Monday, 15 November 2010

Hibernation and reviews

My hearth shrine, decorated with the tasteful skull-shaped lights for Samhainn...

It's been an odd transition period from summer-half to winter-half round here. Interminable rain and grey skies, and now gloriously frosty and sunny mornings (followed by more rain), and although I celebrated Samhainn two weeks ago now it feels like the transition into winter has only just secured itself and sunk its teeth in. The cold's making me feel kind of hibernaty - no bad thing when I have a pile of books to get through.

I got a pile of articles from my last trip to the library, and some of them are really good. Some of them I haven't got round to yet, but I thought it might be useful to give a brief rundown of the good ones before I go on to do a book review....

  • Women, milk and magic at the Boundary Festival of May
    Patricia Lysaght

    This one is from Lysaght's Milk and Milk Products book (not the most inspiring title), which is a collection of essays on all things dairy in the Gaelic and Scandinavian world (primarily) from a historical perspective. I didn't read the whole book, but did pick at a few of the articles - well worth a read, especially some of the Scandinavian stuff that show the similarities between the folk customs surrounding milk charms and protecting the 'produce' (toradh, as the Gaels would call it). But this article stood out, so it was worth photocopying - it's a good overview of Bealtaine in Ireland, and includes a good amount of modern folklore and customs that were recorded by the Folklore Commission in the 1940s in particular (something that most other sources tend to lack). I shall probably use it to take a look at updating my Bealltainn article at some point.

  • Hearth-Prayers and other Traditions of Brigit: Celtic Goddess and Holy Woman
    Séamas Ó Catháin

    From JRSAI Vol, 122, 1992. I was hoping for the article to have far more information about Irish hearth-prayers than it actually did, but still, this was a good read. If oddly tangential at times. But I did get some useful stuff from it, not least a slightly different version of an Irish smooring prayer:

    Coiglímse an tine mar a choiglíonns cách,

    I rake this fire like everyone else,

    Bríd ina bun agus Muire ina barr;

    Brigid below it with Mary on top;

    Dhá aingle déag d'aingle na ngrást,

    Twelve angels of the angels of the graces,

    Ag cumhdach mo thí-sa go lá.

    Protecting my house till down.

    And the point that aingeal is referenced in both Irish and Scottish versions, and refers to either angels, or fire. As a non-linguist, the clever ambiguities of the language can't be appreciated without articles like this to help me...

  • 'Handfasting' in Scotland
    A. E. Anton

    In the Scottish Historical Review, Vol 37, 1958.

    Trying to figure out the whole debate around handfasting has been a bit of a bugger, quite frankly, because everyone knows that handfasting is an Anciente Celtic form of marriage. But it isn't (in the historical sense), although most sources arguing against it refer to each other rather than the historical sources that would be actually helpful. Yes, the argument may be convincing, but how about going into some detail, eh? Seeing as everyone references this article in arguing against handfasting-as-marriage, it seemed sensible to go to the source. It's thorough, and yes, it's convincingly argued (ha), although it's taken more than a few reads to absorb it all properly. I'm glad I got hold of it, though. TLDR: Handfasting comes from the Anglo-Saxon word handfæstung, which referred to the custom of shaking hands on agreement of a contract. In this case, a contract of betrothal - an agreement to marry at some point in future.

And so, onto the book review, one of my latest library snags:

Marriage in Ireland
Art Cosgrove (Ed.)

Originally published in 1985, this is a collection of essays on marriage throughout the history of Ireland. Each chapter is written by a different author, and covers a distinct period in history - from marriage in early Ireland, through to the twentieth century. The exception to the rule is Caoimhín Ó Danachair's (KevinDanaher's) article on 'Marriage in Irish folk tradition', and it really stood out for me as the best of the lot (also, the most helpful, to be fair).

The weakest eassy was the first - 'Marriage in early Ireland' by Donnchadh Ó Corráin. It's well written and informative, to be sure, but having gone into the subject in great detail already it seems that there are better sources to look at this (Bart Jaksi's chapter in 'The Fragility of Her Sex?', Fergus Kelly's Early Irish Law, and Daibhi Ó Cróinín's Early Medieval Ireland spring to mind), and for the most part it's probably safe to say that this is simply for the reason that those sources are more up to date and thorough. I couldn't help but feel that some of the issues were fudged a little here, but the article was sparser in references than I'd've liked it to have been, so it was difficult to follow up or check some of the points that seemed a little off (mainly linguistic points, possibly a matter of odd spelling).

Cosgrove's own chapter on 'Marriage in medieval Ireland' was a good read, and helpful for my reasearch, too, and the rest of the chapters were good too, though less relevant and therefore of slightly less interest to my aims. The last chapter in particular, 'Marriage in Ireland in the twentieth century' was more than a little dull for me, but then statistics have never really been my thing. It will surely be useful to anyone who needs (or wants) to know about marriage statistics of socio-economic groups, or rates of illegitimacy and so on. Me? Not so much.

Ó Danachair's article takes a slight detour from the chronology and focuses on folk memory, which he defines as being around 200 hundred years or so, and folk traditions. What you find here is pretty much what you'd expect from the author - good research, good writing, and engaging to boot. In many respects, this chapter gives a personality to the people being talked about in the other chapters, and while there was a little bit of overlapping in subject matter here and there between this article and the preceding one, on 'Pre-famine Ireland', it at least added to my understanding rather than made me switch off.

One thing I would liked to have seen is some mention, at least, of 'Teltown marriages' and the debate surrounding them, along with the problem of nineteenth century authors, in particular, heavily romanticising and even purposely rusticating the whole subject. OK, so that's two things. But this is a fairly small book, and to be fair there's only so much that you can cram in in such a short space. What it does offer is good, the few reservations I have with the first article aside, and it focuses on historical record, rather than general. I could quite happily have got stuck into a whole lot more, though.

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