Can you imagine a group of Irishmen crouched around 30 sacred large stones arranged in a circle on a hill overlooking the Irish Sea or Atlantic Ocean at midnight, as they peer into the night sky trying to discern the stars and the position of the moon in relation to the tide? And can you imagine this ritual being performed on a regular basis in a bid to seek guidance and good fortune from the forces that govern nature?
Or can you imagine an Irish king who lives in fear of an eclipse of the sun or moon because such an incident will be a sure proof of the displeasure of the gods with his stewardship and an end to his monarchy?
You may find it difficult to imagine or belief that such superstition once existed in Ireland which today is associated with a strong Christian tradition and culture with 88.4 percent of the population being Catholics!
But this is how the Druid priests of the peoples of the various clans that make up Ireland today practice their ancient religion which was rooted in astrology and the worship of nature.
Recounting the history of religion in Ireland, Dessie M’Callion of Heritage History Tours of Inishowen in Donegal, said Druid priests, formed an important part of the ancient peoples of Ireland as much as the Shanniky or historians who recorded the genealogy, misdeeds and good deeds of each member of the clan and the Bards who put this history into poetry that was sung.
“The power the Druid priests held over the peoples and chieftains of Ireland was based on their secret knowledge of astrology and magic which they used to rule them. They could not only predict an eclipse of the sun or moon but they used such natural occurrences to control the rulers and the peoples. Thy will tell a chieftain that an eclipse was a sign of displeasure by the gods signaling the end of his rule”, Mr. M’Callion said.
According to the dictionary of Irish myths and legend, the word ‘druid’ may have signified ‘oak knower’ or ‘knower of a great deal’. This is because Druids were associated with the oak tree, which they held in special reverence and ate acorns to prepare themselves to prophesy. The Druids were the next important group of people to the kings and their religious teachings included the immortality and transmigration of the soul. They worshipped the sun, the moon and idols, and probably offered human sacrifices to a particular idol called “Crom Cruach”. People offered in human sacrifice were normally prisoners taken in battle, criminals guilty of grave offences and even their own children.
They had a limited knowledge of medicine, studied the stars and read the secrets of the future from the position of the stars, the croaking of ravens and the chirping of wrens. On appointed occasions such as May Day or Midsummer Eve, druidical sun worshippers marched around the ritual stone circles, which also served as calendars, in a sun wise direction. Cattle were also passed through two fires lit by the Druid priests to protect them from disease.
Druid priests were not peculiar to Ireland but formed the priesthood of the ancient Celts who were found in Britain, Gaul and Ireland. However, whilst Gaulish druidism was stamped out in A.D. 54 and Britain little later, that of Ireland persisted until A.D 432 when it was stamped out by Saint Patrick.
The son of a Roman magistrate in Britain, Patrick was captured by the High king of Ireland at the time, known as Niall of the Nine Hostages, and sold into slavery to a pagan chief, Milchu of Antrim, in Ireland. King Niall became High king of Ireland by capturing hostages from the nine leading families of Ireland and forcing them to swear allegiance to him.
When Patrick managed to escape from his master after six year of a life of drudgery, he went to Rome where he studied for missionary work after which he was sent back to Ireland to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity.
St Patrick’s first confrontation with the Druid priests was at Easter time, around the spring of A.D 431. “It was customarily and part of their rituals for the druid priests to light the first fires on ‘bealtine’, an important date in the druid calendar, to signify the New Year”, Mr. M’Callion said. However, while the fires of the druid priests were burning in the spring of that year, they saw another fire on the ‘Hill of Slane’. They interpreted this as a challenge to their power and authority and St Patrick was summoned before the Druid priests and the High king, who was Laoire, son of Niall of the Nine Hostages who had taken Patrick captive in his youth.
Unshaken by the threats of the Druid priests, St Patrick went on to disprove their power and authority. The magic spells and portions cast on him by the Druid priests did not harm him thus undermining their power and authority before the High King and his peoples. St Patrick proved to the High king that he longer needed the Druid priests to rule and told him the eclipse of the sun and moon were a natural phenomena.
Thus, the high king of Ireland adopted this new belief which liberated him from his dependency on the Druid priests. Very speedily, St Patrick had the entire Irish population Christianized
Dear reader, you may be wondering, “why this article on St Patrick. Don’t we know enough about him already? The work of St Patrick in Ireland is an eye-opener for all communication students of the Pontifical Gregorian University, especially those from Africa. Missionaries had already been sent to Ireland from the church in Rome for several years to convert the pagan Irish to Catholicism. But it took the wisdom, foresight and experience of one man, St Patrick, to turn the whole of Ireland to Christianity. So what were the strengths of St Patrick that set him apart from earlier missionaries, making him “to do what Napoleon could not do”. His strength was that he “took the bull by the horns”. He went straight for the pillar around which paganism revolved, the Druid priests and their secret knowledge of astrology, and toppled it over.
The Druid priests of Ireland have strong parallels in contemporary African culture in the form of sorcerers, witchdoctors, soothsayers and fetish priests, who have persisted despite the fact that Christianity has been in Africa for several decades. Why have these forms of worship not been stamped out and why has the Irish experience of wholesale conversion eluded African missionaries for several years. The answers can be found by examining the strengths of St Patrick.
First of all, St Patrick had first hand knowledge of Irish culture, thanks to the time he spent as a slave among the Irish. This gives credence to the biblical passage that “all works for good for them that love the Lord” He knew the language and spoke it very well, much to the chagrin of the other missionaries who neither understood the culture nor spoke the language.
Secondly, in his bid to evangelize the Irish, St Patrick dismantled their belief system by exposing the Druid priests as frauds. With the resulting vacuum that was created, Christianity was easily absorbed by the High King, the chieftains and the peoples as they groped for a new belief system to lean on.
Thirdly, having evangelized the Irish, St Patrick was not consumed by complacency but set about the process of inculturation to consolidate Christianity as an authentic Irish religion. According to Mr. M’callion, it took St Patrick and his men eight years to gather all the Brehon laws, traditional Irish laws which covered all aspects of Irish life from wood gathering to how aged people in Irish society should be treated, into what he called the “great old law” (shanchuas mor). Laws that were found to be compatible with Christianity were incorporated into the Christian faith. Those found to be in conflict were supplanted by biblical teachings.
In contrast, these three processes did not take place at the time when Africans were first introduced to Christianity. Rather, attempts were often made by the early missionaries to wipe out what they described as “heathen practices” and replace them with their own. Learning the language and culture and attempts at inculturation normally occurred as an afterthought, after initial attempts at evangelization had failed to produce the desired results and familiarity with the new religion had already bred contempt among non converts, making it more difficult to convince them.
The result was often outright resistance or half- hearted conversion resulting in half-baked Christians, who run back to the old religion; sorcerers, witchdoctors and soothsayers, for help when life in their new faith become intolerable. This back and forth movement of Christians to and from traditional African religious practices still presents a challenge and is an indication that such converts are not yet aware of the power and potential inherent in them as Christians and that they do not need the old religion to make it in life.
So what does this tell students of communication? Having a vibrant faith is not enough to evangelize. The first missionaries who went to Africa had a strong faith and were zealous to evangelize. They set out at the risk of death to the “white mans grave” and the “mosquito coast”. But what they lacked was an effective system of evangelization. The danger is that, despite all the training we have received at the Pontifical Gregorian University, we may still be found wanting and unprepared for issues on the ground.
The first problem is that of culture. Even though we often use the phrase “African Culture”, in reality, there is nothing like “African culture” since culture in Africa is not homogenous but varies greatly from one ethnic group to the other. Hence, what is acceptable in village “A” may be a taboo in village “B” even though they may be only a few kilometers apart. In village “C”, a woman’s virginity may be revered while in village “D”, virginity is frowned down upon and the virgin bride becomes the laughing stock among women in her husband’s household.
This poses a challenge to African missionaries themselves and they should not assume that their cultural values hold true for other ethnic groups. It calls for a non-stop process of studying new cultures in which one finds himself instead of making assumptions based on past knowledge of other cultures.
Closely linked to the issue of culture is that of language. Over 50 different languages are spoken in Ghana alone while Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, can boast of over a 100 languages. In Ghana, two parishes, the Bolgatanga and Navorongo dioceses which are separated by just 18 miles speak two very different languages, requiring that priests be fluent in both languages in order to reach the majority of the population. Whilst English is the official language of Ghana and Nigeria, the high illiteracy rate in these countries, which is the same for most African nations, makes English ineffective for reaching most of the population with any kind of information.
But language plays a crucial role in any evangelization process. “I belief the inability of the British to speak the Gaelic language made their efforts at spreading Protestantism in Ireland unsuccessful”, says M’ Callion. “This was in spite of the fact that at that time, Catholicism in Ireland had sunk to its lowest ebb and long after Pope Gregory VII, who ruled from 1076 to 1085 had passed the celibacy law, Irish priests still continued to marry up to the 16 century, even though it was frowned upon by Rome. Names like Mc Taggart, which means “son of the priest” and Gillespe, which means “boy of the Bishop” became entrenched in Irish culture”.
“Catholicism in Ireland at that time was a far cry from what it was in earlier centuries when schools in Ireland became places of refuge, making it the leading light of Christianity throughout Europe. People seeking refuge from warring tribes in Northern Europe arrived in Ireland with sacred relics and manuscripts”, said M’Callion.
Hence, during the dark days when Europe was struck by the plague and other diseases and Christianity all but disappeared from mainland Europe, it flourished in Ireland. Explaining how Catholicism declined in Ireland, M’ Callion said, “From the 11 century onwards, Irish missionaries went back into Europe to set up schools and colleges. As they left, Ireland again fell into its role as backwater, had its own brand of Christianity and the celibacy rule had no effect on it”.
Britain’s efforts at turning Ireland into a protestant enclave without first mastering Gaelic did not only fail but provided the impetus needed for Ireland to subscribe to the laws of Rome. This was in spite of the Penal Laws which Britain enacted to persecute Catholics and Presbyterians alike. The laws among other things, denied education to Catholics, prohibited them from owning firearms, land and a horse valued more than five pounds. Priests were abolished from the land and seminaries were closed down. The head of a priest carried the same prize as that of a wolf. Presbyterian marriages were not recognized; their children were illegitimate and could not inherit property according to British law. The Penal Laws were repealed for Catholics in 1829 and for Presbyterians in 1845.
The defiance of the Irish against British efforts to convert them to Protestantism proves that the initial evangelization carried out by St Patrick was not only strong enough to root out paganism but also strong enough to resist later attempts to reconvert them to a different Christian teaching. This brings into mind the biblical story on evangelization, depicted by the parable of the sower; Mathew 13, 1-8, 19-23.
If the catholic faith had not been deeply rooted in the Irish, the “cares of the world” which were denied them under the Penal Laws such as the right to land, to own a horse and firearms, would have been a stumbling block and finally destroyed their faith. Instead, it turned out to strengthen and purify their faith. This seems to be the reverse in Africa. Most often, the “cares of the world” strangles the faith of professing Catholics. Prolonged sickness and disease turns people away from the church to witchdoctors. Even a single nightmare can send a seemingly devout Christian scrambling off after soothsayers looking for an interpretation. Catholic politicians in Africa have been known to seek the power of voodoo or juju to help them win elections and illiterate witchdoctors and soothsayers guide educated politicians during political campaigns. The faith of leaders in authority does not serve as a counter check on corruption, even though these corrupt leaders may be active in church. Hence, there exists a dichotomy between the lives of professing Catholics and the faith that they profess. This again poses another major challenge to missionary work in Africa. Not only is there the need to convert people from paganism but even those who have supposedly been converted need to be reconverted.
This demands that, this time around, we need to do our homework well as communicators of the Catholic faith if we are to have any impact on Africa. In this regard, efforts at inculturation are in the right direction since this is the only way Christianity can be integrated into the lives of Africa to ensure that Christianity takes root as proved by the works of St Patrick in Ireland.
If one defines hegemony as the dominance of one group over the other, with or without brute force, then inculturation is essentially a process of cultural hegemony where aspects of the culture of the evangelized people are incorporated into the dominant religion, which in this case is Christianity. They thus identify with it and accept it thus ensuring that Christianity becomes rooted in their lives. Whether we like it or not, cultural hegemony that allows African cultural perspectives to be skewed in favor of Christianity remains the key to effective and sustainable evangelization in Africa, as exemplified by the accomplishments of St Patrick in Ireland.

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  3. Irritated African
    January 12, 2010 at 1:29 am

    You’re kidding right? I am a South African, and your supposed religion of “salvation” is killing our indigenous cultures and worsening the AIDS epidemic. Christianity did not benefit Ireland, Ireland remained one of the most backward countries in Western Europe until very recently. Christianity was responsible for hindering scientific and philosophical development in Europe for hundreds of years, until the Renaissance era, when PAGAN scientific literature from the Greek and Roman era was made more accessible with modern translations. You have NO RIGHT to impose your beliefs on us. Africa does not need to be converted, what we need is people who are willing to help those in poverty without any sort of alterior motives such as conversion and mission work. Christianity nearly destroyed Europe, if it weren’t for the Enlightenment era the continent would still be a backward superstitious and primitive non-secular region….do not do the same to Africa, for since your religion set foot on our soil we have nothing but conflict, poverty and bloodshed.

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