I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.


Idols and Good Old Gods

John Minahane

History and Salvation in Medieval Ireland, Elizabeth Boyle, Routledge, 218 pp., £36.99, ISBN: 978-0367684297

Donnchadh Ó Corráin’s Key to What the Irish Wrote (Clavis Litterarum Hibernensium) appeared in three volumes in 2017. The Irish wrote a very great deal during Ó Corráin’s chosen period, which spans over a thousand years (to the early seventeenth century). Both in Latin and in Irish, the surviving materials are vast. Making his way through the mass of writings, Ó Corráin first of all gives the bare details of the particular work and its editions, offers some brief description, and lists the secondary literature. He needs close on 2,000 pages to do this.

Ó Corráin, of course, was not content just to make lists. He interprets, in large ways and small. And to begin with, an uncompromising precedence is given to writings in Latin. He takes more than 1,100 pages to get to the vernacular poets. This is logical, because Latin was the missionary language, and Ó Corráin thought that the missionaries had simply overwhelmed the pre-Christian culture.

Christianity, in his view, came into Ireland like an avalanche, obliterating whatever was before it. Even if some pre-Christian materials doubtless were retained in the new culture, what of it? We can observe nothing now (Ó Corráin tirelessly insisted) that has not already been scrutinised, pruned, reworked or realigned, cleaned up and added to, re-contextualised … If, say, Táin Bó Cuailgne turns up in the surviving literature, it is because some imaginative missionaries thought it could be christianly useful – perhaps because they detected certain biblical patterns and parallels, which we would not necessarily see there now.

Elizabeth Boyle largely adopts Ó Corráin’s perspective. However, her History and Salvation in Medieval Ireland has a sense of intellectual adventure that makes it more interesting than most things written on such themes. It is not easy to figure out one’s own place, and the place of one’s inherited culture, in the story of mankind. It was not easy to do so in sixth or tenth or twelfth century Ireland, using the knowledge resources available plus one’s powers of in-spiration. Boyle can imagine doing her own share of that difficult task, and the materials which she encounters, and in some cases translates for the first time, are presented without condescension.

Ireland at the edge of the world – how to connect it with the world’s central story? Where to begin? Obviously, not with some account of the shallowly rooted Roman empire. One would start with the Bible, which included a history and genealogy of the Jews, going back to the world’s creation and forward to the event of salvation. Irish readers examined that book very closely; Boyle notes, for example, how they spotted the discrepancy in the genealogy of Jesus between St Matthew’s Gospel and the Book of Kings. They looked for possible points of junction, collating the Bible with two or three Latin world histories and with a stock of Irish traditions going back well beyond Christian times (our author doubts the existence of the latter, but without them the attempt at grafting Ireland onto world history could scarcely have been made at all).

And so, by whatever routes of inspired guesswork, the ancestors of the Irish turn up at Babel, to create and receive their unique language. Later on, when Moses leads the Jews out of Egypt, some more Gaelic ancestors go with them, but then take a different direction. Irish history and Jewish history are woven together in this way, most elaborately in the Book of Invasions (Lebor Gebála Éireann). The Irish Christian elite found the Old Testament more interesting and easier to relate to than the New, and they drew heavily on Old Testament inspirations in their literature and laws.

There were two biblical persons who were supremely interesting for the Irish, Moses being the first. Boyle points out that in modern times Moses has been thought of as a figure of the revolutionary, who liberates a people from foreign or native oppression. Muirchú, the greatest of St Patrick’s biographers, actually casts his “Irish Moses” in something like that role: the people were in bondage to paganism “in the Egypt of this our island” until Patrick arrived to set them free. More important, however, was Moses as a figure of the national lawgiver. Here the parallel is drawn most fully in the dramatic prologue to the great collection of laws called Senchas Már, where Patrick heads a committee of three bishops, three kings and three poets. Reviewing the entire body of pre-Christian law, they approve almost everything in it as Christian, since it is in accordance with “the law of nature”.

The other peculiarly interesting biblical personage was David. Boyle presents a series of five narratives from the Yellow Book of Lecan, where Irish writers consider various aspects of David’s complex story and complicate it still more, or add to it. These writers certainly did not treat their sources mechanically. In the first story the young David, shepherd and budding hero, is presented in something like the manner of Cú Chulainn doing his deeds of youth (Macgnímhartha). In the next two stories (the first of which is focused on the killing of Uriah, whose death was engineered by David so that he could have Uriah’s wife; the second on the killing of David’s son Absalom) the Bible is bent and compressed, so as to produce Irish moral tales in two different styles. The final two stories (how David was wiser than Solomon, and how Solomon was wiser than David) have no biblical basis, but I don’t think they clash very much with the biblical characters. In the fifth and final story Boyle finds a criticism of the twelfth century church, personified by the stingy David, and she may be right.

Many other writings focus on David, including Saltair na Rann (“The Poem-Psalter”), written in the late tenth century, which is nothing less than the Bible summarised in verse. David gets more than anyone else of its 150 poems (generally fairly short, averaging thirteen verses). A further reason for interest in David is the fact that he was believed to have composed most of the psalms, and the psalms were the most read and most recited religious material of their times. “There was no uniformity of practice,” Boyle says, “but the average monk would probably have recited three psalms at each of the services at prime, terce, sext, nones and vespers, for a total of 15 psalms per day, every day.” However, the real spiritual athletes were expected to do literally ten times that: to recite the one hundred and fifty psalms every single day, which Boyle reckons could take about five hours.

There were subtle commentaries on the psalms, and one in particular (the “Old Irish Treatise on the Psalter”) had the remarkable idea that every psalm has four levels of meaning. Echoes of psalms can be heard in certain Irish poems. Primarily, however, the psalms were means of salvation. For those who recited the entire one hundred and fifty every day salvation was guaranteed, though a Book of Leinster story suggests that even this wasn’t regarded as the most demanding and meritorious marathon of prayer. The bar was not always set so high, and one psalm in particular – No. 118 (119), the Beati – was thought to have special saving power. Besides saving oneself, one could save others; and besides saving them, one might be able to damn them. “In early medieval Ireland, the psalms had the power to curse enemies, rescue the damned from hell, redeem the penitent and ensure the salvation of the righteous.”

One of the most famous psalms is about the Babylonian captivity, and the older Irish writers thought of Babylon in those terms: a place of captivity and wretched exile. Or, associated with the Tower of Babel, it signified confusion, and as such it could even be an image of Hell. However, the world-historian Orosius had included an extravagant description of Babylon’s enormous size and mighty walls, and about the eleventh century this aspect of Babylon began to attract Irish attention. Cathir dírecra dímhór, that “city unparalleled and vast”, was described with further embellishment by some gifted poets. They were at pains to emphasise that never, “in the east or the west, among all the dwelling-places of the descendants of Adam”, had there been a stronghold to compare with Babylon.

The perfection of the palace of Ninus, as a poet describes it, is such as to make one think of the Irish Otherworld, Boyle observes. And yet she suggests that the new sense of Babylon as a wondrous human achievement may have been inspired by a visible and tangible and very this-worldly local phenomenon: Dublin. In the twelfth century Dublin was thriving as never before, and its prosperity was noted elsewhere. For example, the enterprising church of Armagh was claiming a right to be paid an import tax on all cargoes landed there (as expressed in the poem Senchas Gall Átha Cliath).

Could it be that the example of Dublin, and the sense of its potential, stimulated a new interest in Babylon, and indeed in ancient Rome (important books such as Lucan’s Civil War were being translated at roughly the same time)? One would very much like to know whether an interest in Babylon was shown by anyone in Limerick, because that was the town which a high king (Muircheartach Ó Briain) had already made his base of operations. Was there anyone who could see a germ of Babylon in Limerick?

The writings that Boyle has uncovered from the tenth to the twelfth centuries are particularly useful. They show a great deal of mental activity going on in Ireland, with large projects being undertaken and a continuing earnest effort to find orientation in history. As such, they reinforce the argument made by Donnchadh Ó Corráin in his best book (The Irish Church, Its Reform and the English Invasion), where he shows that Gaelic Christianity was not, in fact, burnt-out and decadent, and did not require the importation of foreign missionary orders, and ultimately an English invasion, to put it right.

However, on certain points I must take issue with the author. “It is hard to overestimate the pervasiveness of antisemitic rhetoric in early Irish thought, although it ranges in degree from the formulaic to the virulent.” This statement seems to me to be gross exaggeration. Where is the antisemitism in Saltair na Rann? I can find only philosemitism in that poem (I may have missed something, of course). And if antisemitism was pervasive in the culture, how could it be possible to compose a poem of nearly eight thousand lines, covering not just Old Testament history but the life of Jesus down to and including the Crucifixion, without giving this antisemitism some vent?

Boyle offers three examples of writers that she regards as virulent antisemites, and astonishingly, one of them is Columbanus. The only noteworthy statements about Jews in all of that saint’s published letters, sermons and rules are in his letter to Pope Gregory, which needs to be put in context. Columbanus was trying to defend his right to celebrate Easter at the same time as the Jews celebrated the Passover; he therefore thought it wise to assure the pope that he was not unacceptably pro-Jewish, that he was prepared to use the anti-Jewish expressions approved by the Catholic mainstream. His references to “reprobate Jews, etc” must be read in this light: they are formulaic.

Idols are the theme of the book’s last chapter, and they raise the largest questions. The centrepiece is a twenty-four-verse poem from about the eleventh century, giving a summary account of the origin, rise and fall of idol-worship in the world. Composed by a master-poet, it is a fascinating piece of work. The introductory verses, telling how idolatry first began, are particularly impressive. A moment of great intensity, we are told, went wrong: a man called Zerophanes, grieving for his dead son, somehow became demonic. He made an image of the boy in gold and silver, and a devil resourceful in evil went into it. From this small impulse something enormous grew, so that ultimately there was no community in Europe, Asia or Africa that did not have its idol. The damage done to mankind was inconceivable.

This continued until the apostles were sent forth to preach the truth to Adam and Eve’s descendants: Peter to Rome, Andrew to the far west of Europe, Paul to Greece, and the others to many different lands. Two of them, the Jameses, remained at home a tír tairrngire, “in the Promised Land” of Palestine. The last man mentioned, Barnabas, was killed on the Tyrrhenian Sea. The final verse is intriguing:

Na apstail ro indarbsat –
nírbo oirecht dis díbaid,
na fir a tír tarngaire –
bríg anbfine cech ídail.

The apostles drove out –
they were not a minor elite who died out,
the men from the Promised Land –
the tempestuous force of every idol.

Reviewing this remarkable poem, Boyle does not seem to ask whether the poet may have been engaging in contemporary Irish arguments, and whether some relevant example of “a minor elite who died out” is being signalled. For her, this is simply part of the propaganda of Christianity’s triumph over idolatry. It celebrates the defeat of what preceded Christianity, in Ireland as everywhere else: pernicious devil-worship, whose eventual downfall was often achieved at a previous cost of martyrdom.

But now that we mention martyrdom … Where are the Irish martyrs? In the twelfth century Gerald of Wales, making his case that the Irish were a degraded people with a degraded Christian church, as one of his arguments declared: they have no martyrs! The archbishop of Cashel, in a witty reply to Gerald, acknowledged the absence of martyrs, and I believe that no one since then has been able to argue the opposite case convincingly. A bold attempt was made by John Lynch in his Cambrensis Eversus: he pointed, for example, to the martyrdom of Odhrán, St Patrick’s charioteer, whom King Laoghaire ordered to be killed as an experiment (to see how Patrick would react – cf the prologue to the Senchas Már). But such examples are suspected of being poetic, and our author acknowledges that to the present day “it is a truism of medieval Irish scholarship that opportunities for martyrdom in early Christian Ire-land were few and far between”.

Elizabeth Boyle may be sensitive to Gerald’s barb. Anyhow, precisely at this point she becomes uncomfortable with the too smooth story of Christian triumph in Ireland, as bequeathed by Donnchadh Ó Corráin. If the old Irish culture was simply bowled over, more or less painlessly, by missionary dynamism, does it not stand to reason that over four or five centuries the Christianity so established would become complacent and decadent? And yet, exploring the culture of the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries, one can see that Irish Christianity is still energetic. What are the distant furnaces that fuel its energies? Could it be that there was, in fact, a period of hard and often bloody struggle with Irish paganism, and that the eventually triumphant church, in its comprehensive reconstruction of Irish culture, has erased a whole history of martyrdom?

This is a new venture in thinking, and one will have to see how far it can be taken. There is a “lack of reliable written evidence” that Ireland was christianised peacefully, Elizabeth Boyle says. Myself, I am convinced by what twentieth century scholars were pleased to call “the Pseudo-Historical Prologue to the Senchas Már”. Not the story as such; the plot and the details are incredible, and they are woven around an old poem that is saying something quite different and awkward. But none of that fundamentally matters. When the extravagant narrative reaches its climax and the author lets us know what he really means, his thoughts ring true.

The following paragraph from the Historical Prologue (as I will call it, since I happen to think that its author wrote sounder history than any of those scholars who label his work offensively) is the best piece of writing I know on the Christianisation of Ireland. I use a translation of mine, published many years ago; it will not differ much in substance from other published translations, though it may be a little more readable. The scene is the general review of Irish law by the kings, poets and bishops, presided over by Patrick. The task of presenting the law is entrusted to Dubhthach maccu Lugair, described as the king-poet of Ireland and a doctor of law, “a vessel filled with the Holy Spirit”, and Patrick’s first follower at the royal court in Tara.

All the learned professions in Ireland were assembled, and each exhibited their art before Patrick in the presence of the lords of the land. Dubhthach was entrusted then with the presentation of all the poetic judgments of Ireland: whatever had prevailed in Ireland’s judicial decisions, as delivered by the poets under the natural law. For the natural law had covered much that the law of Scripture did not reach; and it was the Holy Spirit that spoke and prophesied through the mouths of the just men who lived in Ireland in the past, just as he prophesied through the mouths of the righteous patriarchs in the Old Testament; and the poets had foretold the coming of a bright and blessed language, i.e. the law of Scripture. Dubhthach therefore displayed to Patrick all the judgments of natural truth that the Holy Spirit had spoken through the mouths of the just judges and poets of Ireland, from the first occupation of the island to the coming of the Faith. What did not conflict with the word of God in the Scriptural law and the New Testament, or with Christians’ consciences, was confirmed in the judicial order by Patrick and the churchmen and lords of Ireland: i.e. whatever was in the natural law, apart from faith and its claims and the interweaving of church and kingdom.

Can the pre-Christian culture that is so described be called idolatrous or pagan? Of course not. “Paganism” as a concept – loaded as it is with negativity, confrontation, polemic, exclusion and violence – has no relevance here. As described in the Prologue, the pre-Christian Irish were a Chosen People; the parallel with the Hebrews could not possibly be made more explicit. They prefigured Christianity, whose coming was prophesied by their poets. Their great judges and poets, inspired by the Holy Spirit, had delivered permanently valid judgments of natural truth.

The coming of Christianity was therefore in no sense a defeat or an overthrow for them or for their culture. Rather, it was the culminating triumph of their culture, which their poets had foretold. Dubhthach, as the contemporary master of poetry and law, had the duty of presenting the pre-Christian law, to be duly approved as Christian. Some deletions were necessary to conform with the faith; some additions were necessary to secure the status of the church. Otherwise, the entire law was acceptable: the overwhelming mass of it, we are given to understand. The indispensable agent in all of this was the poet, the master of the old culture.

I believe that this is substantially the true story of the Christianisation of Ireland. What the author of the Historical Prologue presents as an event must be understood as a process, not by any means complete in his own time. In a poetic style, he articulates the historical sense of mainstream Gaelic Christianity. (Only the mainstream, of course; there were always other currents. In particular, there was the militant missionary Christianity represented by Muirchú, who laid emphasis on the radical break with idolatry and paganism and showed Patrick going forth “to smash the head of the dragon”).

If the old intellectual class of Gaelic judges and poets has such manifest title to respect, if they are not to be dismissed as mere pagans or idolators, then they have the right, and indeed the duty, to involve themselves intensively in the work of Christianisation. Everything suggests that they did just that. (When Columbanus, for example, tells Pope Gregory that Hibernici antiqui philosophi, “the ancient philosophers of Ireland”, had involved themselves in discussions on the computation of Easter, it is obvious whom he must mean.) The druid-poets engaged with the Latin culture of the missionaries. Some took on the missionary spirit themselves; others were concerned to put the missionary culture in context. They responded to the disturbances, the shocks, in their own inherited culture, because nothing in fact was neat or automatic. This is illustrated by the exemplary figure of druid-missionary engagement, Dubhthach maccu Lugair. I do not doubt that he was a real person, and that his poem, which the Historical Prologue is strangely built around, was a real poem with a disturbing power.

To this extent, I agree with Donnchadh Ó Corráin: there are properly no such things as “pagan survivals”, because everything we see has St Patrick’s stamp of approval. But when St Patrick goes so far, in Altrum Tighe Dá Medar and Acallamh na Senórach, as to convert some of the pre-Christian gods to Christianity, one may wonder if this is quite the missionary Christianity of the European mainstream. Once again, to understand the significance of such things one must throw overboard the concept of “paganism”. Hibernici antiqui philosophi could not conceive that their worthy old hero-gods might be on the same level as the odious gods of idolators. They were anxious to preserve them in some respectable niche in the Christian culture.

First of all, they built them into the story of Ireland in world history (Lebor Gebála Éireann) as the Tuatha Dé Danann, the second last group of the ancient invaders of Ireland, before the Milesians. Poets filled in the chronology; Boyle quotes a verse from a poem tracking the reigns of the Assyrian emperors. When the Tuatha Dé Danann came to Ireland to stay forever, Belocus, with great benefit, ruled the green grassy land of Assyria:

Ag techt Tuaithe Dé Danann
go Banba dá búantadall,
Belocus, ba trom tarba,
os fonn fhódglas Asarda.

It is hardly a coincidence that Tuatha Dé, “Tribes of God / Tribes of the gods” is also used to mean the Tribes of Israel. And then there’s Tír tairngire, the Promised Land. As in the poem quoted above, that may be Palestine. Or it may be the old Irish otherworld, without sin or pain or death, which is described in the Voyage of Bran. Some people believed that the Tuatha Dé Danann dwelt there; others thought that they resided in the fairy mounds (sídhe) and lived in ways quite similar to human beings, with whom they had many close contacts. All of this was controversial and complicated, as one may gather from Leabhar Gebála Éireann. One contributor wrathfully declares that the Promised-Land where the Tuatha Dé Danann reside is the depth of Hell, and that no one who believes that they live in the fairy forts will ever get to Heaven.

In a book published not too long ago (Understanding Celtic Religion: Revisiting the Pagan Past), Professor John Carey offered some thoughts on the strangely high status of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

The Irish also put forward other theories, for which no parallel is to be found elsewhere in western Christendom. In these conjectures they sought to give their former divinities a status which was both preternatural and benevolent: there seem to have been some who wished to continue to hold these beings in reverence, to the extent that doing so was in any way compatible with Christian faith … There is the idea that the people of the side may have been “half-fallen angels”, banished from Heaven because they sympathised with Lucifer, but allowed to remain on the earth, because they had not fought on his side … Still more venturesome was the suggestion that the gods represented an unfallen branch of humanity, still dwelling in some inaccessible region of the earth, whose deathless bliss preserved the beatitude of Eden …
There is accordingly a body of evidence that, between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries, the Irish intelligentsia were grappling in various ways with a persistent notion that the Tuatha Dé Danann were somehow associated with an unorthodox alternative to the Christian afterlife.

But the intelligentsia in question had no interest in “unorthodoxy” or alternatives to Christianity. They tried not to provoke people who might interpret their interests in that way. When Gerald of Wales sought an account of Irish history, he was given what is generally an excellent summary of Lebor Gebála Éireann. There was just one major omission, spotted by Geoffrey Keating: the invasion of the Tuatha Dé Danann was reduced to something barely significant, a minor repetition of the Nemedian invasion of the past. What I would deduce is that his informant did not want Gerald to look closely at the Tuatha Dé.

Professor Carey does not offer any elucidation of the reverence (though not worship, as the great poet-historian Eochaidh Ó Floinn pointed out) paid to the old gods. He appears not to know that the Irish were a Chosen People. And I presume that he does not accept the testimony of what he himself has edited and translated under the opprobrious title of “An Edition of the Pseudo-Historical Prologue to the Senchas Már”.

To return to Elizabeth Boyle’s work: the writings she has focused on, from the tenth to the twelfth century, are striking and thought-provoking, but on the whole I do not think they belong to the mainstream of Irish Christianity. To me, they appear to be more on the militant wing. Writings of the period that I regard as mainstream include, for example, Acallamh na Senórach, where St Patrick is fairly comprehensively Gaelicised; furthermore, the uninhibited saints’ lives produced in great numbers in Irish and Latin, which have so little regard for pious decorum; and the elaborate contextualisation, edition and explanation of the eulogy to Colum Cille called Amra Coluimb Chille.

(The latter, incidentally, is put on a level with the psalms. Its ancient editor guarantees that anyone who will recite the Amra every day, with an understanding of its sense and sound, will not fail to reach Heaven. About the recent critical edition by Jacopo Bisagni, I will only say this: it is remarkable that the author, who Bisagni thinks was a Columban monk of the early ninth century pretending to be a late sixth century eulogist of the recently deceased saint, and who has allegedly drawn upon the imagery of three old poems about Colum Cille (previously thought to have drawn upon the Amra), and who certainly has some command of Latin – it is remarkable that this poet should have totally escaped the influence of the most prestigious work of Columban Latin literature, the Life of Columba written by Abbot Adomnán of Iona about the year 700. Adomnán’s book is laden with miracle stories – Colum Cille calming the seas etc, or showing prophetic knowledge of distant occurrences or events in the future; the Amra has nothing of the kind, focusing instead on Colum Cille’s distinction as a sage and scholar and ascetic champion. Furthermore, this critical edition does not show us the eleventh century editor’s work, as if that were of scant concern. But the ancient editor has taken great pains to contextualise a difficult poem, whenever we suppose it dates from; and actually all modern editors, Bisagni included, depend very much on his explanations, and perhaps they should take more interest in how he does what he’s doing.)

I conclude by hoping that the broad-minded attitude shown in Elizabeth Boyle’s book to various kinds of historical and transhistorical writing (supported by the biblical scholar Robert Alter’s views on the Book of Samuel and on Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner’s transposition of the story of David to the American Civil War) will one day be shown to the Historical Prologue to the Sen-chas Már. That masterpiece has not been damaged by any of the things said about it. In its many-sidedness, it’s waiting.

Note on sources:
A translation of the Historical Prologue, including the paragraph cited, will be found in Chapter 16 of: John Minahane, The Christian Druids (Howth Free Press, Dublin 2008).
Hibernici antiqui philosophi: Opera omnia Columbani, ed. GSM Walker (Dublin 1957), p 6.     Patrick converting pre-Christian gods: “Altrum Tige dá Medar”, ed Lilian Duncan, Ériu 11 (1932), p. 222; Acallamh na Senórach, ed. Whitley Stokes, p 147. In: Irische Texte 4 (1), ed WH Stokes and E Windisch (Leipzig 1900).
“The Irish also put forward …”: John Carey, “The Old Gods of Ireland in the Later Middle Ages”, pp 52, 64. In: Understanding Celtic Religion: Revisiting the Pagan Past, ed K Ritari and A Bergholm (Cardiff 2015).
Reciting the Amra guarantees Heaven: “The Bodleian Amra Choluimb Chille”, ed Whitley Stokes, p 146. In: Revue Celtique 20 (1899).
Critical edition of Amra: Amrae Coluimb Chille: a Critical Edition, Jacopo Bisagni (Dublin 2019)

John Minahane is the author of The Christian Druids: on the filid or philosopher-poets of Ireland (Howth Free Press, Dublin 2008). Most recently he has edited and translated: Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh, Poems to the English / Dán na nGall (Aubane Historical Society 2020).

We are making some changes at the drb. From 2023 we will publish three times a year. The reduced frequency means we will be concentrating on our core activity, the long-form review essay. The first of the three issues to be published next year will appear in February. Blogs will continue to appear between issues. We wish our readers and contributors a very happy Christmas.




Dublin’s Oldest Independent BookshopBooks delivered worldwide