Celtic Christianity

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    George O’Connor introduces Dr. Brendan O’Grady who is an honorary member of the BIS. The BIS has been sponsoring these lectures for 20 years. More than 150 lectures have been delivered in that time on the topics of Ireland and Celtic communities such as Scots, Welsh, and Bretons. The speaker talks about his interest in Celtic Christianity and refers to a book named such by Father Timothy Joyce. This book is a culmination of study on Celtic Christianity as well as a good introduction. Although Celt refers to all Irish people, Scottish, and Welsh people, as well as including the Manx Bretons from Cornwall, the speaker will concentrate on the Irish contribution to this subject because the Irish nation was least affected by the Roman Expansion as it was never invaded by the Romans.
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    The Celtic people came from the north of the Alps all the way to the Bering Sea. They spread all over the Bering Sea area and later became the European nations. The first civilization north of the Alps ranging to Galatia in the east is the Celtic civilization. The Galatians were a Celtic people, according to St. Paul. God didn’t start the world in Ireland.
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    Subject overview: Celtic Christianity and Christian aspects of the people who grew up in Ireland. He emphasizes the underappreciation by universities, scholars, and historians to the people who came to and established a civilization of their own in Ireland. Even in the most Celtic province in Canada, PEI doesn’t have a Celtic history course at UPEI. You have to go to Saint Francis Xavior or St. Mary University to get a course in Celtic history.
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    The common Christian faith of the people in Ireland unified Ireland, and the sectarianism division of Christianity is what divided them and led to sorrow and bloodshed in other places. Ireland is the only nation in the world that was converted to Christianity without any bloodshed or martyrs. For that reason, it would be helpful for all of us to go back to the origins and see where all these divisions came from. From the 5th century with the arrival of Saint Patrick, up to the 16th century, there was no division among Irelanders and they were united in faith, doctrine, and practice. Then things began to happen.
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    First, on the continent, The Christian Reformation within the Church happened and it affected Ireland. It had bad effects on Ireland because Ireland was invaded by other peoples of different religious backgrounds, which shook Ireland. Foreign invaders forced foreign reformation on Ireland.
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    The secular Irish history and the whole Irish culture were also changed.
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    Romanization of the Irish Church further negatively affected the Celticism of the people. They became more Romanized and less Celtic in their Christianity.
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    Celtic and Roman Christians did not differ in essentials, but they did differ in origins, practices, cultural aspects, and some daily life realizations of their religion. Those invaded by the Roman Army had been influenced by Caesar and Mediterranean culture. The Irish Christian is distinct but not separate from the Roman Christian. For example, they both believed the Bishop of Rome was the head of the Church.
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    One of the distinctions between Irish and Roman Christianity is their disagreement on the date of Easter day, be it on the first Sunday of April or the third Sunday or not on Sunday at all.
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    Another disagreement is on the clerical tonsure, which is the way that ordained clerics should shave.
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    Ancient Celtic way of life became isolated into the most western island of Europe because the Celts were defeated by Romans in the north of England and pushed out of England except for small pockets such as Cornwall which remained Celtic. The Welsh also remained Celtic. But for those pushed out of England and moved to Scotland, their Celtic culture became more Scottish or westerly Welsh. Ireland was not touched by the Romans, so Celticism remained.
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    The Celts were a group of related nations/tribes linked by language, religion, and culture. They formed the first civilization north of the Alps around the 8th century B.C., contemporary to Homer who was writing the Iliad in Greece, and to Romulus and Remus who were founding the City of Rome. The Celts are not a nation, but a people with the same language, the same Gods and Goddesses, and religious practices.
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    Patrick, a Celtic Briton, came to Ireland and converted the nation of Ireland from Paganism to Christianity. How did a whole nation get converted so quickly and thoroughly? The Irish were known for their gentleness and kindness to each other. Their organizations were motivated by good intentions and charity. These good qualities were counterbalanced by a fierceness in war. They converted to Christianity virtually overnight.
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    They loved to fight and they fought amongst themselves. This is because each tribe/community/family had its own king. There were over 200 kings in Ireland. There were many kings and many types of kings such as Provincial Kings and High Kings, who presided over all the Kings. Irish kingship was not hereditary. If a king died, there would be a fight to decide who would be the next king.
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    Women were treated with greater respect than in other places at that time and since the time of kings. There was a great extent of equity amongst women and men in the Celtic society and church. Abbotesses were running monasteries. The place of women in Celtic society is more greatly honored than in many non-Celtic societies.
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    Tribe was the basic Irish social unit of Celtic society. St. Patrick converted kings so the whole family group was converted once the kings were converted.
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    The kings were chosen by the clan under the direction of the Druids. Being physically perfect was a requirement to be a king, so the loss of an eye made one ineligible to be king. A king’s status was not so much above the people, but rather like a center for the people. The kings shared their quarters with family members in intimate relationships. This culture contributed to preparing these people for the coming of the grace of the church.
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    The Druids were not priests. They were philosophers, theologians, scientists, social leaders, and interpreters of the law. They were very important people who served in a way that seemed similar to clerical organizations in the church but not exactly. The respect paid to Druids and the roles played by them is not the same as that of the clergy. Another aspect of Irish culture is love for the land. Irish people are generally very conscious about owning and protecting/fighting for their land. They established borders and tree lines to keep peace with their neighbors.
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    They have always been land conscious and protective because land is the source of life and the most important element for survival. Ownership was important for people’s livelihood and also for their status in the community. If you owned land and managed it well you were highly regarded. The poets called the natural world the gateway to the supernatural world. Everything we interact with is sacred because it reflects our creator. There’re things not only have monetary value but also have spiritual value.
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    The Irish people believed that the boundary between the physical and spiritual worlds was hardly noticeable. So the spiritual world is everywhere and God is everywhere. So, they showed respect to every living thing. Some places are thought of as especially sacred, such as certain wells. They were thought to be holy wells. The water not only satisfied your thirst but was also good for your soul. This type of faith existed before Christianity. They had admiration for mountains and fear and love for the sea. All these things had religious significance. They loved the islands. There are 365 small islands around Ireland about which people wrote poems, and saintly people went there for spiritual purposes.
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    Iona in Scotland, for example, is a sacred island made sacred by Irish missionaries, Columbus and Colomba. /mic break/
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    Celebrating Halloween was a tradition in Ireland from pre-Christian times. All “Hallow” was the term for saints used by Celtic people. Certain locations were considered sacred by Irish people. Tara, for example, is where the High King resided. In England, Glastonbury was respected by non-Christians, Christians, and Pagan. Perhaps the least known was the river, Boyne. It is believed that this was the place where William defeated James. Long before that, the Boyne had other historical significance. It was named after a goddess named Boyne. It is expected to have special properties.
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    The Irish people named their children after places out of respect for the places. The same names can be passed on from generation to generation. There was the tendency until recently to name the first son after his grandfather. Children were often named after places or the people who made the place famous (e.g. saints).
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    Early Christian predecessors would go to the deserts to get away from things. The names Dysart and Disert are derived from “sandy place”. There were people who liked to go to caves or islands off the coast to meditate and get to know themselves. They offered a place of refuge from the pressures of society.
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    The Irish people have the reputation of being very verbal and socially gregarious. This is not necessarily a conscious decision, but rather the way that Irish people were generally brought up. The Celtic people had a strong oral tradition for centuries before the invention of books and writing. The oral culture was passed down by word of mouth. Bards had to memorize thousands and thousands of lines of verse to pass them down. This has been passed on in the Gaelic language. They were “people of the words”. Therefore, one has to speak the language to get to know an oral culture. Not only were they good talkers, but they applied their artistic skills in remarkable ways. From the pre-Christian and early-Christian times, we can see the instances of their workmanship in the Illuminated Manuscripts, high crosses, and other sculptures of the early Middle Ages. The Celts loved heroes as comparable to our current society. Their heroes were usually warriors. Achievement in battles brought the attention of the masses. They made Saints of their heroes. That is why there are so many Irish saints. They didn’t always call people Saints for their virtue but sometimes for their achievements. One of the great failures of the Celtic people is Archangel Michael. The monks pursued art using their talents to create and recreate holy books such as The Book of the Gospels to make them as beautiful as possible.
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    The Irish people have a love for creation and for nature. They became great pilgrims. They liked to roam and wander. It is their tradition to be fearless explorers. There are stories about Irish navigators. The Irish likes, passions, and interests easily led them to Christianity. They also spoke in triads, so when Patrick came explaining to them about the Trinity, they accepted it easily. They were also accustomed to abstract images and mysteries which made them accepting of the Christian ones.
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    The result of this was that Irish Catholicism absorbed a great deal of Paganism. Many undereducated Irish people still accept some superstitious beliefs from centuries ago. Why would Ireland develop differently from the continent? Ireland was a rural nation before the Vikings came and started an establishment. The Irish did not build Dublin, Wexford, or Galway. These were instituted by the Scandinavians. The way the church was organized in Ireland was different from the way it was organized in the continent of Europe. On the continent, the Bishops resided in the major cities but they didn’t have cities in Ireland. There were small communities and communal churches as well as hundreds of monasteries. Therefore, their church was organized around these small communities. The Bishops in the monasteries preside over sacraments reserved for Bishops. The priests in monasteries would conduct clerical services, but they didn’t have administrators of monasteries like a mayor. So they didn’t have complete control over the affairs of the monasteries. There was a division of labor there. They developed ways of doing church services that are different from the continent. The abbotess was supreme in her monastery, They prayed but not necessarily in the building. The churches and oratorios are usually very small. These monasteries could hold around 1000-2000 people. The church could be half the size of the main hall of the Benevolent Irish Society of Charlottetown.
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    Continental Christians and the Normans came to Ireland. They were not originally Celtic. The Roman model of Christianity was not the one in force in Ireland until the effects of The Reformation were applied to Ireland. Gradually, the Celtic Christian Church receded and the Romanized version succeeded and took its place. They were more severe. Today, many people are searching for spiritual security and fulfillment for humanity. Some searchers went back to our roots and realized that there’s no need to reject the entirety of our past. That makes us lose contact with traditions that could be very useful to our society today. Some people are looking back to an earlier age, not to try to go back, but to bring forward the goodness of that age and apply it to our world. The story of ancient Celtic Christianity is useful and is not just an academic experience, but a contribution to Christianity in our times.
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    Lecture Ends