Posted in History, Holidays, Ireland, music, poetry, religion, writing

Celtic Sun Worship

It seems like virtually every ancient culture indulged in sun-worship at some point. But did the Irish? Or more specifically, the early Celtic settlers in Ireland?

The Irish don’t seem to have had a particular god or goddess of the sun, or a name for the sun as a deity. Lugh has sometimes been seen as a sun god, but that seems to have originated in Victorian times, the way so many other historical inaccuracies did, thanks to the Romantic poets of the time. Lugh’s history says he was descended from the Tuatha de Danann on his father’s side and the Fomorians on his mother’s side, and is regarded as an ancient high king. The holiday that seems to refer to sun worship, Beltaine, on May 1 (technically April 30 evening. Days began and ended at sundown for the Celts) was one of the main festivals. The Celtic year was divided into Summer and Winter, with Summer beginning on May 1, and Winter beginning on November 1. While the Celts had an animistic view of nature, viewing various natural features like wells, springs, caves, trees as possessing spirits, these would have been local. There were other widely known deities as well which would have been recognized throughout large areas of Celtic settlements, but there is no anthropomorphic sun god. They no doubt venerated the sun as holy or divine, but as far as I have been able to discover there was no actual god of the sun, like Apollo or Helios.

Be that as it may, this is the opening sequence from Riverdance, and one of my favorite parts of the show. The poetry is not on the soundtrack CD, I’d forgotten about it. My sleuthing tells me the male lead dancer is Breandán de Gallaí; Michael Flatley was long gone from the show by this time. I believe this is from a televised performance in Geneva in 2002. Music by Bill Whelan. This is called “Reel Around the Sun.”

Interestingly, as the circle starts to form, they’re moving counterclockwise, or anti-sunwise, also known as widdershins in pagan circles. The inner circle eventually begins moving clockwise/sunwise, but most of the dance is reversed. Not sure what that’s about.

Out of the dark we came
Out of the sea
Where the long wave broke on the shore
As the day broke and the night rolled back
There we stood
On the land we would call home
Out of the dark we came
Out of the night,
The first of many mornings in this new place
When the sun rolled back the mist
We rose like a strong wave on land
Now we were the people of this place
What burns through through the mist?
What banishes rain and dark?
What makes the children straight and bright?
What makes the mountain sharp?
The sun is our lord and father
Bright face at the gate of day
Comfort of home, cattle, and crop
Lord of the morning, lord of the day
Lifting our hearts we sing his praise
Dance in his healing rays

Blessed Beltain.

Posted in books, Ireland, writing


pigsong-cover (2)

Pigsong is the third in a series of short stories, collectively titled Storytellers, by Frank Delaney, who also brought us The Last Storyteller. There will be a new one each month for the year 2012.

It starts with a short lead-in, Author’s Notes, that explains the idea behind the story, delving into the concept of using fables as instruction, and the shared myths of diverse cultures the world over. I never knew India had a flood myth that predated (and is closely paralleled by) the story of Noah’s ark.

The story is told in a style that echoes Aesop’s Fables, using anthropomorphic animals to relate a truth, and focused around the central character, the seanchai, an itinerant storyteller who was traditionally welcomed into someone’s home for the night, and given food and a warm bed in exchange for entertaining the family (and as many neighbors as the host’s home could accommodate)  to set the stage.

Mr. Delaney is a gifted writer who works magic with his prose, in the style of the old Irish myths:

Once upon a time and long ago, when snow tasted like cream, and timber tasted like sweet cake, and every tenth egg laid by a duck had a diamond in it, there lived up in the North of Ireland a very bad man.

It’s a quick read, and left me with new respect for pigs. I could hear the old storyteller in my head, and practically smell the fire burning as he told his tale.

The series is available as ebooks through Amazon.

Posted in History, Holidays, Ireland, Oregon, writing

I’m Lookin’ Over a Three-Leaf Clover


Sure and begorrah, the shamrock is one of the best-known symbols of Ireland and St. Patrick’s Day. But what’s the difference between clover and shamrocks? Well first off, the four-leafed clover has, well, four leaves. Shamrocks by definition have three.

The shamrock can however be any of a number of a variety of clovers. Common in my area is the red clover which is often planted as ground cover and for bees to make honey. It also is an economical way to add nitrogen to the soil. Clover has the ability to take the nitrogen out of the air and ‘fix’ it in nodules on the roots, thereby amending the soil. There’s even an Oregon Clover Commission which sells clover seeds. Of course, if you’ve ever tried to eradicate the stuff from your yard, you’re probably wondering why anyone would plant this thing on purpose.

Usually white clover, or Trifolium repens, is what we mean when we say ‘shamrock.’ I’m sure most of you recognize the flowers, this stuff grows EVERYWHERE.

whiteCloverLeafwhite clover flower

Here’s a shot of the crimson clover that is grown in my area. It’s breathtaking when it’s at peak and the fields turn this bright red. This picture was taken a little late in the season so the color is already fading.

crimson clover

However, even in Ireland there is no consensus on which plant is the definitive ‘shamrock.’ The term has become so broad that even unrelated but similar-looking Oxalis is sold as “shamrocks” around St. Patrick’s Day. I have one, which is the grandchild of a plant of a co-worker’s grandmother. They grown as corms (like bulbs) and will propagate themselves quite readily, although mine has been taking many years to bush out. This is about the best it’s looked in the five years I’ve had it.

plant flowers

As you can see, the flowers of the Oxalis are quite different from clover flowers and are not a true clover.

The word shamrock comes from the Irish seamrog, (diminutive form of seamair). But what does this all have to do with St. Patrick? The story goes that Patrick used the the 3-leaved plant to illustrate the concept of the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost as one, with three leaves joined on one stem, while Christianizing the island. But this is probably not true. The earliest this is mentioned is in 1726, whereas St. Patrick lived in the sixth century. It’s a cute story, but likely nothing more than a myth, and a relatively recent one at that. Notwithstanding, here is the text of a letter a former co-worker passed out just before St. Patrick’s Day a few years ago:

My parents sent me a large sprig of shamrock from Ireland yesterday for St. Patrick’s Day. An old Irish custom which travelled down to us through the centuries entails a person, who is 100% Irish, giving a piece of shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day to another person. This act bestows on the recipient the power to make a special wish that will come through within the next 12 months, before the next St. Patrick’s Day comes around.

Please remove the shamrock from this page (there was a piece attached) place it in the palm of your right hand, close your eyes and make your special wish. Remember St. Patrick’s Day is the only day you can do this. Immediately after making your wish, write it down on a piece of paper and insert it, with the shamrock, into an envelope and seal it. When your wish does come through, open up the envelope again, take the shamrock out and bury it in the soil of your garden. This represents the fact that the shamrock has met its purpose in life and now needs to be placed back from where it came – Mother Earth.

This is a genuine Irish tradition, specific to the countryside and its people.

He had passed these out as a ‘thank you’ for helping him get settled in his new job and making him feel welcome. I dutifully followed directions, but whatever I wished never came true. Ah well, it was a lovely thought.

The four-leaf clover is simply a random, rare variation on the three-leaf. These are supposed to be especially lucky to find, particularly if you happen upon them while not actually looking for them. Interestingly, they can have MORE than four leaves as well. The most bizarre had 56!

Posted in History, Holidays, music, writing

Irish-American Heritage Month

Everyone knows (well, those who can keep track of holidays at least. My ex-husband never knew when Halloween was. Surprised him every year. But anyway…) March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day, and the stores are full of all sorts of ridiculous green things, kind of like Mardi Gras with nothing but green. Chicago dyes its river green for the occasion, green beer gets served in pseudo-Irish pubs (also known as ‘plastic Paddies’)  in the U.S. (seriously, *blech*), New York holds its famous parade and everyone wears green and gets to pretend they’re Irish for the day. I understand none of this nonsense used to go on in Ireland. It was a holy day of obligation when Catholics attended Mass, and would have a special family meal, so it was more like Easter or Christmas than a drunken street party. They started holding parades to appease the visiting Americans who didn’t understand why there were no parades.

As a person of Irish descent, I can appreciate the celebration of Ireland, which is pretty much what it’s morphed into over the years, but as a Pagan, I gotta say I am not so taken with what Patrick did to Ireland. So I’m doing things a little differently this year. There will be no St. Patrick’s Day post. I will instead celebrate all things Irish as often as I can.

March is designated “Irish History Month” in Britain, with the intention of promoting “a greater understanding of Ireland and the Irish, to value the many positive contributions that Irish people have made to life in Britain, and to introduce new audiences to the vibrancy of Irish arts and culture.”

Over here, we have the obscure and little-known Irish-American Heritage Month. The month of March is dedicated to  appreciating the contributions of Irish-Americans. Apparently George H.W. Bush made the first designation in 1991, and it has been so decreed every year since, to very little fanfare.

Little known fact: The Scottish Highlands were originally settled by Irish. The old Latin name for Ireland was ‘Scotia’, and, you guessed it, gave us “Scotland.” Which goes to show the Romans were well aware of Ireland, so why they never got around to invading/settling there is anyone’s guess.

If you’re Irish, celebrate your heritage this month. If you’re not, or aren’t sure, I’m sure the Irish will adopt you. They absorbed most of the invaders (Vikings, Normans).

This here video has it all: The Chieftains, Carlos Nuñez, tin whistles, fiddling, uillean pipes, the Galician gaeta (another form of bagpipes, also pumped by elbow), and some amazing step dancing. As near as I can figure out, this was a televised show called Concertos das Estrelas from 2004. Nuñez is from Galicia, a Celtic region in the northwest corner of Spain (not to be confused with the Eastern European Galicia, a region on the east side of the Carpathian mountains). He’s the younger guy playing the penny whistle in the beginning with Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains, and later we see each of them playing pipes: Carlos on the gaeta, and Paddy with the Irish uillean pipes. Don’t miss the step dancers about 4 1/2 minutes in.

And as Frank Delaney tweeted out last St. Patrick’s Day, “Getting drunk doesn’t mean you’re Irish; it means you’re drunk.”

Éirinn go Brách!

Posted in books, writing

The Last Storyteller

Every legend and all mythologies exist to teach us how to run our days. In kind fashion. A loving way. But there’s no story, no matter how ancient, as important as one’s own. So if we’re to live good lives, we have to tell ourselves our own story. In a good way.

The Last Storyteller by Frank Delaney which releases February 7 tells the story of Ben MacCarthy, a man who travels around Ireland for the Irish Folklore Commission, talking to the aging keepers of local stories and myths, and recording them before they are lost for all time. In between the marvelous stories of yore, Ben weaves the narrative of his own life in colorful prose with charm and warmth.

There’s real affection here for the people he encounters, his friends, his admired mentor, and he doesn’t shy away from giving us a full account of events in his own life, warts and all. He wants desperately to regain the love of his life, who is now married to an abusive, slimy stage magician.

It’s a blending of the mythical and factual, the poetic and the brutal. The warmth and affection for his friends and acquaintances is juxtaposed with the dark accounts of lives gone horribly wrong.  Steeped in the mythology of the land, Ben is able to view events from a different vantage point, seeing parallels from the stories he records in the events of his own life. Nothing is sugar-coated; people make mistakes, take wrong turns in life, have regrets, try to put things right, sometimes successfully, other times not. Ben articulates his own dark side in a strikingly honest fashion. The book is written in a not quite epistolary fashion, but  it is a final gift to his children, Ben and Louise, for whom he is writing all this down.

This is probably as close to Ireland as you can get without leaving home.

Posted in Holidays

If you grew up in an Irish family…


Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, I received this from a friend who shares both my first and last name, and hails from the same part of the country I do, and so of course we have decided that back along the line somewhere, we are somehow related, and therefore cousins. I don’t know the author of this piece, but I can tell you it was not me, nor my cousin.



1) You will never play professional basketball.

2) You swear very well.

3) At least one of your cousins is a fireman, cop, bar owner, funeral home owner or holds political office and you have at least one aunt who is a nun or uncle who’s a priest.

4) You think you sing very well.

5) You have no idea how to make a long story short!

6) There isn’t a big difference between you losing your temper or killing someone.

7) Many of your childhood meals were boiled. Instant potatoes were a mortal sin.

8 ) You have never hit your head on a ceiling.

9) You spent a good portion of your childhood kneeling in prayer.

10) You’re strangely poetic after a few beers.

11) Some punches directed at you are from legacies of past generations.

12) Many of your sisters and/or cousins are named Mary, Catherine or Eileen and there is at least one member of your family with the full name of Mary Catherine Eileen.

13) Someone in your family is very generous. It is more than likely you.

14) You may not know the words, but that doesn’t stop you from singing.

15) You can’t wait for the other guy to stop talking before you start talking.

16) You’re not nearly as funny as you think you are but what you lack in talent, you make up for in frequency.

17) There wasn’t a huge difference between your last wake and your last keg party.

18) You are, or know someone, named Murph.

19) If you don’t know Murph then you know Mac. If you don’t know Murph or Mac, then you know Sully. Then you probably know Sully McMurphy.

20) You are genetically incapable of keeping a secret.

21) You have Irish Alzheimer’s, you forget everything but the grudges!

22) ‘Irish Stew’ is a euphemism for ‘boiled leftovers.’

23) Your skin’s ability to tan not so much. (Only in spots!)

24) Childhood remedies for the common cold often included some form of whiskey.

25) There’s no leaving a family party without saying goodbye for at least 45 minutes.

26) At this very moment, you have at least two relatives who are not speaking to each other.  Not fighting, mind you, just not speaking to each other.