Gaels (Irish) - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefe. The religion in the Gaeltachts is Generally Roman Catholicism, and in most of them Protestant churches account for less than 5 percent of believers. Vestiges of ancient pre-Christian practice and belief are nonetheless still to be observed (for example, in some annual festivals).

With Roman Catholicism so widespread, the usual Christian beliefs in the Trinity are universal. But in Gaelic belief the Trinity that people acknowledge is less often the Orthodox triad of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost than the distinctly Irish one of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—with Mary being the dominant figure in the Holy Family. A lively cult of saints is also found everywhere, many of them distinctively Irish ones. Saint Patrick (Pádraig) was the semimythical bearer of Christian civilization to the pagan Irish. Rich legend surrounds all of the Irish saints and dozens of other Christian saints. Clearly many minor gods, goddesses, and other spirits of pagan times were incorporated into Christian faith during the Middle Ages, to such an extent that much of the idiosyncrasy of Irish Catholicism can be traced by a folklorist back to pagan custom and belief. Some of the ancient cults have been kept alive in innocent-looking folk customs and a huge corpus of epic poetry. On the borderline of Christian belief is the Devil ("Black Nick" or "Old Nick," as he is usually called), a powerful presence still active in the world. He takes the form of a black dog, a cat, or an anthropomorphic figure with tail and cloven feet. The Devil, like a more powerful form of the fairies, is potentially harmful, causing some disease, crop failure, or other disasters. He even possesses selected humans, thereby making them into his agents. People hope they have a guardian angel who will protect them from the advances of the Devil; otherwise they must rely on rosaries and Christian prayer. People also commonly have a personal saint, chosen not so much on the basis of his or her history as on whether the saint is known to be a powerful intercessor with God. Other beings of the supernatural world are the fairies or elves, the cobbler ( leipreachán ), and the vindictive female ghost or banshee ( bean sídhe, "the white woman"). In addition many people believe in ghosts, the wandering souls of the dead ( taidhbhsí ).

Religious Practitioners. Pagan practitioners of healing and witchcraft are no longer to be found, and the parish priest is now the ubiquitous spiritual shepherd of his flock. While a few of these men are from the Gaeltachts themselves, most of them are from other parts of Ireland: they were trained at Maynooth College and learned Gaelic for the ministry. Mass is now commonly said in Gaelic in the Gaeltacht communities.

Ceremonies. Christenings, weddings, and funerals are Religious rites celebrated by the parish priest at his church. But beyond these life-cycle ceremonies are others marking the annual cycle, many of them grounded in pre-Christian antiquity. The Gaelic annual cycle includes: Saint Brighid's Day, 1 February; Shrove Tuesday (just before Lent) ; Chalk Sunday (the first Sunday of Lent) ; Lent; Saint Patrick's Day; Easter; May Day, 1 May; Midsummer, 23 June; Michaelmas, 29 September; Samhain (Halloween or All Souls' Day), 31 October-1 November; Christmas; Saint Stephen's Day, 26 December. As elsewhere throughout modern Europe, many of these calendrical observances are becoming past memories.

Arts. The traditional arts of the Gaeltacht are music, storytelling, and poetry, all still very much alive. The pride of many communities today is the local teller of folktales ( seanchaí ) or the singer of mythical epics ( scéalai ). Their skills are usually heard in the pubs, shebeens ( scíbíní ), and nighttime dance parties ( ceilidh ), essential scenes for community interaction. The tourist trade has brought forth several other arts, among them pottery and knitting, which might seem traditional to the culture but in fact are not.

Medicine. Ireland is divided into a large number of "Dispensary Districts," each with at least one doctor and some nurses on duty. Thus the government makes modern health care available in the Gaeltachts, as elsewhere, and for those of low income it is free. There are also some "herb doctors," unlicensed and untrained folk healers who practice their craft in Gaelic villages, making use of various herbs as well as talismans and charms. Theirs is of course a traditional lore in these areas, specific to the flora of the Atlantic fringe.

Death and Afterlife. Christian burial is universally practiced in hallowed ground in the Gaeltachts, but it is preceded by the distinctive Irish institution of a wake. The principal realms of the other world in Christian thought are heaven, purgatory, and hell. People see heaven as a calm and peaceful place where the dead are reunited with friends and relatives; thus, people look forward to this afterlife, and the thought of it makes present troubles easier to bear. Despite much skepticism about the existence of hell, many Gaels do see it as a place of fire and punishment that will engulf evildoers. Purgatory is often seen in the folk eschatology as a part of this world, not the afterlife.

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