The Sacred Isle: Belief in Pre-Christian Ireland by Dáithí Ó HÓgáin


Author: Dáithí Ó HÓgáin
Publisher: Boydell Press
Years published: 1999 and October 4th, 2001
ISBN13: 9780851158563
Pages: 259 including index

Synopsis: The first modern study of prehistoric religion in Ireland to draw on the combined evidence of archaeology, literature and folklore to illuminate practice and belief from the earliest human habitation in the island down to the advent of Christianity in the fifth century AD. An excellent book… a highly accessible and lively assessment of continuity and change in belief and religion from pre-Celtic times through to the arrival of St Patrick. …A fine book and to be recommended to a wide readership, especially to all those who think that Irish history started in 1601.

Review: This is the first book published specifically about the Pre-Christian religion in Ireland and so far I have only seen one other book that addresses the same material but it also expands to include Christianity. So I guess, specifically this is the only book I’ve seen so far ONLY addressing the Pre-Christian religion in Ireland (if some one knows of a book with similar material please let me know).

The book is an interesting and easy read with lots of good information. The author uses archeology and the classical writings as well as mythology to try and put together the Pre-Christian Irish religion, with a dash of comparative religion and mythology thrown in. It is well documented and has an extensive bibliography.

The problem I see with the book comes in the form of some outdated information and some conclusions that have already been debunked like the solar gods theory (he seems to see them EVERYWHERE). He also likes to put the Irish gods in neat little boxes which really don’t work well for them.

If you are careful with cross referencing and making sure that his information is up to date, this is actually a great book to have.

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7 thoughts on “The Sacred Isle: Belief in Pre-Christian Ireland by Dáithí Ó HÓgáin

  1. Seren says:

    Ó hÓgáin has a real problem with the solar theory stuff. Along with the fact that so much of what he writes is based on very outdated notions, I find it difficult to trust him as a reliable source because those kind of things permeates so much of what he writes. It’s very readable, though, and I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said here; I found a lot to chew on, all in all. I’ve heard a few people say that the reason he’s so outdated is because he hasn’t picked up a book in years, he just has a good memory for what he’s already read and sticks to that. Apparently his Encyclopedia (which I also have, and there’s some useful stuff in there, too) makes an effort to be more up to date, though.

    I’m guessing the other author you’re thinking of is Ó Duinn’s Where the Three Streams Meet? I read that a few months ago and enjoyed it, to a point – though I think it concentrated a little too much on the Christianity side of the three streams he was supposed to be looking at.

    For other books on the same kind of subject – if you haven’t already read it, I’d recommend Kim McCone’s Pagan Past and Christian Present. It sticks mostly to Irish myth and literature, but it has some good stuff in there. He takes a very skeptical view of a lot of things and tends to downplay any pre-Christian elements in favour of Biblical interpretations at times, which you might disagree with but he does make some good points; he’s mostly concerned with whether or not the myths can really be interpreted as evidence of pre-Christian belief so he’s not really comparable to Ó hÓgáin’s book, but you should find a good amount to think about. There’s a chapter called Fire and the Arts which is particularly useful if you’re interested in Brigid. The book’s very dense and academic (i.e. probably quite dry and dull for some people – especially the first chapter or so) but I think it’s worth a read.

    • celticscholar says:

      I agree Ó hÓgáin’s encyclopedia is a little more up-to-date. And yep, you are right, I was talking about “Where the Three Streams Meet” I’m going to be reviewing that for the blog soon (I’m re-reading the books that I haven’t read for a while lol). I’ve been seriously thinking about getting Kim McCone’s book but have been holding off on it for some reason. Thanks for the push…

  2. Traci says:

    I recommend checking out Robert Hensey http://www.nuigalway.ie/archaeology/Graduate_Program/Current_Postgraduate_Research_Pages/Hensey_Robert_Postgraduate_Research/hensey_robert_index.html

    He produced a series of Boyne Valley talks and his research focuses on the ritual use of sites in Ireland. He is exploring just this topic. He has a paper in Time and MInd; http://www.bergpublishers.com/JournalsHomepage/TimeMind/tabid/3253/Default.aspx

  3. Erynn says:

    I’m in agreement with Seren about McCone, both that he’s got some excellent stuff to say and that he downplays any nativist elements in favor of biblical or classical interpretations of the material. That said, I really enjoyed it (when I didn’t want to throw it) and would love to actually get a hard copy of my own.

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