nterview with Blackbird O’Connell.
Back in 2007, I started interviewing people of different religious world views for a web magazine that no longer exists called the Green Triangle. This is not part of that project, but in this particular branch of my botched ethnography, I had background information from prior interviews.
Skepoet: What is your religious background and how did you come to it?
Blackbird: I was baptized a Roman Catholic and went through the normal sacraments, but when I got to high school I began questioning religion as a whole. I refused to get confirmed because I wouldn’t stand in front of anyone and promise to follow God and Jesus. I considered myself closer to an atheist at that time partially I’m sure as a rebellion, but in my senior year of high school I went on a search. It helped that a friend of mine worked in a local headshop (with bootleg CDs, Blacklight posters, Pot Leaf pics all over and “Pagan” books and statues) so I was introduced to neo-pagan books that way. I was actually doing a lot of study into Laveyan Satanism at the time when I came across Scott Cunningham’s “The Truth About Witchcraft Today.” I read it and became interested in the “Goddess” aspect of things so I began studying what I could find and found there were “Witch” chat rooms on AOL. Since I knew there was no way I could take anything like that to my parents I started asking questions there still studying various “pagan” traditions I read a lot of new aged books, but my focus was always on my ancestral history and there is a lot of new age books on “Celtic paganism.” A few years in I met a “Celtic Reconstructionist” online who pointed me in the direction that I was really looking for which was “What did the Celts ACTUALLY believe?” My heritage lies with the Irish so that was always a focal point. I’ve been CR (specifically Irish) for over 10 years now.
Skepoet: What is your academic background?
Blackbird: I have a bachelors degree in Technical Theatre and Design with a minor in philosophy and religious studies.
Skepoet: How do you see these interacting with each other?
Blackbird: My minor is self explanatory, but I look to my major as a form of “Bardic” studies. I took courses in Acting, Scene Study, History of Theatre and Design. I directed a few short plays and even wrote one as my final thesis project. I worked as a professional stage manager for up until a few years ago. It was my way of bringing a relevant story to life. As the Bards used song and poetry to tell stories that would resonate with the people – I used my hands in building sets, my mind in designing costumes, and my multi-tasking & leadership to help get a play on it’s feet and keep it going onstage even if it was falling apart backstage. It was my creative contribution to the community.
Skepoet: Celtic Recon is often considered one of the most difficult given what we have left for sources. Have your views changed any since you started in Celtic Recon?
Blackbird : Yes. I used to be very stuck on “Celtic” only and no other influence. As a Reconstructionist (especially early on) I got tunnel vision and while I took in all the other interactions that our ancestors may have had that influenced them I had this want to dismiss them. I really think it was in reaction to “I am not Wiccan” therefore anything deemed an eclectic influence was a no no regardless of how much the actual history spoke differently.
My years of growth, study and practice as well as interactions with others various members of the Neo-pagan community have changed many of my initial views. We can not separate the Roman influence, both pre and post Christian, from what we know of the Celts. Rome occupied Gaul and Briton (to include Wales, Scotland and Cornwall) and the majority of recorded Irish legend was recorded by Roman Catholic Monks and even many of those were written post Viking, Norman and Saxon invasions. Even in Gaul the Romans confused the Germanic tribes for Celtic tribes because of similarity and cross over between the tribes. There is no existing 100% Celtic worldview to study even if we (as I do) focus on Ireland where there wasn’t a pre-Christian Roman occupation. The simple fact is I don’t live in a tribe, I have modern conveniences, and what we do have left over from the “original” writing of the time and books that are as close to the time of the pre-Christian Celts are influenced by those who not only wrote about them, but eventually conquered them. Through the years I have come to realize the simple fact is that I will never completely understand an untouched Celtic tribal worldview and I’m okay with that.
As a CR I’m not trying to go back to what was, I’m trying to use what was to influence what is and what could be within a modern worldview.
Skepoet: Is there one or a few deities that you feel particularly close to in the Celtic Pantheon?
Blackbird: Yes, when I first started my studies years ago toward the very beginning even before I found CR I had a vision of a beautiful black haired woman who seemed to have black feathers in her hair, wearing all black that also seemed to have feathers wearing a scabbard with sword. She didn’t speak, but I will never forget the image.
Since the Celtic pantheon wasn’t hard to come across in the books I was studying at the time, I soon came across the Morrigan and knew that She was the vision I had. I’m a military brat who was debating joining the military at the time. I was the Commanding Officer of my JROTC unit in high school and I’ve always been interested other various activities that I now recognize were part of the “warrior” path which coincides with my Págánacht path. When I began learning more about her it made perfect sense. She is also the reason I am “Blackbird.” Years later, after 3 days of being beaten over the head with “Blackbird” references in songs, on tv, as well as being followed by them I finally got the hint.
Skepoet: Do you have a connection with a particular aspect of the Morrigan?
Blackbird: I specifically honor Morrigan daughter of Ernmas. I’m aware of the theories that The Morrigan may be have different guises, but as a hard polytheist I tend to view her as specifically one of the 6 distinct daughters of Ernmas as she is referred to in the Cath Maige Tuired.
Skepoet: What language skills does one need to deal with the sources and which primary sources do you use?
Blackbird: Like the majority of religious thought our faith revolves around deity and we come to understand our deities, the Tuatha De Danann, through the legends. Our primary sources are those collections of the originally oral pre-Christian legends and part of our reconstruction is filtering through the later written Christianized versions. Books like The Book of Leinster, The Yellow Book of Lecan and The Annals of the Four Masters that contain the stories of the Irish mythological cycles including the Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Taking of Ireland) from the Mythological Cycle, the Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) from the Ulster or Red Branch Cycle, the Dindsenchas that makes up the Acallam na Senórach (The Tale of the Elders) from the Fenian Cycle and tales of the High Kings like Niall of the Nine Hostages from the Historical Cycle are those primary sources.
There is an Irish proverb that goes “Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam” that translates to “Country without a language, country without a soul.” The Irish government has made it a priority for all the children of Ireland to be taught Gaeilge (Irish Gaelic) though those who speak it regularly after graduation is less than half. There are regions whose main language is Gaeilge known as theGaeltachtaí, but the majority of Ireland now speaks English. Regardless of why, this is a fact of the country’s history and evolution. I don’t believe that those who follow Págánacht (Paganism a.k.a. Irish Reconstructionism) have to know Gaeilge to have faith and study the history and legends, however “Celtic” denotes a group of people who spoke a similar language and Gaeilge is an evolution of one of those languages. Modern Ireland also views it as part of the core of the country’s heritage so to connect with the language is to connect with the people. I will always recommend taking classes and learning at least the basics of the language. This is still something I struggle with personally due to lack of time as well as languages have always been hard for me to pick up and apply.
In regards to the language impacting the study of the sources, that is a whole other issue. Most modern classes are teaching modern spoken Gaeilge, however the sources are written in Middle and Old. To delve into those you would need a scholastic study program generally found at the college level or a very generous person who has already done that study that is willing to pass it on to you. While learning Middle and Old Irish can be beneficial to one’s personal first hand reconstruction of the legends it is obviously not necessary since the majority of the above mentioned sources have been translated into the current language of Ireland which is English. I also don’t believe that the Gods themselves would be unfamiliar with the current language spoken by the majority of those who still live upon Their land.
Skepoet: What do you think about or deal with many of the popular traditions in he Neo-pagan community which often make claims to being rooted in Celtic lore? Have you noticed a change in the claims made in such groups?
Blackbird: I guess it all depends on the actual claims of the group. If you’re speaking of Wicca well, Ron Hutton has done well to delve into that history. In regards to any conversations, discussions, or debates I have on any subject if there is information being passed on that would generally be considered false due to my study I will correct it and point said person(s) to better material and my sources for clarification.
I don’t know if I’ve seen a change as much as I don’t pay as much attention to the groups that make such claims anymore. After a while, when you see the same thing over and over, you tend to tune it out. I just try to point seekers to the books that I have read on the subjects of Neopaganism as well as Wicca and hope that they want to research the material that is grounded in fact and not unsubstantiated claims of antiquity.
Skepoet: I was vague deliberates because I was wondering about both Wicca, which is covered by Hutton and even acknowledged by some Wiccans now, and about Neo-Druidism, which seems to a practice for which with have little historical record for what was actually done. Many years ago I was interviewing some of the people who wrote the Celtic Reconstructionist fact for a web-site that no longer exists, but they kept telling me that had to go into Wikipedia regularly and make sure bad scholarship didn’t get put into any C.R. entry. I haven’t heard about that as much. What do you think about the field of religious studies in terms of Celtic area studies has it improved in your life time?
Blackbird: Ah…okay. See, when it comes to modern Druidism I’m pretty ambivalent. The largest groups in the UK and US both seem more “philosophy” based then “religion” based. The simple fact is that when one can be a Christian Druid or a Roman Druid then Druid obviously isn’t tied to any “specific” belief. As such, I don’t even look at it in the same sense as any of the Neopagan religions.
I will say that I have been a member of ADF and joined so that I would have a group backing in case the military gave me issues about my religious beliefs, but there was never an issue. I’m still a member of the Henge of Keltria because they are the closest to what I agree with and I even have some issues with their particular practice (it revolves mainly around the honoring of 8 holy days and not 4). As Asatru (and essentially the whole Reconstructionist movement) was a reaction to Wicca, Celtic Recon was a reaction to Neo-Druidry utilizing a title that we associate with years of study and service to a community (and some CRs view it as a title not even achieveable at all now). With all that said through, I personally respect the Neo-Druid movement and what those who follow it have achieved and there are many Neo-Druids I have a lot of respect for, so even though I don’t agree with certain practices or claims by those organizations without Neo-Druidry CR wouldn’t exist.
I know that the founders of the movement have gotten us very far in regards to laying a good foundation through their work with live journal and creating the CR Faq. While I am actually in contact every once and a while with some of them (thank the Gods for social networks) a lot of what they did was while I was still on the seeker level so I wasn’t even aware of all the issues I’m sure they encountered which is a testament to their heading off a lot of the “fluff” that could have potentially gotten mixed in had they not been firm initially.
As for the question posed I’m not sure I understand it. Are you referring to understanding the possible “religion” of the Celts in regards to the scholarship available to study?
Skepoet: Has the study of Celtic religion gotten a lot better in available literature in your opinion?
Blackbird: No. Most of what is out there for any type of Celtic pagan religious focus new or old seems to perpetuate the same old “history as we want to believe it” as opposed to what we are actually piecing together. There really hasn’t been any definitive CR book to come out and those who have claimed to have published one are usually found to have published nothing that the CR community would find worthy of the claim. It is now as it was when I started and before me, the best books we have to understand our particular path are the legends, the history and archaeology based ones and those that speak about the surviving traditions still practiced in the regions we focus.
When it comes to the ritual structure and the “spiritual” side of things UPG or Shared Gnosis seem to work just fine as gathered through the limited community we have (again, thank the Gods for social networks). When others try to put those in a book and claim that “all” CRs believe or practice this one way that is when the true issues start. CR isn’t about dictating anyone’s individual practice because we don’t know how the Celts practiced. We as CRs come from a core study and shared belief in the Gods. How we honor them and practice our faith as individuals can never be captured in any one book because not one CR practices like another.
Skepoet: Do you think the completion of the Celtic Reconstructionist FAQ helped at all?
Blackbird: Absolutely! I believe the CR Faq laid out, in one area, a concise foundation for seekers to understand what Celtic Reconstructionism is about and answers a good majority of the questions that those seeking to know more tend to ask. It’s existence makes life easier for those guiding others as well as helps keep those of us connected to CR focused on why we started on this path in the first place and helps keep those individuals in check that may claim to focus on CR, but don’t actually represent what the tradition is about. The CR Faq gives enough wiggle room for our own individual focus, but is not obtuse enough to shut down those who would like CR to focus less on scholastics and become more of a “make it up as we go along” tradition.
Skepoet: What do you think of historical syncretism as opposed to eclecticism? Such as Celtic-Heathen or Celtic-Roman tradition?
Blackbird: This goes along with my other response in regards to knowing that there is no 100% Celtic worldview. I have those I consider friends who have found a way to honor more than one pantheon and still respect both individually keeping them separate. I have a friend who focuses specifically on the Scottish Highlands and there is most definitely a cohesiveness to the tradition that does involve some Norse overlap. There is no untouched by the Romans Celtic tribal society that we will ever understand because there isn’t anything left of the pre-Roman Celts for us to understand outside of conjecture.
With that said it’s not for me and those types of terms make me involuntarily cringe inside, but to each their own. I can respect anyone with any view as long as they can speak about it intelligently explaining why they choose to mix those two cultures together. It’s their journey and if they have truly down the study and it makes sense to them who am I to tell them they’re wrong? Now if they make such claims and can’t speak intelligently about either culture I won’t take them so seriously and will more than likely do as I do with all those others who make ridiculous claims – point out what’s ridiculous and send them to sources that might actually give them a clue.
Skepoet: Is there anything you like to say in closing?
Blackbird: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about something I’m very passionate about. It’s been a fun few days for me.