity of both the vikings and the monasteries.
The downside of this time was that land stewardship was defines by borders, often built with stones raided from the ancient cairns and stone circles now dormant without ritual. While the monasteries thrived the clans rivaled more and more as they tried to find prosperity from their old ways and rituals. As the clans turned more and more against the monasteries, the monasteries sacrificed their ambience to create fortresses for protection causing the people of peace to mingle with warriors recruited to protect them.
In 1166 Leinster King, Diarmuid MacMorrough, was driven out of Leinster by Turlough O’Connor the High King Of Ireland. Diarmuid then returned with Strongbow and his army of Normans. With the Normans came the French abbots and priests to commence an era where spirit tradition became replaced with dictated faith, or where they?
Tradition Era 6 : The People Rekindled Lost Traditions At Home
about 1200 AD until a few years ago -
There were two attempts to re-establish the High Kingship of Tara and rekindle the traditions of the past.
In 1258 Brian Boru stood as High King of Ireland to re-unite the regional kings and clans to reverse the growing authority from England both in politics and in faith. He was overthrown within two years.
In 1315 Scotsman Edward Bruce, brother of Robert Bruce, attempted to achieve what Brian Boru had not sustained but also with the intent of linking Ireland to Scotland to keep the English out of both countries but he was also overthrown within two years.
After Edward there were no more Irish kings and the country became under the political rule of English kings in London and spiritual rule from Rome.
As both London and Rome were distant families or Ireland life became two worlds. On the exterior there was a duty to church through attendance and country through payment of taxes. On the interior were the revival of ancient traditions that were a melting pot of all that was orally passed down during the past 2500 years or more. They were in church for Easter and Christmas but at home celebrating Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasa and Samhain with reverence to Brigid, belief in the Sidhe and cautious superstition about the fairies.
The home hearth became sacred once more where neighbours would drop by for chat, stories, songs, dancing, reflection, counseling, ritual and prayer with Brigid’s presence being revered as their guide. These “ceilis” could also be times of healing including the preparation and application of herbs. Rowan, hawthorn, and holly were once more burned for protection.
As none of this threatened the presence of the Catholic church what was shared in homes was ignored by churches. There was not the burning of witches as in England. However as the Protestant power overcame the Catholic faith and made it unlawful it was mass an elements of the Catholic faith that was quietly shared by communities at the expense of rituals of ancient traditions.
Once the penal laws were repealed and the Catholic church thrived again the ancient home traditions returned, but this time were more frowned upon by the priests. As a compromise the church integrated ancient festival days such as March 1st being St. Brigid’s Day and October 31st being All Hallows Eve.
Tradition Era 7 : Lost Traditions Become Essential Traditions Today
present time -
Ireland has become multi cultural and multi faithed so the culture is no longer ruled by the churches. However, there is a growing corporate control and media influence on what we do and how we live.
Many people are now re-discovering how the rituals and ceremonies of tradition serve as a wonderful grounding and connection to the spirit of nature that can so easily be lost within our consumer and mediate dictated culture. A recent survey has shown that many people do not even know where their food comes from. Children are failing to understand which food grows on trees and what is cultivated in soil, for example.
Through Celtic Ways tours we hope you’ll enjoy our introduction to traditions that have passed down through the above eras and can so easily be adapted and shared within our present culture.
None of what we share is intended to replace your lifestyle but to be considered as part of it for re-kindling your connection to spirit so that you do not detach from the very nature that we should be part of.
Loneliness, empty heart, low esteem and lack of purpose can be remarkably resolved through connection to nature and re-kindling the spirit through the ritual traditions that can be served so well within the coziness of a hearth side ceili.
We look forward to you joining us and sharing traditions that you can take home with you to share from your home.