Category Archives: Social History Ireland

Irish Pilgrims and the Celtic Fire Festival of Lughnasa

Today,on the last Sunday of July thousands are on the slopes of  Croagh Patrick, braving heat, thundery downpours and winds, to make a personal pilgrimage to the top of this iconic mountain.  Here is a post I made  on this day in 2011 about the mountain.

On the  last Sunday of July each year,tens of thousands of people, many barefoot, climb the steep slopes of Croagh (pronounced Croke) Patrick, on a penitential pilgrimage. They are following in the footsteps of generations of pilgrims who have ascended the conical mountain, in the West of Ireland, in County Mayo. The mountain is known locally as ‘The Reek’ and today is ‘Reek Sunday

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The Pilgrim Path . Image Wikimedia Commons

Croagh Patrick dominates the landscape for miles; from the N17 road that runs north to Sligo from Clare, its almost perfect cone can be seen from some 20 miles distant,and on a clear day it can be seen from some 40 miles away. Anyone reaching the summit, whether tourist or pilgrim,is stunned by the magnificent views, most especially of Clew Bay with its more than 300 islands, lying some 2,500 feet below.

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Spectacular Clew Bay far below the summit of Croagh Patrick. Image Wikimedia Commons

It is believed that St Patrick used the mountain as a place of penance and that he fasted for 40 days and nights on the summit in the year 441 A.D. The pilgrimage as we know it today is a religious one, with Masses and Rosaries punctuating the entire day.

Long before St Patrick’s arrival however, the mountain had been a sacred place. In the Celtic tradition, the Festival of Lughnasa (pronounced Loo -nasa) was celebrated on August 1st ( Lughnasa is also the Irish word for August). This was an annual festival honouring  the god Lugh (pronounced Loo) at harvest time. Across the country festivities took place, often on mountains such as Croagh Patrick. Lughnasa was the most important Fire Festival of the Celts and in common with many other pagan festivals and traditions it was Christianized and adopted by the church in a different guise.

Croagh Patrick and the surrounding landscape has much archaeological evidence of the sacredness of this place, going back millenia. A rock, known locally as St Patrick’s Chair, has engravings that date as far back as the neolithic, thousands of years before Christ. Also in the area, remains of a hillfort have been discovered that dates from before 800 B.C.The local archaeological society recently discovered that, each year on April 18th and August 24th, the sun sets on the summit of Croagh Patrick, and then – rather than slipping behind the mountain – it seems to ‘roll’ down the steep slope. To see  a terrific sequence of ‘rolling sun’ images, click here.

Croagh Patrick is a spectacular and special place whose appeal to ordinary humans has lasted thousands of years, and without doubt, will continue to do so for thousands of years to come.

References

Croagh Patrick. A Place of Pilgrimage . A Place of Beauty. Harry Hughes. O’Brien Press, 2010

There are some beautiful images in this book

Sacred Destinations

The Sacred Island

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

Irish Examiner Feature: Remembering the Irish Lost at Gettysburg

A voice for the Irish Diaspora , many of whom fled the suffering and dying in Famine ravaged Ireland only to find themselves suffering and dying in their adopted land. These emigrants  helped forge one of the most influential countries on earth.

The newspaper article can be read here

 

 

Irish in the American Civil War

As many regular readers of the site will know I have been campaigning for some time (along with colleagues) to see greater recognition in Ireland of the cost of the American Civil War to the Irish community. It was the second biggest conflict in terms of numbers in which Irishmen served in uniform, yet we have no memorial. Despite repeated efforts the State has failed to take any steps to acknowledge the 150th anniversary of this important event in Irish history. As I have said before, I find the official apathy with which we seem to regard the Irish role in this conflict at odds with the consistent promotion of ‘The Gathering‘, aimed at welcoming the diaspora home to Ireland. I strongly believe that more than simply inviting the diaspora home we have an obligation to embrace our diaspora’s history and acknowledge that it is a central part…

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Filed under American Civil War, Emigration from Ireland, Irish American, Irish Diaspora, Irish History, Irish_American, Social History Ireland

A blue duck and little brown shoes

It is a Tuesday afternoon, just after 3 o’clock.  For some reason not at school on that day, the 11 year-old girl is  in the kitchen with her mother who is  preparing dinner for brothers who are about to return home from school. Suddenly there are shrieks from children leaving another school across the road, and looking out the window they see  children covering their faces and running. Her mother runs out  to see what  is going on. Within seconds there is a chilling scream that causes her to run  to the front door too. There she meets her mother coming in, carrying her baby brother, blood pouring from the side of  his little blonde head. Her mother is screaming : ”The baby is dead; the baby is dead; the baby is dead , the baby is dead.” Frozen together in the hallway, she touches the limp body in her mothers arms; she tries to wipe the blood out of his hair and feels it warm and  mixed with gravel, flowing through her fingers. She wipes her hand on her red and white striped dress.

Back in April I read a very poignant post on the wonderful blog site  Seeking Susan ~ Meeting Marie ~ Finding Family.  It was a surprising and pain filled post about the loss of a son from measles.  Here  she wrote about  remembering her baby on his birthday, many years later.  It occurred to me then that perhaps babies are often not remembered in the same way as parents, grandparents etc., other than by bereaved parents.

I wondered about writing this post after that, but then changed my mind several times, thinking it would be too morose.

This morning at 6 am I had just woken up when my sister from Australia texted me: ‘Is Canice’s Anniversary today?’ Again I thought about the blog, and again decided against. Some hours later when I logged in to my PC there was a post from Jean Tubridy, wonderful writer of the  blog  Social Bridge, who wrote here about memory and remembering those we have lost. Quoting Melvyn Bragg remembering his late mother she wrote:My mother is secure, in the future, in my memory. And she’ll be secure in my children’s memories. And  although she might fade in their memories. I’ll be secure in their memories and I’ll carry that memory and it will pass on like that. So there  is that sort of future, which is interesting to think about.”

It was after reading this that I decided that I ought to go ahead with the post. Too many signs – and who would remember a baby that they never knew, who had not had his own children to remember him, who had never known his nieces and nephews, whose footprint in life was so miniscule that only his immediate family, the closest of  those to him, can possibly remember.

I was  the 11-year-old whose baby brother, Canice John Gallagher, the youngest of 6 in our family, died on June 30 1959 at the age of 15 months.   Born on 31st March 1958, he was  a happy little baby, but had been teething in the past few weeks,which made him grumble a little. He had a little blue rubber duck that he loved when in his bath. He had just had a new pair of trousers – beautiful little striped red and yellow and green shorts and had little brown leather shoes, with the toes well-worn from creeping along!  Not yet able to walk, Canice had  apparently crawled out onto the road and under a lorry that was parked in front of our house.  When it moved off he was killed instantly.

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The house we lived in, in 1959. The front door has been replaced by a window – the second from the left on white part.

The next 24 hours are almost a  total blur, but  I crept into the sitting room when there was no one around to look at him in the little white coffin, resting on top of  the Singer sewing machine. The funeral took place the following day and every week afterwards, usually on a Thursday, my mother prepared bunches of flowers for his grave  and  I cycled to the graveyard with them.  I protested regularly, to no avail. Sometimes I would have to go looking for the flowers on my bike –  there were a few deserted  and abandoned old cottages that had beautiful roses, and I would pick these and she would tie them into a bunch and I would put them on his grave.  This pattern continued for over 2 years until I went  to boarding school.

Years later, after my mother died, we were replacing the headstone on the grave and I decided to look for death certificates. I was shocked to be told that there was no death certificate for Canice as his death had never been registered!

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Our family plot is in this graveyard

So today, 54 years after the event, he is remembered with love, and with as much grief as on the day that we lost him.   His  little blue duck and his little brown leather shoes are in my drawer.

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Photograph taken just days before Canice died. I am wearing the red striped dress that my mother had just made for me. Canice is just behind me, being held by my brother.

Fortunately, we had a very rare family photograph taken just days before he died, so we have his picture, his duck  his shoes, and  above all his memory,  to treasure.

Today too we remember the kind and gentle man who was the driver of the lorry –  he was totally blameless and unaware of what had happened, but his life, like ours, changed forever on  30 June 1959.

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

50 years of Blowin in the Wind

In May 2011 I wrote a post in celebration of Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday and the impact he had on me as a teenager. The original text can be seen here.  50 years ago today Bob Dylan first performed Blowin in the Wind. Then aged 15, I clearly recall the first time I heard it and how it fed into the worldwide social happenings of the world and stirred the conscience of a generation. Most particularly it provided a vehicle for our rebellious spirits. The original post is below.

Bob Dylan and his Harmonica in 1963. Image Guardian.co.uk

Being a teen in Ireland in the early 1960s was a fascinating time. The Irish television service had just been introduced in 1961, although those of us who lived near the border with the six counties of Northern Ireland had enjoyed the BBC for  several years before – all in black and white of course!

One of the abiding memories from my teens was at age 15, racing into the living room and being stopped in my tracks by Martin Luther King on the television, delivering his ‘I have a Dream’ speech, in Washington D.C. I was rooted to the spot. I also vividly recall the news reports of the war in Vietnam, the ‘FLOP-flop, FLOP-flop,FLOP-flop,FLOP-flop’ sound of Huey helicopters flying at terrifying angles and offloading their human cargoes of young men just a few years older than myself – either crouched and running,being carried on stretchers or in body bags. Never before had anything like these scenes been witnessed at a distance, by any generation. The impact on us was remarkable.

Dylan and Joan Baez. Civil Rights March Washington D.C 1963. Image wikipedia.com

Dylan and Joan Baez. Civil Rights March Washington D.C 1963. Image wikipedia.com

At the same time music was evolving, leaving behind the big band and orchestral sounds and becoming much more exciting and exhilarating. For a huge number of teenagers and young adults in the 1960s, Bob Dylan was phenomenal. With his guitar and harmonica and ‘drawl style’ of singing, he was unique. ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘The Times  they are a-Changin’ captured the mood exactly. They not only added an authenticity to the events, they challenged us not to remain complacent.

That Bob Dylan helped motivate an entire  generation to become socially aware, is probably an understatement.  Although he disliked the tag ‘protest song’, this is exactly what his compositions were to an emerging generation who were seeing things in their own homes that had only ever been read about in the past. His social commentaries were powerful motivators in making people question social inequality and the human cost of the Vietnam conflict. Not only that, his songs were like nothing we had heard before.  They had beautiful melodies, they were poetic, they had a social message. They were anthems of the time, most especially for the Civil Rights movement in the USA and for the anti-war movement, both of which, with the inspiration of Bob Dylan, became international movements.

For those of us emerging into adulthood in the sixties, Bob Dylan was a true icon. His poetry was inspiring; his message was beyond love-songs, beyond ‘ be-bop-a-doo-dah’ banality. His place in the politics, history and culture of the 1960s  enabled us to admonish those who perpetrated injustices in a way that had not been seen before and  not has been seen since.

How many roads must a man walk down, before you can call him a man?….. How many times must the cannonballs fly, before they are forever banned?…

How many years can some people exist, before they’re allowed to be free?… How many ears must one man have, before he can hear people cry?

How many deaths will it take till he knows  that too many people have died? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind

The answer is blowing in the wind.

Blowin still 50 years on.  Bob Dylan –  you changed me…you changed the world !

 

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Filed under Life in the 1960s, Living in Ireland, My Oral History, Social Change, Social History Ireland

Exciting discovery of historic childhood texts

Today, and on every day in many locations across the world, drawers that have down the years become  convenient filing places for all sorts of everything that can be labelled ‘Important’, are being tidied. In one such drawer there has been an  exciting discovery of childhood texts  that are important social and historic documents.

There are two texts, each set upon double pull-out centre pages of  lined  20th (?) Century school copy books. The dimension of each manuscript is identical – 16 centimetres by 20 centimetres, in a double fold.  It is clear however that one of these manuscripts pre-dates the other by as much as 1 or 2  or possibly even 3 years. Both are on lined paper – designed to enable scholars to keep ‘straight’ when learning to write – a skill no longer  required as texts and  emails auto select to straight lines.  The writing implement appears to be of similar origin in both cases –  HB or 2 H lead pencil, popular in the late 20th Century, when ink pens were considered messy and those of a certain age were dissuaded from using the high-tech ‘biro’ which made for slovenly script.

Terrible warning
One of the documents, has interesting script on the reverse. Note the embellished lettering in ‘SANTA’  and the more austere style of the warnings, each bounded by lines.  A thorough search of all online resources – digitized newspapers and magazines and pension records  – did not reveal that an individual named ‘NOT SANTA’  suffered any great peril for having accessed private correspondence. It can be deduced therefore that ‘ONLY SANTA’ opened this document and that privacy was maintained. (It is also earnestly hoped that the warning was time-bound and has now expired) 
Text of request to the mythological figure, Santa

Text of request to the mythological figure, Santa

The main body of the text is headed by another highlighted form of SANTA, but with less embellishment than the former. Intriguingly, the words ‘Dear’ and ‘Santa’ are on separate lines. The request for  Crossbows and Catapults indicates a possible interest in conflict.( One wonders if this was an enduring interest.) Research shows that this was a game popular in the mid 1980’s. Item number 3 is of  some interest as it is not specified and the reader is left to guess the writer’s intention. Santa would of course have had ‘inside knowledge’ and would have been able to ‘fill the gap’

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The second letter.

The other letter is of a much more basic form –  no embellishment  of the word ‘SANTA ‘,  although it stands out clearly from the other script.  Once again the words ‘Dear’ and ‘Santa’ are on different lines. The list has grown and indicates an expanded list of requests. It is clear that the writer is of high status with access to a television and magazines, given the requests for no fewer than  6 items of Celtic ‘livery’. Subbeto ( Subbuteo?) normally came with a fabric pitch –  it is to be hoped that the request for a plastic pitch was met.We will never know.

One of these letters has a full name and address, regrettably no longer legible which is just as well as the ‘peril’ warning may still be in effect. These documents are a wonderful record of childhood as well as of social history. It is a matter of great regret that the year has not been recorded and it is to be hoped that this post will serve as a reminder to people who put things away in drawers that the date should be added to any such documents so that when they are rediscovered decades later, there are properly contextualized.

 

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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.

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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!

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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