Roots of Irish Identity: Celts and Monks | Irish Identity: History and Literature |The Great Courses

something astonishing happens in Ireland in the waning years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th in this small island on the edge of Europe a remarkable cluster of writers emerged at nearly the same time and the same place these writers ranked among the greatest in Western history William Butler Yeats George Bernard Shaw James Joyce John Millington Synge and many others what is even more striking they emerged at the very moment in history when Ireland finally attained its long-awaited independence from Great Britain after suffering English occupation in one form or another for seven long centuries Ireland rested its independence from England in the same year that James Joyce completed Ulysses perhaps the greatest work of fiction the world has ever seen we call this period the Irish revival or Irish Renaissance the period when Ireland attained its identity as a nation and as a culture this extraordinary moment in Irish history will be the focus of this course to fully understand how the Irish revival could happen we will plunge back into the past and trace the roots of the evolution of Ireland over the centuries but first let me give you just a sampling of the incredible cultural dynamism the passion and the creative tensions that characterized Ireland in the early decades of the 20th century imagine yourself in 1907 and we're in the seats of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin the Abbey is only a few years old and it's the new Irish National Theatre it's the place where the Irish can come to see themselves reflected on the stage to see their culture and their values so long repressed and restrained by their English rulers put before them with nobility and grace tonight a new play is being performed the Playboy of the Western world by JMC but something is wrong halfway through the play the audience is growing restless and agitated and then in the third act they explode into outrage and riot shouting down the actors throwing debris on the stage and almost causing the whole performance to stop what is it in this apparently rollicking comedy that is so outraged this Irish audience why are they so upset at how they've seen themselves presented on the stage consider another scene it is a June morning of 1904 on the shore of Dublin Bay and three young men are sitting in an abandoned tower built by the British in the early 1800s to guard the Irish coast from a feared invasion by Napoleon one is a sensitive Irish poet one is a medical student and the third is a visitor from England collecting folklore about the Irish people and the English visitor turns to the young Irish poet and says after all I should think you are able to free yourself you are your own master it seems to me the Irish poet responds grimly I am the servant of two masters an English and an Italian what do you mean asked the Englishman and the poet responds the Imperial British state and the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church why would this young Irish poet declare himself a servant of two masters 1 the British state the other the Roman Catholic Church that story comes from James Joyce's 1922 epic Ulysses one of the most profound meditations on what it means to be Irish in the 20th century here the young poet suggests that to be Irish means to be in struggle with the masters of state and church and one more scene it's the very early morning of December 6 1921 in Downing Street London where the leaders of the Irish rebellion have been negotiating a treaty with the Prime Minister of Great Britain all in the wake of a three-year war of independence that came in the aftermath of World War one after weeks of negotiations at last they are signing the peace agreement and the chief negotiator for the irish michael collins the very man who led such a brilliant campaign of guerrilla warfare against the british looks at the sign treaty and exclaims i have signed my own death warrant within months of the treaties ratification ireland will plunge into a brutal civil war that will last nearly a year how could this happen after nearly seven centuries of struggle for independence when that independence is finally achieved how could either then devolve into a struggle in which brother kills brother this is just a suggestion of the enormous complexity that constitutes the cultural and political reality of Ireland in the 20th century these three scenes show how remarkable this period is how food 'fl how tragic and how inspiring the stories behind these scenes and the many more like them make up what we can call the Irish identity our central concern in this course over the series of these lectures we will start to see how Irish identity develops through many twists and turns over the centuries Irish identity is always multiple always layered with invasions and migrations in one wave after another it is an identity of astonishing resilience marked by tremendous suffering and great experiences of joy it is defined by a love of nature and a powerful relationship with God and it is best comprehended by closely examining both Irish history and the expressions of Irish history and the great literature art and crafts work of the Irish people to begin to understand how the Irish came to be we're going to go back in time many thousands of years for Ireland begins not in history but in the misty legends and ancient ruins of the prehistoric in the remnants of people about whom we know only tales and songs yet these vague beginnings are precisely the roots out of which blossomed the great writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century if as James Joyce famously wrote we are what we were then the Irish Renaissance of 1900 can only be understood by going far back into the origins of the Irish themselves let's start by addressing this fundamental question who were the first the original Irish well in a way there is no such thing we know little of the people who were indigenous to Ireland in prehistoric times farming communities existed in Ireland as much as 5,000 years ago during the Stone Age and the Irish landscape is still marked by the presence of these people particularly in their enormous burial sites perhaps the greatest example of such a site is the huge portal tomb at Poole 'no broom in the Far West of Ireland which dates to perhaps the fourth millennium BC Pula Brune is located in the heart of the burren an enormous expanse of limestone rock that resembles a lunar landscape that rock is scored by multiple fissures and cracks and the unique environment allows flora from the Mediterranean from the Arctic and Alpine growth all to flourish they're brilliantly colored delicate flowers can be seen creeping through the grey and Silverstone the tomb itself stands over six feet high and consists of two standing stones about a foot thick four feet long and six feet high that support the enormous capstone which is the same dimensions but a full 12 feet long beneath the portal lies a burial tomb or cairn within which the remains of human beings were buried how the tomb was constructed is a mystery how what ancient man have heaves such a massive stone into place its angle and position suggest that it is already entered up towards the cosmos that the souls of the Dead buried within the chamber are meant to be projected out into the stars releasing the souls from the earth and returning them to the heavens similar tombs temples and burial chambers exist all throughout Ireland and none is more spectacular than the great monument at Newgrange this site was built around 3100 BC centuries before the egyptian pyramids located in the Boyne River Valley about 30 miles northwest of modern-day Dublin Newgrange was constructed by ancient farming communities that thrived in the rich Valley land the site is an enormous megalithic burial tomb a raised mound of Earth nearly 40 feet high and 250 feet long that extends over a full acre it contains a burial chamber that runs for nearly 60 feet where ancient human remains have been found but it is much more than a tomb Newgrange was surely a ceremonial center a place of worship of communal gathering of astrological significance and of cultic and ritual events the first archaeologists to fully excavate Newgrange called it the Cathedral of the Neolithic religion the outside is surrounded by nearly 100 massive curb stones that are richly decorated with a variety of abstract art Chevron's spirals serpentine forms and more scholars have long debated the significance of these art forms and the culture beliefs that they express they clearly reveal to us a culture that valued abstract art and the connections between human art and the cosmos but the true glory of Newgrange is the enormous burial chamber as it extends back into the mound multiple repositories line the sides here it's likely that the bones of the dead princes and kings were deposited for a site such as this would have been used for only royal burials the chamber is essentially a long narrow tunnel issuing in a larger chamber that may have been reserved for the most elite rulers both burnt and unburned human remains have been found in this chamber above the entrance door there is a small stone box with a carefully carved opening in the middle about the size of a large shoebox on the 22nd day of December at the dawn after the longest darkest night of the year the Rising Sun would shine through that small opening and slowly illuminate the entire chamber with dazzling light scholars speculate that the Newgrange builders were sun worshippers and they carefully constructed their ritual center so that at the moment of greatest darkness they could experience the return of light the dark death of winter would give way to the promise of continued Sun of spring and growth and rebirth and the ongoing life of the creation the cult of the Dead as one scholar describes Newgrange believed that this return of the Sun would return the bones of the ancestors to life and death would be defeated for another year even today standing in that ancient chamber is a powerful experience and still five thousand years after it was built the chamber at Newgrange aligns with the Sun at the dawn after the winter solstice and fills with the light of creation whoever these ancient people were they accomplished astonishing feats of engineering astronomy and art their memory lives on in the Irish landscape another site of great importance is the Hill of Tara also located in that fertile Boyne Valley in the eastern part of Ireland Tara is the legendary site of the Irish high kings going back to the Celtic period in the Iron Age a thousand years before the coming of st. Patrick the hill rises high above the surrounding countryside and it commands a view on the rare clear day of as many as half the counties of Ireland these eminences and high places are always associated with mystical power and divine authority in the Irish landscape other examples include Mount Brandon on the Dingle Peninsula associated with Saint Brendan the navigator and CRO Patrick in County Mayo each of which had earlier pre-christian Celtic and mythical associations as well the eleventh century work the book of invasions a pseudo historical chronicle of the waves of invaders to Ireland from the creation of the world all the way to the early Middle Ages describes Terra as the seat of the High King or re archaeological excavations have revealed a number of structures and monuments that confirm Terra's royal and symbolic significance a large enclosure stood atop the hill where ceremonies and rituals would have taken place a long avenue leads all the way up to the summit this is called the banqueting-hall but it most likely was a processional road for ritual ceremony and entrance to the hill the ancient roads in Ireland all led to Tara and one can imagine the ancient peoples processing as for pilgrimage to the hill to worship and show respect for the king at top of the hill is the leaf fall or the stone of destiny according to legend when the true King touched the leaf all the stone would scream out in recognition of the Kings hand other earthworks and burial chambers suggest solar alignment similar to those at Newgrange though Terra seems to be more aligned with the vernal and autumnal equinox –is whereas Newgrange is aligned to the winter solstice Newgrange is the older site though certainly some sort of ceremony or ritual would have been occurring at Terra around the same time Terra however is more closely associated with the Celtic peoples the first documented historical population of Ireland for we can say that true Irish history and Irish identity begins with the Celts now who were the Celts they were originally a northern European people who flourished throughout Europe from about the 7th century BC up to about the 1st century BC when the expansion of the Roman Empire and the migrations of the Germanic and Slavic peoples constricted the Celts to the western islands the Celts entered Ireland along with Wales and Scotland perhaps as early as 500 BC and began what we now refer to as Irish civilization and what I've been referring to as Irish myth and legend emerges from the culture of these people an Irish or Celtic mythology is a fascinating rich provocative body of belief and lore that will recur throughout every period of Irish history and it will be especially potent to the writers of the Irish revival whom we will study now though the Celts might have a somewhat savage reputation and popular thought in fact Celtic culture was rich and diverse and in many ways quite advanced the Celts had great skill in iron man they're iron longswords falcata or curved swords battle axes javelins spears armor and shields made them truly formidable in battle and the Celts were also quite advanced in agriculture hunting warfare and road building in fact the famous Roman roads were often just expanded versions overlaid upon the original Celtic road system the Celts were also supremely gifted artists and craftsmen particularly in jewelry metalwork and weaponry torx bracelets cauldrons and necklaces were carefully and exquisitely wrought their social structure was one of tribes and kings governed by a system of laws and interpreted judgments called Breton law and their religion was a kind of Earth and Sun worship known generally as Druidism and the druid was a combination of priests astrologer lawgiver and poet essentially a figure of knowledge and wisdom there's evidence that there were female druids and that schools much like early universities existed for the training and education of the druids the Celtic religion was a complex polytheism they had over 400 named gods and goddesses the greatest of their gods was the Dada both the destroyer and the creator his club would kill if struck from one end and bring back to life if struck with the other like the Hindu god Shiva the Dada was a triple God who could simultaneously create preserve and destroy and this tripartite structure of belief seems to have been deeply ingrained in Celtic spiritualism they viewed the human being as consisting of body soul and spirit they saw the world as consisting of three elements of earth sea and air and they thought the world of nature consisted of the animal the vegetable and the mineral and many have speculated that this is one reason why the Celts in Ireland embraced Christianity so readily its Trinitarian theology seemed an obvious and natural way to make sense of the divine and as the Irish historian Peter Ellis has pointed out it was a Celtic theologian hilary of poitiers in the mid 4th century ad who gave the fullest definition of the Christian Trinity in his work day Trinity a the Celts traced their own origins to the Great Mother Goddess Dan new meaning the divine waters from heaven the great goddess of fertility and life she's associated with creation with maternity and with regeneration in the hills surrounding Killarney and county kerry in the far southwest of Ireland two mountains rise up that are called the paps of Anu the breasts of the mother goddess from whom fertility and life flow like the other high places in Ireland these have long been the site of ritual worship and ceremony Danny's children were the two aahed a Donnan which means the children of Dan knew they constitute the bountiful array of gods goddesses and heroes who eventually would form the major figures in Irish mythology other key figures in the Celtic Pantheon included Luke god of light and of crafts he was the harvest God and was celebrated at the end of summer in the festival of Lughnasa and Brigid was their goddess of fertility and healing who in the Christian dispensation became Saint Brigid patroness of the home the Celts believed in the afterlife seeing it as in many ways a continuation of this life and of course they were great warriors a martial culture renowned even by the Romans for their bravery and fierceness so it was to this culture that the first Christian missionaries came in the early 400s the most famous of these of course was st. Patrick by any measure Patrick was a truly remarkable man a Briton and a Roman citizen born into a prosperous family he was kidnapped by Celtic slavers when he was 16 years old and he spent the next six years as a slave in Ireland there he experienced a profound religious conversion and remarkably he escaped from Ireland he became a priest than a bishop and studied in Europe where he developed the conviction that he must return to Ireland and bring the truth of Christianity to the very people who had made him a slave in 432 Patrick returns to Ireland and for the next three decades he traversed virtually the entire country establishing churches appointing priests and bishops spreading the word about the Christian God and ministering to the Irish people the legend of his exploits are many most famous is his explanation to the Irish of the Christian Trinity using the three-leaf Shamrock to communicate the mystery of three persons in a single God he convinced the Celts of the power of his new divinity when he lit the fire on the hill of slain which extinguished the sacred fire on the nearby Hill of Tara that had been lit by the Celtic King of course there's the story of how he charmed all the snakes out of Ireland symbolically banishing the devil from the island in point of fact there hadn't been snakes in Ireland since the last ice age and his presence still marks the Irish landscape today in holy Wells mountains and pilgrim trails and virtually every part of the island crow Patrick in the northwest is renowned as Patrick's holy mountain where he is said to have fasted and prayed for 40 days to this day tens of thousands of pilgrims walk up it's well-worn path to the peak to pray in st. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin a grave slab was uncovered that revealed an ancient holy well that's associated with Patrick's baptisms from the fifth century and beyond legend and tall tale Patrick was clearly an incredibly charismatic figure and an inspiring leader it is remarkable that he achieved a virtually bloodless conversion and that in essentially a single generation a pagan country became a Christian one during this same period Rome was sacked by the Visigoths and then by the Vandals and the so-called Dark Ages began in Europe Roman order was eroded urban centers declined libraries were destroyed and the wealth and leisure on which learned civilization depends vanished before warfare and plunder if this destruction had been complete we would have lost virtually all of Greek and Roman poetry history science oratory philosophy in short the whole of classical civilization upon which the European Renaissance itself was based but in Ireland this small island at the extreme western edge of Europe where the Romans never came and of which the barbarians had hardly even heard the treasures of classical culture were preserved the remarkable institution that made this preservation possible was Irish monasticism Patrick's effort was largely one of conversion and baptism but in the century that followed his ministry a series of saints founded monasteries that would thrive for the next thousand years the Irish monastic system was remarkably well suited to preserve the classical culture of Europe the Irish monks were community makers they established schools and spread literacy and learning throughout Ireland their monastic settlements were vibrant and socially connected communities at clonmacnoise in County Offaly glendalough in County Wicklow monasteries and Kells in County Mead the monasteries were like towns with lodging crafts farming and trade flourishing and some of their settlements were exceptionally remote such as skellig michael built on a granite outcropping 8 miles off the western coast of ireland literally the last land of Europe before the vastness of the Atlantic here monks for centuries sought God in the most isolated remote location one could imagine a version of the early church fathers who journeyed into the isolation of the desert to find God and of course they also contained schools libraries and script toria in the scriptorium the monks performed perhaps their most important labor slowly carefully artistically they copied page by page the great books of Greek and Roman culture many brought to Ireland by monks fleeing the ravages of mainland Europe it could take escribe months or even years to copy out certain books and a massive undertaking such as the Bible would be daunting indeed but this was the monastic life in early Christian Ireland regular prayer and worship in the community church labor in the garden plots for food and copying out the great books of the Ancients in their communities with the bell in the characteristic Irish high tower tolling the hours the monks labored to preserve the crucial knowledge of humankind in the centuries that followed they would travel back to mainland Europe returning with these texts restoring classical culture to the ravaged land this is what the historian as Cahill describes as how the Irish saved civilization the Irish monks not only transcribed the Greek and Latin of the Classical Age they also preserve the language and oral traditions of their own culture of the Irish they knew the Irish language anew it's great stories legends songs and poems they wrote these works down preserving the oldest living vernacular in all of Europe the great Irish epic the toy in beaucoup Li or the brown bowl of coolie they wrote out in all its pagan glory here the great warrior coholan battled to preserve Ulster from the invading tribes of may the queen of Connacht as she tried to wrest the great bull from the Ulsterman in this epoch given written form around the 6th century AD we see a glimpse into the violent heroic glorious world of the Iron Age Celtic people the monks also wrote down the great mythological tales of the early Irish the sagas of invasions of such legendary races as the furballs the my lesions and farther back the children of Dan knew the to aahed a Donnan according to legend the two aahed a Donnan were eventually defeated by the next invaders the gales and they withdrew from the surface world to dwell into hillsides and the underground forts and become the fairies so famous in Irish folklore the monks put into written form for the first time the great tales of Finn McCool and his warriors of the Fionna and of the great kings at Tara and their followers Dermot and granya Oshin in the land of the young Deirdre of the sorrows and many other marvellous moving legends are contained in the monastic manuscripts and these are the myths and tales that would so fascinate the Irish imagination in the 1890s when WB Yeats and his colleagues in the Irish revival turn to the iris past to restore the Irish identity Yeats wrote in 1898 that his poetry depended on the passions and beliefs of ancient times and the fountain of Gaelic legends that was just being opened and the Irish monks preserved them all we see in the marginal poems and personal writings of these monks essential aspects of what we will come to see as the Irish identity a love of nature an endless search for God a need for solitude along with a powerful desire for community and especially a dedication to learning and knowledge in the famous phrase of one of the great poems from this period pange or bond the monks life purpose consists in turning darkness into light we certainly see the same impulse driving the great writers of the Irish revival period Yeats will claim that he and his fellow revivalist seek quote that eternal and ancient Ireland which has lived from old times in tender and heroic tales and in the unwary love of many thousand men and women who have been poor in all other things this time of the Irish monasteries remains an idyllic and triumphant age in Irish history the monks living in peace and harmony preserving classical civilization and the Irish past yet while this triumphant and heroic restoration of culture to mainland Europe was occurring a new threat was appearing in Ireland itself as yet another invading culture appear these of course were the Northmen the terrifying Vikings whose arrival on the island would add a new dimension to the ever-evolving Irish identity you

11 thoughts on “Roots of Irish Identity: Celts and Monks | Irish Identity: History and Literature |The Great Courses

  1. I won’t be surprised if some far-right Irish party inspired by the Nazis rises up and decides to adopt Celtic nationalism, social Darwinism, Darwinian evolution, Celtic/Insular Christianity, fascism, technocracy, antisemitism, eugenics, and Anglophobia. I bet that such an organization would promote some wild claim that the Celts are a “master race” originating from Atlantis.

  2. We need to revive Celtic pagan culture! That's the natural religion of Ireland, of the Celts and the Gaels.

  3. 13:09, 13:42 It's not appropriate to apply Jewish mythology to the Celts. There's no reason to think that they believed the world or the Sun was created by a person.

  4. The entire world is speaking about the Egyptian civilization, Indians, Celts, Greek and other cultures which are great without any doubts but no one is speaking about Russian culture in spite of the fact that archeologists find idols with the age about 11 thousand years…

  5. Don't think you should refer to the celtic revival without refering to the Gaelic league or Gaelic Athletic association

  6. You're drivin' me to drink, lad.  Thank you ever so much.  I'm running like a crazy man so that I won't purchase this course.  It's not your fault, lad.  The fault is mine.  You're so good that I know I won't be able to put the lectures down until I finish every last one of them.  Happy days, Bro.

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