Tuesday, 31 January 2012

St. Bridget's Day in Ireland

Only a year before we moved in, the site of the Dublin house that I grew up in was a field. Down the road, after the house was built and the developers had moved on, there was a scrubby patch of trees. They've disappeared now, under concrete and more housing. But when I was a child a spring rose in the scrubland, flowing briefly between two oaks and disappearing again among their twisted roots.

I remember hours spent swinging out over the water on a rope tied to a branch, and letting go at the crucial moment to land in squelching mud on the other side.That survival of the countryside, hemmed in by two roads, was a favourite playground for us local kids. We called it St. Bridget's. And at the time I never asked myself why.

I don't know now if Bridget's name survives there. But I know that for thousands of years before I swung out across that water, people had come there to pray. It was the site of a holy well.

Wells dedicated to Bridget are found all over the country. She's a saint associated with fertility and healing; and with bees, birds, flowers and water. In the past, women prayed to her for help in childbirth. Water from her wells was used in healing, and Bridget's crosses woven out of rushes on her feast day were hung over doorways, and in cow sheds, to protect households and farm animals. They're woven here still every year.

St. Bridget's day is February 1st. It's still celebrated in Ireland as the first day of spring. And in many places here, even now, people still gather at holy wells to perform communal rituals passed down through generations.

The rituals vary from place to place but each contains elements that echo all the others.

People circle the well, usually three, five, seven, nine or nineteen times, praying. They move in the direction of the sun. They kneel and take three, seven or nine drinks of water from their bare hands. Then circling begins again, each round marked by touching a stone or throwing a pebble into the water. 

When people leave, they often take water away with them. But if they do, something is always left behind - a flower, a feather, a pin, a rag or a coin. You still see them fluttering in the wind or gleaming in the water. They're gifts to remind the saint of the people's prayers. 

But they also embody the ancient belief that, for the universe to remain in balance, humans must make restitution for whatever they take from the natural world. Because thousands of years before the holy wells were dedicated to Christian saints, people here prayed beside them to a goddess. 

In Corca Dhuibhne they called her Danu. Her name, which means 'water', is still echoed across Europe in rivers like the Danube and the Donn. She was the Good Goddess of the ancient Celts.
To the ancient Celts, the holy wells were places where awareness of the energy of the universe was heightened, and ritual gatherings of the people could support its endless flow. For them, the feast day that's now called St. Bridget's was the start of the second season of the year. The first was Samhain, the time of darkness, when the earth is pregnant with hope.The second was Imbolc, when the fertile goddess gives birth to new beginnings and the promise of plenty to come. 

Without water nothing can grow. So Danu was an image of fertility and hope. Her husband was Lugh, the sun-god. Their union ensured fertile livestock, rich harvests and good health. 

Here in Ireland, Danu's story has echoed down across thousands of years of mythology and folklore, sharing her symbols and images with the Christian St. Bridget. And for thousands of years people have circled the same springs of water here, asking for protection and help. 

The well that I swung across as a child is buried now. I don't know if anyone remembers its name. But it's still there, linked to all the other hidden waterways that flow together in darkness, bringing life to the earth.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

A Celtic Ritual Worth Remembering

In Corca Dhuibhne you're always aware of the ocean. 

And with water on three sides of you, the light is always amazing. 

A mountain range runs down the narrow peninsula, disappearing into the waves at Dún Chaoin and rising again in seven offshore islands, called the Blaskets. The Atlantic waves are white where they curl against the  cliffs and edged with pale golden foam where they thunder onto the  beaches. Farther out to sea, their colours constantly change under the wind-blown clouds, shifting from turquoise to emerald, pewter and pale jade. At sunset they're streaked with scarlet. At dawn they're tinged with faintest mother-of-pearl.

The people of the peninsula have always been fishermen. For generations they fished from  boats made of tarred canvas stretched on slender timber frames, powered by oars and single sails. In the past, the Blasket islanders depended on the ocean for the food they ate and the produce they sold; a bad year's fishing could bring them close to famine. 

In the past, people believed that when food was taken from rivers and oceans something had to be given back to preserve a state of balance. So island fishermen used to throw a tribute of tobacco into the waves as they passed a certain rock that's still called An Seanduine. Its name means The Old Man. That sacrifice of expensive tobacco, enacted within living memory, was a ritual gesture as the boats left the safety of the islands to face the ocean waves. 

Thousands of years before that, ancient seafarers crossed the ocean in boats built on the same principle - timber frames covered with greased hides. Long before St. Brendan's legendary voyage from Brandon Creek to America, pagan Celts set out from Irish harbours to find The Isles of The Blessed, where silver apples grew on golden trees and the Salmon of Knowledge swam in a crystal pool.

And, on their way, so the legends say, they met the sea-god, Mannanán Mac Lír. 

There’s a story still told that describes Mannanán driving his chariot across the waves, his horses’ manes tossing like foam and his cloak, woven of mist, changing from blue-green to silver and then to the purple of evening. He was the Celts' expression of the ocean itself - a beautiful, numinous, dangerous source of life, from which they could draw, and on which they depended. 

Ancient Celtic seafarers kept themselves alive by fishing with nets and spears. And so, like the islanders' sacrificing pinches of tobacco to gain a good catch, they threw beautifully-crafted gold artifacts from their hide and timber boats, to ward off Manannán's anger and pay for what they took from his world.

I miss the Atlantic ocean here in London. But I love the sinuous river Thames, which has its own magic and legends. Like the ocean, the Thames yields food; for countless generations, Londoners' favourite dish has been fished, cooked and served up here, straight from the river. 

I'd like to say I love eating it. But if I did I'd be lying. 

The truth is I get shifty when I'm offered a plate of eels.

Eel pie and mash, and stewed or jellied eels are a London tradition. There's a 'pie and mash' shop round the corner here, on the Tower Bridge Road, opened in 1902 and still going strong. It's called Manze's. People queue outside every day for takeaways; and the interior, with its mirrors,  green and cream tiled walls, and long wooden tables, is always packed. Behind the counter, ladies dish out eels and pies and mashed potatoes and liquor - a thin, green gravy, ladled out of huge containers. It's a noisy, friendly place, full of a sense of the local community. I love its cheerful, efficient staff and its beautifully-preserved interior. 

And maybe one day I'll learn to love snaky fish served in jelly too. (Though I'm not holding my breath.)

Meanwhile, I've learned something else. Another of those things that make Corca Dhuibhne and Bermondsey seem so similar, though they're so different. 

In Corca Dhuibhne fishermen are always discussing EU quotas, pollution control, and the damage done to fish stocks and habitat by deep-sea trawling. I'm used to that. But what I didn't know till yesterday is that in the last five years London's eel supply has dropped by 98%. The reason? Over-fishing. Pollution. And loss of habitat. 

Once London's eels were fished from the Thames. Now most of them come from Holland. 

The European Eel only spawns in the Saragasso Sea in the middle of the Atlantic. They can't be bred in capticity or sustainably farmed. So if we over-fish them, or destroy their habitat, we won't have them at all. And, it looks like that's exactly what's going to happen if the current trend continues

 For centuries, Londoners scavenging along the banks of the tidal Thames have found objects that were once thrown into the water as offerings to ancient river-gods. Like the seagoing Celts' artifacts, and the Blasket islanders' tributes of tobacco, those ritual sacrifices recognised the need to be aware of the rich and complex life that oceans and rivers sustain. 

Maybe we should look back at our ancestors and learn some respect.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Nollaig na mBan - Another Great Irish Winter Festival.

Corca Dhuibhne rears powerful women. I have elderly neighbours here who grew up living lives that would flatten me in a week. They kept house, looked after kids and old people, milked cows, made butter, cared for calves, raised poultry, grew their own food, and baked and cooked with great skill over open turf fires on stone hearths. As children they walked barefoot to school. As adults they often went barefoot too, and worked in the fields with the men; a friend of mine remembers women with legs and ankles cut raw by the stinging wind.

Electricity and piped water didn't come to the houses in this village till the nineteen sixties. In the days before they got here, women washed everything by hand, carrying water from the spring, and boiling it on the fire. Last winter, during a week of power-cuts, I got an inkling of what that meant. And I just had to wash dishes. They washed laundry too, for households of up to fifteen people, and dried it on lines or on bushes.

Living miles from help, and often too poor to pay a doctor, women were their own healers. My neighbours remember how stinging nettles were used to treat rheumatism and people drank hot milk with onion juice for a cold. Women here still remember those cures, and they still trust in bone-setting and midwifry skills passed down from mother to daughter across generations.

Nobody here wants the hard times back. But I've often heard friends envy their mothers' and grandmothers' spiritual and emotional strength, and marvel at their resilience. They call them 'mighty women', and they love their feistiness and self-respect.

And those qualities are celebrated each year here, at Nollaig na mBan.

Nollaig na mBan means 'Womens' Christmas'. It's a traditional Irish occasion, held on January 6th, when women of all ages get together and party. They meet at home, or go out in groups, to eat, sing, drink, dance and generally hang out together. The pubs and restaurants are full, and the celebrations often spill onto the village streets. Grannies and aunties dance with little girls and teenagers, friends get up and sing songs together, pubs lay on karaoke, and houses are full of music and the smell of serious baking.

As I write this, texts are flying all over the peninsula as people get ready for Nollaig na mBan

Like the mighty women it celebrates, it's a tradition that's still going strong.