Irish Druids And Old Irish
THE CULDEES OF DRUIDICAL
So many questions have been raised concerning the mysterious community,
called Culdees, and such various opinions have been expressed concerning
them, that one may be excused inquiring whether in their midst we can trace
reminiscences of old Irish faiths. The notion has been long prevalent that the
Culdees were only Scotch, having nothing to do with Ireland; whereas, they were
originally from that country.
Their most bitter enemy in early Christian days was the Venerable Bede, who
denied their claims to orthodoxy. But, since he was a Saxon, and a priest under
Roman rule, his charges have been slightly heeded. Their maintenance of an hereditary
priesthood was not merely Jewish, as he supposed, but of Druidical sympathy.
Prof. Rhys judiciously remarks--"Irish Druidism absorbed a certain
amount of Christianity, and it would be a problem of considerable difficulty to
fix on the period where it ceased to be Druidism, and from which onwards it
could be said of Christianity in any restricted sense of that term."
As both St. Patrick and St. Columba have been regarded by some modern writers
as simply Culdees, and not following orthodox views and methods, might not the
many stories told of their conflicts with Druids have been brought forth by
ancient chroniclers, in refutation of the slanders abroad concerning their
heretical, Druidical tendency? The same supposition may be equally directed
against the early Welsh missionaries, though these were almost all from Ireland.
Certainly their assumed miraculous powers inclined to the old traditions of
Druidical performances. They had all of them a control over the powers of
nature, and had even raised the dead; at least, their biographers claimed it
Dr. Carpenter speaks thus:--"The incidents in St. Columba's life have
been originally recorded in the contemporary fasti of his religious
foundation, and transmitted in unbroken succession to Abbot Adamnan, who first
compiled a complete Vita of his great predecessor, of which there exists
a MS copy, whose authenticity there is no reason to doubt, which dates back to
the early part of the eighth century, not much more than one hundred. years
after St. Columba's death. Now, Adamnan's Vita credits its subject with
the possession of every kind of miraculous power. He cured hundreds of people
afflicted with inveterate diseases, accorded safety to storm-tossed
vessels, himself walked across the sea to his island home, drove demons out
of milk-pails, outwitted sorcerers, and gave supernatural powers to domestic
All this reminds one strongly of the powers attributed by tradition to the
Druids of the period, and points suspiciously to some outgrowth from Druidism in
Columba was an Irishman of Donegal, and died, as it is said, in 597. Adamnan
declares that his staff (without which a Druid could do but little), when once
left behind at Iona, went of itself over the sea to its master in Ireland. He
founded a monastery at Durmagh, King's Co. At Iona the ruins are those of the
Cluniac monks; for, says Boulbee, "not a trace can well remain of the
primitive settlement of Columba." But Iona was certainly a Druidical
college at first.
Like the Druids before them, the Culdees formed communities. Richey tells
us--"The Church consisted of isolated monasteries, which were practically
independent of each other; the clergy exercised no judicial power over the
laity." On the other hand, Wood-Martin of Sligo supposes,
"Christianity must have been first introduced into Ireland by"
missionaries of the Greek Church." He notes the fact that Bishops were to
be found in almost every village. It is also pointed out that Columba never
sought Papal sanction for the conversion of the Picts.
The Iona tonsure, like that of St. Patrick's time, was the shaving of all the
hair in front of a line drawn over the top of the head from ear to ear. The
Roman, as all know, was a circle at top, and appears to have been first adopted
at Iona early in the eighth century. The first, or crescent, shape was
It was about that date, also, that the Roman way of keeping Easter succeeded
the so called Irish mode. At the Council of Whitby, Colman of Iona was outvoted,
though protesting the antiquity of his own practice. McFirbis's MS. speaks thus of
the year 896--"In this year the men of Erin consented to receive
jurisdiction and one rule from Adamnan respecting the celebration of Easter on
Sunday on the 14th of the moon of April, and the coronal tonsure of Peter was
performed upon the clerics of Erin." Again, it says, "The clergy of
Erin held many Synods and they used to come to those Synods with weapons, so
that pitched battles used to be fought between them, and many used to be
slain." After this authority, one need not wonder at the assertion that
Irish Druids formerly led contending parties.
Iona had certainly a Druidical college till the community was expelled by
Columba for his own community and the Highlanders still recognize it as the Druid's
Isle. An old statistical work says, "The Druids undoubtedly possessed
Iona before the introduction of Christianity." It must be admitted that the
Culdees wore a white dress, as did the Druids, and that they occupied places
which had a Druidical reputation. They used the Asiatic cross, now called that
of St. Andrew's. Dr. J. Moore is pleased to say, "The Culdees seem to have
adopted nearly all the Pagan symbols of the neighbourhood."
As to the origin of the word, Reeves might well remark in his notes on
Columba's Life, "Culdee is the most abused term in Scotic church
history." As the Ceile De, the Four Masters mentions them in
806. Todd writes of them thus--"The earliest Christian missionaries found
the native religion extinct, and themselves took the name of Culdees from
inhabiting the Druids' empty cells." Jamieson styles them Culdees or
Keldees, Kyldees, Kylledei. O'Brien has them the Irish Ceile De,
servant of God. Another call them Clann Dia, Children of God. Barber
considered them Mithraists.
Higgins, in Celtic Druids, will have Culdees only changed Druids, and
regarded the Irish hereditary Abbots of Iona, the Coarbs or Curbs,
as simply Corybantes. Latin writers knew them as Colidei or
God-worshippers. Bishop Nicholson thought them Cool Dubh, from their
black hoods. As C and G are commutable letters in Irish, we have Giolla
De, Servant of God. The word Culdee was used by Boece in 1526. Dr. Reeves,
in the Irish Academy, calls the Servus Dei by the Celtic Celi-Dé,
and notes the name Ceile-n-De applied to the Sligo Friars in the Four
Masters, 1595. Monks were reputed Keledei in the thirteenth century.
Brockham's Lexicon finds regulars and seculars called so in the ninth century.
The Four Masters record that "Maenach, a Celae-Dé, came
across the sea westward to establish laws in Ireland." In the poem of Moelruein,
it is the Rule of the Celae-n-dé. The Keledei of Scotland,
according to Dr. Reeves, had the same discipline as the Irish Colidei.
One Collideus of the Armagh church died in 1574. One Celi-dé of
Clonmacnois, dying in 1059, left several sons, who became Abbots after him.
The canons of York were Culdees in
Athelstan's time. Ceadda, Wilfrid's
predecessor, was a Culdee. They were also called, from their mode of celebrating
Easter, Quartadecimans. The last known in Scotland were in 1352. As Bede
says, the Irish, being Culdees, would as soon communicate with pagans as with
Saxons; the later following Latin or Romish Christianity.
Ireland, as reported by Giraldus, had a chapel of the Colidei on an
island of Tipperary, as he declared some were on islands of Wales. They were in
Armagh in 920. Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, asserts that the Northern Irish,
"continued still their old tradition," in spite of the declaration of
Pope Honorius. In Tirechan's Life of St Patrick, Cele-de came from
Briton to Ireland in 919; but in 811 some were said to have been miraculously conveyed across the sea. Bede,
who opposed them, whether from Ireland or Scotland, was shocked at their holding
his religion "in no account at all," nor communicating with his
faithful "in anything more than with pagans." He banished those who
came to his quarter.
He found these Irish, Welsh, and Scotch Christians to have, in addition to
many heresies, the Jewish and Druidical system of hereditary priesthood.
Property of the Church even descended from father to son; and, says Dr. Reeves,
"was practically entailed to members of certain families." He adds
that they were understood in the 12th century as "a religious order of
clerks who lived in Societies, under a Superior, within a common enclosure, but
in detached cells; associated in a sort of collegiate rather than œnobical
Giraldus, as well as Bede, complained of their hereditary priesthood. The
same principle prevailed in the Druidical region of Brittany, and only yielded
to the force of the Council of Tours in 1127.
Although St. Columba had no exalted idea of the other sex, saying,
"Where there is a cow there will be a woman, and where there is a woman
there will be mischief"--yet his followers practised marriage. But while,
says Mylin, they "after the usage of the Eastern Church, had wives they
abstained from them, when it came to their turn to minister." The
"Woman's Island" of Loch Lomond was one of the female sanctuaries on
such an occasion. Their opposition to celibacy brought them much discredit with
Archbishop Lanfranc was shocked at their not praying to Saints, not
dedicating churches to the Virgin or Saints, not using the Roman Service, and
because, wrote he, "Infants are baptized by immersion, without the
St. Bernard was distressed at what he heard of these Irish Culdees, who had
no Confession, never paid tithes, and lived like wild beasts, as they disdained
marriage by the clergy. In his righteous anger, he stigmatized them as
"beasts, absolute barbarians, a stubborn, stiff necked, and ungovernable
generation, and abominable; Christian in name, but in reality pagans." This
harsh language is not worse than that employed by the Pope, when he entreated
our Henry II to take over Ireland, so as to bring the Irish into the Christian
Church, compel them to pay tithes, and so civilize them.
One would fancy, with Algernon Herbert, that the Culdees performed secret
rites, and indulged, like their Druidical fathers, in human sacrifice, from the
legend of St. Oran being buried underneath the church erected by Columba, to
propitiate the Powers, and secure good fortune. In that case, however, St. Oran
offered to be the victim, so as to avert evil from bad spirits.
If St. Patrick, St. Columba, and other early Irish Saints had been true
monks, why did St. Bernard, in his Life of Malachy, Archbishop of Armagh,
1130, say that up to that time there was not a monk in Ireland? Columba
certainly took Culdeeism to Scotland from Ireland. In the Bog of Monaincha are
two islands. On one was a monastery for men, their wives occupying the
neighbouring Woman's Isle. Giraldus Cambrensis, who wrote of the Community of
Monaincha in the twelfth century, called it the church of the old religion, and
politely designated as "Demons" all who belonged to that former
church. The Abbey church, the ruins of which still remain, and which was 38 feet
by 18 feet in size, was erected after the time of Giraldus.
Thus R. F. Gould, in his Freemasonry, had some grounds for
saying--"The Druidism of our ancestors must have been powerfully influenced
by the paganism of the Empire at the period when Christianity dawned on Britain." He deemed it
probable that the early clerics of Christianity, "the cultores deorum,
the worshippers of the gods, gradually merged into cultores Dei,
worshippers of the true God." So it might be that, as Higgins wrote,
"The Culdees were the last remains of the Druids."