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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

 


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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!


 

If you want to get some focused guidance on where (or how) to start exploring an authentic Irish spiritual practice, I’ve just released 2 Beginners’ Classes on the Irish Pagan School…

Hopefully, those options give you something solid to be getting going with. If there’s anything else I can do for you, let me know?

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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Irish Medieval Cooking – Worties

Irish Cabbage for Medieval Cooking

‘Worties’ was the common name in Ireland, from the English ‘wortes’, which were vegetable greens and members of the onion family, such as cabbage leaves, spinach, beet greens, leeks, wild garlic leaves and so on, as well as some of the leafy herbs used for seasonings, like borage, parsley, and sage.

When cooked together with butter, and the leftover bread added to soften and soak up the flavoured butter, a delicious mess of goodness is created, and this we still call Worties.

Believe it or not, this was a very popular dish at our living history re-enactments, particularly with the kids! They just can’t get enough of it, even the ones whose parents swear they wouldn’t let a green leaf touch their lips at home. I guess when you cook anything in enough butter it’s going to taste good.

From England in the 1400s, we see the description of “A Dish of Cooked Greens”. The original recipe runs like this:

“Buttered Wortes. Take al manor of good herbes that thou may gete, and do bi ham as is forsaid; putte hem on þe fire with faire water; put þer-to clarefied buttur a grete quantite. Whan thei ben boyled ynough, salt hem; late none otemele come ther-in. Dise brede small in disshes, and powre on þe wortes, and serue hem forth.”
(by Thomas Austin, from Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books: Harleian MS. 279 & Harl. MS. 4016)

In other words, it can be read:

Buttered Greens. Take all manner of good herbs you may get, and do them as is forsaid; put them on the fire with clean water, and add a large quantity of clarified butter. When they have been boiled enough, salt them, let no oatmeal come in. Dice bread small into dishes, and pour on the greens, and serve them forth.

Our recipe uses 2 sweetheart cabbages, shredded or chopped to bite-size pieces, and a whole bulb of garlic, with each clove peeled and finely chopped. We get a large pot over an open fire (but your stove top will do just fine), melt a block of butter (about a lb) in there, and add the garlic to simmer. Throw in the cabbage, and sure if you’ve any other stray green leaves to use up you can toss them in there too. You could season with a little salt, but unless your butter is unsalted to start with, the extra is not really necessary.

Once the greens are softening but not mushy, we’d take a whole loaf of bread, break or chop it up, take the pot of greens off the heat and stir the bread right in with them. Tip it all out into a big serving bowl, or individual portions, and you’re done.

Worties!

I should probably note a few things:

  • Sweetheart Cabbage is a soft, fresh, green leafy variety grown here.
  • Our butter is salted and what’s called ‘grass-fed’ in the States; all our dairy is grass fed here in Ireland.
  • The bread we get the best results with is brown or white soda bread – a yeast free loaf baked with buttermilk, which you can find a recipe for HERE.

Worties would have been served as a side for meats in a main meal, and as a lunchtime or even breakfast meal to use up the previous day’s bread.

Indeed, there’s many a working man and woman who was coming home to some variation of the Worties dish after a hard day’s work in Ireland right up til the 1900s, and I’m sure it’s served up on Irish lunch and dinner tables even to this day!


 

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Is the Mórrígan Recruiting?

Mórrígan's Army

As part of our annual 6 month Intensive Programme, I answer questions from students who want to know more about the Irish Goddess Mórrígan, with whom I have had a solid working relationship for about 15 years now… and the last 13 of them as Her priest.

8 of those years were spent in daily service (and professional employment), managing Her primary sacred site at Rathcroghan, Co. Roscommon, and guiding visitors in (and safely back out) of the cave known as ‘her fit abode’; Uaimh na gCait, Oweynagat – the Cave of the Cats.

I’m going to occasionally share some of those answers through this blog. [Find them tagged with ‘Morrigan’, or ‘Class Questions’]

Iníon Preacháin asked: “Why do you feel She is showing such an interest in “recruiting” devotees (for lack of better terms) at this time?”

 

Okay, well, the short answer to that is: look around. The world needs Mórrígan devotees, or people who are doing the work for humanity and for communities.

The longer answer is, that it isn’t just at this time. She has been doing this for a long time, and she’s been preparing for a long time, and again, that’s my experience of it, but it also plays out in the lore.

Everybody talks about the Mórrígan as a battle goddess, and she absolutely is involved in battles because battles shape history and battles shape communities and wars are fought, the outcome of which is part of a much bigger picture, and it’s the bigger picture stuff that the Mórrígan is in charge of. In my experience.

And I think, though that is my experience, the lore plays that out, and her role as a prophet or goddess of prophecy is very much an integral part of that, but also her… I was gonna say ‘meddling,’ meddling is the wrong word, but her involvement in seemingly small things and small stories which end up playing a very big role in battles to come or in the outcome of certain battles or wars that are being fought, and changes.

She is a goddess of change.

At this time, we need somebody who knows what’s going on, absolutely, and she needs people on the ground doing the work that – y’know, she can lead the horse to water, but she can’t directly interfere with… I mean, she does directly interfere with people, with individuals, but she can’t shape things on a bigger scale herself. She has to do it through individuals. And I think that’s where the recruitment drive is coming from, but actually the recruitment drive has been going on for a long time. I think that it has become global, now, but this is not new.

This poem, it was one of my first calls from her. (Click to Read Poem)

It was written at Bealtaine of 2004. It’s from the Irish Witchcraft book, which was my first book, but actually she had been calling for a long time before that. I was tattooed with crows, for example, before this poem was written or that book was written. She’s been calling since, I would say, since the turn of the millennium. Since about 2000, there has been a very specific gathering of the forces in Ireland, on the ground in Ireland, around her sites, and the work that she has had me doing here has been to disseminate real information and education because that wasn’t happening back then. At all.

All through the 90s, there was a lot of shite about Irish traditions and Irish culture specifically, and very little that was real. Everybody was shit-scared of her, but really very little about her and certainly nothing of value about her was available to the general public – there wasn’t even the interest and the understanding that the source lore and the literature we have is so important to us now as modern pagans working with her. I mean, that just wasn’t there in the 90s.

Your average pagan now is, believe it or not, much better read and much more versed in the lore than your average pagan was back then. Just from the sheer availability, I think of it, with the coming of the Internet and the raised standards in publishing – and yes, they are raised, believe it or not again, you might not appreciate just how bad things used to be. There was a huge gap between academic research and the access that people could have to academia. Scholarship was very much far removed from the standard pagan community, except in small pockets and some individuals. And that was the teachers, never mind students.

So the work that she’s had me doing since she got her hooks in me is to try and bring some of that to the wider communities, and to teach people the importance of it. Now I’m not academic, I mean, I’ve studied psychology, but that was me going back as a mature student. The only other college learning I have is in art college, so that’s fuck-all useful to anybody, unless you’re artistic, which I am, or was at least, but…yes, so, I’m not an academic, but one of the things that she had me do was get my head around the literature and try and find ways to translate it. I don’t mean translate it from Old Irish – thankfully that work is being done but that is not my work, thank the gods, I’ve never had to learn Old Irish. Morgan Daimler is doing excellent work in that, poor Morgan, we’ll have her worked to death before she has the entire Ulster Cycle translated by the time I’m finished with her. And Isolde Carmody, who is one half of the Story Archaeology team, who you will hear lots and lots and lots about from me, has been doing sterling translation work too.

None of that work was being done at the time though, and the recruitment that we’re seeing now is just a step above that. It’s just where that has reached a kind of a critical mass where it’s spilling over into the wider world and really my feeling is that she was consolidating her base ground for the last decade and in the last five or so years things have kind of stepped up and moved on from that.

As ever, I’m wary of projecting my own stuff because that above has been very much my experience, but then as I started to travel away from my beloved isle and get out and about in the world, rather than everybody coming to me at the Cave and through Rathcroghan Heritage Centre – which is lovely and I much prefer, I have to say, I hate leaving Ireland, moan moan whine whine… Since I’ve started getting out and about in the world, I have noticed there is a mirroring of many people’s experience in that it’s not just my experience, it’s that now is the time.

There’s been a couple of organizations started up in recent years. The Coru Priesthood, for example, and I know some of our course members have started priesthoods in Texas and Connecticut, and eventually I will have to start one here in Ireland. I don’t want to be doing any of this work, to be honest. If I could get away with doing none of this work I would be totally getting away with that and living a much easier life, but my next project is going to be is a priesthood here in Ireland and I’m not sure what that’s going to look like, yet, but before of that I have a serious initiation I have to do, which again, I’ve been putting off because it’s scary.

A lot of that is going on here, and it is very much mirrored out in the world, and I think that the answer to it, to the question ‘why do I feel that there’s such an interest’, is because she’s so concerned with the bigger picture, and the bigger picture is fucked right now. Absolutely fucked.

Anybody in class (or reading this blog) who is not aware of just how fucked the bigger picture is on so many different levels – if you’re going to be on my Facebook, so you’ll find out very quickly if you’re not aware already… and awareness is the first key. It’s through educating ourselves that we understand the work that needs to be done on a big scale, but also on our doorstep and on ourselves.

Part of taking this course, I hope, is doing that work on yourself so that you’re ready then to do whatever work is needed of you out in the world.

 

[Author’s Note: this class was recorded pre Brexit, and pre Trump. And before Ireland had begun to step up and lead the free world with such fantastic examples of social justice and people power as the Marriage Equality Referendum, the Transgender Identity Bill, and our Referendum to Repeal the 8th Amendment. FYI.]

 


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The Stolen Child

The Stolen Child

Clochar na Trócaire, Ceapach Chuinn
Location: Cappoquin, Co. Waterford

In the center of Waterford there lies a place which long ago was the stronghold of the ‘Fir Bolgs’. This place is a large Lios descending into the ground for about two feet, and then in underneath for about four yards. At the end of this a round room is entered.

This room is built around with brick on either side. In the left hand side there is a trap door and a long dismal passage going down for about three feet and then there is heard the soft lapping of the river. About three miles down is the river. The Lios is surrounded by a deep trench going all around it. There is a legend told about the Lios, true or not.

There was a widow who had her house not very far from the Lios. This poor woman had only one child, a little girl. The child, when young used to spend her time picking flowers.

So, one May evening, she was picking a bunch of flowers as usual when she heard strange music in the direction of the Lios. The girl was young and had no sense and went to examine the matter. When she came near the Lios she saw a strange sight, a band of fairy people dancing, singing and playing music.

But, to the girls amazement, they advanced towards her and laid a magic spell over her and changed her into a fairy. Then they went back to the Lios with their comrades and all was over until morning.

In the morning the child thought of home, in spite of the magic spell that had bewitched her. She succeeded in arriving at the Lios when she found herself in the most admirable land of dolls, boys, dresses and everything that could attract one. She began to play with her new toys and forgot all about home. Soon the Queen took her by the hand and brought into a room.

She was made sit on a stool and was handed a bottle of milk and a whitethorne branch. She drank it and she was changed into a Princess.

When the Queen died she became Queen of Fairyland and was over all the fairies.

ARCHIVAL REFERENCE

The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0637, Page 129

Image and data © National Folklore Collection, UCD.


 

Don’t be a ‘Celtic’ Racist…

Don't be a Celtic Racist

This blog has a lot of new visitors, and I’m really glad to see that! But I also don’t want to be fooling anyone into being a part of a community with me if the fit isn’t right either, you know?

So, I figured I’d give ye a little dose of who I really am, like right down to the core. And if you don’t like that for any reason, and are actually a racist (whether you call yourself that or not) just jog on. Simple!

First off, I use a lot of sweary words. My son (12yo) got a bit scandalised a while back hearing me chatting with Eilís on a ‘Your Irish Connection’ — Check it Here —  interview on my Youtube Channel, because I was cursing – “That’s not very professional Mam!”, says he. Well… it is what it is.

Second off, it’s not just my personal belief and lived experience that all people are equal and deserve the same human rights and safe community and care… it’s a fundamental part of the Irish experience. There’s a whole lot of bullshit floating around in the European Heritage communities that’s basically, and sometimes overtly (I’m looking at you Carolyn Emerick, mega shitehawk and peddler of appropriative racist codswallop), white supremacy, fascism, and neo nazi nonsense.

That’s not who the Irish are, or ever were.

Look, we’re not perfect. Modern Ireland can be really ignorant at times, and our lack of exposure to other cultures can be painfully obvious in the unthinking attitudes and beliefs of the people – but as a nation we truly, genuinely care for our fellow people all over the globe. We’re ranked the ninth most generous country in the world, and given the economic climate of the last few years, that’s pretty fucking cool.

It goes back further than modern charitable donations though. Even back to a time when we were on the brink of another famine, severely under the thumb of english rule and SUFFERING… we were still aware and working to support the civil rights movement in America.

Consider a quote from Daniel O’Connell, in 1843:

“How can the generous, the charitable, the humane, and the noble emotions of the Irish heart have become extinct amongst you? How can your nature be so totally changed as that you should become the apologists and advocates of the execrable system which makes man the property of his fellow man – destroys the foundation of all moral and social virtues – condemns to ignorance, immorality and irreligion, millions of our fellow creatures …? It was not in Ireland that you learned this cruelty…Over the broad Atlantic I pour forth my voice saying come out of such a land you Irishmen, or if you remain and dare continue to countenance the system of slavery that is supported there, we will recognize you as Irishmen no longer!”
– Daniel O’Connell. (irishamerica.com/2011/08/the-irish-abolitio…)

Irish people have ALWAYS held kinship with the minorities, the downtrodden, the immigrants, the unwanted, the pillaged, the ethnically cleansed. We have been them, and our hearts remember. Our warrior spirit fights alongside those who need our support.

Here’s your Irish Connection Resources on this topic, mo chairde. [click the headlines for links]

Daniel O’Connell upon American slavery : with other Irish testimonies.

(by O’Connell, Daniel, 1775-1847. Publication date 1860. Topics Slavery — United States)

 

Frederick Douglass Photograph: MPI/Getty Images

Frederick Douglass’s Irish Odyssey

Tom Chaffin, writing for the Irish Times, assesses the influence of his time in poverty-ridden and religiously divided Ireland, on the anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass. To the end of his life, he fondly remembered his 1840s lecture tour of Ireland and the welcoming reception he had been accorded. And though many Irish-Americans often opposed his civil rights efforts, he also viewed the Irish, in both Ireland and America, as a persecuted people.

Remember your roots. #MyIreland
But you know what else?
THE IRISH WERE NEVER SLAVES.

 

On this oft debated and regularly cited notion that is used to defend and prop up white nonsense on a depressingly regular basis, the absolute authority lies with Limerick historian Liam Hogan.

Here’s all of His Work on the “Irish slaves” meme (2015–’18)


 

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The Rag Tree in the Irish Tradition

Irish Rag Tree - Hawthorn in Snow

 A version of this article on the Rag Tree in the Irish Tradition first appeared as a guest post on the Call of the Morrigan community blog in 2016.

So, I’ve worked for the last 14 years as a professional tour guide to the sacred sites of Ireland, and let me tell ya, I’ve seen some shit. And some of that involves the Rag Tree tradition.

Or rather, the mangling of our rag tree tradition!

8 of those years were spent managing the sites and visitor centre at the royal complex of Rathcroghan, Cruachan; which (as many of you know, unless you’re believing the nonsense that there’s no Morrigan sites in Connacht), is where the Mórrígan ‘resides’ – Her primary site in Ireland is the Cave of the Cats, Uaimh na gCait.

This site is an ancient cave, worked by human hands in later times, known as the primary physical entrance to the Irish Otherworld, which Medieval Christian scribes referred to ‘the Gates of Hell’ due to the unfortunate amount of monsters and demons (to their perception) which flowed out from this hole in the earth on an all too regular basis.

I’m probably telling y’all stuff you already know here, if you’re folk who are interested in Herself. Although, I’ve also seen some pure shite being said by folk who claim to know all about Herself… so a quick recap never does any harm. I’ve been Her priestess for 13 years, and I know how hard she pushes us to do the work, and how important real information is to Her.

But what you might not be aware of, and what I’d really, really, like you to be aware of (and tell all your mates), is the absolute misconceptions and horrific disrespect that Pagan or ‘spiritual’ visitors to Ireland show at our sites.

Let’s talk about the Rag Tree tradition, shall we?

In Ireland, we have long had the custom of the ‘Raggedy Bush’ or Rag Tree, and there’s similar in Scotland, with what they call ‘clooties’ tied to certain trees.

The trees are Hawthorn, one of our most prominent native trees/bushes – Crataegus Monogyna, or in Irish, the Sceach Gheal. The Irish name literally means something like, ‘that which makes the hedgerow bright’, and when it’s covered in colourful rags it sure does. Most often, there’s a particular hawthorn, growing near a particular holy well, and this is the local Rag Tree.

Occasionally there’s no well or spring to be found, but my theory on that is that there used to be one and it’s gone now, or that the misconceptions around Rag Trees stretch back further than your average modern American tour group, and some fecker just decided at some stage that a single growing hawthorn was actually a Rag Tree, way back in the mists of time, and it stuck. Now, that doesn’t mean there’s no magic there today… just that it probably didn’t start out that way. The water nearby is a pretty important part of the magic here.

What’s it all about then? Well, basically, the tradition goes that you take a piece of cloth from a sick person, tie it to the tree (often with prayers), and the sickness disappears as the rag rots away. The water nearby is most often a holy or healing well, which helps of course.

Sounds simple enough, right?

From a magical perspective, we’ve got sympathetic magic in the rotting of the fabric – the visual representation of the illness losing power and strength and eventually disintegrating. We’ve got an energetic loop that’s formed between the sick person (it has to be an item they’ve worn while ill, so imbued with their DNA or essence) for illness to flow to the tree, and back the way then with the healing energies from the water, through the roots of the tree.

Make sense? Sure!

You know what doesn’t make sense though? Folk who come along and tie their rubbish to the rag tree. Or tie strings or cloth so tight they damage the tree branches. I’ve removed everything from crème egg (candy) foil wrappers to junk jewellery rings to plastic covered wire wrap ties from the branches of our Rag Trees on this island. Not cool people, not cool. That, at least though, can be written off as ignorance of a ‘quaint’ local tradition they want to be a part of, by people who are really just here for lip smacking the Blarney Stone and the Guinness.

What’s more worrying is the visitors who come to sites where there’s no Rag Tree, on supposed spiritual pilgrimage, and tie their shit to whatever tree happens to be there.

The Cave at Cruachan is a prime example of this. I was a guardian there for 13 years, and for 8 of those I was paid to be in and out of it most days of the week. There’s a hawthorn that grows over the mouth of the cave, but it’s a relatively young one. Maybe 20 or 30 years old is all. It’s a fairy tree in the sense of it being smack bang over the mouth of a Sidhe dwelling, and it’s definitely magical… but it’s not a Rag Tree.

Every week though, there’d be some new bit of tat tied to it. One tour group got a nylon umbrella off their bus, ripped it to bits, and tied the bits to the tree. Then they left the umbrella carcass in the field, got on their bus, and drove off.

There were obviously some who wanted to leave an ‘offering’ at the site, to connect themselves there in some way, and perhaps that’s how some of the cloth strips got into the tree. Maybe some were even cloth from the garments of sick people. But this is not a healing site.

In my experience – personally, and collected from feedback of those who energetically interacted with the site – the entities at this site will gleefully follow any connection you choose to make there, go right back to source, and tear down anything weak that they find there. Ostensibly ‘for your own good’, of course, but they are absolutely merciless about it… if you lay a pathway for them they will follow it.

This is not a good thing, for most people. Especially unprepared people. People who maybe think that Irish entities and Sidhe spirits are essentially pleasant and good natured, full of the craic, and harmless to let in. People who are perhaps sick, and not at full energetic defensive strength.

There was once a baby’s bib tied through the branches of the hawthorn tree at the Morrigan’s Cave. Just take a moment, and let that sink in for yourself.

You see now why I might be a bit ranty on this topic? Can we not do this anymore?

My best advice is to take local advice. If you want to find a real Rag Tree, there’s websites and books that will tell you where to begin your search, but first and foremost you should be talking to local people.

Get exact directions. Check that the tree you think might be the one is actually the one.

DON’T tie things that are not biodegradable to the trees – to any tree?! Tying strings and straps around our trees that stay there for years – I’ve literally seen the poor trees trying to grow around the shite that has been tied to them – will, in the worst cases, literally strangle and kill the branch it’s tied on, and sicken the whole tree.

And remember, just because some eejit has tied something to it before you got there, doesn’t make it a Rag Tree.

Please, be sure?


 

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