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[text copied in its entirety from irish folklore list
to be used by me for future research]

>Getting back to the Christian conversion of Ireland: It was a process and
>conversion did not happen overnight. There were few permanent settlements,
>people remained quite mobile and scattered. Missionaries had their work cut
>out for them. - fg

An interesting process at that. One thing I would say is that I don't really
regard it as a 'conversion' because 'having a religion' probably entered
Ireland along with Christianity. The likeliest channel would be south west
Britain where the Irish had established a short-lived kingdom and it is
likely that intermarriage, migration from Britain to Ireland, and perhaps
even the Irish in Britain adopting the Christian faith while there, were the
key factors in establishing small Christian communities in Ireland. 

It is important to remember that the early post-Apostolic Church had no
organized or official approach to non-Christians and conversion was a matter
for the individual. Christian teachers were moving among the converted from
household to household and conversion was sporadic and individual rather
than communal. In the 5th century Palladius was sent to be the first bishop
'ad Scottos in Christum credentes' ('the Irish believing in Christ'). 

From the book Early Medieval Ireland 400 -1200 by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín:

"For the earliest period we are only guessing, but it is reasonable to
presume that the organization of Christian communities would have been along
the lines as the organization of Christian communities elsewhere in the
West. A structure of dioceses was probably envisaged, doubtless with the
intention ultimately of establishing provinces and a regular hierarchy of
bishops, priests, deacons, and the other ecclesiastical grades.
Unfortunately, there is a large gap in our historical sources between the
fifth century and the late sixth/early seventh century, the period of our
earliest surviving ecclesiastical legislation, and though the later canon
law collections mention bishops and dioceses as apparently established
structures and offices, we have no way of knowing how many bishops existed
and how they administered to the Irish church."

also:

"The writings of Patrick - our only contemporary source of information -
present an altogether less rosy picture of the first days of the church in
Ireland. Several times he remarks on the physical dangers faced by him and
his followers and states quite candidly that it was necessary to purchase
the goodwill and protection of the local kings and their brehon lawyers
(illi qui iudicabant, Conf. 53), that body of professional jurists whose
remit was the preservation and interpretation of the laws. He claimed in his
own defence against detractors that he had expended the price of fifteen men
on such things, but even so, he and his followers were in mortal danger on
more than one occasion. The Christian message was not everywhere
enthusiastically received; many of his flock 'endured persecution and lying
reproaches from their parents' (Conf. 42).

Life was particularly difficult for the women among them: 'they who are kept
in slavery suffer especially', he says, and the general impression is one of
intense hardship and suffering. Patrick seems to have concentrated
particularly on the conversion of women in Irish society, urging a life of
celibacy on the unmarried and discouraging remarriage of widows (Conf. 42).
In this he was, of course following a pattern established by the early
church, and the strictures made on the first Christians were doubtless
repeated in the Irish case. From the earliest Christian times it was a
constant refrain among anti-Christian writers that the church's doctrines
gained credence only with a public unable to tell truth from nonsense; they
were believed in only by children, slaves, and especially women. Opponents
of Christianity charged that the church's teachings were offered most often
to the uneducated and by people of low standing in the community. Patrick
refers (Conf. 41) to the 'sons of the Irish and daughters of chieftains',
and it may well be that his message was addressed principally to the young
and to women.... he recounts also how the women converts used, of their own
accord, to present him with their little gifts, placing their personal
jewellery on his altar (Conf. 49), causing scandal in the non-Christian
community and also among the Christians, doubtless because some felt that
Patrick was abusing his position to make money - a charge which his own
strenuous denials prove was widespread." 

Unfortunately Patrick's testimony only provides spartan details about the
native cults he encountered. He claims the Irish were sun-worshipers but
describes Christ as the Sol Invictus. He says that they worshiped 'idols and
abominations' but provides little in the way of description. Personally I
lean to the view that paganism was not defined as a body of words and
orthodoxy with set rituals either in Antiquity or in pre-Christian Ireland.
I think there was a traditional grammar of actions that might be performed
perhaps at a particular time or place that seemed significant, or perhaps in
a time of need. I think that votive and thanksgiving offerings were made. I
think there would be a sense of tradition that different communities would
pass down what they thought had worked for them in ensuring good harvests,
good health, etc. and that keeping a piety to tradition was important. 

I am reminded of what Seneca, the Roman philospher of the 1st century, wrote
on Roman religion:

"If you have ever come upon a dense grove of ancient trees rising to an
unusual height and blocking the sight of the sky with the shade of branch
upon branch, the loftiness of the forest, the solitude of the place, and the
marvel of such thick and unbroken shadow out in the open generate belief in
a divine presence. And any cave where the rocks have been eaten away deep
into the mountain it supports, not made by human but hands but hollowed out
into a vast expanse by natural forces, will suggest to your spirit some need
for religious observance. We venerate the sources of great rivers: the
sudden eruption of a tremendous stream from its concealment causes altars to
be built. Hot springs are worshipped and darkness and immeasurable depth
renders certain pools sacred."

and Apuleis tells us that:

"It is the custom of pious travellers, whenever they comes across a sacred
grove or holy place along their way to make a vow, offer fruit and sit for a
while."

Going back to to Ó Cróinín:

"The earliest Christians cannot have been numerous or influential enough to
constitute a source of political power; as we shall see shortly, the
evidence, such as it is, suggests that kings and aristocracy were
conspicuously resistant to the new religion. That is not to say, however
that the Christians were anonymous and unseen. There is no reason to doubt
that in Ireland, as in every other country where Christianity was
introduced, zealots took to the high-roads and criss-crossed the countryside
smashing the symbols of the rival religion and looting its temples: 'There
is no such thing as robbery for those who truly possess Christ'. There was
ample evidence in the experience fo fourth-century North Africa and the
Eastern provinces that looting and smashing the physical edifice of all
competing cults 'could produce solid results, though not absolutely final
ones'."

Tellingly we can see in the c. 700 Life of St Cuthbert where the Irish have
set up a monastery in Northumbria the reaction to the natives there when
some monks are swept out to sea in a sudden storm the crowd of onlookers are
said to have jeered at them 'qui communia mortalium iura spernentes, noua et
ignota darent statuta uiuendi' ('because they had despised the common law of
mortals and put forth new and unknown rules of life') and when rebuked by St
Cuthbert they were said to reply 'qui et ueteres culturas hominibus tulere,
et nouas qualiter obseruare debant nemo nout' ('Let no man pray for them,
and may God have no mercy on any one of them, for they have robbed men of
the old ways of worship, and how the new worship is to be conducted, nobody
knows'.

Muirchú's Life of St Patrick renders a supposedly native prophecy poem into
Latin and a later Life presents the same poem in Irish. It is possible that
it represents native sentiment

Across the sea will come Adze-head,
crazed in the head,
his cloak with hole for the head,
his stick bent in the head.

He will chant impiety 
from a table in the front of his house;
all his people will answer:
'Amen, Amen'.

So we can see that the process whereby Christianity came to Ireland was
probably a complex one and as Ó Cróinín says:

" 'He will utter impiety', Muirchú adds (incantabit nefas), which was
doubtless the view of non-Christians in the face of demands that they
abandon their own gods and adopt the Christian one. The stark reality of the
new religion with its single god who destroyed all others, given to
outbursts of divine wrath and prone to vengeance and punishment, may very
well have seemed impious to a people more used to a variety of deities and
to the toleration of many cults."

I think that this is a key point because Christianity offered a new grammar
of rituals and actions that people could adopt and turn to (even in the 8th
century we can find invocations to Goibniu and Dian Cécht), but it also
added the idea of an orthodoxy and defined what aspects of ritual and
everyday life were acceptable within a Christian life and which ones were
pagan/diabolical. It is interesting to note the various attitudes adopted to
the gods/spirits we see in early texts. There was much debate as to their
nature and whether they were good/neutral/evil but rarely is there doubt
that they had been real and believed in by people. They are normally
portrayed as powerful whether through divine agency, through having learned
magic or through demonic agency but of course we know that they seem to have
survived all of this to come down to us in some very important texts and up
to modern times in popular belief.

-Ts

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[text copied in its entirety from Irish folklore list to be used for my research in the future]

>Rathraige or Roithrige or Rothraige or Rodraige [Rathan] als. Corce Roide:
>
>From:
>Nine men of the son (sons) of Glaschach, son of Mug Ruith from whom
>are the Rodraige. Genealogical Tracts: Three sons of Mug Nuadat.
>
>One of the Achedtuatha.
>
>Dal ua Corp (Corb?) were: Dal nUiste; Fedraige, Gabraige, Glasraige,
>Gregraige, Grandraige, Lugraige, Lusfraige, Mendraige *Mennraige*,
>Mendtraige, Rathraige, Rochraige, Seinraige, Sodraige, Tradraige,
>Uaraige, RC xx 336
>
>-J

This is very useful. So as far as I can see the reference to Mug Ruith as an
eponymous ancestor of the Rodraige is taken from The Expulsion of the Déisi
which has been dated to the 8th century so right near our earliest
references to him. The narrative breaks off at various points to explore
separate stories of individuals in the text and there are battles, druíd and
magic but Mug Ruith remains undeveloped in the text appearing towards the
end in a long list of the various subsets of the Déisi. 

When I try to find references to genealogies of Mug Nuadat I am not finding
a Mog Ruith connection, instead I am only finding Eochaid Rothán listed as
an alternative eponymous ancestor of the Rothrige but I'm still looking for
a date for the composition. Have I missed something? 

At any rate it does seem to verify our assumption that Mog Ruith was linked
from some of his earliest references to the Rothraige (of various spellings)
but we seem to have an alternative in Eochaid Rothán also being put forward.
We also have an earlier background for some of the narrative ideas in the
Siege story and although we cannot push the date of its composition back any
further we can see that it expands on a story of the Déisi and Cormac mac
Airt that goes back to the 8th century. 

Looking at the Déisi story I came across a neat summary in a book by Will
Parker called The Four Branches of the Mabinogi which looks very interesting
so I'm quite grateful to this thread for bringing this to my attention - he
explores various Irish texts in the book and their meaning in the Irish /
Welsh context :) and I shall be looking to get this book in the near future:

"Before we explore the other main themes in the Third Branch, the Wasteland
Myth and the figure of the ‘Un-King’, we need to understand the background
of the particular group that settled in Dyfed. These are identified in the
medieval tradition as the Déisi or Dessi, a parallel branch of which
inhabited a small tribal kingdom in the eastern coastlands of present day
County Cork.

According to an Old Irish text (dated by Meyer to the late eight century
AD),666 the Déisi were a vassal people whose homeland was originally in the
Meath area. In the reign of Cormac they suffered abuse at the hands of the
high king’s son, and were subsequently forced into exile. In the course of
their wanderings they spent some time in Leinster, before being moved on
again in the time of the
reign of the High King Crimthann. They were then moved on to the South,
where they eventually established a territory among the peoples of Munster.

The Expulsion of the Déisi, though an unremarkable tribal-historical tract
in many respects, does include some interesting features. Telling as it does
the story of a ‘wandering people’ (immerge), the Expulsion is perhaps
necessarily anti-heroic. Throughout the story the Déisi are continually
harried, routed and moved on by neighbouring tribal groups – resulting in
their perpetual itinerant, landless
status. While they are not portrayed as weak or cowardly, they are
represented as suffering more than their fair-share of animosity and
ill-fortune: a state of affairs that begins with the rape of one of their
daughters by the High King Cormac’s son.

It is interesting to note that one of leading protagonists from among the
Déisi is a rather sinister female druidic figure, known as Eithne Uathach
‘Eithne Dread’ who was ‘reared on the flesh of little boys’ to ensure her
preternatural growth. It was prophesied that through Eithne the Déisi would
eventually ‘seize land on which they shall dwell’. And indeed, this proves
to be the case. Eithne first
marries the High King of the Mumu (Munster), then negotiates a homeland for
the Déisi, her mother’s people. But this homeland is only secured when the
Osraige (‘Deer-People’), rival claimants to the land, are finally overcome.
This victory itself is again largely the work of Eithne, following a
prophetic vision induced by ‘two jars full of wine … from the lands of Gaul’.

In this vision, the Déisi receive the rather unheroic injunction that as
long as they do not strike the first blow, victory will be theirs. To this
end, they magically transform a passing serf into the shape of a ‘red,
hornless cow’ and send this hapless proxy over to where the Osraige were
advancing, who
kill it before they realise ‘it was man that had been slain’. After this
follows one of the few military victories achieved by the Déisi throughout
this tribal-historic account, with the Osraige turning and running ‘like
deer’. After this, the Déisi divide up the newly won territories, to be held
‘until the day of Judgement’.

We are less concerned with the historical reality or otherwise of this
mythico-legal tract. It was probably constructed largely to explain the
presence of tribal groups with the name ‘Déisi’ in various parts of central,
eastern and southern Ireland and to qualify the nature of the relationship
of this last group with the high kings of Cashel (the Eoganachta of Mumu).
It is an almost parenthetic reference to a fourth offshoot of the Déisi
tribe – this time over the Irish Sea – that interests us in this particular
context. This is mentioned shortly after the birth of Eithne, just as the
Déisi are attempting to find a foothold in the South:

Eochiad, son of Artchorp, went over the sea with his descendants into the
territory of the Demed [i.e. Dyfed], and it is there that his sons and
grandsons died. And from them is the race of Crimthann over there, of which
there is Tualodor son of Rigin, son of Catacuin, son of Caittien, son of
Clotenn, son of
Naee, son of Artuir, son of Retheoir, son of Congair, son of Gartbuir, son
of Alchoil, son of Trestin, son of Aed Brosc, son of Corath, son of Eochaid
Allmuir, son of Artchorp.

Interestingly enough, almost precisely the same geneaological sequence is
found in the Harleian genealogies of the kings of Dyfed, based on traditions
current at the court of Owain ap Hywel, in tenth century Wales. Through
this, we can fairly confidently link the name of ‘Gartbuir son of Alchoil’
with the ‘Vorteporix Protectoris’ commemorated on the aforementioned
inscribed stone (in both
Latin and ogham characters) at Narbeth in Dyfed. Gartbuir/Vorteporix can in
turn be linked to Vortipor the tyrannus demetorium ‘the tyrant of Dyfed’ – a
figure mentioned by Gildas, his sixth century contemporary. What this tells
us is that even into the Early Middle Ages there was at least a memory of a
common tradition linking the Expulsion of the Déisi with the extensive Irish
settlements in Dyfed. It would even seem likely that the two regions
involved, Dyfed and Southern Ireland, remained in close contact for some
generations after this settlement.

The Irish presence in Dyfed is testified, as we have seen, in numerous ways:
including the presence of ogham stones and Irish-style raths as well as a
number of toponymic and linguistic indicators. Both the ogham tradition and
the raths would seem to point to a particular connection with the southern
area of Ireland: a connection which is also recognised by the medieval
tradition. While we cannot be certain about the accuracy of the origin myths
or even the genealogies involved, it is clear that these were traditions
that were recognised on both sides of the Irish Sea, even into the Early
Middle Ages. If we are looking, then, for the original Irish-Demetian
tradition on which the Third Branch probably drew, we should at first
consider this Southern Irish context, and any significant mythical parallels
that might be found in it. The latter points most heavily to the exile myth
of the Déisi outlined above, as well as the ‘un-king’ tale (with its
Wasteland associations) found also in the Irish tale Cath Maige Mucrama,
which we shall consider in due course."

- Parker, THE FOUR BRANCHES OF THE MABINOGI (2007)

It is interesting that in the Déisi story we have the same use of magic to
acquire land and that Parker notes this might be considered anti-Heroic in
the same way that Mark Williams describes the Siege story:

"The conscious manipulation of apocalyptic and apocryphal story elements
that we see in Forbuis Droma Damhghaire perhaps has a satirical purpose.
Does it diminish Mug Ruith to dress him, as it were, in the garments of
Antichrist? In Forbuis Droma Damhghaire, he is an impressive, dignified
figure, but it is possible that the very excess of magic in the text is
satirical. Magic undercuts the heroic code: enchantment diminishes. The new
synthesis that led druidic cloud-divination to emerge as a motif in the
twelfth century, or perhaps slightly before, shows us that Irish
presentations of the wonder-workers of their pagan past were certainly not
static: new elements were brought in to revivify these
literary representations. These were often remarkably ambivalent, as with
the dual influence of both Magi and diabolical magi in the creation of
néladóracht. We have seen that early Irish writers drew on Isidore as the
standard description of wicked magical practices, though they emphasized
different aspects of his account."

Williams, FIERY SHAPES (2010)

So some possible interesting emerging connections - 

- Eithne Uathach in the Déisi story and the other instances of úatha in
Irish stories and their connection with the Morrígain (cf. Borsje, The
‘terror of the night’ and the Morrígain: Shifting faces of the supernatural
at http://dare.uva.nl/document/133032)

- the idea of acquiring or defending land through magic rather than through
direct (heroic?) battle

- the Morrígain assumes the form of an eel to attack Cú Chulainn in the Táin
Bó Cúailnge and a similar (yet fatal) attack by an ally of Mog Ruith in the
Siege story. 

- the Morrígain's familial connections show a heavy leaning towards incest
and one of the unique features of the Irish Antichrist myth as opposed to
the rest of Europe is that he is to be born incestuously so it may be
significant that Irish texts place this emphasis on incest in the birth of
characters with a dread nature about them

If anything I wold say we are moving further and further away from a sun-god
connection and more to the darker side of things.

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Or, I should say one of my hypotheses. And again, if you are versed in Irish mythology, I would love your opinions and comment.

The stories I read recorded in the great Irish invasion and myth cycles seem to reflect a late bronze age – iron age society. A society settling into the Brehon Laws and caste system, with its powerful tribal chiefs, warriors, and elite. Deforestation began in earnest during this time. These are the people who built stone circles, erected standing stones, and began to dwell within earthen embankments known as Lios or forts. It was a society built around exposure, boasting, and extravagance.

It was not a society that reflected the values of the small groups that constructed the great Sídhe, and dwelt along the edge of the forests or in clearings; who built crannogs that hovered between sky, earth and water. This earlier mesolithic and early neolithic society seemed to possess a reverence for their surroundings. It has been noted in the literature that to assume they did not clear the great forests because they lacked the tools, imposes bias. There is speculation they were exposed to, and possibly possessed, the technology to clear land when needed. It just appears they chose not to.

Within paganism many take the heroes and gods of the Irish Myth cycle close to heart. Many also envision other-than-human persons, both seen and unseen, living within a cultural ethos reflected in the literary accounts of these myths.

When has the literati ever reflected on-the-ground practice?

Even if the literary sources accurately reflect the folk tradition and myth of their time, they are still reflecting the most recent “ancient” culture. These stories were written in the middle ages and seem to reflect the society of their iron age ancestors: those who lived ~1000 years before. They do not reflect the culture who built the Great Mounds. Certainly, the remembered folk narratives of “faeries” only reflect an 18th century (very modern) reflection of those most recent “ancient” cultures (medieval), who lived ~1000 years before.

Our stories change as our culture changes – they are not static.

I ask myself; do I want to espouse an iron age cultural narrative, or do I want to go deeper…. further…. Under ground to a more ancient past?

20120914-113800.jpg

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I found one couple about my (middle) age who had me in to tea before bringing me to the stone (my memory having faded a bit after more than 30 years). They repeated the lore about Finn having thrown the stone from the mountain, and that it was called “fingerstone” because the marks of his fingers are on the stone (there is some spalling that would qualify, I note). Then they said it had fallen! Alas. The farmer who owns the field customarily got his giant rolls of hay well on to the prongs of his tractor by backing them against the stone and pressing them on. One day, the stone just gave way. “Finn MacCool threw it down,” laughed the informant, “and Sean Smith [name changed] knocked it down!”

I should also report some ambivalence toward Finn in this family, who related that (they grew up on the hill) the locals often called him, “Finn MacFool,” and perhaps eager school teachers and other forms of government admins. drumming in reverence for tradition in school kids growing up in the 1960s helped reduce the tradition unconsciously?

The fieldname will no doubt continue a while the tradition: it is locally named “cloghmor.”

So ancient ritual has transitioned from the target ritual of the Iron Age, probably the folkloric re-use/re-interpretation in the medieval times, and of course again as time passed until this Swiss Army Knife of a multifunctional stone ended by getting practical agrarian work done. We went to see it, where it now is sinking into the mud in this very rainy season. I could wish it would be preserved somehow, but another part of me sees it as a good long life-cycle.

…..I wept.

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Many’s the day I’ve had a wee thorn under my own nails!

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A little tidbit, while I’m thinking of it.20120821-142939.jpg

We have several large standing stones on our ridge. The thick, curved variety. One of our neighbors popped in today, to make a massage appointment, and she mentioned a bit of local folklore about these stones. Here in east Cork, those large stones are known as ‘bull stones’. Our neighbor said that when she was a girl, she thought this was because they tied the bull to them….

On the Dingle Peninsula, there was a great assembly held on Domhnach Chrom Dubh in the village of Cloghane. In the old days, the turas (pilgrimage) was made at dawn (1). That would mean a night climb or a vigil on the hill. The ’rounds’ consisted of praying at the ruined oratory and then encircling it and the pillar-stone and the ‘graves’ nine times while saying the Rosary, and ended by taking a drink from the well. When these exercises finished, pilgrims went down the eastern slope to the village, where a famous Patron was held. This Patron (pattern) was begun, tradition says, to20120821-160849.jpg commemorate the day on which the pagan Crom Dubh was converted to Christianity. Crom lived at Ballyduff (Baile Dubh), about two miles from Cloghane. A stone carving, formerly kissed as a cure for toothache, in the wall of a local church is said to represent his head. In the OS Name Books for this parish, dated 1841, there is a note indicating that Croum Dhu was the god of the harvest whom pagans worshipped. His conversion legend tells of him slaughtering a bull in order to send the meat as a gift to St. Brendan.

Another story, from Galway, recounts how Crom Dubh (a false god whose law prevailed until Patrick overcame him) was a wild speckled bull (tarbh breac) that killed travelers at Mam Ean: it attacked Patrick, but was driven by him into the lake in which it drowned (Loch an Tairbh – the bull’s lake). In Armagh there is the story of a bull that prevented Patrick from building a church, so Patrick cursed him and he went mad, eventually caught and killed, and buried under a standing stone at Corran. This stone, part of The Bull’s Tracks, was once associated with the bull of Cualgne (from the Cattle Raid of Cooley), which makes sense because originally the bull that defied Patrick (Crom) and the bull of Cualgne were, if not one and the same, at least emanations of the same concept. On an island north of Skye there was a tradition of sacrificing a bull in August, on a day dedicated to ‘going around some ruinous chapels, taking of omens from a hole in a round stone…, adoring of wells and … pouring of milk upon hills as oblations.’ 20120821-160834.jpg– and the bull-killing associated with a cure for insanity(2). From Cois Fhairrge, we hear of a beef-animal skinned and roasted to ashes in honour of Crom Dubh (harvest-giver and weather-ruler), which the hide carefully preserved. For as we know from many Irish sources, sleeping in a bull-hide was a rite of divination.

I have a reference to make here connecting the wild bull as guardian and dream giver, and an essential trial undergone by seekers, but am at a loss to find my citation [NEED CITATION].

There are several large stones identified as, or with, Crom Dubh (Crom Cruach, Cromm Crúaich, Cenn Cruach, Cenncroithi), i.e.. the decorated stone from a Cavan stone circle, and the large stone at the Grange circle in Limerick.

In he latest issue of the NRA archeology magazine, they mention this about standing stones20120821-160857.jpg, “Standing stones are thought to have functioned as burial-markers, commemorative monuments, boundmarkers and route indicators. … Previous excavations of standing stones in Ireland demonstrate a general association with prehistoric burial grounds and they are
often interpreted as territorial markers. It has also been occasionally suggested that some are aligned on important landscape features such as local mountains. It has also been suggested that standing stones were intended to resemble the human form. The Ask stones may fall into one of two categories: ‘guardian’ stones to the site both warning of the entry into a sacred or supernatural space and protecting the outside world from the energies within, or ‘companion’ stones to the dead, marking the limits and extent of a sacred or significant place, such as a cemetery.”

1. Manuscript of the Irish Folklore Commission 888, 390.
2. Mitchell, A., On various superstitions in the north-west highlands and islands of scotland especially in relation to lunacy.

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I was busy yesterday trimming back brambles. They are tenacious plants, and fast growers. It seems no sooner have I trimmed them back in one area, that they are wild again in another. I’m most intrigued by the thick, long whips that reach out from the hedge into the garden. These long arms can be almost an inch in diameter, and easily over 9 feet long. As I made my way along the southwestern wall, I was treated with first fruits: an sméar mullaigh (the topmost blackberry). Juicy and delicious! Since I have Dris on my mind (and still need to collect my trimmings out of the garden), I thought I would share some folklore.

In traditional herbal medicine the bramble is ruled by the planet Venus (Friday) and associated with the astrological sign Aries. 20120821-121141.jpgIn Ulster they might be called ‘brammle’, here in Cork ‘blackas’, or generally ‘scaldberries’. It is universally believed that they should NOT be eaten after the feast of Samhain! Reasons for this vary, from the púca spitting or peeing on them, the devil doing mischief as well, or…as in Brittany, à cause des fées (because of fairies).

They were, however, eaten at the Samhain feast in the form of blackberry pie, along with apple cake and hazel nuts (1). In the Scottish Highlands, on the feast of St. Michael, they were made into a cake called Struan Michael, which traditionally included blackberries, bilberries, cranberries, carroway seeds, and wild honey, and was baked over a fire of oak, rowan, bramble, and other “blessed woods” (2).

Brambles do a remarkable thing when they reach out with those long arms; they seek to insert their fingers into the ground and grow anew. This bramble ‘arch’, or ‘double-headed’ bramble, has some curious properties in folklore (3). Here in Ireland, of course, it provided a vehicle for invoking all manner of ‘evil’ spirits: whether you were a farmer wanting to curse your neighbor, gain superior musical ability, or achieve luck with cards – though you may have a high price to pay (your soul!). In England it was said this same “double-headed” bramble could cure many things, from whooping cough and hernia, to boils and rickets. For example, a child with whooping cough could be passed through the ‘arch’ three times before breakfast for nine consecutive days, at sunrise while facing the rising sun, and saying “In bramble, out cough, here I leave the whooping cough.” A Cornish cure for scalds and burns involved gathering nine bramble leaves and putting them in a vessel of clear spring water, with each leaf then passed over the affected area while saying three times: ‘Three came from the east, one with fire and two with frost, out with the fire and in with the frost, in the name of the father, son and holy ghost.’

The naughtier aspects of bramble lore really interest me. It was widely believed that the period when blackberries were ripe was inauspicious; that animals born during that time were likely to be sickly and troublesome, and that many humans were prone to depression. In Scotland it seems bramble had more wholesome associations. It could ward off evil, protect from witchcraft (if woven into a wreath, along with ivy and rowan, and hung above the lintel), and was used in a St. Brigid rite. On the eve of the feast of St Brigid, an image called the dealbh Bride was made out of straw and decorated in her honor. A small white rod called slachtan Bride, or Bride’s Wand, was placed inside the image. This wand was generally made of birch, broom, bramble, white willow, or some other wood considered sacred. I’ve also read that in England, in ancient times, blackberries gathered at the right time of the moon protected against ‘evil runes’.

The flower of the blackberry, here in Ireland, was a symbol of beauty to the ancient poets, and a well-known love ballad has the name Blàith na Sméar, or ‘Flower of the Blackberry’ (4). In the legend of Mad Sweeney, Sweeney is a king who has been driven mad by a curse and taken to living in the wilds. In a well-known poem he describes the trees and plants around him, and usually praises their beauty. However, what he has to say about the the thorny briar shows he is not particularly fond of it:

O briar, little arched one,
thou grantest no fair terms,
thou ceasest not to tear me,
till thou has thy fill of blood.

Bramble’s thorns also feature in a tale called ‘The Death of King Fergus’, when at one point in the story Iubhdan, the king of the leprechauns, recites a poem about the properties of various woods: ‘bending wood the vicious briar, burn it sharp and fresh, cuts and flays the foot, keeps everyone enmeshed.’ A tale from the Lays of Fionn shows a more useful purpose, as the tale relates how the Mainì, the seven sons of Queen Meadhbh, hold a hostile force at bay by erecting a fence of briars and blackthorns until help arrives. Then there is the entertaining story of how Cúchulainn, in the Cattle Raid of Cooley, tricked his opponents into believing he was older (and sporting a beard) so they would fight him, by smearing his lower jaw and chin with blackberry juice.

The Old Irish Brehon Laws on trees and shrubs list bramble as one of the ‘bushes of the wood’. This meant that the unlawful clearing of a whole field of bramble was subject to a fine of one dairt (or a yeear-old heifer) [note: because cattle were currency in Ireland, they were not butchered and only used for meat or leather after they had died of natural causes] under the laws. It also lists blackberry, along with cultivated apples and plums, bilberries, hazelnuts and strawberries, as sweet (cumra) fruits, while other fruits like wild apple, sloe and haws were defined as rough (fiadain).

1. Danaher, K., The Year in Ireland – Irish Calendar Customs.
2. Carmichael, A., Carmina Gadelica Vols 1-5
3. Ó Súilleabhàin, S., Folktales in Ireland.
4. Tóibín, S., Troscàn na mBànta.

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the Ring behind the cottage
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Meadowsweet is in bloom along the hedgerow and it lends a distinctive, clean fragrance to the air. I was out for a run this morning, and deeply appreciative for the tonic of its aroma. In fact, this is probably the one quality we most associate with meadowsweet: its heavy scent. Many of us have heard how meadowsweet was added to the rushes, which were strewn on the floor, to freshen the space (the rushes doing the hard job of insulation, moisture control, and padding). Here in Ireland, it was known as Airgead Luachra, which means Rush Silver… or silver rushes. They are fairly tall plants that bloom in summer and have reddish stems with dark green leaves and distinctive creamy flower heads.

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Now, whether you covered your floor in these pungent flowers might depend on where you lived and what the local folklore was. Generally in Ireland, it was believed the scent was perilous, because it could cause a person to fall into a deep and possibly fatal sleep.(1) Though, in west county Galway it was believed that if a person was pining or wasting away because of interference from *the Good Neighbours* that putting meadowsweet under their bed would ensure a cure by morning. (2)

Meadowsweet had another name in Irish, Crios Conchulainn (Cuchulainn’s belt), but I am not sure why or where this arose. Perhaps connected, is its association, along with watermint and vervain, as being one of three of the most sacred herbs to the druids. (3)

So, on to herbal uses. As I understand it, the english name comes from the Anglo-Saxon meodu-swete (mead-sweetener) and, you guessed it, was used to flavour mead, beer, wine, and probably anything they were making. A wonderful little herbalist named Gerard once said, “the smell thereof makes the heart merrie and joyful and delighteth the senses.” In Ireland it was used to clean milk vessels and was mixed with coperas (ferrous sulphate) to make a black dye. According to another herbalist, K’eogh, a powder made from the roots was effective in preventing diarrhoea and dysentry, and an infusion of the flowers was good for curing fevers. (4) It was also widely used as a cure for colds, sore throats and other pains, no doubt due to its salicylate content, which is similar to aspirin. (In fact, I have heard that the acid was a disinfectant so it not only made rooms smell better but helped the fight against bacteria. Its painkilling and anti-inflammatory uses were beneficial but hard on the stomach, and it was only after it was synthesised that it become an acceptable candidate for mass production and sold in tablet form as ‘aspirin’ – ‘a’ for acetyl and ‘ –spirin’ for Spirea, the original botanical name for Meadowsweet). People in counties Cavan and Sligo reportedly used it for dropsy and kidney trouble, while those in westmeath preferred to use it as a tonic for nerves.

In traditional western herbalism the plant is ruled by Jupiter (Thursday) and is associated with the zodiac sign Pisces.

1. Ui Chonchubhair, M., Flora Chorca Dhuibhne: Aspects of the Flora of Corca Dhuibhne.
2. Vickery, R., A Dictionary of Plant Lore
3. M. Seymour, A Brief History of Thyme
4. Williams, N., Díolaim Luibheanna
5. Allen & Hatfield, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition

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Liminality: that delicious state of being in-between, neither here nor there. It is an uncomfortable condition to be in. Leaving known and familiar structures can be exciting. We set off on our adventure full of enthusiasm, eager for what awaits us, and desirous to journey into a new situation or phase. This state of vigor may last weeks, even months if we are lucky. Yet, there is a span of time after which psychologically, perhaps even neurologically, we desire to re-establish routine and familiarity. Our being, confronted with extended dissolution of order, experiences discomfort.

We enter a threshold state.

These liminal spaces are powerful. In fact, many uncomfortable situations and experiences are: such as graduating college, getting married, childbirth, changing careers, moving away from home, etc. A well known Reclaiming chant reminds us, “Where there’s fear, there’s power.” and we do well to acknowledge this. Too often, instead of standing in our uneasiness and opening to our own power ,we attempt to escape the ordeal of the threshold. Occasionally, these transitional times extend well past our comfort zone and can take on a permanent quality, which can be dangerous. Reintegration is a vital component to any right of passage, or life journey. Yet…for the witch, as for many Hedge Walkers, liminality is intentionally extended, even though madness may ensue.

The Ring behind the house is taking on a decidedly personal flavor. Its earthen embankments, covered in Black Thorn and gorse, hide an interior dotted with bluebell in a maze of trees. A large Hawthorn on its slope is clothed in pure white. One low Black Thorn sprawls in the southeast, and yesterday I spent the afternoon in his arms. Limbs reclining to hold me, I stretched myself out on his mossy bough: suspended, in-between. The foxglove within the Ring are tall, their buds full, poised on the edge of bloom. The birds sang clear as they darted from perch to perch, tending nests of young ripe with expectancy.

Nature, here in Ireland, is in a transition phase: moving from Samhain into Bealtaine – from the dark to the light. And just as the Fianna roamed the liminal space between tribal lands during this time, performing their Great Deeds, so too is it our time to rouse ourselves. Summer is the time of movement., not of storytelling. Whether your movement is taking the cattle up the mountain for summer pasture or running with the hunt in the woods, the energy of the season is all about us. The liminal time of Bealtaine is here.

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