Thursday, 30 June 2011

Book Review: The Old Gods: The Truth about Irish Fairies

After mentioning I had another book on order in my last post, and hoping it would arrive early this week, it did (on Monday, all prompt), and I managed to get through the whole thing by the following day. It was only short, and a good read - I have another of Patrick Logan's books on my shelf but I haven't got round to it yet besides a quick flick-through, but now I think I'll bump it up a bit on my list. I'm tempted to by another book, though...but I should probably save my pennies, even if it is only 47p second-hand.

As for the one I've just read, now is as good a time as any to get on with a review, while it's still fresh in my mind:

The Old Gods: The Facts about Irish Fairies
Patrick Logan

As much as I enjoyed this book, I have to say it threatened to go downhill very rapidly - there was a bit of a bumpy start, which worried me a little at first, mainly down to the fact that two pages in there's mention of the Scottish Blue Men, with "(Negroes)" in brackets. That threw me a little at first, and made me wary of how this was going to go, but in the end it all turned out nicely. Yes, the author's outlook on certain things is maybe a little old-fashioned. It's not as jarring or unfortunate as reading some of Dion Fortune's work, if you're familiar with her, though...

While the book is quite short (only 150 pages all told), it's still a fairly comprehensive introduction and hits pretty much all of the basics you need to know. One of the main things I liked was that Logan writes about the subject as a living thing - the fairy-faith that he himself has been, and still is, a part of and has experienced. It's a refreshing change from all the other books I've read on the subject - on Ireland or Scotland - that tend to insist on it all being in the past tense.

Logan gives lots of stories and anecdotes throughout the book, which illustrate his points nicely and keep the tone conversational and quite pacey. Some of the anecdotes have a wry sense of humour about them - like how he and two friends dug up part of a fairy mound once, and (unsurprisingly, with hindsight, he says) paid the price for it; they all contracted tuberculosis. To be fair, from some stories I've heard, they got off lightly. Some of the other stories are from Logan himself, or friends, family, and other people he's interviewed or spoken to over the years (often his patients, from his work as a doctor), whereas other are from manuscripts and other folklorists. There's a good mix here, and he's obviously done a fair bit of legwork.

There isn't much in the way of referencing, except for the occasional casual reference to an author, which is a shame in terms of fact-checking, but since much of it is backed up by anecdotal evidence that Logan himself has collected, it's almost forgivable. If it were a modern book, though, I think each contributor would have been carefully profiled in an appendix, and so on, so all in all it does come across a bit dated.

I was really impressed by this book, over all, but aside from the slightly old-fashioned outlook from the author in places, my only criticism - or perhaps more a concern - is that the book doesn't really go into much detail about the more negative aspects associated with fairylore. For the most part I suppose this is because the book is concentrating on the strand of fairylore that pertains specifically to those who can be seen as gods that have been repackaged, as it were, and so tend to be more positively portrayed in folklore. But while the author does go into the more negative associations (the blast, and changelings and so on), and looks at other types of fairies - water horses, leprechauns, the púca, and so on - that tend to have a more ambiguous or just plain malevolent reputation, it often all seems a little too edited for delicate sensibilities, perhaps; sanitised.

I'm not sure whether this was done out of romanticism, or just not wanting to get too deeply into the scarier, darker layers of lore, but it's a shame, really, because over all it makes book seems a little unbalanced in that respect. It's not lacking completely, but I think other authors would have emphasised it more. In a sense, though, I could say that the fact that the book offers so much that you probably wouldn't find elsewhere more than makes up for it; if the view is a little one-sided, it's at least coming straight from someone who is a part of it all, and a native speaker, to boot (he provides some translations to material that haven't been published in English before, that is).

In spite of this, I'd still recommend the book as a good read, especially for the beginner or anyone looking for a short overview. I bought it quite cheap, too, which is always a plus. I would have to say that it's only a start, though; I'd recommend looking to balance it out a bit with the folktales at the least. Definitely one I'm happy to keep on my shelf, though.

Sunday, 26 June 2011


No trips to the library of late, but I've managed to squeeze in a few books from my own bookshelves for once. Off the back of one of them, I've got another book on order - not that my credit card appreciates the sponking, but oh well. Hopefully it will arrive next week and I can get stuck into it then, I'm running low on bedtime reading these days. It's The Old Gods: The Facts About Irish Fairies by Patrick Logan, which Seán Ó Duinn mentioned in his Where Three Streams Meet: Celtic Spirituality. That's one book I'll be reviewing, the other is Cattle in Ancient Ireland, by A. T. Lucas.

Cattle in Ancient Ireland
A. T. Lucas

Yes, every day is a party in my brain...

I seriously doubt that this book will be of interest to anyone other than the most die hard of folk interested in the finer details of Irish life and culture, from the perspective of that fine beast, the cow. Mostly cow. Sometimes, bulls. (And speaking of which, I recommend watching this topical news report at your earliest convenience).

To be fair, I probably qualify as being on the more die hard side of things, and am also writing this review on a Sunday morning clad in the cow-print fleecy dressing gown my mother bought me for my thirtieth a few years ago, so that probably tells you just how much of a party can get going in my brain some days. Cows and Irish history; I'd hesitate to say I'm particularly enthusiastic about the two in combination, but I don't find it totally mindnumbing to contemplate either.

I bought the book because there are some references to it that piqued my interest, mainly to do with the use of milk in baptism (possible evidence of pre-Christian practice), and the offering of cattle in death rites, in marriage, and the bleeding of cattle at certain festivals...That sort of thing. The book does indeed go into these sorts of detail, which aren't really discussed elsewhere, but while it offers something that most other books don't in that respect, the lack of detail in these areas was a little disappointing; I wasn't much better informed than I was having seen the second-hand references.

For the rest of the book, however, there is an almost overwhelming amount of detail. As far as early medieval Ireland is concerned, the importance of cattle as a measurement of wealth, and as the backbone of the economy, cannot be understated, and if you read this book you won't be left in any doubt about that. So really, it's an important book in that respect. It's not exactly a dry read, as such, but the level of detail given in arguing each point made is mind-boggling; points are well made. Perhaps a little too well made to make a decent read, but to be fair I don't think this is a book that qualifies as light, or entertaining reading on any level anyway. Either way, for the most part there isn't much to disagree with in the book, although I couldn't help but feel that the section dealing with the colour of cattle, and the possibility of the actual existence of red-eared cattle from mythological descriptions was a little weak.

However, I can now, with confidence, say that I feel well-informed as far as the practices of transumance and cattle raiding is concerned, along with many other things relating to cattle in ancient Ireland. It's not the sort of thing a normal person would want to boast about, but if you happen to find yourself desperately needing to research the subject, you can't go far wrong in starting with this book. It's well researched, well-written, well-structured, and covers most (possibly all) areas that you'll need to know about. Where it's lacking, it's probably safe to say that this only reflects the dearth of material for Lucas to have gone on in writing anything of substance.

It's a good read for what it covers, but it's very much a niche interest book. I wouldn't recommend you whip out your credit card and order it from the online bookstore of your preference right now, unless you suddenly find an inexplicable and burning need to know all about ancient Irish cattle.

Where Three Streams Meet: Celtic Spirituality
Seán Ó Duinn

This is an ambitious book in some respects, since its purported aim is to weave together the three different strands (or streams) of Irish belief and practice throughout the ages that have come together to give what the author calls 'Celtic Spirituality'. Inevitably, I think, given this ambition there are a few disppointments to be found, but also a few gems...

The three streams that are brought together (no, nothing to do with Ghostbusters) are: the beliefs and practices of the megalithic people of Ireland; those of the pre-Christian Celts; and that of Christianity. These are all brought together to show just how they've shaped modern spirituality - and here is my first niggle, because I would have to say that it's modern Irish (Christian) spirituality being looked at here, rather than anything specifically 'Celtic'. I disagree with Ó Duinn's use of the 'Celtic Spirituality' as a sort of catch-all, because for the most part he's looking at something much more specific - Ireland, with some Scottish evidence thrown in for comparison. Another niggle is the references to 'the Great Mother', but that should be expected as par for the course if you've read other books by the author. It's easily read around.

Given the fact that Ó Duinn is a monk, and the focus of the book is very much on the end result of what he calls 'Celtic Spirituality' - what we see today - it's only to be expected that the pre-Christian material may be somewhat lacking to some extent, and the subject matter weighted heavily in favour of the Christian 'stream'. I would've liked to have seen more detail for the former, and I would anticipate that the fact that Ó Duinn is primarily writing for a Christian audience might be problemmatic for some folks who are more interested in the pre-Christian stuff and might still have some hangups from their upbringing or whatever; not a problem for me since I wasn't brought up Christian, so I can only imagine, really, but I'd have to say that ignoring the Christian material means you'll be losing out on a lot anyway.

Necessarily, the first strand (megalithic peoples) is somewhat lacking in detail, and only superficially dealt with in terms of how the megaliths were effectively repurposed by the pre-Christian Celts in their mythology and practices. This is inevitable, but some might feel that it kind of undermines the stated aim of the book if there's not much that can be said about it. What little there is in there is interesting, but probably not much there that you haven't heard before unless you're completely new to the subject.

For the rest, like I said, I would've liked to have seen more detail about the pre-Christian material and its implications on modern belief and practice, but what Ó Duinn does deal with is mostly well done once you get passed the introductory stuff. There's some good stuff on offerings, ancestor worship, gods and the like, and there are examples of traditional Irish prayers given that show just how similar daily ritual practices are compared to the Carmina Gadelica (some instances of which are also examined) which are also interesting.

While I think that ultimately a lot of people who pick this book up might be disappointed by the lack of depth in terms of dealing with the pre-Christian strand, I'd stress that there's good stuff here, in spite of the problems I have. One problem in particular that I had was the reliance on commentary by Classical authors in the first few chapters, in detailing the beliefs and practices, and cultural values of the pre-Christian Celts, without much attempt at examining just how far we can a) rely on such commentary in taking it at face value, and b) apply it to the Irish, when the Classical authors were only really talking about the Gauls or Britons. And not necessarily reporting first hand knowledge...I can understand why this was brought into the mix, but I think it was given undue weight.

I couldn't help but feel that towards the end of the book, the focus became a little unstuck and was more about Celtic Christianity than anything to do with examining the influences on its evolution. It's interesting and invaluable in terms of pointing out the areas within Christianity that do seem to be genuine hangovers of pre-Christian beliefs, but at times the detail was a little too narrow to hold my interest in any kind of depth.

Over all, this is a good read, in spite of the criticisms I might have of it - it's engaging and well-written, well-researched and referenced, and the bits I disagreed with are - for the most part - easily read around or skimmed over. I managed to finish it within two evenings in spite of it not being a particularly small volume, so it was a quick read for me.

The first half of the book was far more interesting to me than the second half, given that it dealt with things like the gods, ancestor veneration and the like. I can't say that I learned much that I didn't already know, but I think this is the first time I've ever seen it all brought together in one place - ancestor worship, gods and spirits, and so on. Had I bought this book earlier in the year, a lot of my research for the articles I've written in the past six or eight months or so would've been much easier, to be fair...

All in all, for the average Celtic Reconstructionist I think this book will be of most interest to the beginner, or someone who's come so far and might be feeling the need for something to help solidify things in their mind a bit more. You might not find all of it of interest or relevance, but I'd say it's definitely worth a read.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Carmichael Watson Project, and an update on Tigh nam Bodach

I've taken so long to write this one that this is probably redundant by now, but just in case, here's a heads up:

The Carmichael Watson Project is now live

This is an archive and catalogue of Alexander Carmichael's work and notes during his life and research in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. As yet, not every entry is accompanied by scans of his original work, but you can still view quite a lot. There's an article here at the Beeb.

In other news, a report from Dualchas Nàdair na h-Alba (Scottish National Heritage) has been added to the planning page for the Glen Lyon hydro scheme. The scheme that threatens Gleann Cailliche and Tigh nam Bodach. There are some concerns raised in the report regarding the impact on both Tigh nam Bodach and the surrounding area that so far seem to be the most encouraging cautionary signs against the scheme - not least that they conclude that: "We consider that the cumulative landscape and visual impacts of the four projects in combination could be significant and adverse." That includes not just the issue of the pylons, but the plans for widening access roads as well.

For Tigh nam Bodach itself, they say:
"The most westerly scheme – Allt Cailliche - is proposed in the most sensitive side glen where there are no human artefacts apart from the historic Tigh nam Bodach. The introduction of the proposed intake, powerhouse, upgraded tracks and pipeline excavations could have a significant adverse impact."
Other points raised include not just the potential for damage to Tigh nam Bodach and the sensitive/rare wetland habitats that will have to be disturbed, but also the potential disruption to rare birds that are breeding in the area, including merlins and golden eagles. The report points out that only two, instead of three of the necessary surveys have been undertaken in examining the potential impact that any works carried out might have on breeding pairs in the area, and it seems likely that the development will have to be limited in when it can undertake the most disruptive elements of the project in order to prevent scaring the birds off.

You can download the pdf by clicking here if you want to take a look yourself. All in all, it paints a worrying picture in terms of the potential damage the scheme could inflict on the area if it gets the go ahead, and I'm really glad that - unlike some of the other authorities and organisations who've submitted comments - Scottish National Heritage have really looked into the proposals from all angles and taken the time to make such a detailed reply.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Iron Age settlement (possibly) found on St Kilda

It was previously thought that St Kilda was only ever visited for hunting and wool gathering, but it looks like archaeologists have found evidence of settlement that could date as far back as the Iron Age:

"Farming what is probably one of the most remote - and inhospitable - islands in the North Atlantic would have been a hard and gruelling existence."

St Kilda expert Jill Harden, who is contracted to NTS, said it was refreshing to know that there was still so much to learn about the islands.

The finds were made during a five-year project to produce the most complete mapping record of St Kilda's built heritage.
There are also some fantastic pictures of the island to look at. This article from the Stornoway Gazette gives a bit more background to the island, and the St Kilda website adds a bit of detail too.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The Pipe

Last night I saw a documentary called The Pipe, about the controversy surrounding Shell Oil's efforts to lay a gas pipeline in a remote part of Ireland. The documentary was from the perspective of the residents of Rossport, who oppose the pipeline and accuse Shell and the Irish government of colluding to generally stomp on the locals' constitutional rights in order to make a profit. After finishing the documentary, I really can't say I blame them...

I remember seeing the Solitaire, the pipe-laying ship, parking up in the Clyde back in 2008 before it went on to Ireland:

It caused quite a stir round here from tourists and sightseers blocking up the roads to take photos, though not much was made of the controversy itself. Huge amounts of security about though, and no wonder, having seen the documentary now.

Folks across the Pond probably won't be able to watch the documentary at 4OD, but if you can get hold of it, I'd recommend it - well worth a watch, even though it's saddening and maddening at the same time. You can watch the trailer here:

Sunday, 12 June 2011

An update, finally

After the last article I put up on the website - which ended up receiving an amazing amount of attention - thanks to some generous plugging by Erynn - I really thought that I'd kind of covered all I could think of on the subject; there were bits I'd originally intended to expand on but didn't find any place for them in the articles as I wrote them.

I'd figured that the next article to write was obvious and inevitable - the next stop was the daoine sìth (I'll try to avoid the 'f' word). I've had a bugger of a time writing it, though. From putting my back out and the drugs preventing me from being able to concentrate enough to research and write, to just realising that I was going about it all wrong, it's been a long time coming, and a process that's kinda reminiscent of pulling teeth.

I realised that the subject was too narrow considering the focus I'd been taking as far as the gods and the other two are concerned. I'd done gods, I'd done ancestors, but I hadn't done anything about the spirits, and so I had to scrap my original idea and take things in a different direction, broadening the scope a little. I'm not entirely sure that I'm happy with the end result, to be honest - I'm limited by lack of experience in being able to talk much about dealing with foreign spirits in other countries, for one. But this is what I ended up with:

Gods and Spirits

It's something that's been on my mind a lot this year so far, though. I might still get round to covering the daoine sìth in a separate article, but in some ways it's not going to be easy because I've already done a lot here there and everywhere else. A lot of it will inevitably be repetitious, but it's difficult to figure out just what needs to be repeated.

Ho hum. Lots of things need doing. So little time to do it...

Monday, 6 June 2011


I see this has been doing the rounds in a few places I lurk, and I couldn't not comment:

Clonycavan Man’s hair contains an imported gel. Old Croghan Man has a leather amulet, decorated in the fashionable continental style, on his arm. It represents the sun, with which Irish kingship is closely associated. Both men also had their nipples sliced before they died. Together, these features suggest that the men were kings. The king’s nipples represented the life-giving sun. Their cutting suggests that their power was being ritually decommissioned.

Both men appear to have been “killed” three times: by strangulation, by stabbing and by drowning. However ritualised, Old Croghan Man’s death was garishly violent: he was bound with hazel rods threaded through holes in his upper arms, stabbed in the chest, struck in the neck, decapitated and cut in half. (All that has been found are his torso and arms.) But the violence was not mere sadism. “This,” says Eamonn Kelly of the National Museum of Ireland, “isn’t done for torture or to inflict pain. It’s a triple killing because the goddess to whom the sacrifice is made has three natures. She’s goddess of sovereignty, of fertility and of war and death. So they’re making sacrifice to her in all her forms, and the king has to die three deaths.”

I can just imagine the pained expression on my old professor's face as he'd say, "Weeeeeell, we shouldn't read too much into these things..."