Irish Mythology: The Bastard Child of Colonialism – Part I

One of the most fascinating aspects of mythology is the fact that, at its most fundamental, the subject reflects the battle between cultural dominance and cultural repression, the difference between cultural independence and enforced colonization.

When mythology first became an academic discipline towards the latter half of the nineteenth century, it generally involved the study of a suppressed culture by the members (or the descendants of members) of the dominant culture. In other words, members of the colonizing culture were studying the colonized culture). Naturally, this posed a bit of an issue in that those people doing the studies:

  • often didn’t really understand the indigenous culture of the country they lived in
  • were weighed down by their own prejudices in that they generally saw that indigenous culture as inferior to their own

This, of course, resulted in some particularly biased interpretation and much of the 19th century “academic study” of ‘mythology’ tended to interpret as a failed way of thinking or primitive religious beliefs of an inferior people. This is why books by people such as W.B. Yeats often had titles like “Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry“.

It’s very doubtful W.B. Yeats considered himself a peasant.

Ireland, as a colonized country, had its Gaelic culture suppressed from about the mid-1600s (the period from which the English Crown had military control over the entire country). From that time on, Gaelic belief systems were systematically and purposefully eradicated by the English Crown, aided in no small part by the Roman Church who wanted more spiritual control over the native population. Gaelic language and Gaelic ways of thinking were dissuaded and forcibly disallowed. Gaelic belief systems and intellectual concepts were, for the most part eradicated, except in those isolated rural areas where the influence of the government and the church held far less sway.

Some three hundred years later, when Ireland finally regained its independence (the Free State in 1922), there was an immense surge of enthusiasm and nationalism followed by an intense effort to revive Gaelic culture (some of it genuine, some of it nonsensical). At that time, there was a genuine belief that with Irish people back in control of their own country, they could “remove the yoke of English repression” and regain the glory days of Gaelic culture.

Clearly, that was all a bit optimistic. If that goal had been successfully achieved, Irish people would be speaking Irish as a first language and we, as an independent culture, would regularly offer unique cultural insights and intellectual concepts that contributed to, and influenced, the Western way of thinking.

Evidently, something had gone badly wrong.

But what was it?

Part II to follow.

Read Irish Mythology: The Bastard Offspring of Colonialism – Part II