Contemporary Fiction Recs, Part 2
1. Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney
New release alert! Sally Rooney’s much-anticipated third book just hit the market a few weeks ago and has proven to be an instant best-seller around the world. This erudite 30-year-old writer took her evocative title from a 1788 Friedrich Schiller (best known for “Ode to Joy”) poem, reflective of the larger social questions the narrative poses. Largely an epistolary novel interspersed with Rooney’s sharp, witty narrative, the plot follows two best friends, Eileen and Alice, as they navigate both their own friendship and romantic relationships as they enter their 30s. Set in both Dublin and a small, oceanside Irish town, Rooney criticizes class hang ups and late capitalism in Ireland all while asking the question: is it moral for one’s focus to be on what’s beautiful in life instead of what’s wrong? But don’t expect Rooney to hand over the answers—instead you’re given a tenderly wrought story of complex connections that lets each reader experience their own answers as they’re drawn through. (Note: this one comes highly recommended by our Office Manager, Devon, but you can read a more critical review of the book here.)
2. This Must Be the Place, Maggie O’Farrell
Maggie O’Farrell’s 2020 book, Hamnet, was considered one of the best books of its year (by more or less every literary outlet,) but as it was set in England instead of Ireland, we’re here with another one of this beloved Irish author’s works. This Must Be the Place is instead set in rural Donegal and is considered to be O’Farrell’s “breakout book” that placed her on the contemporary literary map. The novel follows two Americans building quiet lives (mildly in hiding) for themselves in the Irish countryside—former linguistics professor Daniel and former (famous) actress Claudette. Through multiple, time-hopping (but easy to follow,) and dynamic storylines, the reader is treated to a tantalizingly slow reveal of the character’s inner conflicts and pasts as they hurtle toward what may or may not be predetermined fates. Take it from NPR’s Heller McAlpin: O’Farrell’s “fascinated by women who refuse to conform, by the secrets withheld even from our nearest and dearest, and by the unpredictable, serendipitous nature of life, the way a chance encounter can change everything and come to feel inevitable.” As the joy is in the discovery here, we won’t say anymore!
3. The Blackwater Lightship, Colm Tóibín
Best known in the U.S. for his 2015 book, Brooklyn, (and the award-winning movie adaptation starring Saoirse Ronan) about an young, female Irish immigrant in New York in the early 1950s, Tóibín’s body of work has several overarching themes: the Irish identity versus personal identity, the creative process, and the self when confronted with loss. The Blackwater Lightship, one of his 3 “Wexford” novels, is no exception, inspired by the death of Tóibín’s own father and his own childhood home of Enniscorthy. Set in Ireland in the trouble-filled 1990s, this is a family story—of family lost, family found, and family chosen—concentrating on three generations of estranged women confronting the untimely, upcoming death of a beloved brother, son, and grandson. With a light hand and sparse prose, the narrative is an exploration into forgiveness, memory, and the seeming impossibility of a future beyond loss, backdropped by the Irish sea. The novel was short-listed for The Man Booker Prize in 2014 and adapted by Hallmark into a made-for-TV movie of the same name (though possibly not set in Ireland as it’s starring, of all people, Dianne Wiest and Angela Lansbury.) While we’d recommend the book, jury’s out on the movie version.
4. Exciting Times, Naoise Dolan
While Dolan’s novel may be set in Hong Kong, it’s still a definitively Irish novel. Narrator Ava, a Dublin-born ex-pat, is in her early 20s, directionless and in China teaching English to the children of rich natives. When she meets English Julian, a well-off and highly educated banker, she embarks on a strange and ill-defined relationship that will change the way she sees herself and the world around her. Then…enter Edith (Hong Kong born and bred,) and things get even more complicated. Similar to Rooney’s exploration of personal relationships as a gateway to larger, societal issues, Ava’s experiences are given to us as a representation of the worldwide experience of the Irish diaspora and the perception of the Irish identity outside of Ireland. Deftly avoiding love-triangle tropes with her equally deadpan and witty prose, this is Dolan’s debut novel. (Note: this is another personal recommendation from Devon, but the reviews have been divisively both for and against—it’s an either you love it or hate it kind of book! But we’re a fan of Vogue’s summation: “This debut novel…is half Sally Rooney love triangle, half glitzy Crazy Rich Asians high living—and guaranteed to please.”)
5. Strange Flowers, Donal Ryan
Winner of An Post Irish Book Award Novel of the Year in 2020 and set in Tipperary in the 1970s, the story opens upon Paddy and Kit Gladney’s discovery that their 20-year-old daughter Moll has disappeared with a suitcase and without a trace. Five years pass in a blink, and just when the couple is coming to terms with their loss, Moll returns with as little an explanation as she left with. This family story of seclusion, secrecy, and class hierarchies within Irish villages has an idyllic, almost hermetic backdrop that belies the tumultuous country it resides it, instead concentrating on the turmoil within his character’s hearts and relationships. Donal has been twice long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, but many reviewers claim that this, his sixth book, is his best to date. (Here’s a more in-depth review to peruse!)
This post is part of a series. Read our last Modern Ireland post, all about Irish language in Irish schools, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Part 4: Gaeilge/Éire
It’s easy to forget that in Ireland people once mainly spoke, well, Irish. The Irish language, Gaeilge (also known as Éire or Irish Gaelic to differentiate it from Scottish Gaelic,) is the official language of Ireland (definitely not English.) Old Irish is considered the predecessor of all the Gaelic tongues, dating back at least 2,500 years (with its first known use in the Roman alphabet dating to the end of the 6th century—making it the oldest known written vernacular north of the Alps.) However, with the suppression of Irish culture by the British beginning in the 11th century, much of the original use of Irish was lost as English became the predominant language in governmental and legal affairs. By the time of The Great Famine from 1846-1848, Irish as a language was almost extinct.
However, the Celtic revival and resurgence of the national Irish identity in the 1800s lead to increased interest in Gaeilge, lest it be forgotten. In 1897, the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language was founded, and they were able to help reintroduce Irish into all levels of education—from primary to university. An official standard of the Irish language was set by the Irish government in 1958—though, the 2016 census reported that in modern times only 1.7% of the population speak Gaeilge daily.
But what does this have to do with school life in Ireland? Quite a bit! Under current educational statutes, all students attending government-funded schools in Ireland (both primary and secondary) have a state-mandated Irish language curriculum. That means, in Ireland, you’re learning the country’s original language from at least first grade onward! In recent years, the requirement for a passing grade in Irish Gaelic for a graduating senior’s Leaving Certificate (see our previous post to have this better explained!) has been eradicated—meaning you still need to take the class, but aren’t tested on it as you will be for other subjects. This has caused some controversy within Ireland, as students argue that once they’re past primary school, Irish is no longer taught to them as a living language—it’s more a subject to get through. In fact, while only 5% of polled students said they thought Irish was properly emphasized as part of their cultural heritage, 67% of students believe that Gaeilge should be compulsory and further pushed as part of the country’s cultural heritage.
But there are places where Irish continues to exist as a living language: Gaeilge-only schools! They’re called Gaelscoil or Irish-medium schools (while the majority of schools remain English-medium,) and while they can be hard to get into, they are completely immersive. While English is sometimes spoken in school as well, the primary language remains Irish throughout schooling. Parents often chose to send their children to a primary-level Gaelscoil and a standard secondary school, though secondary-level Gaelscoil have become more popular in recent years. While most parents cite language-acquisition and the importance of Irish culture and identity for choosing an Irish-medium program, there are other notable benefits that come with being bilingual: better academic performance overall, improvement in cognitive function, improved communication and social skills, and increased ease in learning third or even fourth languages.
Like most topics that touch the political sphere, there’s plenty of controversy about Irish language requirements—most recently, primary school principals calling for a waiver of a Leaving Certificate qualification in Irish in due to a lack of suitable candidates (it’s not required, after all!) But the fact remains that Irish truly is a living language—just take a look at any government street sign, the average Irish person’s name, or innumerable place names and slang terms that still retain their Gaeilge roots. And then there’s the Gaeltacht areas of Ireland! These are places in Ireland where Irish remains the majority language, and they still exist today. Most of these areas dot the west coast of Ireland’s peninsulas where the language was protected by their remote locations. Though all that schooling might not prepare an Irish student for a conversation—while there’s a government-standard Gaeilge, there’s also three distinct dialects in the county: Ulster, Connacht, and Munster!
Where you fall on the bilingual debate? Immersive, required, or at parent and student discretion? Let us know in the comments!
This post is part of a series. Take a look at our last modern Ireland post, all about university in Ireland, here. Also: check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Part 3: University
The thing about Irish dance is that it’s more than dance—it’s a cultural art form that incorporates traditional music and even lore into its performance. And the thing about Irish dancers is that they tend to not only fall in love with the dance part, but all of it, the entirety of Ireland. For many parents the idea of your dancer flitting off across the Atlantic for college (sorry, university) is a terrifying one (though Miss Courtney completed her entire degree—in Irish dance and music no less—in Limerick, and Miss Devon studied abroad for a full year in London. We promise we called home a bunch!) But for many Irish dancers, it’s the dream—so we’re here to tell you a little bit about university in Ireland!
First off, it works a little differently to a typical U.S. college: to start, undergraduates don’t apply simply to the school of their choice, but to a specific course of study within that school. It’s essentially like deciding your major before you get in! While some students also take on a secondary, usually related course of study, all your classes revolve around the specific department you’re in or, as they would say, course that you’re on. These courses of study are also typically shorter than the U.S. with the standard for general study being three years (though some programs are four and others, say medicine or architecture, can take up to five, though some include post-graduate work.)
The way teaching itself is approached can be a bit jarring for American students, too, as the structure can seem a bit loose compared to what we’re used to. Most U.S. colleges would be considered overbearing to the typical Irish college student, with each class typically having a large number of assignments and tests that determine your grade with strict and direct instructions. Irish higher learning has a completely different pedagogical philosophy that concentrates more on critical thinking and relies less on the number of assignments and more on the quality of your work. While this can be a difficult adjustment for Americans, it works well for disciplined students as it fosters independent thinking and the ability to take initiative. While no real rubric can be a learning curve, we speak from personal experience when we say that professors are generally extremely helpful and mindful of that adjustment period!
But the differences don’t end there! Grading in Ireland (and the UK in general) can be a bit of heart-stopping surprise—the scale, instead of 0-100, is 1-70 (though you can receive up to an 80 on an assignment, sometimes. It’s unclear when, as it largely seems to be at the professor’s discretion.) That means a 65 isn’t a D, but an A or even an A+, though Irish schools don’t use a letter grading scale. Instead, 70 or above is considered a First Class Honors, 69-60 an Upper Second Class Honors, 59-50 a Lower Second Class Honors, 49-45 a Third Class Honors, and 44-40 a Compensating Fail, i.e. the lowest technically passing grade. However, each school’s scale is slightly different, with many professors viewing a 70 or above as something students should be working all three years toward—meaning many won’t award high grades to first year students, wanting to see them progress toward that “perfect” goal.
The cost is another huge difference, especially you’re an Irish citizen. Getting a bachelor’s degree in Ireland at one of the state’s universities is free for Irish citizens, citizens of any EU/EAA countries, and Swiss citizens. Just last year the Irish government committed 11.1 billion EUR into its educational system. But what’s the cost like for American students? The average American student’s education (BA) in America will cost them between $35,572 and $120,376 (depending on the school and if they graduate in four years—and remember these are the average and only includes tuition, not room and board, books, plane tickets, etc.) The average cost for an American student in Ireland is 18,000 EUR ($21,231) to 36,000 EUR ($42,463.) Two points here: not only do the fees have a smaller range (and are less subject to change,) the most exorbitant possible cost is less than $10k more than the average cost of the least expensive college option in the U.S. With the average student debt in the U.S. coming up as approximately $29k, an Irish education might be saving you and your dancer money in the long term. (Check out some more detailed cost of living stats here.)
Then you get down to your choices—and there’s a lot of them! For a small country, Ireland has a staggering number of schools to choose from, with seven governmentally-funded universities, a number of institutes of technology (which include a wide range of vocational courses,) colleges of education, and private colleges—many if not all of which offer a similar level of tertiary degree. These universities (Dublin City University, National University of Ireland, Galway, University of Limerick, Maynooth University, University College Dublin, University College Cork, and Trinity College Dublin) are the ones most similar to a U.S. state school. However, the term “state school” can leave an underwhelming impression, while the truth is that Ireland’s universities all rank within the top schools in the world--Trinity College Dublin, for example, was founded in 1592 as an Irish answer to Oxford and Cambridge.
All in all, there’s a ton of positives to higher education in Ireland. Between shorter courses of study, a teaching pedagogy that encourages independent thinking, a grading system that encourages progress over perfection, more affordable costs overall, and plenty of high-quality choices—there’s not much to complain of beyond the distance. So sure, if your dancer wants to head to Ireland at 18 it’ll be a long flight to see them—but they could also be exposed to a culture they’ve been invested in for their entire childhood, with benefits galore!
This post is part of a series. Read our last Modern Ireland post, all about primary and secondary school uniforms, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Part 2: Uniforms
Last week, we took a shallow dive into how the Irish school system works, grade to grade. But we all know the most fascinating part is the human interest bit: so what are Irish school kids experiencing? More specifically: what are they wearing day to day? Since the United States isn’t big on uniforms, it can be a bit of a shock to see the universality of the school uniform in Ireland—a mainstay since medieval times. Let’s learn more!
The school uniform has a long history in Ireland, but the image you have in your head of a blazer with a crest and a matching tie isn’t quite where it started. While the history of the Irish educational system is a complex one—from bardic schools in medieval times to the repressive hedge schools of the 18th century—our first solid records of what Irish school uniforms actually looked like come out of rural Ireland in the first few decades of the 20th century (thanks to invention of the camera!) Before WWI, boys were generally the only ones receiving much of an education and wore long shirts (dresses, really) called petticoats, with a short coat (similar to the brat you’re still allowed to wear for Irish dance.) Petticoats are similar to both the ancient léine or tunics worn in ancient Ireland, a precursor to the kilt. This is our best look into the past uniform of the monastic schools that dotted Ireland years before!
After petticoats went out of style and until the 1980s, younger male students wore shorts and knee socks with a blazer, button down, and tie until 12, 14, or even 16 depending on the school and parental preferences. Getting to wear pants to school was considered a sign of manhood within the community, and while this is now considered outdated, the wearing of a school uniform (often with the crest of the school) is still considered a way to help students feel they’re part of said community. It’s often cited as a reason to keep uniforms up through college, as the wearing of the school colors and crest can create camaraderie and school spirit, lets the students see their place as a part of something larger than themselves—possibly increasing empathy. (Fun fact: that's the same reason SRL has its students where our school colors of red, black, and white--why many Irish dance schools do!) It’s just one of the positives cited for school uniforms, with others including: easier to get dressed in the morning, less distracting, less bullying, and easier to enforce for the teachers, among other pros.
Female uniforms have transformed the least over time, generally consisting of a skirt or pinafore—with sweaters and button downs for the younger girls and a button down, tie, and blazer for those in secondary (or at least the senior cycle) of school. Knee socks or tights are generally also required. You may have noticed something there...I didn’t say pants. That’s right, at the majority of Irish schools, female students are considered in breach of dress code if they come to school in pants—even if they’re the same pants the male students are required to wear. This had led to a movement in Ireland calling for gender-neutral uniforms across age groups, citing the fact that pants aren’t revealing (in fact, are less revealing than the short skirts that are standard,) and are perhaps less comfortable for many students.
Then again, school dress codes have been in the news for years now, with female students protesting the policing of their bodies, and many believe school uniforms are a remedy for that problem. Many parents in Ireland, however, disagree, citing the strictness of the code as an undue stress, particularly for the youngest students. We’re not talking about rules like the fingertip-length skirts and wearing the correct tie—these are more trifling rules, like what color hair tie’s in your hair, that many Irish parents find arbitrary and an unwarranted burden on both them and their student. That’s to say nothing of the cost—while many underfunded schools in economically disadvantaged areas in America have less expensive uniform options, this doesn’t generally follow suit in Ireland. With a tradition of the school’s crest emblazoned upon everything, many Irish people have found the costs prohibitive—especially as a breach of those rules could lead to their student not being able to remain in class to receive their education.
And then, there’s what every kid cites as the biggest negative about school uniforms: a lack of independence and identity. There’s a lot of back and forth about the truth of this, with some saying that wearing a uniform for twelve plus years takes away a sense of independence and makes the transition to adulthood harder. Similarly, Ireland, whose population is currently 12% non-Irish citizens, is also facing backlash over the perceived forced assimilation the traditional Irish school uniform has on students from other countries and cultures.
Whether you’re pro- or anti-school uniform, they seem to there to stay in Ireland, especially as their usage across the world increases (and, we have to say, a little kid in a tie is always pretty cute.) Who knows, all our dancers might be heading off to school in a plaid skirt this time next year. Where do you land on the school uniform debate? Let us know in the comments!
This post is part of a series. You can learn more about the Irish school system, which we covered last week, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Part 1: Moving through the System
You did it! You’ve almost made it through the summer (and what a hot and humid one it was here in Connecticut,) and back to school here. Since the way the American school system works is embedded into your brains as something you just inherently know, it can be confusing when we’re faced with another country’s version. I’m sure you’ve experienced it: that dissonance that occurs when you’re reading or watching something about anyone school-aged in another country, including Ireland. Are they a freshman if they’re a first year? Wait, what do you mean, no? Let’s break down the Irish educational system for you:
First off, we have classes for our Tiny Jiggers: Preschool and Kindergarten—aka Junior Infants and Senior Infants. Much like America (or at least, most states,) school is compulsory for children in Ireland from the ages of 6-16, meaning their Junior Infants year (or two) is optional—though one year of Junior Infant education is free, paid for by the Irish government. While America currently has a scattered network of government-subsidized education before 6-years-old, President Biden is currently backing legislation that will secure more government funding for universal preschool programs across the country…I guess someone else has been checking out Ireland’s school system.
Primary school continues on past kindergarten in exactly the fashion we’re used to, except the Irish use the term class instead of grade for the younger students: i.e. 1st grade is 1st class, 2nd grade is 2nd class, etc.—all the way up through 6th class aka 6th grade. While 6th Grade is often part of what we call middle or secondary school, Ireland’s system is divided in two, rather than the three (elementary, middle, high) we use here: primary school (our grades Kindergarten through 6th) and secondary school (our 7th grade through 12th grade/senior year.)
Secondary school in Ireland is where things get a little more confusing: we start back at one. An American 7th grader would be a 1st year in an Irish secondary school, an 8th grader a 2nd year, and so on until you reach 6th year, aka the US senior year. That’s easy enough once you get the hang of it, but the way a secondary education is approached is decidedly different from most parts of the states. The last six years of school are divided into two cycles*: Junior Cycle, 1st year-3rd year and Senior Cycle, 5th-6th year, with 4th year (aka sophomore year) considered an optional, Transition Year. This year is supposed to be used to gain life experience, work experience, or travel, or just generally for “maturity and personal development.” You can skip this year and go straight into 5th year—but you’re not allowed to take a transition year later!
(*Fun fact: the term college in Ireland is generally considered to refer to secondary education, (rather than higher education, as in the states—though universities do have “colleges” within their institution that are schools within the school) often specifically the last two years or senior cycle.)
The linchpins of the Irish secondary school education are two major tests: the Junior Certification/Cert (taken after 3rd year aka freshman year) and the Senior Certification/Cert, also called the Leaving Cert.* The Junior Cert is a series of tests in all subjects over a course of 3-4 weeks and the results are mostly about determining where you are academically so you can start making plans for after school—no one will ask you about these results later on in life! The Leaving Cert is the more serious test (also 3-4 weeks of tests in 2-6 subjects at varying levels that award varying points,) and is akin to our SAT as yours “points” on the Leaving Cert determine what universities you can apply to, and even the subjects within that university you’re able to study (i.e. you’d need 480 points minimum to study medicine, but only 476 for literature at Trinity, one of Ireland’s best schools—don’t worry, we’ll cover universities later!)
(*It’s important to note that not everyone takes the Leaving Cert examinations, with alternatives including: Quality Qualification Ireland (QQI) courses as an alternate route to college (a bit like community college before transferring,) the Leaving Cert Applied (which is focused on work experience and group work,) or the Leaving Certificate Vocational Program that could lead straight into the work force or help place students in technical schools.)
Ireland is considered one of the best educated countries in the world, with 56% of 24-35 year olds receiving some for of higher education. (Is it the subsidized preschool year? Many people think it helps!) This is not only the highest percentage in Europe, but the fourth highest in the world (Ireland’s beat out only by Korea, Russia, and Canada) and significantly higher than the 44% average. But what’s it actually like to experience school in Ireland? Tune in next week to learn more!
This post is part of a series. Check out our last Modern Irish Culture post, full of children’s 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
Children’s Books, Part 2
With the summer winding down and regular dance classes about to start up again, it can be hard to get back into the school year groove. Back to school burnout is real and it happens to a lot of our dancers—so why not get them excited instead? We’ve gathered together five highly reviewed children’s books all about Ireland (and one about Irish dance!) that will get your dancer excited to be back in the studio (or at least more excited about it than school.)
1. Am I Small?
Philipp Winterberg & Nadja Wichmann
This story follows a young girl named Tamia as she takes a journey through a whimsically illustrated landscape, interacting with all sorts of magical and realistic creatures, and asking each of them: Am I small? But this book does more than tell a beautiful story (that comes to conclusion that size is relative and everyone is perfect just as they are)—it also has the distinction of being a part of the World’s Children Book project. Writer Philipp Winterberg has dedicated himself to not only writing books with positive messages, but has gotten over 400 translators in on the fun in an attempt to find universal touchstones for all the world’s children. Imagine a world where across every culture and border, we’ve all read Am I Small?! While the copy we’re linking is a bilingual copy in English and Gaeilge, the official language of Ireland, the book comes in over 200 languages, with a goal of 500 languages in the future.
2. The Children of Lir: Ireland’s Favorite Legend
Laura Ruth Maher & Connor Busuttil
In this version of one of Ireland’s most beloved legends, Maher’s rhyming, lyric poetry is paired with Busuttil’s rich illustrations that call to mind the illuminated manuscripts of ancient Ireland. The story is one older than written record, stemming from a tale from Ireland’s millennia-old oral tradition, and tells of King Lir and his four children: Fionnula, Aodh, Fiachra, and Conn (this is also definitely an opportunity to learn some new names!) But, like many fairytales, all was not well in King Lir’s court after a mysterious woman arrives and becomes his wife. Like most fairytales, this new stepmother isn’t all she appears to be and transforms the children into swans, a form they remain in until the curse cam be lifted. This is a typical Irish legend, so not the happiest story, but don’t worry—it’s being told for little readers and skips the scarier parts! Want a preview before you buy? Check it out here.
3. O’Sullivan Stew
Meet Kate O’Sullivan: bold, brave, and always getting into trouble. When the witch in Kate’s village has her horse stolen, the whole town feels the effects: no fish in the nets, no food in the fields, and no milk from the cows. Kate takes matters into her own hands and enlists her brothers to help her steal back the horse and save the town from hunger—but there’s a problem: it was the King who took the witch’s horse! When the palace proves too challenging for a heist, Kate finds herself in front of the King with only her wits to save her and her family. Luckily, Kate is an excellent storyteller and the wild stew of stories she concocts just might do the trick! This rollicking adventure is full of creative, fantastical details, humor, and the most Irish thing of all (besides dance, of course): a good story or two! Sound interesting? Check out an elementary school principal out of Oregon reading it out loud for all!
4. Let’s See Ireland!
Come along with Molly and her cat, Mipsy, on their tour of Ireland! Bowie is a Dublin based author and illustrator with a comic art style perfect for children of any age—with some learning snuck in! Your child will meet the animals of the Dublin Zoo before stopping to feed the pigeons at Christ Church Cathedral, and then it’s on to peering over the Cliffs of Moher. Full of humor that doesn’t take away from the facts, from the Giant’s Causeway to Hook Lighthouse and Newgrange, Molly’s story will introduce all of Ireland’s most beloved sites—even the Titanic Belfast! While most kids will be able to recognize Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower from a young age, why not let them in on all the coolest sites in the country their favorite activity is from? (And it sure beats the price of a plane ticket!) Hear (and see!) the story, read by a staff member from the Kilmihil Library in Ireland in her beautiful accent, here.
5. Rínce: The Fairytale of Irish Dance
Gretchen Gannon & Don Vanderbeek
Does the word rínce (ring-ka) look familiar? It should! It means dance in Gaeilge and is the R in SRL, after all! This fanciful story creates an original myth about the origins of Irish dance, that, while not necessarily factually accurate (check out our “Origins of Irish Dance” series on the blog for that!), is certainly fun! Gannon’s narrative brings us back to ancient Ireland, where faeries and humans lived together peacefully in a town called Rínce. This richly told and illustrated account (that anyone who loves fairytales will delight in) tells of Irish dance evolving from a pact between the Fae and the humans—creating a new legend for everyone to enjoy! Gannon might never have been an Irish dancer herself, but she married into the world—her mother-in-law hails from Limerick and founded the St. Louis Irish Arts School of Music & Dance—and this book is clearly a labor of love: her two young daughters have been Irish dancers since the age of four!
This post is part of a series. Read our last set of book recommendations, for YA readers, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
You can call it Lughnasa, or Lughnasadh, or even Lúnasa (also Gaeilge for August, all pronounced (roughly) loo-nas-sa,) but the truth of it will have everyone excited for Halloween already hooked: it’s a harvest festival! Lughnasa, named after the god-hero of early Irish mythology, Lugh, is one of the four fire festivals of ancient Ireland (along with Imbolc, Beltane, and Samhain) and falls between the summer solstice and autumn equinox. This pagan holiday marked the beginning of the harvest season, and thus a time of plenty before winter, for the largely agrarian ancient Irelanders. Though this holiday was technically yesterday this year (the dates can shift, but it’s usually the closest Sunday to August 1st) we’re here to tell you about the ways people once celebrated!
Legend states that Lugh (check out another story on the blog about him here) founded the holiday on the occasion of his foster-mother’s death. Tailtiu (whose name shows up with many pronunciations, we’ll let you take your best shot) was an earth goddess said to have died after clearing the land of Ireland for agricultural purposes, and is associated with dying vegetation’s ability to create new life and then sustain it. Lugh’s idea of a proper funeral is a little different from ours today—he decided to honor his foster mother with, well, an Irish version of the Olympics? We’ll explore the now-called Tailteann Games in another post, but, fun fact: the custom of funerary games was actually a relatively common amongst ancient civilizations!
While feats of athleticism are at the root of the holiday, a festival and many celebratory traditions that don’t necessarily make you break sweat grew up around the games. To start: what would a harvest festival be without some celebration of said harvest? Records speak of a ceremonial cutting of the first corn and first fruits of the harvest season as one of the most pervasive customs across the country. While the first of the harvest was offered to the communal bonfire (remember—fire festival!) as a sacrifice to the gods, husks of corn, wheat, or barley were used to create corn dollies—though these weren’t really just dolls! The corn maidens were carefully crafted with least blemished sheaves so they would last the winter, supposedly protecting the household. Some stories even report that once the long winter has passed, the corn dolly would be returned to her place in the earth to bless the new agricultural year. As for fruit: bilberries (we’d call them blueberries) are such a popular Lughnasa treat that the holiday is sometimes referred to as “Bilberry Sunday!” It was believed that the more blueberries there were, the better the following harvest.
Blueberry pie shared the table with all sorts of treats, though in a special place of honor was usually a sacrificed bull (first meat given to the gods, of course) that would feed the whole community. The feasting was often paired with a ritual dance-play that tells the story of Lugh, who as a sun-god helps determine the quality of each year’s harvest, honoring his work for the betterment of mankind, fitting for a poet-warrior. Like other fire festivals, the pagan Irish viewed this time of year as a struggle between gods: Lugh, who wants to distribute the harvest to his people, and Crom Dubh (meaning “dark, crooked one,” the holiday is even sometimes called “Crom Dugh Sunday”) an ancient god figure who wants to hoard the goods for himself. Sometimes the harvest is represented by a female figure named Eithne (Lugh’s mother)—most likely the origin of the corn maidens! Don’t worry—Lugh always wins. These large gatherings also helped spread the prevalence of the tradition of matchmaking on Lughnasa, (remember our Fun Fact about Teltown Marriages? that’s where the first Lughnasa celebration was held, in Co. Meath) but, that was common for any Irish festival as it brought together farming communities whose large tracts of land often kept them secluded from the larger community.
But the traditions don’t end there: as the years went on and Christianity spread across the pagan communities, it became common for the Irish to celebrate with small pilgrimages. Till this day, people take to the hills and mountains for hikes in honor of the season, as well as gravitating toward holy wells to pray. In particular, penitents flock to Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo, said to be the site of Saint Patrick’s 40 day fasting on the same mountain in 441 A.D.—a mass is even held there each year, with thousands of pilgrims in attendance. Holy wells dot the Irish countryside and are still a popular destination on any of the fire festival turned Christian tradition days. The wells are often decorated in garlands of late-summer greenery and pieces of the harvest (another use for corn husks!) These traditions have given Lughnasa yet more names: “Garland Sunday” or “Reek Sunday” (reek, by the way, means “high hill” in Ireland.)
However you feel like celebrating summer winding down—blueberry tarts, creepy dolls, a big meal, setting up your friend with that nice, single coworker of yours, hiking, prayer--Lughnasa Shona!
This post is part of a series. Read our last Irish history post, all about the spring fire festival of Beltane, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Dance in Irish Mythology, Part 3
The Crane Dance
Like any founding mythology of a nation, the Irish mythos is littered with heroes and their glorious deeds—but not many of those stories involve dance. One major exception is the god-hero Lugh (we’ll be discussing the festival in his honor next week!) But before we get into the dancing, we have to tell you a little more about his place as one of the most important heroes in the Irish mythos.
First off—it’s unclear if Lugh was a god or an actual, historical figure. On his god side, Lugh was known as one of the strongest members of the powerful Tuatha Dé Danann: the god of sun and light, an all-seeing and all-knowing deity also associated with poetry, arts, and crafts. While the Romans referred to him as the “Gaulish Mercury”—he’s more like Apollo combined with Hermes, with a dash of Hercules thrown in. His many talents are attributed to being the only surviving member of a set of triplets—he’s often depicted with three faces to represent how he has the power of three (an important number in most mythologies and religions.) On the historical side, Lugh is associated with being not just a mighty warrior, but a skilled one, as well as a symbol of rightful kingship—meaning peace, prosperity, law and order, and oaths and truth. It’s a lot of for one man (or god) to carry!
There are many stories we could tell about Lugh (and probably will in future posts!), but the one that concerns us today is a rite Lugh was recorded performing before he led his men into a fight with the Fomorians (a monstrous, supernatural race from the sea.) While he heats the warriors’ blood with a rhythmic, rousing speech, he…dances. Specifically, he hops to the beat of his chant in a circle on one foot, with one eye closed—and bizarre as this seems out of context, there is an explanation! This is one of the only mentions in Irish mythology of a specific dance being performed by a god, and fitting with his status as a divinity, research shows that he was performing an ancient, Druidic magic called corrghuineacht aka “the crane dance.”
The position Lugh assumes is known as glám dícenn (“satire which destroys,” fitting for this poet-warrior,) and does more than mimic a crane standing in water. Lifting one foot from the ground is meant to place the dancer between worlds, while only one eye is open to block this world and see into the Otherworld. Traveling in a sunwise circle for prayer, blessing, and curses (Lugh, in this instance, is blessing the fighters,) was a common practice in Druidic worship, with infinity figures (circles and knots, foremost,) being the most iconic of Celtic symbols to this day. But the crane was also an important symbol in Celtic mythology: its ability to move between water, land, and air made it a symbol of shapeshifting and magic, as well as the moon to Lugh’s sun—a mirror of his prophetic powers and sacred to the triple goddesses of Irish mythology.
What does this all mean? On one level, it’s a really a beautiful way to view dance and emphasizes the deep, cultural roots of Irish dance in particular: dance in Ireland is something powerful, perhaps even magical, transformative, and of the natural world, tied to the land, the water, and the air of the isle. Lugh performing this dance is of particular significance as his rule as King marked 40 years of peace and prosperity on Irish land where the harvests were abundant and the cows productive—it associates dance with protection of the land and people, something steadfast, comforting, and elucidating in the face of the many invaders over Ireland’s long and often bloody history. Beauty in the midst of chaos—how else could you describe those flying feet paired with perfect posture?
Fun fact: there haven’t been cranes in Ireland for at least three centuries…but a nesting pair was spotted just this year! Up until medieval times, cranes were reportedly the third most common domestic pet in Ireland (after dogs and cats,) usually tamed and kept in the home, near the dinner table. (There are even claims that they were able to be trained to bow their heads in prayer!) Archaeologists also report that crane bones are the fourth most common bird bone found in Ireland, and scholars note that the birds are the second most common in place names throughout the British Isles. Industrialization led to the shrinking of their habitat and many thought the birds had moved on for good, but Irish company Bord na Móna has pivoted their purpose as peat harvesters and committed themselves to restoring the wetlands they had previously devastated. The company was proud to report the pair this past May—and while none of their eggs hatched this year, there’s high hopes for the next!
But there’s more about Lugh (and less about birds) to come…check out our post next week all about the holiday named after this multifaceted god!
This post is part of a series. Take a look at our last Irish Mythology post, all about the “King of the Faeries,” here. Also: check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Dance in Irish Mythology, Part 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.
What’s the craic? We’re back again with some of the most confusing Irish slang terms we could find! (Missed part 1? Catch up here!)
Note: Just like in America, all slang presented below is regional. And just like America, it's difficult to figure out exactly where a singular word originates from when you're not living there. For this reason, regional information hasn't been included with this post.
As you may remember from Part 1, the term craic (crack) essentially means fun, and ninety is a way to measure said craic. However, it isn’t a sliding scale. If the craic is great, it’s ninety—but it’s never just eighty or any other number. Believed to be popularized by a song (recorded by multiple Irish artists) in the 1960s called “The Craic was Ninety in the Isle of Man.”
Abbreviated from “What’s the story, horse?” , it’s a quick way to ask someone “What’s up?” or, more literally: “What’s the story?” As one explanation put it: “Horse refers to a friend, not an actual horse.” Good to know the Irish aren’t expecting every equine they see to be Mr. Ed.
Essentially, broken beyond repair, just—really, very messed up. This term popped up in the 1930s with no real known origin. (Though some guess it comes from the Scottish slang banjoed, which means to be hit as hard as possible. Not too far off—we’d say wrecked for both!)
This is essentially the word queer (as in odd) with an Irish accent (i.e. kware,) but has come to mean it in a positive way: as in very or wonderful, great, etc. It can be “it’s quare windy today,” but you could also describe your spouse as “the quare one.” It was perhaps popularized by Irish playwright Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow (1954,) but was definitely common parlance before then!
There’s so many names for this item, it’s not surprising the Irish have their own. We might say: soda, soft drink, coke, or the most controversial: pop. Essentially: any sugary, fizzy, non-alcoholic drink! (Older generations tend to associate this term with 7UP specifically—so it’s safest to be a little more specific.) This term has most likely held on as Ireland is thought to be the birthplace of soda’s predecessor, mineral water, as early as the 1700s!
One of the sillier sounding slang terms (there’s no way your kids aren’t going to giggle if you teach them this one,) this simply means a short (or, as the Irish would say, wee) walk.
You made a hames of it
This one’s probably easy to guess: you messed it up. Usually used in a relatively light-hearted manner (think of a dad throwing up his hands and sighing before fixing it himself,) it stems from Ireland’s long-standing agrarian culture. Hames is literally a curved piece of iron or wood on the collar of a draught horse—so if you’ve put it on incorrectly, you’ve made a hames of it.
Pronounced wayne, any mom out there can guess what this means! While the word wean makes our American brains think about weaning a baby, this term is used for children of many ages—and often by parents even when their kids aren’t truly weans anymore.
Go for the messages/Do the messages
No, it doesn’t mean checking your email, but is rather more akin to doing the shopping or more generally, errands. The term is thought to derive from the time where part of one’s errands would be checking for literal messages or packages at your centralized post office (no home delivery from Amazon Prime in those days!) The GPO, founded in England in the 1600s, was hugely influential and changed Irish culture forever by opening up the world to the inhabitants of the Emerald Isle!
This post is part of a series. Check out our last Modern Irish Culture post, with some kid-friendly Irish movie 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.
Read our last ten fun facts here.
1. Ireland is home to the longest running television “chat” (not “talk” in Ireland!) show in history--The Late Late Show began in 1961 and has continued on for 59 years! The show resembles The Tonight Show or any of the late night interview shows we’re used to—except for the annual The Late Late Toy Show. Once a year the show gets into the Christmas spirit and “…transforms the usually serious chat show into a wonderland of bright colours, pantomime-esque acts, excited children and an even more excited audience of adults in Christmas Jumpers.”
2. The word boycott was coined in Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo when Irish tenants took Charles Stewart Parnell’s lead. Parnell was an Irish Nationalist politician in the 1880s who popularized this form of protest (i.e. isolating a person or country as punishment or to force a specific action) during the Irish Land Wars. Ballinrobe tenants (successfully) ostracized a British estate manager named Charles Cunningham Boycott, and the name stuck!
3. For many years, Teltown in Co. Meath was best known the version of the ancient tradition of “handfasting” that became popular there. A “Teltown Marriage” refers to the custom that on St. Bridget’s Day a couple could wed simply by walking towards each other. They could also choose to divorce by walking away from each other on the same day, a year later. (Read more about handfasting in our Valentine’s post here.)
4. Rhianna is of Irish heritage! The singer’s full name is Robyn Rhianna Fenty, and her father, Ronald Fenty, is descended from Irish indentured servants who were brought to the island of Barbados in the 1600s as cheap labor on the British-colonized sugar plantations. The history of the Irish indentured servant is a complicated one—you can read more about multimedia artist Marianne Keating’s research into the practice in Jamaica and Barbados here.
5. Tuckey’s Cork Remembrancer, a historical record of the area, claims a man died in the town of Ovens in the early 1800s at 127 years old! The text describes him as perfectly healthy and surrounded by 7 generations of his descendants. (For comparison: the oldest verified person in human history was a French woman named Jeanne Calment. She passed on at the age of 122 years and 164 days old in 1997. Let me do that math for you: that means she was born in 1875!)
6. You know Irish Gaelic is hard to pronounce, but try out this town name: Muckanaghederdauhaulia. Or, in Irish Gaelic: “Muiceanach idir Dhá Sháile.” No? In all fairness, this is the longest town name in Ireland (located in Co. Galway,) and even natives find it difficult. It translates to: “ridge shaped like a pig’s back between two expanses of briny water.” Which is…a mouthful too!
7. Ireland’s beautiful Cliffs of Moher in Co. Clare have starred in some of your favorite movies, including: The Princess Bride, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Leap Year, Far and Away, and Snow White and the Huntsman (to name a few—along with innumerable TV shows and even music videos!)
8. In the 1980s, there was a legal battle been Germany and Ireland over the use of the symbol of the shamrock (a three-leafed clover—never four!) Germany began using a blue shamrock (a kleebatt) as a trademark on German meat and dairy products and eventually sued Ireland over the country’s use of the symbol (albeit, usually in green.) Ireland lost the first case, but it eventually moved on to the German Supreme Court which ruled in favor of Ireland!
9. Due to higher than average birthrates over the last 50 years (at least compared with the EU,) Ireland has one of the statistically youngest populations in the world (and thus, one of the healthiest—especially coupled with the highest rate of increase of life expectancy anywhere in Europe.) 21% of the population is reportedly under 15!
10. The Céide Fields in Co. Mayo are considered the oldest and most extensive Stone Age site ever found! The site has the oldest known field systems in the world at nearly 6,000 years old and Europe’s largest stone enclosure—the wall encloses 5 square miles and hundreds of Stone Age farms. There’s even more to uncover, but the boggy land has made excavation slow and difficult.
This post is part of a series. Read our last batch of fun facts here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
The Look, Part 4: Male Costuming
Fashion, in or out of the dance world, has long been a female-dominated realm. However, while that means male Irish dancers have had significantly less changes over the years, they haven’t completely escaped the glamification of their costumes! Today we’ll take a look at that evolution and how our current expectation for male Irish dance costuming came to be.
While we know from our first installment (catch up here) that most Irish dancers started by dancing in their regular clothes, men’s costuming actually appears to predate women’s. Dance masters were typically male, and as they often dressed flamboyantly to help drive business, they were known by their fancy hats, swallowtail coats, breeches, white stockings/socks, and shiny, silver-buckled shoes. Due to British rules and restrictions (the impact of which was felt for 100s for years,) most male dancers simply wore their “Sunday Best” as their female counterparts did—typically a shirt and tie with breeches tucked into knee socks, a cummerbund around the waist. Similarly to female trends, as time passed there was a focus on traditional Irish fabrics and designs. For instance, in 1904, at the first Glens Feis in Glenarriff, Co. Antrim, the first prize for one of the competitions was: “a suit of Irish Homespun, presented by Hamilton and Co. Portrush, Co. Antrim.”
While kilts as a male clothing item is associated in our modern minds with Scotland, Irish dance has always been about the feet, so kilts became a typical item dancers (male and female!) wore for many years (largely from the 1910s to the 1960s.) Pipers first wore them, but as Irish dance and music are completely intertwined, the dancers eventually adopted the look at well. (If you check our previous post about Irish dance shoes, you’ll find Ireland and Scotland are intertwined in many aspects of their dance traditions!) Kilts were typically worn with a short coat and brat/cape (the male version a bit shorter and usually attached to the front of the coat with a Celtic design brooch—they’re a holdover from times of rebellion,) along with shirt, tie, and knee socks.
These days, boys still have the option to wear a kilt, but since premiere of Riverdance in 1994, pants have gradually become the norm. Male dancers typically wear long (black) pants (though very young dancers sometimes perform in short pants,) a shirt, and often a vest and tie. For many years, it was a trend for male dancers to emulate the sparkling, bright dresses of the female solo dancers through their vests and ties. However, in recent times there’s been a movement toward more sleek, sophisticated looks rather than full on sparkle all the time!
And that’s a wrap on our series all about the whys and hows of Irish dance’s iconic look came to be! One of the most exciting things about being part of the Irish dance community is just that—it’s a community that is growing and evolving, changing as its influence spreads across the globe. You don’t have to be Irish to do Irish dance, but by entering the world of Irish dance you’re becoming a part of a living tradition that both honors the past while moving forward into the future. Through wigs, kilts, and beyond!
This post is part of a series. Take a look at our last “Origins of Irish Dance” post, all about modern female costuming, here. Also: check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
The Look, Part 3: Modern Female Costuming
Last week, we were able to make it into the 20th century, but this week we’re breaching the 21st with our discussion of Irish dance female costuming in the modern age! (Catch up on the history here and here.) For our purposes, the modern age of Irish dance is also the competitive age (though the tradition of feiseanna is, of course, a much, much older one!), starting with the establishment of the Irish Dance World Championships in 1970.
The formation of this competition forced more rules and regulations into being regarding costuming and gathered together dancers from all over the world in one place—meaning trends were also able to take off. Even in the 1960s, a certain look had been established within Ireland and the trends of bouncy, curled hair (a long-ago Sunday church staple,) brightly colored dresses, and (eventually) deeply tanned legs (in a largely pale-skinned country) spread quickly.
But it wasn’t until the 90s that the current “look” of Irish dance really took off. Riverdance’s highly theatrical and flashy style not only brought Irish dance to the world’s attention, it also altered the Irish dance world. While Riverdance (the influence of which we’ll discuss more fully in another installment) actually didn’t use traditional Irish dance looks in the show, but rather took a more multi-cultural approach, the showmanship had its effects. Like much in the 90s, dresses got brighter and more sparkly, the wigs got bigger, and theatricality and pageantry became a part of the performance—as the sport grew in popularity, so did dancers’ needs to stand out among the competition.
It would be hard to discuss modern, female costuming in Irish dance without bringing up its controversies. The use of fake tan—which is perhaps falling out of favor, but had been a staple of the competitive Irish dance circuit and Irish culture for decades—and makeup, as well as the often extraordinary cost of solo dresses and wigs has come under fire in recent years. Films and documentaries about other forms of dance, such as Cuties (which U.S. Netflix had to remove after an uproar from their audience,) have increased this outcry, while technology’s rapid advancements in the last two decades have left parents fearful their children aren’t given the chance to be children anymore.
However, the first thing to note is this: “the look” of an Irish dancer isn’t compulsory, for the most part. Rules are even in place to discourage younger dancers from growing up too quickly--makeup isn’t allowed by the CLRG on dancers 10 or younger. Chances are your female dancer may be getting interested in makeup by 11 on their own—but even then, the heavy makeup used for competitions is part of the costume, necessary for judges to see a dancer’s face clearly under the hot performance lights, and part of all forms of performance for both genders as far back as records go. As far as fake tan goes, there’s no real reason for its prevalence beyond perhaps helping a dancer stand out and maybe look stronger, but natural looks have been have been coming back into fashion (and may go out in favor again—that’s what fads do!)
The main complaint from parents about many other forms of dance—oversexualization in dance moves—is one Irish dance steers clear away from. Irish dance’s steps may not be exactly what the Druids were doing around their bonfires, but they stem from quite literally ancient traditions and a deeply rooted and hard-won culture. There’s a gravity to Irish dance’s tradition and history that Irish dance’s costuming chooses to celebrate rather than cover up with the bright colors and many rhinestones, the tiara and bejeweled clips for capes and entry numbers (though there is a move to return to Celtic designs, like the more classic Tara brooch.)
And while costuming throughout the dance world is also often (perhaps sometimes fairly) criticized, Irish dance’s costumes don’t fall under that category. Though the skirts may be short to better show the dancer’s only moving body parts, they’re generally very heavy fabrics, with long sleeves and often required to cover the collarbones, as well. Their expense is undeniable—though with the advent of computerized embroidery at home (among other innovations) and the continued increase of interest in the sport is helping to drive solo dress prices down—but they still cling to the roots of tradition with Celtic designs and influences. Irish dance, while loved worldwide, is still a somewhat insular community. However, it’s still a community! That means not every dress has to be brand new--the secondhand Irish dance solo dress market is a buzzing one!
Last question I know is burning the tip of your tongue: why the wigs? The answer is simple: it’s easier and more restful than sleeping in rollers! Curled hair was synonymous with “dressed up” in Ireland for many years, and the bouncy curls as part of a dancer’s look has a far longer tradition than anything else they're wearing! Eventually, dancers simply got sick of being uncomfortable the night before a big competition, and switched over the wigs instead—which allowed for bigger and bigger hair. While styles have transitioned into lighter, curled buns and shorter, less heavy, curled wigs, it’s again part of the theatrical look and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon!
Don’t worry, boys, we didn’t forget about you! Tune in next week for the last part of our Irish dance costuming series: all about the evolution of the male dancer’s costumes throughout the ages.
This post is part of a series. Take a look at our last “Origins of Irish Dance” post, all about both male and female hard and soft shoes, here. Also: check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Welcome back to our series all about the evolution of Irish dance costuming! While we’ll cover the sparkly dresses Irish dance is known for next week, this week is all about the most important aspect of any Irish dancer’s performance: the feet! (Or, more specifically, the shoes!)
Before the mainstream introduction of ghillies (Irish dance lace-up soft shoes) in the 1920s, most woman danced barefoot or in whatever shoes they normally wore. But the precursor to modern ghillies is much, much older than that! Inhabitants of the Aran Islands in Co. Galway have always been master craftsman, and are the original inventors of the first version of the ghillies we know today. For thousands of years, Aran Islanders made and wore shoes made of a single piece of untanned leather, which was then gathered around the toes and cinched close to the foot with laces crossed up the top of the shoes (see image—looks familiar, doesn’t it?)
These shoes were coined “pampooties” sometime in the 16th century (though Irish oral history means it’s unclear if the term was new or not,) and they were known for their flexibility. While untanned leather would generally stiffen up on its own, the fishing villages on the island and Ireland’s generally damp climate allowed the shoes to stay flexible. However, without proper treatments to preserve the leather, pampooties were only usable for about a month before the shoe simply rotted away.
It’s unclear how pampooties became the more modern, treated version of ghillies (it’s also the origin of Scottish Highland dance shoes, also known as ghillies, but with some small differences,) but today the shoes are made of supple, black kid leather made to mold to the dancer’s foot over time. The laces are much longer, with loops of leather to lace all the way up the top of the foot, around the arch, and then tied around the ankle. In modern Irish dance, only female dancers wear the shoes we know as ghillies, while men’s soft shoes have a construction more similar to modern jazz shoes—but with a special addition! Men’s soft shoes are called reel shoes include a raised heel with “clicks”—fiberglass heels the dancers are able to utilize to create precise sounds (which means different choreography than female soft shoes dances!)
Conversely, the earliest version of hard shoes (otherwise known as heavy shoes or jig shoes) were, well, regular shoes! Dancers wore their everyday boots and brogues to dance for years, but they were always adding modifications to increase the volume of their steps. Irish dance has always been inextricably tied to music and the quick rhythm of the steps is what makes it unique—so making the shoes louder when they strike the floor has always been desirable. Originally, this effect was achieved by hammering tons of nails into the sole of the shoe, and making hardened, raised heels by stacking many layers of stiff leather together. As I’m sure you can guess, the shoes were indeed loud, but also incredibly heavy!
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the world of Irish dance embraced new methods for creating hard shoes. Even though fiberglass was invented in early 1930s, it took most of a century for Irish dace shoe makers to embrace it and figure out how to use it to create a lighter, more durable shoe. This invention allowed Irish dance to continue to progress into the 21st century, as the lightness of the shoe allowed for leaps and bounds (pun intended) in the types of choreography dancers are able to perform! Without all those nails and stiff leather weighing them down, Irish dance was able to take its place on the world stage and move from cultural dance form to the highly athletic and artistic sport it is today!
Next week we’ll continue on into the 21st century and learn about how the image of an Irish dancer we know today came into being from these origins!
This post is part of a series. Take a look at our last "Origins of Irish Dance" post, all about the history of female costuming, here. Also: check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Kid-Friendly Movies About Ireland, Part 1
So, your littlest dancer isn’t just interested in Irish dance, they’re curious about Ireland—why not use that screen-time to show them something of the culture that created their favorite activity? We’ve collected five, kid-friendly movies that show life in Ireland during varying time periods, with a healthy dose of mythology, family, and fun all mixed in. Take a look:
1. Wolfwalkers (2020, PG)
99% Rotten Tomatoes
Watch on Apple TV
This movie is a (weekly) recommendation from one of our Beginner dancers, Natalie W.! Natalie loves the beautiful, hand-drawn animation (inspired by the illuminated manuscripts of old Ireland) and storyline centered around two strong, female warriors learning to do what’s right. This is the last of director Tomm Moore’s “Irish Folklore Triology” and is set in 1650 with the (albeit light) political undertones to match. The main story centers on hunter Robyn Goodfellowe, who’s come to Kilkenny with her father (voiced by the legendary Sean Bean) at the behest of the English Oliver Cromwell in order to wipe out a wolf pack in the nearby woods. Robyn’s curious spirit leads her right into the wolves’ trap, but also into their secret world and a new friendship with a wild, forest-dwelling girl named Mebh who may be more than she seems. This is a truly Irish production with an all-Irish voice cast and with music performed by Bruno Coulais and folk group Kíla. This Oscar-nominated film is recommended for ages 8+ due to moderate animated violence and characters facing peril.
2. A Shine of Rainbows (2009, PG)
70% Rotten Tomatoes
Purchase on Amazon
Set in the turbulence of Ireland in the 1960s, this tale follows an orphaned boy, Tomás, as he’s adopted by Marie and Alec O’Donnell and goes to live with them on a quiet isle off the coast of Ireland. Things don’t start out perfect—families never are—but with the help of his new friends, Nancy and Seamus (portrayed by Jack Gleeson—another Game of Thrones alum,) and the unconditional love of Marie, Tomás begins to grow comfortable in his new home. Slight spoiler alert: while this movie was called “a feel-good movie” by Ebert, all paths of inspiring self-discovery and adventure does have deep moments of sadness…but you don’t get the rainbow without the rain. This story centering around found family has a beautiful, whimsical backdrop and is recommended for children 10+, as it is an intensely emotional film.
3. The Secret of Kells (2009, not rated)
90% Rotten Tomatoes
Watch on Prime Video
The first of Tomm Moore’s “Irish Folklore Trilogy” centers about the creation of Ireland’s famed (and real!) Book of Kells—an artifact known for beautiful illuminations of both Christian and Celtic mythologies. Young Brendan, a boy living in the remote Abbey of Kells in 9th century Ireland, becomes an apprentice to Brother Aiden, a mysterious illuminator. This decision leads Brendan on a madcap adventure, wrought in beautiful detail, where he needs every ounce of bravery (and some help from his new fairy and wolf friends!) Set in another difficult time for Ireland—this period was full of Viking attacks on the isle as they tried to expand their territories--this film combines the magic of ancient Irish mythology with Ireland’s very real and often troubled past in lush tapestry of animation. This Oscar-nominated (it lost to Up that year) story is recommended for children 9+ due to scenes of mild danger and animated violence.
4. The Secret of Roan Inish (1994, PG)
96% Rotten Tomatoes
Watch on Prime Video
Set in 1946, the film tells the story of young Fiona, sent to live with her grandparents on the tiny fishing village in Co. Donegal after her parents died during the war. Her grandparents like to tell Fiona all about their ancestral home, a small island off the coast no longer inhabited called Rón Inis, which translates to “Isle of Seals.” Tales of selkies (generally: magical beings who can shed their seal skins to become beautiful woman) abound and Fiona becomes convinced there’s selkie in her ancestry—leading her to head out to the island with her cousin to investigate. We won’t spoil the story for you, but this film has its touches of magic about it, making what could be a sad story one full of love, hope, and family. Recommended for children 8+ due to some heavier topics of loss.
5. Song of the Sea (2014, PG)
99% Rotten Tomatoes
Rent on Prime Video
We’re rounding out this list with the second of Tom Moore’s trilogy (they don’t need to be watched in order!)—these hand-drawn, animated films are just too beautiful not to! This is another tale drawing inspiration from the folklore of the selkie, but set in 1980s Ireland. Ben lives in a lighthouse off the coast with his mute little sister, Saoirse, and their father, a man still devastated after the disappearance of his wife six years earlier. When their Granny comes to visit, the siblings’ small world is upended and the secrets surrounding Saoirse’s birth are revealed—leading the pair on an adventure to the magical realm of Tír na nÓg to discover the true meaning of love and family. (And some SRL parents have let us know that this may be Moore’s most beautifully done film!) This movie tackles the complications of sibling relationships against the backdrop of magic and folklore versus modernity and is recommended for children 7+.
Bonus: something very exciting is coming out May 28th! Watch the trailer for Riverdance: The Animated Adventure or learn more about the film here.
This post is part of a series. Read our last post, all about YA 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.
Springtime Old Wives’ Tales
We don’t know about you, but we think there’s truly something magical about Ireland. Because of its long-told histories and mythologies, because of its pastoral appearance…and maybe a little bit because the people of Ireland have a tendency to air on the side of caution when it comes it all things faerie and magic (truly—it often disturbs public works projects throughout the country.) And as ancient Ireland-dwellers were agrarian communities whose lives and livelihood depended on the changing of the seasons, it makes sense that springtime was considered an especially magical time of year with plenty of folklore to go along with it. In that spirit of belief and renewal (we could all use renewal after this year!), we’ve gathered together some of Ireland’s springtime old wives’ tales for you to peruse. Now, we’re not saying these are true, but we are saying a place as old as Ireland (inhabited for 10,000 years!) might (maybe…) know what they’re talking about…
Note: Every region in Ireland has its own customs, folk tales, and even accents—we’ve noted claimed origins when we were able to!
As we mentioned above, the Irish are still loath to disturb “fairy forts” (earthen mounds and ancient ring forts throughout Ireland believed to be entrances to fairy dwellings) and the worst time to disturb them is around Samhain in October or Beltane in May, when the veil between worlds is at its thinnest. Best to leave an offering there instead or you may be facing the wrath of the Aos Sí.
In Co. Mayo, people would gather a variety of herbs and flowers to create a mashed poultice they called Bealtanach—this substance was then rubbed on their cows’ udders and believed to increase springtime’s production of butter and milk (and since we don’t have a clear record of what herbs and flowers and many do have medicinal properties, this one could be true!)
On May Eve, clean your home’s threshold, sprinkle ashes over it, and wait for the first footprint to disturb the dust. A footprint inward means a marriage in the household this year, but outward supposedly means to expect disaster. (We’re leaving this one alone. Surprised by disaster works just fine.)
Many of the May customs involve finding love, including this one from Co. Limerick: sprinkle a plate with flour at sunset and you’ll see your true love’s name. (Other sources say you need a snail as well, to spell it out.)
Ever wonder why the springtime favorite, Irish soda bread, has a cross scored into it? Sure, it allows for more even cooking—but it also lets the devil out. (If the devil was steam this would definitely be true.)
May flowers (yellow is best, but any and all that are out!) strewn across and around all thresholds (including pasture gates and sometimes even on roofs) help keep away not only the playful faeries known to be closer than ever on Beltane, but also general ill-luck, any evil spirits, and disease. This was prevalent everywhere, but especially Co. Ulster!
Lighting your May bush before you head out to the communal bonfire is meant to keep thunder and lightning away.
A face washed in fresh dew on the morning of May Day is supposed to be free of sunburn all summer (and some women kept a supply for their beauty routine or its supposed curative properties!)
According to lore it’s bad luck to: dust or sweep during May, get married during May, or to not hear the cuckoo calling during the month. Additionally, on May 1st one should not: sail, dig, whitewash your home, or bathe…all will cause you ill luck for the whole year!
And while fire festivals are all generally times of community and togetherness in Ireland, no one would give away butter, milk, or salt on May Day, as it was thought to set the precedent for your prosperity for the year. You don’t want all your food staples for the year walking out the door!
The Beltany Stone Circle, located just south of Raphoe in Co. Donegal, is Bronze Age site of 65 standing stones with the unique feature of a cairn at the center (not present in most stone circles on the British Isles.) Beltany’s only decorated stone is aligned with the sun on Beltane, explaining its name and possible ritual purposes. And while there’s a ton of fascinating history and speculation about the site, today we’re interested in the lore: it’s whispered in Raphoe that each of the stones was once a human, punished for dancing on the Sabbath. The one stone a little ways off? The musician who was playing for them, of course!
This post is part of a series. Read our last post, all about one of Ireland’s most famous myths, Leprechauns, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram
Check out our last ten fun facts here.
1. The first, national language of Ireland is, well, Irish (or, in its own language: Gaeilge.) It’s used on all official government documents and you’d be all to see it on public transport, road signs, and all public buildings. (And it’s not “Gaelic”—that’s what they speak in Scotland! “Irish Gaelic” refers to Ireland’s national language.)
2. While Irish government sticks close to its roots, the reality is that only an estimated 2% of people in Ireland speak Irish Gaelic regularly and the majority of Irish people claim English as their first language. Gaeilge is part of the national curriculum…but how much of that high school French do you remember?
3. In the same vein, more people regularly speak Polish in Ireland than Irish Gaelic. Polish people account for the largest non-Irish group within Ireland, making up approximately 2.5% of the population!
4. The ball that drops each year in Times Square on New Years Eve is Irish in origin! (It’s made of famously beautiful and coveted Waterford crystal from, you guessed it, Waterford—a county in the southeast of Ireland.)
5. In Irish Gaelic, there’s no words for yes or no. Well, at least not directly translated. Some common Gaeilge phrases used instead include: tuigim (“I understand”) and níor mhaith liom (“I wouldn’t like.”) More or less, the Irish always need to use more words to get the point across!
6. An Irishman is responsible for answering every kid’s favorite question: “Why is the sky blue?” A scientist named John Tyndall made the discovery in the 1860s (and why the sky turns red at sunset!) (Still curious yourself? This article breaks it down better than we can!)
7. While Americans love to go on and on about the beauty of Central Park in New York City (which is still true—protect our green spaces!), Phoenix Park in Dublin is twice the size! (P.S. It’s not Phoenix like the mythical bird, but the Irish Gaelic fionn uisce or “clear water” is also the size of all the parks in London put together!)
8. Ever wondered why so many Irish surnames include Mac/Mc or O’? Mac just means “son of,” while “O” means “grandson of.”
9. The oldest yacht club in the world is the Royal Cork Yacht Club in Knocknagore, Co. Cork. It’s been in operation since 1720 and sits on second biggest natural harbor in the world (Cork Harbor—only beat by Sydney Harbor in Australia!
10. If you make it to 100-years-old in Ireland, you receive a “Centenarian Bounty”: €2,450 and a letter from the President. Every subsequent year you receive another letter and a commemorative coin! This tradition started in 1940 with Irish President Douglas Hyde. (You do need to apply to receive it, though. Click the above link for an application for your Irish grandparents!)
This post is part of a series, read Volume IV here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Springtime Traditions, Part 4
Happy May Day! (Well, two days late.) As Americans, we’ve all heard about May Day celebrations, but chances are all the words conjure for you are a vague image of girls dancing around a pole with ribbons. Or maybe the words just alarm you (though, fun fact: mayday as a distress call is actually just a corruption of the French m’aider which means, unsurprisingly: help me.) However, if you’re not new to the blog, you won’t be surprised to hear that in Ireland, May 1st has a long history of celebration—all the way back to its druidic, pagan past.
Beltane (pronounced bel-tein) is one of the four major fire festivals in Gaelic, pagan culture and has been observed from April 30th into May 1st for as long as there have been people in Ireland. The name means “bright fire” or, alternatively, “fires of bel” for the Celtic sun god, Belenus, as this bright twin of Samhain (which marks the beginning of winter) was meant to mark the beginning of summer on the Emerald Isle. Though there’s plenty of healthy debate about Belenus’s exact role in ancient, Irish worship, most sources see him as a Gaelic equivalent to Apollo, especially as he’s often depicted with similar accouterment: a chariot being driven across the sky, a corona of light, and the sun. However, Belenus had additional associations that fit a springtime god well: healing and medicine (to this day, shrines to Belenus often include therapeutic and sacred springs,) fertility and sexuality, and even livestock and crops.
Like all the major fire festivals (check out our posts about Samhain and Imbolc—and we’ll see you this summer for Lúnasa) in Gaelic culture, Beltane was a time when the community came together at a shared bonfire to honor Belenus and relight their own hearths from the blaze—but Beltane is notable for its tradition of having two bonfires. As the ancient Irish were a largely agrarian people who were early cultivators of livestock, these bonfires did more than bring everyone together, but were believed to honor the return of the sun and thus, a return of life after a long, hard, hungry winter. People would drive their cattle between the two bonfires to let the smoke wash over the animals to bless them, protect them from disease, and encourage fertility, before driving them out to pasture for the warmer months. The sacred smoke was also thought to bless those in attendance and sometimes, the brave would leap over the fires in an attempt to garner even better luck.
Much like Samhain, Beltane was also believed to be a time where our world and the Otherworld (in Gaelic: Tír na nÓg aka the faerie world,) were closest. Also much like Samhain or Yule, decorations were placed in and around the home to ward off trickster faeries (who might be looking to steal milk and butter from the livestock they just went to such careful trouble to protect—people left the faeries their own milk and honey outside instead!) But what does one decorate with in May? Why, May flowers, of course! Yellow flowers such as buttercups, primroses, and marigolds were especially coveted, and people supplemented their floral decorations with greenery—in some regions whole boughs or bushes that were additionally decorated with strips of colorful cloth! These decorations were a multifaceted part of the day: they were celebratory of the warmth and sun in the months to come, but also thought of as protection—everyone knows the fey love beauty can’t resist stopping to smell a pretty flower!
Like all other pagan spring celebrations, Beltane was also holiday focused on fertility and new life. Not only were homes decorated with flowers and greenery, in some regions flower crowns or posies were popular accessories for unmarried or newly married women (and even placed on the cattle people were hoping to breed and protect.) While the iconic Maypole was a later, English addition to the festivities (and were most popular in heavily English-influenced areas,) it gained popularity over time and became a part of the communal festivities in many areas. The dance around the Maypole has long been considered by historians to be a remanent of a fertility ritual, and many towns would then crown a May Queen from the dancers to lead a procession—a tradition thought to be Roman in origin, originally in worship of the spring goddess, Flora.
While most of us probably didn’t have access to a Maypole (or any cattle to bless) this year, we can certainly get behind celebrating spring after this long, (isolated) winter! While these types of agrarian celebrations seem a truly ancient part of our past some days, humans will always be excited to see the sun after the coldest months of the year. So, as you go about your modern life this early May, maybe pick some daffodils and leave some milk and honey out for the faeries—you know, just in case.
This post is part of a series. Read about the tradition of Mothering Sunday in our last installment here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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.
St. Patrick’s Home Turf: St. Paddy’s Day in Ireland
We all know the Saint Patrick’s Day stereotypes: lots of green, lots of gold, and lots of Guinness. But that’s our American (or, for as many as 32 million of us, Irish-American,) tradition. How have the Irish marked the occasion over the years?
The truth of it is simple: until the Irish-Americans made it the party it’s become today, St. Patrick’s Day was a religious holiday. It seems obvious when you say it: it’s literally a day celebrating a saint. Traditionally, the Irish spent the morning in church and celebrated in a modest way the afternoon. Though the holiday falls squarely during Lent, Lenten prohibitions were lifted on the day to allow for feasting and at least some mild revelry. The government even took steps to keep it mild: going against the harmful stereotypes that were perpetuated about the Irish people during Ireland’s mass emigrations in the 1800s due to the potato blight, pubs were actually closed on St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland (by law) until 1977.
Even after the ban was lifted, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland were overall subdued (leading to the rumor that the Irish don’t celebrate the holiday) until around 1995. With the advent of the internet, the world was expanding rapidly, and the Irish government did its best to increase its appeal to tourists by embracing the high-spirited, secular twist Americans had put on the holiday, starting over a century before. And it worked—Dublin’s parade (pre-COVID) is now a five-day festival and has boasted half a million attendees! Of course, places in Ireland celebrated St. Patrick’s Day the American way (i.e. with a parade) earlier than ’95—it just wasn’t as widely advertised. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade in Ireland was held in Waterford in 1903, with Dublin not coming around to the celebrations until 1931—1995 was just the year the government got involved!
However, there’s a few misconceptions we need to clear up: first, corned beef and cabbage? An American invention! This “traditional” meal is a 19th century, Irish-American adaptation of a common Irish meal: ham and cabbage. As the Irish immigrants in New York in the 1800s weren’t able to afford ham, they had to make do with hard, salted beef usually used for long sea voyages. They would boil the beef three times in order to soften it and remove as much brine as possible, resulting in the meal we still eat today. The Irish are far more likely to indulge in a full Irish breakfast with tea or a leg of lamb with potatoes and other root vegetables…or maybe some shepherd’s pie—some stereotypes do have their root in truth, after all.
Second, don’t you dare call it St. Patty’s Day! For one thing, Patty isn’t short for Patrick, but Patricia. As the Miami Herald reported in 2018: “Saint Patrick was indeed not a woman nor a hamburger.” In fact, the original, Gaelic spelling of Patrick is Pádraig, accounting for the mysterious appearance of two ds in the correct nickname: Paddy. But, you could also skip the abbreviations full stop—Paddy (among other traditional Irish names such as Mick) were once used as a derogatory names for an Irish person in the not-so-distant past. Might as well give the man his due and just say St. Patrick’s Day!
Lastly, and most importantly: the concept of the “wearing of the green” (also a popular Irish air!) isn’t just to mark your Irish heritage and celebrate it, but a bigger political statement. As we discussed a few weeks ago, the color originally associated with St. Patrick as actually blue, but the green was inspired by his teachings (see this post for more info!) and became a symbol for Irish nationalism against British oppression—starting with the Irish Rebellion of 1789. This event isn’t a light one--an estimated 10-70,000 people died in their fight for freedom. Wearing a shamrock (which is three leaves, not four) on your lapel or even wearing a piece of green clothing was considered a rebellious act in and of itself. In many ways, St. Patrick’s Day’s celebration of Irish culture isn’t just a party, it’s in honor of those who gave their lives for home and country—so maybe leave off on the pinching.
It makes sense that so many places in America go green for St. Patrick’s Day (most famously, the Chicago River every year since 1962, but don’t forget the Empire State building, among many other landmarks) we once shook off the shackles of our British rulers, too! Now that America has more people of Irish heritage than actually live in Ireland, we can have our own traditions to celebrate the Irish diaspora across the country…but it’s still important to bear in mind what this day means for its country of origin. No matter how you choose to celebrate this year: Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona duit! (Or: A Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to you!)
This post is part of a series. Read about the history of St. Patrick's Day in America here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Check out Volume I and Volume II!
1. Hook Lighthouse in County Wexford is one of the oldest in the world. While the present structure has been around for 848 years, there’s evidence that a lighthouse has stood on that spot back to the 5th century.
2. St. Patrick is also the patron saint of Nigeria. He was named the patron saint of the country by Irish bishops in 1961—the same year Ireland opened their embassy in Lagos (there’s actually a long-standing Irish Catholic presence in the country!)
3. It may or may not be a coincidence that Nigeria actually beats Ireland in Guinness consumption (though it’s only second on the list--the UK takes the top spot!)
4. And while Ireland doesn’t drink the most Guinness in the world, it does drink almost the most tea (impressively beating the UK), at an average of 1,184 cups of tea a year…per person. (Only Turkey has Ireland beat!)
5. Still, Guinness is one of Ireland’s most renowned exports—the famous Guinness Brewery located in Dublin and the top tourist destination while in town. Don’t worry, it will still be there when you’re able to travel again: in 1795, Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000 year lease on the land.
6. If you are planning on visiting one day, consider going in April or June: they’re the driest months of the year there, depending on where you are in the country. But any month will work! While Ireland’s often considered one of the wettest places in the world, it’s actually 80th on that list (though it does have one of the oldest rainfall records in the world—300 years old!)
7. The infamous Billy the Kid, real name Henry McCarthy, was born to two Irish immigrants in New York City in 1859. While his career as an outlaw and his life were short, he was said to be fluent not only in English, but also Spanish and even Irish Gaelic!
8. Ireland has won the Eurovision Song contest more than any other country in the world, seven times since 1970. They’re also the only country that’s won three times consecutively! (Not really sure what Eurovision is? Most Americans aren’t really—just think of it was “a cross between ‘The X-Factor’ and a Miss Universe pageant.”)
9. An Irish art director and film production designer named Austin Cedric Gibbons designed the statue we call an “Oscar” today in 1928. If you look closely, the coveted Academy Award is a knight holding a sword, standing on top of a film reel.
10. Students at Trinity College in Dublin have a much-believed and almost beloved curse: if you pass beneath the “Campanile” (a bell tower,) you’ll fail all your exams. Even those who don’t believe in superstitions admit avoiding the area—if only because it’s also believed to be built over the graveyard of a medieval monastery.
This post is part of a series, read Volume I here and Volume II here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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