Sunday, 11 September 2011

Kaffee, Kuchen And Celtic Conversation


A sunny autumn day, a quick leap over the last mountain peak on the Dingle peninsula, and it's time for the most westerly cup of coffee in mainland Europe.
At the Dún Chaoin pottery café and bookshop, looking out at the Blasket islands, misty in a shimmering ocean.

Among the books and plates and teapots are piles of hand-knitted sweaters, smelling of oiled wool. As you lift the latch on the half-door to the café you're met by the smell of baking. And outside, sitting on a wooden bench with your fingers wrapped round your coffee-cup, you breathe the salt smell of the ocean and the honey-scent of autumn flowers, buzzing with stripy bees.

A couple of girls sitting opposite me asked how to pronounce a local placename. After a few tries they'd cracked it, and we'd moved on to caife 'gus císte, which is Irish for kaffee und kuchen. It turned out they were on their way home to a Celtic Studies course at their German university. 

It wasn't that surprising. Irish language and folklore and Celtic studies are full of references to German sources. That's because interest in European folklore began in nineteenth-century Germany with Grimm's fairytales. Which mostly aren't about fairies at all. They're märchen, 'folktales, characterised by elements of magic or the supernatural.' The Grimm's interest was scholarly; they were philologists as well as folklorists. But all round the world the stories grabbed the popular imagination, and they've never been out of print since. Later on, Irish and German scholars collaborated on collecting Irish folklore and studying the Irish language. And German tourists and students still keep coming to Corca Dhuibhne.

But the links are much older than that. The name 'Corca Dhuibhne' means 'the territory of the people of the goddess Danu.'  And Danu was an ancient Celtic goddess whose people originated east of the Rhine. Long before the Roman Empire Danu's people spread across huge areas of Europe, including much of Britain, Ireland, Belgium, France, The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy. Her name's remembered in placenames. Like the river Danube, along which the Celts spread towards the Black Sea, pressing on to Thrace and Macedonia, and even making contact with the Scythians. 

Back at the Dún Chaoin café the bees buzzed among autumn flowers. We ordered more coffee, and bit into rich, black porter cake. Out on the ocean the islands floated in silver mist. Sheep called on the mountain. We talked about Manannán Mac Lir, the Celtic sea god, who herds fish and sea-monsters as a shepherd herds his flock. The girls told me about the Nixe, mermaids that haunt German rivers. We watched six black seals' heads bobbing in the turquoise ocean. And I remembered something I'd read years ago, when I was a student too -  the earliest Irish reference to leprechauns called them water sprites. Not cute, fairy shoemakers in big, green hats. 

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