Celtic Saints and the Pagan–Christian Transition – by Anthony Nanson

Anthony Nanson and David Metcalfe © Fire SpringsDavid and I are performing our story and music show Dark Age Deeds of the Celtic Saints in Cheltenham on 17 April. A good time perhaps to say something about why the tales of the Celtic saints have always attracted me as a storyteller. At the heart of my fascination is the encounter between paganism and Christianity – in early medieval history and also today.

Different things happened in different places when the Christian faith came to a new country. Some of that has been destructive; other things have been more positive. In Ireland and Scotland, unlike in southern Britain, the Druids were still at large when the likes of St Patrick and St Columba arrived on the scene. There was a rivalry between the old and the new ways, but also an interesting syncretism. The Christian monks incorporated into their outlook and way of life much that came from the Druids – symbolic things like the kind of tonsure they wore, but more importantly a style of spirituality that was reverent towards nature and adapted to the local particularities of place. There’s lots of scope for romanticising all this – and I admit I’m a romantic – and there’s debate about how much independence the Celtic strand of the Church had from the centre of Church power in Rome. Certainly, by the time of the Synod of Whitby in 664, there was enough local particularity in Church practice in the British Isles that the Roman authorities felt a need to demand compliance with norms accepted elsewhere.

Image © Kirsty HartsiotisAt the beginning of this journey of Celtic Christianity, there are remarkable tales that tell of the saints’ encounters not only with Druids and kings but also with the Tuatha Dé Danann – the old gods of Ireland – and even the first known sighting of the Loch Ness monster. Many of these tales are but anecdotes of individual events, so a storyteller has work to do to weave these bits and pieces into satisfying stories – which in turn can then be connected to form the arc of a complete performance. On top of that, for Dark Age Deeds of the Celtic Saints, David has composed songs inspired by devotional poems written by Irish saints during the actual period in which the tales are set.

If you’d like to come to our show in Cheltenham, it’s at 2.30 pm, Sunday 17 April, in St Philip and St James Church, Grafton Road, Cheltenham GL50 2DL. Book tickets on 0844  576 2210 or at Cheltenham Town Hall. The show is part of the Christian Arts Festival in Cheltenham, find out more here.

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