Posted from the book “Irish Druids And Old Irish Religions" by James Bonwick - London: Griffith, Farran  - Original redaction by Phillip J. Brown, www.belinus.co.uk - Reformatted, pagination, and proofreading at sacred-texts.com, November 2002. J.B. Hare, redactor.
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So many questions have been raised concerning the mysterious community, called Culdees, and such various opinions have been expressed concerning them, that one may be excused inquiring whether in their midst we can trace reminiscences of old Irish faiths. The notion has been long prevalent that the Culdees were only Scotch, having nothing to do with Ireland; whereas, they were originally from that country.
Their most bitter enemy in early Christian days was the Venerable Bede, who denied their claims to orthodoxy. But, since he was a Saxon, and a priest under Roman rule, his charges have been slightly heeded. Their maintenance of an hereditary priesthood was not merely Jewish, as he supposed, but of Druidical sympathy.
Prof. Rhys judiciously remarks--"Irish Druidism absorbed a certain amount of Christianity, and it would be a problem of considerable difficulty to fix on the period where it ceased to be Druidism, and from which onwards it could be said of Christianity in any restricted sense of that term."
As both St. Patrick and St. Columba have been regarded by some modern writers as simply Culdees, and not following orthodox views and methods, might not the many stories told of their conflicts with Druids have been brought forth by ancient chroniclers, in refutation of the slanders abroad concerning their heretical, Druidical tendency? The same supposition may be equally directed against the early Welsh missionaries, though these were almost all from Ireland. Certainly their assumed miraculous powers inclined to the old traditions of Druidical performances. They had all of them a control over the powers of nature, and had' even raised the dead; at least, their biographers claimed it for them.
Dr. Carpenter speaks thus:--"The incidents in St. Columba's life have been originally recorded in the contemporary fasti of his religious foundation, and transmitted in unbroken succession to Abbot Adamnan, who first compiled a complete Vita of his great predecessor, of which there exists a MS copy, whose authenticity there is no reason to doubt, which dates back to the early part of the eighth century, not much more than one hundred. years after St. Columba's death. Now, Adamnan's Vita credits its subject with the possession of every kind of miraculous power. He cured hundreds of people afflicted with inveterate diseases, accorded safety to storm-tossed vessels, himself walked across the sea to his island home, drove demons out of milk-pails, outwitted sorcerers, and gave supernatural powers to domestic implements."
All this reminds one strongly of the powers attributed by tradition to the Druids of the period, and points suspiciously to some outgrowth from Druidism in his case.
Columba was an Irishman of Donegal, and died, as it is said, in 597. Adamnan declares that his staff (without which a Druid could do but little), when once left behind at Iona, went of itself over the sea to its master in Ireland. He founded a monastery at Durmagh, King's Co. At Iona the ruins are those of the Cluniac monks; for, says Boulbee, "not a trace can well remain of the primitive settlement of Columba." But Iona was certainly a Druidical college at first.
Like the Druids before them, the Culdees formed communities. Richey tells us--"The Church consisted of isolated monasteries, which were practically independent of each other; the clergy exercised no judicial power over the laity." On the other hand, Wood-Martin of Sligo supposes, "Christianity must have been first introduced into Ireland by" missionaries of the Greek Church." He notes the fact that Bishops were to be found in almost every village. It is also pointed out that Columba never sought Papal sanction for the conversion of the Picts.
The Iona tonsure, like that of St. Patrick's time, was the shaving of all the hair in front of a line drawn over the top of the head from ear to ear. The Roman, as all know, was a circle at top, and appears to have been first adopted at Iona early in the eighth century. The first, or crescent, shape was Druidical.
It was about that date, also, that the Roman way of keeping Easter succeeded the so called Irish mode. At the Council of Whitby, Colman of Iona was outvoted, though protesting the antiquity of his own practice. McFirbis's MS. speaks thus of the year 896--"In this year the men of Erin consented to receive jurisdiction and one rule from Adamnan respecting the celebration of Easter on Sunday on the 14th of the moon of April, and the coronal tonsure of Peter was performed upon the clerics of Erin." Again, it says, "The clergy of Erin held many Synods and they used to come to those Synods with weapons, so that pitched battles used to be fought between them, and many used to be slain." After this authority, one need not wonder at the assertion that Irish Druids formerly led contending parties.
Iona had certainly a Druidical college till the community was expelled by Columba for his own community and the Highlanders still recognize it as the Druid's Isle. An old statistical work says, "The Druids undoubtedly possessed Iona before the introduction of Christianity." It must be admitted that the Culdees wore a white dress, as did the Druids, and that they occupied places which had a Druidical reputation. They used the Asiatic cross, now called that of St. Andrew's. Dr. J. Moore is pleased to say, "The Culdees seem to have adopted nearly all the Pagan symbols of the neighbourhood."
As to the origin of the word, Reeves might well remark in his notes on Columba's Life, "Culdee is the most abused term in Scotic church history." As the Ceile De, the Four Masters mentions them in 806. Todd writes of them thus--"The earliest Christian missionaries found the native religion extinct, and themselves took the name of Culdees from inhabiting the Druids' empty cells." Jamieson styles them Culdees or Keldees, Kyldees, Kylledei. O'Brien has them the Irish Ceile De, servant of God. Another call them Clann Dia, Children of God. Barber considered them Mithraists.
Higgins, in Celtic Druids, will have Culdees only changed Druids, and regarded the Irish hereditary Abbots of Iona, the Coarbs or Curbs, as simply Corybantes. Latin writers knew them as Colidei or God-worshippers. Bishop Nicholson thought them Cool Dubh, from their black hoods. As C and G are commutable letters in Irish, we have Giolla De, Servant of God. The word Culdee was used by Boece in 1526. Dr. Reeves, in the Irish Academy, calls the Servus Dei by the Celtic Celi-Dé, and notes the name Ceile-n-De applied to the Sligo Friars in the Four Masters, 1595. Monks were reputed Keledei in the thirteenth century. Brockham's Lexicon finds regulars and seculars called so in the ninth century.
The Four Masters record that "Maenach, a Celae-Dé, came across the sea westward to establish laws in Ireland." In the poem of Moelruein, it is the Rule of the Celae-n-dé. The Keledei of Scotland, according to Dr. Reeves, had the same discipline as the Irish Colidei. One Collideus of the Armagh church died in 1574. One Celi-dé of Clonmacnois, dying in 1059, left several sons, who became Abbots after him.
The canons of York were Culdees in Atheistan's time. Ceadda, Wilfrid's predecessor, was a Culdee. They were also called, from their mode of celebrating Easter, Quartadecimans. The last known in Scotland were in 1352. As Bede says, the Irish, being Culdees, would as soon communicate with pagans as with Saxons; the later following Latin or Romish Christianity.
Ireland, as reported by Giraldus, had a chapel of the Colidei on an island of Tipperary, as he declared some were on islands of Wales. They were in Armagh in 920. Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, asserts that the Northern Irish, "continued still their old tradition," in spite of the declaration of Pope Honorius. In Tirechan's Life of St Patrick, Cele-de came from Briton to Ireland in 919; but in 811 some were said to have been miraculously conveyed across the sea. Bede, who opposed them, whether from Ireland or Scotland, was shocked at their holding his religion "in no account at all," nor communicating with his faithful "in anything more than with pagans." He banished those who came to his quarter.
He found these Irish, Welsh, and Scotch Christians to have, in addition to many heresies, the Jewish and Druidical system of hereditary priesthood. Property of the Church even descended from father to son; and, says Dr. Reeves, "was practically entailed to members of certain families." He adds that they were understood in the 12th century as "a religious order of clerks who lived in Societies, under a Superior, within a common enclosure, but in detached cells; associated in a sort of collegiate rather than œnobical brotherhood."
Giraldus, as well as Bede, complained of their hereditary priesthood. The same principle prevailed in the Druidical region of Brittany, and only yielded to the force of the Council of Tours in 1127.
Although St. Columba had no exalted idea of the other sex, saying, "Where there is a cow there will be a woman, and where there is a woman there will be mischief"--yet his followers practised marriage But while, says Mylin, they "after the usage of the Eastern Church, had wives they abstained from them, when it came to their turn to minister." The "Woman's Island" of Loch Lomond was one of the female sanctuaries on such an occasion. Their opposition to celibacy brought them much discredit with other priests.
Archbishop Lanfranc was shocked at their not praying to Saints, not dedicating churches to the Virgin or Saints, not using the Roman Service, and because, wrote he, "Infants are baptized by immersion, without the consecrated chrism."
St. Bernard was distressed at what he heard of these Irish Culdees, who had no Confession, never paid tithes, and lived like wild beasts, as they disdained marriage by the clergy. In his righteous anger, he stigmatized them as "beasts, absolute barbarians, a stubborn, stiff necked, and ungovernable generation, and abominable; Christian in name, but in reality pagans." This harsh language is not worse than that employed by the Pope, when he entreated our Henry II. to take over Ireland, so as to bring the Irish into the Christian Church, compel them to pay tithes, and so civilize them.
One would fancy, with Algernon Herbert, that the Culdees performed secret rites, and indulged, like their Druidical fathers, in human sacrifice, from the legend of St. Oran being buried underneath the church erected by Columba, to propitiate the Powers, and secure good fortune. In that case, however, St. Oran offered to be the victim, so as to avert evil from bad spirits.
If St. Patrick, St. Columba, and other early Irish Saints had been true monks, why did St. Bernard, in his Life of Malachy, Archbishop of Armagh, 1130, say that up to that time there was not a monk in Ireland? Columba certainly took Culdeeism to Scotland from Ireland. In the Bog of Monaincha are two islands. On one was a monastery for men, their wives occupying the neighbouring Woman's Isle. Giraldus Cambrensis, who wrote of the Community of Monaincha in the twelfth century, called it the church of the old religion, and politely designated as "Demons" all who belonged to that former church. The Abbey church, the ruins of which still remain, and which was 38 feet by 18 feet in size, was erected after the time of Giraldus.
Thus R. F. Gould, in his Freemasonry, had some grounds for saying--"The Druidism of our ancestors must have been powerfully influenced by the paganism of the Empire at the period when Christianity dawned on Britain." He deemed it probable that the early clerics of Christianity, "the cultores deorum, the worshippers of the gods, gradually merged into cultores Dei, worshippers of the true God." So it might be that, as Higgins wrote, "The Culdees were the last remains of the Druids."