Building a new folk culture

My name is Dr Sharon Blackie, I’m a writer, psychologist and mythologist, and I founded The Hedge School in 2017. As well as offering paid-for teachings and courses, my dream is to make the Hedge School website a free and authoritative source for people looking for accurate information on Celtic myths and folklore, and the other native traditions of these islands. (To this end, we have a Patreon page where, if you’re able, you can support The Hedge School from as little as $1 per month.)

I believe that what is offered at The Hedge School is deeply needed in these challenging times. In Western societies we are seeing more calls for a return to native wisdom, but we can’t live by the worldviews of other cultures which are rooted in lands and histories that are different from our own. Fine as they are, we don’t need to look to the myths and traditions of others for role models, or for guidance on how to live more authentically, in balance and harmony with the planet on which we depend. We have our own guiding stories, and they are deeply rooted in the heart of our own native landscapes. We draw them out of the wells and the waters; beachcombing, we lift them out of the sand. We dive for them to the bottom of deep lakes, we disinter them from the bogs, we follow their tracks through the shadowy glades of the enchanted forest.

It’s time to reclaim those stories. They ground us, and teach us; they show us how to find and follow the trail of breadcrumbs which will lead us to our own unique calling. And from that place of grounding in the traditions of the lands we inhabit and have come to belong to, we can more easily appreciate, and openly embrace, the traditions of others.

In all my work at The Hedge School, I’m very clear that my interests lie in the traditions of these lands where our feet are planted, here and now. Learning how to become a good ‘citizen of the world’ begins with learning how to become a good citizen of your place. However you happened to find yourself here, if you live here – maybe just for a little while, or maybe forever – this land’s dreaming is the dreaming you’re part of. And if these lands are your ancestral lands, its stories are your stories too – wherever in the world you might find yourself now. Welcome. Pull a stool up to the fire, and open your ears and your heart.

Language and culture – myth, story, and a commitment to well-grounded, rigorous study of the old texts and traditions – is also at the heart of who we are. Irish is spoken here at The Hedge School; my husband David Knowles is fluent in two of the three Irish dialects, as well as Scottish Gaelic, and is an occasional translator of contemporary Irish poetry. He is also a scholar and translator of Old Irish, which allows me to more deeply (and accurately) explore the old stories in their original forms. Myth is not only at the heart of my academic work and expertise, but at the heart of who I am, and how I choose to live. My academic background in both mythology & folklore (Celtic) and psychology (with a focus on post-Jungian depth/archetypal psychology) draws me to focus deeply on the ways in which our old stories can lead us to a more authentic ways of living and being in the world. The Hedge School, then, is about practical guidance for living well, which I believe requires us to deeply connect with our places, listen to the land’s dreaming, and find a deep, embodied sense of belongingness to this wide, beautiful Earth.

The Hedge School is not just a virtual space, but a real building: a lovely, mezzanined little house on the wild-hedged fringes of a large garden in Connemara, in the far west of Ireland. Find out more about our location here.


Reclaiming ancient wisdom, and our native mythical tradition

The primary focus of my programme at The Hedge School is the native mythology and traditions of Ireland and northern Europe, and their relevance to the personal, social and environmental problems we face today. I’m also, as a current academic scholar in the field of Celtic Studies, familiar with the latest thinking on the oldest literature and folklore of the other Celtic nations. I believe that those stories and traditions offer insights into authentic and meaningful ways of being which are founded on a sense of belonging to place, a rootedness in the land we inhabit. Our old myths, fairy tales and folk traditions offer up a deep and grounded wisdom which we can draw on today to show us how to belong to the wider world again.

Myths and stories teach us how to negotiate with the wild, and help us navigate our relationships with what we perceive to be ‘other’. They can show us what it is to fall into the land’s dreaming; they can show us a world in which everything is animate in its own way. A world in which we can learn from everything: animal, plant, rock. Myths and stories help us to understand the world around us as filled with its own purpose and meaning, rather than as a mere backdrop for human activity.

The native mythology of Britain and Ireland is part of a tradition which concerns itself, at its core, with our relationship with, and duty to, the land. The early Grail legends, for example (which can clearly be traced back from medieval French and German romances to their early Irish and Welsh origins) are properly conceived of not as a journey to individual wholeness as many Jungian writers have suggested, but as a journey to heal the Wasteland – to heal our relationship with the land, with the Otherworld, and the anima mundi. These are the stories which sing us back home to the lands in which we have roots; the stories in which we can find our belonging.

At The Hedge School, then, my work with myth and stories is focused on the storying and re-storying – the re-enchanting –  of our relationship to land, place and nature. It’s about rediscovering the sacred in everyday life, and in the world around us. It’s about creating the ceremonies and practices – about creating new (or arguably old) ways of perceiving and being in the world – which lead us back to an understanding of our place in this dreaming Earth.

The Hedge School isn’t just for those living in Britain, Ireland or the other Celtic nations – it’s for anyone who feels a pull to these traditions, and who wants to explore ways of learning from them. At least half of the people who work with me are from North America, Australia and New Zealand, and other parts of Europe. All of my courses and writings are focused on developing meaningful and authentic practices which can be brought home to your place – whichever part of the world you might choose to inhabit.


Building a new folk culture

‘Folk culture’ is a term with a lot of baggage behind it, and back in the day it certainly had connotations of tribalism and insularity. British cultural geographer George Revill has this to say about how folk culture was traditionally defined:

‘Conventionally, folk culture refers to the products and practices of relatively homogeneous and isolated small-scale social groups living in rural locations. Thus, folk culture is often associated with tradition, historical continuity, sense of place, and belonging. It is manifest in song and dance, storytelling and mythology, vernacular design in buildings, everyday artifacts and clothing, diet, habits, social rules and structures, work practices such as farming and craft production, religion, and worldviews. Researchers and collectors from the later 19th and first half of the 20th centuries formulated a notion of “the folk” as relatively untouched by the modern world and of folk culture as precious survivals and relics from bygone cultures transmitted orally down through the generations.’

But, more importantly, he also notes that ideas about what folk culture is and can be are changing:

‘However, more recent work recognizes the place of folk culture in the modern world as heterogeneous and emergent practice. … From this perspective, folk culture is evident in a multiplicity of local cultural reworkings, as individuals and social groups creatively make sense of the circumstances in which they live. Thought in this way as emergent and freely adaptable vernacular culture, folk culture can be urban or rural and can combine cultural elements from different places, from traditional and commercial and from past and present cultural practices. Conceptions of folk culture not only inform long-standing themes of landscape, region, and place within cultural geography but also speak to more recent concerns with identity, habit, indigenous knowledge, diaspora, heritage, authenticity, and hybridity.’

That’s the kind of folk culture I’m interested in building. One which has its roots in the land we actually live in, but which has the open-mindedness, spaciousness and curiosity which will allow us also to bring to it, if they are different, the traditions and heritage of our birth or ancestral lands – wherever they might be.

The need for rigour, and scholarship – as well as the mythic imagination

We can transform ourselves and the world around us by learning from our native mythologies and folk and wisdom traditions — beginning always by exploring them in a way that is rooted in authentic knowledge and study of the original sources, unfiltered by romanticism, fantasy or modern cultural projections. A surprising amount of contemporary writing about Celtic myth and tradition in particular is rooted in out-of-date ideas, or is simply fabricated, or wishful thinking. There’s a lot of talk out there about folklore, myth and archetypes, and unfortunately not all of it arises from a proper grounding in these fields of study. And so the foundation of my work at The Hedge School is very firmly rooted in genuine and up-to-date scholarship, and in my academic qualifications as a psychologist and mythologist, as well as in my lived experience on the wild Celtic edgelands of Europe. With those firm, deeply rooted foundations as our bedrock, we can let our creative and mythic imagination run free. As Carl Jung once wrote, humans have always been mythmakers. It’s my firm belief that we need to learn how to authentically and imaginatively embrace that role again today.

(Artwork on this page by Maxime Simoncelli)


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