Issue 9, Lughnasa 2013
Lughnasa is the fourth of the Celtic high holidays and is also the Irish language name for the month of August. Ancient myths about the god, Lugh, for whom it is named, tell of a Fair he held in Telltown honoring his foster mother Tailtiu, an agricultural goddess. More recent folk customs linked with the day give a glimpse-- if only that, and obscured-- into the spiritual significance for the Celtic people. Here is an account collected in 1942 by the Irish Folklore Commission from an unnamed lady of 85 years who was recalling what she had been told from stories of her own mother’s youth. The yield of bilberries was said to foretell how good the crop harvest would be later in the year.
Domhnach na bhFraochóg (Bilberry Sunday)
As I remember it, I heard the old people say that it was on the first Monday of the month of Lughnasa they used to have a great day on the tops of the hills about here looking for bilberries. This Sunday was set up specially for the young people to go off to the …and they would not return again until twilight had fallen. They went to hills on the near side of the parish of Cloghaneely that the people used to go up, the hill of Beltany and of Carn Treuna. It always been held that there is a 'gentleness' (uaislíneacht) belonging to the hill of Beltany... The people used to come from every part of the parish to spend this day on the hills, those nearer to Beltany to the top of that hill, and in the same way, people living near Treuna went there. Indeed, young boys used to go to whichever place their girls would be!
As well as I can understand, in the time these outings were made to the hilltops the people had little to choose in in clothes and they used to wear the best they had for this Sunday. They wore no boots because few in this district have any boots to wear in those days.
After reaching the top of the hill, they would sit and eat their lunches. They used to bring flat cakes of oatmeal and milk for the day. They would eat and then sit around resting. Then they would go here and there over the hill looking for bilberries. Sometimes they would scatter in pairs -- boys and girls -- and other times they would go in groups.
When they returned with the gathering of bilberries, they had a strange custom. They all sat down on the hilltop and the boys began to make bracelets of bilberries for the girls. They had brought short threads in their pockets for the purpose. They would pick hard stalks on their way to the hill and with these they would put thread through the bilberries. Each man would compete with another as to which would make the best and prettiest bracelet for his own girl.
When that was done, a man or maybe a girl would be named to sing a song. The melody would begin then and would go around from one to another, and anyone who had a note of music at all in his or her head would have to keep the fun going. They used to tell stories and plenty of verses as well. After the singing they would begin the dancing. According to the old talk, they had no instrument for music at all; they had to make do with lilting. In those days, boys and girls were good at lilting and they would make enough music for those who were dancing.
When it was all over and they were preparing to go home, the girls would take off the bilberry bracelets and leave them on the hilltop. Whatever meaning there was to that, none the old people will able to tell me, but they all knew it and had heard it from their elders that it was customary for them to do that. They would all come down and go home.
It is a long time since people stopped going to Carn Treuna for the bilberries. The odd one here and there used to go until about 30 years ago, but the old people consider that it is between 80 and 100 years since they went up in crowds.
Junction as Playhouse? A Look Forward
- Siobhán Dugan
The collaboration between Natalie O’Shea and Julia Carey began in Natalie Nugent O‘Shea’s student days at St. Olaf College with Julia as teacher and mentor. Their friendship and collaboration continued in theater productions in the Twin Cities, New York and London. In June, the Celtic Junction was delighted to offer workshops with Julia, who is a world renowned dramatic arts teacher. But wait! There's more.
Junction co-founder Natalie O’Shea is a woman of many talents and interests. At core, theater is chief amongst those; starting with her bachelor's degree in theater from St. Olaf College, working in off-stage roles at the Guthrie and off-Broadway. The last couple years have seen her explore and expand this passion, most notably the writing and production of “Get Up Your Irish” a couple years ago, with Norah Rendell providing musical direction. This was a play about the historical struggles of Irish immigrants from a fishing village who were placed in freezing rural Minnesota as pawns in a political misadventure, much to their cost. Most of the roles were written for young actors, and woven in were Irish music and dance. It was a big success and gave O’Shea a taste for more.
A new chance alignment of interests bought Julia Carey to St. Paul for acting workshops for both adults and youth. “I really like the teaching style,” recalls Mána McBurnie, who was in the youth workshop. “Julia didn’t give us lines to read. She had us make up skits and create the characters ourselves.” “The Junior workshop went very nicely,” agreed Carey. “What came out of that was that the kids are very creative and imaginative, the acting is no problem… Cormac's feeling is the acting will be good for the dancing, too, because it does increase confidence, a sense of theater, a sense of being in the space. Of course you got to get the feet right -- but interestingly enough, I'm finding that some kids already have chosen alter egos or characters, particularly for the competition work. Because they find that they can put on the makeup and become someone who isn't nervous, someone who's going to win.”
“We’re treading lightly for the moment, then down the line, if it all goes ahead, we’d like to do some serious theater,” says Julia. “We've got two projects in mind for now. One is an evening about Yeats which I hope will include drama and dance that we are planning to present in September. We'd like to include Yeats poetry and one of his plays. We haven't settled on specifics yet, but we might do Cathleen Ni Houlihan. It's a short play that embodies Yeats's embrace of a romanticized, mystical Celtic past and the Irish nationalism of his day with beautiful language and allegory. Dáithí Sproule is advising as we look for music with fairy origin.”
“And then, next March sometime around St. Paddy's Day we hope to be presenting a Pantomime which a lot of people won't have seen, of course.” This is not to be confused with Mime. "Panto", as it is called by aficionados, is a form of musical comedy often staged around Christmas time in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The form has roots in the Italian Comedia del Arte from the 16th century. Originally the storylines came from ancient Greek and Roman lore, but in the 18th or 19th century began to be based in popular fairytales such as Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and so forth. “It's a form of entertainment very much aimed at families with song, dance,” says Julia “and audience participation, wherein the audience is expected to sing along with certain parts of the music and shout out phrases to the performers. We can be sure that students from both O'Shea Dance and the Center for Irish Music will be front and center. We want to do the Irish version of Mother Goose and I'm collaborating on that with Brian James, who collaborated with Natalie and Norah Rendell on the creation of ‘Get Up Your Irish’.”
In the tradition of Panto, the plan is to flavor the basic layout with local color; in this case, to introduce Irish characters into it, with Irish dance. ”It'll be great for the kids. They'll enjoy it“, predicts Julia. ” I think it'll be a fun thing to do. It isn't something one needs to be a professional actor, a trained actor, to do. It's a great way to get the community roped in!“, she laughs, "Find yourself with a part in the Panto!”
First Days of Irish Language Radio:
Recollections of Meaití Jó Shéamuis Ó Fátharta
As part of the recent, fabulous Minnesota Irish Music Weekend there was a conversation between Dáithí Sproule and Meaití Jó Shéamuis Ó Fátharta, a gifted sean-nós singer, piper, fluteplayer and pioneer in Irish language radio station, Raidió na Gaeltachta. Meaití Jó comes from Connemara, a stronghold for native speakers of the Irish language not only in numbers, but in passion. The chat found its center of gravity in recalling the salad days of the Irish language broadcast media.
Roots of Irish Language Radio
“It was an old idea that was first sprung by Éamon de Valera,” recalled Meaití Jó, “He was considered a leading statesman of all time, but I wasn't too fond of him because he did things I didn't like, once I got to know the history. But he was very fond of the language and he wanted to have a radio station in Irish. He was the first politician, I think, to understand the necessity and the urgency of having such a service for the Gaeltacht. The Gaeltacht was really disorganized-- it was seven main pockets where Irish was spoken on a daily basis, spread along the western coast of Donegal, down to the south Kerry to West Cork and a couple other pockets.”
"It was a huge sense of urgency, particularly in the early 70s, about anything around the Irish culture… I happened to be there, at that moment when things were happening. In March 1969 a certain popular TV program chose to record a game show called ‘Quicksilver’ with money prizes in a hotel in the Gaeltacht.” Because the program was to be entirely in English, broadcast from the Gaeltacht, it was felt to be disrespectful and even invasive to the native Irish language community who did not have programming in their own language, even though it is the national language of the state. “About 50 people congregated on a damp morning from my area in Connemara, mostly from Carna to Furbo, to protest,” Meaití Jó recalled. ”Some of the more mature adults went in to protest and to state their case. And the program was not proceeded with. That was a huge coup!”
With that victory in hand, the activists wondered what should be next, how to build an ongoing movement with the momentum created, to support the few remaining Irish language communities. They found their inspiration from the North. "It's a type of spirit or mentality or sudden urge which came from Northern Ireland,” explained Meaití Jó. “You wouldn't think we would be so much affected by what was happening in mid- Ulster by the likes of Bernadette Devlin and so on. But we were and we became very organized very quickly.” And so Coiste Cearta Sibhialta na Gaeilge (CCSG) (Gaeltacht Civil Rights Campaign) was formed to highlight the deterioration of the Irish language and campaign for greater access for Irish speaking to services, broadcasting and, some hoped, ultimately, an elected assembly of their own.
Meaití Jó takes up the tale: “In 1969, a general election was announced in May and the Gaeltacht Civil Rights Campaign decided to put forth a candidate, a young graduate from Connemara with the name of Peadar Mac An Iomaire. He managed to get 1,900 preliminary votes that were expected to normally go to a Fianna Fáil candidate. Jack Lynch, the prime minister of the day, he and some ministers decided to come down to the area and rally loads of their own supporters, because they could see that we were gaining. So they came down on a convoy of seven or eight Mercs (Mercedes Benz cars) and held their own rally. And of course, the Gaeltacht civil rights rebels were waiting for them there…”
“After the public meetings, the Fianna Fáil big wigs were going back with their tail between their legs in the face of the solidarity of the community with the Gaeltacht Civil Rights Campaign candidate. But somebody threw a bunch of nails on the road and Mercs tires got punctured [as the convoy was headed back to Dublin]. And we lost a huge amount of votes by the aggressiveness of that, the blackguardy. Right after that they started saying that we weren't just or correct- the word ‘ceart’ in Irish means both- and we weren't civil,” Meaití Jó recalled. “And I must say, that hurt me. No, it wasn't done in the name of the civil rights movement at all. In fact it was vehemently denied! But how can you prove it wasn't one of us? And it might've been.”
The election was lost, but the movement survived and thrived: “The Gaeltacht Civil Rights probably lasted for the bones of seven or eight years, but from it came this new radio service from the Gaeltacht. And that was a huge achievement, a first stepping stone. I little thought I would be myself involved in it the rest of my life [as a career], because it wasn't my intention at all; I believed in this thing,” Meaití Jó said.
First Days on the Air
"I will never forget those days of the new station. It was open to us second of April 1972, it was Easter Sunday. I probably am a romantic but I thought ‘It’s true! It’s going to happen today! Now!!’ The president of Ireland at the time inaugurated it by way of a recording that had been done a week or so before -- to hear his voice declaring the station opened, in the name of Ireland…! It was a glorious morning. The sun shone like now. I said ‘There is a God, too. God is what brings this’. I was very excited. I'd say I’d have been more excited if I wasn't going to be working that day! The papers had the program schedule published earlier in the week. The next step was to have Mass said. Through a mistranslation from the Irish language by editors who were unfamiliar with it, it was written that this Mass was to be in a ‘public house’ rather than the church! Because in Irish that's what we call the church, ‘Teach an Phobail, ‘House of the People’, but they translated it as ‘Public House’ -- a different thing altogether! That was ironic; I would've rather been in a pub myself in those days and celebrate this thing with a drink and so on, to have a right hooley.”
"My main duty that first day was to present a sports program and to read the nine o'clock news that night. I wasn't worried at all about the news. Someone else prepared it and I didn't give two sugars about it. On the sports program, I had to be on the ball and try to get all the information from local sports events in the Gaeltacht myself -- it was only a quarter of an hour -- it sounds so silly now -- but a quarter of an hour if you have to script it yourself-- I'm telling you!” he laughed.
"And on top of that, hundreds of people came down to visit the station. Only a handful were allowed in. And I saw neighbors of mine outside the window. Knocking on the window! Wanting me to come out to them and let them in! And me on the phone trying to take this sports news down from around the country. I was in my prime as far as playing sport was concerned. I wanted to play myself. So I often came back in a hurry with a few statistics about the game I had played in myself on the back of a packet of cigarettes. And I remember going into the studio and leaving the pack of cigarettes outside with the notes. I remember saying ‘To be honest with you now, I have a little picture in my head but I have to go out and get the statistics!’ Oh, there were loads of incidents like that, funny incidents. But behind it all, I believed that this stuff was what we needed, that the bones of it was what we had had to do without for so long.”
“There were only seven broadcasters for the first year or so until the sub stations were built in Donegal and Kerry, and broadcast time was only an hour and a half a day. I remember the first director saying 'Whatever you have, it will do. If you only have 10 minutes instead of a half-hour, do that much’--and then the purists, the linguists and so on were waiting out there for us to make grammatical faults!” he recalled, shaking his head.
“Early on, one of the managers spoke to us and said that we need to do programs from the three main dialects of Irish -- South, West and North -- to be involved on a very regular basis. So these magazine (talk show) programs started live with storytellers from each area. It became obvious very quickly that people from one Gaeltacht, one dialect, couldn't necessarily understand people from another. The director maintained that if we couldn't get this communication going between these three main dialects, then we had failed in the most essential part of the service. I remember when we arrived in Dublin, to ‘Radio Éireann’ as it was called in those days, that was housed in the GPO (General Post Office). And we were told there was going to be a microphone test, and whether we got the job depended on it. We were little bit concerned! Walking up beside me was another one of the broadcasters, Tim O’Neill. He had never seen me in this life, nor me him. And halfway up the stairs he turned to me and said ‘Tarbalahaddenled? [Trouble ahead then, lad]?” He spoke English to me! Oh, poison to me! Red poison! Speaking in English to me, another native speaker. But he thought --that I wouldn't understand him. But I would've understood him a lot better in Irish than his English!” Meaití Jó reminisced, laughing.
“By the mid-70’s programming had been extended from morning to night time. It was very successful, loads of people able to hear it,” he continued. “That was huge. We were on the right road then, we were completely on the right road.”
TG4, the Irish media television station launched in 1996, and Raidió na Gaeltachta now broadcast 24/7 in the Irish language and are available worldwide through the Internet. Meaiti Jó Shéamuis Ó Fátharta, sean- nós singer, piper, flutist and pioneer Irish language broadcaster, was there for the first 38 years of it.
The Written Word: Belfast Poet Ciarán Carson
Ciarán Carson is a deeply interesting guy with a Renaissance man’s range. Born in Belfast, he was raised as a native Irish speaker and continues to involve himself with the language and with traditional storytelling. He is both a traditional musician himself (flutist, tinwhistler and singer) and scholar on the subject, writing a regular column for ‘The Journal of Music’. His poetry fuses these passions; an early collection is playfully entitled “The Irish for No”* and the meter of his poem “Bagpipe Music” is that of single jig. It’d be amazing to have him come to the Twin Cities someday. You can link to read more of his poems, including Belfast Confetti and Bagpipe Music here.
The Fetch is a mystical being in Irish & Scottish lore. It is a shadow who resembles a living person, that person laid low by serious illness, and unable to leave her/his bed. The Fetch is suddenly seen by someone close to the person it resembles; if it appears in the morning, long-life is expected, if seen in the evening, death is likely.
I woke. You were lying beside me in the double bed,
prone, your long dark hair fanned out over the downy pillow.
I’d been dreaming we stood on a beach an ocean away
watching the waves purl into their troughs and tumble over.
Knit one, purl two, you said. Something in your voice made me think
of women knitting by the guillotine. Your eyes met mine.
The fetch of a wave is the distance it travels, you said,
from where it is born at sea to where it founders to shore.
I must go back to where it all began. You waded in
thigh-deep, waist-deep, breast-deep, head-deep, until you disappeared.
I lay there and thought how glad I was to find you again.
You stirred in the bed and moaned something. I heard a footfall
on the landing, the rasp of a man’s cough. He put his head
around the door. He had my face. I woke. You were not there.
*There exists no word for ‘No’ in the Irish Language.
Celtic Cuisine: Irish Black Currant Jam
At the recent Minnesota Irish Music weekend was master musician Oisin McAuley, who played for us from the Donegal fiddler tradition. For those who wanted to embrace this music further, he recommended Fiddle Week in Glencolumkille, County Donegal, Ireland. Since that time I've been pleasantly haunted with my own memories of the place: fiddle music and song, the sea breeze, the coconut - vanilla scent of the yellow gorse, and the taste of the Irish Black currant jam, as prepared by Margaret Cunningham at Gleann Dobhar. She is a loquacious & irrepressible native Irish speaker, and cook extraordinaire. If you find yourself that way, do look her up; in the meantime, here's an Irish recipe for Black Currant Jam.
- 2 lbs ripe blackcurrants
- 1 ½ cups water
- 2 lbs sugar
- Hint of fresh lemon, if you like
- Remove the stalks from the blackcurrants and rinse.
- Place them in a pan with the water and boil for 10 minutes.
- Stir in the sugar, a little at a time.
- Stir continuously until the sugar has dissolved and gently boil for a further 15 minutes.
- Leave to cool for a little and pour into warm, thoroughly cleaned jars.
Makes 5 pots