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Introduction: Buried Treasure

“The old people had runes which they sang to the spirits dwelling in the sea and in the mountain, in the wind and in the whirlwind, in the lightning and in the thunder, in the sea and in the moon and in the stars of heaven. I was naught but a toddling child at the time, but I remember well the ways of the old people.” -- Carmina Gadelica

In September 1868, young Jimmy Quin was digging potatoes in a ring-fort near the village of Ardagh in County Limerick. When he reached the bank close to a thorn tree he found the surface soft, and when he drove his spade down between the roots of the thorn, it struck something hard and metallic. He cleared away the earth and found a beautiful gold and silver cup now known as the Ardagh Chalice, considered by many to be the finest specimen of Celtic art ever found.

Like the Ardagh Chalice, the treasury of Celtic wisdom and lore lies not too far beneath the topsoil of memory. Digging through layers only a few generations deep, we can still uncover battered caskets of ancient customs and rituals that may reveal a shining hoard of story, prayer and song. For the amazing thing is that despite a relentless tide of invasions, persecutions, and immigrations, there was enough gold in the storehouse of Celtic wisdom to survive the centuries of plunder. Over 2,000 years ago, the first people that we call the Celts were a large group of tribal communities who inhabited much of the European continent. They were an energetic, intelligent, flamboyant people, whose passionate natures expressed themselves in heroic warfare, brilliant craftsmanship, and the worship of many gods and goddesses who dwelt in the earth below them and the sky above them. By the 1st century AD, the Roman army had pushed them far into the northwestern hinterlands. Only Ireland and the most northern reaches of Scotland escaped being crushed by the military might of Rome.

In the 5th century, Christian missionaries arrived in Ireland, and the old polytheistic religion gave way to the creed of the One God. Ireland became one of the greatest seats of the new religion in Europe, and host to a golden age of learning and art, centered around the monastic settlements. In their turn, the monasteries were sacked by Viking invaders at the end of the 8th century, the monks were slaughtered, and most of the magnificent books and holy treasures destroyed. But the flower of this new manifestation of the Celtic spirit was bitten by the frost of successive invasions, first the Normans and then the English, and almost withered and died completely in the 19th century when systematic oppression drove thousands to the immigrant ships or to death by starvation in the Potato Famine. A similar story of almost total cultural annihilation played itself out in Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, while, on the continent, Brittany was engulfed by France.

Yet in the past thirty or so years, many willing minds and hands have undertaken the task of rekindling the guttering flame of the Celtic Spirit. Even as the languages began to die on the lips of a people forbidden to speak in their own tongue, a new generation has sprung up to reclaim their spiritual and cultural birthright. As we enter a new millennium, musicians are playing traditional melodies and songs; poets are writing and reciting in their mother tongue; while thousands of the descendants of the Celtic diaspora, chiefly from North America and Australia, are making pilgrimages to the homes of their great-grandparents and visiting the once-neglected sacred sites of their ancestral homes in Ireland, Scotland, or Wales.

And, whether or not we have Celtic ancestry, many of us today are finding ourselves deeply attracted to Celtic spirituality, living as we do at a time when the sacred seems so absent from our world. There is a Welsh word, “hiraeth” which roughly translates in English as a longing for what is absent, the yearning of the exile for the shores of home. Adrift without a living tradition today as so many of us are, the many faceted jewel of Celtic spirituality sparkles like the sun on water, inviting us to set sail for those longed-for islands of the soul. To step ashore is to discover a world in which there is no separation between the visible and invisible, between Spirit and Nature, Heaven and Earth. Here we can embrace an awareness of the sacred in every moment and within all forms of life….

...For whether sowing seed, spinning wool or milking cows, these country dwellers carried out every task in the spirit of prayer, despite the poverty and hardships of subsistence living. Although they prayed to Christian saints and angels, these figures thinly veil the pagan gods and goddesses whose names they once bore. What is more, these invisible protectors were not merely to be found in church on Sundays, or in a heavenly beyond, but attended everyday life in kitchen, field and barn.

As poet and mystic George Russell wrote,

During all these centuries the Celt has kept in his heart some affinity with the almighty beings ruling in the unseen, once so evident to the heroic races who preceded him. His legends and faery tales have connected his soul with the inner lives of air and water and earth, and they in turn have kept his heart sweet with hidden influence.[1]

If we put our ear to the cracks of silence within the roar of 21st century life, we can still hear the echo of these ancestral voices, and the sound of footsteps that have not yet quite faded upon the air. If we listen respectfully, they may teach us the songs and stories that can open the gates to the Many-Colored Land. If we walk with them along the windy shore, or up onto the heather-scented moors, we can rediscover our connection with the natural world, and take our rightful place in the great circle of life. And if we follow them home, they may invite us into their houses and teach us how to kindle the flame of Spirit within our hearths and our hearts.

[1] A.E. (George Russell). The Candle of Vision. (New York: University Books, 1965).

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