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The Spirituality of the Land Conference - John Carey

by Michael Maxwell Steer

I hope I do not misrepresent  John Carey's Deep memory and the power of place in early Ireland, since many of its reference points were new to me. He opened with a paragraph from Augustine (Confessions 10.8) where he says that 'memory is an entire universe' wherein we are led to credit things that we do not otherwise know and/or which are beyond our personal experience. Augustine also talks of the 'the fields and palaces of memory', which I took to include archetypal imagination and dream space.

Carey's lecture concerned the dark ages of Irish history and the nexus between oral (Druid) and literate (Christian) memory; and the agendas of the latter in subtly distorting the former, whether deliberately or by misunderstanding. He said that, contrary to widespread belief, early Celtic culture was not illiterate. They used the Greek alphabet; however they did not use it for religious purposes since, no doubt, they felt that its two-dimensionality could not capture the importance of feeling /experience /memory in transmitting spiritual perception/s.
   
St Patrick began to evangelise Ireland in the 5thC, but the continuing presence of Bards in the 7thC may be inferred from certain references. And a fragment known as The Conversation between St ColumCille (Columba) and the Youth from the 8-9thC suggests that Bardic beliefs in reincarnation were still prevalent, for the 'Youth' seems to be talking about memories of former experiences /lives to the Saint, and contains the sentence: "If you truly know: death is but the middle of a long life."
   
Carey dwelt at some length on a (9thC?) account of the story of an encounter between Tuàn and Finnio. The latter is represented as a Christian scholar keen to learn from the oral memory of an old, thrice-reborn, high Druid. Carey made the point that the tale would seem to be an attempt to colonise memories of the old religion by representing the expiring Bard as voluntarily handing his tradition forward to Christianity as its natural successor – using the same technique by which sacred pagan locations and festivals were christianised.

Nevertheless, the narrative reveals much of the old attitudes, particularly in relation to the concepts of transformation and rebirth – and thus to ideas of a reincarnatory continuity of perennial wisdom. Tuàn tells how when he grew too old he returned to an ancestral cave. There he fasted for three days, fell asleep (ie, surrendered consciousness) and was reborn. His first metamorphosis was to become a wild stag; at the end of which life by the same process he became a hawk; followed again by becoming a salmon.  

In that life he was caught by a magic boy (a prince) and eaten by his virgin sister - from whom he was reborn for his final incarnation as a return to human form. He was now desirous of handing on his Druidic knowledge so that he could be released from further rebirth. By so doing he was implicitly entrusting Finnio, and thus the Church, with the guardianship of his lineage.

Carey showed pictures of Coull's Cave in the Mourne Mountains as a typical example of a natural formation used by bards to anchor myth/s within a landscape and make them real or credible to the populace. Fingal's Cave near Iona would be another. He made the point that the use of location appears to create a narrative legitimacy for articulating archetypal myth, and thus establishes a self-reinforcing connexion between [deep] memory and place.

I would add that in his BBCtv series on the Greek Myths Robin Lane-Fox makes exactly the same point, and illustrates it brilliantly by citing classical authors in the very locations to which they alluded.

Carey's final reference was to a single gnomic illustration which appears to illustrate how Druidic mnemonic practice may have worked, by teaching bards to tie the sequential narrative of their sagas to specific elements within a landscape.