Religion: Traditional Popular Religion

views updated

Religion: Traditional Popular Religion

The popular historically is defined not by any inherent quality but by its subordinate (or subaltern) position in a wider social system. It must be understood in its social and political context, and changing configurations of power hence may entail the changing of the content of the popular. Traditional popular religion seeks to distinguish those aspects of popular religion that have long been established in agrarian society and are associated with a particular way of life, especially that of peasants, from more recent and nonrural forms, particularly those characteristic of industrial society. The latter, of course, may be traditional too, but are seen as being a product of modern society (usually defined in opposition to "traditional society"), whereas the former are seemingly premodern in origin or at least are conventionally so constructed. The traditional–modern polarity can obscure the reality of hybrid cultural forms in the present as well as in the past.

Sources for traditional popular religion include the huge archives assembled by the Irish Folklore Commission (1935–1970), largely representing the remembered traditional culture of the postfamine period; the writings of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century antiquarians and nineteenth- and twentieth-century folklorists (the term folklore was coined in 1846); travel writings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; eighteenth- and nineteenth-century statistical inquiries (note the etymological relationship between state, statist, and statistic); and the "literature of confutation" (to use Alberto Mario Cirese's words) of church documents. None of these sources engaged with traditional popular religion in its own right as a legitimate religious phenomenon. Mostly, they were the work of men and had a distinct patriarchal bias. A social and often sectarian condescension influences many of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sources. Enlightenment discourses of progress and improvement influenced the observations of statisticians and sometimes of churchmen. Romanticism was a strong influence on folklorists and often on travel writers. Folklorists were frequently informed by a nation-building discourse that sought to rescue the elements of traditional popular culture, which could be adjusted to that project, or, in the case of those who were also creative writers, such as W. B. Yeats, by a notion of folklore as a source of artistic inspiration that transcended a prosaic modern world. Travel writers were usually in search of local color, provided by cultural difference in its more spectacular forms.

Traditional popular religion is a shifting object of study over time. It includes cultural elements of pre-Christian, often Celtic, and Christian origin, which were articulated in a worldview framed ultimately by Christian notions. The evidence for it in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries came from within a state that had an official religion (the Church of Ireland until 1869) and its projects of modernization, and from within a society that had its social stratifications and a majority religion that differed from that of the state and hence shared in the wider derogatory connotations of the popular. Within this context pressures on popular religion grew in the course of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from the state, from state religion, and from Roman Catholic elites influenced by Tridentine reform (which aimed to strengthen church discipline and attack "superstition") as well as by their own projects of modernization (of which nationalism was one). In 1852 Sir William Wilde in Irish Popular Superstitions could quote a Catholic acquaintance of his as having complained that "the tone of society in Ireland is becoming more and more 'Protestant' every year; the literature is a Protestant one, and even the priests are becoming more Protestant in their conversation and manners" (p. 17n). Here, then, Protestant values become synonymous with modernity in Ireland, as anglicization was to be for a later generation.

Localism is a defining characteristic of traditional popular religion, in contradistinction to the centralizing and hierarchizing organization of institutional religion and particularly of the Roman Catholic Church. This is attested to by scores of thousands of sacred sites from ring forts ("fairy forts") to holy wells and by supernatural beings with specific local associations, from named fairy leaders to local patron saints. Mircea Eliade in Patterns in Comparative Religion pointed out how in traditional societies the supreme divinities "are constantly pushed to the periphery of religious life where they are almost ignored; other sacred forces, nearer to man, more accessible to his daily experience, more useful to him, fill the leading role" (1958, p. 43). The numerous recorded traditions of the intervention of fairies in people's lives, such as bringing bad luck, blighting crops, and abducting humans and animals and their propitiation with gifts or their containment with charms, exemplify that. The modernization of religion meant the "disenchantment" of the landscape and the limiting of the sacred to relatively few sites, more subject to institutional control.

Traditional popular religion shared common religious concepts with institutional religion, but unlike the latter, it did not coexist to the same extent with the abstract rationalism of modern society. It has been argued that traditional societies have no real historical consciousness. Their history, preserved and transmitted through myths and rituals, is the work of supernatural beings and mythical heroes, whose actions are the model for all significant human actions. Thus the present moment constantly intersects with the time of origins. Mythical time recurs, is cyclical, and can be exemplified by the festival, which interrupts the passage of profane time, allowing the supernatural and the mortal to intersect. This can also be exemplified by St. Brigid's presence on the eve of her festival (St. Brigid's Day, Lá 'le Bríde), blessing a ribbon (brat Bríde) left on the windowsill and endowing it with healing powers, or by the dangers of May Day (Bealtaine) or Hallowe'en (Samhain), when supernatural beings were about and interacted with mortals.

Holy-well pilgrimages and wake customs were a constant source of fascination to travelers and were widely condemned by churchmen. This interest was largely due to the apparent unseemly and scandalous mixing of boisterous entertainment with the sober piety of a religious occasion. Scholarly writing on festival has emphasized the importance of its role as a form of release in hierarchical societies, allowing the temporary suspension of norms and distinctions and a concomitant sense of communion and comradeship, communitas in Victor Turner's terminology, thus helping to renew social order. Mikhail Bakhtin has argued that the boisterous festivities were a coequal part of such rituals, without which they could not reveal their true meaning. "The material bodily principle," as he called it, with its emphasis on feasting, drinking, and sexual license, emphasized a biological humanity, which is immortal and thus pointed to the relativity of authority.

A "pattern" (from "patron [saint]") was a type of pilgrimage normally held on a saint's day and involved visiting a sacred site, which usually included ecclesiastical ruins, a holy well, and other features such as a cairn (mound of stones). The pattern entailed arduous devotions at the sacred site, fasting, numerous circumambulations of well, ruin, and cairns, and prayer. These were followed by eating, drinking, and storytelling, and the playing of music, dancing, and fighting, which sometimes led to fatalities. Thomas Crofton Croker (1824), visiting the pattern at Gougane Barra, County Cork, in 1813, sympathized with the simple devotion of the common people, but observed that "drunken men and the most depraved women mingled with those whose ideas of piety brought them to this spot; and a confused uproar of prayers and oaths, of sanctity and blasphemy sounded in the same instant on the ear." This sums up the commonest objections to the pattern and helps to explain why a "civilizing offensive'" of clerical and civil power helped finally to abolish it altogether or largely to reduce it to its devotions by the second half of the nineteenth century.

The wake was a key funerary custom lasting at least a night and involving the laying out of the body, usually in the family home of the deceased, so that respect could be paid by family, friends, and neighbors, and the deceased could be "keened" (ritually lamented). Alcohol, whiskey or poitín, and tobacco were provided to visitors, and after the saying of prayers amusements began and usually included storytelling, singing, dancing, the playing of music, card playing, contests of strength and agility, and merriment varying from practical jokes and mock sacraments to catch games and games of forfeit and the hide-and-seek kind. The Catholic Church vigorously opposed the ritual public mourning and the license, particularly of a sexual nature, of the wake. As with the pattern, the wake can also be seen as renewing social order, not at a fixed temporal and calendrical point but after the crisis and disruption caused by death. Gearóid Ó Crualaoich argues that the "merry wake" "became a focus in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Irish popular culture for the carnivalesque element of social life," increasingly subject to new forms of civil and ecclesiastical control (1998, p. 193). The merry wake rarely survived into the twentieth century and is illustrative of a continuous process, ultimately coercive, in the modern period of shifting the population away from traditional popular religion and toward more orthodox religious forms.

SEE ALSO Burial Customs and Popular Religion from 1500 to 1690; Devotional Revolution; Religion: Since 1690; Roman Catholic Church: 1690 to 1829; Roman Catholic Church: 1829 to 1891


Bourke, Angela. The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story. 1999.

Carroll, Michael P. Irish Pilgrimage: Holy Wells and Popular Catholic Devotion. 1999.

Connolly, S. J. Priests and People in Pre-Famine Ireland, 1780–1845. 1982. New edition, 2001.

Croker, T. Crofton. Researches in the South of Ireland. 1824.

Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland. 1972.

Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion. 1958.

Ó Crualaoich, Gearóid. "The 'Merry Wake.'" In Irish Popular Culture, 1650–1850, edited by James S. Donnelly, Jr., and Kerby A. Miller. 1998.

Ó Giolláin, Diarmuid. "The Pattern." In Irish Popular Culture: 1650–1850, edited by James S. Donnelly, Jr., and Kerby A. Miller. 1998.

Ó Súilleabháin, Seán. Irish Wake Amusements. 1967.

Ó Súilleabháin, Seán. Irish Folk Custom and Belief. 1967.

Taylor, Lawrence J. Occasions of Faith: An Anthropology of Irish Catholics. 1995.

Wilde, Sir William. Irish Popular Superstitions. 1852.

Diarmuid Ó Giolláin

About this article

Religion: Traditional Popular Religion

Updated About content Print Article


Religion: Traditional Popular Religion