When Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization was published in 1996, I enjoyed the consternation of those who had thought Ireland’s contributions to global culture were limited to leprechauns and lamb stew, staffing the New York police force and green beer once a year.
I shuddered into my Guinness at the thought of such things, as I had learned years before how the Dark Ages were really not that dim, thanks to the efforts of Irish monks.
These monks founded monasteries across Europe and kept in manuscript the knowledge of thousands of years that otherwise would have burned to keep the barbarians warm for a night. There was more artistry in a single page of the Book of Kells (that I once was privileged to see at Trinity College in Dublin) than in hundreds of years of stylized medieval paintings.
It was a lesson in history worth remembering – that what really happened can bear little resemblance to what is written down and still less to what people remember.
As “celtic spirituality” made its comeback, after more than thousand years in obscurity, I shuddered once again at how there was a little of the Irish in all of us, how we were all urged “to release our inner Celt.”
For me, it is likely true – with two red-headed children, my mixed ancestry after nearly four hundred years of European family history in North America no doubt included some Celt somewhere. (Some ancestors were on the Mayflower, others greeted its arrival.)
Yet the pop Celtic culture irritates me more than it perhaps it should. Apart from being an excuse for some good music, the Celtic revival turned the mysteries of pre-Roman culture in Ireland into plastic trinkets and pious trivia.
There is a wealth of wisdom in what little we can glean of the pre-Roman period in Ireland and how it transformed its expression of Christianity into something distinct from the methodical tramp of the legions of Roman Catholicism. The lights went back on all over Europe, monastery by monastery, founded by the fire and determination of those Irish monks.
It was not only their patient, methodical work in preserving and transmitting the wisdom of the ages, but the practical ways in which they engaged the people in building a sustainable local culture that was the real gift of the Celts.
It’s a view of life, entwined and interrelated, that lies behind the woven images in the manuscripts, in the few pieces of ornate jewellery or on the high crosses in grave yards. Quite apart from the green hills of Ireland or the green beer of sodden revellers today, what was “green” about Celtic culture was the way it embodied the universe of relations.
The oldest stories are not only about people, humans encountering each other, but humans, spiritual beings, animals woven together in a story that was a part of the local features of the earth itself. Like aboriginal cultures in the Americas, Irish legends turned the landscape into a living narrative of all the complexities of life, its interrelationships, its meaning and purpose.
The answers are never easy and simple, if there are any answers at all, because they are woven together with the questions into a dynamic that never ends.
So, as we weave our own stories, not only out of the fabric of our lives but out of the earth itself, we may glimpse something of the same wisdom whose legacy is manifested in subtle ways through the culture in which we live. It is as persistent as life, as resilient as healing, as wise as the moon, as mysterious as a first breath or a last.
I don’t wear green on St. Patrick’s day to honour the man, or to follow the maudlin crowds. I’d take a pint of Guinness over the Irish stew and would rather make my own luck than rely on leprechauns or clover.
Instead, green to me speaks to me of the subtle wisdom that weaves itself through the frenzy of a culture in a hurry to get nowhere faster. In the image of a solitary, determined figure, walking with purpose toward a distant horizon, beyond which lies an uncertain future among strangers in an unknown land, I find bread for the journey and strength for the day.
Sometimes, there are companions along the way, sharing a part of that journey for a little while. It is always a blessing to meet them, to share the welcome and acceptance that is found in a moment of Presence.
When the road comes to a fork and our journeys go in different directions, as they inevitably do, the blessing we give follows them as a sign of what is once shared and never lost:
May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields,
And, until we meet again,
May you be held in the palm of God’s hand.
— Traditional Irish Blessing