The Anceint Celi Dei in America
By John William Tuohy
The Irish have been in New England for a long time, a very long time. In fact they were (okay, arguably) more than probably the first Europeans to settle the region almost 900 years before Columbus arrived.
Part of that legacy that has almost been lost in time (and in the Anglo version) are the adventures of a group of Irish monks known as the Celi Dei (or Culdees). They were a hardy group of men who followed the spiritual and ascetic life in their monasteries along Ireland’s western coast. By 725 A.D they were already living in settlement caves (called “disirt”) all over Ireland in scattered groups and eventually moved north to the Shetland and Faeroes islands.
Although they were said to be Christians in Ireland before St. Patrick’s arrival and eventually they blended ancient Celtic rites with the new ideas of the main line Roman Catholic Church and were said to be fiercely individualistic and viewed most of the new religious ides from the main continent as to liberal and made it clear that they had no intention of falling in to step. As Charles Boland put it, “they were the problem child of the new church.”
Monks were sent from the main church in Rome to bring the Celi Dei in further into the fold but soon returned to Rome in defeat with tall tales of immoral and strange behavior about the Monks and the Irish church in general. This went on for almost 200 years before the Celi Dei who remained in Ireland finally gave in (somewhat) and reluctantly joined the church mainstream. However, the bulk of the Celi Dei had long since moved to the Northern Islands off the coast of Scotland where they were battered with raids from Norse pirates, a group the Monks soon learned to loath and fear and soon moved moved west to Iceland. In 874, after 80 peaceful years in Iceland, the Monks colony had probably grown immensely. Living space was an issue for such a large body. But where to go?
A return to Ireland was out of the question as well as northeast to the Viking's who also controlled the islands south of Iceland. Logic dictated that to sail further north would mean colder temperatures.
The only answer left was to set sail in long boats (curraghs) westward to Greenland where they lived in blissful peace along the fertile coast for 108 years before the Vikings found them again when Eric the Red sailed his Dragon ship along the coast in 982.
Like the monks of the Celi Dei, Eric the Red (Eric Raudi) was pushed out of Iceland by his fellow Vikings on a murder charge and Norse law dictated that he was to be banished from the land for a three year period. (Aside from that Eric was said to be an obnoxious fellow, the manslaughter charge was probably the excuse his countrymen were looking for to rid themselves of him. As for Eric, he was content to find a place, any place, where he could be law)
Seeing Eric and his ships along the coast, the Monks hurriedly left the island leaving behind bits and parts of their century old settlement. The Norse saga recorded that "They (Eric) found these men's habitations both east and west in the land, both broken hide boats and stone smithery, whereby it may be seen that the same kind of folk had been there as inhabit Wineland and whom men of Greenland call Scraelings)
The Celi Dei sailed west and then south west, stopping off along the bleak and dark Labrador coast, which, understandably didn't appeal to them. Then the flotilla stopped on the small island of Sculpin for a while and some elected to stay there. The remaining party sailed past Newfoundland, down to Nova Scotia and in to the Bay of Fundy and down the New England coast, probably sailing close to the shoreline. Shortly afterwards they came upon the mouth of the Merrimack River in Massachusetts and became the first in a long line of pilgrims to arrive to America shores seeking religious refuge.
The Monks stopped at what is now Haverhill, where the rivers meets the Haverhill falls. Not able to sail any further, they went ashore and found an Indian path at the river edge and followed it to an area known as Pattees caves, in what is today North Salem, where they settled.
Beehive huts, ruins, altars, stairs and various Celtic artifacts have been unearthed in South Windham Maine, Upton, Lowell, Waterford, Leominster, Harvard, North Andover, Weston, Worcester, Hopkinton, Millis, Medway, Martha Vineyard, South Berwick and Hopedale Massachusetts, North Salem, Kingston, Acworth and Raymond New Hampshire and Woodstock Connecticut.
Move ahead to the year 982 A.D, when a Viking merchant from Iceland named Ari Marson was making his way back from Limerick Ireland when he was blown off course and pushed westward to New England to the Monks settlement. Seeing Ari's ship approaching their shore's the Celi Dei elected to set aside religious belief for the moment and attack the Norseman whom, they assumed, were there to once again take away their lands. They Monks sailed out in their curraghs towards Ari's ship, and Ari and his men, probably recognizing the white robes and beards of the Irish Monks from Ireland welcomed the Monks aboard the ship and took the otherwise peaceful Norse Merchants captive, dragged them ashore and Baptized them.
The Monks probably destroyed the Norse ships since they feared their escape back to Europe would result in their return with more of their overly aggressive kinsmen. However, after a while, the Monks better nature took command and the Norsemen were allowed to live among them unmolested.
Three years later, in 985 A.D, Eric the Red left Iceland for Norway to bring back more settlers to his kingdom. Later that year, 35 ships filled with livestock and 700 passengers set sail from Norway to Iceland, but a storm separated the fleet and only 14 ships made it to Eric’s new kingdom. Of the remaining 21 ships, a few made it back to Norway and an unknown number were reported as lost at sea. However, there is a well-founded theory that several of these ships were blown west to the Eastern tip of Canada and eventually found their way to the Monks settlement and they too, like Ari before them, were captured, baptized and then allowed to live among the Monks community in peace. By 1010 A.D, the Abbot of the Celi Dei now huge community decided that it was time to move onwards and shortly afterwards the entire community disappeared.