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A Shamrock is a bright green spring clover–the species is unclear….but probably common clover (Trifolium dubium) or white clover (Trifolium repens), just like your garden variety pony eats. The shamrock has been an instantly recognizable symbol of Ireland for a long time…or maybe not. Anecdotally Saint Patrick utilized the humble plant in order to explain the nature of the trinity to his nascent flock in the fifth century AD (in which case they were the only people to ever understand the incomprehensible mystical unity-yet-separation of God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost).

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More realistically, however, the association between the Irish and the plant is less clear. English sources from the 16th century mention Irish “shamrocks”– but largely in the context of destitute Irish eating field plants (once again the species in unclear, but it seems like it might have been wood sorrel or watercress). Edmund Spenser, who lived among the Irish (and hated them), wrote approvingly of seeing Irish people starving to death after a failed rebellion left them with no crops, “…they spake like ghosts, crying out of theire graves; they did eat of the carrions …. and if they found a plott of water cresses or shamrockes theyr they flocked as to a feast for the time, yett not able long to contynewe therewithall.” Of course, since Spenser reportedly starved to death himself he might have later found occasion to eat these harsh words (literally and figuratively).

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All of this leaves (!) us no closer to understanding how the shamrock became so indelibly affiliated with the Irish. Increasingly it seems like it may be a connection which was made in the early modern era. However, pre-Christian Irish were known to hold the number 3 in greatest esteem. Certain Celtic deities had three aspects and the number 3 was obviously sacred. This is strongly reflected in pre-historic Celtic art. Some of these mystical gyres and whirls do indeed look oddly like shamrocks…so you will have to judge the merit of the little green plant on your own. In the mean time I am going to head down to the great Irish restaurant, McDonalds, and see if I can find a shamrock shake. Usage maketh the myth and by that token there is nothing more Irish than a three-leafed clover.

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It should additionally be noted that in the modern world, “shamrock” has become the name of a bright Kelly green color.  You may even see it today reflected in spring foliage, or jaunty banners, or on a furtive leprechaun or two (although, leprechauns traditionally wore red until they became standardized and bowdlerized in the early twentieth century).  Have you ever wondered whether everything you know if blarney made up by marketers less than a lifetime ago?

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Wha…? That is clearly a four-leaf clover!  Curse you infernal tricksters!

imageEvery year around Saint Patrick’s Day, we delve into Irish folklore to feature alarming mythological beings from the Emerald Isles. Nothing has beaten the frolicsome (yet oddly troubling) leprechauns in terms of popularity, however last year’s post about the sluagh–an airborne host of dark spirits which come from the otherworld–was certainly much creepier. This year gets darker still (well, at least for some of us) as we explore the leannán sídhe, a dark temptress who preys on disaffected writers, artists, and creative folk! Argh! Seriously, did Irish mythmakers have a picture of me on the whiteboard when they came up with this stuff?

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The leannán sídhe was thought of as a woman of the aos sídhe (the otherworld folk) who would assume mortal form as an inhumanly beautiful woman. She would take an artist or poet as a lover and offer them inspiration in exchange for love and devotion. With her wit, intelligence, and affection she would inspire their craft. With her supernatural beauty she would bind them to her and become their muse. Yet the relationship would become more and more oppressive and intense until the artist became consumed with obsession for her. Once the artist was besotted to the point of madness, the leannán sídhe would disappear. The abandoned mortal lover would suffer from intense despair and either pine to death or commit suicide. After the artist was dead, the leannán sídhe would reappear and take make off with the corpse which she would take back to her underground lair. There she would hang the body up from a hook on her ceiling and drain the artist’s blood into a huge red cauldron. This cauldron of blood was the source of her everlasting life, youth, and beauty.

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Once we set aside the casual misogyny which floats atop the surface of this myth, it reveals its deeper meaning: the myth of the leannán sídhe evokes the artist’s primal fear of the contemporary art market where laughing art dealers, gallerists, and corporations drain the artist of their creative vitality and then profit from it. Better to labor away in poverty and anonymity then deal with these terrifying forces.

Argh! God help us!

Argh! God help us!

Wait…ugh… this can’t be right! What is up with these fiendish Irish myths? Maybe next year I had better celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day by writing about something less frightening, bloody, or controversial—maybe Irish politics…

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Kelly Green

Hey, so Ferrebeekeeper has written about all sorts of esoteric and oddball colors, but what is up with Kelly green, a color so famous and prominent that it gets its own month? Actually, I have been avoiding writing about Kelly green because the truth is Kelly green is a pretender–a modern American color masquerading as an ancient Irish one!

A male model in a Three-piece Kelly Green suit

A male model presenting a conservative  three-piece Kelly green suit

As you probably know by now, Kelly green is a bright mid-tone green which inclines toward yellow rather than blue. It looks like newly sprouted grass and it stands out to our primate eyes/brains–probably because of ancient dietary issues of our monkey-like forbears (although all sorts of respectable people and institutions constantly appear on the news exhorting us to eat more salad). Different sources give different dates for the first known references to Kelly Green as either 1917 or 1927, so the color does not even reach back as far as the great waves of Irish immigration, but is a wholly modern invention. Indeed it seems like someone chose the brightest grass green color and named it after a short punchy Irish surname (which sounds like the modus-operandi of Madison Avenue, political operators, Hollywood, or some other enclave of sharkish American marketers).

Saint Patrick's Day Noisemakers

Saint Patrick’s Day Noisemakers

Throughout the twentieth century the color was further popularized by representing all sorts of professional and semi-professional sports teams, but it has found its greatest hold on our collective attention as the heraldic color of Saint Patrick’s Day and the month of March in general. In my head, the name instantly evokes puking teenagers with wigs, cheap clothes, and plastic spangles all of the brightest Kelly green.

Saint Patrick's Day in Chicago Illinois

Saint Patrick’s Day in Chicago Illinois

Yet the history of Kelly green (or lack thereof) needs not interfere with the appreciation of the color! I have never been to Ireland, but I have laid eyes on it from a plane and it was indeed a rainbow of brilliant yellow-greens. In the populous northern hemisphere, March is the month when the new grasses–and all sorts of other plants–begin to return from winter dormancy so the marketers hit upon a deeper truth of the biosphere. Also, I have been that greensick teenager with a plastic derby and it was horrible and glorious. The color is a perfect representation of early springtime in one’s life as well as in the broader ecosystems of the temperate region!

Did I mention the green hills of Ireland?

Did I mention the green hills of Ireland?

number-1aOK! Here we go…The number one post of all time on this blog involved…leprechauns!   It seems people can not get enough of the wee little men in green frock coats. Of course there is a huge problem with writing non-fiction essays about leprechauns—namely, leprechauns are entirely fictional (although the inhabitants of Ireland and Portland (and Randy Quaid) might feel otherwise). I can write about the literary sources that leprechaun myths stem from and I can muse about what the wee fairy tricksters really symbolize, but, in the end, there is only so much that can be written before I am making stuff up for Ice Cube and Jennifer Anniston to star in.

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I classified leprechauns under the “Deities of the Underworld category, because the diminutive cobblers are said come from a mythical underworld beneath the stone burial cairns of Ireland. Additionally, there is a darkness and otherworldly viciousness to original stories of the leprechauns…a glimmer of the haunting madness which pervades all stories of Fairyland. Originally they were supernatural monsters rather than endearing imps.  Perhaps they remain popular because some of their edginess is still there no matter how many boxes of breakfast cereal and lottery tickets they sell in their contemporary guise as Irish stereotype/corporate shill.

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One aspect of leprechauns which classical and modern myths seem to agree upon is that the little green-coated men are greedy hoarders and they have a touch of obsessive compulsive disorder. This is entirely in keeping with the fundamental nature of contemporary society—which is run by little old men who likewise are profoundly greedy and have more than a touch of obsession with numbers…all of which is my way of segueing to data analytics (which I hate, but which the world’s masters seemingly can not get enough of).

Here are the top ten Ferrebeekeeper posts and their subjects

  1. Leprechaun Mascots (Gods of the Underworld, Mascots, Color, Literature)
  2. The Wombat (Mammals)
  3. The White, Red, and Blue Crown of Egypt (Crowns, History, Color, Hymenopterans, History)
  4. Velvet Ants (Hymenopterans, Color, Invaders, Poison)
  5. Sensitive Siluriforms (Catfish)
  6. Cerberus (Gods of the Underworld)
  7. Poisonous Platypus (Mammals, Poison)
  8. Krampus (Gods of the Underworld, History)
  9. The Green Vine Snake of the Subcontinent (Snakes, Color)
  10. Cheetah Cubs (Mammals)

A breakdown of topics by popularity therefore looks like this:

Color (4)
Gods of the Underworld (3)
Mammals (3)
Snakes (2)
Hymenopterans (2)
Poison (2)
History (2)
Catfish (1)
Crowns (1)
Literature (1)
Mascots (1)

So, what have we learned here? Well, infuriatingly, neither mollusks, nor trees, nor turkeys even made it to the final top ten list! I love writing about these subjects—mollusks particularly since they are an ancient astonishing phylum of life omnipresent on Earth since the development of the earliest animals. How could people turn their back on colossal squid, the giant orthocone, or the delicious oyster?

Even more surprisingly, space did not crack the top ten! Not only is this topic filled with treasure supernovae, white dwarfs, and space colonies, it also encompasses all that exists! Obviously I need to write more eloquently!

Wanted: Publicist

Wanted: Publicist

In terms of what actually was in the top ten list, color was the most popular topic—but it was really a secondary category in “Leprechauns”, “Velvet Ants”, and “The Green Vine Snake”. Only in the article about color-coded crowns of Ancient Egypt did it share top billing with crowns.

Did someone say "color crowns"?

Did someone say “color crowns”?

The real number one topic of Ferrebeekeeper is thus “Deities of the Underworld”! People apparently love dark gods—the evil violent beings which dwell down in the depths of our hearts where they mutter constantly of ruin, bloodshed, death, and night. Having lived for these long years in New York City, I should be unsurprised that underworld gods are people’s favorite topic among my various themes…yet it still provides a frisson of shock. Even as you read this, what secret altars are people kneeling in front of?

Yeesh...but I guess it's my blog and i should have seen this coming...

Yeesh…but I guess it’s my blog and I should have seen this coming…

At any rate, the readers have spoken with numbers… and I  listen. The dark prayers of the internet ask for more chthonic gods–for ghosts and gloom and strife! Tomorrow will be the thousandth post on Ferrebeekeeper and I will write again about Deities of the Underworld.

In the mean time, may the dark gods beneath the Earth smile upon you gentle readers and grant you a safe and easy night. Prithee peace!

embroidered_celtic_knot_tote_bag_irish_green_circular_motif_b4c3af34The most popular post in Ferrebeekeeper’s history was about leprechauns.  Thanks to popular folklore (and marketing shenanigans), leprechauns are currently imagined as small drunk men in Kelly green frockcoats who sell sweetened cereal. Yet the silly little men come from a deep dark well of legends which reaches far into the pre-Christian era.  The really ancient stories of Irish myth are ineffable and haunting: they stab into the heart like cold bronze knives.

Wicklow Countryside Powerscourt Castle, IrelandOnce there was a hero-bard, Oisín, who performed numerous deeds of valor and fought in many savage battles.  Oisín was mortal and he lived in Ireland long before Christianity came with its doctrine of a blissful fantasy afterlife.  To Oisín’s mind, to die was to cease being forever–except perhaps in songs and ambiguous stories. Yet some things are more important than death, and Oisín was always brave and loyal (although since he was also a poet he did tend to play moving laments upon his harp).

green-harp-irish-flagOne day, as he hunted in the greenwood, Oisín was spied by Niamh.  Some say she was the daughter of the queen of the ocean and others claim she was a fairy princess.  Whatever the case, she was one of the Aes Sidhe, an immortal being who was merely passing through Ireland.   When she saw Oisín, she recognized the endless sadness of mortalkind and the doom all men bear, but she also saw his noble heart, his loyalty, and his courage.  Unlike the deathless men of fairykind his bravery was real. After all, what meaning does bravery have when there are no stakes?

oisin_niamhNiamh revealed herself to Oisín: she was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on.  She had hair like dancing fire and eyes like emeralds and the stain of age was nowhere upon her since she was from a land beyond the shadow of decay. Niamh offered Oisín an apple and then she offered him more. The two fell in love.

Niamh had a white stallion who could gallop upon the waves of the Western Sea. Together the two mounted the horse and they rode upon the whitecaps into the sunset until they came to her homeland, Tír na nÓg, the land of the forever young.  There among the perfumed gardens and unearthly music, the lovers lived forever afterwards in perfect happiness…

vivid-blaskett-sunset_mg_6881-resizedExcept that Oisín was not perfectly happy.  His heart was loyal and even among the wonders of fairyland he began to pine for his family.  For three years he stayed in Niamh’s lovely arms, but more and more he begged her to be allowed one last trip home.  In the thrall of love’s enchantment he had left his family and his knights behind.  He needed to say his farewells so that he could stay forever with Niamh without regrets.

Reluctantly Niamh lent her stallion to Oisín.  As she bathed her lover in kisses, she made him promise that no matter what, he would not step off the horse.  One day only would he tarry ahorse in Ireland to say his valedictions and explain himself, then he would ride the tireless steed back across the sea to Otherland and Niamh.  Oisín rode east, but when he reached Eire, everything was strange: new villages had grown on the coast and peculiar priests passed among the people waving crosses.  His town was alien and he knew no one.  Among a field of hoary lichstones he remembered an ancient myth and realized the terrible truth—for every year he spent Tír na nÓg, a hundred had passed in the mortal realm.  Everyone he knew was dead and gone.  In a fit of horror and grief he tumbled from the white horse.  As he hit the ground he immediately began to wither from the long years.  The village folk were amazed at the howling old man who stumbled crying among them.  As they watched,  Oisín aged before their eyes into a wizened corpse and then into dust which blew away to the sea.

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sluaghIn Celtic mythology, there is a mysterious group of supernatural beings, the aes sídhe, who belong to a realm which is beyond human understanding (yet which lies athwart the mortal world).  The greatest among these aes sidhe were gods and goddesses—divine incarnations of nature, time, or other abstract concepts.  Other members of the fairy host were thought of as elves, goblins, sprites, or imps (for example, the leprechauns–the disconcerting little tricksters of fairydom).  However the supernatural world was also filled with the restless dead…beings who were once mortal but whose failures and miseries in life kept them connected to this plain of existence.  A particularly ominous group of these dark spirits comprised the sluagh sidhe—the airborne horde of cursed, evil, or restless dead.

shadow_peopleThe sluagh sidhe (also known simply as the sluagh) were beings who were cursed to never know the afterlife.  Neither heaven nor hell wanted them.  Like Jack O’Lantern they were condemned to roam the gray world.  Unlike Jack O’Lantern, however, the sluagh were reckoned to be a malicious and deadly force.  They appeared en masse in the darkest nights and filled the air like terrible rushing starlings or living mist.  One of the most horrible aspects of the sluagh was the extent to which their horde existence erased all individual personality (like eusocial insects—but evil and spooky).

article-2077359-0F3F563E00000578-477_634x320Before the advent of Christianity in Ireland, Scotland, and the northlands, the sluagh were thought of as a dreadful, otherworldly aspect of the wild hunt.  When the dark gods came forth to course the world with hell hounds, the sluagh were the evil demons and fallen fairies which flew along beside the grim host.  After Christian missionaries began to arrive, the idea of losing one’s soul forever became worse than the idea of merely being torn apart by dark monsters—and the sluagh was reimagined as a force which hunted and devoured spirits.

Wodan's Wilde Jagd (F. W. Heine, 1882, engraving)

Wodan’s Wilde Jagd (F. W. Heine, 1882, engraving)

The sluagh were thought to fly from the west.  They were particularly dangerous to people alone in wastelands at night (which sounds dangerous anyway) and to people on the threshold of death [ed.–that sounds dangerous too].  Some of the Irish death taboos against western windows and western rooms are thought to be related to fear of this demonic horde. Although the sluagh could apparently be dangerous to healthy people in good spirits, they seem to have been most dangerous to the depressed, the anxious, and the sick.  From my modern vantage in a warm well-lit (northerly-facing) room, the idea of the sluagh seems to be an apt metaphor for depression, despair, and fear.  Hopefully they will stay far from all of us!

Irish Graves 3872

Kindly accept my apologies for not writing a post last Friday: the sad exigencies of the world prevented me from finishing my week-long overview of ornamental knot designs (which included the valknut, knot gardens, the Saint Jame’s arms, and the endless knot).  Today I am returning to the theme for a final post concerning Celtic knotted designs– which represent the beautiful apogee of decorative knots (with the possible exception of certain gorgeous Islamic calligraphy and artwork).

Like leprechauns and shamrocks, ornate knot designs are an iconic and instantly recognizable aspect of Gaelic culture.  Yet the history of how these designs came to be synonymous with all things Hibernian is far from clear.  Interlace patterns have been found in mosaics and tile work from many different parts of the Roman Empire during the fifth and sixth centuries.  It has been speculated that these designs may have originated from Coptic Egyptian manuscripts, but whatever the case, the sinuous interconnected ribbons with animal heads certainly appealed to the people of Northern Europe in the waning days of Roman hegemony.

During the so-called Migration period (the period from 400 AD to 800 AD) waves of Germanic, Slavic, Mediterranean, and Steppe peoples intermingled and pushed into each other’s territory.  As these peoples intermingled (and battled), looped, braided, and geometric styles of decoration grew in popularity throughout what had been the Western Roman Empire.  Frequently these designs were elaborate knotted ribbons which terminated in interlocking animal heads.

A Sword Hilt Fitting from the Staffordshire Hoard (Mercian, ca. 7th century)

By 700 AD, the style was becoming less prominent on continental Europe, however it continued to evolve in Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia.  The insular art of Irish monasteries produced unrivaled treasures such as numerous ancient stone crosses and the world famous Book of Kells, an illuminated Vulgate gospel from around 800 AD, which defies belief due to the microcosmic intricacy of its knotwork men, animals, and sacred figures.

Detail of Serpents, lions, and vines from the Book of Kells (ca. 800 AD)

Although the Book of Kells marks an apogee of lacework illumination, geometrical knots continued to be popular in Ireland thereafter.   Right on down until today, intricate ornamental knots are a hallmark of Irish culture.  For your enjoyment here is a little gallery of Celtic knots, ancient and modern.

Detail from the Book of Kells

Stained Glass Celtic Knot (from Paradise Stained Glass)

Fahan Cross-slab (Donegal Ireland, ca. 7th Century AD)

Celtic Knot Handbag

Celtic Knot foot tattoo from “Tattoo and Piercing Gallery”

Celtic Knot Stencil from “The Artful Stencil”

Traditional Celtic Knot (Drawing by by ~cosmic-tool from deviantart)

Saint Patrick Expelling the Snakes

Just kidding—aside from zoos and the pet trade, Ireland actually famously has no snakes.  It is one the few snake-free large islands on Earth joined only by New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica (well—everywhere far enough north or south is snake-free: the reptiles don’t really thrive in places where there is permafrost or truly cold winters).  Legend has it that it was Saint Patrick who drove the snakes out of Ireland.  Standing on a great hill he lifted up his crosier and focused divine energy upon the unlucky reptiles which then writhed en masse into the sea and never returned to the emerald island.

"Ssseriously, why are you doing thisss?"

It has always been a bit unclear to me why Saint Patrick would do such a thing. Ecoystems which undergo such catastrophic changes tend to go haywire with great alacrity!  Fortunately the story is entirely a myth.  If snakes ever lived in Ireland (and it doesn’t seem like they did), they were long gone by the time the first Christians showed up.  The real reason is even more interesting than the dramatic Moses-like power of Saint Patrick, but as with most actual answers it is also more complex.

Evidence suggests that snakes evolved 130 million years ago during the Cretaceous.  At the time Ireland was, um, underwater at the bottom of a warm chalky sea.  Early snakes slithered their way across landbridges, rafted to islands on washed away logs, and swam (like the sea snakes) from island to island but, during the Mesozoic, there was no Ireland for them to go to.

Europe in the Ice Age (the pale white area was under a huge sheet of ice)

When the Mesozoic era ended in the great ball of fire, the continents again shifted.  Snakes went through a substantial evolutionary period during the Miocene and the original python-like snakes evolved into many different forms.  These new varieties of snakes slithered into grasslands, deserts, forests, and oceans around the world, but they still could not get to Ireland (now above the waves) because a cold ocean was in their way.  Then the end of the Miocene brought an ice age.  To quote the National Zoo’s essay on “Why Ireland Has No Snakes”:

The most recent ice age began about three million years ago and continues into the present. Between warm periods like the current climate, glaciers have advanced and retreated more than 20 times, often completely blanketing Ireland with ice. Snakes, being cold-blooded animals, simply aren’t able to survive in areas where the ground is frozen year round. Ireland thawed out for the last time only 15,000 years ago.

So Ireland remains snake-free because of the world’s temperamental geology. The island was underwater or covered by ice during certain eras when the snakes might have arrived–geography has conspired against serpents coming to Eire and setting up shop.  The age of humans however has been marked by numerous introduced species cropping up everywhere.  I wonder how long Ireland will be snake free when a pet shop accident or crazy hobbyist could unleash a plague of serpents on the green island.  The fact that such a thing has yet to happen seems almost as miraculous as the original myth.

Although many people construe the whole story to be an allegory of Saint Patrick driving paganism and the old gods from Ireland (as seen here).

Statue of Molly Malone (Jeanne Rynhart, 1988, Bronze)

One of my favorite mawkish songs is “Cockles and Mussels.”  Not only is it a stirring melodramatic ballad concerning the sad death of a young Irishwoman, it is probably the only known song to feature ghost mollusks!  Let’s review the lyrics:

In Dublin’s fair city,
Where the girls are so pretty,
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone,
As she wheeled her wheel-barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!”
“Alive, alive, oh,
Alive, alive, oh”,
Crying “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh”.
She was a fishmonger,
But sure ’twas no wonder,
For so were her father and mother before,
And they each wheeled their barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!”
(chorus)
She died of a fever,
And no one could save her,
And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone.
Now her ghost wheels her barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!

That seems pretty clear—the cockles and mussels travel beyond the grave with Molly and her ghost is left trying to sell their spirits in the variously sized thoroughfares of Ireland’s capital (even to me, that sounds like a futile business plan—who is the projected customer base here?).  The harrowing supernatural drama reminds me that I need to add posts about cockles (which are tiny edible saltwater clams found on sandy beaches worldwide) and mussels to Ferrebeekeeper’s mollusk category.

Beyond her working connection to the vast phylum of mollusks, her sweetness, and her death, little is known concerning Molly Malone.  This is ironic since the longstanding international success of the song has made her an unofficial mascot of Dublin and a mainstay of tourism there.  Various amateur historians have unsuccessfully tried to link the song with a historical personage to no avail.  It seems the ditty was created from imagination by a Scottish balladeer late in the nineteenth century and it was first published in the 1880s in America!

A clean line illustration of Molly for Waltons' Sheet Music to the Song

However the paucity of information has not stopped artists from portraying Molly (as is evident from the pictures dotted through this post).   Even if the song was an invention there is a real sense of futility, heartbreak and loss to it.  And just think of the poor ghostly shellfish spending eternity being hawked in the in-between neverworld of Dublintown.

The cover of "Sweet Molly Malone" by Mel Fisher and Dave Orchard

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