It was fierce cold for sure out there, away from the light and heat of the feast. Eoghan hated gatekeeping duty, but it was his turn and that was that, so there he sat.
Young Fionnuala had slipped him a wineskin full of the best from inside in the kitchens, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been at least. He could hear the occasional strain of the harp though, and the odd waft of roasted meat drifted up to him even there, causing his mouth to water and his belly to rumble, and his mood to darken even further. He’d told Fionnuala there was no need for guard duty this night – the walls at Tara were the soundest in the land, and sure everyone who would be coming was inside already. Nobody missed a feast of the Tuatha De Danaan.
Sudden thumping from outside the gates jolted him out of a doze and made a liar of him, for there was most definitely someone there who wasn’t inside already, and didn’t want to miss the feast at Tara, judging by the clatter they were causing. Owen made his way down to the small gate and pulled back the hatch so he could see the head of whoever was outside.
The warrior, for he was undoubtedly a warrior, was alone, and he looked pleasant enough. There was a fierce brightness about him, even in the gloom of the evening, which Eoghan couldn’t account for, so he left that thought alone and reverted to his customary gate query – who was this stranger disturbing the peace at Tara, and what did he want. He was called Lugh, this bright warrior, and he wanted to join the feast within. But sure the seats were all full, and everyone who was supposed to be coming was inside already; what did they need another for?
Well, it turns out this young man could lay claim as a master Builder, one of the best in all of Eireann, and surely that would gain him a place at the King’s table? But no, Eoghan said, for the Tuatha De Danaan already had the best of Builders, and sure what would they be needing another for? Well, it turns out this young man was also a master Brazier, one of the best in all of Eireann, and could keep the fires in all of Tara lit and tended no matter what came. Surely that would gain him a place at the King’s table? But no, Eoghan said, for the Tuatha De Danaan already had the best of Braziers, and sure what would they be needing another for? Well, it turns out this young man was also a master Harper, one of the best in all of Eireann, and his music would soothe the very soul of any who heard it. Surely that would gain him a place at the King’s table? But no, Eoghan said, for the Tuatha De Danaan already had the best of Harpers, and sure what would they be needing another for? They progressed through a range of skills: Lugh was a Smith who could craft with any metal, a Champion of all games and arts, a Poet who could charm or curse with equal skill, an Historian who would recite the families and battles of all Eireann through the ages, a Cup-bearer who would never spill a drop, a Magician who could control the very world around them, and even a Physician who could cure all ills, excepting if a head be cut clean off. But no, Eoghan said, for the Tuatha De Danaan had all of these people skilled in such things, and sure what would they be needing another for?
Ah now, says Lugh, and tell me Gatekeeper – but do you have any man or woman within the walls of Tara who can do ALL of these things? Eoghan was forced to admit that no, they did not, and the stranger was welcomed on the back of that. Lugh was announced as the Ildánach – the many skilled one – and that was the first they’d heard of him, though not the last.
But sure, they are all stories for another day.
I went down to this little child, because she was a child… I got down on my knees in the aisle, and I asked her was she ok? She said, “No”. She was upset, and she said, she had had an abortion that afternoon in London. Now if you know anything about flying, you don’t fly after having a tooth out, for fear of haemorrhaging. Now she’s sitting in her seat… there was nobody with her, she was on her own… because of the severity of the matter, we had no choice, we couldn’t wait to get back to Dublin. That plane was diverted into Liverpool. And my memory… was of that girl – the ambulance men came on, they very discretely looked after everything, and nobody knew anything, they took her off – and she SCREAMED, all the way down on that stretcher, for us not to tell her parents back in Ireland.
That was an experience from the 1980’s, told by Derry-Ann Morgan, a former employee of Ireland’s national airline, to the crowd of activists, protestors and passers-by attending a Pro-Choice Rally on a very cold Saturday in May 2013, in Ireland’s capital city. That a girl of 15 years old would be subjected to such trauma, on finding herself pregnant in circumstances that simply did not allow for her to birth and raise a child, is unthinkable. But sure, that was 30 years ago. So much has changed in Ireland since then!
Highlights from the 80’s here on the island include an amendment to the Irish constitution, just to be sure to be sure than none of our poor wee Irish babbies might get killed unnecessarily. Driven by fear of abortion in other countries, the 8thAmendment in 1983 made it illegal for a woman to travel for an abortion, and illegal to even provide information, or speak to a pregnant woman in Ireland about how or where she could travel for abortion to another country. That same year, it was reported that an Irish mother of two named Sheila Hodgers was refused treatment for her progressive cancer, even down to not being allowed tramadol pain medication, due to the risk it posed to the foetus she was carrying at the time. Her husband repeatedly requested an abortion, but was refused. The hospital had to abide by a code of ethics drawn up with the Catholic Church, which would not even allow for a Caesarean section, as there was a chance of damage to the foetus. Following a premature labour, the baby died a few hours after birth, and Ms. Hodgers lasted only two days longer.
It’s a good thing the Government of Ireland has managed to wriggle out from under the thumb of the Church in 2017, so a travesty like that couldn’t possibly happen again, isn’t it?
Oh no, wait, they haven’t yet.
When the death of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian dentist residing in Ireland, hit the news, the nation, and the world, was shocked. Ms. Halappanavar died in October 2012, after she had sought help at the University Hospital in Galway as she was suffering a foetal miscarriage at 17 weeks. On being told the foetus was not viable, Savita requested an abortion, but was then informed the hospital could not perform an abortion under Irish Law as the foetus’s heart was still beating. A few days after, Ms. Halappanavar was diagnosed with septicaemia, leading to multiple organ failure, and death of both mother and foetus.
This happened despite the 1992 ‘X Case’ in which the Supreme Court decided that a pregnant woman could have an abortion to save her life, including from suicide – which was based on the case of X, a 14 year old girl who had been made pregnant by rape, and wanted the right of an abortion. This led to the 13th, and 14th Amendments of the Constitution, stating that the prohibition on abortion would not limit the freedom of pregnant women to travel out of the state, and that the prohibition of abortion would not limit the right to distribute information about abortion services in foreign countries. Neither of which was of any use to Savita, whose husband reported that a nurse in the hospital told them their repeated requests for abortion had to be denied, because “Ireland is a Catholic country”.
How horrific. How utterly, incomprehensibly tragic all of that is. Janet, who has been a pro-choice activist in Ireland for 24 years, recounts what she views as the best experience for a woman in Ireland today:
At 5 to 7 weeks… they illegally obtain the medical abortion pills online… they order them, risking charges for importing a Class A drug without a license, and with their partner or friend take them over the course of a weekend and have an abortion at home with everything they might need, or booked into a hotel room.
And what, in her experience, is the worst experience for an Irish woman who faces the choice today?
It is not to do with if they have travelled, or how far along they were, or what type of abortion they have had. It is simply the isolation which comes with not having anyone to talk to about the experience… We know that 150,000 women who gave Irish addresses have travelled to the UK, it may be more… That is so many women passing each other each day and not knowing they have that shared experience, and being unable to support each other.
The Pro-Choice Rally in May 2013 was timed to coincide with a 3 day Government committee hearings on proposed new legislation, following publication of the ‘Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013’. Dr. Sinead Kennedy of the ‘Action on X’ group, organisers of the rally, spoke of her feeling with regard to the Bill, and the debate that surrounds it:
We had the spectacle beginning yesterday of politicians debating the merits of allowing women lifesaving abortions. Debating how many years in prison – 5, 10, 15, 20 – vulnerable women in difficult situations will be subjected to, if they try and access abortions here in this country. Listening to politicians who seem to think that they’re bishops back in the 1950’s, who think that women are no more than vessels or incubators.
We need to tell this government that we will not accept legislation that excludes suicide. Women will not be subjected to panels of 3, 4, 7 doctors (to decide if they may have a termination). This is outrageous, it is barbaric. And women must not and will not be criminalised in their own country, for accessing abortion. (This Bill doesn’t provide) access to abortion for women who are victims of rape or incest, it doesn’t provide access for women who have fatal foetal abnormality, it does nothing to address the issue of when a woman’s health is in jeopardy because of her pregnancy – and more than that it doesn’t do ANYTHING to address the 5,000 women who travel abroad every single year to Europe, who are criminalised in their own country, and treated like exiles. And we will not tolerate this anymore.
It is surreal to think that under the proposed legislation, a 14 year old rape victim such as the girl in the X case, who is proven to have taken abortion pills in Ireland, would be subject to a 14 year prison sentence. Her attacker, if convicted, would be likely to face a 7 year jail term, the current average. As reprehensible as the situation is though, Dr. Kennedy is satisfied that things are moving in the right direction. She said that this legislation is the bare minimum we need, and while it is highly restrictive, and insulting that we have to stand out and demand this, it is nevertheless an important defeat for anti-abortionists. This, finally, is a step in the right direction.
The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 now defines the circumstances and processes within which abortion in Ireland can be legally performed. It allows for abortion where pregnancy endangers a woman’s life, including through a risk of suicide. It was signed into law on 30 July by Michael D. Higgins, the President of Ireland, and commenced on 1 January 2014. To determine whether the pregnant person is truly at risk, her case is put before a panel of up to 4 doctors and specialists, who must concur on the ruling.
There are no restrictions or checks in place for the religious beliefs of any of those doctors.
In a conversation with Katherine O’Donnell, director of the Women’s Studies Centre at University College, Dublin, she speculated:
Besides women who are ‘out’ about needing terminations for medical reasons, there is no big visible presence of women who have chosen to terminate pregnancies for other reasons, it is left to a few activists and organisations (such as Choice Ireland and Doctors for Choice)… so many thousands of Irish women annually terminate pregnancies, but there is no visible mass movement. We seem to have as many Irish women who are saying they were ‘hurt by abortion’ or that abortion is harmful, as those who are affirming it as a positive choice in their lives. If even a small fraction of Irish women told their abortion stories, I think it might be the way to unlock the long impasse where the argument about abortion goes into arcane abstractions rather than lived lives.
In 2013, it was estimated that 12 women leave Ireland every day to secure an abortion, while countless others are taking pills purchased online. Abortion is the most common gynaecological procedure an Irish woman is likely to have. It is variously estimated that between one in 10 and one in 15 Irish women of reproductive age have had an abortion. An Irish woman is more likely to have had an abortion than appendectomy or tonsillectomy.
It is time for Ireland to accept that the Abortion War will not be won by anything but safety and support for Ireland’s women, and the right – regardless of the situation – of an Irish woman to make the best possible choice she can for her own life.
You can provide support and keep up to date at the Abortion Rights Campaign Ireland Website.
[A version of this article was first published in Ms. Magazine, in the Summer issue of 2013, researched and written by Lora O’Brien.]
It began at a hospital bedside in Western North Carolina.
Holding my grandmother’s hand as she took her final soft, short breaths. She was surrounded by the people closest to her, being loved and supported as she slipped away into the Otherworld.
There was something mesmerizing about that moment. In the days that followed, as the grief settled in, I replayed it over and over in my mind.
Despite the pain, there was something so peaceful and beautiful there. I wished I could go where she’d gone… except for the permanent part. Like a death nap, maybe. Where I could wake up in a couple hours.
I’m not sure if She had noticed me before then, but that’s when The Morrigan really began reaching out to me. As the ache of loss threatened to drown me, She appeared.
She met me in a bookstore one night, with I see Fire by Ed Sheeran playing on the loudspeakers and an article about Herself in a magazine I happened to pick up.
And if we should die tonight
Then we should all die together
Raise a glass of wine for the last time
Calling out father, oh
Prepare as we will
Watch the flames burn o’er and o’er
The mountain side
— “I See Fire” by Ed Sheeran
She began to whisper to me there. I felt Her presence in the car on the way home, offering relationship.
I was honest. “I’ve heard you’re not to be trifled with,” I said. “I don’t want to make a commitment until I know what I’m getting into.”
I began to research Her while crows took up residence in my yard. I took Lora’s annual Meeting The Morrigan intensive programme. And finally I stood before an altar that had become Her altar and committed to Her for a year-and-a-day.
And then all Hell broke loose.
Long-forgotten traumas resurfaced, demanding to be dealt with. Relationships that maybe weren’t that good for me anyway strained to the breaking point. It seemed there was chaos all around me. Donald Trump was elected President of the US.
Somewhere in the midst of this chaos, She helped me find my backbone. A backbone I’d never realized I had, much less deployed. I began creating boundaries, and sticking to them. When my parents took their lifelong verbal abuse a step too far, I cut them out of my life. Forever. When one of my closest friends just couldn’t make time for me, I said goodbye. When my job expected me to keep working for free so we could get investment on the grounds that I’d have a tiny ownership stake, I quit.
Not gonna lie, each and every one of those things felt like a dagger in the gut. They hurt. But as I sit here on the other side, 3 months into my second year-and-a-day (which She and I both know at this point is really permanent), I am amazed at my own growth.
She put me through the fire – or perhaps She saw the fire coming and went through it with me. Either way, I am no longer the same person I was sitting at Grandma’s deathbed. I’m stronger than I ever imagined I could be, and I still have a long way to go.
This month I attended a memorial for another family member. I was consumed with anxiety beforehand about seeing my dad there. Would he confront me? Would he whisper something triggering in my ear just to see my reaction?
I discussed my fears with Herself. And when the day came, my dad skipped the memorial service and went straight to the cemetery. The moment I arrived there, he left. The bully was scared of me.
It’s a small, rural cemetery on the side of a mountain in Western North Carolina. It’s not Ireland – although there are people buried here who were born there. Some of my people who are buried here are only a generation or two removed from Eire.
But somehow, I don’t think that’s why The Great Queen showed Herself that day. I think it’s because I’m Hers.
And that is worth every bit of the upheaval of the last year.
Being Pagan in Ireland is a little different, I think, than being Pagan anywhere else.
We’re an odd lot, and we value individual strength, as long as it doesn’t upset the apple cart of family/community tradition, or give the neighbours anything bad to talk about.
I’m a… well, I don’t actually have a label that fits what I am or what I do, and that’s fairly reflective of Irish Paganism generally.
I’m an Irish heritage professional, a journalist, copywriter, a guide, an author – all things I’ve done or still do for my ‘day job’.
Personally, the term Draoi is the closest accurate description I’ve got, a ‘user of magic’.
Traditionally I might have been called a Bean Feasa (wise woman), but it seems a little arrogant to take that on for oneself. Before that, perhaps a Druid, though modern Druidry is very different to what that word means to me.
I am spiritual, but not religious, and I have a solid working relationship with the Gods, Guides and Guardians of old Ireland, and our sacred places.
How does all that translate into today’s Irish Christmas?
Most folk here go to mass on the eve or day, even if it’s only their token attendance of the year.
Besides the fact of the Catholic Church in Ireland essentially stopping anybody from leaving their organisation (is it just me, or is that a little cult-like? Illegal, even?) – Irish people are still stuck in ‘the done thing’, so babies are baptised, kids make communion and confirmation, and most people still get married in the church.
Many of us know that Winter Solstice is a much older tradition than our modern Christmas.
There’s the world famous Newgrange alignment, and the new but old City of Dublin Winter Solstice Celebration, with much more going on around the country, publicly and formalised just in the last few years.
Before that, you’d have to know someone who knows someone to get a personal invite to a genuine celebration rooted in Irish Spirituality.
So, raising kids in Ireland, interacting with non-Pagan friends and family, working, and all that jazz, you kinda have to do the Christmas thing, to some extent at least. But Winter Solstice is still a big deal, and getting more so.
How do we Irish Pagans handle that?
We have a party.
Every year, on the Saturday before Christmas. We invite everybody we know. We start late afternoon, and carries on til the wee small hours.
This is the time of year we acknowledge the deepest and longest darkness, and make a point of balancing it with the lights of food and fire and feasting, family and friends.
And every year, I take a personal vigil through the longest night, to greet the sun the following morning. It’s a mark of respect, a point of sacrifice, and a time for quiet reflection on the balance of dark and light in my life, in my spirit. Time to adjust as necessary.
Do I think the sun won’t rise unless I am there to greet it? No, not as such… but I guess it doesn’t hurt to be sure, right?
You’re welcome ;o)
Have a Cool Yule folks, a Peaceful and Blessed Winter Solstice, and a Happy Christmas – wherever you are, whoever you’re with, and whatever you believe in.
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The Longest Night.
A woman sits by her fire, wrapped in a blanket to keep out the chill, watching the flames in the quiet of a room.
Her house is silent around her, family sleeping as she waits. Lights burn through the darkest hours.
When the deep blackness begins to lessen, she makes her way outside, searching the horizon.
A shaft of light appears, a bright lance across the land – winter is broken… Summer will return.
She smiles, then returns inside, sticks on the kettle and hops in the shower, before driving herself to work.
What? Did you think we were looking at a scene from long ago? Perhaps, but come the 21st of December, this ancient ritual will be repeated in houses all over Ireland. Meán Geimhridh, Midwinter, brings a vigil through the darkness, waiting for the new-born sun.
Irish people have been marking the return of the sun for at least 5,000 years. We have built vast and complex monuments around it, and not just Newgrange. You don’t even have to be a politician or lucky in the Winter Solstice lottery to see these wonders of a by-gone age.
Knockroe Passage tomb in Co. Kilkenny, which has been called ‘the Newgrange of the Southeast’, is a fine example, which contains extensive megalithic art, and not one, but two, chambers with astrological alignments; showing light through the chambers at both sunrise and sunset on the Winter Solstice. Or take a look at Drombeg Circle in Co. Cork, a beautiful ring of standing stones which frames a flat topped rock, aligning to the horizon where the sun sets on the Longest Night.
Many traditions, now associated with Christmas and the holiday season, have their origins in the pre-Christian past. We are lucky now to have such a beautiful blend of customs, fitted exactly to the Irish psyche and community spirit.
In bringing the evergreen tree inside, we remind ourselves of life within the seeming death of winter, of sustenance and growth that continues through the darkest times. Plants such as holly and ivy compliment this theme, and not forgetting mistletoe, which was especially sacred to our Druidic ancestors as a fertility symbol. Be careful who you kiss under the mistletoe at this year’s parties!
Decorating the tree with candles, and reflective items such as mirrors and silver coins, in the past stood for an amplification of the natural energies of the living greenery; bringing more light and life to the darkness, throwing it around the room. Today we use dodgy flickering fairy lights, glitter and tinsel, but the principle is the same. And safer, for the inevitable puppy or toddler tree attacks.
Green is the colour of life, and health, but so too is red – the bright blood of life that flows through our veins, keeping our hearts beating and our senses alive. Before a certain drinks company decided it’d look great on the jolly fat guy with the beard, the colour red was valued as a decoration and a reminder of life throughout our homes for the Winter Solstice season.
Wren Day, or Lá an Dreoilín in Irish, was continued until recent times on Stephen’s Day, with troupes of kids (known as wrenboys) going round the village or town with a fake bird on a decorated stick, singing or dancing and asking ‘a penny for the wren’. A little further back, we see a more grizzly form of this, in the hunting and capture of a live bird, which was then used to decorate the pole and held pride of place as a centrepiece for the dance that followed.
In a time of sickness and death for the weak, this may be an echo of an older sacrifice to the Gods of Winter; take one life and spare the others through the darkness until the coming of Spring. Or with the ‘winter-wren’ being a symbol of the old year, maybe the people simply wanted to make sure that it was well and truly done with.
The singing and dancing part of that tradition is pleasant, at least, and brings us to another Winter Solstice favourite, the feasting and the parties. This is one that most of us keep up, to one degree or another, and having a good party to look forward to can get us through the darkest, coldest mornings.
Winter is the time we naturally draw in on ourselves, it can be the loneliest, harshest time of year. It’s not just the cold that brings us down, it’s the lack of light, and company. In days gone by there was a serious food scarcity through the dark winter days too – but a bright feast, filled with family and friends, was the perfect reminder that the time of dark death still held strong seeds of light and life.
So, enjoy your parties!