“Still a taboo”: Being a pagan in modern Ireland

As a pagan society looks likely to be granted provisional recognition, Morgane Stereden Lahidji speaks to Trinity News about what paganism means to her

Photo by Joe McCallion/Trinity News

The word “pagan” carries many loaded connotations. It is not a word that was ever used to describe a single religion by its members, but rather it was a pejorative term wielded by its detractors. Pagans were condemned as heretics and stamped out.

Yet the pagan community is larger than many people might realise. Morgane Stereden Lahidji and a small group of pagan students have been gathering signatures for the establishment of a pagan society on campus. They are now set to be granted provisional recognition from the Central Societies Committee (CSC).

Originally from Paris, Lahidji is a Masters student in English. She is among the youngest of her fellow pagan students, who she says are mostly PhD candidates. Her devotion and fascination with paganism, and commitment to establishing a space on campus for pagan students has led to the formation of Trinity’s newest society.

What role can we expect the pagan society to play on campus? Lahidji sees the main purpose of the society as “just to be, and to create a space where pagans can gather and talk among one another and recreate this culture”. This seems to speak to a society in which pagans feel excluded: “It is still quite a great taboo.”

It must, then, at times, be difficult being a pagan in Irish society. Lahidji says, “it depends a lot on your own luck, the sort of family you were born in. On an institutional level, it’s not too bad. But you can see that we don’t have any recognition whatsoever, and on a cultural level, there’s a lot of defiance.”

So why is paganism not accepted in the same way as other religions? Is it because it is seen as something of a relic, perhaps not taken seriously? In fact, in Lahidji’s view, “there is a lot of defiance because people take it seriously”. After all, the conversion of the Irish people to Christianity from paganism is considered as a landmark event in this country’s history.  Lahidji had quite a different experience in her native France, where “paganism has quite another status. People have totally forgotten about it.” Growing up in what she describes as a very secular and rational family in Paris, Lahidji says that even “being Christian is quite a rebellious thing to do”.

Consequently, it makes sense that Lahidji was surprised at how positive a reaction she and her fellow pagan students received in Trinity. In the process of talking to students and trying to get signatures for the creation of a pagan society, Lahidji’s own conception of what the society was changed. Initially, they felt the purpose of the society would be to “set a space for people who are already confirmed pagans, just so they could talk about things that they are not free to talk about elsewhere. But it’s actually more than that.” She says lots of students with no previous interest in paganism want to learn. If the Pagan Society are ever assigned a room, one of the first things she would do is “invest in a few bookshelves and get a study space going”. Newcomers can expect the society to be “totally welcome” to people who know nothing about paganism and just want to learn more. Her dream for the pagan society is “a place where someone can just pass by and ask a question”.

What does it mean, then, to be a pagan in the 21st century? Lahidji describes the word “pagan” as a “bit of an umbrella word for basically any spirituality before the dominance of monotheism”. This includes everything from the ancient Greek pantheon, the Roman pantheon to the old Celtic religion. In this part of the world, at least, the latter seems to form much of the basis of the everyday practises of paganism. The festivals Lahidji celebrates include Samhain, the basis of what we would know as Halloween, the winter solstice, Yule at Christmas time and Imbolc. For the founders of the new society, Imbolc in particular has a special significance. Celebrated in Christianity as St. Brigid’s Day, Imbolc marked the day on which a pagan society learned they were likely to receive provisional recognition from the CSC.

For Lahidji, the effect that paganism has had on her life is undeniable. Her personal beliefs are what she describes as “eclectic”. She has taken from many different beliefs and formed her own “patchwork”. Her spirituality has transformed her life. She says that through paganism, “I just discovered myself, it’s just as simple as that. I rediscovered the world and everything in it”.

What Lahidji is at pains to emphasise, however, is that paganism is whatever you make of it. She describes the community as “extremely broad,” one in which there are no set standards or expectations imposed on anybody. This certainly seems like a departure from the organised mass religions, particularly Roman Catholicism, which has played such an instrumental role in shaping Irish culture and national identity. Indeed, Catholicism is often criticised for its intolerance and rigidity. Lahidji, on the other hand, would not even describe paganism as tolerant “because there’s nothing to tolerate”.

It would be easy to assume, given the nature of paganism as an umbrella term for many disparate trends and ideas, that this is a community essentially formed by a sense of exclusion. But even if, as Lahidji admits, there is “no unifying thread” in paganism, there is much more to it than that. She feels that “even if we were not excluded at all and very well recognised and had places of worship, I don’t think we would be any different”. The essence of paganism seems to be its openness to individuality; the way in which it allows everybody to develop their religion as spirituality as it works for them. It is not, she is keen to emphasise, a “theory based” religion but rather firmly rooted in practice. It’s clear that it’s up to each individual to practice their spirituality in whatever way gives them the most fulfilment. It’s the “enthusiasm and deep belief that we have…that’s what our community is based on. That’s the fuel of this community, way more than exclusion.”

Rory O'Neill

Rory O'Neill is a former Managing Editor of Trinity News, and a History graduate.