|Image of an Ancient Crannog|
As we approach yet another St. Patrick’s Day it is, perhaps, worth reflecting on what Ireland was like in pre-Christian times. We have to look to archaeologists and other scholars to provide us with an insight into the past. Yet, it is worth noting that, even today, we can still see glimpses of that pagan past all around us.
Ireland, in those days, was very different from Britain in many ways: it had its own language, political structures, customs and laws. It had not been invaded by Roman legions. It was also located at the furthest reaches of the known world.
Unlike Britain and Gaul, for example, the country did not have any major urban centres. Any political centres, such as they may have been, were likely to be associated with cult sites linked to kingship as in the case of Tara, Rathcroghan, Knockaulin and Armagh. As scholars often point out, the very word paganus ‘pagan’ actually means a rural dweller who lived in a pagus ‘rural environment’.
For Christian and non-Christians alike, death, burial, and the subsequent treatment of the dead, were purely matters for the family. The Christian clergy were not involved at all and pagans and Christians were buried alongside one and other in family graves.
|Hill of Slane where St. Patrick|
Lit the Paschal Fire
Some non-Christian funerary customs continued to be practised, including burial in cemeteries not obviously associated with a church. Burned grain, antler tine and pig bones have been found in pre-Christian graves signifying some form of rite.
In 1959 the skeleton of a young woman, the skull of an infant approximately two years old, together with some animal bones (sheep/goat, dog and antler), were found in a bog in the townland of Derrymaquirk on the eastern side of Lough Gara, Co Roscommon. Archaeologists believe that the piece of antler may have been significant in terms of the religious beliefs of the time. This burial has been dated to between 750 - 200 BC.
Christian cemeteries or ‘holy ground’, in which most of the population were buried, developed from the late seventh century onwards. However, during the fifth and sixth centuries, burial practices for the nobility - clerics, kings and other aristocrats – began to change. This was due to what has been described as the cult of saints. Early Christians believed that by being buried near a holy grave they could hope to stand beside the saint on the day of the resurrection.
|Decorated Grave Slab from Carrowntemple|
We can also see the merging of pagan and Christian art as Christianity gradually replaced paganism. Two of the grave slabs at Carrowntemple, Co. Sligo, bear art of the Early Christian period that is derived from the Celtic art of the preceding Pagan Iron Age. One of these is very close to a design in the Book of Durrow and is datable to c. 650 AD. Several of the panels of the seventh century Moylough Belt-shrine, found only a few miles west of Carrowntemple, have this same mix of Pagan and Christian artwork.
Experts believe that many of the Irish Iron Age bog bodies are the remains of former kings who were sacrificed. The scarcity of such finds suggests that the sacrificial killings were only undertaken when a king’s reign had proven unsuccessful because of defeat in war, or due to famine or pestilence. The bodies were deposited in boundary bogs as offerings to the goddess who was associated with sovereignty, death and fertility.
Clogher Holy Well
Early Irish texts suggest that holy wells may have remained associated with non-Christian rituals and were even protected by the old religion. For example, it is believed that wells were used instead of baptisteries in Ireland, which may explain the large number of holy wells throughout the country.
The Celts worshipped hundreds of gods and goddesses. In some respects, the nature of the Celtic religion helped in the development of Christianity. Their belief in the indestructibility of the souls of the dead helped in understanding the resurrection of Christ. The Celts also had their own sacrifices and ritual meals which, in a sense, mirrored aspects of Christian message.
Pagan Ireland was very different from Britain with its own language, political structures, customs and laws. The two prevalent burial types in Ireland from the late centuries BC and early centuries AD were cremations and inhumations with the former continuing late as the eight century. Christian cemeteries or ‘holy ground’ developed from the late seventh century onwards. Early Christian grave slabs show the merging of pagan and Christian art as Christianity gradually replaced paganism. Human sacrifice was practised in pagan times and Holy wells may have remained associated with non-Christian rituals.