Faith vs religion

I had a really interesting conversation with my parents at the weekend. My darling niece was baptised and I was honoured to be allowed to be her godmother. so I paid more attention to the ceremony than I usually would. And I wasn’t sure the child would be baptised, but her parents decided it was important to do so. (Which is entirely their choice and business) But I was surprised by the ceremony – it was far more relaxed and inclusive of the people in the church than I remembered from the last baptism I attended.

Now in case this is your first time here, I consider myself a Pagan Catholic and this was a Catholic baptism. Also, if you’re not Irish, you may not understand the role the Catholic Church plays and has played in our society and culture, so check out the other posts I have on that. It might help with background.

Before I get into the details of the faith vs religion conversation, I do want to talk about Brigid in the ceremony as well – because there is a part of the ceremony where the priest calls on various figures to pray for us, in this case: Mary, Jesus, Sts. Peter and Paul, St. Patrick and St. Brigid. (So I was feckin delighted with that!) Then there is a part of the ceremony where the child’s baptism candle is lit from the Paschal Candle (the big candle, usually on its own holder, standing on the altar towards the back usually when it’s not being used) to symbolise the light of faith being passed on. And I got the job of lighting that candle, which probably seemed less important to others in the church, but to me, that was hugely important. Here is a ceremony, where we’re calling on Brigid to protect a child and using water and fire to bless the child… And then people wonder why I say I’m a Pagan Catholic!

But anyway, on to the conversation about faith vs religion. For me it’s simple: faith is the belief and religion is the structure and the system. So for me to say I believe in God, in Jesus, in Mary – I do. But my opinions of the Catholic Church as an institution, as an organisation, as a structure – well, suffice to say my opinion wouldn’t be high. Individuals within the church have done some good, I will not argue that, but at this point I would say, it’s in spite of the church rather than because of it.

So it was easy to say to my parents that my faith is strong – it is. That’s not to say I don’t have doubts, but I believe there is a Divine power out there to help us in this life. I have had too many incidents in my life that I should not have survived to say otherwise. But the religion, well now that’s a different thing. And my parents have a different view on it as well. I commented at the weekend that I wanted to go to mass in a particular building because it always lifts my spirits. My Dad is of the opinion that it’s the man saying mass should lift the spirits, whereas my Mam agrees that architecture helps the whole experience along. For me, my respect for and opinion of the man saying mass affects my experience of the ritual. For me Dad, it’s the spiritual experience itself that matters, not who facilitates it. Perhaps my Dad is the better Catholic for being able to sidestep the physical representation of the experience and go straight to the source… I don’t know, but I know right now, it’s easier to go to mass with a priest I don’t know and will probably never speak to rather than one that I know has what I consider to be hideous opinions or a belief in maintaining the status quo.

So what is more important? Faith or religion? For me it’s faith. We can create our own structures and systems to support our spiritual life and as long as we’re not selling them as the One True Way, no harm, no foul. The structure should never be mistaken for the faith. Faith is something that can be easily faked using systems and structures, in public view anyway. But a firm belief in the divine, a faith that there is a higher power of some description, is something that can’t really be faked to oneself. And that faith for me is the feeling inside me that there is something looking out for me. That something is far outside my ability to comprehend fully, so I divide it into saints, deities, powerful beings, but yet ones that I can comprehend.

It’s like thinking of space. I get panic attacks at night sometimes thinking of the great blackness of space, that massive, unending, emptiness, from which we came and to which we shall return. It’s simply too big for me to think about, and my mind closes over. It’s the same with the Divine. It’s too big to think about and so I break it up. But the faith is still there, underpinning my actions and life.

This is how I can call on Mary for patience or Brigid for help in times of need. It’s why I don’t often have the perfect prayer, but I have the shape of a thought to throw at the divine. It’s why I know that while my prayers might not seem to be answered, or might not be answered in the way I want them to be answered, they will eventually be answered. It’s how I know that somethings I won’t understand in this life and that’s alright. Maybe I don’t need to. But I have faith that I have what I really do fundamentally need in this life.

Religion can be a community; it’s usually rules and strictures and man-made restrictions. Faith is a power force linked to the divine that can move mountains.

An Caighdeán Oifigiúil

Or – the Official Standard. Of Irish that is! Now prior to the country gaining complete independence from Britain, standards in Irish were variable to say the least. While we speak now of three main dialects, or canúintí, before the Caighdeán was established, there were many many more pre-1950’s ish. It could prove difficult for speakers of different dialects to understand each other – and indeed, even in English accents and dialects were far more pronounced before the advent of international telly/ radio. One only needs look at the entries in Irish on Dúchas to see the differences in spelling and grammar across different areas.

The Caighdeán was an attempt to make things easier for Irish learners and fight against the lowering rates of people speaking the language. Irish has, and continues to be, a major part of the Irish identity for many people, although in modern Ireland, there are those who lament time “wasted” on learning it. In case you’ve not read this blog before – I love the language, love speaking it and work on improving my Irish. But it has to be said, looking at those old Dúchas entries, there were an awful lot of extra letters banging around teh place!

The Caighdeán was focused on making things simpler for new learners, but it kinda left out those who had learnt spelling, grammar and even font before it was implemented. Oh yes, there was a specific font used for writing Irish – you’ll have noticed this from Dúchas as well, I hope – but here’s an example of what it looked like. Many silent letters were left out in the new Caighdeán (an caighdeán nua) meaning that words like Lughnasadh now became Lúnasa August, or the festival of Lúnasa). Or, for a more extreme example, Gaedhealtacht became Gaeltacht (Irish speaking area). It was a way of making the written word look less intimidating.

But the Caighdeán was dealing with many different dialects – the one quoted most often is the Roscommon dialect, spoken by our first president Douglas Hyde (Dubhghlas de hÍde) which has now died out. Even trying to pick a “correct” option from Munster, Connacht and Ulster Irish would be difficult – try telling any native speaker of any language that the grammar or pronunciation they’ve been using since birth is incorrect? Ah go, I dare yah! So, the Caighdeán is a bit of a mess alright when it comes to picking one or the other. And really, if you’re speaking Connacht Irish, for example, it’s perfectly acceptable to say “Cá bhfuil my bhicycle?” instead of “Cá bhfuil mo rothar?” since as it was explained to me, the word “bicycle” had been used in the Gaeltacht for decades before this new-fangled “rothar” came along. Equally, the official word for potato in Irish is práta (prátaí in the plural, cos who’d need to know what 1 spud is??), but for my mothers family in Clare, it was always fataí/ phataí. And I’m not telling her she’s wrong!!

So what ended up being in the Caighdeán was a mixture of what was most commonly used, what the particular contributor liked or pure accident. Now my Dad, good Galwayman that he is, would claim that Connacht Irish is the best, although I have read things on the internet (cos everything written on the internet is true!) indicating that Munster Irish would be closer to the written Irish we have from the 16th century on. To me, it doesn’t matter, as long as the language is being spoken. I mean, in English, we don’t argue whether the Dublin “Staarhy” (the word story, short for “any story?” or “what’s the story”) is any more or less correct than the more rural “how’s she cuttin’?” Both are understood to be colloquialisms rather than standard language. Why shouldn’t the local idiosyncrasies in Irish be treated the same? In practice, it is – it’s really only when dealing with scholarship, education and political publications the Caighdeán become important.

But that’s part of the issue. Children from the age of 4 in schools are taught Irish, sometimes according to the Caighdeán, sometimes according to the teacher’s own Irish, which may or may not be fluent or approaching fluent in standard. I remember going over the irregular verb to be/ 5 times in my first year in secondary school, but whereas in primary school we had covered the aimsir chaite, aimsir láithreach, aimsir fháistineach, módh choinníollach, aimsir ghnáthchaite, aimsir ghnáthláithreach, and a few other bits and bobs, in secondary school, we just did 3 of them (aimsir chaite, aimsir láithreach, aimsir fháistineach), cos the rest were deemed too scary. There are 11 irregular verbs in Irish and the verb to be is one of them, but to cover it 5 times in one year, and only in 3 verb tenses at that? Well it was a bit of overkill to me, even as a 12 yr old.

The language is presented as a big deal to kids and the Caighdeán is complicated – it’s trying to condense an entire language to a system of rules and grammars and syntax. I never knew there was tenses in verbs in English until my teenage years – I knew they were there in Irish, French and German though. I though the tuiseals, the cases of nouns, were an Irish only thing, until I started learning German. Even now, if you ask me for the Tuiseal Ginideach of any noun, I’ll struggle, but most of the time if I put it into a sentence, it will come to me. Equally, knowing whether a noun is male or female is mostly beyond me, but I can usually get the use of a séimhiú roughly right.

No more than we have “Learning English as a foreign language” classes, I think we need to do the same with Irish. It doesn’t matter which canúint you’re learning – and I’d argue the Caighdeán or “school Irish” is a fourth canúint all on its own – it doesn’t matter if you mix the words and syntax and grammar from all 4 of the canúintí. No more than other languages, the official standard of the language doesn’t always bear a resemblance to the actual spoken, every day language and that’s ok. I mean, think of someone from Ayrshire in Scotland and Somerset in England and the differences between the English they speak. Hell, think of the difference between Liverpudlian and Mancunian English, and they’re much closer together, geographically speaking! None of those could be considered to be “Standard English” but there’s no problem with the deviations.

The Caighdeán caused a gap in the passing on of the language from generation to generation, since those who had learned the language for writing pre-Caighdeán would struggle with the spelling at least post-Caighdeán, and so, would struggle with helping the next generation. But it’s not exactly the evil that many people call it. It’s a mixed bag like so much else in this world. And it’s been updated since the 1950’s, which is good, cos Ireland has changed since the 1950’s, why wouldn’t the language?

The Caighdeán is a useful tool to have in your back pocket, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t conform to it. Equally, if you have a fierce love of silent letters, sure fire ahead, it’ll look strange to modern eyes, but we’ll cope. And the cló gaelach is a lovely font, sure why wouldn’t you want to use it occasionally!

Perspective and how it changes how we live

A cartoon showing 2 people point at a number written on the ground. For one of them it looks like a 6, for the other a 9

I know – that cartoon above makes so many engineers and scientists and mathematicians go cracked, because in their view, if someone goes to the trouble of writing a number down, then they intended it to be either a 6 or a 9 and which is is would be clear from the orientation of the other numbers around it. (not that this is an argument I’ve heard at all, you understand!! 🙂 )

But here’s the thing, perspectives do matter. I’ll give a clearer example. Last week I worked from home because I was sick. What was up with me? I had a cold. Now, if you had told me 3 years ago that I’d stay away from work because of a simple cold, I’d have laughed in your face. Stay home cos of a cold? Are you joking? Who’d do that?? But because of the pandemic, and the close interrelation between the symptoms of the common cold and COVID, I didn’t even think of going into work, despite getting that negative antigen test result. And you know something? I realised this weekend, it was better for my health to stay off work anyway. I don’t think I’ve slept so much in one go in years, possibly decades! The body usually needs rest to heal from these things and for years I wasn’t interested in giving my body that rest because there was always work, work, and more work. Dragging myself into work regardless of how I felt, because work was such a huge part of my identity and my sense of worth that to miss it lead to major issues for me.

Now though – personal health takes precedence because it affects public health in a much clearer way when 1 person with COVID is in public versus 1 person with the common cold. It took a global pandemic for me to change my perspective on my own personal health. And I know there are other people out there who feel the same. If that’s what it takes to change our perspective on our own personal health, what will it take to change our perspectives on deeply held spiritual beliefs?

I mean, come on, ye had an idea I was coming back to herself at some point right?

There are so many Brigids in the world. I have said there are as many Brigids in the world as there are people working with her. (For her. Whatever!) And when it comes to personal work, our own personal relationship with the deity, that’s absolutely fine. Even my ongoing issues with the preposition I use (with/for) is part of my relationship with Brigid – other people are very clear on their prepositional use here. And sometimes, we come across a piece of writing that is hugely persuasive on a particular aspect of our believes and we absorb it to the extent that we forget where we first read it, we just accept it as generally accepted gnosis. And if it works for our personal relationship with herself, or indeed any deity, that’s grand. It really is.

Where the trouble comes in, is presenting that sort of gnosis, personal gnosis, as generally accepted fact. I have, along with most spiritual practitioners, parts of my practice that will never be made public. It’s kinda like marriage or long term relationships – there are things that are just between the two of ye. No one needs to know the intimate details of the bedtime dance or the weird way ye decide whose turn it is to do the washing up. And it’s the same in spiritual relationships, there are things that stay private or at least, only discussed with trusted people .

Actually, comparing a spiritual relationship with a sexual one isn’t a bad thing at all. You remember when you were first finding out about sex, when the first people you knew started having sex, the whispered conversations, the “oh my god, no, he did what??” And yeah – a new spiritual relationship can feel the same. Especially if it’s outside the forms and formulas of formalised religious structures. And it’s important to get outside validation sometimes to help us on our journey (both for sex and spiritual relationships). In the early days, that sense of community, that sense of having each others backs, of sharing information, is really great.

But it can also lead to bad information sharing. I don’t know of the equivalent in other countries, but I remember in my teenage years of rumours of Taytos bags being used instead of condoms. Yeah – the silvery foil bags. As condoms. *shudders*

A bag of Taytos crisps

And in swapping rumours and misinformation like this, we can accept as true things that are plainly not. I mean, I hope that rumour wasn’t true. Even Ireland in the 90’s had to be better than that right???

And here’s where we come back to perspective. Something like the Taytos crisps packet rumour was reasonably easy to denounce, even as a teenager. (I mean, can you imagine???) But with Brigid it can be harder to disseminate the personal from the generally accepted to the lore based. And from a certain perspective sharing personal gnosis shouldn’t cause any harm, because it’s all relevant right? Well, yes, but…

In any relationship journey, the greater the degree of intimacy and trust build-up, the more risks that can be taken. The more confidence one builds up in any relationship, the more one can “risk” because the feeling of safety is increasing (well hopfeully – if you’re in a relationship where you don’t feel safe, please reach out for help, whether that relationship is with another human or a deity) I mean, sitting down with your partner to say you’d like to give a new sexual position a go is one thing. Sitting down to say you’d like to try moving from monogamy to polygamy is another level of conversation. And depending on the relationship you have, will depend on how risky that conversation would feel to you.

So, the deeper the relationship we build with Brigid, or indeed any other deity, the higher the rewards, in my opinion. So from my perspective of decades long relationship with her, some risks might appear very small. But for someone just learning about Brigid, it could appear high. Equally, there are activities that I would view as highly risky, even now, that a beginner to working with Brigid might not view in the same way at all. Whether it’s because I am viewing things with more information and experience or because the beginner is limiting the activity in ways I wouldn’t consider any more – there is a difference in perspective. Of course, the beginner just might not be aware of some of the pitfalls in front of them in a given course, which can lead to other problems.

So I am careful, when I share things, to be clear about what is part of my personal relationship and what is generally accepted for Brigid. I’ll also often say this is Bride in Scotland as far as I know, but it’s not that way in Ireland, or whatever. And for some people, this can appear like gatekeeping or being unnecessarily pedantic. But it isn’t. Because understanding the perspective of someone can help mightily in understanding why they’re doing what they’re doing, or saying what they’re saying. And while “beginner’s mind” is important in any course of learning, being confident of what you yourself know and have proven to your own satisfaction is important as well.

Perspectives can change, sometimes easily, sometimes less so, but they can changes. And really, perspective change is a sign of growth as well. A deeper understanding of something can lead to a startling shift in perspective sometimes. But when it comes to Brigid, we can always go back to what our ancestors left us, whether in terms of the myths and legends from the Iron Age, or the folklore of more recent generations, or the stories we still tell of the saint. And if we are unsure of something, we can ask. That’s why we have communities around us. Just think about the perspectives of the those you are sharing with as well…

Lessons from fiction

I’ve written/ discussed before how fiction informs some of my morals and I still think it’s relevant. (most recently in last month’s Patreon devotional, you can sign up here for it!) I hope never to be caught in a war, but I can learn from reading about one – and I prefer my wars to be fictional. Otherwise, severe nightmares ensue. But one book that has been on my mind lately is the below, Echoes of the Great Song by David Gemmell. Now I didn’t fully pick up the lesson in this when I read it first as a teenager, but as with many of Gemmell’s books, I’ve reread it a lot over the years and one thing struck me graphically on this latest reread.

Image of the David Gemmell book, Echoes of the Great song, with the authors name written in white and gold across the top of the book and the title in white across the bottom of the book. A line “A humdinger… a masterly tale told with clarity and verve” is quoted from The Times just under the author’s name and the picture shows the grip of a sword, banded in black on silver, with the top of the blade entwined with a thorny branch. In the background is a green man’s face with either a tongue or a waterfall falling from his mouth.

The story is not quite relevant to what I’m about to say, but from the back cover: The Avatars were immortal and lived like kings, even though their empire was dying. Their immortality was guaranteed by magic crystals, crystals whose influence was now waning, overwhelmed by the power of a great flood and a freak ice age. But when two moons appeared in the sky and the ruthless armies of the Crystal Queen swarmed across the land, bringing devastation and terror, the Avatars united with their subjects to protect their universe. As the cities faced imminent destruction, three heroes emerged, Talaban, a warrior haunted by tragedy. Touchstone, the mystic tribesman, seeking his lost love, and Anu, the Holy One, the Builder of Time. And when all seemed lost, two others entered the fray: Sofarita, the peasant girl who would inspire a legend, and the madman, Virul, who would become a god.

It’s some story, and I love it, although there are elements that feel less comfortable now than in the 90’s! But the bits I wanted to talk about today were the bits that highlighted how legends change over time as people’s understanding and language changes. Every few chapters, there are excerpts from the Morning, Noon and Evening Songs of the Anajo, outlining how the legends grew up around these feats and events. And to me, it shows the difference between the actual events and the stories we tell about them. I’ll use the names of those mentioned in the blurb above as examples, because one crucial thing to remember is that the tribesman speaks the language of the Avatars as a second language, hard won following his captivity following a raid on his land. So all through the book, he is speaking less sophisticated language than the people around him, purely because he has not been speaking the language since birth.

And it is this man’s tribe (it is implied anyway) that records the events.

Talaban, the haunted warrior, becomes Tail-avar, the god of wisdom

Questor Sto, the techincal wizard, becomes Storro, Speaker of Legends

Touchstone the tribesman, becomes Touch-the-Moon, god of tribes.

The ice age becomes the Ice Giant, and the fearsome creatures living on the ice beomce demons living in the giant’s hair.

Viruk, the madman, becomes Virkokka, god of war

Sofarita becomes the Star Woman, that the All Father created from earth and starlight.

The Crystal Queen becomes the Queen of Death.

And even in the book (in my copy it’s page 422) there is a line that I will paraphrase here because it might contain spoilers otherwise: “They will not remember you. Not as men. You will first become legends, and then the gods you dreamed of being.”

And this is the crux of things for me. Who are these people we call gods? Are they simply the ones that learned to harness the power of the universe and change things so that we remember the echoes of their songs? Or are they all-powerful beings from the beginning, never wavering, never doing wrong? Or is it a mix of the two? While I’m not sure David Gemmell ever set out to write a spiritually challenging book, this book does cause me to examine and reflect on questions like this. It is also a bloody good story, but let’s put that to one side right now.

To a certain extent, part of me thinks it doesn’t matter. I recognise the power of Brigid in my life, the journey I’ve been on to get this far and recognise there is a journey yet to come. I can see times and places in my life where she has intervened, helped, guided, etc. I also know that another person could look at my life and see something entirely different – but that’s ok, there is no One True Way in life. But I think examining these questions, asking uncomfortable questions is how we grow, how we develop our spirituality and our consciousness. Staying stagnant and still is just another form of death, because stasis =/= life.

But there’s also hope here. If our stories have turned humans into legends and then into gods, then what’s to say we can’t do the same? In 1000 years, will people be remembering Carrie Fisher as Saint Carrie Fisher, Our Lady of Rebellion, Our Blessed Rebel Queen? Will people be remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the Lady of Dissent? Will people remember Donald Trump as the evil god of supremacy and opression?

I mean, ok I’d prefer to be on the side of Carrie Fisher and Ruth Bader Ginsburg there – anyone reading my blog knows my opinion of Trump I hope, at this stage! But still… We tend to think of today’s world as the pinnacle of human achievement – and in some ways it so, so far at least. But there are hopefully more generations to come. We can learn from history and from folklore and from legends, we can see what stories have survived through the ages and what haven’t. What traditions were so common even 100 yrs ago that have now died away? The written word has given us great power in maintaining the collective memory, but with great power comes great responsibility as well. What are we writing? What do we say? Is it accurate? Are we carefully separating acknowledged fact from gnosis, whether unique or generally accepted?

Even the language issue with a big one. We can see how in the book, names got changed due to the different use of language between the Avatars and the tribe recording the legend. Sounds work differently in different languages – we’re seeing this change in Irish in this generation in that the r sounds, the ch sounds, are changing and morphing into something closer to the Irish version of English. Even listening to recordings in English from people in the 1980’s in Ireland, you can hear the differences in sounds and accents. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it means that when I write about things like the meanings of words, particularly from Old Irish. I try to be careful not to be definitive about it.

If this prompts any thoughts on your part, I’d really love to hear them. Also, if you’re a David Gemmel fan, cos his books really are good stories!! And if this poses questions you’d like to think through or see as the topic on a future post, let me know!

What’s in a name?

As some of ye know, I’ve been working on a book for Irish Brigid, investigating what we have in the lore, what we can extrapolate from that and a few other bits and pieces. (Yup, I am still working on it, it’s not been forgotten!) As part of that, I’ve been spending a lot of time on dil.ie looking at the various meanings of “brig”.

They have 4 (see the link here)

a) power, strength, force, authority; vigour, virtue

b) value, worth; advantage; validity, virtue, efficacy

c) meaning (of words, sayings)

d) In phrases with prepp. and verbs

Now a) and b) would be fairly well known I think generally – that brig would be linked to power, value, strength, etc. But I was surprised by c) meaning of words, sayings and I wanted to investigate that a bit. Because to me, that links Brigid to the meaning of words and sayings, to the power of words and sayings, which of course as a poet and protector of poets she’d be well aware of.

The website has 3 phrases that I want to talk about (bearing in mind that I’m not good with medieval Irish and some of the stuff I draw out here may be inaccurate. I’ve done the best I can, but with limited knowledge! So with that warning clear, I hope, on we go!)

brígh na cédlitre = tenour is the first phrase in the entry. (Truth to tell, I had to look up tenour for a meaning as well. wiktionary.com gives me: “The (primary) intended message or purpose of something. The tone or character of something; the tenor of something; the usual mode of life” Now I can’t find a meaning for “cédlitre” to be able to break this down further, but having “Brig” linked to the tenour of words, the intended message, the purpose to me gives us a further link to the poet and the power of words.

bríogh na guidhei-se comes without a direct English translation, but… I looked up various forms of guidhei, and anything that comes up with a guid in the root of it is linked to begging earnestly, praying, pleading, so I would say it’s linked to power of prayer, power of asking appropriately, that sort of thing. Again, something easily linked to the power of words and poetry for Brig I would say.

fios a bhríghe is the last one under this section and it adds in English “of a prov. saying” which I think means of a proverb or proverbial saying? Now, fios is the modern Irish word for knowledge and although I can’t find an entry for it in the eDIL, any time it’s mentioned it appears to be linked to some sort of knowledge. Here again so we have the power of knowledge, which to me again links Brigid strongly back to the poets, where the power of knowledge and the ability to use it was pretty much the root of their power – and the acknowledgement of that power by the general population of course!

Now, of course, I could be talking out of my ass here, gods know it wouldn’t be the first time I’d gone on a wrong train of thought, but the strong links in the dictionary between the root word brig and the power of words, the value of words is a reasonable jump for me to Brigid’s links with poets and poetry. Does it bring anything new to my practice? Well maybe a few new words for me, in both Irish and English, which is never any harm. A deeper understanding of the potential meanings of Brigid’s name? Maybe. Or maybe not. Maybe I’m unconsciously biased and I’ve missed something glaring here! Either way, I hope it’s interesting and it encourages people to do their own exploring through the meanings of words!

The Year in Ireland – Kevin Danaher

Image shows the book “The Year in Ireland” by Kevin Danaher

I finally managed to get a copy of this book and I’m so excited by it. I’ve been reading about the hungry month of July, as well as Lúnasa traditions, and I obviously will be reading the rest of the book as well, but it’s just such a lovely book and really easy to read.

I’ve seen copies going for €2-300, which is a bit beyond my price range, even for a book like this, but I found a copy for €59 (including postage) from Carmarthaen Books (well I found them on abebooks.com, which is a great website for finding older books) and it arrived earlier this week and I’m having a great time reading through it.

I know, it’s a short post, but I had to share my excitement with ye all! I love reading the old traditions and then think through how these traditions would/wouldn’t work today. For example, July isn’t really a hungry month anymore for most of Ireland – or at least no more hungry than all the other months of the year. We have a consistent food supply (as long as you have the resources to buy said food, which is not yet, unfortunately, a given) so I never heard of burning the straw from the corn instead of threshing it. We don’t, thankfully, survive on spuds and dairy any more either, so we have options when it comes to food.

But it also got me thinking that the abundance of food we eat tends to lead us to take it for granted, in ways that those who grow their own food and depend on that food can’t. We’ve separated the reality of growing food, whether plant or animal, from the eating of the food. The majority of people wandering around the supermarket on a Thursday night don’t really understand, at a bone deep level, what it takes to grow a calf from birth to death to turn it into meat. Or even to mind the cow so she can produce another calf in time. Or the pain and loss of losing a lamb or ewe at 3am on a wild night (or even at 3pm on a sunny day – the loss is no less, even if the surroundings are marginally more pleasant!) The backbreaking work of weeding a long, long line of spuds, hoping the worm doesn’t come up, or the birds don’t peck the new seedlings or any of the other various means by which a crop can be ruined or less than it should be.

And it got me thinking as well, that I am able to express preferences in food that my grandparents, or even my parents, were never able to. In the space of a single generation in Ireland we’ve gone from managing food carefully to last the cycle of the year, to food being readily available on supermarket shelves almost always. Our expectations of food are shown in the way we expect formerly exotic foods like tomatoes on a daily basis, with no understanding of the distances the tomato has travelled to get to us, or the energy required in growing it in Ireland. Avocados – once a staple in Mexico, if I understand correctly – is now too expensive for locals to eat, because foreigners, in our supermarkets, are willing to pay well beyond what those locals can pay. I think this would be similar to the spud being too expensive for the Irish to buy – although the price of spuds is rising consistently as well…

And we must remember that the spud isn’t of course native to our land, but it was so easy (relatively speaking) to grow, and you get so much return for your effort (again, relatively speaking) in terms of nutrition and calories, that it was adopted as families grew larger, land lots grew smaller and more was needed from less soil. So what did people eat before the spud? Apparently dairy. A lot of dairy. It’s well worth reading up on, if you get the chance, or I might do another blog post on it, if people are interested, but there are reports that dairy, milk, cream, cheese were hugely important. (Well most of our big sagas are around cattle, so it stands to reason really!) Oats were the usual grain, wheat being a bit difficult to grow in our climate. For fruit and veg: well the national obsession with bacon and cabbage was come by honestly, apparently, for cabbage, parsnip, onion and garlic were common enough, as were berries (seriously, even today, you can get a fair crop of berries around the island from wild sources) Seaweed for those living along the coast, of course, as well as fish from coast and river. So, y’know, actually a fairly comprehensive diet pre-spud.

But I haven’t come to that in Kevin Danaher’s book yet and I think he’s looking at post-spud introduction anyway, so it’s going to be interesting to see how often food is mentioned throughout the book. And even the small bit I’ve read, of the hungry month of July, is enough to have me considering what I eat and how I appreciate it.

St. Brigid’s Well, Liscannor

A picture of the well entrance, white washed stone hut on the left, with a bench outside and 2 potted plants at the entrance, a set of stone steps to the right, with a low wall and hint of tree trunks and greenery. From: http://irelandsholywells.blogspot.com/2014/01/saint-brigids-well-liscannor-county.html

I have often said that there as wells dedicated to Brigid in most counties in Ireland and I’ll stand by that statement (although the paper I discuss below mentions Patrick Logan’s “The Holy Wells of Ireland”, which outlines 15 wells dedicated to St. Brigid in 11 counties. It also mentioned there are probably more undocumented, so my initial thoughts might be still valid…

Some, however, are a bit more famous than others. St Brigid’s Well in Liscannor, Co. Clare is one such. Now my mother grew up not far from the well and she has mentioned in the past the days when the crowds would come to the well, from the Aran Islands and all over Co. Clare (and I’m sure elsewhere as well) but until I was in Clare a few summers ago (thank you COVID), I didn’t realise how big an insitution it was. We had the (mis)fortune of driving by on the Feast of the Assumption (my grandad’s birthday) and getting stuck in the traffic jam. Honestly – it’s a quiet country road usually, but it took us a good hour to go a mile… my own fault really, I should have been paying attention to the date!

A picture from Google Maps, showing green hedges in the front and a glass/plastic enclosed statue of St. Brigid, holding a crozier and book in the middle, with a stone wall and tall trees behind her

Anyway, over the last few days, following on from my delight over the Brigid Shoe Shrine in the last post, I was doing some mooching around academia.edu and came across a wonderful paper called Saint Brigid: Holy Wells, Patterns and Relics by David W. Atherton and Michael Peter Peyton. It explore Peyton’s memories of the regular Pattern or Patron Days at the well, and he maintains there were four times a year when people would visit the well en masse: St. Brigid’s Eve (31st January), the Saturday and Sunday of Crom Dubh (the last Sunday of July and the vigil) and the Feast of the Assumption, as mentioned above is the 15th July. Now at another time I’d like to come back and visit the connection to Crom Dubh, but I’m forcing myself to put that aside for now.

The paper refers to the “Catholic authorities” being concerned about the morality of these gatherings, given that there was drinking and dancing and all sorts of things going on – even, God forbid! “those practices that involve a striving to have children and such, since such practices smack more of superstition than devotion“. Ah yes, the striving to have children and such??? Anyone else wondering what the “and such” entails?? All in all though, as many a good Irish Catholic will tell you, when the priest is warning you off a party, gathering or event, it’s usually a good sign it’ll be worthwhile going! Things had calmed down a bit in the mid-20th century, and I have to say I saw no signs of debauchery of any kind when I was driving by a few years ago, although it was in the middle of the afternoon. Maybe I should have gone back that night…

As well as the commentary on the morals of the gatherings, the paper includes the “rounds” or the practices to go through to gain the saint’s favour or help in your endeavour. Now, they say they got these from Wikipedia, but I can’t find them on there, which is a bit annoying. On the other hand, as far as prayers go, I don’t see any issue with using this one and the rounds are very well described in the paper. I’d suggest reading the paper to get the full extent of the rounds, as they involve the upper and lower sanctuary and are something I will be doing myself when next I’m down there. But I’ll reproduce the prayer here:

Go mbeannaí Íosa duit, a Bhríd Naofa,

Go mbeannaí Muire duit, is go mbeannaím féin duit,

Chugat a thána’ mé ag géarán mo scéil chugat,

Agus d’iarraidh cabhair in onóir Dé ort.

In English, this is: May Jesus bless you, St. Brigid/ Holy Brigid, May Mary bless you and may I myself bless you. It is to yourself I have come, voicing my complaint and asking your help for the honour of God.

Now I can understand that this is a fairly Catholic prayer and sure the well is devoted to St. Brigid these days, so there’s no surprise there, but there are ways to alter it to a more pagan option. I’ve done my best below.

Beannachtaí an lae ort, a Bhríd,

Beannachtaí an oíche ort, is mo bheannchtaí féin ort comh maith.

Chugat a tháinig mé ag géarán mo scéal chugat,

agus d’iarraidh cabhair ort.

In short, this translates as “blessings of the day to you, Brigid, blessings of the night to you and my own blessings as well. It is to yourself I have come, voicing my complaint and asking your help”.

The prayer isn’t necessarily tied to St. Brigid’s Well, Liscannor of course and could be adapted, as could the rite, to any well or water really in my opinion.

Finally, the Irish for well is usually taught these days as tobar, but in the paper, the well in Liscannor is consistently referred to as Dabhach Bhríde. And dabhach has other meanings in Irish as well, which I found interesting: copper, tank, trough, vat. And this had me thinking of the forge again, because coper, tanks, troughs and vat are likely to be found in a forge. PURE UPG alert here, folks, this is my brain rambling and making connections that may or may not be there. But I’d like to think that the well had some connection, at some point to the older versions of Brigid, in her forge, hammering away.

And now, I want to go explore Crom Dubh and see why people would be going to St. Brigid’s well on the Sunday of Crom Dubh, so I’ll leave it there!

St. Brigid’s Shoe Shrine

Yeah, you read that right!! St. Brigid has a shoe shrine, that is on displayed National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology (Kildare Street in Dublin for those able to get there). Now, I’ve not made it up to Dublin yet to see this shrine, cos I only found out about the shrine this morning, but there a great page on it here (it’s on the website of the National Museum of Ireland, so it’s a pretty legitimate source!)

There’s a video on there as well, going over what is known and/ or believed about the saint. The video also goes over the 7 known lives of St. Brigid (although honestly, Cogitosus and Bethu Brigte are the two I hit on most often!) and how accurate/ inaccurate they might be, as well as the customs and traditions associated with St. Brigid and her feast day.

The most exciting bit of the video, in my opinion, is the bit about the shoe shrine. I mean, I’d never heard of a shoe shrine before… But anyway, a shrine is something that would be created to hold a relic of the saint, in this case a shoe was the relic, so it’s a shoe shrine. A relic can be any object associated with the saint – you often see bones or blood for example in Catholic tradition anyway, but it can also be something that belonged to the saint as well. As another example, in the Middle Ages, there were apparently so many fragments of the “True Cross” wandering around Europe, you could have built a good sized town out of them all if you got them all together. And of course there are loads of relics and shrines still around today.

In honour of the fact these items held sacred objects, these shrines were often heavily decorated and were prayed to/over (the preposition used here depends on your point of view) and could be used to swear oaths. They were usually held in churches or monasteries and in later years found their way into private antiquaries (it’s colonialism, Chad….)

Now this shrine is thought to have held a shoe, hence the shape (either one of Brigid’s own or a relic she herself held), although said shoe is not longer in existence. It’s made of metal – copper or bronze, I think the video said, and the metal is carved with various inscriptions in Latin and pictures of St John the Baptist and Christ on the cross. Now the shoe depicts a later period than Brigid herself would have worn, which is described in the video. (I mean, really, by this point, I’m assuming you’ve already gone to the video in question, cos it’s amazing and only 10mins long!)

Now, the shrine suggests a link between Brigid and St Mary’s Church in Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo – not the part of the country we usually associate with herself to be fair, and I find myself itching to head over to duchas.ie to see what it has to say around Ballinrobe and Brigid. That may be a later post… I may even take a trip up there over the summer to see the stained glass window mentioned in the video. It sounds great.

Anyway, why am I so excited? Well aside from the fact it’s a shrine I didn’t know about – cos that’s exciting in and of itself. And it shoes me that Brigid’s relics were being used and treasured, in this case in a Carmelite monastery dedicated to her in the Lough Rea area of Galway (that might have to be investigated in the same trip as Ballinrobe. It could be Lough Ree as well, but that’s not in Galway, but covers bits of Longford, Westmeath and Roscommon, so I’m hoping it’s Lough Rea – my Dad is from near there and it’s a much smaller lake as well! There is a Carmelite abbey and monastery in Loughrea town itself, but the convent is empty now as the nuns left in 2020. I’m not sure how much of a presence the monastery has in the town, masses are still being held there… This would be the same Abbey that my grandmother regularly went to Mass at before she died. This is also the same Nana that refused to go to Mass when they changed the time of the Mass so it no longer suited her. As far as she was concerned for those few months in Loughrea, there was no Mass held. (It’s not off the side of the road I got my stubbornness!)

Interestingly, that Carmelite convent started off in 1680, when Eleanor Bourke (a “young lady of noble birth” according to Declan Kelly’s Loughrea: A Parish History where I got some more info!) decided she wanted to live a life of piety and the first Carmelite house in Ireland was supplied to her near St. Brigid’s Well in Loughrea (which is now thought to be St. Bride’s on Bride Street). This could be why the video on the National Museum website says the convent was dedicated to St. Brigid?

At this point, I find myself intrigued by the history of St Brigid in the west and I can see a few road trips in my future as I explore this more fully. Including a more careful reading of Declan Kelly’s book. And seeing if the Carmelites have any histories of their own…

And yes, this did all come from a random mention of St. Brigid’s Shoe Shrine in a paper on academia.edu by Niamh Whitfield called Dress and Accessories in the Early Irish Tale “The Wooing Of Becfhola”. I got to page 6 of a 34 page document and just had to pop off and do all this other looking up about the shoe shrine and then I was so excited I had to write to all ye about it. And it doesn’t include the list of other writings, books, papers etc already referenced that I have noted to look up later. As to why I started reading it? I wanted to know how accurate my mental images are of the clothes our ancestors would have worn, whether Iron Age type clothing or Middle Age type clothing. I have the brat and the léine in my head of course, but I’m not sure how accurate that is, so hence the reading to find out.

I know I keep going on about it, but really, reading up on this stuff is fascinating and this morning’s activities are yet another example of how a simple article reading exercise progresses to a rabbit hole of research… a labyrinthine mind is a wondrous thing!

Know yourself

I won’t speak to other pantheons, but I feel the Irish pantheon kinda insists on their followers doing a lot of work around knowing themselves. And within that pantheon, I feel like Brigid pushes her followers to know themselves a lot. Her followers speak about going through the anvil almost as a rite of passage, except it rarely is a one-time journey and it demands self-knowledge in a way my experience of organised religion never did.

(side note: as I was typing the above, I could feel other Irish deities kinda poking their heads up and saying “What now?” Brigid is of course not the only deity that pushes self knowledge among her followers, she’s just the one I have most experience with. )

But what does self-knowledge mean? And how does one go about learning about it? We should know ourselves right? After all, most of the people reading this blog have probably been living on this earth for a few decades at least?

Well true, but there’s many people who can live their lives and not delve deep into themselves at all. And when I think of self-knowledge, I tend to divide the knowledge into 3 realms, similar to how I prepare for festivals: physical, emotional/mental, spiritual. In physical terms, “knowing yourself” often comes up in sexual conversations, particularly with women (or at least, particularly in my experience of being a woman, which is not universal) And it usually comes in related to sexual pleasure, which is an important part of life, in my opinion, so I’m not knocking it. Knowing how your body receives pleasure, whether sexual or otherwise, is hugely important. But there’s also other things to know about your body. What does it look like? What does it feel like? What sensations does it like? What textures, fabrics, surfaces does it like? What foods have what effects on it? (Yeah, there are days I live on chocolate, no harm in admitting it, but really, long-term, that’s not what my body looks for!) What movement does it like? You may not be able to give your body everything it likes, but know what works best can help a lot.

For example, over the years, because of my work and lifestyle, my body has gotten used to a lot of sedentary time. In fact, there are days I can go by with fewer than 500 steps if I don’t make an effort. That’s not the preferred state for my body, it works better with more movement. Equally, washing my body daily is a good idea for me, washing my hair daily – less so. It works better if my hair is washed a few times a week rather than daily. Nothing life threatening really here, but it’s about knowing myself.

You can take this and work through the mental/emotional realm and the spiritual realm as well. What works best for you? And while you might think that quitting your job and running away to wilderness would suit you best, maybe figure out how you’re going to live beforehand and pick up a few of the skills you’ll need before such a major commitment?

What brought this to mind? Well, we’re on the May Bank Holiday weekend here in Ireland and celebrated Bealtaine over the weekend. As part of my celebrations, I didn’t spend money between midday 30th April and midday 1st May. And I found it difficult. I rarely spend money physically, at the weekends anyway, but it is a time when I can spend a lot on Amazon and other online sites. I didn’t realise how much of a habit it was until I found myself very uncomfortable on Saturday night, not browsing my usual websites. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, I’m not spending money we don’t have, but it was interesting to note my levels of discomfort and this is now something I’m going to explore some more over the coming weeks.

It may just be a habit and my discomfort was the usual discomfort of changing a habit, for however short a time. It might also be that this is a soothing activity of some kind for me. It may be completely harmless, but such a marked experience is worth exploring further.

I have heard people ask what use is it following the habits of our ancestors in the modern world and what use they have for us. Well, this is one of the uses for me – it can expose parts of ourselves we might not otherwise have noticed. My husband and I regularly have something neither of us are interested in on the telly at the weekends, while we read or browse the internet, so that didn’t bother me. Stopping myself hitting “Checkout” though was very interesting and caused some internal discomfort so it’s worth exploring a bit more.

This is just one habit of course, at one festival, one person’s experience. And there are other ways to know yourself – journaling is more consistent, if done regularly, shadow work is useful if done with solid theory and foundations, there are loads of ways to explore self knowledge. Hell, lighting some candles, putting on your favourite underwear and having a good explore session with your body is an amazing way to spend an evening, the work doesn’t always have to be difficult and painful!

Have a think over your practices and which bits can cause unexpected reactions in you and see what you can learn or explore further there. You might be surprised what you learn!

Grounding

More than one of my friends have mentioned to me over the last few days about their struggles with grounding lately. Now, many of these people would have significant experience in working with energy and being focused and in generally, could usually ground in their sleep – and, I’m fairly certain, have done so!

I’ve had some difficulties myself, to be honest, but it’s manifested in a slightly different way than usual, so it took me a while to figure out what was happening. So I thought I’d go through some of my techniques for grounding that don’t really require training as such.

First and easiest for me is to stand barefoot on the ground – grass or sand or clay or earth. Tarmac/concrete/floors work as well, but the natural base helps significantly. Stand barefoot and feel the ground beneath your feet. Imagine yourself being rooted to the earth. It should help a lot.

If you want to go even further and your local weather allows is, lying on the ground, particularly again in nature, exposing the maximum amount of your body to the earth, is very helpful. If you have hair like mine, it might be easier to tie it up, rather than allow it to attract every leaf, cobweb and other natural debris in the local area, but it’s not necessary. Some would say loose hair is a necessity for this, but I say those people don’t have wild, curly hair with a mind of their own! 🙂

Next up is standing in moving water – anything with a current or a wave, regardless of how small it is. So, lake, stream, sea – now, I’ll be honest, a lot of the time, the initial cold takes my breath away when I do this and you need to be careful about safety and not be wading hip deep in a heavy current – water safety is always important! But even that shock to the system of cold water is useful for bringing you back to yourself (as long as you don’t have a medical condition where that shock of cold would harm you) If you can submerse yourself as well, even better. But with Irish weather, this might not be advisable. Although rain would work as well – you’d just have to deal with your Mammy giving out to you and threatening you with pneumonia for standing out in the rain.

Next one is to eat something mindfully. By this, I mean, select something and put some time into eating it. Focus on the taste, the motions you use to eat, to chew, the sensations in your mouth, your throat, on your hands as you move the food to your mouth. Think about the smell, texture, sight. Does the food make a noise? Narrowing your focus like this is a handy way to bring you back to the presence. Think about the journey this food has had to reach your plate. Contemplate the movement around the earth (or down the road, or from the back garden), the work that went into producing it and moving it and getting it to you. Think of all the times this food has touched the earth, moved across the earth, as part of this massive ecosystem of ours.

Finally – and this one is a bit controversial, but bear with me. Go to the toilet. Defecate if you can. It’s hard to feel ungrounded while pushing faeces out of your body. This activity is one of the natural times of the day (or week or month, depending on your body’s cycles, I guess) to consider our bodies, our physical selves and our connection to the other physical bodies around us and beneath us. And yeah, I get it, it sounds yucky. But here’s the thing – our faeces and urine are the waste we expel from our bodies and return to the earth. There is a connection there between us and the earth. OK, these days, we mostly treat our waste before returning it to earth, but nevertheless, at the end of the sewage system, or in the septic tank, that’s what happens.

So there you go – a few quick and handy techniques I find useful for grounding. Let me know if they help!!