Irish Culture Archives - Lora O'Brien - Irish Author & Guide
Category Archives for "Irish Culture"

Beltane – Bealtaine Traditions in Irish Folklore

Beltane - Bealtaine Traditions in Irish Folklore

Beltane is the anglicised version of our Irish word Bealtaine – still in use and meaning ‘the month of May’ in our own language. Bealtaine is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature, and it is associated with important events in Irish mythology.

Irish folklore still holds the legacy of the traditions and customs associated with this ancient festival. Bealtaine and Samhain are the original two turning points for the ‘wheel of the year’ in Ireland. That’s May Eve and Hallowe’en, in case you’re not familiar.

These major Irish Pagan Festivals were pivotal – literally – times of upheaval of change for our ancestors over 8,000 years ago when the Hunter Gatherer societies moved from their Summer to Winter camping grounds at these seasonal turning points, and they still resonate through the landscape and the Irish communities to this day.

Bealtaine – May Eve is a sidheógai [of the fairies] evening in the country. Green branches are placed over the doors of homes and stables, supposed to keep out the fairies from doing harm to the stock. The cabins and dairies are all locked this night to prevent fairies from taking away the milk and butter. (County Clare)

The Schools Collection –
https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4922383/4876307

There are many strange customs connected with Beltane – May Eve. The ancient May Eve customs are now dying away. Long ago the young children especially girls used to go around from house to house dressed in beautiful flowers. These youngsters used to sing a song at each house and get a few pence in exchange. In former times May Eve was regarded as a great festival. The following were the principal customs connected with May Eve in ancient times. First sweep the threshold clean, sprinkle ashes over it and watch for the first footprints. If it is turned inwards it means a marriage and if it is turned outwards it means a death. Secondly May Eve pick it up and put it on a plate, sprinkle with flour and at sunset you would see the initials of your true love’s name. Thirdly light a bush before the house on May Eve and it is considered to keep away thunder and lightning. Another old custom was to go out May Eve and gather armful of yellow flowers known as May Flowers. These are strewn at the gate of every field, outside the doors of homes and out-houses and even on the housetops. It is considered that these would keep away ill-luck, evil spirits and disease. (County Limerick)

The Schools Collection – https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4922074/4850082

Many old beliefs and customs were attached to May Eve and the month of May itself. For instance may-flowers were scattered around the house to keep away the fairies. Another old belief was that if a person washed his face in the May Eve dew he would not get sunburned during the Summer or he would not get wrinkles. Persons leaving presents of fresh milk and honey for the fairies would have a plentiful supply of butter and milk through-out the whole year. If a person was hit on the head with a bow-tree stick on May Eve he would not grow any more. Long ago the cow’s udder was washed with May-flower (?) on May Eve so that she would give plenty milk during the year. A person going through briars three times on May-Eve and saying “all the butter come to me” would have the power to steal butter. If a person went out on May morning and skimmed the water off the well he would be boss of the village for that year. Another old custom was to tie cowslips to the cow’s udder in order that the butter would not be stolen.
There is a rhyme about the month of May as follows:-
“A wet and windy May
Chills the haggard with corn and hay”

On May Eve people gathered different varieties of flowers and herbs which they mashed up. This mashed substance was called “Bealtanach”. It was rubbed on the cow’s udder and tits on May day. It was then believed that the cow would give a much better supply of milk and butter. (County Mayo)

The Schools Collection – https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4427930/4358799

More on Beltane – Bealtaine in Ireland Here.

Beltane, or Bealtaine as we prefer it, is a truly remarkable time of year in the Irish calandar, whatever religion you’re following.

It’s a powerful time when ‘the veil is thin’, as they say, and if you double down on this by being at locations which are traditionally ‘thin places’ in Ireland, and by tuning in to the customs and magic that have been carried through for countless generations… well. You’re tapping into pure Irish Draoícht right there.

If you’d like to know more about the Seasons and Sacred Cycles of Ireland, you can Click to Learn More.

In Memoriam – Jon Hanna

Jon Hanna with our Féile Draiochta Family in 2012

Today, I’m grieving.

Yesterday morning, I learned of the loss of a very good friend. I was in a café having breakfast while I waited on our car to be fixed… the most ordinary of situations, right?

My friend Cat texted me, to check had anyone been in touch, and then asked for a phone call. She told me of the loss of Jon Hanna.

A man I have known since we were both only young and coming into the Irish Pagan community, a comrade I have fought beside for the freedom and equality and understanding of all, a fellow Irish Pagan author, a Craft brother I have stood in circle with many times, a dear friend whose life rites and passages I have shared at every step.

The first time I met Jon, I was 18 years old. At some Pagan event in a pub, maybe a moot? Or an organisation gathering for something in the wider community? Anyway, he was in a group with a person I had no time for, who had quite vocally offended the majority of the Irish Pagan Community and continued to do so. This tall, skinny, ginger man with the Northern accent shouldn’t have been in any way interesting to me, given all that.

But he was.

Even back then I could see his wicked sharp intellect and dry sense of humour. I could feel a kinship, a kindred spirit. I wanted to be friends with him, regardless of anything else.

Luckily for me, my wish came true in good enough time. Jon was a member of pretty much every community I’ve ever considered myself a part of, and we became excellent friends through the long years between then and now.

My brother’s journey echoed my own, and mine his, in a great many ways.

We often spoke of past trauma and shared experiences, our personal mental health struggles as survivors, and the toxic culture that created the situations we both found ourselves in.

I don’t know why I still survive today, and he doesn’t, and that terrifies me.

But I will go on without him, as we all have to try to do, and hope that he has now found the peace he so needed. And deserved.

On Friday night we will Wake him at his house, and on Saturday his Wiccan Brothers and Sisters will give him his full due and send off, in a ceremony that will be incredibly difficult for us all.

Though Traditional Wicca is not a path I follow in my personal practice any more, those rites of initiation are ties that bind through lifetimes, and it is still my right and my duty to stand within that circle in times like this. For him.

Please, if you can, light a candle for our fallen brother, and for strength (and what peace may be had) to surround his family and his children, that they may draw on it if they choose or need to.

“Until we meet, know, remember and love again.”

https://rip.ie/death-notice/jonathan-jon-hanna-rathgar-dublin/382377h

If you’re struggling with PTSD, C-PTSD, or any other mental health issues – I’m not going to tell you to just “please talk to someone”, because I know exactly how difficult that can be. If you can – please do – but if you feel you can’t right now… Know at least that I’ve been there. I might be there again some day. But we can survive this, and keep surviving it. I believe in us.

https://www.mentalhealthireland.ie/need-help-now/

Irish Pagan Resources – February 2019

Irish Pagan Resources with Hedgehog

On this blog, and in the weekly Irish Pagan Resources emails through our community mailing list, we cover a variety of topics, including: Irish Mythology, Irish History, Irish Culture, Irish Spirituality, Irish Storytelling & Irish Travel.

Or, really, whatever catches my interest that week?!

I thought it might be useful to provide a monthly collection of Irish Pagan resources here, under each heading. If you have any further recommendations yourself, comment below!

Irish Mythology

First, a warning… When we’re looking for authentic resources in Irish mythology, we often come across obviously poor materials. If there’s sparkly gifs flashing, that’s your first clue. But some of em are sneaky.
This for example – Fairies of the Irish Mythology – from The Irish Fireside, Volume 1, Number 24, December 10, 1883

It may LOOK like ye olde academic quality source material. But the reality is that it’s a pompous piece of colonial crap, with butchered Irish language references and arrogant assumptions about the uncivilised native savage.

Best stick to Daimler. Or, I did a whole class on the Sidhe.

Irish History

So, Britain’s in a right oul mess too, aren’t they? Seems like a good time to dust off this article – Northern Ireland, a Beginner’s Guide.

Irish Culture

We’re still a bit of a mixed bag here when it comes to equality in our society. While we have the Gender Recognition Act, which is amazing for Trans people in our community, we also have the likes of the Iona Institute and Glinner polluting our air. I’m not going to link to them – look them up, or just trust me they’re vile.

Irish Spirituality

Clann Dord Fiann – “Tradition is the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way.”

This is a new group in Ireland, working with authentic Irish source material and genuine relationship to the land, and I’m only delighted to see them starting up. Find them on Facebook.

Irish Storytelling

I learned a while back that my good friend Joe Perri of Wolf Mercury Photography had NEVER HEARD OF EDDIE LENIHAN. Honestly, it’s kinda put me in a panic – I mean, who else out there isn’t aware of out storytelling national treasure? In case that’s you… Eddie storytelling live in a Pub. His beard scares me, but you know, each to his own. (Check this one especially for the Biddy Early reference).

Irish Travel

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to recommend any other Travel company than Land Sea Sky Travel. Vyviane is just too wonderful. Check out what’s on offer.

When you’re looking for authentic Irish Pagan Resources, it’s best to stick – in general – with native Irish sources. Check out my YouTube Video on Cultural Appropriation for more info!

Irish Medieval Food – Pottage

Irish Medieval Iron Age food - cooking pottage stew in a cauldron over a fire

“Pottage is not so much used in all Christendom as it is used in England”

– Andrew Boorde, Dyetary (I542)

Pottage in England, came from the Old French pottage, meaning simply ‘potted dish’. I’m not sure how extensively Mr. Boorde had travelled in Ireland, but here it was craibechan for a stew and anraith for a soup, while porridge was leite, and any of them could be made in the same ‘potted dish’ method.

We’re talking one pot peasant food here, the type that starts with a single pot over an open fire, with anything that is to hand thrown in, and cooked for hours til it’s reduced to mush. The next day more water is added, more of whatever’s handy, and more mush ensues. In fairness, it’s tasty, tasty mush, and this type of soup or stew is still eaten in Ireland, and there’s never a truer word spoken than when someone smacks their lips, pats their belly, and says “It always tastes better the next day”.

This was a staple all through Europe, probably from Neolithic times at least, but definitely through the Middle Ages, because we’ve got the references and recipes to prove it.

There are records from the English Beaulieu Abbey, in I270, specifying daily allowances for the lay gardeners: “a convent loaf, a gallon of good ale, and four bowlfuls of the convent pottage”. There is a line in ‘Piers Plowman’ (c. 1377) which says: “Had ye pottage and pain (bread) enough, and penny-ale to drink . . . ye had right enough”. And in the 1500’s, the Fromond list of ‘Herbys necessary for a gardyn’ included no less than 49 herbs deemed suitable for pottage.

To make the pottage, the large metal pot or cauldron was hung over the hearthfire, filled with water or the stock from boiled meat, fish or foul, as available, and various other items added. John Harvey (Vegetables in the Middle Ages) details:

“It is various species of herbs that are consistently mentioned as ‘good pottagers’. In the pottage (‘porray’ or ‘sewe’) were usually cooked one or more of several vegetable foodstuffs, notably the leaves of colewort (Brassica oleracea), leeks (Allium porrum), both of them grown in the garden; or the field crops peas (Pisum sativum) and broad beans (Vicia faba).”

(Harvey)

He references a Friar Henry Daniel, who frequently comments on ‘good pottagers’, e.g. borage (Borago officinalis), chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium), mallows (edible Malvaceae), several forms of orach (edible Atriplex), and turnip (Brassica rapa).

The cabbage and it’s cousins (Brassicae) frequently appear under various names such as Cale, Kale, Wild Cabbage, Colewort, Worts, Worties and Braisech in Irish. It’s interesting to note that Langland’s first version of Piers Plowman, written about I362, says; “I have porrets (young leeks) and parsley and many cole plants”, while in the version from about thirty years after we see what might indicate a diversification in the diet (or a move up in the author’s social status?), with the line changed to; “And I have porret plants, parsley and scallions; Chibols and chervils, and cherries”. Cherries, if you don’t mind!

In England the most common pottage flavouring was certainly Parsley (Petroselinum crispum), which carries not only huge health benefits, but also a stack of Medieval lore and superstition round it. In Ireland the Nettle (Urtica dioica) was most common and used regularly for its tremendous health benefits. That bit (health benefits) is, admittedly, supposition on my part, because Nettles taste of very little – other than slightly metallic and a little rank if you don’t get the fresh young tops. So I reckon the popularity must be attributed to medicinal rather than culinary value.

Wild Garlic (Ramsons, Allium ursinum or Creamh in Irish) on the other hand tastes divine. There’s little evidence of cultivation in Ireland, but sure there was no need to. Wild Garlic grows best in damp woodland areas and, well, that was most of Ireland. PW Joyce noted in 1906 that it was a common pot-herb, saying: “The facts that it is often mentioned in Irish literature, and that it has given names to many places, show that it was a well-recognised plant and pretty generally used”.

How To Make Pottage

A recipe for this one really isn’t necessary. It depends on what you have available that was common in the Medieval country of your choice. Start with a stock or broth, add in some chopped meat (beef, mutton, pork, goat, venison, chicken, goose or duck – take your pick!) for a higher status feed. Finely chop some cabbage or kale, onions, leeks, wild garlic. A bit of turnip and a few peas or broad beans wouldn’t go amiss. If you’re going very posh you could add pepper, ground coriander or cardamom. Sage, rosemary and thyme were common enough though, so feel free to throw those in to taste, then some parsley or nettle tops, and let it boil softly for a few hours.

Try it with authentic Irish Soda Bread, but most importantly… don’t forget that it always tastes better the next day!

Sources:

  • Boorde, A., “Dyetary”: (ed. I870), xii.262
  • Harvey, John H., “Vegetables in the Middle Ages”: Garden History, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Autumn, 1984), pp. 89-99
  • Langland, William, “Piers Plowman”, B .xv 31o (c. 1377).
  • Joyce, P.W., “A smaller social history of Ancient Ireland”: 1906

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Irish Folklore – The Nails

Irish Folklore - Cutting Ones Nails

As any witch will know, you take good care of where your hair and nails end up. And with whom. So here’s some advice from the native Irish Folklore tradition on best practices around your own nail care.

Avoid cutting your nails on Sunday. it is thought that whoever does so is followed closely by the Devil the following week. A very old rhyme was made about this :
Cut them on Monday, you cut them for news
Cut them on Tuesday, a new pair of shoes
Cut them on Wednesday, you cut them for wealth
Cut them on Thursday, you cut them for health
Cut them on Friday, a sweetheart you’ll know
Cut them on Saturday, a journey you’ll go
Cut them on Sunday, you cut them for evil
For all the next week, you’ll make friends with the devil.


The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0638, Page 340 https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4428104/4378363

There are a couple more Irish folklore traditions around the nails that I’ve heard of growing up.

  • On ‘Holy Thursday’ (the day before ‘Good Friday’), people don’t clip their fingernails or cut their hair.
  • To keep a child from biting their nails, a piece of soot was put on the fingernails.
  • You should cut the nails off your toes and the nails off your fingers and a bit of your hair the night before November’s Night (Samhain, Hallowe’en) and then leave them under a stone to help to banish your sins. If you believe in sins.
  • They used to say that if you have white spots on your nails you will have to earn your living overseas, and that the number of times you will travel by sea is shown by the number of white dots on your nails.

Any others? Add them in the comments below!

If you’re interested in old Irish mythology, check out our ‘Learn the Lore’ 21 Day Challenge – Free!

Irish Pagan Holidays

Irish Pagan Holidays and Pagan Festivals

Pagan Holidays (Holy Days) worldwide are coming back to a more general use and understanding, with folk often asking questions about whether Christmas is a Pagan Holiday (it is, sort of), and observing the 8-fold Wheel of the Year.

The current Neo Pagan calendar (and its primarily Wiccan holidays) is ostensibly based off the ‘Celtic Wheel of the Year’, as the early creators and authors of our modern traditions were very fond of their romantic notions of Celtic culture, and very sure that it was ok to just… take what they wanted, and change or use it however they wanted.

*cough* Coilíní *cough*

The problem with this (one of the problems) is that we now have a sort of tangled, much mangled, view of the original pre-christian Irish Pagan festivals, that even many Irish Pagans adhere to.

In this post, I’d like to break this down a bit, and clarify some of the basics, so that we can (hopefully), start fresh. With a somewhat cleaner slate for Irish Pagan practice. Le do thoil.

 

The Wheel of the Year

To begin with, the ‘traditional’ eight Pagan Holidays, are actually 2 sets of four. So the wheel of the year is maybe 2 wheels, rotating side by side.

This can be a little confusing if you’re not used to considering things this way, but I do remember being quite frustrated back in my baby Pagan days by how the festivals seemed to just be copies of each other. Like, within the Wiccan traditions, there’s not a huge difference between how you’re celebrating the Summer Solstice (Litha) and Beltane, for example.

In my native practice, I break the focus, themes or concerns out as follows:

  • The Fire Festivals – with Community elements, but a focus on Hearth & Home, and the Otherworld.
  • The Cross Quarters – with Community elements, but a focus on the Land & Sovereignty, and this World.

The Pagan Calendar names I use are in modern Irish, and the associated Gaeilge video is also my schoolgirl modern Irish pronunciation, to be clear.

Irish is a living language, and while I’m the first one to honour the Primitive Irish and Old Irish source material, they are different languages. We have modern Irish terminology for every single Pagan Holiday name, and a wealth of associated folklore and traditions within our living memory in Irish communities. So let’s use that.

Admittedly now, some of the folklore has gotten crossed over and shifted around with the Christian influences, eg. Summer Solstice bonfires now happen on St. John’s Eve, on the 23rd June, and the animal sacrifice tradition has moved from Samhain to St. Martin’s Day, on the 11th November. But that’s ok too.

At least the traditions still exist, and have grown and moved with the communities as we did.

 

Irish Pagan Holidays – the Fire Festivals

Focus on Community, Hearth & Home, the Otherworld (an Saol Eile).

When people first walked this land, there were 2 seasons: summer and winter. They signified the change and move between camping grounds, as theirs was a Hunter/Gatherer lifestyle.

These times of moving and changing were dangerous and uncertain, and this still holds true in the primary Irish Pagan holidays of Bealtaine, and Samhain, which remain times of great change and uncertainty.

When the people settled, and began to farm the land, the seasons of Growth and Harvest were marked, with Imbolg and Lúnasa, and so began the 4 Fire Festivals.

Lora O'Brien - Irish Pagan Holidays - Fire Festivals

[Download this Chart as a PDF Below]

IMBOLG

Personally, I use the name Imbolg for this festival. That’s from the Irish i mBolg, meaning ‘in the belly’, for the pregnancy aspects (animals as well as humans, because if we get pregnant at Bealtaine we give birth around now). Imbolc is commonly used too though, and may have associations with washing or a ‘spring clean’ after winter, from Folc, meaning ‘bathe or wash’. I’m honestly not sure which language the term Oimelc comes from, though it’s been given to mean ‘ewe’s milk’. That would be Bainne na Caoirigh in modern Irish though, which doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Bolg or https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Folc

BEALTAINE

We have this clearly in old Irish as Belltaine (with various other spellings, the manuscripts weren’t always precise or standardised), meaning the month of May, or even ‘the month of the beacon-fire) according to the eDIL. It may have associations with an Old Celtic God Boleros, ‘the flashing one’ (Ó hÓgáin) or Balar/Balor in Ireland, he of the single, blazing destructive eye (often thought to be symbolic of the sun), and form the word Bealtaine from Balor’s Fire (tine).

There are multiple spellings out there, and I know some of them are based on the Gaelic language of Scotland, which I don’t speak. But as we still use the word Bealtaine in modern Irish for the month of May, and again – this is a living language, and it’d be great not to have to deal with bastardised or anglicised versions of it anymore please and thank you – let’s go with that eh?!

Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Bealtaine

LÚNASA

You’ll often see this written as Lughnasadh, and indeed, I’ve done so myself. As above though, I prefer the modern Irish spelling, and in Gaeilge, Lúnasa is the word for the month of August. I mean, I wasn’t joking about these Pagan holidays still being a part of our culture.

It’s most likely connected to the Old God Lugh, (lug in old Irish can be ‘magnificent, heroic, warlike’: eDIL), and Lugnasad is ‘the festival of Lugh, the first of August’: eDil.

You’ll see references too, to Lammas, which we don’t have in modern Irish. My basic exploration of Old Irish suggests it MIGHT be a version of a ‘fine, handsome or excellent hand’ (from n. Lám and adj. Mass?)… but be warned, that is a very rudimentary look at a compound word! I definitely don’t use it as a Pagan Holiday name anyway.

Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Lúnasa

SAMHAIN

It’s not pronounced Sam-Hane. Never. I don’t care what your esteemed Elders passed down to you not-so-very-long-ago (in the grand scheme of things).

This is a LIVING LANGUAGE. Respect it, and the people who still speak it every day. Stop that Sam-Hane shit immediately.

It probably comes from the Old Irish samfuin, meaning ‘death of Summer’: eDIL. Samhain in modern Irish is the word for the month of November.

So yes, we know how to pronounce it properly. (Are you getting a sense for how many times I’ve had U.S. Pagans correct my pronunciation? Like, I’m not sure how to even communicate how infuriating that is, especially when it happens consistently!)

Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Samhain

 

Irish Pagan Holidays – the Cross Quarters

Focus on Community, Land & Sovereignty, this World (an Saol Sin – or Seo).

We know these times were important to our ancestors due, at least, to the sacred sites they constructed and used to observe and celebrate them. Massive monuments all over the island still attest to the power and value that was placed upon aligning ourselves, our communities, and our leadership, with these turning times of the Pagan year.

Please note: the common names Ostara, Litha, Mabon, and Yule, are at best culturally appropriated and co-opted into Neo Paganism, and at worst, carry entirely fabricated pseudo histories. I’m looking at you, Mabon.

They have NO place in native Irish paganism.

The Irish names below are simply the names of our seasons, as Gaeilge, and have always suited my personal practice around the Irish Pagan Holidays best.

Lora O'Brien - Irish Pagan Holidays - Cross Quarters

[Download this Chart as a PDF Below]

EARRACH – THE SPRING EQUINOX

The balance of day and night.

Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Earrach

SAMHRADH – THE SUMMER SOLSTICE

Mid Summer, the longest day.

Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Samhradh

FÓMHAR – THE AUTUMN EQUINOX

The balance of night and day.

Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Fómhar

GEIMHREADH – THE WINTER SOLSTICE

Mid Winter, the longest night.

Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Geimhreadh

 


[Click to Download FREE Gift – both Diagram Charts as a PDF – No Email Required!]

If you’d like more detail on any of the Irish Pagan Holidays, comment below and let me know. There’s already extensive sections in my books (see Publications – coming soon), but I can try and get some more blog posts and YouTube videos together for them if there’s an interest, and maybe even a wee course through our Irish Pagan School.

Let me know which of the Pagan holidays you want to see more on?!

 

Gaelscoileanna – Education through the Irish Language

Gaelscoil - Irish Language school in Ireland

Most of us will know, or at least know of, a child who attends a gaelscoil.  These Irish language medium schools are those which function in accordance with the usual rules of the Department of Education, just like a regular school, except that Irish is the language of instruction and the language of communication amongst teachers, children and management.  

In short, everybody speaks ‘as Gaeilge’, all the time. To quote the web site of the voluntary national organisation ‘Gaelscoileanna’;

“Irish is the living language of Irish-medium schools, both within the classroom and without.”

There were more than 30,000 pupils receiving all-Irish education in 158 primary schools and 36 post-primary schools (outside the Gaeltacht regions) in Ireland in 2006.  With the opening of Gaelscoil Liatroma in County Leitrim, on 1st September 2005, all-Irish education at primary level was finally available in every county.

The first gaelscoil – Scoil Bhríde, in Ranelagh – opened it’s doors in 1917, and is still one of the 29 primary and 8 secondary gaelscoileanna which operate in Dublin.  

What is the attraction of education through the Irish Language?  I spoke to parents, teachers and pupils from around the country, to find out… 

[Note: this article was first published in our national press, 2006]

Irish Language in Ulster (North)

In Ulster, 23 year old Community Artist Seán Pól Ó Fhlannigáin started attending an Irish nursery school in 1984.  The primary school he attended was the only one in Northern Ireland at that time. Bunscoil Phobail Feirste is in west Belfast, where it first opened in 1971.  

Seán was also a pupil at an Irish language secondary – Meanscoil Feirste, located on Bóthar na bhFal, or the Falls Road as it is more commonly known, from 1991 on.  When it first opened it’s doors, there were 9 pupils. There are now over 600. Catering for an eclectic mix of races, religions and creeds, the Meanscoil is described as “a mixed school of non-denominational religion”.

Now receiving grant aid and state backing, Irish language schools in the North have come a long way from their beginnings.  Like other gaelscoileanna, the first ones in Ulster were started by determined parents. As well as paying fees to cover the teacher’s salaries, buildings, and equipment, the parents did most other things within the schools.  

This included driving and supervising on school buses, cooking for the pupils, and cleaning the schools. One resolute family made the journey from their home in Derry to the gaelscoil in Belfast every day, a round trip of 150 miles.

Seán says he knew growing up that his school was different, but that he always thought it to be different in a good way.  

He would hear his peers complain about their teachers, and give them nick-names – while in his school the teachers were known by their first names.  Although discipline was important, there didn’t seem to be the same animosity or rancour between teachers and pupils in the Gaelscoil.

His teachers also had huge interest in folk music and traditional sports, and so the extra curricular activities available were rich in Irish culture.  He remembers little trouble arising from attending an Irish language school, even though Gaeilge is considered a foreign language in Northern Ireland, and there was a time when speaking it would have said more about your affiliations than your linguistic skills.

The UK government has now recognised that many of its citizens wish to educate their children through Irish, and has granted financial aid and status accordingly.  

Seán finds his extra language skills to be a definite bonus to his teaching career, and he enjoys the ability to express himself in what he considers to be his native tongue.  He still meets with friends who are also fluent Irish speakers, and can often be heard engaged in a comhrá when in his local pub.

Irish Language in Munster (South)

In Munster, Catriona Ní Fhiachra has a 6 year old daughter, whom she decided to send to the local Gaelscoil Philib Barún, in Tramore, County Waterford.  

She gives her reasons for choosing this school above others in the area; “There are small class sizes, which is important because it imparts a feeling of family and community.  We get a good range of extra curricular activities, and there is better equipment and facilities than in a lot of other schools. There is the option, later on, of my daughter doing her Leaving Cert through Irish, and gaining extra points.  And besides the benefits of gaelscoil educated children being able to pick up foreign languages very quickly, because they are used to multi-lingual study – it is important to keep our own language alive.”

Though not educated in a gaelscoil herself, she says the Irish she does have is all coming back to her now.  

Catriona is very pleased with the caring attitudes of teachers, and with her daughter’s progress in the school.  She says she wants her daughter to go to a school where “everybody knows your name.”

Irish Language in Connacht (West)

In Connacht, Orla Ní Chuinneagáin was interested in gaelscoileanna even before the new Roscommon bunscoil advertised for a principal in 1999.  Having written her college thesis on Irish-medium schools, she was already aware of how things operated when she applied for, and won, the position.  

She explained the process involved in starting up the gaelscoil; “There was a founding committee, of about 6 or 7 people, who were parents or would be parents.  Just ordinary local people with an interest in Irish. With the bare minimum requirement of students, and temporary use of the Girl Guide’s centre as a premises, they raised funds through raffles and events, and received loans from parents (which have now been re-paid) to get things off the ground.  The committee visited existing schools, and spoke to those who ran them, in Longford and Ballinasloe. The first planning meeting was in October 1999, they advertised for teachers in July 2000, and the school opened in September 2000.”

There is no government aid available until there are a minimum of 17 pupils and a premises, and even then it is only a temporary sanction at first – they help with 75% of the rent.  

For anybody wishing to start a gaelscoil in their area, Orla offers the following advice;  “Talk to parents who have already done it. Look around established schools, and get advice and aid from the ‘Gaelscoileanna’ organisation (www.gaelscoileanna.ie).  You will need to apply a year in advance of your proposed opening date. Make sure you have the numbers required, and meet the government standards – they are getting stricter on that now.”

Gaelscoil de hÍde, County Roscommon, moved to a new premises with a long term lease, and proudly opened its doors to 98 pupils in September 2005.

Irish Language in Leinster (East)

In Leinster, Cillian Ó Síaghail recently graduated from Scoil Oilibhéir in Dublin.  Although the school is only 5 minutes from his house, the closest one available, there was just one other child from his housing estate in attendance with him.  

When asked if he ever got a hard time from other kids about going to a Gaelscoil, he replied; “They just asked me if we had to do everything in Irish. I’d say that we do, and they’d just say – hate that!  They thought Irish was really hard.”

And yet, having grown up with an older sister and brother who also attended the Gaelscoil, he was quite used to the language and didn’t find it a problem. In fact, he feels quite confident about his future Junior and Leaving Cert exams in the subject.  

I was dying to know, after his total immersion, did Cillian actually LIKE Irish? His response speaks volumes; “I’m glad that I know the nation’s real language.”

 

Pádraig Pearse maintained that a country without language is a country without soul – “Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam”.  He might rest easier knowing that at least 30,000 children are more comfortable with our nation’s language, thanks to their Gaelscoileanna.

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Irish Celtic Pagan Symbols

Irish Pagan Symbols on Newgrange Passage Tomb, © 2010 Dept. Environment, Heritage & Local Government.

This is a question that comes up a lot – what are some Pagan Symbols used by the (Celtic) Irish?

It’s kind of a tough one to answer, as we don’t have an extant [surviving through the ages] Irish Pagan tradition, per se. We have a whole lot of Irish mythology, of course, and even more Irish folklore… but no complete system for what it all means, or how to use it.

In modern Irish Paganism, we use many of the same Pagan Symbols as do those in other communities, all over the world. Some of the general Pagan symbols you’ll see at any Irish Wiccan coven meeting or Druid convention include:

  • Pentacle – a 5 pointed star, or pentagram, contained within a circle.
  • Triple Moon – the image of a circular full moon, with a crescent on either side.
  • Eye of Horus – an egyptian stylised eye.
  • Ankh – the looped cross of ancient egypt, symbolising life.
  • Spiral Goddess – the image of a female formed silhouette, arms raised, with a spiral over the womb.
  • Labyrinth – pattern of a pathway that can be followed between worlds.
  • Wiccan Symbols for Air, Earth, Fire, Water – these are based off an equilateral triangle.
  • Horned God – a circle with crescent horns on top of the ‘head’.
  • Tree of Life – common to many cultures, this is the image of a world tree connecting worlds.
  • Mandala – can take many forms, but commonly a square with four gates, containing a circle with a center point within.
  • Rod of Asclepius – a staff with a snake coiled around it, representing healing… often confused with the Caduceus
  • Ouroboros – a serpent eating it’s own tail, representing eternal cycles of death and rebirth.
  • Thor’s Hammer (Mjölnir) – representing the hammer of the Norse God of thunder and storms.

Any or all of these symbols can be (and are!) used by modern Irish Pagans.

 

Historical Irish Pagan Symbols

When we look back a little further into our tradition and lore, we have 2 main sources for native Irish Pagan symbols – stone carvings and manuscripts.

Now, either of those may have been influenced by Christianity, and so not count as truly Pagan, perhaps. It depends on the context for them.

That being said though, everything in Ireland is a little bit Pagan, even still… so we can put that one aside, now that we’re aware of it, and look at the sources.

The best example of this, I’d say, is the Ogham alphabet – our Celtic writing system (and I use Celtic here, and through this post, because much of what we have in Ireland on this topic is common across other Celtic cultures).

Ogham appears both carved in stone, and in multiple manuscripts, so it’s ticking both boxes there. With regard to how old this Celtic alphabet might be: we know it existed as a monument script (there’s that early stone carving), in the 400s CE [Common Era].

It was designed for the Irish language, so we can place in at pre Christian times, probably, through that – if it was just made for the monks, they would more like have designed it through Latin.

Irish Pagan Symbols - the Ogham Alphabet

You can find out more about the Ogham Alphabet here.

 

What other Pagan Symbols were used in ancient Ireland?

It’s back to the stone carving folks, and this time, let’s look at our monuments. One of the more famous ones is Brú na Bóinne, with the 3 great passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth.

Built by the Dagda, so they say (and you can read some fascinating stories on that guy right here), these monuments have stood in Ireland for over 5,000 years, and when they were being built, symbolic artwork was a big part of their construction.

Some of it is spectacular: wonderful combinations of spirals, lozenges, chevrons, triangles and arrangements of parallel lines and arcs. It occurs particularly on the structural stones of the tombs but also occurs on some artefacts that have been found within and around them.

Knowth alone has about 45% of all the art known from Irish tombs and nearly 30% of all the megalithic art in Europe.

[Images courtesy of World Heritage Ireland, © 2010 Dept. Environment, Heritage & Local Government.]

What do these Irish Pagan Symbols Mean?

In short, we don’t know. Great answer, right?

We do have theories, of course.

  • The spiral and concentric circles may represent the movement of the sun and stars, a fascination with the changing seasons and how the cycles related to the lives of those who carved them.
  • They might be maps: maps of the area, maps of the otherworld, maps of the stars… or ‘maps’ of music, or energy lines.
  • A strong theory is that the art represents images seen by shamans during rituals, as they are common across many different cultures who most likely wouldn’t have had any contact.
  • These Pagan symbols may well have been used as meditation devices, to guide seekers on Journeys.

Whatever their original purpose, we can utilise them now for any of these reasons as fits with our personal practice. The Irish Pagan symbols that remain to us are an incredibly valuable connection to our ancestors, and the wisdom of ancient Ireland.

I’d love to learn what Pagan symbols call to you, or which ones you make use of? Let me know in the comments below!


 

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Irish Pagan Magic – Piseoga

Drinking Whiskey

A group of friends sit around a table.  Scratch Scratch Scratch. “Ah, me nose is itchy”, says one.  A few light punches are exchanged, and all is well again.

Did you understand this exchange?  Do you actually believe that an itchy nose is the sign of an impending fight, and that a mock fight should be carried out to ensure that the bad luck is done with?

Do you remember who first told you this was true, or is it something you have picked up, like so many of us, through school yard antics or around the family dinner table – and carried on into adult life?

How many others can you remember, now you’re thinking about it?  

Itchy palms are a sign of money to come. Itchy knuckles, another fight.  Itching on the temples and you’ll soon have cause to weep, while if your eyebrow should need a bit of a scratch, you’ll soon be drinking whiskey.  

Perhaps those last two are connected.

But it’s not all about the itching.  A gap between the two front teeth is the sign of a beautiful singing voice, and if the mouth is wide, there’ll be a great strength in it too.  There is a vein that connects the third finger of the left hand directly to your heart – making it the most logical place to wear your wedding ring.  “One for sorrow, two for joy…”, counting magpies to see what fates they foretell.

And indeed, waving to them respectfully to ensure they don’t bring any bad fortune down on you.  A spot, or worse, a black spot, on your tongue was a sign of telling lies; the suspicious parent would often be heard to tell a child to “stick out your tongue ’til I see if you’re lying”.  Should you spill the salt, you must throw a pinch over your left shoulder to get rid of the bad luck. A bride will have ill fortune through the marriage if she gets married on a Monday, or a Friday, or if she wears green.  Also if it rains on the wedding morning, a glass or cup is broken, the ring is dropped, or she is licked by a dog. If your ears are ‘burning’ , someone is talking about you. This early warning system has been further refined – should it be the right ear that feels inexplicably warm all of a sudden, you are being praised, but if it is the left ear, the talk is bitter and full of malice.

In Ireland, the word for superstition is Piseog, but it means much more than simple sayings and quaint beliefs. We’re not talking Wicca here, and it wasn’t even really called Witchcraft in Ireland. Just, ‘the Old Ways’, or similar. 

A charm, a spell, a superstitious practice – anything connected with magic – is deemed a piseog, pishog or pisreog in the old stories.  

Those who carry out the practices were known as Piseogaí. These people could provide the beneficial charms and cures, they could counter any malicious piseogs that were placed upon a family or an individual, or they could be the ones who did the placement.  

A classic one is connected to May Day morning, the turning of the year at Bealtaine from winter into summer, and so a time for changes. A malevolent person could go out on this particular morning and mix rotten produce into your farm – to try and turn your luck.  This could be rotten meat in the haystacks, or rotten eggs in through the soil… either way the imagery is clear, and unless the foulness was found your luck would turn. Of course the sensible farmer would have already taken precautions against this type of shenanigans, and deployed one of the many available counter charms to turn aside ill intent in plenty of time for the big day.  

May Day was also a time for beneficial changes – washing one’s face in the sun kissed dew on this morning was said to ensure fresh beauty throughout the year. Who needs expensive lotions when dew drops are free?!

These folk beliefs, or superstitions, may seem silly to us now, thinking about them in the cold harsh light of modern science and technological advancement – but they are reflective of our psychological needs, of how we as humans have thought, felt, and interacted with the world around us, and with each other.  Though we can perhaps figure out a certain logic as to how or why some of them started, it is not rationality that has ensured their survival, it is repetition.

When something is done again and again, down through the generations, it becomes not a superstition but a tradition, and those are held on to. A link to the past, connection through the generations, common ground from which each new family builds their own rituals.  Maybe the old Piseogs avert the bad luck, and bring about the good luck… maybe they don’t.

But before you decide either way, it might be wise to bear in mind the old Irish saying – “Ná dean nós, agus ná bris nós”.

Don’t make a custom, and don’t break a custom.


 

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Ireland’s First Female Veterinarian

Portrait of Aleen Cust, Ireland's first female veterinarian

Veterinarians have been around for quite a while now.

From the Egyptian king Piyadasi, who made medicines available to animals as well as humans in 1900 BCE, and the Roman ‘Veterinarius’ who were mostly military doctors just for animals – we can trace the development of the field to the first official organisation – when English farriers banded together in 1356 CE under the patronage of the Lord Mayor of London, and decided to focus not just on hooves, but also care for injuries and illnesses in horses.

Veterinary training didn’t begin properly until the first college opened, in Lyon, France, in 1792, and the second opened a few years later, in Alfort near Paris, France. Europe was the hub of progress in the veterinary sciences, with the first American vets training in European colleges, until private veterinary schools began opening in the States through the 1850’s. The American Veterinary Medicine Association (AVMA) was founded in 1863, and the first US public university opened in Iowa in 1879.

Through all of this, there were certainly women worldwide who cured and cared for animals, some even making it their life’s work. But what do the records show for the official training and acceptance of women in the early years of veterinary practice?

The first records tell us precious little, unfortunately, but do at least preserve names, and some little information.

Nearly a hundred years after the first college opened, a Ukranian woman – whose name is written only as V. Dobrovoljskaja – made her way to study veterinary medicine in Zurich, Switzerland, as Russia did not allow women to study medicine then. She graduated in 1889, and was, as far as we know, the first qualified female veterinarian in the world… but little else is known of this early pioneer. Her fellow country woman Marija Kapčevič, who we do at least know was born near Lochnica in the Ukraine, travelled to France and attended the college in Alfort near Paris, graduating as a vet by 1896.

An Irish woman, Aleen Cust, began studying at the New Veterinary College in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1894. She was flouting the wishes of her family, and the ruling organisation – England’s Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. When they refused her the right to sit her final exams in 1900, she left Edinburgh and returned to Ireland without an official qualification.

Across the Atlantic in America, Mignon Nicholson attended the McKillips Private Veterinary College, Chicago, and graduated as a qualified veterinary Dr. in 1903, becoming the first US woman to do so.

Just a year before this, a 19 year old named Isabelle Bruce Reid (known as Belle to her 9 older siblings), had travelled not too far from her home in Melbourne to the Victoria Veterinary Institute, also in Melbourne, Australia. This young lady had the full support of her parents, a well to do couple of Scottish origin named Robert and Mary Jane Reid, who figured that the girl’s affinity for animals, especially horses, would stand to her better than the career she was eyeing for herself – singing soprano on stage. On completing her studies 4 years later, Belle Reid submitted herself for examination. She was one of only 5 final year students to do so, and the only one of them to achieve a pass. The minutes of the Institute’s Board meeting of 28th November 1906 record the results for the 4th year class, and the motion:

“Mr Beckwith moved that Miss Belle Reid be passed the 4th year Examination with 2nd class honours and that she be registered as a Vet Surgeon on payment of the usual fees. Sec. Mr Leitch, and agreed to”.

With this successful registration, she became the first formally recognized female veterinary surgeon in the world.

Dr. Reid set up her own veterinary practice that same year, living and working in the practice house until she took early retirement in 1923, at the age of 40. The conservative, male-dominated profession had only ever afforded her limited status or recognition, so in 1925 she moved to the thousand acre farm she had purchased with her sister May, and named it Blossom Park. A member of the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria and keen breeder of animals, she exhibited prize-winning Jersey cattle, Irish Wolfhound dogs, pigs and harness horses all over Australia. Belle Reid remained involved in caring for animals, and the management of Blossom Park farm right up until her illness and death in 1945.

While Dr. Reid’s practice down under was still in its fledgling years, two more worthy American women qualified as veterinarians: Elinor McGrath from Chicago Veterinary College, and Florence Kimball from New York State Veterinary College, both in 1910. With the turn of the century, major social and cultural shifts were happening across the States, bringing changes for the veterinary profession in general, and women’s rights in particular.

First, in industry and gradually in all cities – eventually even in the countryside – horses were replaced with cars, trucks, tractors, and motors of all sorts, which had a massive impact on the horse industry. By 1907, animal powered transport was pretty much gone from American cities. Even the start of World War 1, with the high demand for horses that brought, couldn’t save the animals, and hundreds of thousands were being slaughtered every year for glue and leather, and later on it continued as horse meat became popular for the new business of tinned pet food. This didn’t bode well for the US veterinarians of the time, most of whom were really just horse Doctors with little calling to tend to agricultural animals or pets.

Simultaneously, much political debate and public outcry was seen about the state of filthy slaughter houses, and in 1906 the ‘Pure Food and Drug Act’, and the ‘Meat Inspection Act’ were passed. Campaigns had been primarily led by female activists, who demanded accountability in the food industry practices to ensure the delivery of healthy, wholesome meat and dairy produce. Perhaps these early victories for women’s activist groups gave confidence to movements like the Suffragettes, whose first demonstration was in 1910, and paved the way for the cultural shift in following years. These acts also provided a major new employment avenue for the veterinary profession, and ensured there was government funding available to research animal disease.

It was in the midst of this change, in 1907, that Elinor McGrath became the first female to attend at Chicago Veterinary College. Her fellow students didn’t appreciate having a woman in their number, and gave her such a hard time of it that she went and spoke to the Dean, offering to leave the college. He dismissed the idea, reportedly saying: “well you better not because you’ll make a better veterinarian than any of them.” So, she stuck it out, graduating at the age of 22 as a Dr. of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) in April 1910.

Florence Kimball had started her education a little earlier than her colleague; between 1903 and 1907 she attended Wheaton Seminary (later Wheaton College, in Norton Massachusetts), where she passed preclinical courses and decided to go on to study at New York State Veterinary College, graduating in 1910. Doctors McGrath and Kimball were ahead of the curve not just as women vets, but also because they both opened small animal veterinary practices, which were rather uncommon at the time. Dr. Kimball did leave her vet’s practice to go into nursing, but there’s no reason to believe this was because her practice was unsuccessful: a letter to her Dean Veranus Moore in the January following her graduation indicates that her caseload was more than satisfactory, and keeping her very busy.

By 1939, only 31 of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) were woman, compared to about 5,000 male vets. That is just 0.6 percent.
When Dorothy Segal enrolled in the Michigan State University pre-veterinary program in the 1930s, it was made obvious that there would be significant hurdles in front of the young women in her class.

Dr. Segal, now age 98, told the AVMA in an interview:

“There were seven girls in my class, and that was considered to be just an enormous amount. The dean at the time (Dr. Ward Giltner) did not want women. He said, ‘Go back to the kitchen.’ He literally said that. The first speech he gave was, ‘What are you doing here?’ and he was not joking.”

Only Dr. Segal, in 1943, and one other of those seven women graduated and became veterinarians.

The Association for Women Veterinarians (now the AWV, but known as Women’s Veterinary Medical Association until 1980) was started just a few years later, in 1947, by Dr. Mary K. Dunlap of Kansas City, Missouri, who felt the need to form an organization of women working in a male dominated profession, and right from the start they received hundreds of letters every year from women and girls asking how to become a veterinarian. Their Constitution includes the objective to “further the mutual advancement of women veterinarians in the science of veterinary medicine by bringing them together to share knowledge, support, and friendship.”

Support was needed as the percentage of women veterinarians dipped again in the 1950s, from 2 percent down to 1.6 percent. That may have been because World War II veterans were given priority, but schools also just flat out refused women a place to study. A refusal letter to a female applicant dated March 1957, from the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts ran like this:

“It is the policy of the Division of Veterinary Medicine at the Iowa State College not to admit women to the professional curriculum. Because of the limited educational facilities it has been necessary to restrict the number of new students who may be admitted. … Each year we receive more applications from men students than can be accommodated. If women were admitted, they would displace the same number of men. In many cases women are not physically equal to the educational requirements of the large animal clinics. … We are sorry to disappoint you.”

The ‘Federal Equal Pay Act’ in 1963 and ‘Civil Rights Act’ in 1964 barred job discrimination based on gender, theoretically, but by 1970, the AWV still had less than 750 members, and 89% of veterinary students were male.

It was with the ‘Educational Amendment’ in 1972 and the ‘Women’s Education Act’ in 1974 that real changes started to occur, as these new regulations prohibited gender discrimination at schools that received federal funds. This applied to veterinary schools to, and by 1975 the number of women attending American veterinary schools had doubled.

The growth in female vets has continued, though many difficulties have remained. Women in positions of power and leadership are still rare, for example the American Veterinary Medical Association didn’t elect its first female president, Dr. Mary Beth Leininger, until 1996.

Today though, women outnumber men in vet school by more than 3 to 1, and by 2007 there were 36,383 female veterinarians working in the United States (compared with 43,186 men) – that’s 46 percent of the profession. But the AMVA reported the graduating 2,489 students of that year comprised 75 percent female (1,873 students) and 25 male (616), and continues to drop… while the retiring vets were nearly 95 percent male.

The balance has tipped so far, in fact, that the AMVA tell of many students and administrators at veterinary colleges in the US think the profession needs men “to maintain a diversity of perspectives and reflect the country’s population”.

Some believe they should begin a campaign to actively recruit men – because heaven forfend that one gender would be disproportionately represented?!

Aleen Cust

Remember our Irish Ms. Aleen Cust, who had the temerity to defy not only her own family, but also England’s Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, and study veterinary medicine in Scotland?
Well, though she left without sitting her exams, the college principal recommended her by letter, and a Dr. William Byrne, practising in Roscommon, Ireland, employed her as a Veterinary Assistant in defiance of the RCVS, despite being a member of their council. Indeed the support for her was such that when she announced her intention to run for the post of Veterinary Inspector in neighbouring County Galway, no other Vet in the area applied and she was appointed, with flagrant disregard for the stated disapproval of the RCVS.

By 1910, when America’s first female vets graduated from public colleges, Ms. Cust had been working solidly for 10 years, and was in a position to successfully take over and run the practice following the untimely death of Dr. Byrne. By war time in 1915, though still not recognised professionally by the British, she travelled to France in support of their army, to help treat warhorses there.

Legal changes in December 1919 forced the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to recognise her right to practice veterinary medicine, and she was finally allowed to sit final exams, receiving her diploma on December 21st 1922. And so Dr. Aleen Cust officially became the first female veterinary surgeon in Britain and Ireland, twenty two years after she had completed her training and started to practice.

Though she retired just two years later, she still attended professional meetings, and was an inspiration to female veterinary students until her death from heart failure while on holiday in Jamaica in 1937.

And indeed, she remains an inspiration to this day.


 

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