Irish-American Witchcraft: Being an Irish Pagan in America

Irish-American Witchcraft: Being an Irish Pagan in America July 7, 2015

I seem to have started off with a bit of a theological theme, so continuing in that vein I thought I’d tackle a topic that comes up regularly for those of us who are not living in Ireland but who choose to honor Irish Gods. Because so much of the mythology of the Tuatha Dé Danann relates to specific places in Ireland, there can be a natural assumption that the Gods are somehow tied to these places or in some way contained there — or at least I have heard as much said by people arguing that only in Ireland can the Irish Gods be honored. Obviously, as a member of the Irish diaspora and as a polytheist who honors those Gods on American soil, I disagree.

Firstly, I’d like to point out that historically migrant populations have always carried their beliefs with them, rather than seeing their beliefs as fixed to specific places. We can see this if we look back at the original movement of the Celtic culture which brought certain Gods to the new lands; these deities are often called “pan-Celtic” because they can be found in some form in most or all Celtic cultures. We can also see this, for example, in the way the Dál Riada Irish brought some of the Tuatha Dé Danann to Scotland where the beliefs took root and blossomed into a different form.* Another non-Celtic example is the way that the Norse brought their Gods and understanding of spirits with them to Iceland.

So, there’s certainly historical precedent for the idea of Gods and spirits going with a population as it moves, or at least of the people retaining their beliefs which are then usually melded or slowly integrated into existing local beliefs. I have never felt that my connection to the Gods I honored was weakened by my distance from the place where their myths speak of them walking. Although I do believe that it is important to journey to those places and experience the land of those stories, I have absolutely no doubt that the Gods are present anywhere they choose to be and can create connections to any place where they are honored.

I live near the Atlantic ocean, albeit a different side of it than normally associated with the Irish Gods, but when I go to the ocean, no matter who I might try to connect to there, only Manannán mac Lír comes to me. Even after decades of trying to feel some sort of Goddess in the waves the only presence I find is his. It is his horses I see in the waves and his voice I hear in the surf. I do not know why this is, only that it is so for me, and that the shoreline here has become a sacred place for me to commune with the Irish God of the waves. I have also come to associate several local places with some of the Gods I honor.

Finding Manannán mac Lír on a different side of the Atlantic / EpicStockMedia /
Finding Manannán mac Lír on a different side of the Atlantic / EpicStockMedia /

Very close to my home is a river, named as so many things are in New England, after a well-known river in England. Years ago as I began to nurture a stronger connection to the Irish God Nuada I began to experience many things near the river that seemed to relate to him, including one of the most intense omens of my life. After asking for a sign from Nuada about whether or not I should honor him, as I drove on a road parallel to the river, an eagle with a fish in its talons flew a dozen feet above me for over a hundred feet, dripping blood and water onto the hood of my car the entire way.

As time went on I slowly came to associate this river with Nuada, something that felt appropriate even though I had no solid explanation for it. Later in conversation a friend mentioned that she also associated a river local to her with Nuada and  we came to realize that although we live in very different places both rivers host naval bases, which is certainly an interesting coincidence at least. As I studied Nuada further I found that he is sometimes believed by scholars to be cognate to the Celtic God Nodens who had a shrine near the river Severn in England; Nuada may also be the same as the Irish God Nechtan** who is associated with the Well of Segais which became the source of the river Boyne. I like to go to my local river to make offerings to him and pray, and these have been well received so far.

A Revolutionary War era fort I associate with the Morrignae / Morgan Daimler
A Revolutionary War era fort I associate with the Morrigna / Morgan Daimler

In the neighboring town there is an old revolutionary war military fort, now little more than an angular mound of grass-covered earth ringing a hollow.  The site of a massacre in 1781 and in use as a tactical military fort for more than a hundred years after that locals say it is haunted and that spirits of soldiers hundreds of years dead can be seen still walking the walls. I find it to be a deeply sacred place, existing as it does on a height above a river, and so strongly reminiscent of the old raths. I see the Morrigna there, all three of them, especially at twilight. I feel their presence there and a connection to them that is more intense than elsewhere. It is a good place for me to go to feel more connected to them or to pray when I need insight.

I have experienced numinous moments here in America when the presence of the Irish Gods was strong and clear. In a group ritual to Brighid there was a candle for her on the main altar which burned out; later in the ritual as we all sang an invocation song to her the candle spontaneously re-lit and continued to burn until the song ended. In my work at the Morrigan’s Call Retreat over the last two years I have felt the presence of Badb, Macha, and the Morrigan fill and bless places new to them as their devotees call them, chanting, singing, crying out, over and over until the very air vibrates. At Wellspring, an annual gathering of ADF Druids, when the Morrigan was invoked the temperature dropped so sharply that people’s breathe could suddenly be seen misting in the air, an effect that was noticeable for the duration of the ritual, then when it was over the temperature returned to normal. After my son was born, when I was critically ill with a post-partum complication, I called out and was answered by Flidais, whose steady presence helped me put aside my own panic; later in the hospital I prayed and made an offering to her and experienced a miracle, one of the only ones I’ve ever had happen.

Invoking the Irish Gods into new lands, the Morrigan's Call Retreat 2014 / Morgan Daimler
Invoking the Irish Gods into new lands, the Morrigan’s Call Retreat 2014 / Morgan Daimler

Pagan Gods are not easily limited or contained. They are vast and mighty, and there is something in them that resonates strongly with those of us who honor them. The Tuatha Dé Danann are firmly rooted in Ireland, in the landscape and in the old myths – but they are also present elsewhere, carried across oceans by those who believe, anchored in new places by the lips that call out their names and the hands that pour out offerings to them. The Gods go where their worshipers go, and as Epona’s worship was carried all the way to Rome, so the Irish Gods are thriving on foreign soil.

* There are some key differences that have developed in the Scottish mythology of deities like Angus mac Og and Brighid, for example, so that we find stories of these Gods in Scotland which do not exist in Ireland.

** In the Silva Gadelica, Nuada is called Nuada Necht and scholars, including Dáithí Ó hÓgáin, suggest both Nechtan and Elcmar may be other names of Nuada.

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