Issue 5, Lughnasa 2012
Lughnasa, August 1st, is the fourth of the Celtic high holidays and is also the Irish name for the month of August. A holiday that celebrates the first gatherings of the harvest, it is named for the god Lugh, an important Celtic (not just Irish) deity. Lugh had broad reach onto the European continent, with towns named for him or for tribes associated with him from Poland (Legnica), through France (Lyons), England (Carlisle’s previous name was Luguvalion) and into Ireland in the place name of County Louth.
Lugh personified male beauty, which the Celts valued. He was described in one Irish text as a tall, golden- haired, handsome man in a green cloak, golden silk shirt covered with embroidery carrying a black shield and five pointed spear. Lugh was remarkable as well for his many skills: as a wright, smith, champion, swordsman, harpist, poet, historian, sorcerer, and craftsman.
While the holiday is named for Lugh, the day is dedicated to his beloved foster- mother, Tailtiu. Tailtiu wondrously cleared tracts of land for farming in what is today County Meath, some of the richest acreage in Ireland. When she was done, the land became a plain blossoming with clover, suitable for grazing the highly important cattle or ready for cultivating. But the task proved so arduous that she died at the end of it, broken. As she lay dying, she asked Lugh that an annual fair be held in Teltown in her memory on the cleared ground. This may be an origin-myth about the expansion of agriculture as a way of life in ancient Ireland.
Like many an Irish wake, Lugh started the funereal fair singing a lamentation, but things livened up as time went on. Peace was declared to cease all feuding for the duration of the Fair, religious celebrations were held and then there were horse-races, martial arts contests and musical competitions: “A fair with gold, with silver, with games, with music of chariots, with adornment of body and of soul by means of knowledge and eloquence” states the Dindsenchas, an ancient manuscript. The Fair was also a favored time for contracting marriages and determining winter lodgings. Red ale was brewed about this time from the newly ripened grain, adding to the festivities.
In the next few pages we celebrate our local great Irish Fair, learn a little about Celtic myths, and how to brew red ale. Enjoy!
Let's Meet at the Irish Fair!
August 10th-12th, on Harriet Island in St Paul
It's time to get ready for the Irish Fair, one of the most important events in the Twin Cities Irish community calendar. We can expect some excellent bands this year -- the headliners are the entirely vitalizing Gaelic Storm and Young Dubliners, as well as the excellent folk musicians the Wolf Tones and truly superb fiddler Liz Carroll, whose mastery is well-recognized on both sides of the Atlantic.
There is also a dance-oriented headliner this year, the international-touring Atlantic Steps. This ticketed show tells the story of sean-nós (old style) dancing. Although commonalities are obvious, this style is quite different from step dancing. Sean-nós dancing is more grounded and loose in style and is typically improvisational, rather than choreographed as step dancing is. It has a wonderfully playful, impromptu feel to it. Interest in the form is rising rapidly, so be sure to come out and see what’s what with it. Of course, the students from our wonderful schools of step dancing in the Twin Cities and beyond will also be performing on the dance stage.
The Cultural Area of the Fair is less well known than the music and dance performance stages, but for some, like long-time Irish community member Jan Casey, it's "the heart of the Fair". And indeed the quality of the presentations in the area have been commented on by other fair organizers from across the country as one of the things that sets the Irish fair of Minnesota apart.
Jan and her husband, Mike, admit to a particular bias in favor of this area; it's where they put their energy, heart and soul. Says Mike "So much of the identity of the Irish is experienced in the cultural area. The written word, the Irish language itself, theater, storytelling-- all of these reflect the history and character of the Irish people. And because this area is so broad, it's amazing the variety of topics the folks who work with us in this area can develop."
Jan adds "The cultural area is less prescribed in scope. An idea comes to you, jumps in your face, and you can go ahead and explore it. For example, it is in this area that we have a model of a famine ship. This would've been a boat that came over packed with starving Irish peasants during the height of the potato famine that hit Ireland in the mid-1800s. It's the way that many of our ancestors came to this country. This year, the notion came that it would be great to show how Irish instruments are made and so there'll be demonstrations how to make a bodhrán (the flat Irish drum) and also Celtic harp making.”
Another new feature in the cultural area of the Fair is a focus on the history of the Irish in Minnesota. One display is an expanded timeline with photos and stories telling the individual lives and communal history from the 1830s up to the present day. Steve Trimble, a local historian will talk about old Irish neighborhoods that are less well-known to Minnesotans than, for example, the Scandinavian enclave of Swede Hollow. There will be talks on Irish-Minnesotan authors -- and boxers! Local band Locklin Road will be doing a musical presentation on the Irish roots of Bob Dylan's songs.
Another feature will be an interactive proverb board where you check out classic Irish proverb themes and phrases and add your own favorites.
Returning this year in the cultural area is a series of “Celtic Chats.” These are informal, somewhat open-ended discussions with an expert on a given topic. They were created out of the experience that the lecture format, with another event following close on the heels, truncated interaction and could be improved to allow for more give-and-take discussion among the audience members and with the speaker. Among the topics and speakers on offer this year are: Erin Hart on writing Irish novels, Patrick O'Donnell on the Irish history you should know and Shawn McBurnie on researching traditional songs.
The Fair is run through the efforts of volunteers. If you might like to be a part of that, click Here . Donations to help keep the Fair a free event are always welcome and can be sent in or dropped off at the Irish Fair’s office in the Celtic Junction. To find out more about the Fair and keep abreast of developments, visit the Irish Fair of Minnesota website.
Of worthy note is the Rochester Irish Fest, which will be held over Labor Day weekend. Initiated by the deeply talented and creative Máirtín de Cógáin of County Cork, the festival is now in its second year and promises to build upon the whole-hearted success of last year.
A Conversation about Irish Myth
Dáithí Sproule is teaching a class about Celtic myth at the Center for Irish Music in the Celtic Junction this summer. Through class notes and email exchanges, we fashioned an informal dialogue about Irish myth to share with you – Siobhán
Meaning of Myth
The word “myth” has been used in various ways through the years. In terms of the study of mythology, I would describe a myth as a story of great importance to a community, passed down through time, telling of the ancient origins of things and of the activities of the Otherworld powers (gods, goddesses, etc.) and their involvement with those origins. Since religion is the business of a human community's relationship with the Otherworld, these stories are commonly regarded as sacred.
For those with a Christian background, the stories of the Old Testament provide familiar examples of myths in the positive sense of the word: stories of how the world and humans were created, how death originated and so on. It is interesting that quite a new connotation of “myth” as something fundamentally untrue has emerged in modern history, perhaps developing as recently as the mid-19th century. That was a time of conflict between those who believed the myths of the Old Testament were literally true, and those of a scientific bent who thought that view ridiculous. Even in ancient Greece and Rome many educated thinkers of the time dismissed the idea that their myths could be regarded as factual. In any case, the purpose of myth is to point toward important truths, not to mere literal or historical facts.
What the Myths Tell Us: the Mundane and Mystic
It is important to realize that the ancient Irish stories we have today were told, written down, and re-written over many hundreds of years, so in a sense we are talking about different eras in the retellings of one story. Secondly, we cannot expect the stories to reflect the contemporaneous world of the composer or rewriter to any conscious degree. That was not their intention. The physical details in the story -- clothing, vehicles, weapons -- we would expect more often to reflect the composer's idea of what would have been appropriate for the by-gone days setting of the story -- or what they regarded as most dramatic or striking perhaps, rather than any effort towards realism. Doubtless, almost by accident, the writer might reveal something about his own era. But what we most certainly find revealed are the mindset and the intention of the particular composer, and that will tell us something of his contemporary world.
On a less day-to-day level, it seems to me that the stories incorporate a deep, complex, and, most importantly, valid worldview which pre-dates, and has been replaced by, scientific thinking. There is a philosophical and spiritual framework behind the stories and their typical motifs. We wouldn't expect that each person passing on the stories would have been able to explain that worldview explicitly, but I have no doubt that the worldview itself was the product of profound and serious thinkers.
Diversity and Commonalities in Irish Myth
There is a wide variety of different types of stories in Celtic or Irish mythology -- you could look at it as a body of literature like any other -- with sad stories, love stories, war stories, funny stories, satirical stories, and even political propaganda! The stories are passed down by Christian scribes and writers, so the Otherworldcharacters are almost never referred to as gods or goddesses as they are in Roman, Greek or Hindu myths that we read. The different cycles of stories have their distinctive flavours. The Ulster cycle stories of Cú Chulainn portray a violent world of warriors, feasting, boasting, and single combat in chariots, reminiscent of the Greek Odyssey and Iliad. The Finn stories, which have continued to be immensely popular in the folk tradition right up to the present day, show us a world where Finn and his warriors are not tied to any one place but are roaming the countryside, hunting as they please, and combating various magical Otherworld creatures. In that cycle a great love of nature is shown and it includes some wonderful nature poetry.
But common to much of this myth is a distinctive idea of the Otherworld and its relationship to ours. Various features and motifs appear again and again. One is that the location of the Otherworld is confusingly varied to our modern mind. Sometimes it is within a hill, sometimes in a lake, sometimes across the sea. In fact, people can pop into our world from the Otherworld anywhere at all -- it is always close and transcends and is unlimited by our ideas of space. In terms of time, Samhain, our Halloween, is a period when our world is especially open to the Otherworld, and this is seen over and over again in the stories. And time for those who visit the Otherworld can stand still while life in the ordinary world speeds on.
Markers of the Otherworld
Often humans are lured into an Otherworld encounter by seeing and following swans or other birds, or by being suddenly lost in a mist or snow. The people in the story may just have come upon an ancient, pre-Celtic fort or tomb, a setting like the Hill of Tara or Brú na Bóinne. Wonderful music is heard. These are clues to the listeners of the myths that what follows is Otherworldly, not bound by daily reasoning, space or time. The Otherworld people are also great shape-shifters, unconfined by any particular outer appearance of species or gender. Another distinctive characteristic is that in the whole history of Irish myth women/goddesses have had a special distinctive place, with many layers of meaning, and a wide variety of roles as unabashedly lusty lovers, charioteers, druids, regnant queens, warriors, poets, judges, or personifications of the land or of sovereignty, as well as the more familiar roles of witches, mothers, or demure maidens.
An Illustrative Tale
Let’s look at a short myth that exemplifies many features of Celtic myth described above: The Conception Of Cú Chulainn. Immediately the storyteller sets the stage by placing the nobles of Ulster, the protagonists, near Emain Macha, an ancient hill-fort in Ulster associated with a goddess. Princess Deichtine is with the band, for she is her father Conchobar’s charioteer. A magical flock of birds is seen, that both lay waste the land and sing with a beauty that is captivating. They fly in a particular pattern, with silver chains between them. Night comes and there is a fall of snow. The hearer now has every anticipation that the setting is a sacred, Otherworldly place. The nobles find a strange, newly built house and a couple therein; the woman in labor. The story ends with the strange triple birth of Cú Chulainn, each iteration part of an arc that brings him from the Otherworld firmly into the world of human beings.
All Hail Red Ale
Red Ale is associated with Lughnasa through the Irish god Lugh, in whose mystical household it was served as a part of a ritual of sovereignty. Nowadays commoners are equally welcome to partake of this refreshing brew, and even making it yourself is within reach. We are lucky to have Master Brewer and Celtic community member J Wynia (firstname.lastname@example.org) take us through the paces, ancient and modern, of Red Ale.
Early Days of Brewing
There are references back in the 8-9th century in Ireland to "red ale", and in other cultures dating back as far as 5000 years. But, with no recipes surviving, we have to do some re-construction to get an idea of what those ales would have been like.
Irish red ale, as brewed today, is a pretty modern invention that points at several historic hallmarks for inspiration, if not for a specific recipe. A 20th-21st century Irish Red Ale typically has a recipe something like this:
- 85% English pale malt (base)
- 5% Crystal 60 malt (body, color, sweetness)
- 3% Special B (color, flavor uniqueness)
- 5% Munich 5% (body, maltiness)
- 2% Roasted Barley (red color)
- 30 IBUs coming from British hop varieties like Fuggles or East Kent Goldings.
This modern recipe gets you in the same general ballpark as Smithwick's (by Guinness) that currently represents the "standard" for the style. However, we know that’s not what an old Irish red ale recipe would have been. That’s because the processes used to create ALL of those malts listed were invented in the last 150 years. Prior to that, all malt was a bit smoky and a bit toasted, having been dried over a fire; probably over burning turf in Ireland.
Hops aren't native to Ireland and were condemned as a "wicked and pernicious weed" in the British Isles as late as 1519. At that point in history those beverages brewed without hops were called "ale" in England and lands under its dominion, and those made with hops "beer". So evidence strongly suggests that the ancient version would have been a non-hopped ale.
In addition to flavoring, the hops act as a preservative to slow the spoilage of beers by unwanted microorganisms. And indeed, while equipment thought to be used in brewing has been found in archaeological digs in Ireland, vessels that indicate large-scale storage have not. So, ancient red ale would have been served fresh, before bacteria soured it.
Bitter herbs collectively called “Gruit” were likely used to balance the sweet flavor of the malt before the advent of hops. Without that balance, the residual sweetness after fermentation is too strong for most people. The most common blend was: Bog myrtle/sweet gale, Yarrow root, and Wild rosemary.
Arrays of other herbs, including some fairly toxic ones, were also occasionally used: wormwood, henbane, juniper, sage. Some are fetal toxic (and come to mention it, so is alcohol itself), others psychotropic, though usually at doses much higher than a pint or two of ale.
What might have been the process of brewing in the earliest days? Recall that large metal vessels were not available. A pair of archaeologists with Moore Archaeological and Environmental Services, Ltd., in Galway have proposed an answer that, if impossible to prove, fits the facts. Billy Quinn and Declan Moore suggest that ancient artifacts called fulacht fiadh (‘wild barbecue’) may have been used for brewing a Bronze-Age ale. Some 4500 of these relics have been found across the country in archaeological sites. Once excavated, they reveal a rectangular trench dug into the earth (sometimes with stones reinforcing the edges from collapse) with a wooden trough set into it. Those uncovered typically show signs of charring and remnants of heat-shattered stones inside this framework. Widely thought to have been used to cook food, Quinn and Moore propose the fulacht fiadh may well have been used for brewing. Since you can’t well heat a wooden trough over an open fire, the technique would have been to heat rocks in a fire and, once hot, drop them into the water you have put there, bringing or keeping the water boiling. This could be done with the ingredients of a stew --or a wort (the brewing base created by converting the starches in malt to maltose sugar and extracting them from the grain). The sugars coming into contact with the super-hot rocks causes caramelization that gives both the color and the distinctive flavors that those specialty malts in the modern ales possess.
You can see that process in action here in a whimsical and informative video called Billy and Dec's Bronze-Age Beer or you can read about it here.
Brewing in Ireland Today and Tomorrow
The 20th century was hard on craft beer pretty much everywhere. Even in places where Prohibition wasn't enacted, similar backlashes against beer resulted in massive consolidation of breweries, reaching the low point in the United States in the early 80's. Here we went from 1,568 breweries in 1910 to 51 brewing companies in 1983. That meant the elimination of all but the most mainstream varieties, keeping little besides American lager and American light lager (Bud, Miller, Coors, etc.).
A similar reduction happened in mainland Europe, the UK and Ireland. In Ireland, however, the most mainstream style was stout, so Guinness, Murphy's, etc. remained, but most of the rest went away. That's begun to reverse here. We're back up to 1,400 breweries or so --however, given that the population in 1910 was only 92 million, we'd need something like 4700 breweries to reach 1910 proportions—and a renewed interest brewing a WIDE variety of styles.
In Ireland, things are lagging a bit behind. Sadly (from the perspective of a beer enthusiast), among native-born Irish, the most popular beer last year was actually Coors. Even Guinness isn't terribly popular in Ireland. However, recent Irish legislation to give tax incentives for people to start breweries has resulted in a few new craft breweries starting up, so the prospects look good for the future.
Celtic Cuisine: Irish Red Ale Shepherd’s Pie
In this dish, beef isn’t actually traditional, lamb is. However, there’s a flavor in lamb and goat that I just can’t get past. Use whichever meat you prefer and it will turn out tasty. The last time I made this, I used Porterhouse Brewing Co’s Irish Red Ale, but if you can’t get that, try Smithwick’s or brew your own (Midwest Brewing Supply’s Irish red ale is their #1 selling beer kit and really easy to make). This is a nice dish because it can be made ahead of time/frozen and tastes better if you do so. -J
- 2T butter
- 1.5 lbs ground beef
- 1 large onion, diced
- several cloves of garlic, diced
- 2T of flour
- 1+ bottles of red ale
- 2T of tomato paste
- 1tsp salt
- 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
- 2 carrots, peeled and chopped
- 1/2c frozen peas
- 1/2c frozen corn
- Black pepper, rosemary, thyme to taste
- Batch of mashed potatoes (see below)
Brown the onions and garlic in the butter, and then brown the ground beef in a Dutch oven-style pot. Sprinkle flour on top and mix until flour absorbs the fat and browns a bit. Add the rest of the ingredients except the frozen peas and frozen corn. Simmer until the carrots are tender, adding beer as necessary to keep it from drying out. Add the frozen vegetables. This is the lower level of your shepherd’s pie. Put this into a casserole dish, but make sure to leave room for the mashed potatoes or the whole thing will spill over later. Leave 1/3 to 1/2 of the height of the casserole. Cover with mashed potatoes. If you want the best results, chilling before adding the potatoes makes them easier to spread on top.
Freeze or refrigerate if you’re not making it for the “current” meal. Bake, uncovered until browned on top and hot in the center. I’m not sure on timing, because I always use a thermometer rather than timer to determine when done. The thermometer should read ~160 degrees F.
Serve with Irish soda bread.