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LANDSCAPE AND THE CELTIC SOUL JAMES CHARLES ROY celts of the pagan and early Christian era had a fascination with landscape and topography. With a perspective that we might call “superstitious” (Celts would have called it magical), they looked to the hills and streams and wells of their immediate environs with a mixture of intimacy and awe that can only be imagined, something that we, as a modern people, can never recreate unless we wish to fall into parody. The closest analogy may perhaps be our contemporary habit, much remarked upon, of anthropomorphizing our pets. The Celts personalized their environment in much the same way, usually feminizing it. Their own lands they described in the terminology of lovers—and that of their enemies in distinctly more hostile terms. Given their warlike disposition, the Celts wished the fields of their neighbors to be a devastated wasteland,1 and when enemies wreaked havoc on them, which usually took the form of cattle theft or straw piles put to the torch, the customary formalized response was a deeply felt sense of melancholy, an idea that one’s own person had been violated. The sense of ravishment in Irish culture has been deeply felt through literature, song, and poem. Christianity altered the decorative aspect of this Celtic obsession but not its content.2 Only in the last thirty years, an incredibly brief span of time in Ireland’s long history, have we seen a radical breakdown in this traditional affection—and even familiarity—with the land, a transformation that mirrors the drastic changes in Irish society as a whole about which so many observers have commented. Lady Gregory, were she to tour the back roads and boreens of Kiltartan in East Galway today, would return home LANDSCAPE AND THE CELTIC SOUL 228 1 Julius Caesar, Bellum Gallicium, trans. J.J. Tierney, in “The Celtic Ethnography of Posidonius,” Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (hereafter PRIA) 60 (1959–60), 274. 2 Lisa M. Bitel, Isle of the Saints: Monastic Settlement and Christian Community in Early Ireland (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 42–50. with far less material for her tales and plays of folklore and peasant wisdom than she did some hundred years ago. Universal literacy, the disappearance of Gaelic, and television all play a part.3 This was all brought home to me thirty years ago in some morass or another of County Donegal in the north. I was looking for an ancient cultic stone called in Irish Cloghaneely, located as I thought on the grounds of a private school. This was a stone where Balor of the Mighty Blows, a malignant cyclopean of predictably evil disposition, had decapitated one of his foes, the blood of the victim having stained in streaking rivulets, the face of this standing rock. I recall approaching a group of boys playing soccer . Surely they would know. Of the fifteen lads there, no one had ever heard of it. I went into the faculty lounge. The six or seven teachers there, to use an Irish colloquialism, “hadn’t a clue.” The headmaster was then summoned, but to no avail. Finally, down to the kitchen. A old scullery woman, washing pots, led me out the back door. In among some bracken and stunted trees, not forty yards from the school and the busy soccer game, stood this gory monument to Balor of the Mighty Blows. It was, of course, a plain and outwardly ordinary stone, but in the eyes of my guide it was possessed of grandeur that I, as a stranger, could never hope to fathom. She regaled me for about thirty minutes with all manner of entertaining nonsense about the one-eyed giant, still alive and roaming on stormy nights out on Tory Island, she assured me, until the headmaster, bored to tears with what was then unfashionable gibberish, bundled the old woman back to the scullery where she and what Joyce called “the broken lights of Irish myth,”4 most suitably belonged for an Ireland then entering the more progressive environment of modern life. By now, that old woman is certainly dead; as for the Rock of Balor, who knows its fate today and, more importantly, who...


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