Shamanic TalkPhoto by Shweta Saraswat

It’s Friday night at The Magic Glass, a medium sized bar tucked inside the O’Callaghan Hotel in the center of Dublin. At first glance, the 40-odd people lounging inside seem like average Irish, glowing from the orange of the lamps and the heat of their drink. But they’ve rejected one of the key elements of what it means to be Irish: Catholicism and indeed Christianity.

A group of fit young men compare Celtic tattoos in one corner, a Wiccan crochets a snake doll in another, and a couple at the bar discusses an upcoming handfasting. This is a pagan moot, a regular meeting of the local pagan community including shamans, Wiccans, and Druids.

While such terms may conjure up images of people dancing naked by fire under the moonlight, contemporary paganism is simply the restoration of indigenous religions, especially that of ancient Europe. In recent decades, the Catholic Church has faced a steady decline in levels of practice and a cultural crisis, according to Olivia Cosgrove, co-editor of Ireland’s New Religious Movements. Consequently, non-religious or alternative spiritualities have become more widespread.

In the ethnographic study “Neo-Paganism in Ireland,” Jenny Butler writes that the spiritual movement encompasses a wide variety of beliefs and practices. But a common thread throughout contemporary paganism is the neo-pagan ritual. It usually involves the articulation of meaning about the nature of reality and is also a way to engage with certain energies believed to exist in the world.

But tonight, the only ritual happening is the social imbibing of alcohol. More of a laidback party than any sort of organized meeting with an agenda, the pagan moot is a chance for men and women on the spiritual margins to be with others like themselves.

Raymond SweeneyPhoto by Shweta Saraswat

And they need each other. In a country where 84 percent of the people call themselves Catholic, non-Christian residents in Ireland live in a world where laws and social norms still have the distinct tang of Catholic morality. Pagan weddings were not considered legal unions by the Irish government until 2009.

Raymond Sweeney, the national coordinator for Pagan Federation Ireland, has been one of the loudest voices demanding the legalization of pagan weddings. If it weren’t for the jovial look on his cherubic face as he gulps down his drink, his mammoth size and black leather vest would be intimidating.

“It’s not the message of Christianity, but the hardness of the Catholic churches and their interpretation of the Bible that was an issue for me.”

Raised Catholic, the 40-year-old proudly recalls when he was a bored 11-year-old sitting in a wooden pew during Mass. He triggered the fire alarm to get out, and his spontaneous act of rebellion worked better than he could have imagined. His parents never brought him back to church, wanting to avoid the trouble of any more of his sacrilegious shenanigans.

The young rebel’s curiosity led him to explore a range of pagan traditions, which has helped him in his role as a registered solemnizer of pagan weddings. When he’s not overseeing a handfasting — a ritual in which a couple literally “ties the knot” — he works as an electric engineer. His scientific side comes out when he uses physics as a metaphor to explain his own spirituality.

“If you shine a light through a prism, then put another prism next to it, it doesn’t change the light. You don’t see it through somebody else’s interpretation — you see it directly,” says Mr. Sweeney, describing the unmediated appeal of paganism over the hierarchical nature of Catholicism.

Paganism is open to a range of interpretations and traditions, but Mr. Sweeney lists three basic principles that unite them. The first is love and kinship with nature, followed by a positive morality expressed as, “Do what you will, as long as it harms none.” The last tenet is recognition of the divine, acknowledging both its female and male aspects.

While easy to dismiss as an eccentric outlier, Mr. Sweeney is just one example of the many Irish who are leaving the Church. The Irish-Catholic population is steadily diminishing, and a recent survey shows that religion ranks as the least important thing in people’s lives.

Al Cowan and Mercedes GoncalvesPhoto by Shweta Saraswat

Disenchantment with the Catholic Church is a common sentiment at the pagan moot. Al Cowan, the founding organizer of the moot, strongly believes that the country’s identity and its relationship to religion is changing.

“There’ve been so many scandals about child-abusing priests that the Church has lost its hold. A new generation of people who are better educated and more savvy have the opinion — if you want to be a good Catholic that’s fine, but don’t impose it on me.”

Mr. Cowan didn’t grow up in a religious household, but his wife Mercedes Goncalves was raised Catholic in her native country of Portugal. She came to Ireland on a spiritual search and found love in the process when, five years ago, she and Mr. Cowan met at a pagan moot.

The Wiccan couple appreciates that they can share their beliefs with each other, but for Ms. Goncalves that meant leaving behind Catholicism. Her mother, though supportive now, initially felt that she had failed Ms. Goncalves by not passing on her religion.

“But I told her, ‘You gave us something much better — you gave us the ability to think for ourselves."

Fluid Religion, Solid Heritage

Statistics on practitioners of pre-Christian Irish spirituality are few and far between. The community is unstructured in belief and body. But if the Mind, Body, Spirit International Festival in Dublin is any indication, interest in unorganized, non-Christian spirituality is thriving.

Inside the venue at the Royal Dublin Society, a long-haired man gives out animal psychic readings. A ‘modern’ bellydancer undulates on stage to the haunting tones of a didgeridoo. Then, there’s Martin Duffy.

Martin DuffyPhoto by Shweta Saraswat

In his modest tweed jacket, slim green tie and softly faded jeans, the established pyschotherapist looks like your average Dubliner on Grafton Street. Until he picks up his drum.

Beating his small drum at a quick, regular rhythm, Mr. Duffy attempts to tune into the tempo of the theta brainwave state, a deep meditative trance. Shamans believe that in this trance state they can access or “journey” to the spirit world. Techniques like these help shamans to reconnect with their inner emotional state as well as connect to other human beings, the Earth, and the greater mystery of existence.

According to Mr. Duffy, there are thousands of people in Ireland who dabble in shamanism, seeking what he calls “spiritual democracy.”

“In Ireland we’ve had all sorts of problems and scandals. So what Irish people are finding is that shamanism connects them directly to the source of their own divinity, and they don’t have to have it mediated through a priest or a rabbi or another person. They can go and find that out for themselves.”

Mr. Duffy also grew up Roman Catholic, but was raised by a mother and grandfather who were traditional folk healers. When he explored for a deeper meaning in Christianity, he found that Jesus Christ himself was a healer.

“That was the aspect of Christ that attracted me the most. Laying on of hands, casting out of demons, rising from dead and all of that. So I realized that Christ was a shaman, meaning one who sees beyond the everyday consciousness and is able to commune with the Holy Spirit.”

Mr. Duffy still goes to church periodically, just as he goes to Buddhist temples and pagan gatherings on the equinox. His religion is not a religion at all — it’s a worldview that is fluid, non-dogmatic and self-oriented. In other words, it’s far removed from Roman Catholicism.

As for his daily shamanic practice, Mr. Duffy describes it as “stalking awareness,” which means being simultaneously alert to the outside world and his internal emotional state. Unlike a church, his place of worship is not bound by walls.

“We do rituals on the land, because Shamanism and Druidism is an earth-based spirituality. Our cathedrals and our churches are the sky and the trees and nature."

Ann PeardPhoto by Shweta Saraswat

Sharing Mr. Duffy’s stall at the festival is Ann Peard, a bright 67-year-old woman dressed in a long white tunic and green mantle. She was raised in a Catholic-Anglican household, a one-time taboo mix. Discovering an alternative spiritual path 16 years ago, she practices a combination of Druidism and shamanism that celebrates the cycles of life, the seasons, and the power of natural healing.

“It comes from the heart,” says Ms. Peard, who lives on the sacred Hill of Tara among the monuments of indigenous Irish from thousands of years ago. “Ceremonies can be as simple or fancy as you like. You don’t need all the paraphernalia or a fancy altar. It’s intention-based.”

On St. Patrick’s Day, Ms. Peard happily sported a tuft of shamrock alongside her Druid brooches. Her practice of Celtic spirituality is as much a display of Irish pride.

“Shamanism changed my life. It’s in my DNA, in the land here in Ireland, and it’s coming up through me.”

Even as the Catholic population shrinks, even as non-Christian immigrants pour into the city, even as the pagan community stakes its claim beyond the margins of religious life, Ireland is still a country of faith. “There is an innate sense of spirituality in Ireland that you don’t find in other countries,” Mr. Duffy says. “I don’t believe one religion is better than the other, as long as you connect to the divine.”

Paganism can seem like an attractive alternative to the crush of mainstream religious thought, but pagan leader Raymond Sweeney fears that Celtic spirituality will be trivialized as a temporary fling for lost souls.

“Unfortunately, people attracted to paganism want the exotic. My goal is to remove ‘pagan’ from being a pejorative term. I want normality.”

It’s a steep hill to climb, but Mr. Sweeney believes that the key to normalizing pagan traditions is to simply leave it alone.

“It’s something you feel. You either feel it or you don’t. How do you know you’re pagan? How do you know when you’re in love?”


Shweta SaraswatShweta Saraswat is a multimedia journalist and Annenberg Fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. She currently works as supervising producer of the newsmagazine show Impact.


Tricia TongcoTricia Tongco is a multimedia journalist and Director's Scholar at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. Her interests include arts and cultural reporting, radio documentary and feature writing. She has contributed to Global Post, KPCC, and KQED.

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Reflections

"So what Irish people are finding is that shamanism connects them directly to the source of their own divinity, and they don’t have to have it mediated through a priest or a rabbi or another person."

This fellow doesn't understand Judaism. Unlike Catholic priests, Jewish rabbis are not mediators between people and God.

I think "rabbi" means "teacher." Doesn't Mosaic law require Jewish priests, as mediators, to offer sacrifices of atonement on behalf of the people? Since the Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed, where does this take place? I have met Jewish rabbis, but I don't think I have ever met a Jewish priest.

In Judaism, prayer has taken the place of sacrifices, in accordance with the words of the prophet Hoshea (Hosea). Jews still have the Levitical priests, but without the Temple, their role has changed. Note that they were never mediators- each person (and the nation as a whole) is ultimately responsible for their own relationship with God. Jewish priests provided a service to the people, much as a medical specialist provides a service.

One wonders when reading this article if these earth-bound beliefs highlighted do not complement (instead of being in opposition) the more practiced Irish religion, Catholicism. Isn't it true that in Africa and other parts of the world, and in different cultures these types of practices exist with more established religions.

Yes! I believe it's very true that Catholicism and the more "Celtic" Christianity (or pagan beliefs) can be considered complementary, or perhaps overlapping, or--in fact--maybe sometimes one and the same. The Eucharist can certainly represent the cycle of birth-death-rebirth, which would appeal to the "pagans." And there are so many holy ponds and trees and circles in Ireland that represent God's breathtaking creation--something both would find to be central to the celebration of life. Creation is infused with God! And surely both groups believe in a Holy Spirit. The article above captures people whose beliefs cast a wide net--but still I think they and progressive Catholics have more in common that they'd both admit.

Legend would say that St Patrick in spreading of Christianity used what was already there...the shamrock to explain the Trinity and the classic Celtic Cross familiar to all which incorporated the Sun, so important to the 'indigenous' people, with the Cross!

So true. Catholicism's respect for nature, for science, for all life and for learning is shown in founding of schools, universities, hospitalsand care centers of all types. "By virtue of the Creation and still more of the Incarnation, nothing is profane here below for those who know how to see" (Catholic paleontologist T. de Chardin). The Church's rituals include healing and invoking the Spirit of God, with laying on of hands and anointing of the sick.

I think what is unique to Ireland is the absolute rejection of not only Catholicism, but a rejection of practically all things which require commitment, and an embracing of relativism, referred to above in a kind of warped Golden Rule, 'Do what you will as long as it harms none.' This at its best seems like a subjective relativism!
Many cite clerical abuse for a 'rejection' of Catholicism, I think it right and proper that people voice their anger but an all out rejection is akin to 'throwing the bady out with the bathwater', and by this rational why haven't people abandoned and rejected politics, banking, media and indeed the sports world? To be flippant 'Coranation St.' seems to be as popular as ever despite the apparent abuse perpetrated by its stars and perhaps facilitated by others?...Someone always knows what's going on, isn't that the continuous accusation levelled at the bishops and priests who didn't abuse?
With regards to the message of Christianity and the hardness of the Catholic Church and its interpretation of the Bible...look at Br Kevin, Fr McVerry, MQI & the Franciscans, The SVP, the Vincentians work with refugees, The Dominicans tireless works with AIDS/HIV patients hostels, the Legion of Mary Homeless Hostels....the list goes on!
What is perhaps a little ironic, is the 'rejection' of one organised religion whilst 'embracing' another...moot 'a deliberate assembly' perhaps something akin to the household gathering of the early Christians 'staking their claim'? St Paul had something to say about these small gatherings which became elitist where the 'priviledged' ate and drank!
One needs to be careful that these 'moot' gathering would not become another hierarchical 'organised' structures.
I think Jesus would have concurred that perhaps one religion is not better than another but at some point there would have been a necessity to commit to something!

What ultimately connects us to the divine is the Incarnation, where God took on flesh in Jesus Christ,sharing our humanity so that we might share in his divinity.

That just sounds like more Catholic gjibberish - rigid thinking that can't even imagine another frame of reference.

I am sorry that you mistake my passion for gibberish!
I respect those of all religion and those of none, for you to assume otherwise is just that...an assumption.
I think those who repeatedly point to the very grave sins, injustices and crimes of SOME in the catholic church whilst refusing to acknowledge the goodness, acts of humanitarianism, concern for nature, etc, ect, of the majority, display true rigidness and total lack of imagination as well as being disingenuous, dishonest, 'blind' and unfair!
There is no one more sickened and saddened by the crimes of the past which can and never should never be forgotten, but just as there seems to great annoyance and upset at my perceived rigid thought there is also anger at the blatant disregard and total blindness for the many acts of true Christianity carried out by the many, many women and men who have taken to heart the tenet of Jesus Christ's teaching; 'Love one another as I have loved you!'

These people are committed to their spirituality completely and utterly, it is typical of a christian/catholic to pour scorn on it, they work hard at their practices, day in day out, and share their knowledge, they are disiplined and dedicated, their knowledge is vast,and they research huge amounts, nobody has bigger libraries than these people.
SVP and other such compassionate organisations are funded by the public, including pagans, who do their charity walks etc too.
The Vatican is the issue here, which is the ultimate hierarchial institution of all, would Jesus approve of it's misuse of wealth,it's arrogance and vanity?.
Jesus was good, Vatican is not.
We all have God within us equally, and each culture had its path within, be it shamanism. hindu, kabbalah, essene, buddhism, taoism, animism, all do the same thing but with different symbols.We pagans/alternative spirituality people have realised that we can connect our inner-computer to the internet after being bluffed that we can only use a disc handed to us by an organisation we happen to be born near.
I talk to trees, flowers tell me how I can use them for healing, everything is alive but you cant/wont attempt to experience it because you do not have that talent, before we were burnt for this but now with the world at its wits end perhaps we can make folk see that there is another path which is safer for our children.
I work with Raphael, is that a sin? am I going to go to purgatory or hell? which would you prefer I did?Catholism is ultimetly about punishment, and waiting on the final punishment to be handed out to others.
.

Francis also spoke to the trees, the birds...
I can sense the passion in your words and as Augustine said, 'it is far better to be lost in your passion than to have lost your passion'. I am however very saddened and a little angry (not with you) that at some point in your life the message you received about Catholicism/Christianity is one 'ultimately about punishment, and waiting on the final punishment to be handed out to others', if you are open to it I would recommend you read Luke's Gospel, chapter 15 verse 11, the parable of 'The Prodigal Son, it comes after the 'Lost Sheep' and 'The Lost Coin' This, I believe, this is the ultimate message of Christianity/Catholicism, the picture of the father/mother standing on the hill side day after day after day waiting for the daughter/son to return, as the author Paul Coutinho in 'How Big is your God' says, God waits for you to show up so he can show off!'
And yes you are quite right about SVP and other charitable groups they could not function without you and others like you and the many women and men who down through the years embraced the core tenet of Jesus Christ's own teaching, 'To Love one another as I have loved you!' or to put it another way, the Golden Rule of many different beliefs 'To do unto others as you would wish done unto you', NOT 'do what you like so long as it does no harm to others', this sets up a system whereby someone needs to judge 'what is of harm to others' and dare I say that there in lies a problem?
As to your last question, I see the inherent goodness in you and all humanity, because I believe we have all been created in the image and likeness of God, so to that end I don't believe you are going to hell or purgatory, I believe that you are as valued and loved, as I am!

Why? Why must we commit to something? And why is it not acceptable for some to say,"This religion does not work for me. I'm going to seek elsewhere,"? Some people choosing to practice neopaganism in no way threatens the Church or negates the good works that have been done. Let the Catholics be the best Catholics that they want to be, but forcing your religion on nonbelievers has become passé.

A dear Witch friend of mine told me about an incident that happened to her when she went to Ireland in the mid-1970's to explore her family roots there. Religious-Political affiliations were paramount in many people's minds at that time (and still are, albeit I think to a lesser extent these days). Someone approached my friend and asked her "Are you a Catholic or Protestant?" She replied: "Neither, I'm a Witch". Her questioner then responded with: "But are you a Catholic Witch or a Protestant Witch?"

Love it, and it does reflect the very real situation of the country.

I love the article. It is about time in regard to evolution of consciousness collectively, that those theologies seen as opposites are realized as having shared origins.
Through this externalized realization we may go some way toward healing our own disconnections internally?
The Shaman is the one who seeks to find peace within systems of experience which are polarized. Those of us from these small islands seem to have a deep genetic connection to this phenomenon as we lead the world, more often than not.
Peace

I've felt this has made me more part of something that I have felt since I was a child. It's made my search a little more exciting for us all . Soon maybe I will be able to accept myself and all the good inside :0)
Thank you
Sincerely
Lisa

Mr. Duffy is incorrect as far as Judaism. Rabbis don't "mediate" anything much less one's connection to the divine.

I respectfully disagree. There are some sects of Judaism where this is not so - Reform congregations for example. But there are sects of Ultra-Orthodox Jews - bobov, Ger, Satmar, etc. who have charismatic leaders who control everything within that sect, including the control of connection to the divine. "Judaism" is a large house in and of itself, but there are a number of rooms in the house that are very controlled by clergy.

These two quotes are absolutely beautiful:

“We do rituals on the land, because Shamanism and Druidism is an earth-based spirituality. Our cathedrals and our churches are the sky and the trees and nature."

“It’s something you feel. You either feel it or you don’t. How do you know you’re pagan? How do you know when you’re in love?”

That is exactly how I feel about it.

Fantastic article! It is rare to find accurate portrayals of modern neo-paganism. Well done!

It is not acceptable to describe a human being as "mammoth." It is fat phobic to describe someone's size and how it intimidates you. Would it be ok to talk about someone's race and say you were intimidated? Of course not. Then someone's size should be irrelevant to their religion also. Take a look at your hatred of fat people instead of demeaning them with descriptions that correlate them to animals. Google fat acceptance. It is 2014 and it is time we stop accepting this sort of bigotry.

If he has no issue with it why should you?

HalleluSpirit

Love the article and appreciate that as a woman I am treated as an equal in Contemporary Celtic Shamanic traditions unlike many if not all religious canons of which I am aware - and particularly Catholicism. I still remember asking my mother why I was not allowed to be an Altar girl nor a priest and later how could women live up to the Virgin Mary's purity; a Virgin and a Mother?: now that's some trick.

What the article does not point out is that there is also a very real agenda within the organized neo-Pagan community to destroy the Catholic Church completely and replace it with an imagined (or invented) Paganism. Most neo-Paganism is an out growth of British Freemasonry which emphasizes ritual, that has all been documented.

A lot of it is about making money and selling yourself as a spiritual guru to people in America and getting them to buy your books, etc.

apples