Category Archives: Celebrations in Ireland

Easters of dancing suns and coloured eggs

Easter was an exciting time for us children growing up in a Donegal home in the 1950s.  Having survived standing for the long gospels of Passion Sunday and Palm Sunday, Holy Week arrived, with  Spy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil,   each having its own unique catholic rituals. We were shooed off to the chapel for these  ceremonies, and even though we had better things to be doing like playing cowboys and indians, we knew that it meant that dreary Lent was coming to an end. There was a definite sombre air about the place on Good Friday in particular, but once we passed 3 pm things lightened up a little and there was serious work to be done!

We were  dispatched to the hedges to find a nice branch – a nice elegant one  with no leaves was the ideal. For weeks, my mother had collected eggshells after cooking and baking. The broken shells were carefully washed and left on a big tray to dry off. On Good Friday evening, we were allowed to begin painting them. Using standard children’s paint boxes, we painted them pink and blue and red and yellow and green and they were again left to dry. The branch was then painted white and left overnight.

On Saturday my mother threaded a big needle and very carefully pushed it into the end of the painted shells and back out again, making a very neat little hanger. The shells were then hung on the tree and it looked just fabulous when the decoration was completed!  She anchored the branch in a large vase and placed it on our very deep kitchen windowsill. The Easter tree tradition is kept up in my family, but the real broken egg shells have been replaced by more sophisticated ornaments!  Time perhaps to revert to the traditional way of making the decorations!

 

 

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A modern Easter Tree in my sister’s house

Our Easter Vigil church services began at about 9 pm and went on for several hours and it was not unusual for small children to sleep through the entire proceedings! My mother told us  that if we were up at sunrise we would see the sun dancing in the sky in celebration of  Easter, but of course none of us managed to be out of bed by 6 am to check this out.  On Easter Sunday morning we did however have boiled eggs for breakfast. A big pot of them was put on to boil  – some were eaten and others when cold were painted. These were then used for ‘egg rolling’. My father used tell us that when he was a boy they had very serious egg-rolling contests down grassy slopes, with everyone in the village taking part.  There was nothing formal about our egg rolling, and the fun was between we siblings to see how far our eggs would travel.

Chocolate Easter Eggs arrived later and replaced the egg decorating traditions that had been handed down for generations. The chocolate manufacturers mastered the technique of mass producing hollow chocolate eggs in the early part of the 20th Century. World War 2 brought rationing, so the Chocolate Easter Egg only became the norm for children after the 1950s. They didn’t reach our village until towards the end of that decade. Prior to this chocolate eggs were handmade and beautifully  decorated by hand – works of art – as can be seen in the photograph below.

 

A VERY HAPPY EASTER TO YOU ALL !

Early Cadbury Easter Eggs. Hand decorated, luxury items for adults.

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Mother’s Day

Tulips and Daffodils

Tulips and Daffodils traditional Mother’s Day flowers. Image Commons.Wikimedia

These final weeks of March have, for some years now, been ‘busy’ weeks in our house in terms of celebrations. In Ireland, we have St Patrick’s Day on March 17th giving as it does, such welcome relief from the austerity of  Lent. For Catholics, Lent meant 40 days of fasting and abstinence. Why did we say 40 days, when it is actually 46  from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday? On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday we barely ate anything as these were days of Fast and Abstinence. On Fast Days we were allowed 1 small meal and 2 collations – a collation being a snack. On days of Fast and Abstinence no meat was allowed. This always amused me as most people could not afford meat every day of the week anyhow! So for Lent – no sweets, no biscuits, no cakes – and when I was growing up 60 years ago in Donegal, no dances, no cinema, no marriages, in fact not much of anything. St Patrick’s Day allowed us to ‘break’ Lent and gorge on cake and sweets, have milk and sugar in our tea and eat tons of Kimberley and Mikado biscuits.
I have a secret – my birthday happens not long after Paddy’s Day. Try as I might my birthday always always falls in Lent, and has on a few occasions even fallen on Good Friday, a dismal  day for a child to have  a birthday! This misery continued for  18 years and so for  my entire youth I was a begrudging victim of circumstance.

When I went to live in England in the 1960s I discovered several things: English Catholics did not have the same rules about Lent as we had  in Ireland. They could even eat meat on Fridays and in a diverse society there were normal happy things happening – dances, weddings, cinemas were open, people ate chocolate and potato crisps even on Good Friday! Not only this, but they heartily celebrated Mothers Day, which falls in Lent. Mother’s Day was  then unheard of in the Donegal Highlands.

‘Mother’s Day’ is not an invention of Hallmark cards, but in fact has its roots in ancient history. In Ireland, as in the UK, Mothering Sunday is celebrated on the 4th Sunday in Lent. In other parts of the world it is usually celebrated in March, April or May.

Celebrations of motherhood can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The ancient Greeks held a spring festival dedicated to Rhea, the mother of the Greek Gods Zeus, Poseidon and Hades. They also celebrated the Festival of Cybele, Mother of The Gods, at the time of the March equinox and this was later adopted by Romans who celebrated it around the Ides of March ( March 15th to 18th). Also in ancient Roman religion there is mention of the Matronalia when women got gifts from their husbands and daughters, husbands were expected to offer prayers for their wives and slaves were given a day off work.

Several Christian denominations, including Anglican and Catholic, celebrate Mothering Sunday. It falls approximately mid Lent, on Laetare Sunday (‘Laetare’ means ‘Rejoice’). On this day, there was a relaxation in the austerity of Lent. In Elizabethan times, girls who had been hired out as servants were given a holiday in the middle of Lent, so that they might visit their families. In the 16th century there was a practice of returning to the ‘mother church’ (the main church of the area), which meant that children in service would be reunited with families on that day. To prove their new-found cooking skills, they brought home a gift of a ‘Mothering’ or ‘Simnel’* cake. Dairymaids or laundry maids who had no cooking skills, would often be presented with a ’mothering cake’ by a sweetheart.

Simnel Cake - a very old Mothering Sunday custom . Image Commons.Wikimedia.

Simnel Cake – a very old Mothering Sunday custom . Image Commons.Wikimedia.

The Lenten fast was at that time very rigorous, so the cake was made with a rich mixture so that it would keep until Easter. They also picked wildflowers for their mothers as they made their way home and the wild violet became a traditional gift for mothers.

-_Narcissus_pseudonarcissus_03_-The tradition of Mothering Sunday gradually died away over the decades. It is said to have been revived during World War 2 by visiting American and Canadian soldiers who celebrated Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May. The celebration was indeed revived but the original day – the fourth Sunday in Lent – was retained in these islands. Our Mothering Sunday has now become Mother’s Day, (and is nowadays heartily celebrated in Ireland) but call it what you will, it remains a day to celebrate motherhood in general and your mother in particular. Happy Mothering Sunday to all mothers!

* I have an old recipe for Simnel cake. If anyone would like to have it, please email me.

 

 

 

 

 

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Irish Tradition – The St Brigid’s Cross

St Brigid's Crosses, Fresh

St Brigid’s Crosses

Happy St Brigid’s Day from all in Ireland. On February 1, we mark the feast of one of our patron saints and the only female one, Bridget. Patrick, not even born in Ireland and Columba, who was sent into exile, are the other two! In true Irish style, her name appears in many forms : Brigid, Bridget, Bridgit, Bríd, Brigid and Bride  and Biddy.

Born in Faughart, County Louth in about 451A.D Bridget founded several monasteries and is most associated with Kildare. Faughart celebrates Bridget in a big way as can be seen from this wonderful blogpost from  Louise of Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland. Click here to read more.

My favourite Irish tradition is the one of the Brigid’s Cross, made usually on the day before the feast day and then placed above the door or poked behind a picture to protect the house from all bad things for the following year.  Simple and elegant, the swastika shaped cross is woven from a few rushes, found in almost every field in Ireland.

Saint_Brigid's_cross

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Irish Christmas tradition lives on

Epiphany: The 3 Kings arrive with gifts

Epiphany: The 3 Kings arrive with gifts

On Monday next, January 6, thousands of women across Ireland will gather to celebrate Nollaig na mBan or Womens Christmas.

All over Ireland, January 6 marks the end of the Christmas season – it is the day on which the fairy lights, the Christmas tree, the decorations and the Christmas cards are taken down and put away for another year. It is considered bad luck if decorations remain displayed after this date! January 6 has many titles – Epiphany, Little Christmas, 12th Night, Women’s Christmas,  Women’s  Little Christmas, and Nollaig na mBan. Such an important day to have 6 different names!

In Ireland, ‘Little Christmas’ is one of the traditional names for January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany is a Christian celebration of the day on which the Magi arrived with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to honour the new-born baby Jesus, the day on which Jesus is revealed to the gentiles. Epiphany is one of the oldest Christian holy days that originated in the Eastern Church and was adopted by the Western church in the 4th century. ‘Little Christmas’ is so-called because under the Julian Calendar, Christmas day celebrations were held in January, whereas under the Gregorian calendar, Christmas day falls on December 25.

Twelfth Night, which coincides with Epiphany has been celebrated as the end of the Christmas season for centuries. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, Twelfth Night was one of the most important days in the Christian calendar. Twelfth Night parties were common where participants enjoyed food and drink and games. A special Twelfth cake, the forerunner of today’s Christmas cake, was the centrepiece of the party, with a slice offered to all members of the household, above and below stairs. In 1756, The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that: the king, and his entourage” went to the Chapel Royal at St James’ and offered gold, myrrh and frankincense” on Twelfth Night.

21 years ago I found myself in County Kerry on January 6. I was astonished to see hotels crowded with women – and no men to be seen! On enquiring, I was informed that they were celebrating ‘Women’s Christmas’ or ‘Nollaig na mBan’ in Irish. This has been a long-standing tradition in Counties Kerry and Cork, when women celebrate the end of the Christmas season, the decorations are down, the long season of preparation and cooking is over and the women folk have a celebratory meal. It is also celebrated in Newfoundland which has a strong affinity with Ireland and in some states of the United States of America where the tradition was kept alive by Irish immigrants.

The fascinating thing about this tradition is that, rather than dying out like so many other traditions, its popularity has begun to grow and it is now being celebrated across the country. Women in Dublin organize lunches for their women friends, Limerick women are meeting in their own homes for lovely dinners, Galway women are having poetry recitals, Sligo women are coming together to enjoy female company – women only ‘get-togethers’ are being organized all over the place! Long may it continue to grow and grow!

Happy Nollaig na mBan (pronounced null-ag na man) to all readers!

This post was first published in January 2012.

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Happy New Year!

FireworksA very Happy New Year to all the wonderful readers of The Silver Voice from Ireland Blog. I would like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one  who has visited  my  blog during 2013.  Athbhliain faoi Mhaise daoibh to léir! May 2014 be all that you need it to be!

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The turning of the year at Newgrange

Newgrange Burial Mound.  Image Wiki Commons.

Newgrange Burial Mound. Image Wiki Commons.

Older than the Pyramids in Egypt and older than Stonehenge, Newgrange is the jewel in the crown of ancient sites in Ireland.  Engineered  about 3,000 B.C. Newgrange is an enormous  mound that covers an area of about an acre. Constructed by some of earth’s earliest  farming communities in the Boyne Valley, Newgrange, and similar mounds at Knowth and Dowth  are a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site. Originally thought to be a burial mound, Newgrange may have been an ancient temple. It is famed for the fact that for a few days around the time of the at the Winter Solstice, the long passage to the interior is lit by the rising sun. The exact date and time of the Winter Solstice varies slightly from year to year. In Ireland in  2013 it will occur today( 21, December  2013) at precisely 17:11 p.m.

Newgrange was engineered so that the narrow shaft of light from the rising sun at the solstice  would enter a narrow passage way and gradually lengthen and broaden so that a chamber , some 19 metres from the doorway would become fully lit. The phenomenon lasts for about 17 minutes.

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Entrance to the mound with light box above. The spectacularly carved stones are a feature of Newgrange.  Image from Newgrange.com

While the Irish weather with cloudy conditions  is not always conducive to the witnessing of this phenomenon, today it happened and for the first time since 2007 when those lucky persons present in the chamber saw this wonderful spectacle.  There is an  image of this morning’s  event from  The Irish Times, here.

Newgrange is part of a series of mounds on a bend of the River Boyne in County Meath, Ireland.  Access throughout the year is via the Brú na Boinne visitor centre.  It is a magnificent attraction, often overlooked by visitors to these shores but well worth a visit.

Further information: World Heritage Ireland Brú na Boinne

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There’s something about Christmas..

Christmas! A perfect celebration for those of us in the northern hemisphere, living in the dark days of winter, with long nights and short days, cool and often freezing weather. Some of us resist the tinsel and glitter and hype for as long as we can, but in the last weeks before the big day we too must succumb to the inevitability of it. Last minute cards, last minute Christmas trees, house decorations and gift purchases all add to the excitement!

In December 2012 I made this post about Christmas in our home which I  am reposting here as it epitomizes all that is Christmas, past and present. I hope you enjoy it!

‘There’s something about Christmas. There’s something about it that creeps inside and finds the child in you.’ These are the opening words of the magical  Barry’s Tea ‘Train’ radio commercial. It is back on the airwaves so Christmas must be near! You can listen to it here.

Christmas in our Donegal home almost 60 years ago is a world away from Christmas in the early 21st Century. My mother used  to begin the Christmas baking in late October when she made two rich fruit cakes. The whole process seemed to take days as she assembled sultanas, raisins and currants, chopped the mixed peel and the glace cherries, soaked whole almonds in boiling water so the skins would slip off, then chopped them finely. This scrumptious mixture was placed in a huge basin, doused in whiskey and covered with a clean cloth to soak overnight. During the evening the cloth was lifted when there was no adult in sight, so we could inhale the beautiful aroma of liquor and fruit. Tins were lined first with buttered greaseproof and then buttered brown paper – an art in itself, akin to Origami as it took a lot of expertise to line a round tin!

The following day the serious business of baking took place; flour and raising agent were sieved; the exotic mixed spice, nutmegs, cinnamon, ginger and mace were measured out; eggs were beaten, butter was softened and black treacle was measured out of the tin. An argument would then ensue as to who  would get to lick the sticky black syrup from the spoon. This entire process took some hours as there was nothing mechanical in my mother’s kitchen — only a wooden spoon and an egg whisk with a wheel on the side. After all the beating, folding and mixing the tins were filled. We got to clean out every last bit of the mixture that still clung to the sides of the big cream coloured baking bowl, then we were banished  from the kitchen and had to whisper for the rest of the day. Any loud noise or banging door might result in the cakes ‘sinking’! A good cook’s worst nightmare!

The following day the cooled cakes were stripped of the paper, pricked all over with a knitting needle,’fed’ with whiskey and placed in an airtight tin. Over the following weeks  we had a weekly ritual of ‘feeding the cakes’ and replacing the greaseproof paper!

Similar preparation of fruit took place some weeks later when the Christmas puddings were made. A stale loaf was laboriously made into breadcrumbs. A bottle of stout was added to the mixture which made mixing easier for smaller people and we all ‘had a go’. The well-stirred mixture was placed on double layers of  large  squares of cotton –  old sheets  made excellent pudding cloths- the corners were gathered up and tied securely for boiling, resulting in a beautiful round pudding!   Christmas was forgotten about then until about a week before whenthe Yule Log was baked as were my mother’s speciality – ‘Snowballs’. These were rounded balls of cake mixture, baked, then covered in jam and  rolled in shredded coconut – they always looked wonderfully tempting!   The two rich fruit cakes  were iced (two cakes as my younger brother had a birthday on Christmas Day and he was the only member of the family to have a birthday cake)  and decorated.  Then there was the marzipan to make – we smaller ones could not help with this as it was a very stiff mixture of ground almonds and sugars, but it looked lovely when done! About three days before Christmas we had the Royal Icing that was spread all over the marzipan-ed cakes  and we enjoyed placing lovely little silver balls and little snowmen and  tiny Christmas trees into the icing. The Birthday cake usually had  less seasonal characters stuck into the royal icing, but always had NOEL piped o the surface, for that is my brother’s name .

Some days before Christmas the turkey arrived – alive. It  had to be dispatched and hung for several days then ‘cleaned’. Our next door neighbour Katie Ward did the plucking and it was great to watch her do it as she expertly pulled out all the feathers and then singed the skin with a taper to get rid of the very last signs of a feather. On one occasion, when I was quite small I was given the job of carrying the turkey to her house. Carrying it  by the legs with the long neck and head trailing down, wings flapped open, I  was followed by a dog who wanted to eat it.  He got hold of the head as I went in the gate. I climbed onto the wall and tried to hold the turkey up high so the dog could not reach my precious cargo. I was rescued when my roars for help were heard!

Excitement was now really building and we knew it was close when a strangely costumed man with face covered would burst into our kitchen (front doors were always open) and frighten the lives out of us. He was closely followed by a troupe of Mummers all well disguised, who rhymed their way through a performance  in which there was a narrator, two bragging men who  took part in a fight and various other characters.  One of the protagonists dies as a result of having a sword plunged into him, but is revived by a Doctor who demands money. Most of the characters are long forgotten , but I do recall a few. There was  Belzebub) and there was Jack Straw – ‘Here come I, Jack Straw, Such a man you never saw! and my favourite ‘Here comes I, Wee Divil Doubt, The biggest wee divil that ever came out’

Also in the days just before Christmas Carol Singers would arrive. They stopped outside the door, sang a few carols and hoped they might get a few pence in appreciation..they usually did!

Christmas Eve was a busy day –  my father would bring home  a Christmas tree that would be put up in the upstairs sitting- room and decorated with tinsel strips and tinsel ornaments.   He also brought lots of  berried holly and sprigs would be pushed in behind hanging pictures in every room.  Paper chain decorations were hung from the ceiling in the kitchen.  Stuffing for the turkey(or goose)  would be made to be ready for Chrsitmas morning – more grating of a stale loaf to make breadcrumbs! This delicious mix of breadcrumbs, onions, butter and parsley  would have to be put out of reach  so we would not eat it all up!

It was impossible to get to sleep with excitement and we were under constant threat if we did not go to sleep Santa wouldn’t come – this only added to the angst and ensured that we would not get to sleep for hours! But on Christmas morning we woke very early  to find that Santa had in fact called and there would be something either on the bed or on the floor by the bed. A doll, a meccano set, a toy train, a button accordion, a jig saw – usually one toy each plus an annual or a book and a red net stocking filled with Cadbury’s chocolate bars. Bliss!  The discovery was usually made in teh early hours, and needless to say we had to run and wake the entire house to announce what Santa had brought!

Then it was up for 8 o clock morning mass . We walked the mile or so to the Church and one of the loveliest memories I have is of a house at the end of the village street with a tall candle burning in every window – a magical site on a dark morning. And so to the chapel to hear the choir accompanied by the big organ give an almighty rendition of Adeste Fideles and Silent Night! It was Christmas!

Lunch was served about 1 o’clock and consisted of a delicious clear turkey soup made from the neck and giblets of the turkey, that had been bubbling away all morning on the Stanley No. 7  Range!

Our Christmas dinner was served much later at about 4.30 pm. On the menu was roast turkey (or goose)  delicious  parsley and onion bread stuffing, brussel sprouts (cooked in true Irish tradition for the best part of an hour, until they  fell apart- not to be recommended in these modern ‘al-dente’ times!) and mashed potato. In north Donegal our name for the rather genteel sounding ‘mashed potato’ was in fact the very descriptive ‘poundies’!  The entire meal was enveloped in my mother’s absolutely fabulously delicious white sauce, made with cornflour and milk and butter and parsley.  After our meal we tucked into the Christmas pudding that was always served with hot milk poured over.  Yummy!

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My 3 year old brother blows out the candles on his birthday cake,Christmas Day 1955

A little while later it was time for cake – big triangles of beautifully moist cake topped with hard sweet icing were served – how we managed to eat it is a wonder in itself!

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Tucking into the huge box of chocolates. The Christmas tree in the background is decorated with tinsel

Later in the evening we had a huge box of Cadbury’s Milk Tray chocolates. The big box had a beautiful scene on its padded cover – a snowy mountain scape or a Santa scene. What luxury!

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The Christmas guests 1955, in front of the fire, with my father in the centre. I think that the man on the left may be O’Donnell, possibly John? and the man on the extreme right may be Ward from the south of the County.

On some Christmases  we had guests at our table – people who worked locally perhaps and who could not get home to their families for Christmas  for many reasons – they may have not had the transport and there was no public transport to speak of, and they may only have had one day off work, so would have had to make the round trip in one day.

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My father, just a few days after his 34th birthday, enjoying and sharing the poetry of Robert Service on 25 December 1955.

After dinner my father would sit in his chair and recite from The Collected Works of Robert Service  and transport us to the snow-covered wilderness of the Yukon. He laughed heartily  as he read his two favourite poems:  The Shooting of Dan McGrew  (featuring a lady  that’s known as Lou!)  and The Cremation of Sam McGee

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.
The only Christmas of my childhood for which we have pictures is this one in 1955. We have 5 photographs in all, and 4 of them are shown here. (the remaining one is of my 3 year old sibling trying to light up a cigarette in behind the sofa!)
This post was inspired by Pauleen at Family History Across the Seaswho  in her blog invited her readers to join in with the Christmas Geneameme. It sent me off delving into my family traditions and I am delighted to have had the chance to record a typical Christmas for my family.
There is indeed something about Christmas…
 

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