Full title: The Cult of the Sacred Centre – Essays on Celtic Ideology
Author: Proinsias Mac Cana
Publisher: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies
In this series of essays the author deals with the concept of unity – geographical, cultural, and political – in Irish, Welsh, and Gaulish tradition. He draws on his profound knowledge of the languages and literature of the Celtic speaking peoples as well as on the Roman accounts of continental Celtic society. He also provides a comparative study of traditions regarding unity in Indian and south-east Asian societies.
The Cult of the Sacred Centre is made up of four parts: The paradox of Irish history, which has three essays. The sacred centre in Comparative traditions, which has seven essays. The ideology of cultural unity in Ireland, which has seven essay, and finally Reflections, which has two essays. The book has no bibliography or index, but it is heavily footnoted.
The book starts with a preface by Fergus Kelly. It explains how it was published after the death of its author and all the work involved in getting the book to the publishers and then out to the public.
Next comes the Introduction, in which the author talks about what is going to come in the essays in a general way. He also defines terms like nation and nationality and how he is going to use them when they come up in the essays.
Part One: The Paradox of Irish History
As I was saying above, this first part has three essays. They should be read together as if they are one chunk because in essence they talk about myth, legend, history, nationalism, politics and culture. They also talk about the revisions of history and myth that happened and the people who pioneered them and why. However, I think the jewel of this part is the third essay about the Irish culture and how pre-Christian traditions may have influenced Christian Ireland. It also talks about what we could possibly learn from the writing left behind by the monks even from the historical point of view.
Part Two: The Sacred Center in Comparative Traditions
In this part the author talks about the sacred centre in many of the I-E daughter cultures (even devoting one whole chapter on Gaul alone), as well as the four quarters and ritual circumambulation. He isn’t afraid to talk about the Christian bits of the subject mater either which was interesting.
Part Three: The Ideology of Cultural Unity in Ireland
In this part I show my bias because it was the part that I read, and re-read a couple of times. This was my favourite part of the book. It talks about Ireland and its unity. This included talking about the Celtic religion, the culture of the country (including literature and the laws) with a focus on the Fianna in one of the chapters. Also, because this book is about the sacred centre there is a whole chapter on the five provinces of Ireland and their centre, and Tara.
Part Four: Reflections
The last two chapters of the book discuss Medieval Irish nationality and the mismatch between political and cultural unity.
This book is not an easy read. I’ve had it for a while, and I’ve been reading it one essay at a time in between reading other books mainly because MacCana can be a dry read and at times. I’ve had to put the book away to give my brain a rest. It was worth it though. This book had one part that I am probably going to go back to time and again for certain things. It talks about something that it usually mentioned in passing in history books (unity) and it does it from the point of view of the sacred centre and Celtic ideology. All in all, an interesting read even if it wasn’t an easy one.