Will you be wearing green next Saturday?
Next Saturday in my town, Fort Collins, Colorado, tens of thousands of people will hit the streets for the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Over a million people immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland in the mid to late 1800’s and most of them, being good Catholics, had huge families. Today, 36.9 million American’s (including myself) claim Irish ancestry. This number is more than eight times the population of Ireland itself (4.5 million).
But is all this really an expression of Irish heritage and cultural pride or simply an excuse to be drunk by noontime? And what is the connection between plastic shamrocks, green beer and the ancient, mystical, culture of the Irish people? OK, I do admit that’s me in the picture with the fake tam and orange wig, along with my friend Richard who is very comfortable with his Leprechaun identified lifestyle, but we were merely doing research on this phenomena (that’s my story and I’m sticking with it)!
To find out what this “Irish Thing” is all about I traveled around Ireland in 2009, along with my cousin, Sandy. We visited ruined castles, Faery Raths, holy wells and other ancient sites in search of evidence that old ways and Ireland’s famed supernatural beings, Faeries, Leprechaun’s and Pookas still exist. We started in Dublin and headed west to County Roscommon, in Connacht, a place once brimming with “the host of the Siddhe.”
We were fortunate to stumble across Cruachan Aí or Rathcroghan by “coincidence” if such a thing could be said to exist in Ireland. Rathcroghan is one of the most significant cultural sites in Ireland (if not the world). It is the ancient royal seat of Connacht, the western portion of Ireland, where the legendary Warrior Queen Mabd (Maeve) once ruled.
Queen Maeve is an example of feminine power in ancient Irish culture and a central figure in the famous táin bó cúailnge, a legendary cycle about Connacht’s cattle raid on Ulster. Briefly, the story is that Maeve, the hereditary ruler of Connacht, was talking with her husband one day about all the wealth that she possessed. Maeve’s husband claimed that he was even wealthier than her. They counted up all of their possessions and it turned out that Maeve’s husband had one bull more than the Queen. Not to be outdone (and really pissed off!) Maeve invaded Ulster to steal a famous brown bull and even up the score.
At the Cruachan Aí Heritage Centre we learned about Oweynagat, the Cave of the Cats, the entrance to the Celtic Underworld, and by “coincidence” we stumbled upon the site later on that afternoon. This site is said to be the dwelling place of the Morrighan, protector of the underworld, and has a strong association with the ancient Celtic holy day of Samhain, November 1st, the source of the modern day Halloween.
Nearby, I noticed a sign that said Rath Beag and was reminded of the famous Irish tune, Si Beag Si More, composed by the blind harper, Turlough O’Carolan. The words of the song (now lost) tell the story of a battle between the Faeries of the “big hill” and the Faeries of the “little hill”. Rumor has it, “O’Carolan slept upon a Faery Rath (hill). Ever after the tunes ran in his head and made him the great musician he was”.
After Rathcroghan we visited Ogulla Well (Cliabach) where, as legend has it, Eithne and Fidelma, daughters of King Laoghaire of Tara were baptised by St. Patrick himself. The Kings daughters were accompanied by Druids from the nearby mystery school of Cashelmanannáin.
At the time that we visited there had been some controversy over the Catholic Priests at Ogulla Well cutting down the hawthorn bushes (known to be the habitation of the Faeries.)
By that time we got there we were so pixie-lated from our visit to Rathcroghan that we wondered if a one-eye dog that we met at Ogulla Well was a transformed manifestation of Balor, the giant one-eyed king of the Fomorians, who could kill with just a look from his bloodshot eye.
But, like most of the animals we met in Ireland, he was actually very gentle. Then we headed north to Sligo, a place whose Faery lore was made famous by the writings of William Butler Yeats.
W.B.Yeats, 1865-1939, provides a literary link to Ireland’s past. In some of his earliest writings Yeats documented the Irish mythology and folklore with which he was intimately acquainted, during his childhood, in the Sligo countryside. Throughout his lifetime, the reference to Irish mythology remained a continuous theme Yeats’ writing.
“Everyone is a visionary, if you scratch him deep enough” said Yeats “but the Celt, unlike any other, is a visionary without scratching.”
Inspired by the British occultist, Aleistor Crowley, and The Golden Dawn, Yeats made some attempt to create a Neo-Irish Tradition, called The Celtic Dawn, along with, Maud Gonne, a wealthy army officer’s daughter. Yeats’ famously unrequited love for Maud Gonne is source of much poetry. Maud, herself, was a lifelong fighter for Irish independence.
In the poem Who Goes with Fergus, Yeats exhorts is countrymen (in particular the young) to take pride in their Irish identity. The poem refers to King Fergus who abdicated rulership in order to become a Druid, ponder nature’s mysteries, and compose poetry.
Who will go drive with Fergus now,
And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,
And dance upon the level shore?
Young man, lift up your russet brow,
And lift your tender eyelids, maid,
And brood on hopes and fear no more.
And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love’s bitter mystery;
For Fergus rules the brazen cars,
And rules the shadows of the wood,
And the white breast of the dim sea
And all dishevelled wandering stars.
In the forward to Gods and Figthing Men: The Story of the Tuatha de Danaan and the Fianna of Ireland by Lady Gregory Yeats writes..
One often hears of a horse that shivers with terror, or a dog that howls at something a man’s eyes cannot see, and men who live primitive lives where instinct does the work of reason are fully conscious of many things we cannot perceive at all. As life becomes more orderly, more deliberate, the supernatural world sinks farther away.
In the chapter, A Remonstrance With The Scotsmen For Having Soured The Disposition Of Their Ghosts And Faeries, from The Celtic Twilight, Yeats humorously chides the Scots for their “gloominess” and celebrates the natural affection the Irish have for their supernatural beings. “For their gay and graceful doings” say’s Yeats “you must go to Ireland; for their deeds of terror, to Scotland.” In the same volume Yeats (pre-emptively) defends belief in the supernatural
“When all is said and done how do we not know but that our unreason may be better than another’s truth for it has been warmed on our hearths and in our souls and is ready for the wild bees of truth to hive in to and make their sweet honey. Come into the world again wild bees, wild bees!
Upon the arrival of Christian missionaries in Ireland not one was martyred by the Irish. In fact, many of the early saints, such as Columkille, were actually Druids. Likewise, when Christianity gained control in Ireland no “Witches” were persecuted. The results of this was an unusual (in Europe) hybrid of Christianity and nature reverence, as evidence by these offerings left by local people at a holy well in Western Ireland.
It is believed that the Tuatha de Danaan, Ireland’s divine inhabitants, who existed before the coming of the Gael, have become diminutive because of the lack of attention given to them in latter times. It is said that they fought a battle in which the victor would decide how Ireland would be divided. When they lost the victors said “we will take the half that is above the ground and you shall have that which is below ground”. But it is also said that they live there still and ride out on certain nights of the year.
Could it be that this is what we’re actually after? Do those of us who are the rootless children of children of immigrants long for this link with our own “primitive past.” Do we long to become enchanted by the hypnotic drone of those “wild bees” and ride with the shining hosts of the Siddhe across a wild and undying landscape, or dwell with the Faeries beneath a grassy hillside?
This of course is silly unless you actually believe that there are (or ever were) nature’s little people, playing and sleeping, wild and ever free, beneath this paved, subdued and weary Earth.
Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild With a Faery, hand in hand. For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
Editor: Kate Bartolotta.