Saturday, October 22, 2011
One of the things you don’t seem to think of when you think of the Irish Famine of 1845-1850 is the plight of children. They were affected in many ways other than the obvious ones of starvation and disease. I have recently visited Kilmainham prison museum in Dublin as part of a college trip and it caused me to stop and think. Kilmainham is probably best known as the last place on earth that various Irish political prisoners spent their days, and some may recognise it as the prison location for such films as In The Name of the Father (1993) or The Italian Job (1969). We were given a guided tour of the facility and it was on this tour that the guide began to tell us of those other prisoners that you don’t hear of, the forgotten children of the Great Famine some as young as Five years old.
Many of the children were sent to adult prisons for the most trivial reasons. During the famine years the influx of country people to the cities was frightening, they couldn’t get work, and they had no money and no way to obtain sustenance, so the only option open to them was begging for food. The government answer was to bring out a Vagrancy Law making it an offence to beg for food. Others started to steal food, they had nothing to lose and at least they would get fed in prison. The government answer was to drastically reduce food rations in the prison in order to deter people from crime, this only served to increase the misery of the inmates but it saved the authorities money so they were quite happy to implement the new rules.
Conditions in the Workhouse were so bad that it is recorded that people committed offences in order to be removed to the prisons. If a child ran away they were arrested for the theft of the workhouse clothes they were wearing at the time. A boy of fourteen was sentenced to one month in prison on the Tread Mill for this offence. In Neagh 1849 it was reported that fourteen children were escorted through the streets by the police. Thirteen of these were little boys who were to be whipped at the local jail because they were caught throwing stones at the workhouse master. Some children were even abandoned outside the gates as their parents thought that it was the only way they might survive the famine. Conditions in the prisons were horrendous. Punishment and hard labour were the orders of the day,
Children were made to sleep five or more to a cell only big enough to have housed one adult previously, some would sleep on the floor some would sleep on hammocks. No water, no sanitation, no heat and if you were lucky the jailer gave each cell ONE candle to supply the only source of heat and light (one per cell). During the famine there were that many children in Kilmainham prison the jailers threw straw on the floors of the corridors and made the children sleep there. There were no uniforms supplied, the rags you arrived in were the rags that you would leave in. The majority of the prisoners would be thrown into overcrowded cells to sleep on the damp floor with rats running all over them. They had lice infested straw to cover them. Children as young as five were also imprisoned in these conditions.
Exercise in the prison yard consisted of walking with your eyes down (looking to the cobbles), boys walked clockwise, girls anti-clockwise. If you looked up it was taken that you were looking up to the light, the source of god’s forgiveness, if you were seen by the jailer then you received twelve lashes for you had no right looking for god’s forgiveness. It was common practice to administer twelve lashes a week to each child to prepare them for the reform schools.
Some prisons had a Tread Mill. The Tread Mill was a machine that was used to grind corn in the flour mills, but it was a form of hard labour used in some of the prisons. There were long handles around the centre piece. The children had to hold on to these and walk around in circles pushing it along, but if one child fell it took the other children a few minutes to stop, usually not before the fallen child had been trampled on. The children had to stay on this for five hours in the summer and four hours in the winter and all this was done in silence, any talking, singing, or whistling resulted in the whip. Imprisoned for being an orphan, disablement, or abandonment, having committed no crime and receiving no sentence, some children had been in these prisons for years.
As I walked the dark damp corridors of Kilmainham I felt a great sadness for I found myself listening to the cries of an abandoned child as it called for its mother. How must these children have felt as they heard the dreaded footsteps of the jailer approach and the sound of the key as it turned in the lock? It would be so easy for me to believe that these corridors are haunted, not by the souls or spirits of those poor little children but by the earthbound spirits of those cursed to wander these corridors of pain for all eternity. I wonder how those responsible for this outrage fared. I cannot understand how those who professed to be Christian could do these things. “Suffer Little Children to come unto me” isn’t that what they would have you believe? and oh how they suffered. Thank the gods/godesses that we have lived through a time when we only complain about 'The Recession'.
My thanks to the guide at Kilmainham prison who gave me a lot to think about and even more to be thankful for.
Crimes and sentences of young children in Kilmainham Jail Dublin Ireland.
Alicia Kelly was only eight years old when she was sentenced to five months hard labour in March 1839 for stealing a cloak.
Jane Beerds who was nine years old was accused of stealing fowl in January 1840. She spent three months in the jail before being released in April after being found not guilty.
Michael and Patrick Reilly were aged twelve and thirteen years old in April 1833. They were both found guilty of stealing three ducks and a hen. They each received a sentence of three weeks in prison and a total of sixty lashes. They were whipped each week receiving twenty lashes at a time.
Mick Kearney, twelve and his younger brother Stephen, nine were convicted of stealing money in December 1838. They both received a sentence of four weeks imprisonment and were whipped once a week.
For stealing apples from a garden John Keegen aged eleven, got two months hard labour on 11th August 1833.
Upper Image: A lonely corridor in Kilmainham Prison (Now a museum).
Lower Image: The dreaded treadmill.
Sunday, October 16, 2011
The object of the Penal Laws was to deprive the Irish of all civil life (Catholics) and reduce them to the most extreme and brutal conditions possible. They were denied an education, to have a profession or to hold down any public office. They were forbidden from engaging in trade or commerce, to own land, to vote, to bear arms or to own a horse that was worth more than five pounds. This was the background leading up to the Famine of 1845.
There are many stories that are told of the time of the Penal Law, one such tale concerns a young Irish man called Art O’Leary. He had been abroad serving as a Captain in the Austro-Hungarian army and had returned home with his horse from Vienna. He was married to Eileen O’Connell whose grandson was to be Daniel O’Connell the Liberator and great Irish hero. Art O’Leary had entered his horse in a race which it won easily, an English planter seeing this offered O’Leary five pounds for his horse but of course O’Leary refused it. He was immediately declared an outlaw and shortly afterwards shot through the heart, this was in 1773. The first his wife knew of this terrible murder was when the horse returned home without a rider
There is a haunting poem called The Dirge on the Death of Art O’Leary by his wife Eileen translated by Eleanor Hull. It is worth remembering that she composed this on the spot in the old tradition of the Irish Caoinead (pronounced “kween-eh”) meaning lament.
Lower image: The tomb of Art O’Leary in Kilcrea friary County Cork.
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
As we enter this month of October let us begin by looking at the festival of Samhain.
History of Samhain.
Samhain marks one of the two great doorways of the Celtic year, for the Celts divided the year into two seasons: the light and the dark, at Beltane on May 1st and Samhain on November 1st. Some believe that Samhain was the more important festival, marking the beginning of a whole new cycle, just as the Celtic day began at night. For it was understood that in dark silence comes whisperings of new beginnings, the stirring of the seed below the ground. Whereas Beltane welcomes in the summer with joyous celebrations at dawn, the most magically potent time of this festival is November Eve, the night of October 31st, known today of course, as Halloween.
Samhain (Scots Gaelic: Samhuinn) literally means “summer's end.” In Scotland and Ireland, Halloween is known as Oíche Shamhna, while in Wales it is Nos Calan Gaeaf, the eve of the winter's calend, or first. With the rise of Christianity, Samhain was changed to Hallowmas, or All Saints' Day, to commemorate the souls of the blessed dead who had been canonized that year, so the night before became popularly known as Halloween, All Hallows Eve, or Hollantide. November 2nd became All Souls Day, when prayers were to be offered to the souls of all who the departed and those who were waiting in Purgatory for entry into Heaven. Throughout the centuries, pagan and Christian beliefs intertwined in celebrations from Oct 31st through November 5th, all of which appear both to challenge the ascendancy of the dark and to revel in its mystery.
In the country year, Samhain marked the first day of winter, when the herders led the cattle and sheep down from their summer hillside pastures to the shelter of stable and byre. The hay that would feed them during the winter must be stored in sturdy thatched ricks, tied down securely against storms. Those destined for the table were slaughtered, after being ritually devoted to the gods in pagan times. All the harvest must be gathered in -- barley, oats, wheat, turnips, and apples -- for come November, the faeries would blast every growing plant with their breath, blighting any nuts and berries remaining on the hedgerows. Peat and wood for winter fires were stacked high by the hearth. It was a joyous time of family reunion, when all members of the household worked together baking, salting meat, and making preserves for the winter feasts to come. The endless horizons of summer gave way to a warm, dim and often smoky room; the symphony of summer sounds was replaced by a counterpoint of voices, young and old, human and animal.
In early Ireland, people gathered at the ritual centres of the tribes, for Samhain was the principal calendar feast of the year. The greatest assembly was the 'Feast of Tara,' focusing on the royal seat of the High King as the heart of the sacred land, the point of conception for the New Year. In every household throughout the country, hearth-fires were extinguished. All waited for the Druids to light the new fire of the year, not at Tara, but at Tlachtga, a hill twelve miles to the north-west. It marked the burial-place of Tlachtga, daughter of the great druid Mogh Ruith, who may once have been a goddess in her own right in a former age.
At all the turning points of the Celtic year, the gods drew near to Earth at Samhain, so many sacrifices and gifts were offered up in thanksgiving for the harvest. Personal prayers in the form of objects symbolizing the wishes of supplicants or ailments to be healed were cast into the fire, and at the end of the ceremonies, brands were lit from the great fire of Tara to re-kindle all the home fires of the tribe, as at Beltane. As they received the flame that marked this time of beginnings, people surely felt a sense of the kindling of new dreams, projects and hopes for the year to come. Rituals of Samhain mirror many Halloween practices today.
Many Samhain rituals, traditions, and customs have been passed down throughout the centuries, and are still practiced in various countries on Halloween today.
As a feast of divination, this was the night for peering into the future. There are so many types of divination that are traditional to Halloween it is possible to mention only a few. Girls were told to place hazelnuts along the front of the fire grate, each one to symbolize one of her suitors. She could then divine her future husband by chanting, “If you love me, pop and fly; if you hate me, burn and die.”
Several methods used the apple, that most popular of Halloween fruits. You should slice an apple through the equator (to reveal the five-pointed star within) and then eat it by candlelight before a mirror. Your future spouse will then appear over your shoulder. Or, peel an apple, making sure the peeling comes off in one long strand, reciting, “I pare this apple round and round again, My sweetheart’s name to flourish on the plain, I fling the unbroken paring o’er my head, My sweetheart’s letter on the ground to read.” Or, you might set a snail to crawl through the ashes of your hearth. The considerate little creature will then spell out the initial letter as it moves.
Bobbing for apples was actually a custom the Celts inherited from the Romans when conquered by the Roman Empire. Romans honoured the harvest god, Pomona, and because the apple was a venerated fruit, many rituals revolved around it. The Celts simply incorporated bobbing for apples, a divination game that originated with the Romans, into Samhain tradition.
Bobbing for apples may well represent the remnants of a Pagan “baptism” rite called a seining, according to some writers. The water-filled tub is a latter-day Cauldron of Regeneration, into which the novice’s head is immersed. The fact that the participant in this folk game was usually blindfolded with hands tied behind the back also puts one in mind of a traditional Craft initiation ceremony.
Bobbing for apples was a game of divination. Single girls looking for a mate would carve their initials onto an apple then put it into a bucket of water. Young men would take it in turns to ‘bob’ for an apple, the one they chose had the initials of their intended carved upon it.
Carving Jack O'Lanterns was a custom practiced by Irish children during Samhain. Using a potato or turnip, they would carve out an image and place a candle inside to pay tribute to Jack, an Irish villain so amoral that he was rejected by both god and devil. Legend says that Jack wandered the world, looking for a place to rest, finding it only in a carved-out vegetable. Later, when the Irish emigrated to America, pumpkins were used instead.
Some traditions say that the carved-out pumpkin originated from a Celtic practice of putting an antecedent's skull outside of their home during Samhain. Others say that the Jack O'Lantern was used to ward off evil spirits which were brought forth on All Hallows Eve.
Halloween masks and costumes originated from the Celtic belief that on Samhain, while restless and often evil spirits crossed the thin void from the spirit world, a mask would make the wearer unrecognizable from these ghosts. Druidic rites also involved the wearing of masks, often made of animal’s skins, as the wearers told fortunes and practiced other divination rituals.
Christian Influence over Samhain.
As Christianity spread throughout the Celtic regions, an attempt was made to remove the pagan influences of this holiday and replace them instead with a Christian-sanctioned one. To this end, Pope Boniface IV renamed Samhain, which fell on November 1, to All Saints Day, as a day to honour dead saints. October 31 began to be called All Hallows Eve; this eventually evolved into "Halloween."
Attributed to St. Odilo in the 7th century, the Catholic Church declared November 2 as All Soul's Day, which honours the dead whom had failed to make it to heaven; it's believed these souls were instead held in purgatory. This Christian celebration of the day of the dead has many similarities to Samhain rituals, such as the wearing of masks, parades of ghosts and skeletons, and special food offerings to the dead.
The old ways never really die they simply transform. The Samhain fires continued to blaze down the centuries and the customs of the dead are still practiced today within Irish culture. How many times have you seen a long line of black cars following the hearse and it is still considered to be extremely bad luck to break this solemn procession? Shops and businesses will still close their doors and turn off the lights until the dead pass by and the bell of the church sounds its mournful toll. Here in Westport it is our tradition to walk behind the hearse as it does a last lap of the town; we follow the ‘Covie/Donor’ (Westport man/woman) to the edge of town as a last mark of respect. It’s our way of saying “see yer cove”. You visit a cemetery to find offerings of flowers, and candles and it is this communion between living and dead that shows how connected we all are by the true language of spirit.
You can hear Death in the cry of the crow or the screech of the owl, the shadow of Death forever waits within the edge of darkness just beyond the firelight. His touch lightly caressing your shoulder when you think no one is there. His cold breath sending a shiver up your spine, the hairs on your neck stand up. Death is always there, always watching and waiting and his enduring presence is a constant reminder that we all have an appointment to keep and he eagerly waits that time. Death will continue to walk with us, to capture our imagination and to take us by the hand as he leads us on a journey of mystery and wonder to the land beyond the veil. At Samhain bonfires will light up the skies in many parts of Ireland. Whatever the reason, there will probably always be a human need to make fires against the winters dark and these fires will act as beacons guiding our ancestors home. May the blessings of Samhain light up your life.
Saturday, October 1, 2011
Once upon a time far back in the mist of time Ireland was known as the land of saints and scholars. Kings and Queens would send their sons here to be educated.
At this time there was a poor young boy who was known to everyone for his intelligence and although his parents were but lowly labourers he came to the attention of one of the priests who taught those of wealth that were sent to him. This is his story.
Now this priest was the cleverest priest in Ireland and he had grown very vain and proud, he had forgotten his own lowly beginnings and even forgotten his god whom his faith had taught him was the one who had made him what he was. His pride of winning every argument led him to believe that he could prove there was no purgatory, no hell, indeed no heaven, and so logically there was no god and no soul. In fact we were no better than the beast of the field and when we died there was no rebirth or resurrection.
“Who ever saw a soul?" he would say. "If you can show me one, I will believe." No one could make any answer to this; and at last they all came to believe that as there was no other world, you might as well do as you liked in this one; the priest set the example, for he took a beautiful young girl as his wife. However, as no priest or bishop in the whole land could be got to marry them, he was obliged to read the service himself. It was a great scandal, yet no one dared to say a word, for all the kings' sons were on his side, and would have slaughtered anyone who tried to prevent his wicked goings-on.
One night an angel appeared to him just as he was going to bed. He told the priest that he had twenty four hours to live.
“Give me more time” said the priest, the angel refused.
“Have pity on my poor soul” said the priest.
“But you have no soul, isn’t that what you have taught others?” replied the angel.
“I have a soul, I can feel it fluttering in my chest ever since you appeared, I was just being a fool before” answered the priest.
“A fool you are” said the angel “What good was all your learning when you forgot your soul?”
“If I am to die will I go to heaven>” asked the priest,
“No, for you denied heaven” replied the angel.
“Well how about purgatory then?”
“No, you denied that as well, so it’s straight to hell for you me boy” said the angel,
“Ah now hang on a minute, didn’t I also deny there was a hell? so you can’t send me there either”.
The angel was a little puzzled.
"Well," said he, "I'll tell you what I can do for you. You may either live now on earth for a hundred years enjoying every pleasure, and then be cast into Hell for ever; or you may die in twenty-four hours in the most horrible torments, and pass through Purgatory, there to remain till the Day of Judgment, if only you can find some one person that believes, and through his belief mercy will be given to you and your soul will be saved."
The priest did not take five minutes to make up his mind. "I will have death in the twenty-four hours," he said, "so that my soul may be saved at last." So the angel gave him directions as to what he was to do, and left him.
Then, immediately, the priest entered the large room where all his scholars and the kings' sons were seated. The priest asked them “Have men souls?” They answered “Once we believed they did but you convinced us otherwise”. The priest replied “I taught you a lie, now I believe there is a god and we do have an immortal soul” they all laughed at him for they thought this was just a trick to start another argument. “Prove it” they said.
Next he went to his wife but she also laughed at him. He ran from the house and asked every person he met if they believed but they also laughed at him. Just as despair seemed to rise up all around him a little boy came by.
“God save you” said the child,
The priest jumped up “Do you believe in God child?”
“Of course, I’ve travelled far to learn about him, will you direct me to the best place to learn about him?” answered the child.
“The best place and the best teacher is here” said the priest and pointed to himself.
When the priest told the boy his name he said “Aren't you the priest who does not believe in a soul because it cannot be seen?
“I was” replied the priest.
“Well that’s stupid for I can tell you that the soul does exist” said the boy,
“How can you be so sure?” the priest inquired,
“I would say to you show me life if you believe you have life” replied the boy.
“But that is not possible; life cannot be seen for it is invisible”
and the boy replied “So is the soul”.
When the priest heard him speak these words he fell down on his knees before him, now he knew his soul would go to heaven for he had found one who believed and he told the child his whole story.
“Now, take my knife and drive it through my chest and keep stabbing until you see death upon my face, then watch as my soul ascends into heaven. When you see this happen run and tell everyone you see that man has an immortal soul and heaven does exist”
The boy stabbed the priest but he did not die straight away for the angel had said he would live for 24 hours but at last the time came and death settled upon him. The child saw a beautiful living creature with four snow white wings rise up from the middle of the priest’s chest and flutter around his head. He ran and brought back some of those that he met and when they saw it they all knew it was the soul of the priest and they watched in wonder as it passed from sight and disappeared into the clouds.
It is said that this was the first butterfly to be seen in Ireland and now it has entered Irish folklore as the belief that the butterfly is the soul of one who has passed off this mortal coil and is just waiting for the moment the doors of heaven open so they may pass through into eternal peace.
You see sometimes it’s enough to have the simple belief of a child.
September 30 – October 27.
It is said that people born under the sign of the Ivy have great staying power and a strong belief in the natural order of things. They have a quick wit and great intelligence, are extremely loyal and make great friends. They will take responsibility for their own actions but unfortunately they can also attract people who are weak willed and with low morals. They are also quite manipulative and can be ruthless when the need arises. Those born under this sign are poor students, they tend not to be “book worms” and will learn far more by experience, they are lucky in many ways and are also very sensitive. Beware when falling in love for like the Ivy you can become quite ‘clingy’. You have a great many talents and this will help you through life, you will be able to overcome many of the obstacles that lie in your path on life’s journey, at the same time giving a helping hand to others less fortunate. Life will be difficult at times but your strong character and perseverance will see you through with a quiet grace. Ivy people have a strong spirituality and you will always cling to this in times of trouble. However, you may suffer from doubts and fears that may visit you in your dreams and personal relationships so don’t allow others to embroil you in their problems for you may suffer disappointment and betrayal.
Ivy is the symbol of resurrection and as such is associated with the butterfly which is also the symbol of the faeries faith. The butterfly is believed in Irish folklore and many other cultures to be the soul of the dead. No negative energies will be experienced where butterflies are found. They are also symbols of freedom from self restriction and help you to see things with more clarity. However, always remember that it is the caterpillar that does all the work but it is the butterfly that gets all the credit so remember those who give you support for like the Ivy you will not survive long without it.
This is just for a bit of craic and just life. It is not to be taken too seriously.