On the international scale, Ireland has been (and still is) viewed as a staunchly Christian nation. The Irish are regarded as a dedicated, pious people. According to Britannica, today ⅘ of people in the Republic of Ireland profess a Roman Catholic faith. While there is no set religion in Ireland, the Catholic Church and the Irish state have a longstanding historical, cultural and political connection. But it hasn’t always been that way. Prior to the birth of Christianity in 400A.D., the Irish had Celtic culture woven into their skin, into their bones, into their very beings. The people were polytheistic and a great emphasis was placed on the preservation of stories by oral means, not written. So, how did we go from polytheistic, vivid, unconfined Celtic culture to monotheistic, staunch Christianity?
When the early Christian missionaries came to Ireland to kickstart religious conversion to Christianity, they were often met with wholehearted, passionate aggression. Eventually though, the missionaries began to make some headway. St. Patrick is revered today as the man who replaced ‘barbaric’ pagan traditions with new Christianity. The truth is, many of the Celtic gods from pre 400A.D., are still woven into our spirits as Irish people. Hear me out.
The worship of many Celtic gods transformed to the worship of one Christian God. The gods became more aos sí, otherwise known as fairy folk of more contemporary Irish lore. However, the Irish never stopped treating the aos sí with respect and the telling of their stories have been treated as something of an oral heirloom. Members of the aos sí family include banshees, leprechauns and sluagh sídhes or "the fairy hosts".
Sacred Celtic Celebrations Today
St Brigid’s Day is celebrated every year in Ireland on the 1st February to mark the beginning of spring. St Brigid of Kildare was a nun and abbess who lived before St Patrick. But before her, was Brigid, the goddess of health, fertility and spring. There are debates about whether they were the same person, used by the missionaries in an attempt to bridge the gap between Christianity and paganism, or if they were totally separate women with definite similarities. Either way, a prime example of the slow transformation Irish culture underwent at this time.
Surely we’ve all heard of the Brian Friel play, Dancing at Lughnasa? But did you know Lughnasa was a festival celebrated in Ireland in August every year rejoicing the beginning of harvest season, dedicated to the ancient god Lugh? The Puck Fair is held each year in early August in the town of Killorglin, County Kerry. It has been traced as far back as the 16th century but is believed to be a survival of a Lughnasadh festival. A wild goat is crowned ‘king’ and a local girl crowned ‘queen’. The festival includes traditional music and dancing, a parade, arts and crafts workshops, a horse and cattle fair, and a market.
So, the focus may have shifted from the worship of many pagan gods to one Christian god. The evolution of celtic culture to staunch Christianity has been a long one. But the key players of Irish folklore live on, ingrained in our culture with no sign of being forgotten about.