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.
St. Valentine and Irish Romantic Traditions
It’s common knowledge these days that, no matter how commercial it may seem, Valentine’s Day is a much older tradition then the invention of Conversation Hearts. (Remember last year’s shortage? They apparently take eleven months to make enough for the six-week period around the holiday!) Like much in the Western world, it’s a custom poached from the remains of the Roman Empire and though ancient history is a little fuzzy about the details (there may be two or three different St. Valentines,) we’ve landed on this (probably not entirely correct) story: a priest named Valentine was executed for marrying Christian couples and became a saint for his good works. Now we celebrate love in his honor on his feast day (the day he was martyred) in the liturgical calendar: February 14th. (Though the church did remove the celebration officially in 1969, making it wholly secular these days.)
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I know what you’re thinking: why are we writing about St. Valentine under Irish history?
It’s true, St. Valentine wasn’t Irish by birth, but he’s now been in the country long enough to call himself an Irishman. In 1836, an Irish Carmelite priest named Friar John Spratt visited Rome and his sermons were so brilliant he was showered with gifts from the most influential religious figures in the city—including the Pope. The Pope’s gift went above and beyond a commemorative mug: he gave Friar Spratt relics from the body of St. Valentine to bring back to Ireland for the Irish people. St. Valentine was reinterred in a Carmelite church on Whitefriar Street in Dublin (it’s now Aungier Street, but the church kept the name.) Every February 14th, many Irishmen and women come to pay homage and pray for their romantic futures. (Last year Irish Central even interviewed a couple that met doing just that four years ago and now plans on getting married!)
Despite the saint the day is named after being buried in their capital, Valentine’s Day isn’t a particularly Irish holiday. However, that doesn’t mean the Irish aren’t romantics at heart. One only has to look at their literary masters (W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde …to name a few) and their love poems to know romance isn’t dead on the Emerald Isle. Need a line or two to add to your partner’s card this year? The Irish have got you covered. Or when we can travel again, check out this list of romantic spots all throughout Ireland…but don’t forget the beautiful Howth’s Head just outside of Dublin (where one of the most romantic scenes in classic literature takes place: Leopold proposes to Molly there in Joyce’s tome Ulysses.)
Your beloved isn’t much for poetry? That’s okay—try a claddagh ring! The claddagh has become a popular symbol on jewelry all over the world, but originates in County Galway where in the 18th century fishermen used them as identification. The design’s meaning—a heart for love, hands for friendship, and a crown for loyalty—has morphed into a common romantic gift, complete with its own coded language. On the right hand, the heart worn pointing toward your fingertips means you’re available, and towards your own heart means you’re taken. The left hand is reserved for more serious relationships: pointing away is engaged, pointing toward you is married. And ladies, if you feel like doing the proposing, Ireland has a tradition for that too! Every four years on a Leap Day (February 29th,) it’s tradition for women to take the initiative and propose to their male partners. This practice possibly originates as early the 5th century A.D.—which must be why it’s so (sweet but…) antiquated.
Speaking of marriage, there’s an Irish romantic tradition even older than Leap Day proposals: handfasting. The tradition dates back to 7000 B.C. and is simple: couples would announce their intention to be married and tie their hands together with a braided length of rope or ribbon in front of a priest. After a year, they would return to the priest to be married or to decide to go their separate ways. Weddings these days often make symbolic use of the tradition (instead of as an engagement ceremony) to show their new unity. But how do you find someone to get handfasted with? Why not check out the 150-year-old Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival! Originally designed to help young people from rural farms meet mates, this sleepy town in Country Clare is transformed every September into the place to meet your match even today.
Last, but not least, one can’t argue that the Irish Gaelic language doesn’t have its touch of romance. Need a new pet name for someone you love? Ireland has a wealth of them and here’s a few to leave you with:
A stór (uh STORE): my treasure
A ghrá (uh GRAWH): my love
A mhuirnín (uh WUR-neen): my darling
A chuisle (uh KHUSH-leh): my pulse
Mo shíorghrá (muh HEER-ggrawh): my eternal love/soul mate
Is ceol mo chroí thú (Is cyoal mu khree who): you’re the music of my heart
Happy Valentine’s Day!
This post is part of a series. Read more about Ireland's history by reading about the story of Dr. James Barry here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Levels and Competitions, Part 3
Many of our parents and dancers here at SRL are fully aware of all the ins and outs of Irish dance, and this post isn’t really for them (unless they’ve always been a little fuzzy on some of it—we won’t tell! It’s complicated!) This post is for our up and coming dancers who are excited about competing more regularly. If you’re a Beginner, still learning the ropes, or checking out our website for the first time, check out the six previous posts in the series to catch you up to the present in Irish dance’s history!
Regional Oireachtas to Worlds
Irish dance’s prevalence these days isn’t simply a case of respect for the intricate footwork, perfect balance, and incredible stamina and grace it takes to make an Irish dancer, it’s a type of cultural exchange that expands the diaspora of the Irish people. Whether you’re of Irish heritage or not, participating in or watching Irish dance brings you a little closer to a country with a complex and rich history. It’s no surprise that the CLRG (the main governing body of Irish dance, based in Ireland) now have records to indicate “that Irish dancing is practiced in countries as far afield as Japan, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa and at an ever-growing rate in Eastern Europe.” Not to mention North America!
In our previous two installments, we discussed the foundation of competitive Irish dance: the role of feiseanna (pronounced fesh-anna, the plural of feis i.e. fesh) and the different types of dances performed at these festival competitions (with corresponding music and at varying levels as your technique and skill develop.) But feiseanna are only the local level of the competitive Irish dance circuit. The next step? Time to move up to an Oireachtas competition! (At your teachers’ and parents’ discretion, of course!)
The term “Oireachtas” (pronounced o-rock-tus, but say it quickly!) denotes a regional competition (as opposed to a local feis) that can be as broad as a whole section of the country, though the way your day goes will look much like a feis. Fun fact: as the word oireachtas roughly translates to “gathering” or “assembly,” it’s also used as the title of the parliament of the Republic of Ireland, but anyone in the Irish dance world will know what you mean! Oireachtaisi (the plural!) all over the world may have once been more or less very large feiseanna, but these days the annual competitions are held as qualifiers for the World Championship competitions.
In North America, there are seven regional oireachtaisi competitions each year (held in and around November) put on by the regional branches of the Irish Dance Teachers’ Association of North America (IDTANA.) Each regional (ours is New England!) oireachtas holds a main championship, which SRL dancers are able to start competing in once they reach the Preliminary Championship level. Somewhere in between Oireachtas and Worlds are national competitions (North America’s is usually in July) that are generally secondary qualifiers for Worlds and open only to the highest level of SRL competitor: Open Championship dancers (see more about the levels in last week’s post!) Depending on the size, these competitions can last several days.
Each region also holds team competitions, where dancers compete together in groups of 4, 8, or 16 in traditional céilí dances. SRL dancers are invited to the team program when they reach Beginner II and have shown dedication to their dancing through consistent attendance and regular home practice. The céilí dances are standardized by CLRG and are a great exercise in dancing in unison while keeping impeccable technique, all by depicting beautiful movement patterns with those on their team!
Regional Oireachtaisi may also hold a subsidiary competition for up and coming dancers to gain experience on the bigger stage. In New England, we hold a traditional set competition where dancers prepare one of the seven standardized traditional set dances to perform for three adjudicators. Once they complete this hard shoe choreography (that’s been passed down generation to generation!), the dancers receive a rank or placement based on rhythm, timing, technique, and posture. At SRL, dancers in the Beginner II Hard Shoe classes are invited once they’ve mastered the set dance “St. Patrick’s Day.”
2020 held a number of unique challenges and disappointments, and none more devastating in the realm of Irish dance as the cancellation of the Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne’s (or the World Irish Dancing Championships’) 50th anniversary this past year. While there’s technically no less than six other organizations that call their competition “Worlds,” the Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne overseen by the CLRG is the oldest running (fingers crossed for 2021!) and often referred to as the “Olympics of Irish Dance.” It’s considered by many to be the most prestigious competition available for Irish dancers, and in its early days (1975) was won by no other than Michael Flatley (yes, the “Lord of the Dance,” aka the first name the average person knows in connection with Irish dance and the first American to win!)
The first Worlds took place in 1970 (see the pic above!) in Dublin’s tiny Coláiste Mhuire theater in Parnell Square and to this day is usually held over Easter week. The competition remained in Ireland (though the towns and cities rotated) until 2009, when America hosted the competition in Philadelphia. (Though it has now been held in the other countries where the highest concentration of Irish dancers live: Northern Ireland, Scotland, Great Britain, and Canada.) And while Worlds may have started small, 2019’s event (hosted in Greensboro, NC) boasted approximately 5,000 competitors and about 20,000 supporters. When you think of the fact that upon its founding in 1932, the CLRG counted only 32 teachers and 27 adjudicators (aka judges,) it’s easy to see that Irish dance really has become a worldwide phenomenon!
While this “olympic” event can be, in many ways, the pinnacle of an Irish dancer’s career (just qualifying is a huge achievement!) there’s many avenues for dancers to keep their love of Irish dance alive after they retire from the competitive circuit. Beyond the numerous professional companies that tour around the world, helping Irish dance, music, and culture reach innumerable people, many Irish dancers become Irish dancer teachers (just look at our staff!) or open their own studios (like Miss Courtney!) There’s also degrees (both BA and MA) in Irish Dance Studies (once again—Miss Courtney’s a great example,) though many dancers pivot into dance-adjacent professions: nutrition, physical therapy, arts administration or fundraising (to name only a few)…it doesn’t have to become a hobby in a dancer’s adult life!
This post is part of a series. Read Part 1 of Levels and Competitions here and Part 2 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.
Levels and Competitions, Part 1
Many of our parents and dancers here at SRL are fully aware of all the ins and outs of Irish dance, and this post isn’t really for them (unless they’ve always been a little fuzzy on some of it—we won’t tell! It’s complicated!) This post is for our Beginner parents, our dancers just getting excited about maybe competing one day, or even the parent just browsing out our website for the first time. (If that’s you, check out our four previous posts here to catch you up to the present in Irish dance’s history!)
A little recap: It was the Gaelic revival in the late 19th century, and the forming of the Conradh na Gaeilge (Gaelic League) in 1893, that helped Irish dance truly begin its journey from unrecorded folk tradition to the international, competitive art form it is today. With the League’s creation of a governing body specific to dance in the 1930s (Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha—aka The Irish Dancing Commission or CLRG—still the primary governing body of Irish dance today,) Irish Dance Masters became a legitimate authority on a world stage (no pun intended.) The world of Irish dance as we know it today was built on this bedrock: the CLRG set down a series of rules and regulations to govern and standardize Irish dance (everything from steps and form to certifications for teachers.) This led to the creation of competitive opportunities to elevate its reputation, preserve and promote Irish culture, and nurture the art. And those competitions, rules, and regulations are what we’re here to discuss with you today!
Feis Out the Best
We’ve discussed feis and feiseanna (pronounced fesh and fesh-anna) before in this series—meaning simply “festival(s)”—they’re a long-standing tradition meant to celebrate and preserve Irish culture. Feiseanna today are still much the same (though in the dance world, they may only be a dance competition and not have as many outside vendors,) and vary in size: dance academies often hold inter-school class feiseanna, but there are also larger, regional feiseanna all over the world. These competitions are divided by both age and skill level (discussed next week!) and competitors are judged on a variety of technical and stylistic concerns such as timing, turn out, foot placement, deportment, choreography, rhythm…the list could fill this entire post.
To put this all as simply as possible: dancers compete in multiple different dances divided into two major categories: hard shoe and soft shoe. From those larger categories, more specific ones emerge based on the music and its timing, in three broad categories: jig, reel, and hornpipe (though the slip jig is completely unique in Irish music and dance with a 9/8 time signature—we’ll explain further below!) Soft shoe dances include the reel, the light jig, the slip jig, and the single or hop jig, while hard shoe dances include the treble or double jig, hornpipe, and treble reel. Most feiseanna will have dancers beyond the earliest levels compete in soft shoe rounds, hard shoe rounds, and then a final round that’s often hard shoe, and often a set dance (more about that below.) Some feiseanna will include team or cèili (pronounced kay-lee) dances, as well.
But how does a dancer get to be a competitor? Dancers begin preparing for competition at the earliest levels: every move they learn in their Beginner later becomes part of a dance. Beginners start with the basic reel and jig. Once a dancer has mastered these basic steps and has good control of their technique, they begin learning hard shoe with the treble jig (essentially a hard shoe version of the jig they’ve already mastered and know the music for—but with hard shoe skills and movements instead!) Hornpipe and traditional set dances are added as a dancer progresses in their hard shoe technique.
Each dancer will gradually add more complexity to these basic dances, differing in rhythm and timing, as they develop as dancers—for example: over time, the basic steps of the reel, light jig, and slip jig are upgraded with more difficult choreography. Traditional set dances are unique, tune-specific dances that were choreographed long ago by Dance Masters in Ireland to exactly match the music. They have titles such as “St. Patrick’s Day,” or “Garden of Daisies,” and are largely universal around the world (though there are slight regional and studio variations.) This is different to other types of dances (reel, jig, slip jig, treble jig, and hornpipe) that are unique to each school. This is why (well, at least until 2020 forced many competitions online) videotaping Irish dance competitions has always been forbidden—you have to protect that choreography!
What the layperson needs to understand in order to hear the differences in dances/music really comes down to is the timing: different dances have differences in their beats per bar of music, as well as different emphasized beats. Here’s a little breakdown of the major groupings, though further designations into dances have even further and more complicated variations (check out a musical theory breakdown of each one here and click on each type of music to hear an example!):
Reels: 4/4 time signature and will probably sound the most “normal” to a non-dancer as the beats are evenly emphasized. Can be detected if you can say “double decker, double decker” in time with the music.
Jigs: 6/8 time signature, i.e. three beats per bar with the 1 and 3 emphasized (non-Irish dancers will recognized this as a waltz.) Detected by non-dancers by saying “carrots and cabbages, carrots and cabbages” in time to the music. Includes light jigs and treble jigs, but not slip jigs!
Slip Jigs: 9/8 time signature, i.e. similar to the above jig but with three beats per bar and three eight notes in one beat (with the emphasis on the 5 and 9 beats.) This one can give a lot of dancers some difficulties at first—it has an almost rolling sound to it!
Hornpipes: 4/4 time signature, like the reel, but with the 1 and 3 beats emphasized. There’s more variation here, but many hornpipes can be detected with “humpty-dumpty, humpty-dumpty.”
Next week, tune in to the blog for the purpose of feiseanna competitions (besides fun!): rising through the levels or “grades.”
This post is part of a series. Read more about how Irish dance's iconic form developed here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Check out our first ten fun facts here!
1. The Wild Atlantic Way is the longest, uninterrupted coastal driving route in the world. Officially opened in 2014 by the Irish tourism board, the route covers the entire west coast of the country, from the border of Northern Ireland all the way to (almost!) Cork. Passing through three provinces and nine counties, the route displays some of Ireland’s most beautiful scenery.
2. As Dracula is set largely in England, most people don’t realize its author, Bram Stoker, is an Irishman. In fact, the character of Dracula and this concept of vampires that became our standard was based on the Irish legend of the Abhartach.
3. The Titanic was built in Ireland—in Belfast at the Harland and Wolff shipyard, specifically. Pre-COVID, there was even a large, interactive, narrative monument and museum dedicated to Belfast’s shipbuilding called “Titanic Belfast.” (Miss Courtney's been!)
4. While we tend to think of it as an “Irish accent,” there’s really hundreds of Irish accents, all specific to different areas, education levels, and classes, with a variety of complex, social histories behind them. (Though phonologists tend to divide all these varieties into 3-5 larger groupings.)
5. The Croaghaun Cliffs on Achill Island in County Mayo are the third highest sea cliffs in all of Europe at 752 meters (that’s about half a mile!) Only Hornelen in Norway (860 meters) and Cape Enniberg on the Faroe Islands (754 meters) has them beat! (Barely.)
6. There’s evidence that people have populated Ireland for over 10,000 years. It’s a little later than much of Europe due to the climate (and the fact it’s an island,) but impressive nonetheless! The oldest artefacts have been found in the North of the country.
7. Ireland once had its own version of the Olympics! They were called the Tailteann Games (or the Lughnasa games after the Irish hero of legend, Lugh.) They took place in 1924, 1928, and 1932 and were a celebration of traditional Irish sporting events. Unfortunately, the event didn’t take off worldwide, but smaller versions still exist to this day!
8. Speaking of sport (as they’d say in Ireland,) Ireland has one of the oldest consistent sporting traditions in the world (at least 3,000 years old!): hurling. It’s considered the fastest game played on grass and bears a vague resemblance in equipment to field hockey or even lacrosse (though definitely not in play.) P.S. The women’s version of hurling is almost identical, but called camogie.
9. The hollow, hypodermic needle was invented by an Irishman and surgeon named Dr. Francis Rynd in 1844. The world’s first subcutaneous injection was even performed at the Meath Hospital in Dublin! Even if you hate needles, this was a revolutionary advancement that has allowed to save and better billions of people’s lives.
10. In 1970s Ireland (and still today at English boarding schools and some places in India) there was a tradition known as “bumps.” Essentially, if it was your birthday, you’d be grabbed by your classmates and thrown repeatedly into the air to be “bumped” on the floor, often upside down—once for every year of your life. It would often end in a big finale throw where you might or might not be caught on the way down. (You can see why it’s not often practiced these days!)
This post is part of a series, read Volume I here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram
Middle Grade, Part 1
If the term “middle grade” isn’t familiar to you in terms of books, the name is relatively revealing: it just means books written for children around the ages 8-12. You know: out of the picture book stage, but perhaps not ready for either the level or themes of Young Adult fiction. A lot of SRL’s dancers fall right into this category, so we wanted to give them a way of learning about Ireland that will capture their imaginations in that magical way only books can do! (Unsure if a book is too advanced for your dancer? While you know your child’s reading levels best, just remember that kids like to read up—i.e. an 8 or 10-year-old generally wants to read about a 12-year-old, and so on!)
1. Kathleen: The Celtic Knot, Siobhán Parkinson
Illustrated by Troy Howell
This story of Irish dance and life in Ireland during the Great Depression is part of the “Girls of Many Lands” series by American Girl. (And yes, there used to be a doll! Unfortunately, she seems to be discontinued, but pops up on eBay. She was so beloved there’s even fan pages for her character.) Kathleen Murphy is a curious 12-year-old girl growing up in Dublin in 1937, who loves to Irish dance and is a clever dancer. Unfortunately, Kathleen’s family doesn’t have the money for the lessons or a costume for her. The book follows Kathleen on her journey to being able to compete, teaching us lessons about compassion, honesty, and Irish life during a time of political, religious, and financial strife with a light hand. American Girl’s books always strike that fine balance between history and story that make the past’s realities accessible for younger readers.
2. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
This 8-book series may sound familiar: the film version, directed by Kenneth Branagh, was released this past summer on Disney+ to widely negative reviews. The main complaint? Too many changes from the acclaimed source material—we’d recommend just getting the first book instead! (There’s a graphic novel version, as well.) Artemis Fowl is the name of the series protagonist, a 12-year-old criminal mastermind and millionaire from Ireland. The first book concentrates on a modernization of classic, Celtic fey mythology, with Artemis kidnapping a tough, pint-sized faerie named Holly Short for a king’s ransom: the faerie’s pot of gold. If you’re unsure about letting your kid read about a child racketeer, don’t worry: this series has been a parent favorite since its debut in 2001 for the main character’s gradual redemption. Focusing on themes of greed and entitlement, this book is for the kid who loves Percy Jackson and adventure. (It may be about Greek mythology, but we highly recommend those as well!
3. Granualie: Pirate Queen, Morgan Llewelyn
Morgan Llewelyn is an award-winning writer of historical and mythological fiction (and some non-fiction!) and has several more middle grade Irish book offerings, but this tale based on the real life story of female pirate, queen, chieftain, and rebel, Grace “Granuaile” O’Malley is sure to excite! Considered now to be a woman ahead of her time, Granuaile was a fearless leader of her clan and an untiring defender of Ireland and its culture. Llewelyn tells her story largely through letters to Granuaile’s son, Tibbot, but also weaves through the historical and political realities of the rise of Elizabeth I and the resulting oppression of the Irish way of life. With many cameos by great figures in Ireland’s history, this story has the hook of adventure, but lessons about girl power, acceptance, and the importance of family, tradition, and standing up for what you believe is right.
4. Scholastic Classics: Irish Fairy Tales, Myths and Legends, Kieran Fanning
While we covered some Irish mythology picture book anthologies in our previous installment, Fanning’s book promises a slightly more elevated version of these classic tales. It’s not fully illustrated, but rather its beautiful cover’s drawings represent different stories in the collection as a reminder of the contents inside. This book covers the first three cycles of Irish mythology: Mythological, Ulster, and Fenian—from the miraculous Tuatha Dé Dannan and Children of Lir, to stories of famed heroes like Cuchulainn and Fionn Mac Cumhaill. While mythology and fairy tales always have a bit of a dark side, reader reviews promise that all the more difficult subject matter is dealt with matter-of-factly, but delicately. This version is perfect for the middle grade age range, letting them feel more adult, while at the right level for them in both content and difficulty.
5. A Slip of a Girl, Patricia Reilly Giff
Patricia Reilly Giff has won two Newbury Honors for her work, which concentrates on strong, brave young women in trying times in history (there’s plenty more where this comes from. Lily’s Crossing is about WWII in America, but is a personal favorite from childhood.) A Slip of a Girl depicts life in rural Ireland through narrative free verse in the wake of the Great Famine. Told through the eyes of Anna—whose siblings have gone off to the New World and whose mother has passed, leaving Anna to care for her younger sister with special needs–and in her lyric voice, the story is one of resilience in the face of deprivation. A much quieter, contemplative read than the others on our list, this family tale is a poignant depiction of the tensions of a feudal, agrarian community and the self-determination adversity can teach.
This post is part of a series—take a look at our recommendations for Adult Contemporary Fiction and Children’s Books. And check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Ancient Irish Yuletide Traditions, Part 3
Are you cold? Grab another blanket and settle in with a nice mug of tea (this is Ireland, forget the coffee) to read about a few more Irish Yuletide traditions. This installment has some that might really surprise you!
While American Christmas decorations are, well, often very American (take this 8-foot, LED lit Gingerbread Man, for instance,) the ancient Irish actually started one of our more understated looks. Who doesn’t love passing an old colonial with just one candle in each window? It always looks like a Christmas card come to life—those little flickers of light in all the darkness of 4 pm. The Irish called this custom “Coinneal Mór na Nollaig” (literal translation: the Great Christmas Candle, as they usually just had the one) and it was a sign that anyone cold, weary, or in need would find hospitality inside. It was tradition to have the youngest member of the family light the new candle with the stub of last year’s candle—a way of passing on the good fortune of your year to the next.
Eventually, as Paganism gave way to Christianity, these candles came to signify something less warm. When Catholicism was being oppressed through British, Protestant rule, the candle was lit and the doors left unlocked as a sign to any priests that they were welcome in that home to say a Christmas mass. When suspicious British soldiers asked about the candles, families had a plan ready: they simply said it represented a light for Mary and Joseph, to tell them they would have been welcome in their home. The British soldiers bought it, and some families, even today, hold on to the false explanation—it’s closer, after all, to the original intent.
On a lighter note: if you had to speculate, you’d probably hazard a guess that “Black Friday” was something cooked up by corporations to help boost their fourth quarter sales, right? And, in its modern iteration, you’d probably be right…but the ancient Irish did do it first! Since they obviously didn’t have Thanksgiving to mark the beginning of the holiday season, they chose December 8th for the “Margadh Mór” aka The Big Market! When Ireland was almost all rural, people would gather (generally at a crossroad, where they also gathered to dance!) to sell their wares and buy special items and gifts for the holidays to “bring home the Christmas.”
Now, these items and gifts generally weren’t the new iPhone or even new socks, but more closely in line with the Pagan tradition of feasting and giving. While the farmers went to sell their eggs, meat, and produce, they went to buy imported items that were special treats often reserved for the holiday for everyone but the wealthiest. Tobacco, tea, wines and beers, dried fruits and spices not native to Ireland, and even, simply: sugar. Sellers would often give gifts to their customers (kind of like our Black Friday discounts today,) and, much like Toys for Tots or the myriad of other Yuletide charities we have, the most prosperous farmers would make sure their less fortunate neighbors had a fresh Yule meal!
Lastly, while the UK and Canada have Boxing Day (and Americans have “lie around in your pajamas if you don’t work in retail”) the day after Christmas, the Irish originally had “Wren Day.” We mentioned “The 12 Days of Christmas” in our first installment of this series, but have you ever wondered what’s so special about a partridge in a pear tree? Many think it’s actually a reference to Saint Stephen’s Day, or as it was known before the church got involved: Wren Day. This tradition goes back to the Celtic myth (similar to that of the Holly King and Oak King in our previous post) that the robin of the New Year killed the wren of the old during the midwinter celebrations. Thus, there were “Wren Boys” who would wear disguises, chase and kill a wren, and sing as they placed it in its tree.
The tradition of chasing and tying a dead bird to the top of a holly bush or pole becomes a little more palatable when you learn that wrens in ancient legend often represented a betrayer (first to the Celts for betraying them to invaders, and later to the Christians as St. Stephen was also betrayed by the distinctive song of the wren.) Don’t worry, these days wrens are no longer harmed the day after Christmas, but certain areas of Ireland have turned this grisly concept into something more in line with Pagan celebrations of togetherness. For example, in Dingle, one can attend a Wren Day parade where money is collected for charities by a new version of Wren Boys. Though, a bit of the tradition does live on—it’s possible you’ll play the part of the wren and get chased!
Ultimately, the ancient Irish’s Yuletide traditions are a precursor to our own, because humans, at their core, need to be reminded that, eventually, the darkness will end. There’s no year better to remind ourselves of this fundamental truth: that to be human—no matter your religion, ethnicity, or even time in history—is to look for hope. So from us here at SRL, to you at home celebrating the return of the sun however you like, leathanta saoire sona agus athbhliain faoi mhaise duit!
This post is part of a series, read about more Irish Yuletide traditions here and here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram
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