A Letter from Ireland:
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The Stone Circles and Druids of Ireland

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Have you heard of the Druids of Ireland? Long before Christianity reached Ireland’s shores, there was a complex culture of beliefs involving the practices of law, medicine, and the oral tradition. In this letter we discuss the Druids, the ancient intellectual class of ancient Ireland.

Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to your Letter from Ireland for this week. How are things in your part of the world today? We’re just back from a wonderful trip to the County Down in Ulster – travelling between the Mountains of Mourne, the Linen Museums and some Castles that you may recognise from “Game of Thrones” (if you are a fan!). Did any of your Irish ancestors come from County Down?

I’m back on the Barry’s Tea as I write – and I do hope you’ll join me with a cup of whatever you fancy as we start into today’s letter.  Just before we left for County Down, we took a trip to Drombeg Stone circle located near to us here in Skibbereen. This is a part of Ireland that bursts with stone antiquities such as this one – there are plenty of portal tombs, ring-forts and circles all around us. It’s a constant reminder of our unknown ancestors and these remarkable structures leave clues to the life they must have lead. I must say, when I think of stone circles, I find it hard to keep a picture of a Druid out of my mind. How about you?

Drombeg Stone Circle

From Druids of Ireland to Scholars and Musicians.

Do you have any poets or musicians in your family? How about lawyers and doctors?  Today, many of us have a romantic notion of Ireland – we might see it as a land of “Saints, Scholars and Musicians” or perhaps a nation where a “turn of phrase” or a “nice run on a fiddle” is valued alongside the more “pragmatic” aspects of life.

But where did these notions and values come from? Were these abilities always held in such high esteem? Let’s have a look at the people who were entrusted with safeguarding Irish law, customs, Poetry and Music as well as healing and medical knowledge. We will look at the Brehon, the Filidh and Bards, and the Physician class of society in Ireland. In pre-Christian times they were known generally as Druids.

The Celtic language that we know as Irish today – and the accompanying beliefs and customs – gradually arrived in Ireland from 500 BC. Its main channel of distribution was the Celtic oral tradition.

Julius Caesar wrote of the Celtic people:

“The Druids believe that their religion forbids them to commit their teachings to writing, although for most other purposes the Gaul’s (Celts) use the Greek alphabet. But I imagine this rule was originally established for other reasons – because they did not want their doctrine to become public property, and in order to prevent their pupils from relying on the written word and neglecting to train their memories.”

This reliance on the oral tradition to learn and teach was extremely frustrating to later scholars who missed the opportunity to study the actual written word of these Druids. But this oral tradition was how major events, genealogies, agreements and the law was transmitted for hundreds of years by the intellectual class known as the Druids – who probably metamorphosed into Monks, Brehon, Physicians, Poets and Bards after the coming of Irish Christianity in the sixth century. So, were any of your Irish ancestors part of this class?

Sometimes, you might find a clue in a surname. Did you know, for example, that the surname Hickey comes from the Irish for Healer? Or that the surname Ward comes from “son of the Bard”? Here are some more Irish surnames associated with the different professions that came out of the Druidic class:

The Brehon (Judge) Surnames:

Egan, Forbes, Keenan, Coffey, Donnellan, Davoren, Breslin, Hussey, Agnew, Foy, Courneen, Corcoran, Cloonan, Gilsenen, Caffrey, Clancy and Folan.

Filidh/Bardic Surnames:

O’Bardon, O’Canty, O’Cleary, Mac Craith, O’Daly, O’Higgins, Ward, Conway, MacCarroll, Gneeve and O’Phelan.

Physician Surnames:

Who were the “Physician” families of Ireland? The following were families that provided Physicians to serve the various Kingdoms of Ireland:

MacKinley, MacVeigh, Canavan, Kearney, Fergus, Tully, Lee, Dunleavy , Cashin, Bolger, O’Connor, Cullen, Callanan, Hickey, Lane, Nealon, Troy, Dunleavy/McNulty, Cassidy and Shiels/Shields.

Are any of your Irish surnames included here? Do leave your comments below and let me know.

Slán for now, Mike & Carina.

  • Maureen clinton says:

    Thanks for this info…my maiden name was Conway…nice to know we were bards! And I love the Sunday letters! Maureen (nee Conway) Clinton

  • Rosaline Linhart says:

    My grandfather’s surname was Coffey,he and my grandmother (Nugent) lived in Newry, but my grandmother was originally from near Dublin until she went into service for a wealthy family. there she met my grandfather who was a groom for them.

  • Barbara Burda says:

    I bought some Barry’s Tea in Tallahassee, Florida and I must tell you, it is divine!!

  • Maureen Vollmers says:

    I have two physician names in my family – Hickey and Lane.

  • Mary-Alice Wildasin says:

    I believe DORAN is a Brehon name as well….

  • Justin says:

    My last name is Davern. Davoren is a variant. Cassidy is also a family surname and a common middle name for men in my family. We called my brother by his middle name. Interesting indeed to see both names on this list.

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