Contemporary Pagan Pilgrimage: Ritual and Re-Storying in the Irish Landscape

In: Numen
Jenny Butler College of Arts, Celtic Studies and Social Sciences, University College Cork Cork Ireland

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In an examination of contemporary Pagan pilgrimage in Ireland, based on longitudinal ethnographic research, this article identifies and analyzes different cultural processes at work, focusing on the sacralization of the landscape through ritualization and re-storying. Correlations and differences between modern Pagan pilgrimage and the popular Roman Catholic pilgrimage tradition are identified since the way in which modern Pagan pilgrimage manifests is most similar to traditional Catholic site-specific pilgrimage. Contemporary Pagan activities and discourses are contextualized within Irish history and within other meaningful layers constructed over time in relation to Ireland’s sacred landscape. Counterheritagization processes and the contestation of meanings connected to pilgrimage sites is discussed as regards the process of Celticization in how a Celtic past is reactivated in the present by journeying to, and engaging with, significantly reclaimed and “re-storied” sites. For this new religious movement, the land itself plays a vital role as a dynamic and active space.


In an examination of contemporary Pagan pilgrimage in Ireland, based on longitudinal ethnographic research, this article identifies and analyzes different cultural processes at work, focusing on the sacralization of the landscape through ritualization and re-storying. Correlations and differences between modern Pagan pilgrimage and the popular Roman Catholic pilgrimage tradition are identified since the way in which modern Pagan pilgrimage manifests is most similar to traditional Catholic site-specific pilgrimage. Contemporary Pagan activities and discourses are contextualized within Irish history and within other meaningful layers constructed over time in relation to Ireland’s sacred landscape. Counterheritagization processes and the contestation of meanings connected to pilgrimage sites is discussed as regards the process of Celticization in how a Celtic past is reactivated in the present by journeying to, and engaging with, significantly reclaimed and “re-storied” sites. For this new religious movement, the land itself plays a vital role as a dynamic and active space.

Ireland’s new pilgrimage routes, and the sacralization of the land within new meaning systems, can tell us much about continuity and change in cultural traditions and engagement with religious heritage today. In this article, based on longitudinal ethnographic research on the Irish Pagan community, contemporary Pagan pilgrimage is explored.1 The material presented here is based on recorded structured interviews with 45 practitioners who identify as Pagan,2 Wiccan, Witch, or Druid, as well as participant observation conducted at different stages over a fifteen-year period.3 I accompanied different individuals and groups on their journeys to places they deem sacred sites and over the course of my research participated in celebrations of festivals and various types of rituals. Here I examine the Pagan sacralization of the Irish landscape alongside how land itself is an active agent, with spaces being participatory in the flux of meaning-making processes.4 As Thomas Tweed states, “religions are not reified substances but complex processes” (2006: 59), and here I examine pilgrimage spaces within the Pagan flow of meaning and how the reclaiming of symbols and contestation of meanings related to particular sites is important for Pagan identities and ideological frameworks.

Perhaps due to the strong association between pilgrimage and medieval Christian tradition, contemporary Pagans do not tend to use the word “pilgrimage,” but in Pagan discourse there are references to “sacred journeys.”5 As acknowledged by Simon Coleman and John Eade (2004: 14), defining the notion of “journey” itself is problematic. In terms of defining “pilgrimage sites” in this context, I borrow the definition provided by Dionigi Albera and John Eade (2017: 1) as “sites of deep significance for both individuals and groups.” Pilgrimage routes and “sacred sites” are spaces in which Pagans make meaningful connections with history and cultural traditions. Thus, Pagans can be understood as pilgrims in the use of the term by Tweed as “religiously-motivated travelers who undertake infrequent round-trip journeys to sites they consider sacred” (2000: 43). A characteristic feature of contemporary Pagan religiosity is traveling to sites in order to practice ritual there. It is important to point out that, contrary to the experience of Camino-style pilgrims, for Pagans it is the site rather than the journey that is central.

The symbolic resonance of the Irish sacred landscape is complex and multifaceted, stretching from that of the ancient pagan world through Christianity’s arrival in Ireland to the many religious groups that engage with these places today. Worldviews and practices around pilgrimage are “one of the most common phenomena found in religious culture” (Reader 2001: 3), and thus it is of value to observe contemporary forms of pilgrimage. Innovations and reinterpretations of traditional pilgrim activity are significant in how new meanings are projected onto the past, and how older pilgrimages, with all of their associated history, nostalgia, and folklore, are reframed.

The places and routes that feature as sacred sites for the contemporary Irish Pagan community have historically been used as pilgrimage sites by Roman Catholics and were special places in ancient Ireland. Some, such as mountain and holy-well pilgrimages, are part of a disrupted history of Catholic pilgrimage. An examination of Pagan pilgrimage activities unfolds how these sites are reframed within a new cosmology and other sites, such as rivers and megaliths, reclaimed as to their sacred status. There is an evident overlap between contemporary Pagan and Christian pilgrimage in the sites that are selected — often the same sites — and also in regard to some of the ritual actions performed at the sites. Less apparent perhaps is what is shared across both groups in relation to Ireland’s sacred landscape and where there is divergence in how different reasons are given for a particular site’s sacredness.

There are efforts among contemporary Pagan practitioners to “reclaim” the sites and attribute their sacred meanings to the landscape in a context in which the Catholic meanings are ingrained and familiar. This arbitration of meaning is accomplished by a process of re-storying, where Pagans bypass the hegemonic narratives and symbols in favor of those that fit within their own meaningful framework. For the Irish Pagan community, such meaning making amalgamates different kinds of narratives. Some are personal experience narratives resulting from practices at sites. These personal stories, interconnected with embodiment and ritual, are usually blended in their telling with stories and symbols found in Celtic literature. In this way, new meanings are constructed from old narratives and combined with experiential material, which is part of the wider process of re-storying the landscape.

In the sections below, I characterize the nature of Pagan pilgrimage and the type of material and intangible cultural heritage with which this community is engaging. First of all, I present a brief overview of the popular Catholic pilgrimage or “pattern day” (from the Irish pátrún for patron saint), so that historical processes and the cultural context of Ireland can be better understood. It is important to initially outline the longstanding and hegemonic popular Catholic tradition and its connection to native or pre-Christian traditions, so that we can apprehend the significance of modern Pagan discourses and activities in their connection to places and symbols that are rooted in both the ancient Celtic and the contemporary Catholic layers of meaning. As with a palimpsest, the pilgrimage space records meanings in flux; symbols are reused and altered but the core attribution of sacredness to the site persists.

During complex political and social processes and reactions to colonization and subjugation of Ireland and Irish people, the land was sentimentalized, resulting in a nostalgic connection with it that plays out in manifold ways. Marion Markwick has examined how a repertoire of imagery of Ireland, particularly remote rural landscapes, is utilized as dominant motifs in marketing (2001: 42), and how this ties into cultural constructions of Irishness and nostalgia for “past places” (48). The past places with most resonance for Pagans are those associated with a Celtic Golden Age, and images of this past are evoked in the “Celticization” of the contemporary landscape, as will be discussed later.

Pilgrimage itself, which emphasizes the connection of people and place, and which specifically highlights spiritual aspects, was utilized in the construction of a complex of meanings connected to Irish national identity (Shovlin 1991). The popular Catholic pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick Mountain in County Mayo, known as the “holiest mountain in Ireland” (MacNeill 2008: 71), is a “national pilgrimage” when understood in this context of the interlinking of national identity and the activity of pilgrimage. Within Pagan meaning-making milieus, such attributions of Catholic meanings to sites are contested and different claims are made, as described in more detail below. As Simon Coleman points out, “landscapes are lived as well as represented (although of course there is an interplay between the two)” (2004: 53), and here I aim to show how the lived experiences of Pagans in the landscape and at particular sites relates to, and at times challenges, hegemonic representations of sacred landscape by investing the sites and landscape with different meanings to those of the religious majority, which is in this case Catholics.

1 Historical Context for Pilgrimage in Ireland

Roman Catholicism has been a characteristic feature of not just Irish religious life but also Irish social and cultural life since the foundation of the state in 1922 (Inglis 1998, 2007). During the complex identity politics of colonization and the postcolonial milieu on the island of Ireland, and the ongoing political conflict or “Troubles” of Northern Ireland, Catholicism and Protestantism became ethnic markers of Irish and British (more specifically English) identity, respectively (Coakley 2011: 101). During the sixteenth century, the Tudor (re)conquest of Ireland resulted in Roman Catholicism being outlawed, which is one reason why Irish national identity coalesced around Catholicism when independence was gained, as it was a “reclaiming” of a banned religiosity by the enemy. The Penal Laws, as they were known, were a form of anti-Catholic legislation introduced under British rule during the late sixteenth century through the eighteenth century (Donnelly 2004: 120). This series of measures forbade the practice of Catholicism in an attempt to force the inhabitants of Ireland to accept the Anglican Church traditions and to keep the Catholic population of Ireland subdued.

This religious oppression resulted in the furtive celebration of Catholic Mass, as Hilary Bishop describes, “under trees and bushes, in ditches and in the open air at altars known as Mass Rocks situated in fields and glens or on mountain sides” (2016: 829). Since religious practice took place in ruined monasteries or churches and at shrines in hard to reach locations (Nolan 1983: 423), there is the association with secret pilgrimages to these places. Subsequently, Roman Catholic practices in the open air became associated with Irishness and resistance, and these meanings and material forms became inscribed on the landscape. When Catholicism was disallowed, priests went into hiding and were not easily accessible, since “those who sheltered priests were imprisoned” (Bardon 1992 cited in Donnelly 2004: 120). Thus, spaces on the landscape where ordinary people could access the sacred increased in significance; many landscape features in Ireland are connected with saints. Ian Reader, in a discussion of traditions connected to relics, notes that saints “formed an approachable and direct means through which ordinary people could have access to the world of the holy without requiring other mediating agencies such as the priesthood” (2001: 19). In this way, parts of the Irish landscape gain another sacralization by way of saintly associations.

Veneration of saints is a prominent part of Irish folk religiosity. The “pattern day” is the colloquial term in Ireland for local pilgrimages, which can be defined as a “patron saint’s festival” (Ó Giolláin 2005: 11) and usually involve a visit to a holy well associated with the particular saint. Such pilgrimages are also known as turas (Taylor 1995: 35), meaning “journey” in Irish. Holy wells, as Celeste Ray observes, “are commonly dedicated to a saint and their waters can be ‘blessed with a cure’ for particular ailments” (2014: 2). On visiting a well, pilgrims normally drink the water, and usually there are cups left beside the well for this purpose. There is the custom of bringing some well water home for healing and for individuals who could not make the journey themselves. Ireland has many “rag wells” (Nolan 1983: 437), where people tie rags or ribbons to a nearby tree or bush and sometimes also rosaries, photographs, or personal items belonging to a sick person they are praying for. Most commonly, the wellside “rag trees” are hawthorn, ash, and holly, named such “as they receive rags and ribbons both as votives and as containers of the illnesses or anxiety that may bring one to the site” (Ray 2015: 419). The hawthorn or whitethorn, colloquially known as the “fairy tree,” is also associated with St. Patrick, and at such sites there is a mingling of cultural references to otherworldly powers. Apart from holy wells, caves, trees, and mountains are also loci for popular Catholic pilgrimages. The biggest Roman Catholic pilgrimage site in Ireland is that to Croagh Patrick Mountain in County Mayo, as previously mentioned, the scree slope of which some devout Catholics climb barefoot as a penitential exercise. Croagh Patrick also features as a contemporary Pagan pilgrimage site, as discussed below.

The popular Catholic tradition maintains certain “pagan” features, such as circumambulation, fertility associations, and spiritual concepts that were absorbed into the Christian pilgrimages, and particular traditions and sites predate Christianity (Harbison 1992). “The popular paradigm,” as Ray remarks, “is that holy wells derived from the Christian conversion of preexisting sacred places” (2014: 58), and multiple references are made in the Early Irish literature to early Christian conversions involving baptisms at holy wells (Ray 2014: 89), such as St. Patrick baptizing Druids at wells. Circumambulation or “doing the rounds” is a characteristic feature of the pilgrimage. “The rounds” are always done in a clockwise motion, which in Irish is called deiseal, having the meaning of turning to the right, and deriving from the word deas, which also has connotations of “pleasant” and “positive”; it is a “movement in harmony with the sun’s diurnal course and was thought from ancient times to be auspicious” (Ó Cadhla 2002: 11). Discussing ritual circumambulation as a religious element of ancient provenance, Proinsias MacCana remarks that “as the term implies, the rite involves walking around a holy object, image, or place, thereby acknowledging its transcendent significance as a centre and source of sanctity and venerating it accordingly” (2011: 109).

Some of the local pilgrimages continue today, while a number of restored or revived pattern days and new pilgrim paths have been created.6 Considering this historical backdrop and the embeddedness of Catholicism within Irish culture and social life, it is interesting to consider where these new forms of contemporary Pagan pilgrimage fit within the changing Irish religious landscape. Given the connection between Catholic pilgrimage and Irish identity and tradition, any subsequent intentional change in tradition involves a renegotiation of the pilgrimage space. Indeed, as discussed below, some contemporary Pagans make claims on particular sites as their sites.

2 Contemporary Pagan Usage of the Past

Rodney Harrison has remarked on how different kinds of heritage practices are “enacting new realities through contingent processes of assembling and reassembling bodies, techniques, technologies, materials, values, temporalities, and spaces” (2016: 171). Pagan religiosity involves an engagement with a number of different kinds of spiritual resources that for them are means for conceptually and experientially participating in the past and the present. As Tweed has identified, such religious meaningful flows “involves moving continually back and forth across time and space” (2002: 272). For Pagan practitioners, particular sites provide the physical and emotional setting for evoking the past, sensing ancient and underlying energies that is understood by many of my research participants as “magic.” Megalithic sites have symbolic cachet for Pagans in Ireland and elsewhere (Blain and Wallis 2009), and as with many kinds of pilgrimage places, these sites “are clothed in the mantle of constructed and often revisionist narratives of the past” (Dubisch 2015: 145). Eighteenth-century antiquarian connections between megalithic monuments and Druids, such as William Stukeley’s association of Stonehenge and Avebury stone circle complex in Wiltshire, England as Druidic ceremonial sites (Gillings and Pollard 2015: 121), has influenced contemporary Pagan selection of ritual sites. In Ireland, many practitioners associate standing stones and stone circles with the practices of ancient Druids and therefore select them as pilgrimage sites.

The embodied aspect of the experience of the ritual space is important, as is how this experience is interlaced in cosmological significance of space so that the creation of meanings is multidimensional and multilayered. When the rituals — commonly described in Pagan discourse as “spells” or “magical workings” — that take place at the sites are considered to have been efficacious by the practitioners, the memory of what was experienced at the site becomes important in storytelling about the particular place. Thus, physical and emotional involvement forms a core part of the re-storying process and the meanings generated through ritual practice at sites. As Anna Karlström (2015: 31) has discussed, embodied practice and “performative authenticity” is an important characteristic of people’s engagement with cultural heritage. Ritual is key to understanding how the past and the present become interlocked in Pagan worldview. In the following sections, I analyze and discuss a set of important dimensions of the creation of meanings related to religious journeys made by Pagans in contemporary Ireland: (1) Celticization and journeys to sacred sites, (2) imaginative journeys, (3) ritualizing a spirit-infused land, (4) re-storying the landscape, and (5) counterheritagization. To start with, I will briefly introduce key aspects of Irish Pagan cosmology and practice today.

A particular cluster of meanings connected to “Celtic spirituality” (Bowman 2000) informs various new religious movements, including the forms of Paganism discussed herein.7 Pagan cosmology and praxis is informed by Celtic traditions connected to time, festivals, rituals, and spiritual forms. This utilization of the Celtic is part of the globalized movement of new Celtic Paganism, and Celticity is an important resource for imbuing places with meaning. The primary literary source for Celtic materials used by the Irish Pagan community is the corpus of medieval literature containing stories featuring the gods, the sagas about them being collectively known in the Irish academic tradition of characterization as the “Mythological Cycle” (Williams 2016: 74). The Mythological Cycle consists of Old and Middle Irish stories (Maier 1997: 204), such as Cath Maige Tuired (Battle of Mag Tuired), which deals with the mythological peoples — in this story the Tuatha Dé Danann’s fight against the Fomoire — and the battles between them (Welch 2000: 251). The Tuatha Dé Danann are conflated, in later Irish folklore, with the aos sídhe (“people of the mounds”), who are “imagined to live both in the natural mountains and hills of the country, and in the man-made burial mounds of the pre-Celtic population of Ireland” (Maier 1997: 248).

For Pagans, the concept of the journey is utilized in the design of specific rituals and in regard to the individual’s spiritual journey through life, and the life cycle is interconnected with the symbolism around festival cycles and natural rhythms. For the Irish Pagan community, the mythological connections and folk celebrations of the Irish traditional festivals, which are themselves based in the structure of the Celtic ritual year, are the primary grounding for their own celebrations.8 This ties in again with the cluster of Celtic meanings that forms part of the received wisdom in which Irish Paganism is grounded. The physical journey of pilgrimage fits well with this general cosmology of cycles, cosmic spirals, and the symbolism of the beginning and the endpoint within a wider meaningful framework. Physical journeys to sacred sites are made for the purposes of gatherings for festival celebrations and various kinds of ritual practices, including healings, initiations, baby blessings, and handfastings (weddings). People travel by car and often car-pool to get to sites. Many of the sites utilized by Pagans are difficult to access due to being in fields or woodlands. How people reach the site is not so important, since it is being at the site that is key to the experience. In this sense, the way in which the pilgrimage manifests is most similar to traditional Catholic site-specific pilgrimage.

2.1 Celticization and Journeys to Sacred Sites

Thomas Tweed has discussed how pilgrimage spaces can be “translocative and transtemporal” (2002: 263), and this is illuminating for the case of Pagan pilgrimage in Ireland. Symbols associated with the Celtic past are most influential for Pagans in their selection of ritual sites and in their meaning making to do with pilgrimage spaces. A cluster of symbols related to the ancient Celtic world are projected onto the contemporary landscape, the setting and mood transporting practitioners into their envisagement of the Celtic world and the times of their ancestors. Rituals and stories are transposed into a particular meaningful framework where the landscape is sacralized and various sites across the land are interconnected in their sacred status. Many participants recount feelings they experienced at a sacred site, or during the practice of ritual at the site, as evidencing the presence of the ancestors or a particular Celtic deity or spiritual being. Celtic mythology is often consulted for further explication of the experience in terms of symbols found in stories and how they might resonate with the individual’s experience. Embodied practice is a characteristic feature of Paganism and place-specific ritual experience feeds into participants’ broader understanding of the world, and thus the sites are vital in practitioners’ performative authenticity (Karlström 2015: 31). The impactful experiences within pilgrimage spaces are influential in Pagan creative expression, including artwork in which the sites feature prominently.

An example of the Celticization of the landscape is the engagement with the Hill of Uisneach in County Westmeath as a contemporary pilgrimage site, since it is posited that this was a site of special significance in Celtic cosmology. As Roseanne Schot explains, “the name of the territory in which Uisneach is located is recorded for the first time in early medieval written sources as ‘Mide,’ the ‘middle’” (2006: 39). A stone atop the hill is said to mark the midpoint of the country (Maier 1997: 275) in what was the ancient fifth province of Mide.9 Proinsias MacCana (1978: 61) discusses the Hill of Uisneach as the supposed sacred center of Ireland in accordance with his theory of the “sacred center” in Celtic cosmology and “the idea of a country as being divided into four parts with a sacred fifth part as central”; he observes that pilgrimage sites are often located in this sacred center (2011: 110).

The ancient celebration of the festival of Bealtaine — 1 May, the traditional start of summer — is associated with Uisneach and with fire. According to a 12th-century text in the Dindsenchas,10 the chief Druid of the mythological invaders of Ireland, the Nemedians, himself named Mide (Aldhouse-Green 2010: 122), lit the very first fire in Ireland on the Hill of Uisneach, which burned for seven years, with all the other fires in the country being lit from it (Maier 1997: 275). Uisneach came up frequently in interviews, and many research participants have taken part in the annual fire-lighting celebration upon the hill.11 At Uisneach and other sites for this festival, Pagans dance with torches or “fire-dance.”

The festival of Bealtaine’s possible connection to the god Bel is significant for the re-storying of the site and the meaning contemporary Pagans place on the fire-lighting ceremony there. In the Irish early medieval glossary Sanas Chormaic, there are references to two “lucky fires” being lit on Bealtaine with Druids making incantations. Ronald Hutton (2001: 218) points to different interpretations of the festival’s name as meaning “lucky fire” or that it derived from the name of a deity — the “fires of Bel” Bil or Bial — and suggests that Bel could be either the Old Testament’s Baal or the Northern European deity Belenus. The name Belenus is thought to derive from a Celtic word meaning “to shine, give light” (Maier 1997: 33). Modern Pagans continuing the tradition of fire lighting on the hill, and retelling the stories of Druid activity at Uisneach, is part of the resacralization of the Irish landscape via its Celticization.

For contemporary Pagans, sometimes it is the site that is the most meaningful factor in making sacred journeys, as with Uisneach, and sometimes the more significant factor is the deity that imbues a place with meaning. An example of where a particular deity is the focus of a pilgrimage is the goddess Sinann (anglicized as Shannon); this can be compared to the way in which local pattern-day pilgrimages are focused on particular saints. To the Druid group, the Grove of Shinann,12 this deity is of central importance. Their annual pilgrimage involves traveling to the Shannon Pot, a few miles north of the village of Dowra in County Cavan on the festival of Imbolc on 1 February. I accompanied them there on Imbolc 2002, when we carried out a ritual at the water’s edge that involved an honoring of Sinann and drinking water from the Shannon River that was passed around the five of us in a chalice. Mud and water from the site were brought back to the home of the members of the Grove who, unlike other ritual groups of Pagans, lived together. The land they live on forms part of the sacred configuration in which they have placed Sinann as an active spiritual form.

The site’s mythological associations are drawn upon in the re-storying process. A legend in the Dindsenchas tells of how Sinann, a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, became the river itself. Sinann is a daughter of Lodan Lucharglan of Tír Tairngire (“the land of promise”), one of the names for the Irish otherworld. In the story, she visits Coimla’s Well, which is located under the sea, in order to seek knowledge. In the otherworld, “salmon are feeding on the mast of magic hazel” (Hopkins 1992: 81). Hazelnuts are connected with wisdom in Irish legends and described as the “nuts of wisdom” (MacKillop 2004: 265).13 From Coimla’s Well spring seven streams, which have the Well of Knowledge as their source (Hopkins 1992: 81). Sinann follows one stream until it ebbs, when she becomes overwhelmed by the water and dies, in the process becoming part of the river’s spirit. Sharon Paice MacLeod observes that “a number of early Irish texts make reference to rivers that were held in great esteem and were associated with sacred or poetic wisdom and inspiration” (2007: 337), and that “the tradition preserves two topographical legends concerning the source of major rivers (the Boyne and the Shannon) and the two divine women (Boand and Sinann) who pursued imbas ‘mystical learning or lore’ at these sources. In both tales, they are subsequently drowned and become the tutelary spirit of the river” (Paice MacLeod 1999: 353). This legend of Sinann is utilized in ritual and the identities of group members and is used to represent wisdom and the quintessence of the flow of creativity in everyday life. The activities of Pagans at places such as Uisneach and the River Shannon call to mind Tweed’s definition of religions as “confluences of organic-cultural flows” (2006: 54) in how meanings — to do with the spiritual world, the Celtic past, embodiment and “magic” — converge within the spaces.

2.2 Imaginative Journeys

While physical journeys to pilgrimage sites are important, symbolic and imaginative journeys are also made by way of trance meditation in Irish Paganism. The term for such visualizations is “journeying,” borrowed from shamanic practices. In this way, the physical landscape is charted onto an imaginative framework where the participants in a guided meditation visualize themselves progressing along particular routes and reaching the site in question, where they have likely physically been in the recent past for the practice of ritual or for festival gatherings. I have taken part in a number of guided meditations over the course of my research, both in settings of ritual and at Pagan workshops. During my fieldwork with a particular Druid group, the Owl Grove, guided meditations were normally led by one group member and took place during festival gatherings. The visualization was sometimes an imaginary place, for example stepping stones across an imagined river, and sometimes to a site that we had visited together previously as a group, such as the Hill of Tara or a particular holy well. As such, this practice could be described as a visionary pilgrimage.

A spiritual progression of some sort is normally incorporated into the visualized journey where the participant gains a sense of peace on reaching the site or leaves behind worries before retracing their steps. Influenced as many forms of contemporary Paganism are by Jungian psychology, the journey may involve encounters with archetypal forms such as deities (representing cosmic forces, for example), the elements (earth, air, fire, and water), animal helpers, as well as evocative colors and sounds. The guided meditative journey is usually one of returning the way one came, and by the same entrances and exit ways, until one is “back in the room,” that is, the eyes have opened and one has returned to normal consciousness and awareness of immediate surroundings.

Subsequent to the meditation, participants would discuss what they saw on their journey and what the significance of symbols might be, such as an animal or bird that appeared along the route. Dreams people had recently would also be examined for possible connections to the overall meaning. During guided meditative journeys as well as physical journeys, the spiritual journey of the individual through life (or reincarnations of life) is referenced in discussions. Various cyclical processes and circle and spiral symbolism are emphasized in contemporary Pagan cosmology. Personal activities and “journeys” as spiritual seeking are placed within this framework of cycles within cycles or as a microcosm within a macrocosm, as with the phrase common to Pagan discourse, “As Above, So Below.”14 This astral component of the magical worldview means that physical journeys, visualizations, and imagined connections between past and present are positioned within a macrocosmic arrangement of cycles. This is again where Pagan pilgrimage differs from Caminoized forms, where the physical journey itself, and the experience as pilgrim along the specific route, appears to have more prominence.

2.3 Ritualizing a Spirit-Infused Land

Contemporary Pagan practitioners’ interaction with the landscape is based on ideas of energies and spirits, and direct engagement with spirits is usually understood to be achieved within the “magic circle.” In ritual practices, a circle is “cast,” which means it is marked out on the ground and/or visualized energetically and is regarded to be a protected space for “raising” energy and invoking spirits and deities. It is conceptualized as a sacred space within a sacred landscape. Perhaps we must categorize things differently to classic anthropological models (Durkheim 1964; Turner 1969) of sacred and profane space in contemporary Pagan pilgrimage, since many practitioners identify special liminal spaces — portals or entranceways to the spiritual world — within an already numinous landscape that is suffused with spiritual presences.

There are various intersections between contemporary Pagan and Catholic practice in terms of ritual actions, which are also the points where meanings diverge. While the Catholic tradition involves penitential crawling or bare feet, the Pagan includes joyful dancing and barefoot dancers who are not concerned with sin but with getting closer to the earth in trying to feel the “earth energies” without being hampered by shoes. A common experience that arose in interviews and during participant observation was participants’ sensing of earth energies or residual magic at sacred sites. Some informants claim that the “energy” raised during the ritual — whether conceived of as energy from the people involved in the ritual, the “earth energy” from the ground, the forces from deities or spirits, or a combination of all of these things — is what is sent out in the form of spells to take effect on the physical plane. Many practitioners feel that the sites “hold” the energy of past practices of the ancestors and thus are “power places” or “energy points.” Some elements of Pagan practice connect diametrically to the pattern, such as leaving offerings at rag trees and the circumambulation of holy wells. The Pagan word for circling clockwise or “sunwise” is deosil, which likely comes from the Irish language word deiseal (explained above), and the magic circle is cast deosil. By a selective process, Pagans take elements from different sources, some ancient symbols, some popular Catholic practice, and combine them in their ritualization of the landscape.

2.4 Re-Storying the Landscape

Contemporary Pagans visit many of the same sites as Catholic pilgrims on the pattern day, including holy wells, sacred trees, mountains, caves, and stones. Many of these places are associated with saints and with fairies. In Irish folklore, the fairies are synonymous with the Tuatha Dé Danann, which is translated as “The Peoples of the Goddess Danu or Anú.”15 Pagans normally ignore the saintly associations (unless the particular saint has explicit pagan origins), and emphasize “fairy places” as sites that are conceived of as entry points into the spiritual realm and as conducive to the successful practice of rituals. Ringforts, the most numerous field monument on the Irish landscape (Ní Cheallaigh 2012: 369), are colloquially known as “fairy forts,” and as with the hills and burial mounds mentioned above, they are connected with the sídhe. As Máirín Ní Cheallaigh points out, “despite the widespread acceptance of archaeological narratives and a worldview built upon the tangible parameters of science, for many Irish people, both urban and rural, ringforts remain the homes and haunts of the fairies” (2012: 370). In Irish popular tradition, offerings are left for the fairies at such trees and forts. For example, during the festival of Samhain, which became associated with Halloween on 31 October, the “fairies’ share” (Muller 2017: 194) of gathered fruits, such as berries, would be left for them in the trees and in fields as an offering, since it is bad luck to pick fruit after 1 November.

Where contemporary Pagan practice diverges from Irish traditional cultural practices is the practice of ritual in an attempt to communicate with or invoke the sídhe. My informants related to me experiences that they had at ringforts after leaving offerings at the sites. One example is the Pagan artist Jane Brideson, who lives in the Irish midlands. After leaving offerings for the fairies at a local ringfort she knew as Sí-Anu,16 she found a stone at the site with what she interpreted as the Cailleach or “Hag Goddess” of Irish folklore on it, and considered it a gift from the site itself. Following that, while painting the ringfort, she experienced the Goddess Anú calling to her. One aspect of the Cailleach is the “divine hag” of the Gaelic mythological tradition (Ó Crualaoich 1995: 147) that is associated with features of the Irish landscape, such as particular caves and standing stones.

Instead of saints, Pagans engage with symbols of the deities that went before them. In the example of the Brigid figure, Pagan practitioners tend to engage with her by stripping away those elements that are understood as Christian, with the aim of “getting back to” the goddess. For example, some Irish Pagans create a brídeóg in celebration of the spring festival of Imbolc, which coincides with St. Brigid’s Day on 1 February. The brídeóg is an effigy traditionally made to represent the saint (Danaher 1972: 24), a doll made out of straw or a decorated churn dash that would be brought house to house by a group known as the “Biddy Boys” (Estyn Evans 2000: 270),17 but Pagans create it as part of their veneration of the goddess. Holy wells and other sites are understood as places at which to communicate with deities, spirits, or fairies and oftentimes are identified as entrances to the otherworld or portals to another dimension; the tradition of saints is largely ignored unless mention is made of the Christianization process to highlight how things were “originally pagan.” In this way, practices and stories are dislocated from their historicized situation, and in the process Christian meanings are stripped away and then relocated in the new realities (Harrison 2016) constructed by Pagans.

2.5 Counterheritagization

In forming new realities, Pagans not only heritagize the landscape but also counterheritagize in the face of hegemonic forms of heritagization. One example of this process is Pagan engagement with Croagh Patrick Mountain in County Mayo. Named for the country’s patron saint, St. Patrick, the mountain is a site of multilayered heritage. Locally known as “The Reek” (Corlett 1998: 9), it is the most popular Catholic pilgrimage site in the country and is also significant for contemporary Pagans. As such, the space holds differentiated meanings and is “imaginatively figured and/or sensually encountered” (Tweed 2011: 119) differently by Catholics, Pagans, and others, such as tourists. Máire MacNeill (2008) traces how the traditional time to make the climb, on the last Sunday in July, coincides with the harvest festival of Lughnasa — on 1 August in the modern calendar — which pre-dates Christianity.18 The seasonal festival at the beginning of August is named for the Celtic god Lugh (or Lug in Old Irish) (Williams 2016: 4), who is one of the mythological people, the Tuatha Dé Danann of the Mythological Cycle (MacKillop 2004: 305). Hills in particular are associated with the mythological account of the “Lughnasadh games” that were initiated in honor of Lugh’s foster-mother, Tailtiu (Hicks 2011: 42). A hill in Teltown, County Meath — the anglicized form of the placename Tailtiu — is associated with an ancient gathering or óenach (Binchy 1958: 113) that continued as a pattern day “fair” (MacNeill 2018). Lughnasadh was traditionally celebrated by outdoor gatherings, especially on hilltops (Danaher 1972: 169).

The last Sunday in July is also known as Domhnach Chrom Dubh or “Crom Dubh’s Sunday” (Danaher 1972: 174). Crom Dubh, who in James MacKillop’s view (2004: 112) is “euhemerized in oral tradition from Crom Crúaich,” is associated with harvest. The name Crom Dubh is associated with sites such as Ronadh Crom Dubh (Black Crom’s Staff), the largest stone in the Grange stone circle in County Limerick. Crom Dubh appears in folklore as “the little black man who first brought wheat into Ireland” (Dalton 1924: 55). MacNeill remarks how “tradition represents Crom Dubh as the pagan potentate, dominant in the land until the coming of a Christian missionary (most often St. Patrick)” (2008: 28). There are legends of the saint’s destruction of pagan sacred places and shrines, St. Patrick being said to have smashed the “idol” of Crom Crúaich that stood on Mag Slécht (“plain of adorations or prostrations”) in County Cavan. This god is described, in Christian accounts, as the “chief idol” of pagan Ireland before the coming of St. Patrick (Mackillop 2004: 112), and legends tell of how St. Patrick defeats Crom Dubh during his missionizing endeavor.

Popular Catholicism abounds with legends of saints, and legends of St. Patrick are currently told in Ireland, particularly around St. Patrick’s Day in schools and in the media (Butler 2012). This is one intersection at which meanings diverge. In contemporary Paganism, St. Patrick is conceptualized as an unwanted interloper in Ireland’s pagan landscape. It is the association with goddess figures, and the gods Lugh and Crom, that feature meaningfully in Pagan discourse. Stories of the saint defeating pagan deities can be understood as Christianity overcoming paganism, as can his banishment of the serpents from Ireland and his expulsion of the “demon” Corra from the mountain, giving the name to Lough na Corra south of the mountain’s base (MacKillop 2004: 112). The figure of St. Patrick in legends may be symbolically representative of Christianity itself.19 The other well-established popular Catholic pilgrimage to Lough Derg in County Donegal has similar legendary associations. St. Patrick banishes a “great black bird,” the Cornu (MacKillop 2004: 113), which may be a giant crow, to Lough Derg. Crows are significant in Irish mythology as the form taken by the war goddesses, the Morrígan, Badb and Macha (Carey 1983). The Morrígan features prominently in contemporary Irish Pagan discourse as a symbol of strength and courage and one to engage with in ritual if one needs help in a time of adversity.

The Morrígan is a powerful symbol, and this goddess features prominently in Celtic forms of Paganism. Interpretations of the name Morrígan are “Great Queen,” “Sea Queen,” and “Phantom Queen” (Clark 1987: 223). She has influence in battle that is intwined with her fertility aspects: “she is an earth goddess connected with the fertility of the land and the procreation of cattle. She is also a goddess of great sexual powers, who sleeps with the chief god or hero, thus ensuring his victory in war” (Clark 1987: 223). In their conceptualization of her, some Pagans are influenced by portrayals of her in fantasy literature and graphic novels such as Sláine: The Horned God, produced by Pat Mills.

Pagans also participate on the last Sunday of July pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick. A Witch who climbed this mountain brought with her a corn dolly, a traditional straw craft of Britain and Ireland, that she had made. She says of her climb:

Crom Dubh was the old Corn King in Ireland and on Croagh Patrick that’s who Saint Patrick was actually fighting. So he was trying to suppress the old pagan god, which was Crom Dubh. And so on Garland Sunday, William and I actually climbed Croagh Patrick, shortly after I broke my ankle (laughs). And I made a very special corn dolly and I put it in Patrick’s Bed — I hope it has good dreams! (chuckles) — and re-dedicated the mountain to Crom Dubh. And, well it’s a small way of reclaiming our history but I felt that that was important because all these people were climbing this holy mountain and not realizing that it was a pagan holy mountain long before it was ever a Christian one.20

This example is characteristic of how Pagans place such sites within their own meaning system, which would of course be at odds with the Catholic meanings with which the site is imbued. This is exemplary of what Hugh McLeod describes as “individualization and fragmentation of meaning” (2012: 200) at pilgrimage sites and also reveals a conscious effort on the part of Pagans to counterheritagize and connect with a different heritage than the majority of pilgrims who visit this site.

As mentioned above, mythological birds that possibly represent Irish war goddesses are connected to Croagh Patrick, which is important in the Pagan stories that are told about the mountain and marks it as a propitious site at which to attempt communication with the Morrígan through ritual. Another site of importance for connecting with this goddess is Uaim na gCat (Oweynagat Cave or the “Cave of the Cats”), which is near the pagan royal site of Rath Cruachan (Rathcroghan) in County Roscommon; another name for the cave in Irish folklore is “the Irish entrance to Hell” (McCafferty 2012: 300). In the Metrical Dindshenchas, “the mighty Morrígan, an ancient goddess of battle, emerges from the cave of Cruachain, ‘her fit abode’” (Waddell 1983: 22) along with pigs and malevolent magical birds. This goddess also figures in the Dindshenchas, where she carries off a bull and puts the bull and a cow into the cave. The “Morrígan’s Cave,” as I have heard it referred to by Pagans, is a pilgrimage site especially at the festival of Samhain, as legend has it that an otherworldly woman emerges from the Cave of Cruachan every Samhain (McCafferty 2012: 300). By revitalizing the legends found in Early Irish literature, and actively embracing the meanings found in them, Pagans are re-storying the landscape. As part of this, the emphasis is drawn away from St. Patrick and Christian significances and back into the Celtic world of deities and spirits.

3 Concluding Remarks

We have seen that for Pagans it is the site and its ambience that is most significant. The destination site contains the meaning-filled space in which rituals are performed and in which sensory experience is connected to the narrative corpus and to broader cosmological meanings. As we have seen, Pagan pilgrimage differs from the Caminoized forms of pilgrimage where the journey is what matters most. The reclaiming of symbols, and sometimes the contestation of meanings related to particular sites, is important in Pagan ideology and identity construction. The addition of reservoirs of stories adds new depth to the heritage layers of these sites and sacred landscape.

The Irish landscape is sacralized by Pagans and understood within their cosmology. Literary, folkloric, and experiential means are utilized in this sacralization. The way in which the pilgrimage manifests is most similar to traditional Catholic site-specific pilgrimage, which is where we can contrast it with Caminoized forms where the journey takes precedence in the meaning-making process. As Rodney Harrison has discussed, “new realities” are created through the assemblage of materials and values (2016: 171). These new realities are creatively expressed by way of storytelling and performatively enacted through ritual in a way that legitimates the meaningful framework that is tied into the Celtic world. Such externalizations of meaning — ritual and story — can be identified as part of the performative authenticity of Pagan pilgrimage (Karlström 2015). Actions, sensory experiences, imagination, and emotions connect the past — in both its distant and historical eras — to the present space and time.

The phenomenon of “re-storying” the landscape is perhaps more easily identifiable within new religious movements and new cultural forms. By studying the dynamics of contemporary Pagan pilgrimage, we gain insights into the utilization of legends, sites, and symbols. We can observe the mechanisms by which new meanings are formed at sites and about sites. In the Pagan imaginaire, the past holds much inspirational power and is a resource in which practitioners can locate elements to be utilized in their own rituals, visualizations, and storytelling. It is also where meanings are found to challenge the hegemonic understandings and modes of interaction with the sites. This more active “battle” against majority meanings is part of the counterheritagization process. Pilgrimage routes and sites are spaces in which new symbols are developed and old ones put to use, and the routes and sites are thus dynamic forms in themselves. Space, as Tweed maintains, “is differentiated, kinetic, interrelated, generated, and generative” (2011: 117). One pilgrimage site, such as Croagh Patrick, can hold within it a diversity of cultural expressions and a plurality of religious affiliation and spiritual synthesis, and this hypermeaningful space is significant for understanding the changing religious landscape in itself as well as for bolstering our knowledge of local intricacies of wider cultural trends, in this case the new religious movement of Paganism.

The worldviews and practices of new religious groups can challenge the dominant narratives and generally accepted significances of heritage sites, such as the Hill of Uisneach, and provide alternative histories, perspectives, and ways of connecting with these places. Conversely, the process of re-storying the landscape with new meaningful layers also deepens the significance of Ireland’s sacred landscape as a whole. In pilgrimage spaces the ethnographer can bear witness to changing worldviews and step into the fluidity of social and cultural processes; as Edith Turner says, it is “a kinetic ritual” space (1978: xiii). We see the meanings in motion in the journeys and associated activities. Examining the processes by which Pagans “Celticize,” ritualize, and re-story the landscape reveals to us the mechanisms by which pilgrimage sites and routes are meaning-filled while also bringing to light what kinds of new religious realities exist. At pilgrimage places, the space is not an inert backdrop but a meaningful and proactive form. In examining these processes of continuity and reinterpretation, we also deepen our knowledge of the landscape as the physical and symbolic interface between different meaning systems and can supplement and enhance our understanding of pilgrimage in general.


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The research began as a Ph.D. project, funded by a Government of Ireland Research Scholarship in the Humanities and Social Sciences awarded by the Irish Research Council (2002–2005) and has continued at different stages and with different research foci up until the present. To the author’s knowledge, no quantitative research has been conducted on Irish Paganism. The Irish Census does not enumerate Pagans as a distinct category but counts them along with various other minority religions under the “Other Stated Religion” category (Central Statistics Office Ireland, The unstructured nature of Paganism makes this community difficult for researchers to quantify, and it has been noted that census data is problematic as an indicator of the size of Pagan communities (Crowley 2014: 483).


Some practitioners self-identify as “Pagan” as a generic descriptor rather than as a particular “path” or “tradition” (i.e., type of Paganism). In the absence of quantitative studies, Wicca seems to be the most common form of Pagan Witchcraft in Ireland, but other kinds of Pagan Witchcraft, such as Traditional Witchcraft (which engages with traditional European healing and magical practices) and Hereditary Witchcraft (believed to be passed down through familial lines), were also encountered during fieldwork.


Dedicated fieldwork took place to document the worldview, practices, and identities of those in the Irish Pagan community between 2002 and 2006, and from then until the present fieldwork was conducted to gather data in attempts to answer more specific research questions. A multitude of informal conversations and email correspondence also informs the present analysis.


The island of Ireland is sacralized in Pagan discourse, though it should be noted that my ethnographic research has been limited to the Republic of Ireland.


Research participants have used the descriptor of “sacred journey.” It is also used in Pagan literature, websites and blogs.


One example of a new pilgrim path is St. Declan’s Way, a 96 km route from Ardmore in County Waterford to the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary.


For further discussion of how notions of Celticity inform Irish Pagan identities and practice, see Butler 2018.


For a more detailed discussion of the significance of the Irish historical celebration of the ritual year for the Irish Pagan community, see Butler 2002.


Modern Ireland has four provinces: Ulster, Munster, Leinster, and Connacht. The Irish word for province, cúige, means “a fifth,” and there was in ancient Ireland a fifth province called Mide, which encapsulated many of the sacred hills and pagan royal sites in the region. Mide developed into the geographical designations of counties Meath and Westmeath.


The Dindsenchas (modern Irish dinnshenchas), meaning “lore of prominent places” (Welch 2000: 90), is a collection of toponymic lore in early Irish literature, the large corpus being assembled in the 11th and 12th centuries.


Though contemporary Pagan forms of religions are not listed on the Irish Census form or do not have official recognition by the Irish State, it was significant that the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, accompanied Pagans and others on the Hill of Uisneach in 2017 in order to light the fire to mark the start of summer.


A Grove is a ritual group of Druids, the term referencing the association of ancient Druids practicing their religion in forests.


One example is the “Salmon of Knowledge” story found in the Fenian Cycle, in which the fish eats nine hazelnuts and gains their wisdom before being consumed by Fionn.


This phrase is derived from the alchemical text, Tabula Smaragdina, “the Emerald Tablet,” purportedly authored by Hermes Trismegistus. The text includes the line, “What is below is like that which is above, and what is above is like that which is below, to accomplish the miracles of one thing,” which is “essentially a statement of the alchemical doctrine of the unity of all things” (Read 1933: 260).


This name for this group of mythological people was a development of the central Middle Ages (Williams 2016: 186). Anu is a variant of the name Danu, but originally referred to a different mythological figure (Maier 1997: 17). Thus, the name Tuatha Dé Danann is sometimes translated as “people of the goddess Anú.” South of Killarney, County Kerry there are two hills known as Dá chích nAnann, the “two breasts of Anú” (Maier 1997: 17). These hills are important in contemporary Paganism due to their connection with this fertility goddess.


The name is possibly an approximation of the Irish word sián, meaning “fairy mound.”


Biddy is a nickname for the name Bridget (also spelled Brigid).


Also spelled Lugnasad (Williams 2016: 482). The Irish for the month of August, Lúnasa, derives from the same name.


For a discussion of how St. Patrick’s representational Christian power is inset into the Irish landscape, see Butler 2012.


Interview with Carmel, 9 December 2003.

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