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I have found another reason to like the Irish people and it happened in a pub.

After Eoin’s tin whistle class on Wednesday night we wandered over to a nearby pub to hear his teacher performing traditional Irish music on the concertina, accompanied by his sister playing the harp. I ordered a hot whiskey for myself and a Rock Shandy (1/2 Club Orange and 1/2 Club Lemon) for Eoin and we joined the small group of people in the pub for the music. A television on the wall, albeit with the sound turned off, kept Eoin happy with a dose of the Olympics he has been so sorely missing due to the absence of a tv in our cottage. As for me, the lovely music and relaxed banter with the pub owner and the musicians between tunes, was a perfect way to wind down the day!

At some point the subject of crime came up and someone in the room quipped about how insignificant matters are reported on the local radio station as though they are of great importance, such as the recovery of a missing dog or a truck stalled and blocking a road in a town of only a handful of houses. I mentioned that they’re lucky that such small things are worth reporting here because in Chicago there is enough crime to report about to keep the small things well off the news!

When someone then mentioned how relatively low the crime rate is in this part of the country, I blurted out my usual superstition, “Knock on wood!” No sooner did the phrase escape my mouth than every person within earshot immediately and instinctively – reached over, in front of, beside, or even behind themselves and knocked on whatever wood furniture or molding was closest to them! Then everyone continued on with the conversation without missing a beat. It was so unusual to us that even Eoin remarked during the journey home, “Mom, did you see how everyone knocked on wood when you told them to?” These are my kind of people!

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Brigid of Kildare, courtesy teabagsinfusion.blogspot

As we hunker down in Chicago awaiting what we’ve been warned will be a blizzard bringing anywhere from 1 and 2 feet of snow by tomorrow afternoon, let’s remember it’s the first day of Spring – according to the Celtic Calendar anyway! Lá Fhéile Bríde, St. Brigid’s Day, falls on the 1st of February and is the Christian replacement for the pagan festival of Imbolc, which honored the goddess Brigid, and celebrated the official beginning of the growing and lambing season.

St. Brigid, a contemporary of St. Patrick and often called “Mary of the Gaels” is still a popular saint in Ireland. There was a time when people believed that she walked the earth on her feast day, in the company of her white, red-eared cow, bestowing blessings upon people and livestock. The tradition was for families to welcome her by leaving an oaten cake and some butter on the outside window sill – along with some corn for her cow. People would also tie ribbons, bits of cloth or handkerchiefs on tree limbs or clothes lines, to be blessed by St. Brigid as she passed their way. This blessed remnant of cloth, called “St. Brigid’s Mantle”, was once thought to have special healing powers. I doubt that many people these days follow this particular tradition, except perhaps in the spirit of celebration and acknowledgment of Ireland’s historic past. However, I do believe young school children still practice the tradition of weaving St. Brigid’s Crosses from rushes to bring home for their parents to hang upon the wall in place of the cross they made the year before. Another practice that may still be followed today by some in Ireland, as well as a few Irish-Americans, would be the preparation of certain dishes traditionally eaten on St. Brigid’s Feast Day. These would be the afore-mentioned Oaten Cakes, as well as Boxty and, my choice for the day, Colcannon. Yes, I am going to try my hand at this traditional Irish dish today, as I watch the snow quietly piling up around my Midwestern Illinois home. There would be no point in attempting to create a St. Brigid’s Cross from rushes, because even if I knew what a rush looked like, it would probably be buried beneath several inches of snow in this place so far from St. Brigid’s country or any sign of Spring!

Colcannon (serves 6)

1 1/4 pounds Kale or green Cabbage

2 cups water

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 1/4 pounds peeled and quartered potatoes

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1 cup cleaned and chopped leeks, white part only

1 cup milk

Pinch of ground mace

Salt and ground pepper to taste

1/2 cup melted butter

Simmer kale or cabbage in 2 cups water and oil for 10 minutes, then drain, and chop fine. Boil potatoes and water, simmer until tender. Simmer the leeks in milk for ten minutes, until tender. Drain and puree the potatoes. Add leeks and their milk and the cooked kale, stir together. Stir in mace, salt and pepper. Mound on a plate and pour on the melted butter. Garnish with parsley. – Recipe courtesy fisheaters.com, where you will also find recipes for Boxty and Oaten Cakes.

My store-bought St. Brigid's Cross.

Old Ireland, especially the West, was known to be a place full of piseog… or, superstition. These included, ring forts, believed to be fairie forts which were left undisturbed by farmers plows or roads; a belief in little people, Banshee and fairies, or, “good people”; stories of changelings replacing human infants, ghosts wandering the countryside and holy well cures, to name a few. Though little, if any, of this superstition remains in modern Ireland, remnants can still be found. For instance, counting magpies to tell the future is still quite common, though I highly doubt that anyone doing the counting these days thinks of this practice as anything more than a fun poetic tradition, not to be taken seriously…

Two Magpies, courtesy of http://www.guardian.co.uk/

One for sorrow

Two for joy

Three for a girl

Four for a boy

Five for silver

Six for gold

Seven for a secret

Never to be told…

You see, I am superstitious enough to have searched for a photo of two magpies to insert here, just to be safe! Personally, I am not one to believe in anything 100%… nor do I disbelieve in anything 100%! I ‘knock on wood’ – religiously, and though I’ve never seen a ghost, I have a healthy respect for the possibility of their existence. In fact, during our final walk-through on the day before closing, I ‘jokingly’ asked our auctioneer (realtor) if he thought Rose Cottage might be haunted. Mossie quite emphatically assured me that it is not haunted, for if it were, he would know! Now… he may have had a bit of fun with the American, or was just ‘joking’ like I had been, sort of… or, perhaps he was being forthright and there remains a bit of piseog in West Clare afterall! However, for the most part I would say that today, any refusal to disturb ring forts, talk of ghosts or habit of counting magpies, is not based upon superstition but more likely, a respect for the traditions of the past with a bit of fun thrown in.

Traveling around Ireland, especially in the West, it is not hard to understand how people of long ago would have experienced blurred lines between what is seen and unseen; the present and the past; reality and the imagination. People walk daily past buildings far older than our country, drive past ring forts, witness medieval fortresses and church ruins dotting the skyline and stumble upon megalithic passage tombs and standing stones scattered all around the country. Add to these man-made structures, the natural environment of, not only forests and mountains walked upon by the likes of St. Patrick and Cú Chulainn, but dramatic, constantly changing weather and a sky that seems to hang much lower to the ground than any sky I’ve ever experienced in the Midwest of the United States. Clouds hover so closely at times that you can see them touching the tops of trees, their misty fingers almost within reach, mist and fog clings to the ground on cool, damp nights and an approaching storm can seem to swallow up the landscape in its path.

We saw a great example of the magic of nature in Ireland during our last trip when we made another visit to The Cliffs of Moher. On this particular day, the weather was changing by the minute and we left our car with the sun shining brightly and a soft breeze blowing only to have to duck into the Visitors’ Center minutes later to escape a downpour that approached from a distance like a towering, grey wall. Finally, when we were able to venture outside again, we made our way to the top of the Cliffs where, to our delight, we found O’Brien’s Tower open to the public and were able to climb the stairs to the top and look out at the surrounding view. While standing at the top of O’Brien’s Tower, Anton, Eóin and I watched another approaching opaque wall of grey move along the Atlantic and swallow up the Aran Islands causing a magical disappearance worthy of The Mists of Avalon! This was followed by a short downpour that ended with a rainbow, which came out of the heavens and landed directly on top of the Cliffs. It is no wonder that people exposed to such dramatic natural displays and surrounded by ancient structures and historical sites, would have an open mind to possibilities outside the realm of the everyday world, especially people who lived in a time before such modern wonders as air travel, television and computers!

On a small-scale, we had an experience at Rose Cottage during our last visit that illustrates for me just how the combination of very old, man-made structures and the strange West Clare weather, can create a haunting display. Due to the harsh weather during most of our trip, Anton was not able to spend any time clearing the weeds and brier growing around the outbuildings on our property. Not wanting to leave Ireland without at least tackling some of this job, on the last night of our trip he put on his new, Carhartt work gloves and got to work with some hedge clippers next to one of our two old, stone outbuildings. It was dark outside so we repositioned the car and turned the headlights on his work area. Within a half hour Anton had cleared a nice walkway next to the building and exposed an old stone wall that has probably been covered for years. Pleased with his work, and probably wanting proof that he did it, Anton took photos. Following are two photos taken in succession. Now… I am not saying that the second photograph shows anything more than a bit of misty fog floating past… but I think it is a good example of why the West of Ireland was at one time so rife with piseog!

Anton's last minute brush clearing completed...

Anton's last minute brush clearing completed, with 'ghosts' parading past, perhaps admiring his work...

Biddy Early was known to be a bean feasa, meaning a ‘wise woman’ or ‘woman of knowledge’. Depending upon who was referring to her, she was either “the wise woman of Clare” or “the witch of Clare”. W.B. Yeats called this notorious red-head, “the wisest of wise women”. Priests spoke out against her from the pulpit, but rarely dared confront her face to face… some even quietly approached her for help. I first discovered Biddy Early a couple of years ago, when I stumbled upon a little paperback biography written by Meda Ryan called, Biddy Early: The Wise Woman of Clare, in an obscure small town book shop in either Clare or Kerry, where we stopped for lunch while en route to Dublin from the West. After purchasing the book I showed it to my husband who surprised me by saying that he had heard of her. He didn’t know all the details but he recognized her name and associated it with folklore.

Biddy Early lived her life in County Clare from 1798 until her death in 1874. She was born into a poor farming family and baptized Bridget Ellen Connors, later adopting her mother’s maiden name of ‘Early’. There are records of her existence and even her 1865 arrest for accusations of witchcraft when she was brought to court in Ennis. These charges were promptly dropped when the people, which were expected to testify against her, dropped out, most likely due to a belief that Biddy had the power to inflict curses upon anyone who crossed her. But mostly the legend of Biddy Early’s power, comes to us through stories told by those whose parents and grandparents came into contact with her. Many such stories were collected by W.B. Yeats’ contemporary, Lady Gregory and can be found in her book, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland. From what I’ve read about Biddy, she was probably a healer who provided herbs and ‘potions’ meant to aid the sick. Stories tell of her gift of ‘second-sight’ that allowed her to see future events, provided information to her about things happening in the village that she would otherwise have not known and even allowed her to know in advance when a person in need was coming to see her so that she would often meet them along the road. Biddy was consulted for anything from restoring the butter production of a farm, to healing the sick. A large part of her ‘practice’ involved restoring health to ailing farm animals, a thing of vast importance to the poor farmers of her day. Many believed that she talked to the fairies and may have even gotten her powers from the fairies. A central theme of her story revolves around the use of a ‘magic’ blue bottle which she is said to have looked into in order to see her visions and find cures. One of  several theories of how she acquired the bottle is that it was given to her by her son, a locally acclaimed hurler, who obtained it from the fairies as a thank-you gift when he obliged them by filling a spot in one of their hurling matches. This verse, which was composed during her lifetime, tells the story:

In ’41 when her first born son

Played a fairy game of hurley

I tell you true that the Bottle o’ Blue

Was given to Biddy Early.

Immediately after she died, the bottle disappeared. Some believed the fairies took it back. There is also a story that has the local priest pitching it into nearby Kilbarron Lake upon her death.

Biddy normally did not accept monetary fees for her services, but would accept items such as butter, bread, chickens… and most often, whiskey or poitín (Irish moonshine). The abundance of alcohol that crossed her threshold may account for the deaths of her husbands, who are all said to have died of alcohol related illnesses. This includes her last husband, a man in his 30s, whom she married when she was in her 70s, who also preceded her in death due to alcohol consumption. The consensus is that she had a total of four husbands, though some sources assert only three.

Biddy Early's Cottage, Feakle Parish - from Clare County Library

It is my guess that much of the legend of the powers of Biddy Early derive from her being a very intelligent, outspoken woman who had a good knowledge of medicinal herbs and perhaps a bit of psychic ability and sensitivity to what was going on around her. She was also a woman unafraid to go head-to-head with the local priests at a time when priests were very much deferred to. All in all, this would be a very powerful combination of characteristics in a woman of her time and that alone, fairies or no fairies, makes her an interesting character. Feakle Parish in County Clare is the place where Biddy Early spent a good portion of her life and where the ruin of her two-roomed, thatched cottage is situated. People still visit the cottage and some say there is an aura of magical energy lingering about the place. Also, I have read that Biddy still appreciates a small gift from those who cross her threshold, so people often leave tokens, though I doubt there are many bottles full of whiskey lying about! It is my intention to locate and pay a visit to the cottage during my next trip to County Clare in March, that is, if my sons are not afraid to come along!

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