St. Patrick[1]

Patrick Weston Joyce

It is commonly understood that the religion of the pagan Irish was druidism.

But we are very much in the dark as to the doctrines and ceremonials of this druidic religion; for as it was practised in Ireland it differed very much from the druidism of Gaul and Britain, which has been described in detail by Caesar and other Latin writers.

Indeed so far as our knowledge of Irish druidism goes it could hardly be called a connected religion at all.

It was taught by druids, who figure conspicuously in the oldest Irish traditions.

They were the learned men of the time and were commonly employed to teach the children of kings and chiefs.

Many worshipped idols of some kind.

Some worshipped water; and we read of one druid, of the time of St. Patrick, who considered water as a god of goodness and fire an evil genius, so that he got himself buried deep under his favourite well called slaun to keep his bones cool from the fire that he dreaded.

Slaun means healing; and we are told that the people offered gifts to this well as to a god.

Both druids and people also worshipped the shee or fairies who were believed to live in bright palaces under elf-mounds or fairy hills (see my “Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland,” p. 105).

The druids could scarcely be called priests: but they were skilled in magic—indeed they figure more conspicuously as magicians than in any other capacity; so that by some writers the Irish word drui (druid) is translated “wizard”; and they were believed to be possessed of tremendous preternatural powers.

They wore a white magic tunic, and when working their spells they chanted an incantation.

In some of the old historical romances we find the issues of battles sometimes determined not so much by the valour of the combatants as by the magical power of the druids attached to the armies.

They could—as the legends tell—raise druidical clouds and mists and bring down showers of snow, of fire, of blood; they could drive a man insane or into idiocy by flinging in his face a wisp of straw into which some hellish incantations had been breathed; and many other instances of this necromantic power could be cited.

In the hymn that St. Patrick chanted on his way to Tara on Easter Sunday morning (see p. 147, below) he asks God to protect him against the spells of smiths, of druids, and of druidesses.

They were skilful in divination and foretold future events from dreams and visions, from sneezing and casting lots, from the croaking of ravens and the chirping of wrens.

King Dathi’s druids forecasted the issue of his military expeditions by observations of the stars and clouds from the summit of a hill.

In their divination they used a rod of yew with Ogham[2] words cut on it.

The druids were a powerful and influential class, and were bitterly opposed to Christianity; so that they gave great trouble to St. Patrick and to his successors for more than a century, till they finally died out, and with them their paganism.[3]


[1] We Irish people commonly speak in one breath of our Three Patron Saints; and in accordance with this custom I bring together here the following three short Memoirs to form one little company by themselves. They are reprinted with some additions and alterations from others of my books; for I wish to spread as widely as possible the knowledge of Patrick, Brigit, and Columkille.

[2] For Ogham writing see my “Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland,” p. 169.

[3] For a detailed description of Irish paganism and of the druids the reader may consult my two Social Histories of Ancient Ireland.