The Sad Vacuity of Post-Catholic Ireland
Today Fr Hunwicke has a go at “Comparative Religion” and its attempt to prove that Christian feasts are really just ancient pagan festivals which survived “the official triumph of the Pale Galilaean”.* A friend of mine at Oxford persuaded me to read The Golden Bough, by Sir James Frazer, one of the leading comparative religionists, which I found quite unconvincing. My friend, a devout Anglican, found the idea that Christianity grew out of paganism somehow helped to confirm his faith, but for the life of me I could never see how.
Father praises Ronald Hutton’s book The Stations of the Sun which debunks the works of Frazer and his ilk. He gives two examples demolishing “this old nonsense dreamed up by anti-Christian students in the first half of the twentieth century”, one from Cornwall and the other from Ireland:
At Padstow in Cornwall, two hobby-horses dance their way through the town each May Day. In the 1930s some daft people called the Folk-Lore Society persuaded themselves that this was a relic of a pagan sacred marriage between Earth and Sky. (Hutton gives a witty and hilarious account of the antics there of one of these nutters, called Violet Alford, who was very angry that the locals failed to realise the massive cultural significance of male transvestites.) The town council cheerfully assured prospective tourists that it was a Celtic custom 4,000 years old … well, they would, wouldn’t they? But modern scholarship, Hutton demonstrates, shows that there is no evidence for the custom going back beyond the late eighteenth century and very good reasons for being confident that it did not.
At the beginning of August, in many parts of Ireland, the country people climbed mountains and indulged in bonfires and jollity in honour of the God Lugh … or did they? Hutton … spoil sport … gives good reasons for doubting whether these customs really have anything at all to do with the ‘Celtic’ god Lugh. They celebrated the opening of the cereal or potato harvest. And, as such, they were broadly parallel with the Anglo-Saxon celebration of ‘hlaef-mass’, loafmass, Lammas. It was the custom to reap the first of the ripe cereals and bake them into bread which was blessed in church upon that day; quaint things were sometimes then done to it to make the barns into safe repositories for the grain about to arrive in them…
The popular play Dancing at Lughnasa constituted a particularly nasty, more modern, example of the manipulation of any silly old heathen superstitions that can be dragged along to rubbish or ridicule the Catholic Faith … a potent cultural icon, in effect, of post-Catholic Ireland and its sad vacuity.
*This is a reference to a poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne, masochist and anti-Christian: “Thou has conquered, O pale Galilean, and the world has grown grey from thy breath.”