Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Jeanie Johnston.

Coffin Ship’s.

A coffin ship was the name given to the ships that carried Irish immigrants escaping the effects of the potato famine. These ships, crowded and disease ridden, with poor access to food and water, resulted in the deaths of many people as they crossed the Atlantic. While coffin ships were the cheapest way to cross the Atlantic, often more than half of the passengers died during the voyage. It was said that sharks could be seen following the ships in packs because so many bodies were thrown overboard.

There are always going to be exceptions to the rule and in the case of the Jeanie Johnston we have a ship with a record that by 19th century standards was to be envied. A coming together of a ship’s doctor, a ships master/captain and a ship’s owner who tried their best to deliver their passengers to the new world and never lost a life.

The original Jeanie Johnston was built in 1847 on the banks of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec City, Canada. Its architect was the Scottish-born shipbuilder and master craftsman John Munn.

The 408 ton cargo ship was purchased in Liverpool by John Donovan and Sons of Tralee, Co. Kerry. As the famine gripped Ireland, the company ran a successful trade bringing emigrants from Ireland to North America and returning with timbers bound for the ports of Europe.

The Jeanie Johnston made her maiden voyage on 24th April 1848 from Blennerville, Co. Kerry to Quebec with 193 passengers on board. Over the next seven years the ship made 16 voyages to North America carrying over 2,500 emigrants safely to the New World. Despite the seven week journey in very cramped and difficult conditions, no life was ever lost on board the ship - a remarkable achievement which is generally attributed to the ship's captain, Castletownshend-born James Attridge and the experienced Ship's Doctor, Dr Richard Blennerhassett.

The Jeanie Johnston boasted just a single main deck and a poop deck, housing its travellers in very cramped bunks. It offered few comforts on the hazardous journey, which usually lasted about two months, but it was also far removed from the infamous “coffin ships” most notably associated with the thousands of emigrants who perished on the transatlantic voyages in 1847.

The emigrants on the Jeanie Johnston were berthed below deck in the steerage area, where temporary accommodation was rigged up for them, and they were expected to provide their own bedding. They were pressed tightly together in tiny spaces - four to a six foot-square bunk, with two children counting as one adult! It is difficult to visualise that, on one trip, the stalwart ship carried a total of 254 passengers. These brave Irish souls paid the fare of £3.10 shillings to make the heroic journey to the “New World”.

The makeshift quarters used by the emigrants were removed when they disembarked in North America, enabling the ship to perform its secondary role of transporting vital supplies of food and timber back to Ireland on its return journey.

The passengers onboard the Jeanie Johnston has to make do with very limited food provisions during their treacherous journey. They were expected to bring some food on board with them, and also required to provide their own cooking utensils and to cook for themselves. This meant queuing up for a turn on the only stove, located on the main deck, and if the weather was bad, the family would go hungry that day or be reduced to eating raw flour or meal.

The shipping legislation of the times shows how meagre were the weekly provisions allocated to the emigrants onboard:
21 quarts water

2½ lbs bread or biscuit
1lb flour
5 lbs oatmeal
2lbs rice
2 ouzes tea
½lb sugar
½ lb molasses

Despite the extremely cramped and primitive conditions by today's standards, the Jeanie Johnston was a well run and humanely operated ship which cared as best it could, in the most difficult circumstances, for the fleeing emigrants.

Its enviable record (in the context of 19th century transatlantic voyages) of not having lost a single life to either disease or illness at sea was largely due to the great efforts of Dr. Richard Blennerhassett, supported by the humanitarian attitude of the ship's master, Captain James Attridge. The doctor would ensure that hatches were open every day when possible, that the bedding was aired, the accommodation below deck was kept as clean as possible and that everyone would be encouraged to take a walk on deck each day unless the weather was too rough.

In this regard, the Jeanie Johnston differed from many other ships of the time in that it employed a highly reputable and experienced doctor. In their frequent letters of appreciation to Captain Attridge following their voyage, the passengers also singled out Blennerhassett for praise.

It is also worth remembering that even when the ship met its final end, no lives were lost. In 1856, she was sold as a cargo ship to William Johnson of North Shields in England, and two years later when en route from Quebec (Canada) to Hull (England) with a cargo of timber, she ran into trouble in the mid-Atlantic. Overloaded and waterlogged she sank, but not before all aboard were rescued by a passing Dutch ship. The Sophie Elizabeth, preserving her unblemished safety record.

The Jeanie Johnston holds a powerful spot in Irish folklore because in a time when many people died on immigrant boats, she never lost a passenger.

Two of the above images were taken by me in the museum in County Kerry. The other image is that of a stamp issued by An Post.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Irish Bardic Tradition. Part 1.


In Ireland, there is a revered vocation that predates Christianity. It predates the great chieftains, and even Gaelic mythology itself. With roots that go back to the age of Stonehenge, the Irish bardic tradition is one of the first and greatest forms of preserving and sharing culture.

At first only whispered by the fireside, the complicated and beautiful stories of unbreakable spirit later developed a degree of sophistication with the addition of meter and rhyme. The poetics of the 8th century monks show the greatest documentation for this bardic tradition.

More influential than even the poetry, however, were the great storytellers and musicians that passed on legends and histories from tribe to tribe. Enigmatic entertainers, these sages communicated carefully constructed tales through lyrics and rhyme without cultural prejudice or politics. Wearing the colours of all lands, but under the thumb of none, these men of strong voice and heart became known as the bards.

The tradition continues in our times.

The Cry of the Banshee.

James Madden, head propped up by two plump pillows, prepared to die. He knew his time was near. He could see the hill from where he lay. The moon would soon rise from behind it, the same moon that shone the night his father died. Eighty years ago.

At the age of ninety James Madden had forgotten many things, but that night haunted him all his life. Gravel crunched under James's feet on that fateful night, as he herded the last cow into the shed. Spot, the dog, nipped at its heels, trying to hurry it up. Frost had already settled on the ground as James bolted the cow byre door.

A beam of warm yellow light streamed from the small kitchen window laying a welcome path for James. He grinned at the thought of what was waiting for him inside Thick beef soup, with chunks of bread, still warm from the oven.

The hill at the back of the house brightened as the tip of the moon appeared. Trapped by the beams, small stones in the yard sparkled like frosty diamonds. Suddenly, Spot growled, deep from within his chest. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up as his eyes grew small. At first James couldn't see why the dog gave warning.

Then, as the moon rose higher into the black night sky, he saw it.
There, on the top of the hill, in dark profile against a cold green moon, stood a woman. She was tall and slim. Hair, as long as her body streamed out from her head, twisting and turning on a windless night. In her hand she held, what looked like a hair brush.

An anguished cry filled the air and sent a cold knife through his heart and slowly spread through his body.

James Madden, at the age of ten, knew what is... It was called... Fear.

As the moon cleared the hill, whatever it was, called out again. James covered his ears as the pain entered his brain. Once more she cried, his empty stomach churned and bile rose in his throat. The back door crashed open. Spot seeing his chance rushed into the kitchen nearly toppling James's mother.

"In God's name, what was that noise!?"

Unable to speak, James pointed to the hill.

His mother gasped. She grabbed James's arm and dragged him toward the house.

"Hurry up! We must get inside and light a candle and put it in the window. Your father is not home yet!"

His father had ridden out early that morning. He had taken some cattle to the fair, to sell. It was a long way there and back and James was not surprised he was not home. He was puzzled. Why did his mother want to put a candle in the window when the horse could find its own way home, without his father having to show it?

When they were inside the house, his mother instructed him to build up the fire. She ran around the house checking the windows and doors. He heard his mother’s prayers as she placed a lighted candle on the front window sill.

Flames leaped up the chimney, as if in a hurry to leave the house

"Mammy...who is that woman on the top of the hill?"

His mother brushed past him and took the bubbling pot of stew off the fire.

"If your not careful son, you'll burn the dinner."

"Sorry mammy...but who is she. Why is she crying like that?"

His mother pulled two chairs up close to a fire that seemed to dance to some devil tune as it twisted and turned its way up the flue. She bade him sit. Taking one of his hands in hers, she gazed vacantly for some moments before answering. She spoke quietly, as if someone might overhear what she had to say.

"'Tis the bringer of death. The Banshee."

James stared at her, not understanding.

"The Banshee," she continued, "follows some families no matter where they go. Some say they even follow them around the world! She foretells death in these families. But when she comes, it is already too late, for they are doomed as soon as she cries."

James started to feel frightened but, he had to ask.

"What families?"

His mother picked at an invisible thread on her skirt. "Oh... Family's like the Brogans on the farm next to us and, the Mayhews next to them.....and us...The Maddens!"

A cry, much closer now, brought a whimper from Spot as he tried to make himself smaller in a corner of the kitchen. Again, James felt the fear touch his heart.

He gripped his mothers arm. "How...how will we know who she has come for!?"

"Hush child...we'll know soon enough."

"But mammy! Can't we run away? We... we could go and meet dad!"

"You don't understand! You can't run away! If it is you... the Banshee will find you! Now, hush, for surely it will pass us by."

Teeth bared, Spot stared at the back door. The only sound in the room was the clock on the mantelpiece, ticking, and the fire settling.

James felt pressure from his mother’s hand the same time he heard the rusty gate to the back of the house slowly open, followed by the sound of pebbles, crushed under heavy feet that suddenly stopped in the middle of the yard.

The chickens in their shed started to squawk but quickly fell silent. One of the cows, kicked once at the cow shed door. Then there was silence. The fire caved inwards sending sparks racing up the flue. Bile rose in James's throat as he heard the moan from outside. Spot whimpered. His mother's hand tightened on his, her other hand covered her mouth, as if to stop a scream.

Crunch... crunch. The steps came toward the back door, and then stopped.

James stared unblinking at the door handle. He felt the cold spreading down his arms and legs.

Then it moved.

The handle turned one way, stopped, then turned the other way. The door shook as if a giant hand had hit it. His eyes lifted to the bolt at the top of the door. It held fast. Suddenly, the plates on the table stated to vibrate and move across the top, reach the edge and crash to the floor. The clock fell at James's feet. It had stopped. The time, he noticed was eleven minutes past nine.

A cry, so long, so lonely, so sad, filled the house. James felt the salty tears run down his face, he cried and why, he didn't know, but, he saw too that his mother wept. Then it was gone. The coldness, the sadness the fear. All gone. Spot slid across the floor on his belly toward the back door. He sniffed for some moments, then turned, tail wagging and walked to James
"'Tis your father, son. The Banshee came for your father, God rest his soul."

James did not understand.

Later that night, two men knocked on the front door. She surprised them by telling them she knew her husband was dead, but how, she asked, did it happen?
The horse bolted and tried to jump a fence. It fell and rolled on top of her husband. The horse seemed uninjured. It looked as if it had been frightened to death!

"Nurse! What time is it?"

"Now, now Mr. Madden! You have asked me that question so many times this evening! Let me see...it's a quarter to nine and if you want the weather forecast as well it’s freezing outside! And it looks like we'll have a full moon tonight. Now settle back, I'll get you your tablets in a minute! Give you a good night’s sleep."

"I don't want the tablets tonight. Did you bring the candle?"

"Yes, I did and why I don't know! All the old superstitions! Banshees! Indeed. The doctor said you're as fit as a fiddle, all you need is rest."

"Be a good girl and stop the chatter! Just light the candle and put it in the window."

Standing the lighted candle in the window, the nurse looked out, she paused. "Who's that woman on the hill? She'll get her death of cold on a night like this!"

James Madden tried to sit up. "She's there!? You can see her?"

The nurse shielded the candle.

"Of course I can see her; the moon is rising just behind her. What beautiful long hair! It must touch the ground!"

"That's her. You can go now. Come back in the morning."

"Go?? I can't go. It's my job to stay here all night. What do you mean...that's her you mean the Banshee! Ha! Mr. Madden you were always good for a story! I can remember when I was young..."

The cry from the hill rent into the nurse’s heart. She quickly stepped back from the window. She put her hand to her breast.

"Mother of God...who is that!??"

James Madden smiled, he felt no fear. "She comes for me. Go now child! Come back in the morning."

He heard the rusty gate swing inward and the slow steps on the gravel.

This time the bolt was not closed.

The last thing James Madden's fading eyes rested on was long grey hair, floating through the open door.

The end
© John W. Kelly. An Seanachí.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Choctaw aid during An Gorta Mór 1845-1849.

Thank you to the Choctaw.

In 1847, midway through the Great Irish Famine (1845–1849), a group of American Indians of the Choctaw tribe collected $710 (although many articles say the original amount was $170 after a misprint in Angie Debo's "The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic") and sent it to help starving Irish men, women and children. "It had been just 16 years since the Choctaw people had experienced the Trail of Tears, and they had faced starvation.

It was an amazing gesture. By today's standards, it might be a million dollars." according to Judy Allen, editor of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma's newspaper, "Bishinik", based at the Oklahoma Choctaw tribal headquarters in Durant, Oklahoma.

The Choctaws are a Native American tribe originally from the southeast US (Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana). They were known as one of the "Five Civilized Tribes”, (Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, (a.k.a Muscogee) Seminole, and Choctaw).

The Five Civilized Tribes were called “civilized” by white settlers because they lived in European style settlements as farmers and planters, built stone and brick buildings and even owned slaves. They also dressed in a more European style than the plains Indians and had organized forms of government.

In 1831 President Andrew Jackson (whose parents emigrated from Antrim in Northern Ireland) seized the fertile lands off these tribes and forced them to make a harrowing 500-mile trek to what would be called Indian Territory and then later Oklahoma, known as the “Trail of Tears”.

Of about 20,000 Choctaws who started the journey, more than half perished from exposure, malnutrition, and disease. All this despite the fact that during the War of 1812 the Choctaws had been allies of then General Jackson in his campaign against the British in New Orleans.

The Choctaw’s sympathy towards the plight of the Irish came from their recognition of the similarities between the experiences of the Irish and Choctaw. They note that both were victims of conquest that led to loss of property, forced migration and exile, mass starvation, and cultural suppression.

This extraordinary gift from a people who were themselves impoverished has never been forgotten. In 1997, the 150th anniversary of that generous gesture, a group of Irish people walked with members of the Choktaw Nation along the 500 mile Trail of Tears but in reverse, back to the Choctaw homeland. In so doing they raised over $100,000 for Famine relief in Somalia.

The Jokers of the Otherworld.

The Leprechaun

The name leprechaun may have derived from the Irish leath bhrogan (shoemaker). These apparently aged, diminutive men are usually to be found in a drunken state, caused by drinking poteen. However they never become so drunk that they don’t know what they are doing.

Leprechauns have also become self-appointed guardians of ancient treasure (left by the Danes when they rampaged through Ireland), burying it in crocks or pots. This may be one reason why leprechauns tend to avoid contact with humans whom they regard as foolish and greedy creatures. If caught by a mortal, he will promise great wealth if allowed to go free.

He carries two leather pouches. In one there is a silver shilling, a magical coin that returns to the purse each time it is paid out. In the other he carries a gold coin which he uses to try and bribe his way out of difficult situations. This coin usually turns to leaves or ashes once the leprechaun has parted with it. However, you must never take your eye off him, for he can vanish in an instant.

The leprechaun 'family' appears split into two distinct groups - leprechaun and cluricaun. Cluricauns may steal or borrow almost anything, creating mayhem in houses during the hours of darkness, raiding wine cellars and larders. They will also harness sheep, goats, dogs and even domestic fowl and ride them throughout the country at night.

Although the leprechaun has been described as Ireland’s national fairy, this name was originally only used in the north Leinster area. Variants include lurachmain, lurican, lurgadhan.


Cluricaunes are a type of otherworldly creature similar to the Leprechaun, they have usually been seen sitting by the hearth of a fire and are always described as wearing a red jacket and a green high cap with a feather sticking in it. They are small in stature and usually appear as wizened old men. They can do mischief, grant wishes and poke fun at humankind.

Often confused with the other solitary fairies known as Lepracauns or the Fear Dearg they prefer to be indoors and do not like to do any physical labour. They like any kind of alcoholic beverage and can be found in the cellar's of rich men, helping themselves to whatever they fancy of wine and whiskey.

Fear Dearg.

The name Far Darrig is an English pronunciation of Fear Dearg, which means Red Man. He is called this because of the red coat or cloak (some say this is coloured with the blood of his enemies), woollen stockings that cling to his calves, and hat that he wears. He has a short stocky body with yellow splotches on his face, and is known to be a practical joker with a gruesome sense of humour. He can manipulate his voice to sound like waves crashing on the rocks, or cooing pigeons, but his favourite sound is that of a dead man's hollow laugh apparently coming from a grave.

He can travel invisibly, and is highly amused by mortal terror. Sometimes he will invite a mortal to enter a lonely bog hut, and then orders them to make dinner of a hag which is skewered on a spit. The man usually faints, and when he comes around he hears the sound of laughter in the air, but the Fear Dearg is nowhere to be seen. It is said his laughter will haunt you to the grave.

There are many contradictory facts about the Fear Dearg, the first one being whether he is one creature or three. Some sources claim that Fear Dearg, the Leprechaun, and the Clurichaun are one and the same creature, as they are all solitary, withered and old, unlike other fairies. According to other sources though they are related. And although the vast majority of sources say he is Irish, he also pops up in some Scottish stories.

In Donegal he is known for being a tall creature, but in Munster he is reported to be 2'6" (75cm) tall, and wears a sugarloaf cap, has long grey hair and a wrinkled face. He would enter a home and ask to warm himself by the fire, and if he liked the people they would have good luck, but if he did not he would play a trick on them. To refuse his request was always very unlucky!

If you recognise him when you meet him, you should say 'Na dean maggdh fum' which means do not mock me, as this will prevent him from playing nasty tricks on you. The problem is that he plans his tricks so well that by the time you realise who he is, it is too late to say do not mock me. Sometimes he sends nightmares to wreck people's sleep.

Despite the grotesque pranks that he plays, he is actually good natured and will bring good luck to those he likes. He just enjoys taunting them first.
Farmers consider him lucky to have around, though no reason is given for this.

Perhaps not as well known as other characters from Celtic mythology, the actions of the Fear Dearg, or Red Man, show that being mischievous could result in good luck or bad luck, and to be sure of good luck it was always best to be welcoming to strangers.

The Faerie Folk. The Gentry.

Aos sí, Daoine sídhe or Faerie Folk.

In Irish mythology the Aos sí (older form, Aes sídhe), pronounced ess shee, are a powerful, supernatural race comparable to the fairies or elves of other traditions. They are variously believed to live underground in the fairy mounds, across the western sea, or in an invisible world that coexists with the world of humans. In Irish they are also referred to as Daoine sídhe (deena shee).

Some sources describe them as the remaining survivors of the Tuatha Dé Danann who retreated into the Otherworld after they were defeated by the Milesians. According to the "Lebor Gabála Érenn" ("The Book of Invasions"), the Tuatha Dé Danann (also "daoine sídhe"), were defeated in battle by the Milesians - the mortal Sons of Míl Espáine.

As part of the surrender terms in their loss against the Milesians, the Tuatha Dé Danann agreed to retreat and dwell underground in the "sídhe" the hills or earthen mounds that dot the Irish landscape. Each leader of one of the tribes of the Tuatha Dé Danann was given one mound.

The fact that many of these "sídhe" have been found to be ancient burial mounds has contributed to the theory that the "aos sí" are pre Celtic occupants of Ireland.

In folk belief and practice, the "aos sí" are often offerings in order to win their favour, and care is taken to avoid angering or insulting them. Often they are not named directly, but rather spoken of with euphemisms such as "The Good
Neighbours," "The Gentry," "The Fair Folk," or simply "The Folk", in the hope that if humans describe them as kind, they are more likely to be so.

Aos sí are sometimes seen as fierce guardians of their abodes - whether that be a fairy hill, a fairy ring, a special tree (often a hawthorn), or perhaps a particular Lough or wood. The Otherworld is seen as being closer at the times of dusk and dawn; therefore this is seen as a time special to the Aos sí, as are some of the festivals such as Samhain and Midsummer. The Aos sí are generally described as stunningly beautiful, though they can also be terrible and hideous.

The Aos sí, commonly known today as ‘Fairies’, live all over Ireland. The places they live are called forts, raths, or mounds. A fairy king rules each of these places. At times it is said you can hear sounds of music and merriment coming from the fairy places. It’s believed that Turlough O’Carolan a famous Harper in the 18th century fell asleep on a fairy mound and received the gift of fairy music. This is what gives Celtic music its unique sound even today.

A favourite gathering place for Irish fairies is under a Hawthorne tree. These are usually encircled by a fairy ring of flowers. Certain Hawthorne’s are considered sacred in Ireland. As recently as 1999 in Latoon, County Clare a multimillion-pound highway was diverted so it wouldn’t uproot a lone Hawthorne tree. It was believed if the tree was disturbed everyone that drove on the new road would have bad luck. Irish fairy superstitions say it is best never to disturb these places.

Fairy paths are the routes fairies use to get from here to there and are all over Ireland. Never build a house on a fairy path. The best way to avoid this is to set four posts at the corner of the site overnight. If they are still standing in the morning then it is safe to build there. If any have fallen or are moved try another spot. You don’t want your house on a fairy path. You would never have any peace.

Some of the superstitions that are associated with fairies include:

A pair of shovels crossed at the mouth of a grave is believed to keep out malevolent fairies. This Irish fairy superstition is still practiced today in some parts of Ireland.

An Irish fairy sometimes takes people that seem to die or disappear to live in a fairy palace. If they are found by a friend or family member it is then possible for them to return to their earthly life even if found years later. When asked, they say they would gladly go back to the fairy palace.

Irish Fairy Queens sometimes fall in love with young athletic men and they later die for no apparent reason.

Young girls who are wanted for brides to Fairy Kings seem to pine away and die.

In the western islands of Connemara it is believed the dead can be heard laughing with the fairies and spinning flax at night. One girl swore she heard her dead mother's voice singing from inside a fairy mound. The laughing and singing lasts for a year and a day then stops.

Today it is believed that only the uneducated believe in fairies. The reason for this could be because the uneducated would be the only ones to admit to belief in fairies. Anyone else would never admit to your face this belief for fear of ridicule.

Secretly many people are careful not to offend the Good People. Up until the year 1700 virtually everyone in Ireland believed in fairies from royalty down to the rural peasants. Not even the arrival of Christianity in the fifth century could dispel this belief.

Old stories were told that included fairies. It was just taken for granted that these stories were all true because it was the natural order of things that they truly were part of the real world. As the science of the day began to find cures for mankind's aliments belief in Irish fairies began to decline, but not completely.

To this day in Ireland some people still practice rituals to appease the Good People even though they may not be aware of what they are doing. On May morning some people collect flowers especially primroses to spread around their doors and windows. This is done to keep out the malevolent fairies. They may or may not know why they do this. They would never admit to you or me why they do this and yet it is still done and I think that speaks for itself.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Droch-fhoula (pronounced droc'ola).

The Legend of Abhartach.

It has always been assumed that the original Dracula story, written by the Irishman Abraham (Bram) Stoker in 1897, was based on the Transylvanian folk hero Vlad III Tepesh Dracula, known as “the impaler” because of his favourite method of punishment.

However, an alternative inspiration for Stoker's story was put forward by Bob Curran, lecturer in Celtic History and Folklore at the University of Ulster, Coleraine, in the Summer 2000 edition of History Ireland, a peer-reviewed journal edited by historians, where he suggested that Stoker may have derived his inspiration from the legend of Abhartach, but who was Abhartach?

In the north Derry area, between the towns of Garvagh and Dungiven, a district known as Glenuilin (glen of the eagle) might give us a clue as to Dracula's origins. In the middle of a field in the remote townland of Slaughtaverty, is an area known locally as the 'Giant's Grave' but which may be more properly described as Leacht Abhartach (Abhartach's sepulchre). On the grave itself is a curling thorn bush under which lies a large and heavy stone. Originally there were more stones, the remnants of an old monument, but these have been removed over time by local farmers for building purposes. There is little doubt that the sepulchre was once an imposing place and that it has given the townland its name.

During the fifth and sixth centuries, the Glenullin area was a patchwork of petty kingdoms, each with its own local ruler or 'king'. These kings may have been little more than tribal warlords and there is ample evidence of their rule, for the countryside is dotted with hill forts, ancient raths and early fortifications which marked their respective territories. Abhartach, according to tradition, was one of these chieftains.

Local descriptions of him vary. Some say that he was a dwarf, others that he was deformed in some way, but most agree that he was a powerful wizard and was extremely evil. So evil, in fact, that those over whom he ruled wished to get rid of him.

However, so terrified of him were they that they would not kill him themselves and so they persuaded another chieftain, Cathán, to perform the deed for them. Cathán slew Abhartach and buried him standing up in an isolated grave. However, the following day Abhartach returned, evil as ever and demanded a bowl of blood, drawn from the veins of his subjects, in order to sustain his vile corpse. In great terror, the people asked Cathán to slay him once more. This Cathán did, burying the corpse as before. But the following day, Abhartach returned again, demanding the same gory tribute from his people.

Cathán was puzzled and consulted a local druid as to why Abhartach could not be killed. The venerable old man listened long and hard to the chieftain's tale.

'Abhartach is not really alive', he told the astonished Cathán. 'Through his evil arts he has become one of the neamh-mhairbh (the undead). He is a dearg-dililat, a drinker of human blood. He cannot actually be slain but he can be restrained.' He then proceeded to give Cathán instructions as to how to 'suspend' the vampiric creature. Abhartach must be slain with a sword made from yew wood and must be buried upside down in the earth, thorns and ash twigs must be sprinkled around him and a heavy stone must be placed directly on top of him. Should the stone be lifted, however, the vampire would be free to walk the earth once more.

Cathán returned to Glenullin and did what the druid told him. Abhartach was slain with a wooden sword and was buried upside down with thorns placed all around the gravesite. On top of the actual grave, Cathán built a great leacht or sepulchre which could be seen for miles around. This has now vanished but the stone remains and a tree, which grew from the scattered thorns, rises above it.

The land on which the grave is situated has acquired a rather sinister reputation over the generations. Locally it is considered to be 'bad ground' and has been the subject of a number of family disagreements over the years. In 1997, attempts were made to clear the land and if local tradition is to be believed workmen who attempted to cut down the tree found that their brand-new chain-saw stopped without reason on three occasions. When attempting to lift the great stone, a steel chain suddenly snapped, cutting the hand of one of the labourers and, significantly, allowing blood to soak into the ground. Although legends still abound in the locality of the 'man who was buried three times' and of a fantastic treasure which was buried with him, few local people will approach the grave, especially after dark.

This is the legend of Abhartach in Irish Folklore. Could this be the influence of Bram Stoker’s Dracula? Although most cultures have vampire stories, such tales have a particular resonance in Ireland. Here, interest in and veneration of the dead played a central part in Celtic thinking.

It was the historian and folklorist Patrick Weston Joyce who actually made connections between Abhartach and the Irish vampire tradition. Joyce enthusiastically recounted the legend in his own book A History of Ireland (Dublin 1880). This was seventeen years before Dracula was published and it is believed that Stoker, then a Dublin civil servant, read Joyce's work (and presumably the Abhartach legend) with some relish.

Around the same time, manuscript copies of Geoffrey Keating's History of Ireland(which made much of the neamh-mhairbh, the un-dead) were placed on public display in the National Museum in Dublin. They were on loan from Trinity College Library (which possessed two manuscript copies) and the display included chapter ten on the un-dead. Although Stoker himself could not read Irish, he had many friends and acquaintances that did and he may have received at least part of the work in translation.

Could the legend of the vampire-king coupled with the strong tradition of blood-drinking Irish chieftains and nobles recounted to him as a child by his Sligo-born mother and the Kerry maids who worked about his Dublin home, have eventually coalesced into the idea of Count Dracula? Bram Stoker was not writing from any great experience of Eastern Europe. He had never been there and was relying heavily on tourist accounts of the region. His experiences may have come more directly from Irish folklore.

Even the name Dracula has Irish resonances. In Irish, droch-fhoula (pronounced droc'ola) means 'bad' or 'tainted blood' and whilst it is now taken to refer to 'blood feuds' between persons or families, it may have a far older connotation.

So can we really consign the vampire to some remote part of Eastern Europe, where he is unlikely to do us any harm?

Lower of the two images:
This caricature is from a humor periodical The Looking Glass or Caricature Annual, which was issued monthly between January 1830 and December 1832. The artist, Robert Seymour depicts ‘Two species of Irish Vampire’.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Grace O'Malley. The Pirate Queen.

Grace O'Malley

She is known by many names: Grainne Mhaol (Bald Grace), Grainne Ui Mhaille (Grace of the Umhalls), Grania, the Dark Lady of Doona, Grace O'Malley, and Granuaile (Gran-oo-ale). She was a contemporary of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Edmund Spencer, Walter Raleigh, and Francis Drake. She was a mother, a pirate, and one of the many great women of Ireland.

Born c. 1530 into the O'Malley family, the hereditary lords of Umhall which included Clare Island, Inishturk, Inishbofin, Inishark and Caher, Grace married into two of the powerful families of Western Ireland, the O'Flaherty of West Connacht and the Burke of Clew Bay. Tradition has it that she is buried (1603) on Clare Island at the Abbey which bears the O'Malley coat-of-arms; Terra-Marique-Potens. Indeed a fitting family motto, for Grace was powerful on land and especially on the sea.

The Pirate Queen Grace O'Malley, also known by her Irish Gaelic name Grainne Ni Mhaille, is one of Ireland's foremost heroines, whose life was the stuff of Irish legend. Grace O'Malley's extraordinary life centres around the 16th Century Tudor conquest of Ireland under Queen Elizabeth I. Grace was the daughter of the O'Malley Clan chieftain who controlled the south west of County Mayo and its coast from their castle on Clare Island. They were a renowned seafaring family who controlled the sea routes along the west coast of Ireland, charging a tax to fishermen and traders.

In 1546 Grace was married at a young age to the head of the O'Flaherty Clan, but when he was killed in battle, Grace became the head of the O'Flaherty's as well. Grace later remarried another powerful Irish Chief Richard Burke, but divorced him after one year under the ancient Brehon Laws and got to keep his title and Rockfleet Castle near Newport in Co. Mayo.

As England steadily gained control of Ireland, Grace came under increasing pressure to relent to the English crown. An expedition from Galway attacked Grace in her castle on Clare Island, so Grace turned to piracy, blockading the port of Galway and attacking English ships in Galway Bay.

When the English governor of Connaught, Sir Richard Bingham captured Grace O'Malley's two sons, she set sail for England to speak to Queen Elizabeth I face to face. Her ships sailed up the River Thames in London, where Grace met Queen Elizabeth at Greenwich. On meeting the Queen, Grace refused to bow, stating that she herself was a Queen of her land and not a subject of the Queen of England. Their discussion was carried out in Latin as Grainne Mhaol spoke no English and Queen Elizabeth spoke no Irish. The two, who were roughly the same age apparently, admired each other, and reached a truce; Grace would stop attacking English ships and switch to attacking Spanish ones and her sons were returned to her.

Grace O'Malley died at Rockfleet Castle in 1603, the same year as Queen Elizabeth.

In a man's world, Granuaile developed her own power base contrary to Gaelic and English law. She was a woman of singular strength of character and for that became, along with Roisin Dubh and Caitleen Ni Houlihan, a poetic symbol for Ireland:

The gowns she wore was stained with gore all by a ruffian band
Her lips so sweet that monarchs kissed are now grown pale and wan
The tears of grief fell from her eyes each tear as large as hail
None could express the deep distress of poor old Granuaile.

Statue of Grace O'Malley in the grounds of Westport House County Mayo.

The Spinning Wheel.

The Spinning Wheel

Mellow the moonlight to shine is beginning
Close by the window young Eileen is spinning
Bent o'er the fire her blind grandmother sitting
Crooning and moaning and drowsily knitting.
Merrily cheerily noiselessly whirring
Spins the wheel, rings the wheel while the foot's stirring
Sprightly and lightly and merrily ringing
Sounds the sweet voice of the young maiden singing.

Eileen, a chara, I hear someone tapping
'Tis the ivy dear mother against the glass flapping
Eileen, I surely hear somebody sighing
'Tis the sound mother dear of the autumn winds dying.

What's the noise I hear at the window I wonder?
'Tis the little birds chirping, the holly-bush under
What makes you shoving and moving your stool on
And singing all wrong the old song of the "Coolin"?

There's a form at the casement, the form of her true love
And he whispers with face bent, I'm waiting for you love
Get up from the stool, through the lattice step lightly
And we'll rove in the grove while the moon's shining brightly.

The maid shakes her head, on her lips lays her fingers
Steps up from the stool, longs to go and yet lingers
A frightened glance turns to her drowsy grandmother
Puts her foot on the stool spins the wheel with the other

Lazily, easily, now swings the wheel round
Slowly and lowly is heard now the reel's sound
Noiseless and light to the lattice above her
The maid steps, then leaps to the arms of her lover.

Slower... and slower... and slower the wheel swings
Lower... and lower... and lower the reel rings
Ere the reel and the wheel stop their ringing and moving
Through the grove the young lovers by moonlight are roving.

Image: Lady at the Spinning Wheel. Artist: English School January 1885. Monnogramed 'CB'

The Art of Spinning.

The Art of Spinning.

The art of spinning has always been a big part of domestic life. Until about 1550 all thread was spun with a distaff and spindle. The distaff is a cleft stick, which holds the carded wool or plant fibres. The spindle is a straight stick weighted with a detachable whorl at the bottom. The spinner (or spinster?) pulls the fibres out with one hand, twisting them between finger and thumb and winding the thread onto the spindle.

Archaeologists find spindle whorls buried in graves. Genealogists refer to the ‘distaff’ side of the family, meaning the female side and the term spinster is still the legal term for an unmarried woman. The tools of the spinner are deeply imbedded in our language and folklore.

Spinning is the art of transforming loose fibres such as wool and flax into thread. This is done by pulling out the fibres to the required width and introducing twist to fix and strengthen them. The ancient tools of the spinner were the distaff and the spindle. The distaff was a long staff to which the fibres were tied to keep them untangled. The spindle was a short shaft weighted with a stone whorl which was used like a suspended spinning top to provide momentum and the downward pull of gravity for the work. These same implements were the spinner's only tools until the late fourteenth century when early spinning wheels were developed. The first Spinning wheels were large, inefficient, expensive and unpopular so the spindle remained in common use until the eighteenth century.

The spinning wheel, which was operated by a foot treadle, leaving both hands free to work the thread, appeared around 1550 in wealthy households. Of course, there was a crossover period as more and more people got spinning wheels, instead of spindles.

A common theme of spinning tales is the breaking of magical boundaries. Spinning women attract all kinds of supernatural creatures and spirits, hostile spirits include the mischievous fairies from the Scottish tale ‘The Good Housewife and her Night Helpers’. The housewife worked late at her spinning while her family slept. Eager to complete her weaving she made a wish that someone would come from land or sea, far or near to help her finish the work. This unwise request summoned a large number of fairies who took up the woman’s carding, spinning and weaving. The fairies kept crying out to the housewife for food until the larder was empty and the poor woman was half demented. She tried to wake her family but they were all deep in an enchanted sleep. Terrified she ran from the house and consulted the village elder who helped her extract the fairies by trickery

A very similar story is told in here in Ireland in which a spinning housewife, working late, was visited by ten witch women. Each of them had horns growing out of their foreheads and carried wool combs, a reel or a spinning wheel. They all sat down in the house and began to work at the wool with lightning speed. Again the housewife was driven to distraction by their demands for food and ran from the house to fetch water for baking. She was helped by a kindly spirit living in the well and the witches were expelled, again by trickery. I have already written a little about this story in an earlier post.

The spindle comes across strongly as a symbol of womanhood (of a straight laced, hearth tied, skirt bundled variety, from an age when both sexes worked themselves to exhaustion in the daily round). But even in her subservience a woman held power and the distaff was her weapon against the world of men. In the domestic battle the medieval woman reached for her distaff, a far more versatile weapon than today's rolling pins due to its length.

Femininity and spinning have come hand in hand through the centuries. We still use the terms 'distaff side' and 'spinster' their original relevance forgotten.

The spindle is the symbol of the female sex and consequently the symbol of leading goddesses from across the world. The use of the spindle by the fates of classical literature and the importance of female magic have enforced the connection between spinning and the supernatural.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Selkies.

The Selkies or "Seal People"

Ireland is a country rich in mythology and folklore. We are well known for our pleasure and skill in storytelling and song. Our stories are rife with melancholy yet are emotionally compelling. We know that life is a mixture of laughter and sorrow, pleasure and tragedy. Our stories are fanciful, creative and evoke laughter and tears. They also reflect the reality of life and lessons learned.

The myth of the Selkies is about the seal people and has all the qualities of a good Irish tale. In Irish folklore, there are many stories about creatures who can transform themselves from seals to humans. These beings are called selkies, silkies, selchies, roane, or simply seal people.

During the day Selkies exist as seals, swimming in the cool depths of the sea. At night they shed their skins onto the sandy beach and hide them carefully. Their human selves are beautiful with dark hair and eyes and a creamy white skin. Humans are instantly enamored with them and try to win their love. However, the only way a human can keep a Selkie is to find their skin and hide it. A Selkie that is trapped on land will always long for the sea. They will wander the cliffs and beaches singing sadly about their former home.

If a Selkie finds it skin it will return to the sea and never return. If a female Selkie has children with a human she will swim close to their land based home to keep watch over them and sometimes even play with them in the water. The female Selkie is said to be a good wife, yet she is solitary and quiet. Legend tells us that children born of a Selkie have their dark hair and large dark eyes and an unusual affinity with the sea.

The meetings and matings between Selkies and humans are usually accidental. However if a mortal desires a certain Selkie there is a ritual that they can perform. At high tide they must wade into the water and shed seven tears into the sea. Then the Selkie will come in search of that human. In stories it is almost always a human man who steals the skin of a female Selkie. Selkie men are typically seducers of mortal women but are not willing to stay with them preferring to return to the sea immediately.

The origin of selkies is variable, but it is often said that they were fallen angels like the fairies, except that they had fallen into the sea and became seals. Others insist that the selkie were once human beings who, for some grave offense, were doomed to take the form of a seal and live out the rest of their days in the sea. It is also said that selkies were actually the souls of those who had drowned. One night each year these lost souls were permitted to leave the sea and return to their original human form.

Tuatha de Danann.

Tuatha de Danann.

The "Lebor Gabála Erren" ("The Book of the Taking of Ireland"), compiled during the 12th century A.D. describes the coming of the mysterious Tuatha de Danann or Tribe of Danu.

They were apparently tall, blond or red-haired strangers, "expert in the arts of pagan cunning", who supposedly interbred with the locals, while teaching them many kinds of useful skills.

The Lebor Gabála Erenn records their dramatic entrance to Ireland as follows:

"In this wise they came, in dark clouds from northern islands of the world. They landed on the mountains of Conmaicne Rein in Connachta, and they brought a darkness over the sun for three days and three nights. Gods were their men of arts, and non-gods their husbandmen."

There are many stories of aerial ships or "demon ships" ("loinger demnacda") in the Irish annuals.

According to the mythic tales the Tuatha de Danann were advanced enough to arrive in western Ireland (near modern Connacht) by air. They divided into two social classes:

1. "gods" as teachers of medicine, smithing, communication or druidry
2. "non-gods" as farmers or shepherds.

Tuatha de Danaan.

They are immortals and the only thing that can harm them is iron. The fact that only iron can harm the Tuatha de Danaans may have a deeper meaning. It is possible that the Danaans were a Bronze Age race that was defeated by an Iron Age race, the Milesians. Legend has it that the weapons of the Tuatha de Danaans were made of bronze and that when they met the Milesians in battle they were defeated because the Milesian weapons were made of iron.

The Tuatha de Danaan fled and went underground hiding in caves within the mountains and hills. They became known as the fair folk due to their fair hair and complexion this in time became fairy folk. They are said to fear iron as it was responsible for their defeat and they flee from it whenever they see it.

This in turn would account for many of our superstitions surrounding iron. I will cover some of those in a later post. This is just one version of the Tuatha de Danann. However, there are many more.

The Old Turf Fire.

The Old Turf Fire.

Oh, the old turf fire, and the hearth swept clean
There’s no one quite so happy as meself and Mary Keene
With the baby in the cradle, you can hear her mother say
“Won’t you go to sleep, Alana, while I wet your Daddy’s tay”

Now, I’ve got a little house and land, as neat as it can be
You’ll never see the like of it, this side of Moneylea
No piano in the corner, and no pictures on the wall
But I’m happy and contented in my little cottage hall.

With, the old turf fire, and the hearth swept clean
There’s no one quite so happy as meself and Mary Keene
With the baby in the cradle, you can hear her mother say
“Won’t you go to sleep, Alana, while I wet your Daddy’s tay”

Now, the man that I work for, of noble blood is he
But one thing I’ll be telling you - we never can agree
He has big towering mansion, he has castles great and small
But I wouldn’t trade for anything my little cottage hall

With, the old turf fire, and the hearth swept clean
There’s no one quite so happy as meself and Mary Keene
With the baby in the cradle, you can hear her mother say
“Won’t you go to sleep, Alana, while I wet your Daddy’s tay”

Now the old folk sit around the fire, bent with years
As they watch us tripping lightly, just smiling through their tears
So sadly they are dreaming of their youthful heart’s desire
In those far off days of long ago, around the old turf fire

With, the old turf fire, and the hearth swept clean
There’s no one quite so happy as meself and Mary Keene
With the baby in the cradle, you can hear her mother say
“Won’t you go to sleep, Alana, while I wet your Daddy’s tay”

There is a great version of this song performed by DruidSong. Go to their website and you can listen to it. http://druidsong.bandcamp.com/track/the-old-turf-fire.

The Bodhrán Song.

The Bodhrán Song
(Brian O'Rourke - MÓC Music)

Oh I am a year old kid
I'm worth scarcely fifteen quid.
I'm the kind of beast you might well look down on
But my value will increase
At the time of my decease
For when I grow up I want to be a bodhrán.

If you kill me for my meat
You won't find me very sweet.
Your palate I'm afraid I'll soon turn sour on.
Ah but if you do me in
For the sake of my thick skin
You'll find I make a tasty little bodhrán.

Now my parents Bill and Nan,
They do not approve my plan
To become a yoke for every yob to pound on
Ah but I would sooner scamper
With a bang than with a whimper
And achieve reincarnation as a bodhrán.

I look forward to the day
When I leave off eating hay
And become a drum to entertain a crowd on
And I'll make my presence felt
With each well-delivered belt
As a fully qualified and licensed bodhrán.

And 'tis when I'm killed and cured
My career will be assured
I'll be a skin you'll see no scum nor scour on
But with studs around my rim
I'll be sound in wind and limb
And I'll make a dandy, handy little bodhrán.

Oh my heart with joy expands
When I dream of far-off lands
And consider all the streets that I will sound on
And I pity my poor ma
Who has never seen a Fleadh
Or indulged in foreign travel as a bodhrán.

For a hornpipe or a reel
A dead donkey has no feel
Or a horse or cow or sheep that has its shroud on
And you can't join in a jig
If you're a former grade A pig
But you can wallop out the lot if you're a bodhrán.

So if e'er you're feeling low
To a session you should go
And bring me there to exercise an hour on.
You can strike a mighty thump
On my belly, back or rump
But I thank you if you'd wait till I'm a bodhrán.

When I dedicate my hide,
I'll enhance the family pride
And tradition is a thing I won't fall down on
For I'll bear a few young bucks
Who'll inherit my good looks
And be proud to know their old one is a bodhrán.

And I don't think I'll much mind
When I've left himself behind
For the critter can no longer turn the power on
For with a celtic ink design
Tattooed on my behind
I can be a very sexy little bodhrán

Now I think you've had enough
Of this rubbishy old guff
So I'll put a sudden end to my wee amhrán
And quite soon my bloody bleat
Will become a steady beat
When I start my new existence as a bodhrán.

Within the confines of traditional singing, song-writing has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years with the bard of old being replaced by a new breed of versifier. Nothing escapes the poet's wrath and/or amusement. This little gem is from the pen of Brian O'Rourke who has consistently shown that he is a master of the humorous song.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Carnmoney Witch.

Mary Butters c. 1770-1850

Mary Butters the Carnmoney Witch, was put forward for trial at the Spring Assizes in March 1808. It is an instance of black magic versus white though it should be borne in mind that in the persecution of witches many women were put to death on the latter charge. It should be said at this point that it was the skill and knowledge of these same women in the use of herbs that benefited the population and added greatly to our present day pharmacology. The following story comes from the Belfast News-Letter for 21st August 1807.

One Tuesday night an extraordinary affair took place in the house of a tailor named Alexander Montgomery, who lived nearby Carnmoney Meeting-House. The tailor had a cow which continued to give milk as usual, but of late no butter could be produced from it. An opinion was unfortunately instilled into the mind of Montgomery's wife, that whenever such a thing occurred, it was occasioned by the cow having been bewitched. Her belief in this was strengthened by the fact that every old woman in the parish was able to relate some story illustrative of what she had seen or heard of in times gone by with respect to the same.

At length the family were informed of a woman named Mary Butters, who resided at Carrigfergus. They went to her, and brought her to the house for the purpose of curing the cow. About ten o'clock that night war was declared against the unknown magicians. Mary Butters ordered old Montgomery and a young man named Carnaghan to go out to the cow-house, turn their waistcoats inside out, and in that dress to stand by the head of the cow until she sent for them, while the wife, the son, and an old woman named Margaret Lee remained in the house with her.

Montgomery and his ally kept their lonely vigil until daybreak, when, becoming alarmed at receiving no summons, they left their post and knocked at the door, but obtained no response. They then looked through the kitchen window, and to their horror saw the four inmates stretched on the floor as dead. They immediately burst in the door, and found that the wife and son were actually dead, and the sorceress and Margaret Lee nearly so. The latter soon afterwards expired.

Mary Butters was thrown out on a dung-heap, and a restorative administered to her in the shape of a few hearty kicks, which had the desired effect. The house had a sulphureous smell, and on the fire was a large pot in which were milk, needles, pins, and crooked nails. At the inquest held at Carnmoney on the 19th of August, the jurors stated that the three victims had come by their deaths from suffocation, owing to Mary Butters having made use of some noxious ingredients, after the manner of a charm, to recover a sick cow.

She was brought up at the Assizes, but was discharged by proclamation. Her version of the story was, that the devil in the guise of a black man had appeared in the house armed with a huge club, with which he killed the three persons and stunned herself. Lamentable though the whole affair was, as well for the gross superstition displayed by the participants as for its tragic ending, yet it seems to have aroused no other feelings amongst the inhabitants of Carnmoney and Carrigfergus than those of derision.

Mary Butters continued to practice her art for decades afterwards and was still consulted by the locals in the respect of bewitched cows. Thankfully the witchcraft act was repealed in 1821.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Werewolves in Irish Folklore.

Werewolves in Irish Folklore:

The werewolf is strong in Irish folklore. There are a number of old tales about strange tribes of wolf-men living in remote areas of County Tipperary, whose assistance was often sought by the ancient kings of Ireland when they made war upon each other. There are also tales of strange beings - half-men, half-wolves - roaming the remote forest and mountain areas of the island. Indeed, one of the oldest written stories that we have about werewolves comes from Ireland. It was written down by a man named Giraldus Cambrensis who wrote down many old Irish tales.

In Ireland in 1182, a priest travelling from Ulster into Meath, and having to pass the night in a wood, was sitting by a fire which he had made, when a wolf accosted him in human speech.

He was, he said, a man of Ossory, on whose race lay an ancient curse, whereby every seven years a man and a woman were changed into wolves; at the end of seven years they recovered their proper form, and two others suffered a like transformation. He and his wife were the present victims of the curse; his wife was at the point of death, and he prayed the priest to come and give her the viaticum (Holy Eucharist given to the dying)

After some hesitation the priest complied; and next morning the wolf took leave of him with words of gratitude. Two years after this event, Giraldus was in the same area, where he was approached by two priests sent by the bishop to ask him his view on this “serious matter.” Giraldus met with the bishop of the town and gave his views in writing. These writings were then sent to the Bishop of Ossory then to Pope Urban III. Showing you just how serious they took this werewolf tale, one of the first ever recorded.

It is said that the people of the Kingdom of Ossory (County Kilkenny and parts of Laois and Offaly) had the power to change themselves into wolves whenever they wanted. During the time that an Ossorian lived as a wolf their human body lay at home as if it were dead. When an Ossorian was about to change into a wolf strict orders were given to friends not to touch or move the human body for if it was moved to a place where the returning spirit could not find it then the person was doomed to remain in wolf form for the rest of their life.

One author (Giraldus Cambrensis) wrote of the Ossorians saying that there were always two of the Ossory people, a man and a woman, living in the shape of wolves for seven year cycles. After living seven years as wolves they returned home and another couple replaced them.

The Irish Werewolf is very different from the excepted version of the werewolf that has become apparent through the spread of Christianity and the inquisition. It is not a crazed man-eater but rather a protector. There are numerous stories in Irish folklore of wolves protecting children, guarding wounded men and guiding lost people to a place of safety.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

An Irish Fairy Tale.

The Horned Women.

A rich woman sat up late one night carding and preparing wool, whiles all the family and servants were asleep. Suddenly a knock was given at the door, and a voice called, "Open! Open!"

"Who is there?" said the woman of the house.

"I am the Witch of one Horn," was answered.

The mistress, who was a little hard of hearing and supposing that one of her neighbours had called and required assistance, opened the door, a woman entered, having in her hand a pair of wool-carders, and bearing a horn on her forehead, as if growing there. She sat down by the fire in silence, and began to card the wool with violent haste. Suddenly she paused, and said aloud: "Where are the women? They delay too long."

Then a second knock came to the door, and a voice called as before, "Open! Open!"

The mistress felt herself obliged to rise and open to the call, and immediately a second witch entered, having two horns on her forehead, and in her hand a wheel for spinning wool.

"Give me place," she said; "I am the Witch of the two horns," and she began to spin as quick as lightning.

And so the knocks went on, and the call was heard, and the witches entered, until at last twelve women sat round the fire—the first with one horn, the last with twelve horns.

And they carded the thread, and turned their spinning wheels, and wound and wove, all singing together an ancient rhyme, but no word did they speak to the mistress of the house. Strange to hear, and frightful to look upon, were these twelve women, with their horns and their wheels and the mistress felt near to death, and she tried to rise that she might call for help, but she could not move, nor could she utter a word or a cry, for the spell of the witches was upon her.

Then one of them called to her in Irish, and said, Méadú, bhean, agus cuirfidh muid cáca ("Rise, woman, and make us a cake.")

Then the mistress searched for a vessel to bring water from the well that she might mix the meal and make the cake, but she could find none.

And they said to her, "Take a sieve and bring water in it."

And she took the sieve and went to the well; but the water poured from it, and she could fetch none for the cake, and she sat down by the well and wept.

Then a voice came by her and said, "Take yellow clay and moss, and bind them together, and plaster the sieve so that it will hold."

This she did, and the sieve held the water for the cake and the voice said again:

"Return, and when thou comest to the north angle of the house, cry aloud three times and say, 'The mountain of the Fenian women and the sky over it is all on fire.' "

And she did so.

When the witches inside heard the call, a great and terrible cry broke from their lips, and they rushed forth with wild lamentations and shrieks, and fled away to Slievenamon, where their chief abode was. But the Spirit of the Well bade the mistress of the house to enter and prepare her home against the enchantments of the witches if they returned again.

And first, to break their spells, she sprinkled the water in which she had washed her child's feet, the feet-water, outside the door on the threshold; secondly, she took the cake which in her absence the witches had made of meal mixed with the blood drawn from the sleeping family, and she broke the cake in bits, and placed a bit in the mouth of each sleeper, and they were restored; and she took the cloth they had woven, and placed it half in and half out of the chest with the padlock; and lastly, she secured the door with a great crossbeam fastened in the jambs, so that the witches could not enter, and having done these things she waited.

Not long were the witches in coming back, and they raged and called for vengeance.

"Open! Open!" they screamed; "open, feet-water!"

"I cannot," said the feet-water; "I am scattered on the ground, and my path is down to the Lough."

"Open, open, wood and trees and beam!" they cried to the door.

"I cannot," said the door, "for the beam is fixed in the jambs and I have no power to move."

"Open, open, cake that we have made and mingled with blood!" they cried again.

"I cannot," said the cake, "for I am broken and bruised, and my blood is on the lips of the sleeping children."

Then the witches rushed through the air with great cries, and fled back to Slievenamon, uttering strange curses on the Spirit of the Well, who had wished their ruin; but the woman and the house were left in peace, and a mantle (a cloak) dropped by one of the witches in her flight was kept hung up by the mistress in memory of that night; and this mantle was kept by the same family from generation to generation for five hundred years after.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Wood Carver

WIllie the Wood Spirit loved to play,
He'd dance and sing and run all day.
He'd teach the newborn birds to sing,
And mend a robin's broken wing.

'Till one day, while running thru woods,
An evil spirit, before him stood.
He cast a spell to make Willie sleep,
And placed him inside a tree to keep.

There he stayed for many a year,
Until one day, what did he hear?
A chopping sound, some scrapes, some cuts,
Poor little Willie thought he'd gone nuts.

But the sound grew louder, it was getting close,
And before he knew it, he could wiggle his nose.
And soon he felt the wind on his cheek,
Dare he open his eyes and take a peek?

He summoned his courage and opened one eye,
Looked all around and up to the sky.
When what did he see when he gazed up above?
A man with a chisel, a hat and a glove.

A man with a wonderful look in his eyes,
A man who listened and heard Willie's cries.
And set Willie free from his prison of timber,
That carver of wood, he will always remember.

Image is a tree carving by Clyde Daugherty his work can be seen at: www.clydedaugherty.com

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Corn Dollies.

History of the Corn Dolly

Before Christianity took hold in Ireland (and even afterwards) within the traditional pagan agricultural culture it was believed that the spirit of the corn lived amongst the crop, and that when the crop was harvested it was made effectively homeless.

The people believed a spirit lived in the field and as they cut the harvest the spirit retreated before them. The last bunch of corn was kept and given to the oldest man to plait and keep it on the wall until the following year's crop was sewn when the spirit would be returned to the field by being shaken from last year’s corn bunch.

In Ireland, the final sheaf was gathered with great ceremony, celebrating the living things that might be living within it. If you think about it, that makes sense, a cornfield is a perfect nesting place for small animals, such as rabbits, mice, birds, or frogs. As the reaper’s harvested the crop, the animals within fled, until there was only one sheaf left. Since the animal was more often than not a small, very frightened hare, the phrase "putting the hare out of the corn" came to mean the end of the reaping.

James Frazer devotes chapters in The Golden Bough to "Corn-Mother and Corn-Maiden in Northern Europe" (chs. 45-48). Among the customs attached to the last sheaf of the harvest were hollow shapes fashioned from the last sheaf of wheat or other cereal crops. The corn spirit would then spend the winter in this home until the "corn dolly" was ploughed into the first furrow of the new season. "Dolly" may be a corruption of "idol" or may have come directly from the Greek word eidolon, which means ghost/spirit or image.

An odd tradition in some areas was the use of the final sheaf to find the corpse of a drowning victim. The sheaf was placed in the water with a lit candle upon it, near where the person was believed to have fallen in. The sheaf drifted, and it was believed that it would come to rest where the body was submerged. It was thought that only the final sheaf had the magical ability to find these lost souls.

Regardless of how it was used, the cutting of the final sheaf meant that the grain harvest was over. Now bread baking could begin, and food stored away for the coming winter months.

Corn Dolly making is an ancient craft going back thousands of years, when as previously stated, it was thought that a spirit lived in the cornfields. To preserve this spirit at harvest time, and ensure the success of next year's harvest, a corn dolly was made for it to rest in. Ivy was a symbol of rebirth, and so it wasn't uncommon to dress the corn doll with a headdress of ivy.

The Corn Dolly was originally made to appease the corn spirit with the hope of a good harvest the following year. Traces of corn dolly shapes have been found dating back to 2000 B.C. and it has always been the tradition to plough the previous year’s dolly back into the field the following year.

A little known fact is that amongst the other skills that the Dagda has been associated with is carpentry. Very little lore remains about this skill from the old days. However, among the things that do survive is the custom of the carpenter placing corn dollies in the eves of a new building. Nowadays, the Corn Dolly is a decorative symbol of peace and prosperity and can be found in rural homes throughout the year.

A Vision of Love.

A Vision of Love.

Once I visited a magical wood
With a deep sense of peacefulness there I stood
I felt natures touch in that spiritual grove
And I knew in that touch there was love.

The spirit of love gently entered my soul
And flowed to my heart and made me feel whole
As I stood in the glow of that spiritual grove
And I knew in that glow there was love.

A vision appeared as I stood there alone
A group of people, a circle of stone
I knew then the truth of that spiritual grove
And I knew in that grove there was love.

© Antoine O'Lochlainn. (Ciúnas) 2010

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Lughnasadh August 7th 2010.

Location = Lungna's Well

A group of us from The Family of Rowan celebrated Lughnasadh this year at Lugna's well in County Offaly. A monastery was founded here by St. Lugna in the sixth century, situated at the junction between two ancient roads, the Slighe Mór and the Slighe Dála which were two of the great roads in medieval Ireland.

The placename Leitir Lugna means the ‘ wet hillside of Lugna’ which aptly describes the setting for this monastery. The feast day of St Lugna was on April 27th.

All that survives today are the remains of a medieval parish church, the recently restored St. Lugna’s holy well and the outline of the monastic enclosure in the fields to the north and east of the church.

An Early Christian cross-inscribed slab, a medieval human head and an ox head all of which came from Letter church can now be seen in the west gable of the Catholic church in Cadamstown village.

The remains of a barrel vaulted priests chamber are all that survives of Letter church. This was the residence of Conchobhar Ó hÓgáin who in 1473 was accused of both neglecting and selling ‘the precious moveable goods’ of the church and was also accused of keeping a concubine in the ‘priests house’ with whom he later fathered a son. Nice to think there is a bit if consistency within the church to this very day.

T|he Well is still used by people who consider it to hold the cure for warts and other ailments. There is a lovely feeling of peace here. We opened a circle and performed our ritual which included an element of fun as this is the time of 'The Games of Lugh'.

We finished by thanking the spirits of the place and closing the circle. The celebrations carried on with our traditional feast and a good time was had by all in attendance.

Although some members were absent for a variety of reasons we remembered all in our thoughts and look forward to the Autumn Equinox.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Clann

The Clann.

FAMILY - the extended family ('fine' or 'clann') was the basic social unit, consisting of several generations of descendants from one ancestor. When several families settled in a particular territory they formed a 'tuath', ruled over by a chieftain or a petty king. There were some 150 tuatha, or kingdoms, in ancient Ireland.

The family group, or Clann, formed the very foundation of Brehon law. Each Clann group was responsible for the actions of each of its members. Yet it went beyond this, because responsibility aside, one never turned their back on family or another member of the family. Family stuck beside one another regardless of differences. The only exception to this was when the family name had been dishonoured. For a family to turn its back on one of its own required much more than the petty disagreements which bust families apart in the modern era.

Kinship and lineage provided a real tangible link to the area where one lived. Kinship insured rights to build a home on and use in other ways the land of the Clann. Belonging to a family also insured inheritance, legal protection, the right to follow a particular craft as well as many other benefits.

The family unit played an important role in the education of the young. It provided a stable setting for the transmission of cultural knowledge. In the Gaelic oral tradition, grandparents, aunts and uncles, parents and foster parents passed on their knowledge, whether it was a story a song or a skill. The family also once functioned as an integrated economic unit in which all its members engaged in various work tasks according to age, experience and aptitude.

Within the Gaelic home, not all children remained with their parents. It was quite common to find that children had been sent to be educated in a trade and also reared in the home of another family. In Ireland fosterage was still an active custom as late as the eighteenth century. The special circumstances of the fosterage relationship allowed for very tight bonds to be established between families. In the modern Gaelic tribe we still foster, but the norm is only for some period within the summer holiday’s from school.

Unfortunately in modern Ireland the strength of a close family and the role of the individual within the family are losing its importance. The support structure that was offered by the clann is now no longer the norm. The older members are now placed in homes because people are too busy holding down one or two jobs each in order to finance their consumer lifestyle. Less able members of the clann are now looked upon as non- productive units and academic achievement is sacrosanct.

If I was to draw a graph of the rise in depression and suicide, of homelessness and despair and overlay it onto a graph showing the rise in disposable income and the increase in a materialistic society would there be a close parallel? In the days of the close knit tribe/clann every member had a job to do, whether it was tending the fire, looking after the children or hunting. When a person did not do that job it was noticed and commented on. You looked after each other because each person had an importance within the group.

We could all learn something from that today. Society is made up of a collection of family groups, clans and individuals and is only as strong as its weakest link. When we start considering a person as either a productive or non-productive unit we lose what it means to be civilised.

Sunday, August 1, 2010



Pagans honour the Divine in all its aspects, whether male or female, as parts of the sacred whole. To a Pagan every man and woman is a beautiful and unique being. Children are loved and honoured and there is a strong sense of community. The woods and open spaces of the land, home to wild animals and birds, are cherished. Paganism stresses personal spiritual experience, and Pagans often find that experience through their relationship with the natural world that they love. We seek spiritual union with Divinity by attuning with the tides of Nature and by exploring our inner selves, seeing each reflected in the other.

We believe that we should meet the Divine face to face, within our own experience, rather than through an intermediary. Although some paths do have leaders and teachers, these people act as facilitators, using their own wisdom and experience to help guide those in their care towards discovering their own sense and interpretation of the Divine. Our rites help us harmonise with the natural cycles, and so they are often held at the turning points of the seasons, at the phases of the moon and sun, and at times of transition in our lives.

From other faiths and from society generally, we ask only tolerance. A Pagan is a person who believes that everything has a soul or spirit. This is called Animism, and all Pagan religions share this belief. Rivers, animals, rocks, trees, land are all filled with their own unique spirits for people who are Pagans. Christians believe that only humans have souls or spirits, Pagans see the divine spirit in all life. Pagans try to live in harmony with the Earth and raise their children to honour the ways of Nature.

Pagans strive to strengthen their understanding of this miracle called Life. Pagans go to school, go to work, pay taxes, clean house, garden, raise kids, make art, watch TV, do not watch TV, eat at McDonalds, do not eat at McDonalds and love or hate computers, just like everyone else. Pagans are just people who have a different religion, a Nature Religion that teaches them to honour all life. Pagans honour their Goddesses and Gods with the same faith that non-pagans have their own religions.

Pagans do not worship the Devil or Satan. Pagans do not believe in the Devil, he is part of the Judeo-Christian Religions and mythology. Most Devil worshipping groups are not Pagan, because they are centred on a Judeo-Christian supernatural being, namely Satan. These Devil Worshippers are a sect of Christianity, even though Christianity does not want to claim them.

The recognition of the divine in nature is at the heart of Pagan belief. Pagans are deeply aware of the natural world and see the power of the divine in the ongoing cycle of life and death. Most Pagans are eco-friendly, seeking to live in a way that minimises harm to the natural environment.

Pagans worship the divine in many different forms, through feminine as well as masculine imagery and also as without gender. The most important and widely recognised of these are the God and Goddess (or pantheons of God and Goddesses) whose annual cycle of procreation, giving birth and dying defines the Pagan year. Paganism strongly emphasises equality of the sexes. Women play a prominent role in the modern Pagan movement, and Goddess worship features in most Pagan ceremonies.

Paganism is not based on doctrine or liturgy. Many pagans believe 'if it harms none, do what you will'. Following this code, Pagan theology is based primarily on experience, with the aim of Pagan ritual being to make contact with the divine in the world that surrounds them.

Lastly you may be asking yourself “How do I become a Pagan”. My answer would be:

Don't be so desperate for a label. Educate yourself about the things that interest you and follow your heart, it will take you where you need to be. Education will serve you better than putting yourself in a "pagan" box. Sit outside in woodland or on a riverbank, somewhere you can listen to nature. Close your eyes and relax, listen, feel, smell.

Listen to your inner spirit, the answer will come. When you feel ready find someone who can act as a guide. There are many paths to choose from. Your path will become visible to you when the time is right.