BY JOHN FITZGERALD
Druids were once hailed as the great teachers and priests of ancient Ireland, claiming to have magical powers and to be in contact with the spirit world. They highlighted the primacy of nature in all our human dealings long before the advent of the modern Green movement.
Druids feature prominently in many of the old legends about Deidre of the Sorrows and Finn MacComhall that, until the advent of TV and radio, were recited nationwide by misty-eyed story tellers around big open fires.
Kilkenny man Michael McGrath has written a compelling book on the subject of these men who ruled the religious roost for centuries, before Christianity swept them aside.
The Wisdom of the Irish Druids traces the origin and development of Druidism through the ages and, intriguingly, the author considers himself a latter-day Druid. He has participated in rituals on the hallowed Hill of Tara, having donned a specially embroidered costume in honour of his free-spirited pre-Christian ancestors.
Of special interest to locals will be a chapter dealing with the arrival of druidic refugees at the present -day site of St Canice’s Cathedral and round tower, after they were chased out of Tara and their other power bases by the triumphant Christians.
Canice himself, after whom Kilkenny is named, led a special military operation to rout the fleeing Druids from the City and its hinterland. They fled in disarray across the Nore, with the Onward Christian Soldiers in hot pursuit.
Michael took a break from his beloved photography and occasional forays into local and national politics to write the book.
For the past thirty years he has considered himself a Druid, associating with like-minded folk who revere the ancient way of life. In 1993 he was elected Arch druid on the Hill of Tara and received TV coverage for his activities.
He was active in opposition to the building of the M3 Motorway through Tara Valley, where he rubbed shoulders with all the eco-warriors of the time who sought to save the ancient site from what they perceived be a form of desecration. He thinks of today’s Druidism as a philosophy rather than a religion.
Despite being a committed Druid, Michael has yet to acquire supernatural powers, as his mystical ancestors allegedly did, but there can be no doubting the magic of his prose. Whether one agrees with the author’s political and ideological analyses, one cannot but be enthralled by the sheer breadth and ambition of his literary project, his quirky turns of phrase, and how he manages to re-connect with a past that’s beyond recall.
The books pays lavish homage to “the way we were” before Christianity took over, and it shines a light on a neglected and largely forgotten aspect of our heritage.
The book is available in Kilkenny bookshops. Price: 12.99 Euro.
Another Kilkenny man has written a very different kind of book. Jim Murray’s Orchestra of Poems has a lovely compilation of his work spanning decades.
Jim has battled bravely against a severe mental illness, refusing to let it crush his creative spirit. Writing has served as a therapy that proved as efficacious as any medication, in helping him keeping on top of the ailments that befell him.
Apart from its therapeutic value, his writing is worthy of celebration for its insights into his decades-long struggle against an invisible assailant. It has helped him to reclaim his birthright to a fulfilling life.
Jim likens his battle to a physical one in a war zone, where one doesn’t know when the next shell will explode or what direction it might be coming from. “Pen and ink are my weapons”, he says.
Jim always finds a fitting epigram to ward off adversity or quell the blues.
The poems and prose in the book deal with every conceivable human experience, inspired by Jim’s interaction with nature, the medical profession, the spheres of literature and folklore, and the supernatural.
I like his anti-suicide poem, for its honesty and grit in addressing this perennial human tragedy, and his humorous follow-up to Flann O’ Brien’s poem “The Workman’ Friend.”
Orchestral of Poems will be available in the near future at Kilkenny outlets.