The Mindfulness Harp in Ireland: Reconfirming Celtic Spirituality on the Quincentenary of the Continental Reformation

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Visitors are greeted with the soft plucking sound of the harp as they open the door to walk into St. Mary’s Cathedral in Killarney, a popular tourist destination as the starting point for scenic tours of Killarney National Park and the Ring of Kerry. Considering that the harp is a national symbol of Ireland, it may not come as surprise that someone came up with the idea of using the plucking sound of the harp as the doorbell. But this is a cathedral. What is the significance of the sound of the harp used as the doorbell of a cathedral, a house of worship? Walking into the cathedral, visitors are told about what the sound of the harp is intended for, which is to remind them of Celtic Spirituality. But what is Celtic Spirituality? To understand what Celtic Spirituality means requires us to look back briefly into the history of Ireland, which is the story of a nation shaped by invasions by foreigners, or outsiders.

The Celts are said to be the first wave of foreigners, or outsiders, who came to Ireland during the Iron Age, which started around 600 BCE. We may recall that the Celts were the first large wave of settlers in England and Europe as well. The Celtic tribes who settled in Ireland gave the Irish their language and art, an important cultural heritage for them that has been transmitted and preserved to this day. Since the Celtic legacy is so important for their national identity, the Irish no longer regard the Celts as foreigners, or outsiders.1

In contrast to the Celts, the subsequent waves of people who came to Ireland were definitely “foreigners,” or “outsiders,” in that they came to this lovely island as invaders for plundering, conquest, or colonization. The Vikings, whose first recorded invasion took place in 795, came to Ireland as aggressive plunderers who wreaked havoc on the early settlers. To their credit, however, the Vikings gradually started to settle down—mainly on the East coast of Ireland—and build their own towns to continue their maritime activities, including Dublin, which traces its history to a Viking settlement.

By far the most controversial invaders to Ireland in its history were the British, or the Anglo-Normans, with King Henry II coming to overwhelm and subjugate Ireland in 1171. The year 1171, when Ireland was added as the lands of the king of England, marks the beginning of the agonizing history for the Irish of political exclusion, economic exploitation, and social discrimination. The arrival of the British invaders saw much of the island fall into the hands of the ruling English aristocrats. The history of Ireland has since been the history of conquest and colonization by the British, and of resistance and rebellion on the part of the Irish.

What has made the history of Ireland since the British invasion so agonizing for the Irish is the bitter conflict between the invaders and the invaded regarding their faith that would last well into the twentieth century. Protestantism, or the reformed version of Christianity, which the British brought with them would clash with Catholicism, which had taken root in Ireland since the fifth century when bishops sent by the Pope came to Ireland, notable among whom was St. Patrick who would become the patron saint for the Irish. The Irish have attempted numerous acts of resistance and rebellion against the British invaders who became colonizers of their lands. One such act of rebellion and resistance often quoted in history books took place in 1258, when the native rulers challenged the British by recognizing Brian O’Neill as High King of Ireland. O’Neill’s tenure as High King of Ireland was short-lived, however, for his forces were defeated by the colonists at the battle of Down in 1260, with his severed head sent to England for public display at the Tower of London. The violent end of this act of resistance and rebellion was actually the beginning of the long history of resistance and rebellion by the Irish against the British invaders, which would continue for centuries until the end of the twentieth century, when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998.2

Among the acts of resistance and rebellion by the Irish that took place during the twentieth century, two events are often cited. One was the Easter Rising of 1916, which is known by the much-quoted line, “A terrible beauty is born,” that appears in a poem titled Easter 1916 by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), first published in the New Statesman in 1920.3 The other was Bloody Sunday of 1972, which was made into a song titled Sunday, Bloody Sunday by the pop group U2 that begins with the line, “I can’t believe the news today,” one of the songs included in their album, War, released in 1983.

The history of Ireland as the story shaped by invasions is not limited to human invasions by foreigners, or outsiders. Figuratively speaking, invasions into Ireland also happened in such areas of Irish life as economy, social structure, and even food.

The Potato Famine of 1845-46 was, in a way, one notable example of such non-human invasions, for the potato was an invasive species of plants transmitted to Ireland by foreigners. The potato, brought back from the New World by the conquering Spaniards, began to be cultivated by Basque sailors’ families along the Biscay coast of northern Spain before the end of the sixteenth century. Then, fishermen, operating off the coast of Ireland from northern Spanish ports, transmitted potatoes to the Irish before 1650.4 The Irish, especially poor rural laborers, became so dependent on potatoes that when blight struck Ireland in 1845-46, which was another case of invasion in the form of a fungal disease called Phytophthora infestans that came from Europe, the great majority of the population had no reserves of food, resulting in what is now known as the Great Calamity, or the Great Potato Famine. Approximately one million people are said to have died during the famine, another million emigrating to America and elsewhere.5

While most invasions Ireland has seen in its history are tragic and traumatic, the recent history of Ireland does include invasions that the Irish have come to embrace gladly. Such is the influx of foreign capital into Ireland during the period of rapid economic growth from mid-1990s through mid-2000s, when Ireland was called the “Celtic tiger.” The new breed of invaders who came to Ireland during this period includes financial planners, investment bankers, and IT engineers. In fact, the influx of IT engineers, combined with the high level of education in Ireland, has made the information industry as the leading industry of Ireland. These recent invaders have brought with them their family members, including children. Thanks partly to the arrival of these immigrants, Ireland saw a rise in population, from 3.5 million in 1991 to 4.2 million in 2006, which is quite contrary to the history of Ireland as a nation of emigrants to other parts of the world.

The latest wave of human invasions to Ireland is the friendly invasion of people who come to this island of natural beauty and welcoming people as tourists, Killarney being a notable example of their popular destinations. This brings us back to the sound of the harp that greets visitors to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Killarney, which is intended to remind them of Celtic Spirituality. What is Celtic Spirituality, now? It is, we are told, “the distinctive capacity in all people to touch the Divine in the ordinary.”

These words carry special relevance this year, which marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s bold act of protest against the Catholic Church. As far as the Irish Catholics are concerned, however, the Reformation is an event that took place on the European Continent, as evidenced by the term “Continental Reformation” which they employ to refer to this historic event. Like so many other things, Protestantism, too, came to Ireland in the form of an invasion. By calling our attention to “the distinctive capacity in all people to touch the Divine in the ordinary,” the Irish church leaders seem to be asking us to go beyond Protestantism, or even Catholicism for that matter. To the Irish, this means to revisit their history and reconfirm their Celtic heritage. To others, it means to reflect on and reconfirm the innate spirituality that all of us possess. Call it the Buddha-nature, and that distinctive capacity in all people is the capacity we all possess to touch the true nature of reality in the ordinary. If so, the sound of the harp that greets visitors to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Killarney can be called the mindfulness harp, for its gentile sound awakens our heart to touch the Buddha-nature in all things in the world around us.

  1. For early history of Ireland, see, for example: O’Kelly, M.J., Early Ireland, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  2. For historical accounts of the troubled relationship between the British colonists and the Irish, see: Bartlett, Thomas, Ireland: A History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, and Ellis, Steven G., Tudor England: Crown, Community and the Conflict of Cultures, 1470-1703, London: Longman, 1985.
  3. For a detailed account of Eater 1916, see, for example: Townsend, Charles, Easter 1916: the Irish Rebellion, London: Penguin Books, 2015.
  4. How the potato brought back from the New World by the Spaniards affected different countries in Europe differently, see: McNeill, William, Plagues and Peoples, London: Penguin, 1979.
  5. For a modern analysis of the Potato Famine, see, for example: Kinealy, Christine, This Great Calamity, The Irish Famine, 1845-52, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1994.