Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Book review: The Waves of Manannán

It's taken two months of lunchtime reading, but I've finally finished MacQuarrie's Waves of Manannán. Given the time, effort, and several failed attempts previously to get stuck into it, I think I can safely say...This was my Everest.

But I'm very glad indeed to have conquered it. And now, may the gushing commence...

The Waves of Manannán
Charles MacQuarrie

This was a mammoth effort for me to get through, and not in a bad way, I'm glad to say. It's a book to take time over, to read in small doses and absorb, think about and let the flavours mature. The resulting stew is very tasty.

I can't say this is everything you'll ever want to know about Manannán, if you're interested in that sort of thing, but it's a damn good place to start. The primary focus of the book is on Manannán's portrayals in Irish myth and literature, and in this respect it tries to be as comprehensive as possible, given the constraints of a PhD dissertation.

MacQuarrie splits the material up into four 'waves', with the first wave detailing Manannán's earliest portrayals in myths (starting with Immram Brain, 'The Voyage of Bran'); the second wave dealing with his appearances in pseudo-history (including Lebor Gabála Érenn, 'The Book of Invasions', and the Dindshenchas, or 'Placename Folklore'); the third wave looking at his appearances in the Finn tales and folktales (including those from the Isle of Man); and the final wave, the 'new wave' focusing on modern Anglo-Irish literature, such as Lady Gregory, WB Yeats, and James Joyce. Because of this, there's not so much on anything Scottish - or as much as I would have liked (analysis of Manannán's possible links with Shony would've been nice...MacQuarrie mentions the possible connection between the ritual to Shony on Lewis, and Manannán, citing Hutton, but doesn't go into any depth), but this may be due to the time in which it was written.

Yes, it's academic - it's a PhD dissertation, so maybe that goes without saying, really (but I will anyway) - so you may find it dry in places. Or if not dry, then dense and a little on the heavy side if you're not used to this sort of thing. Where MacQuarrie does get into detailed academic analysis, he does a good job of explaining things and doesn't rely on Teh Big Wurdz and confuse the reader with jargon, but still, it's not the sort of book I'd recommend for a beginner.

Because it's primarily a literary view, the emphasis is on how Manannán is portrayed in the tales and literature, and how this changes over time, so if you're looking for a manual as far as how to relate to Manannán as a god then you'll be disappointed. The final section, after the 'waves', is titled Beginnings and Endings, and this was the most interesting part for me, looking at Manannán's origins in particular. MacQuarrie suggests that Manannán takes his name from the Isle of Man (rather than lending his name to it), and was probably so named, or 'invented' as MacQuarrie puts it, in around the fifth century A.D. with the role of being a divine father for the Dalriadan king Mongán mac Fiachna. It's certainly food for thought, even if I'm not entirely convinced of all of MacQuarrie's conclusions, here.

MacQuarrie deals with a lot of myths that most people won't be familiar with, but does a good job of giving the general gist of the plot so you can keep up with the points he wants to make. He writes well and is engaging, but shortens the names of the tales to just their initials for brevity's sake - this is understandable, but it can be a little confusing at times when you're not familiar with the name of the tales in the first place, so I found that a bit distracting in places. Handy hint: there's a list of tales at the back of the book...

The biggest downside to this book - aside from the complete lack of any indexing (boo!) - is the price and its availability; I can't really justify the expense of buying a copy myself (much as I'd like to) and it's not necessarily widely available in academic libraries. However, if you do get your hands on a copy, then do give it a go, and give it a go from cover to cover. You'll miss out on an awful lot otherwise.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Lùnastal, finally...

Say hello to my little friend...

So finally, autumn has arrived; fruits are ripening, the air is getting cooler, the trees are changing colour, the wind is picking up, and the sea is getting choppy. And this little baby snail was having a grand old time on one of the blueberries the kids and I picked earlier this week, our first batch of blueberries this year. The main crop is yet to come, but the ones we've had so far have been delicious.

As you can see, the snail agrees.

Given the theme of the season, first fruits have been high on the agenda for our celebrations, so there's been a lot of fruit picking and tending of vegetables recently. The last week or so has seen the ushering in of some successes - blueberries and blackberries, along with the first harvest of my very own onions and beetroots - along with a multitude of flail. The biggest fail has been the broccoli so far - there's still quite a few things yet to ripen, but the broccoli came along great until I decided that nooooo, it didn't look like it does in the shop, so it'll surely bush out a little if I leave it.

Not so much. But the flowers are pretty. Cheerfully yellow, in fact.

The actual celebrations started on Thursday evening, with the main event taking place on Friday, and the usual was had - feasting and rites, baking and harvesting. Since it all happens to have coincided with Tom starting school, and Rosie starting nursery, we've naturally been afflicted with the lurgy (or a cold, in common parlance) within the space of a week, so our communal efforts were somewhat muted. I'd had high hopes for our games and the things we could all do together, but with us all being under the weather, and Rosie in particular, there was a limit to what we could do.

So with the kids there was fruit picking and marvelling at spiders, followed by scooter races (somewhat short-lived due to frayed and lurgied sensibilities of somebody having to actually lose...), and all sorts of competitions the kids were keen on taking part in. Mr Seren was out for the evening, so before bedtime and after the feasting, we had a dance-off, too, and picked some flowers from the garden for seasonal decorations. Although as far as the dance-off was concerned, I'm not sure Tom's penchant for break-dancing versus Rosie's current obsession with ballet was an entirely level playing field.

To start it all off, though, I did some experimenting with the struan recipe I tried a while ago, and had a much better outcome this time. Behold!


In my first attempt I did it too thick, and wasn't sure if making a dough for the coating was really workable so tried a paste instead. The results were passable, but kind of bricklike once cooled...I figured that I should try them much thinner this time, and kind of succeeded in that respect, although based on the treacle bannocks I've seen, that are popular in the Dumfries and Galloway area, and seem pretty similar in style, they should still be a wee bit thinner if possible. And for the coating, given the recipe I was using (from Margaret Fay Shaw), I figured the description of a dough was for a reason, so a dough I'd try. It was a little fiddly, but worth it; even when they've cooled, they're still edible.

The struans I made on Thursday evening, with the games and feast scheduled for the day after. I was hoping to go brambling with the kids during the day of our 'official' celebrations, but that never happened, given their lurgied and somewhat miserable state. Still and all, there was much excitement about our feast, and the blackberry, raspberry and blueberry crumble that was to follow for dessert in particular. It didn't look like much, but it was tasty.

We had the grand unveiling of our latest seasonal picture, as well, which we did during the week. I ended up going for the apple tree idea, and decided to make the tree itself out of modelling clay, so while I sculpted a vague approximation of a tree shape, Tom and Rosie decided they'd much rather make their own sculptures. Rosie ended up with a vase (with a little help from me to shape it), and Tom ended up with a blob, that he then cheerfully decorated to look like a hillock with a big loch in the middle. Me, I did the tree and decorated it with (vague approximations of) triskeles, and got the kids to help me paint and glitter up some tiny shells we'd collected from the beach, to make the Otherworldly apples:

With the feasting and fun done, the kids in bed and Mr Seren out for the evening, I got down to my personal devotions. Usually I like to go to a local promontory to make offerings, but not being able to leave the kids, I had to make do with offerings in the garden. I sained the house and was going to make some rowan charms but my rowan has gone missing. Instead, I had to make do with fixing a charm that had come apart a little during the recent redecoration of the living room, and I decided to use a red cow-shaped bead to make a charm for my hobhouse. It's about the only place I haven't made a charm for, so even though it was a complete whim, it seemed rude not to do something once I'd thought of it.

I made my devotions to Lugh and even tried my hand at some (bad) praise poetry. Which was well-received, I think, if only for the fact that I was probably being humoured for my honest intent on that score at the least. But all in all, it felt good to be celebrating; it felt good to be finally doing after waiting for so long. Sometimes I think that in a way, this festival is a lesson in patience for me. After sowing, growing, tending and waiting, that final point of ripening seems to take forever, but the end result is always something to look forward to.

Sleep was restless and broken when it came, and I woke up ridiculously early. After wasting an hour trying to kid myself that my headache would miraculously disappear and I could sleep again, I got up around 5.30am and went in search of painkillers, and then as I was ruminating hopefully on my impending pain relief I went to the window and saw a fox happily chomping down on the lamb joint I'd left out as an offering, with Grumble (one of our cats) sat nearby, watching, as if to say "I could have that off you if I wanted to, you know."  Even though it could see me watching, it wasn't phased, just threw a glance or two my way while it ate. The fox took its merry time, though, and sauntered off underneath the fence once it was done.

And that was that, really.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Grr and woo

First of all, apologies if you're finding the Tairis website slow - it's driving me up the wall, too. Hopefully it will get sorted soon.

In other news, I've completed another article for the site, which sees the Festivals section finished (as it stands now, anyway). In the long term I need to go over the articles in the section and update them a little, and possibly re-write the first one I did (covering Samhainn), to make it follow the same general format as the others. That needs the most work doing to it, I think.

The last article to be added is on Là Fhèill Mìcheil, or Michaelmas - the festival that falls close to the Autumn equinox. It's a little heavier on large chunks of quotes than I'd like, but then it seemed pointless to just paraphrase it when I could put in details straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak. In my defence, F. Marian McNeill did pretty much the same! So there...

I found this one really interesting to do - Carmichael gives a lot of detail in his description of the festivities on the Islands, and although it seems a little confused at times (to me), it's a good example of just ritualised daily life was, and how that was emphasised on the important days such as this. I've tried to make sense of it all, and not rely too heavily on Carmichael; hopefully that works out.

There's still a whole hell of a lot I want to do. Now the kids will be at school or nursery for a good portion of the day (but not long enough for me to get a proper job), I'm dreaming of having the time to actually get some proper research and writing done (I could pretend that I aspire to be a better housekeeper, but frankly, unless I ban everyone else from the kitchen, it seems pointless to sacrifice myself at the altar of Good Housekeeping...I've dealt with the dustbunnies, what more do you want?!).

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Festival to revive seaweed doll tradition, Co Waterford

A festival in County Waterford is reviving an old tradition of making a seaweed doll to mark the end of the tourist season on St Michael's Day:

The weed doll had a few names — Michil, others called it Breedeen and a small few called it Father Neptune. After the parading of the town, the doll was taken down to the sea where it was cast out as an offering to the sea, a simple ceremony which drew the curtain on the bathing season in the town.

"It was said if the doll turns up in the Back Strand it would mean the next season would be a very good summer."

Read more: Irish Examiner
 There's a little more detail on the history of it in another article here.

I'm just working on some research for Là Fhèill Mìcheil (which falls around the autumn equinox), and this happened to pop up on an email list I'm on. I thought I'd share seeing as it piqued my interest.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

And again...

I've finally had an afternoon to myself to get on with some serious writing (and laundry, a bit of tidying up here and there...and I should probably vacuum before the dust bunnies group together and form and uprising...but I digress), and I've finally got the next article I've had on the brain finished. I've got a lot I still want to do, and probably better things to be getting on with, but if I want to actually manage to write anything at all then I have to go with the flow...

But enough blether! The next article I've done is on Midsummer - more than a little late now, but ah well. Hopefully I'll get round to the last one, on Michaelmas, in a more timely fashion. Because the festival section was getting more than a little unwieldy I've split it in two, separating the articles on the festivals themselves, and the articles on how to go about celebrating things etc. The latter can now be found in the 'Celebrations' section, right below the 'Festivals' section.That's about as workable as I can get things just now, but it's getting to the point where the whole site needs some serious re-working. The problem is, I'm just not sure where to start!

Anyway, that's enough for now. The dust bunnies are giving me evils. They must be dealt with.

Sunday, 1 August 2010


I'm trying to be all intellectual and do some proper writing, but it's not happening right now. I've got a whole paragraph, ish, and my brain has rebelled...

Instead, I've decided that rambling on about my plans for Lùnastal is a far better option right now, because rambling I can do, in abundance. In fact, I shall blether, because blethering is what I do best. It says so on my fridge, so it must be true:


But even though it's technically the right day, things aren't ready yet in the garden. I'm waiting for the blueberries to ripen, so I have something to pick and show for it this time, and maybe in a few weeks time there'll be some blackberries too. As it is, we'll probably need some sunshine for anything to hurry itself along, so I'm aiming to celebrate around the Old Style date.

Since I've been doing murals for the kitchen these past few years, with the kids, I'm attempting to think of something to do there. Last year we did a collage of autumn leaves that the kids painted, decorated and glued into place with me just helping to cut them out:

But this year I'm trying to branch out from foliage. I'm kind of failing miserably, because all I can think of is a tree having its leaves blown off in the inevitable autumnal gales that are to follow this season, if the previous years are anything to go by. And aside from letting the kids glue things down, I'm not really sure what I can do that allows them to participate more, that retains the desired theme, as it were. It's kind of pointless otherwise. Hopefully inspiration will follow. I'm trying to think of something first fruits-ish.

Otherwise, we'll be doing the now usual; games, feasting, offerings, and so on. I'm toying with the idea of making some sort of corn dolly, but I'd rather do that using whatever I harvest from the garden around this time, and nothing seems to be presenting itself as handy. I'm not averse to procuring the materials by other means, but I'd rather have the medium be more relevant to what I've been doing in my garden already, if that makes sense. Plus, I have to actually figure out how to make it...

Butter, cheese, bannocks and butter brughtins will (likely) be made, and I intend to freeze the remainder of the carrot and coriander soup I made from my first carrot harvest so I can have some for the day as well - I'm going in the wrong order there, really, since they're more for the autumn equinox, but ah well. I'm hoping the second batch will be ready for that. Chances are slim, though, I think, they'll more likely be ready for Samhainn. My raspberries haven't done too well this year, in the end, but hopefully with the blueberries at the least, I'll be able to make some cranachan.

For the butter brughtins (Gàidhlig, brochan - porridge or gruel), it seems to be a sort of stodgy pottage, consisting of oatcakes crumbled and then cooked in liberal amounts of butter. McNeill records this as a traditional Lammas dish for shephards, similar to skirlie, which is a sort of stuffing made of oatmeal and onion fried in suet to a good stodge. 

Aside from the usual - saining, charms, devotions and a walk to the promontory overlooking the Clyde where I left offerings the previous years I've been here, that's about it for now.