“When you cease to fear your solitude, a new creativity awakens in you. Your forgotten or neglected wealth begins to reveal itself. You come home to yourself and learn to rest within. Thoughts are our inner senses. Infused with silence and solitude, they bring out the mystery of inner landscape.”
—John O’Donohue, Irish author and poet
In honor of St. Patrick’s Day—the Catholic celebration of Ireland’s patron saint as well as that more rollicking celebration of Irish culture—let’s to take a moment to reflect on the rich Irish Celtic literary heritage that can be readily found around us.
Ireland’s Original Celtic Literature
Irish Celtic literature has its roots in the oral traditions of Ireland’s Ancient Celts. A lot of Ancient Celtic knowledge was lost with the Christianization of Ireland, but Christian monks did write down some of the old myths, legends, and stories that had been passed down over the centuries.
The most well-known Irish collections are: the Mythological Cycle, with tales of the pagan Celtic gods and how the world of men was created; the Ulster Cycle, with tales of the Red Branch warriors, including Cuchulainn; the Fenian Cycle, with tales of Finn mac Cumaill and his Fianna warriors; and the Historical Cycle, with tales of Celtic kings who lived from the 3rd to 8th centuries. Have you ever heard these tales?
But Wait, Who Were the Celts Again?
It is generally believed that the Celts were a tribal people who originated in Central Europe in the sixth century BC. In the following centuries, they expanded throughout Europe, including the territory of modern-day Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Portugal, as well as parts of Italy, Romania, and Spain.
The Celts first arrived in Ireland around 500 BC. Over time they became the dominant cultural group on the island. By around the mid-1st millennium, Celtic languages waned across the European continent with the expansion of the Roman Empire, but Celtic languages and culture continued to flourish in Ireland.
Today, Celtic languages are only spoken in parts of Ireland, the United Kingdom and Brittany in France.
Irish Celtic Revival
In the 19th and 20th centuries, with the rise of Irish nationalism, many writers and cultural critics sought to encourage interest in Ireland’s Celtic history and culture, considering it worthy of further study and separate from English history. They also called for a new Irish literature based on a separate Irish Celtic identity. As a result, many new Irish-focused works were written in English as well as in the Irish language.
Today, the island of Ireland only has a population of 6.5 million (less than 5 million in the Republic of Ireland and 1.875 million in Northern Ireland), but it has had an outsized influence on world literature. Some of the most celebrated works in English have been penned by Irish authors, including Dracula by Bram Stoker, Ulysses by James Joyce, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Pygmalion (on which the musical My Fair Lady was based) by George Bernard Shaw and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. In addition, the Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded four times to Irish writers, including W.B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney, George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett.
In Ireland today, Celtic culture and identity is a strong force in literature, poetry and other forms of artistic expression. But it isn’t limited to Irish shores.
Did you know that 30% of Australia’s population claims Irish heritage? In Canada, that figure is 14%, while in both the US and England, it’s 10%. However, you don’t have to be of Irish heritage to have found inspiration in Ireland’s Celtic past (or to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day for that matter).
Nowadays you can find modern Celtic influence in many Hollywood movies, as well as in many fantasy novels. Lord of the Rings is just one example (although to be fair, it does also draw from Germanic myths as well).
On a more personal note, I’d like to share my own Celtic influence. One of my favorite authors is John O’Donohue, the Irish poet and priest whose words open this article. He was known for helping to popularize Celtic spirituality. Today, his beautiful poetry continues to inspire my own writing. And Ayn Cates Sullivan captures my experience in her words:
“If we listen quietly amongst the ancient stones, or by the edge of a lake or ocean, we can hear the ancient ones sharing tales, even now. Mythology is a sacred part of the living landscape.” (Ayn Cates Sullivan is the author of several books including Legends of the Grail: Stories of Celtic Goddesses.)
Now, what about you? Who or what inspires you to write? Where do you get your own creative fuel? And do you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments below!
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