Celtic Crosses in Western Ireland

9 Oct

One of my favorite parts of this weekends study tour of Western Ireland was the visit to the cemetery of The Seven Churches on the Aran Island Inis Mor. As a Religious Studies major, I am very interested in the ins and outs of religious practices inherent to Ireland (especially those of some of the more remote areas of the country that have likely seen less religious globalization than more populated areas, like Dublin).
In our Irish Life and Cultures lecture, we learned about the Celtic cross, or the sunwheel cross. What differentiates this type of cross from the basic Christian cross is a circular structure around its center. During the time when people such as Saint Patrick were attempting to convert much of pagan Ireland to Christianity, the Celtic cross was introduced. The circular addition to the basic cross was meant to symbolize the sun, a natural element that was revered by the pagan people who evangelists were trying to reach with their message of Christianity. The addition of an element that they already worshipped (the sun) to the cross might have helped to spark interest in learning about and accepting Christianity.
While visiting the cemetery of The Seven Churches, we got to see several Celtic crosses decorating gravesites. It was really cool to be able to see these crosses after learning about their particular significance to this area. I can’t help but wonder; did the people who are remembered by such crosses believe in the pagan reasoning behind the Celtic cross? Or did it merely become a fashionable version of the cross? I see Celtic crosses decorating all sorts of tourist memorabilia, but I doubt the majority of the people who purchase such goods have any understanding of the rich history behind that particular symbol.

Also in class, we learned about how the shamrock was used by Saint Patrick as a tool to teach the Christian concept of the holy trinity. While on our study tour, when we had free time to explore Galway, I saw a lot of tourist paraphernalia emblazoned with the shamrock (regrettably I did not take any pictures). This is another example of a religious symbol that has been adopted as a symbol of Ireland as a whole. While the religious connotation is still present, I doubt that Christianity is the first thing that people think of when viewing a Celtic cross or a shamrock. I would be interested to know what proportion of the population views these as markers of faith, and which views them as markers of national pride.

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