A Celtic Legacy

The widow Mackinnon and Mrs. Neil Ferguson ~ St. Kilda, 1909

From Oban to Skye, from the Outer Hebrides to St. Kilda they traveled: two Aberdeen photographers intent on capturing and preserving the life of a remarkable people.  The beautifully colored lantern slides of  George Washington Wilson and Norman Macleod,  an iconic collection put into book form by Mark Butterworth, were produced in the late 1880s, fifty years before color photography came to Scotland.

Even as Wilson and Macleod pursued their photography, Alexander Carmichael was traveling the highlands and islands from Arran to Cithness, from Perth to St. Kilda, collecting traditional prayers, invocations and blessings. Between 1855 and 1899, he compiled his Carmina Gadelica (Gaelic Songs),  magnificent examples of Celtic tradition combined with Christian faith.

After St. Patrick’s arrival in Ireland and St. Columba’s missionary journey to Scotland, a unique culture, theology and spirituality began to evolve: one not at all inclined toward our modern separation of the sacred and the secular. In the words of Avery Brooke, “Celtic Christians seldom left the spiritual behind in the living of their lives, nor the world behind in their prayers.”  

Tolerant of  Celtic beliefs and practices, Christian missionaries wove adapted Celtic prayers, blessings and invocations into the fabric of their daily lives. As Brooke writes in his introduction to Celtic Prayers:

Christ was the Chieftain of Chiefs, but the old tales, songs, customs and runes – not to mention the crops, the fish, the daily work and nightly sleep – were sained, or marked with the sign of the cross, just as were  fæiries, banshees and people.

At its heart, saining was a matter of consecration, though not in our modern sense of setting aside, or apart. We tend to understand consecration as removal from the realities and routines of daily life, but for the people of the Isles, consecration elevated and hallowed every ordinary circumstance.

Certainly there were morning prayers and evening prayers in Celtic devotion,  invocations of the saints and hymns to Jesus.  But far more than obviously religious prayer was woven into the fabric of Celtic spirituality.  There were rituals to mark the passing of the days and cycles of the year. There were blessings for households, for the smooring of fire at night and for the rekindling that lifted up morning fires.

There were songs for heifers and milk cows, prayers for protection of cattle, and songs of praise for the ocean and moon.  There were blessings for fishing, hunting, and reaping;  prayers for travel, and prayers for sleep. 

Celtic prayer was less something to ‘do’ than an attitude to nourish: an attitude at once grateful and receptive.  Like hearth embers nurtured each morning and protected each night with ritual and prayer, the spark of divine presence, the mysterious ember glowing at the heart of the world, was meant to be tended by a grateful humanity.

The maids and matrons of St. Kilda ~ 1886

Among the blessings and invocations collected by Carmichael are “The Clipping Blessing,” “The Loom Blessing,” and “The Consecration of the Seed.” The words shimmer with  reflected light from a nearly forgotten time, charmingly embraced without hesitation or embarassment. In “The Clipping Blessing,” the petitions hardly could be more specific.

Go shorn and come woolly,
Bear the Beltane female lamb,
Be the lovely bride thee endowing,
And the fair Mary thee sustaining,
The fair Mary sustaining thee.
Michael the chief be shielding thee
From the evil dog and from the fox,
From the wolf and from the sly bear,
And from the taloned birds of destructive bills,
From the taloned birds of hooked bills.

In the Outer Isles, on the Island of Uist, Carmichael tells us:

When the woman stops weaving on Saturday night, she carefully ties up her loom and suspends the cross or crucifix above the sleay. This is for the purpose of keeping away the brownie, the banshee, the ‘peallan’ and all evil spirits and malign influences from disarranging the thread and the loom.  And all this is done with loving care and in good faith, and in prayer and purity of heart.   

Again, the concreteness of the petition and the certainty that even the smallest detail of life concerns the divine is made clear:

In the name of Mary, mild of deeds,
In the name of Columba, just and potent,
Consecrate the four posts of my loom,
Till I begin on Monday.
Her pedals, her sleay and her shuttle,
Her reeds, her warp, and her cogs,
Her cloth-beam and her thread-beam,
Thrums and the thread of the plies.
Every web, black, white and fair,
Roan, dun, checked and red,
Give Thy blessing everywhere,
On every shuttle passing under the thread.
Thus will my loom be unharmed
Till I shall arise on Monday.
Beauteous Mary will give me of her love,
And there shall be no obstruction I shall not overcome.

Finally, in “The Consecration of the Seed,” the intimate relationship between early Christian and Celtic belief is laid bare. Carmichael notes that “three days before being sown the seed is sprinkled with clear, cold water, in the name of the Father, and of Son, and of Spirit, the person sprinkling the seed walking sunwise the while.”  The baptismal and Trinitarian influence is clear, while “sunwise walking” refers to pre-Christian ritual.

I will go out to sow the seed
In name of Him who gave it growth;
I will place my front in the wind,
And throw a gracious handful on high.
Should a grain fall on a bare rock
It shall have no soil in which to grow;
As much as falls into the earth,
The dew will make it to be full…
I will come round with my step,
I will go rightways with the sun,
In the name of Ariel and the angels nine,
In the name of Gabriel and the Apostles kind.
Father, Son and Spirit Holy
Be giving growth and kindly substance
To every thing that is in my ground
Till the day of gladness shall come.

To hear these invocations, blessings, runes, and dedications is to experience the Celts’ love and deep respect not only for life, but for language. Filled with power, intimately lodged in the hearts of the people, spoken out of silence to hallow and elevate every aspect of life, the words themselves were understood as gifts to be cherished.  In a morning prayer collected by Carmichael, this phrase stands out:

Praise be to Thee, O God, for ever, for the blessings thou didst bestow on me – my food, my speech, my work, my health.


Praising God for food, work and health is understandable. Including speech as a blessing worthy of praise is more remarkable. Perhaps praise for the gift of words comes more naturally to those steeped in oral tradition; perhaps isolation and difficult conditions increase a community’s gratitude for speech.

Whatever the motivation, it cannot be denied that Celts always have nurtured and cared for language because they recognize language as a gift as necessary as fire and powerful as the sea.

To live in a world where language is being reduced by our technologies and desecrated in advertising, politics and human relations is remarkable.  To have contempt for language, to willingly reduce the heart of our humanity by refusing the power of words, is utterly astonishing.  And yet, it happens.

In the midst of our remembrance of St. Patrick and our celebration of all things Irish, it would be well to remember the people of the lamb, loom, and seed. Celtic peoples offer us a legacy far greater than green beer, shamrocks and River Dance.  They offer a vision of life lived whole, life well-attuned to the universe and content with ordinary days. Above all, they offer to us the possibility of sained speech: words spoken and received with dignity in order  to celebrate and consecrate our lives.

Be the cross of Mary and Michael over me in peace,
Be my soul dwelling in truth, be my heart free of guile.
Be my soul in peace with thee, brightness of the mountains.
Morn and eve, day and night, May it be so.


Comments always are welcome.

115 thoughts on “A Celtic Legacy

    1. Isn’t that the truth? Even some of my family members generations removed from Ireland had that gift of the gab, as they say. The ability of the Irish to tell stories, and then to combine complex story-telling with wonderful tunes — sometimes with piercing political commentary — is unrivaled.

      What an opportunity that walking trip surely was. I suspect a summer didn’t seem quite long enough.

      1. Hi again Shoreacres. Just come across this posting & so apt at this time. As you know I am currently in The Gambia until the end of April. My parents came from Co Donegal, Ireland and in 1954 moved to England after they married.
        I can honestly say this was the best St Patrick’s day ever for me.
        In the morning I delivered my belated ‘Irish pancakes’ from shrove Tuesday to the local tour guides as promised. Of course they wanted a pic of the handover ceremony & with my permission said they would put pic on their board (not sure categorisation of pic) Spent a peaceful day in Senegambia hotel grounds & later watched six nations rugby final England vs Ireland & Ireland won. Didn’t have bushmills whisky to ‘drown the shamrock’ or didn’t hear any Irish music. This posting more than compensates for that.
        My late father was a great one for making up stories to tell us when we were growing up. When visiting Ireland people often referred to ‘spinning a yarn’ I.e telling a tale.

    1. I fear that the Oxford Dictionaries’ choice of the ‘Tears of Joy’ emoji as their 2015 Word of the Year may have marked the beginning of a final descent into — well, into something. I made the mistake once of using the search phrase “emoticons in the classroom,” and was depressed for days.

      On the other hand, there is resistance. I enjoy following a fellow who’s dubbed himself ‘Henry W. Fowler’ on Twitter. He’s a Princeton professor emeritus who amuses himself by picking out things like errors in subject-verb agreement or the improper use of the subjunctive in places like the NY Times and then publicly correcting them. It’s great reading, and I’ve learned a good bit.

      1. He’s appropriated the name of a famous British lexicographer:


        I regularly catch people on television making language mistakes. A couple of years ago I sent a letter (a real letter!) to a network, asking for an e-mail address I could use to report mistakes so that commentators (what a yucky word) would stop making them. You won’t be surprised to hear that I got no answer.

        1. My current and somewhat casual battle is with Houston radio station KTRH, which regularly encourages its listeners to “stay tuned for breaking information.” Can’t you imagine the updates? “Breaking: Oil and Water Don’t Mix.” “Breaking: Two Plus Two Still Equals Four.” “Breaking: Summer Will Be Hot.” I do have fun composing the emails, although I’m sure I have a bit of a reputation by now.

          1. I’ve also noticed the seemingly obligatory “breaking” that gets added to “news” these days. It’s a good example of what some have called “word inflation.” Apparently plain old news is no longer new enough.

            1. But it’s so satisfying to grump and complain! And I’m sure it’s the same there as it is here. You know that sending the email or making the call isn’t going to do a thing to improve the situation. It only makes us feel better — at least, a little.

  1. While in Scotland in the fall of 2016, we visited the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. One special exhibit we wanted to see was about Celtic history. It was great. The entire museum was wonderful. Their exhibits were well-designed and clear. The building was beautiful. https://www.nms.ac.uk/media/186340/grand-gallery-landscape.jpg

    The Loom Blessing above made me think of Melanie and her long-arm quilting machinery. Each day as she closes down her creative efforts, I hear her go through the steps to put it safely to rest until the next time. I don’t think she prays about it. But, her actions are prayer-like rituals.

      1. Aren’t these Google maps great? Are those radiators that I see around many of the posts? If so, that’s a very creative way to go about heating such a large space. Perhaps they’re only supplemental. I do like the idea.

    1. The museum looks spacious and welcoming. I certainly remember that trip; it must have been quite a treat to add some of these museums to your itinerary.

      I think focus, repetition, and care are obvious links between Melanie’s work and that of the women written about in the book. Now that I’ve looked at the blessing again, there’s another Melanie-like section — the ending, which says, “Thus will my loom be unharmed till I shall arise on Monday… and there shall be no obstruction I shall not overcome.” That’s an attitude that certainly shines in Melanie’s postings.

      1. She recently purchased a new long-arm sewing machine. The previous one was presenting several obstructions to her efforts. Stitching got to be loose and erratic. She had to stop after short times to check below the quilt to see if it was going bad again. Many times, she ripped out stitches and redid them. Her new machine has been working well. No gremlins or brownies so far.

        1. That sounds rather like the trials and tribulations we go through with these computers. There comes a point where the frustrations aren’t worth it. A nice, fresh start can be satisfying in any number of ways. I’m glad it’s working for her.

  2. I spent a week in Ireland back in 1970, living with a family in a two bedroomed cottage, eating potato cakes cooked over an open peat fire. The sons of the family moved out of their bedroom so I could have a room to myself. The only downside to their warm hospitality was the outside WC, which was a fair step from the cottage. At home I lived in a Victorian farmhouse which had had indoor plumbing since 1910!
    I love the Celtic symbols, and have a silver cross on a chain with a similar design to the cross you posted.

    1. Your week sounds delightful. It reminds me of the time I spent in a traditional German home while on holiday from Liberia. Experiences like that — so warm and welcoming — aren’t forgotten. I did laugh at your comment about indoor plumbing. In 1910, neither set of my grandparents had indoor plumbing. In fact, my mother, who was born in 1918, remembered a time without such amenities. I know a few people who lived without electricity in the Texas Panhandle in the 1930s, too. Some things take time.

      I think the Celtic symbols are beautiful. When I began sailing, I was surprised to see that so many of the traditional ropework designs resembled Celtic patterns.

        1. Farm life was different. Even life in a small Iowa town was different, well into the ’50s. I remember my grandparents’ kitchen pump and yard pump — and doing laundry outside in aluminum wash tubs, with heated water carried from the house. I just saw some old-fashioned wooded clothes pins in a grocery store tonight, and grinned. They didn’t even have springs. They’d make wonderful dolls.

  3. I love your research and writing. You can make any topic come alive, but this paragraph really hits home: “To live in a world where language is being reduced by our technologies and desecrated in advertising, politics and human relations is remarkable. To have contempt for language, to willingly reduce the heart of our humanity by refusing the power of words, is utterly astonishing. And yet, it happens.” It took me SO long to learn to write, to use proper punctuation and spelling and now in the text generation no one seems to care! Ticks me right off.

    1. There are days when I think spelling and punctuation are the least of it. Much of the writing I bump into seems little more than literary litter: sentences and paragraphs tossed off with abandon and without a thought for how they might harm the surrounding environment.

      It’s easy enough to throw up our hands and say, “There’s nothing we can do.” But of course there is something. To the best of our ability, we can serve as models and as reminders of why the rules matter. I’ve always appreciated the construction metaphor for writing; if you don’t begin with a sound structure, the prettiest paint job in the world isn’t going to conceal your shoddy work. Just ask those bridge builders down in Florida.

  4. Linda, your posts always provide a wealth of information, but this one resonates to my core! My Catholic upbringing, of course, is so ingrained in me that I find myself praying over even the tiniest of things, but I’ve noticed other Catholics don’t do that. Not to the extent I do anyway. So your explanation of the Celts, their blessings, and saining, finally shows me where all this came from! And it makes perfect sense that I’d inadvertently replicate something my ancestors did routinely. You make an excellent point, too, about language and the power of words. If more of us fully embraced the practice of blessing others, what a lovely world we’d live in. Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you, my friend!

    1. Our connections to our heritage often appear in unexpected ways, don’t they? My mother used to use the terms “shanty” and “lace curtain,” and I didn’t know until I was an adult that those terms were shorthand for “shanty Irish” and “lace curtain Irish” — class divisions that were more important in this country than in Ireland, where other kinds of divisions took precedence.

      Speaking of overcoming the sacred/secular distinction, have you seen the footage of Sister Jean when Loyola Chicago made it to the Sweet Sixteen tonight? That’s a perfect example, right there, of the power of blessing one another. If you don’t know her, this is a wonderful introductory video.

      1. Great video, Linda! I imagine, in her quiet way, Sister Jean is every bit as intimidating as those Notre Dame priests — in full religious dress! — on the sidelines at home games in South Bend!

  5. Beautiful. How kind of you to find the thread that ties it all together, and make some of us sigh in relief.

    1. Thank you for that kind comment. The power of ordinary life seems to be forgotten today: at least, in our society. We’re told so often that only the extraordinary — the exciting and the extravagant — have value, it can be a bit of a relief to remember that life doesn’t need added production value to be cherished.

  6. Beautifully thought out and written! A million times better honor to the spirit of the day than the drunken debauchery for which the day has become known by the masses.

    1. That division between the original spirit of the day and the celebrations that have evolved is remarkable. I’m as much a fan of a good party as anyone, but there’s not much that’s enjoyable about drunk-and-disorderly. Of course, this year it’s been a little hard to pick out the St. Paddy’s Day celebrants, since the day falls in the middle of spring break.

  7. Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you! Your post was so informative and interesting. And I totally agree with Montucky’s comment. It’s a shame this holiday has degenerated into a reason to get drunk on green beer.

    1. Thank you so much. As interesting as St. Patrick is, the Celtic culture generally always has fascinated me, and I thought this was the perfect time to write about it.

      I do wish the story of Patrick driving the snakes from Ireland were true; we could use him down here to get the rattlesnakes out of the dunes. On the other hand, if he were able to drive the drunks out of the dunes, he’d really be celebrated.

  8. Excellent post. I grew up with a Yeats poem (“The Lake Isle of Innisfree”) hanging framed on the kitchen wall, and every once in a while, someone will stop on the way out, and read it out loud. I made friends with a guy from Dublin, when I was teaching English in Chile, and although he’s nuts, he’s always a pleasure to listen to, no matter what insane rubbish he’s going on about.
    I’ve been reading a bit about the “Scotch-Irish,” and when their ancestors (mostly from the Lowlands) started floating over to the Ulster plantations, in the 1600’s, Scotland was incredibly impoverished and illiterate, with little tillable soil or resources. Within a pretty short span of time, this backward place became world-famous for its writers, educators, engineers, ship-builders, manufacturers, and philosophers. I think we should try harder to recognize the transforming power that flows from a love of reading, writing, and education. And I think you are doing a pretty darn good job (there’s some un-musical American English for you) carrying the torch for wordcrafting.

    1. “Innisfree” is a nice poem to have hanging around, especially in an area far richer in lakes than much of the country. Every time I read it, I have the impulse to go find a good lake: not a man-made lake, but a natural one that isn’t a tourist destination.

      I wonder if people like your friend — the insane rubbish purveyor — compel attention partly because they buy into their own stories? I’ve known a few in my time, and they’re certainly interesting characters. Of course a good accent helps, and if someone’s skilled at using story-telling conventions, it can be fun to ride along.

      It does occur to me that just as a love of reading, writing, and education can engender positive transformation, its absence can result in negative changes. And unless critical thinking skills are added to the mix, all the reading in the world isn’t going to help — especially if most of the reading is limited to Facebook posts and retweets from people who make your insane rubbish purveyor look like a piker.

      I keep coming back to the words of my favorite professor: “Your words are elegant. Your words are beautiful. But are your words true?” It’s the joining of truth and beauty that makes those early Celts so attractive. Who knows? Maybe Keats pondered them at the same time he was contemplating that Grecian urn.

      1. “Your words are elegant. Your words are beautiful. But are your words true?” My question to that question is, what is true? Certainly fiction can be true, and good fiction is always true! True and factual are not, in my opinion, the same thing. My brother and I have been talking about the intersection of truth and beauty. Truth is enhanced through experience. He gave the example of a teapot. You can see a picture of a teapot and understand its function. But if you handle a teapot and use it to brew your beverage, your experience of it will be different and more complete, and its truth (your true understanding) increases, and with that, so does its beauty.

        1. You, me, and William Faulkner are on the same page. Back in 1957, the Charlottesville Daily Progress reported that, “Novelist William Faulkner told prospective journalists and writers at Albemarle High School this morning that the one ‘hard and fast rule’ every writer must follow is truthfulness. ‘I will never put on paper and release something that I do not believe is true,’ the Nobel Prize winner in literature said.”

          That same year, he added facts to the discussion when he wrote in his novel, The Town:

          “The poets are wrong of course… But then poets are almost always wrong about facts. That’s because they are not really interested in facts: only in truth: which is why the truth they speak is so true that even those who hate poets by simple and natural instinct are exalted and terrified by it.”

          For a little context, our discussion in class that day had begun with a consideration of Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. It’s still my primary lodestar.

          The teapot example is good. I suppose the only thing I’d add is that truth is truth: it’s our understanding of truth that’s enhanced through experience. But we could go on about issues like these for a good while — people have been for millenia!

    1. You’re welcome, Arti. As you suggest, Lent is far more than a time of teeth-gritting denial. It’s a time to refocus, and to remember our essential human nature: limited, contingent, but placed in a grace-filled world.

  9. A hard life, steeped in tradition, language, and spirituality. You touched briefly on the reasons I will perform my own celebration this Tuesday and plant my wild seeds at that time! (I am a Wilson, ya know?) Wonderful as always, Linda.

    1. A hard life, but a life, nonetheless. So many around me seem deadened to so much. As for isolation? It can add to life’s difficulties, at least when it comes to practical matters, but on the other hand, isolation can help to preserve those traditions that are so important, along with the language and spirituality that accompanies them. In many ways, life on the bayous isn’t so different from life on those Celtic islands. I’ve experienced enough to know that, and I’m eager to experience more.

      Keep walking rightways with the sun!

  10. Thank you, thank you! So much in your post is enriching and stimulating, I don’t know where to start gushing…

    I hadn’t seen that prayer thanking God for speech – but the idea is echoed in St. Patrick’s prayer that “God be in the heart of everyone who *speaks* of me,” also a prayer that I’ve never heard any modern pray. And in the same prayer you share, thanks for *work* — I daresay not enough people thank God for their work these days, which I consider much different from thanking Him that they have a job, i.e. income.

    I have been reading Kallistos Ware on the theology of worship, including this mention of language: “…far more than the literal meaning of words is involved in the act of worship. Beyond and beneath their literal sense, particular syllables and phrases are rich in associations and undertones, and possess a hidden power and poetry of their own. Thus in our prayer we use words not just literally but beautifully; through poetic imagery — even if the texts are in rhythmic prose rather than rhymed stanzas — we endow the words with a new dimension of meaning.” But your example of the Celts really amplifies his point.

    Of course, being Orthodox, he doesn’t neglect to mention the other aspects of our worship: music, color, incense and candles, bread and water, wine and oil and fire… Just as God has given all these earthly, material things to us, we offer them back. And the continual offering and blessing of the Celtic way, as you so lovingly and richly describe, is like a prayer without ceasing.

    Celtic Christianity is on my mind a lot lately because of a fairly recent effort by Eastern Orthodox to build on it and be nourished by it, which you can read about here: https://mullmonastery.com/ And now you have kept that momentum going! Happy St. Patrick’s Day!!

    1. You might be interested to know that I was introduced to St. Patrick’s Breastplate, and the hymn based upon it, in Liberia. It was a great favorite among the Episcopalians there: both Liberians and expats. At the time, I didn’t think much about it, but looking back it makes sense to me. The impulse to bless all of life — as well as an awareness of ubiquitous, malevolent forces that threaten life — was a mark of traditional Liberian belief, and the prayer accords well with that.

      The paragraph you quote from Kallistos Ware is familiar, and true. What he’s describing is what I’d call the difference between signs and symbols: both visual and linguistic. A stop sign has only one meaning. Slide through one without stopping, and a nice officer may instruct you in the meaning. But symbols can have multiple meanings. The thumbs-up gesture means different things in different contexts. At the side of the road, it might indicate a hitchhiker looking for a ride. At a conference table, it could mean someone agrees with your presentation. And of course, all those other aspects of worship which you mention are symbols as well, depending upon context for their interpretation.

      With language, it gets even more interesting. The “associations and undertones” always are there, and being attentive to those, as well as to the words themselves, can be a tricky and complicated business. I’ve always believed that one reason the so-called ‘modern’ liturgies fall flat, and modern books of prayer can seem so insipid is that they’ve consciously removed old words that are steeped in centuries of association and undertones, and impoverished us in the process.

      Even the Oxford dictionaries are up to it. When they designated an emoticon as their 2015 Word of the Year, they were moving toward the ‘sign’ end of the spectrum. The reason so many emojis are being created is precisely that each one is limited in meaning. Granted, we choose different words to convey slightly different meanings — I may be ‘thinking,’ but I may also be musing, pondering, cogitating, visualizing, or considering. Still, life in the world of emojis and initialisms is an impoverished life. that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

  11. I wasn’t aware that St Patrick’s day was near. One of the things one suffers not being of the English speaking world. You conjure up a wonderful world of goodness of spirit and generosity of mind. The practice and search of using words to their utmost preciousness of truth is a lofty aim that you certainly excel in, Linda.
    Thank you for this lovely post.

    1. I knew I’d seen a photo of the Sydney Opera House lighted for the occasion, and so it was. It’s not surprising, really, given the number of Irish who came to your country in previous centuries, for a variety of reasons.

      Goodness of spirit and generosity of mind can seem in short supply these days. There’s no question about that. It’s good to remind ourselves that it doesn’t need to be that way, since we do have choices for our behavior and our words. We can choose which behaviors and words of others we attend to, as well. That kind of freedom is precious, and needs to be nurtured.

      Thanks so much for the kind words, Gerard. Give my best to Helvi, too.

  12. I like this: “Perhaps praise for the gift of words comes more naturally to those steeped in oral tradition; perhaps isolation and difficult conditions increase a community’s gratitude for speech”.

    Now let’s give thanks for Van Morrison.

    1. Say “Van Morrison” and I can’t help it: I hear “Brown-Eyed Girl.” But once I’ve moved past that, there’s always “These Are The Days,” and others like it. Even when he’s not singing strictly Irish songs, the heritage is clear: secular and sacred joined together — almost always with a great tune to carry the words along.

  13. “Celtic Christians seldom left the spiritual behind in the living of their lives, nor the world behind in their prayers.” Love that. I had to consult google several times, lots of new words to me. “Smooring the fire” for example. When I tried “sained” google only gave me “stained.” As I read on, I was pleased to see that you explained it somewhat. The “sowing of the seed” would be something I once would have liked to memorize. I don’t accept that kind of challenge anymore. There was a time that I could memorize much easier! Thanks for the research and writing which adds enrichment to my life.

    1. Oh, one other thing. I’m glad you referred to sained speech. Our language – particularly written – is so vulgar and common. And texting is not helping!

      1. That seems to be so. I’ve watched texting begin to influence the form of blog comments. As for vulgarity, nastiness, and abuse of language, you can’t beat Twitter (the only social media site I engage with at all). I rarely tweet, and have learned to be very selective about the people and sites that I follow. I don’t need the rest of it.

    2. To ‘sain’ is to mark with the sign of the cross: to bless. When I searched for ‘sain,’ Dictionary.com popped up, but the American Heritage online doesn’t have it. It’s an old word!

      That blessing for the sowing of the seed is interesting. I don’t know, but I have the sense that most planting was done more carefully, and that handful thrown into the air was part of a ritual: a way of acknowledging the role of chance in one of life’s most important ventures.

      I don’t memorize as easily as I used to, either, but I agree that “The Sowing of the Seed” would be worth the effort. I’m glad I can offer posts that at least tempt you in that direction, and I’m glad you enjoy them.

    1. I’m smiling, Peta. I didn’t think there was any place in the world you haven’t visited. Peripatetic Peta: that’s how I think of you! I’m glad to have introduced you to a new place. If you land there in the future, I’ll enjoy reading about it as much as I enjoy your posts today.

  14. I have been unaware until now of this Celtic Legacy, and thank you for the introduction. But reading this post, I felt on very familiar territory. Many religious people are so overwhelmed by the realization of the greatness of the world, and the grace interwoven, that we adopt methods to keep that awareness awake within.

    1. So true, Shimon. Talking about the intersection of world, of grace and nature, can be fraught with difficulties, since rituals, prayers, and the traditions that preserve them are like a sideways glance at realities that disappear under analysis. It’s always amused me that people who are looked down upon for being ‘backward,’ ‘primitive,’ or ‘unsophisticated’ often are the most sensitive to these realities. Like children, they haven’t yet learned how not to see.

    1. Thank you, Jason. I do enjoy holiday posts that have a little more staying power than just one day, and I was pleased to tie St. Patrick and the Celtic culture together for this one.

  15. Beautifully written and informative as always.

    One of my favorite little books, and one I brought with me, is “The Eye of the Eagle, Meditations on the hymn ‘Be Thou my vision,’” by David Adam. The hymn is Celtic and as you described and Adam describes, the Celts saw God in every blade of grass, the workings of the loom, the planting of the seed.

    You have reminded me to pull out that book and read again. I don’t think I have ever read it all the way through and the book was given to me by a friend in 1999. Perhaps I saved it for a time such as this. It was one of just a few books I was able to bring on our travels.

    As I am of Scottish descent back to Robert the Bruce, Celtic prayers resonate. My best meditations and prayers have always been out in nature or taking photos of God’s creation.

    Thank you!

    1. Here’s a wonderful little coincidence. I’ve not known the hymn you mentioned, but when I listened to it, I realized that it uses the Irish tune known as Slane. I grew up with a hymn called “Lord Of All Hopefulness,” which combines different lyrics with the same music. You can hear a nice performance here. I found Alison Krauss’s version of “Be Thou My Vision, too — just splendid, as her work always is.

      The book looks interesting, and Adam certainly has the background and credentials for it. Isn’t it interesting, how a book can linger on our shelves for years, or even decades, and then suddenly present itself? Perhaps it was waiting for the right time — the kairotic moment — for you to read it. I hope it’s satisfying — as satisfying as the songs and the tradition are.

      1. Loved the Lord of al Hopefulness, especially the choir’s Irish lilt. Was interested to learn of Slane. Alison Kraus also does a nice rendition of Be Thou My Vison.

        Be Thou My vision was one of mom’s favorites. I used the rendition by “The Choir of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral -Edinburgh” on her memorial cd.

  16. I was always puzzled by my grandmother’s disdain of St. Patrick’s Day, which to me, was a joyous holiday. Later it became clear that my grandfather, whom she had divorced, had ancestral roots in Ireland, rather than Grandma’s strong English ancestry.

    We celebrated the day with a delicious corned beef and cabbage meal, topped off by a concert of Irish music performed by an Israeli fiddle player. Formerly immersed in Ketzmer style of playing, he had a crash course in traditional Irish playing. The differences in bowing and tempo were fascinating, even to a non-violinist. My mother played the violin, while I leaned toward piano and guitar.

    Lovely thoughtful post Linda.

    1. Life experiences certainly can shape attitudes. That English-Irish conflict has taken a multitude of forms, and it seems you got to see one form up close and personal.

      Your celebrations sound wonderful. I’m not so fond of the corned beef and cabbage, but I can’t get enough of the music — and what a plus to have that fiddle player. I was introduced to Klezmer in Berkeley, and fell in love with it. As I recall, the Klezmorim were founded in ’75. They were well-established by the time I got there, and I took every opportunity I could to hear them. I still have a Klezmer station on Pandora; it’s great housecleaning music.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Kayti, and I’m glad it was St. Patrick’s Day. I was having a little trouble moving on from Dixie Rose’s post, but this was just the ticket.

  17. We Celts may have adopted Christianity but it never hurts to pay respect to the older gods and spirits. Just in case, you know. Cover all the bases.

    Lovely entry, Linda, and I adore old photos.

    1. That (covering all the bases) made me laugh, and reminded me of my time in Liberia, where ancestor worship, libation-pouring, propitiation of the bush devils, and other interesting rites went hand in hand with Christian faith. One of my favorite mementos is a little farm god, about a foot tall: the sort placed in a field to fend off evil spirits. I’ve got him by my front door, with instructions to keep intruders away.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and the photos. I’d never made the effort to run down a copy of Butterworth’s book, but I’ll bet the collection of images in it is wonderful.

    1. We’re a chatty bunch around here; it really is fun, and it’s great that you’ve joined in.

      I wish I’d been interested enough to talk more with my great-aunts about their history. Some died when I was a child, of course, and I didn’t see the others all that often. After my own mother moved to Texas, we did visit with two of her cousins in Louisiana, and believe me, the stories flew!

    1. I’d not thought about it, but we have a San Patricio county here in Texas, too. It’s interesting that its largest city is Corpus Christi. It certainly points to the Spanish influence in the very early days of the area.

  18. Loved reading this post, Linda. Felt right at home with it, I did. (My grandfather comes from Orkney; a part of my threads are from there, then . . . somehow.) There’s something very alive in the syncretising of traditions (as you found in Liberia), and what I especially loved in the Celtic culture you describe was your picking up on the precious value of language. The W/word carries potent energy; the wise spend it well. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. I suspect you understand the Word/words connection much as I do — you seemed to indicate that in your own comment. I’ve come to believe that what we say and what we write should be in accord with our deepest convictions about the realities in which we live: that our words should be true, and that they should be judged by the Word. This is not, I suppose, a popular view, but it’s had its supporters.

      How interesting it must be to have ties to the Orkey Islands. That’s one of the places that’s always intrigued me, partly because of the land and sea, and partly because of the wonderful myths and tales that are rooted there. I wish we could get rid of silly phases like “cultural appropriation,” and simply appreciate one another.

      1. Appreciation, yes! And respect. I am somewhat cautious with regard to the ‘appropriation’ debates, however. One interesting resource you might like is the podcast called the Minefield from Australia. Dec. 15, 2015 show was on that topic.

        And on Orcadian matters, are you at all familiar with George Mackay Brown’s poetry and writings?

  19. “Celts always have nurtured and cared for language because they recognize language as a gift as necessary as fire and powerful as the sea.”

    A thoughtful reminder. Hope you had a happy St. Patrick’s day.

    1. Truth to tell, I spent most of the day working on this post. But Sunday was a nicer day, weather-wise, and I got out for a while. In fact, I was surprised to run into the Buddha on the road!

      It was an interesting experience in several respects. The Buddha is ensconced in a Thai temple very near my home. I don’t know much about it yet, because all the signs were in a language Google tells me was Thai, without translation. It’s been a long time since I’ve found myself in an environment where I couldn’t talk to anyone, or read a single sign. I’m anxious to go back and figure out what I saw.

  20. Well, Linda, as a Celt myself, from Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, and a wordsmith by trade, these words truly speak to me too:

    “Celts always have nurtured and cared for language because they recognise language as a gift as necessary as fire and powerful as the sea.”

    Never truer words…and if you’ve never read any of Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown’s work, please do. His two collections of short stories “A Calendar of Love” and “A Time to Keep” are just wonderful.

    1. I haven’t read Brown, and I’m pretty sure I’ve not heard of him — unless you’ve mentioned him before. Someone did, recently; perhaps it was you. In any event, I appreciate the recommendation, and willl have a look.

      In return, I’ll recommend Loren Eiseley. Any of his books will do, but I’m especially fond of The Immense Journey. I think I have them all. Suffice it to say he’d drive your rationalist friends crazy. His vision is remarkable, and he’s not afraid to stretch language in order to communicate that vision.

  21. Nurturing and caring for language sometimes seems a nearly lost art, so your post is all the more welcome for that reminder. Some of our fondest memories from traveling the British Isles were on Skye, where we stopped during a great hike on a drizzly gray day to conjure up a small fire for a simple meal of baked beans and roasted potatoes. I can’t any longer recall how we managed to get those wet sticks to burn, but I do remember that meal.

    1. But you just explained how you got the sticks to burn. Conjuring isn’t a lost art, either. And isn’t it true that the simplest meals, like the simplest words, often are the most memorable? And, as the American Shakers knew, simplicity itself comes as a gift — a belief I suspect the Celts shared.

  22. Celtic culture and in particular Irish is fascinating and inspiring. So much passion and consciousness about what they are and where the come from. I have never heard about George Washington Wilson and Norman Macleod. I will have to look up the book Destination St. Kilda.

    1. As you know, there’s something fascinating about seeing the photographic record of a society still grounded in its traditions. You’ve done a bit yourself to record such traditions, and I suspect you would enjoy the book about St. Kilda. There’s a kind of un-selfconsciousness about the portraits that reminds me of some of your photos from Cuba.

  23. I really like the 1909 photo that you used. The women’s facial expressions drew me to the picture – and made me wonder what they were thinking.

    1. Isn’t it wonderful? Like you, it made me even more curious about them. Even though they lived in the same period as many of the women you write about in your blog, they seem to be from even centuries earlier.

  24. A dear friend gave me a book some months ago by John O’Donohue called “To Bless the Space Between Us.” It is really most remarkable, and really illustrates many of the themes you pick up above. As a side note, I did the Ancestry test a year or so ago, and was told I have some Irish affinities, not altogether surprising given the Nordic side of my family! We traveled there last summer and thoroughly enjoyed it.

    1. I’d not heard of O’Donohue or the book, but Goodreads never fails. I found some quotations there which give a sense of the book, and do make clear the connection between his work and the Celtic culture I explored a bit here. I especially liked this:

      This is the time to be slow,
      Lie low to the wall
      Until the bitter weather passes.

      Try, as best you can, not to let
      The wire brush of doubt
      Scrape from your heart
      All sense of yourself
      And your hesitant light.

      It seems just right for these days. Given Dixie Rose’s recent departure, I thought this was good, too:

      And when the work of grieving is done,
      The wound of loss will heal
      And you will have learned
      To wean your eyes
      From that gap in the air
      And be able to enter the hearth
      In your soul where your loved one
      Has awaited your return…

      I’m anxious now to read your newest poem; perhaps there’s a hearth/heart connection there, too.

  25. The operant word here is “intent.” That’s what this post is about. That’s the missing piece. The Celts understood it. They understood how people and the world interlocked on all the different levels. Look at their art and tell me they didn’t see it.

    The prayers and blessings, the little rituals, they’re all about the intent. The positive act of will to impose good on the chaos of the world, to shape and channel the energy we put into our daily lives in positive ways with the intent of achieving outcomes that are as positive on as many levels as possible. To shear the sheep, not just to obtain the wool, but to benefit the sheep. The shearer inspects the sheep as they shear it, assessing its health and condition, “blessing” the sheep by tending to it carefully. The blessing to the shearer is the wool to make warm clothing and a healthy animal that will survive and make more wool. The best outcome of this event is when both shearer and sheep benefit from the action, when the action makes the situation better for all concerned. That is the intent.

    It is a form of mindfulness, and it is no different than the mindfulness of the Zen of the Japanese, or the Navajo walking in beauty. It is the integrating of the spirit, mind and the body into a whole person and the focusing of the whole person on the interface between person and world. We went through this whole “superstitious nonsense” thing where all this was poo-poo’ed as primitive, superstitious, ritualistic, magical thinking, and threw the baby out with the bathwater. We desperately need to find it again, that focus point, that engagement, that mindfulness. Intent.

    The whole point of the exercise is focus. That’s the why of prayer, meditation, ritual, magical spell, craft, the focusing of attention, not just on what you’re doing, but why. That’s the care and craft and art. The potter who understands the craft doesn’t just walk in, sit down at the wheel and make a pot; from the moment they wake up in the morning, they are actively engaged in the task of making a good pot. They understand there’s no point in making a pot if it’s not a good pot. It’s a waste of time and resources. So then they have to figure out what makes a pot a good pot. It’s an ongoing process. Intent. Behind every how is a why. It’s a whole complex chain.

    That old story about Joseph wrestling the angel — Joseph and the angel weren’t fighting each other. The angel wanted to leave and Joseph refused to let him go unless and until the angel blessed him. Intent. The world is the angel. Engage with it. Do not let it go until it blesses you.

    1. There’s not much I can add to this, except perhaps an “Amen” rich with its original meaning: “Let it be so.” I wondered, when I read your comments about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, whether you’ve come across Loren Eiseley. His writings are an unforgettable blend of natural history, myth, and imaginative exploration. I have several of his books, and find them refreshing and compelling: a fine combination. I think you’d like them. Some of his pieces have been revised a bit and popularized (like “The Star Thrower”) but there’s nothing in the world like his work.

      I’ve always enjoyed the tale of Joseph and the angel. It’s certainly open to multiple interpretations, and I like yours.

    1. You’re quite welcome. I’m glad you found it of interest, and I hope your friends do, too. Thanks especially for taking the time to stop by and comment; I appreciate it.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for mentioning the Isle of Lewis, too. I’m not very familiar with that area, and it was fun to read a few articles; it’s beautiful country, and such an interesting culture.

      Thanks for stopping by, and for commenting. You’re always welcome here.

  26. I was all agog reading this! Forrest and I were married in a quaint little Celtic church on Puget Sound in Washington State seventeen years ago. There was no reason in particular for this – we chose it because it was small and simple, and in the same community that some family lived. The minute I walked into that little church, it felt right. We had no music or flowers – just a simple walk down the aisle to say some mighty important words. Call me crazy, but there was a strength and purpose to that little church not far from the waterway. It was solid and spiritual. So much of how I feel the Celts must have been as a people.

    1. The simplicity you mentioned is part and parcel of that solid, spiritual base that characterized the Celts. As much as any people, they understood the power of the ordinary; there was no need for spectacle in their world. I’d say you had a perfect setting for your words; the strength of your relationship and your years of shared purpose certainly suggests it.

      I thought of you last week when I was briefly in the hill country. Look who I found! There were at least four in this group. Later, we came across a group of eight Axis deer which included three fawns. They crossed the road right in front of us at daybreak. No photos, but a great memory. There were a lot of wild turkeys out and about, too. I haven’t seen them in years, and this time I got to see a tom spread his tail.

  27. Well, of course I’m late to the party as usual but I’m so glad I came back to this one, which is exquisite in its info (new to me) and the thoughts about language and words. And what truly stands out the most: “Celtic prayer was less something to ‘do’ than an attitude to nourish: an attitude at once grateful and receptive.” That is incredibly beautiful and something to which we should all pay heed.

    1. This is one of my favorite posts, partly because it’s a way of remembering the person who gave me the book, and who embodied the Celtic way of spirituality wonderfully well — even as a Lutheran.

      I’ve been thinking about what seems to be an odd truth: despite our emphasis on the individual, we’re less and less accepting of individual quirks, and less and less distinguishable from one another. And, despite our technological advances, I suspect the longing that’s often expressed for a return to “the old days” isn’t a longing for organdy aprons, cooking in high heels, and rotary phones, but a longing for a kind of social cohesion that the Celts had, and we’ve lost.

      Anyway: you’ll never convince me that emoticons aren’t a tool of some linguistic devil. The Celts’ way is richer — far richer.

  28. “They offer a vision of life lived whole, life well-attuned to the universe and content with ordinary days. Above all, they offer to us the possibility of sained speech.” Everything about this post brings Peter back to me. Thank you for this post. I am struggling with the loss of Peter now since all the people have gone about their lives and the memory of his suffering is waning, I now just miss who he was and his presence and that Celtic spirit in my life. I have grown cynical and close to atheism in my 23 years in the “God Business”. I have forgotten the mystery and the specialness of the ordinary. Something that Peter always brought me back to.

    1. I’ve thought from time to time that the reason loss sometimes seems sharper after the passage of time is precisely what you mention. The raw emotion eases, other people turn to their own concerns, and the space that is left suddenly is seen for what it is: larger than life, and unfillable. Over the past months, I’ve heard many people praise Peter for what he did, but it always seemed to me that he was most remarkable for who he was: a gracious and open presence. I still remember that day we met at the Nash for the first time. I don’t remember what he was pointing out to me, but I remember how he smiled when he looked at the plant. it was pure love.

      As for the effects on a person of too much time in the God business: suffice it to say I understand. My own journey into and out of ministry was due at least in part to a hunger for an ordinary life. I certainly got that — and I’m glad of it. There have been problems in the past, and there are certain anxieties now, but those are part of the human condition.

      I’m increasingly fond of Mary Oliver’s poetry, as you probably have seen. This one seems especially wise and comforting:

      You do not have to be good.
      You do not have to walk on your knees
      for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
      You only have to let the soft animal of your body
      love what it loves.

      Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
      Meanwhile the world goes on.
      Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
      are moving across the landscapes,
      over the prairies and the deep trees,
      the mountains and the rivers.
      Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
      are heading home again.

      Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
      the world offers itself to your imagination,
      calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
      over and over announcing your place
      in the family of things.

    1. I just browsed through the book again, and found this excerpt from a longer blessing, which I think you’ll like:

      O Thou who pervadest the heights,
      Imprint on us Thy gracious blessing,
      Carry us over the surface of the sea,
      carry us safely to a haven of peace.
      Bless our boatmen and our boat,
      Bless our anchors and our oars,
      Each stay and halyard and traveller,
      Our mainsails to our tall masts
      Keep, O King of the elements, in their place
      That we may return home in peace.
      I myself will sit down at the helm,
      It is God’s own Son who will give me guidance
      As he gave to Columba the mild
      That time he set stay to sails.

      Isn’t that wonderful? I’m not sure I’ve ever come across another blessing or prayer that makes reference to blown sails!

    1. I’ve always thought that those who work in professions or trades that allow for contact with the natural world have the advantage of understanding that, when you push on the world, it pushes back. And those who live close to nature? They know they’re not in control. Perhaps splitting a cord of wood and herding a sails-only dinghy across a lake should be requirements for anyone wanting to assume public office.

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