Saturday, October 30, 2010

Samhain: 31st-October or 7th-November.

Samhain: 31st - October or 7th - November.

Ritual and Tradition in the Turning Wheel

As the wheel of the Year turns and the days of Autumn are upon us, the feast of the Pagan Calander, Samhain or New Year’s draws ever closer. Once the apex of social events - the great feast that would warm in memory throughout the bitter winter, the last chance to see the family, including one’s ancestors, before the dark days fell upon the land – this solemn and spiritual event has become perhaps the trashiest modern festival around. The pollution and corruption of this feast by both Christianity and Commercialism is breathtaking in its scope.

Whereas other pagan feasts were adopted and adapted, Oestara becoming Easter, Yule evolving into Christmas, “Halloween” not only hi-jacks the deepest held beliefs and practices of our Pagan ancestors, but manages to insult the very culture it has purloined. Not content with parodying elements of ancient ritual such as the Dead Feast, or divination, (monkey nuts and throwing an apple-peel over one’s shoulder in modern parlance), mainstream churches have ensured many people think the origins of Halloween lie in a form of devil worship. A little annoying for a culture that didn’t believe in a Devil, but certainly telling us more about Christianity and other orthodoxies than about our pagan past!

Samhain: Now is the time of summer’s end the harvest is in, the livestock have been brought down to the lower pastures and if the gods/goddesses have been kind to you then your larder is full. It is also the feast of the Dead in the Celtic Calendar. On this night the veils between the worlds are lowered and not only can a dedicated person seek advice from the Other-worlds but the dead ancestors can reach out to the living.

There is more than one Otherworld. There is what other cultures might call the Faerie World, the magical lands of the Tuath de Danaan who became known as the people of the Sidhe, they who live in the Hollow Hills. There is the Otherworld proper, where we go when we die. Part of our spirit remains there, a trace of us, while the more integrated self is reborn. When we pray to the ancestors we access the sum of all the wisdom learned by all the people through all the long years. There is the Homeland where dwell the Gods and Goddesses: where we can access the Archetypes (such as the Warrior, or the Chief or the Bard.) All these worlds are open to you at Samhain, provided you seek them with a gentle heart and with a respectful purpose.

People generally celebrate Samhain on the 31st of October and this means that you can have a big party to celebrate it and invite all your “normal” friends! For once you probably won’t be the strangest person there. There is also the tradition that has become widely known as Old Samhain: this is celebrated mainly on the 8th of November, although (rarely) it is also celebrated on the 7th here. This is closer to the original date of Samhain in the pre-Gregorian calendar, and almost all Traditional druids and witches in Celtic areas mark this day in some way or another.

Samhain marks several things. As with all Celtic pagan feasts it marks a point on the wheel of the year, in this case the end of the year, and beginning of the New Year. This date, obviously, was a great occasion in Celtic society. Samhain was the period of the year when the livestock which would not make it through the winter was marked out and slaughtered, to be feasted on and to be dried out as provision for the long dark months ahead. This, coupled with the sense of the world going underground for the winter, led to this feast being a feast uniquely concerned with death and the spirit world. At this time, the veils between the world of living and dead were felt to be very flimsy and our ancestors instinctively realized that the spirits, and ancestors, were close at hand.

Because Celtic culture was not secular in the sense that modern society is secular, they had no problem mingling the mundane and profane with the sacred and spiritual: it is difficult to imagine today a world so unselfconscious about its philosophy of life and death, so natural in its approach, that alongside the great feasts of New Year, were held the ritual feasts of the Dead. This dumb feast or dead feast is a very important part of celebrating Samhain: it is part invitation to the universe and to the Ancestors to commune and advise, part soul journey, part act of remembrance and part act of acceptance.

The Celtic belief in an otherworld was very complex and very strong. As you died in this world you were reborn in that world. Death here was celebrated for the birth in the Otherworld and birth here was marked with mourning for the death in the Otherworld. There was a constant exchange of souls between the two. With such a belief you can see how a celebration of death at the moment of the New Year is very appropriate and how there was not the fear and morbidity associated with death that has become so much a part of modern life and which as much as anything contributes to the misunderstanding and misinterpretation by the Christian community of the sacred rite of death in pagan life, known as Samhain and subsequently as Halloween.

We shall light a candle that we will place in our window to guide our ancestors home. There will be a spare place set at the table and we shall read the cards to see what the New Year may bring. We will of course celebrate Halloween for the craic (we are after all Irish). We will enjoy the night for what it is but we will have our ritual on the 7th-November. Whichever you choose or like us both if you wish I would like to say:

Blessings of Samhain to one and all. Beannachtaí na Samhna ar gach duine.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Soul Gatherers.

Soul gatherers.

Many birds were believed to carry dead souls or were dead people incarnate. The belief in transmigration of human souls goes back to ancient times. Often these bird souls would come back with a message or warning.

The Storm Petral also known as ‘Mother Carey’s Chickens’ contained the souls of dead seamen who came to warn their brethren of approaching storms. Seagulls were regarded as the repositories of dead souls and were not to be harmed.

Back on land, when Sedge Warblers sang at night and particularly at midnight, their voices were believed to be those of dead babies who chose to return temporarily from the otherworld to sing, to soothe the hearts and minds of their poor grieving mothers.

Magpies were regarded as the repositories of the souls of evil minded or gossiping women.

Swans contained the souls of virtuous women and they had the capability of turning back into human form.

The Linnet was thought to contain an unhappy soul that was trapped in the other world.

The Seven Whistlers.

These were said to be seven birds, flying together by night, whose cries forebode disaster. Belief in them was fairly common among seamen this being a risky occupation where whistling was thought to be unlucky. Sometimes the Whistlers were said to be the spirits of the dead, especially those who had themselves been fishermen, returning to warn comrades of danger; when they were heard, one must at once stop work and return home, otherwise lives would be lost. Even those who knew the cries were in fact those of curlews and similar birds still dreaded the sound, and would not go out until the next day.

They were variations to this tale, they were said to be seven ghostly birds that presage death and disaster flying alongside the Bean sidhe.

Another variation suggested that the birds carry the grief stricken souls of unbaptised babies condemned to roam the skies forever (another one of those Christian stories).

Also known as the Sluagh. They were seen to fly in groups like flocks of birds, coming from the west, and were known to try to enter the house of a dying person in an effort to carry the soul away with them. West-facing windows were sometimes kept closed to keep them out. Some consider the Sluagh to also carry with them the souls of innocent people who were kidnapped by these destructive spirits.

The Lough Gur Hunt-Limerick.

This is a group of hounds that fly across the sky at night barking and howling. They presage death in the house of anyone who hears them. It’s possible that this story came about because the Barnacle/Canadian Geese flying overhead at night can make a sort of barking noise.

There are variations to this story across Europe, for example in England it is known as Gabriel’s Hounds. This is a spectral pack of hounds which travel across the sky at night led by a ghostly hunter. They are searching for the souls of people on their death beds.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Whistling Dobhar chú of Lough Glenade.

Whistling Dobhar chú of Lough Glenade.

As Halloween/Samhain approaches I will tell you one more tale, before the pooka begins to roam.

I have made mention of the Dobhar chú in a previous post but only a passing reference to Grace Connolly and her husband Traolach Mac Lochlainn. Here is a better account and this is followed by the poem which is in itself an account of what happened on that fateful day.

In Conbnaíl (Conwell) Cemetery, Drummans, there is a tombstone depicting a carved Dobhar chú .The grave is that of Grace Connolly (Grainne Ni Conalai), who apparently was killed by a Dobhar chú from Lough Glenade on 24th September 1722. The tale of her death has like all good stories been altered slightly through the retelling, but I will try to make reference to as many versions as I can. Grace was down by the shore of Lough Glenade (Lake Glenade) either washing clothes or bathing, when she was attacked and killed by a Dobhar chú.

In one version her husband went looking for her as she had been away longer than usual and found her mutilated body lying by the shore with the Dobhar chú asleep on top of her breasts. In another version of the story, he hears her screams and arrives to find the Dobhar chú sat upon her corpse and feasting upon it.

Her husband named Traolach McLoghlin (or McGloughlan or McLaughlin or Mac Lochlainn) managed to sneak upon and kill the creature with a knife or sword, but as the Dobhar chú was dying it let out a whistle which summoned its mate from the waters of Lough Glenade.

Again in one version of the story as the second Dobhar chú came toward shore McLoghlin shot it dead with a gun, however, in other versions he realises that he cannot win a straight fight with a large Dobhar chú and flees on horseback with another man (sometimes his brother).

The Dobhar chú came straight out of the lake and chased the pair over field and fence, determined to take vengeance on the man that killed its mate. After a long chase in which the mounted men continually failed to shake the beast, they were forced to stop. One version has them stopping at blacksmiths. The Dobhar chú catches up and either dives under the mount of McLoghlin or dives through his horse, tearing its way into the animal and out the other side. In either version, when the Dobhar chú emerges on the other side of the horse, McLoghlin is waiting with a sword or other blade and decapitates it.

The horse and creature were buried near Cashelgarron fort beside Benbulben, which is close to where the final fight was said to take place.

A version of this tale is recounted in the following poem by a contemporary but unknown author.

By Glenade lake tradition tells, two hundred years ago
A thrilling scene enacted was to which, as years unflow,
Old men and women still relate, and while relating dread,
Some demon of its kind may yet be found within its bed.

It happened one McGloughlan lived close by the neighbouring shore,
a lovely spot, where fairies oft in rivalry wandered o'er,
A beauteous dell where prince and chief oft met in revelry
With Frenchmen bold and warriors old to hunt the wild boar, free.

He and his wife, Grace Connolly, lived there unknown to fame,
There, years in peace, until one day from out the lakes there came
What brought a change in all their home and prospects too.
The water fiend, the enchanted being, the dreaded Dobhar chú.

It was on a bright September morn, the sun scarce mountain high,
No chill or damp was in the air, all nature seemed to vie
As if to render homage proud the cloudless sky above;
A day for mortals to discourse in luxury and love.

And whilst this gorgeous way of life in beauty did abound,
from out the vastness of the lake stole forth the water hound,
And seized for victim her who shared McGloughlan's bed and board;
His loving wife, his more than life, whom almost he adored.

She, having gone to bathe, it seems, within the water clear,
And not having returned when she might, her husband, fraught with fear,
Hasting to where he her might find, when oh, to his surprise,
Her mangled form, still bleeding warm, lay stretched before his eyes.

Upon her bosom, snow white once, but now besmeared with gore,
The Dobhar-chú reposing was, his surfeiting being o'er.
Her bowels and entrails all around tinged with a reddish hue:
'Oh, God', he cried, 'tis hard to bear but what am I to do?'

He prayed for strength, the fiend lay still, he tottered like a child,
The blood of life within his veins surged rapidly and wild.
One long lost glance at her he loved, then fast his footsteps turned
To home, while all his pent up rage and passion fiercely burned.

He reached his house, he grasped his gun, which clenched with nerves of steel,
He backwards sped, upraising his arm and then one piercing, dying, squeal
Was heard upon the balmy air. But hark! What's that that came
One moment next from out of its depth as if revenge to claim!

The comrade of the dying fiend with whistles long and loud
Came nigh and nigher to the spot. McGloughlin, growing cowed
Rushed to his home. His neighbours called, their counsel asked,
And flight was what they bade him do at once, and not to wait till night.

He and his brother, a sturdy pair, as brothers true when tried,
Their horses took, their homes forsook and westward fast they did ride.
One dagger sharp and long each man had for protection too
Fast pursued by that fierce brute, the Whistling Dobhar chú.

The rocks and dells rang with its yells, the eagles screamed in dread.
The ploughman left his horses alone, the fishes too, 'tis said,
Away from the mountain streams though far, went rushing to the sea;
And nature's laws did almost pause, for death or victory.

For twenty miles the gallant steeds the riders proudly bore
With mighty strain o'er hill and dale that ne'er was seen before.
The fiend, fast closing on their tracks, his dreaded cry more shrill;
'Twas brothers try, we'll do or die on Cashelgarron Hill.

Dismounting from their panting steeds they placed them one by one
Across the path in lengthways formed within the ancient dún,
And standing by the outermost horse awaiting for their foe
Their daggers raised, their nerves they braced to strike that fatal blow.

Not long to wait, for nose on trail the scenting hound arrived
And through the horses with a plunge to force himself he tried,
And just as through the outermost horse he plunged his head and foremost part,
Mc Gloughlans dagger to the hilt lay buried in his heart.

"Thank God, thank God", the brothers cried in wildness and delight,
Our humble home by Glenade lake shall shelter us tonight.
Be any doubt to what I write, go visit old Conwell,
There see the grave where sleeps the brave whose epitaph can tell.'

Hope you enjoyed it.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Billy in the bowl. The Stoneybatter Strangler.

Billy in the bowl. The Case of the Stoneybatter Strangler.

The handsome, deformed Billy in the bowl evolved a plan to rob those who took pity on him. Then, one night, he made the biggest mistake of his life

DUBLIN in the eighteenth century was noted for two things - the architectural beauty of its public buildings and the large number of beggars who sought alms in its maze of streets and lanes. Many of these beggars relied on visitors and the gentry for their coin, but there was one who campaigned among the working class. This was "Billy In The Bowl"

The strange nickname was derived from the fact that Billy's sole means of transport was a large bowl-shaped car with wheels. Seated in this “bowl " the beggar would propel himself along by pushing against the ground with wooden plugs, one in each hand.

Billy's unusual means of conveyance was vitally necessary, as he had been born without legs. Nature, however, had compensated for this by endowing him with powerful arms and shoulders and, what was most important, an unusually handsome face. This was Billy's greatest asset in his daily routine of separating sympathetic passers-by from their small change.

The cunning young beggar would wait at a convenient spot on one of the many lonely roads or lanes which were a feature of eighteenth century Grangegorman and Stoneybatter, until a servant girl or an old lady would come along. He would then put on is most attractive smile which, together with his black curly hair, never failed to halt the females. The fact that such a handsome young man was so terribly handicapped always evoked pity.

Billy in the bowl, however, wasn't satisfied with becoming the daily owner of a generous number of small coins; what his greed demanded were substantial sums of money. The more he managed to get the more he could indulge in his pet vices - gambling and drinking.

As a result the beggar evolved a plan to rob unsuspecting sympathisers. The first time he put his plan into operation was on a cold March evening as dusk, was falling. The victim was a middle aged woman who was passing through Grangegorman Lane on her way to visit friends in Queen Street - on Dublin's North Quays.

When Billy heard the woman's footsteps, he hid behind some bushes in a ditch which skirted the lane. As his unsuspecting victim drew close, the beggar moaned and shouted, and cried out for help. Trembling with excitement, the woman dashed to the spot where Billy lay concealed. She bent down to help the beggar out of the ditch, when two powerful arms closed around her throat and pulled her into the bushes.

In a few minutes it was all over. The woman lay in a dead faint, and Billy was travelling at a fast rate down the lane in his “bowl ", his victim's purse snug in his coat pocket. An hour after the robbery the woman was found in a distressed condition, but failed to give a description of her assailant. Again and again the beggar carried out his robbery plan, always shifting the place of attack to a different part of Grangegorman or Stoneybatter. By this time I suspect he must have killed his victims. However, as Billy in the bowl had predicted, nobody suspected a deformed beggar.

On one occasion Billy in the bowl tried his tactics on a sturdy servant girl who put up such a vigorous resistance that he was forced to strangle her. This must have been a particularly awful crime for the incident became known as the 11 Grangegorman Lane Murder and caused a great stir. Hundred’s flocked to the scene of the crime and for a couple of months Billy in the bowl was forced to desert his usual haunts. Around this period (1786) Dublin's first-ever police force was being mobilised, and the first case they were confronted with was the Grangegorman lane murder.

Months passed and Billy in the bowl reverted once again to his old pastime. A number of young servant girls were lured into ditches and robbed, and the police were inundated with so many complaints that a nightly patrol was placed on the district. However, the beggar still rolled along in his bowl pitied and unsuspected. Then came the night that finished Billy's career of crime.

Two sturdy built female cooks, trudging back to their places of employment after a night out in the city, were surprised and not a little shocked to hear shouts for help. Rushing over, they came upon a huddled figure in the ditch. Billy, thinking there was only one woman, grabbed one of the cooks and tried to pull her into the ditch. She proved much too strong for him however and while resisting tore at his face with her sharp finger-nails. Meanwhile, her companion acted with speed and daring. Pulling out her large hatpin she made for the beggar and plunged the pin into his right eye.

The screams and howls of the wounded beggar reverberated throughout the district and brought people dashing to the scene. Among them was a member of the nightly police patrol who promptly arrested the groaning Billy. Most of the valuables were picked up on the ground where the attack had taken place, and some of the party procured a strong hand-barrow, on which Billy was conveyed in triumph to prison.

Although it was suspected it could not be proved that he murdered his victims but he was convicted of robbery with violence and confined in the jail in Green Street. Although he was severely disabled he was employed in hard labour for the remainder of his days. His notoriety caused him to be viewed as an object of curiosity and because of this certain members of high society visited the prison in order to titillate their senses.

Although it was never proven that it was he who had committed the murders in the Grangegorman-Stoneybatter district the area once more settled back into some sort of normality. A quiet suburb where old ladies and young girls could walk the streets safely as they went about their business.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Pig. The Gentleman Who Pays the Rent.

The Pig. The Gentleman Who Pays the Rent.

The pig was always highly prized for its tasty meat and in Irish legend it was the favourite meat of the Gods and heroes at their feasts in the otherworld. It was also greatly respected for its bravery and fierce spirit when defending itself and for this reason was one of the symbols of the warrior.

In Irish Folklore the pig is seen as a lucky animal and they were also able to see the wind and forecast the weather, they were also said to have magical hearing and they could actually hear the grass growing.

Evil or threatening spirits were often said to appear in the form of a black pig and it was believed that this was the worst of all forms for fairy folk to take so people would carry a hazel stick to ward of the evil spirits. This time of year (Halloween/Samhain) when the barriers between this world and the next are weakest is a favourite time for the Black Pig to be abroad so you would be wise not to travel alone at this time.

The pig occurs in Irish folk cures. A cure for a child with mumps was to take it to a pigsty and rub it's head on the pigs back in the hope that the illness would transfer into the pig. It was also believed that a cure for a toothache was for the sufferer to put their head to the ground where a pig had been scratching its backside while making the sign of the cross with their mouth. If you did this you would never suffer from toothache again. Another disgusting cure for jaundice involved swallowing a dozen live lice from a pig.

The Gentleman Who Pays the Rent.

This is the euphemism that was once used in Ireland to describe what was often a family's most valuable possession - the pig.

Until the advent of the industrial age, most people lived a relatively agricultural life. In Ireland before the potato famine, cottagers who may not have been able to afford a riding horse or beef cattle would at the very least keep a few pigs. They were usually housed close to the main dwelling, and sometimes the pig house was attached to one end of the cottage.

Now you might be surprised to see this sort of housing arrangement but the pig was a very valuable part of the Irish cottage economy and pigs do best in warm, dry surroundings. So not only did this practice help keep the pigs (and often a milk cow and laying hens) warm and safe from predators, it was easier feeding kitchen scraps to the pig and hens and collecting manure which was both valuable and very necessary for growing healthy crops. Manure was in fact so valuable you stacked it outside the front of the cottage so you could keep your eye on it.

Pigs were butchered in the autumn , around Samhain. This meant that the animals wouldn’t need scarce fodder over the winter (stocking up enough hay was tedious and land-intensive for a small-holder). It also meant that the cooler weather would slow down spoilage until the salted meat could cure. Cottagers would preserve enough ham, bacon, sausage & lard to see them through the year, and sell the rest to the butcher. However, in poorer households, people did not eat their pig. They sold it to get money to pay the rent on their land. That is why the family's pig was often called "the gentleman who pays the rent."

“The “pig in the parlour” stereotype of Ireland came from the system landlords imposed more than three centuries ago of charging people extra rent for pig houses. The poor country people found that as a pig is a clean and intelligent animal, it could share a clay cabin without soiling it if allowed to come and go. Until recent times there was a tradition in rural Ireland of keeping one pig in the yard to eat the scraps and provide an extra source of food. The practice came to be associated with poverty and died out with the coming of supermarkets.”

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Hurley. Also known as the Camán.

The Hurley. Also known as the Camán

The earliest recoded reference of the game of hurley being played by the anciemt tribes of Ireland dates from 1800 BC to 1300 BC. First recorded in the ancient Irish Annals.

The Irish Annals are a body of work mixing Irish history with legend and mythology. The annals record in 1272 BC, that the strongest and most skilled warriors of the Tuatha de Danann defeated their rivals, the Firbolgs, in a hurley match to the death at The First Battle of Moytura. There were twenty-seven men on each side and when the game was over, the casualties were afforded a funeral of honour and were buried together under a huge stack of rocks known as a cairn, an ancient equivalent of our modern day monuments and burial headstones.

At the Second Battle of Moytura, the Tuatha de Danann leader, Nuada, would be killed by the Formorians, another of the original inhabitants of Ireland. Celtic Sun God Lugh, one of the Danann warriors, would emerge as a hero having killed the Formorian warrior, Balor, by shooting a stone into the giant’s eye.

Later, the Brehon Laws would declare the game of Hurley as a form of Irish military service. The laws asserted, if a man was killed or injured by a Hurley, either his surviving family or himself are eligible for life-long financial assistance. This could be considered the earliest example of a military disability or widow’s pension. Also stipulated in the laws, all sons of kings and chieftains were to be supplied with Hurley sticks during the traditional period of fosterage with another noble family.

In 200 BC The Irish Annals recorded the childhood exploits of King Lowry Loingseach. Lowry, said to be mute, only uttered his first words after being hit with a stick during a Hurley match. It is not known what he said but it is believed to be unrepeatable.

Around 100 BC, Cuchulain, an Ulster warrior, leader of The Red Branch Warriors and son of the Celtic Sun God Lugh and a human mother Dechtire, gained youthful fame on account of his hurling abilities. In one legendary incident, he single-handedly defeated one hundred and
Fifty warriors in a hurling match on the Field of Armagh.

Angered by their defeat, the men attacked Cuchulain, but he fought back killing fifty men with his bare hands before the others fled the field. Considered the greatest warrior of ancient Ulster, Cuchulain was known for his uncontrollable temper and physical deformities, such as having seven fingers on each hand and seven toes on each foot. He was said to go insane with uncontrollable rage and, during times of insanity, was reported as having seven pupils in each eye. On one occasion, he had reportedly carried the ball on the blade of his Hurley stick a distance of nine miles in a repetitious motion of throwing the ball into the air and catching it on his blade before it could drop to the ground.

Cuchulain was the nephew of King Conchobar. At the age of seventeen, Cuchulain singularly defeated the forces of Maeve, warrior Queen of Connacht, when she tried and failed, in an attempt to capture Ulster. Tales of all kinds are told about him. At the age of twenty-seven Cuchulain, finally met his match when he was killed in an ambush. His attackers are said to have severed his head using the great warrior’s own hurley stick.

Hurley continued to be popular in Ireland but, according to the Irish texts, The Dun Cow 1100 AD, and The Book of Leinster 1160 AD, it was not until the 3rd century AD that the Irish had their next great Hurley warrior. Fionn MacCumhail, popularly known as Finn MacCool, was the mythical leader of the fighting band Fianna Eireann. MacCool is said to be a descendant of the god Nuada, former king of the Tuatha De Danaan. MacCumhail's most notable hurley accomplishment occurred when he defeated fifty men by scoring the decisive goal in a match at Tara. His reward for his deed was a kiss from King Cormac MacArt’s daughter - the woman he was to subsequently marry.

Even in the religious records of ancient Ireland one finds mention of hurley. Such is the example and story of the visit of Saint Colmcille to Tara. In the 5th Century Tara was reputed to have been a powerful and sacred place of gods and an entrance to the other world. During his time there, a Connacht prince used a hurley to kill a young boy. Although Saint Colmcille attempted to intervene, the prince was summarily executed on the spot, for such was the anger of those who had witnessed this savage act.

Hurling eventually evolved into a sport and was played by teams representing neighbouring villages. The teams could be made up of all the available males capable of holding a stick and might have lasted several hours. They were usually for the honour of the village, to settle disputes or for entertainment value.

It has been held in high esteem throughout the ages and has become one of our national games supported by huge armies of fans flying their county colours and promoted all over the world by The Gaelic Athletic Association.

It has to be one of the fastest team sports played today, exciting and a little dangerous it is the embodiment of the Irish spirit. The game of Camogie played by women is almost identical to the game of hurling and is both as exciting and as popular. If you get the chance to watch a game or better still go to a game and join in the crowd excitement then don’t hesitate.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bataireacht. Irish Stick Fighting.

Bataireacht. Irish Stick Fighting.

Bataireacht. Our native Irish martial art. Since a cane or walking stick can be carried easily in modern society bataireacht can be used as an extremely effective weapon. Bataireacht or Irish stick fighting as it is also known (from the Irish Bata, meaning stick) is a traditional form of Irish martial art using a stick. The most common types of wood used were oak, ash, hazel and of course blackthorn. Down through the centuries we have used various sticks or cudgels and the one that most people would be aware of is the shillelagh.

Irish stick fighting came into its own sometime around the 17th century when we were banned from owning formal weapons. At that time the innocent walking stick called a bata or shillelagh came into use as a serious weapon and stick fighting became an integral part of our fighting style. In the 19th century bataireacht became associated with gang or “faction” fighting. Some evidence exists which indicates that prior to the 19th century the term had been used to refer to a form of stick fighting used to train Irish soldiers in broadsword and sabre techniques. Although stick fighting is a free style form of combat there are certain patterns and family styles in existence.

The basic idea behind the use of the bata is to charge, strike and disarm your opponent aiming for the vulnerable points such as joints, shoulders, knees and temple or for areas where nerves could be struck. You can use the bata one handed which was the traditional method, although some will use the bata with both hands using a two handed grip (a little awkward). As with a lot of the various martial arts bataireacht has become tainted by Hollywood in such films as The Gangs of New York and it has been made out to be a brutish form of fighting instead of the very precise and extremely well executed defence system it becomes in the hands of a well trained and disciplined practitioner.

No known textbooks for the use of bataireacht exists but its use has been reconstructed using sources that include introducing various forms from other stick fighting styles such as escrima (a Filipino stick fighting system) and Canne de combat (a French style). There is still a style that has been passed down by the Doyle family by the name whisky stick dance where the stick is held with a two handed grip. Cumann Bata is an organisation teaching a one handed version which they have reconstructed where the hand is approximately a third of the way from the end of the stick and the stick is held just above the head.

The Bata used to be our weapon of choice before the gun arrived, It was cheap and readily available and the walking stick or long staff could be carried anywhere and so was always by your side if you needed to defend yourself. Women could carry it just as well and this would have been quite normal in Irish society. The word Shillelagh was actually coined by an Englishman (or so the story goes). The original stick of that name came from the Shillelagh forest in County Wicklow, where the forest was once famous for its stands of fine oak trees.

Sometimes the knob on the end was hollowed out and filled with molten lead, which was known as a 'loaded stick'. However, in shillelaghs made of blackthorn, the knob was actually the root, and it would not have been necessary to load it as it could pack a significant wallop. The bark is left on for added strength and a metal end is attached to the bottom. During the curing and drying process, sticks would be buried in a manure pile or smeared with fat and placed in the chimney. The bata was taken up by Irish boys when they became of age, it was seen by some as representing their passage into manhood and they would practice their fighting techniques as a way of demonstrating their right to be a warrior.

Irishmen would take their shillelagh just about everywhere they went; however, it was at a fair, a wake or a feast day celebration that it was most needed. Up until the great famine of the 1840's, faction fighting was always present at most social gatherings. The factions were mostly members of certain families, political groups or territorial gangs. Sometimes the fights would consist of hundreds of men; women would participate by wielding a stocking filled with stones. After the 1840's, the faction fights gradually died off and the last recorded one was held at a fair in Co. Tipperary in 1887.

Shillelagh fights were not always of the faction variety. Some were sporting events, while others were provoked just for fun. These were friendly fights sometimes ending up somewhat rough, although it was rare for a participant to need the aid of a doctor.

If you have a shillelagh made of oak, ash, holly or blackthorn, you do indeed have an authentic shillelagh. The short, stubby ones sold in souvenir shops are not real shillelaghs.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Loftus Hall. County Wexford.

In keeping with Halloween I have added another ghost story. I hope you enjoy it. It is a part of Irish folklore.

Loftus Hall.

The Ghost Story:

The details that follow apparently occurred when Charles Tottenham and his family came to live in the mansion in the middle of the 18th century. Charles Tottenham's first wife had been the Honourable Anne Loftus (the second daughter of the 1st Viscount Loftus. Charles came for a long stay in the house with his second wife, (in 1770 he had married his cousin Jane) daughter of John Cliffe and widow of Rev. Joshua Trench of Bryanstown, co. Wexford), and his daughter Anne from his first marriage.

During a storm, a ship unexpectedly arrived at the Hook Peninsula, which was not far from the mansion. A young man was welcomed into the mansion. Anne and the young man became very close. Then, one night they were in the parlour; around this time it was not well-mannered for a girl to play cards, but Anne insisted and she played. When a card was dropped on the floor she went to pick it up, and she noticed that the young man had a hoof in place of a foot.

It is said that Anne screamed and the man went up through the roof in a puff of smoke, leaving behind a large hole in the ceiling. Anne was in shock and was put in her favourite room in the mansion, which was known as the Tapestry Room. She refused food and drink. She died in the Tapestry Room in 1775. A rumour states that the hole could never be properly repaired, and it is alleged that even to this day, there is still a certain part of the ceiling which is slightly different from the rest. This, of course, is a myth, since the present house was built more than a century after the events described above. Meanwhile it was believed that the stranger with the cloven hoof returned to the house and caused persistent poltergeist activity.

A number of Protestant clergymen apparently tried and failed to put a stop to this. The family, who were themselves Protestants, eventually called on Father Thomas Broaders (a Catholic priest, who was also a tenant on the Loftus Hall estate) to exorcise the house which he managed to do in spite of fierce opposition from at least one of the hostile spirits. The success of Broaders led to many concessions being made to local Catholics whose religion was still technically illegal. Fr. Broaders was parish priest of the surrounding area from 1724 to 1773.

Fr. Broaders later became parish priest of the united parishes of the Hook and Ramsgrange for almost fifty years.

Canon Broaders died in January, 1773, and on his tomb in Horetown Cemetery is the following epitaph;

"here lies the body of Thomas Broaders,
Who did good and prayed for all.
And banished the Devil from Loftus Hall".

The apparent success of Father Broaders' exorcism did not end the ghostly visitations at Loftus Hall. The ghost of a young woman, presumed to be Anne Tottenham, was reported to have made frequent appearances in the old Hall, especially in the Tapestry Room, until the building was finally demolished in 1871.

Although the present Loftus Hall is an entirely new building, interest in the ghost story has remained strong and many aspects of the story seem to have attached themselves to the newer house.

Subsequent Experiences:

1. The father of the Rev. George Reade stayed with a large party at the Hall some time about 1790, and was given the Tapestry Chamber to sleep in. "Something heavy leapt upon his bed, growling like a dog. The curtains were torn back and the clothes stripped from the bed". Suspecting that "some of his companions were playing tricks", he shouted to warn them and then fired his pistol up the chimney to frighten them. He then searched the room and, of course, found nothing. The door was locked as he had left it on getting into bed.

2. Some years later, when the 2nd Marques of Ely (who succeeded in 1806) was at the Hall, his valet, Shannon, was put in the Tapestry Chamber and woke the whole household by his screams in the night. The curtains of the bed, he said, had been violently torn back and he saw "a tall lady dressed in stiff brocaded silk". He fled in terror.

3. After a further period George Reade and his father were staying at the Hall. George knew nothing of his father's earlier experience, and chose the Tapestry Chamber as his bedroom. One bright moonlight night he sat up late reading an article in Blackwood's Magazine, when he saw the door open and a tall lady in a stiff dress passed noiselessly through the room to a closet in the corner, where she disappeared. For some reason the idea of a ghost never entered his head, and he went to sleep.

The next night the experience was repeated. He rushed towards the lady, threw his right arm round her, and exclaimed "Ha! I have you now". His arm passed through her and came "with a thud against the bed-post". The figure went on, and her silk brocaded gown "lapped against the curtain". Next morning he told his father, who said nothing; and the whole incident left little impression on him. He slept in the room without disturbance "many a night after". Some years later George Reade was again at the Hall, and heard the valet, Shannon, tell the housekeeper that "he would sooner leave his Lordship's service than sleep in the Tapestry Chamber". Reade asked him why; and Shannon then told him the story of Anne, which he had never heard before.

4. In 1858 the 4th Marques, who succeeded in 1857 at the age of 8, came to the Hall for the bathing season, with his mother (the Lady of the Bedchamber) and his tutor, the Rev. Charles Dale. The tutor was put in the Tapestry Chamber and came down to breakfast one morning in an obviously nervous state, but refused to say anything. In the autumn Lord Henry Loftus, uncle of the Marques, wrote to George Reade, told him about Charles Dale, and added that a Mr. Derringey had slept in the room and had had "a splendidly fitted dressing case" ransacked during the night. He asked him what his own experience had been. Thereupon Reade wrote to Dale, then in a parish in Kent, and the latter wrote back a long letter, in which he said that he had slept in the Tapestry Chamber for three weeks without disturbance - and without knowing anything about Anne Tottenham.

Then one moonlight night he had had the same experience as Reade's father - something heavy jumping on the bed, growling, and tearing off the bedclothes. He leapt out of bed, lit a candle, but could find nothing. He had, however, made inquiries and had talked with an old woman called Haggard, who lived to the age of 106. She had told him the whole story, and remembered Father Broders referred to above.

5. Finally, in 1868, Reade once more visited the Hall, which had been considerably altered. The Tapestry Chamber was now a billiards-room. He asked the old housekeeper how Miss Anne Tottenham had taken these changes, and she replied “Oh! Master George, don't talk about her. Last night she made a horrid noise knocking the billiard balls about!”

'History of Loftus Hall Part Two' by Thomas P Walsh in the Journal of Old Wexford Society (1971) gives a very detailed account of the ghost story and several alleged apparitions in the old Loftus Hall. According to Vol 4 of 'History of Wexford' by Hore a version of the ghost story was printed in the Cork Examiner August 11 1888 and was related to Queen Victoria by the Marques of Ely towards the end of 1860.

Loftus Hall, Co. Wexford which is described as "an old rambling mansion, with passages that led nowhere, large dreary rooms, panelled walls, and a Tapestry Chamber". It was built on a limestone promontory "stretching out into the Atlantic Ocean" by one de Raymond, a follower of Strongbow, who settled there. After the Rebellion of 1641 it was forfeited and became the property of the Loftus family. "A wild and lonely place".

Strangely enough if you know the history of the Irish Hellfire club you will recognise the same story of a stranger seeking shelter from the storm and playing cards. He too was found to have cloven feet and disappeared in a puff of sulphur smoke through a hole in the ceiling.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Jack O'Lantern.

Jack O’Lantern.

According to Irish folklore, a man named Jack, well known for his drunkenness and quick temper, got very drunk at a local pub on Halloween. As his life began to slip away the Devil appeared to claim Jack's soul. Jack, eager to stay alive, begged the Devil to let him have just one more drink before he died. The Devil agreed. Jack was short of money and asked the Devil if he wouldn't mind assuming the shape of a sixpence so Jack could pay for the drink and after the transaction the Devil could change back.

Seeing how the Devil is quite gullible in almost all of these folk tales, he agreed again to help Jack out and changed himself into a sixpence. Jack immediately grabbed the coin and shoved it into his wallet which just happened to have a cross-shaped catch on it. The Devil, now imprisoned in the wallet screamed with rage and ordered Jack to release him.

Jack agreed to free the Devil from his wallet if the Devil agreed not to bother Jack for a whole year. Again, the Devil agreed to Jack's terms. Realizing he now had a new lease on life, at least for a year, Jack decided to mend his ways. For a time Jack was good to his wife and children and began to attend church and give to charity. Eventually, Jack slipped back into his evil ways.

The next Halloween as Jack was heading home the Devil appeared and demanded that Jack accompany him. Once again Jack, not too eager to die, distracted the devil by pointing to a nearby apple tree. Jack convinced the Devil to get an apple out of the tree and even offered to hoist the Devil up on his shoulders to help him get the apple. The Devil, fooled once again by Jack, climbed into the tree and plucked an apple. Jack took out a knife and carved a cross into the trunk of the tree. Trapped once again the Devil howled to be released and told Jack he would give him ten years of peace in exchange for his release. Jack, on the other hand, insisted the Devil never bother him again. The Devil agreed and was released.

Almost a year later Jack's body, unable to withstand his evil ways, gave out and Jack died. When Jack tried to enter Heaven he was told that because of his meanness he would not be allowed in. When Jack attempted to gain entry into Hell, the Devil, still smarting from years of humiliation, refused Jack admission. However, being the kind Devil that he was, he threw Jack a piece of coal to help him find his way in the dark of limbo. Jack put the piece of coal into a turnip and it became known as a Jack O'Lantern.

On Halloween if you look you can still see Jack's flame burning dimly as he searches for a home. Of course when Irish people went to America they discovered the pumpkin and as it was easier to carve it soon replaced the turnip.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Petticoat Loose. The Witch of Baylough.

The Legend of Petticoat Loose.

Petticoat's real name was Mary Hannigan. Born during the time of the hedge-schoolmasters in the early part of the nineteenth century. She was the only child of a well to do farming family. They lived in the townland of Colligan, which is not far from Clogheen. Now Mary was not the type of woman you could call feminine; she was as tough as nails, near six foot tall and built in proportion. She did the work of a man on her father’s farm without thinking twice about it. If there was one thing that Mary Hannigan was known far and wide for it was her dancing. Spinning and whirling around the dance floor, no man could match her. That is except for one hefty lad, and his prowess led him into a marriage with Mary. A marriage closely followed by his early death.

Now how Mary came to be called Petticoat Lucy came about like this. There was a wedding in the neighbourhood with drinking and dancing well into the night and through to the early hours of the morning. Now Mary was able to drink as well as she could dance, and as she spun around in a drunken dance the buttons of her skirt caught onto a nail. The buttons burst open and her skirt fell to the ground, to the great delight of the others in the room who laughed and jeered her. This is the incident that earned her the name of Petticoat Loose which became Petticoat Lucy over time. Not being one to take foul comments lightly there was soon fists flying in all directions as Mary landed many a clout on those who mocked her.

It is said also that Mary and her husband had difficulties with their herd of cattle and often added water to the milk to make it go further. There were rumours by some that when Mary's milk was added to tea it turned blue and some older locals whispered that she might be a witch. Now Mary had been married a year when, one night as she and her servants were milking the cattle there came a cry of agony from a nearby field. A servant girl began to run towards the field to help however she was soon stopped by a milking stool which hit her square on the back of the head knocking the poor girl out.

When she came to Mary told her it was she who had thrown the stool and that it served her right and that in future she should learn to mind her own business. Mary’s husband was never seen again after that night. The locals in Colligan concluded among themselves that Mary’s lover, a local hedge-schoolmaster, had committed the murder. When asked of her husband’s whereabouts Mary would simply answer that he had gone away and that he would return someday. Nobody dare question her further for fear of her violent temper.

One night about one year later Mary went on a drinking bout in a local public house accompanied by some of the neighbouring workmen. After several pints she was challenged by one of the workmen to prove her drinking skills. After gladly accepting the offer half a gallon of beer was placed before her. She drank it down with ease and she was in the middle of gloating to the other workmen when suddenly she slumped forward onto the table, dead. She died without a priest, which was an awful thing to happen back then. There was a big wake for Mary and the whole village turned up to pay their last respects but no priest was called, even for the burial.

Seven years passed and Petticoat Lucy was near forgotten. Then one night there was a dance in Colligan. Half way through the night, near midnight a man went out to catch a breath of fresh air. When he went back into the dance hall he was as white as a sheet. With a shaking voice he told the others in the hall that he had seen Mary sitting on a pier in the yard. All were afraid to leave the dance hall until morning.
After that night Mary was seen in many places around the area and most now believed that that she had become a witch. One night a man with his horse and cart was travelling down a dark country lane when he came upon Mary standing at the side of the road. The driver didn't want to stop for her, but she jumped aboard the cart anyway.

Once on the cart, she decided to punish the driver for his reluctance to stop for her, and she raised her left hand and declared, "I have one ton in this hand!" The horse slowed down a bit then, as though the cart was heavier, but he kept walking. Then the witch raised her other hand and announced, "I've got one ton in this hand!" The horse slowed a little more but continued his progression; and the witch smiled and announced, "I've got one ton in this leg!" at which the horse began to strain very hard to pull the cart. "I've got one ton in the other leg!" Then, "I've got one ton in my belly!"

With the effort of trying to pull the enormous load, the horse fell down dead - and Petticoat Lucy ran away laughing. Soon it became common practice for people travelling at night to bring a safe guard with them mainly religious relics and hazel sticks.

Finally the people grew tired of living in fear of Petticoat Lucy and they called upon the parish priest to rid the county of Mary and her nightly visitations.

The priest set out that very night on a pony and trap accompanied by two men. After sometime they spotted her coming across a field, the priest asked her name and she replied "I’m Petticoat Loose". The priest then got off of the trap took out a bottle of Holy water and said "I am going to banish you from this place forever! All the devils in hell can’t help you now! For all the cruel things you did during your life, especially getting a man to kill your husband. I shall send you to the far banks of the deepest lake in the Knockmealdown Mountains and you shall be condemned to empty it with a thimble!" With those words and a splash of the holy water Mary vanished in a flash and she was never seen again.

Many believe that she is still up there sitting on the far bank of Bay Lough with her thimble, vainly trying to empty the lake. The priest died two weeks later some say she had drained the life out of him. If you were ever to visit the lake itself you will be struck by the feeling of loneliness that surrounds the area.

Few ever now swim in that lake because of the fear that the spirit of the old witch would grab your legs, pull you under and keep you there forever. Baylough will be forever associated in legend with "Petticoat Loose", and in this area where she did so much harm, she is called the witch of the Knockmealdowns.

In keeping with many of the lake monsters that inhabit the lakes of Ireland it has been said that Petticoat Loose can assume the shape of half horse half human.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Sheela na Gig. or is it Sidhe Lena Gig???

Sheela Na Gig

Sheela-na-gigs are stone carvings of naked females that use one or both hands to direct the viewer's attention to their genital area. Although some were carved in the 12th century, they did not come to the attention of scholars until about 1840. There has been much debate about their origin, meaning and role since then. Ireland has the most by far of any other country. Some suggest they were brought here by the Anglo-Normans, some say they are Celtic in origin.

Although it is now a type-name to describe the figures, many had individual local names such as Evil Eye Stone, Hag of the Castle, Witch on the Wall, Julia the Giddy, and St Gobnait.

In 1676, two Irish Church regulations ordered the burning of obscene carvings of naked women and, even earlier in 1631, provincial statutes for Tuam, Co. Galway, ordered parish priests to hide away such carvings and 'take note of where they were hidden. Although the church regulations don't use the term, it is very possible that the figures referred to were those known today as Sheela-na-gigs. The order to 'burn' them suggests that some were made from combustible material, possibly wood.

One suggestion concerning the real meaning of the name Sheela Na Gig revolves around the fact that place names in Ireland are almost always corruptions of Gaelic words and you have to listen to the place name rather than read it in order to understand it. It is necessary to hear the name as our ancestors heard it. In Irish this could mean that Sheela Na Gig when spoken was Sidhe Lena Gig. Now if you follow this path then Sidhe is Irish for Fairy, Lena could mean ‘with her’ and Gig is Irish for sexual appendage. Put all together you arrive at Sidhe Lena Gig (Sheela na Gig) meaning Fairy with her sexual appendage. As I said, it is only one suggestion.

There are various interesting theories surrounding the Sheela na Gig and I include some of those here. There has even been a suggestion that there is evidence of a male version and yes it’s called Séan na Gig. However we will leave Séan for another day.

A fertility symbol.

When you first look at these figures with their prominent genitalia you may see them as some form of fertility symbol and most books would support this view but there may be other ways of interpreting them.

A warning against lust.

It has been suggested that the early Christian church used Sheela na Gig to support their moral teachings. They were used to put people off sex and to show that eternal damnation awaited those who succumbed to the sins of the flesh. To vilify women. Of course the Sheela na Gig pre-dates these frustrated eejits and there have been many suggestions why the Christian church had a problem with women but I won’t go into that here. It has a certain irony because in modern Ireland women have reclaimed the figure as a symbol of strength and independence.

A protection against the evil eye.

Another theory says that the Sheela na Gig figure was erected in order to give protection from malevolent forces such as the evil eye. The fact that many of the figures were placed high up on the walls of castles and churches out of sight of passersby could support this. An example of this is Ratoo round tower. Here the Sheela na Gig is inside the north window recess on the top of the tower.

Celtic goddess theory.

It has been suggested that the figure is the third in the Celtic goddess trinity of maiden –mother-crone. In her aspect as the crone. She is inviting the hero back into her womb to death. Through this figure we are reminded that we are all born of Mother Earth and we will all return to her in death. I suppose you could say “From the womb to the tomb”.

I like all the above theories as they all offer something to the pot.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Amergin. Amhairghin.

"Amhairghin". It means "Birth of Song".

There are many songs in Ireland some of which are considered sacred but none more so than The Song of Amergin. The first song of the island of mist and mystery. The isle of Ireland.

It is told that years after the Tuatha Dé Danann had settled in Ireland a new group of invaders came. They were called the Milesians and they were the first gaelic people to arrive here. There was amongst them one known as Amergin (Amhairghin. It means "Birth of Song"), he was a dreamer. Known also as the wisdom one he was a bard, a druid and a man of the forest and of knowledge.

The stories tell us that as the invasion was taking place the Dagda invoked his powers in order to repel the strangers. He sunk their ships and called on the winds to turn back their sails. So within the mists of the sea Amergin invoked the elements and the battle for Ireland began. The magic of the druids was strongest in its most powerful form, the form of a song. The sound of the song invokes the forest, the sea, the sky, the mighty and unbeatable forces of nature. The words of wisdom, of power gave victory to the Milesians and the Tuatha were defeated. So begins the era of man. It is said that from that day on all invocations should begin with “I am” for every man is the sacred connection between the spirits, the ancestors, the land and the one.

When the war ended the Tuatha and the Milesians made their peace. It was agreed that most of the Tuatha would leave and go to the land of Tír na nOg, the land of eternal youth. It is also known as the otherworld and only the wisest, purest and bravest of men would have access to it. From the land of Tír na nOg the Tuatha have the power to watch over and to take care of their former land and here Manannán Mac Lir rules. It is said that if ever the people of Ireland need their help then they will return to bring back truth and honour. It is they who rule our land, our seas, our sky. They are the ancestors, the spirits of the realms.

There are different versions of The Song of Amergin. This is but one of them.

In English.

I am the wind on the sea
I am the stormy wave
I am the sound of the ocean
I am the bull with seven horns
I am the hawk on the cliff face
I am the sun's tear
I am the beautiful flower
I am the boar on the rampage
I am the salmon in the pool
I am the lake on the plain
I am the defiant word
I am the spear charging into battle
I am the god who put fire in your head
Who made the trails through stone mountains
Who knows the age of the moon
Who knows where the setting sun rests
Who took the cattle from the house of the warcrow
Who pleases the warcrow's cattle
What bull, what god created the mountain skyline
The cutting word, the cold word.

In Irish.

Am gaeth i m-muir
Am tond trethan
Am fuaim mara
Am dam secht ndirend
Am séig i n-aill
Am dér gréne
Am cain lubai
Am torc ar gail
Am he i l-lind
Am loch i m-maig
Am brí a ndai
Am bri i fodb fras feochtu
Am dé delbas do chind codnu
Coiche nod gleith clochur slébe
Cia on co tagair aesa éscai
Cia du i l-laig fuiniud gréne
Cia beir buar o thig tethrach
Cia buar tethrach tibi
Cia dám, cia dé delbas faebru a ndind ailsiu
Cáinte im gai, cainte gaithe

Ogma. God of eloquence and learning.

Ogma. God of eloquence and learning.

In Irish-Celtic myth, Ogma is the god of eloquence and learning.

He is the son of the goddess Danu and the god Dagda, and one of the foremost members of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Skilled in dialects and poetry as well as being a warrior. He also had a role in conveying souls to the Otherworld. He was called Ogma Grian-aineach (of the Sunny Countenance) and Ogma Cermait (of the Honeyed Mouth). He is also credited with various children, of which his daughter Etain married the god of medicine, Dian cecht. He ruled from the sldhe of Airceltrai.

He is the reputed inventor of the ancient Ogham alphabet which is used in the earliest Irish writings. Ogham was the first written language of Ireland it is a series of symbols that represent certain words and letters in the Irish vocabulary.

Ogma is found both in the "First Battle of Magh Tuiredh" and in the "Cath Magh Tuiredh" which overlaps part of the first battle. Ogma helps the Tuatha de Danaan retake the island of Eirinn, or Ireland, from the Fir Bolg who are attempting to settle there. Ogma is often considered a deity and may be related to the Gaulish god Ogmios.

People can also find this god in a later part of the mythological cycle about how the island of Ireland was taken. It's said in this later section that the daughters of Ogma, named Eire, Fotla and Banba were promised that the one of them who could predict the future of the Tuatha de Danaan in Ireland would have the land named for her.

Another variant of this says that each of them met with the bard Amergin, who it is thought was a real person and who came to Ireland with the sons of the Mil from the Iberian Peninsula. Amergin, author of the famous poem that reads like a riddle, apparently offered the naming of the isle to each of them and Eire won the honour of having her name be forever remembered as the name for the land.

Another story concerning Ogma tells of how he fought in the first battle of Mag Tuired, when the Tuatha Dé take Ireland from the Fir Bolg. Under the reign of Bres, when the Tuatha Dé are reduced to servitude, Ogma is forced to carry firewood, but nonetheless is the only one of the Tuatha Dé who proves his athletic and martial prowess in contests before the king. When Bres is overthrown and Nuadu restored, Ogma is his champion.

His position is threatened by the arrival of Lugh at the court, so Ogma challenges him by lifting and hurling a great flagstone, which normally required eighty oxen to move it, out of Tara, but Lugh answers the challenge by hurling it back. When Nuadu hands command of the Battle of Mag Tuired to Lugh, Ogma becomes Lugh's champion, and promises to repel the Fomorian king, Indech, and his bodyguard, and to defeat a third of the enemy.

During the battle he finds Orna, the sword of the Fomorian king Tethra, which recounts the deeds done with it when unsheathed. During the battle Ogma and Indech fall in single combat, although there is some confusion in the texts as in Cath Maige Tuired Ogma, Lugh and the Dagda pursue the Fomorians after the battle to recover the harp of Uaitne, the Dagda's harper.

He often appears as a triad with Lugh and the Dagda, who are sometimes collectively known as the trí dée dána or three gods of skill, although that designation is elsewhere applied to other groups of characters.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Cernunnos. The Horned God. Hu Gadarn.

Cernunnos. Known to the Druids as Hu Gadarn. God of the underworld and astral planes.

"The Horned One" is a Celtic god of fertility, life, animals, wealth, and the underworld. Cernunnos is depicted with the antlers of a stag, he sometimes carries a purse filled with coin. The Horned God is born at the winter solstice, marries the goddess at Beltane, and dies at the summer solstice. He alternates with the goddess of the moon in ruling over life and death, continuing the cycle of death, rebirth and reincarnation. Paleolithic cave paintings found in France that depict a stag standing upright on hind legs with the upper body of a man, or a man dressed in stag costume. He seems to be celebrating a hunt and wooing a woman.

To the Celts, Cernunnos the Horned God was more than just a fertile being. He is found throughout the Celtic lands and folklore as the guardian of the portal leading to the Otherworld. His symbols are antlers, the torc (female symbol) and a ram headed snake (male symbol). While many today think of Cernunnos as THE Horned God that may in fact be a misnomer, as it is doubtful that long ago there was ever a group of people who referred to him by this specific name.

To most Neopagans Cernunnos is the God who stands at the gateway of life and death and alternates with the Goddess in ruling over life and death. Seen as the God of fertility, life, animal’s wealth and the Underworld he is continually born, and dies returning year after year.

He would in later years be turned, in part, into the Christian Satan (the devil), a character who at no point in the bible is ever described as having horns.

Cernunnos is a member of the Tuatha de Danaan, his exact location in the family tree of the Celtic gods, however, is a matter of debate.

Cernunnos was worshipped as a forest deity, but he was also a psychopompus (a guider of souls/spirits) who escorted the dead to the afterlife. Cernunnos was of such importance to the Celts that they tried to establish him as a national god rather than a local one and regulate the fragmented Celtic deities into a true pantheon. The Romans occupying Britain placed his image on coins.

He is depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldron, one of the most celebrated works of early Celtic religious art which was uncovered in a peat bog near the village of Gundestrup, Denmark in 1880, and is now housed in in the museum at Århus. Made of 96 per cent pure silver and originally gilded, the vessel stands 14 in. high, is 25.5 in. in diameter, will hold 28.5 gallons, and weighs nearly 20 pound the cauldron comprises thirteen parts: a plain base plate, and five inner and seven outer plates decorated with mythological scenes.

While the origin and date of the cauldron are still unsettled, commentators generally agree that it was carried, possibly by Teutonic looters, to Gundestrup from a distant place. It may have been transported from Gaul, but stylistic details on the vessel suggest it may have been manufactured as far away as the Balkans, in Thrace or what is now Romania. Many elements depicted, such as torcs, snakes with ram heads, or the boar-headed war trumpet known as the carnyx, are certainly Celtic; other details and motifs are so exotic as not to seem European.

The plates depict gods, conventionally seen as larger than humans, ordinary mortals, and animals. The seated horned god is now commonly accepted as an illustration of Cernunnos. A tall divine figure holding a man over a vat of water is thought to be Teutates accepting human sacrifice.

A female divinity flanked by wheels, as if riding in a cart, has been compared with the Irish Medb. The mortals include a troop of infantry in close-knit short trousers and a company of cavalry with a sacred tree. Three sword-bearing warriors are about to execute three huge bulls.

Although much studied and, more recently, photographed and reproduced, the Gundestrup Cauldron remains enigmatic to many commentators. The most controversial of them, Garrett S. Olmsted, has asserted that the scenes on the plates anticipate the action of the Irish epic Táin Bó Cuailnge [Cattle Raid of Cooley].

Information about the Gundestrup Cauldron courtesy of:

JAMES MacKILLOP. "Gundestrup Cauldron." A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 2004. 13 Oct. 2010

Féar gortach. The hungry grass. Fairy grass.

Féar Gortach. The hungry grass. Fairy Grass.

Féar Gortach–means ‘hungry grass.’ This is a patch of dead grass; some say it pops up where someone has died violently, some say it happens specifically where someone has died of hunger. This grass turns predator. Anyone who walks across it gets the same sickness as the Hungry Man inflicts on the uncharitable. They get an insatiable hunger.

Have you ever been walking down a green grassy bóithrín (Irish-Small road, room for one cow) on a bright sunny day and were suddenly overtaken by a hunger so strong you almost passed out? Believe me, it's happened, a good Irishman would immediately know why and what to do. Hungry Grass. There are those who suggest that it's a spot where a corpse has lain on the way to its final resting place, or even where they still lie covered by grass, memories of the famine.

There are even those who suggest that it may be a fairy curse. Anyone who walks or passes over the hungry grass, or in Irish, "féar gortach" will suddenly become hungry beyond reason, even if they have just been well fed. Those who live near patches of such grass have been known to keep extra food on hand in the case of afflicted travellers knocking on their door. No other side effects are known.

Sometimes you might even hear some of the older folk say "The fear gortach is on me" meaning they are feeling very hungry.

When we were young children we were told to always have a biscuit or a piece of bread in our pockets when going out for a walk just in case the Féar gortach came on us, of course if you ate the biscuit you could always suck on a shoelace.

As an adult when I visit somewhere like the famine village over in Achill I break off a piece of bread, pour a little of what I have to drink and I also break off the tip of my cigarette and place them on the ground as an offering to the spirits of the place.

Years ago when talking to a Choctaw who was visiting Westport on his travels he noticed what I wore round my neck and we got talking, we exchanged stories of various customs including leaving offerings to the spirits and we realised we had more in common than the walk of tears.

Monday, October 11, 2010

An Gánconágh. The Love Talker.


In Connacht. The word is pronounced gánconâgh.

The name gánconágh comes from the Gaelic word gean-canagh which means love talker.

Watch out for him because it definitely means bad luck is on the way if you meet him. He is a real loner, a solitary fairy who is the embodiment of love and idleness. He always has a dudeen (pipe) in his mouth. Although you will see him with a clay pipe in his mouth he will never have it lit as fairies hate and despise smoke so an unlit pipe in a lazy man's mouth is always a clue.

He has no shadow, the birds stop singing and a mist unfurls about him when he is around. He haunts lonely valleys speaking his love to milkmaids and shepherdesses and when he has had his wicked way with them he abandons them (how many times have we heard that story?). They then pine away and even die of a broken heart.

This seducing of young maidens seems to be his favourite pastime, of course they blame his dark twinkling Irish eyes, his enchanting voice and his pure charm. and whoever was ruined by ill-judged love was said to have been with the gánconágh. Men who have lost all their money by buying baubles for their ladies were said to have met the gánconágh. I think we’ve heard all that before as well.

He is lazy and you will often find him with a purse in one pocket but his hands in both, hanging around with the bone idle lads in the village

Portrayed in Ethna Carbery 's poem ‘The Love-Talker’, Four Winds of Erin (Dublin, 1902).
W. B. Yeats records ganconers who play at hurling, Irish Fairy and Folk Tales. (London, 1893).

The Love Talker.

I met the Love-Talker one eve in the glen,
He was handsomer than any of our handsome young men,
His eyes were blacker than the sloe, his voice sweeter far
Than the crooning of old Kevin's pipes beyond in Coolnagar.
I was bound for the milking with a heart fair and free–
My grief! my grief! that bitter hour drained the life from me;
I thought him human lover, though his lips on mine were cold,
And the breath of death blew keen on me within his hold.

I know not what way he came, no shadow fell behind,
But all the sighing rushes swayed beneath a fairy wind
The thrush ceased its singing, a mist crept about,
We two clung together–with the world shut out.

Ethna Carbury, The Love Talker

Another little poem that tells of the gánconágh.

Beware the tunes that touch your heart.
The gánconágh will play the soul
Beware sweet lass don't crave his art
He'll pierce your heart and leave a hole.


Stone circles.

Stone Circles, Stone Rows, and Standing Stones are quite evocative in the Irish landscape and still cause people to pause and contemplate their original use and to imagine the rituals which took place at, or in them and to try to imagine the people who performed such ritual. Were they for marriage, a baptism of some sort, funeral rites, or sacrifice? Nothing else in Irish archaeology has this power of connecting the peoples of the past with the people of the present. To stand in the centre of a Bronze Age stone circle on the side of a windswept hill is an extremely moving experience.

There are two distinct types of stone circle in Ireland. In West Cork - Kerry the circles are made up of uneven numbers of stones from five to seventeen and these contain an area of between 8 feet and fifty feet. The entrance faces the north-east and a stone opposite the entrance is called the axial stone. Some of the circles have a boulder burial within them. Boulder burials are very simple in plan and are just what they describe, a burial, usually cremated, with a large boulder marking the spot.

In Fermanagh, Tyrone and Derry a group of stone circles are classified as the Mid-Ulster Group. There are some differences between this group and the Cork Kerry group. These differences occur in the spacing between the stones, the size of the stones and the number of stones. The area within the Ulster group is usually smaller than that of thier southern counterparts.

The largest stone circle in Ireland is that of Grange at Lough Gur in County Limerick. This is very accessible and an effort should be made to get to it if you have an interest in how our Bronze Age ancestors conducted their daily lives. It measures 150 feet in diameter and is enclosed by 113 standing stones. The stones are surrounded by and supported by a forty foot wide bank The largest stone is over 13 feet high and is estimated to weigh 40 tons. It was built over 4000 years ago.

By 2000 B.C., stone circles were built in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe. A population concerned with birth and fertility, the Irish included movements of the sun in their religious monuments. The circles were temples for a solar religion. In 1159 B.C., there are indications that the weather got much worse and the gods and goddesses of water, in streams and lakes, took on greater importance. Material possessions, animals, and even people were sacrificed, probably to appease these gods.

There is hardly any evidence available to tell us what stone circles were actually used for. Some archaeologists suggest they may have had a ritualistic purpose (this is normal when they don’t have a clue or cannot agree). Some even suggest they may have been royal burial sites and then there are those who suggest sites of sacrifice (seems like an awful lot of trouble when you could just sacrifice using the bogs).

However, as previously mentioned the astrological alignment of the circles cannot be denied. Evidence of cremation have been found in some circles but does this mean sacrifice or could it simply have been someone of high rank who having died was cremated in the circle ?

Archaeologists have suggested that stone circles pre-date the Celts and the druids and therefore were not druidic in their conception. However, although druids celebrated within groves it is quite conceivable that they also used the stone circles for ritual as their understanding of the cosmos was extremely advanced and the positioning of the stones would have been known to them.

It has been said that there is no written evidence concerning the druids, (Julius Caesar) and Christianity saw to that. I would suggest that they were totally biased and inaccurate with an extremely big axe to grind.

There is, however, one legend in Irish literature that seems to connect the druids with a stone circle, and that is contained in an early Life of St. Patrick.

It concerns an event that took place near the modern Ballymagauran in County Cavan in Ireland. Here stood the chief idol of Ireland, Cromm Cruaich, and this was surrounded by a ring of twelve smaller idols; it is described as the scene of druidic worship, and it witnessed a mighty conflict between St. Patrick and the druids. In the end, Patrick threatened the main idol so effectively that it was permanently branded with the mark of his stave.

This sounds very much as though the legend is an attempt to explain the existence of a stone circle with a central standing stone, and it is clear, therefore, that in the ninth century, the probable date of this Life, such remains were connected with the druids. This is, of course, very far from being proof that the druids really did worship at such places, but it shows that it is not altogether an extravagant notion to suppose so. Today we do use stone circles for ritual. However, we also use open spaces, woods, or by the side of water.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Irish Medieval Clothing

Irish medieval clothing

Clothes in medieval Ireland consisted of two main items. Mentioned in the early records up until the 16th century these were the leine and the brat. Most Irish clothes of the time were very brightly coloured, often striped or dotted in various patterns. Brehon’s law (the set of laws that governed ancient Ireland) dictated which specific colours a person’s clothes could be:

“The son of a king of Erin shall wear satin and red clothes''

“The sons of the inferior classes of chieftains shall wear black, yellow, or gray clothing"

"The sons of the lowest class of chieftain shall wear old clothes"

Material for garments varied with social class. The lower classes, which made up the majority of the population, wore clothing made of wool or linen. Since silk and satin had to be imported, only the very rich could afford garments made from such materials.

The first was the leine (pronounced lay’/nuh; plural leinte). This was a smock like garment, either sleeveless or with fitted sleeves that fell to just above the ankles. For women, the garment could be even longer, although a full-length leine was never worn with out a brat (see below). Among lower classes, leinte were often shorter, presumably to allow for manual labour. The arms, chest and neck also had a looser fit to allow workers to slip the garment down to their waists during the day’s heat. Designs were embroidered on the neckline, cuffs and hemline. The leine was often pulled up through a belt, making the top billow and the length shorter.


The second item found in medieval Irish garb is the brat (pronounce braht). This was a rectangular cloak, most often made from wool. It was worn much like a shawl, with a pin to fasten it at the neck or right shoulder. It was a voluminous garment that could be repositioned to create a hood. Brats were dyed many bright colours. Often the brat was one colour with a fringe or border of another colour. As with the leine, a longer length indicated a higher social status.

Another garment sometimes found is the inar. This was a close fitting jacket that came to the waist. It was made both with sleeves and without. The inar was worn with trews (close fitting trousers) and never a leine. Soldiers are most often depicted in these garments.


The trews worn with the inar were brocs. These were tight fitting trousers. They came to at least the knee, but could often be longer. When they were longer, they also had a strap that fitted around the bottom of the foot, making them look similar to modern stirrup pants.

The crios is a belt, either woven from wool or made out of leather.If woven then several colours are used but usually there is a white border. While weaving, the warp is held taut between a foot and the weaver's hands; no loom is used. They are made 3 1/2 yards long for men, 2 yards for women In addition to holding up a leine, the crios was used to carry things as was often the way in medieval cultures. In contemporary times the crios (pronounced Kris) was worn by fishermen on the Arran Islands off the west coast of Ireland.


Brog was a general term for shoes. Most brogs were made of untanned hide, making them soft and pliable. They were stitched together with the same hide and there was no lift or insole. There were also more ornate shoes made of tanned hide that had heels but these were most likely for special occasions.

There is still some speculation as to whether or not the ancient Irish wore kilts. Some historians believe that they did in fact wear kilts. Other believe what is actually depicted is a leine pulled up through the belt, giving the appearance of a kilt, the feileadh mor.