Tag Archives: Celts

An Irish Halloween

Halloween has its origins in Ireland’s ancient Celtic past. Samhain (Sow-an) was one of the 4 major Fire Festivals of the ancient Celts. Imbolg, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain  fell on ‘cross quarter’ days – about half way  between the solstices and equinoxes – and are celebrated on  February 1, May 1, July 1 and November 1. Samhain (as with the other  Celtic pagan festivals) has been christianised and reinvented. The celebration has been de-paganized and has become Halloween – literally  meaning the eve of All Saints (Hallows) Day, which in turn is on the eve of All Souls Day (November 2nd.) November 1 was designated the feast of All Saints by the catholic church as recently as the 9th century. Nevertheless, modern Halloween and the ancient Samhain Festival have common themes marking – then as now – the  end of the growing season and arrival of  dark days of winter and the returning of spirits from the other world,

50 years ago or so, in Donegal, in Ireland’s north-west, Halloween was a fairly simple family affair, eagerly anticipated by youngsters. We called it ‘Halloweve’ and it was indeed a magical evening that heralded  a month of  prayer and devotions for the Holy Souls (people who had died but were congregated in Purgatory as they were not yet pure enough to enter heaven).

As for Halloweve itself, we would each have a ‘False Face’ – a paper mache mask, that in all honesty was more ugly than scary, and we delighted in wearing them all afternoon. Unfortunately very often the elastic designed to hold it on, would break at an early stage!   Tea time was a real treat  with  Colcannon piled high and rivers of melted butter flowing down the sides, followed by my mother’s Barmbrack – we called this simply Brack. Shop-bought Brack contained a ring, but for children a silver threepence or sixpence was a more appropriate ‘surprise’ to find and my mother put one in both the Colcannon and the Brack. ( See Recipes below)

Colcannon

A pot of Colcannon, waiting to be plated up and crowned with a golden knob of butter. Image Wikimedia Commons

After tea we would have nuts –  hazelnuts from the hedgerows and monkey nuts (peanuts) from the shop and if we were lucky we would also  have a coconut. My father would drill through the ‘eyes’ and pour out the milk , giving each of us a small drink. He would then saw the coconut in half and we would be given a chunk of the chewy flesh – a real once a year treat!

Every house had a nail driven into the door frame of which to hang an apple (I still have this nail on my kitchen door from my own children). The apple was attached to a long string and the trick was to get a bite from it without using hands to hold it. Apples were put into large bowls of flour,and several were floated in basins of water. In each case the apples had to be retrieved, or bitten,without using hands – the  kitchen often ended up in a wet mess, but it was great fun!  These were days before the unattractive practice of ‘trick or treat ‘ had crossed the Atlantic, and in days before television. Halloweve was indeed a highlight of our year and was the last great celebration before Christmas.

In Ireland, November 1 was a holy day, and so off we went to Church. Similarly on November 2, All Souls Day, we attended 3 masses, visited graveyards, and prayed earnestly for the release of souls from Purgatory. This continued throughout November, designated the month of the Holy Souls, and we earnestly believed that our prayers helped release souls into heaven!

 Brack.

This is not a cake, but is a bread, sliced thinly and buttered just like bread.

Brack

Buttered Brack. Image Wikimedia Commons

Ingredients

1 pound of fruit – Sultanas, Currants, Raisins.

1/2 pint of strong tea

12 ounces Self Raising Flour

1/2 teaspoon Mixed Spice

6 – 8 ounces of Brown Sugar

2 Eggs – beaten

A silver threepence or sixpence scalded in boiling water and then wrapped well in greaseproof paper.

Method

Put the fruit in a saucepan with the tea. Bring to the boil, turn off heat and leave overnight.

Sieve the flour and spice, add sugar and then the soaked fruit.

Stir all ingredients together , add beaten egg, and mix well.

Put all mixture into a greased 2.5 pound loaf tin.

Push the well wrapped coin  into the mixture

Bake at 170C (325 F) for 80 – 90 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean from the centre.

Serve cold.

Colcannon

This recipe is taken from my mother’s old cookery book – Full and Plenty by Maura Laverty

The recipe in the book is preceded by this old song

”Did you ever eat Colcannon when ’twas made with yellow cream
and the kale and praties blended like the picture in a dream?
Did you ever take a forkful, and dip it in the lake
of the heather-flavoured butter that your mother used to make?

Oh, you did;  yes, you did. So did he and so did I

And the more I think about it, sure the more I want to cry

Ah, God be with the happy times, when troubles we had not

And our mothers made colcannon in the little three-legged pot”

The recipe is simplicity itself and as with many Irish recipes, there are no quantities given.

2013-10-25 20.00.30

Hot Colcannon with a lake of butter ….

Cooked potatoes

Milk brought to the boil with a tablespoon of minced onion

Shredded or finely chooped cooked Curly Kale or Savoy Cabbage

Salt and Pepper

Mash the boiled potatoes or put through a sieve or ricer

Beat in a knob of butter and then add enough of the milk  and onion, a tablespoon at a time,  to make the mixture light and fluffy.

Add to the potato mixture one half its bulk of finely chopped cooked kale.  Beat well and reheat thoroughly.

Add the well scalded and wrapped silver coin to the mixture.

Make each serving into a volcano shaped mound, put a hole in the centre and add a knob of butter  and allow it to melt. Yum!

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Filed under Celebrations in Ireland, Ireland, Irish Cooking, Irish Traditions, My Oral History, Oral History

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

400px-Croagh-patrick-path2

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.

Clew_Bay_-_geograph.org.uk_-_186666

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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June 23rd: Midsummer Irish Style

This post is one of a series looking at ancient traditions in Ireland.

Midsummer, or St. John’s Eve (Oiche Fheile Eoin) was traditionally celebrated in Ireland by the lighting of bonfires. (The word ‘bonfire’, according to my Etymology dictionary is a word from the 1550s meaning a fire in the open air in which bones were burned). This custom is rooted in ancient history when the Celts lit fires in honour of the Celtic goddess Queen of Munster Áine. Festivals in her honour took place in the village of Knockainey, County Limerick (Cnoc Aine = Hill of Aine ). Áine was the Celtic equivalent of Aphrodite and Venus and as is often the case, the festival was ‘christianised’ and continued to be celebrated down the ages. It was the custom for the cinders from the fires to be thrown on fields as an ‘offering’ to protect the crops.

Midsummer bonfires are also a tradition across Europe. In Latvia, for example, the celebration is called Jāņi (Jānis is Latvian for John); in Norway they celebrate ‘Sankthansaften’.

The shore in Carrigart - site of our St John's Eve Bonefires . Image from Creative Commons. © Copyright John M and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Growing up in the northern part of Donegal in the 1950s, Bonfire night was surely the highlight of our year! To us, it was Bone- fire night. For days we piled our fire high down on the shore, with every bit of flotsam, jetsam, old timber and rubbish we could find. We did actually use a lot of bones on our fire as on the verge of the shore was a slaughter-house (an abattoir in more genteel circles) so naturally there were many cattle bones lying about… from horned cows heads to bits of legs and hip bones etc. They made welcome fuel for our great pyre!

Midsummer in Donegal was wonderful with the sun not setting until very late at about 10.15 pm.  We were allowed to stay up late, waiting for the sun to set so that we could enjoy the lit fire. An adult would light it at the proper time, as dusk was setting in, and we were thrilled by the intense heat and the crackling sound of the splitting timber as the flames leapt joyfully high into the still balmy air.

In Thomas Flanagan’s book, ‘The Year of The French‘, set in 1798, mention is made of the midsummer bonfire:

”Soon it would be Saint John’s Eve. Wood for the bonfire had already been piled high upon Steeple Hill, and when the night came there would be bonfires on every hill from there to Downpatrick Head. There would be dancing and games in the open air, and young men would try their bravery leaping through the flames. There would even be young girls leaping through, for it was helpful in the search of a husband to leap through a Saint John’s Eve fire, the fires of midsummer. The sun was at its highest then, and the fires spoke to it, calling it down upon the crops. It was the turning point of the year, and the air was vibrant with spirits.’

In Ireland, Bonfire night is still celebrated to an extent in Cork and in counties west of the Shannon as well as in northern counties. Cork city council has stepped in, in recent years to provide a safe environment for children and families and this year is organizing 15 events across the city. Ráth Carn in the Meath Irish-speaking district (Gaeltacht) also celebrates Bonfire night with a huge fire, feasting, music and dancing.

The old traditional Midsummer bonfires  seem however, to be a thing of the past now in Ireland. If you have any recollections at all of having attended one, or you know of someone who has attended one, please do let me know – I would love to hear from you!

References

Flanagan, Thomas 1979. The Year of the French

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Filed under Celebrations in Ireland, Ireland, Irish Traditions, Living in Ireland