My heritage is a mixture of various northern and western European nationalities, but the largest part is Irish. I have always had somewhat mixed feelings about my Irish heritage.
Growing up in a community without much real Irish culture (German heritage was dominant in that area), the Irish American culture seemed to largely be either kitschy manufactured junk or Catholic religious materials. My Irish ancestors had been in the United States since before the Civil War, so there was no living memories or even much in terms of oral family traditions about the Old Country. There’s always a cultural undercurrent that the Irish left to escape poverty, war, alcoholism and squalor. The green land was beautiful to look at, but couldn’t feed her hungry children.
The one aspect that seemed to stick through the generations, on my Mother’s side at least, was Catholicism. There were always wishes that roads rise to meet you and that you’ll be in heaven for a half hour before the devil knows you’re dead. At the center was always Saint Patrick, the man who brought Christianity to Ireland and drove the snakes out.
In my teens, as I rejected Christianity, treating Patrick as a hero didn’t seem to make much sense. Ireland had been at war for centuries over different factions of Christianity, and that war was alive and well in Northern Ireland when I was young. It didn’t really look to me like it had been much of a gift.
Oh, and there were never snakes in Ireland, by the way, so that part of the story is just fabrication.
I also started to discover some parts of Irish heritage that were far more appealing to me, such as Ireland’s fantastic tradition of writers and story-tellers. I was much more interested in Yeats, Wilde and Synge than the likes of Frank McCourt, whose work seemed to just reinforce that poverty, alcoholism and squalor storyline.
It was through Yeats that I finally heard about some of the rich culture of pre-Christian Ireland. He has references the Tuatha Dé Danann and the hero Cuchulain. I began to learn about Brigit and Lugh. At some point these stories and deities belonged to my ancestors, but somehow, somewhere, this heritage was lost.
I puzzle over this. Ireland seems to have turned to Christianity voluntarily, and though vestiges of the older culture survived, much of it was whitewashed, co-opted or suppressed. Churches were built on top of ancient ruins. Brigid turned from a goddess to a saint. Some parts of the old culture were kept, if in a new form.
Still, why did they reject the gods and goddesses of their land and their ancestors and adopt a foreign religion that instructed them to reject the divine world they knew? It wasn’t an addition to the landscape; it was a bulldozer that aimed to flatten what was there before so a different belief could be built.
This is a puzzle I have never quite worked out.
I have gained more knowledge about Irish history and the complications over the English domination of the land and how that conflict brought about much of the poverty as well as the civil wars. It is really only in the last few decades that those struggles have truly been overcome and peace and prosperity have taken hold in Ireland. But understanding later history still doesn’t explain the earlier rejection of a cultural heritage with regard to religion.
I have much to learn about ancient Irish religion. Sadly, little was written down before the Christian period, so reconstruction has some challenges. I know that there is a devoted community of reconstructionists, though, who have done great work to reclaim what was lost.