Most Famous Tales, Part 2
Missed part 1? Check it out here!
We’re back again this week with some of the most famed tales in Irish mythology! Much like Americans grow up hearing all about the Headless Horseman (which likely comes from an Irish myth originally!) and Rip Van Winkle, the French Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, and the Danish the Little Mermaid and Chicken Little (though those have made their way here, as well,) the Irish have their own common folklore and fairy tales. (Though, theirs tend to have actual faeries.) Enjoy!
The Pangs of Ulster
This one’s for all the mom’s out there! Long ago there was a cattle farmer named Crunniuc mac Agnomain (aka Crunden,) who tragically lost his wife. He struggled to work and take care of his three children, until one day he returned to the field to find the house in perfect order, dinner bubbling in the hearth, and a beautiful woman sitting at his table. She said her name was Macha and that she has decided to be his wife—Crunden agreed, and though he could tell she was of the Otherworld (more on that later) by how swiftly she could run, she was a wonderful partner and they were very happy. Then, one day, all of Ulster was invited to see the King Connor of Ulster’s fine new horses and before Crunden left, Macha warned Crunden not to boast of her of disaster would follow. However, when the King claimed no one in the land was as fast as his new horses, Crunden couldn’t help himself and bragged his wife was faster. King Connor declared Crunden prove it or forfeit his life, even though Macha begged the King and his men or mercy as she was heavily pregnant. When they all refused, Macha ran the race and the won, but the activity caused her to go into labor. When the twins she bore didn’t make it, Macha cursed the warriors of Ulster. Whenever they most needed their strength, it would desert them and give way to the pangs of labor for nine days and nine nights, lasting for nine generations.
The Cattle Raid of Cooley (Táin bó Cuailgne)
Considered the Ulster cycle’s most epic story, this tale takes place in the 1st century AD and centers around Queen Mebh/Maeve, jealousy, and fragile egos. As daughter of the High King of Ireland, she was greatly offended when her husband, Ailill, proved himself to be wealthier due to the prized white bull in his possession. Maeve learned there was only one other bull in all of Ireland more prized than her husband’s: Donn Cuagilnge, the Brown Bull of Ulster, owned by the powerful Daire of Cooley in Ulster. Maeve asked him to loan her the bull for a year in exchange for many treasures and he agreed—but when he overheard Maeve’s men boasting that if the Daire hadn’t agreed they would have taken it by force, he was angered and reneged on the deal. Maeve and her husband combined forces, and with the Daire’s men also afflicted with the Pangs of Ulster, Maeve thought she would be victorious. However, a great warrior named Cú Chulainn from Connacht defeated each of Maeve’s warriors one at a time, including the greatest (Ferdia) in an epic, five-day battle. Finally, the bulls fought, with Donn Cuagilnge emerging as the winner. Queen Maeve and the Daire then made a peace treaty that ensured there would be no battle between them for seven years.
Oisín and Niamh
The most commonly known legend of the Otherworld (aka Tír na nÓg, the Land of Youth,) is the tale of Oisín and Niamh. Many years ago lived a legendary warrior named Oisín, son of the leader of the great warriors known as the Fianna, and together they explored and protected all the beautiful green hills of Ireland. One day, Oisín and warriors came upon a beautiful maiden on a stately white horse surrounded by golden light. She introduced herself as Niamh, and said she was looking for the warrior Oisín, as she had heard tell of his skill, so she could bring him back with her to her home in magical land of Tír na nÓg where no one aged or knew sadness and lived forever. Oisín agreed, promising his father he would return soon, and though Tír na nÓg was all Niamh had promised and they were happy together, he missed his homeland. Niamh was reluctant to let him return, for though Oisín believed only a few short years had passed, 300 years had passed in the human world. But she agreed, with one condition—he would ride her white horse to visit and never let his feet touch the ground while he was there. Oisín was saddened by the changes he saw, but stayed to help a few old men move a rock—however, when he leaned off his horse to assist, he fell. When Oisín touched the ground he aged immediately, living only long enough to tell his tale.
Diarmuid and Gráinne
Another famous hero in the Fianna’s ranks, Diarmuid, was known for his fighting skills, but even more for his great beauty--he was born with a Bol Sherca (“love spot”) in the middle of his forehead, causing all who saw him to fall in love. Diarmuid was very loyal to the Fianna’s leader, Finn Mac Cumhaill (aka Finn McCool,) and was there at his side when Finn decided it was time to take another wife. He chose Gráinne, the most beautiful woman in Ireland. Gráinne had fallen in love when she was only 12-years-old with a boy she saw playing hurling, but many years had passed and she hadn’t seen the boy again, so she agreed to marry. But at her wedding feast she saw him again for the first time in so long: the boy she had always loved was none other than Diarmuid. Gráinne hatached a plan—she drugged the wine of all the warriors so they would sleep and put Diarmuid under a geasa to run away with her (meaning an act had to performed or great misfortune would ensue—a kind of oath.) Though it broke his heart to betray his leader, Diarmuid could not break a geasa. Aengus Óg, the god of love, approved of their match and decided to help them, though Finn McCool pursed them in revenge and they could never stop running. They ran for years and years, while Diarmuid and Gráinne lived as man and wife and raised five children, but they were tired and wanted to make peace with Finn. Though they resolved their issues and lived peacefully for a time, Finn McCool eventually got his revenge. When, years later, Diarmuid was gored by a boar, Finn McCool initially refused to heal him with water from his hands (one of his magical abilities.) Though he changed his mind, it was too late and Diarmuid passed on.
As we say in English: The End! Or, if you prefer, in Gaeilge: Sin Sin (which really means: that’s that!)
This post is part of a series. Read our last mythology post, filled with four other famous Irish 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.
Most Famous Tales, Part 1
In all mythologies, there’s a few tales that everyone knows from the time they’re children. For Greek mythology it might be the story of Persephone and Demeter or Midas and his golden touch (or so many more—that’s what we tend to know best in the Western world.) For the Norse it might be Thor’s hammer, Ragnarök, or the nine realms. And for Anglo-Saxon myths it might be St. George and the dragon or Beowulf…but what about Irish mythology? While we’ve talked about many of the creatures and folklore that imbue Irish tales on the blog, we’ve not told you many stories. Here are a few of the most famous ones!
The Salmon of Knowledge
According to legend, in the River Boyne there once lived a fish called the Salmon of Knowledge. A learned poet named Finegas has been trying for seven long years to catch the fish, as it was said the first person to eat the fish would be wiser than all other men. When a young warrior named Fionn came to live with Finegas to learn from him, Fionn asked why Finegas fished all day, but the poet wouldn’t reveal his motivations. Then, finally, Finegas caught a fish and knew it was the Salmon of Knowledge! He commanded Fionn to cook the fish right away, but to not eat a single bite. Fionn listened to his master, but while turning the fish on the spit, Fionn burned his thumb and placed it in his mouth to soothe himself—and received all the knowledge Finegas had wanted for himself! And so Fionn left Finegas’s tutelage, as Finegas had no more to teach him, and Fionn went on to become a wise and great poet, warrior, and leader of the Fianna—the greatest group of warriors Ireland has ever known.
The Children of Lir
Long in the past, there was a King named Lir who lived happily with his wife and four children: Fionnula, Aodh, Conn, and Fiachra. When Lir’s wife died, the family was nearly crushed by their grief, so Lir went out to find a new mother for his children. High King Dearg sent his daughter Aoife to marry Lir, but Aoife was not kind-hearted, instead cruel and jealous of Lir’s love of his children. One day when the children were playing and swimming in Lough Derravaragh, Aoife used Druidic magic to cast a spell on all four of them, turning them into swans for the next 900 years! Lir banished Aoife from his kingdom, but there was no way to reverse the spell—only a sound of a Christian church bell would be able to bring the children back. So the siblings spent 900 long years as swans—until they were released from their torment by a monk named Caomhog who rang the bell and watched in amazement as the swans turned into elderly people. The children died in each other’s arms and were buried in one grave, but the monk dreamed of their happy fate: they were reunited with Lir and their mother in the afterlife.
The Formation of the Giant’s Causeway
Located on the Antrim coast, the Giant’s Causeway is a popular tourist attraction today, but it is said to have been formed long ago by a giant named Finn McCool (aka Fionn Mac Cumhaill.) One day, Finn McCool stood along the coast, looking out across the Irish sea to Scotland, when a less-intelligent Scottish giant named Benandonner began to shout insults and threats at him! Finn took great chunks from the surrounding cliffs and threw them into the sea, creating a causeway made of great columns of sheared off stone so he could reach the other giant. However, as he got closer Finn realized that Benandonner was much bigger than him. Not wanting to take his chances, Finn and his wife Oonagh came up with a plan to trick Benandonner instead. They dressed Finn up as a baby and when the Scottish giant came knocking at their door, he ran away in fear--if that’s how big Finn’s baby was, Finn must be enormous! In his haste and to prevent being followed, Benandonner ripped up the causeway, leaving only the bit on Ireland’s coast that still exists today!
The Harp of Dagda
Long long ago there was a warrior of much-renown named Dagda Mór who became king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Known as the many-skilled, lord of knowledge, the maker, and man of the peak, Dagda had many wonderous possessions, but none so wonderful as his harp. Dagda’s beautiful harp warranted its own name: Uaithne. This harp had many talents—it kept the seasons in order, prepared warriors for battle, and its music was so beautiful it conquered all sorrows. When the Tuatha Dé Danann were battling against the Fomorians, the Fomors coveted Dagda’s harp and stole it! Though the Fomors were defeated in battle, their forces were still many, but
Tune back in next week for another crop of Ireland’s most famous mythic stories!
This post is part of a series. Read our mythology post, all about how the Star Wars hero, Luke Skywalker, is based on Irish myth, 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.
Luke Skywalker or Lugh Samildánach?
Irish mythology has long influenced modern literature and media, times too numerous to count. From Tristan and Iseult inspiring Romeo and Juliet (which in turn became West Side Story) to mention of the banshee in Harry Potter to the influence of ancient Irish warriors on our conception of the American cowboy, Irish mythology has entered our collective conscious in a myriad of ways. But there’s one allusion so subtle that most people don’t see it at all, despite the fact that this series of films is one of the highest grossing of all time!
We’re talking, of course, about Star Wars! Combined, the 12 films have earned over $10 billion worldwide (not counting the TV specials and series, books, and merchandise!), all without people realizing that our original hero, Luke Skywalker, is actually a reincarnation of the Irish hero of myth and legend, Lugh Samildánach. Let’s explore the connections!
First, the names are pretty uncanny. Luke versus Lugh and Skywalker versus Samildánach—it’s hard to not see the parallel. Luke is said to mean “light-giving” (from the Greek,) while Lugh literally means “light” (from the Irish,) a complete match! While the “Skywalker” name seems self-explanatory, Star Wars lore gives a more complex explanation: it’s more than a last name, but a designation given to a Jedi warrior who can navigate with the force (aka Star Wars magic)—a highly specialized skill. Similarly, “Samildánach” is a title as much as a name as well--meaning polymath aka many-skilled, and many-skilled Lugh was (he was known to be a great musician, a healer, and craftsman, among other things.) The key here is both names grant the men a title that mark their skills!
Speaking of skills, next comes the resemblance of what can make or break any great, fictional warrior: their weapons and skillset. Both Luke and Lugh are known for their iconic weapons of choice: the lightsaber and the spear of Gorias, respectively. In Star Wars, lightsabers are essentially laser swords/spears that can cut through virtually anything, the use of which is greatly enhanced through skill with the force. The spear of Gorias is an invincible spear that represented fire/light (in some versions a sword, in some versions it can conjure a lightning bolt,) given to Lugh to help him defeat the Fomor in battle (like Luke’s lightsaber was given to him to defeat Vader, but more on that in a sec!) Additionally, both warriors are highly skilled in the magic of their mythologies, making them almost impossible to defeat.
And then, we have their origin stories: Luke Skywalker was raised by a foster family (that he thought, erroneously, were his aunt and uncle) to protect him from his (SPOILER!) father, the evil Darth Vader. Luke eventually goes on to defeat Vader in battle with his lightsaber. Lugh was also raised by foster parents, as a prophecy meant he had to be hidden away from his grandfather, the Fomor King Balor of the Evil Eye (Vader’s face isn’t looking all too good, either.) When Balor unjustly slew the Tuatha leader, Nuada of the Silver Hand, Lugh fulfilled the prophecy by killing his grandfather with a lightning bolt from his spear (though there’s many versions—even some with a slingshot.) Can’t be a coincidence!
Lastly, the governing philosophy of the Star Wars franchise mirrors Celtic mythology’s own main principles: duality and balance. Both collections of stories concentrate on good and bad, dark and light, birth and death, planting and harvest, and importance of keeping these things in harmony for the good of the universe. There’s no real moral ambiguity in any of these tales: there are good guys, and bad guys, and the good guys win (though, if either has a little more nuance it’s definitely Irish mythology—that was the basis of real, lived religion instead of a sci-fi/fantasy story, after all!)
Can you think of any Celtic tales that inspired modern media? Let us know in the comments below!
This post is part of a series. Read our last Irish mythology post, all about garden creature myths, 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.
Garden Creature Mythology, Part 2
Read part 1 here
We’re back for week two of the mythology of some of our favorite springtime bugs and beasts—featuring some four-legged friends this time! It finally truly feels like spring here in Connecticut, and while the average April temperatures in Ireland tend to be a little chillier (tends to stay in the 50s there,) it’s remains their first real season of blossoming and blooming as well. So get your wellies and gardening gloves on—we’re diving right under the hedgerow!
The first furry friend on our list is protected under the Wildlife Act of 1976—the badger (aka broc.) Due to the modern realization that they can carry diseases that affect livestock and the age-old (outlawed, but still practiced) sport of badger-baiting, populations are still in decline. But perhaps the folklore around badgers has a bit to do with it as well: badgers have long been considered to be bad luck and an omen of death. There’s an old saying: “Should one hear a badger call, / And then an ullot (owl) cry, / Make thy peace with God, good soul, / For thou shall shortly die.” But, like most things we considered bad luck, there are certain situations where they can be good luck, as well: if a badger crosses behind, rather than in front of you, that’s good, and badger teeth are considered good luck for gamblers. Badgers are quite powerfully built little mammals and will fight aggressively to defend themselves and their homes (underground tunnel systems called “setts,”) leading to a certain reverence for them—some tales even claim they’re actually shape-shifters that are actually warriors.
But those aren’t the only trickster animals in Irish folklore—for none can match the skill and cunning of the sionnach, aka the fox. They too are shapeshifters in the myths, due to their reputations of quick escapes, charming appearance, and ability to adapt to new situations and places. The word “shenanigans” is even thought to come from the Irish word sionnachuighim, meaning “I play the fox”—aka sly and calculating behavior (foxes, after all, can leave false trails to deceive hunters.) They’re so quick-witted, apparently, that they’re even able to foresee the future and hearing their bark is supposed to be an indication of eminent rain. It’s thought to be particularly unlucky if the first thing you see leaving your home in the morning is a fox (or a red-haired female stranger,) especially as a fisherman. But, of course, the fox is assumed to be able to confer good luck simultaneously as they can be a symbol of both diplomacy and protection—one of the “bog bodies” called the Lindow Man (thought to be a 2,000-year-old Druid) was found wearing a fox fur amulet.
On the smaller side we have the gráinneog, or hedgehog, though their small stature didn’t stop them from gathering a negative reputation. The Gaeilge word for hedgehog translates literally to “little, ugly thing” and their odd appearance (which has changed very little over the literal millions of years they’ve existed) has led to some odd superstitions and assumptions. In Ireland, hedgehogs were long thought to be evidence of evil spell work afoot to the point that a bounty was placed upon them during the early witch hunts of 1566. Some even thought that hedgehogs were witches themselves, shapeshifting to avoid detection and to drink milk from cows’ udders (though, it must be noted, hedgehogs are in fact lactose-intolerant.) Similar to the fox, they were considered able to predict changes in weather (probably due to the fact they hibernate when winter’s coming on,) which may actually be where our modern tradition of Groundhog Day comes from. No wonder they’re so abused in folklore—no one likes to hear there’s more winter coming.
Less furry, but still four-legged, we have the losgann, aka frog. The frog is yet another creature associated with witches and magic, as well as the underworld. This may be partly due to the fact that frogs are a late addition to Ireland’s animal life, thought to be introduced in either the 12th century by a Norman ship or even later—perhaps in the early 1600s by Trinity College students (no surprise this second date correspond to times heavy with witch hunts.) As frogs were often associated with potions and spells, the term “frog in the throat” may stem from the Irish superstition that putting a frog in the mouth of a child three times and letting it swim away could cure whopping cough. This isn’t the only illness frogs were said to be able to cure—anything from epilepsy and rheumatism to toothaches and colds. They also can predict the weather, supposedly, though by their color rather than their croak (their croak is, of course, a warning sign as a witch’s familiar.) And make sure not to let them in your home—like so much else, it’s considered bad luck.
Okay, we have to look up one more time for our last garden creature in Irish mythology: the bat, or the laltóg. I know won’t be shocking at this point in this post, but bats have long been associated with witchcraft in Irish lore and are often thought to be the souls of the dead (making it an ill omen if they enter the home or get entangled in your hair.) Like the hedgehog, there were rumors that bats were shapeshifting witches—particularly the enchantress Tehi Tegi, who used her bat form to bring men to their destruction by luring them into rivers. (However, seeing a bat at sunset was considered an omen of fair weather the next day—here are a lot of common themes here!) One of the most notable mentions of bats in all of literature has shaped how we look at bats for over a century--Bram Stoker’s Dracula, first published in 1897. Between the tale of the Irish vampire (the Abhartach,) the behavior of the now-called vampire bat, as well as the shapeshifting lore about bats in general, Irish-born Stoker immortalized a myriad of Irish folktales without many outside Ireland even realizing the origins!
That’s a wrap on garden creatures—though there’s so many more tales and legends we couldn’t fit in here. Folklore and legends prove time and again to be how we make sense of the world around us while science rushes to catch up and explain. So Happy Spring to all creatures big and small, furry and slimy, flying and land-bound, good luck and bad!
This post is part of a series. Read our last folklore post, with five other garden creatures and their mythos, 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.
Garden Creature Mythology, Part 1
Happy spring, to one and all! With Easter just past (check out last year’s posts about Easter and springtime Irish traditions,) it’s finally starting to feel like the blooming season is upon us. To celebrate the return of the sun (and the feeling in our fingers,) we thought we’d bring the blossoming garden to the blog today with some interesting mythology surrounding the creatures waking up around us!
First up, the robin—the harbinger of spring across the world (slightly different species of this red-breasted little bird lives all across North America, Europe, and Africa.) In Irish, the European robin is called the spideóg, and spring isn’t what they’re considered a harbinger of…but rather, a death in the household (if they fly in or are tapping on your window.) However, other mythology surrounding the robin is more positive: robins are said to have plucked the thorns from Jesus’s brow, staining their breasts red (or possibly, the red is from fanning the flames of the hearth to keep the baby Jesus warm.) Similarly, they’re often depicted in Celtic folklore doing a good turn or granting wishes for people, so killing them is considered a grave offense that would result in a lump on or a tremor in the offender’s hand. As the saying goes: “Kill a robin or a wren, never prosper, boy or man."
But the robin isn’t the only bird that features in Irish folklore—as you can tell from the above quote, wrens (aka dreoilín) also feature prominently. Wrens were considered a sacred bird (also called the magus avium, or “magic bird”) by the Druids of ancient Ireland who were said to have practiced divination using their song, seeing them as symbols of wisdom and divinity. They’re considered the “King of Birds” for, as the story goes, when all the birds gathered to hold a competition to elect their king, the wren defeated the eagle through a clever deception—he hid upon the eagle’s back and thus was able to fly higher than him when no one thought he could! It’s also said that a wren’s nest is protected by lightning—try to steal their eggs, and you’d be struck!
Though we don’t associate them with the sun (despite the fact that not all species are nocturnal,) owls also have their place in the Celtic mythos (and in the garden—owls are important parts of their ecosystems as they control small animal populations.) The ulchabhán’s folklore is more fit for October than April, as owls are thought to be of the shadows and the otherworld, essentially representing and foretelling death (oftentimes called “the corpse bird”.) There’s even a 12th century story associated with the owl—when the god-like figure Gwydion creates a bride out of flowers (Blodeuedd—“flower face”) for his nephew Lleu. However, when the flower bride betrays her husband, she’s cursed by being transformed into an owl so she may never see the sun and will be tormented by other birds.
On a barely lighter note, we have the allegorical life cycle of the féileacán—aka the butterfly, which is thought to be a physical manifestation of a soul. The transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly exemplifies the now Christian idea of birth, death, and resurrection (and once the Druidic belief of the return to nature after death,) and the way butterflies hover in place is thought to represent a soul reluctant to move on. It’s thought that the ancient custom of flowers at a funeral derive from this belief, as flowers attract butterflies. The belief went so deep that into the 1600s, it was even common law that it was illegal to kill a white butterfly, as they were thought to be the souls of lost children.
And lastly we have one of the most important visitors to any garden—the bees! Bees (aka bumbóg) and their honey have long been considered such an important part of the Irish way of life, that it’s said you must treat them as you would your own family lest they take offense. That means the bees must be told (in a whisper, they hate a harsh word) of all births, deaths (along with a black ribbon laid across the hive,) and marriages (along with a slice of cake!) Bees were thought to be very wise in Celtic mythology, able to travel between worlds as messengers—so anything they did that could be considered an omen was taken very seriously. For example, bees swarming a dead branch predicted a death nearby, but a swarm in your garden would be a sign of good luck to come. Bees were so important there were even ancient laws protecting them! Called the Bech Bretha, these laws governed the treatment of bees and the ownership of bees, including the reparations made if someone was stung (and the much harsher punishment if that person lashed out at the bees!)
While this week we looked to sky, we’ll be returning to earth the next with part 2 of garden creature mythology!
This post is part of a series. Read our mythology post, all about Ireland’s name and the goddess Éiru, 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 Goddess Ériu and the Etymology of Ireland
Etymology, the study of the origin and development of words, is a tricky beast—some words we still use today predate written language and none so much as in a place like Ireland, with such a strong oral tradition. Tracking down the true source of words in the Irish language can be a bit of a wild goose chase, except on the off chance there’s a story behind it. March is indisputably the month of Ireland, especially at an Irish dance school, so today we’re diving into why Ireland’s called Ireland—a myth as old as any on the island, as it refers to the mother of the land itself.
The name for Ireland in Irish is Éire, a word meaning “bountiful,” “plentiful,” and “abundant,” which is derived from the name Ériu (and its anglicized version—Erin)—a goddess in ancient, Irish mythology. First described in print in the 11th century text The Book of the Taking of Ireland (i.e. Lebor Gabála Érenn,) Éiru is known as a sovereignty goddess, representing the country and the land itself in the form of a woman. Together with her two sisters, the lesser known Banba and Fódla (aka a trinity, a symbol strongly connected with Irish culture,) this triumvirate of goddesses were known by a number of epithets: the fair women, a famous throng, the clear voice of achievement, and the bright women of spirited speech.
But why is the island named after Ériu? Legend tells us that when the Milesians invaded Ireland, Éiru and her sisters, members and rulers of the race of the god-like Tuatha Dé Danann, stood against the colonizers, demanding they leave. When the tides began to turn against the Tuatha in the battle for their land, Éiru and her sisters each took the high ground on top of their favorite hilltops to concede to the invaders, on one condition: that the land be named after them so their names would be remembered. The Milesians—Gaels who traveled through Spain in order to reach their new home, ancestors of those we consider Irish today—agreed, but as Éiru was standing on top of the sacred peak of Uisneach, hers became the main name used (though Banba and Fódla remain poetic terms for Ireland.)
Over time, Éiru has become a personification of Ireland, appearing in innumerable nationalist poems and songs into the modern era. Using the concept of Ireland as a woman, often weeping and emotive over the state of the country, has been used for years as a way to stoke the fire in the hearts of Irish patriots. One of the best known pieces of literature that uses this trope is William Dreannan’s 1884 poem “When Erin First Rose,” which is also considered the text that first called Ireland “the Emerald Isle”:
When Erin first rose from the dark swelling flood,
God bless’d the green island and saw it was good;
The em’rald of Europe, it sparkled and shone,
In the ring of the world the most precious stone.
Of course, we know it even better in slogan form, as in: Erin Go Bragh! The anglicization of Éire go Brách, meaning literally “Ireland till the end of all time,” this rallying cry stems from the Irish rebellion of 1798. (Though it’s still often used today as the motto of Irish athletics clubs, politics parties, and even war battalions with Irish members in other countries, as a song or poem title, and generally to expressed Irish national pride.)
One more fun fact? If you remove the accent from the e (i.e. “eire” instead of “Éire,”) the name of the country transforms into Irish word for burden—a fact that, with Ireland’s complex political history, must get a chuckle out of the Irish. Erin Go Bragh and praise Éiru!
This post is part of a series. Read our last folklore post, all about Irish winter superstitions, 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.
Children’s Book Recs, Part 3
St. Patrick’s Day Edition!
What better way to get your dancer excited about St. Patrick’s Day than a good book? We’ve gathered five books themed around March 17th and all the traditions that come with the holiday here for you! (And if you’d like a few more suggestions, check out our first two sets of Irish children’s book recommendations here and here!)
1. The Night Before St. Patrick’s Day, Natasha Wing
Illustrated by Amy Wummer
Wing’s imaginative tale is part of a series of “The Night Before…” books, all modeled after (and in the verse form of) the Christmas classic, but taking place just before alternative holidays. Full of humor and whimsy, the story follows siblings Tim and Maureen as they stay up the night before this Irish holiday setting traps to catch, you guessed it, a leprechaun! The story breaks from its source material by extending into the next day, when the kids awaken to the smell of green eggs cooking and the sound of Dad’s bagpipes (no, this isn’t a mistake, there’s Irish bagpipes too!) But what are they supposed to do when they realize their trap actually worked? Will they be able to get the leprechaun to lead them to his pot of gold, or will the little trickster outsmart them? If you want a preview of the story before buying, check out a read along here!
2. A Fine St. Patrick’s Day, Susan Wojciechowski
Illustrated by Tom Curry
With a moral that stays solid rather than straying into the saccharine, Wojciechowski brings readers the story of two rival villages: Tralee and Tralah, who compete each year in a St. Patrick’s Day decoration contest. Our heroine, feisty but kind six-year-old Fiona O’Reilly, lives in Tralee—the town who’s never quite won the golden shamrock for best decorations, but she knows this will be their year. But when a small stranger appears in Tralah needing help to rescue his cows, only to be turned away by the busy villagers, Fiona is the one who keeps her priorities in check. Rallying her own town to the man’s aid, even though it takes them away from their contest preparations, Fiona’s kindness (and the town’s) is rewarded with a little Irish magic! Richly illustrated with gorgeous, bold paintings of a bucolic green countryside, this tale is one of cooperation and compassion over personal gain. See a read along of the story here!
3. Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland, Tomie dePaola
If you want to go with a slightly more historical route, check out renowned author-illustrator Tomie dePaola’s child-friendly account of the man the holiday is named for! A Connecticut native (Meriden-born!), dePaola is the product of an Irish-Italian upbringing and his bold and rounded, simple but effective, artistic style is immediately familiar to anyone who was a child from the 1970s-today. Best known for his Strega Nona books, among others, dePaola brings the folktales and customs of a variety of cultures to life, including his own Irish heritage (this book about St. Patrick is one of many!) The narrative covers both all we know to be true about St. Patrick—from his noble upbringing to his captivity in Ireland and subsequent visions that led him to his spiritual vocation—and all the rumored folklore (from driving out the snakes to his association with the shamrock.) As dePaola has won virtually every awards a children’s book author can, you know this one will be both entertaining and educational!
4. Tim O’Toole and the Wee Folk, Gerald McDermott
Caldecott Medalist author-illustrator McDermott is, like dePaola, known for his impressively diverse work that travels the globe to teach children about different cultural mythologies. And among his man tales, we have one that focuses on the most popular of Irish myths: the leprechaun. Based on a tale common to many mythologies—a man who wins three magical gifts/wishes—McDermott brings this familiar tale to new life with his “well-honed, Irish lilt” and “lively, expressive” illustrations. This story of a poor Irishman and his wife (Tim and Kathleen) who stumble upon some kindly, but mischievous leprechauns (and the dastardly landlord Mr. McGoon!) is both a delight for kids and teaches an important lesson about following directions! Enjoy this read-along before buying!
5. The O’Brien Book of Irish Fairy Tales and Legends, Una Leavy
Illustrated by Susan Field
Irish author and poet Leavy brings ten classic tales from her homeland’s lore to life in this richly illustrated collection. Irish fairy tales are sweeping epic stories of bravery, lost love, and the oldest magics, certain to enchant readers of all ages. From tricky leprechauns (certainly a theme in all St. Patrick’s Day books!) and Oisín’s descent into Tir na nÓg to the sad tale of the Children of Lir, Leavy’s training as a poet, as well as Irish oral tradition, shines through her beautifully told takes on the age-old fables. Complete with an Irish Gaelic pronunciation guide that will help you and your dancer read along, this book captures the true spirit of St. Patrick’s Day in its skillful and faithful adherence to Irish cultural tradition. Not to mention the beautiful illustrations—which Field has said were all inspired by ancient, Celtic artwork—that help you see these tales through new eyes. (And consider trying the audiobook simultaneously—narrator Aoife McMahon’s beautiful accent does wonders to make you feel like you’re really in old Ireland as you read!)
We hope these get you and your dancer into the St. Patrick’s Day spirit--Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona duit!
This post is part of a series. Read our modern Ireland post, all about NUI Galway, 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.
Irish History: Volume XVI
New Year’s Traditions
Happy New Year! Despite the many continuing challenges of this modern pandemic era, we’ve had an incredible year here at SRL and are so grateful for you—the community that helps make SRL the supportive and amazing place it is for all our dancers to learn and grow. We have so much to celebrate and are ready to go into to 2022 with optimistic hearts and spirits, so we thought we’d bring you some Irish traditions to help you ring in the New Year too!
In Ireland, one of the most consistent New Year’s traditions is one we usually associate with spring rather than mid-winter: a thorough house cleaning! Starting the year with a clean house is thought of as starting the year with a clean slate. There’s even a tradition of sweeping the dust right out the door (to sweep the last year out,) and then sweeping inward (to gather good luck for the new year in!) In some areas, it’s also thought of as essential to make sure every dish in the house is as clean as possible—if you were methodical enough, Cú Chulainn (a great hero from the Ulster cycle of Irish mythology) would leave everyone treats. This coincides with a more regional tradition (remember: any Irish tradition is usually a regional one!): giving small, but thoughtful gifts to those you love to celebrate the new year.
Though it’s fallen out of favor as modernity has led to more environmentally-friendly forms of heating, it also used to be traditional to make sure one’s house was fully stocked with coal as the new year began—though that’s most likely a practical tradition, as the coldest part of winter (even in fairly mild Ireland) is still ahead. There’s always a lot of focus in Irish tradition on prosperity—which makes sense for a country that’s suffered many periods of deprivation—which is how we get one of Ireland’s quirkiest New Year’s traditions: bread banging. A country-wide superstition leads people to bang on the walls of their house with any leftover (and likely hardened) Christmas bread to chase out the bad luck, welcome in the good, and ensure enough bread in the following year. But that’s not the only ear-ringing tradition--you must also bang on pots and pans at midnight with wooden spoons. You might remember this tradition from during the height of the pandemic in 2020—people all over the UK and Ireland were doing this for essential workers each evening, as it’s said to be a protective act for both your family and your community.
Depending on what part of Ireland you live in, you’ll likely be having a big meal on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day—both are considered holidays throughout the country. New Year’s Day was even considered a feast day in the Catholic church until 1960! One consistent tradition surrounding this holiday meal is making sure to open all the windows and doors (or at least unlatch them, if it’s chilly!) to welcome family and ancestors—living and dead. In many regions, a place will even be laid on the table for any loved ones you’ve lost in the last year (or simply still miss, even years later!) to honor them and assure them that, even in death, they’ll always have a place at your table. And don’t forget your living relatives! It’s traditional for the women of the house to visit relatives you don’t often see on New Year’s Day to ensure you stay in good standing with your family for the next year.
Depending on what part of Ireland you live in, you’ll likely be having a big meal on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day—both are considered holidays throughout the country. New Year’s Day was even considered a feast day in the Catholic church until 1960! One consistent tradition surrounding this holiday meal is making sure to open all the windows and doors (or at least unlatch them, if it’s chilly!) to welcome family and ancestors—living and dead. In many regions, a place will even be laid on the table for any loved ones you’ve lost in the last year (or simply still miss, even years later!) to honor them and assure them that, even in death, they’ll always have a place at your table. And don’t forget your living relatives! It’s traditional for the women of the house to visit relatives you don’t often see on New Year’s Day to ensure you stay in good standing with your family for the next year.
While we covered some wintery superstitions last week, it’s probably not surprising that there’s a host of old wives’ tales specifically related to New Year’s (we no longer have to wonder where the phrase “the luck of the Irish came from”—they’ve always been careful to make their own luck!) First off: the doors. You must enter your house through the front door and leave through the back around the stroke of midnight for good luck (it’s also a good way to wish your neighbors a Happy New Year!) But be careful—make sure a handsome man is the first in the door, and not a red-hair woman. The former will bring good luck, and the former bad. No handsome men in the house? Make sure to place that leftover Yuletide mistletoe (sometimes holly or ivy, all Yuletide decorations you’re likely to have on hand and symbols of protection_ under your pillow before you go to sleep to ensure you dream of the man you’ll marry in the next 12 months!
Take note of the wind as you run in one door and out the other (with all the purses and wallets in your house in hand to ward off money troubles next year)—a westerly wind ensures good luck for Ireland, while an easterly wind means, annoyingly to the Irish, good luck for the UK. No clue which direction would mean good luck here in the U.S., but, no matter which way the wind blows we here at SRL hope you have the happiest holiday season and the brightest new year! Looking forward to dancing with you again in 2022!
This post is part of a series. Read our last Irish History post, all about the history of Judaism in 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.
Last year, we covered a whole host of Irish, Yuletide traditions. Check them out here, here, and here.
Ireland’s history is a long one, stretching back centuries before written history. With that history comes many things: deeply rooted, rich cultural traditions, a sense of national pride, and, of course, a whole host of superstitions! We’re here tonight with some of Ireland’s wintery old wives’ tales—just in case there’s any truth to them (who doesn’t want to start the new year off on the right foot?) Enjoy!
Did you get a watch as a holiday gift this year? Hopefully it wasn’t from your significant other—word in Ireland is that a watch from a partner means time is running out and you’ll be breaking up soon. (Just set the clock back, it’ll be fine!) Similarly, a gift of pearls means tears, while anything sharp (knives, scissors, even earrings) can mean a punctured friendship! Don’t worry, you can get around any of this by taping a penny to the gift and having the recipient hand it back to you—that way they’re technically purchasing the present!
You know all those charming New England farmhouses with a single candle in each window? This long-standing tradition stems from the Irish and legend has it that if your candle goes out before Christmas it bodes ill luck in the new year. (Luckily most of those candles are electric these days!)
Did you drop any silverware at your holiday table? A visitor may be in your near future! A knife indicates a male visitor, a fork a female, and a spoon a child (though, regionally, it may mean a child is coming into the family—not just for a visit!)
There’s plenty more meal lore around the holidays: refusing a mince pie during the holiday season will bring you bad luck the next day, eating breakfast by candlelight on Christmas morning and then three sips of salted water at dinner that night will instill good luck and good health, and you must abstain from meat two days after Christmas or have bad luck in the coming year.
Have an itchy nose? You may have the flu (did you get your flu shot?), or a fight may be in your future! (Or, alternatively, as many superstitions are regional: you’ll soon be kissed by a fool.)
Having mistletoe in the house is said to protect one from thunder and lightning! You better keep some on hand—it’s also said that a clap of thunder midwinter foretells the death of the most important person in a 20 mile radius of the storm. Though, if it rains at their funeral it means they’re at peace.
During this season of giving, make sure to donate at least one pair of shoes—the Irish say if you don’t, you’ll be going barefoot in the next life. (And if you get new shoes for Christmas, make sure not to wear them that day…that’s bad luck!)
It’s said that bees awaken from their winter hibernation on Christmas Eve to sing a song in celebration—but only the truly holy can hear them!
Supposedly, snow on Christmas indicates a green Easter in the coming year (alternatively, a green Christmas means a white Easter) and high winds that day indicates good luck blowing in.
Finding a holly bush full of its iconic red berries was considered good luck! (Holly has been an Irish staple for Yule decorations for over 2,000 years and is also seen as a symbolic form of protection.)
And this is just the tip of the iceberg—who knows how the Irish keep all these beliefs straight? In any case, we wish you a happy and healthy holiday season and new year…even if you put up Christmas decorations before the 8th of December or leave a fallen pin on the floor. But, I mean…maybe just pick it up. To be sure.
This post is part of a series. Read our last folklore post, all about the myth of the mysterious barnacle goose, 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 Barnacle Goose
While the average person in modern day Connecticut probably only thinks of geese as a messy and loud nuisance, geese have long been featured in the mythology of many cultures. And that makes sense—fossils of geese that resemble our modern species can be dated back 10-12 million years, while their outsized ancestors date back as much as 50 million years. Ancient Egyptians believed that geese were a representation of the soul, born from the primordial egg of the sun, and thus a messenger between heaven and earth. In Hindu mythology, a pair of divine geese lay a golden egg that the god of creation, Brahma, is born from (he’s even often depicted as riding a goose.) In both the ancient Roman and Nordic traditions, people were sometimes buried with a goose as a status symbol, as they represented holy goddesses. With over 30 species spread across every continent, it’s hard to find a culture that doesn’t in some way venerate the goose.
But Ireland’s mythology surrounding geese is just a little bit different. For as long as written record stands, every September thousands upon thousands of barnacle geese (or in Irish: Gé ghiúrainn) flock (pun intended) to the northern and western coasts of Ireland. The geese roost amongst remote sea-cliffs and islands all winter until the following April, when they depart again. These days, this makes perfect sense to us, right? They’re migrating! We now know that the barnacle goose spends its summer months in Greenland where they mate, nest, and raise their goslings before returning to Ireland for a much milder winter. But the ancient Irish, faced with this phenomenon and with no good explanation handy, came up with their own legends about these (at the time) mysterious creatures.
Can you guess? There’s almost no way your modern mind will come to the same conclusion as Giraldus Cambrensis from the 12th century, a traveling archdeacon and historian. He claimed to have seen the origin of the enigmatic barnacle geese first hand: “first they appear…on fir-logs…Then they hang by their beaks from what seems like sea-weed clinging to the log, while their bodies…are enclosed in shells. And so in the course of time, having put on a stout covering of feathers, they either slip into the water, or take themselves in flight to the freedom of the air.” And Giraldus (his friends called him Gerald of Wales) wasn’t the only one to claim to have seen this transfiguration occur--reports from an 1882 hunting manual and a 1940 book of ornithology both recall first hand accounts.
While this seems ridiculous to us now, take a look at the “goose barnacles” pictured to the right (as opposed to the “barnacle goose” that supposedly grows from them) and perhaps it’s just proof that the Irish of yore were extremely creative and observant (though we do think the above reports may have fudged just a little.) There are innumerable depictions of “barnacle goose trees” throughout historical texts, but why were the Irish paying so much attention to geese in the first place? Because they wanted to eat them during Lent!
Catholic Ireland held fast to the tradition that no meat should be consumed during the 40 days of Lent (excluding seafood.) As the barnacle goose was thought to be born from a spontaneously generated barnacle “fruit” (as it clung to logs,) it was thought by many (even some of the clergy) to be exempt from Lenten regulations. That’s right vegan friends, some in Ireland were so desperate for protein during the end of the winter that they decided that the barnacle goose wasn’t technically flesh (whether it was fish or fruit was up for further debate.) This myth was perpetuated well into the 20th century!
We now know all about migration and the truth of the barnacle goose, but that hasn’t stopped them from being an important part of Ireland’s fauna. In ancient times, barnacle geese weren’t only a source of meat/fish/fruit (?) during the long winter, but also an accurate predictor of the severity of that winter’s coming weather. The same is true today: scientists study barnacle geese—how many goslings there are, how early or late they migrate—to help see the effects of climate change! So while they might not be quite as magical and mythical as the Irish once believed, they’re still a pretty amazing part of winter in Ireland!
This post is part of a series. Take a look at our last Irish Mythology post, three spooky Samhain tales, 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.
Three Spooky Samhain Tales
Read last year’s spooky tales here.
While we’ve covered Samhain treats and costumes already this year, we haven’t told you as much about the why. It’s all in the name of protection, of course! As Samhain marks a time when it’s believed the veil between worlds is at its thinnest, there’s the question of who or rather what may cross over to our side. With your delicious feast and costume to distract them, you don’t need to be worried, but here’s a few spooky Samhain legends so you’ll at least know what you’re up against if you happen to see any of these faeries or monsters on All Hallows’ Eve!
First up we have Stingy Jack, the legend that also explains the origins of the jack-o’-lantern. Jack was a mischievous mortal trickster living in ancient Ireland who invited the Devil to have a drink with him. When the time came to pay, he asked the devil to transform himself into a silver coin to cover the bill—but when he did, Jack tucked him away into his pocket alongside a cross, trapping the Devil inside the coin! Jack made the Devil a deal: if he left Jack alone for a year and promised not to claim Jack’s soul when he died, he would release him. A year passed, but the Devil didn’t learn his lesson—this time Jack asked the Devil for an apple, and trapped the Devil in a tree by carving a cross in the bark. This time, Jack managed to finagle a ten year reprieve! However, Jack died of natural causes before the ten years were up. The Devil, annoyed by this devious mortal man, kept his promise to never claim Jack’s soul, expelling him from the afterlife with only a burning coal. Jack put the coal inside a carved out turnip (that’s right, the first jack-o’-lanterns were turnips, not pumpkins!) and still roams Ireland, scaring travelers in the night.
While Jack’s story is a bit of fun, most Irish Samhain legends are decidedly not. Take the Sluagh, possibly the most feared creatures in all the fey realms. Sluagh means “host” in Gaeilge, and are also known as the “restless dead”—some say becoming one of the Sluagh is a punishment for those who gravely sinned in life. It’s said that Death itself fears the Sluagh and defers to their wishes and that the creatures, though once human, have transformed into bird-like creatures without mercy, loyalty, or reason that now prey on mankind by stealing their souls. From afar, the Sluagh appear as a “vast and ominous” flock of ravens flying in from the West. Up close, you can see traces of their human form, though they still remain bird-like with large, leathery wings. Curious how to pronounce Sluagh? We’re not going to be the ones to tell you! Apparently speaking the name out loud will call them to you…we’re just hoping typing or reading the name doesn’t have the same effect. Just in case, do as many in Ireland do: keep your West-facing windows shut to hold them off!
Our last tale tonight is one you’ve heard in many incarnations: the Dearg Due, aka “the red blood sucker,” aka a female, Irish vampire! The epitome of “a women scorned,” the Dearg Due’s origins came about two thousand years ago when a beautiful young woman fell in love with a poor farmer. Though her real name is lost to time, it’s said that her pale blonde hair and blood-red lips made her beauty legendary and men came from far and wide to try to win her hand, but she only loved her farmer. However, the love match was denied to her by her father, who was looking only for the biggest dowry, and she was instead married off to a cruel, much older man. When the abuses of this man became too much, the Dearg Due died, renouncing God and promising vengeance, and was buried in Co. Waterford under Strongbow’s Tree. But this was only beginning of her tale—the Dearg Due rose from her grave a creature of venegence, looking for blood. She’s said to still roam Ireland, whispering siren songs to young men in the night, taking each new bridegroom back to her grave with her. (Between this and the Dwarf King/vampire called the Abhartach, it’s easy to see where Irishman Bram Stoker got Dracula from!)
We could go on all night, telling tales of the Morrigan and the Carmun, changelings and the Fear Gorta, or even the Alp-luachra, Dullahan, and Gancanagh…but we don’t want to scare you away! There’s no end to terrifying tales in Irish folklore, so it makes sense that protective rituals like feasts, costumes, and jack-o’-lanterns have survived the trials of time and immigrated as the Irish did. Whether you love Halloween for the tricks or the treats, one thing is certain: you have the Irish and their creepy lore to thank!
This post is part of a series. Take a look at our last Irish Mythology post, all about the Lugh and the crane dance, 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.
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.
Irish History: Volume IX
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
Irish History: Volume VIII
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.
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.
Irish* History: Volume VIII
*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.
Irish History: Volume VIII
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.
Dispelling Myths About the Mythical Leprechaun
So, what do you know about Leprechauns? They’re Irish, small, and magical, they love playing tricks and pranks, they’re an emblem of all St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, they love wearing green, love gold, have something to do with rainbows, and they’re imaginary. Nothing else to say (unless you plan on making a Lucky Charms joke,) right? Well, not quite. Let’s take a look at these assumptions one by one…
Your first assumption is definitely right: Leprechauns certainly are Irish. In fact, some people believe they’re the true natives of Ireland, along with the other “Fair Folk” or Faeries! The legend of Leprechauns are as old as any on the isle, though they’ve obviously changed over the years (no breakfast cereal was involved at the beginning at all.) Leprechauns are mentioned in Irish texts as far back as the 8th century, and not just in one part of Ireland, but all through the country. And with your second assumption—they’re small—you’re two for two! The origin of the modern word Leprechaun is the Gaelic word “luchorpán” meaning “small-bodied.”
Those third and fourth assumptions, that they’re magical tricksters, are right on the money again (no pot of gold pun intended.) W.B. Yeats (famous poet, but also an Irish folklorist,) separates the lighthearted gags that Leprechauns like to pull from the more serious tricks the Sídhe (pronounced shee) like to perform (like swapping human children for Changelings.) A perfect example is the belief that if you manage to catch a Leprechaun (no small task—pun intended!) you get three wishes…but you better be careful about the way you word it. Leprechauns will find any loophole you leave in your phrasing! (One story tells of a man who wished for riches beyond compare and his own island...except when the Leprechaun snapped it’s fingers he was wildly rich on a deserted island, with nowhere to spend it. He had to use his last wish just to get back to Ireland!)
Next, we have the first real error: Leprechauns have absolutely nothing to do with St. Patrick’s Day beyond the fact they’re Irish! There is a (unofficial) Leprechaun Day, but it’s May 13th and more of a modern invention connected more to our cartoon, infantilized versions of the myth. Many Irish people aren’t fans of how common the simplified, caricature versions of this long-standing myth are in the cultural zeitgeist. As early as 1963, John A. Costello, former Prime Minister of Ireland, was even quoted as saying in an address to the Oireachtas (Irish parliament:) “For many years, we were afflicted with the miserable trivialities of our tourist advertising. Sometimes it descended to the lowest depths, to the caubeen and the shillelagh, not to speak of the leprechaun.” This desire to stop trivializing Irish mythology hasn’t gone away—as recent years have called more and more schools to look at their culturally insensitive mascots, even Notre Dame’s famed “Fighting Irish” Leprechaun mascot has been coming under fire.
After that, we all know the stereotypical Leprechaun look: green suit, red hair, gold buckles on their hat and shoes. While the color green (and red hair) has become associated with Ireland for a myriad of reasons (mostly religious and political,) the color originally associated with Leprechauns was red! As green became the color of Ireland over time, it became the color of the playful fairies, too. But those shoes you’re thinking of—those actually do point to a “truth” of their mythology. The basis of many a fairytale all across Europe, Leprechauns are the shoemakers of the Fey (as Yeats once said: “Because of their love of dancing, [faeries] will constantly need shoes.”) The word Leprechaun is even associated with an old Gaelic term: “leath bhrogan” meaning shoemaker, and it’s said you can find them by following the sound of their hammering. Many myths also claim they’re involved in Fey dances in another way: they’re also said to be extremely skilled musicians (maybe that tap, tap, tap is just their hard shoes!)
What about the pots of gold at the end of the rainbow? There’s a myth for that! Only modern stories paint Leprechauns as covetous, hoarding their gold--the original telling is more about humans and their greed. The Leprechauns are said to have procured their pots of gold long ago, when the invading Danes left their riches for the Leprechauns to guard when they left Ireland to invade yet another already occupied country. Ever the tricksters and proud Irishmen (there’s no record of female Leprechauns, and no explanation as to how this might work,) the Leprechauns hid the pots of gold all over the countryside. Since it’s impossible to actually find the end of the rainbow, the myth of the pot of gold at the end is said to be another way for Leprechauns to trick humans and expose their greed—they can go looking for someone else’s belongings, but they won’t find them! (And, if you manage to, be careful to watch the Leprechaun closely. They’re known for distracting humans and disappearing before you get any gold or wishes!)
Your last assumption (that they’re imaginary,) well, that’s up for debate. While I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say there’s any proof of their existence (beyond ancient texts and tall tales in the Irish countryside,) at least a third of Ireland isn’t ready to dismiss it out of hand. In a 2011 survey conducted by Co. Louth-based whiskey producer, Cooley Distillery, 33% of Irish people polled believe Leprechauns still exist and 50% of those asked believed that Leprechauns at least existed in the past. These statistics actually aren’t that surprising--a small but fervent faction of Irish people at least passively believe in the Fair Folk, meaning that while they don’t claim to actively interact with faeries, they make sure to mind any customs regarding the Fey…just in case.
Ultimately, the Leprechaun is more than a cartoon used to sell sugary (though, delicious) cereal, but a part of a nation’s rich, folkloric history as much as their early kings and heroes. There’s a mischievousness, but ultimately playful air to them that we’ve come to associate with the Irish nation itself, with their love of storytelling and joking, music and dance. Like anything else, the Leprechauns (and the Irish) are a far more interesting and full story when you scrap the stereotypes and learn just a little more!
This post is part of a series. Read our last post, all about St. Patrick's Day in 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.
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.
Fun Facts About Ireland: Volume III
Check out Volume I and Volume II!
1. Hook Lighthouse in County Wexford is one of the oldest in the world. While the present structure has been around for 848 years, there’s evidence that a lighthouse has stood on that spot back to the 5th century.
2. St. Patrick is also the patron saint of Nigeria. He was named the patron saint of the country by Irish bishops in 1961—the same year Ireland opened their embassy in Lagos (there’s actually a long-standing Irish Catholic presence in the country!)
3. It may or may not be a coincidence that Nigeria actually beats Ireland in Guinness consumption (though it’s only second on the list--the UK takes the top spot!)
4. And while Ireland doesn’t drink the most Guinness in the world, it does drink almost the most tea (impressively beating the UK), at an average of 1,184 cups of tea a year…per person. (Only Turkey has Ireland beat!)
5. Still, Guinness is one of Ireland’s most renowned exports—the famous Guinness Brewery located in Dublin and the top tourist destination while in town. Don’t worry, it will still be there when you’re able to travel again: in 1795, Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000 year lease on the land.
6. If you are planning on visiting one day, consider going in April or June: they’re the driest months of the year there, depending on where you are in the country. But any month will work! While Ireland’s often considered one of the wettest places in the world, it’s actually 80th on that list (though it does have one of the oldest rainfall records in the world—300 years old!)
7. The infamous Billy the Kid, real name Henry McCarthy, was born to two Irish immigrants in New York City in 1859. While his career as an outlaw and his life were short, he was said to be fluent not only in English, but also Spanish and even Irish Gaelic!
8. Ireland has won the Eurovision Song contest more than any other country in the world, seven times since 1970. They’re also the only country that’s won three times consecutively! (Not really sure what Eurovision is? Most Americans aren’t really—just think of it was “a cross between ‘The X-Factor’ and a Miss Universe pageant.”)
9. An Irish art director and film production designer named Austin Cedric Gibbons designed the statue we call an “Oscar” today in 1928. If you look closely, the coveted Academy Award is a knight holding a sword, standing on top of a film reel.
10. Students at Trinity College in Dublin have a much-believed and almost beloved curse: if you pass beneath the “Campanile” (a bell tower,) you’ll fail all your exams. Even those who don’t believe in superstitions admit avoiding the area—if only because it’s also believed to be built over the graveyard of a medieval monastery.
This post is part of a series, read Volume I here and Volume II here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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