We hear much about ‘Celtic Spirituality’ these days. In any bookshop the ‘Mind-Body-Spirit’ section is sure to include a fair few books promising enlightenment the Celtic way. Celtic Spirituality is usually taken to be some unique melding of pagan and Christian: nature-loving, non-dogmatic, with gods and saints happily drinking from the same cauldron. It’s a very popular image, even within the Church, but it doesn’t have the benefit of being based in fact. Practically all the Irish religious texts we have are resoundingly Christian, and are often explicitly anti-pagan. It is true, there are distinctive features of these texts, but they are nevertheless soundly orthodox. ‘Celtic spirituality’, then, is largely a work of the modern imagination.
How about the texts of the Irish tradition themselves? Once we understand them in their proper context, they really are special. Lón Anama is a collection of 77 poems and prayers in the Irish language from the 8th century to the 20th. The texts are arranged with a parallel translation into English, for those whose command of Irish is less than perfect.
A notable feature of these texts is a strong focus on the persons of Jesus and Mary. The first, by Blatmac (fl. 760) is a ‘keening poem’ addressed to Mary, mourning the loss of her son:
Come to me, loving Mary,
that I may keen with you your very dear one.
Alas that your son should go to the cross,
he who was a great diadem, a beautiful hero.
A well-known poem attributed to St Íte brings this emotional engagement with Jesus’ humanity a step further, as she imagines herself nursing Ísucan, little Jesus: ‘It is little Jesus/who is nursed by me in my little hermitage… Jesus with Heaven’s inhabitants/is against my heart every night’.
Another expression of the intimate and direct piety of this period is the poem ‘Rop tú mo baile’, translated into English in the well-loved hymn, ‘Be Thou my Vision’. There the anonymous poet requests that God be his ‘vision’, his ‘meditation’, his ‘speech’, ‘understanding’, ‘father’, ‘battle-shield’, ‘sword’, ‘honour’, ‘delight’, and so on.
Later poets are known to us by name, like Tomás Rua Ó Súilleabháin (author of ‘King of the Sunday) and the Franciscan Aodh MacAingil. Contemporary poets are included too, not all of whom are convinced believers. Here, the collection takes an interesting turn, as the sincere and unself-conscious piety of the Irish tradition faces up to the age of doubt. The poet Liam Ó Muirthile, for example, is disturbed, rather than consoled, by a Corpus Christi procession:
Is this all we’re left: a welter
of simmering emotion stirred up
with a pinch of belief?
We woke to our bodies long ago,
shut the door
on that stale, gutted spirituality.
But behold the bared body
of Christ, awkwardly borne,
unsettling us once more.
It’s worth getting a copy of this book for several reasons. Firstly, because it enables the reader to gain an accurate sense of the images, metaphors and biblical events which inspired Christian writers in the Irish tradition. Secondly, though, the fact that the collection spans nearly the whole of Irish Christian literature, it enables the reader to understand where the Christian imagination has been, where it is now, and so, where it might go. ‘Celtic spirituality’ may be a fairly rootless concept, but ‘Irish Christianity’ is a valuable one, and reflecting on the sources of Irish Christianity can lend cultural depth to the beginnings of the New Evangelisation in this old island.
(Lón Anama, edited by Ciarán MacMurchaidh is published by Cois Life Press)