If you hear people saying this phrase on March 17 (or the English-friendly version “Erin go Bragh”), it means “Ireland Forever”. With St. Patrick’s Day coming up this weekend, I’m inspired to celebrate my Irish heritage. My father, Joseph Patrick O’Brien, was born in New York but his ancestors trace back to Tipperary and other parts of County Cork, Ireland. Our family has always been proud of our Celtic heritage; the O’Brien coat of arms hung in a place of honor in my parents’ house.
I remember we had a coffee table book about The Book of Kells, full of breathtaking color photos. The Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript containing the 4 gospels of the New Testament, written in Latin by Celtic monks around 800 AD.
But even if I could read Latin, I wasn’t interested in the words. I would study the images for hours, entranced by their almost magical beauty.
Ireland is now a mostly Catholic country, but it’s history with Christianity and Catholicism has been complicated and often turbulent. Many of the druid and pagan traditions were “co-opted” by Christians as a way of erasing or at least transforming Celtic culture. Alban Arthuan became Christmas, Samhain became Halloween.
Who knows how long the Irish people continued to keep their pagan traditions after Christianity swept through with St. Patrick. But I liked to imagine the illustrator of the Book of Kells was actually sending secret Druid messages, hidden in these mind-bogglingly elaborate designs. Some of the chapter pages reminded me of blueprints or architectural drawings. Could this be a treasure map? A description of some sacred grove or meeting place? I mean, why would someone spend a year illustrating the letter “P”? It defied logic. This had to be more than just colorful decoration, I was sure of it!
Kells is full of well known symbols of the ancient Celts: spirals, knots, stylized animals. Some drawings contain up to ten different colors of ink and ornamentation to such extremes it makes the biblical text secondary, if not irrelevant. In some cases the letters and words are almost lost inside mazes of interwoven lines. It’s obvious that the monks who illustrated the book were familiar with Celtic stories and symbolism. Some historians say the Book of Kells contains examples of ALL the known designs found in Celtic art.
Some say these colorful pictures were used to explain a story to people who couldn’t read. But even at the time it was written, this book would have been extremely expensive to produce. It would have been a precious object, kept at the high alter of a church, not passed around for townsfolk to flip through. So, for whose benefit were all these painstaking hours of drawing done? What story were they really telling? Was this a way to explain the life of Jesus using the familiar allegories and symbolism of the local people? Maybe.
Or… maybe the bible was just a vehicle for the artwork, wrapped in religious reverence to ensure the book’s survival. I like to think it was a clever way to preserve the art and culture of the ancient Celts forever.