Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy 2011 to all who visit my blog.

I wish you all a Happy, healthy, peaceful and prosperous 2011.

Ba mhaith liom tú sásta go léir, sláintiúl, síochánta agus níos rathúla 2011.

A Druids Blessing.

“May the blessing of light be on you, light without and light within.

May the blessed sunlight shine upon you and warm your heart till it glows,
like a great turf fire, so that the stranger may come
and warm himself at it, as well as the friend.

May the light shine out from your eyes,
like a candle set in the windows of a house,
bidding the wanderer to come in out of the storm.

May the blessing of the rain be on you - the soft sweet rain.
May it fall upon your spirit so that all the little flowers may spring up,
and shed their sweetness on the air.

May the strength of the wind bless you as it carries the rain to wash your spirit clean and leave behind a sparkling pool that shines like a star.

May the blessing of the earth be on you - the great round earth;
soft under your feet as you pass along the roads, soft under you as you lie out on it, tired at the end of day.

May you ever have a kindly greeting for people you pass
as you are going along the roads."

May you understand the strength and power of Mother Nature, in a thunderstorm in winter or the quiet beauty of creation, the calm of a summer sunset or the sound of a babies sigh.

May you come to realise that as small as you are in the scheme of things you are an important part of the wheel.

May the Gods/Goddesses watch over you and keep you safe from all harm.

Top image is of The Reek (Croagh Padraig) Mountain that overlooks Westport.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Thomas Harriot.


Spare a thought for poor old Thomas Harriot, the sometime Waterford resident who actually brought the first potato back to Europe only to have his thunder stolen by Sir Walter Raleigh.

Born in 1560 in England, Thomas Harriot was considered by his peers to be the most brilliant mathematician of the Elizabethan Age, and in 1577, he went to Oxford University where he met and befriended Raleigh, eight years his senior and already rising steadily through the English hierarchy. The two men hit it off from the outset and Harriot subsequently became Raleigh's most trusted friend and also his accountant.

Over the next six years, Raleigh established his reputation as one of England’s great heroes, principally by stealing large cargos of gold and silver from luckless Spanish ships that came his way. Raleigh’s power base was in Ireland where he first made his name crushing Irish Catholic rebels during the Desmond Wars. By 1586, the Royal favourite had secured ownership of a whopping 42,000 acres of Munster, forfeited by the rebel Earl of Desmond. Much of this vast estate ran along the fertile River Blackwater, culminating in the walled town of Youghal of which Raleigh became Mayor in 1588. His home in Youghal was Myrtle Grove and still stands today.

It is here that he is said to have planted the first potatoes in Europe.

That may well be true but Raleigh would not have had any potato seeds at all were it not for his aforementioned friend, Thomas Hariot.

In 1584, a Raleigh-sponsored expedition returned from North America with two 'lusty savages' on board. These men were called Manteo and Wanchese and came from an island, apparently called 'Wingandacoa', off North Carolina. Harriot spent a phenomenal amount of time with the two Native Americans, learning their ways and mastering their language. One of the first things he learned was that 'Wingandaco’ simply meant 'You have nice clothes' - one of the foremost examples of positive race relations in early American history.

Utterly fascinated by the pair, the following year 25-year-old Harriot decided to brave the journey across the Atlantic and accompany Manteo and Wanchese back to the New World. They sailed with Sir Richard Grenville who was planning to establish England’s first colony at Roanoke in Virginia. Raleigh was longing to go too but his Queen had by now fallen in love with him and insisted he stayed close to hand.

Shortly after arriving at Roanoke, Harriot and his friend John White set off with Manteo deep into Native American territory. They wintered together by Chesapeake Bay for three months, surveying the territory by day, sleeping rough at night. Harriot described the bay as a 'paradise of the world', full of 'merchantable commodities' and edible fruits, fowls and animals, including a 'multitude of bears being an excellent good victual'.

Harriot and White befriended the natives, Iroquois and Algonquin alike. The tribesmen were much impressed with Harriot's game-on attitude and his quick mastery of their language. During his stay, Harriott came upon two particularly interesting ‘merchantable’ goods - openauk and uppowoc, otherwise known as potatoes and tobacco. He later described how the Indians dried and powdered the tobacco leaves, then smoked them in their pipes. Smoking, he suggested, was a perfect way to purge 'superfluous phlegm and other gross humours' from the body.

However, news emanating from Roanoke did not bode well for the Englishmen. Tensions between the English colonists and the indigenous natives had erupted in violence and bloodshed. Grenville was calling off the expedition and heading home. Harriot was furious. Those who spoke loudest of Indian treachery, he maintained, had never even left the fort. Harriot and White reluctantly bade their Chesapeke friends farewell and made it back in time to catch the last ship to England. Of those Englishmen who remained at Roanoke after their departure there is no further record. Nor do we know what became of Manteo or Wanchese.

As their ship bounced across the Atlantic, Harriot wrote notes, juggled potatoes and sniffed tobacco. Once back in London, he went to Raleigh with his findings. Raleigh quickly made his way to Queen Elizabeth and showed her the goods. She tried a puff of tobacco from his trademark silver pipe but the effect made her queasy. The Royal Court ooohed and aaahed at Sir Walter’s amazing finds and so, of course, it passed into legend that he personally ‘discovered’ both the potato and tobacco.

Harriot complied his memories into 'A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia', published in 1588 and swiftly translated into Latin, French and German. The paper was something of a propaganda piece, designed to reassure investors and possible settlers that all was not lost. It was written at Molana Abbey, a stunning abbey which still stands today, albeit crumbling fast, upon the banks of the River Blackwater, close to Raleigh’s home in Youghal. The report was illustrated by a series of evocative drawings by John White, who lived at Newtown, Kilmore, Co. Cork.

Harriott went on to become part of a curious intellectual circle, known as the School of Night, obsessed by the occult. This high-profile group, which included both Marlowe and Shakespeare, occasionally met at Molana. Its chief organizer, the Wizard Earl of Northumberland, was later imprisoned for life for supporting Guy Fawkes. Raleigh was also tried for treason and eventually executed in 1618. In his will, he left Harriot a generous pension and all his 'black suites of apparel'. Harriot himself was condemned as an atheist and homosexual. He narrowly escaped execution and died in 1621.

Harriott passed into historical obscurity. His ghost may take heart, however, from the knowledge that 400 years later, the merchantable good he happened upon in Chesapeke is the world’s number one non-grain food commodity, with annual production exceeding 325 million tons.

Even if Raleigh did get all the credit.

Courtesy of:

Top image: Sir Walter Raliegh.
Middle image: Thomas Harriot.
Bottom image: An Irish potato.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Florence Newton. The Witch of Youghal 1661.

Florence Newton. The Witch of Youghal (1661)

In areas of Ireland that had been widely settled by the English, English law prevailed. So it was not unusual to find an English-type witchcraft accusation in such an area as Youghal, County Cork, which had been extensively settled by English puritans. Since the mid to late 1500s the town had been considered ‘English’. Sir Walter Raleigh had been one of its early mayors and the first potatoes from the New World were grown in Youghal, and ‘English ways’ were said to prevail there. So it is not surprising that English beliefs in witchcraft should also manifest themselves there in the trial of Florence Newton in 1661.

It all began because of a disagreement between an old woman and a young girl. Florence Newton was committed to Youghal prison by the mayor of the town on 24th March 1661 to stand trial for witchcraft at Cork assizes on 11th September. She was accused of bewitching a servant girl, Mary Longdon, who was called to give evidence against her at her trial. Newton was a beggar woman who seldom worked and who went from door to door scrounging what she could, she had a nasty reputation and used this to intimidate people to get what she wanted.

Mary Longdon was a servant to a well to do local bailiff who went on to become mayor and because of her position she believed this gave her the right to airs and graces and she was thought by those who knew her to be a little bit snobbish.
Longdon accused Newton of threatening her because she refused to give her food from her masters table, later she was confronted by Newton who she said kissed her violently. Shocked by this Longdon returned home. Shortly afterwards she fell ill and became subject to ‘fits and trances’ which became extremely violent. When having these fits she would start vomiting all manner of odd things-needles, pins, horseshoe nails, wool and straw and it would take three or four strong men to hold her down.

During these trances, she saw visions of Florence Newton who would approach her and stick pins into various parts of her body. Longdon stated that the fits and trances only began when Newton had kissed her and that by that kiss, she ‘had bewitched her’ It is here that Newton sealed her own fate for as Longdon finished giving her evidence, Newton pointed at her and said “Now she is down”. Upon which Longdon fell to the ground and had a violent fit, biting at her own arms, shrieking and foaming at the mouth, much to the distress of all in the courthouse.

Newton was ordered to recite the Lord’s prayer but after several attempts failed to do so. The trial now began to take on some of the characteristics of English witch finding with specific examinations of the accused taking place under the supervision of supposed ‘experts’. Valentine Greatrakes (or Greatrix as he is called in some records) seems to have operated in this case much in the same way as Matthew Hopkins in Essex. Why he involved himself in the case is unclear but it seems he was contacted by some of the Youghal citizens as he had professed himself to have a knowledge of witchcraft and the methods used to interrogate suspected sorcerers.

The evidence against Newton was further strengthened when her jailer dropped dead, he was ill and now it is thought he had a stroke but his dying words were “she’s done for me” The trial concluded, she having been indicted on two counts-first, the bewitching of Mary Longdon and, secondly, causing the death of her jailer, David Jones. The trial had been almost wholly conducted in an English manner and according to English law.

It caused great interest in Youghal and further afield and was considered to be so important that the Irish Attorney General went down to prosecute. Sadly there is no record of the verdict and Florence Newton disappears from all records of the time. It is likely, however, that she was found guilty and was sentenced to be hanged in accordance with the punishment prescribed by English law in such matters.
It is easy, with the benefit of hindsight to dismiss these events as fanciful but to do so would be to dismiss the thinking of seventeenth century Ireland.

The lawmakers and rulers of this society were the educated people of the time. Witchcraft was a label they attached to anything they considered to be inexplicable and it also enabled them to cope with the changing ethos of the time. The Trial of Florence Newton offers an insight into the link between Irish and English society at the time. It showed the tension, fear and anxiety that underpinned life in a seventeenth century Irish plantation town.

The image in the middle is of Valentine Greatrakes.

Devil Doctor or Warlock.

Alexander Colville. The Devil Doctor.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was a steady flow of Scots Presbyterians to the north of Ireland. Many of those who came were weavers and spinners and it was they who founded the basis of the linen industry upon which Ulster was later to depend for its development. With them, they also brought their religious beliefs and their ministers. This has a bearing on one of the most famous of the Ulster witches, who came from the nearby village of Galgorm: Dr. Alexander Colville.

The Reverend Alexander Colville was High Anglican (Church of England) and to the Presbyterians this was as good as being a Catholic. He was hated and detested in the countryside round about. Little is known regarding his actual history but his name has become a legend in the district and is still a byword for evil and witchcraft and he was considered to be an extremely cruel and tyrannical landlord.

The most famous tale, one that is still repeated today, is that he sold his soul to the devil. Despite being a clergyman, Dr Colville loved to gamble, drink and eat and whatever money he had was soon frittered away. Consequently he was soon bankrupt and having nothing to barter with he decided to use dark powers to replenish his finances. This involved selling his soul to the devil for gold. The doctor knew after years of hedonistic living his soul would not be worth much but he also knew that the soul of a minister or godly men were worth more to the devil than some others and maybe his would be of interest to the dark lord.

Dr Colville owned a large number of books on the ‘black arts’ and he used one of these to perform the appropriate ritual to summon the devil and within a moment there was a reek of sulphurous smoke and up he popped. “Well? Why have you disturbed me?” The doctor told him of his proposal. The devil looked up Colville in his ledger and informed him that all souls had some worth but his was worth very little. Colville accepted that and agreed to a low sum in two instalments. All the devil had to do was to fill an old riding boot with gold and then an old soft hat. Dr Colville would be satisfied with that and the devil could have his soul. The actual date for the surrender of the soul, the doctor suggested, should take place twenty years hence on 25th December.

Suspecting trickery, the devil suggested the date of surrender should be on the last day of February twenty years hence and after some haggling concerning the time this was finally agreed. The first instalment to be paid straight away, the second in seven years. The devil then requested to be taken to the old riding boot. Snapping his fingers gold coin began to fall into the boot and the devil instructed it not to stop until the boot was full to the top. This seemed to take an unusual length of time, what the devil did not know was that the boot had been placed over a hole in the floor which led directly to the cellars of Galgorm Castle and that the crafty doctor had cut away the heel of the boot. The devil realised he had been tricked and with an angry roar he disappeared, promising vengeance in seven years. The doctor just smiled, stating he would look forward to their next meeting.

At the end of seven years, the devil reappeared. However, suspecting another trick he refused to meet the Doctor at the Castle so their meeting place was an old limekiln nearby. The doctor was already there waiting for him by the edge of the kiln, with his old soft hat outstretched. This he required the devil to fill to the brim. The devil snapped his fingers and once more gold coin began to fill the hat but once more the doctor cheated for there was a thin slit in the crown of the hat and the gold fell into the kiln below. Again the devil promised vengeance when he collected the doctor’s soul in thirteen years time.

When the devil arrived at Galgorm Castle he found the doctor within the old church. The so called clergy man was pretending to read the bible by the light of a candle. In a booming voice the devil commanded him to rise and accompany him to hell where he had a very special place set aside for him. “Just a moment” Doctor Colville raised a restraining hand, “Let me finish this portion of Holy Scripture, promise me you’ll wait just until my little candle burns out for you will have me for eternity”. Reluctantly the devil agreed, with a cry of triumph the doctor snuffed out the candle and placed it within the pages of the ironbound bible. “Now it will never burn down, nor will it be lit again, nor can you take it from within the sacred pages”.

Years passed, the doctor was away in Belfast visiting friends and an old maidservant was cleaning his study, it was a dark winter’s evening and she looked around for some form of light. The Doctor had left the bible open on the table and the old servant saw the candle stump. “He’ll not mind me having this wee bit of light on such a dark evening she said, lighting it. As soon as it had burnt away she heard a demonic laugh followed by thunder clap echoing through the castle. When the doctor arrived back from Belfast and heard what had happened, he turned pale and trembled. “You’ve condemned my soul to hell” he told the old woman as he dismissed her from service.

However, Doctor Colville was a crafty man and was determined not to be outdone by the devil. He devised a plan, from that day onwards, every year as the end of February (the last day of February being the date agreed for the collection of the soul) approached, Dr. Colville would become more pious, reading the bible, saying prayers and singing religious songs, all designed to keep the devil at bay until March 1st when Dr. Colville would resume his old ways again and become as heartless as ever-until the middle of February the following year.

Finally, when one 28th February had passed and the great clock in the hall of Galgorm Castle struck midnight. Dr. Colville laid aside his religious books and climbed the stairs to one of the upper rooms where some friends were gathered for an evening of gambling and drinking. Lifting a glass of brandy, he raised it in a toast to his company. “A good swallow of brandy, a good game of cards, what better way to celebrate the 1st March” One of his friends said “But it’s not the 1st March, today is 29th February, it’s a leap year”. At this the Doctor turned white and dropped his glass. “What, a leap year? It can’t be!” he looked around fearfully for his bible. Where had he put it? But it was too late; there came a hammering on the door like the rumble of thunder.

When an old servant opened the door, there stood a tall man in a green cloak. Ignoring the servant’s protest he strode into the castle and up the stairs to the room where the Doctor was cowering. “It’s time that our bargain was completed Dr. Colville” he said in a voice dripping in hate. The Doctor grovelled and protested imploring that some compromise could be arrived at, but without another word, the devil wrapped his cloak around the Doctor and with a puff of foul smelling smoke they disappeared in front of the astonished guests. Neither was ever seen again.

The image in the middle is of Rev. Alexander Colville

Monday, December 27, 2010

Moll Anthony. The Witch of Red Hills.

Moll Anthony: The witch of the red hills.

Celtic society had a very strong impression of female power, indeed, many Celtic deities were female and women played a central role in Celtic society. Amongst the early Celtic religious leaders were a number of druidesses (Bandraoithe) who were direct conduits to the gods /goddesses and custodians to a secret knowledge that lay beyond normal mortals.

Most of this knowledge was about herbs and the elements and a great number of these women acted as healers and midwifes. In later years such women often remained central figures within their community. People still looked to them for their healing powers and powers of divination.

Every locality has its wise woman, herb lady or fairie doctor, people who seemed to have supernatural skills but where had these powers come from? For some such as the Church there was only one explanation-the devil. Others believed that they came from the fairies. The people believed that these wise women and fairie doctors drew their powers from the dark elements, from the older powers that dwelt in the trees and stone or in the rivers and hills.

One of the most famous of these women was Moll Anthony of Kildare. Like Biddy Early, accounts of her life are fragmentary and contradictory but there is no doubt that she was held in awe and even a little terror by those who knew her. Her story is difficult to piece together due to the fact that nobody really knows exactly who she was.

One evening a man and a woman were having their evening meal in their small cottage near Punchesgrange, County Kildare, when they were interrupted. The door opened and in walked four men, all dressed in black. They were tall, pale and not one said a word. The woman placed her hand over her mouth to stifle a scream for her and her husband knew that these were the fairie folk and no good could come from this visit. The tallest of the men was carrying a box shaped like a small coffin within which something was stirring. He placed it upon the table and all four men turned and left the cottage. The whole encounter lasted a couple of minutes.

Opening the box, the couple found a small baby girl wrapped in a red shawl. The child was human and as the couple were childless they decided to bring the child up as their own. She grew up to become a legendary wise woman and throughout her long life, she kept in touch with the fairies that had carried her to the house. The people who knew her say it was because of this contact with the gentry, she had such great powers, the power of healing, the power of curing sick animals, the power of foretelling the future, the power of finding lost or stolen objects. Her fame spread and everyone knew her name. She was Moll Anthony.

It is said that from a very early age, Moll displayed super-natural powers. Whether this came about through a contact with the fairies when an infant or whether, as the Kildare clergy suggested, It was through her worship of the evil one, is a matter of debate. However, it branded her as a ‘special person’. She also had a physical attribute that set her apart, halfway up her right arm, it was said, she had an oddly shaped strawberry coloured birthmark, which never seemed to fade as she grew older. Many people said this was a ‘fairy mark’ given to her by the little people, in fact, some said that it had been given to her by the most powerful fairy of all-the Fool of the Forth.

The Fool was said to be a being that could bestow great power or take away a person’s wits simply by a stroke of a rod which he carried. This is the origin of the description for the medical condition of a ‘stroke’.

Like many other ‘wise women, Moll Anthony, the Kildare witch, remains a hazy and mysterious figure. Nevertheless, this enigmatic woman was undoubtedly part of a tradition that stretched back into the mists of antiquity.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Big Snow.

Just to put the present weather into context.

THE BIG SNOWS OF 1947, 1963 & 1982

Glancing out his bedroom window in Ballymote, Co. Sligo, on the evening of Monday 24 February 1947, seventeen-year-old Francie McFadden shivered. The penetrating Arctic winds had been blowing for several weeks. Munster and Leinster had been battling the snows since the middle of January. It was only a matter of time before the treacherous white powder began to tumble upon Ulster and Connaught.

That night, a major Arctic depression approached the coast of Cork and Kerry and advanced north-east across Ireland. As the black winds began howling down the chimneys, so the new barrage began. When Francie awoke on Tuesday morning, the outside world was being pounded by the most powerful blizzard of the 20th century.[i]

1947 was the year of the Big Snow, the coldest and harshest winter in living memory. Long may it stay that way.[ii] Because the temperatures rarely rose above freezing point, the snows that had fallen across Ireland in January remained until the middle of March. Worse still, all subsequent snowfall in February and March simply piled on top. And there was no shortage of snow that bitter winter. Of the fifty days between January 24th and March 17th, it snowed on thirty of them.[iii]

‘The Blizzard’ of February 25th was the greatest single snowfall on record and lasted for close on fifty consecutive hours. It smothered the entire island in a blanket of snow. Driven by persistent easterly gales, the snow drifted until every hollow, depression, arch and alleyway was filled and the Irish countryside became a vast ashen wasteland. Nothing was familiar anymore. Everything on the frozen landscape was a sea of white. The freezing temperatures solidified the surface and it was to be an astonishing three weeks before the snows began to melt.

McFadden’s neighbour Jim Kielty was driving back from Dublin to Ballymote the night the blizzard struck. Kielty has driven over two million accident-free miles in his career as a hackney driver but he swears that was the hairiest journey he ever made. Through heavy snow and near zero visibility, he could see buses, lorries and cars abandoned all along the roadside.

Every field, road and rooftop was submerged under this dry, powdery snow. In many places, the snowdrifts were up to the height of the telegraph poles. When he got caught in the snow, Jackie Doherty of Liscarbon, Co. Leitrim, found his way home by clambering up a drift and using the telegraph wire to guide and maintain his balance. In the towns too, all the shop fronts, hall doors and gable walls vanished under the massive walls thrown up by the Arctic winds.

De Valera’s post-war Ireland ground to a complete standstill. The transport system was the first major thing to crumple. Every road and railway in the land was blocked, every canal frozen solid, every power cable and electricity pylon suffocated by snow. No amount of grit or rocksalt was ever going to compete. Nobody was going anywhere fast and nothing would be normal for nearly six weeks.[iv]
‘People said Ireland was finished’, says McFadden. ‘It was pure black frost, night and day constant, and the snow was as high as the hedges. A lot of the houses around here were backed up to the roof. You couldn’t go outside the door without a good heavy coat on you. And there was no sky to be seen at all, or no sun.’

Bicycles were ditched all over the country and quickly consumed by the ravenous mantle of snow. Johnny Gormley, a postman in Roscommon, was caught out in the rugged valleys on his bicycle and collapsed suffering from fatigue and hypothermia. By a stroke of luck, a farmer out searching for his sheep found him and brought him back to his house to recover.

Thomas Levins of Co. Kilkenny recalls how his father set out into the blinding snow to rescue his mother who had collapsed on the road outside Gowran, surrounded by ‘walls of snow the height of herself’.

Less fortunate were two colleagues of McFadden’s father who were caught in a snowdrift while returning from the bogs of Sligo. They were found four days later with the bags of turf frozen on their backs.

Another fatality was a Carriackmacross farmer found in the fields by his teenage son, Pat Joe Walsh. (The younger Walsh as the man who tragically bled to death following a botched operation at Monaghan General Hospital in 2005).

For the elderly, those three bone-chilling weeks presented a deadly nightmare. The plummeting temperatures triggered respiratory problems, heart attacks and strokes. If they had not stocked up on food and medical supplies, their situation was extremely precarious. Provisions were quickly rationed so that no individual was entitled to more than 6lb of bread, half a pound of sugar, half an ounce of tea and 2 ozs of butter. But the actual delivery of bread, milk, potatoes and vegetables was extremely difficult given the snowy roads. Grocers were also unable to access their potato and vegetable suppliers on the farms.

Petrol and gas supplies were also severely rationed. The fledgling electricity supply swiftly dwindled and most people were soon back on paraffin lamps and candlelight. More worryingly, by the close of February, there was a nationwide shortage of peat. It was estimated that half the houses in Dublin City had no turf for their fires. People began to hack up furniture while, in the countryside, countless trees were felled for firewood. Iced up wells and frozen pipes added to the misery. A marooned old timer in Killeshandra, Co. Cavan, packed a large cauldron with as much snow as he could gather and was dismayed to find that, when boiled, he only had a half pint of water.

Survival is a game that favours the young. Inaccessible to doctors and nurses, hundreds of elderly souls in rural Ireland, the children of the 19th century, must have succumbed during the Big Snow of 1947.[v]

Burying them turned out to be particularly difficult on account of the snow and the frozen ground. In several instances, coffins remained above ground or were temporarily buried in snow until the ground was sufficiently thawed to dig a grave. Coffins were often transported in improvised sleighs, usually barn doors taken from their hinges and pulled with ropes by horses. The quick-thinking bakers and milkmen of Boyle, Co. Roscommon, constructed similar sleighs to supply their snow-besieged customers with bread and milk.

The wintry conditions were particularly devastating for out-wintered livestock. In Britain, almost a quarter of the country's sheep died during the Big Snow and it took six years for the numbers to recover. Newspapers across Ireland carried similarly sorry tales of horses, donkeys, cattle and sheep killed by snowdrifts. ‘There was a lot of sheep smothered up in the hill’, recalls Hugh McCormick, a sheep farmer from the Glens of Antrim. ‘They died from the want of water and food.’ By day, the farmers dismally trawled their snowbound lands, seeking out the telltale signs of life from the breaths of animals trapped underneath.

Cavan’s Swanlinbar News reported that over 1,000 sheep had been lost in the snow. Maguire and Patterson, the match manufacturers, lost the entire herd from their farm in Donegal. On Mount Leinster, Carlow farmer John Cody became a local hero when he single-handedly shepherded a neighbour’s flock to safety. Even animals kept in sheds and byers required constant attention as fodder and hay were in short supply and the water troughs constantly froze up. Enormous numbers of chickens kept in poultry farms perished from the cold. Countless thousands of other birds, mammals and wildlife must have also died in the wild.

But as anyone experiencing these January snows will tell you, the snow provides a heaven-sent opportunity for youngsters to spend the days sledging, throwing snowballs and building igloos instead of studying Peig Sayers and doing their sums.[vi] Back in 1947, most Irish children walked to school. That was clearly a non-runner with the snow so the schools simply shut. Besides, all the ink had frozen solid in the inkwells so there was nothing to write with.

Beneath the bleak day sky and the clearer, brighter night skies, boys and girls across Ireland took to the slopes on an assortment of push cars, enamel basins and aluminium trays. In Co. Wicklow, the boys of the Sunbeam Orphanage outside Bray bombed down Bray Head on an old pram. They also made a giant snowman which they kept on building, day after day, higher and higher, thicker and thicker and Johnny Golden, one of its young architects, swears ‘that snowman was still standing in June or damned near it’.[vii]

When the seventeen springs of Co. Sligo’s Bellinascarrow Lake were found to have frozen to a depth of nine feet, a group of young lads took the shoes off their horses, loaded their carts up with several tons of sawdust from the Ballymote mills and poured it all over the icy surface. ‘And didn’t they set up a stage on the lake with poles and lights and big heavy batteries!’, marvels McFadden. ‘They had bands and done dancing on it and the music of accordions and bodhrans could be heard above Boyle.’ One foolhardy gent won a whopping £30 when he drove across the lake on a BSA motorbike. Another daredevil cycled the full 10km length of Lough Key for the ‘craic’.

Across the Irish Sea, a force of 100,000 British and Polish soldiers and German prisoners were put to work clearing snow from the railways and roads. Clearing the roads was certainly the most immediate and obvious solution to the crisis. By early March, men had gathered all along the roads of Ireland with shovel and spade, ready to do their bit. In towns and cities too, the people came out to remove the snow from the streets and footpaths.

The rural community at Ardmore in Co. Waterford had been effectively cut off by the blizzard and the 10-foot high drifts. It took a lot of shoveling but the reward was manna itself when the bread van from Youghal finally reached the village.

For others it was not such satisfying work. Charlie McAlister of Co. Antrim recalled how he and seven other men ‘were shoveling snow from January until the 17th March … and every time you shoveled it away it just come back, every day you just had to restart.’ Eventually they started shoveling the snow directly onto a lorry which carted the snow down to the beach and dumped it into the salt water.

On 13th March, the snow was still window high in Buncrana. Four days later, on St Patrick’s Day no less, the great thaw finally began as the mighty slabs of ice slid from the rooftops and crashed onto the ground below. There was so much snow to dispose of that it was several weeks before normal travel could resume. To make matters worse, the thaw was accompanied by prolonged heavy rain, making it the wettest, sludgiest March in almost 300 years. When at last the green fields of Ireland reappeared, the countryside looked as if it has been pummelled by a twister – it was a veritable ocean of mangled bicycles, broken poles, fallen trees and the corpses of dead animals.

An unexpected positive was that the Big Snow appears to have done the arable farmers a favour for the yields of corn and potatoes in the summer of 1947 were as lush and bountiful as any there has ever been. This lends some credence to the old theory that frost and snow are good for ridding the soil of pests and disease.

When the world turns white, everyone has a memory. It was a time of extraordinary collaboration and resourcefulness, fun for children, almost unbearable for adults. There is no doubt that the Big Snow of 1947 was an event that was clearly etched on everyone’s mind. As with the present crisis, snow slows everything right down. The only solution is to be patient and wait until the melt begins. Perhaps inevitably, de Valera’s stumbling Fianna Fáil government got the blame for the lousy weather. As with Britain’s Labour government across the water, they were slung out of power in the ensuing General Election.


The winter of 2010 will undoubtedly be a cold one. But how will it compete with the other whoppers of times past? The winter of 1683–84 remains the coldest on record with the Thames freezing solid all the way up to London Bridge and the longest frost ever

In 1740, the big freeze combined with a famine to wipe out an estimated 16% of Ireland’s population. The winter of 1878-79 slammed the country with back-to-back months where temperatures averaged below zero. The blizzard that struck Ireland on the day of the General Election of February 1917 was the worst in living memory at that time. Another came in 1932 which, according to blacksmith Jack Lowry of Mountrath, Co. Laoise, who was nine at the time, levelled the whole country so that ‘you’d only see the top of the trees and there were places where there was twenty feet of snow.’


Elvis Presley’s ‘Return to Sender’ was the Christmas Day No. 1 in Ireland in 1962, and that was a title that must have appealed to many of those who watched the powdery snow flakes tumbling from the sky that day. That evening, all along the eastern half of the country, the snow froze solid; temperatures would remain on or below zero until early March in what was to prove the coldest winter since 1814. Over 17 inches of snow fell on New Year's Eve alone. It was to be the soberest start to a new year that anyone could remember. Nobody wanted to brave conditions that had already frozen the Shannon at Limerick.

Bitter Siberian easterly winds and further blizzards continued to pummel the country over the next week, creating snowdrifts up to 15 feet in height. Leinster and Ulster were paralysed, as villages were cut off, roads and railways blocked, telephone wires collapsed, food stocks ran low and farmers were unable to reach their livestock with deadly consequences for thousands of sheep, ponies and cattle. The freezing fog and low temperatures were also fatal for huge numbers of birds who literally fell from their perches and died. For the hundreds of thousands living in rural Ireland, often in thatched houses with just a turf fire to keep them warm, this was a time to brace oneself. In some instances, food and medical supplies had to be airlifted in.

By mid-January, men were being pulled off the dole, handed shovels and sent out in lorries to clear the roads. However, Arctic winds brought another four inches of snow causing complete turmoil to relief efforts, as well the sporting calendar. In early February, the Siberian cold returned with a phenomenal snowstorm that smothered the west of Ireland in white powder. The price of fresh food shot up 30%.

Britain likewise ground to a halt and in London the Thames froze to such a depth that there was a car rally on the ice. The big freeze was followed by a gentle thaw brought on by a dreary drizzle in the early days of March. Be warned though, Cliff Richard seized the opportunity to cheer everyone up with a song called ‘Summer Holiday’.


January 1982 probably stands as the best month ever to be a school kid in Ireland because for much of the month, there was no school. Three short but intense snowstorms painted Ireland white for the best part of three weeks. The heaviest fall was a 36-hour blizzard which began on January 7th. The east was the worst affected area, with Dublin City notching up some 2.5-ft in some parts, while the drifts rose to five and six feet in the suburbs. Hundreds of motorists were rescued from their cars on the Naas dual carriageway.

There were a further two weighty falls over a ten day period which, combined with snow showers drifting in from the Irish Sea, added to the snow that had already frozen and compacted on the ground. That made for ideal tobogganing conditions, not least because temperatures were mild either side of the snowstorm, and the hills were alive with youngsters jetting off down the slopes on wooden sleighs, old car bonnets and fertilizer bags.

Postmen, milkmen and council workers got around with snow chains while snowmobile sales also rocketed. The government duly appointed the late Michael O’Leary, subsequently nicknamed the ‘Minister for Snow’, to coordinate emergency services. Power cuts and bread and milk shortages were widespread for a while but, talking to anyone who remembers it, you get an overriding sense that everybody secretly loved it.


[i] The anticyclone had been slowly rolling south from Greenland into the Atlantic since January. Snow began to fall across Ireland in uneven measures over the early part of the month, sleeting down upon the thousands of mourners who attended Jim Larkin’s funeral in Glasnevin. The freezing temperatures were often accompanied by easterly gales and high rolling seas. On the night of 8th February, the SS Ary, a coalship belonging to the Great Southern Company, set sail from South Wales across the Irish Sea with a consignment of 640 tons of coal for Waterford. The steamer was commanded by a 55-year-old Estonian national, Captain Edward Kolk, with a crew of fifteen men. A cruel east wind slowly turned the ocean into a swirling cauldron of troughs and waves, until the coal cargo began to shift to one side and the whole ship started to capsize off the Irish coast. At midnight, Captain Kolk gave the order to abandon the sinking ship and the two lifeboats were launched into the bitterly cold night. Six men jumped into the starboard lifeboat; none survived. Nine men clambered into the portside lifeboat; by the morning only one was still alive. The 19-year-old Pole managed to stay alive for three days before making it to dry land at Dungarvan. Both his legs and several fingers were amputated in the effort to save his life. Over the next 10 days, the gale force easterlies drove the bodies of the other men on around the coast as far as Youghal. Twelve of the bodies were recovered and buried in a mass grave in the shadow of Ardmore’s thousand year old Round Tower. Even as the coffins were lowered on 18th February, the snow began to fall. Reports in the Anglo-Celt from that same day reported that Cavan’s Lough Gowna had frozen over, and people could walk across it for the first time in over thirty years. Four days later, the cold spell stopped and the sun appeared for the first time in nearly three weeks. Anyone who imagined the harsh winter was over was to be sorely disappointed.

See: 'The Loss of the ss. Ary, Ardmore, Co. Waterford (8-18 February 1947)' by Kevin Gallagher and 'The greatest snowfall of the century' by Christy Wynne.

[ii] Recalling the 1932 snowstorm, blacksmith Jack Lowry of Mountrath, Co. Laoise, who was nine at the time, leveled the whole country, said: ‘You’d only see the top of the trees. There were places where there was twenty feet of snow. There was very little food around then. A loaf of bread, some flour, a few eggs. Some were near starving because they couldn’t get to their neighbours. People got out and started digging along the road and finally they got into Mountrath the following week and that was the relief. There was never the like of it came since.’ In fact, 1947 could have been worse. The following December 26th 1947, heavy snow buried New York City under 26.4 inches of snow in 16 hours; the severe weather was blamed for some 80 deaths.

[iii] Winter 1947: Monthly Weather Report for February 1947, The Monthly Weather Report of the Meteorological Office.

[iv] Mick Higgins, a railway porter from Claremorris, walked the line from Claremorris to Kiltimagh, a distance of 9½ miles, to assure people that the snowplough train was coming soon. The drifts were up to his hips in places and the gallant porter required an urgent thaw when he reached Kiltimagh.

[v] Amongst those who died during the cold spell were 66-year-old Viscount Powerscourt, chairman of the hospital’s committee who managed the Irish Sweepstake.

[vi] “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven” – Wordsworth.

[vii] Milk froze in bottles so that children could break the glass and eat the milk like lollipops.

Article by Turtle Bunbury Writer and Historian (

Images are of our cottage in Westport County Mayo.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Winter solstice and plants of this time of year.

Winter Solstice.

Solstice literally means 'Sun Stands Still', for a few days around the time of the winter solstice the sun appears to stand still in the sky in that its elevation at noon does not seem to change. The winter solstice date is normally considered to be the 21st of December in the northern hemisphere, however at the winter solstice the position of the sun remains the same for three days. No one's really sure how long ago humans recognized the winter solstice and began heralding it as a turning point -- the day that marks the return of the sun.

Many cultures the world over perform solstice ceremonies. At their root, an ancient fear that the failing light would never return unless humans intervened with magical ceremonies.

Yule is the day of the winter solstice, the one of the longest night. This solar festival falls close to Christmas. As the Christians converted the Pagans, they adopted many of the country dwellers’ traditions to facilitate the acceptance of Christianity. The Celtic and Germanic/Nordic traditions are the biggest influence of Pagan plants on Christmas traditions. Some of the plants associated with this time of year are:


Holly berries, cloaked in sharp green leaves, are brightest in winter. The Druids revered this plant as sacred. It has been associated with winter magic and believed to repel evil. The Celts of the British Isles and Gaul believed the Holly King ruled over winter and death.

In Scandinavian mythology, the holly belonged to Thor & Freya. The plant’s association with Thor's lightning meant that it could protect people from being struck by his bolts.

Norsemen and Celts would plant a holly tree near their homes to ward off lightning strikes. The crooked lines of the holly leaves most likely gave rise to its association with lightning, as well as the fact that holly conducts lightning into the ground better than most trees.


Ivy is an evergreen vine symbolizing immortality. It had been a symbol of eternal life in many pagan religions, including Druidism. The Christians who converted these Pagans embraced it as a symbol for the new promise of eternal life.


Mistletoe is another plant that is sacred to the Celts and the Germanic/Norse. They believed the plant enhanced fertility because it stayed green in the winters.

The Druids believed the mistletoe's magical properties extended beyond fertility. It was believed to cure almost any disease and was known as the all healer.

Sprigs fixed above doorways of homes were said to keep away lightning and other types of evil. Because the plant has no roots it was believed that it grew from heaven.

Druid priests, five days after the New Moon of Yule, would cut mistletoe from the sacred oak with a sickle made of gold. The branches were divided into sprigs and given to people to hang over their doorways for protection. Mistletoe was placed in baby cradles to protect them from faeries.

The Mistletoe Magic :

From the earliest times mistletoe has been one of the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants of European folklore. It was considered to bestow life and fertility; a protection against poison; and an aphrodisiac. The mistletoe of the sacred oak was especially sacred to the ancient Celtic Druids. On the sixth night of the moon white-robed Druid priests would cut the oak mistletoe with a golden sickle. Two white bulls would be sacrificed amid prayers that the recipients of the mistletoe would prosper. Later, the ritual of cutting the mistletoe from the oak came to symbolize the emasculation of the old King by his successor.

Mistletoe was long regarded as both a sexual symbol and the "soul" of the oak. It was gathered at both mid-summer and winter solstices, and the custom of using mistletoe to decorate houses at Christmas is a survival of the Druid and other pre-Christian traditions.

The Greeks also thought that it had mystical powers and down through the centuries it became associated with many folklore customs. In the Middle Ages and later, branches of mistletoe were hung from ceilings to ward off evil spirits. In Europe they were placed over house and stable doors to prevent the entrance of witches. It was also believed that the oak mistletoe could extinguish fire. This was associated with an earlier belief that the mistletoe itself could come to the tree during a flash of lightning. The traditions which began with the European mistletoe were transferred to the similar American plant with the process of immigration and settlement.

Kissing under the mistletoe:

Kissing under the mistletoe is first found associated with the Greek/Roman festival of Saturnalia and later with primitive marriage rites. They probably originated from two beliefs. One belief was that it has power to bestow fertility. It was also believed that the mistletoe also possessed "life-giving" power.

In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses kiss and make-up. Later, the eighteenth-century English credited it with a certain magical appeal and called a bunch of mistletoe 'a kissing ball'. At Christmas time a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe, brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons, and ornaments, cannot refuse to be kissed. Such a kiss could mean deep romance or lasting friendship and goodwill. If the girl remained unkissed, she cannot expect not to marry the following year. In some parts of England the Christmas mistletoe is burned on the twelfth night lest all the boys and girls who have kissed under it never marry.

Whether we believe it or not, it always makes for fun and frolic at Christmas celebrations. Even if the pagan significance has been long forgotten, the custom of exchanging a kiss under the mistletoe can still be found in many European countries. Now if a couple in love exchanges a kiss under the mistletoe, it is interpreted as a promise to marry, as well as a prediction of happiness and long life. In France, the custom linked to mistletoe was reserved for New Year's Day: "Au gui l'An neuf" (Mistletoe for the New Year). Today, kisses can be exchanged under the mistletoe any time during the holiday season.

The Legend:

For its supposedly mystical power mistletoe has long been at the centre of the folklore tales of many countries. One such tale is associated with the Goddess Frigga. The story goes that Mistletoe was the sacred plant of Frigga, goddess of love and the mother of Balder, the god of the summer sun. Balder had a dream of death which greatly alarmed his mother, for should he die, all life on earth would end.

In an attempt to keep this from happening, Frigga went at once to air, fire, water, earth, and every animal and plant seeking a promise that no harm would come to her son. Balder now could not be hurt by anything on earth or under the earth. However, Balder had one enemy, Loki, god of evil and he knew of one plant that Frigga had overlooked in her quest to keep her son safe. It grew neither on the earth nor under the earth, but on apple and oak trees. It was lowly mistletoe.

Loki made an arrow tip of the mistletoe, gave to the blind god of winter, Hoder, who shot it , striking Balder dead. The sky paled and all things in earth and heaven wept for the sun god. For three days each element tried to bring Balder back to life. He was finally restored by Frigga, the goddess and his mother.

It is said the tears she shed for her son turned into the pearly white berries on the mistletoe plant and in her joy Frigga kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which it grew. The story ends with a decree that whoever should stand under the humble mistletoe, no harm would befall them, but they should receive a kiss, a token of love. What could be more natural than to translate the spirit of this old myth into a way of thinking and accept the mistletoe as the emblem of that Love which conquers Death?

Happy Solstice. Happy Yule. Happy Xmas. To all.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

An Irish Xmas or Yule.

In the Irish language Christmas is called "Nollaig" which comes from the Latin "natalica" meaning birthday.

Irish Christmas history shows us some traditional rituals of Christmas in Ireland. Ritual here is used in a very broad sense, some have little religious significance, but great social importance. A lit candle in the window on Christmas Eve is one such custom. All Irish homes have a lit candle, which has the symbolism of showing the light to the stranger after dark. This is a most ancient custom when people were really hospitable. The candle has to be lit by the youngest in the family and extinguished by any girl named "Mary" although these days the youngest child can extinguish it. Candle lighting at this time can also be traced back to antiquity, to the time when ancient Romans lit candles at the midwinter festival to signify the return of the sun's light after the winter solstice.

The custom of a laden table is also an endearing one. The table is laid with bread filled with caraway seed and raisins and a large pitcher of milk and a candle. This means that any weary traveller or Joseph and Mary can avail of this hospitality if they so wanted and is an integral part of Irish Christmas History. Nowadays we place a glass of milk and a mince pie for Santa (no alcohol because he has to drive the sleigh) and a carrot for Rudolph. In the rural areas we have a tradition of white washing the stone cow house and other outhouses and having a big clean up around the place to get ready for visitors.

No Irish home would be complete without the holly. Holly with its glossy green leaves and festive red berries are perfect for holiday decorating. At Christmas in Ireland, holly was used to decorate the entire house. A spray was placed over the door as well as on the mantle, around picture frames, among the plates on the cupboard, as candle rings and in other areas of the home. Gifts of holly boughs were also given to neighbours. One charming folklore superstition was that the fairy folk would come in out of the cold to find shelter in the holly branches. To the Celtics holly represented both life and rebirth, the evergreen leaves symbolized life during a time when all else was bare and the red berries represented the coming of Spring.

Decorating trees was a tradition which actually began in Ireland and has carried over to many other cultures. In fact, decorating Christmas trees began as a pagan tradition. Various pagan cultures did this to signify the importance of the moon and the sun, and all aspects of the universe that they could see. The seasons were very important to pagan cultures, and Ireland was largely a pagan-dominated culture before Christianity came to it.

Of course now, decorating Christmas trees is a widespread custom. People all over the world do this at Christmas, but few realise the origins came from pagan traditions in Irish and Celtic cultures. The present day Christmas tree also goes back to the worship of sacred trees by various religions. The Druids worshipped the Rowan or the Oak tree, the Egyptians worshipped the palm tree and in Rome it was the fir tree. Gift giving took place, coloured lights were used to ward off evil spirits, and festive foods were eaten.

We decorate the house with ‘Christmas decorations’ about two weeks before the 25th and these days people even decorate trees in their gardens with lights. These decorations must be taken down no later than the 6th January or bad luck will ensue. This day is also known as ‘little Christmas’, on this day the mother of the house puts her feet up and is not allowed to do any work, it’s her day to be waited on by all the other members of the family.

We also tend to all the livestock making sure they have clean warm bedding, fresh water and food. Wildlife in the garden and around the area also require food and water and so we also tend to them. Whether you call it Yule or Christmas this time of year has a wonderful feel to it, it’s great walking around the town saying hello to everyone and having the craic, picking up the turkey or goose and all your supplies and then having a pint before making your way home. Don’t forget your neighbours, they may be lonely, cold or hungry and if you can spare a little something for those without then fair play to ye.

Christmas dinner with the family is a great time. We will have the children and grandchildren around, we will visit extended family on St. Stevens day and look forward to seeing friends over the festivities.

So on behalf of myself and my family I wish each and every one of you A Very Happy Healthy and Peaceful Yule/Christmas or as we say here Nollaig Shona Daoibh (when said to more than two people) or Nollaig Shona Duit (when said to one or two)

An Irish Christmas Blessing

The light of the Christmas star to you
The warmth of home and hearth to you
The cheer and good will of friends to you
The hope of a childlike heart to you
The joy of a thousand angels to you
The love of the Son and God's peace to you.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Gaoithe Sidhe. Fairy Wind.

Gaoithe Sidhe. Fairy wind.

This is a sudden gust of wind or a whirlwind that was thought to have been caused by the faeries. The wind was preceded by a loud humming noise, like thousands of bees, this was believed to have been caused by the passing of a fairy host, or there may have been a fairy host within the wind. Several Irish phrases describe it: sídh/sí gaoithe, sídh/sí chóra, gaoth sídhe/sí, séideán sídhe/sí.

The people in farming communities would cross themselves when they saw the wind coming, as they became afraid when they saw a column of hay rise at one end of the field while the wind at the other end of the field was perfectly still.

Sometimes it was thought that the wind was evidence that the fairies were helping with the farm labour. At other times the wind was thought to be the source of sudden illness. The wind could even rip the roof of a poor family’s house and let the faerie host in. It was also said to protect fairy treasure from thieves, it would silence mortal musicians playing fairy music and cause injury to humans or animals, especially the eyes.

The folk beliefs associated with whirlwinds and comparable gusts of wind.

Weather and atmospheric occurrences were of particular interest to the people who lived in the countryside, and they were not slow to give their own explanations for any unusual climatic manifestations especially in relation to whirlwinds which, in broad daylight, would suddenly raise coils of dust or carry away hayricks, straw or flax, through the air, sometimes as far as the neighbours’ fields.

These unusual whirlwinds played their part in weather forecasting. For some, if the whirlwind turned towards the southwest, they would say 'it was fetching rain’. According to others still, the sudden gust of wind that carried away wisps of hay or straw meant that the coming winter would be a hard one.

In Ireland, when a great wind was seen whirling everything into the air, it was often interpreted in terms of the fairies – that the fairy host was passing by, sometimes carrying mortals away with it. Indeed, almost any death, other than a gentle and gradual departure in old age, was open to interpretation as the work of the fairies. In the case of a young person’s death, people would talk about abduction by the fairies.

According to oral tradition ‘on Midsummer Eve, when the bonfires are lit on every hill in honour of St. John, the fairies are at their gayest, and sometimes steal away beautiful mortals to be their brides. They were also believed to be continually trying to abduct newborn children (usually males) to replenish their own fairy population, and to take young mothers into fairyland in order to suckle such abducted children.

As the fairies were thought to be very keen on music, it was said that they would also try to abduct mortals whose musical skills far exceeded theirs. Consequently, it was considered dangerous to find oneself in the path of a whirlwind. W.B. Yeats said that that fear was expressed in the attitude of the peasantry when they saw such whirlwinds: ‘They would take off their hats and say “God bless them!”

According to another Irish belief, there were known paths in the countryside through which the trooping fairies, an slua sí, were said to travel. It was thought wrong to obstruct these paths in any way. The story was told of a man who insisted on building his new house in a place considered a fairy path by the old people.

Although they warned him against doing it, he proceeded to build it, and then a mighty blast of a sidhe gaoithe knocked him down one night as he was holding a lighted torch. Assisted by the wind the thatch was ablaze within minutes and the dwelling was destroyed.

The fairies apparently also considered that the land, on which they dwelt, as well as what was growing on it, belonged to them. This was particularly the case around ring forts. They would thus raise a wind in order to claim their crop, according to the following story collected in County Limerick in 1940:

There was a man in this townland by the name of Jim Egan, and he died about thirty years ago. Well, one time in harvest he had a lot of mowing to do, and this night there was a full moon so he said he would break into another field of hay before he went to bed. So he started off mowing away in a meadow that had a fort in it, and after a while he noticed that six other mowers were after falling in behind him. He never saw them coming, but only heard the cutting behind him, and when he looked to see what it was, he saw the six men behind him and they all keeping time with his stroke.

So he cut away and they were making short work of the meadow until they came to a stream that was running through the middle of it. One of the men said to him that they could not cross the running water, but that he should jump across it himself and leave his scythe behind him. So he did that and he went home to bed.

When he got up in the morning, the meadow was all cut, and he and his family saved it. They had all the hay stacked in the field and he thought that everything was all right, but the next day a fairy wind rose up suddenly and swept most of the hay away. The fairies played their part in cutting the hay, so they decided to take it away with them too.

Some people who owned fields on ‘fairy land’ were thought to be luckier than others, and the fairy wind might even bring them prosperity. However, this was probably more a matter of chance than of real intention on the part of the fairies, as shown by the following anecdote. It comes from Monkstown, County Cork and was told by his grandfather to Sean Doyle, aged thirteen years at the time, and was recorded by him in the Irish Folklore Commission’s Schools’ Manuscript Collection, dating from 1937-8

The story was presented as referring to an actual happening:

This story happened about a century ago on a farm in Ballyfouloo.

An old woman who lived there at that time went picking sticks or furze as was her custom to boil the skillet. When she came to the corner of the field where a big hawthorn bush was growing, or as they called it at that time a ‘scarteen’ (Irish: scairtín, “a thorny bush’), her eyes stood in her head with fright, for almost on every thorn there was paper, as she thought, stuck.

On drawing closer she discovered that it was paper money; she was afraid to touch it because she said it surely belonged to the fairies. She ran home in haste. She told the neighbours about it, and, of course, the news spread like wild fire.

It eventually came to the ears of the farmer who owned the land. He, of course, went to the spot and claimed it as his, because it was found on his land. How the money got there is a mystery, but the old people say that the money was blown onto the bush by a ‘sheegee’ Irish: sí gaoithe, ‘whirlwind’.

However, these tales of the wind bringing good fortune were not so common. In general, the whirlwinds were dreaded, all the more because, as well as carrying souls, crops and even human beings away, they could also cause physical hurt to people. If a whirlwind arose suddenly, it was highly recommended to lie on the ground for its duration, as anyone who dared to remain in its path might suffer harm or facial deformity: (they said that if you were caught like that your mouth would become crooked and remain so).

In Ireland, it was again the fairies who were blamed for such afflictions. It was said that one should never look in the direction of a whirlwind, and people would speak about the ‘poc sí’, ‘fairy-stroke’ as resulting from their wind induced attacks. The ‘poc sí’ could take many forms. Any sudden fall or injury or any unexplained laming, deafness, loss of speech, fainting spell, distortion or swelling could be attributed to it, particularly if an unusual puff of wind had been observed about the time of the onset.

In Cork, young children were told that if they stood in the middle of it, they would not grow any more. However, tradition also provided people with the means of counteracting the supernatural powers of the beings thought to create whirlwinds – anybody had the power to exorcise such whirlwinds, as it is a well-known belief that supernatural beings hate iron, so one had only to throw an open knife – preferably a black-hafted one – or any other steel implement at them, to counteract their force.

In Ireland. If someone flung a fork at the whirlwind, moaning might be heard. This was considered proof enough that there was a being in it, and that is why, in order to avoid evil consequences, the person who threw the sharp tool was supposed to say at the same time: M’olc agus m’urchóid leat! (‘May my misfortune go with you’?)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Irish Highwaymen.

Captain Gallagher - Highwayman.

Captain Gallagher was one of the last wholesale robber captains in Ireland. Born in Bonniconlon he was reared by an aunt in Derryronane near Swinford. Captain Gallagher was a romantic figure in the same league as Robin Hood or Dick Turpin. He was a folk hero who was champion of the oppressed lower classes who suffered much injustice at the hands of the rich.

He and a small band of bandits operated with blunderbusses within an extensive area stretching from Bonniconlon to Swinford and including Attymass, Lough Talt and Foxford. Their deeds were bold and utterly fearless. Robberies were committed on the public roads and in open daylight; residences of the gentry were plundered almost nightly, and no place was considered safe unless strongly guarded.

He was such a notorious figure that his deeds are recalled in folk history throughout the region up to the present day. All of the accounts in folklore make reference to his generosity to the poor and his athletic ability in escaping from the Redcoats. Up to the present day people point out some of his famous hideouts, one in the Ox Mountains near Rooskey is referred to as “Leaba Rudaigh”.

Nearer to Swinford people will tell you he hid out in Ballylyra Wood close to the present day Knock International Airport. He is reputed to have had a residence on Glass Island, close to Pontoon (circa 1817-1818). Prior to his death there was a 500 guineas reward offered for his capture.

There is a story told of a shop in Foxford that was being robbed regularly and its owner could never find the culprit at work. Although he hired a guard to protect the property it was still being robbed almost nightly. Captain Gallagher offering his services to apprehend the thief, hid in a large chest in the corner of the shop. The guard arrived and it was not long before he began to pillage the store. When Gallagher got the chance he leapt out of the box and captured the guard who had been the thief all along.

On another occasion a woman was coming from the fair in Tubbercurry having sold her last cow in order to pay her rent to the local landlord. Nightfall was approaching as she passed through the Windy Gap near Lough Talt when she spotted a shadow in the distance. As they met, the person spoke and asked her where she was going in such a hurry. She replied that she was trying to reach home before dark in case Captain Gallagher robbed her. On hearing this the man smiled and gave her the price of the cow and the money with which to pay the rent. He told her to go away home and tell them that Captain Gallagher was not as bad a rogue as he was made out to be.

On another occasion Gallagher escaped through the window of a house as a party of military accompanied by a magistrate entered the front door. The daring captain, on reaching the ground, crept around to where the magistrate’s horse was fastened, and, loosening him, rode off at full speed, and the next day returned the animal, with his thanks, to the magistrate for the use of so good a beast at such a pinch.

Following narrow escapes Captain Gallagher was finally captured. His band had already been arrested near Westport but Gallagher managed to escape. There are many tales as to where he was actually captured, but much of the evidence seems to point to the small mountainside townland of Rooskey on the border of Attymass and Foxford.

According to local legend he was staying in a local house while recovering from an illness. He was given a meal, which had been laced with poteen, after which he fell asleep. The family then got to work and put him to bed in the “cailleach” bed beside the fire .His ankles and wrists were tied with flax ropes and a message was sent to the Redcoats in Foxford, who in turn alerted Ballina, Swinford and Castlebar. Captain Gallagher already bound was taken to Castlebar to be hanged after ‘a hasty, sham trial’.

Gallagher pleaded with his executioners and promised if spared he would lead them to his hidden treasure that was buried under a rock in Ballylyra Wood. His captors did not fall for this ploy however and went ahead with the execution. As soon as the nasty business of the day was finished they fled to Ballylyra in search of the hidden treasure but found that there were as many rocks in the wood as there are fish in the sea. After searching for three days all they found was a jewel-hilted sword. His buried gold is still supposed to be buried in the wood, seven foot from the river beside a tree.

His execution was reputedly the last public hanging to take place on the hanging tree opposite Daly’s Hotel on the Mall in Castlebar in 1818.

The following is an account of his execution taken from a late nineteenth century author:

He died fearfully. He and his ‘Secretary’ (Walsh) having shaken hands and kissed on the gallows, were flung off together. Walsh died at once, but Gallagher’s rope broke, and he was precipitated to the ground; he got a glass of wine, and was again shoved out on the trapboard by the executioner, seated like a tailor, his legs having been broken by the fall.

Irish Songs of Highwaymen.

Many of the most famous of the folk songs of Ireland deal with the less savoury members of society. Like Robin Hood in England, these gypsies and highwaymen have become folk heroes, immortalized in song. Three of the most famous of these songs are:

• Whiskey in the Jar
• The Newry Highwayman
• The Wild Rover

Whiskey in the Jar.

“Whiskey in the Jar” is easily one of the most famous folk songs of Ireland. It tells the tale of an unnamed highwayman who robs a military or government official (usually Captain Farrell, but other names are common). He brings the loot home to his sweetheart (usually Jenny, but sometimes Ginny or Molly) who betrays him to the law.

Although the exact date of its creation is unknown (its earliest printing was 1855), “Whiskey in the Jar” is easily over 300 years old. Alan Lomax, one of the most influential musicologists of the 20th Century, believed that “Whiskey in the Jar” partially inspired John Gay when he wrote “The Beggar’s Opera,’ written in 1728.

The use of the term “rapier,” a long, thin, sword used in the 16th and 17th Centuries dates the song to that era. “Rapier” could also refer to a “rapaire,” an Irish short spear used in that era by highwaymen and Jacobite sympathizers.

“Whiskey in the Jar” was also a popular tune in Colonial America due to its protagonist being an adversary of British officials. Similar to England and Ireland, Colonial Americans took pleasure in the exploits of some highwaymen, especially the ones who struck a Robin Hood-like pose by targeting wealthy land owners--something more common in song that in reality.

“Whiskey in the Jar” has been covered by such diverse musicians as:
• Jerry Garcia and David Grisman
• Thin Lizzy
• The Pogues
• Burl Ives
• Metallica
• The Limeliters

The Newry Highwayman (The Rambling Boy)

“The Newry Highwayman” is a far-travelled song that has taken on many different names over the years. The earliest printed version comes from 1830, but some versions of the song mention “Fielding’s Gang,” a reference to the Bow Street Runners-- London’s first police force, created in 1750.

“The Newry Highwayman” is about a young man from Newry, in Northern Ireland. At the age of 17 he gets married, and in order to keep his wife “both fine and gay” becomes a highwayman. He robbed his way successfully to London, where he is eventually taken and executed.

As mentioned above, “The Newry Highway” is a folk song that has taken many other names. Other names that it goes by are:
• The Rambling Boy
• Wild and Wicked Youth
• In Newry Town
• Newlyn Town
• The Flash Lad
• Adieu, Adieu

The Wild Rover

Although “The Wild Rover” is generally believed to be of Irish (or possibly Scottish) origin, this has recently come into dispute. There is German folk song with an identical tune as “The Wild Rover.” The question remains as to which came first.

Regardless of its origin, “The Wild Rover” has become an immensely popular drinking song around the world and especially in Ireland, ironic since that it was originally written as a temperance song.

Perhaps due to its popularity as a drinking song, “The Wild Rover” has been used, modified, and parodied countless times by football and rugby clubs. Many of the lyrics are not suitable for publication here.

Some other Irish folk songs involving rogues and highwaymen include:

• The Black Velvet Band
• The Wild Colonial Boy
• The Night Before Larry was Stretched
• Reilly’s Daughter
• Rakes of Mallow

Like many cultures, the Irish have their own songs about the rogue, the tramp, those from the other side of town. And like many, the Irish are not afraid to tip a few back to salute them.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Wren Boys.

The Wren Boy Tradition.

Irish tradition holds that the wren symbolizes the old year, while the robin symbolizes the year to come. To ensure that the passage from old year to new could take place, it was once common practice on St. Stephen's Day (December 26th) for a group of local boys to hunt and kill a wren.

This band of so-called Wren Boys, usually costumed and often masked, would then travel from house to house carrying the wren in a small box or casket (other sources say the wren was tied to a pole and decked with ribbons). They regaled each house with musical laments for the unfortunate bird along with pleas to raise money for the funeral.

This ancient tradition can still be seen in certain town and villages in Ireland and it really is a sight to behold! The Wren Boys march through the streets dressed in traditional attire (usually something made from straw) to the beat of drums and they stop off in bars along the way to play traditional music. Money is still collected but this is given to charity and of course a wren is not killed anymore but some Wren Boys march with a fake bird.

Although the Wren Boys are rarely seen today, they provide a historical thread to Ireland's past. Some sources say the wren is villified because it had betrayed Irish soldiers who were staging an attack on the invading Norsemen (who had been responsible for the destructions of some of the great monastic communities of early Christendom, such as the Abbey at Kells). Pecking at some bread crumbs left upon a drum, the wren betrayed the hiding place of the Irish and led to their defeat.

The same story is told about troops of Cromwell. When the Irish forces were about to catch Cromwell’s troops by surprise, a wren perched on one of the soldiers drums made a noise that woke the sleeping sentries just in time, thereby saving the camp.

Other myths hold that the wren betrayed St. Stephen himself with its chirping, leading to the first martyrdom of a Christian saint. Although the custom of sacrificing a wren is most commonly associated with Ireland, some form of the tradition actually exists throughout the Celtic world, with similar rites found in the Isle of Man, Wales, and France.

Other stories say the hostility towards this most harmless of creatures results from the efforts of clerics in the middle ages to undermine vestiges of druidic reverence and practices regarding the bird. Medieval texts interpret the etymology of wren, the Irish for which is dreolín, as derived from 'dreán' or 'draoi éan' the translation of which is 'druid bird'.

Clíona the seductress

One of the most interesting legends is that Cliona, a woman of the otherworld, seduced young men to follow her to the seashore. Here they drowned in the ocean into which she enticed them. Eventually a charm was discovered that, not only protected against her wiles, but could also bring about her destruction. Her only method of escape was to turn herself into a wren. As a punishment for her crimes she was forced to take the shape of the little bird on every succeeding Christmas Day and fated to die by human hand. Hence the seemingly barbarous practice of hunting the wren.

Song that is sung during the wren boys march.

‘The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen's day was caught in the furze.
His body is little but his family is great
So rise up landlady and give us a trate.

And if your trate be of the best
Your soul in heaven can find its rest.
And if your trate be of the small
It won’t plaze the boys at all.

A glass of whiskey and a bottle of beer
Merry Christmas and a glad New Year.
So up with the kettle and down with the pan
And give us a penny to bury the wran.

Sometimes the lines, ‘We chased him from bush to bush and from tree to tree, and in Donnelly’s Hollow we cracked his knee’, were included.


ONE day when the birds were all together, one of them said, "I have been watching men, and I saw that they had a king. Let us too have a king."

"Why?" asked the others.

"Oh, I do not know, but men have one."

"Which bird shall it be? How shall we choose a king?"

"Let us choose the bird that flies farthest," said one.

"No, the bird that flies most swiftly."

"The most beautiful bird."

"The bird that sings best."

"The strongest bird."

The owl sat a little way off on a great oak-tree. He said nothing, but he looked so wise that all the birds cried, "Let us ask the owl to choose for us."

"The bird that flies highest should be our king," said the owl with a wiser look than before, and the others said, "Yes, we will choose the bird that flies highest."

The wren is very small, but she cried even more eagerly than the others, "Let us choose the bird that flies highest," for she said to herself, "They think the owl is wise, but I am wiser than he, and I know which bird can fly highest."

Then the birds tried their wings. They flew high, high up above the earth, but one by one they had to come back to their homes. It was soon seen which could fly highest, for when all the others had come back, there was the eagle rising higher and higher.

"The eagle is our king," cried the birds on the earth, and the eagle gave a loud cry of happiness. But look! A little bird had been hidden in the feathers on the eagle's back, and when the eagle had gone as high as he could, the wren flew up from his back still higher.

"Now which bird is king?" cried the wren. "The one that flew highest should be king, and I flew highest."

The eagle was angry, but not a word did he say, and the two birds came down to the earth together.

"I am the king," said the wren, "for I flew higher than the eagle."

The other birds did not know which of the two to choose. At last they went to the oak-tree and asked the owl. He looked to the east, the west, the south, and the north, and then he said, "The wren did not fly at all, for she was carried on the eagle's back. The eagle is king, for he not only flew highest, but carried the wren on his back."

"Good, good!" cried the other birds. "The owl is the wisest bird that flies. We will do as he says, and the eagle shall be our king."

The wren crept away. She thought she was wise before, but now she is really wise, for she always flies close to the earth, and never tries to do what she cannot.
Thats what you get for cheating

Fly agaric and the Santa Clause Legend.

Fly Agaric.

The sacred mushroom was the red and white amanita muscaria mushroom, also known as "fly agaric." These mushrooms are now commonly seen in books of fairy tales, and are usually associated with magic and fairies. This is because they contain potent hallucinogenic compounds, and were used by ancient peoples for insight and transcendental experiences.

Most of the major elements of the modern Christmas celebration, such as Santa Claus, Christmas trees, magical reindeer and the giving of gifts, are originally based upon the traditions surrounding the harvest and consumption of these most sacred mushrooms.

The active ingredients of the amanita mushrooms are not metabolized by the body, and so they remain active in the urine. In fact, it is safer to drink the urine of one who has consumed the mushrooms than to eat the mushrooms directly, as many of the toxic compounds are processed and eliminated on the first pass through the body.

It was common practice among the shaman of ancient people such as the Sami of Finland, and the people of Siberia, to recycle the potent effects of the mushroom by drinking each other's urine. The amanita's ingredients can remain potent even after six passes through the human body. Some scholars argue that this is the origin of the phrase "to get pissed," as this urine-drinking activity preceded alcohol by thousands of years.

Reindeer were the sacred animals of these semi-nomadic people, as the reindeer provided food, shelter, clothing and other necessities. Reindeer are also fond of eating the amanita mushrooms; they will seek them out, and then prance about while under their influence. Often the urine of tripped-out reindeer would be consumed for its psychedelic effects.

This effect goes the other way too, as reindeer also enjoy the urine of a human, especially one who has consumed the mushrooms. In fact, reindeer will seek out human urine to drink, and some tribesmen carry sealskin containers of their own collected urine, which they use to attract stray reindeer back into the herd.

The effects of the amanita mushroom usually include sensations of size distortion and flying. The feeling of flying could account for the legends of flying reindeer.
Santa Claus, super shaman.

Although the modern image of Santa Claus was created at least in part by the advertising department of Coca-Cola, in truth his appearance, clothing, mannerisms and companions all mark him as the reincarnation of these ancient mushroom-gathering shamans.

Originally Santa Claus was not red and white, but was first depicted like this due to a seasonal link to native spiritual traditions involving hallucinogenic red and white mushrooms known as fly agaric. When it was time to go out and harvest the magical mushrooms, the ancient shamans would dress much like Santa, wearing red and white fur-trimmed coats and long black boots.

Later the Coca Cola Company would patent these colours and popularise the now universally accepted colours of Santa’s costume. One of the side effects of eating amanita mushrooms is that the skin and facial features take on a flushed, ruddy glow. This is why Santa is always shown with glowing red cheeks and nose. Even Santa's jolly "Ho, ho, ho!" is the euphoric laugh of one who has indulged in the magic fungus.

Sami Ceremony and Entheogenic Mushrooms.

The red and white fly agaric mushrooms also played a part in the aboriginal origins of the flying reindeer image that is now popularly associated with Christmas. These mushrooms, or plant teachers, have always been used in rituals involving the sacred reindeer by the shamans of the Sami tribal peoples, who are still practicing traditional lifestyles as nomadic reindeer herders in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia today.

The Koryak shamans of Siberian tribes gained notoriety in the grand western narrative of discovery when their winter solstice rituals involving the fly agaric were observed and recorded by anthropologists/adventurers, giving rise to several modern Christmas myths.

At this ceremonial time, the Koryak tribe’s people would work ritually with the mushrooms in their family tents. Their shamans would also work with the mushrooms to reach a non-ordinary state of reality that allowed them to do spirit-walking.
Spirit Walkers Bringing Gifts.

Koryak spirit walkers would visit the tents of their fellow tribesmen on their flying reindeer, the reindeer being a sacred totemic being for Sami tribal peoples. Once there, they would enter the tent through the smoke hole in the roof and distribute more mushrooms as gifts. Then they would exit through the chimney hole and fly away on their reindeer beings once again.

It has been suggested that the egg-nog Christmas tradition was even grounded in these rituals, based on the practice of tribesmen drinking the agaric-spiked urine of the shamans who had ingested the mushrooms, perhaps mixed with egg and spices to disguise the taste. (Makes you think twice about mulled wine, for that matter!).

Clearly, the origins of many western Christmas traditions such as Santa’s elves, Santa coming down the chimney, gift-giving, Santa’s colours, Santa’s home base in the Arctic North, and mistletoe can all be linked to time-honoured indigenous tribal ceremonies and customary practices.

Aboriginal Christmas Reflections.

Christmas is as good a time as any to acknowledge the contributions of indigenous peoples around the planet to the formation of global knowledge, culture and innovations since the “age of discovery”. So much of the technology, food, textiles, traditions and even mathematics that formed the basis for modern western civilisation was ‘borrowed’, or synthesised, or developed in conjunction with native peoples.

So spare a thought for the planet’s fourth-world (indigenous) peoples at Christmas time, most of who are excluded from the bounty of first-world colonies built on stolen native lands, resources and knowledge. So many Aboriginal people are even excluded from basic rights like education.

Spare a thought as well that in the ‘first world civilised countries’ (I use that term loosely) every year people spend more money on Christmas presents for their pets than it would cost to educate every third-world and fourth-world person on earth who is currently denied schooling and medical aid. Think about that over your Xmas turkey.

Ho, ho, ho.

The fly agarics’ religious connections are far reaching. It is widely thought to be the “Soma” talked about in Hindu scriptures, and some also believe it to be the “Amrita” mentioned in Buddhist scriptures. Closer to home, there is a popular myth that Nordic Viking warriors used to consume fly agaric to send them into their berserker rages, although compelling evidence for this theory is hard to find.

Another theory, again difficult to substantiate, suggests that Zulu warriors consumed fly agaric before battle during the Zulu war, and that, in part, this helped them leave the field victorious during the famous “charge of the light brigade”.

In ‘civilised’ Europe its use has given rise to the ‘little people’ such as faeries and leprechauns.

Lewis Carroll was familiar with the affects of Fly agaric, in Alice in Wonderland there is a scene where a caterpillar is sitting on a mushroom (Fly agaric) smoking a pipe. Alice is in front of him at mushroom height and she nibbles on the mushroom to make herself bigger and smaller.

After Alice in Wonderland was published images of the Fly agaric appeared in much of the Victorian literature and it was also painted on children’s toys and cradles. It continues to serve as a classical symbol of enchanted forests and magical groves-the kind of places where fairies, gnomes and all sorts of strange, wonderful and sometimes frightening creatures dwell. Familiar, mysterious and magical.


Fly Agaric is a powerful fungus, whose effects can be extremely variable and dangerous in the hands of those who do not know what they are doing (In Irish we call them Amadán).

Self-experimentation is not recommended. In particular all amanita species with a white or greenish cap should be avoided, as these are definitely very deadly.

The information provided in this article is intended for educational purposes only and should not be used as medical advice. I do not take or share in any responsibility for any events that may occur as a result of self-experimentation.

Have a great Yule, Winter Solstice and Christmas.

Don't forget those who may not be as fortunate as you, especially in this cold weather, be them human or animal we are all part of the wheel.