Pagan Life Rites and the Growth of Paganism in Ireland

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IRELAND – In June, we reported on Pagan Life Rites (PLR), an Irish group focused on promoting its celebrancy service through local communities as a way of giving Pagans a voice. At that time, PLR was celebrating its victory in getting Paganism added as a religious option on hospital admission records in Ireland. I caught up with Rev. Barbara Lee and Rev Vinnie Woods so they could explain their specific work and how it has contributed to the overall growth of Paganism in Ireland.

PLR itself began in 2012, but was launched fully in 2015. In little over a year, it has built up a 500-strong membership. Lee explains how they came about: “We felt that there wasn’t an organization in Ireland representing the general Pagan population. There is the Pagan Federation (Ireland) but our focus is different; we wanted to focus on moots, public rituals, and providing a voice.”

In recently years, the Irish Pagan community, in general, has been growing very quickly with celebrations such as public Samhain festivals becoming increasingly well attended. Lee explains: “[A] recent Samhain celebration in County Meath drew 2,000 people, you wouldn’t have had that years ago.”


Samhain 2016 with the PLR Wexford branch [Courtesy Photo]

Woods, who is the PLR representative for South-East Ireland, continues to say: “The Pagan voice has spread to the four – or five! – quarters of Ireland. Barbara, Gavin, and some other people decided that we needed a central pivot, if you like, for the Pagan community and to create a forum for that. In 2015-16 it’s moved at a rapid pace. I’ve seen more moots starting to happen around the country. We seem to be more coalesced.”

This has lead to another campaign recently undertaken by PLR. It wants to see Irish Pagans identify themselves as such on a national census. Lee says: “We’ve … run a campaign on the recent census encouraging people to identify as Pagan, rather than other. In the last census in 2006, there were just over 2,000 Pagans in Ireland, which is the same number as the Jewish population of Ireland. We’ll get the results of that in July 2017, so we’re monitoring that as well. No one really know those numbers, so it would be good to get an approximation.”

In addition to its general membership, PLR features 13 clergy members, all of whom are Pagan and able to perform life rites ceremonies. As all clergy members are registered with the General Register Office (GRO), they can perform legal ceremonies as well.

Lee says: “We basically worked to get legal status for our members to be able to marry people. That was our first thing, just to get the recognition out there. We said at the time that we represented a wider community, we just hadn’t taken them on as members, so we looked at a way that we could grow a membership without them having to fork out of their pocket. So, we came up with the idea of the E-zine.”

The E-zine is a newsletter that people subscribe to via the PLR website. As Lee continues: “So, as they subscribe, they could link to the E-zine, which is free, and be a part of the forum to share ideas and views, read articles, etc.”

The PLR was granted its legal status in February, an important step in building a voice. The next step is applying for charity status to give the group added legal protection and recognition.

Working with the community is at the heart of the PLR’s ethos and is embedded in its structure. The group is keen to make itself as accessible as possible. As Lee explains: “We all felt this was a very important thing for us to do, that we weren’t a faceless entity, you could look at us and see our faces and what we’re doing. Our constitution is on the website”

Woods adds: “We want for people to feel they are not having to hide in hedges but are part of a legitimate organization with a voice that has to be listened to.”

Not everyone agrees with the PLR’s open approach. Lee explains: “We’ve also heard the other side of it too, I’ve heard people say, ‘What do we need people representing us for, we’ve always been the hidden ones’. We’re there for the individuals that need us, we’re not laying down the law.”

In fact, a solid basis in community work is a requisite to becoming a PLR clergy member. “If you want to be a clergy member, you have to be involved at a pastoral level within the Pagan community. It’s about that involvement and making yourself available to general community,” Lee says.

Becoming a clergy member is a serious commitment, due to the gravitas of the work. Lee says: “We do have criteria for people becoming clergy. First is that they are a general member for at least two years. Second, they are involved in the community in some way. Third, they must have sponsors – one from the clergy membership and two from the general membership. Lastly, there’s an interview with other clergy members.”

The celebrancy is the cornerstone of the group’s work and respect for their celebrants is obviously of paramount importance. Lee says: “I’ve done hand-fastings for years but it’s great to be able to say to people that I can now do the legal aspect as well. They look so relieved! It’s about more people becoming aware that we can now do both, not just hand-fasting.”

Barbara Lee performing handfasting [Courtesy Photo]

As Woods says: “The signing of the register is an important part of the ceremony and it’s nice to do that in front of everyone as well.”

The group has also found more people requesting its services for funerals. Woods says: “To allow the relatives the scope to have the ceremony they want and write their vows is very important. A funeral I did recently wanted a Christian aspect to it, and I was asked if that would be OK, and we could do the Pagan aspect at the crematorium. I said of course that would be OK, because it’s about what the relatives wanted and what the deceased wanted as well.”

Lee adds: “It’s such a delicate balance and it’s about listening, that’s so important.”

The PLR has already provoked a lot of interest in Ireland about Paganism. Lee says: “Less than a week ago I had a girl down in Wexford who wanted me to go down and teach classes. At first, I had four people. I put up a post on Facebook to see if we could get a few more bodies along and after 18 people, I had to say, ‘I’m sorry the class is full!’.”

The PLR has also garnered support from more unexpected quarters: “One of the more left-leaning Catholic journals published a supportive article about hand-fasting, what it is was about and then linked to us and listed all our names. It was inclusive, a small thing, but a nice one,” Lee says.

This is not a surprise to the group though, as Lee goes on: “The Irish are very accepting, so we’re working with an advantage, on many, many levels, because the Irish believe in Magic and fairies and the Sidhe.”

Woods agrees: “If you just scratch the surface here, you’ll find we’re all Pagans in Ireland. You’ll see fairy trees in the middle of a field and you’ll say to the farmer, ‘Do you believe in fairies?’. ‘Not at all,’ they’d say. ‘Would you cut that tree down?’ you’ll ask. ‘No I would not!’ they’ll say. They go to mass but when they pass a certain tree or stone, they’ll cross themselves. It’s just there.”

For the future, the group is keen to start campaigning in schools to change how Paganism is viewed within the educational system. As Lee explains: “We need to do more work around education as that is still a problem for parents – they register their children in school as Pagan and the teacher responds, ‘So they have no religion?’. It will be the most difficult challenge of all, as most schools are religious (Roman Catholic) schools.”

The PLR also intends to build on its work with the non-Pagan community by performing open rituals on quarter and cross-water days across Ireland, to give people a better understanding of Paganism and what it entails.

Its membership is open to people outside of Ireland and its comprehensive and highly informative quarterly E-zine is a must for anyone with an interest in Irish tradition and legends. (The recent edition contains some very thoughtful and poignant pieces about death, including instruction as to how a body is traditionally laid out once passed over.)

As Lee explains: “We take people from birth to the grave and everything in-between, and we’re building up recognition. PLR is not just Irish, it’s also the Irish diaspora, people who are internationally connected with Ireland or have a feeling for Ireland. Our International membership is currently about 100-strong.”

Woods adds: “There’s a great feeling of openness, we’re very enthusiastic and knowledgeable of all the disciplines within the Pagan umbrella. So, it’s always fresh.”

The group has achieved much in the past 18 months, and its even more impressive considering Paganism only became legal to practice in Ireland six years ago.

Lee says: “It only came off the statue books in 2010 – but nobody paid it any mind.”

As the group looks to grow, the signs are promising for them. And as Lee and Woods point out, there is a very receptive audience now waiting since the barrier to building Pagan communities has been removed.

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