No, I haven’t run out of authors to feature here, I have a fair few fab scribblers already lined up for your future delectation, but I thought as this is my blog, I might promote my own story on it now and again. This excerpt comes from my new book, Conor Kelly and The Fenian King, which is Book Two of The Tir na Nog Trilogy. Continue reading →
It was raining gently when I woke up this morning and looked out the window. The light was a watery grey, the clouds hugging the ground, what the Irish call a ‘soft morning’.
“What are you looking at?” Conor asked sleepily.
“First day of summer,” I replied. “It’s Bealtaine today.” Just like at Imbolc, the Irish seasons were not living up to expectations.
Bealtaine (pronounced bal-chinn-eh) is one of four Irish/Celtic festivals which mark the year, Imbolc (1st Feb), Lughnasadh (!st Aug) and Samhain (1st Nov).
Here’s the science part; the Celtic calender is divided by the summer and winter equinoxes, and also by the summer and winter solstices. An equinox is generally accepted to mean when day-time and night-time are of approximate equal length. This year, 2014, they fall on March 20th and September 23rd. A solstice marks the days when the sun is at its highest/lowest in the sky, in other words, the longest/shortest days. They fall on 21st June, and 21st December. These four events are known as Quarter Days. The four festival days fall halfway between each equinox and solstice, and are known as Cross Quarter Days. The ancients must have had pretty impressive calenders and untold knowledge to be able to work all this complicated stuff out without computers!
Bealtaine has come to be associated with May 1st, and marks the beginning of summer, when the cattle were driven out to summer pastures. The origins of the word are not certain, although taine is the Old Irish form of tine (pronounced chinn-eh), meaning ‘fire’; Beal could be a reference to Bel, Celtic sun-god, although some say it means ‘shining one’, or ‘brilliant/bright’. In Ireland, May day itself is called Lá Bealtaine, and the month of May is known as Mí na Bealtaine.
So, what did the ancient Irish actually do at Bealtaine? I know you are thinking of bonfires and wild rituals of sex. Well, the festival was certainly connected with fertility of the land, the crops, and the people, but the rituals were more about protection and purification, than wild orgies. Huge bonfires were constructed from wood held sacred, such as rowan, apple, dogwood, juniper, pine, holly and oak, and kindled by Druids with great ceremony. The cattle were then driven between the fires and through the smoke, thus cleansing, blessing and protecting them. People would also pass between the fires, some even leaping the flames. All household fires would have been extinguished, and embers from the Bealtaine fire carefully carried home to relight the hearth, and heart of the house, thus bringing the blessing and protection over all who lived there.
Geoffrey Keatingdescribed these rituals taking place at Uisneachin the 17th century, so one can surmise that these heathen practices were still going on even then. Although the Annals, Ireland’s ancient monastic records, fail to confirm it, evidence of large fires have been revealed by recent archaeological excavations at Uisneach.
At Bettany Stone Circle in Co. Donegal, Bealtaine sunrise aligns perfectly with the tip of the only carved and decorated stone of the circle, indicating that the celebration of the festival may have stretched back into Neolithic times.
According to Irish mythology, Bealtaine has great significance in terms of associated events. For example, it is interesting to note that when the Tuatha de Denann invaded Ireland, they began their battle for dominance against the Fir Bolg on May 1st. Was this deliberate? Did they believe that this auspicious date would bring them good fortune and victory?
In the Cath Maige Tuiread, the story of the Battle of Moytura, Bres (who is half Fomori, half Denann) becomes High King when Nuada loses his arm in the battle. Bres is a bit of a tyrannical King, favouring his Fomori heritage, and demands unacceptably high levels of tribute from the Denann. In order to avoid paying him their finest white cattle, as he commands, they trick him by driving their herds between the Bealtaine fires, thus rendering the animals’ hides brown with the smoke.
Perhaps the most famous Bealtaine story is that of St Patrick and the paschal fire he lit, either at Slane or Newgrange. Tradition dictated that the High King be the first to light the Bealtaine fire at Tara, and from this, embers would be carried far and wide to light all the other Bealtaine fires across Ireland. That Patrick chose to disregard this was quite inflammatory (pardon the pun!) behaviour. When Patrick refused to put out his fire, the Druids were sent in, returning to High King Laogaire and claiming that the his fire could not be extinguished. In the end, Laogaire accepted that Patrick’s powers far exceeded his own, and permitted Patrick to continue to convert the Irish to Christianity, although he himself did not convert.
In time, as Christianity took hold, and pagan practices adapted to fit, or maligned and forgotten, new customs were adopted. It became common, for example, to decorate one’s home with yellow spring flowers in vague remembrance of earlier fire traditions. Dancing round a maypole represented parading between or around the fires. Milk would be spilled across entrances to prevent the Sidhe from entering the home and causing havoc, or blood taken from cattle and spilled at the nearest fairy fort in an effort to appease them. Even the cattle would be decorated with flowers, so that their milk wouldn’t be stolen or spoiled!
In recent years, the Festival of the Fires was reintroduced at Uisneach, which proved very successful. However, it has since been discontinued for reasons which are uncertain. I visited Uisneach in May 2011, just after the Festival had taken place. It is an amazing place, well worth a visit. You can read about it, and see some pictures I took here.
All that remains for me to say, is ‘May the Blessings of Bealtaine be upon you’! Wishing you a bright and beautiful Bealtaine, Ali.
It’s that time of year again! I’m talking about Read an Ebook Week, hosted by Smashwords for the sixth year running, where you can download thousands of Ebooks at greatly reduced prices, or FREE! And for the duration, you can download Conor Kelly and The Four Treasures of Eirean for FREE, yes, absolutely nada, zilch, NOTHING AT ALL! But hurry…the offer closes on March 8th.Think of it as my gift to you…Happy Read an Ebook Week!
The occupational therapist stuck his head through the physiotherapy room door. “Alison, can you bring Carys in for her wheelchair fitting on Thursday?”
It was a simple enough question, not even a completely unexpected one, but my reaction startled even myself.
I burst into tears. Noisy, heartfelt tears; the kind which make your nose run and don’t look pretty, like they do in the movies; tears over which I had no control, and no way of stopping. Tears which I didn’t then understand.
Because strapping Carys into a wheelchair felt like we were giving up on her; condemning her to a life without freedom and mobility; it was as good as saying “you can do as much physiotherapy as you like but it won’t make a difference…you will NEVER walk.”
That was nearly five years ago, but I can still clearly see the bemused expression on the face of that poor man, trapped as he was, half way between the minefield of my emotion, and the sanctity of the hall on the other side of that door, not knowing whether to step further into the dragon’s den or beat a hasty retreat.
Well, I thought to myself, if Carys is never going to ride a bike like other little girls her age, I’m going to make sure she has the prettiest wheelchair around. Of course, you don’t get gorgeous pink Barbie wheelchairs. Instead, I chose a bright orange chassis, big pink and white daisies for her wheels. I was even more delighted when the small front wheels lit up and flashed as they rolled. When I saw how well designed the seat cushion was for long term sitting, how comfortable and upright she was in it, I knew it was the right decision.
Our first outing was to pick the boys up from school. I felt so self conscious, pushing Carys down to the school gate in her bright new wheelchair. And didn’t everyone stare? There was no avoiding the garish orange metalwork, the fuck-off daisies, the flashing wheels. The message somehow translated not as ‘wheelchairs can be pretty too’ but more as ‘watch out, world, here I come!’.
It wasn’t what I had intended. The cute little girl nobody noticed in the buggy because she looked just like a baby when she was actually nearly 5 years old, had graduated into the poor little disabled girl who couldn’t walk, and wait a minute…yes, looks like she can’t talk either, and…what’s that huge scar on her forehead, and…is that neckerchief a fashion statement or actually a dribbler?
We went back to the buggy. Although Carys didn’t seem to mind the attention, I couldn’t handle it. Strange things happened when we went out with the wheelchair.
Like the time I went to the cash point on the way home from collecting Carys from school. I took my money, shoved it into my purse, and almost collided with a woman standing too close behind me. “What’s wrong with her legs?” she demanded over the top of Carys’s head.
My first reaction was to say,”Nothing. What’s wrong with your face?”
Thankfully, I managed to scrape together enough self control to bite that one back.
I almost said,”Why don’t you ask her?” I hate it when people ignore those who are wheelchair bound and talk to their carer as if they are somehow intellectually inferior, or as if they don’t exist. But I knew the point I was making could backfire on me massively; Carys actually couldn’t reply for herself, or even understand.
So while I seethed and boiled at the rudeness and nosiness, I resorted to the polite friendly truth. “There’s nothing actually physically wrong with her legs that any doctor can determine. Carys has a rare syndrome called Cardiofaciocutaneous Syndrome, and along with that, global development delays. She can’t walk, and we don’t know if she ever will.”
“Oh.” She sniffed, and went back to her shopping. Had she hoped for something more dramatic, more tragic? I pushed Carys back to the car, wondering how much trouble I’d get in if I accidentally ‘lost’ the wheelchair in a ditch on the way home. What gives someone the right to approach a stranger, and demand the details of their affliction? Isn’t that our own personal business?
The wheelchair didn’t see the light of day for a while, until we decided on a family outing, with dog, to Loughcrew Gardens. As we were going to be out all day, I reluctantly decided that Carys would be more comfortable in the wheelchair.
We hadn’t been there five minutes before another woman approached us. “Do you mind me asking why your little girl is in a wheelchair?” she asked me politely.
Here we go, I thought, but dutifully opened my mouth to begin the explanation. You can imagine my surprise and horror when she burst into tears. “It’s so unfair, what some children have to go through,” she sobbed. And then she poured out her heart to me. A year previously, she had lost her five year old son in a tragic car accident.
I stood and listened for two hours. Eventually, she managed to pull herself together, apologised, and we parted. I don’t know how she felt; I hope it helped her, somehow, to confide in a stranger. But my lovely family day out was ruined. I nearly lost one of my sons as a baby, but he pulled through. Carys was never meant to be born alive, but is with us still against all the odds. It is quite likely that she is with us on borrowed time; both Conor and I accept that she will most likely go before we do. I couldn’t get that poor woman out of my mind, and although the sky was sunny, black clouds followed me for the rest of the day. Because of that bloody wheelchair. Had Carys been in her buggy, she wouldn’t have stood out as different, probably wouldn’t have triggered such a reaction in a stranger.
Yep…we have a love /hate relationship, me and that damn wheelchair.
A Very Important Note: After publishing this, I was thinking about that first outing to the school gate. It was very uncomfortable for me at the time, but I feel I must point out that the stares weren’t malicious. Curious, maybe; dazzled and bemused, perhaps, lol! But a lot of my friends were there, and they have always been supportive and caring of my experiences with Carys. They know that if I’m not around for a while, its either because I’m coping with Carys, or trying to finish a book! They never give me a hard time about it. Where would we be without our friends?
Fionn mac Cumhall was famous for his band of hunter-warriors known as the Fianna. These men and women lived a lawless life on the edge of society, beholden only to the High King. In fact, the Fianna’s name derives from the ancient term, ‘fian’ which is believed to mean ‘wild’, usually in reference to animals such as deer.
During much of the year, while the weather was mild, the Fianna roamed free, living off the land, constructing temporary encampments, and hunting to feed themselves. According to all the ancient lore, they were particularly fond of hunting wild boar, deer and even the giant elk.
It would have taken a lot of hunting, and a lot of carcasses to feed such a large group. So how did they do it?
One suggestion is the outdoor kitchen, known as the ‘fullachta fiadh‘ (pronounced fool-ok-tha-fee-a). These archaeological sites have been found all over Ireland. So far, about 4,500 such sites have been discovered, nearly half of them in the county of Cork.
They generally consist of a low, semi-circular shaped mound of soil rich with charcoal deposits, and scattered with heat-shattered stones; a hearth on which a fire was built, and a central trough dug into the ground. The pit was often lined with planks of wood, or slabs of stone, and sometimes clay. The size of the trough varies considerably from site to site, but many measure approximately 1m wide by 2m long, and 1/2 m deep.
They are usually found close to a water source, be it a pool, river or bog; a source of suitable rocks, which are easy to get at, and near to woodland, where fuel to build a fire can be readily obtained. Post holes near some of these structures would indicate that small, temporary huts may have been erected nearby, although their purpose is not known, perhaps storage of tools or produce. They did not seem to be built near any more permanent buildings, or settlements.
The large concentration of heat-shattered stones suggests that they were used to heat the water in the pit. This was done by heating in the fire, and then rolling them into the pit. As they cooled and the water heated, they were removed and replaced by new hot stones. It is suggested that a large pit of water could be heated quite quickly in this manner, perhaps in as little as half an hour…useful when there are a lot of hungry, impatient mouths to feed! The rock most commonly used was sandstone, as it could be heated, cooled and re-used up to 5 times before shattering.
Joints of meat were then wrapped in straw and placed in the water to cook. Trials have shown that cooking in this way acts much like slow braising, making the meat moist and tender.
However, no animal bones or foodstuff remains have been found at fulachta fiadh sites, causing this explanation to be questioned. So, what else could they have been used for? Some suggestions have offered bathing, washing and dying cloth, preparation of animal hides and leather working, metal working, and even the brewing of beer; an experiment in Galway found that a drinkable light ale could be quite easily produced!
I look around my kitchen and see it used for a myriad purposes; my desk and computer are located here; the boys do their homework here; I sit and chat with friends here; I read here; I do my ironing here (when its raining, otherwise I do it in the garden); listen to radio here; we eat here; oh yes, and I cook here.
It seems reasonable to suppose, then, that the fulachta fiadh could also have served a variety of functions, so long as they shared the common requirement of needing hot water.
Personally, I rather like the idea of Fionn and his men gathering around the fulachta fiadh at the end of a long day’s hunting to wash the grime from their bodies, and cook the hard-won spoils of their efforts.