It has long been theorised that magic mushrooms were used in religious ceremonies by druids since humans first inhabited Ireland. These ceremonies disappeared when the church became more influential. Now that religious influences are waning, is it time to revive this practice of acquiring insight?
By Nicole Buckler
There are two types of “magic mushroom” in Ireland. The first is the red topped, white-spotted stunning variety called the fly-agaric. This little guy is the one you see in children’s books, with faeries and pixies sitting all over them. The second is the liberty-cap, which actually looks like a brown little elf’s hat.
The fly-agaric appears between August and November. They grow beneath certain select trees in a symbiotic relationship. Although this mushroom is classified as poisonous, reports of human deaths resulting from its ingestion are extremely rare. A deadly dose is estimated to be around 15 caps in total per person. A dose strong enough to give the user hallucinations has been medically documented to be less than one cap.
So, these mushrooms have received an unnecessarily bad rap over the years. The danger with this little guy is that this mushroom does somewhat resemble a very poisonous mushroom called the death cap. The death cap looks the same but tends to be white rather than red.
After preparing the fly-agaric for consumption, druids were said to eat it for its hallucinogenic properties. It was believed that these hallucinations conferred great knowledge and enlightenment to those who received them. The fly-agaric mushroom was a very important fungus to the druids. In fact, ancient people called it the “flesh of the gods”. It was thought to put the druids in direct communication with the universe when they ate it.
Mushrooms are the above-ground “fruit” of a much larger organism that lives underground. The subterranean part can spread under huge tracts of land, and can be thousands of years old. Many of the ancients believed that because the organism is so old, it has accumulated wisdom which can be passed to humans via the fruit.
Whatever your stance is on the ‘use’ of the fly-agaric mushroom, there’s no doubt it is one of nature’s most interesting and beautiful species.
The second type of magic mushroom found in Ireland is the liberty cap. These can be found all over Ireland. They can even be found in Phoenix Park in Dublin, right at the feet of the Pope’s Cross! They prefer a south-facing slope with wet soil.
These mushrooms are known as a stimulant and mind-expander. People who have taken them report feeling at one with nature and the universe. Many also say that they have acquired “knowledge” from their trip. (Sheep like magic mushrooms too. Modern-day farmers from the Curragh say they like to laugh at their sheep going mental after they’ve eaten a bellyful of magic mushrooms).
Throughout Irish history, liberty caps were taken by regular people. The psychedelic trip is milder than that of the fly-agaric, which was left to highly-trained druids and other masters of the mushroom. The fly-agaric was deemed too powerful for anyone who had not undertaken training at the higher levels of the mind. Druids took these mushrooms and reported back to the lay-people on the wisdoms the universe had transmitted to them while “away with the faeries.”
THE FAERY CONNECTION
Here’s an interesting thought for you: different hallucinogens produce different types of visions. LSD or “acid” is a synthetic chemical copy of the ergot fungus that grows on rye. People who take it are likely to report seeing paisleys in front of their eyes. It is a common hallucination when taking the psychoactive drug. And of course, when did paisleys burst into Western, mainstream fashion? In the 60s and 70s, when people were tripping on LSD like mad. Paisley art was everywhere, and some was stunningly intricate and beautiful.
So as for those Irish mushrooms… The two magic mushrooms that grow here in Ireland – the liberty cap and the fly agaric – look really different to each other, but both are said to produce visions of faeries and leprechauns, plus a variety of Otherworld creatures very specifically associated with Ireland. In just about every vintage picture of faeries or elves, there is a picture of a mushroom in it. Faeries and mushrooms have been closely associated since time began in Ireland. Have you ever wondered why the two are so intertwined?
Visions of faeries are so strongly associated with mushrooms that the Gaelic slang for faeries and mushrooms is the same: pookies. Let that sink in for a minute. A magic mushroom trip has always been said to make the user “go away with the faeries.” Or someone could be “off with the pixies.” And now you know why.
There are many tempting clues about the usage of fly-agaric in pagan times. Psychic poets called imbas forosnai speak of eating “red flesh of a pig, dog or cat” which was likely a metaphor for the fly-agaric. It was chewed before a poet would lie in a dark room and seek inspiration. Speckled things were also considered to have certain powers.
BAD FAERIES & EVIL SPIRITS
And what if you go on a bad trip, and have a scary experience? It happens. Here, in Ireland, many people have seen the “bad” faeries, like shape-shifters. Irish people have always been suspicious of lone Hawthorne trees, saying that bad faeries have infested it and you should stay well away from them. One has to wonder whether magic mushrooms that were found underneath them led to bad experiences.
During a bad trip, a common hallucination in Ireland is a one-eyed monster. Strangely, there is a one-eyed monster in Irish mythology. Balor was a supernatural being. He is often described as a giant with a large eye in his forehead. He can wreak destruction as a god of drought and blight.
References to faeries, leprechauns, gnomes and an array of other creatures have been etched into most Irish minds from childhood. These images come from as far back as the Fomorians – the natives who were thought to inhabit Ireland before the Celts arrived. They spoke of one-legged, one-eyed gods.
The mushroom symbolism in the old myths seems undeniable. Have mushrooms been used since the dawn of Ireland, and we have only stopped using them in the last century? It seems so.
And here’s another interesting tidbit. Many people know that Halloween, or Samhain, has origins in Celtic Ireland. The ancient Irish believed that at this time the membrane between this world and the Otherworld became thin, and creatures could pass through. Faeries (both good and bad), leprechauns, pixies, elves and even one-eyed monsters could freely enter this world. In fact, the entire spectrum of nonhuman forces could roam the earth at Samhain.
Coincidentally, magic mushrooms come into season at Samhain. Perhaps the Irish affinity to altered states of consciousness (getting drunk) comes from a fine tradition of consuming mind-expanding psychedelics.
Here’s another thing to think about. While the LSD of the 60s made people collectively see paisleys, our Irish ancestors may have seen patterns that ended up carved onto rocks at Newgrange, like the swirling triskelion.
Shrooms is a group that advocates for the therapeutic use of magic mushrooms in Ireland. David McNamara, a spokesperson for Shrooms says, “We have to look at art and folklore to infer mushroom use by the ancestors. The rock art in Knowth and Newgrange appear to depict ‘entoptic’ patterns which, according to some archaeologists, implies psychedelic medicine use by the artists.”
CULT OF THE MUSHROOM
More than one scholar has suggested that ancient Ireland was home to a magic mushroom religion. American author Peter Lamborn Wilson wrote a book called Plowing the Clouds, saying that it makes perfect sense that Indo-Europeans used psychedelic drugs in their rituals. In fact, these psychedelic experiences could be the origin of the pagan religions that sprung up all over Ireland.
Wilson is stunned that no one has connected psychedelics to Ireland because there is plenty of scope for a cult of the mushroom amongst the Celts, the “old-fashioned Indo-Europeans, so loyal to ancient ways – and so fond of intoxication.”
What we do know is that orally-transmitted druid lore is lost beyond recall. Irish myths and legends were not written down till the Christian era, and then only by monks who probably misunderstood or censored any references to psychedelics or to the cults dedicated to them. Says Wilson, “Any mushroom lore that survived till the ninth to twelfth centuries A.D. would be the province of illiterate peasant wisewomen and wizards – not of literate monks.”
Irish folklore may be a better source for evidence of magic mushroom use, and recorded in metaphorical format. Wilson says, “The Irish material abounds in references to magical substances which bestow knowledge or pleasure when ingested. Perhaps the best-known are the hazelnuts of wisdom, eaten by the Salmon, fished up by the druid, and cooked by young Finn, who, as sorcerer’s apprentice, burns his thumb on the Salmon’s skin, sticks thumb in mouth, and attains all the wisdom in his master’s stead. The shamanic overtones of this story are quite obvious.”
Wilson also points out evidence in the Old Irish story of Máel Dúin, thought to be from the 8th Century. Máel Dúin was the son of warrior chieftain, who set out on an epic journey to avenge his father’s death. On his way his crew experience an ‘Isle of intoxicating wine fruits.’ This is thought to be a metaphor for a psychedelic experience.
“After the crew had plucked all the fruit off one small tree, they cast lots for who should try them, and the lot fell on Máel Dúin. So he took some of them, and, squeezing the juice into a vessel, drank it. It threw him into a sleep of intoxication so deep that he seemed to be in a trance rather than in a natural slumber, without breath or motion, and with the red foam on his lips. And from that hour till the same hour next day, no one could tell whether he was living or dead.
“When Máel Dúin awoke next day, he bade his people to gather as much of the fruit as they could bring away with them; for the world, as he told them, never produced anything of such surpassing goodness. They pressed out the juice of the fruit till they had filled all their vessels; and so powerful was it to produce intoxication and sleep, that, before drinking it, they had to mix a large quantity of water with it to moderate its strength.”
SHAMANIC USE OF MUSHROOMS
Shonagh Home is an author and poet, an international speaker on shamanic-spirit medicine, a voice for stewardship of the honeybees, and a teacher on the subject of traditional foods. She suspects that indeed there was a strong tradition of shamanic use of magic mushrooms in Ireland. “The Irish Druids were an insular, scholarly class of priests and priestesses who possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of local forage. They no doubt had knowledge of which plants and fungi were medicinal, which were poisonous and which could be used for ritual purposes. Mead was a common beverage used also for ritual where it would be spiked with certain herbs.”
The spiking of mead and ale with psychoactive substances by early Germanic, Norse and Siberian people is well documented. Shonagh agrees that there is a high probability that the druids had their own rituals that included psychoactives like mushrooms. “The druids trained for 20 years in subjects such as law, astronomy, philosophy, poetry, medicine, music, geometry divination, and magic. It is probable that specific substances were used to induce high trance states to receive poetic inspiration and messages from the gods.”
Shonagh reminds us that both men and women were druids. “A ban-drui was a woman druid. Accounts were written about them by both the early Christian monks and the Romans, who mostly dismissed them. But they noted that the ban-drui were every bit as influential as their male counterparts, acting as judges, teachers, diviners, and seers.”
Says Shonagh, “As the faerie faith in Ireland goes back many centuries, I speculate there were people other than the artistic/literate classes who were also familiar with psychoactive mushrooms. Our ancestors had extensive knowledge of the plants and fungi of their region and their inherent properties. It stands to reason that those who ingested psychoactive mushrooms, whether accidentally or purposefully, experienced the shimmering imagery and its attending inhabitants that many who have ingested the mushroom today are familiar with. This harkens to the faerie worlds of Tír na nÓg.
“It was often the poets who told the stories that depicted otherworldly places and the beings who belonged there. The common folk also passed along stories of faeries and their beautiful lands. It’s entirely possible that some of these tales were the result of a few hours under the influence of mushrooms. Notably, one loses time in the world of faerie, as one does under the influence of the mushroom. The faeries can confer secret knowledge and they can also be tricksters, just as the mushroom spirits can bring a journeyer to a place of deep wisdom or lead them into delusion.
“There are numerous Irish stories that speak of magical substances that confer special knowledge and the ability to speak poetically. There is a definite connection in the Irish stories between the ingestion of a special substance and poetic brilliance.”
In Ireland, our ancestors were extremely advanced. They constructed many monuments which showed a fantastic understanding of the seasons and celestial bodies, and they still stand today. These were centuries ahead of many other civilisations. Newgrange and the monuments of Knowth are among the oldest structures in the world, and are remarkable for their sophistication. The burial passage tombs at Knowth even look mushroom-shaped. Did this knowledge come from the mind-expanding use of mushrooms?
It is assumed that the druids held ceremonies when consuming magic mushrooms, as is customary in shamanic tradition elsewhere in the world. Many cultures which consume psychedelics believe that the setting is paramount and proper ritual gives the most profound experience. It is surmised that the druids would consume mushrooms and then sit in sweat houses.
These sweat houses are dotted all over the Irish countryside, especially in areas where mushrooms grow. Initially they were thought to be “hot houses” to cure rheumatism. However, it makes more sense to think that they were for a psychedelic experience, particularly because sweating can make the experience more intense, and other shamanic cultures across the world have long used sweat houses for improving the psychedelic experience.
There are a few sweat lodges that still stand today. In times past, these were heated by fire or by using hot rocks placed in water. A couple have been excavated, and scholars have postulated that they were used as “cooking houses”. Yet the lack of animal bones at the site points to the idea that these places were not for cooking, but for other uses.
It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the researchers that they could be places where mushrooms were used to take people into the Otherworld. Could they be remnants of consciousness-improving chambers, similar to those used in many other parts of the world?
David McNamara from Shrooms says absence of evidence does not imply evidence of absence. “Unlike other shamanic medicines, mushrooms do not require any paraphernalia in order to prepare or consume, so no such items are likely to appear in the archaeological record.”
MUSHROOM CULTURE GOES UNDERGROUND
There are many theories as to why mushroom culture went underground. In earlier times, Shonagh Home says, the Romans outlawed druidic practices and spread propaganda about their rituals. They even slaughtered large numbers of druids around the British Isles and Gaul. “Christianity took over and the remaining druids lost their rank and power, which would have caused a mushroom cult – if there was one – to die out or go underground.”
In more recent times, the famine caused many people to starve and to emigrate. These people took their herbal knowledge with them to new lands, or worse, to the grave. Those that emigrated couldn’t use it in their new environment or were too busy surviving to pursue it. Famine food – anything found in the wild like nettles, rose-hips, elderberries – became very out of fashion once the famine passed. People were unwilling to go back to the foods they were forced to live on in desperate times. Even now, picking blackberries is something that foreigners and tourists do.
In Victorian times, a new puritan mood and ‘respectability’ came to the fore. This new outlook ran counter to many of the old ways. Ireland was suddenly a highly-conservative society, and lived by a right-wing, church-prescribed doctrine. Traditions such as using magic mushrooms in ceremonies were scorned as uncivilised, and traditions were lost.
Accordingly, people shunned the mind-expanding benefits of magic mushrooms, even though it was free and abundant, and could produce a state of consciousness far above that induced by alcohol. It was the end of old, Gaelic Ireland and all that came with it.
Some people in Ireland want to revive the worship of the mushroom. The Society for Healing, Ritual and Officiation of Mushroom Shamanism (SHROOMS) was founded in 2016 in Dublin. They believe that mushrooms containing the psychoactive compounds psilocybin and psilocin are important tools for helping to treat various physical and psychological illnesses, and to aid in spiritual growth.
David McNamara from Shrooms says it can be daunting to learn to pick the correct mushrooms. “There is a lot of fear in our modern mycophobic society. The absolute safest way to learn how to pick the correct species is to accompany an experienced picker. This is the traditional method of knowledge sharing and can be a shamanic ritual in its own right. By learning to pick your own mushrooms, you learn to honour and give thanks to the land itself.
“The mushroom is the fruiting sexual organ of a much larger underground fungus. You can learn and build a relationship with individual fungal networks in parts of a field or a hillside. By cultivating a healthy relationship with the fungus from which you are collecting, you maximise the potentiality of the experience.
“If you can’t find an experienced picker to teach you how to hunt, then the internet and books are the next best thing. The budding liberty cap hunter must familiarise themselves with the typical habitat, season, behaviour as well as the physical characteristics of the mushroom’s cap, gills, stem and spores. There are many poisonous mushrooms in Ireland, but thankfully none of them share a similarity with the liberty cap. We have prepared a field guide to foraging psilocybin mushrooms and it is available on our website.
“Unfortunately, the legal status of these mushrooms in Ireland is that any mushrooms containing the psychoactive ingredient psilocybin are illegal to possess and distribute. This is a reactionary law designed to prohibit any degree of cognitive liberty by people who have chosen to work with these substances. The law has been in place since 2005. In my opinion the most important thing we can do to challenge this law is to openly talk about it to as many people as possible.
“So many people have had life-changing and profound mystical and spiritual experiences with these mushrooms, not to mention incredible healing of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, addiction to name a few. Taking pride in the careful use of these mushrooms is key to creating an informed voting public. We advocate legal, supervised use of these mushrooms in a safe environment with trained professionals to ensure the correct preparation, treatment and integration.”
Shonagh Home says there already is a revival among certain folk who are conducting their own explorations through the portal of the mushroom. “No doubt there are small groups of people who gather to journey together and share their experiences. This may well include active cultivation of a relationship with the faerie worlds and other realms that were understood to confer wisdom and secret knowledge. I know it is still possible today to connect with those worlds through the portal of the mushroom.”
The good news is that you can experience legal use of mushrooms abroad. The Psychedelic Society of Ireland offers Irish people legal mushroom experience weekends in Amsterdam, with trips taking place every month or so with trained professionals.