Pagan and Pure

How does a prehistoric calendar mark turn into a pagan feast and then into a Christian saint’s day? This year, the cross-quarter day is Feb 3, yesterday: that is, the day that lies half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Together with the solstices and equinoxes, the cross-quarter days divide the year into eight ‘months’ and they also establish the dates for the ancient festival days of Imbolc ( Feb 2, spring), Bealtaine ( May 1, summer ), Lunasa (Aug 1, harvest), and Samhain (Oct 31, start of winter). In fact, the actual cross-quarters times don’t fall always on those dates but close enough so they have become established as the festival days.

The Brigidine Centre in Kildare, run as retreat and contemplation house. The lead image in this post is a St Brigid stained glass window in Ballinrobe, Co Mayo

As so often happens when an ancient culture is Christianised, Imbolc became conflated with a saintly feast day, that of our own Saint Brigid, the female patron saint of Ireland. Brigid may have originally been a female deity, also called Brigid, or perhaps Danu. This is all controversial, of course – did the idea of the goddess or the idea of the saint come first, for example? Whatever the origins, the marking of the cross-quarter day turned into Imbolc the pagan festival, and finally into Saint Brigid’s Day, and all over the country we make St Brigid’s Crosses, leave a scarf out at night for her to bless, or, still, in Kerry, dress up as ‘Biddies’ and go from house to house, carrying a Brídeóg doll and singing and dancing in a ritual that must be as old as time.

Another custom is to visit those holy wells that are associated with Brigid. Amanda has a special post on that – and is celebrating two years of holy well hunting!

On one Imbolc that lives in our memories Robert and I arose early in the morning and went to watch the sun rise over a small prominence, standing on a piece of 5,000 year old rock art. Our account of that occasion is here, and below is the thrilling moment the sun rose, and lit up the ancient carvings.

Our friend, the poet Paul Ó Colmáin, from whom we take Irish lessons, used one of his own poems as a teachable moment this week, and I was struck by how perfectly it captures that sense of the turning year, the joy of sunrise, the deep embedding in our Irish souls of the ancient and the traditional and the embracing of both. I give the poem first in Irish. For those of you who do not speak it, you can take my word that the language is beautiful and contains nuances that his English version cannot capture, brilliant as it is.

Lá ‘le Bhríde

Dhúisigh an ghrian sinn

an mhaidin úd,

solas órga

ag stealladh

‘is ag scairdeach

isteach ar an urlár,

ag slaparnach

thuas na fallaí,

ag sruthlaíonn

an doras síor-oscailte isteach.

Níor thuigeamar

ar dtús

cad a bhí ag titim amach.

Níor aithníomar

torann buí na Gréine.

Ach chuimhníos

go tobann ar na bhfocail a dúraís,

mar dhraoi:

“Tiocfaidh an Ghrian thar nais ar Lá ‘le Bhríde.”

Agus d’árdaigh dóchas,

ársa, pagánaigh im’ chroí,

inár suí sa leaba,

Bríd nó Danú,

an lámh in uachtar ag an t-earrach,

bhí an geimhreadh, gruama thart.

“Tiocfaidh an Ghrian thar nais ar Lá ‘le Bhríde.”

Paul’s English version of the poem is given below. At the time he wrote it, Paul, his wife, the artist Marie Cullen, and their sons were living on the Great Blasket*, off the Dingle Peninsula, the only inhabitants of the Island.

The Blasket Islands lie off the cost of Kerry, near the Dingle Peninsula. An Irish speaking enclave, it is now uninhabited

Winter was long on the Island, made gloomier by the fact that the sun, due to a combination of high ground and orientation, did not shine on their dwelling all winter.

The sun awoke us.

Like a fanfare

or a burst of wild laughter.

Playfully.

Unfamiliar.

Spilling in along the floor.

Splashing up the walls.

Streaming in through the ever-open door.

We didn’t – at first-  know what was happening,

Didn’t recognise the bright clamour of the sun.

Then we remembered the words

That you, druidlike, had spoken:

“The Sun will come back on St. Brigid’s Day.”

And a welling of Hope,

Pagan and Pure,

Came rising inside us,

Sitting in bed,

Brigid or Danú,

The Winter defeated:

“The Sun will come back on St. Brigid’s Day.”

We’ve turned the corner and spring is finally in the air. Today was golden and we spent it on The Mizen (see below). Thank you Brigid/Danu/Imbolc/ancient Calendar Keepers!

*If you’re ever in Kerry, make sure to visit the Blasket Centre

True to Life

at the hearth

Old photographs are irresistible. The collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh who travelled and photographed the west of Ireland during the 1930s, 40s and 50s is an invaluable documentary of the times in which he lived. Ó Muircheartaigh’s pictures record rural life and – most impressively – the people who lived it. This is a post, mainly of portraits, taken from a book of his work published posthumously in 1970, and now hard to find.  

hat and string

Tomás was President of Conradh na Gaelige (The Gaelic League) between 1955 and 1959, and his photographs appeared on the cover of many editions of the League’s monthly magazine.

Gealic league advert

The portraits, sadly, do not record the names of the subjects nor – often – their localities. We only know, on the whole, that his travels were centred on west Kerry and the Blasket Islands. The images, however, are powerfully evocative and time and place are, perhaps, irrelevant.

calendar

shawl

mower

on the bussweetshop

Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh 1907 – 1967, sketched by Sean O’Sullivan:

tomas

 

Troll Tuning

Baltimore - with Dún na Séad before restoration - painted by Val Byrne

Baltimore – with Dún na Séad before restoration – painted by Val Byrne

It’s May, and time for the Baltimore Fiddle Fair, still in progress as I write this, and keeping us up well into the nights with world class concerts: music from so many cultures that involves the ubiquitous violin. My post today has been sparked off by the opening event held in the restored Dún na Séad – the name means fort of the jewels, which may be a reference to the building’s role in the collection of taxes levied on foreign vessels entering the harbour. The Anglo-Norman castle was built in the early 13th century, was besieged and sacked many times, became a garrison for Oliver Cromwell in 1649 and fell into ruin until it was rescued and underwent a superb full restoration only completed in 2005. Friday’s candlelit opening concert featured a fiddle master from the Shetlands, Aly Bain, and his long term musical collaborator Ale Möller, a multi instrumentalist from Sweden. 

One piece in their programme immediately caught my attention: Hjaltadans – literally translated as ‘lame’ or ‘limping’ dance. It’s also the name of a Bronze Age stone circle near Houbie in the Shetlands. It’s said that the two central stones of that circle are a fiddler and his wife who were entertaining a group of Trowies (trolls) and were interrupted in their music making by the rising sun which turned them all to stone. Trolls are undoubtedly related to The Other Crowd in Ireland, and also inhabit the shadows in Scandinavia.

Here is an extract from the latest album from Bain, Möller and Molsky – Troll Tuning: King Karl’s March

 

The Shetland troll dance was followed by a Swedish ‘Troll Tuning Set’. Aly and Ale explained that Troll Tuning is a particular way of setting up a fiddle where the strings are tuned AEAC♯, rather than the more usual GDAE. This tuning is sometimes used in Scandinavia, Shetland and in American old-time music (this probably because there were so many settlers from Sweden in North America). The tuning produces very distinctive, haunting music: ‘…Once you’ve heard a trowie tune you can never forget it…’ Even more interesting is the legend that playing such tunes connects the musicians with magical powers.

The Devil's Music: Hardanger Fiddle

The Devil’s Music: Hardanger Fiddle

All this reminded me of traditional stories involving musicians and characters from the Otherworlds: they are pretty universal over many cultures. I also thought about a particular type of fiddle from Norway (regularly seen and heard at the Fiddle Fair) which has ‘magical’ associations: the Hardanger Fiddle or Hardingfele in Norwegian. This traditional instrument is usually magnificently carved and inlaid, and has understrings which are not actually bowed, but are tuned to vibrate when other notes are sounded. The tone and ambience of the instrument is unique and compelling: it is easy to imagine the Trowies or Sióg (pronouced Sheeogue: Irish Fairies) requiring such striking sounds for their festivities. But some have thought the Hardingfele has diabolic connections, and in fact many good players were reputed to have been taught to play by the Devil himself. During the 1800s many fiddles were destroyed or hidden both by fiddlers and laypeople who thought ‘…that it would be best for the soul that the fiddle be burned…’ as it was viewed as ‘… a sinful instrument that encouraged wild dances, drinking and fighting…’

In Ireland, boys were sometimes dressed as girls to stop the Sheehogue from stealing them away

In rural Ireland, boys were sometimes dressed as girls so the Sióg would not steal them away

At this time of the year it’s not just the instruments and the music we have to be wary of: throughout the month of May the Sióg are active. Yeats tells how an old man saw them fight once: ‘…they tore the thatch off a house in the midst of it all. Had anyone else been near they would merely have seen a great wind whirling everything into the air as it passed. When the wind makes the straws and leaves whirl, that is the Fairies, and the peasantry take off their hats and say, God bless them…’

The wind is certainly whirling and tearing at the trees outside as I write this: May has seen the return of strong gales – the trees are bending again and Roaringwater Bay is alive with white breakers. Looking out to the islands I bring to mind a tune from the Blaskets, over on the coast of Kerry. Port na pBucai (Music of the Fairies) is a haunted song if ever there was one. It’s said that the islanders were out fishing in their currachs when a storm broke out. It turned into a gale and they feared for their lives as the canvas hulled craft became swamped. Then, the wind suddenly died and they became aware of music playing somewhere around them – an unearthly music. The island fiddler was amongst the crew; when they got safely back to land he found he could remember the tune they had heard. It has passed into the traditional repertoire and has been played ever since.

My own rendition of Port na bPucai on the concertina –

 

To close, a verse by Seamus Heaney which was inspired by this story of the Fairy music:

The Given Note

On the most westerly Blasket
In a dry-stone hut
He got this air out of the night.

Strange noises were heard
By others who followed, bits of a tune
Coming in on loud weather

Though nothing like melody.
He blamed their fingers and ear
As unpractised, their fiddling easy

For he had gone alone into the island
And brought back the whole thing.
The house throbbed like his full violin. 

So whether he calls it spirit music
Or not, I don’t care. He took it
Out of wind off mid-Atlantic. 

Still he maintains, from nowhere.
It comes off the bow gravely,
Rephrases itself into the air.

Blaskets