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Loch Etive and The Sons of Uisnach
Chapter XXIII - Druids

Margaet.—You have mentioned Druids once or twice, what were they really? They were said to have brought magical charms to the struggle of Conor with the sons of Uisnach.

O'Keefe.—Your question brings up long disputes. There are some that speak as if there never were Druids, as if they were a class conjured up by the imagination of a few men to whose reveries C2esar gave heed, adding his own. Nobody uses quite this language, but there is in England an inclination to depreciate Druids, and men have run to extremes. It is a wave of commonplace to which there is a desire to reduce all ages. You have great difficulty in causing ignorant or loutish persons to believe anything, they always know so much better than a well-taught man, who is, of course, wider in knowledge, sympathy, and receptive power, and sees the possible more easily. The most common of all scepticism is narrowness of view. All must, on serious thought, allow Druids to have existed somewhere. We cannot contradict Caesar when, after careful inquiries, he fixes their principal seat, or, at least, an important seat, in Britain. He may make mistakes, but he cannot be altogether wrong on the whole question. The difficulty, however, is great when we attempt to connect the Druids with modern times and visible remains. Some authors have decided on seeing remains of temples; they say, and reasonably, that such an important body would have buildings. It is difficult to contradict this, but what buildings there were is a point on which we have simply no information. There were men who wished to make every cromlech, dolmen, cat-stone, or stone circle, a llruidical remnant, and perhaps some still remain, and the idea has, to a great extent, gone into the language, but we know for a certainty that memorials of burials are the chief object of the first one, and of nearly all the only object apparently. The cat-stone means a battle stone, and the stone circle surrounds the dead. Are there any cases of exception such as Stonehenge or Callernish? I am quite disposed to think that, for the larger, there must have been more intentions in the mind of the builders than commemoration of the dead: the worship of stones was simply the worship of images before artistic talent was developed. A child puts down a stone and calls it a house, and idols do not require Greek art. The story of Crom Cruach and the circle of gods in the Kjalnesinga Saga have been mentioned, besides many facts known to rude authentic story, but notwithstanding probability and this amount of tradition or folk-saws, we must keep to the point that we arc not authoritatively informed of any existing building, or even of one solitary existing stone, connected with Druidism. We are told, but only by later writers, that sacrifices were offered on the cromlech or flat dolmens. There seems no proof of any such being made on tombs, although abundant proof that they were made at the death of important individuals, and perhaps on the stones. The habit remains in the world. The Suttee is scarcely extinguished, and in Central Africa worse habits are by no means worn out, whilst the blood stone is mentioned in Icelandic Sagas, and sacrifices entail burials as matter of course. Still we know of no Druids in Iceland, and we are unable to connect the blood stones with remains in this country and with the Druids.

It is quite certain that this country has not been free from the sacrificial phase of thought, and it is unlikely that the inhabitants have always been so tender-hearted as to confine the act of sacrifice to the lower animals, and I am quite willing to connect Druids and bloody rites as Caesar has connected them. The early inhabitants of this island were never gentle—carelessness of life causing slaughter and cruelty, along with a wild enthusiasm and romance, growing into poetry, is the view in the distance, and in some parts it has come as far as the memory of early tradition. I never reject anything because it seems too foolish or too horrible for man to do or to think, but as I reject the idea that Britain was ever the land to which spirits invisible, but heavy enough to weigh down a vessel, were conveyed from the Continent, so I am unwilling to believe in the great advancement of the Druids of Britain in science or in thought generally. Still there may have been a band of men with a peculiar advance in a certain civilization, men different from the ordinary inhabitants, and capable of ruling to some extent, by their mysterious habits and greater knowledge. Such a band is rarely wanting in the most savage country, The system of the Druids has been so often talked of by later writers that we all have heard something about the opinions, and many references exist in early authors to confirm the belief in a widely spread band of this peculiar people.

But we are making a Highland holiday, and we shall not go for knowledge to Greece, to Rome, or to ancient Gaul, and we shall only try to obtain the idea of Druidism as it existed in traditions decidedly Gaelic, and these are chiefly from Ireland.

Loudoun.—It is said that there never were Druids in Scotland. The word is common enough, but we find no certain organized system of Druidism in Ireland or Scotland, and no proof of great advance in knowledge amongst the individuals. We learn, however, that the Druids frequently rose to great power, and their authority seems to have wavered along with that of the bards, probably according to the character of the professing Druid or consulting or maintaining chief.

O'Keefe.—It is certainly an old tract that speaks of Cathbar the Druid giving instructions in Druidism in Emania, and is good evidence, even if not before the first century. Dathi, a king, is said to have lived in the fifth century, and to have consulted Doghra, the chief of the Druids, as to his destiny for a year. By appointment, the king and nine nobles met the Druid at Rath Archaill, "where the Druid's altars and idols were," says O'Curry. So I suppose it is in the original. At the rising of the sun in the morning, the Druid repaired to the King's bedroom and said, "Art thou asleep, O King of Erinn and Albain?" "I am not asleep," said the King; "but why have you made an addition to my titles? for although I have taken the sovereignty of Erinn I have not yet obtained that of Albain." "Thou shalt not be long so, for I have consulted the clouds of the men of Erinn," &c. Here Doghra speaks as a prophet, or rather a fortune-teller, since the prophecy does not rise high, and was not even correct ; and it is to be remarked that the Druid takes also the position of a priest, and it is also as a priest that he is met by St. Patrick. This account of the king is from the Book of Leinster. (See O'Curry's Lectures, p. 284.)

Cormac Mac Airt, when fighting with the King of Munster, consulted his Druids, and they thought the best way to conquer was to deprive the enemy of water, and by their spells and incantations they dried up or concealed all the rivers, lakes, and springs of the district, so that both men and cattle were dying of thirst all around them. The King of Munster sent to Dairbrd, now called Valencia, to Moth Ruith, the most famous Druid of the time, and lie promised relief for a great reward in land. On the promise being made he shot an arrow into the air, telling the men of Munster that water would arise wherever the - arrow should fall. This occurred, and the well is called Ccann Moir, or the great head. (O'Curry, p. 272.) One of the verses describing a great house having Druids in it has already been quoted (p. 91).

A mound of the Druids is spoken of as at Tara.

I have already told you of Aoife who changed the children of Lir into swans by a metamorphosing Druidical wand. In the absurd tale "The Fate of the Children of Tuireann" we find men transformed into hawks in order to enable them to steal apples from the garden of the Hesperides. The king's three daughters turned themselves into ospreys and pursued the hawks into the sea, and also scorched them with lightning, but Brian struck himself and his two brothers with a Druidical wand and became swans and went into the sea, and the ospreys went off.

The Druids are said to have fought hard against St. Patrick, and brought on an intense darkness for three days and three nights. This was a favourite mode of attack.

An old life of Columba mentions that a Druid was his first teacher.

There was an ancient Irish Druid, said to have lived 600 years B.C., who pronounced incantations on a wisp of straw or hay, and threw it into the face of anyone, causing him to dance, run, jump, or flutter about in a lunatic manner. This mode of performance seems to have been externally very simple.

We are told of a very innocent man, Comgan, who became suspected by a Druid, who forthwith struck him with the grass, over which he had made incantations, and Comgan was at once covered with blotches, his hair fell off, his intellect decayed, and he soon became a bald, senseless, and wandering idiot.

Eithne, Queen of Cashel, was desirous of obtaining the friendship of the Druid Dill, who was an enemy to her people the Deisi, and she sent her maid, who was a daughter of Dill, to offer him presents. "Is it true," said he, "that you are attached to that hateful Queen Eithne." "It is true, but I am come to offer you wealth." "I will not accept it. They are a bad swarm who have planted themselves on the borders of Cashel, but they shall depart to-morrow. I am preparing incantations, the Inneoin (a town) shall be burnt to-morrow. I shall be on the west side of the hill and shall see the smoke; a hornless red cow shall be sent past them to the west; they shall raise a universal shout, after which they will fly away, and they shall never occupy the land again." "Good," said the daughter, "sleep now when you please." The daughter stole the enchanted straw and gave it to the queen, who now wanted only a hornless red cow to turn the destruction on the plotter. One of the Druidesses said that she would turn into such a cow and be slain, if her children were made free. This was done; the fire was lighted, the cow passed from the east and was killed, and the Deisi (Decies or Deasys) were victorious. Their enemies, the descendants of Bresel Belach, were called Ossorians (ossairghe, from os, a wild deer). The word Ossory comes from this (see as before). We can scarcely imagine a wilder story.

Illumination by the palms of the hands was an old ceremony performed by a Druid or bard. He chewed a bit of red flesh of a pig, a dog, or a cat, and retired with it to bed behind the door, where he pronounced an oration upon it and offered it to his idols. He was expected to receive illumination in this state, and if not he placed his two hands on his two checks and fell asleep. He was watched so as not to be interrupted, and revelation came in two or three days. (O'Curry and Sullivan, vol. II., p. 208.)

Brindsley the engineer went to bed when he had a difficulty.

The power of satire we have already seen when speaking of the bards. I could tell you of many more enchantments.

I have told you some of the. doings of the Druids among the Irish, being very ignorant of the customs of the Scottish, but I suppose they were both the same. And now what shall we conclude? 1st, We cannot prove well that the Druids in Ireland formed a priesthood. 2nd, The words of the old writers refer to an old worship and idols ; there certainly was a religion. 3rd, The probability is that either the religion or Druidical system of Britain and Gaul had either been dimly represented in the outskirts of the Celtic nation as in Ireland, or that it had decayed before we hear of it from Irish sources. 4th, That in its decay it had become a species of wilful deception, fortune-telling, and witchcraft, with a variety of tricks and coercion of mind by mysterious words. 5th, That this had engendered a great variety of superstitions in the people. 6th, That these have been the foundation of many wild and romantic tales. Druidheachd means enchantment.

The power of the Druids in Ireland seems to have arisen partly from the talent of the individual, partly from the influence of the class. Some were poor, some rich. Some kings gave heed to the Druids, some not. We do not see the power of a hierarchy clearly expressed, although there are traces of it. The result has been that magic is equal to Druidism; the Druids are sometimes called Magi, and some are said to have learned their art in the east.

Now comes the question. During the Roman domination did any breakdown of the Celtic centres further the introduction of these ideas from Britain or Gaul? The Romans themselves heard of them as from afar; they could introduce nothing; but Ireland is so easily approached from Wales that we require no other reason either in peace or war. A certain organization of Druids we must allow in Britain: did it come less organized to Ireland? The question as to the time of introduction even of the slight waves is left to conjecture. It is probable that the Druids passed very early, and would find in Ireland an excitable people ready to receive impressions, but not to organize, either from difference of character or because the amount of knowledge that passed over was insufficient for a profound impression. If we do allow a regular organization, we cannot believe that an esprit de corps could be wanting.

Loudoun.—If we examine the literature of Ireland and of Wales we find a remarkable difference. It is probable that the earliest books of both countries are of nearly equal age, and yet it is impossible to avoid observing that each proceeds from quite independent portions of the mind; the initial object is different, and the mode of carrying out the ideas is different, notwithstanding many points of similarity. To one not familiar with the originals of either Welsh or Irish it is still easy to judge of style of thought. The Welsh is sentimental, often melancholy, metaphysical, and religious. There is great mysticism, which shows itself in the indefinite descriptions, so that one does not know the places referred to, one can scarcely understand what is meant to be described, and the similes also are often beyond comprehension. The Irish writings are very clear; they treat of events and are full of rapid action, minute description of persons, and very exact accounts of houses. There is little sentiment, little religion, and no metaphysics or mysticism, although there is an unbounded exaggeration and tendency to turn the most common events into romance. This exaggeration would require a long lecture to explain, so I will not attempt it. The fundamental feeling that one meets is not Christian, devoted as the Irish churchmen were; we see a perfectly independent, or, as one may say, a perfectly heathen character of thought and motive of action. This is speaking outside of the avowedly ecclesiastical literature, and where we might have expected to see more than we do of the influence of clerical and Christian thought. The activity of the Irish did, however, show itself among those who entered the Church to such an extent that they can speak of their labours over that continent itself which sent them missionaries, and no more earnest men have been found in the world than the preachers and saints of Ireland. The severance of the usual literature from the Church literature is, however, remarkable, and makes me believe that the great body of the people were ruled by traditions and habits of life begun before Christianity entered the island, and that the devotees and preachers were a class very much separated in life as well as in feeling—perhaps a different tribe, race, or mixture. It is marvellous how different from us may be the men who live next us; and savages exist still in England, how much more readily in a country difficult of access. I knew a small cottage, three miles from one of the greatest cities in England, where a man and his wife had lived till they were seventy years old, and they had only twice been in the town.

O'Keefe.—You seem to be defending the idea that Druidical learning may have long existed, and pre-Christian ideas have ruled the Gaelic literature of Ireland.

Loudoun.—Not learning, so far as I know, but ideas. If in Ireland how much more in Wales, a seat of Druidism. It seems to have tinctured the Welsh mind, and one probably sees it in the Welsh character still, being as peculiar as the fine bodily activity and liveliness of spirit in Ireland. The present people are like the ancient, and the groundwork of their minds is the same. The Welsh boys at Holyhead, a port of entrance, are still afraid, or were lately, of the Gwyddel or Irish, being a remembrance of differences in olden time.

O'Keefe.—But surely Christianity had driven out all the previous religion long before the existence of most of the writings, even the oldest, of our country.

Loudoun.—This is fancy. Our lowest superstitions refuse to be driven out for generations, and we keep them now in the most learned society. The only way to drive the effects of Druidism out of England was to drive out the population. This has been done greatly, and even there some of its fancies remain. No - wonder greater than this exists in Wales where the strange Neo-Druidism has arisen. In its attempts at restoration I fear the fragments of Druidism were found too broken to lead to any success, and the earliest writings we have may contain as little of the really ancient Druidical ideas as the present, all three, however, having a similar psychological character. If the moderns had allowed us to seek the remnants as chance left them, we should have had more promising results, but when new ideas attach to the old a restoration becomes hopeless. We may expect only to see some pieces as of broken statues found among broken bricks, and cemented together to make a modern wall, as in Rome. I do not, therefore, draw any of my inferences from anything said by the professed modern Druids further than this, that the literature shows a mind allied to that which produced the earliest Welsh remains and probably early Druidism.

We may as well remark also that this difference in the Briton and the Gael shows how different people may be who are still called Celts. The difference is in body and mind, and clearly explains the hopelessness of the attempt, so fashionable of late, to make all the Celts to be the same ; much less hopeful is the effort of that school that makes the same people of Celts and Germans.

Well, men may laugh or rave about Druids, but I conclude that their history has not been written, and if you read Frickius and the Irish writings, you may leave out almost all the rest.

The word Druid and its compounds occur abundantly in Gaelic; and the Druidical ideas as held by the Gael, if the witchcraft alluded to is worthy of the name of ideas, tincture all their superstitions.

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