As Murt Mac Garraidhe wrote in his book, Strangers at Home, the early Irish considered the Christian idea of man having dominion over the beasts of the earth, the fishes of the sea, and the birds of the air, an arrogant lunacy. So too was the Christian assertion that animals had no souls. Any notion of dominion over a soulless Earth was even more ludicrous. For Éire, the land we know today as Ireland, has both soul and sovereignty.
Murt’s words echo those of Chief Sealth in his famous letter to President Pierce as his people were being forced off their ancestral land. How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. For this land is sacred to us. Owning the land was unthinkable. However for both Chief Sealth’s people and the Irish, this sacred world view would prove fatal.
When the English arrived in Ireland they were surprised and ultimately pleased to find a culture of scattered tribes living in a reciprocal and balanced relationship with a wild, untamed land. Murt sums it well. The new invaders found Éire an inhospitable wilderness and tended to regard the Gaeil as primitive savages who failed to ‘progress’ as others had and who knew nothing of agriculture. To them, the Gaeil were throwbacks to a past that had long since disappeared in much of northern Europe: they were like some wandering nomadic tribe that had escaped from the books of the Old Testament, and were obviously not meant to be in possession of such a fine land.
Basically, if the Irish didn’t consider themselves owners of the land they didn’t deserve to own it. If they weren’t exploiting the landscape and its resources they didn’t deserve the landscape and its resources. The English were happy to take the land off their hands. And they did, by slaughter, starvation and deportation. As Murt wrote, their commercially oriented society, and the ways in which they exploited the landscape and its resources to support themselves, were to have a profound effect on the ecology of Éire, the legacy of which we are living today. I would argue not only the ecology but also the spirit and soul of Éire and her people.
Lynne’s been to Ireland with me a few times now. This is one of her favorite stories. She and Linda had tucked into The Creamery Restaurant in Bunratty for dinner and the creme brulee caught her eye. Lynne’s all about her deserts. Apparently it was delicious and in talking with their server Lynne asked if the cream was local. “Oh no,” came the quick reply, “it’s from Limerick.” Limerick is eight miles from Bunratty.
While this story reflects prevailing public sentiment on local and organic food, it does not reflect the whole story.
When I first travelled to Ireland local and organic food issues were much in the media. Along with concerns about GMOs. Irish farmers contemplating the use of GMO feed and pesticides were roundly criticized. Although the Irish have never been huge fans of the English, their thinking seemed totally aligned with Prince Charles’ statement that GMOs are the “biggest environmental disaster of all time.” I was delighted to learn that in 2009 Ireland joined countries throughout Europe and around the globe in banning the cultivation of GM crops and adopting GM-free food labeling. The government statement announcing the ban noted that “the WTO’s economic globalisation agenda has forced most Irish farmers to enter an unwinnable race to the bottom for low quality GM-fed meat and dairy produce.”
It was a great victory, although short-lived. The Irish were aware that when Germany adopted a no-GMO policy they were sued by Monsanto. And so they braced themselves. Sure enough. In a threat made to nations who rejected GMO crops and biotechnology overall, United States ambassador to France and business partner to George W. Bush, Craig Stapleton, made it clear that all nations opposing GMOs will be hit with calibrated ‘target retaliation’ and ‘military-style trade wars’.
In 2011 the Irish government “confirmed that Ireland has altered its voting position and will support a number of proposals from the EU Commission aimed at authorizing the placing on the market of food, food ingredients and feed containing, consisting of, or produced from genetically modified maize and cotton.” It didn’t stop with maize and cotton. In 2012 the potato fell.
Yet in the midst of current economic conditions the Irish people seem to remain both concerned and committed to local, organic, and unadulterated food sources. It’s an ethic and movement aligned with how many Irish see themselves in relationship with their land…and their food. It may not live in the politics but it does live in the people. And in the David and Goliath drama, Ireland is well familiar with the role of David.
We were headed across Ireland to have dinner with Anthony Murphy, author and archaeoastronomer. Arguably one of the best things I did in Ireland this summer and well worth the thirteen hour investment. Actually, I was driving and Jack was navigating. Ostensively to avoid the three dollar toll on the cross country motorway, but clearly to afford Jack the opportunity to gaze out the window at ringforts as we passed through the countryside. He makes this drive frequently, but never as a passenger.
And he observed loads of them. I would later learn that there are an estimated 45,000 ringforts in Ireland. Add to that 3,000 holy wells, 1,400 cairn temples and 234 stone circles. Add to that numerous but uncounted standing stones, dolmans and remains of stone sweat lodges. For a small country, Ireland has a massive number of megalithic and ancient sacred sites. Small by comparison I suppose. In terms of square miles it’s about the size of the state of Maine and half the size of Washington state.
It’s about how we choose to release things. Or not. My brother, sister and I recently rented a storage unit for some items from our dad’s house. The last one of any size available in the area, it was much larger than we needed. We considered offering ballroom dance lessons to offset the monthly rental cost.
There are currently 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space in the US. Seven square feet for every man, woman and child making it physically possible for every American – all at the same time – to stand under a canopy of self-storage roofing equivalent to three times Manhattan Island. We are a nation attached to our stuff.
To call this a religious attachment is not far off the mark. In 1955 economist and presidential advisor Victor LeBow came up with a solution to bolster our post-war economy which has been adopted with increasing enthusiasm over the years. However the booming storage industry would indicate that while we excel at consuming we are not so good at discarding. At least not completely. Out of sight, out of mind, but not out of our lives. Continue reading
Enter the Green Man, singing ancient songs of Spring. Thanks for this comment, Chalazon. You are right, or rite, on. For this is the very essence of the Green Man and Wild Man featured in the National Geographic article referenced in my last post. Wild in the sense of being of and associated with nature and the natural world, both plant and animal. Green Man is always a glory of plant life and generally horned, honoring the stag or ram. He is both potent and powerful. Too powerful and too popular, it turned out, for the christian clergy.
Try as they did, they were not able to purge Green Man from the spirituality, culture, traditions or very psyche of the people. Finding themselves on the horns of a dilemma, figuratively and literally, they set out to change the story. And they were good at stories. Ceding to popular belief of a divine mystery and mysticism surrounding Green Man, they created the story of his being a fallen angel. This was the same strategy used for the Tuatha Dé Danann of Ireland which I wrote about in an earlier post, A Tragic Solution. The moniker of fallen angel shifted to devil and as his story changed so did his image, especially in Christian art like this painting on the right from the 16th century. The plants are gone but the horns remain.
It was only a matter of time before beloved Green Man turned from green to red – though fortunately not for everyone.
They become bears, stags and devils.
They evoke death but bestow fertile life.
They live in the modern era, but they summon old traditions.
A primal heart still beats in Europe.
Paging through the latest issue of National Geographic I was delighted to read these opening words to an article on Europe’s Wild Men. After my Easter post, Eggs, Rabbits & Resurrection, I wasn’t surprised to receive emails with links to writings of similar sentiment. After all, there is a considerable awareness of this pagan heritage. I was, however, a bit surprised to receive this writing of similar sentiment in the National Geographic. The article is excellent, the photos are stunning. The story is all about the ancient traditions of welcoming the fertility of Spring and how many of those traditions are still alive in Spain, Portugal, Austria, Italy, the Czech Republic, Romania, France, Poland, Switzerland, Germany, Scotland, and Bulgaria. Although not mentioned in this article these traditions live on in Ireland as well.
One might well wonder, as does the article, at the sanity of grown men…and now apparently women although that has not always been the tradition…wandering around in these costumes. One might wonder just how much they believe that costumes and rituals have the power to banish evil and end winter. As one mask traditions scholar quoted in the article says, Modern life tells them not to. But they remain open to the possibility that the old ways run deep.
I love chocolate. Fortunately our mother was not keen on decorating hard boiled eggs so Easter was always one of my favorite holidays.
However I could never reconcile the intensity of crucifixion, death and resurrection with the whimsy of bunnies with baskets. Without any explanation or conversation about this in my family or church, the two fell into a strange co-existence with no apparent relationship beyond a shared Sunday celebration. And that was another mystery. While other holidays land on the same date every year, Easter Sunday hops all over the calendar.
I would discover much later in life that Easter is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. Dates based entirely on cycles of the sun and moon. Entirely pagan. I can totally understand why neither parents nor pastor sat us down to explain the finer points of the holiday since the themes of eggs, rabbits, and resurrection all have deep roots in Earth based spirituality with traditions and celebrations reaching back hundreds if not thousands of years before christianity.
The calculation of Easter was long a sore point with the Catholic Church. With celestial dating and fertility rites – enter the rabbit – of the holiday firmly rooted in Ireland the holy church worked hard to expunge all of it. It was a topic hotly debated at the Synod of Whitby in 664. However on this issue they weren’t successful.
The calculation remains as it always has been as every year Mother Earth demonstrates her fertility and fulfills her promise of life’s resurrection. Her basket is filled with flowers, her rabbits and eggs symbols of celebration. No matter the spiritual tradition, this is a season worthy of celebration.
Coming around a blind curve at 100 KPH, the legal limit on many of Ireland’s narrow winding roads, and finding yourself face to face with a tour bus significantly wider than the oncoming lane can be a bit daunting. At this point the center lane, if there is one, holds no meaning. There are no shoulders and the vegetation now brushing the side of your car most probably conceals a substantial stone wall. Add to that driving from the right side of the car on the left side of the road. Ask anyone who’s been there, motoring in Ireland is an adventure. Why don’t they widen the roads?, is a frequent question from fellow travelers shaken by a recent encounter.
In fact the Celtic Tiger brought with it a significant surge of road construction and now dual carriage ways (double lane highways) bypass many villages. While I appreciate the advantages of fast travel from point A to point B, I go to Ireland to savor time, not save it. And what is lost for me is a slow crawl through narrow village streets, delivery trucks double parked, garbage trucks stopping every few feet to empty trash containers, and pedestrians crossing wherever convenient.
But in much of Ireland the roads remain as they have for centuries. Yes, they are frequently resurfaced, but they are rarely if ever widened or straightened. The roads are shaped by the land, the farms and fields which are small enough without carving out larger lanes. Those stone boundary walls are not easily moved, physically, socially or emotionally. And the Irish don’t seem to find the narrow winding roads much of an impediment. After all the speed limit is 100KPH.
The rising sun was breaking through the clouds. Finally. Jack and I were in his jewelry studio. I was putting together small boxes and he was casting a few more pieces for the Saturday market in Galway. We were listening to Irish talk radio.
The interview that morning was with a government official working with dairy exports. This man is responsible for getting Irish cheese, including my favorite Dubliner cheddar, to the US market. I moved my box assembly closer to the radio. Please don’t tell us that this increased market demand has compromised your standards or worse, that although the cheese carries the Dubliner label it is actually produced in Wisconsin.
In my early visits to Ireland I remember hearing great controversy around GMOs. Irish farmers were holding fast to a long tradition of natural farming practices and werebeing very outspoken in their criticism of those considering the introduction of chemicals and factory farming. Free range pasture grazing was a source of pride. And, for the most part, pride won out. I didn’t want to hear this had changed and was greatly relieved to learn it hadn’t.
Dubliner Cheese is produced in County Cork. Not because labor prices are cheaper, or taxes are waived, or land prices are less but because the “temperate environment of this area ensures a long grass-growing season to produce high quality milk.” The cheese is produced by the Carbery Group but that’s all they do. The cows are raised and tended by 15,000 local farmers, according to the website. A huge number given that Ireland is just over half the size of Washington State. This system is a stand for sustainability, both of product quality and small family farms. While purchasing imported Dubliner Cheese is about as far from the buy-local ethic as you can get there is another ethic at play. The ethic of a community based food source deeply connected with the Earth.
That anyone would journey through life as both healer and butcher seems wildly absurd. Beyond incongruous and beyond my ability to reconcile until I realized my reaction to Mr. O’Donoghue (Healer. Butcher. post 2.21.13) is a cultural one, based absolutely in the dynamics of my consumer culture.
People assume that as a vegetarian I have issues with eating animals. Not true. If I had issues around killing for food I would starve. Everything I consume, animal or plant, sacrifices its life force energy. What I have issues with is factory farming and the horrific conditions in which animals in this country are raised and slaughtered. The Meatrix provides a compelling overview of these practices. When animals, and plants for that matter, become mere commodities they lose their place in the web of life, no longer considered cohabitants with us on this planet. Any sense of honoring or sacred connection and relationship is gone. http://www.themeatrix.com/
People in O’Donoghue’s village are clearly able to seek him out for both healing and a good cut of beef without apparent contradiction or incongruity. Perhaps because factory farming hasn’t taken over completely in Ireland. Perhaps because they haven’t completely lost a knowing that the food we eat and healing are all part of the web. Perhaps they haven’t lost the connection.