Saturday, 31 December 2011

Beannachadh Bliadhna Ùir

A happy Hogmanay to you all! And Good Wishes for the new year.

Today I'll be having the traditional tidy up and setting things in order, and tonight I'll be having a quiet celebration at home, with some offerings and a little ritual. I've decided I won't be trying the traditional Het Pint as the bells ring the new year in; eggs in my beer/whisky are kind of off-putting, I think!

Tomorrow we'll be off to the in-laws for the traditional steak pie dinner, as usual, but right now I thought I'd post an adaptation of a new year blessing that Carmichael recorded in Volume One of the Carmina Gadelica (said first thing on the first day of the new year):

Gods, bless to me the new day,
Never given to me before;
It is to bless your own presence
That you have given me this time, O Gods.
Bless to me my eye,
May my eye bless all it sees;
I will bless my neighbour,
May my neighbour bless me.
Gods, give me a clean heart,
Let me not from the sight of your eye;
Bless to me my family,
And bless to me my way.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Bits and pieces - links to books online

Some useful links to hard to find books popped up on the CR group on Facebook a while ago so I thought it would be useful to make a note of them here as I make some updates to my website as well, for any readers who might not be on the group; following on from the books that were mentioned on the group I decided to have a wander around Scribd to see if there is anything else of interest. It turns out that yes, there's probably a huge amount there, but that would make for a long and boring list that would make even my eyes crossed! So instead, here are just a few that I found or was pointed to via FB:

First and foremost, there is Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia edited by John Koch. It's incredibly expensive to buy otherwise and it's a fantastic resource so it's well worth taking a look at. Of all the Celtic encyclopedias I've seen, I would say this is by far the best, and certainly the most extensive work; a lot of well-respected academics have contributed to the entries here and it makes a great starting point for research. The downside to its extensiveness (all 2000+ pages of it) is that it's an absolute bugger to find anything quickly! But seriously. For any Celtic Reconstructionist I would recommend this encyclopedia as one of the absolute necessities for your bookshelf. In my humble opinion, anyway...

Less useful is Patricia Monaghan's Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. Her research isn't great and sometimes she's way off base, but I thought it was worth noting in case somebody stumbled across it and wondered about it. You can do a lot worse, but you can also do a lot better (see above...) and personally I wouldn't rely on this book for serious research. This is from the same author as The Red-Haired Girl From the Bog, which I've tried to read many times and have failed...(I know a few folks who love that book but for some reason her tone really grates on my nerves).

Something a little different is a collection of essays in The Vikings in Ireland; there are some contributions in there from well-respected academics and it's a subject that's often neglected so I think it's well worth exploring.

Another book is Graham Webster's The Roman Invasion of Britain. I've yet to read this but I think I have it somewhere on my bookshelf, having inherited it from the library of a friend and colleague of my mother-in-law earlier this year. I've read another book of his, The British Celts and Their Gods Under Rome, which I thought was mis-titled but otherwise not bad.

The Archaeology of Celtic Art offers an up to date perspective on the subject and gives a discussion about the use of the term 'Celtic' within archaeology these days; many archaeologists are reluctant to use the term, preferring 'Iron Age' instead (although they'll happily sap Celtic on the title of the book so it will sell...). This offers its own problems, but there are many who criticise these 'Celtoskeptics' as denying Celtic heritage and everything that entails. Aside from that, there are lots of purty pikchurs of shiny things.

Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art by Miranda Green is one I've reviewed here; it's good, but of more interest to those of a Gallo-Roman flavour rather than the Gaelic or Brythonic Polytheist. There is also Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, which is another one I've reviewed. It's probably good to remember that Green is generally stronger on archaeology than myth.

Finally, I stumbled across a recently published essay by Mary Jones called Rethinking Imbolc. It's aimed at a reconstructionist audience and I think there's good research and references here. The essay offers a different perspective on Imbolc, exploring the associations of the festival with purification, and I think it's well worth a read; there's some good food for thought here.

That's all, folks!

Book Review: Of Irish Ways

Galloping towards the end of the year, I thought I'd do what's probably my last book review for 2011. It makes a change from trying to find room for all the brand new plastic crap the kids brought home from Santa the in-laws, anyway (we actually had a great time, and yes, the kids were thoroughly spoilt and my father-in-law was thoroughly blootert by the end of the day, but good times were had by all). I hope you had a good yin an a'. I can honestly say that in the past few days I've never built more Lego things in all my life...

Of Irish Ways
Mary Murray Delaney

Treasa piqued my interest in this one a while ago, and I saw it going for a whopping great 1p online so it seemed worth a punt. I wasn't sure if it was going to offer anything new, but in that I was pleasantly surprised.

This is nothing like I've ever really read before - it's primarily aimed at an Irish-American audience; those who are interested in their Irish heritage and history, lore and traditions. There's a little bit of everything here but there's no denying that it comes from a particular point of view, and in that sense it definitely colours the content in a certain light. At times, the book reads like a very romanticised propaganda text, a run down of all the accomplishments of the sons and daughters of Ireland, wherever they might have ended up.

For me it's an interesting read in the sense that I'm not the target audience, and I'm kind of detached from the aim of the book in a way, but I can also empathise with it in the sense that I too was brought up being told about my Irish heritage and being proud of it and told to hold onto it. The author is keen to educate the reader on the trials and tribulations of Ireland in recent history, as well as the more distant history, and she laments the fact that many Americans of Irish heritage, and even the Irish themselves, have very little understanding of the history and achievements of Ireland. It's in talking about this subject in particular that it becomes obvious that this book is very out of date in some respects - Delaney discusses the state of education in Ireland and of course it's going to be very different now from when the book was first published in 1973. The state of Ireland today is also very different of course - since the book was published there has been devolution in Northern Ireland, for one.

In spite of this, it's still a very charming book. Not all of it might be relevant or up to date now, but the author writes in a very conversational tone that makes it easy to get sucked into it. It's not a book that requires too much concentration, and while there are certainly better books to look to for reading up on Irish history, the very general overview given here might be a less daunting prospect for the beginner.

Subjects like funerals and wakes, marriage and matters of the home and hearth are dealt with as well as history, along with the festivals and feast days and beliefs in ghosts and fairy raths. Delaney does a good job to emphasise that many of these beliefs are still relevant today, and goes on to cover Ireland's long history of producing great pieces of literature and poetry, as well as music.

The amount covered here is perhaps a bit too general in some ways, and you probably won't find much here that isn't covered elsewhere. The exception is at the back of the book where there are some Irish blessings and proverbs, which is the best bit of the book for me. It's a shame the Irish isn't given as well as the English for them, but it's a useful if all too short section.

As books for research go it's perhaps not one of the first books I'd look to, but still, it's a good read. This would be a good compliment to Kevin Danaher's books (and Henry Glassie's Passing the Time in Ballymenone) if you're keen on getting an understanding of Irish ways and life.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011


I got up this morning at around 8.15am and thought, "Ooooo, it's still dark." I put it down to the fact that the clouds were low and thick - as per usual now - and thus the sun wasn't able to brighten things up too much. It took a while to realise that it also perhaps had something to do with the fact that it's coming up to the shortest day of the year - tomorrow, officially...

So a happy solstice to those of you who celebrate! I will be making some offerings to mark the occasionbut my main focus of celebrations at this time of year will be on Hogmanay as usual - as yet we have no plans for Hogmanay, so it will probably be spent at home all quiet and boring. I'll be glad to see the back of this year, and fervently hoping that the new year ushers in a definite improvement on 2011.  

If the weather in Ireland is anything like here then the solstice sun at Newgrange won't be illuminating much of anything (yup); the official gathering at Newgrange took place today, but there's a video you can watch from 2007 that shows what should happen quite nicely (although you might want to forward along a bit):

Newgrange might be the most famous solstice alignment, but there are others as well, including the chambered tomb known as Maes Howe on the mainland of Orkney. The light of the solstice sunset is captured there (when it shines!), and there are also cameras set there to capture and broadcast it. Neither of these tombs are Celtic, of course, but both remain as significant features in the landscape even today.

In the twelfth century the tomb was opened by some of the Norse settlers, and they made their mark by leaving a load of runes to commemorate their visit (33 inscriptions in all). Some of the graffiti attempts to make verse, and one such verse is thought to have (possibly) been made by Thorhall Asgrimsson, who is mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga. The verse is rough, and reads:

The man who is
most skilled in runes
west of the ocean
cut these runes
with the axe
once owned by Gauk
son of Trandil
in the south country.
(Translation from: The Triumph Tree: Scotland's Earliest Poetry AD 550-1350, edited by T.O. Clancy)

Which is not particularly relevant to the solstice, but there you go...

I will finish off with a seasonal poem translated by Kuno Meyer, one that's particularly relevant considering the recent hurricanes we've been having in these parts:

Dubaib rathib rogemrid
robarta tonn turgabar
íar tóib betha blái.
Brónaig eoín cach íathmaige
acht fiaich fola forderge
fri fúaim gemrid gairg.
In the dark season of the deep winter
heavy seas are lifted up
along the side of the world's region.
Sorrowful are the birds of every meadow-field,
except the ravens of dark-red blood,
at the uproar of the fierce winter-time.

I shall dedicate that to the Cailleach and the storm hags who've been unleashing their fury over the past few weeks.

Monday, 19 December 2011


It's that time of year again when things get festive and words like 'family' and 'giving' and 'I want a Lego mermaid!' (says Rosie) or 'Lego Star Wars! (says Tom) get bandied about.

Christmas for us is a very secular affair, and unlike Mr Seren and his very Catholic upbringing, it's something that always has been for me. In spite of my nan's best efforts and all of those children's Bibles and books of prayer my sister and I were given over the years, my parents never brought us up in a particularly religious fashion (although as I've said before, my mother was always keen to encourage us to explore). In all my years as a pagan of some sort, it's not something I've ever struggled to reconcile - whether or not I should celebrate because I'm not Christian - because it's not something I've ever had much choice about. Christmas in my world is about family, and my family expect me to be there, dagnabit. Being married, it's now also something that my in-laws expect of me as well. Some of the more fundamentalist Christians might repeat the refrain of keeping the Christ in Christmas, but tell that to my mother-in-law. We don't get any special dispensation for not being Christian as far as she's concerned...

It's an honour, to my mind. It's nice to have people who want you to be involved, to share in traditions, company, good food (and drink, often involving a litre of vodka while my father-in-law cooks the Christmas dinner before he promptly staggers off to bed to fall unconscious and sleep it off...), thoughtful gifts, and just enjoying the company of others. It's nice to see the kids all excited that Father Christmas is coming (even if Rosie's not too convinced about him). I'm lucky that my in-laws have accepted and welcomed me into their family, especially considering the fact that we'll be going to theirs for Christmas day. As a reconstructionist, family and community are important things, and I can't begrudge the fact that I get to show my appreciation of those loved ones that are there for me and my own wee family unit.

But it's not all fluffiness and fun. Like most folks, my family isn't perfect and we have our dysfunctions and our disagreements. It's times like this - for me - that those negative elements are most keenly felt (I will hopefully be going to visit my hometown after Christmas, and doing the rounds with visiting family etc), and in a spiritual sense it raises a lot of questions, especially as far as the issue of ancestor veneration is concerned. There are certain members of my family that (when they die) I couldn't bring myself to honestly honour in my practices - by name, specifically addressing them. I can acknowledge the fact that were it not for them I wouldn't be here, and in that sense I'm thankful (because that's kinda turned out to be a plus as far as I'm concerned), but then again those certain family members aren't exactly people I consider to be honourable or possessing much in the way of redeemable qualities. Perhaps honouring them on that level - thanks, at least, for doing your bit in my being here - would be a bit grudging of me at the end of the day. They aren't really people I want to think about, let alone consider the prospect of venerating them wholeheartedly.

Equally, I know there are people in my family - who I never had the chance to meet - who were thought of in the same way. My great-grandfather was a con man and a philanderer who abandoned his children and then proceeded to sow his oats around the world, leaving many fatherless children in his wake (and that's just the start of it). He died at the age of 102, alone, after falling asleep in his armchair with a lit cigarette; after it fell out of his mouth it set the chair on fire - what a way to go. My nan, when the police turned up on her doorstep to inform her of her father's death, simply said, "Good. I hope he burned." They hadn't spoken in 40 years. She doesn't talk about him much so I can only imagine the kinds of hurt he caused her to prompt a response like that. So there's another one that I might consider difficult to consider worthy of honour.

So when it comes to ancestor veneration, can we be selective? Should we be? After all, there are a lot of ancestors we could never possibly know. On the one hand, how can we honour people we never knew, who might not want our offerings and attention; how can we consider building a relationship with them when we don't even know their names, their deeds? On the other hand, is it something we should get hung up on? At the end of the day, without them we wouldn't be here today.

For me, I've instinctively formed a practice where I give honour to 'the honoured ancestors' in general, and I've never had the sense that there are any ancestors who begrudge my offerings to them. To me, the idea of 'the ancestors' is a fairly ephemeral thing, really. When I make offerings to them I do get the sense of 'them' being there, accepting the offerings I give, but as yet I've not encountered any of them making themselves known to me on an individual level, aside from the ancestors who I knew in life. 'The ancestors' as a concept is very general to my mind, in some ways. They are my roots. Without them, I am nothing. I cannot claim to know them, or know if they are worthy of honour on an individual level - each and every one of their deeds and how they lived etc. But in general, I can acknowledge the fact that they have all, in some way, played a part in making me who I am today. And that, for me, seems to work.

Those ancestors that I knew in life I see a little differently. I have a more personal relationship with them, since I knew them in some way or another when they were alive. They are the ones I talk to at times, and feel are near. Sometimes I make offerings to them specifically, giving things that I know they liked when they were alive. Sometimes, I feel like they're with me; a waft of a certain scent that I associate with them, perhaps. It can be very comforting.

In a reconstructionist sense, it seems that some of the dead were treated differently than others at times - buried in mounds, their bones preserved and sorted amongst other bones, or some kept close by, in the house or in the midden. It might suggest the idea that they were installed in such places because they were considered worthy or important in some way, and perhaps the people who put those bones there, and later buried the cremated remains into the same mounds after they had fallen out of use otherwise, knew the names of the people who had been put there over the generations, and were given special remembrance and veneration by the community as a whole. Perhaps some of them were made gods, ancestral deities.

In my own way, I might not fiddle about with my gran's bones (for example), but I keep her memory alive; I honour her, and I tell my kids about her. And perhaps one day my kids will pass those memories, those stories, on to their kids, and make their own offerings with their great-gran in mind, and so on. As a Gaelic Polytheist, I don't have a long list of ancestors that I can reel off as the pre-Christian Gaels might have in their honouring their ancestors, but I can make a start at passing what I do know on. I'm sadly lacking in photos of my now deceased grandparents, and great-grandparents, and so on, but one day I hope to change that (with access to a scanner and mum and nan's photo albums).

But still, there is the issue of those who perhaps aren't 'worthy' of honouring. Not having had a personal relationship with my philandering great-grandad, I can appreciate the fact that without him I wouldn't be here, but otherwise I don't really want much else to do with him. Those I have more personal feelings towards is a different matter, I think. Perhaps they should be considered as they might in life: In terms of values, those who are thought of as having no honour are shunned, seen to be outside of the community and having no say, no rights within the community, and I certainly choose not to have much to do with those family members these days. And so in terms of honoured ancestors (that's how I generally address them), those without honour in life wouldn't really have a place as an honoured ancestor as far as I'm concerned. Maybe. Perhaps my views on that might change once I'm faced with their passing...

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Irish language sign a first for Belfast

Ahhh, politics. Don't you just love it?

Some people might say that a Christmas greeting sign - in Irish, no less - donated to the Belfast City Hall is a generous gift. A sign of good will, perhaps. Or perhaps not:

But David Browne, UUP, who has described Irish as "gobbledegook" said the decision was "an act of bad faith".
"The Irish language or Ulster Scots, it's all gobbledegook to me. The more polite way is to say that I don't understand it," he said.
"Even before the working group had met they did this. It is an act of bad faith," he said. "But I'm not really interested, the sign is up and that is it."

What a mature and reasoned response, Mr Browne.

Friday, 9 December 2011

A little festive cheer?

We survived 'Hurricane Bawbag' (as it was dubbed) relatively unscathed - we lost a wee bit of fence in the end, and the old satellite dish bounced off gleefully down the road before Mr Seren managed to catch it (losing all dignity in the process). But considering the damage elsewhere, we didn't do too badly at all. With winds over 160mph in some places, it seemed sensible to stay indoors as much as possible, and hope for the best...Thankfully the schools were closed.

Today, however, all is back to normal, and aside from some early flurries of snow this morning we've yet to experience the predicted blizzard. To make the most of it (and as a blatant excuse to get out the house) I decided to spend the afternoon at the garden centre, in order to glory in all things questionably festive in nature. Of course, I took the camera with me, because otherwise I cannot share in the glory of all that is of a questionable and disturbingly festive nature. Allow me to illustrate:

I have to admit, I can't blame the look on the poor wee kid's face at the back there. (Is the tallest clown...supposed to look 'red face'?)

This is something the local garden centre does every year - it's their 'Winter Wonderland' sort of thing, where they put up loads of random and often tenuously festive displays. Aside from the clowns, most of the scenes of recent years have been of various fairy tales that are popularly adapted for pantomimes (they're a popular festive form of entertainment here). This year it's all been toned down a little, the first year we went it was definitely the best. That year, we had homicidal dwarves:

Another year, there was what can only be described as a suggestively come hither Cinderella:

There was no Cinderella this year, but the dwarves were back again. Although alas, one of the dwarves certainly hasn't faired too well:

I can only imagine its injuries were the result of a heroic battle against the homicidal dwarf of previous years. A valiant defence of Snow White (a.k.a. Vampyra, I suspect), perhaps, for behold! She returned gloriously this year (after a few appearances with a mop for replacement hair), with the added bonus of a couple of pensive deer in tow:

It's perhaps safe to say that 'Snow White' has been taken to a somewhat literal extreme.

It's the clowns that really do it for me, though. I'm not sure quite why they might be considered festive, and they're something I've always found more than a little sinister in general (but especially so, after seeing Stephen King's IT when I was about thirteen or so), but the garden centre tends to go all out with them, for no apparent reason. This one is bad enough:

But this one takes first place for downright disturbing. If it were art, I would call it 'A Study in Sinister Nonchalance':

They move, you know. They all play happy and festive tunes and 'dance'. The first year there was this display:

And I swear to you, I swear that the clown at the the front there, it was making rude gestures of the self-pleasuring variety. With his flute. Poor Santa. Look at him there, edging uncomfortably away. Ho-Ho-Ho-ly Shit What The Fuck Am I Doing Here...

But it seems that for decency's sake, they've toned it down somewhat this year:

And now the clowns just want to eat your soul.

Outside, though, it's lovely:

As furious as the Cailleach has been these past few days - snow, hail, sleet, rain, thunder and lightning, sleet, and more snow and torrential downpours - well. It doesn't seem like anyone round here minds.

Book Review: Irish Folk Medicine

Irish Folk Medicine
Patrick Logan

This title is a re-release of Logan's Irish Country Cures, so as far as I know they're one and the same just under different names.

Having read another of Logan's books I had a vague idea of what to expect here - a book that's short and sweet, well-written and well-researched, and providing a good overview of the subject. This is pretty much what you end up with in this book; it's a nice little tome that covers as much as possible in as few pages as possible - good for an introduction.

It's a quick read and one of those books that you pick up and put down as you find the time. It's not a particularly demanding read, although given the subject matter there are some things in here that I'm totally unfamiliar with - certain ailments and terminology that I'm not particularly sure what they refer to. Logan himself is a doctor so he writes with authority on the subject of various complaints and treatments, but this is both an advantage and disadvantage, I think. Many of the complaints referred to aren't really relevant today, or else they might be called something else, but they were either well-known at the time of writing, or at least still in living memory at the time; as such, at times there's very little explanation of things that I would've appreciated explanation of (or at least a glossary at the back). Me, I've heard of terms like dropsy, but I can never remember what it refers to...

Aside from that, the book gives a good overview of the subject and with Google handy the more obscure elements of the book aren't too much of an inconvenience. Along with human ailments (which are separated into internal and then external sections) there's also a brief section on animal ailments and treatments, and a short section on folk treatments at wells, spas, and sweathouses. At times the writing almost slips into the kind of style that seems to be note form - brief sentences that are barely grammatical - but at least it keeps things pithy.

The content isn't particularly exciting or revolutionary - to me anyway - and the treatments described aren't exactly ones I'll be trying any time soon...But there are some nice bits and pieces to be found here, and along with learning about folk remedies and attitudes towards illness, Logan does a good job of pointing out where these remedies seem to have a long pedigree - being found in Irish or even Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. This says a lot about the longevity of these treatments, some of which are pseudo-medicinal, some of which rely on sympathetic magic, or else sound medicine and common sense.

There isn't much detail as far as the supposed origins of many of these diseases are concerned - the belief in illnesses caused by the evil eye, for example - and nor is there much detail about who these folk-healers that people often consulted in cases where illnesses didn't respond to conventional approaches. The book is slightly lacking for that, but I think that's symptomatic of the time in which it was written - and to be fair, there still hasn't been much work on that, even today.

Over all, this is not one of those books that I'd say is essential reading, but if you have an interest in folk healing and herbology, then this is certainly a good one for the bookshelf. Given its length, this is a good introduction to the subject, for sure, and you should be able to find it cheaply second hand.