It’s the time of year which sees the daylight hours become shorter and shorter as we count down to the Spring. For most people, more time spent indoors and an extra layer of clothing is the hallmark of the season. For Eimear Burke and Luke Eastwood, the speakers at Monday’s Theo talk though, we’re only weeks away from an important ceremony in their calendar, the Winter Solstice.
Eimear and Luke are druids, and members of the Irish Druid Network, an organisation set up to help those who follow druidism make contact with each other. They’re a small community, with Eimear being the only druid in Ireland who can perform legal pagan weddings. “Druids don’t proselytise”, they say. “We’re not interested in numbers.”
After an introduction by Theo auditor Aisling Crabbe, Emer and Luke both described how they came to be involved in druidism, and how those journeys differed. When one chooses to call themselves a druid is up to oneself, though both had common elements in their experiences.
Eimear comes from a strong Roman Catholic background. She remembers being in religion class age nine and realising that what the nuns were saying wasn’t what she believed in. She describes herself as a skeptic and says that she became a nurse in her adult life, and travelled to Africa many times, especially to Tanzania. There she met traditional healers, carrying out medical techniques which she describes as being “like a variant on what I was doing as a western nurse.”
In the 1980s, Eimear came to Trinity and studied psychology, becoming a counsellor, and returning to Africa where she joined with healers and was very taken with what they did. She describes herself as straddling a whacky line between spiritual things and the world of academia, but also says that she was looking for her own way to become involved in a tradition that fit her background as an Irish woman. Working with a native American woman healer and another from Tanzania, she felt “neither were my tradition”.
One day in a bookshop Eimear saw a title, “Modern Day Druidess” by Cassandra Eason, and purchased the book. She saw that she could do a course by distance on druidism, and 13 years ago she followed this path instead of returning to academia to pursue a psychotherapy supervisory course. “That was great for me, I don’t like groups”, she jokes.
Luke also came from a Catholic background, and was brought up in Scotland. He became interested in Hindu and Buddhist culture after receiving a book from his uncle on the Dharma, and this helped him explore different belief systems to the one he was raised in. It wasn’t until he moved to Ireland that he got a lot of answers he was looking for. He joined up with a group of druids in Wexford, and began to practice ritual and look into the history of the druids. There are a lot of writings on the history of the druids, from the massive amount of literature that refers to them in Roman and Greek texts, coupled with writings in Irish that have since been translated.
Explaining more about the process actually involved in becoming a druid, Luke said that it is debatable at what point you might decide to call yourself a druid. Because of the longevity of the tradition and that the patronage that druids relied on eventually disappeared, the curriculum that one studies to become a druid also disappeared. Nowadays you have to make up your own curriculum, because there is no druid Pope or druid catechism.
With the floor opened up for questions, the first was regarding the proceedings that make up druid ceremonies. There’s no strict schedule for druid ceremonies, with what Luke describes as a “skeletal structure” taking its place, though they mostly take place outdoors in groves. Eimear ran through some of the basics that are part of all ceremonies, with the invoking of whatever spirits one believes in coming first, followed by the setting of the four directions of the earth. This sets the space as sacred, and after this the different rites can take place. Samhain for example is about connecting with ancestors and letting them in. Another rite is based around the sweeping away of what one does not need anymore, and solstice is a massive part of the calendar. There are also local traditions, with a Celtic druid temple existing in Roscommon.
Eimear says that druids have no dogma and come from all belief backgrounds. During the invoking of spirits, people can invoke Jesus or Allah or the trees, and it’s about how they make sense of spirit. “We don’t get caught up in which is right or which is true”. She is quick to say that she can’t prove what happens during the ceremony, and that it’s not about faith but about what one feels. She compares it to being in love – you can’t explain it, nor can you prove it, but you feel it and it’s totally subjective.
Responding to a question from Crabbe, Eimear says that there is no gender imbalance in druidry, and that there actually tend to be more women involved. In her own grove they are starting to increase male numbers. She describes it as horizontally hierarchical.
Both Luke and Eimear say that their druidism has resulted in them having a greater connection with nature. Druid ceremonies follow the seasons, and they can be a metaphor for what’s happening in our own life. It’s about living according to the landscape. Eimear says that her druidism is a massive source of spiritual nourishment for her that she feeds off of. It has taught her to be still and about the virtue of respecting nature. Luke personally says that after living in London once, it would kill him to live again in a big city. His attitude to nature has been transformed by becoming a druid. In his own work as a gardener, the way he does that has even changed, he’s become more thoughtful about biodiversity and using no chemicals.
On the topic of stigma, Eimear personally has never been on the receiving end of anything bad. She teaches in a place run by a religious order and has never had any problems with them knowing about her druidism. “I just own it”, she says. Luke has been around people who he can sense would be hostile to the druidism, so has not brought it up in some cases.
Finally, both Eimear and Luke took on the question of reincarnation from a member of the audience. “We believe in the law of the harvest; you reap what you sow. What you put out in the world comes back to you.”