Thursday, 26 December 2013

The Wran's Day in Corca Dhuibhne




The Wran’s Day, which happens on 26 December, just after the winter solstice, is as much a part of the holiday season in Corca Dhuibhne as Christmas Day itself. Its name’s a corruption of the English word ‘wren’, and in Irish it’s Lá an Dreoilín


There’s endless research on the Wran’s Day, and suggestions that dreoilín, the word for wren, comes from draoi-éan, ‘druid’s bird’. It’s linked to ancient midwinter festivals and shamanism, when a shared web of ideas and information was accessed like a form of internet powered by human energy, and to later folk traditions like Straw Boys and Guisers. 

Its rituals belong to a dream state beyond stories, or even words, when there were just images and rhythms.

But if you turn up in Dingle on 26 December, what you’ll see is one big party. Basically, the town gets taken over by musicians and dancers. In the past, the boys back west used to dress up in rags and old coats turned inside out. They’d smear soot on their faces, or wear masks, and go from house to house, playing music and asking for pennies ‘to bury the wran’. Then they’d use the money to buy food and drink and throw a dance. Earlier still, live wrens used to be hunted and killed and carried in procession. Earlier than that, at huge ritual gatherings, kings offered themselves to be killed at the turn of the year, in an extreme version of sacrificing the best you’ve got in times of scarcity. Through the nineteenth and twentieth centu­ries, the Church did its best to suppress the Wran’s Day. But it never succeeded; and its ancient, wordless rhythms are still felt here every year. 

Some kids still walk the roads in costumes here back west, and turn up at their neighbours’ houses to dance in the kitchen. Each separate group’s called a ‘wran’. You hear the creak of the gate and the rattle of a drum outside the window. Then tattered figures with masked and painted faces crowd into the house, disguised in their granny’s aprons, padded with rolled-up socks; or their dad’s pyjamas, tied with rope and stuffed into wellingtons. As they come into the room, accordion players pull their masks down over their faces and whistle players push them onto their foreheads; the smaller figures giggle and shuffle. Then someone gives a note and the little group breaks into a jig or a polka.

Traditionally, each householder gave them a few coins and the money collected during the day paid for a party in the evening. But these days most people head for Dingle instead and join the rival parades that march and dance through the streets playing music and collecting for charity. We have a neighbour who blames it on the carpets. ‘The real Wran went out the door the day the carpets came into the houses.’ She says. ‘No one wants mud on the floors nowadays. That’s why they all go in to Dingle!’ 

 

Monday, 23 December 2013

Christmas Eve in Ireland


The old people believed that animals celebrated the birth of Christ and that beasts in the sheds and sheep on the hills went down on their knees at midnight. 



Here in Corca Dhuibhne lighted candles still shine in each window as a sign of  welcome to Mary and Joseph, travelling the night in search of shelter. Traditionally, the candle should be lit by the youngest member of the household and only be blown out by a girl whose name is ‘Mary'.
 

In the past, house doors were left unlatched so that Mary and Joseph, or any wandering traveller, could come in. A loaf of bread left out on the table for the passing stranger was said to ensure bread in the house for the hungry months ahead. And a bowl of water left by the hearth to be blessed by the travellers was carefully saved by the woman of the house on Christmas morning, to be used for cures throughout the coming year.




People said that blackthorn branches flowered at midnight on Christmas Eve, and that bees woke from their deep winter sleep and hummed a song of praise to Christ.

It was said that all animals would turn to each other that night and speak to each other like humans.

  But it was bad luck to try and listen to them.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Received Wisdom


This is Tomás Ó Criomhthain. He was born on The Great Blasket Island off the westernmost end of Ireland's Dingle Peninsula. The island's an isolated place, hard to access and often cut off from the mainland for weeks by fierce Atlantic storms. There's a story that its people took refuge there from invasion and land grabbing on the mainland. The community they built believed that it preserved a cultural inheritance that held lessons for the world.

The photo was taken sometime in the mid 1930s and the book in Tomás's hand was written by himself. Writing was not a part of the Blasket islanders' culture. In their oral tradition the knowledge, skills and beliefs that made up their worldview were passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. They were farmers and fishermen, musicians and storytellers, whose community depended for survival on a deep, shared understanding of their environment and a vivid sense of spiritual awareness of their own place within it.

By the time the photo was taken, the community was in the process of dying. The lure of an easier life in America and elsewhere, combined with lack of government support and respect for their way of life, had begun to draw the young and the strong away from their island home. As the number of households on the island dwindled, members of the older generation, like Tomás, came to terms with a fact that, to them, must have been fraught with irony. It became clear that the only way to continue to pass on their worldview to future generations was to turn away from the oral tradition that had preserved it for so long.

And so, with the help of English academics who had come to the Great Blasket to study the Irish language, the Blasket islanders produced a series of books. Without that decision, consciously made by men and women who saw it as their duty to pass on the knowledge, values and traditions they'd inherited, the Irish people might well have lost touch with a cultural inheritance that had been preserved by their ancestors across thousands of years.





This is Mama Shibulata. He's a respected elder among the Kogi, an indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Columbia. The Kogi are descendants of the ancient Tairona civilization which flourished in Columbia at the time of the Spanish Invasion. For hundreds of years they've lived in isolation at the top of the highest coastal mountain in the world, having fled from the invaders whom they refer to as 'Columbus'.

For generations the Kogi's worldview has been handed down in an oral culture which relies on the power of memory, meditation, shared awareness of their environment, and a profound sense of the place of human beings in a living, interconnected universe.

Writing is not part of their culture. Nor is film-making. But, like the Blasket islanders at the beginning of the twentieth century, they believe it to be their duty to come to terms with the imperatives of the times they live in.

Over twenty years ago, Alan Ereira, an English documentary film maker made contact with the Kogi and, with their cooperation, produced The Heart of The World, a film which delivered a chilling warning.

The Kogi's motivation was simple. They were afraid. They say that the developed world is precipitating a major ecological crisis which threatens Earth’s survival. They believe that we must be made to see and understand what we're doing, and to assume responsibility. Otherwise, the world will die.

Now, more than twenty years later, The Heart of The World continues to be shown worldwide, some thirty times last year in the US alone. Yet the steady destruction of the earth’s ecosystems continues.

So now the Kogi have spoken again. A new film, called Aluna, has been made. It's been produced by Ereira and this time controlled by the Kogi themselves, from concept to production schedule, content and final edit. The photo of Mama Shibulata that you see here is a still issued by the film's production company.

Tomorrow night Aluna will have its Irish premiere in The Blasket Centre, a heritage centre at the end of the Dingle peninsula which looks out at The Great Blasket Island. Ereira, who’s flying from London for the occasion, believes it’s the perfect venue. Though life on the island became unsustainable for its dwindling community in the 1950s, the Irish-language speaking people of Ireland's western seabord still retain a sense of communal memory and respect for oral tradition. To Ereira that heritage is important. He says it’s also important that fishermen and farmers, young and old, will be part of the Blasket Centre’s invited audience, and that their voices should be listened to as carefully in the ensuing discussion as those of the environmentalists, politicians and policy makers.

The Kogi are afraid, more so than they've ever been. But they’re also hopeful. They believe that it's not too late for us to hear their warning, and to learn what they can teach us. I hope they're right.






Sunday, 27 October 2013

Barnbrack or Barmbrack?



I was reared on Barnbrack. Or brack, for short. It's a fruity bread served at Hallowe'en in Ireland, cut in slices - always, in our house, by my sister Mary - and thickly buttered to conceal the whereabouts of a lucky ring baked in the loaf. Actually, the fact that Mary did the cutting and buttering may explain why, year after year, to groans of disappointment from the rest of us, when we sat down at teatime she always got the ring. But that's another story.

The point is that we called it Barnbrack. Not Barmbrack. Now, barm is the foam, or scum, that forms on the top of fermented alcoholic beverages and is used as a raising agent in bread. And it's perfectly true that a brack requires a raising agent. But it's name is Barnbrack, not Barmbrack. Besides, we always used yeast.   

I first heard Barnbrack called Barmbrack in England, shortly after I arrived there in the 1970s. But it was clear that the English - though fine people in many respects - hadn't much of a clue about Hallowe'en. They kept announcing that it was American, and I could never find brack, monkeynuts, breadsoda or buttermilk in their shops. (The English call breadsoda Bicarb. Technically accurate, I admit, but weird nonetheless.) Anyway, faced with their ignorance of the basic facts about, and requirements for, Hallowe'en, I dismissed the whole Barmbrack thing as absurd.

But then, in the silent watches of the night, I began to worry. Barmbrack came with a convincing etymology. What exactly did Barnbrack mean? There was no problem with the brack bit. Breac is the Irish for 'speckled'. Digging surreptitiously about in a dictionary, I came up with bairín, a word I've never knowingly used myself, but is indeed Irish for 'a loaf'. So, there you go, 'a speckled loaf' - which pretty much describes Barnbrack. 

I rest my case. 



This, by the way, is Brack And Butter Pudding. Slices of stale buttered brack in a buttered dish. Pour on egg custard and bake in a moderate oven under a thick grating of nutmeg. 

It's far from that I was reared, of course. We  fried our stale brack in butter and ate it for breakfast with rashers.



Sunday, 15 September 2013

Winding down towards Winter




Light hits the world at a different angle. The focus changes and everything seems closer. Folds in the mountains. Foam on the waves. Shadows on the sand, and the work to be done before winter contains us.


Freckled sunlight catches the last splashes of colour in the garden.


Then colour shifts to monochrome and clouds herald storms. Down by the strand, grass melts from the fields where cows wait for the sileage.





Back at the house, work goes on with one eye on the weather.


And, between sunshine and showers, we gather in our own winter fodder.


The last of the beans and greens from the garden, the blight free spuds, mustard and a couple of Jerry Kennedy's sausages.



Thursday, 5 September 2013

Arbitrary Autumn Baking.





I love these autumn days when you bundle green beans, or garlic, or apples, into newspaper and take them round to a neighbour. And then come home to find somebody else has done the same thing for you.

It's the time of year when baking's completely arbitrary. A walk produces blackberries, so suddenly there's a pie. Or, if a pie's too complicated, it's three ounces of butter rubbed into eight of self-raising flour, three tablespoons of buttermilk and a beaten egg mixed in by hand, an extra sprinkle of flour to keep the ball of dough from sticking on the work surface, pat it flat and cut yourself nine rounds. Then ten minutes in the oven at 200c (make the tea while you're waiting) and there I am with my feet up by the fire, squashing dark, juicy blackberries onto hot, buttered scones.

But, to get back to that  gift on the doorstep, here's an arbitrary upside down cake.

As far as I can remember, this one was rhubarb and apple - probably more apple than rhubarb - chopped small into a well buttered eight inch cake tin and sprinked with brown sugar - or maybe drizzled with some honey - and covered by a basic sponge mix.( I'd say I might have chopped some crystallised ginger in with the apple and rhubarb as well.) 

Anyway, once it was baked, I turned it out onto a wire tray and sprinkled it with dark brown sugar which melted into the apple and rhubarb a bit as the cake cooled.... I use several different sponge mixes but I'm fairly sure this one was the simplest - four ounces each of self raising flour; soft margarine (or beaten butter) at room temp; caster sugar (or soft brown sugar). Two large eggs. I tspn baking powder. You sift the flour and baking powder into a large bowl, holding the sieve high to incorporate as much air as possible. Add the rest and whisk.

Bake for half and hour or so at about 180c .... and that's about it. Only you'd probably want to serve it with cream. And more tea.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Layers of Memory


There's a family story that it was made as a wedding present. I don't if it's true.

I know that it once stood in my grandfather's home in Galway, in a room above his barber's shop in Eyre Square. I know that, when the shop was sold after his death, it came to Dublin with my grandmother, a charming, angry woman, who took to her bed on arrival and stayed there, in a temper, till she died.

I know that when I was born, my father shortened the legs so my mother could use it as a nursing chair.

I remember kneeling in front of it when I was five, playing house; I put a pastry board across the arms as a roof, and tucked my teddy to sleep on the seat.

As I work down through the layers of paint, the memories blur. The top layer is white. That was put on by my brother after my mother's death. Beneath it, there's a layer of Wedgewood blue. That went on when my father died. I remember my mother, alone in the home they'd made together, afraid that even to change the colour of a chair was somehow to betray his memory.


The next layer is brown. It's the hardest to shift. Underneath it, a creamy undercoat clings to the spindles and seat and needs digging out of the legs. The chisel is best to begin with, interspersed with blasts of a wire brush on the electric drill. Then we switch to wire wool and sandpaper. A nylon brush whisks away flakes and dust, revealing the knots and scratches, the marks of other, older tools, and the colours and grains of the different woods chosen by the man who made it.

After my mother died, my brother took it from Dublin to Enniscorthy. Weeks ago, when we drove to Enniscorthy for a reading of The House on an Irish Hillside, we collected it and brought it to Corca Dhuibhne. Wilf and I have no children. Where will it go when we're gone?

Under the steady, repeated gestures of chipping and sanding, turning and dusting, my mind plays with ideas for a new book. Then a sideways twist of the chisel takes me down to the wood, revealing two letters chiselled into the thickness of the back of the seat.  



They're the initals of the man who made it. I don't know his name.


Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Is it Lughnasa or Crom Dubh's Sunday?


You're looking at the face of Crom Dubh, The Crooked Dark One. Depending on which team you batted for in pre-Christian Ireland, he was either Lord of The Harvest or The Bringer of Famine. And a thousand years later, depending on whether you were a Christian convert or a stubborn adherent to the old gods, he was either a pagan wizard banished by holy St. Brendan or a dark and evil deity defeated by the sun god, Lugh.


Across the millennia, his stone image was preserved in the village of Cloghane, at the foot of Mount Brandon here in Corca Dhuibhne. And each year people climbed the mountain from the east to celebrate his annual festival with bonfires, feasting, dancing, hand-fasting and sacrifice.




Mount Brandon is Corca Dhuibhne's holy mountain. Brendan the Voyager, the medieval saint said to be the first European to reach the New World, began his epic voyage from Brandon Point at the north western end of the peninsula. Before setting out with his companion monks, he's said to have climbed the mountain to  prepare himself in prayer. 'Brandon' is an Anglicisation of 'Breannán', the Irish language form of 'Brendan', from whom the mountain takes its present name.

But its older name Slíabh Daghda, The Mountain of The Daghda, reveals its earlier association with the principal god of the ancient Celts. And the festivities that still take place each year on its summit celebrate the Celtic season of Lughnasa, traditionally associated with the sun god Lugh who rode the skies in his burnished chariot drawn by golden horses, and strode up The Daghda's mountain when the corn was ripe, to slay Crom Dubh with his spear of light and protect the harvest for his people.


The festival of Lughnasa is still celebrated all over Ireland, with festivities taking place from late July through August. Its traditional dancing, feasting, bonfires, competitions and music-making easily lending themselves to recreation as arts festivals and tourist attractions: and its association with Lugh makes it easily marketable via the play, and especially the film version, of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa.

But over the years, and in different places, there have been different versions of Lugh’s story. In some versions it's Crom Dubh, not Lugh, who brings the harvest out of darkness to the people. In Cloghane, Crom Dubh's image, preserved in the local church, was said to have brought luck and healing. The festival held in Cloghane village at Lughnasa is still called Domhnach Chruim Dhuibh, which means ‘Crom Dubh’s Sunday. And throughout Corca Dhuibhne, when old people insist they’re right about something, you still hear them saying ‘Dar Chruim’. Once I asked an old man to translate that for me, and he stopped for a bit, looking puzzled. Then he said he supposed it meant ‘by God’. He was right. It means ‘by Crom’.

So, just as pagan gods were displaced by Christian saints, stories about older pagan gods must have been reshaped and retold to make incoming gods more important. Perhaps Lugh defeating Crom is an echo of ancient propaganda, as well as an image of light defeating darkness. ‘Our big sun god beat your crooked dark guy.’ If it is, the propaganda failed. Both stories survived. The festival of Lughnasa celebrates Lugh’s triumph over Crom Dubh. But in Cloghane, where it's traditionally celebrated over the last weekend in July, it’s still Crom Dubh’s day. And if you ask people why, they’ll tell you that’s just how it is. They’re aware of the contradictions and they’re not fazed by them. To them, what matters is what’s there, because it’s part of the picture. You pass on what you’ve received because it’s your children’s inheritance. What they do with it is up to themselves. All that is required of them is to pass it on in their turn, remembering that no story is unimportant because each sheds light on the rest.

And that's why the end to my story here is so terrible. In August 1993, the stone head that the people of  Cloghane had preserved so long was stolen from its place high up in the village church wall. It has never been returned.  







 




Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Salad Song.


Nothing beats the pleasure of arriving home to a garden that's suddenly sprung to life in two weeks of  sunshine after a slow, chilly start to an Irish summer.

Grass in the orchard high enough to tickle the backs of your knees. Apples swelling on branches and fuchsia flowering on the ditches. Opening windows ... leisurely unpacking ... checking the post ... a little watering ... a beer at sunset ... and then the first home-grown salad of the season.

Broad bean tops. German radishes.Young rocket leaves. Baby spinach leaves. Red clover leaves and flower heads. Chive flowers. Rainbow chard leaves. Parsley flowers and chopped parsley stalk. Beetroot leaves. Marjoram buds and flower heads. Chopped chives. Shredded garlic stalks fried in olive oil with black pudding. 

Tossed in a bowl with sunflower oil and cider vinegar. And served at the kitchen table with more beer and  crispy ciabatta.







Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Strawberries and Cream in a Writer's Dream Venue.



All my childhood memories of Enniscorthy revolve round fruit and flowers. My grandmother’s house there was built on a hill. I remember roses in the garden, and tall lilies on thick stems, with ivory petals like curled pollen-powdered vellum. Tattered, golden irises, called flags, grew near a row of tumbledown stone sheds. There was a broad, scrubbed step outside the kitchen door and a path ran down the garden to an orchard of apple trees and fruit bushes.


Granny was frail by the time I remember her. There was a starched cloth on the polished table where we had tea when we visited; the cups were her own mother’s sky blue and white china, patterned with flowers. I remember gooseberry and blackcurrant jams made with fruit from the garden, and ‘country butter’ served on slices of her own brown soda bread. The strong taste of the salty butter was almost like cheese.


Each year in June we’d take the train down from Dublin for Enniscorthy’s Strawberry Festival. Bowls and baskets of the locally-grown berries were everywhere. 


The steep streets of the town were crowded with locals and visitors. People would take picnics down to the water meadows by the broad river Slaney. And sometimes we did too. Cows grazed there, and I loved the humming of bees in the buttercups.
   

Coming back from the riverside, we’d climb the steep streets of the town, past the grey stone castle. The castle was closed to the public in those days, but I remember being taken up a winding staircase once, to the top of a tower, and emerging onto the flat roof to watch a golden sunset.

Last year, in Enniscorthy on a book signing tour, I visited the castle again, now beautifully restored and home to a fine museum. It was a hurried visit, tucked in at the end of a busy day, so I didn’t see half of what’s housed there. 

 And then this year I received an invitation from the Words In Wexford Literary Trail, to speak about my memoir The House on an Irish Hillside at an Afternoon Tea there. What writer could ask for a better venue? At one point in its history, back in the 1500s, it was leased by the poet Edmund Spencer. And, besides, the event is part of  this year’s Strawberry Festival. Already I’m fantasizing about scones and whipped cream topped with rich, red Enniscorthy strawberries. 


 




Sunday, 16 June 2013

Thoughts on Father's Day

My father G.A. Hayes-McCoy and his parents, Galway, 1930s


When I was a child in the 1950s my father worked in the Art and Industrial Division at the National Museum of Ireland. He subsequently became a noted military historian but until I was five or six  he was an assistant keeper at the museum, with responsibility for the Military History and the War of Independence collections.

When I visit the museum today I can still feel his presence. He was fascinated by archaeology as well as history and so passionate about Ireland's past that even at that age I learned to share his enthusiasm. It was a passion rooted in a philosopher's sense of the universality of human experience as well as in delight in his own cultural inheritance. And, above all, it was founded on a pursuit of truth. Looking back now, I'm aware that his uncompromising insistence on the importance of facts over nationalist sentiment must have made him unpopular in some quarters in the Ireland of his time. But as a child I just loved his stories. Not that I grasped many facts at the age of five of six. Instead I received a kaleidoscope of impressions, a sense of excitement and drama, colour and texture, discovery and delight. It has lived with me ever since.

I remember him lifting me up to admire Iron Age ring-beads of translucent black glass with spiral yellow inlay, and twisted gold collars with gorgeous fluted ends. There were amber beads and inlaid boxes too, enamelled horse-bits, jet ornaments, and ceremonial trumpets. Unlike their later, medieval counterparts who laboured over complicated strap-work and heavy decoration, Iron Age craftsmen produced works that are almost modernist in their simple clarity.

That early experience in the museum sparked a lifetime's ambition to achieve the same simple clarity in my writing. It also produced a misunderstanding that, in hindsight, has clarified my understanding of my father as a historian.

The Broighter Boat (photo courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland)

Among the artefacts in the museum is a little boat which was probably a votive offering to Mannanán Mac Lír, the ancient Celtic sea god. It’s a perfect model of a sea-going version of a naomhóg, the slender, curved coracle still used round the west coast of Ireland, where I live today. About seven inches long and fashioned in beaten gold, it was ploughed out of a field in 1896, by a farmer whose name was Tom Nicholl. 

Several little objects were found with the boat, one of which I saw in my childhood as a slender, golden spear. To me that made sense. I knew from stories about ancient Irish voyagers that saints and explorers hunted whales for food. And I’d been told that the Celtic sun god, Lugh, wore a golden collar and carried a spear of light. So I imagined Lugh and Mannanán sailing the golden boat to towards the western horizon and finding the Isles of The Blessed.
 
I know now that the object I saw as a spear was actually a model of the steering oar that guided sea-going naomhóga.I know too that no offering’s ever been found that links the Celtic sea and sun gods as neatly as I linked them then in my imagination.But I also know that imagination itself, balanced by discipline and meticulous research, has a vital place in our understanding of the past.

It's a lesson I learned from a father whose own rigorous, uncompromising scholarship was informed by an imaginative awareness of the universality of human experience. 

My mother, father and me, O'Connell St. Dublin, 1960s


Thursday, 30 May 2013

A Time For Listening.

A cold, wet spring after a cold wet winter. And now a cold, late summer after the slow coming of spring.



Snow on Mount Brandon at Easter. No growth in the grass. Furze and fuchsia bushes slow to flower and primroses still starring the ditches in the last week of May.


For the last three years the rhythm of the seasons has faltered and the certain swing of one thing to the next thing has changed. Now, with livestock crying out for fodder, farmers are shaking their heads and talking of bankruptcy. Here in Corca Dhuibhne, the price of bought-in fodder is high and all over the country the effects of this year's weather are being factored into predictions for next year's profits and losses.

In pubs and shops, and on the roads when people stop to chat with their neighbours, there's talk of selling up and shipping out. Emigration's always been a quick-fix here in Ireland: but now shoulders are being shrugged. The weather's wrong everywhere, they say. There are floods in England and Europe, tornadoes in America, earthquakes, drought and famine all over the world. Food prices are high and, in the current global recession, jobs are scarce wherever you go.

The other morning Radio Kerry ran a story about a priest who's urged people to come together and pray for a change in the weather. I've heard people talk about that since, and not many have laughed. Beneath the talk of prices and recession lies a visceral dread, rooted in shared race-memory, existing at an unconscious level, and all the more powerful for that. What if the sun never shines again? What if all the animals die and the earth ceases to yield?

For thousands of years, the pre-Christian peoples of this peninsula responded to the changing seasons with ritual gatherings and prayers. Their purpose was to channel the energy of the universe and promote the turning cycle of the year. In the Ancient Celtic worldview, each element of the universe is animated by the same pulse of energy and everything in the universe shares a living soul. And in the Celts' circular image of eternity, each thing follows the next in its allotted sequence, like the notes of a tune or the steps in a dance. So for our ancestors, the steady rhythm of seed time followed by harvest time was a sign that the universe was in balance and good health.

And that, I think, is the key. Somewhere deep in our shared consciousness is an instinct that tells us we live in a joined up universe. Increasingly it's becoming evident that the continuing health of the planet depends on our husbandry of it, and it's equally clear that the models we currently live by just don't work.



I've nothing against praying for a change in the weather. But I think it might help if we looked first at our Celtic ancestors' worldview, and considered the nature of the gods that they imagined. 

 That's not something that's hard to do.  Indigenous peoples all over the world still hold versions of that worldview.





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Tuesday, 23 April 2013

St. George's Day at Borough Market - more Circles Links and Layers.



The legend of St. George belongs to England. I remember standing under a statue of him when I first came to London as a child, admiring the dashing knight in armour on his rearing horse, poised to slay the fierce, curly-tailed dragon that was snarling at his feet.

It was years later that I discovered that St. George belongs to many other countries as well, including Catalonia, a region proud of its Celtic cultural roots, where his feast day's known as La Diada de Sant Jordi. But it's only since moving to Bermondsey that I've discovered the Catalan tradition of giving a rose and a book to a loved one on Sant Jordi's Day. 

And then today, wandering round Borough Market, I discovered the link between St. George's Day, which is April 23rd, and UNESCO's International Day of the Book, which falls on the same date because of that Catalan tradition, and because it was the date of the death - and possibly the anniversary of birth - of both the English playwright William Shakespeare and the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes.



Borough Market is London's oldest market specialising in food and drink. There was Catalan produce for sale there today and visitors from Catalonia handed out red roses to the shoppers.
 

It's a glorious mix of local and international specialities reflecting London's cosmopolitan tastes and traditions. There were knights in chain mail selling artisan British Charcuterie. 
The stalls were decked with flags and bunting, and everywhere there were red St. George crosses. 
 
 
 It was a wonderful demonstration of how new traditions can be sparked by older ones, and of how the same legend can be common to more than one culture. And for me there were even echoes of this year's Scoil Cheoil an Earraigh in Ballyferriter, when Galician piper Anxo Lorenzo marched through the village celebrating the links between Corca Dhuibhne and Galicia's shared Celtic inheritance.

But some things remained quintessentially English.