Irish Ethnicity and following an Irish deity

There was a really interesting discussion in the Brigid’s Forge Facebook group on ethnicity and how it related to following, working with, being devoting to an Irish deity, such as Brigid as someone who possibly has no blood links to Ireland. And I thought it worth discussing at a deeper level than a Facebook post can allow – I mean, you can discuss things very deeply on Facebook, it just doesn’t come naturally to me to do so…

Anyway. Thanks for Brandon for his original post and thanks to everyone who answered. For this post, I’ll take a look at what ethnicity means, what it can be used for, the issues with it as a route for spiritual practice and a reiteration of what I believe I have said before on working with Irish deity. Hmm… this could be a long one…

Dictionary.com was my first stop – I mean, I had ideas in my head about what ethnicity was but I wanted to start at the beginning and move on from there. What I got was the below:

noun,plural

eth·nic·i·ties.

  • an ethnic group; a social group that shares a common and distinctive culture, religion, language, or the like:Representatives of several ethnicities were present.
  • ethnic traits, background, allegiance, or association:The graph shows class enrollment by gender and ethnicity.

Now for somewhere like Ireland, there are a bunch of cultural, religious and language signifiers that we may not all partake in, but we are mostly aware of. For example, I couldn’t explain the rules of hurling to anyone, but I can still recognise a good game from a bad game and can understand why, on the Monday morning after a match between the two counties my office borders, there’s little enough work going to be done until the match has been replayed at least 5 times, with every puck of the ball examined and critiqued. It’s also hard to explain to outsiders just how Gaelic Games is permeated through the national psyche. I often joke to my family that I’ll start taking an interest in sport again when Meath start playing football again (that’s Gaelic to the foreigners among ye, not soccer!!) It also looks like I may have to make good on that promise shortly, given the changing outcomes of the minors and U-21s in recent years.

These common cultural signifiers have built up over centuries, or even longer. Iománaíocht (or hurling) is referenced in our oldest sagas. Setanta’s boyish skill with a hurley was how he protected himself and gained the name Cúchulainn. (I have my difficulties with Cúchulainn himself mind, but there’s no denying he had skill with a hurley) The Catholic Church is another ethnic identifier with Ireland. Again, not all Irish people have a close relationship with the Church, but most of us, indeed, when I was growing up, the vast majority of us were at least close acquaintances with the institution. In our schools, in our hospitals, in our politics, in our pubs even, the Church was there, whether seen or unseen. Not all Irish people are members, not all Irish people are followers, not all Irish people are devotees, but if you talk about going to Mass, or that one priest that always stank of drink, or Christmas Eve Midnight Mass at 9pm… these are things that the majority of us will know about.

So, there are cultural ties that are a common holding to the people of this island. We have darker ties as well – the history of colonialism, the devastating effects of social conservatism, strongly supported by the Church, on certain elements of the population (namely, anyone who didn’t fall in line or who had the temerity to suffer from abuse), the economic hardships of the mid-20th century, the generational memories of famine and want. You don’t need to have 7 generations buried in the local graveyard to tie into these memories. How we each individually choose to deal with it is our own business, as long as we’re not hurting anyone else, but it’s all there to be dealt with…

it’s easy with Ireland, we had a fairly low immigration rate for centuries, unless you count our colonisers, which I don’t. Although to be fair, they did add to the gene pool, however willingly or unwillingly the gene pool accepted them. That doesn’t mean there’s anything like a “pure, Irish bloodline” mind you. We’re a nation of mongrels, in my opinion, with our very creation myths coming from the Book of Invasions (Leabhar Gabhála Éireann, or Lebor Gabála Erenn in old(er) Irish). It outlines seven waves of invasions of Ireland of different people and is probably worth a whole series of posts. But the message is clear: Ireland has been invaded a lot. And the seven waves don’t count the Vikings, the Normans, the English…There’s a very worrying trend that “ethnicity” is related to bloodlines and really, that’s just not possible in Ireland. I know, 23andme and all the other genetic data farms are highlighting DNA evidence of coming from Ireland in an ancestral sense, but seriously, that’s based on the genetic data of the people currently in Ireland who are willing to share their genes like that. It’s not the be-all and end-all.

And, to be clear, I also understand that it’s easy for me to say this, being born on this island and being clearly Irish and having that direct link to the land, the people, the history… it’s not as easy for people born elsewhere, but it’s not impossible. But I’ll move on to North America now…

Purely because it’s meant to be a great melting pot (well the States at least, I don’t think Canada has quite the same approach?) and yet, as I saw on a Facebook post recently, unless you are a member of one of the indigenous tribes of the continent, you’re a coloniser. It’s a harsh history to have to deal with. Plus, America is often denegrated for it’s lack of history – people in Europe reasonably regularly pointing out they have houses older than the country of the USA. (I mean, you could argue that Ireland as a country is younger, but I wouldn’t advise it in the hearing of any Irish people. It just took us a while to shake off the colonisers physically and frankly, we’re still working on it emotionally!)

We deal with Irish Americans a lot in Ireland. Coming home, connecting with their roots, spending those all-important tourism euros… There’s two sides to the story though. We, who have had the joy and privilege of growing up on this island know our culture, how it has developed, how it has changed, how it continues to change and develops. The tourists coming home for the first time in generations are trying to match the tales their parents, grandparents told of an older Ireland. Clinging on to those traditions, the ones they could anyway, was hugely important in remember who they are and where they come from. But Ireland moved on without them – to the point, we now get Irish American claiming Boston is more authentically Irish than Ireland… I hope most people reading that sentence might see the problems with it.

But I have sympathy for the Irish American trying to get in touch with their roots. there are a lot of people out there trying to sell a version of Ireland that doesn’t exist any more. Look at The Quiet Man, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, Far and Away… I won’t comment on recent films, because I can’t bring myself to watch them yet, but it’s evoking the sense of an Ireland not familiar to anyone in Ireland today. Or at least, not familiar to us outside history anyway. There are of course, genuine and authentic people, willing to work (and get paid for) helping those trying to get in touch with Irish roots, but sometimes that requires some personal learning and growth on the part of the student as well.

I would say though, that observing my Irish American cousins across the ponds (cos of course I have them! one group in and around New York, another lot around Boston, another lot that started around the Toronto area but are now spread across most of Canada. Yeah, Irish families abroad can be prolific, especially after a few generations…) there is a definite Irish American ethnicity that is distinct from, if related to, the Irish ethnicity. Doesn’t make it worse, but it is different. There is more focus on the old songs, Irish dancing, holding to Catholicism and the guidance of the church. In Ireland, I think my generation was the last of the ones that learned the old rebel songs in school, not that we don’t recognise them. But we don’t sit around in the evening singing away to ourselves. I mean, we’ve got Netflix, like…

You don’t need to be Irish, or even descended from Irish ancestors to work with Brigid, or indeed any other Irish deity. But the reason I say so often you need to understand the Irish culture before diving in deep with Brigid is because you need to understand the context you’re working in. Bloodlines doesn’t give you a boost here – unless you make the effort to learn about Ireland, modern and ancient, you won’t understand the shorthand most people use in cultural settings. Just because your great-great-grandmother came from the Burren doesn’t necessarily give you a special connection to the land there, especially not if you’ve never set foot there. Yeah, it’s shit that people say this isn’t it? You’ve been told your living on colonised land that you have no right to and then the land of your ancestors say you have no rights to their land either. It can lead to being rootless and feeling very adrift and forsaken.

But here’s the thing – you don’t have an automatic right to any land or culture, just because your ancestors came from there. You can earn the right by putting in the work though. Same as us all – none of us get rights, with deity in particular, through one off actions or requests. It comes from building the relationship. Learn. Adopt the beginner’s mind. Don’t expect people to reach out to teach you. There’s loads of good sources on the internet these days. Learning about modern Irish culture could be as easy as signing up to some of our online newspapers (The Irish Times is our paper of record, but it’s fair conservative in nature; thejournal.ie is one of my usual sources, the Indo is another one and the Irish Examiner, although for many people the Irish Examiner is still the Cork Examiner… the Corkonians might suggest that’s the usual Dublin-centric bullshit though) It could mean learning our language – and I don’t necessarily mean Gaeilge here, but there is a distinct slang and dialect associated with Ireland. We tend to refer to it as Hiberno-English as a joke, but from 10yrs living in England, yeah, it’s a different language really!

Sure, learn our history, there’s a lot there, but try learning it from Irish sources. You may be surprised about how much of our history has been rewritten/ adjusted from a colonisers point of view. Check your sources, read the critiques of the work in question as well. Not every Irish author will give you an emotion-free, factual account either, and honestly, it would be strange if they did.

Now, I’m talking here about getting to know Irish deity, but this can all be expanded or adjusted for any deity outside your own culture. Another note of caution on ethnicity as well – most Irish people are lucky to track their families back past their great-grandparents. it requires a lot of work and effort to even get that far. Getting back through the various upheavals, famines, risings, etc is extremely difficult. This is why you’ll find it extremely rare an Irish person will say in seriousness, “I’m descended from this famous king/being/person/chief”. We know damn well how impossible it is to track back factually, through the records, that far. You may well have family traditions that you’re heir to the chiefdom of such-and-such, but being brutally honest, all it is is a family tradition. It might be true, it might not be, but declaiming it and expecting people to observe that will lead you into difficulties. And the further back you go, the less likely you are to be believed or taken seriously. (This is just physcial ancestors of course. Spiritual ancestors are a real thing, in my opinion, but again, be cautious about basing an entire spirituality on nothing other than an assumed spiritual ancestors – check your sources, even when your sources are yourself!)

We need to touch a bit on colour here as well. There’s a really disturbing trend I’ve seen online that only white people can be of Irish descent. For a start, that’s pure bullshit. There were Irish slave owners in the States. Remember Scarlett O’Hara? She is very clearly of Irish descent, the damn plantation was called Tara, ffs. And, not to put too fine a point on it, I can’t believe that Irish slave owners were more adverse to using their slaves as they wished than anyone else was. There are several famous black people in the States with obviously Irish names (Eddie Murphy, Robert Kelly are the two I can think of immediately), not to mention people like Phil Lynott and Paul McGrath who have closer links to Ireland (both born and reared here to Irish mothers, with connections/time spent in England rather than the States). Samantha Mumba, Alicia Keys, hell we even claimed Barack Obama through his great-great-great-grandfather (seriously, check this out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DerVmiZeUDw and yeah, in the grand Irish tradition, it’s a pisstake, ok?) Whether we go back a hundred years or more or we stick with the last forty years, being Irish does not mean you must be white. Yeah, for years, we didn’t mix much outside the country, but mixing a small bit and not mixing at all are two different things.

Your ethnicity doesn’t award you the right to work with Brigid. Your ethnicity doesn’t forbid you from it either. We’ve all got generational shit to deal with (I mean, in India, the Irish were colonisers because of the British Army being one of the few employers available…) Being Irish means you get the joy and wonder and pain and torment of growing up in this country, getting that relationship from the start. It’s like when an Irish person turns up in New York and has to deal with the subway system (I never risked the bus system, that was a step too far!) It takes a while to get used to it… Same with learning about Brigid, learning about the context and culture she comes from, same with the shorthand those born into her traditions use through familiarity. Learn from good sources, use the internet carefully, and if someone declares themselves the One True Authority and Gatekeeper, avoid them like the plague!!!

11 thoughts on “Irish Ethnicity and following an Irish deity”

  1. Good to read and that is bloody insane that someone from Boston said that they were more Irish than Ireland. Being a descendant of Hells Kitchen New Yorker they can say whatever they want. Only proves how stupid the whole idea is. Total nonsense. Irish Americans worth their weight in blessings, will tell you that it was a particular person who was a shining example of all things Irish, in their Souls, that spoke to us and influenced us most deeply. It was usually a person who was tried and tested by their own manifestation in this Irish ancestry.
    Whether they loved this person to the ends of the world, that person, dear Irish, that one person or more, spoke the words and thoughts of their peoples they loved to the ends of the world. We love you madly. We do not want to be you. We welcome all of you here, as equally, you should welcome us all there. Slainte.

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  2. 1. International travel is a privilege most Americans cannot afford. The idea that everyone must physically be in a place to have a connection is classist and unrealistic. Don’t be surprised by questions about Ireland from Americans who barely get by paycheck to paycheck. This is the reality, we aren’t swimming in money over here. Those who you see as tourists in Ireland are not the norm as far as financial ability to make a journey like that.
    2. There is a stark cultural difference between an American who descends from turn of 20th century immigrants and then an American who descends from Colonials. If you spend enough time here to learn, you will see it. This is also affecting the race issues because millions of Americans, especially in certain regions, don’t descend from Colonials yet we are grouped and blamed because of our skin color.
    3. Genetics, ethnicity, ancestry, heritage and nationality are all different items that should not be used interchangeably. Modern constructs seek division over inclusion, and that’s a problem.
    4. No one gets to choose how their born to the world; one’s spiritual path should not be determined by genetics and environment as spirituality is a personal choice. No one gets to gatekeep another.
    5. Canada is not different from the US is in terms of the complex topic of ancestry. Canada has Indigenous people who were colonized by Brits and French, too. African Canadians exist as well as Irish Canadians.
    6. To grasp the US, one needs to live here for a few years and travel the entire country. The regional and sub-regional differences are so great from geography to history to culture that it’s literally like several countries into one (this is something Americans understand but Europeans seem to struggle to understand). The South is nothing like the northeast. The northeast is nothing like the PNW. The PNW is not the southwest. And so on and so forth. You can’t come to NY and Boston and think you have the full grasp of Americans, even Irish Americans.
    7. We say Irish American instead of Irish for a reason, and that is to make a point we realize we have a separate culture and lineage than our cousins across the Atlantic. We like history and culture and have respect for our ancestors. There is nothing unusual or wrong about that.
    8. Millions of Americans descend from 19th and 20th century immigrants- that was the Era of the immigration boom. We aren’t the colonizers but we aren’t the land of our ancestors. We’re told we don’t belong in any place… THIS is why people hold onto the traditions of their ancestors, to have some identity and “place”. It’s hard for someone who isn’t an immigrant or descendant of immigrants to understand that.
    9. By historical counts, many Irish people aren’t 100% Irish either. Norman, Scandinavian, etc all there. To be honest, if one studies world history especially ancient, one realizes there is no such thing of being 100% anything. We’re all mixed up whether it’s from history thousands of years ago or recent. Humanity has been in existence for hundreds of thousands of years – the concept of limiting people by modern constructs of “nationality” is just another way to control and discriminate.
    10. Part of self-teaching includes asking others questions and for direction. Just because a person asks for direction or recommendations doesn’t mean they expect to be handed the answers. How can someone teach themselves anything if they don’t have correct direction of where to look? Self-taught doesn’t mean without some form of assistance from another.

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    1. “This is also affecting the race issues because millions of Americans, especially in certain regions, don’t descend from Colonials yet we are grouped and blamed because of our skin color.”

      This isn’t the correct way to look at “race relations” in the United States when it comes to Irish Americans at all. The US was founded by white supremacist slaveholders, and yes, there were Irish slaveholders. To say that Irish Americans are “blamed” is simplistic. We do need to acknowledge that our white skin, even if it is from ancestors of Irish descent, does give us a privilege that other immigrant groups did not have. If you take pride in your Irish/Irish American roots, then you also need to acknowledge that Ireland was colonized and we have far more in common historically with other colonized groups and countries than we do with the slaveholding founders and the white supremacists who still control so much of United States politics. You aren’t being blamed for police brutality and income inequality, but there is something to be said about those with Irish ancestors serving as the gatekeepers to the patriarchal white supremacist power structures in the United States when Ireland’s own history should hopefully make us Irish Americans question why the fuck we side with the oppressors rather than the oppressed. I really cannot stand white Irish Americans who whinge and whine about “being blamed”. Whiteness is not an ancestor. You cannot use the history of Ireland to cover for your participation in or acceptance of the oppression of black people in the United States. I’m not saying you specifically do that, but I have far too many relatives that cherry pick the parts of our Irish ancestry that seem to “cover” their racism.

      Like saying, “the Irish were slaves too”. We were not. There was not a 400 year transatlantic slave trade from Ireland to the United States. That never happened. So what we can do is contextualize the oppression our Irish ancestors went through to inform our understanding of race in the United States, instead of shielding ourselves from understanding the privilege we have because we can pass as “white” in the United States. No one can look at me and can say for sure that all 8 of my great-grandparents came from Ireland in the 1920s. At first glance, I am simply a white woman. And that simple fact IS a privilege in the United States, whether or not my family was in Ireland until the 1920s.

      I struggle with what my identity is. I was a step dancer for 10 years of my life, I still have family in Ireland, and I certainly do not align myself with the patriarchal, imperialist, racist, misogynistic culture of the United States. It’s okay to feel helpless or adrift or confused about who you are or what to call yourself. But at the end of the day, in the United States, we are seen as white first, and that in and of itself is a privilege that exists with or without the knowledge of Irish ancestry. (again, for the most part, not all Irish or Irish American are white)

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    2. Thank-you for this well thought out response. So often, people want us to understand them but don’t think about trying to understand us. I am one of those who feel lost between cultures, and totally misunderstood. Sixteen generations ago my ancestors came to North America, so I am branded as a colonizer. I am not a colonizer of anything. I think the world would be better if people quit thinking of “us” vs “them”. I also take issue with the attitude that I am acting entitled when I ask a question and expect a reasonable answer, rather than being told to find out for myself. Duh, that’s what I’m trying to do. I was taught that one learns by asking questions. Lastly, I have to chuckle about the bit of being told not to trust anyone who claims to be the only good source. Seems like the IPS does just that.

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  3. This was a great article. I feel like it was very inclusive. I like to research the Celtic mythology and practices but get worried i am not worthy as i have no ancestry which made me too scared to think about contacting the gods. Your article explained many factors of Irish heritage and shared experiences such as hurley very well.

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    1. If there is a god or goddess that is speaking to you or that you feel drawn to, you should explore that using authentic sources and scholars on those gods or goddesses. It’s when people don’t do the work or research yet lay claim to a deity that seems to be the main issue here 💜

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      1. Thank you for your reply. I believe it is best if I do not contact the gods and goddesses for this exact reason. I would rather not cause any problems.

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  4. Thank you for this! I’m from Appalachia in the U.S., where Irish dance, musical stylings, even older superstitions etc. are prolific. My Great-Great Grandma was from Ireland, and we held on a lot to those older traditions. In 2019 I moved to Ireland rather unexpectedly for work, and exactly as you’ve described, it’s very different from the Ireland passed down as memory to us from our families. I love my family traditions, but equally I love Ireland for what it is truly, an ever-changing nation and people. I’m glad it’s not frozen in time as so many people try to frame it and sell it to tourists. I’m also alarmed by how often I hear white supremacist rhetoric from Americans with Irish heritage, using that heritage to justify their beliefs. White pagans who expect Ireland to be some 19th century, all white, witchy romance farmland scene need a harsh reality check, and I’m so grateful to people like you writing on these topics. Loved the read!

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  5. I think it’s important for any Irish American to reflect on why you feel so hurt or upset about this topic. I don’t think any of the scholars or experts on Irish spirituality, mythology, history, etc are saying that you cannot connect or honor or practice any of these things unless you were born in Ireland and have an Irish passport.

    To me, the concern seems to stem from people who claim to be an expert or a trusted source on Irish culture or history because they had a great-grandparent or went to the NYC St. Patrick’s Day parade every year. Or Irish Americans who use the trauma of Irish colonization to excuse their racism or alignment with the white supremacist colonizers of the United States.

    Far too many Irish Americans say crazy shit like, “well the Irish had it bad and you don’t see us complaining, we got over it and got to work in the United States” and I’m sorry but LOL you don’t see the Irish complaining?! Trying to fight off our colonizers for 800 years is what, exactly? Taking our colonization in stride? Did we do it the “right” way, and other non-white colonized people do it the “wrong” way?

    The United States power structure, the white supremacist worldview that is prevalent in every aspect of our society here, demands that immigrants, especially those with white skin, assimilate quickly and efficiently in order to achieve any sort of success here. You must forget enough of your roots or culture or practices in order to fit in, but they also want you to maintain that sense of superiority a lot of white Irish Americans seem to have regarding the success our immigrant group has had.

    In my personal opinion, no Irish American who truly honored or understood the history of Irish colonization would ever join the police force. No one claiming to be Irish American should prop up a racist, bigoted, abusive government if they truly understood Irish political history, even in a general sense. Yet here we are, a nation full of millions of people of Irish descent and there is far too many of us who side with the oppressor rather than the oppressed.

    The United States had thousands of nations on this land before white colonizers showed up. Irish people were forced by their own colonization to emigrate to save their families, find work, etc. And our ancestors left Ireland for what? For their descendants to just side with colonizers on the other side of the Atlantic? I’m sorry but that’s white supremacy talking. That’s a desperate attempt to forget our collective trauma and become accepted, successful, powerful in the United States. And Irish Americans need to do the work to decolonize our minds, immediately.

    In order to decolonize and “live in right relationship” as Lora O’Brien has said, you need to acknowledge the privilege your white skin affords you here in the States and start using that privilege to make meaningful change. Privilege isn’t the things you have or the amount of money in your bank account. Privilege is the things we haven’t had to go through because we have white skin.

    No amount of bending the knee to the colonizers will free you or heal your trauma. If you’re Irish American and you feel lost or out of place, that’s because the system was designed to do that to us. Back in Ireland, the language was nearly extinguished. The Church oppressed anyone they could get their hands on (and continued that shit over in the States). These structures exist to deprive us of our culture, not to help us thrive within our culture.

    Do the work. Listen to the scholars and work with them as much as you can. Examine our Irish history and do the painful, uncomfortable work of your personal decolonization. Stop worrying about whether or not you’re Irish enough or whatever the fuck. Do the fucking work and stop trying to argue and claim that you don’t have to because you’ve got Irish ancestors. Intergenerational trauma is real and it affects us deeply as members of the Irish diaspora. Our ancestors did what they needed to do in order to survive, yes, but their sacrifices need to be honored now on a spiritual level. We are being given the gift of space, knowledge, and access to healing on a scale that was never available to them. Don’t waste it.

    Enough with trying to fit into the white colonizers mold that’s set here in the United States and start doing the work to decolonize your minds. There’s literally no other options at this point.

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  6. To expand a bit on your comments regarding whether white people are all colonizers in the US and Canada, a sign held up by a Native woman at a protest summed it up well. She put four categories onto it: colonizer, immigrant, refugee, and native. Those are who live on this continent and aren’t descended from captured peoples. The Irish who came to North America due to the Great Hunger were refugees. The shame of our past after getting here is how we joined in persecuting Black people as a means of improving our lot. Even before Thomas Nast drew that evil cartoon that put caricatures of a Black man and an Irish man into a balance scale and asked if there was a difference, we should’ve joined forces instead. Those of us who came over earlier as indentured servants tried to with the enslaved Africans, but the landowners made sure we were treated better to fool us into thinking we were better once the rebellions were shut down.

    Our whiteness in the US was gained in large part because federal government programs needed our bodies to count toward who they would help with certain programs to better block those they would not. It was sealed by JFK’s narrow victory in 1960. That drives me toward working to aid oppressed peoples. My grandmother learned how to fight because of her Irish last name. The status she gained in her lifetime could be stripped in a moment if sufficiently old-fashioned evangelists control the country. Nobody deserves to be a target for the elite and the culture they promote.

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