On a warm July evening in 1956, a small band of robed men and women gathered in a redwood grove near St. Helena in Northern California to perform a Celtic ceremony.
"Oh Earth, mother and goddess, to thee we give back this body, purified by fire."
Then they spread the ashes of their friend beneath the roots of an ancient tree.
The ceremony was in honor of Ella Young, an Irishwoman who embodied the spirit of the ancient druids. Ella lived her life in kinship with the living Earth, and shared her visions through writings, poems and storytelling performances.
Ella was born in Northern Ireland in 1867, a sensitive child who had Otherworldly experiences at an early age. As a young woman living in Dublin, she soon found herself in the company of great minds and visionaries such as poet W. B. Yeats, actress Maud Gonne and painter George Russell (known as A.E.) This group was setting the whole country ablaze with passionate ideas and plans for a free, unified Ireland – renewed politically, culturally and spiritually after centuries of foreign oppression. Yeats in particular was writing dramas about the old gods and heroes of the land, designed to awaken the power and presence of these spirits from their sleep of ages. The friends took many outings to Ireland's half-forgotten sacred sites in the countryside in hopes of feeling their presence.
Ella found great spiritual riches in the West of Ireland, on wild Atlantic shores where Irish was still the native tongue of the people. Here the old tales of gods, heroes and faeries were still told around the fireside as they had been for centuries. In this lonely and elemental landscape, Ella frequently encountered the faery folk. This is her account of an experience near Derrynane, County Kerry, from her autobiography, Flowering Dusk.
Five or six elves of the hillside are trotting beside me. They are about the size of a child 12 years old. Their heads are large for the size of their bodies. They have pointed ears, round eyes and an engaging grin. They are going to show me anything worth seeing on the hillside. I see many wild flowers, but they say that isn't much. They know something really fine. They conduct me to it. It is a great stone thrusting from the greenness and against it a cotoneaster is growing, with multitudinous red berries on its branches. The elves display it with delight. There is nothing like it on the hillside. I haven't the heart to tell them I have seen cotoneasters before – in gardens. I show a proper astonishment and joy. I say, "Let us take some of these berries and plant them in other parts of the mountain." The elves smile from ear to ear. I take some berries and they troop after me. We plant them in different places. We have come a considerable distance, and I begin to feel that I must turn back. I don't want to turn back. The elves don't want to either. I shouldn't call them elves, because I know what the Gaelic-speaking people call them. They call them the "Good Folk," the “Daoine Maithe,” less with an idea of their goodness than with an idea of suggesting what they ought to be. Well, the Good Folk don't want to go back either. We stand in a group and consider matters. "If I could make a circle," I say, "if I could, by going on, find a way across to the inn, I need not turn back." They assure me there is a way. We proceed to follow it. Apparently it does lead back. But suddenly we come on a marsh. It is one of those soft places with masses of green spaghnum moss, green as an emerald, rose-red and amber-ivory in places, but everywhere treacherous. I am taken aback and deeply grieved. Never before had the Daoine Maithe deceived me. I know they play tricks on people, but they are friends of mine. "Do you understand," I say to them with emphasis, "that I cannot walk in places where my feet sink, whatever you folks can do?" "You can walk here," they say. "You are sure?" I ask. "We are sure." "Well, then, show me the stepping-stones." I went forward. I couldn't see a path, but always I found a stepping-stone, so I came safely out of the bog. My friends left me when I reached the high-road. I have never been back there, but if I were to go tomorrow, they would usher me to any cotoneaster that sprang from that sowing.
Ella was also able to hear what she called the Music of Faerie, the ceol sídhe (pronounced kyol shee). This power came to her suddenly and unexpectedly on Achill Island, County Mayo:
Here on the hillside I have heard snatches of song and little lilting airs . . . a heavy rhythmic beat, a great basic sound which I have named "The Anvil Beat" . . . This faery music has in it the sound of every instrument used in a great orchestra, and the sound of many, many instruments that no orchestra possesses. It has singing voices in it sweeter than human: and always it has a little running crest of melody like foam on a sea-wave or moon-gilding on the edge of a cloud. All these sounds, and sounds more indefinable are going on at the same time: undertones and overtones to a great main melody; to a lilted air, a snatch of song; of the resonance of a swung bell.
At Beltaine, 1916, just after the Easter Uprising in Dublin, Yeats inaugurated a magical order – a Celtic Mystery School. It was modeled on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but grounded in Irish, rather than Egyptian, mythology and magic. It was called "The Order of the Four Jewels," a reference to the four gifts of cauldron, sword, spear and stone bequeathed to Ireland by the race of immortals known as the Tuatha Dé Danann, (the Tribe of the Goddess Dana.) Its goal was "the awakening of the ancient fires of Ireland." Sadly, its impetus died with the failure of the Irish rebellion, and the Order disbanded. Yet in a way, its fires were rekindled when Ella Young came to America.
Ella was 58 when she accepted an invitation to give a series of lectures on Celtic mythology and culture at various American universities. But she almost didn't get in when the authorities discovered she had once been a gunrunner for the IRA. Fortunately, there was a storm of protest against the exclusion of the scholar and writer from the literary world, and a wealthy sponsor came to her aid. This was Gavin Arthur, a philanthropist and astrologer who was grandson of the 21st president. When Ella finally arrived at Ellis Island, the New York Times announced her arrival with the headline, "Ambassadress from Elfland!"
Ella’s gift of oratory drew large enthusiastic audiences whom she held spellbound with the heroic myths and sagas told in her lilting Irish voice – the voice of the bard, a keeper of the ancient teachings of her ancestors. Everyone who saw Ella received the impression of a woman from another world, who had “strayed from the province of the sídhe.” She was a dramatic figure with a noble forehead and face that seemed to shine with an inner light. She let her shoulder-length silver hair hang free and wore flowing clothes like robes. Instead of shaking hands when introduced, she raised her hands high in the ancient druid greeting. Padraic Colum, poet and dramatist, was first to hail her as a druid, likening her to the ancient “women who knew the sacred places and their traditions, who knew the incantations and the cycles of stories about the Divine Powers, and who could relate them with authority and interpret them wisely. . . She speaks of Celtic times as if she were recalling them.”
Ella felt most at home in the wild and rugged beauty of the West Coast, where she revived the old Celtic Mystery School at Mount Shasta, the sacred mountain in Northern California. It was called the “Fellowship of Shasta,” and dedicated to the Goddess in her aspect of Brigit, mother of poetry, smithcraft and healing, to whom Ella felt particularly close. In doing so, she became one of the first people in the United States to revive the religion of the Great Goddess. The Fellowship held their gatherings in places of power, which, along with Mount Shasta, included Mount Tamalpais in Marin County and Point Lobos on the Central Coast. In these then pristine and wild places they celebrated the four Fire Festivals of the Celtic year.
Ella had a passionate love and reverence for the land of America. She regarded her new country as a "great tawny lioness," in contrast to Ireland, which she saw as a "white unicorn." She spent as much time as she could communing with the spirits of the land, whom she experienced as a larger race than their Irish counterparts. She considered the rocky, wooded promontory of Point Lobos to be the center of psychic power for the entire Pacific Coast. Here she communed with the dryads of the pine trees, the sea spirits, and the great guardian Deva who hovered over the sea with shining wings. Once, lecturing on local faeries at a PTA meeting in Carmel, she almost caused a stampede when the audience of 150 women insisted on going to look for them straight away. They didn’t find any. Ella's response was a chuckle: "But after all . . . those marching feet!"
Her relationship with the Earth, which she saw as a "great living Being," was practical as well as mystical. When out on a picnic with her friends, she would never touch food until she had poured a libation of wine, giving thanks to "Earth, Air, Fire, Water" and the Great Goddess herself, whom she addressed in Gaelic. The Fellowship of Shasta became involved in environmental activism, working to prevent developers from building on Point Lobos (now a State Park) and also with the Save the Redwoods League which works to preserve the remaining old-growth forests of California.
In her later years, Ella gave an interview to KPFA radio in Berkeley in which she talked of “the brotherhood of the Earth, the animals, the stones and the trees.” When asked how to see nature spirits and faeries, her answer was simple:
"You have to be content to know that you love that tree, and you want to love it more, and you know it's alive and you want to come closer to it."
In the early 1930s, Ella moved to Oceano, near San Luis Obispo, and became part of a community of artists and writers living on the sand dunes, known as the Dunites. Here she carried on as leader of the Fellowship of Shasta, celebrating the seasonal festivals every year on the dunes. She settled in a small cottage, which she transformed into a place of beauty with objects of art she had collected or been given by her many friends who came to visit her from far and near. Her eye for beauty, coupled with her ability to work with the nature spirits, had enabled her to create an exquisite garden on barren sandy soil. In the evenings she would fill the house with candlelight and hold court beside the hearthfire recounting magical stories to her friends, while conversations that meandered around the perennial wisdom of Celtic and other sacred traditions flowed far into the night.
She still bore the faery magic of Ireland with her. One night, she was sitting in her cottage with San Francisco poet Elsa Gidlow, telling an Irish legend, when Elsa began to hear the faint music of bells in the garden:
"The notes were high, almost too high to be heard if there had been any sort of noise . . . When she concluded the story I asked, 'Ella, have you put windbells anywhere in the garden?' The night was windless. She said, no, she had no bells there. 'But while you were telling your story just now, I heard clear high bells, very sweet.' 'Oh,” she said, matter-of-factly, 'you were hearing the faerie music.' The next day I looked everywhere through the garden to see if I could have found anything that might have made sounds. There was nothing.
As she grew older, Ella felt she had outlived her own time and the values of the ancient days she celebrated. In a letter to Elsa Gidlow she wrote:
. . . The gods of Mammon and Mars now almost exclusively relied on, have been the patrons of a great age. What then is lacking? Everything is lacking to us: beauty, truth, solitude, comradeship of the Nature Gods – in a word, life of body, soul, and spirit. We have bartered all these for a push button existence and the right to crow on every dunghill.
Words that perhaps ring even more true today!
In the 1950s, Ella's health began to decline. She had long dreamed of the time when, according to Irish tradition, her spirit would cross the threshold between the worlds and she would at last come to the Isles of the Ever-Living, the Summerlands. Here she would be reunited with Brigit, the goddess who had guided her soul throughout her earthly years. At the end of her autobiography, she describes a vision that sustained her:
I walked in the Land of the Ever-Living with my Ladye. We walked in a wood. It was a wood that had the naked loveliness of Springtime, and yet the boughs were glad with blossoms. The wind moved with us, and where it touched the delicate grass under foot slender-stemmed hyacinths sprang up. There was music everywhere and changing colour and motion. The trees changed shape and stood a-tiptoe for very lightness of heart.
I have said that we walked in the wood: equally the wood walked in us. It moved with us, the trees blossomed in us. The music, the wind, the flowers in the grass patterned our mood; and we patterned the trees: growing tall with their tallness, reaching out joyously with their branches. The music that surged and sounded everywhere was like the heart-beat of our blood. It would seem as I tell this, that I was thinking more of the wood than of my Ladye, but I was thinking more of my Ladye: for walking beside her again I was whole. I had no wish unfulfilled.
Ella died in her cottage on July 23rd, 1956, at the age of 88. She handed over the leadership of the Fellowship of Shasta to Gavin Arthur, and calmly put all her belongings and the room in order. Lastly, she performed a beautiful ritual to release her spirit, and departed this world. Yet even today, fifty years after her death, Ella's spirit and work continues to benefit the land, as I found out when I was writing a book on Celtic spirituality and wanted to include a quotation from one of her books. On contacting the publishers in Edinburgh, I was told there was a rather steep fee for usage. But I had no reluctance paying it when I learned that all the profits from Ella's books are donated to the Save the Redwoods League in accordance with her wishes. Oddly enough, I happened to be writing this book in Carmel looking out of a window with a view over Point Lobos, and was very aware of Ella's spirit still present in the land she loved. Perhaps it is fitting to remember this woman of vision with the words she wrote, words that celebrate the triumph of the unity of all beings:
I know that I am one with beauty
And that my comrades are one.
Let our souls be mountains,
Let our spirits be stars,
Let our hearts be worlds.