You can call it Lughnasa, or Lughnasadh, or even Lúnasa (also Gaeilge for August, all pronounced (roughly) loo-nas-sa,) but the truth of it will have everyone excited for Halloween already hooked: it’s a harvest festival! Lughnasa, named after the god-hero of early Irish mythology, Lugh, is one of the four fire festivals of ancient Ireland (along with Imbolc, Beltane, and Samhain) and falls between the summer solstice and autumn equinox. This pagan holiday marked the beginning of the harvest season, and thus a time of plenty before winter, for the largely agrarian ancient Irelanders. Though this holiday was technically yesterday this year (the dates can shift, but it’s usually the closest Sunday to August 1st) we’re here to tell you about the ways people once celebrated!
Legend states that Lugh (check out another story on the blog about him here) founded the holiday on the occasion of his foster-mother’s death. Tailtiu (whose name shows up with many pronunciations, we’ll let you take your best shot) was an earth goddess said to have died after clearing the land of Ireland for agricultural purposes, and is associated with dying vegetation’s ability to create new life and then sustain it. Lugh’s idea of a proper funeral is a little different from ours today—he decided to honor his foster mother with, well, an Irish version of the Olympics? We’ll explore the now-called Tailteann Games in another post, but, fun fact: the custom of funerary games was actually a relatively common amongst ancient civilizations!
While feats of athleticism are at the root of the holiday, a festival and many celebratory traditions that don’t necessarily make you break sweat grew up around the games. To start: what would a harvest festival be without some celebration of said harvest? Records speak of a ceremonial cutting of the first corn and first fruits of the harvest season as one of the most pervasive customs across the country. While the first of the harvest was offered to the communal bonfire (remember—fire festival!) as a sacrifice to the gods, husks of corn, wheat, or barley were used to create corn dollies—though these weren’t really just dolls! The corn maidens were carefully crafted with least blemished sheaves so they would last the winter, supposedly protecting the household. Some stories even report that once the long winter has passed, the corn dolly would be returned to her place in the earth to bless the new agricultural year. As for fruit: bilberries (we’d call them blueberries) are such a popular Lughnasa treat that the holiday is sometimes referred to as “Bilberry Sunday!” It was believed that the more blueberries there were, the better the following harvest.
Blueberry pie shared the table with all sorts of treats, though in a special place of honor was usually a sacrificed bull (first meat given to the gods, of course) that would feed the whole community. The feasting was often paired with a ritual dance-play that tells the story of Lugh, who as a sun-god helps determine the quality of each year’s harvest, honoring his work for the betterment of mankind, fitting for a poet-warrior. Like other fire festivals, the pagan Irish viewed this time of year as a struggle between gods: Lugh, who wants to distribute the harvest to his people, and Crom Dubh (meaning “dark, crooked one,” the holiday is even sometimes called “Crom Dugh Sunday”) an ancient god figure who wants to hoard the goods for himself. Sometimes the harvest is represented by a female figure named Eithne (Lugh’s mother)—most likely the origin of the corn maidens! Don’t worry—Lugh always wins. These large gatherings also helped spread the prevalence of the tradition of matchmaking on Lughnasa, (remember our Fun Fact about Teltown Marriages? that’s where the first Lughnasa celebration was held, in Co. Meath) but, that was common for any Irish festival as it brought together farming communities whose large tracts of land often kept them secluded from the larger community.
But the traditions don’t end there: as the years went on and Christianity spread across the pagan communities, it became common for the Irish to celebrate with small pilgrimages. Till this day, people take to the hills and mountains for hikes in honor of the season, as well as gravitating toward holy wells to pray. In particular, penitents flock to Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo, said to be the site of Saint Patrick’s 40 day fasting on the same mountain in 441 A.D.—a mass is even held there each year, with thousands of pilgrims in attendance. Holy wells dot the Irish countryside and are still a popular destination on any of the fire festival turned Christian tradition days. The wells are often decorated in garlands of late-summer greenery and pieces of the harvest (another use for corn husks!) These traditions have given Lughnasa yet more names: “Garland Sunday” or “Reek Sunday” (reek, by the way, means “high hill” in Ireland.)
However you feel like celebrating summer winding down—blueberry tarts, creepy dolls, a big meal, setting up your friend with that nice, single coworker of yours, hiking, prayer--Lughnasa Shona!
This post is part of a series. Read our last Irish history post, all about the spring fire festival of Beltane, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Dance in Irish Mythology, Part 3
The Crane Dance
Like any founding mythology of a nation, the Irish mythos is littered with heroes and their glorious deeds—but not many of those stories involve dance. One major exception is the god-hero Lugh (we’ll be discussing the festival in his honor next week!) But before we get into the dancing, we have to tell you a little more about his place as one of the most important heroes in the Irish mythos.
First off—it’s unclear if Lugh was a god or an actual, historical figure. On his god side, Lugh was known as one of the strongest members of the powerful Tuatha Dé Danann: the god of sun and light, an all-seeing and all-knowing deity also associated with poetry, arts, and crafts. While the Romans referred to him as the “Gaulish Mercury”—he’s more like Apollo combined with Hermes, with a dash of Hercules thrown in. His many talents are attributed to being the only surviving member of a set of triplets—he’s often depicted with three faces to represent how he has the power of three (an important number in most mythologies and religions.) On the historical side, Lugh is associated with being not just a mighty warrior, but a skilled one, as well as a symbol of rightful kingship—meaning peace, prosperity, law and order, and oaths and truth. It’s a lot of for one man (or god) to carry!
There are many stories we could tell about Lugh (and probably will in future posts!), but the one that concerns us today is a rite Lugh was recorded performing before he led his men into a fight with the Fomorians (a monstrous, supernatural race from the sea.) While he heats the warriors’ blood with a rhythmic, rousing speech, he…dances. Specifically, he hops to the beat of his chant in a circle on one foot, with one eye closed—and bizarre as this seems out of context, there is an explanation! This is one of the only mentions in Irish mythology of a specific dance being performed by a god, and fitting with his status as a divinity, research shows that he was performing an ancient, Druidic magic called corrghuineacht aka “the crane dance.”
The position Lugh assumes is known as glám dícenn (“satire which destroys,” fitting for this poet-warrior,) and does more than mimic a crane standing in water. Lifting one foot from the ground is meant to place the dancer between worlds, while only one eye is open to block this world and see into the Otherworld. Traveling in a sunwise circle for prayer, blessing, and curses (Lugh, in this instance, is blessing the fighters,) was a common practice in Druidic worship, with infinity figures (circles and knots, foremost,) being the most iconic of Celtic symbols to this day. But the crane was also an important symbol in Celtic mythology: its ability to move between water, land, and air made it a symbol of shapeshifting and magic, as well as the moon to Lugh’s sun—a mirror of his prophetic powers and sacred to the triple goddesses of Irish mythology.
What does this all mean? On one level, it’s a really a beautiful way to view dance and emphasizes the deep, cultural roots of Irish dance in particular: dance in Ireland is something powerful, perhaps even magical, transformative, and of the natural world, tied to the land, the water, and the air of the isle. Lugh performing this dance is of particular significance as his rule as King marked 40 years of peace and prosperity on Irish land where the harvests were abundant and the cows productive—it associates dance with protection of the land and people, something steadfast, comforting, and elucidating in the face of the many invaders over Ireland’s long and often bloody history. Beauty in the midst of chaos—how else could you describe those flying feet paired with perfect posture?
Fun fact: there haven’t been cranes in Ireland for at least three centuries…but a nesting pair was spotted just this year! Up until medieval times, cranes were reportedly the third most common domestic pet in Ireland (after dogs and cats,) usually tamed and kept in the home, near the dinner table. (There are even claims that they were able to be trained to bow their heads in prayer!) Archaeologists also report that crane bones are the fourth most common bird bone found in Ireland, and scholars note that the birds are the second most common in place names throughout the British Isles. Industrialization led to the shrinking of their habitat and many thought the birds had moved on for good, but Irish company Bord na Móna has pivoted their purpose as peat harvesters and committed themselves to restoring the wetlands they had previously devastated. The company was proud to report the pair this past May—and while none of their eggs hatched this year, there’s high hopes for the next!
But there’s more about Lugh (and less about birds) to come…check out our post next week all about the holiday named after this multifaceted god!
This post is part of a series. Take a look at our last Irish Mythology post, all about the “King of the Faeries,” here. Also: check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Dance in Irish Mythology, Part 2
Who is the King of the Faeries?
Any Irish dancer knows what we’re talking about, and everyone else thinks we sound like we’re about to tell a bedtime story, so we’ll clue everyone in: King of the Faeries is one of Irish dance’s 38 traditional set dances. Traditional set dances are named for the music they’re set to (i.e. the trad set “Blackbird” is set to music titled “Blackbird”) and are unique from solo dances as they each have a relatively consistent set of choreography (though each school has its own, slight variation.) While dancers in the lower grades perform these trad sets at a fast-paced tempo, Champion dancers perform at a significantly slower pace to better show off their control and technique.
It’s believed that the trad set dance, “King of the Faeries” stems from a Scottish, Jacobite song titled “Bonny Charlie” (after Charles Edward Stewart, the “Rebel Prince” who attempted to reclaim his throne after his father was exiled) and also ironically made the rounds in the 1700s as “King William of Orange” and “Briton’s Glory” on English soil. Even in its original publication as a trad set in 1840 in Old Irish Folk Music and Songs did it have a different title—the long and baffling “Your Old Wig is the Love of My Heart.” By 1927 it had evolved in the more understandable title “The Lonesome Wedding,” and as late as the 1950s it was popularized in American-Irish communities as “Scollay’s Reel” after a Shetland fiddler of the same name. However, the Irish dance has long known it as “King of the Faeries” and lore evolved around the tune—it’s said to be a summoning song and that if played three times at a feis, the King will appear!
But the question remains…which faerie king will answer the call? Give it a listen here or here and let it play in the background while you read about the possibilities. We have quite a few options…let’s investigate some of the most interesting ones!
Our first contender is Finvarra (generally pronounced phonetically these days, meaning “fair-haired,”) King of the Daoine Sídhe (descedents of the god-like Tuatha Dé Danann,) and called “King of the Faeries of Connacht.” The best comparison to more familiar mythology would paint him as a Hades character—he is also considered the King of the Dead, is generous with favors to those who please him…and abducts the occasional mortal woman. We’re unsure what his beautiful Fae queen, Una/Oona, has to say about that! Their home is said to be Knockmaa in Co. Galway, and Finvarra is believed to be responsible for negotiating with the invading Milesians to save his people—though his peace treaty did force them to stay in the Otherworld, underground. This particular King of the Faeries is the reason no one wants to disturb a Fae mound in Ireland, as it’s rumored that under his leadership the Sídhe built many beautiful cities in their new home—don’t want to disturb them!
Next we have Ailill (pronounced all-yill, meaning “beauty” or “elf,”)—more of a King Consort than a king in his own right, as he was chosen by Queen Maebh (i.e. Maeve, most likely the inspiration for the bane of all ) to rule beside her because he was “a man without meanness, fear, or jealousy, a match for [her] own greatness.” (Though he had to pay his own dowry for the honor of becoming the Milesian Faerie King of Leinster, despite also having claims to the Connacht throne.) Ailill is usually depicted as an extremely tall man with a ruddy complexion and a gold diadem. The full story of the couple after they initially fell in love is one of jealousy and sadness, but you can learn more about it if you wish here.
We could also consider lubdan (pronounced as it looks, meaning “leprechaun,”) who’s probably more of your idea of a faerie than any of the others. lubdan was the Faerie King of Ulster and the “Wee Folk” (aka the Faylinn) with his Queen, Bebo, and is best known for his boastful nature and diminutive size (a common trait among the Faylinn.) His best known story was his attempt to prove his bravery and worth by stealing some of the giants’ (aka the average-sized inhabitants of Ulster) porridge. The attempt failed and to escape his captors, lubdan had to relinquish his prized possession—enchanted shoes that allowed the wearer to walk on water. Read another tale about his exploits here.
And lastly: Midhir (pronounced roughly like mi-dear, meaning “to judge or measure”)—son of Dagda, a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, though Midhir continued to live aboveground (in current day Co. Longford) after the Tuatha were defeated by the Milesians. Though Midhir is often credited as the creator of all the rivers and lakes that keep the Irish countryside so green, he’s more often referred to as a ruler than a god-like figure. He’s best known for what the Irish do best--a tragic love story that echoes Zeus and Hera’s relationship in Greek mythology. Midhir was quite the ladies’ man, though he was married to his Queen, Fúamach. There are many stories of Fuamach turning the faerie Midhir most favored—Étain—in to various creatures (usually something that flies, as Midhir is associated with birds) to punish her husband.
Kingship might not generally be a democracy by definition, but we’re American over here…who’s got your vote? Let us know in the comments!
This post is part of a series. Read our last folklore post, a general overview of the Fae's love of dance, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Dance in Irish Mythology, Part 1
Faeries Love to Dance
Irish dance is unique from other popular dance styles—jazz, tap, modern—not just in technique, but in its deep-rooted ties to ancient Irish culture even as this artistic sport evolves into the present day. Learning and performing Irish dance isn’t limited to the Irish, but each step that’s taught stems from a place before Ireland’s written history, times full of magic and heroes and monsters that we can only call mythologic. While there’s not precisely proof of faeries (but don’t tell the Irish that--many still at least passively believe in the Sídhe, pronounced shee) and the people who lived beside them, one part of the stories is clear: faeries love to dance. (Want a quick overview of some of the basics of Irish mythology? Check out our post about the Tuatha Dé Danann, the ancient Irish gods, here.)
Any dancers knows that while dance is hard work and constant practice, there are moments where dancing can make you feel as if you’ve been transported to another world. Nowhere is this clearer than in Irish mythology, where tales of beautiful, unearthly music and dance partners so enchanting one can’t help but keep dancing, abound. As Greek mythology has the pomegranate seeds (and almost every known mythology has a correlation—Japanese, Norse, even Christianity) that trap Persephone in the Underworld, Irish mythology has dance. The sense of timelessness, peace, and joy we feel when we dance evokes the feeling the ancient Irish associated with the perfection of Tír na nÓg (the “Land of Youth” or the “Otherworld”)—a place where time is frozen and no one grows old. To dance with the Fae in their underground realm is dangerous game in Ireland—you may emerge unscathed, but you may emerge days, weeks, years later…or not at all. Time is a tricky thing in the Otherworld, after all!
But, dancing for the Sídhe is more than a deception—it’s their most beloved activity! Yeats, world renown poet perhaps less known for his extensive work recording and examining Irish mythology, features dance heavily in his poems that focus on the legends of the Fae and all the associated creatures. For example, Leprechauns (read a fuller description of these mischievous troublemakers here) are typically excellent musicians and cobblers, with Yeats explaining: “Because of their love of dancing, they (the Fae) will always need shoes.” It was thought that a good dancer or musician was favored by the Fae with their blessing, but Yeats’s take uses dance and tales of the Sídhe as an exploration of idealistic, national pride as the world was changing around him. The constancy of national identity and tradition the Irish have fought long and hard to protect (dance included) exists perpetually and perfectly in the Land of Youth, no matter what skirmishes may be being fought above ground.
But this is all fairytales and stories, right? Well, most stories we tell children—to comfort or warn them—do have a root in reality somewhere. The concept of dance as an inseparable part of Irish mythology and culture may be due to the importance of ritualistic movement in Druidic times. Historians agree that pagan priests most likely practiced a ceremonial dance of sorts called cor deiseal (pronounced kor dy-ash-al,) from the Irish deis for “right hand” and deas for “South.” As the Druids were sun-worshippers (learn more here!), these dances were performed in complicated clockwise patterns to follow the sun’s path. These rites are considered by many to be the earliest form of Irish dance, and it’s no wonder the storytellers of Irish mythology picked up on these culturally important ceremonies and wove them in to their own tales.
With the first feiseanna in Ireland believed to be a literally three millennia ago at Tara—a site known for its ancient ruins that align with the sun on Samhain, featured in many an Irish legend—it’s clear that dance has been inextricably linked with Ireland’s culture and beliefs since day one. Even modern Ireland isn’t empty of this more ritualized form of Irish dance today! Visit any holy sites or wells in Ireland (popular on festival days like Beltane or Lughnasa, and many other religious holidays, both pagan and Christian) and you may see regular citizens walking clockwise around the site as they tie clooties to trees. Paganism has also seen a resurgence in Ireland in recent days, with huge festivals being thrown on ancient, holy sites that include music, dance, and celebrations so raucous one wonders if they’ll bring the Sídhe from the Otherworld to join in. How could they resist?
Tune in next week where we continue to explore the links between Irish mythology and dance by asking one, very important question: who exactly is the king of the faeries?
This post is part of a series. Read our last mythology post, all about Springtime Old Wives’ Tales, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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
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.
*More like "Western World History" this week!
Springtime Traditions, Part 2
Bunnies Laying Eggs?
You might notice that this Easter post, while still coming early in April, is arriving a little after that anthropomorphic bunny and his (?) eggs. Be honest, now...didn’t we all think Easter would be later this year? And, well, if Easter moves around, why not a post about it? Ever wonder why that is, or, like us, have you just accepted it and googled when it is every year?
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Easter, very much a Christian holiday, doesn’t have any particular ancient, Celtic roots beyond what it’s become to many in our increasingly secular world: a celebration of spring’s return (see last week’s post for more about Imbolc—the Celtic, pagan welcoming of spring.) Even the confusing, roving nature of Easter’s date isn’t Celtic in origin. Though Easter falls on the first full moon after spring’s arrival, this is due to church decisions to try to align better with corresponding Judaic celebrations (as the Judaic calendar follows lunar cycles.) And remember: while nothing sounds more Celtic than following the world’s natural movements, the pagan Celts were sun worshippers above all else.
Then where did this mish-mash of traditions to celebrate a very Christian holiday come from? Some scholars say from what’s now Germany, and some say…they don’t know. The name “Easter” is said to have come from an ancient, pagan (but not Celtic!) Northern Anglo-Saxon goddess Ēostre (pronounced yow-str.) Ēostre’s realm of influence was incredibly similar to Ireland’s springtime goddess, Brigid: fertility, fecundity, and all things revolving around new growth and life. Ēostre’s symbols included, among others, hares (continually a symbol of fertility) and eggs (for obvious reasons,) giving rise to the somewhat confusing combination we retain on Easter to this day. Or not. This has been the accepted story for many years, but a recent research inquiry by a Library of Congress employee (among a few other skeptics) calls this into question.
According to folklorist Stephen Winick, there’s not only no actual evidence to support this version of Easter’s origins, but the worship of Ēostre as a goddess at all. The only mention of her in early written records is a singular mention in the St. Bede’s medieval tome The Reckoning of Time. After that, there’s no textual evidence of the goddess (and definitely none that links her with Easter imagery) until the Brothers Grimm in the 1800s, who even proposed that Bede’s statement about the goddess was pure conjecture and “Ostara” (the Old High German version of Ēostre) was only a reference to the season, no goddess at all. An 1874 publication by a German mythologist found the already established connection between Ēostre, hares, and eggs a completely mysterious one—but, in the end, our best guess is simply that all our Easter symbols are simply spring-like, so we celebrate with them all over the world.
While the origins of our Easter traditions are a bit fuzzy, we do know that they’re pretty similar between Ireland and America. Ireland not only has their own Easter bunny delivering small gifts to children who have kept Lent (cue all that sugar,) but the same egg hunting and painting (and rolling and racing…) traditions we know and love on this bank holiday. Since we know Ēostre probably has nothing to do with these eggs, it’s more likely that these games and art projects were a result of the happenstance of an overabundance of eggs—they’re traditionally not eaten during the Lenten season.
The rest of Ireland’s traditions, even if not your own, all make a certain springtime sense: the purchasing of new clothes for Easter mass, spring cleaning and, at one time, repainting your home, priests making rounds to bless said newly painted homes, people traveling to celebrate together after winter weather has kept them apart, and, like all good holidays, feasting (similar to the U.S. lamb and ham are the most common main dish served.) Most iconic beyond the rabbits and eggs are Ireland’s hot cross buns, a spiced, sweet bread roll commonly eaten on Good Friday. While the tradition of baking sweet treats for springtime celebrations is as old as any record we have, the hot cross bun has been adapted to Christianity’s needs: the spices are said to represent embalming herbs, while the cross is a reference to the crucifixion.
While worldwide Easter customs vary (take the Australian Easter Bilby or France’s inexplicable flying bells and fish chocolates,) one thing is clear: it took more than one country’s traditions to make into the holiday it’s become. But spring has just begun. Tune in next time for another dip into Ireland's springtime traditions with: Mother's Day!
This post is part of a series. Read about the early spring fire festival of Imbolc in our last installment here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Springtime Traditions, Part 1
Spring is here! And, as we’ve discovered on this blog, many of our modern celebrations here in America come from ancient, Celtic, and often pagan traditions. Just as Samhain welcomes autumn and Yuletide winter, the people of ancient Irish had a number of festivals to welcome back the warm weather and promise of growth and change.
Pagan springtime traditions begin in Ireland not in March or April, but the beginning of February (that’s around the time we’re all about ready for spring, after all) with Imbolc/Imbolg (pronounced im-bohlk) or, it’s Christianized incarnation: St. Brigid’s feast day. One of the four major fire festivals (along with Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain,) Imbloc falls squarely between the winter solstice and the spring equinox on February 1st into the 2nd and heralds the upcoming change of the seasons. “Imbolg” means “in the belly” and before it became the feast day of St. Brigid/Bridget (an actual historical figure we’ll have to do a post on someday soon!) it was the dominion of the fertility goddess Brigid. Brigid (who deserves her own post as well,) oversaw not only birth and pregnancy, but also poetry, crafts, and prophecy as a goddess of creation. As an early agrarian society, this festival also aligns with the breeding cycle of sheep—long a staple feature in Irish farm life and a symbol of fecundity.
Imbolc was traditionally celebrated like all fire festivals with, you guessed it, fires! For Imbolc, the blazes signify the sun’s return and the beginning of the “light half” of the year. While the two biggest fire festivals (Samhain in October and Beltane in May) were (and still are!) usually large, communal affairs, Imbolc was a time of reflection at your own hearth with your family before all the work that would come when spring fully arrived. Additionally, it was tradition to take the time to visit holy wells to leave offerings to the gods so they would help spring arrive quickly and provide good weather for the growing season. Supplicants would walk “sunwise” around the well and provide food from their feast tables (everything from cheeses to bannocks,) coins, and “clooties”—strips of cloth often used in healing rituals, often left in nearby trees.
(So far, none of these traditions sound much like anything we practice today, but just wait…does this bit remind you of anything?) Weather was of particular concern to Irish pagans whose reliance on the land was one of the tenants of their religion, and Imbolc was also a time to look for omens regarding that summer’s weather. Bad weather on Imbolc was considered a good omen for the coming season, based all around the rather terrifying legend of the Cailleach (meaning literally “old woman” or “hag.”) The Cailleach is associated with storms and winter, and sleeps through the warm months—so if it’s a bad day out on Imbolc she’d said to be already asleep. Because, of course, if she needed more wood for more winter it’d be nice out to facilitate her gathering firewood!
Did you guess? That’s right, Imbolc is the root of Groundhog’s Day! Even though this relatively silly holiday didn’t appear until 1887 (and Imbolc’s roots lay far in the distant past,) it prescribes to the exact same superstition: a cloudy day means Puxatawny Phil doesn’t see his shadow and spring is on its way! If you missed it this year, Phil did predict six more weeks of winter in 2021. Luckily, we’re already past it!)
Similarly to the Christian church’s adaptation of other pagan holidays, there was a natural changeover from Imbolc (which, reminder, was always closely associated with the goddess Brigid as she’s part of this lighter half of year with her creation associations) to the Catholic feast day it’s become. No, the church isn’t celebrating a pagan goddess, but an abbess from the 5th century who also held this traditional Irish name and whose good works and miracles (founding Ireland’s first nunnery, converting her own Druidic father, restoring sight to the blind, and even creating beer out of water) had her canonized and named one of Ireland’s two patron saints. Those familiar with Catholicism will recognize this time (February 2nd, more specifically) not only as celebrating the Saint Brigid, but also as Candlemas—a day where many Irish people still bring candles to their churches to be blessed. The influence of the ancient fire festival is easy to see (though with the advent of electric heating, it makes sense our hearths and bonfires have become the more readily available candles.)
But, you might be thinking, Imbolc only covers February and spring is a whole season! Don’t worry, we’ve got you. Tune in again next week for more connections between Ireland’s past and present, and how we continue to celebrate around the world today!
This post is part of a series, read our last installment, all about St. Patrick's Day in modern Ireland, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
St. Patrick’s Day Edition!
Check out our last ten fun facts here.
1. One of the most recent Leprechaun “sightings” was in 1989. A man named P.J. O’Hare claims he saw one and now has the clothes the wee faerie folk left behind on display in his pub in Carlingford, Co. Louth. The town even holds an annual Leprechaun hunt every year!
2. They’ve been dying the Chicago River green every Saint Patrick’s Day since 1962—but the first time was an accident! The year before the tradition began, then-mayor Richard J. Daly approved dumping some green dye in the river to help see where sewage was being dumped and fix the problem. A local named Stephen Bailey, a member of the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local, realized with a little more dye they could (safely! It’s a vegetable-based dye now!) color the whole river and the tradition was born. These days, they use 40 pounds of orange powder to get that garish green hue!
3. The odds of ever finding a four-leaf clover are about 1 in 10,000. (Though check out this 2014 story about a woman who found an astonishing 21 four-leaf clovers in her yard!)
4. From 1999 to 2007, the Irish town of Dripsey claimed the title of “Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the World.” The parade route was only 26 yards long! (Nowadays Hot Springs, Arkansas has claimed the title for themselves.)
5. An estimated 13 million pints of Guinness are consumed every St. Patrick’s Day—that’s a steep increase from the more typical 5.5 million a day. (Beer sales in America alone rise 174%!)
6. Leprechauns are a protected species under EU law. A man named Kevin Woods from Carlingford (yes, the same place with the annual Leprechaun hunt!) managed to get his local Sliabh Foy Loop trail protected under the European Habitats Directive, including the 236 Leprechauns the local lobbyists claim live there!
7. The special type of marshmallows everyone loves to pick out of Lucky Charms cereal are called “marbits” and were originally just chopped up circus peanuts! (AND! The original incarnation of Lucky Charms didn’t have a sugar coating. A General Mills project manager named Paul Bunyon had to find a solution for all the excess Cherrios, so he did what any sane person would do…mixed them with candy.)
8. We’re used to thinking about the story of Irish Immigrants coming to America, but what about Australia? In 2010, the Sydney Opera House went green to celebrate 200 years of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the country. The first was when the then-Governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquaire, provided entertainment for Irish convict workers on March 17th, 1810!
9. You may have noticed there isn’t any corn in that corned beef and cabbage you have once a year on March 17th…the “corned” bit actually refers to the large salt crystals that were historically used to cure meat and called, you guessed it, “corns”! (That’s why it had to be boiled—to get rid of the excess salt!)
10. There’s a 50-year-long tradition that, on or around St. Patrick’s Day, the current Prime Minister of Ireland (the Taoiseach) presents the current U.S. President with a crystal bowl of shamrocks. It’s both a symbol of the close ties between the two countries, and a political move that helps a relatively small country retain a familiar relationship with the U.S.! While it most likely won’t be happening this year, it did in 2020, just days before the world went into lockdown.
This post is part of a series, read Volume III here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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.
Check out Volume I and Volume II!
1. Hook Lighthouse in County Wexford is one of the oldest in the world. While the present structure has been around for 848 years, there’s evidence that a lighthouse has stood on that spot back to the 5th century.
2. St. Patrick is also the patron saint of Nigeria. He was named the patron saint of the country by Irish bishops in 1961—the same year Ireland opened their embassy in Lagos (there’s actually a long-standing Irish Catholic presence in the country!)
3. It may or may not be a coincidence that Nigeria actually beats Ireland in Guinness consumption (though it’s only second on the list--the UK takes the top spot!)
4. And while Ireland doesn’t drink the most Guinness in the world, it does drink almost the most tea (impressively beating the UK), at an average of 1,184 cups of tea a year…per person. (Only Turkey has Ireland beat!)
5. Still, Guinness is one of Ireland’s most renowned exports—the famous Guinness Brewery located in Dublin and the top tourist destination while in town. Don’t worry, it will still be there when you’re able to travel again: in 1795, Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000 year lease on the land.
6. If you are planning on visiting one day, consider going in April or June: they’re the driest months of the year there, depending on where you are in the country. But any month will work! While Ireland’s often considered one of the wettest places in the world, it’s actually 80th on that list (though it does have one of the oldest rainfall records in the world—300 years old!)
7. The infamous Billy the Kid, real name Henry McCarthy, was born to two Irish immigrants in New York City in 1859. While his career as an outlaw and his life were short, he was said to be fluent not only in English, but also Spanish and even Irish Gaelic!
8. Ireland has won the Eurovision Song contest more than any other country in the world, seven times since 1970. They’re also the only country that’s won three times consecutively! (Not really sure what Eurovision is? Most Americans aren’t really—just think of it was “a cross between ‘The X-Factor’ and a Miss Universe pageant.”)
9. An Irish art director and film production designer named Austin Cedric Gibbons designed the statue we call an “Oscar” today in 1928. If you look closely, the coveted Academy Award is a knight holding a sword, standing on top of a film reel.
10. Students at Trinity College in Dublin have a much-believed and almost beloved curse: if you pass beneath the “Campanile” (a bell tower,) you’ll fail all your exams. Even those who don’t believe in superstitions admit avoiding the area—if only because it’s also believed to be built over the graveyard of a medieval monastery.
This post is part of a series, read Volume I here and Volume II here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
The Irish Love Story
Since it’s the day after Valentine’s Day, we decided it was the perfect time to share one of Irish mythology’s most epic love stories! Why the day after? Because Irish mythology, and particularly Irish love stories, aren’t known for their happy endings.
In fact, Joseph Campbell, one of the preeminent scholars in comparative mythology of the 20th century, theorized that our concept of love in Western, modern culture was not only influenced, but entirely formed by Irish mythology. Campbell believed that Irish mythology’s insistence of true, romantic love over duty (ending, usually, in tragedy) has formed Western consciousness as we know it. Innumerable Pre-Christian, Irish love stories involve the lovers running away from society into the wilderness with only their “love to keep them warm” (no one sings that sad, romantic classic quite like Billie Holiday.) When the Normans invaded Ireland at the beginning of the Middle Ages, they (like many before and after them—look at Halloween or Christmas traditions, for instance) adapted Irish mythology into their own tales for their own purposes. This adaptation became the archetype of courtly love, forming the Arthurian legends that still influence our storytelling and romantic ideals today.
Take, for example, the story of Grainne (typically pronounced “Grawn-ya”) and Diarmuid (aka “Dear-mid”,) from the Fenian cycle—one of the most enduring love stories in all of Irish mythology. (Even if these names are new to you, it will probably sound a bit familiar.) Grainne was the beautiful daughter of the High King of Ireland, who decided his daughter should marry the (aging) mythic hero and warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill (or these days by the pronunciation: “Finn MacCool,”) leader of the warriors known as the Fianna. Like many things parents try to map out for their children, this didn’t go entirely to plan.
At her wedding feast, Grainne spotted the young, handsome Diarmuid, best warrior and best friend of her new husband, and it was love at first sight (in all fairness, Finn MacCool was older than her father.) In a desperate move, Grainne drugged the entire party and convinced Diarmuid to run away with her. His pride wounded, Finn MacCool immediately began his pursuit of the young lovers across all of Ireland and back again, with many an adventure in between (innumerable local legends claim that this spot or that is where the couple hid so many years ago.) The pair was eventually allowed to settle in what’s now County Sligo until Diarmuid was gored by a boar…but that wasn’t truly what killed him.
Grainne begged MacCool (who had either still been pursuing the couple or had invited Diarmuid on the hunt knowing he was destined to die by boar—versions differ) to use his magical gift (water drunk from his cupped hands could cure any ailment) to save her love. But MacCool’s long-harbored pettiness led him to let the water slip through his fingers and Diarmuid ultimately passed away from his injuries. Legends agree upon one fact: Grainne died soon after of a broken heart. (We know what you’re thinking, this can’t be what all Irish love myths are like. Well, the details change, but the broad strokes are the same across the board.)
Now where have you heard this before? This story is pretty similar to the better known (there is, after all, a beloved Wagner opera of the name, as well as a less beloved 2006 film starring James Franco,) Irish tale of Tristan and Isolde, as well as the tale of King Arthur, his wife, Guinevere, and his knight, Lancelot. It’s not much of a jump to move ahead 1,000 or so years (skipping many incarnations in between) and compare it to Othello or even Romeo and Juliet (“never was there a story of more woe,” as the Bard said.) Another 250 years brings us to Wuthering Heights, and only another 100 and we catch up to West Side Story (which is, very consciously, a modern Romeo and Juliet.) Turn on the TV today and you might catch a showing of The Notebook or Me Before You, or maybe an episode of This is Us. Even our what we consider real life, modern fairytales like Princess Diana, Grace Kelly, or different relationships within the Kennedy family all ended tragically. Sure, there are plenty of couples out there in the real world (and in stories!) that live happily ever after…but aren’t those usually the cleaned-up versions we tell to children?
While it’s not a straight shot from ancient Celtic lore to a TV show starring a former teen pop star, there’s an undeniable influence Irish mythology has had on Western society and our ideals of romantic love. It’s hard to say whether this is the healthier, more realistic view of love (mortality, after all, being a fact of life,) or a fatalistic and maybe even self-indulgent focus on the negative–that’s for each person to decide for themselves. You can love or hate to cry over a tragic love story, but I think Joseph Campbell would agree you have the Irish to thank!
This is Volume III of a series. Read our last installment all about Samhain (Irish Halloween) here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram
St. Valentine and Irish Romantic Traditions
It’s common knowledge these days that, no matter how commercial it may seem, Valentine’s Day is a much older tradition then the invention of Conversation Hearts. (Remember last year’s shortage? They apparently take eleven months to make enough for the six-week period around the holiday!) Like much in the Western world, it’s a custom poached from the remains of the Roman Empire and though ancient history is a little fuzzy about the details (there may be two or three different St. Valentines,) we’ve landed on this (probably not entirely correct) story: a priest named Valentine was executed for marrying Christian couples and became a saint for his good works. Now we celebrate love in his honor on his feast day (the day he was martyred) in the liturgical calendar: February 14th. (Though the church did remove the celebration officially in 1969, making it wholly secular these days.)
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I know what you’re thinking: why are we writing about St. Valentine under Irish history?
It’s true, St. Valentine wasn’t Irish by birth, but he’s now been in the country long enough to call himself an Irishman. In 1836, an Irish Carmelite priest named Friar John Spratt visited Rome and his sermons were so brilliant he was showered with gifts from the most influential religious figures in the city—including the Pope. The Pope’s gift went above and beyond a commemorative mug: he gave Friar Spratt relics from the body of St. Valentine to bring back to Ireland for the Irish people. St. Valentine was reinterred in a Carmelite church on Whitefriar Street in Dublin (it’s now Aungier Street, but the church kept the name.) Every February 14th, many Irishmen and women come to pay homage and pray for their romantic futures. (Last year Irish Central even interviewed a couple that met doing just that four years ago and now plans on getting married!)
Despite the saint the day is named after being buried in their capital, Valentine’s Day isn’t a particularly Irish holiday. However, that doesn’t mean the Irish aren’t romantics at heart. One only has to look at their literary masters (W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde …to name a few) and their love poems to know romance isn’t dead on the Emerald Isle. Need a line or two to add to your partner’s card this year? The Irish have got you covered. Or when we can travel again, check out this list of romantic spots all throughout Ireland…but don’t forget the beautiful Howth’s Head just outside of Dublin (where one of the most romantic scenes in classic literature takes place: Leopold proposes to Molly there in Joyce’s tome Ulysses.)
Your beloved isn’t much for poetry? That’s okay—try a claddagh ring! The claddagh has become a popular symbol on jewelry all over the world, but originates in County Galway where in the 18th century fishermen used them as identification. The design’s meaning—a heart for love, hands for friendship, and a crown for loyalty—has morphed into a common romantic gift, complete with its own coded language. On the right hand, the heart worn pointing toward your fingertips means you’re available, and towards your own heart means you’re taken. The left hand is reserved for more serious relationships: pointing away is engaged, pointing toward you is married. And ladies, if you feel like doing the proposing, Ireland has a tradition for that too! Every four years on a Leap Day (February 29th,) it’s tradition for women to take the initiative and propose to their male partners. This practice possibly originates as early the 5th century A.D.—which must be why it’s so (sweet but…) antiquated.
Speaking of marriage, there’s an Irish romantic tradition even older than Leap Day proposals: handfasting. The tradition dates back to 7000 B.C. and is simple: couples would announce their intention to be married and tie their hands together with a braided length of rope or ribbon in front of a priest. After a year, they would return to the priest to be married or to decide to go their separate ways. Weddings these days often make symbolic use of the tradition (instead of as an engagement ceremony) to show their new unity. But how do you find someone to get handfasted with? Why not check out the 150-year-old Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival! Originally designed to help young people from rural farms meet mates, this sleepy town in Country Clare is transformed every September into the place to meet your match even today.
Last, but not least, one can’t argue that the Irish Gaelic language doesn’t have its touch of romance. Need a new pet name for someone you love? Ireland has a wealth of them and here’s a few to leave you with:
A stór (uh STORE): my treasure
A ghrá (uh GRAWH): my love
A mhuirnín (uh WUR-neen): my darling
A chuisle (uh KHUSH-leh): my pulse
Mo shíorghrá (muh HEER-ggrawh): my eternal love/soul mate
Is ceol mo chroí thú (Is cyoal mu khree who): you’re the music of my heart
Happy Valentine’s Day!
This post is part of a series. Read more about Ireland's history by reading about the story of Dr. James Barry here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Check out our first ten fun facts here!
1. The Wild Atlantic Way is the longest, uninterrupted coastal driving route in the world. Officially opened in 2014 by the Irish tourism board, the route covers the entire west coast of the country, from the border of Northern Ireland all the way to (almost!) Cork. Passing through three provinces and nine counties, the route displays some of Ireland’s most beautiful scenery.
2. As Dracula is set largely in England, most people don’t realize its author, Bram Stoker, is an Irishman. In fact, the character of Dracula and this concept of vampires that became our standard was based on the Irish legend of the Abhartach.
3. The Titanic was built in Ireland—in Belfast at the Harland and Wolff shipyard, specifically. Pre-COVID, there was even a large, interactive, narrative monument and museum dedicated to Belfast’s shipbuilding called “Titanic Belfast.” (Miss Courtney's been!)
4. While we tend to think of it as an “Irish accent,” there’s really hundreds of Irish accents, all specific to different areas, education levels, and classes, with a variety of complex, social histories behind them. (Though phonologists tend to divide all these varieties into 3-5 larger groupings.)
5. The Croaghaun Cliffs on Achill Island in County Mayo are the third highest sea cliffs in all of Europe at 752 meters (that’s about half a mile!) Only Hornelen in Norway (860 meters) and Cape Enniberg on the Faroe Islands (754 meters) has them beat! (Barely.)
6. There’s evidence that people have populated Ireland for over 10,000 years. It’s a little later than much of Europe due to the climate (and the fact it’s an island,) but impressive nonetheless! The oldest artefacts have been found in the North of the country.
7. Ireland once had its own version of the Olympics! They were called the Tailteann Games (or the Lughnasa games after the Irish hero of legend, Lugh.) They took place in 1924, 1928, and 1932 and were a celebration of traditional Irish sporting events. Unfortunately, the event didn’t take off worldwide, but smaller versions still exist to this day!
8. Speaking of sport (as they’d say in Ireland,) Ireland has one of the oldest consistent sporting traditions in the world (at least 3,000 years old!): hurling. It’s considered the fastest game played on grass and bears a vague resemblance in equipment to field hockey or even lacrosse (though definitely not in play.) P.S. The women’s version of hurling is almost identical, but called camogie.
9. The hollow, hypodermic needle was invented by an Irishman and surgeon named Dr. Francis Rynd in 1844. The world’s first subcutaneous injection was even performed at the Meath Hospital in Dublin! Even if you hate needles, this was a revolutionary advancement that has allowed to save and better billions of people’s lives.
10. In 1970s Ireland (and still today at English boarding schools and some places in India) there was a tradition known as “bumps.” Essentially, if it was your birthday, you’d be grabbed by your classmates and thrown repeatedly into the air to be “bumped” on the floor, often upside down—once for every year of your life. It would often end in a big finale throw where you might or might not be caught on the way down. (You can see why it’s not often practiced these days!)
This post is part of a series, read Volume I here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram
Middle Grade, Part 1
If the term “middle grade” isn’t familiar to you in terms of books, the name is relatively revealing: it just means books written for children around the ages 8-12. You know: out of the picture book stage, but perhaps not ready for either the level or themes of Young Adult fiction. A lot of SRL’s dancers fall right into this category, so we wanted to give them a way of learning about Ireland that will capture their imaginations in that magical way only books can do! (Unsure if a book is too advanced for your dancer? While you know your child’s reading levels best, just remember that kids like to read up—i.e. an 8 or 10-year-old generally wants to read about a 12-year-old, and so on!)
1. Kathleen: The Celtic Knot, Siobhán Parkinson
Illustrated by Troy Howell
This story of Irish dance and life in Ireland during the Great Depression is part of the “Girls of Many Lands” series by American Girl. (And yes, there used to be a doll! Unfortunately, she seems to be discontinued, but pops up on eBay. She was so beloved there’s even fan pages for her character.) Kathleen Murphy is a curious 12-year-old girl growing up in Dublin in 1937, who loves to Irish dance and is a clever dancer. Unfortunately, Kathleen’s family doesn’t have the money for the lessons or a costume for her. The book follows Kathleen on her journey to being able to compete, teaching us lessons about compassion, honesty, and Irish life during a time of political, religious, and financial strife with a light hand. American Girl’s books always strike that fine balance between history and story that make the past’s realities accessible for younger readers.
2. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
This 8-book series may sound familiar: the film version, directed by Kenneth Branagh, was released this past summer on Disney+ to widely negative reviews. The main complaint? Too many changes from the acclaimed source material—we’d recommend just getting the first book instead! (There’s a graphic novel version, as well.) Artemis Fowl is the name of the series protagonist, a 12-year-old criminal mastermind and millionaire from Ireland. The first book concentrates on a modernization of classic, Celtic fey mythology, with Artemis kidnapping a tough, pint-sized faerie named Holly Short for a king’s ransom: the faerie’s pot of gold. If you’re unsure about letting your kid read about a child racketeer, don’t worry: this series has been a parent favorite since its debut in 2001 for the main character’s gradual redemption. Focusing on themes of greed and entitlement, this book is for the kid who loves Percy Jackson and adventure. (It may be about Greek mythology, but we highly recommend those as well!
3. Granualie: Pirate Queen, Morgan Llewelyn
Morgan Llewelyn is an award-winning writer of historical and mythological fiction (and some non-fiction!) and has several more middle grade Irish book offerings, but this tale based on the real life story of female pirate, queen, chieftain, and rebel, Grace “Granuaile” O’Malley is sure to excite! Considered now to be a woman ahead of her time, Granuaile was a fearless leader of her clan and an untiring defender of Ireland and its culture. Llewelyn tells her story largely through letters to Granuaile’s son, Tibbot, but also weaves through the historical and political realities of the rise of Elizabeth I and the resulting oppression of the Irish way of life. With many cameos by great figures in Ireland’s history, this story has the hook of adventure, but lessons about girl power, acceptance, and the importance of family, tradition, and standing up for what you believe is right.
4. Scholastic Classics: Irish Fairy Tales, Myths and Legends, Kieran Fanning
While we covered some Irish mythology picture book anthologies in our previous installment, Fanning’s book promises a slightly more elevated version of these classic tales. It’s not fully illustrated, but rather its beautiful cover’s drawings represent different stories in the collection as a reminder of the contents inside. This book covers the first three cycles of Irish mythology: Mythological, Ulster, and Fenian—from the miraculous Tuatha Dé Dannan and Children of Lir, to stories of famed heroes like Cuchulainn and Fionn Mac Cumhaill. While mythology and fairy tales always have a bit of a dark side, reader reviews promise that all the more difficult subject matter is dealt with matter-of-factly, but delicately. This version is perfect for the middle grade age range, letting them feel more adult, while at the right level for them in both content and difficulty.
5. A Slip of a Girl, Patricia Reilly Giff
Patricia Reilly Giff has won two Newbury Honors for her work, which concentrates on strong, brave young women in trying times in history (there’s plenty more where this comes from. Lily’s Crossing is about WWII in America, but is a personal favorite from childhood.) A Slip of a Girl depicts life in rural Ireland through narrative free verse in the wake of the Great Famine. Told through the eyes of Anna—whose siblings have gone off to the New World and whose mother has passed, leaving Anna to care for her younger sister with special needs–and in her lyric voice, the story is one of resilience in the face of deprivation. A much quieter, contemplative read than the others on our list, this family tale is a poignant depiction of the tensions of a feudal, agrarian community and the self-determination adversity can teach.
This post is part of a series—take a look at our recommendations for Adult Contemporary Fiction and Children’s Books. And 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 Books, Part 1
So, your child is interested in Ireland. While an appreciation for Ireland’s art of music and dance can be obtained by taking some Irish dance classes at SRL (of course,) what about the rest of the country’s culture? We’ve gathered together a few picture books that may intrigue them and will definitely teach them more about Ireland’s rich history and traditions:
1. Fiona’s Luck, Teresa Bateman
Illustrations by Kelly Murphy
This story is an original, but pulls from the ancient legend of one of Ireland’s most beloved myths: the leprechaun. Fiona and her people are newly arrived to the Irish shore, and the Leprechaun King is fed up—these “big folk” are hogging all the luck! When the King locks all the luck on the island away, Fiona and her village face many hardships before Fiona, with intelligence, ingenuity, and a dash of cunning, comes up with a plan to get it back. While both Bateman and Murphy are Americans, the reviews agree that the soft, delicate illustrations really bring Ireland to life. Take a break and let a librarian read this tale to your little one, with Storytime Now!’s YouTube channel (a great resource for many a reading!)
2. This is Ireland, Miroslav Sasek
If your kid is looking for facts instead of flights of fancy, this is the book for you! Part of a series that travels all over the world, Sasek’s history of Ireland for children was originally written and illustrated in the 1960s but has lost none of its charm (don’t worry—anything that needs to has been updated for this century!) This is Ireland is recommended all over as what to read your child before you take a trip to Ireland (one day again, maybe…) as it spans the entire Emerald Isle: from Trinity College to the Blarney stone, from bustling Dublin to peaceful fields of shamrocks. Sasek, primarily a painter, gives an accurate depiction of Ireland while keeping a sense of whimsy with his vibrant, stylized illustrations.
3. Brave Margaret: An Irish Adventure, Robert D. San Souci
Illustrated by Sally Wern Comport
Does your child love Disney’s Brave? This is a similar story set in old Ireland instead of Scotland! Margaret is a farmer’s daughter in County Donegal when a ship arrives in the harbor with a young Prince who promises adventure. But when a sea serpent attacks and Margaret is separated from the ship, she finds that she has the strength inside her to defeat monsters all on her own. Truly in the spirit of “girl power,” the author cites his source as a West Irish tale dating back to the 1800s and its timelessness is a must read for children of all ages. A fifth grade teacher recorded a wonderful bedtime reading of this story (in her pajamas,) which you can access here.
4.Tales from Old Ireland, Malachy Doyle
Illustrated by Niamh Sharkey and narrated by Maura O’Connell
Written by a Northern Irish native, this collection of seven fairytales comes with a bonus: the included audiobook was recorded by legendary Irish folk singer, Maura O’Connell. Though this is a picture book, it is a very traditional book of fairytales—make sure to check over the stories for content before your littlest ones start reading or listening (some details of the stories: here.) Complimented by rich, muted borders and a full-size painting for each story, Doyle even includes a pronunciation guide for unfamiliar Irish words and names. Think of Tales from old Ireland as an Irish version of Mother Goose (or maybe, more accurately, the Brothers’ Grimm.)
5. Brigid’s Cloak: An Ancient Irish Story, Bryce Milligan
Illustrated by Helen Cann
Brigid’s Cloak is another tale that harkens back to the ancient days of Ireland, but this one is a classic retold for children’s ears. St. Brigid (along with St. Patrick) is both a historical figure and the patron saint of Ireland in the Catholic tradition, but this story concentrates on one aspect of her legend: her cloak. The fable goes that Brigid was given a beautiful, blue cloak when she was born by a mysterious, Druidic figure. As she grew older and became a kind, charitable young woman, the cloak grows more tattered, but it still harnesses a very special power that allows her to perform a miracle that reflects her generous heart. Reviews all praise the book’s lyric prose and its ability to truly represent the conflicting aspects of Ireland (pastoral, but representing the Pagans, Christianity, and a belief in magic) in a child-friendly way that doesn’t take sides. So, while there are some religious aspects to the story (Brigid meeting the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, for instance,) it concentrates more on Brigid’s famed generosity than her beliefs.
This is Volume IV of a series, read about some Irish Adult Contemporary 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.
Spooky Samhain Tales
Did you know this year is the first full moon on Samhain in more than 20 years? Not only that, it’s a blue moon—the last blue moon on Halloween was in 1955 and the next won’t be until 2039! In fact, there’s only six full moons on October 31st this century. All I’m saying is, if we were ancient Druids, it would a particularly spooky and significant celebration this year.
The ancient Irish never steered themselves away from the frightening in their mythology, and this impulse was only heightened around Samhain (Irish Halloween)—the time they believed the veil between the living and the dead, our world and the faerie world, was at its thinnest. While we briefly covered a few myths in our review of the history of Irish Halloween, there are plenty more where that came from. More than I think anyone would be comfortable with—especially at a foggy Irish crossroads on Halloween night with a full blue moon above them.
Perhaps one of the best known of all Irish cryptozoological creatures is a Banshee (or “Bean Sídhe.”) Ironically, the banshee isn’t particularly dangerous for the average person—she only haunts those of noble Irish heritage. She never hurts anyone, though some believe she’s foretelling a death within the house she haunts her keening wail (or “caoine”) as she tears her hair, just as ancient mourners were wont to do. She often considered to be the counterpoint of the Leanan Sídhe—a faerie woman so beautiful she's inspired poets, artists and musicians to fall in love and create great art, only to leave them to die without their muse.
Similarly, but perhaps more alarmingly, are tales of a creature called a Fetch (sometime “Taisé” or “Fáith”)—it’s said these apparitions predict accidents and deaths by taking the form of the person about to be hurt as a warning. Not surprisingly, the word “fáith” can also mean seer. Imagine seeing yourself in front of you, clutching at your chest or wet as if you fell in a river? Terrifying!
Speaking of water, there’s plenty the Irish believe hide there as well. Just like there’s an underground faerie realm, there’s believed to be a concurrent “Land Beneath the Waves” (“Tír fo Thuinn.”) The best known escapees of this land are Merrows and Selkies—and no, the name doesn’t deceive—both myths are akin to our tales of mermaids. Merrows are human women from the waist up with fish tails and have a piece of clothing that allows them to breathe underwater, while Selkies are part-seal and only appear as beautiful women when they shed their skin. One can capture either as a bride if you steal their magic hat or seal skin, but Merrow or Selkie, they’ll always be longing and trying to return to the sea.
But for all these tales that can’t necessarily hurt you, the Irish always have plenty of myths and monsters that can. Another sea monster is the Kelpie, a “water horse” (literally) that lures people to climb on its back so it can drown and eat them (for others they can appear as beautiful man or woman.) The Gray Man (or “Fear Liath”) personifies fog and confuses travelers so they stumble over cliffs to their deaths. Then there’s the Questing Beast, a bizarre, barking combination of animals (head of snake, torso of a leopard, back legs of a lion, but the hooves of a deer) that wreaks havoc and appears in Arthurian legends. And we can’t forget the Dark Man (“Fear Doirich”) and the Demon Bride…but those names are pretty self-explanatory and terror-inducing without the details.
Of course, this list of mythological beasts goes on and on—keep checking the blog for more stories! Just because October’s over doesn’t mean we don’t love a good tall tale. Or twenty.
And don’t worry, the Irish have lots of protection beliefs as well—ones that have crept into our modern tales of ghosts, vampires, and monsters. Iron has always been believed to protect against the fey, as well as passing over running water or running into a graveyard. It’s also the origin of jack-o’-lanterns—originally turnips hollowed, carved with a terrifying face, hung from a stick, and filled with a glowing coal to scare away anything that had slipped away from the Otherworld. Once Christianity arrived in Ireland, holy water became the go to form of protection for people traveling on a dark Samhain night—carried by dipping pieces of straw in consecrated waters and holding it in front of them.
Though there is still a definite faction in Irish culture that has a healthy respect for these mythological tales, the average person dismisses them as fantasy. So why create such scary creatures in the first place? It’s one of the most baffling things about humanity…why do we (well, some of us) love to be scared? The answer is surprisingly simple: it’s a safe and controlled way of confronting all those unknowns out there in the world. We can feel the rush of fear without the danger—our brain knows we’re safe. I mean…as long as the Gray Man doesn’t appear as we walk home at night. Then, all bets are off.
This is Volume II of a series. Read our first installment about the Tuatha Dé Danann here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday (and the occasional Saturday) 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 Tuatha Dé Danann
While Greek deities like Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon are thought of as common knowledge, and Marvel has brought Norse legends like Thor and Loki into popular culture, most people outside of Ireland know little about Irish mythology. It’s even more surprising when you consider that when an Irish distillery conducted a survey in 2011 about the Irish public’s belief in Leprechauns, 33% of people polled said they were believers, and 55% believed that the magical creatures existed at some point in the past. Even with the deep religious ties of the country, many Irish citizens still practice “fairy faith” (Creideamh Sí,) though it’s less worship than a belief it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Today, we’re going a little further back than the concept of Leprechauns, to a group of magically inclined people called the Tuatha Dé Danann. The legend goes that one of the early clans believed to have inhabited Ireland, the Fir Bolg, watched as a great fog swept over the land. Out of the fog came burning ships, and upon those ships were the Tuatha Dé Danann: a tall, fair race of people (many with the flaming red hair we associate with the Irish) who were skilled in both magical arts and craftsmanship. In fact, one translation of Tuatha Dé Danann comes out to “skilled workers” and the newcomers proved skilled enough that the Fir Bolg agreed to move to Connaught and leave the rest of Ireland to the Danann.
And who exactly told us this story? Irish folklore and mythology was passed down by a long-standing oral tradition—probably the only reason the stories survived to be told—but finally began to be recorded in the medieval period by Monks. The Book of Invasions was written about the history of Ireland around 1150 A.D., and made sure the existence of the Danann was considered fact until the 17th century. Though, as the text said: “The truth is not known, beneath the sky of stars,/ Whether they were of heaven or earth.”
There are many stories about the Tuatha Dé Danann (many of which we hope to cover here for you in future installments!), but perhaps most important are the legends of the four magical artifacts they gathered before settling in Ireland. Dagda was the patriarch of the group, and was known for his never-emptying Cauldron—a particularly potent item for a land oft beset by famine. Next was Lugh’s Spear—the tool of a king, warrior, and master craftsman that was said to have a flaming tip. Similarly, Nuada (the Danann’s original king, before Lugh) brought with him the Sword of Light from which no one could escape. Last was an object we still have today—the Stone of Destiny—which is supposedly able to determine the true High King, roaring so loudly when the chosen one sat upon it that it could be heard across the land (with many a legend about where it ended up, including the time half was stolen from Westminster Abbey and ended up in Scotland.) Numerous exploits in the Danann’s stories involve one or more of these items.
However, these magical items didn’t stop the Tuatha Dé Danann from being defeated. When the Milesians (probably the first Gaels to land there) arrived on Irish soil, they defeated the Danann in two battles before offering them a deal: they would split the land with them 50/50. But the skilled ones had been tricked. The Milesians only granted them the half of the land under the ground, keeping everything above ground to themselves.
The legend goes that the Tuatha Dé Danann retreated underground and may still remain there to this day in the “Otherworld” (Tír na nÓg) where no one grows old and time never passes. This fairy world is said to be entered through fairy mounds and hills, as well as stone circles and even cairns. But as the Danann disappeared, they were said to give way to another generation of magical creatures known as the Aos Sí (or the Fey, the Sidhe, or Faeries)…but that’s a story for another day.
(Okay, one hint: we already discussed one of the Sidhe’s cryptozoological creatures in the first paragraph!)
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