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.