Castle Leslie

I’ve just come back from cousin’s wedding in Ireland so I’m going to take a brief detour from my usual themes and talk about the wedding venue: Castle Leslie.

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Castle Leslie is deeply intertwined with my own family’s history. We’re descended from one of the original architects, Thomas Kerr, who was brought over from Scotland for the project and then chose to settle locally and marry a Monaghan woman. I mentioned I was going to write this blog post to one of the staff and he actually took me to see some of the original plans so I could photograph them.

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Thomas’ descendants have continued to work for the family, most often as jewellers, although my great grandmother also upholstered most of the furniture at one time. According to my grandfather, who used to play on the grounds while she worked, some of that furniture is still there. (I completely failed to get a picture of it of course). I do have a picture featuring the original wallpaper however. Its crooked because I took it in a hurry but isn’t it and the fireplace beautiful?

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The portico outside has four arches with relief profiles of the first owner’s four children,. He had three daughters and a son and I think its nice he wanted to celebrate all of them like that.

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The grounds themselves and much of the interior are inspired by the Italian palazzo’s, and the weather was so unnaturally good for Ireland that it actually felt a little like being in Florence.

I would love to have that conservatory to write in.

The best and weirdest part of the place are the bedrooms, because each one has been redesigned uniquely. One of the cousins had the haunted disco bathroom (by the time she showed me my phone was out of power so no pictures sadly). Its a basement bedroom where the previous lord’s disco equipment (he was a big fan) is all set up in the bathroom, so you can turn out the main lights, turn on the flashing red and green ones and have a bath under the disco ball. We’re not sure who the ghost is though.

Another bathroom had LED constellations set over a jacuzzi while one of the rooms, which once belonged to an actress had murals of her painted on the wardrobe and a mirror covered in lights, Hollywood style. The room mum and I were in is the old Nursery and it was creepy as anything. We actually thought it was a prank the cousins were playing on her at first because she hates clowns and things like that but apparently we were given the room at random. It looked like this:

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With the bathroom built into a life size playhouse (that had a scary parachuting clown in the toilet).

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My favourite part was the delightfully classist alphabet border.

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Dian Cecht – Mythology’s Most Terrible Father?

Most people think that the crown of worst father in all of mythology belongs to Zeus. Those people are wrong.

After Nuada, king of the Tuatha De Dannan, loses a hand he’s forced to step down, thanks to a law saying that the King of Ireland had to be unblemished. Now this rule was generally only enforced if the people wanted to get rid of the king already but no-one liked Nuada. Unfortunately for them they liked his replacement even less, so a couple of years into his reign they called in Dian Cecht, chief physician to the De Dannan and hobbying monster, and his son Midach to solve the problem.

Dian Cecht creates Nuada a magical silver hand to replace the one he’s lost. Somehow this counts as returning to his unblemished state and should let him be king again. Midach doesn’t like this however and he actually regrows Nuada’s missing hand for him instead. Most fathers, even in mythology, would be proud.  A powerful son shows how powerful you are after all. Dian Cecht however, responds by splitting open his son’s head.

And then when that didn’t work doing it three more times until it stuck.

33. Now Nuada was being treated, and Dian Cecht put a silver hand on him which had the movement of any other hand. But his son Miach did not like that. He went to the hand and said “joint to joint of it, and sinew to sinew”; and he healed it in nine days and nights. The first three days he carried it against his side, and it became covered with skin. The second three days he carried it against his chest. The third three days he would cast white wisps of black bulrushes after they had been blackened in a fire.

34. Dian Cecht did not like that cure. He hurled a sword at the crown of his son’s head and cut his skin to the flesh. The young man healed it by means of his skill. He struck him again and cut his flesh until he reached the bone. The young man healed it by the same means. He struck the third blow and reached the membrane of his brain. The young man healed this too by the same means. Then he struck the fourth blow and cut out the brain, so that Miach died; and Dian Cecht said that no physician could heal him of that blow.

The Second Battle of Moytura http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/cmt/cmteng.htm

But Dian Cecht is not done.

He also has a daughter called Airmid. She’s also a doctor. After her brother is buried herbs that provide a cure for every illness spring up from his grave and she goes to collect and catalogue them. For some reason this makes their father angry, as if his son is showing him up one more time, so he takes her work and destroys it. He finishes off by telling her that even though her brother is dead she gets to live and so everyone should be grateful.

After that, Miach was buried by Dian Cecht, and three hundred and sixty-five herbs grew through the grave, corresponding to the number of his joints and sinews. Then Airmed spread her cloak and uprooted those herbs according to their properties. Dian Cecht came to her and mixed the herbs, so that no one knows their proper healing qualities unless the Holy Spirit taught them afterwards. And Dian Cecht said, “Though Miach no longer lives, Airmed shall remain.”

Worst. Father. In all of mythology.

But I’m always open to other viewpoints, so what do you think?

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Imbolc

Today is Imbolc, and appropriately enough I was woken up by someone looking for a party at five o’clock this morning! Imbolc marks the first day of spring and was celebrated in Man, Ireland and Scotland as one of the four seasonal festivals. Today is also St. Brigid’s day, which is unlikely to be a coincidence as Imbolc was heavily associated with the Goddess Brighid in the pre-Christian period. Traditionally the celebrations actually start the evening before at sunset, in a way similar to the pairing of All Hallows Eve with All Saints Day.

Like Beltane, Imbolc continued being celebrated well into the Christian era in its new guise as the feast day of St. Brighid’s, though its connection to the saint meant it remained a much more religious festival than the secularised Beltane. As was often the case with converted holidays many of the folk traditions connected to the festival retained distinctly non-Christian overtones, and most certainly date back to the older celebration.

A lot of these traditions, as with every Gaelic celebration, involve fire or food or both, though water also features fairly heavily in Imbolc. Bonfires would be lit, and milk poured onto the ground and porridge into water as offerings to “earth and water.” Candles would be burned and special foods served the night before, and on the day itself people visited holy wells to pray for health. Brigid would be invited inside three times the night before, a number that most Indo-European cultures find significant, to where a bed had been made up for her. This invitation varied in form by region: in Ireland she would be asked into the house and the bed placed by the hearth, while on Mann and the Hebrides  she’d be invited into the barn (on the latter they stopped actually making up a bed for her in the 1800’s, instead shaking sheets and inviting her to make it for herself).

On Imbolc itself a figure of the saint would be paraded through the village and given gifts, something which turned into the tradition of children asking for penny’s for the biddy in Ireland (something I didn’t know until I started to write this post, I’d always thought it was a regional variation of “penny for the guy”). Later in the day the doll would be feasted, providing a pretext for courtship among the young people at an appropriate time of year if they wished to be married at Lughnasadh. In some places this looked very similar to the Sankta Lucia celebrations in Sweden, as the girls would wear white with loose hair while carrying the doll and singing.

St. Brigid's cross

One part of Imbolc/St. Brigid’s day that might look familiar is the Saint Brigid’s Cross. While sitting with her dying father, so the story goes, the saint twisted some rushes from the floor into a cross to teach him about Christianity – the conversion was a success and now the crosses are made every year to bring good luck and protection from fire for the household. A possible pre-Christian explanation for them is that they represent the sun, the elements or the four quarters of the year: some of the crosses have three arms instead of four which might support this.

Finally the weather today is supposed to determine whether or not the Winter will end soon. Unfortunately nice weather means its about to get worse again, so maybe it was a mistake to feel smug about how pleasant it was today! We had some truly spectacular clouds over the city though, magically appropriate looking for Imbolc.


Nacreous Clouds

 

 

 

 

Lughnasadh

This weekend brought Lughnasadh, one of Scotland, Ireland and Man’s four seasonal festivals. Lughnasadh is a harvest festival celebrated either on the first of August or the Sunday closest to it, connected to the pre-Christian figure Lugh, known as The Lord of Light. The name of the festival translates as the gathering of Lugh and, according to the lore surrounding it, began as funeral games he held for his foster mother Tailtiu. Tailtiu’s death was from exhaustion, having prepared all the land of Ireland for farming, putting her into the category of Gods and divine beings who die to bring fertility to the land. What’s interesting about Tailtiu is that this role, of divine self-sacrifice on behalf of mortals, is one usually held by male figures. This is especially true when that figure’s death symbolically fertilises something, which Tailtiu as representative of the dying plants that re-fertilise the land is argued to be – the sacrifices usually made by female figures in this kind of role involve their bodies (in a non fatal fashion, usually connected to childbirth), their children or their lovers.

Lughnasadh, like other major festivals, was a time for community gathering; for trade, marriages and to build connections with other families. Its believed that handfasting trial marriages were carried out during the celebrations and that in Ireland yearly games were held at Teltown in the iron age earthworks. Other speculation about the pre-Christian celebrations involved the sacrifice and feasting on a sacred bull and the establishing of a new one, climbing hills and mountains, mythological plays and ritual harvest of the first grain. These speculations are based on ongoing folk traditions that lasted until and in some cases into the twentieth century and medieval writings, all of which of course post date conversion.

Like Beltane, Lughnasadh continued being celebrated well past the advent of the Christian era in modified forms, and like Beltane seems to have died out around the twentieth century when changes to society and agriculture meant it no longer served the same community needs. Parts of Lughnasadh had become actively Christianised in Ireland, with the Sunday often being used for pilgrimages in Ireland, and those parts survived, separated fully from the festivals origins – though it must be noted that the majority of those pilgrimages involve hill or mountain climbing.

Various groups have revived Lughnasadh celebrations from mid-twentieth century onwards; Celtic Reconstructionists, Wiccans and Gaelic cultural revivalists as well as various pagan groups. The Beltane fire society hosts a three day camping retreat, but unlike their Samhain and Beltane festivals this one is for members and friends only. As I have a deep hatred for camping (I know, I know, I’m a terrible hippy) I decided to stay at home and make a cake instead.

In the Scottish Highlands there were special cakes made on Lughnasadh, and while I don’t have a recipe for those I do have a honey cake recipe which, as honey and bees were very important to the Gaelic speaking Celts seemed an appropriate choice. This cake is actually best made in a bundt cake pan rather than a loaf pan. Although the first time I made it it cooked perfectly this time I had to scoop the inside out and rebake it separately.

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I may have eaten a slice before remembering to photograph it. Recipe here.

 

The Banchomarba

In pre-Norman Ireland people were counted as part of their father’s fine, which in modern terms can be understood as something between a family and a clan. While this may seem no different to the way kinship was counted in much of Europe where it does differ is what it meant for inheritance law. Land belonged to the individual who held it, but beyond that it also belonged to the fine, and consequentially inheritance law was written to make sure that it didn’t pass outside of it. The reason for this was that the fine’s political and military power depended on how large a territory they controlled between them, and so it was imperative that it couldn’t be passed out of their control through marriage. What this meant for women and their inheritance was that, despite the relative freedom and respect Irish women were granted compared to their counterparts in much of Europe, they would generally receive no land at all, with their father’s property being divided up amongst their brothers.

What of the brotherless girl however? Who was to receive her father’s land? Rather than being divided up amongst her male relatives, as was common even in other regions that didn’t prohibit women’s inheritance, here we see the banchomarba, the woman heir. An Irish girl with no brothers, and whose father had possessed a great deal of land held a status similar to that of the female viking ring giver. She possessed her lands in her own name, lead her people into war and answered to no man save those above her in the fine hierarchy. Unlike the ring giver however, she could not pass on more than ten percent of her lands to her children because of those rules protecting the fine’s aggregate land. Despite her status as leader or ruler she still couldn’t pass on membership of her fine to her children as a man of equivalent status would.

See Nerys Patterson’s Cattle Lords & Clansmen for further reading.