Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Book Review: The Otherworld

Following on from my post a few weeks ago, here's my review of The Otherworld. To summarise: Yay. Now can we have a Scottish one of these, please?

The Otherworld: Music and Song from Irish Tradition
Ríonach ui Ógáin and Tom Sherlock (Eds.)

This is a compilation of forty songs, lilts, tales, and instrumental pieces from the Irish Folklore Collection, spanning from the early 1920s up until 2010, presented on two CDs with an accompanying book. It's all beautifully done, it has to be said - not just in how the book looks, but in the over all quality of writing and the tracks that have been selected as well, and I think there's just the right amount of discussion and detail given for each track. It doesn't assume the audience has in-depth knowledge of the subject, but it doesn't over-simplify, either, and it's not one of those dry, dense, academic volumes that so many have come to dread. It gives enough to cover the basics and give a solid footing, and provides a bibliography for further reading for those who might want to explore further.

As far as the book itself goes, we start with a good introduction to the project and its development, and some background about the Otherworld in Irish folk belief, before going on to deal with the CDs themselves. Each track has its own chapter, with a transcription of any spoken word or lyrics given clearly in bold at the start, followed by further details and explanation of the major themes and plot points found. While most of the tracks are in English, or without lyrics at all, some of the tracks are recorded in Irish. Any Irish is always provided with an English translation straight after it, with exactly the same formatting, so it's easy to compare, and easy to figure out what's being said if you don't happen to have any Irish while you're listening to a song or whatever.

There's a good variety of themes covered - the good people, of course, but also songs, jigs and tales relating to mermaids, the púca, banshees and revenants (the dead returned), as well as tragic tales of loves lost to witchcraft or being taken into the hills, and so on. Incidental bits of folklore about the festival calendar, lone bushes and trees, building new houses and going out at night (safely) are weaved into the chapters here and there, as they come up and while there isn't much to learn if you've already read a fair few books about this kind of thing, there are surely some bits and pieces that will be new, and there are the songs themselves. I was particularly interested in the chapter discussing the song about the púca, seeing as there's not usually much said about it beyond its reputation for pissing on brambles at Samhain...

There are contributors from almost every part of Ireland (only three counties aren't included here, though I didn't see anything that said why this was the case), from people living in the city or the countryside, and from all walks of life - farmers, housewives, musicians, and Travellers. Some information about where and when the track was recorded, who is speaking and who is recording, who wrote or composed the piece (if known), or if there are any similar songs or stories in other countries, is also discussed. Photographs of the people and places involved are given, too, with examples of things like fairy bushes, May bushes, boys dressed in girl's clothing to protect them from the good people, and more are given. The only downside to this is that some of the photographs are a little too dark to make out any real detail - I'm fairly sure that's mostly because they're much older than the ones that are a bit clearer, but I think it would have been good to try and clean some of the worst examples up a little (I assume time and/or budget constraints prevented this). But on the plus side, with the occasional bit of squinting at the pictures, this all helps to provide a good bit of context to each track you hear.

While the subject matter is very much Otherworldly and many of the songs are kind of hypnotic to listen to, the book helps to anchor it all in a more tangible reality - something that some books on the same kind of subject tend to lack. A lot of the time, when you read a book about the songs or tunes of Ireland and so on, you just see the songs - the lyrics, the music laid out for you to practice - and it's very plain, just words on paper, really. Here you get to see the people the voices or instruments belong to, bringing a more tangible feel to a body of tradition that's often divorced from its context.

With brief biographies of the folklorists who went out collecting the material included as well, the book is almost as much about the processing of collecting and recording as much as the traditions that have been preserved on tape as well. Anyone who's done a bit of reading on the subject will recognise a few names mentioned - Caomhín Ó Danachair (Kevin Danaher), in particular - and it's good to put some faces to the names. This might not be as interesting to most people unless you're especially keen on everything folklore, but I think it's an important addition to the book, for their contribution to preserving tradition as much as the tradition bearers themselves, in some ways.

I'm not especially musical myself but the recordings are clear and the songs that have been chosen are beautifully sung. The incidental background noises on some of the recordings - a dog yapping, people talking - also adds to the atmosphere. In most cases the songs are simply sung, perhaps accompanied by a fiddle, maybe even a piano. There are a couple of pieces on the uilleann pipes and flute as well, and the simplicity of the recordings let the arrangements speak for themselves. There really isn't anything in the book that you could call unnecessary padding - the chapters are very concise and repetition is kept at a minimum so all in all it makes for a good introduction to the subject.

Aside from my gripe about some of the photos being too dark, my only other real quibble is that the CDs are situated right at the back of the book, stuck on two rubbery, nobbly bits attached to the back cover (marvel at my technical description!). It's a bit fiddly to put the CDs back on securely, but it's hardly the end of the world.

All in all, this is a good, solid book and it's a very welcome addition to the bookshelf. Considering the low price, what you get is very good mileage for your money, too.

Friday, 18 January 2013


One of the biggest problems for most people who are keen on doing their own research is the limited access to academic journals. The kind of articles you can find in journals are often some of the most useful resources because they can deal with the kind of minutiae and specialist areas that won't fit into a book, or else they provide the kind of bite-size burst of information that's a lot easier to chew on than a dry and dense academic book. But unless you have access to a university library, or academic resources like JSTOR, you pretty much have to rely on what's freely available online (such as ones I've listed here), or hope you can find someone who might trouble themselves to obtain a copy for you.

For a while now, JSTOR have been offering access to some of their articles that are already in the public domain, but now – and finally, because they've been promising to do it for ages – they're allowing members of the public limited access to their still-copyrighted catalogue. From what I've read, you won't get access to all the brand new articles that have just been released, but if what you're looking for has been published for a good three years or so, then you might be able to access it (if it's included in the scheme). You have to sign up to the site, and then you'll be able to add no more than three articles to your "shelf," where you can then view them. You don't get to download the articles, you just get access to images (so you can't cut and paste them to keep forever and ever), and whatever you add will stay on your shelf for two weeks, after which you can remove it and then pick something else to read.

So it really is limited – and frustratingly so if you're relying on it to do research for a particular piece you might want to work on – but it's better than nothing I suppose. For me, while I have access to a university library and can get a lot of articles there, I don't get access to JSTOR or other kinds of online resources, so it's a bugger if I want to access an article in a journal the university doesn't carry. Now, though, I can access journals like Béaloideas, whereas otherwise I'd have to jump through hoops to get what I want to look at when I happen to be able to visit the library. So that's a definite YAY.

I'm still holding out for unlimited access, though...

More new stuff

Good news, everyone! Kathryn and Treasa have published a new article over on Gaol Naofa that I want to point to, because it's well worth a read:

Breath of Life: The Triple Flame of Brigid

The link above gives you some background to the piece and links to a pdf of the article, which covers various elements of flametending and fire associated with Brigid - traditional flametending, the hearth in the home, and the festival flame. There are lots of good things that are touched on in there, and you'll find some liturgy there too. As noted, though, this is the "short" version, so keep a look out for the long version.

Also worth noting is this statement from the CAORANN council, which I've been involved with for some time now. There's also this one, which touches on a worrying trend in some parts of the wider pagan communities as well as the reconstructionist ones:
Recently there is a movement on the part of some non-Natives - Americans, Canadians and Europeans - to identify as "Indigenous European." The first people to use this phrase were white supremacist groups, who are appropriating the term "Indigenous" to make it seem like white people are somehow an oppressed minority. Others are appropriating it because they have racist stereotypes of Native people as all "mystical" and therefore white folks who call themselves "Indigenous" are somehow more mystical too. We have seen non-Natives using this cloak of "Indigenous European" in an attempt to colonize councils of actual Indigenous people, and to even lead and pretend to speak for real Indigenous People. This is an act of racism and attempted cultural genocide.
The bit about "Indigenous Europeans" (or on this side of the Pond, "Indigenous Britons", even, mainly because the people concerned about this kind of thing don't tend to like Europe much either) is something that's a common refrain in certain political parties or organisations in the UK at the moment, though thankfully they're very much in the minority (and hopefully it will stay that way). And really, it's something that's no stranger to certain parts of the wider pagan communities too, even though the wording and phraseology has maybe changed over the years - though rightly or wrongly the outright white supremacist stuff is probably more commonly associated with groups like Ásatru. I've encountered it from people who have identified as Celtic Reconstructionist in one form or another in the past as well, though thankfully it's very much something that's not common to CR as a whole. But that's not the only kind of racism that's out there and the kinds of responses and attitudes that have come about as a result of the Idle No More movement gaining a wider audience have made that point painfully clear.

So given all that - and as if our other Facebook pages and groups aren't enough - if you'd like to join us on the new CAORANN Facebook page, then feel free to like it.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

The Otherworld

I saw this posted on the Carmichael Watson Facebook page and it looks really interesting:

The world of the fairies may seem like a long way from our world of skinny lattes and social media. But open the pages of the book The Otherworld, and listen to the two CDs that come with it, and you’ll find yourself carried off – as if by magic – to another realm. 

This enchanting selection of songs, tunes, black-and-white photographs and snippets of story is taken from the National Folklore Collection held at University College, Dublin. The musicians and storytellers describe a wide range of encounters with the supernatural, from the smile-inducing to the seriously spine-chilling.

Seeing as I was given just the right amount to treat myself for Christmas, it should be arriving within 3-5 days...

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Bliadhna Mhath Ùr a h-uile duine!

Slàinte, sonas agus beartas dhuibh.
Health, wealth and happiness to you.

Hogmanay was a quiet one for us - surprisingly quiet considering the kids stayed up to see the new year in! The day was spent setting the house in order, baking shortbread and treacle scones, and a dinner of beef stew and sticky toffee pudding, and the evening was spent with slightly manic children and a game of Ludo (a Christmas present we'd yet to play) and keepy-uppy with a balloon up until the bells. We watched as the cannon at Edinburgh was fired to welcome in the new year and the fireworks started going off, and the kids jumped about all excited and we toasted each other with fizzy orange or lemonade (we're nothing if not rock n' roll in this house). Offerings were made, and for once I remembered to put a silver penny out on the doorstep (it was still there this morning; a good sign). We haven't had any first-footers yet, but we'll be going over to the in-law's later on for the traditional steak pie dinner, and probably far too much pudding.

Following on from my previous post, there's an article from the Beeb that ties in neatly:

Happy Hoggo-nott? The 'lost' meanings of Hogmanay

Meanwhile, up north in Stonehaven, the fireball event was nearly cancelled due to flooding this year, but in the end it was planned to go ahead as scheduled. I can't find any videos or articles on it yet, but hopefully everything went smoothly.

Anyway, Happy New Year everyone! May 2013 bring all good things.