A Samhain Feast!
Last year, we covered the Irish holiday of Samhain is great detail (check out these posts if you want to know more!) But, to sum it up—the origins of modern-day Halloween can be traced back to the Irish Pagan tradition of Samhain (pronounced sow-inn,) an ancient fire festival marking the beginning of the “dark half of the year.” Druidic priests would build a large communal bonfire, and, as it was believed that the veil between our world and the “otherworld” was thin on this night, costumes and treats became part of the celebration (to trick bad spirits and feed good ones!)
But, after the fire and turnip jack-o’-lanterns, what was the most important Samhain tradition? A feast, of course! Pretty much all festivals in ancient Ireland included a feast, but the Samhain feast was special and almost like our modern, American Thanksgiving—it was a time to come together as a family and a community before the harder, leaner months of winter. With the last of harvest upon the table, it was a time to take stock and celebrate before minds turned toward survival. In honor of this ancient tradition, we thought we’d clue you in to some of Ireland’s delicacies (both old and new, and with recipes!) so you can have your own Samhain feast at home this year if you wish!
First off, the carbs! As you might assume for such a spooky holiday, there’s quite a few ghostly and fortune-telling traditions revolving around foods eaten on Samhain, and the traditions of eating soul cakes, bannocks, and barmbrack are no exception. Soul cakes are a bit like a shortbread cookie made with sweet spices (and often dried fruit,) but they have a very important job to do: you leave soul cakes out for any hungry spirits (or hungry guests) that may pay your home a visit on Halloween night. Bannocks—a term which covers a dearth of large, round quick breads—were once eaten year-round in Ireland (though aren’t quite as popular now,) but some Samhain-exclusive recipes have the addition of extra salt. Legend has it that if an unmarried lad or lass was to take three bites of a salty bannock on Samhain Eve and then go to bed without speaking (or drinking!) they’d have a dream of their future spouse. Lastly, barmbrack, a sweet bread filled with tea-soaked fruits, was often baked with trinkets inside. Each trinket had a meaning for those whose slice included it, meant to tell of your future—a button means you’ll remain a bachelor, a silver coin for those destined for riches, etc.
Then, you have to have something to drink (though this particular tradition is for the adults, not our dancers!) Mulled wine is traditional all winter throughout the UK, Europe, and Ireland, and nothing smells more delicious than a pot of mulled wine bubbling away on your stove! While spices were precious in ancient Ireland, as it was and is an island (probably where that bland food reputation stems from,) mulled wine’s origins can be traced back to 20 A.D.! While we tend to associate Guinness with Ireland (though it’s technically more popular in Nigeria!), there’s a winter spirit with an even longer tradition--poteen. Also called poitín, it’s essentially Irish moonshine, and was similarly made illicitly, hidden away in a pot from whence it gets its name (it also may be the original whiskey, as it was once generally made with a malt barley as its base.)
Don’t worry, the dancers can have something sweet while the adults are imbibing. How about a traditional apple cake or tea cake? It turns out apples and dried fruits are traditional for an Irish Autumn, just like here! In fact, traditional Halloween activities (that don’t get much play anymore) like bobbing for apples originated in Ireland—though the original version had an apple dangling from a string with contestants trying to take a bite out of it!
Lastly, what about a main course? While traditionally there wasn’t much meat served for Samhain (it being the end of the harvest and all,) the closest to tradition one could get would be some kind of meat pie, stew, or sausage (delightfully nicknamed bangers—as they were prone to explode during the lean war years when they had to use water as filler!) Here’s a recipe for a Guinness and steak pie, or a lamb stew—it’s all about something warm and hearty on a cold Halloween night! But it wouldn’t be an Irish meal without potatoes (it may sound like a stereotype, but these root vegetables are known to last through the long, cold winter—stereotypes do come from somewhere.) You can try out the beloved (to this day) Irish side of colcannon, essentially mashed potatoes with cabbage, kale, or anything green snuck in! Or how about boxty—more or less a potato pancake? Purists can go for champ, which is essentially mashed potatoes with scallions, or fadge, a kind of potato bread…there’s truly no end to potato recipes in Ireland!
No matter what you eat to celebrate Samhain this year—candy and toffee apples or barmbrack and boxty—you’re taking part in an ancient tradition of warding off the darkest part of the year just a little bit longer through celebration. So gather your family together at your table, light a roaring fire, and dig in! The spirits from the other side of the veil have some soul cakes to finish off.
This post is part of a series. Read our last Irish history post, all about the many invaders of 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.
Read our last ten fun facts here.
1. Dunluce Castle, surrounded by water on all sides and only connected to main land Northern Ireland by only a wooden bridge, reports a ghostly woman in white who gazes out upon the sunset each night. While no one knows her origins for sure, the castle did once slide into the ocean in the 1600s, so we have a guess! (For our Game of Thrones fans, you’ll recognize the now ruined exterior as the Greyjoy’s seat!)
2. Wicklow Gaol is not only considered one of the most haunted places in Ireland, but one of the top ten most haunted places in world! Often compared to Alcatraz, it remains Wicklow’s biggest tourist attractions. You can even take a paranormal tour where you can learn about all the spooky occurrences—from the mysterious smell of roses in Cell 5 to the ghostly apparition that’s known to greet visitors in the dayroom.
3. While Egypt might be the country best known for mummies, Ireland has its fair share! Time and dry conditions transformed the bodies in the crypt under St. Michan’s church in Dublin into perfectly preserved mummies—even as their wooden coffins have decayed. And we can’t forget all the bog mummies on display at Dublin’s National Archaeology Museum!
4. Speaking of Egypt, another one of Ireland’s scariest hauntings is the now ruined building that was once Seafield (or Lisheen) House. Located on the Coolera Peninsula in Sligo, this mansion was built by a rich landowner named Phibbs during the height of the famine. Karma came back for one of Phibb’s decedents who filled the house with stolen Egyptian artifacts (including a mummy—there’s way more mummies in Ireland than we ever would have believed,) and apparently conjured a violent poltergeist! The family left suddenly in 1938, leaving the huge property to fall into disrepair.
5. On Saint Patrick’s Day in 1888, the front page of The Weekly Irish Times proclaimed to offer “Fireside Tales of Many Counties”—which it turns out meant ghost stories and creepy legends! While we don’t usually associate scary stories with Saint Patrick’s Day, this newspaper decided it was on the table that year and reported on everything from the haunted house of Bride Street to the Queen’s County ghost. Click here to read the stories in full!
6. Belvelly Castle (Ireland has even more castles than mummies) in Co. Cork is a 14th-15th century structure overlooking the bridge connecting Fota Island and Great Island, and is said to be haunted by a 17th century inhabitant (among others!) Lady Margaret Hodnett was known for her vanity and was said to keep innumerable mirrors around her. After a spurned suitor laid siege to the castle, Lady Margaret’s beauty faded as her health did and she smashed all her precious mirrors! Her spirit is said to wander the halls, rubbing at spots on the walls until they gleam so she might see her reflection again.
7. Marsh’s Library in Dublin is best known for being the oldest public library in Ireland (it’s been around since 1707!), but is also said to play host to the ghost of its founder, Archbishop Narcissus Marsh. It’s said that Marsh’s niece, whom he raised as a daughter before she ran off to elope, left a note for Marsh in one of the library’s many volumes—and his spirit is still searching for the letter!
8. You’ve heard of haunted houses, but how about a haunted river? Nore River in Kilkenny was the site of a great tragedy when John’s Bridge collapsed during an overwhelming flood in 1763. Today, residents of the area report eerie figures in the river, on the banks, and leaning up against the structure built to replace the collapsed bridge!
9. While St. Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin is said to contain multiple ghosts, perhaps the best boy of them all is Captain John Boyd’s faithful dog, whose spirit is said to still wait for his master after over 150 years. Captain Boyd was considered a hero after he passed on trying to save the lives of those on board 135 ships caught in a storm between Howth and Wicklow. A life-size statute was erected and his faithful black Newfoundland pup is still seen as his feet today. The good boy never left his side, no matter the time passed!
10. While vampires (though called the Abhartach) have long been lore in Ireland (that’s where Irishman Bram Stoker got it from!), Slaughtaverty in Co. Derry has it’s own, particular vampire lore. It’s said that under a grassy mound called O’Cathain’s Dolmen (marked only by a single thorn tree,) a brave man named Cathain was able to contain the Abhartach back in the 5th century. The locals still avoid the area at night!
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.
Part 4: Gaeilge/Éire
It’s easy to forget that in Ireland people once mainly spoke, well, Irish. The Irish language, Gaeilge (also known as Éire or Irish Gaelic to differentiate it from Scottish Gaelic,) is the official language of Ireland (definitely not English.) Old Irish is considered the predecessor of all the Gaelic tongues, dating back at least 2,500 years (with its first known use in the Roman alphabet dating to the end of the 6th century—making it the oldest known written vernacular north of the Alps.) However, with the suppression of Irish culture by the British beginning in the 11th century, much of the original use of Irish was lost as English became the predominant language in governmental and legal affairs. By the time of The Great Famine from 1846-1848, Irish as a language was almost extinct.
However, the Celtic revival and resurgence of the national Irish identity in the 1800s lead to increased interest in Gaeilge, lest it be forgotten. In 1897, the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language was founded, and they were able to help reintroduce Irish into all levels of education—from primary to university. An official standard of the Irish language was set by the Irish government in 1958—though, the 2016 census reported that in modern times only 1.7% of the population speak Gaeilge daily.
But what does this have to do with school life in Ireland? Quite a bit! Under current educational statutes, all students attending government-funded schools in Ireland (both primary and secondary) have a state-mandated Irish language curriculum. That means, in Ireland, you’re learning the country’s original language from at least first grade onward! In recent years, the requirement for a passing grade in Irish Gaelic for a graduating senior’s Leaving Certificate (see our previous post to have this better explained!) has been eradicated—meaning you still need to take the class, but aren’t tested on it as you will be for other subjects. This has caused some controversy within Ireland, as students argue that once they’re past primary school, Irish is no longer taught to them as a living language—it’s more a subject to get through. In fact, while only 5% of polled students said they thought Irish was properly emphasized as part of their cultural heritage, 67% of students believe that Gaeilge should be compulsory and further pushed as part of the country’s cultural heritage.
But there are places where Irish continues to exist as a living language: Gaeilge-only schools! They’re called Gaelscoil or Irish-medium schools (while the majority of schools remain English-medium,) and while they can be hard to get into, they are completely immersive. While English is sometimes spoken in school as well, the primary language remains Irish throughout schooling. Parents often chose to send their children to a primary-level Gaelscoil and a standard secondary school, though secondary-level Gaelscoil have become more popular in recent years. While most parents cite language-acquisition and the importance of Irish culture and identity for choosing an Irish-medium program, there are other notable benefits that come with being bilingual: better academic performance overall, improvement in cognitive function, improved communication and social skills, and increased ease in learning third or even fourth languages.
Like most topics that touch the political sphere, there’s plenty of controversy about Irish language requirements—most recently, primary school principals calling for a waiver of a Leaving Certificate qualification in Irish in due to a lack of suitable candidates (it’s not required, after all!) But the fact remains that Irish truly is a living language—just take a look at any government street sign, the average Irish person’s name, or innumerable place names and slang terms that still retain their Gaeilge roots. And then there’s the Gaeltacht areas of Ireland! These are places in Ireland where Irish remains the majority language, and they still exist today. Most of these areas dot the west coast of Ireland’s peninsulas where the language was protected by their remote locations. Though all that schooling might not prepare an Irish student for a conversation—while there’s a government-standard Gaeilge, there’s also three distinct dialects in the county: Ulster, Connacht, and Munster!
Where you fall on the bilingual debate? Immersive, required, or at parent and student discretion? Let us know in the comments!
This post is part of a series. Take a look at our last modern Ireland post, all about university in Ireland, 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 Tailteann Games, Part 2
Last week, we discussed the ancient tradition of the Tailteann Games—a precursor to the Olympics the Greeks would begin and the world would recreate centuries later—a celebratory and entertainment-driven festival held to honor the harvest and the harvest goddess Tailtiu, to gather the Irish people together in one place for political reasons like announcing new laws, and to compete in feats of athleticism and craft. The tradition was said to have lasted for at least a thousand years (cut short by the Norman Invasion,) with a small resurgence in medieval times, but had been long dead when the Celtic Revival of the late 19th and early 20th century arrived. The Celtic Revival was a time of deep interest in ancient Ireland as a way to restore the identity of the Irish people, whose culture had long been repressed by British rule, and in 1924 this led to a brief, but notable, reforming of the Tailteann Games.
The Gaelic Athletic Association was formed in 1884 (and is still the largest athletic association in Ireland, concentrating on traditional Irish sports,) and after Ireland gained its independence in the early 1900s, the GAA began discussing the revival of the Tailteann Games. There was a hunger in the newly formed Irish Free State to reclaim their national identity, attract tourists after years of conflict, and honor their native culture as something distinguished to be celebrated. The Celtic Revival revived all thing ancient Ireland—language, dance, sport, and dress, among others—and the idea of reviving the Tailteann Games, particularly inspired by the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896, began to gain momentum as the revolutionaries that would eventually gain Ireland its freedom began to stir.
In 1922, with the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed and the Provisional Irish Government in place, discussions and planning could begin in earnest. With a £10,000 grant from the government, and a promise that Dublin’s Croke Park (site of the death of 13 athletes who were attacked on Bloody Sunday) could be used for free for the duration of the games, things were ready to begin…until the Civil War of 1922 changed their plans. Finally, in 1924, things had settled down enough for the 32 sub-committees it took to organize the massive event to get things underway. Even with all their preparation, war-torn 1920s Ireland was unsure they could accommodate the interest they anticipated, but decided to go ahead and the first Tailteann Games of the modern era were held between the 2nd and 17th of August, 1924.
On the docket was anything the GAA has decided was in line with the national Irish identity—from original events like boxing and swimming, new events like gymnastics and chess, and particularly Irish events like hurling and camogie. Conspicuously absent from this list were sports the GAA has taken it upon themselves to ban anything thought to be particularly “English,” despite their longstanding foothold in Ireland: soccer, rugby, cricket, and hockey. Like the original Tailteann Games, athletics weren’t the only competitions held. There was, of course, dance competitions, as well as contests in writing and oratory, music, and a wide variety of arts and crafts, all celebrating the Irish identity. Given it was the 1920s and automobiles were still a bit of a novelty, the most well-attended events was reportedly the motor racing competition held in Dublin’s famed Phoenix Park.
Despite attempts to make the competition open only to the Irish or people of Irish descent, the popularity of the Paris Olympics the same year led to the government inviting athletes from a variety of countries to compete to induce people to attend. It worked! More than 20,000 people attended the opening ceremonies in Croke Park where a procession invoking ancient Ireland, complete with a Queen Tailtiu (a statue of who adorned the medals and trophies handed out) and her retinue all in their period-correct outfits. After the Free State President, William T. Cosgrave, opened the ceremonies, organizer J.J. Walsh addressed the crowd saying that he thought the festival would have, “satisfied [foreign visitors] that the people of Ireland were capable of one common great effort to re–establish this old nation once again on its feet,” and that “this island of ours is not a colony but the home of a race of a historical lineage unsurpassed elsewhere.”
This new version of the Tailteann Games was unfortunately short-lived, with only two more held: 1928 and 1932, both of which were considered unsuccessful. The 1936 games were planned, but in-fighting in both the government and multiple athletic associations coupled with the extravagant cost of the games (the previous two attempts had failed to recoup the spending they required) caused them to be shelved for good. Since then, multiple, smaller versions of the event have popped up that either concentrate on a specific event (like the cycling event known as the Rás that still occurs annually,) or a specific group of people (like the 1963 “Junior Tailteann Games.”) The term “Tailteann Games” is still used in common parlance in many parts of Ireland for annual inter-school championship sporting events. Fingers crossed we see a revival in our lifetimes!
This post is part of a series. Read our last history post, all about the ancient version of the games, 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 Tailteann Games, Part 1
The Ancient Games
A thousand years before the Greek Olympic Games were founded, Ireland was believed to be inhabited by a magical race of god-like heroes called the Tuatha Dé Danaan (learn more here!) To gain their foothold on Irish soil, the Tuatha had to first defeat the current residents--the Fir Bolg—and what better way to establish a new rule than handing over your child to be fostered? When the Fir Bolg were rousted, members of the Tuatha (Cian and Ethniu) turned their only son over to be raised by the mighty Fir Bolg queen, Tailtiu, as a gesture of good faith. That boy grew into one of the most famed members of the Tuatha, the god-hero-poet-craftsman (learn more about some of his many his exploits here and here) Lugh.
You might be thinking that this sounds more like mythology than history, but, like many cultures, Irish traditions tend to muddle the differences. While not much is known about Tailtiu, we do know a few things: she was beloved of Lugh, is said to have died in service to the Irish people after clearing the whole of Ireland for agricultural purposes, and the area of Teltown in Co. Meath is named after her, as it’s said to be the site of her final resting place. In honor of Tailtiu’s memory and the good she had done for both the country and her family, her foster-son Lugh threw a grand, celebratory funeral games in Tailtiu’s honor, possibly as early as 1829 B.C. But not only that—Lugh declared that these games would reoccur at least every three years (the trinity being an important symbol in Irish mythology) forever.
There’s been many names for the games throughout history—Tailtin Fair, Áenach Tailteann, Aonach Tailteann, Assembly of Talti, Fair of Taltiu, or Festival of Taltii—but people generally refer to this thousand-year tradition as the Tailteann Games. Held the last fortnight in July (with Lughnasa, August 1st, as the last day of celebrations,) the Tailteann Games were as multifaceted as any event could be. First off: the honoring of the dead. While Tailtiu was the first honoree, each time the games were held (which we don’t have a solid record of, but was thought to have been as often as every year for certain stretches,) the first three days were devoted to paying tribute to the honored dead, mourning and celebrating the deceased. A large funeral pyre would be lit, and mourners practiced the wailing known as caoi (we’d call it keening,) the guba, mourning chants, and cepógs, sung funeral lamentations and eulogies.
After the fires of the funeral pyre had died down, the fourth day was devoted to the law. As the Tailteann Games were a gathering together of all the varying people of Ireland with their many disputes, a formal truce was called. Then, the High King of Ireland would go about disseminating the new laws to his people. One of the stranger laws (to modern minds) in ancient Ireland was that of the tradition of what we now call Teltown Marriages. A mass marriage ceremony was performed near the end of every Tailteann Games, but the rules surrounding these marriages was a little different than a standard marriage license today. These pairings were often arranged marriages, and the couples were given more leeway than most in history: they need only stay married a year and a day, after which the couple could divorce by simply walking away from each other with no harm to either’s reputation. This law was reportedly in place until the 13th century!
And then: time to play! The rest of the two weeks of the festival were devoted to competition. While athletic competitions—including running, boxing, the long jump, the high jump, spear-throwing (aka the javelin,) archery, sword fighting, horse races, swimming…the list goes on and on—made up the bulk of the games, there were contests for those with other skills. Since Lugh is not only a warrior-god, but a craftsman-god whose realm of influence extended to the arts, the contests included music and poetry, competitions of strategy and story-telling, and many, many artisan-driven ones like goldsmithing and blacksmithing, with jewelers, weavers, and armorers competing as well. And yes, SRL dancers--there were dance competitions! While the Tailteann Games were not necessarily the first dance competitions in Ireland, they were some of the most illustrious and helped spread new and traditional dance throughout the country. Essentially, the Tailteann Games were like one huge feis!
The tradition of the Tailteann Games lasted until 1169 when the Norman Invasion and following British rule decimated the ancient Irish way of life for centuries. The last of the original games was held under Rory O’Connor, the last High King of Ireland, though there was a small resurgence during medieval times (and, of course, it’s believed that the original Tailteann Games influenced the creation of both the ancient and modern versions of the Olympics!) You might have noticed the use of the word “original” there. Don’t worry, the Tailteann Games didn’t fully die out! But you’ll have to return to the blog next week to learn about how the games have been revived in modern times.
This post is part of a series. Read our last history post, all about the holiday Lughnasa, 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.
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.
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