Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Winter Solstice, Yule and An Mairgead Mór

Over most of Western Europe, particularly in those areas connected with the ancient Celts, December 21, the shortest day of the year fell during the Druidic festival of 'Yule'. Today it is better known as the festival of the ‘Winter Solstice’.
‘Thoul’, an ancient word for wheel, has been handed down to us as Yule. The sun was likened by the Celts to a wheel, traversing the heavens, giving long and short days. The shortest day, and thus a good reason to be of good cheer in anticipation of longer days ahead, was known as Yule. This celebration of light survives in many of our Christmas traditions with the hanging of mistletoe (a white berry), Holly (a red berry) and the lighting of the Yule-log, whose faint light kick-started the longer days Spring. It was an exciting festival for the ancient Celts, coming as it did at the darkest time of year.
In Ireland Yule was eventually replaced by the Catholic traditions surround the religious feast-day of the Immaculate Conception, on the 8th of December and the longer festival of Christmas. However, outside the city, the old pagan traditions continued to be marked by the holding of the Mairgead Mór or the "Big Fair Day, in country towns all around Ireland.
"Brian Nolan, a Loughrea, County Galway native, remembers it as a day of great celebration, when farmers would converge on town to sell their crops, livestock, and poultry, and women would come with them to spend their "butter and egg money" on holiday gifts and goodies.
According to Nolan, "Mairgead Mór was an amazing sight to me as a child in the early 60s before marts and supermarkets modernized everything. On that day, everyone came to town — the ruddy-faced, wool-capped men with their sturdy womenfolk; the too-thin gaggles of wide-eyed children — on horses, in donkey and cart, on bicycles, and on foot, and everyone carried something for the fair. They arrived before dawn, and left, a mess of straw and leavings behind them, after dark".
"Geese by the hundred, turkeys and chickens by the thousand, all 'live,' tied to the back of upturned donkey carts between loads of turf. Mounds of potato sacks brimmed with Kerrs Pinks and Banners from Clare; huge heads of cabbage and turnips; bunches of parsnip and carrots, and the very rare bushel of brussels sprouts. Wheels of hardy cheddar, and what seemed like acres of flats of eggs in hues of brown and white, with the bigger duck-eggs, bluish in the winter sunlight".
"The fowl would be raucous, hog-tied or closeted in bushel baskets with their heads poking out, or in more modern times, poking their heads out of car-boots, and all cackling and clucking and gobbling away to their hearts' content. The 'townies' and some city market buyers made their canny way, back and forth between the rows of sellers, examining here, feeling there, commenting on the size and weight, and what they were fed on, and whether they were spring or summer birds".
"Amid all that was the excitement of the shops, the bustle of the women going in to settle their account with the harvest, butter, and turkey money enabling them to pav down their tab and get some new clothes for themselves and the children, now wide-eyed in expectation and appreciation of the beautiful goods and sweet chocolates they were able to see and touch now and maybe even take home".
December 21st was one of the most important dates in the Celtic calendar as it marked the celebration of a farmer's success and the approach of the New Year. The Mairgead Mór did not always co-incide with December 21, in fact it was usually held on the Wednesday or Thursday that fell in the week after the next Sunday after December the 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.  So it was held approximately a week or so before Christmas, giving folks enough time to kill, hang and pluck their turkey or goose.
These days In modern Ireland, the Mairgead Mór is no longer held, it's now just another big shopping day before Christmas, but in country folks’ minds, the time for cutting mistletoe is nigh and they’d best be getting the turkey ready for market’ Today, the 18th of December would have been a perfect Mairgead Mór.
The story above is typical of the tales I tell on my Galway's Horrible History Walks around the city. Please visit my website for more information on these fun and fact filled walks.

This particular story 'Mairgead Mór', which I wrote over a decade ago, appears in edited form in Margaret Johnson’s latest cook book, ‘Christmas Flavors of Ireland’ which is available now through her website or on Amazon.  The book is delightfully written and presented and would make a lovely Christmas gift.
It is published by Ambassador International., Belfast, N. Ireland 
Margaret M. Johnson

Monday, November 25, 2013

Shooting the Messenger

Shooting the Messenger! 
So...50 years ago, today, I was just 7, and was playing by myself in our back-yard on Main Street, Loughrea Town ('cause no one would play with me), hitting a tennis ball with my hurley against the big wooden gate that closed off our yard from the street. My brother Paul had numbered the squares on the gate, assigning scores to each target, the smaller the square, the bigger the score. I was aceing the hard-to-hit-for-a-seven-year-old #3 target that was the wicket gate, when the window above me opened up, in what was Sweeneys Grocery then, but now is AIB Bank. Gerry Sweeney popped his head out, a mass of ginger hair, animated, 'JFK has been shot' he roared, before slamming the window shut. 
I had no idea what this utterance meant, but given the nature of its delivery, felt obliged to drop the hurley and dash into our Kitchen, where mum and dad and who knows how many of my 6 siblings were having their tea (supper, whatever) and waiting for the 6 o'clock news to come on the warmed-up wireless, after the Angelus, that was chiming away sonorously amid the clack and clatter of cups and saucers and spoons. I blurted out Gerry's news, 'JFK has been shot' to be met by incredulous stares and the rebuke, 'Shut up, the news is only coming on, what would you know about JFK, sure wasn't he just in Eyre Square a couple a months ago, shot??? Shure who would shoot a man like that, shame on you for your wicked imagination, go up those stairs to your room, what a thing to say, shhh, here's the news just coming on now...get, get you up those stairs, and don't come down until you have had a long think about what trouble telling lies gets you, boyo, ...pass the milk Clare please, shush, whisth!!, ...what's that they just said?.. JFK, Oh my God......!'
"Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot.
For one brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot."
-- Alan J. Lerner (a classmate of JFK's at Harvard)

Later I wrote a piece from the walking tours I give in Galway. I call the tours Galway's Horrible Histories Walking Tours...but in fairness, only some of them are horrible.

Earlier today I was asked what did JFK ever do for Ireland? What indeed, quite a bit I'd's how I answered the question.

Social Media, Blog & Content Creator - Walking Tours
Earlier today I was asked what did JFK ever do for Ireland?
When I do my Galway's Horrible Histories Walking Tours ( ), I stop at the Browne Doorway in Eyre Square and tell the story of how JFK won the hearts and minds of Galway and Ireland ..and I quote from his speech (in Cork)..."I bring to you today the greetings of the people of Galway, New York; Dublin, New Hampshire; the people of Killarney, West Virginia; Kilkenny, Minnesota; the people of Limerick, Maine; and the people of Shamrock, Texas." Whoever wrote his speeches, knew his craft right well. I then tell how he and Eamon Devalera signed an agreement which limited future Irish emigration to the US, but the quid pro quo was the promise of FDI from US companies...including Boston's Digital Equipment Company (Digital), who 10 years later employed over 1,000 people in Galway. The rest is history. The foundation for modern Ireland's prosperity was laid right there in Eyre Square by JFK, who was assassinated in Dallas just 5 months later.

and Finally, just to cap it all off, two other progressive paople died the same day as JFK. They were C. S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley. What an astonishing co-incidence, three of the most visionary men on earth...all gone in one day. Air dheis De go raibh a h-anamacha.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Drowning At Sea - I Have A Dream

Baffle 2013

I have a dream, ladies and gentlemen, yes, I have a dream.
No, not the Martin Luther King kind, though it may seem,
that I might indeed have conjured up such a glorious triptych scheme.

No scheme, and it’s not a plan either, no grand design to conquer or win,
in some devilishly clever manner, the hearts of women and men,
nor even saving their souls, or taxing the wages of sin.

No my dream is much less laudable, far less fanciful and rare,
for my dream is simply the worst kind of scary nightmare,
where I am the hapless victim, the sacrificial lamb, in terrible danger

In my dream, I am alone in an angry ocean, of wave, after tumultuous wave.
No, I am not on a boat, or a ship, not even a raft, I am swimming, like mad, to save,
myself from drowning, from dying, from sinking helplessly into a cold, watery grave.

Yes, I imagine you have been there yourself, on occasion, permit me -
You are on holiday, had a few, went swimming, too far from the shore for safety,
you panic, swallow water, but just for a moment, it’s ok, you’re still in depth, you see.

Not me, in my dream the ocean is fathomless, deep, dark and forbidding
There is no reassuring shore, no tanned lifeguard to answer my frantic bidding
And by the way, there are sharks, all around, sharp-toothed and hungry, no kidding!

The ship that I fell off, though in my dream I can’t remember falling,
is sailing away, towards the horizon, totally ignoring my panicked bawling
I reach for my mobile, it’s on roaming, no signal, wet, no point calling

I’ve heard it said that when you’re dying your whole life flashes before you!
Not true, or at least not true for me, all I see is darkness around me, not a clue,
how did I get here, who I am, I’m alone, just me drowning again, hopeless déjà vu

Truth be told, this dream, this nightmare, visits me often, nearly every day.
At each replay, it gets worse, I’m worried, terrified, I’ve aged, I’ve gone grey.
The doctors can’t help me, prescribed everything, they even suggested I pray.

I’ve tried that of course, and I’ve found that it helps, praying sincerely
to St. Anthony for my lost life-vest,  begging St. Christopher to steer me
and St. Jude, for lost causes and hopeless cases, God bless him, he hears me

He must do, ‘cause in the dreams, just as I am about to drown, or be eaten
I am rescued by an off-course helicopter, or a pod of dolphins have beaten
the sharks, a currach skips across the waves, I’m snatched to safety, death-cheatin’.

Saved from the sea, exhausted, I drift back to sleep, though my relief is short-lived,
as each mornings news brings word of yet another family, devastated, bereaved.
The sea claims her own, but if cheated, another is soon taken, ‘tis believed.

I’ve cheated the sea quite a few times, in life and in dreams, though I still love to swim.
Floating on my back in Salthill last Wednesday, I basked in my vast, outdoor gym,
rejoicing on being alive, keeping healthy, feeling young, slim, trim with a touch of vim

Life was good, I dressed, shivering, turned on the car radio, and then heard about Niall.
A young man in his prime, so much talent, so much to live for, what caused his travail?
How dark were his demons, how deep was his ocean, what made his world spoil?

He is not coming back. His hurl and white helmet are stored. His deeds on the field,
will oft be re-told, but his phone was no use, his calls went unheard, his shield,
proved no match for the vengeful sea dragon. Drowned in an ocean, his fate was sealed.

Suicide’s not the answer to that demon called depression. That monstrous scourge,
stalks the land, randomly preying on the young and the vulnerable. Lets stop this surge!
Help is at hand. Pieta, Samaritans, St. Jude and you. Let Niall’s be the last funeral dirge.

I drove on away home, tears in my eyes. I promised I’d do what not enough of us choose,
to open my door, to reach out my hand, to reassure the lost, and not fear to lose,
to try to help others, from drowning at sea, no matter the cost, I’m spreading the news.

Drowning At Sea - I Have A Dream
This was my poem that I entered and read in the Baffle Poetry Festival that is held in Loughrea each Halloween weekend. This year's theme was 'Spreading the news'. 
Mine was not a winner, but I felt I had to write it because so many people, young men especially are committing suicide in Ireland every week. It is truly the saddest news that is spreading. We can all try to help those with suicidal thoughts or who are suffering from depression. Simply reaching out to them and speaking with them is a start. Being open to approach and being non-judgemental is also great. Lets do all we can to prevent more young people from ending their lives this way.
I would like to dedicate this poem to Niall Donohue, who was yet another victim to the monster we call depression. He died this week, a terrible shock to his family, friends and community. They are reeling from his loss. He was only, a lovely lad, a talented hurler and has left behind a saddened and stunned family and community. Air dheis De go raibh a h-anam.
Samaritans Phone 1850609090
Pieta House‎ or
For more on Niall's short life and his tragic death...see
St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes, hopeless cases and depression. His saints day is October 28, co-incidentally, tomorrow. Brian Nolan

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Our Achill's heel

Driving around Achill in the soft rain, her delight at seeing the old country was obvious. Every turn in the road we swapped stories of parallel lives in two different countries in the sixties, her in Cleveland, Ohio, me in Galway, Ireland. We had a lot in common. She had been a kindergarten teacher all her life in a leafy Cleveland suburb, my father had taught in a primary school in Duniry near the Slieve Aughty mountains, for 42 years. She said, 'My father was a fire-chief in Cleveland and he worked every hour he could to provide for his family, though money was never flush. A proud man,he instilled in us the motto, 'If you can't make it, you can't have it'. He built them two boats for sailing on Lake Erie and a cottage on the shore there for summer vacations. He could fix and make most anything. We never owned a new car, nor even a new sofa. Everything was pre-owned. He would come home from work of an evening, dressed in his captains uniform, wool suit, cap, gold braid. He'd boom, 'Anyone need a new bike? I passed a broken bicycle at 23rd and Dean, you want it, go down and get it, I will fix it up for you like new'. We always had great bikes and skateboards and ice-skates and never wanted for anything. He'd often say, 'If you know how to fix a broken shingle, you will never need to call a roofing contractor'. 'I adored the ground my father walked on', she finished, tearing at the memories. 
A mile later, on the coast road at Dooega, we passed this deserted farmhouse and I thought of her father back in Cleveland, and how he could fix a shingle and save a rooof, and I was ashamed at the dependent, throwaway society we have become, unable to keep our own house in order, fix our own roof, plant our own garden. 

 — in Dooega, Mayo.