Sunday, 26 June 2011


No trips to the library of late, but I've managed to squeeze in a few books from my own bookshelves for once. Off the back of one of them, I've got another book on order - not that my credit card appreciates the sponking, but oh well. Hopefully it will arrive next week and I can get stuck into it then, I'm running low on bedtime reading these days. It's The Old Gods: The Facts About Irish Fairies by Patrick Logan, which Seán Ó Duinn mentioned in his Where Three Streams Meet: Celtic Spirituality. That's one book I'll be reviewing, the other is Cattle in Ancient Ireland, by A. T. Lucas.

Cattle in Ancient Ireland
A. T. Lucas

Yes, every day is a party in my brain...

I seriously doubt that this book will be of interest to anyone other than the most die hard of folk interested in the finer details of Irish life and culture, from the perspective of that fine beast, the cow. Mostly cow. Sometimes, bulls. (And speaking of which, I recommend watching this topical news report at your earliest convenience).

To be fair, I probably qualify as being on the more die hard side of things, and am also writing this review on a Sunday morning clad in the cow-print fleecy dressing gown my mother bought me for my thirtieth a few years ago, so that probably tells you just how much of a party can get going in my brain some days. Cows and Irish history; I'd hesitate to say I'm particularly enthusiastic about the two in combination, but I don't find it totally mindnumbing to contemplate either.

I bought the book because there are some references to it that piqued my interest, mainly to do with the use of milk in baptism (possible evidence of pre-Christian practice), and the offering of cattle in death rites, in marriage, and the bleeding of cattle at certain festivals...That sort of thing. The book does indeed go into these sorts of detail, which aren't really discussed elsewhere, but while it offers something that most other books don't in that respect, the lack of detail in these areas was a little disappointing; I wasn't much better informed than I was having seen the second-hand references.

For the rest of the book, however, there is an almost overwhelming amount of detail. As far as early medieval Ireland is concerned, the importance of cattle as a measurement of wealth, and as the backbone of the economy, cannot be understated, and if you read this book you won't be left in any doubt about that. So really, it's an important book in that respect. It's not exactly a dry read, as such, but the level of detail given in arguing each point made is mind-boggling; points are well made. Perhaps a little too well made to make a decent read, but to be fair I don't think this is a book that qualifies as light, or entertaining reading on any level anyway. Either way, for the most part there isn't much to disagree with in the book, although I couldn't help but feel that the section dealing with the colour of cattle, and the possibility of the actual existence of red-eared cattle from mythological descriptions was a little weak.

However, I can now, with confidence, say that I feel well-informed as far as the practices of transumance and cattle raiding is concerned, along with many other things relating to cattle in ancient Ireland. It's not the sort of thing a normal person would want to boast about, but if you happen to find yourself desperately needing to research the subject, you can't go far wrong in starting with this book. It's well researched, well-written, well-structured, and covers most (possibly all) areas that you'll need to know about. Where it's lacking, it's probably safe to say that this only reflects the dearth of material for Lucas to have gone on in writing anything of substance.

It's a good read for what it covers, but it's very much a niche interest book. I wouldn't recommend you whip out your credit card and order it from the online bookstore of your preference right now, unless you suddenly find an inexplicable and burning need to know all about ancient Irish cattle.

Where Three Streams Meet: Celtic Spirituality
Seán Ó Duinn

This is an ambitious book in some respects, since its purported aim is to weave together the three different strands (or streams) of Irish belief and practice throughout the ages that have come together to give what the author calls 'Celtic Spirituality'. Inevitably, I think, given this ambition there are a few disppointments to be found, but also a few gems...

The three streams that are brought together (no, nothing to do with Ghostbusters) are: the beliefs and practices of the megalithic people of Ireland; those of the pre-Christian Celts; and that of Christianity. These are all brought together to show just how they've shaped modern spirituality - and here is my first niggle, because I would have to say that it's modern Irish (Christian) spirituality being looked at here, rather than anything specifically 'Celtic'. I disagree with Ó Duinn's use of the 'Celtic Spirituality' as a sort of catch-all, because for the most part he's looking at something much more specific - Ireland, with some Scottish evidence thrown in for comparison. Another niggle is the references to 'the Great Mother', but that should be expected as par for the course if you've read other books by the author. It's easily read around.

Given the fact that Ó Duinn is a monk, and the focus of the book is very much on the end result of what he calls 'Celtic Spirituality' - what we see today - it's only to be expected that the pre-Christian material may be somewhat lacking to some extent, and the subject matter weighted heavily in favour of the Christian 'stream'. I would've liked to have seen more detail for the former, and I would anticipate that the fact that Ó Duinn is primarily writing for a Christian audience might be problemmatic for some folks who are more interested in the pre-Christian stuff and might still have some hangups from their upbringing or whatever; not a problem for me since I wasn't brought up Christian, so I can only imagine, really, but I'd have to say that ignoring the Christian material means you'll be losing out on a lot anyway.

Necessarily, the first strand (megalithic peoples) is somewhat lacking in detail, and only superficially dealt with in terms of how the megaliths were effectively repurposed by the pre-Christian Celts in their mythology and practices. This is inevitable, but some might feel that it kind of undermines the stated aim of the book if there's not much that can be said about it. What little there is in there is interesting, but probably not much there that you haven't heard before unless you're completely new to the subject.

For the rest, like I said, I would've liked to have seen more detail about the pre-Christian material and its implications on modern belief and practice, but what Ó Duinn does deal with is mostly well done once you get passed the introductory stuff. There's some good stuff on offerings, ancestor worship, gods and the like, and there are examples of traditional Irish prayers given that show just how similar daily ritual practices are compared to the Carmina Gadelica (some instances of which are also examined) which are also interesting.

While I think that ultimately a lot of people who pick this book up might be disappointed by the lack of depth in terms of dealing with the pre-Christian strand, I'd stress that there's good stuff here, in spite of the problems I have. One problem in particular that I had was the reliance on commentary by Classical authors in the first few chapters, in detailing the beliefs and practices, and cultural values of the pre-Christian Celts, without much attempt at examining just how far we can a) rely on such commentary in taking it at face value, and b) apply it to the Irish, when the Classical authors were only really talking about the Gauls or Britons. And not necessarily reporting first hand knowledge...I can understand why this was brought into the mix, but I think it was given undue weight.

I couldn't help but feel that towards the end of the book, the focus became a little unstuck and was more about Celtic Christianity than anything to do with examining the influences on its evolution. It's interesting and invaluable in terms of pointing out the areas within Christianity that do seem to be genuine hangovers of pre-Christian beliefs, but at times the detail was a little too narrow to hold my interest in any kind of depth.

Over all, this is a good read, in spite of the criticisms I might have of it - it's engaging and well-written, well-researched and referenced, and the bits I disagreed with are - for the most part - easily read around or skimmed over. I managed to finish it within two evenings in spite of it not being a particularly small volume, so it was a quick read for me.

The first half of the book was far more interesting to me than the second half, given that it dealt with things like the gods, ancestor veneration and the like. I can't say that I learned much that I didn't already know, but I think this is the first time I've ever seen it all brought together in one place - ancestor worship, gods and spirits, and so on. Had I bought this book earlier in the year, a lot of my research for the articles I've written in the past six or eight months or so would've been much easier, to be fair...

All in all, for the average Celtic Reconstructionist I think this book will be of most interest to the beginner, or someone who's come so far and might be feeling the need for something to help solidify things in their mind a bit more. You might not find all of it of interest or relevance, but I'd say it's definitely worth a read.