You can call it Lughnasa, or Lughnasadh, or even Lúnasa (also Gaeilge for August, all pronounced (roughly) loo-nas-sa,) but the truth of it will have everyone excited for Halloween already hooked: it’s a harvest festival! Lughnasa, named after the god-hero of early Irish mythology, Lugh, is one of the four fire festivals of ancient Ireland (along with Imbolc, Beltane, and Samhain) and falls between the summer solstice and autumn equinox. This pagan holiday marked the beginning of the harvest season, and thus a time of plenty before winter, for the largely agrarian ancient Irelanders. Though this holiday was technically yesterday this year (the dates can shift, but it’s usually the closest Sunday to August 1st) we’re here to tell you about the ways people once celebrated!
Legend states that Lugh (check out another story on the blog about him here) founded the holiday on the occasion of his foster-mother’s death. Tailtiu (whose name shows up with many pronunciations, we’ll let you take your best shot) was an earth goddess said to have died after clearing the land of Ireland for agricultural purposes, and is associated with dying vegetation’s ability to create new life and then sustain it. Lugh’s idea of a proper funeral is a little different from ours today—he decided to honor his foster mother with, well, an Irish version of the Olympics? We’ll explore the now-called Tailteann Games in another post, but, fun fact: the custom of funerary games was actually a relatively common amongst ancient civilizations!
While feats of athleticism are at the root of the holiday, a festival and many celebratory traditions that don’t necessarily make you break sweat grew up around the games. To start: what would a harvest festival be without some celebration of said harvest? Records speak of a ceremonial cutting of the first corn and first fruits of the harvest season as one of the most pervasive customs across the country. While the first of the harvest was offered to the communal bonfire (remember—fire festival!) as a sacrifice to the gods, husks of corn, wheat, or barley were used to create corn dollies—though these weren’t really just dolls! The corn maidens were carefully crafted with least blemished sheaves so they would last the winter, supposedly protecting the household. Some stories even report that once the long winter has passed, the corn dolly would be returned to her place in the earth to bless the new agricultural year. As for fruit: bilberries (we’d call them blueberries) are such a popular Lughnasa treat that the holiday is sometimes referred to as “Bilberry Sunday!” It was believed that the more blueberries there were, the better the following harvest.
Blueberry pie shared the table with all sorts of treats, though in a special place of honor was usually a sacrificed bull (first meat given to the gods, of course) that would feed the whole community. The feasting was often paired with a ritual dance-play that tells the story of Lugh, who as a sun-god helps determine the quality of each year’s harvest, honoring his work for the betterment of mankind, fitting for a poet-warrior. Like other fire festivals, the pagan Irish viewed this time of year as a struggle between gods: Lugh, who wants to distribute the harvest to his people, and Crom Dubh (meaning “dark, crooked one,” the holiday is even sometimes called “Crom Dugh Sunday”) an ancient god figure who wants to hoard the goods for himself. Sometimes the harvest is represented by a female figure named Eithne (Lugh’s mother)—most likely the origin of the corn maidens! Don’t worry—Lugh always wins. These large gatherings also helped spread the prevalence of the tradition of matchmaking on Lughnasa, (remember our Fun Fact about Teltown Marriages? that’s where the first Lughnasa celebration was held, in Co. Meath) but, that was common for any Irish festival as it brought together farming communities whose large tracts of land often kept them secluded from the larger community.
But the traditions don’t end there: as the years went on and Christianity spread across the pagan communities, it became common for the Irish to celebrate with small pilgrimages. Till this day, people take to the hills and mountains for hikes in honor of the season, as well as gravitating toward holy wells to pray. In particular, penitents flock to Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo, said to be the site of Saint Patrick’s 40 day fasting on the same mountain in 441 A.D.—a mass is even held there each year, with thousands of pilgrims in attendance. Holy wells dot the Irish countryside and are still a popular destination on any of the fire festival turned Christian tradition days. The wells are often decorated in garlands of late-summer greenery and pieces of the harvest (another use for corn husks!) These traditions have given Lughnasa yet more names: “Garland Sunday” or “Reek Sunday” (reek, by the way, means “high hill” in Ireland.)
However you feel like celebrating summer winding down—blueberry tarts, creepy dolls, a big meal, setting up your friend with that nice, single coworker of yours, hiking, prayer--Lughnasa Shona!
This post is part of a series. Read our last Irish history post, all about the spring fire festival of Beltane, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Dance in Irish Mythology, Part 3
The Crane Dance
Like any founding mythology of a nation, the Irish mythos is littered with heroes and their glorious deeds—but not many of those stories involve dance. One major exception is the god-hero Lugh (we’ll be discussing the festival in his honor next week!) But before we get into the dancing, we have to tell you a little more about his place as one of the most important heroes in the Irish mythos.
First off—it’s unclear if Lugh was a god or an actual, historical figure. On his god side, Lugh was known as one of the strongest members of the powerful Tuatha Dé Danann: the god of sun and light, an all-seeing and all-knowing deity also associated with poetry, arts, and crafts. While the Romans referred to him as the “Gaulish Mercury”—he’s more like Apollo combined with Hermes, with a dash of Hercules thrown in. His many talents are attributed to being the only surviving member of a set of triplets—he’s often depicted with three faces to represent how he has the power of three (an important number in most mythologies and religions.) On the historical side, Lugh is associated with being not just a mighty warrior, but a skilled one, as well as a symbol of rightful kingship—meaning peace, prosperity, law and order, and oaths and truth. It’s a lot of for one man (or god) to carry!
There are many stories we could tell about Lugh (and probably will in future posts!), but the one that concerns us today is a rite Lugh was recorded performing before he led his men into a fight with the Fomorians (a monstrous, supernatural race from the sea.) While he heats the warriors’ blood with a rhythmic, rousing speech, he…dances. Specifically, he hops to the beat of his chant in a circle on one foot, with one eye closed—and bizarre as this seems out of context, there is an explanation! This is one of the only mentions in Irish mythology of a specific dance being performed by a god, and fitting with his status as a divinity, research shows that he was performing an ancient, Druidic magic called corrghuineacht aka “the crane dance.”
The position Lugh assumes is known as glám dícenn (“satire which destroys,” fitting for this poet-warrior,) and does more than mimic a crane standing in water. Lifting one foot from the ground is meant to place the dancer between worlds, while only one eye is open to block this world and see into the Otherworld. Traveling in a sunwise circle for prayer, blessing, and curses (Lugh, in this instance, is blessing the fighters,) was a common practice in Druidic worship, with infinity figures (circles and knots, foremost,) being the most iconic of Celtic symbols to this day. But the crane was also an important symbol in Celtic mythology: its ability to move between water, land, and air made it a symbol of shapeshifting and magic, as well as the moon to Lugh’s sun—a mirror of his prophetic powers and sacred to the triple goddesses of Irish mythology.
What does this all mean? On one level, it’s a really a beautiful way to view dance and emphasizes the deep, cultural roots of Irish dance in particular: dance in Ireland is something powerful, perhaps even magical, transformative, and of the natural world, tied to the land, the water, and the air of the isle. Lugh performing this dance is of particular significance as his rule as King marked 40 years of peace and prosperity on Irish land where the harvests were abundant and the cows productive—it associates dance with protection of the land and people, something steadfast, comforting, and elucidating in the face of the many invaders over Ireland’s long and often bloody history. Beauty in the midst of chaos—how else could you describe those flying feet paired with perfect posture?
Fun fact: there haven’t been cranes in Ireland for at least three centuries…but a nesting pair was spotted just this year! Up until medieval times, cranes were reportedly the third most common domestic pet in Ireland (after dogs and cats,) usually tamed and kept in the home, near the dinner table. (There are even claims that they were able to be trained to bow their heads in prayer!) Archaeologists also report that crane bones are the fourth most common bird bone found in Ireland, and scholars note that the birds are the second most common in place names throughout the British Isles. Industrialization led to the shrinking of their habitat and many thought the birds had moved on for good, but Irish company Bord na Móna has pivoted their purpose as peat harvesters and committed themselves to restoring the wetlands they had previously devastated. The company was proud to report the pair this past May—and while none of their eggs hatched this year, there’s high hopes for the next!
But there’s more about Lugh (and less about birds) to come…check out our post next week all about the holiday named after this multifaceted god!
This post is part of a series. Take a look at our last Irish Mythology post, all about the “King of the Faeries,” here. Also: check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Dance in Irish Mythology, Part 2
Who is the King of the Faeries?
Any Irish dancer knows what we’re talking about, and everyone else thinks we sound like we’re about to tell a bedtime story, so we’ll clue everyone in: King of the Faeries is one of Irish dance’s 38 traditional set dances. Traditional set dances are named for the music they’re set to (i.e. the trad set “Blackbird” is set to music titled “Blackbird”) and are unique from solo dances as they each have a relatively consistent set of choreography (though each school has its own, slight variation.) While dancers in the lower grades perform these trad sets at a fast-paced tempo, Champion dancers perform at a significantly slower pace to better show off their control and technique.
It’s believed that the trad set dance, “King of the Faeries” stems from a Scottish, Jacobite song titled “Bonny Charlie” (after Charles Edward Stewart, the “Rebel Prince” who attempted to reclaim his throne after his father was exiled) and also ironically made the rounds in the 1700s as “King William of Orange” and “Briton’s Glory” on English soil. Even in its original publication as a trad set in 1840 in Old Irish Folk Music and Songs did it have a different title—the long and baffling “Your Old Wig is the Love of My Heart.” By 1927 it had evolved in the more understandable title “The Lonesome Wedding,” and as late as the 1950s it was popularized in American-Irish communities as “Scollay’s Reel” after a Shetland fiddler of the same name. However, the Irish dance has long known it as “King of the Faeries” and lore evolved around the tune—it’s said to be a summoning song and that if played three times at a feis, the King will appear!
But the question remains…which faerie king will answer the call? Give it a listen here or here and let it play in the background while you read about the possibilities. We have quite a few options…let’s investigate some of the most interesting ones!
Our first contender is Finvarra (generally pronounced phonetically these days, meaning “fair-haired,”) King of the Daoine Sídhe (descedents of the god-like Tuatha Dé Danann,) and called “King of the Faeries of Connacht.” The best comparison to more familiar mythology would paint him as a Hades character—he is also considered the King of the Dead, is generous with favors to those who please him…and abducts the occasional mortal woman. We’re unsure what his beautiful Fae queen, Una/Oona, has to say about that! Their home is said to be Knockmaa in Co. Galway, and Finvarra is believed to be responsible for negotiating with the invading Milesians to save his people—though his peace treaty did force them to stay in the Otherworld, underground. This particular King of the Faeries is the reason no one wants to disturb a Fae mound in Ireland, as it’s rumored that under his leadership the Sídhe built many beautiful cities in their new home—don’t want to disturb them!
Next we have Ailill (pronounced all-yill, meaning “beauty” or “elf,”)—more of a King Consort than a king in his own right, as he was chosen by Queen Maebh (i.e. Maeve, most likely the inspiration for the bane of all ) to rule beside her because he was “a man without meanness, fear, or jealousy, a match for [her] own greatness.” (Though he had to pay his own dowry for the honor of becoming the Milesian Faerie King of Leinster, despite also having claims to the Connacht throne.) Ailill is usually depicted as an extremely tall man with a ruddy complexion and a gold diadem. The full story of the couple after they initially fell in love is one of jealousy and sadness, but you can learn more about it if you wish here.
We could also consider lubdan (pronounced as it looks, meaning “leprechaun,”) who’s probably more of your idea of a faerie than any of the others. lubdan was the Faerie King of Ulster and the “Wee Folk” (aka the Faylinn) with his Queen, Bebo, and is best known for his boastful nature and diminutive size (a common trait among the Faylinn.) His best known story was his attempt to prove his bravery and worth by stealing some of the giants’ (aka the average-sized inhabitants of Ulster) porridge. The attempt failed and to escape his captors, lubdan had to relinquish his prized possession—enchanted shoes that allowed the wearer to walk on water. Read another tale about his exploits here.
And lastly: Midhir (pronounced roughly like mi-dear, meaning “to judge or measure”)—son of Dagda, a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, though Midhir continued to live aboveground (in current day Co. Longford) after the Tuatha were defeated by the Milesians. Though Midhir is often credited as the creator of all the rivers and lakes that keep the Irish countryside so green, he’s more often referred to as a ruler than a god-like figure. He’s best known for what the Irish do best--a tragic love story that echoes Zeus and Hera’s relationship in Greek mythology. Midhir was quite the ladies’ man, though he was married to his Queen, Fúamach. There are many stories of Fuamach turning the faerie Midhir most favored—Étain—in to various creatures (usually something that flies, as Midhir is associated with birds) to punish her husband.
Kingship might not generally be a democracy by definition, but we’re American over here…who’s got your vote? Let us know in the comments!
This post is part of a series. Read our last folklore post, a general overview of the Fae's love of dance, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Dance in Irish Mythology, Part 1
Faeries Love to Dance
Irish dance is unique from other popular dance styles—jazz, tap, modern—not just in technique, but in its deep-rooted ties to ancient Irish culture even as this artistic sport evolves into the present day. Learning and performing Irish dance isn’t limited to the Irish, but each step that’s taught stems from a place before Ireland’s written history, times full of magic and heroes and monsters that we can only call mythologic. While there’s not precisely proof of faeries (but don’t tell the Irish that--many still at least passively believe in the Sídhe, pronounced shee) and the people who lived beside them, one part of the stories is clear: faeries love to dance. (Want a quick overview of some of the basics of Irish mythology? Check out our post about the Tuatha Dé Danann, the ancient Irish gods, here.)
Any dancers knows that while dance is hard work and constant practice, there are moments where dancing can make you feel as if you’ve been transported to another world. Nowhere is this clearer than in Irish mythology, where tales of beautiful, unearthly music and dance partners so enchanting one can’t help but keep dancing, abound. As Greek mythology has the pomegranate seeds (and almost every known mythology has a correlation—Japanese, Norse, even Christianity) that trap Persephone in the Underworld, Irish mythology has dance. The sense of timelessness, peace, and joy we feel when we dance evokes the feeling the ancient Irish associated with the perfection of Tír na nÓg (the “Land of Youth” or the “Otherworld”)—a place where time is frozen and no one grows old. To dance with the Fae in their underground realm is dangerous game in Ireland—you may emerge unscathed, but you may emerge days, weeks, years later…or not at all. Time is a tricky thing in the Otherworld, after all!
But, dancing for the Sídhe is more than a deception—it’s their most beloved activity! Yeats, world renown poet perhaps less known for his extensive work recording and examining Irish mythology, features dance heavily in his poems that focus on the legends of the Fae and all the associated creatures. For example, Leprechauns (read a fuller description of these mischievous troublemakers here) are typically excellent musicians and cobblers, with Yeats explaining: “Because of their love of dancing, they (the Fae) will always need shoes.” It was thought that a good dancer or musician was favored by the Fae with their blessing, but Yeats’s take uses dance and tales of the Sídhe as an exploration of idealistic, national pride as the world was changing around him. The constancy of national identity and tradition the Irish have fought long and hard to protect (dance included) exists perpetually and perfectly in the Land of Youth, no matter what skirmishes may be being fought above ground.
But this is all fairytales and stories, right? Well, most stories we tell children—to comfort or warn them—do have a root in reality somewhere. The concept of dance as an inseparable part of Irish mythology and culture may be due to the importance of ritualistic movement in Druidic times. Historians agree that pagan priests most likely practiced a ceremonial dance of sorts called cor deiseal (pronounced kor dy-ash-al,) from the Irish deis for “right hand” and deas for “South.” As the Druids were sun-worshippers (learn more here!), these dances were performed in complicated clockwise patterns to follow the sun’s path. These rites are considered by many to be the earliest form of Irish dance, and it’s no wonder the storytellers of Irish mythology picked up on these culturally important ceremonies and wove them in to their own tales.
With the first feiseanna in Ireland believed to be a literally three millennia ago at Tara—a site known for its ancient ruins that align with the sun on Samhain, featured in many an Irish legend—it’s clear that dance has been inextricably linked with Ireland’s culture and beliefs since day one. Even modern Ireland isn’t empty of this more ritualized form of Irish dance today! Visit any holy sites or wells in Ireland (popular on festival days like Beltane or Lughnasa, and many other religious holidays, both pagan and Christian) and you may see regular citizens walking clockwise around the site as they tie clooties to trees. Paganism has also seen a resurgence in Ireland in recent days, with huge festivals being thrown on ancient, holy sites that include music, dance, and celebrations so raucous one wonders if they’ll bring the Sídhe from the Otherworld to join in. How could they resist?
Tune in next week where we continue to explore the links between Irish mythology and dance by asking one, very important question: who exactly is the king of the faeries?
This post is part of a series. Read our last mythology post, all about Springtime Old Wives’ Tales, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Read our last ten fun facts here.
1. Ireland is home to the longest running television “chat” (not “talk” in Ireland!) show in history--The Late Late Show began in 1961 and has continued on for 59 years! The show resembles The Tonight Show or any of the late night interview shows we’re used to—except for the annual The Late Late Toy Show. Once a year the show gets into the Christmas spirit and “…transforms the usually serious chat show into a wonderland of bright colours, pantomime-esque acts, excited children and an even more excited audience of adults in Christmas Jumpers.”
2. The word boycott was coined in Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo when Irish tenants took Charles Stewart Parnell’s lead. Parnell was an Irish Nationalist politician in the 1880s who popularized this form of protest (i.e. isolating a person or country as punishment or to force a specific action) during the Irish Land Wars. Ballinrobe tenants (successfully) ostracized a British estate manager named Charles Cunningham Boycott, and the name stuck!
3. For many years, Teltown in Co. Meath was best known the version of the ancient tradition of “handfasting” that became popular there. A “Teltown Marriage” refers to the custom that on St. Bridget’s Day a couple could wed simply by walking towards each other. They could also choose to divorce by walking away from each other on the same day, a year later. (Read more about handfasting in our Valentine’s post here.)
4. Rhianna is of Irish heritage! The singer’s full name is Robyn Rhianna Fenty, and her father, Ronald Fenty, is descended from Irish indentured servants who were brought to the island of Barbados in the 1600s as cheap labor on the British-colonized sugar plantations. The history of the Irish indentured servant is a complicated one—you can read more about multimedia artist Marianne Keating’s research into the practice in Jamaica and Barbados here.
5. Tuckey’s Cork Remembrancer, a historical record of the area, claims a man died in the town of Ovens in the early 1800s at 127 years old! The text describes him as perfectly healthy and surrounded by 7 generations of his descendants. (For comparison: the oldest verified person in human history was a French woman named Jeanne Calment. She passed on at the age of 122 years and 164 days old in 1997. Let me do that math for you: that means she was born in 1875!)
6. You know Irish Gaelic is hard to pronounce, but try out this town name: Muckanaghederdauhaulia. Or, in Irish Gaelic: “Muiceanach idir Dhá Sháile.” No? In all fairness, this is the longest town name in Ireland (located in Co. Galway,) and even natives find it difficult. It translates to: “ridge shaped like a pig’s back between two expanses of briny water.” Which is…a mouthful too!
7. Ireland’s beautiful Cliffs of Moher in Co. Clare have starred in some of your favorite movies, including: The Princess Bride, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Leap Year, Far and Away, and Snow White and the Huntsman (to name a few—along with innumerable TV shows and even music videos!)
8. In the 1980s, there was a legal battle been Germany and Ireland over the use of the symbol of the shamrock (a three-leafed clover—never four!) Germany began using a blue shamrock (a kleebatt) as a trademark on German meat and dairy products and eventually sued Ireland over the country’s use of the symbol (albeit, usually in green.) Ireland lost the first case, but it eventually moved on to the German Supreme Court which ruled in favor of Ireland!
9. Due to higher than average birthrates over the last 50 years (at least compared with the EU,) Ireland has one of the statistically youngest populations in the world (and thus, one of the healthiest—especially coupled with the highest rate of increase of life expectancy anywhere in Europe.) 21% of the population is reportedly under 15!
10. The Céide Fields in Co. Mayo are considered the oldest and most extensive Stone Age site ever found! The site has the oldest known field systems in the world at nearly 6,000 years old and Europe’s largest stone enclosure—the wall encloses 5 square miles and hundreds of Stone Age farms. There’s even more to uncover, but the boggy land has made excavation slow and difficult.
This post is part of a series. Read our last batch of fun facts here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
The Look, Part 4: Male Costuming
Fashion, in or out of the dance world, has long been a female-dominated realm. However, while that means male Irish dancers have had significantly less changes over the years, they haven’t completely escaped the glamification of their costumes! Today we’ll take a look at that evolution and how our current expectation for male Irish dance costuming came to be.
While we know from our first installment (catch up here) that most Irish dancers started by dancing in their regular clothes, men’s costuming actually appears to predate women’s. Dance masters were typically male, and as they often dressed flamboyantly to help drive business, they were known by their fancy hats, swallowtail coats, breeches, white stockings/socks, and shiny, silver-buckled shoes. Due to British rules and restrictions (the impact of which was felt for 100s for years,) most male dancers simply wore their “Sunday Best” as their female counterparts did—typically a shirt and tie with breeches tucked into knee socks, a cummerbund around the waist. Similarly to female trends, as time passed there was a focus on traditional Irish fabrics and designs. For instance, in 1904, at the first Glens Feis in Glenarriff, Co. Antrim, the first prize for one of the competitions was: “a suit of Irish Homespun, presented by Hamilton and Co. Portrush, Co. Antrim.”
While kilts as a male clothing item is associated in our modern minds with Scotland, Irish dance has always been about the feet, so kilts became a typical item dancers (male and female!) wore for many years (largely from the 1910s to the 1960s.) Pipers first wore them, but as Irish dance and music are completely intertwined, the dancers eventually adopted the look at well. (If you check our previous post about Irish dance shoes, you’ll find Ireland and Scotland are intertwined in many aspects of their dance traditions!) Kilts were typically worn with a short coat and brat/cape (the male version a bit shorter and usually attached to the front of the coat with a Celtic design brooch—they’re a holdover from times of rebellion,) along with shirt, tie, and knee socks.
These days, boys still have the option to wear a kilt, but since premiere of Riverdance in 1994, pants have gradually become the norm. Male dancers typically wear long (black) pants (though very young dancers sometimes perform in short pants,) a shirt, and often a vest and tie. For many years, it was a trend for male dancers to emulate the sparkling, bright dresses of the female solo dancers through their vests and ties. However, in recent times there’s been a movement toward more sleek, sophisticated looks rather than full on sparkle all the time!
And that’s a wrap on our series all about the whys and hows of Irish dance’s iconic look came to be! One of the most exciting things about being part of the Irish dance community is just that—it’s a community that is growing and evolving, changing as its influence spreads across the globe. You don’t have to be Irish to do Irish dance, but by entering the world of Irish dance you’re becoming a part of a living tradition that both honors the past while moving forward into the future. Through wigs, kilts, and beyond!
This post is part of a series. Take a look at our last “Origins of Irish Dance” post, all about modern female costuming, here. Also: check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
The Look, Part 3: Modern Female Costuming
Last week, we were able to make it into the 20th century, but this week we’re breaching the 21st with our discussion of Irish dance female costuming in the modern age! (Catch up on the history here and here.) For our purposes, the modern age of Irish dance is also the competitive age (though the tradition of feiseanna is, of course, a much, much older one!), starting with the establishment of the Irish Dance World Championships in 1970.
The formation of this competition forced more rules and regulations into being regarding costuming and gathered together dancers from all over the world in one place—meaning trends were also able to take off. Even in the 1960s, a certain look had been established within Ireland and the trends of bouncy, curled hair (a long-ago Sunday church staple,) brightly colored dresses, and (eventually) deeply tanned legs (in a largely pale-skinned country) spread quickly.
But it wasn’t until the 90s that the current “look” of Irish dance really took off. Riverdance’s highly theatrical and flashy style not only brought Irish dance to the world’s attention, it also altered the Irish dance world. While Riverdance (the influence of which we’ll discuss more fully in another installment) actually didn’t use traditional Irish dance looks in the show, but rather took a more multi-cultural approach, the showmanship had its effects. Like much in the 90s, dresses got brighter and more sparkly, the wigs got bigger, and theatricality and pageantry became a part of the performance—as the sport grew in popularity, so did dancers’ needs to stand out among the competition.
It would be hard to discuss modern, female costuming in Irish dance without bringing up its controversies. The use of fake tan—which is perhaps falling out of favor, but had been a staple of the competitive Irish dance circuit and Irish culture for decades—and makeup, as well as the often extraordinary cost of solo dresses and wigs has come under fire in recent years. Films and documentaries about other forms of dance, such as Cuties (which U.S. Netflix had to remove after an uproar from their audience,) have increased this outcry, while technology’s rapid advancements in the last two decades have left parents fearful their children aren’t given the chance to be children anymore.
However, the first thing to note is this: “the look” of an Irish dancer isn’t compulsory, for the most part. Rules are even in place to discourage younger dancers from growing up too quickly--makeup isn’t allowed by the CLRG on dancers 10 or younger. Chances are your female dancer may be getting interested in makeup by 11 on their own—but even then, the heavy makeup used for competitions is part of the costume, necessary for judges to see a dancer’s face clearly under the hot performance lights, and part of all forms of performance for both genders as far back as records go. As far as fake tan goes, there’s no real reason for its prevalence beyond perhaps helping a dancer stand out and maybe look stronger, but natural looks have been have been coming back into fashion (and may go out in favor again—that’s what fads do!)
The main complaint from parents about many other forms of dance—oversexualization in dance moves—is one Irish dance steers clear away from. Irish dance’s steps may not be exactly what the Druids were doing around their bonfires, but they stem from quite literally ancient traditions and a deeply rooted and hard-won culture. There’s a gravity to Irish dance’s tradition and history that Irish dance’s costuming chooses to celebrate rather than cover up with the bright colors and many rhinestones, the tiara and bejeweled clips for capes and entry numbers (though there is a move to return to Celtic designs, like the more classic Tara brooch.)
And while costuming throughout the dance world is also often (perhaps sometimes fairly) criticized, Irish dance’s costumes don’t fall under that category. Though the skirts may be short to better show the dancer’s only moving body parts, they’re generally very heavy fabrics, with long sleeves and often required to cover the collarbones, as well. Their expense is undeniable—though with the advent of computerized embroidery at home (among other innovations) and the continued increase of interest in the sport is helping to drive solo dress prices down—but they still cling to the roots of tradition with Celtic designs and influences. Irish dance, while loved worldwide, is still a somewhat insular community. However, it’s still a community! That means not every dress has to be brand new--the secondhand Irish dance solo dress market is a buzzing one!
Last question I know is burning the tip of your tongue: why the wigs? The answer is simple: it’s easier and more restful than sleeping in rollers! Curled hair was synonymous with “dressed up” in Ireland for many years, and the bouncy curls as part of a dancer’s look has a far longer tradition than anything else they're wearing! Eventually, dancers simply got sick of being uncomfortable the night before a big competition, and switched over the wigs instead—which allowed for bigger and bigger hair. While styles have transitioned into lighter, curled buns and shorter, less heavy, curled wigs, it’s again part of the theatrical look and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon!
Don’t worry, boys, we didn’t forget about you! Tune in next week for the last part of our Irish dance costuming series: all about the evolution of the male dancer’s costumes throughout the ages.
This post is part of a series. Take a look at our last “Origins of Irish Dance” post, all about both male and female hard and soft shoes, here. Also: check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Welcome back to our series all about the evolution of Irish dance costuming! While we’ll cover the sparkly dresses Irish dance is known for next week, this week is all about the most important aspect of any Irish dancer’s performance: the feet! (Or, more specifically, the shoes!)
Before the mainstream introduction of ghillies (Irish dance lace-up soft shoes) in the 1920s, most woman danced barefoot or in whatever shoes they normally wore. But the precursor to modern ghillies is much, much older than that! Inhabitants of the Aran Islands in Co. Galway have always been master craftsman, and are the original inventors of the first version of the ghillies we know today. For thousands of years, Aran Islanders made and wore shoes made of a single piece of untanned leather, which was then gathered around the toes and cinched close to the foot with laces crossed up the top of the shoes (see image—looks familiar, doesn’t it?)
These shoes were coined “pampooties” sometime in the 16th century (though Irish oral history means it’s unclear if the term was new or not,) and they were known for their flexibility. While untanned leather would generally stiffen up on its own, the fishing villages on the island and Ireland’s generally damp climate allowed the shoes to stay flexible. However, without proper treatments to preserve the leather, pampooties were only usable for about a month before the shoe simply rotted away.
It’s unclear how pampooties became the more modern, treated version of ghillies (it’s also the origin of Scottish Highland dance shoes, also known as ghillies, but with some small differences,) but today the shoes are made of supple, black kid leather made to mold to the dancer’s foot over time. The laces are much longer, with loops of leather to lace all the way up the top of the foot, around the arch, and then tied around the ankle. In modern Irish dance, only female dancers wear the shoes we know as ghillies, while men’s soft shoes have a construction more similar to modern jazz shoes—but with a special addition! Men’s soft shoes are called reel shoes include a raised heel with “clicks”—fiberglass heels the dancers are able to utilize to create precise sounds (which means different choreography than female soft shoes dances!)
Conversely, the earliest version of hard shoes (otherwise known as heavy shoes or jig shoes) were, well, regular shoes! Dancers wore their everyday boots and brogues to dance for years, but they were always adding modifications to increase the volume of their steps. Irish dance has always been inextricably tied to music and the quick rhythm of the steps is what makes it unique—so making the shoes louder when they strike the floor has always been desirable. Originally, this effect was achieved by hammering tons of nails into the sole of the shoe, and making hardened, raised heels by stacking many layers of stiff leather together. As I’m sure you can guess, the shoes were indeed loud, but also incredibly heavy!
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the world of Irish dance embraced new methods for creating hard shoes. Even though fiberglass was invented in early 1930s, it took most of a century for Irish dace shoe makers to embrace it and figure out how to use it to create a lighter, more durable shoe. This invention allowed Irish dance to continue to progress into the 21st century, as the lightness of the shoe allowed for leaps and bounds (pun intended) in the types of choreography dancers are able to perform! Without all those nails and stiff leather weighing them down, Irish dance was able to take its place on the world stage and move from cultural dance form to the highly athletic and artistic sport it is today!
Next week we’ll continue on into the 21st century and learn about how the image of an Irish dancer we know today came into being from these origins!
This post is part of a series. Take a look at our last "Origins of Irish Dance" post, all about the history of female costuming, here. Also: check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
The Look, Part 1: Female Costuming History
For many people, all they know of Irish dance is one thing: what a female, competitive soloist looks like. Big, curled hair, lots of makeup, maybe some fake tan on the legs, and, above all: a short, elaborate, bedazzled dress like nothing else in the dance world (or outside of it!) Like anything that’s such a consistent part of our cultural consciousness, we don’t necessarily think to ask the question: why? Why and how did the look we know today for Irish dancers come to be?
With Ireland’s tradition of oral history, we don’t know quite how far back the tradition of Irish culture festivals (singular: feis (fesh) or plural: feiseanna) truly goes, but once the records start in the late 19th century, one thing is clear: there were no rhinestones involved. Feiseanna were a celebration of Irish culture, and Irish dancers didn’t have a particular look except that everyone always came in their Sunday best—generally ankle-length dresses, often white, lace-up boots, and with bouncy, curled hair to look their best—sometimes fashioning flowers or crosses made of ribbon to add decoration. However, the dancers eventually wanted their costumes to reflect their culture too!
Lasting from about 1885 until the 1930s, the Celtic Revival spread Irish culture not just across Ireland, but internationally, particularly in the production of textiles and ornamental brooches with designs dating back to the 1500s. During this time period, Irish dancers favored handmade, crocheted lace, handcrafted embroidered items in Celtic patterns, as well as pins with elaborate Celtic knots and scrolls that we still see on dancers today (often holding their competitor’s number!)
In the 1930s, with the forming of the CLRG (the main governing body of Irish dance to this day,) we started solidifying the concept of “costuming” within the Irish dance world. 8th century designs began to be favored, with reproductions of early Irish dress a precursor of what’s still Irish dance costume today, including a long tunic with dramatic sleeves (a leine) and a cape (a brat,) as well as handmade lace collars and cuffs. These items were often wrought of handwoven tweed and other handmade fabrics and designs that took inspiration from the famed Book of Kells and ancient, stone Celtic crosses and monuments. Skirts also began to creep up to the knee during this time period to better allow the dancers’ feet to be seen.
With the rise of Irish dance schools across Ireland and America (among other countries) in the 1940s, these costumes began to split the difference between historic and modern, transforming into something representative of the school and the Irish tradition behind the art. Touring companies of Irish dancers drew crowds in American cities who were nostalgic for their homes, as the costuming reminded them of historic peasant dress or Celtic artwork. Schools began to dress their dancers in matching school costumes and colors, favoring Kelly green, white, and gold most heavily. Until the modern era, red was considered too English and most schools didn’t utilize it (making SRL’s colors all the more distinctive now!)
Tune in next week for a look at the evolution of most important part of any Irish dancer’s look: the shoes!
This post is part of a series. Take a look at our last "Origins of Irish Dance" post, all about levels and competitions, here. Also: check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Springtime Old Wives’ Tales
We don’t know about you, but we think there’s truly something magical about Ireland. Because of its long-told histories and mythologies, because of its pastoral appearance…and maybe a little bit because the people of Ireland have a tendency to air on the side of caution when it comes it all things faerie and magic (truly—it often disturbs public works projects throughout the country.) And as ancient Ireland-dwellers were agrarian communities whose lives and livelihood depended on the changing of the seasons, it makes sense that springtime was considered an especially magical time of year with plenty of folklore to go along with it. In that spirit of belief and renewal (we could all use renewal after this year!), we’ve gathered together some of Ireland’s springtime old wives’ tales for you to peruse. Now, we’re not saying these are true, but we are saying a place as old as Ireland (inhabited for 10,000 years!) might (maybe…) know what they’re talking about…
Note: Every region in Ireland has its own customs, folk tales, and even accents—we’ve noted claimed origins when we were able to!
As we mentioned above, the Irish are still loath to disturb “fairy forts” (earthen mounds and ancient ring forts throughout Ireland believed to be entrances to fairy dwellings) and the worst time to disturb them is around Samhain in October or Beltane in May, when the veil between worlds is at its thinnest. Best to leave an offering there instead or you may be facing the wrath of the Aos Sí.
In Co. Mayo, people would gather a variety of herbs and flowers to create a mashed poultice they called Bealtanach—this substance was then rubbed on their cows’ udders and believed to increase springtime’s production of butter and milk (and since we don’t have a clear record of what herbs and flowers and many do have medicinal properties, this one could be true!)
On May Eve, clean your home’s threshold, sprinkle ashes over it, and wait for the first footprint to disturb the dust. A footprint inward means a marriage in the household this year, but outward supposedly means to expect disaster. (We’re leaving this one alone. Surprised by disaster works just fine.)
Many of the May customs involve finding love, including this one from Co. Limerick: sprinkle a plate with flour at sunset and you’ll see your true love’s name. (Other sources say you need a snail as well, to spell it out.)
Ever wonder why the springtime favorite, Irish soda bread, has a cross scored into it? Sure, it allows for more even cooking—but it also lets the devil out. (If the devil was steam this would definitely be true.)
May flowers (yellow is best, but any and all that are out!) strewn across and around all thresholds (including pasture gates and sometimes even on roofs) help keep away not only the playful faeries known to be closer than ever on Beltane, but also general ill-luck, any evil spirits, and disease. This was prevalent everywhere, but especially Co. Ulster!
Lighting your May bush before you head out to the communal bonfire is meant to keep thunder and lightning away.
A face washed in fresh dew on the morning of May Day is supposed to be free of sunburn all summer (and some women kept a supply for their beauty routine or its supposed curative properties!)
According to lore it’s bad luck to: dust or sweep during May, get married during May, or to not hear the cuckoo calling during the month. Additionally, on May 1st one should not: sail, dig, whitewash your home, or bathe…all will cause you ill luck for the whole year!
And while fire festivals are all generally times of community and togetherness in Ireland, no one would give away butter, milk, or salt on May Day, as it was thought to set the precedent for your prosperity for the year. You don’t want all your food staples for the year walking out the door!
The Beltany Stone Circle, located just south of Raphoe in Co. Donegal, is Bronze Age site of 65 standing stones with the unique feature of a cairn at the center (not present in most stone circles on the British Isles.) Beltany’s only decorated stone is aligned with the sun on Beltane, explaining its name and possible ritual purposes. And while there’s a ton of fascinating history and speculation about the site, today we’re interested in the lore: it’s whispered in Raphoe that each of the stones was once a human, punished for dancing on the Sabbath. The one stone a little ways off? The musician who was playing for them, of course!
This post is part of a series. Read our last post, all about one of Ireland’s most famous myths, Leprechauns, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram
Check out our last ten fun facts here.
1. The first, national language of Ireland is, well, Irish (or, in its own language: Gaeilge.) It’s used on all official government documents and you’d be all to see it on public transport, road signs, and all public buildings. (And it’s not “Gaelic”—that’s what they speak in Scotland! “Irish Gaelic” refers to Ireland’s national language.)
2. While Irish government sticks close to its roots, the reality is that only an estimated 2% of people in Ireland speak Irish Gaelic regularly and the majority of Irish people claim English as their first language. Gaeilge is part of the national curriculum…but how much of that high school French do you remember?
3. In the same vein, more people regularly speak Polish in Ireland than Irish Gaelic. Polish people account for the largest non-Irish group within Ireland, making up approximately 2.5% of the population!
4. The ball that drops each year in Times Square on New Years Eve is Irish in origin! (It’s made of famously beautiful and coveted Waterford crystal from, you guessed it, Waterford—a county in the southeast of Ireland.)
5. In Irish Gaelic, there’s no words for yes or no. Well, at least not directly translated. Some common Gaeilge phrases used instead include: tuigim (“I understand”) and níor mhaith liom (“I wouldn’t like.”) More or less, the Irish always need to use more words to get the point across!
6. An Irishman is responsible for answering every kid’s favorite question: “Why is the sky blue?” A scientist named John Tyndall made the discovery in the 1860s (and why the sky turns red at sunset!) (Still curious yourself? This article breaks it down better than we can!)
7. While Americans love to go on and on about the beauty of Central Park in New York City (which is still true—protect our green spaces!), Phoenix Park in Dublin is twice the size! (P.S. It’s not Phoenix like the mythical bird, but the Irish Gaelic fionn uisce or “clear water” is also the size of all the parks in London put together!)
8. Ever wondered why so many Irish surnames include Mac/Mc or O’? Mac just means “son of,” while “O” means “grandson of.”
9. The oldest yacht club in the world is the Royal Cork Yacht Club in Knocknagore, Co. Cork. It’s been in operation since 1720 and sits on second biggest natural harbor in the world (Cork Harbor—only beat by Sydney Harbor in Australia!
10. If you make it to 100-years-old in Ireland, you receive a “Centenarian Bounty”: €2,450 and a letter from the President. Every subsequent year you receive another letter and a commemorative coin! This tradition started in 1940 with Irish President Douglas Hyde. (You do need to apply to receive it, though. Click the above link for an application for your Irish grandparents!)
This post is part of a series, read Volume IV here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Springtime Traditions, Part 4
Happy May Day! (Well, two days late.) As Americans, we’ve all heard about May Day celebrations, but chances are all the words conjure for you are a vague image of girls dancing around a pole with ribbons. Or maybe the words just alarm you (though, fun fact: mayday as a distress call is actually just a corruption of the French m’aider which means, unsurprisingly: help me.) However, if you’re not new to the blog, you won’t be surprised to hear that in Ireland, May 1st has a long history of celebration—all the way back to its druidic, pagan past.
Beltane (pronounced bel-tein) is one of the four major fire festivals in Gaelic, pagan culture and has been observed from April 30th into May 1st for as long as there have been people in Ireland. The name means “bright fire” or, alternatively, “fires of bel” for the Celtic sun god, Belenus, as this bright twin of Samhain (which marks the beginning of winter) was meant to mark the beginning of summer on the Emerald Isle. Though there’s plenty of healthy debate about Belenus’s exact role in ancient, Irish worship, most sources see him as a Gaelic equivalent to Apollo, especially as he’s often depicted with similar accouterment: a chariot being driven across the sky, a corona of light, and the sun. However, Belenus had additional associations that fit a springtime god well: healing and medicine (to this day, shrines to Belenus often include therapeutic and sacred springs,) fertility and sexuality, and even livestock and crops.
Like all the major fire festivals (check out our posts about Samhain and Imbolc—and we’ll see you this summer for Lúnasa) in Gaelic culture, Beltane was a time when the community came together at a shared bonfire to honor Belenus and relight their own hearths from the blaze—but Beltane is notable for its tradition of having two bonfires. As the ancient Irish were a largely agrarian people who were early cultivators of livestock, these bonfires did more than bring everyone together, but were believed to honor the return of the sun and thus, a return of life after a long, hard, hungry winter. People would drive their cattle between the two bonfires to let the smoke wash over the animals to bless them, protect them from disease, and encourage fertility, before driving them out to pasture for the warmer months. The sacred smoke was also thought to bless those in attendance and sometimes, the brave would leap over the fires in an attempt to garner even better luck.
Much like Samhain, Beltane was also believed to be a time where our world and the Otherworld (in Gaelic: Tír na nÓg aka the faerie world,) were closest. Also much like Samhain or Yule, decorations were placed in and around the home to ward off trickster faeries (who might be looking to steal milk and butter from the livestock they just went to such careful trouble to protect—people left the faeries their own milk and honey outside instead!) But what does one decorate with in May? Why, May flowers, of course! Yellow flowers such as buttercups, primroses, and marigolds were especially coveted, and people supplemented their floral decorations with greenery—in some regions whole boughs or bushes that were additionally decorated with strips of colorful cloth! These decorations were a multifaceted part of the day: they were celebratory of the warmth and sun in the months to come, but also thought of as protection—everyone knows the fey love beauty can’t resist stopping to smell a pretty flower!
Like all other pagan spring celebrations, Beltane was also holiday focused on fertility and new life. Not only were homes decorated with flowers and greenery, in some regions flower crowns or posies were popular accessories for unmarried or newly married women (and even placed on the cattle people were hoping to breed and protect.) While the iconic Maypole was a later, English addition to the festivities (and were most popular in heavily English-influenced areas,) it gained popularity over time and became a part of the communal festivities in many areas. The dance around the Maypole has long been considered by historians to be a remanent of a fertility ritual, and many towns would then crown a May Queen from the dancers to lead a procession—a tradition thought to be Roman in origin, originally in worship of the spring goddess, Flora.
While most of us probably didn’t have access to a Maypole (or any cattle to bless) this year, we can certainly get behind celebrating spring after this long, (isolated) winter! While these types of agrarian celebrations seem a truly ancient part of our past some days, humans will always be excited to see the sun after the coldest months of the year. So, as you go about your modern life this early May, maybe pick some daffodils and leave some milk and honey out for the faeries—you know, just in case.
This post is part of a series. Read about the tradition of Mothering Sunday in our last installment here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Springtime Traditions, Part 3
If you have any friends from Ireland on social media, you may have noticed something odd over the years: they wish their mom a Happy Mother’s Day over a month before you’ve even started thinking about it! In the United States, Mother’s Day (just a reminder: it’s May 9th this year) is the first Sunday in May and has been a national holiday since 1914. The US creator, Anna Jarvis, argued that a holiday was needed to highlight women’s achievements, particularly all the sacrifices mothers make for their children. (Though, she would later go on to criticize the commercialization of the holiday, upset over what she saw as a private time of spiritual reflection becoming another marketing opportunity.)
But where did Anna get this idea? While springtime celebrations of mothers and motherhood have been occurring in a variety of forms as long as humans have existed (one could even count Imbolc as one of these early traditions,) the origin is more closely linked to the early-Christian tradition of “Mothering Sunday.” Celebrated on the fourth Sunday during Lent (which moves just as Easter does,) the first incarnation of the holiday only included moms as a secondary aspect of the celebrations.
Originally, Mothering Sunday was created to bring families together spiritually during the Lenten season. It was common in the Middle Ages for children to not reside at home, but rather go out to work as servants or farmhands. Mothering Sunday was one of the few times the families would be reunited, as everyone was let off of work to return home to their mother churches to make donations. It’s said that the children would pick the early spring flowers for their mothers on their way home, and voila! A day celebrating not only their mother church, but actual mothers, eventually became the norm! While this technically isn’t a national holiday in Ireland, the secular version experienced a resurgence after WWII, rolling off the swell of support the holiday had by Irish immigrants in America.
One of the most long-lasting traditions in Ireland is that of food on Mother’s Day. While Americans love a big breakfast in bed or a brunch, the Irish are particularly fond of a Simnel Cake. Simnel Cakes are a kind of spring fruitcake, or even an extra-sweet and denser version of Ireland’s favorite springtime treat: hot cross buns! While Simnel Cakes can have many variety and regional variations, one ingredient links them all together: marzipan. A treat more popular in Europe than the US, marzipan is a combination of almond flour, powdered sugar, and egg white that becomes a moldable paste that’s usually layered within the cake, as well as on top. While Simnel Cakes (and their marzipan) may be flavored with anything that sounds appetizing, it’s the 11 marzipan balls on the top of the cake (to represent the 11 loyal disciples) that make it “Simnel.”
This year, Ireland celebrated Mothering Sunday on March 14th—but what did it looks like? Turns out modern Irish Mother’s Day looks a lot like modern American Mother’s Day: flowers and gifts and homemade cards for mom, making her a meal (or a Simnel Cake) or bringing her to her favorite restaurant, maybe a trip to the park or the movies or church, and all kids and dads (and pets!) on their best behavior, taking over all of the chores mom usually completes. Most moms (or, at least if you ask mine,) are more interested in the appreciation (and hopefully break from their never-ending responsibilities!) than the commercial part. I’m sure Anna Jarvis would be happy to know this, but, still, who doesn’t like a present? We’ve gathered together a few of the most original gift guides we could find for you, just in case you’re not sure how to show a mom in your life how much you appreciate all she’s done and continues you do. Check out these suggestions:
1. Uncommon Goods Mother’s Day Gift Suggestions
2. Good Housekeeping: Unique & Heartfelt Mother’s Day Gift Guide
3. Business Insider’s Funny & Inexpensive Mother’s Day Gifts
4. Buzzfeed’s Gifts to Make Mom LOL
5. The Little Market’s Sustainable and Ethical Mother’s Day Gift Guide
So, a little early to be sure, but, Happy Mother’s Day to all our amazing SRL moms! And we mean all of you: traditional moms, adopted moms, step-moms, mother-figures, pet moms, moms we miss a little extra today, and all the grandparents and fathers and aunts and uncles who have stepped in and are amazing moms to our dancers! We appreciate you, your kids appreciate you (even if it doesn’t always seem like it,) and we hope you take a moment today (even if it’s not our Mother’s Day) to appreciate yourself and all you do!
This post is part of a series. Read all about the (confusing) history of Easter and Irish Easter traditions here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Young Adult Books, Part 1
What’s the age range for Young Adult books? Depends on who you ask. We’ve seen the range as wide as 12-25, or as narrow as 13-16. But these guesstimates and the name itself give you a good idea of what the category means beyond a term dreamed up for marketing: it’s for people whose life is in constant state of flux and confusion, trying to sort out how to grow into independence and, well…grow up. Ireland is particularly furtive ground for such stories, with its long history of political and religious turbulence, as well as a cultural tradition of prizing self-reliance and inner strength. Because what else does a YA book do if not show us—no matter our age—how we can do better for those around us, and ourselves, by showing us another perspective, another story of how someone else figured it out? Or at least started to?
Tempted to read along? You should--here’s a great article about why adults should be reading YA too!
1. The Radiant Road, Katherine Catmull
This fantasy novel tells the story of Clare Macleod, an Irish teenager who’s spent much of her life in America. When Clare and her father return to the house in Ireland where Clare was born—a home built into an emerald green hill with one wall made up of an ancient tree—Clare is swept up in a world of fairytale and romance (both the light and dark sides.) Clare’s story weaves together Celtic mythology and the contemporary ups-and-downs of being a teenager through dream-like, poetic prose and a tale of fast-moving adventure. Since YA fantasy novels tend to get a lot of flak (probably Twilight’s fault,) we often forget the true purpose of fantasy in literature: it’s a safe way for us to explore our fears, a pure way to exercise the imagination, and has the ability to help us see our own selves and own world all the more clearly for having seen it through a funhouse mirror—essentially, it can give us all a new sense of perspective.
2. The New Policeman, Kate Thompson
The first in a fantasy trilogy, Thompson’s novel tells the story of 15-year-old J.J. Liddy, a teenage boy born into a family of traditional Irish musicians in Kinvara, Ireland. With modern life leaving people less time for the pleasures of music, J.J.’s mother laments that all she wants for her birthday is more time—a wish that sets J.J. on more of an adventure than he bargained for. While many have noticed the mysterious disappearance of male protagonists in YA fantasy (and YA in general,) Thompson brings J.J. to life by interweaving his adventures in Tír na nÓg with that of his own family’s secrets and the town’s (rather hopeless) new policeman. By using music as the interconnecting theme—between worlds, times, and people—Thompson’s novel is both a comic adventure and a dive into Irish culture and mythology (Not to mention a winner of both the Guardian Children's Book Prize and the Whitbread Children's Book Award.) Quick note: this series is best for YA readers on the younger side.
3. A Swift Pure Cry, Siobhan Dowd
Winner of both the Branford Boase and the Eilís Dillon Awards in 2007 (among many other awards,) Dowd’s story is definitely one for the older range of Young Adult readers (think late teens!) Fifteen-year-old Michelle “Shell” Talent is growing up in the small Irish village of Coolbar in County Cork, trying to manage her suddenly overtly religious father and two siblings after the death of her mother. When a new priest comes to town and Shell’s family is thrust into poverty due to her father’s newfound devotion, Shell experiences her own reawakened spirituality and becomes close with altar boy Declan and his girlfriend, Bridie. Though the story may be tragic and complicated, Dowd weaves a tale that explores multiple subjects that are closely tied to the Irish experience (particularly in the 1980s, when the true story it’s loosely based on occurred): religion and pregnancy, immigration and death, and the strange complexities of growing up in a small town. Readers also highly recommend Dowd’s Bog Child (another ‘80s inspired award winner!)
4. The Unknowns, Shirley-Anne McMillan
Set in modern day Belfast (where “the Troubles” are both in the past and have never really ended,) McMillan’s novel tells the story of Tilly, a teenage girl who feels out of place wherever she goes. But when Tilly has a chance encounter with a boy who calls himself Brew, she’s catapulted into a world she didn’t know existed right under her feet—one of parties and mischief, but also support, kindness, and hope in the most unexpected places. McMillan’s books are known for their engaging plots that sweep you up and carry you along, but also the way she captures the still turbulent cityscape where many have no faith in the political system. While McMillan’s stories are unflinching and take hard looks at what it means to be different in a society still often looking for conformity, they’re also a guide for how to cut your own path and find your own dreams. Want to learn a little more about this title before you purchase? Check out this interview with the author, all about the book!
5. Circle of Friends, Maeve Binchy
Maeve Binchy’s books have been considered Irish teen classics for years—this book came out over 30 years ago, but is still highly recommended to this day. (It was even made into a movie in 1995 starring Chris O’Donnell and Minnie Driver, with appearances from Alan Cumming, Aidan Gillen, and Colin Firth.) Set in the 1950s in a fictional, rural Irish town, the story follows childhood best friends Benny and Eve as they escape their small town for University College Dublin. Upon arrival, their circle of friends expands to include students Jack and Nan, and follows all four as they try dipping their toes into the world of adulthood in this historically and distinctly Irish setting, with all its complexities, heartbreaks, and joys. Binchy drew on her own experience for the character of Benny (and the Dublin/University setting,) and it gives the book both a straightforward realism and true readability. The New York Times put it best: "There is nothing fancy about 'Circle of Friends.' There is no torrid sex, no profound philosophy. There are no stunning metaphors. There is just a wonderfully absorbing story about people worth caring about.”
This is Volume VI of a series, read about some Middle Reader book recommendations here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
*More like "Western World History" this week!
Springtime Traditions, Part 2
Bunnies Laying Eggs?
You might notice that this Easter post, while still coming early in April, is arriving a little after that anthropomorphic bunny and his (?) eggs. Be honest, now...didn’t we all think Easter would be later this year? And, well, if Easter moves around, why not a post about it? Ever wonder why that is, or, like us, have you just accepted it and googled when it is every year?
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Easter, very much a Christian holiday, doesn’t have any particular ancient, Celtic roots beyond what it’s become to many in our increasingly secular world: a celebration of spring’s return (see last week’s post for more about Imbolc—the Celtic, pagan welcoming of spring.) Even the confusing, roving nature of Easter’s date isn’t Celtic in origin. Though Easter falls on the first full moon after spring’s arrival, this is due to church decisions to try to align better with corresponding Judaic celebrations (as the Judaic calendar follows lunar cycles.) And remember: while nothing sounds more Celtic than following the world’s natural movements, the pagan Celts were sun worshippers above all else.
Then where did this mish-mash of traditions to celebrate a very Christian holiday come from? Some scholars say from what’s now Germany, and some say…they don’t know. The name “Easter” is said to have come from an ancient, pagan (but not Celtic!) Northern Anglo-Saxon goddess Ēostre (pronounced yow-str.) Ēostre’s realm of influence was incredibly similar to Ireland’s springtime goddess, Brigid: fertility, fecundity, and all things revolving around new growth and life. Ēostre’s symbols included, among others, hares (continually a symbol of fertility) and eggs (for obvious reasons,) giving rise to the somewhat confusing combination we retain on Easter to this day. Or not. This has been the accepted story for many years, but a recent research inquiry by a Library of Congress employee (among a few other skeptics) calls this into question.
According to folklorist Stephen Winick, there’s not only no actual evidence to support this version of Easter’s origins, but the worship of Ēostre as a goddess at all. The only mention of her in early written records is a singular mention in the St. Bede’s medieval tome The Reckoning of Time. After that, there’s no textual evidence of the goddess (and definitely none that links her with Easter imagery) until the Brothers Grimm in the 1800s, who even proposed that Bede’s statement about the goddess was pure conjecture and “Ostara” (the Old High German version of Ēostre) was only a reference to the season, no goddess at all. An 1874 publication by a German mythologist found the already established connection between Ēostre, hares, and eggs a completely mysterious one—but, in the end, our best guess is simply that all our Easter symbols are simply spring-like, so we celebrate with them all over the world.
While the origins of our Easter traditions are a bit fuzzy, we do know that they’re pretty similar between Ireland and America. Ireland not only has their own Easter bunny delivering small gifts to children who have kept Lent (cue all that sugar,) but the same egg hunting and painting (and rolling and racing…) traditions we know and love on this bank holiday. Since we know Ēostre probably has nothing to do with these eggs, it’s more likely that these games and art projects were a result of the happenstance of an overabundance of eggs—they’re traditionally not eaten during the Lenten season.
The rest of Ireland’s traditions, even if not your own, all make a certain springtime sense: the purchasing of new clothes for Easter mass, spring cleaning and, at one time, repainting your home, priests making rounds to bless said newly painted homes, people traveling to celebrate together after winter weather has kept them apart, and, like all good holidays, feasting (similar to the U.S. lamb and ham are the most common main dish served.) Most iconic beyond the rabbits and eggs are Ireland’s hot cross buns, a spiced, sweet bread roll commonly eaten on Good Friday. While the tradition of baking sweet treats for springtime celebrations is as old as any record we have, the hot cross bun has been adapted to Christianity’s needs: the spices are said to represent embalming herbs, while the cross is a reference to the crucifixion.
While worldwide Easter customs vary (take the Australian Easter Bilby or France’s inexplicable flying bells and fish chocolates,) one thing is clear: it took more than one country’s traditions to make into the holiday it’s become. But spring has just begun. Tune in next time for another dip into Ireland's springtime traditions with: Mother's Day!
This post is part of a series. Read about the early spring fire festival of Imbolc in our last installment here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Springtime Traditions, Part 1
Spring is here! And, as we’ve discovered on this blog, many of our modern celebrations here in America come from ancient, Celtic, and often pagan traditions. Just as Samhain welcomes autumn and Yuletide winter, the people of ancient Irish had a number of festivals to welcome back the warm weather and promise of growth and change.
Pagan springtime traditions begin in Ireland not in March or April, but the beginning of February (that’s around the time we’re all about ready for spring, after all) with Imbolc/Imbolg (pronounced im-bohlk) or, it’s Christianized incarnation: St. Brigid’s feast day. One of the four major fire festivals (along with Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain,) Imbloc falls squarely between the winter solstice and the spring equinox on February 1st into the 2nd and heralds the upcoming change of the seasons. “Imbolg” means “in the belly” and before it became the feast day of St. Brigid/Bridget (an actual historical figure we’ll have to do a post on someday soon!) it was the dominion of the fertility goddess Brigid. Brigid (who deserves her own post as well,) oversaw not only birth and pregnancy, but also poetry, crafts, and prophecy as a goddess of creation. As an early agrarian society, this festival also aligns with the breeding cycle of sheep—long a staple feature in Irish farm life and a symbol of fecundity.
Imbolc was traditionally celebrated like all fire festivals with, you guessed it, fires! For Imbolc, the blazes signify the sun’s return and the beginning of the “light half” of the year. While the two biggest fire festivals (Samhain in October and Beltane in May) were (and still are!) usually large, communal affairs, Imbolc was a time of reflection at your own hearth with your family before all the work that would come when spring fully arrived. Additionally, it was tradition to take the time to visit holy wells to leave offerings to the gods so they would help spring arrive quickly and provide good weather for the growing season. Supplicants would walk “sunwise” around the well and provide food from their feast tables (everything from cheeses to bannocks,) coins, and “clooties”—strips of cloth often used in healing rituals, often left in nearby trees.
(So far, none of these traditions sound much like anything we practice today, but just wait…does this bit remind you of anything?) Weather was of particular concern to Irish pagans whose reliance on the land was one of the tenants of their religion, and Imbolc was also a time to look for omens regarding that summer’s weather. Bad weather on Imbolc was considered a good omen for the coming season, based all around the rather terrifying legend of the Cailleach (meaning literally “old woman” or “hag.”) The Cailleach is associated with storms and winter, and sleeps through the warm months—so if it’s a bad day out on Imbolc she’d said to be already asleep. Because, of course, if she needed more wood for more winter it’d be nice out to facilitate her gathering firewood!
Did you guess? That’s right, Imbolc is the root of Groundhog’s Day! Even though this relatively silly holiday didn’t appear until 1887 (and Imbolc’s roots lay far in the distant past,) it prescribes to the exact same superstition: a cloudy day means Puxatawny Phil doesn’t see his shadow and spring is on its way! If you missed it this year, Phil did predict six more weeks of winter in 2021. Luckily, we’re already past it!)
Similarly to the Christian church’s adaptation of other pagan holidays, there was a natural changeover from Imbolc (which, reminder, was always closely associated with the goddess Brigid as she’s part of this lighter half of year with her creation associations) to the Catholic feast day it’s become. No, the church isn’t celebrating a pagan goddess, but an abbess from the 5th century who also held this traditional Irish name and whose good works and miracles (founding Ireland’s first nunnery, converting her own Druidic father, restoring sight to the blind, and even creating beer out of water) had her canonized and named one of Ireland’s two patron saints. Those familiar with Catholicism will recognize this time (February 2nd, more specifically) not only as celebrating the Saint Brigid, but also as Candlemas—a day where many Irish people still bring candles to their churches to be blessed. The influence of the ancient fire festival is easy to see (though with the advent of electric heating, it makes sense our hearths and bonfires have become the more readily available candles.)
But, you might be thinking, Imbolc only covers February and spring is a whole season! Don’t worry, we’ve got you. Tune in again next week for more connections between Ireland’s past and present, and how we continue to celebrate around the world today!
This post is part of a series, read our last installment, all about St. Patrick's Day in modern Ireland, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
St. Patrick’s Day Edition!
Check out our last ten fun facts here.
1. One of the most recent Leprechaun “sightings” was in 1989. A man named P.J. O’Hare claims he saw one and now has the clothes the wee faerie folk left behind on display in his pub in Carlingford, Co. Louth. The town even holds an annual Leprechaun hunt every year!
2. They’ve been dying the Chicago River green every Saint Patrick’s Day since 1962—but the first time was an accident! The year before the tradition began, then-mayor Richard J. Daly approved dumping some green dye in the river to help see where sewage was being dumped and fix the problem. A local named Stephen Bailey, a member of the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local, realized with a little more dye they could (safely! It’s a vegetable-based dye now!) color the whole river and the tradition was born. These days, they use 40 pounds of orange powder to get that garish green hue!
3. The odds of ever finding a four-leaf clover are about 1 in 10,000. (Though check out this 2014 story about a woman who found an astonishing 21 four-leaf clovers in her yard!)
4. From 1999 to 2007, the Irish town of Dripsey claimed the title of “Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the World.” The parade route was only 26 yards long! (Nowadays Hot Springs, Arkansas has claimed the title for themselves.)
5. An estimated 13 million pints of Guinness are consumed every St. Patrick’s Day—that’s a steep increase from the more typical 5.5 million a day. (Beer sales in America alone rise 174%!)
6. Leprechauns are a protected species under EU law. A man named Kevin Woods from Carlingford (yes, the same place with the annual Leprechaun hunt!) managed to get his local Sliabh Foy Loop trail protected under the European Habitats Directive, including the 236 Leprechauns the local lobbyists claim live there!
7. The special type of marshmallows everyone loves to pick out of Lucky Charms cereal are called “marbits” and were originally just chopped up circus peanuts! (AND! The original incarnation of Lucky Charms didn’t have a sugar coating. A General Mills project manager named Paul Bunyon had to find a solution for all the excess Cherrios, so he did what any sane person would do…mixed them with candy.)
8. We’re used to thinking about the story of Irish Immigrants coming to America, but what about Australia? In 2010, the Sydney Opera House went green to celebrate 200 years of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the country. The first was when the then-Governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquaire, provided entertainment for Irish convict workers on March 17th, 1810!
9. You may have noticed there isn’t any corn in that corned beef and cabbage you have once a year on March 17th…the “corned” bit actually refers to the large salt crystals that were historically used to cure meat and called, you guessed it, “corns”! (That’s why it had to be boiled—to get rid of the excess salt!)
10. There’s a 50-year-long tradition that, on or around St. Patrick’s Day, the current Prime Minister of Ireland (the Taoiseach) presents the current U.S. President with a crystal bowl of shamrocks. It’s both a symbol of the close ties between the two countries, and a political move that helps a relatively small country retain a familiar relationship with the U.S.! While it most likely won’t be happening this year, it did in 2020, just days before the world went into lockdown.
This post is part of a series, read Volume III here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
St. Patrick’s Home Turf: St. Paddy’s Day in Ireland
We all know the Saint Patrick’s Day stereotypes: lots of green, lots of gold, and lots of Guinness. But that’s our American (or, for as many as 32 million of us, Irish-American,) tradition. How have the Irish marked the occasion over the years?
The truth of it is simple: until the Irish-Americans made it the party it’s become today, St. Patrick’s Day was a religious holiday. It seems obvious when you say it: it’s literally a day celebrating a saint. Traditionally, the Irish spent the morning in church and celebrated in a modest way the afternoon. Though the holiday falls squarely during Lent, Lenten prohibitions were lifted on the day to allow for feasting and at least some mild revelry. The government even took steps to keep it mild: going against the harmful stereotypes that were perpetuated about the Irish people during Ireland’s mass emigrations in the 1800s due to the potato blight, pubs were actually closed on St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland (by law) until 1977.
Even after the ban was lifted, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland were overall subdued (leading to the rumor that the Irish don’t celebrate the holiday) until around 1995. With the advent of the internet, the world was expanding rapidly, and the Irish government did its best to increase its appeal to tourists by embracing the high-spirited, secular twist Americans had put on the holiday, starting over a century before. And it worked—Dublin’s parade (pre-COVID) is now a five-day festival and has boasted half a million attendees! Of course, places in Ireland celebrated St. Patrick’s Day the American way (i.e. with a parade) earlier than ’95—it just wasn’t as widely advertised. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade in Ireland was held in Waterford in 1903, with Dublin not coming around to the celebrations until 1931—1995 was just the year the government got involved!
However, there’s a few misconceptions we need to clear up: first, corned beef and cabbage? An American invention! This “traditional” meal is a 19th century, Irish-American adaptation of a common Irish meal: ham and cabbage. As the Irish immigrants in New York in the 1800s weren’t able to afford ham, they had to make do with hard, salted beef usually used for long sea voyages. They would boil the beef three times in order to soften it and remove as much brine as possible, resulting in the meal we still eat today. The Irish are far more likely to indulge in a full Irish breakfast with tea or a leg of lamb with potatoes and other root vegetables…or maybe some shepherd’s pie—some stereotypes do have their root in truth, after all.
Second, don’t you dare call it St. Patty’s Day! For one thing, Patty isn’t short for Patrick, but Patricia. As the Miami Herald reported in 2018: “Saint Patrick was indeed not a woman nor a hamburger.” In fact, the original, Gaelic spelling of Patrick is Pádraig, accounting for the mysterious appearance of two ds in the correct nickname: Paddy. But, you could also skip the abbreviations full stop—Paddy (among other traditional Irish names such as Mick) were once used as a derogatory names for an Irish person in the not-so-distant past. Might as well give the man his due and just say St. Patrick’s Day!
Lastly, and most importantly: the concept of the “wearing of the green” (also a popular Irish air!) isn’t just to mark your Irish heritage and celebrate it, but a bigger political statement. As we discussed a few weeks ago, the color originally associated with St. Patrick as actually blue, but the green was inspired by his teachings (see this post for more info!) and became a symbol for Irish nationalism against British oppression—starting with the Irish Rebellion of 1789. This event isn’t a light one--an estimated 10-70,000 people died in their fight for freedom. Wearing a shamrock (which is three leaves, not four) on your lapel or even wearing a piece of green clothing was considered a rebellious act in and of itself. In many ways, St. Patrick’s Day’s celebration of Irish culture isn’t just a party, it’s in honor of those who gave their lives for home and country—so maybe leave off on the pinching.
It makes sense that so many places in America go green for St. Patrick’s Day (most famously, the Chicago River every year since 1962, but don’t forget the Empire State building, among many other landmarks) we once shook off the shackles of our British rulers, too! Now that America has more people of Irish heritage than actually live in Ireland, we can have our own traditions to celebrate the Irish diaspora across the country…but it’s still important to bear in mind what this day means for its country of origin. No matter how you choose to celebrate this year: Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona duit! (Or: A Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to you!)
This post is part of a series. Read about the history of St. Patrick's Day in America here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Saint Patrick Immigrates to America
I remember hearing something growing up that used to deeply confuse me: the Irish don’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. This isn’t true, of course, St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland and the Irish have been celebrating him on his feast day in the liturgical calendar (March 17th) for at least 1,000 years…But haven’t you heard the rumor that all rumors have a grain of truth?
The truth isn’t that the Irish don’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, but that the modern conception of St. Patrick’s Day (think “Kiss Me I’m Irish” tees, shamrocks and Guinness everywhere, and parades, parades, parades!) is more of an American invention. Or, more specifically, an Irish-Spanish-one-day-American invention. The first known St. Patrick’s Day parade took place over a millennia after his death in what is now Saint Augustine, Florida. In 1601, the area was a Spanish colony, but an Irish vicar named Ricardo Arturo (or, Richard Arthur in his native tongue) organized the event to honor the Saint, who at the time his parishioners believed protected the city’s crops. This fact didn’t even come to light until 2017, when a historian named Michael Francis discovered a record of the event in centuries old documents about gunpowder expenditure!
Before this discovery, America was still quick to snag the claim of the first St. Patrick’s Day parade, though there’s some debate about which city gets the honor. Boston, still known today for its wealth of Irish-Americans, held its first parade in 1737 when Irish soldiers serving the British marched through the city in solidarity and the Irish Immigrants of the city came out in force to celebrate with them. However, despite their first parade not occurring until 1762, New York City also likes to claim the honor! It comes down to the fact that NYC’s became not only the biggest parade in the country (with up to 3 million attendees and 150,000 people marching pre-COVID,) but also the most consistent (Boston only made theirs an annual event after NYC and used to draw in only a measly million attendees.)
While millions of attendees are pretty impressive, what if I told you one of the runners up was in SRL’s own backyard? The Holyoke, Massachusetts St. Patrick’s Day Parade might not be not as well-known as Boston or New York, but this parade still became one of the largest in the country. Hosted every year pre-2020 on the Sunday after the holiday, Holyoke started the tradition in 1952 and its numbers reached 400,000 by the 2011 celebration…which is ten times the population of the city itself. It’s all down to the fact that Holyoke had historically held one of the densest populations of Irish Immigrants in the country—in the 1800s it was called “Ireland Parish.” The parade has been considered so influential that many notable officials have attended, including two Speakers of the House and even President John F. Kennedy when he was a Massachusetts state senator (even with Boston only two hours away!)
But this all begs the question: why such huge celebrations? It’s not just the American desire to go big. Something that’s easy to overlook in this country’s history is the treatment of Irish Immigrants, particularly in the 1800s. When the Famine arrived in 1845, over 1 million Irish citizens fled to the New World to avoid starvation. The Irish may have found a more agriculturally prosperous country, but they also found a society ready to discriminate against them because of their poverty, their Catholic beliefs in largely Protestant America, and their thick, foreign accents.
St. Patrick’s Day parades in American cities developed into larger and larger gatherings not only as cultural touchstones that helped the Irish celebrate their heritage and find a sense of community, but also as a way for these immigrants to gain power in a place that denied it to them. The culmination of this came in 1948, when President Truman attended New York City’s parade, a nod to the political capital the Irish immigrant had gained in the previous century. From those 1 million immigrants, at least 32 million United States citizens now claim Irish ancestry, and the idea of being discriminated against for being Irish is in our past. Still, when you have a pint or give someone a pinch this year, take a moment to remember the background and purpose of all that green…then get back to the celebration!
This post is part of a series. Read more about Ireland's history by reading about some of Ireland's most romantic traditions here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
The Man, the Myth, the Legend: Saint Patrick
It’s March and you know what that means: Saint Patrick’s Day is just around the corner! This month on the SRL blog, we’ll be covering all things to do with (as the Irish would prefer we stop calling it…) St. Patty’s Day and all the celebrations of Irish heritage it invokes. And while March 17th probably conjures images of green beer and leprechauns, you probably don’t know quite as much about the holiday’s namesake: the mysterious Saint Patrick.
We might be calling this post “Irish Mythology,” but first, the facts: St. Patrick was real, but he wasn’t Irish. The man who would eventually be canonized was actually born Maewyn Succat in Roman Britain (though some sources would argue Scotland or Wales—it was a long time ago, after all) into a prosperous family. During his teen years, his father’s villa was attacked by Irish raiders and St. Patrick was abducted and sold into slavery. St. Patrick spent 6 or 7 difficult years as a slave and herdsman in the cold, wet fields of Ireland before he dreamed of his escape: a voice told him to make a run for the coast. It worked, and St. Patrick was able to return home.
However, St. Patrick’s time in Ireland had deeply affected him, and caused him to not only become a fervent Catholic, but to return to the place of his captivity on a mission of good works. While St. Patrick’s many writings are often incoherent (his Latin is comparatively poor to others of his time,) scholars agree they all hold a pure conviction to help the people of Ireland through his religion. While it’s easy to dismiss this as typical missionary work these days, St. Patrick did this at severe risk to his person—he was “cast into chains” at least once and often had to hide for fear of his life—because he believed he had heard “the voice of the Irish” calling to him. He continued this work of converting his former captors until his death in 461 in Saul, Co. Down near the site of his first church at the mouth of the Slaney River. St. Patrick is buried at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick and is visited to this day on March 17th as a “traditional day for spiritual renewal.”
What’s still best known about St. Patrick are the myths surrounding him: the shamrocks and the snakes. In a Sunday School tale often still told today, St. Patrick used Ireland’s native shamrock to explain the concept of the Trinity to his converts. With those three leaves (which is typical—making four so rare and lucky!) that are connected by a singular stem, the shamrock became a real-world analogy for God’s multifaceted presence in the Christian faith (God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit—both separate and the same.) Whether or not St. Patrick was actually the first to teach this, it’s a helpful physical example to explain the concept!
And now, the biggest myth: the snakes! If you know only one thing about St. Patrick, it’s that he was the pied piper of snakes, driving all the serpents of Ireland into the sea. If you’ve heard about Adam and Eve, it’s not too hard to figure out the allegory here—by being largely responsible for the conversion of the Irish from Paganism to Christianity, St. Patrick was thought (from the perspective of the times) to have driven the “evil” off the island. This is something we can definitively prove is a myth, as there is not a single geological record of a snake ever existing naturally in Ireland—after all, the island broke off from mainland Europe during the Ice Age and the cool climate isn’t particularly suitable for a cold-blooded creature.
There are many lesser-known, but no less miraculous miracles said to be performed by St. Patrick—above all, the raising of the dead. St. Patrick claims in his own writings to have raised at least 33 people from death (notably Jesus’s age at his time of death,) and also apparently had healing powers. His prayers were said to have caused everything from a wolf returning a lamb to him unharmed and a herd of swine appearing to feed a hungry crowd in a deserted area to uncovering deceits and smiting blasphemers—all of which may be clear metaphors for the religion he stood for, but are stated as fact in the earliest known records of them. Having taken place in the 5th century—there’s no way to know for sure!
One more surprising St. Patrick fact? The color traditionally associated with him wasn’t green, but blue. It’s a lighter, azure-like blue still often called “St. Patrick’s Blue” and can be seen on older Irish flags, as well as on the emblem of the Irish Citizen Army, who attempted to end British rule in 1916 with the infamous Easter Rising. By the time the Irish Citizen Army used this blue as their symbol, it was already fading in fashion as St. Patrick’s color simply due to the fact that Ireland is a truly green country. As early as the 1798 Irish Rebellion, the “wearing of the green” (a shamrock on the lapel) became a nationalistic practice and eventually came to be associated with St. Patrick, but bits of blue can still be seen…the Presidential Flag of Ireland, for instance!
No matter your religion, St. Patrick was a man of strong convictions, devoted to serving a country he saw as needing his help and spiritual (truly, moral) guidance. Instead of hating his former captors, the people who had kidnapped him and worked him to the bone, he returned with kindness in his heart. Remove Catholicism from the story and you’re still left with something to celebrate: St. Patrick’s Day isn’t only a celebration of Ireland, but a celebration, just as spring is arriving, of awakening, forgiveness, and new beginnings to come.
This is Volume IV of a series. Read our last installment all about Irish love stories here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Check out Volume I and Volume II!
1. Hook Lighthouse in County Wexford is one of the oldest in the world. While the present structure has been around for 848 years, there’s evidence that a lighthouse has stood on that spot back to the 5th century.
2. St. Patrick is also the patron saint of Nigeria. He was named the patron saint of the country by Irish bishops in 1961—the same year Ireland opened their embassy in Lagos (there’s actually a long-standing Irish Catholic presence in the country!)
3. It may or may not be a coincidence that Nigeria actually beats Ireland in Guinness consumption (though it’s only second on the list--the UK takes the top spot!)
4. And while Ireland doesn’t drink the most Guinness in the world, it does drink almost the most tea (impressively beating the UK), at an average of 1,184 cups of tea a year…per person. (Only Turkey has Ireland beat!)
5. Still, Guinness is one of Ireland’s most renowned exports—the famous Guinness Brewery located in Dublin and the top tourist destination while in town. Don’t worry, it will still be there when you’re able to travel again: in 1795, Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000 year lease on the land.
6. If you are planning on visiting one day, consider going in April or June: they’re the driest months of the year there, depending on where you are in the country. But any month will work! While Ireland’s often considered one of the wettest places in the world, it’s actually 80th on that list (though it does have one of the oldest rainfall records in the world—300 years old!)
7. The infamous Billy the Kid, real name Henry McCarthy, was born to two Irish immigrants in New York City in 1859. While his career as an outlaw and his life were short, he was said to be fluent not only in English, but also Spanish and even Irish Gaelic!
8. Ireland has won the Eurovision Song contest more than any other country in the world, seven times since 1970. They’re also the only country that’s won three times consecutively! (Not really sure what Eurovision is? Most Americans aren’t really—just think of it was “a cross between ‘The X-Factor’ and a Miss Universe pageant.”)
9. An Irish art director and film production designer named Austin Cedric Gibbons designed the statue we call an “Oscar” today in 1928. If you look closely, the coveted Academy Award is a knight holding a sword, standing on top of a film reel.
10. Students at Trinity College in Dublin have a much-believed and almost beloved curse: if you pass beneath the “Campanile” (a bell tower,) you’ll fail all your exams. Even those who don’t believe in superstitions admit avoiding the area—if only because it’s also believed to be built over the graveyard of a medieval monastery.
This post is part of a series, read Volume I here and Volume II here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
The Irish Love Story
Since it’s the day after Valentine’s Day, we decided it was the perfect time to share one of Irish mythology’s most epic love stories! Why the day after? Because Irish mythology, and particularly Irish love stories, aren’t known for their happy endings.
In fact, Joseph Campbell, one of the preeminent scholars in comparative mythology of the 20th century, theorized that our concept of love in Western, modern culture was not only influenced, but entirely formed by Irish mythology. Campbell believed that Irish mythology’s insistence of true, romantic love over duty (ending, usually, in tragedy) has formed Western consciousness as we know it. Innumerable Pre-Christian, Irish love stories involve the lovers running away from society into the wilderness with only their “love to keep them warm” (no one sings that sad, romantic classic quite like Billie Holiday.) When the Normans invaded Ireland at the beginning of the Middle Ages, they (like many before and after them—look at Halloween or Christmas traditions, for instance) adapted Irish mythology into their own tales for their own purposes. This adaptation became the archetype of courtly love, forming the Arthurian legends that still influence our storytelling and romantic ideals today.
Take, for example, the story of Grainne (typically pronounced “Grawn-ya”) and Diarmuid (aka “Dear-mid”,) from the Fenian cycle—one of the most enduring love stories in all of Irish mythology. (Even if these names are new to you, it will probably sound a bit familiar.) Grainne was the beautiful daughter of the High King of Ireland, who decided his daughter should marry the (aging) mythic hero and warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill (or these days by the pronunciation: “Finn MacCool,”) leader of the warriors known as the Fianna. Like many things parents try to map out for their children, this didn’t go entirely to plan.
At her wedding feast, Grainne spotted the young, handsome Diarmuid, best warrior and best friend of her new husband, and it was love at first sight (in all fairness, Finn MacCool was older than her father.) In a desperate move, Grainne drugged the entire party and convinced Diarmuid to run away with her. His pride wounded, Finn MacCool immediately began his pursuit of the young lovers across all of Ireland and back again, with many an adventure in between (innumerable local legends claim that this spot or that is where the couple hid so many years ago.) The pair was eventually allowed to settle in what’s now County Sligo until Diarmuid was gored by a boar…but that wasn’t truly what killed him.
Grainne begged MacCool (who had either still been pursuing the couple or had invited Diarmuid on the hunt knowing he was destined to die by boar—versions differ) to use his magical gift (water drunk from his cupped hands could cure any ailment) to save her love. But MacCool’s long-harbored pettiness led him to let the water slip through his fingers and Diarmuid ultimately passed away from his injuries. Legends agree upon one fact: Grainne died soon after of a broken heart. (We know what you’re thinking, this can’t be what all Irish love myths are like. Well, the details change, but the broad strokes are the same across the board.)
Now where have you heard this before? This story is pretty similar to the better known (there is, after all, a beloved Wagner opera of the name, as well as a less beloved 2006 film starring James Franco,) Irish tale of Tristan and Isolde, as well as the tale of King Arthur, his wife, Guinevere, and his knight, Lancelot. It’s not much of a jump to move ahead 1,000 or so years (skipping many incarnations in between) and compare it to Othello or even Romeo and Juliet (“never was there a story of more woe,” as the Bard said.) Another 250 years brings us to Wuthering Heights, and only another 100 and we catch up to West Side Story (which is, very consciously, a modern Romeo and Juliet.) Turn on the TV today and you might catch a showing of The Notebook or Me Before You, or maybe an episode of This is Us. Even our what we consider real life, modern fairytales like Princess Diana, Grace Kelly, or different relationships within the Kennedy family all ended tragically. Sure, there are plenty of couples out there in the real world (and in stories!) that live happily ever after…but aren’t those usually the cleaned-up versions we tell to children?
While it’s not a straight shot from ancient Celtic lore to a TV show starring a former teen pop star, there’s an undeniable influence Irish mythology has had on Western society and our ideals of romantic love. It’s hard to say whether this is the healthier, more realistic view of love (mortality, after all, being a fact of life,) or a fatalistic and maybe even self-indulgent focus on the negative–that’s for each person to decide for themselves. You can love or hate to cry over a tragic love story, but I think Joseph Campbell would agree you have the Irish to thank!
This is Volume III of a series. Read our last installment all about Samhain (Irish Halloween) here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram
St. Valentine and Irish Romantic Traditions
It’s common knowledge these days that, no matter how commercial it may seem, Valentine’s Day is a much older tradition then the invention of Conversation Hearts. (Remember last year’s shortage? They apparently take eleven months to make enough for the six-week period around the holiday!) Like much in the Western world, it’s a custom poached from the remains of the Roman Empire and though ancient history is a little fuzzy about the details (there may be two or three different St. Valentines,) we’ve landed on this (probably not entirely correct) story: a priest named Valentine was executed for marrying Christian couples and became a saint for his good works. Now we celebrate love in his honor on his feast day (the day he was martyred) in the liturgical calendar: February 14th. (Though the church did remove the celebration officially in 1969, making it wholly secular these days.)
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I know what you’re thinking: why are we writing about St. Valentine under Irish history?
It’s true, St. Valentine wasn’t Irish by birth, but he’s now been in the country long enough to call himself an Irishman. In 1836, an Irish Carmelite priest named Friar John Spratt visited Rome and his sermons were so brilliant he was showered with gifts from the most influential religious figures in the city—including the Pope. The Pope’s gift went above and beyond a commemorative mug: he gave Friar Spratt relics from the body of St. Valentine to bring back to Ireland for the Irish people. St. Valentine was reinterred in a Carmelite church on Whitefriar Street in Dublin (it’s now Aungier Street, but the church kept the name.) Every February 14th, many Irishmen and women come to pay homage and pray for their romantic futures. (Last year Irish Central even interviewed a couple that met doing just that four years ago and now plans on getting married!)
Despite the saint the day is named after being buried in their capital, Valentine’s Day isn’t a particularly Irish holiday. However, that doesn’t mean the Irish aren’t romantics at heart. One only has to look at their literary masters (W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde …to name a few) and their love poems to know romance isn’t dead on the Emerald Isle. Need a line or two to add to your partner’s card this year? The Irish have got you covered. Or when we can travel again, check out this list of romantic spots all throughout Ireland…but don’t forget the beautiful Howth’s Head just outside of Dublin (where one of the most romantic scenes in classic literature takes place: Leopold proposes to Molly there in Joyce’s tome Ulysses.)
Your beloved isn’t much for poetry? That’s okay—try a claddagh ring! The claddagh has become a popular symbol on jewelry all over the world, but originates in County Galway where in the 18th century fishermen used them as identification. The design’s meaning—a heart for love, hands for friendship, and a crown for loyalty—has morphed into a common romantic gift, complete with its own coded language. On the right hand, the heart worn pointing toward your fingertips means you’re available, and towards your own heart means you’re taken. The left hand is reserved for more serious relationships: pointing away is engaged, pointing toward you is married. And ladies, if you feel like doing the proposing, Ireland has a tradition for that too! Every four years on a Leap Day (February 29th,) it’s tradition for women to take the initiative and propose to their male partners. This practice possibly originates as early the 5th century A.D.—which must be why it’s so (sweet but…) antiquated.
Speaking of marriage, there’s an Irish romantic tradition even older than Leap Day proposals: handfasting. The tradition dates back to 7000 B.C. and is simple: couples would announce their intention to be married and tie their hands together with a braided length of rope or ribbon in front of a priest. After a year, they would return to the priest to be married or to decide to go their separate ways. Weddings these days often make symbolic use of the tradition (instead of as an engagement ceremony) to show their new unity. But how do you find someone to get handfasted with? Why not check out the 150-year-old Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival! Originally designed to help young people from rural farms meet mates, this sleepy town in Country Clare is transformed every September into the place to meet your match even today.
Last, but not least, one can’t argue that the Irish Gaelic language doesn’t have its touch of romance. Need a new pet name for someone you love? Ireland has a wealth of them and here’s a few to leave you with:
A stór (uh STORE): my treasure
A ghrá (uh GRAWH): my love
A mhuirnín (uh WUR-neen): my darling
A chuisle (uh KHUSH-leh): my pulse
Mo shíorghrá (muh HEER-ggrawh): my eternal love/soul mate
Is ceol mo chroí thú (Is cyoal mu khree who): you’re the music of my heart
Happy Valentine’s Day!
This post is part of a series. Read more about Ireland's history by reading about the story of Dr. James Barry here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Dr. James Barry
In 1809, a short, slight man named James Barry boarded a boat in his hometown of Cork and set sail to Edinburgh where he planned on enrolling in medical college. Barry’s previously affluent family had fallen on hard times—his father had been let go from his position due to rampant anti-Catholic sentiments and eventually landed in a debtor’s prison. At nineteen, Barry had been well-educated by his tutors with the intention of becoming a tutor himself—but with no work experience and a disgraced family name, there was no work to be had.
Barry’s height, soft voice, and delicate features (hard to see in the not particularly skilled portrait that’s our only image of Barry from the time period, featured here) led many to believe that Barry was lying about his age once he reached Edinburgh. While the faculty there had let Barry in to study, they were reluctant to let him take his final exams to become a doctor. Luckily, a friend of the family, the Earl of Buchan, vouched for the young man, and in 1913 Barry went to London (where his family now lived) to pass his exams and become Dr. James Barry at the age of 22.
And it’s a good thing he did: Dr. James Barry’s fifty-plus year long career as a military doctor proved to be an illustrious one. He entered the service as an officer and quickly rose in the ranks to eventually become Inspector General in charge of all military hospitals—a role equivalent to Brigadier General. While his personality left much to be desired—there’s the complaints about him Florence Nightingale made in her diary (she thought him “a brute,”) as well as his court-martials and duels—Barry was a surgeon of unprecedented skill. Most notably, while stationed in Cape Town, South Africa in 1820s, he performed the first successful caesarian section where the mother and child both survived in modern history. His legacy also includes his tireless efforts in sanitation reform, as well as better medical practices and care for soldiers, military families, prisoners, lepers, and all other underserved communities before his death in 1859. Many are still benefitting because of his efforts till this day.
And that would be the end of Dr. James Barry’s story, if it wasn’t for a charwoman who didn’t follow instructions. Barry left some specific last wishes: to be buried in the clothes he died in, with his body unwashed. But when the woman tasked with laying out the dead reached Barry, she stripped the body to prepare him for burial and found something shocking: Dr. James Barry not only had female anatomy, but stretch marks that implied she had once carried a child.
While Barry’s colleagues and friends were perfectly happy to keep this fact to themselves, (Barry’s doctor, Major D.R. McKinnon, said in a letter that it was “none of [his] business” if Barry was actually female,) the revelation was leaked to the press and became a sensation. Many people claimed to have known the whole time, but it’s equally possible no one did: when Barry entered the military in his twenties, he entered as an officer, which requires no medical exam. Of course, we have accounts of Barry’s effeminate nature, but that brash personality seemed to have swayed a lot of people away from the truth.
However, the entire story above does stand as truth except for one thing: Barry’s name. Barry was actually born Margaret Ann Bulkley and only became James Barry when a number of liberal-minded family friends and mentors (including the Earl of Buchan, from earlier!) decided Margaret’s intelligence would be wasted as only a wife and hatched a plan that fooled the world for 56 years. Dr. James Barry remains one of the most accomplished humanitarians and surgeons of the 1800s, no matter their gender—we can just add the first female doctor in the UK and Ireland to their long list of accolades!
This post is part of a series. Read more about Ireland's history by reading about ancient Irish Yule traditions here, here, and here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Check out our first ten fun facts here!
1. The Wild Atlantic Way is the longest, uninterrupted coastal driving route in the world. Officially opened in 2014 by the Irish tourism board, the route covers the entire west coast of the country, from the border of Northern Ireland all the way to (almost!) Cork. Passing through three provinces and nine counties, the route displays some of Ireland’s most beautiful scenery.
2. As Dracula is set largely in England, most people don’t realize its author, Bram Stoker, is an Irishman. In fact, the character of Dracula and this concept of vampires that became our standard was based on the Irish legend of the Abhartach.
3. The Titanic was built in Ireland—in Belfast at the Harland and Wolff shipyard, specifically. Pre-COVID, there was even a large, interactive, narrative monument and museum dedicated to Belfast’s shipbuilding called “Titanic Belfast.” (Miss Courtney's been!)
4. While we tend to think of it as an “Irish accent,” there’s really hundreds of Irish accents, all specific to different areas, education levels, and classes, with a variety of complex, social histories behind them. (Though phonologists tend to divide all these varieties into 3-5 larger groupings.)
5. The Croaghaun Cliffs on Achill Island in County Mayo are the third highest sea cliffs in all of Europe at 752 meters (that’s about half a mile!) Only Hornelen in Norway (860 meters) and Cape Enniberg on the Faroe Islands (754 meters) has them beat! (Barely.)
6. There’s evidence that people have populated Ireland for over 10,000 years. It’s a little later than much of Europe due to the climate (and the fact it’s an island,) but impressive nonetheless! The oldest artefacts have been found in the North of the country.
7. Ireland once had its own version of the Olympics! They were called the Tailteann Games (or the Lughnasa games after the Irish hero of legend, Lugh.) They took place in 1924, 1928, and 1932 and were a celebration of traditional Irish sporting events. Unfortunately, the event didn’t take off worldwide, but smaller versions still exist to this day!
8. Speaking of sport (as they’d say in Ireland,) Ireland has one of the oldest consistent sporting traditions in the world (at least 3,000 years old!): hurling. It’s considered the fastest game played on grass and bears a vague resemblance in equipment to field hockey or even lacrosse (though definitely not in play.) P.S. The women’s version of hurling is almost identical, but called camogie.
9. The hollow, hypodermic needle was invented by an Irishman and surgeon named Dr. Francis Rynd in 1844. The world’s first subcutaneous injection was even performed at the Meath Hospital in Dublin! Even if you hate needles, this was a revolutionary advancement that has allowed to save and better billions of people’s lives.
10. In 1970s Ireland (and still today at English boarding schools and some places in India) there was a tradition known as “bumps.” Essentially, if it was your birthday, you’d be grabbed by your classmates and thrown repeatedly into the air to be “bumped” on the floor, often upside down—once for every year of your life. It would often end in a big finale throw where you might or might not be caught on the way down. (You can see why it’s not often practiced these days!)
This post is part of a series, read Volume I here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram
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