Monthly Archives: February 2013

Meeting Eithne

In June 2011, I put the name ‘Eithne’ and a slightly unusual surname into a search on Facebook. Two pages were returned – one person from Belfast was not who I was looking for, but the second one showed promise. And so I emailed – ”Are you the person who was with me at the St Louis Convent Boarding school in Dundalk, Co Louth, Ireland?” And back came the response –  ”Yes, I am ! ” This was one of the amazing moments I have enjoyed since becoming ‘e-inclusive’ as the EU likes to call it! Imagine! Finding someone who was a very special part of my life almost 5 decades ago!

Eithne hails from County  Monaghan, a county bordering  Northern Ireland to the south,  and I was from County  Donegal,  a county that also borders  Northern Ireland to the  north-west, so  we already had something in common!   We two Ulster women found ourselves deposited as 13 year olds in a convent boarding school run by the St. Louis Sisters in Dundalk Co Louth – many miles from Eithne’s Castleblayney  home and even more  from mine in faraway Carrigart, County Donegal.

school

Some of the dormitories were in the Castle on the left

It was 1961. Boarding school had serious disadvantages –  nights of lonely crying into the pillow as we faced into three terms of endless weeks  missing family and friends and home; months of rising at 7 am; months of cold water for washing ‘everywhere two skins meet’; months of seemingly endless  study; months of endless  praying. Add to the mix:  no boys ; no privacy as only curtains separated our ‘alcove’  sleeping spaces – each containing  a single bed, a chair, a locker with a towel rail  topped by a green plastic basin and beaker,  as well as a single  wardrobe. This was ‘home’ for up to 14 or 16 weeks at a time, three times a year, for 5 long years.

Me: 2nd row from Front, 3rd from right

Me: 2nd row from front, 3rd from right; Eithne: 5th row from front, 3rd from left

School was defined by rules, long silences, prayers, study, long regimented walks, retreats, breaking rules, operas, dance lessons, still no boys, even more study, hours of silence, tuck shop on Saturday with Toffo de Luxe and chocolate; mashed parsnips, and  first Sundays of each month in silence for up to 17 hours!

louislist

School Prospectus

Here we learned life long skills in the art of sharing:  how to divide a three week old  quarter sandwich into five portions with the tail of a steel comb;  how to dissect a small chocolate Turkish delight sweet  into 6 minuscule portions so everyone could share the last remaining morsel of luxury; how to eat a chocolate cake so that only crumbs remained, then pen a letter of complaint to the manufacturer returning the crumbs, stating that  it tasted of petrol. The plan worked sometimes and we got a replacement cake! The demands on teenage hormonal girls were truly extraordinary, and – it has to be said –  were also character forming. There was one huge advantage: friendships that formed in these  adverse conditions ran deep and true.

A couple of St Louis Nuns

A couple of St Louis Nuns – the delightful Sr Colmcille on left.

Eithne and I spent happy summer holidays at each others homes in Donegal and Monaghan. Her home was so exotic –  she lived in a fairly large inland  town compared to my small village, her family had a shop and a pub no less  – and her mother was just the nicest woman ever you met!  There was a very beautiful lake nearby where we talked and we walked, lay in the sun  and eyed up the local talent.  On visits to Donegal, Eithne fitted into our lives  like a hand into a glove, and here too we eyed up the local talent and walked and talked on our big deserted beaches. Sadly Eithne changed schools in 1964 when  she left to go to school elsewhere, while I remained in the Louis for a further 2 years.

Life continued to send us in different directions – in Eithne’s case she emigrated, became a nurse, married and moved between England , Scotland and Holland. In my case I also emigrated to England  and with many changes of address we drifted apart. A lifetime later Eithne, after the Facebook search,  was coming to Ireland for a visit and so we arranged to meet for lunch last summer!

It was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I boarded the bus – what would we talk about?  Would we have ANYTHING to talk about? What if lunch  is just too long? As I approached the meeting point I saw her….later I was intrigued that I had recognized her from the back, as she was facing away from me, but there was something so familiar about her standing there, as though I had seen her just a few days before. I called her name and she turned round….

And so it was  – lunch stretched to almost 4 hours of non stop banter and reminiscing. Life stories were recounted  including births marriages and deaths of family members we each knew well. We looked back with a great sense of fun  at the quite severe existence we endured in the Louis, and how we laughed as we recalled the fun we had when rules were being broken.

Life has certainly thrown some challenges to both of us in the intervening 48 years, but we have survived.  I am thrilled to have sent that email, to have rediscovered a friend, to discover that  true friendship is enduring and can pick up where  it left off, no matter how many decades have passed!  I rediscovered a kind, gentle, caring person with a lovely sense of humour – what more could a friend wish for ?

Thanks Eithne, so  glad to be able to call you ‘friend’!

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Filed under Irish History, Life in the 1960s, Living in Ireland, Oral History

Happy Valentine’s day – from St Valentine, Dublin, Ireland

Red_rose_closeup

Red Rose – Symbol of love . Image Wikimedia Commons

The red rose – a great symbol of love! February 14th is  a day when cards and tokens of love  are exchanged by lovers, spouses and partners. It  is almost a rite of passage for young teenagers to buy or make cards in quantity and send them anonymously to the objects  of their desires –  or if all else fails –  to send them to themselves, so as not to feel excluded when the peers arrive with barrowloads  from every male in the area. We could be forgiven for thinking that Valentine’s day is an invention of Hallmark Cards, as tens of millions of Valentine cards are bought each year, but would we be correct? As well as cards, millions of flowers will be handed over as tokens of undying devotion to loved ones to mark the annual Love-day,  the Feast of St Valentine.

But where did the tradition come from? Valentine’s or St Valentines’ Day is  a celebration of the feast day of the Saint of that name.  Scratch any religious ‘feast’ very gently and not far  under the surface there will be a pagan or ancient  celebration. In mid February, or the ides of February, there was the ancient fertility festival of Lupercalia  where there appears to have been some ‘blooding ‘ ritual whereby young women were touched with the  hides of freshly skinned animals. They then  placed their names in a container. Young men would select a name and would be paired with the girl of his choice for the following year, and apparently marriage often ensued. This practice was outlawed in the 5th century about the same time as  St Valentine’s Feast was announced.

Several men with the name Valentinus were martyred in the early church. One story suggests that a particular  Valentinus was imprisoned for performing marriage ceremonies for soldiers. Soldiers were forbidden to marry as having a wife might distract them from their soldiery duties. When in prison,this particular Valentinus supposedly healed the daughter of his jailer and some stories suggest he fell in love with her. Prior to execution he is said to have written her a farewell note signed :  “from your Valentine”. Whatever the origins, the Feast of St Valentine is marked in many cultures and   communions – such as the Lutheran Church, Anglicans, and  Eastern Orthodox.

In 1382, Chaucer  composed a poem to mark the anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia, where he refers to Valentine:

For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

(For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day,

when every bird cometh there to choose his mate)

oldvalentine1477

Oldest known Valentine message c. 1477 from British Museum

By the 1600’s  it had evolved into an occasion in which lovers  expressed their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confections  and sending greeting cards.

In 1850,Joseph R Chandler in an article entitled ‘St Valentine’s Day‘ in Graham’s American Monthly Magazine of Literature and Art , wrote:

The commercial revolution has loosed St Valentine Day from its previous  moorings in folk culture and redirected it into new and little charted waters”.

And it would seem that this  commercial revolution has continued unabated in the intervening 160+ years.

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The St . Valentine Shrine in Whitefriars Church, Dublin . The carved image of Valentine, martyr, stands above the reliquary that is venerated on February 14 each year.

On November 10, 1836, a strange event was taking place in Dublin. A reliquary containing  remains of St Valentine were brought in solemn procession to the Carmelite Church on Whitefriars Street. These had been the gift of Pope Gregory XVI  in appreciation of  Carmelite John Spratt who had visited Rome. John Spratt was as an eloquent preacher who ‘wowed’ both the elite of Rome and the Church itself.   In Dublin he was a well- known and respected figure who worked tirelessly for the poor and disadvantaged in the Liberties area and who had built the church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Whitefriars  Street. The gift of relics was accompanied by a letter in Latin which translates as follows:

“We, Charles, by the divine mercy, Bishop of Sabina of the Holy Roman Church, Cardinal Odescalchi Arch Priest of the Sacred Liberian Basilica, Vicar General of our most Holy Father the Pope and Judge in Ordinary of the Roman Curia and of its Districts, etc, etc.

To all and everyone who shall inspect these our present letters, we certify and attest, that for the greater glory of the omnipotent God and veneration of his saints, we have freely given to the Very Reverend Father Spratt, Master of Sacred Theology of the Order of Calced Carmelites of the convent of that Order at Dublin, in Ireland, the blessed body of St Valentine, martyr, which we ourselves by the command of the most Holy Father Pope Gregory XVI on the 27th day of December 1835, have taken out of the cemetery of St Hippolytus in the Tiburtine Way, together with a small vessel tinged with his blood and have deposited them in a wooden case covered with painted paper, well closed, tied with a red silk ribbon and sealed with our seals and we have so delivered and consigned to him, and we have granted unto him power in the Lord, to the end that he may retain to himself, give to others, transmit beyond the city (Rome) and in any church, oratory or chapel, to expose and place the said blessed holy body for the public veneration of the faithful without, however, an Office and Mass, conformably to the decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, promulgated on the 11th day of August 1691.

In testimony whereof, these letters, testimonial subscribed with our hand, and sealed with our seal, we have directed to be expedited by the undersigned keeper of sacred relics.

Rome, from our Palace, the 29th day of the month of January 1836.
C.Cardinal Vicar
Regd. Tom 3. Page 291
Philip Ludovici Pro-Custos”

All Catholic Churches have relics, usually contained in a cavity on the altar, or in a reliquary. The St Valentine relics are in a separate reliquary normally kept under a shrine to the Saint. It is not known what exactly is in the reliquary as it has never been opened. However it is recognized that there may be relics of this particular St Valentine in up to 10 different locations – not surprising when one thinks of the numbers of bones in a  skeleton! But, no matter! Whitefriars Church in Dublin,marks the feast of St. Valentine each year with special ceremonies that includes the blessings of rings. A beautiful sentimental tradition attached the the most ecstatic emotion of LOVE!

Happy Valentine’s Day to all my readers!

References:

http://carmelites.ie

http://www.history.com

 

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Filed under Celebrations in Ireland, Ireland, Irish Culture, Irish Heritage, Irish Traditions

Tales from the Hearth – In Memory of Kevin McFadden

A couple of weeks ago I received a copy of a very special book entitled ‘Tales from the Hearth’ that has a delightful oral history of my part of Donegal. This book harks back to a time when people visited others houses to exchange stories by the fireside. I am not sure how or where I discovered this publication, but somehow I made contact with Helen who sent me her last copy of this beautiful little book of stories as recounted by her  husband, the late Kevin McFadden.Feb13 001

I grew up in Carrigart, County Donegal, Ireland, in days before television and when the electric lights went off at 10 pm.  On  summer evenings we stayed outside playing until we had to come in for bed, and in winter  we retreated  to the fire after dark. At about 7 pm ‘Spaceships Away’ resounded from the radio, heralding the beginning of the nightly series, Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future! My mother had a few special friends who on a regular basis, would  call to our house in the evenings. Younger children were sent to bed, we older ones helped with the sandwiches – how I loved to see her friends arriving as my mother made a special plate of her famous mouth-watering salad sandwiches, so yummy! (the secret ingredient was vinegar! )  Mrs McFadden, Kevin’s mother,  called on a weekly basis, and I recall that she and my mother would exchange weekend newspapers, such as The Empire News, The Sunday Dispatch, The Sunday People and various others. These ‘British’ papers were crammed full of stories of the British Royals, as well as various scandals – the stuff of endless conversation in a quiet rural village! One of my abiding memories is of how they laughed and enjoyed one another’s company!  The McFadden Family lived near us.  Kevin and his brother Patrick  are the ‘stuff of legend’ in Carrigart! One night there was a terrific explosion, followed by total consternation. Patrick and Kevin had taken an oil drum and dropped a lighted match into it…. and  BOOM!  I still remember the bang and  that their hair and eyebrows were singed – they were very fortunate not to have been seriously injured!  I think this was sometime in the early 1960’s, and it remained a significant event in the village for decades!

‘Tales from the Hearth’ re-created these forgotten memories from the 1950’s and early 1960’s just by association. Not only that, the book itself has absolute gems of stories featuring many local characters, many of whom  I knew personally. Paddy ‘Long Barney’ –  have no idea where the ‘Long Barney’ came from  and of course we never thought to ask as these distinguishing nicknames were very common in Donegal, being used to distinguish between families of the same surname and very often, same first names.  Paddy Long Barney features in a most unlikely ghost story , full of the familiar local dialect, which is a joy to read!

My favourite story is about the local football team, The Mulroy All Stars who were provided with football strips by migrant workers to Scotland, the local McGroddy brothers, Johnny and his younger brother Andy. (Someplace in my photo-bank I have a picture of these two legends that I will post when and if I find it). The then 16-year-old Kevin was picked as goalie and proudly defended his goalmouth on The Lea just outside Carrigart,  resplendent in his yellow polo neck ‘rig’. Even the 11 goals that whizzed past his ear did not dent the great pride he had in turning out in fabulous new team colours!  I will have great pleasure in showing this story to the sister of the McGroddy boys when I visit later in the year.

Feb13 002

Kevin stands high above The Bar, where the Atlantic flows into Mulroy Bay, Co.Donegal

This little book is a great tribute to the local culture  of  story telling and yarn-spinning that was part and parcel of rural life in Ireland in the 1950’s and 1960’s . It is also a fitting memorial to a son of the parish who emigrated to Canada but never forgot his roots and the delights of the simple life he lived in rural north Donegal. Ar dheis Dé  go raibh a anam.

I am most grateful to Helen McFadden for sending me this book – I  will treasure it!

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Filed under Irish Culture, Living in Ireland, My Oral History, Oral History, Social History Ireland

St Bridget reaching across the generations

My last post was in celebration of the Feast of St Bridget, (or Brigid, Brigit, Brighid, Bríd, Bride). Bridget is known as ‘Mary of the Gael’ and also as a pre-Christian pagan goddess.

I am very fortunate to know Dr Louise Nugent, a friend of family, who was awarded a Ph.D for her study of the archaeology of Medieval Pilgrimage in Ireland. Louise has a superbly interesting blog entitled Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland, arising from her studies and her continued interest in praying and supplication of the Irish at places of pilgrimage.

I attended boarding school at the St Louis Convent, Dún Lughaidh,in Dundalk, County Louth from  1961 – 1966. Although I had for years been making St Bridget’s Crosses and reading about her in school, it was in Dundalk that the knowledge grew. Here each February we were taken on pilgrimage to Faughert, invariably in soaking wet and freezing conditions. Usually a day of misery for us boarders!

Image

Fresh Green St Brigid’s Crosses – Image killybegsonline.org

I was fascinated to read Louise’s account and to see her pictures of modern pilgrimage to this same site – 50 years on. 50 years ago it was different  – no tacky modern ‘grotto’, and instead of modern paths we had to ‘rough it’ through a wooded area alongside a stream!  Our pilgrimages were sufficiently far removed from exams, being in February, that there was no vested interest or immediacy in being devout, so it was endurance, plus not having to spend a Sunday afternoon in Study rather than anything else, that sustained us both spiritually and emotionally!

Louise’s account of a several days in Dundalk exploring modern devotion to Bridget is here .  She has promised to post more on the cult of St Brigid and I will be happy to reblog on this page. If you have an interest in Bridget, I commend this great post to you!

References

http://pilgrimagemedievalireland.com/

http://www.stlouisdundalk.ie/

 

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Filed under Celebrations in Ireland, Ireland, Irish Heritage, Irish History, Irish Traditions, My Oral History, Social History Ireland

Saint Brigid and Imbolg

Saint_Brigid's_cross

Saint Brigid’s Cross made from fresh rushes. Image Wikimedia Commons

On 1 February each year, Ireland celebrates the feast of ‘Mary of the Gael‘, St Brigid (Also pronounced Breege  or Bríd.) Most people of my generation will recall going to school on the  day before St Brigid’s day armed with lots of rushes that had been carefully pulled from their sheaths. There we would fold and turn the soft green stems until we had a swastika shaped St Brigid’s Cross.  The ends would be tied, the rough edges straightened up and cut and then we had it! A really simple pleasure that was very easy for even the youngest child. The Cross was then brought home and placed over the front door (on the inside) or behind a picture,  and there over the coming year it would gradually dry out and turn a straw colour as it acted as a talisman to protect the house and all those within.

Brigid we learned, was born in Faughart, County Louth in the 6th century and one of my abiding memories as a boarder in the St Louis Convent in Dundalk County Louth was the annual pilgrimage to her Faughart birthplace on cold wet god forsaken February days!  Bridget we also learned was a great friend of the other great Irish saints – Patrick and Colmcille – and is reputedly buried with these  two in Downpatrick in County Down – an unusual enough occurrence I suspect that a female would be buried alongside two holy men.

According to tradition a sacred fire has burned in Kildare since pre-Christian times and  priestesses gathered on the hill of Kildare to attend to the ritual fires dedicated to the goddess Brigid in return for protecting their animals and their crops. St Brigid is also associated with Kildare as it was there that she founded her monastery and church and where she kept alive a tradition of keeping a fire burning on a hill. For her and her nuns the fire represented the new light of Christianity, which reached Irish shores early in the fifth century.

Brigid Perpetual Flame

The Perpetual Flame Solas Bhride Brigidine Order

There is definite convergence then between St Bridget, the Christian Abbottess and the pre Christian goddess, Bridget  and their symbolic use of fire.

Imbolg or Imbolc is a Celtic festival marking the arrival of Spring. It falls half way between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. It is one of the fire and light festivals in the Celtic tradition and marks new beginnings  longer days, return of the sun and animals  preparing to breed.

The Christian festival of Candlemas also occurs at this time – so-called as this was the day of blessing for all church candles for the coming year. On Candlemas night, people lit candles in their homes to ward off evil spirits.

St Brigid, the goddess Bridget, Imbolg and Candlemas are all celebrated at this time of new beginnings. Whether pagan or Christian is arbitrary… what is certain is that here in the Northern Hemisphere our days are lengthening – we are pulling away from the darkness of the winter solstice, towards new beginning, new life, a new season.

Lá fheile Brighid fe mhaise daoibh!

References

Pagan Imagery in the Early Lives of Brigit: A Transformation from Goddess to Saint? by

Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, Vol. 16/17, (1996/1997), pp. 39-54

http://www.solasbhride.ie

Wikipedia.org

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Filed under Ireland, Irish Culture, Irish Heritage, Irish History, Irish Traditions, Living in Ireland