The Irish Renaissance

In times of crisis it is often easy to become stuck, frozen by the uncertainty of what the future holds. We can become trapped in our typically linear view of time and history, and forget to seek the wisdom of our collective experience. History can show us, if we examine it closely, without prejudice, that the experiences we are having are not unique. Societal highs and lows, peaks and valleys of culture and human existence, even the fundamental questions we ask ourselves about life; how to be happy, where do we come from, what gives life meaning; these, too, have historical reference points.

As we have now entered into Spring, we can reflect on the natural cycles of life. Nature is bursting forth with all her splendour and abundance, to recolour the canvas of the earth in paints of Hope and Youth and Rejuvenation. It is a stark contrast to the social reality we are living; isolation, anxiety, illness, and death. But the cycles of Spring can help us to remain vibrant and engaged, even in the face of this, or any, crisis.

Ancient tradition tells us that everything operates in a complex series of cycles, even time. With this knowledge we can conceive a future that is not just based on linear progression, but on a cyclical progression; not merely a tomorrow of unknowns, but an inevitability which we can relate to previous reference points. In short, we must understand our past if we are to accept our present and consciously build the future we seek. 

Some consider this period in which we are living as an Historical Middle Age. This may be difficult for us to accept but in witnessing such rampant ignorance and violence, excess materialism and superstition, and with a destructive disregard for nature, there are certain undeniable correlations with the concept of “Middle Age”. To understand this parallel clearly we must remove certain prejudices that we have about the times in which we live, and indeed, previous historical periods.

A Middle Age is simply a transitionary period, a “middle” between two eras of civilization, a valley between two great peaks of human development. Nothing in life can be sustained indefinitely and so a natural decline is inevitable. In the same way, no hard times are perpetuated without end, and so, an incline is also natural and inevitable in this cyclical pattern of life. We have come to refer to these periods of incline, or rebirth of cultural values, as Renaissance. A collective Spring of human potential, blossoming in all the cultural gardens of art, science, politics and philosophy.

In the last Middle Age, as the great Roman Empire slipped into decay and decadence, adrift from its once noble ideals and drowning in a sea of excess and materialism, one of the first great casualties was, as is often the case, knowledge. Books were being denied or even burned on a catastrophic scale. Ancient teachings of incomparable insight were being lost and replaced with fanaticism and dogma. Europe was quickly losing the faculty of literacy and ignorance was blazing across the continent as fast as the very flames that carried all those texts away in ash.

Yet a solitary bastion of knowledge held fast. Nestled on the periphery of Europe; Ireland became the seed of the first renaissances that would take root and bloom in the subsequent centuries, to reclaim civilisation from the brink of utter darkness. The tireless works of the Irish monks, through the various monastic communities ensured to safeguard all the knowledge that they possessed and received. Scholars flocked to Ireland to study, and to teach, and to donate texts to be transcribed and preserved by the monks who worked with diligence and humility, never asserting their preferences over what would be deemed worthy to pass on. Thanks to their efforts, countless ancient texts, the basis of modern Europe, remained intact.

This Irish Renaissance can be a reference point for us now. Confronted with times of great change we can inspire ourselves from the example of these monks, to tirelessly work to preserve what matters, to cultivate knowledge and, above all, the practice of that knowledge into a wisdom that transforms. This cycle will pass and we, now, must decide what seeds we are planting for the next cycle. We do not need to be perfect to make a better tomorrow, we need just to plant the seeds of renaissance. Today.

Aidan Murphy