Life in Ireland

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Tomorrow is Shrove Tuesday, the last day before the start of Lent. In Ireland, it’s more popularly known as Pancake Day.

Nicely rolled Irish pancakes, and "The Flip" in action. Credits: PHPhoto/Pixabay, karpathi Gabor/Morguefile, StaffsLive/Flickr

Nicely rolled Irish pancakes, and “The Flip” in action. Credits: PHPhoto/Pixabay, Karpathi Gabor/Morguefile, StaffsLive/Flickr

In order to begin Lent in the right frame of mind and with your soul sufficiently pure, many Christians want to be shriven on Shrove Tuesday. They confess their sins, perform an act of contrition, and their soul is cleansed. To prepare the body, they consume the last of the rich foods that they will have to give up for Lent: milk, eggs, and butter. Read the rest of this entry »

A drag queen from Dublin has been making headlines around the world over the last couple of weeks. The issue that kicked off the controversy was gay rights, but now the debate has morphed into nothing less than a battle for free speech in Ireland.

I'm on Team Panti T-shirts are popping up around Dublin.  (Photo:

I’m on Team Panti T-shirts are popping up around Dublin. Source:

The tradition of the noble call is an old one from the days when the only entertainment was the craic you made yourself. Everyone had a party piece, a song, a dance, a recitation, a piece of music to offer. Thus, the recent Abbey Theatre production of The Risen People, a play about the famous Dublin Lock Out in 1913, solicited responses in the tradition of the noble call from different people after each performance. Last week, the performer they called on was Rory O’Neill, who performs as “Ireland’s Most-Fabulous Drag Queen” Panti Bliss.  Read the rest of this entry »

Just outside Kildare town you’ll find not one but two wells sacred to St. Bridget.

Sr. Bridget's Well

St. Bridget’s Well (modern) Kildare, with clotties on the wishing tree behind. (Photo:

Holy wells were once common throughout Ireland. Before the invention of plumbing, fresh, clean water was of primary importance, so naturally spring-fed wells were valued, even revered. The water was thought to come directly from the underworld, courtesy of a god or, more commonly, a goddess. It’s thought that in pre-Christian times the wells each had their own deity, and over time these were replaced by the Christian saints. The number 3000 is bandied about as representing the historical total of holy wells in Ireland, although many of these are in disrepair or overgrown at this point, and many that are mentioned in ancient texts are now lost.  Read the rest of this entry »

Is there any truth in last week’s story that wild boar are making a comeback in Irish forests?

Feral pig & piglets (Photo: Craig O'Neal/Mindseye via cc license from Flickr)

Feral pig & piglets
(Photo: Craig O’Neal/Mindseye via cc license from Flickr)

“Wild Boar Strikes Fear into the Hearts of Walkers” roared the headline in the Irish Independent last week. The story that accompanied this sensational statement claimed that wild boar are making a comeback in Irish forests, and suggested that they are a danger to walkers and children. Alarming stuff, but if they paid more attention to coverage of “boar” sightings over the past two years they might not have got so carried away. Read the rest of this entry »

Lorna Sixsmith is at the forefront of a new wave of blogging farmers who are changing the perception of agricultural life in Ireland. Her first book, Would You Marry a Farmer? showcases the richness and diversity of rural life.

Would You Marry a Farmer? by Lorna Sixsmith

Would You Marry a Farmer? by Lorna Sixsmith

Would You Marry a Farmer? started life as a humorous post on her popular blog, Irish Farmerette. Her truthful and affectionate take on the pros and cons of marrying into such an all-consuming way of life touched a chord in a country where nearly everyone had farmers somewhere back in the family tree. After a successful crowd-funding campaign to prove the demand for the book (farmer’s are eminently practical) she expanded that initial post into a book exploring the ups and downs of modern farm life. I picked up the book expecting something in the nature of a humorous gift-book: a light-hearted distraction with a grounding of good sense;  but, I found a much richer story. Read the rest of this entry »

The Waterford blaa has been granted protected status by the EU. But, what is a blaa? A bored fish, perhaps? A melancholy sheep, maybe? Nope. It’s one of the finest bread rolls known to humankind.

The humble, and protected, Waterford Blaa. (Credit: Waterford City Council)

The humble, and protected, Waterford Blaa. (Credit: Waterford City Council)

We all know that real Champagne only comes from the Champagne region of France, but the fact that there’s a European body charged with certifying which products are synonymous with which places, and enacting legislation to ban anyone else making a product with the same name, is not something that most people care to worry about. Hence, other vineyards only make sparkling wine, not champagne. Ireland has been slow to get its unique products protected in this way*, but the humble Waterford Blaa is now one of Ireland’s unique food products. Read the rest of this entry »

With all the hoopla surrounding Halloween, there is another Irish Samhain tradition that gets overlooked, the practice of winterage in the Burren in Co. Clare.

 Burren WInterage Weekend


Winterage is a practice of transhumance agriculture (where animals are moved from one grazing ground to another seasonally). On the Burren it’s the reason why local biodiversity is so unique. Read the rest of this entry »

The headlines in yesterday’s Irish newspapers informed us that the village of Moynalty, in Co. Meath, is the 2013 winner of the national Tidy Towns’ contest. Woohoo! Cue the confetti & fanfare. But, what exactly is the Tidy Towns contest when it’s at home?

Moynalty, Co. Meath. The 2013 Tidiest Town in Ireland (photo: wikipedia commons)

Moynalty, Co. Meath. The 2013 Tidiest Town in Ireland.
(photo: wikipedia commons)

History of the Contest

In the early 1950s, the Irish government ran a “National Spring Clean” campaign, with the general aim of making the place presentable and attracting visitors. In 1958, “An Tostal” was held, a year-long festival celebrating all things Irish (a forerunner of 2013’s “The Gathering”), and the Spring Clean morphed into the Tidy Towns initiative.

Read the rest of this entry »

Swearing is rife in Ireland. No, that’s an understatement, swearing is epidemic in Ireland. It used to be that swearing was reserved for all-male gatherings, or certain places (like sporting events or the school yard), but in recent years swearing has become much more common, uni-sex, and offensive.

why do the Irish swear so much?

Some people find rude Irishmen like Declan in Leap Year romantic figures, others not so much…

Before we discuss why this is, consider that we Irish have always admired masters of the art of conversation. While poets and writers are all very good and are greatly respected, they practice their art on the page and only reveal their wit and wisdom after much contemplation. Verbal dexterity and a quick wit are among the most-prized attributes in Irish life, the best poets often can’t raise a candle to the person with a ready quip. In place of real wit or wisdom, the average person can arm themselves with a devil-may-care attitude, cynical putdowns, and well-timed oaths. Shock value is often substituted for originality, and sadly a lot of people wouldn’t know the difference anyway (not that that is unique to Ireland…). Read the rest of this entry »

This week marks the feast of Lugh, the sun god of ancient Irish tradition.

Known as Lughnasadh or Lúnasa (in this case, it’s ironically the Irish spelling that appears closest to what most English-speakers would regard as the phonetic pronunciation — luu-na-sa). It is a harvest celebration, a ritual to give thanks for the bounty of the land, and to ask the gods’ blessings that the weather will hold long enough to gather it all in. (The traditional date is the night of July 31-August 1, but modern convenience has moved the date to whichever Sunday is nearest.)

leitrim view 2

Looking north from Carrowkeel Megalithic Cemetery. Ben Bulben is the long flat mountain in the upper left.

Origins of Lúnasa
Lúnasa is a curious festival, and there are different traditions regarding its origin in different parts of Ireland. All traditional festivals are based on older beliefs and practices, constantly over-written with new interpretations — All Saint’s Day is the Christian gloss on Samhain, now commercialized as Halloween; Easter was built on the foundation of Bealtaine, and, Candlemas one of the Christian attempts to overwrite Imbolc — but, much of what we know of Lúnasa appears to bear conscious witness to an earlier attempt to replace one set of beliefs with another. Some sources describe Lúnasa as the story of the sun god Lugh defeating the dark god Crom Dubh and making the world safe for humanity once again. (For a fascinating account of the surviving traditions honoring Crom Dubh, see Felicity Hayes-McCoy’s excellent piece on Crom Dubh Sunday on the Dingle peninsula in Co. Kerry.)

Stone FaceIn agricultural terms, the weather has been good enough for months that the crops have ripened (i.e. they’ve had enough sun — something you can rarely get enough of in Ireland) and famine (the old or dark god, the eternal enemy of hunter-gatherers or agrarian people) is defeated for the time being. In this case, it seems that Crom Dubh was once a major god, if not the major god, of Ireland before one of the waves of invasion came and replaced the power structure and began to teach that their gods were superior. Other origin myths tell of Lugh’s sorrow for the death of his foster-mother Tailtu, who expired after clearing the forests of Ireland to make way for farmland (suggesting that the tribes who imported the belief in Lugh and his brethern the Tuatha dé Dannan (gods of craftsmanship) were the first farmers, who replaced earlier nomadic tribes whose gods would possibly have been rather more barbaric and elemental in nature.

Tailteann Games
Lugh instituted a two-week tribal assembly of games, trading, and peaceful gathering in memory of Tailtu — who was buried on the Hill of Tailtu in Co. Meath, near where I grew up; hence that is the origin-myth that I learned as a child. A special peace was sanctioned by the Druids/Brehons for these assemblies, and any feuds and conflicts were to be set aside for the festival. Great sporting events took place in each tribe’s center of power, as champions tested themselves against each other in feats of strength, speed and skill. In Co. Meath, the Tailteann Games — said to be the continuation of the actual festival instituted by Lugh — were held as a kind of Irish olympics for centuries until the disruption of the Norman invasion. In other places, such as the Dingle peninsula in Co. Kerry, there is a tradition of horse racing on the strand.

The tradition of horse racing on the beach appears to be the modern descendant of what was originally the traditional event of “horse-swimming,” where man and horses completed a course that involved swimming across a lake or body of water, and which was apparently very dangerous and took the lives of men and horses every year. (Lough Owel in Co. Westmeath appears to have been the scene of a particularly notorious event for many years.)

The óenach (a traditional name for this kind of tribal gathering, and also possibly the name for the horse races themselves — “a contention of horses”) lasted for two weeks, culminating in the festival of the Lúnasa bonfires, and for these two weeks the peace held. New laws were set down and announced, bards presented new poems and performed new songs for the first time. There was also a custom of temporary or trial marriages being sanctioned at Lúnasa, but the Catholic church never adopted this practice for some reason. Echos of this custom can be seen in events like the Puck Fair in Kilorglin, Co. Kerry in early August, and in the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival in Co. Clare at the end of the month.

The emphasis on horse racing coupled with the tradition of trial marriages and emphasis on fertility may reveal earlier spiritual roots of Lúnasa. One of the continental proto-Celtic goddess is thought to be Epona, the horse goddess, a mother or fertility goddess whose attributes includes cornucopias, ears of wheat, and foals. Perhaps the óenaige are echoes of earlier festivals dedicated to Epona, or the rites enacted during these tribal gatherings reflect the early importance of horses and the horse goddess?

Horse racing at Bellewstown, Co. Meath.

Horse racing at Bellewstown, Co. Meath.

Note: There may have been as many as 80 sites for Óenach around the country, which reflects the multiple tribes and difficulties of traveling long distances at the time. My focus on the Tailteann Games and a few other locations reflects the limits of my knowledge. There are probably many different myths and traditions around Lúnasa as there were óenaige.

The Lúnasa festival is traditionally marked by a bonfire (as are most ancient Irish festivals), a feast, the ceremonial cutting of the first corn, picking of wild berries, and dancing. However, for Lúnasa, these usually take place on the top of a mountain, as the climb is symbolic of the sun god Lugh’s ascent to battle the dark god, and presumably honored the sun god by getting as close to him as possible. The mountain ascent has been absorbed into Christian practice as the custom of pilgrimage up holy mountains like Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo. Anyone who has seen Brian Friel’s play “Dancing at Lughnasa” will be aware of the Catholic Church’s dismissive attitude towards pre-Christian practices and beliefs, and also of their enduring power across the centuries.

Lúnasa was the occasion for the central festival of Irish culture for centuries, and its like (in terms of spiritual and administrative community) has never been seen since. However, the modern Irish summer is chockfull of festivals from Imbolc to Samhain; music festivals, arts festivals, book festivals, fleadh cheoil, matchmaking festivals, multi-day race meetings… they’re endless. So in that respect, the pre-Christian óenaige tradition is alive and well, and undergoing another metamorphosis of meaning.

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