Q&A: How do you honor your Irish Christian ancestors?

I have not been neglecting you, dear readers, so much as I have been tending to the more urgent (and sometimes annoying) demands of biology. I’ve had to re-prioritize my various writing projects, and despite the conventional wisdom that scaling back on blogging and social media is career-suicide for writers these days, I’ve had to acknowledge that if it’s a choice between blogging, or focusing on the kind of contemplative writing that is better suited to non-blog form, I would rather be doing the latter.

But I do miss you all! So in the hopes of striking a balance, I thought I would invite you to join me in a little experiment. Send me your questions — either about my own practices and beliefs, or about Druidry, Paganism or nature-centered spirituality in general — and I’ll answer in 1,000 words or less (no mean feat for a verbose Gemini!) You can join in the continuing conversation by sharing your own responses, reactions and objections in the comments. It’ll be fun! So if you have questions, you can leave them in the comments below, send them to me directly or, if you’re on Tumblr, submit them through the Ask Me Anything page.

"A celtic cross," by Spencer Means (CC)

To get us started, and in honor of the day, I thought I’d share my thoughts in response to a question raised in a really interesting article on “Pagans, Polytheists and St. Patrick’s Day,” by Sionnach Gorm:

How do we, as devout polytheists, reconcile the historic reality that our ancestors (at some point in the 5th-6th century CE and with no evidence of coercion) chose to turn to a god of bells and tonsures, of monks and scriptures, of Rome and the Papacy?

If you want some more information about how we know with a fair amount of certainty that the conversion to Christianity in Ireland was a peaceful one, definitely check out the article. Unfortunately, after laying out the details of this history, Gorm leaves us hanging — shying away from that pressing question, “So… how do we deal with this history now that we know it?”

It’s a hard question to answer, because it’s not necessarily one where facts and figures will help us. Really, it’s the question we always have to ask ourselves when we are confronted with real diversity: how do we deal with people who are different from us not just in superficial ways that we can explain away or ignore, but in substantive ways that challenge us and our values at a fundamental level? It’s too easy to say that our Irish ancestors were manipulated or bullied into adopting Christianity, or to insist that they must have been naive or misled. To make those kinds of claims is to make the same mistake that Christians (and plenty of others) have made for so long in attempting to explain away the “primitive” traditions of ancient pagans and contemporary indigenous peoples. No, if we want to grapple with this question, we have to start by acknowledging that our ancestors were just as reasonable, insightful and complexly human as we are today.

Not only that, but if we want to honor the ancestors with intellectual honesty, we also have to confront the reality of our own inner diversity and complexity. We can’t retreat into cultural relativism and insist that some folks are just so wholly and completely different from ourselves that we’ll never be able to understand them. That excuse, too, has been used too often to explain away our own lack of imagination and the discomfort we feel when the boundaries of our knowledge are being pushed to their limits.

The fact that we are alive today means that, in some way, the biological and cultural lineage of our ancestors is a part of us and has helped to make us what and who we are. We are connected, no matter how strange or different our ancestors seem, and if we can reach out through the mists of history to find that connection and understanding, then we can do the same with people from other cultures and backgrounds who share the world with us today. Honoring the ancestors forces us to confront this diversity within our very own cultures and histories and so, hopefully, breaks down the all-too-common assumptions about cultural purity and religious legitimacy that tend to plague our community.

I have a confession: it really doesn’t bother me that some of my ancestors were Christian. In fact, sometimes I totally get it. Christianity has a lot of beauty and value to offer, and that was true then as it is today. Something many Pagans forget (or perhaps don’t know) about the historical St. Patrick is just how “counter-culture” and socially subversive his missionary work was in Ireland at the time, especially when it came to his strong stance against the common practice of slavery. Personally, I completely understand the appeal of a new religion asserting the values of universally shared community and equality in the eyes of God, that welcomed “men and women, slaves and nobles, free and unfree” alike, and how such a religion might take root in a tribal Irish society that was often fragmented and highly stratified. There are even times when I look at the modern Pagan community, so often thrown into a frenzy by the perennial debates over “proper ritual technique” or the “proper identity” of gods and their worshippers…. and I wonder if we’re not at risk of slipping back into a kind of uncritically fragmentary society ourselves, in which our differences and demographics are given greater weight than our shared relationships and communities. And yet, modern Pagans are so often also on the forefront of social advocacy, showing solidarity with marginalized communities who have suffered from oppression and bigotry. This fierce devotion to equality and radical inclusivity is something we actually share in common with some of those early Irish Christian converts. So yes, I get it. I get how issues of justice and equality trump nitpicking about theology and etiquette (but also how some subtle theological shifts can come back to bite us if we’re not watching).

I also get the ambivalence of my Irish ancestors who sometimes looked askance at Patrick himself, a foreigner who (having been held as a slave in Ireland in his youth and then escaped) returned to Ireland on a mission of cultural and religious conversion that was also, in a way, what we would today call cultural appropriation. A Christian who used the financial resources provided to him by his fellow Christians to make deals with pagan chiefs in order to buy influence in Irish society, but also to buy people out of slavery. A Briton who came to identify more strongly with his adopted Irish community than his fellow countrymen — even his fellow Christians, whom he admonished for being “ashamed” of his Irishness. Someone who was not even technically Irish, and yet became the first person in recorded history to articulate a sense of shared Irish identity. There is a strange elusive quality to Irish identity itself, and the claim to have “Irish ancestors” when those ancestors would not have identified themselves as such until the coming of Roman-influenced Christianity brought with it a sense of their own otherness. I recognize all of this in the on-going struggles within the modern Pagan community around issues like cultural appropriation, racial inclusivity, spiritual authenticity, the authority of paid and volunteer clergy, and the various ways we seek (or eschew) mainstream legitimacy. I recognize that giddy vertigo of searching for a solid sense of clearly defined community-identity and suddenly realizing there is no there there.

And so I can also understand my Christian ancestors who, sure, were on board with challenging certain political institutions and finding new ways of constructing social identity, who were up for experimenting with alternatives approaches to living in community together… but also still left offerings for the Fair Folk, still lit bonfires and wove golden-wheat crosses and made pilgrimages to sacred wells on holy days. Holding onto those things of value from their own heritage, instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater (and maybe occasionally rolling their eyes at clergy who were more concerned with theological consistency and piety than with meaning and beauty). Yeah, I can relate to that.

And that’s how, as a modern-day animistic polytheistic Irish(ish)-American Druid, I come to terms with the choices — and compromises, and inconsistencies — of my Christian ancestors. I relate to them. I don’t try to exactly imitate them, or justify all their choices, or explain away our disagreements. I just try to seek relationship, a meaningful connection that transcends our differences even as it reaffirms them. That’s how I honor my ancestors.

So, how do you honor yours?


Have another question? Leave it in the comments below, ask me on Tumblr, or email me.


Photo Credit:
• “A Celtic cross in the churchyard of Old St Stephen’s Church, Fylingdales, overlooking Robin Hood’s Bay, Yorkshire, England,” by Spencer Means (CC) [source]

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

6 Comments

  1. Elizabeth Creely
    Mar 17, 2015

    Love that you wrote this. I love and appreciate the fabulous and lovely syncretism and monasticism of the early church in Ireland, when it was still “disorganized”- by the Pope’s standards, anyway-and blurry around the edges, and capable of admitting images and metaphors that took cues from the natural world in order to illuminate the teachings of the church.
    I honor them by reading the poetry of that time, by acknowledging this period in my writing and speaking on Irish history, and yes, by gently challenging the notion that the Irish were tricked into worship.
    Blessings! Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig ort!

    • Alison Leigh Lilly
      Mar 17, 2015

      Awesome! :) I’m curious, do you have a favorite collection or individual poem that you particularly like and that you’d recommend? Do tell!

  2. Roseann Grove
    Mar 17, 2015

    My first response is: Is Catholicism completely polytheistic? Given the prayers to Mary and the Saints, the role of angels, etc., I’m not sure it is. It’s much more apparent in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, where the saints and Mary are very visually present. To me, that is something that makes me see how a culture easily turns to Christianity when it’s really just polytheism by a different name (and with different deities, though not always). Thanks for the great post. Your writing is always a refreshing find.

    • Alison Leigh Lilly
      Mar 17, 2015

      There is definitely an element of ancestor worship kind of “built in” to Catholicism, yeah. :) I think Catholics might take exception to being called outright polytheists (which is an accusation, often with derogatory overtones, that some Protestants tend to throw at them already). But there’s no doubt that Catholic tradition embraces the idea of honoring wise and compassionate role models from the historic past — and in the case of places like Ireland, from the heroic and mythic past, too, where saints and the old gods start to mingle and merge. :)

  3. Joanna van der Hoeven
    Mar 18, 2015

    Not only looking to ancient ancestors, but acknowledging that my grandparents, especially on my father’s side were Christian, and very involved in their church allows me to see the sacred relationship that we all share simply by being human. Religion is simply a path to find the sacredness of life, in my view. It helps us language that search for God, or gods, for sacred relationship. There are many different paths in this world. What inspires me is the devotion my grandmother had for her God, even upon her deathbed. I see that devotion reflected in my own path, to the gods of nature. I am honoured to have ancestors of many faiths in my background, each imparting their own wisdom and inspiration. I hope that the ancestors of the future will be equally inspired, and that the beauty of sacred relationship, no matter what the path or denomination, lies at the heart of the matter. x

    • Alison Leigh Lilly
      Mar 18, 2015

      Yes! Beautiful. Well said. (And did you just verb the word “language”? ::Ali does happy linguistics dance!::)

      Jeff and I both have a lot of religious diversity in our own families, too, and among our more recent ancestors. Far more difficult for us than the differences in religion is grappling with the horrendous actions of some of those ancestors, who sometimes used religion as a justification. For instance, on Jeff’s side of the family, it wasn’t too many generations ago that his ancestors were making huge amounts of money through the exploitation and slavery of people in Africa. That’s a very real injustice that needs to be confronted. Compared to that, the fact that some of my ancestors voluntarily chose to become Christian, in part because they were inspired by the values of inclusivity and equality, is something to celebrate. As you say, wisdom and inspiration are worth celebrating wherever we find them! :) We only impoverish the world and ourselves if we cut ourselves off from those sources.

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