Out of Ireland

I was inspired to watch Out of Ireland after having watching the two films on the Celts. It’s about the Irish Emigration to America.

A good portion of my heritage is Irish. On my mother’s side, my aunt has done a lot of research which links us right back to Ireland. My father’s family comes out of Ireland in part, too, although he had always considered himself to be Scottish. Both sides of the family had claimed they were Scotch Irish and I think my mother had always thought of this as being Scottish until my aunt’s research.

What I learned from the film was that the Scotch-Irish were Irish protestants who were persecuted by the Irish Catholics so immigrated to Scotland. Ethnically, they are Irish, but many who came to the U.S. preferred to think of themselves as Scottish. The Scotch-Irish had made their way to the U.S. prior to the large Irish Emigration that came after the Potato Famine and they made a deliberate distinction of themselves as Scottish to separate themselves from the poor Irish that were viewed by the American culture in an extremely negative light.

I had no idea how ill-treated the Irish had been in America!! They came to America downtrodden, starving, and impoverished hoping to find a better life. But many felt that life in the U.S. was even worse than what they came from (which had been absolutely horrific – many were enslaved in Ireland and some had even been sent to the U.S. as slaves!!)

I am so glad I watched this DVD.

Sex and the Celts

The sexual images and moaning and groaning in Sex and the Celts were terribly irritating and didn’t fit at all because watching the film was like being in a boring classroom rather than experiencing an engaging documentary. It did have a lot of great information, so notes…

A theory: In hunter gatherer societies, children were nursed with very little supplementation until the age of 5. The act of nursing serves as a sort of natural birth control so children were fairly well spread out. But, once the clay pot was invented, things could be boiled and supplementation for the young was much easier to come by. As soon as this occurred, it was easier for women to have their babies closer together. The clay pot marked the move from the hunter gatherer society to the agrarian society. And with women having children closer together, they began to view sex more as a job than as something pleasurable.

The goddess became extremely important during the shift from hunting-gathering societies (which typically worshipped animals as gods) to the agrarian society. The rise of the goddess may have actually been the origination of the decline of the female. A common ritual was for a King to copulate with a hag who would later turn out to be a territorial goddess. This copulation legitimized the king as a sacred king and was said to bring about the fruitfulness of the land. If the land is fruitful, the women get pregnant, the corn grows, there are fish in the sea, etc. This all comes about through the copulation of the king with the territorial goddess. If he is the wrong king, then there will be famine, enemy attacks, and death.

The societies that existed prior to the neolithic period were characterized by sexual and gender equality. This use of the goddess in agrarian societies was the first step to the control and dominate of women. It likewise provided a means for the control and exploitation of the land which could be mined and controlled without consequence or respect. The goddess is associated with the reverential worship of the earth, but the earth is now viewed differently than it was in hunter gatherer societies. It is now OK for the earth to be “raped”.

With the introduction of the Bronze Age came the introduction of the phallic symbol. This was a pull away from the feminine symbol and was accompanied by an increase in violence and warfare. It may have come about from the reproductive changes that the new stone age had ushered in. Pulling children away and weening them abruptly from the mother is one of the signs of a warlike society. These people are more interested in bloodlines and lineage and therefore obsessed with paternity. Raiding and combat becomes a normal way of life. The status of women becomes perceived as beneath that of males and a child’s paternity is considered a vital issue.

But even with this diminished status, Celtic women owned property, had the right to bare arms, became Druids, and engaged in politics. They could also divorce their husband’s for a variety of reasons including failure to satisfy them sexually. The union between the sacred King and the territorial Goddess remained the central myth that fueled the spiritual and political consciousness of the society. It’s not just a human king ruling benevolently – the union gives him god-like status.

In early Celtic tradition, the earth mother goddess engaged in the sexual union with king after king and it was said she always had a man in waiting. This may have represented a pre-Celtic social order where women retained a high degree of sexual autonomy. In later Celtic literature, the earth mother goddess is transformed into an evil, manipulative queen who uses men to satisfy her lusts and to do her bidding.

The popular Celtic man-God, Cuchulainn, gains his power by being able to resist the seductive magic of women and sublimates his sexual energies into superhuman acts of heroism. The earth mother goddess sends her daughter to seduce Cuchalainn, but he impales her on a pillar of stone. He is a sexual misfit and sexually ambivalent. He sleeps with women, but his greatest affection is for men and usually the sexual encounters involved three men rather than two.

It is possible that men began to fear what they thought of as magical powers that women possessed. Birth is only necessary because there is death and it is women who bring birth about. In the Christian era, the Goddess as Hag was still celebrated during Halloween but was no longer considered part of the great cycle of birth and death. In fact, she was presented as the barren winter. She is made out to be angry, ugly and in need of an aspiring King for her well-being. (In pre-Christian times, it was the king who was in need of the hag who became the beautiful territorial Goddess of fertility.)

Mysogynistic Christianity brought with it a radical new way of viewing the relationship between man and woman. In the early Irish Church, women were said to be the gateway to Hell and there was literature written by a Irish monks that said it would be better to kill women than to live with them. St. Patrick likewise did not have patience with wayward women. Legend has it he crushed one under the wheels of his chariot because he didn’t want to see her commit a sin. Patrick’s church was so anti-sexual that several church patriarchs even condemned marriage as a sinful way of life.

Holiness was equated with pain rather than with pleasure. The greater the pain, the holier the hermit and the greater the reward in heaven. The documentary goes through tale after horrible tale of hatred toward women written by Irish monks.

The Catholic Handbook for Penitents originated in Ireland and then spread to the rest of Europe. This was the book that told priests how to define and punish sins. 40% of the text is about sex. If people were to stick to the rules that were assigned in the handbook, people could only have sex 2 times a week. In old Irish, masturbation was called a hand festival. But when the monks came along, they created penitential practice for 9 different types of masturbation!

The more monasticism expanded in Ireland, the less purist and more pagan Catholicism became. It also absorbed the pagan sexual outlook that it had tried so hard to suppress. Married priests became the norm. Women were also powerful figures as an attempt was made to replace the Celtic Druidesses with women like Saint Brigid. The transition from a religion that paired gods with goddesses to a monotheistic religion that was entirely male was an extremely difficult transition.

In the 1100s, however, the king of Ireland had an important Abbess raped. This would have been equivalent to raping the British Queen. And at the same time, religious orders were sent to Ireland to insure papal supremacy and to get marital laws under control. (Divorce, concubinage, etc. was allowed in Ireland at the time.) Henry II invaded Ireland and Ireland was brought under the control of Rome however sexuality remained lax by papal standards. There is the story from a cistercian monk about how his fellow monks watched nuns bathing naked in a lake and then brought them back to their monastery to “pray in a very unchristian like manner”. The Norman conquistadors who had been sent to bring Ireland under papal power also ended up mixing paganism and Christianity and became as Irish as the Irish. Some of the Norman chiefs were reported as having as many as 27 sons which most definitely were not begotten by the same woman.

When protestant England came into being and sought to gain control of Ireland, it did so by closing it’s monasteries. There were long period of fighting and starvation in Ireland during this time period. In 1641 Ireland had a population around 1.5 million. A decade later, it had been reduced by two-thirds. The remaining Irish were abused and enslaved by the protestant settlers. Many were transported to England and America as slaves and women became the sexual playthings of their masters and were sometimes mated with African slaves. Any offspring also became slaves. Many Irish women not enslaved became prostitutes and unwilling mistresses. The streets became a sexual nightmare for women. They were often ripped from the protection of their husbands and raped by the soldiers who were supposed to be protecting them.

In the Victorian period, sexuality outside of marriage was condemned but brothels thrived. Pornography was common and often graphic. Many diseases were invented (like nocturnal emissions) in order to discourage sex and terrible appliances were created to prevent the spread of these made up diseases. There were terrible devices invented to prevent masturbation, too. If an erection occurred during the night, one such invention would provide an electric shock. The Gothic world came into being as a reaction to that which could not be discussed in the polite society of the Victorian world. Western Ireland, however, was much freer sexually and the position of women was also much freer.

In the 1800s, the Potato Famine spread across Ireland and reduced it’s population by 2.5 million in 5 years. The communities that were entirely dependent upon the potato were completely destroyed. People fled Ireland to the United States. An estimated 50,000 Irish prostitutes worked the streets of New York and abandoned Irish kids were numerous as well.

The famine was presented by the Catholic Church as God’s way of purifying Ireland. This view created the militant puritanical views that were present in Ireland for the next 1 1/2 centuries. The numbers of priests and nuns grew to that of industrial proportions. Every family was to provide at least one son or daughter to the nuns, priests or brothers. By 1911, the ratio of priests to Catholics was 1 to 210. By 1926, 1 in 50 single males (age 45 to 54) were priests or monks. Thanks to the extreme sexual suppression established by the Church, the Irish population fell from 8.2 to 4.3 million making the Irish birthrate the lowest in the world. The people had been demoralized by the Potato famine so were more willing to be molded by the Catholic clergy. Ireland became highly puritanistic and grew even more so over time.

Contact between the sexes was limited. Men married late if at all. In the 1930s, 3/4s of 25-45 year old men remained single which produced a huge increase in admission to mental hospitals. Women were considered to be the source of all temptation but the moral guardians of the families. Sinners were called upon to do penance by providing labor to the Catholic Church. People sometimes provided unpaid labor for their entire lives as repayment for their sins. Girls who were raped, illigitmate, or orphaned, or even so pretty as to be a danger to their souls, were forced to work for the Immaculate Sisters, sometimes for their entire lives. They were enslaved and beaten by the nuns and as late as the 1970s, were subject to horrible sexual abuse.

Today’s Irish culture is far more sexually open but as of the time of this documentary (the DVD came out in 2005, but I think it is from a much older Video), the Irish society was still facing massive problems pertaining to sexual abuse – especially sexual abuse in the home. Church and State still used every means at their disposal to cover up problems to make Ireland more respectable to the rest of the world. Child abuse is a massive problem.

The Celts (cont.)

Just a few more notes on the Celts from the BBC series.

Celtic art was a way of communicating the incommunicable. Most other cultures had a literary tradition. The Celts did have a form of writing but they believed that writing down their myths would destroy them. They would be static rather than living. In a way, this proved to be true because one of the things conquering people do to their enemies is destroy all of their literature. Since the Celts had an oral tradition, their stories have survived far longer than almost any other tradition. People to this day hold the title of storyteller and are passing on the tradition. (Although it looks as though television may have finally destroyed the tradition.)

Most traditions have both the visual and literary traditions, but because the Celts didn’t have a literary tradition, their art tends to be far more imaginative than other cultures, too. They used decorative means to convey ideas. And as a culture, they were exhibitionists. They tattooed their skin, died their hair and their clothing was excessively colorful and artistic. Their stories had the same sort of decorated images within them.

Often, the stories are told in song. It is said that most of the oral traditions were created because the Irish wanted to dance. There were also working songs which I wish we had today. It would be so nice to get together with people to do the mundane everyday chores (like laundry) while singing in time to the work with others!

The problem with modernizing the Celtic myth is that it does away with all of the dark questions in favor of the more romantic which keeps it from fully capturing the original depth. But there was much romance in Celtic tradition. In fact, the entire notion of Romantic love that we think of having been creating through the Arthurian Legend was derived from Celtic tradition. Chivalry was a Celtic invention.

There is a danger in trying to reconstruct the Celtic tradition for the sake of romanticism and wishful thinking. It can’t be recreated – all you get is an illusion. Likewise, the quest for ultimate origins is deceptive and what typically happens is that the Celtic heritage gets manipulated into nothing more than a souvenir for tourists.

What we do know is that morality in Celt legends is shocking. It’s an advanced form of morality. Clearly, much of the immorality that we think of when we think of Celts comes from Roman image making. For instance, the Romans turned the Irish drinking into legend but the Irish did not drink any more than any other culture. The 20th century used this drinking legend to explain away their own alcoholism. But what is likely more true is that drinking becomes more extreme in cultures and individuals that have been heavily suppressed.

We also know the Celts valued freedom of movement. They were determined to be real people rather than a bureaucracy like Roman society. What is most unique about the Celts was their philosophy. For the Celts, two opposing facts could be equally right. A conclusion can be arrived at from any number of directions. To the Anglo-Saxon and the classical mind, this might seem ambivalent, but it isn’t. There is a sense of freedom in this way of thinking. A sense of adventure which says the world isn’t all black and white – it is full of possibility.

Celtic Religion

I’m about halfway through the BBC series, The Celts and have notes on the episode about religion. 

700 BCE – is the first first tangible date for the existence of the Celts (in Hallstat, Austria). It also looks like genetically, Welsh and Irish Celts are linked to the Basques which go all the way back to the stone ages.

I had always thought of the Celts as a barbaric people in the primitive sense. But according to the film, this was a title assigned by the Roman’s to all people who lived outside of the Roman culture and Roman domination. The term “barbaric" was not used in the way we typically use it today. The Celts were no more barbaric than the Roman’s, based on our terminology. The only reason it seems so is because the Roman’s were better image makers. The Celts were not literate, but this did not mean they weren’t intelligent. They had a long-standing oral tradition, they were incredibly imaginative, and they had a successful economy. They were opportunistic, highly organized, and had a multi-structured society. Based on the artifacts discovered from their culture, they were also quite wealthy. They also had a highly developed religion.

The Celts built shrines to venerate the head (of the body) because they believed the head was the seat of the soul. They believed the head still had potency even when severed from the body, so they decapitated the heads of their enemies and ate the brains believing this destroyed its power. This sounds gruesome (barbaric), but it is somewhat comparable to the cross in Christianity. As is the cross to Christianity, the severed head is to Druidism, the Pagan Celtic religion.  

The Druid was the priest, the shaman, the visionary and it was his job to keep things right with the gods. The more mysterious and arcane his practices, the more powerful he became. We often think of the Druids far differently than what they actually were. The Druid was the profound interpreter of his religion and he had to train for many years in order to practice as a priest. He was a fundamental part of the Celtic system.

There were three predominant characteristics in Druidism:

  1. Philosophy based on observation of nature.
  2. Religion of sacrifice, mystery, and divination.
  3. Tended toward monotheism even though druidism included secondary deities – those spirits connected with the forces of nature.

The lives of the Celts were infused with mythology and their religion. Religion and life were completely intermingled. The Celts thought of the afterlife as a continuation of their present life but better. The entrance to a cave was thought to be the entrance to the otherworld so was often used in sacred rituals. The cave represents a duality in the Celtic psyche: a belief in imagination – that things are and can be what you make of them. The otherworld was a place of music, happiness, nirvana – where people were free of suffering.

There were many gods. One of the most well-known and powerful gods was Lugh who had tremendous physical abilities that were transferred to his grandson, Cuchulainn. Cuchulainn was a man god and miracle worker. When Christianity came to the Celts, it had many of the characteristics of Celtic paganism. It had ritual, legend, rites, rules and holy men to practice them. It had at it’s center, a miracle worker who was the son of a God. It offered a code for living and an afterlife and was rooted in ancient beliefs. It was brought to the Celts by very effective missionaries.

Because Christian philosophy and Celtic pagan mythology had much in common, there was a sort of merging. Many of the pagan myths were written down and acknowledged by Christian monks. By writing down the Celtic legends, the monks were searching for the roots of belief, they were organizing morality (or at least the expression of it) because the stories were primarily about moral standards, and they were legitimizing the mythologies and freezing them, putting them on display, which is a way to end them – written mythologies are essentially no longer living. They were also treating the myths as legend so that Christianity could now provide answers. Stories were built to explain the disintegration of old Pagan beliefs into the new Christian belief.

Celtic Christianity ushered in a golden age of Celtic artists who worked in the service of a new God. The art of the past was worked into current art and although the gods of the old world were mostly forgotten over time, the Christian missionaries didn’t completely succeed in eradicating paganism. Some of the more enduring pagan practices, especially those having to do with fertility rites and crops, were still being practiced almost into the 1800s in Ireland. And many practices that are touted as Christian originated with the Celtic pagan mythologies. The two merged quite nicely together.