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A Letter From Ireland – February 2016

Ah yes, St. Brigid’s Day [1 February] aka Imbolc, the first day of ancient Celtic spring, is also known as the Feast of Brigid. It celebrates the arrival of longer, warmer days and the early signs of spring. The literal meaning of Imbolc is ‘in the belly’ referring to the pregnancy of ewes [i.e. farm animals] in the old Irish Neolithic vernacular.

One little custom I continue practising on Brigid’s Eve surrounds leaving a piece of cloth, maybe a small bit from an old dressing gown, hanging from the tree by the front door in the hopes the passing spirit of Brigid might bless it during the night. The next morning, I’ll collect the scrap, say a little prayer and then tack it up on my office wall, hoping the kindly saint has invested it with the powers of good health and self-protection. My rational mind tells me this is just codswallop, but who knows, maybe it’s not. Sure, I’ll take all the help I can muster.

As an aside, legend has it Brigid was born in rural Faughart, Co. Louth in c. 450 AD. Then, just a decade or so ago I visited her birthplace…a truly ‘saintly’ spot that radiated a serene, almost mystical quality that soon became most evident.

Situated on the side of Faughart hill were a number of holy sites including a well, several bullán or bowl stones, some early Christian ruins and a bubbling rivulet that flowed cheerfully through a cut in the hillside’s grassy slope. It was truly an extraordinary place…an important shrine adorning Ireland’s bucolic countryside above the town of Dundalk.

Being there, I couldn’t help but recall that Faughart supposedly played a part in my own family’s past. As the story goes, at least according to my aunt, our descendants are somehow connected to the de Brus family of Scotland. Maybe you remember King Robert the Bruce [de Brus] from the film Braveheart. Well, Robert’s younger brother was dubbed Edward the Bruce. After fighting alongside his brother for Scottish independence, Edward set sail for Ireland in 1315. Upon arriving, he declared himself High King of Ireland. Despite forcing England to fight on two fronts, Ireland and Scotland, Edward’s Scot-Irish army was defeated by an Anglo-Norman-Irish force led by John de Bermingham, Earl of Louth, and Edmund Butler, Earl of Carrick, on 14 October 1318.

Unfortunately, Edward proved to be a poor military tactician. His small army of largely Scottish soldiers was overwhelmed and soundly defeated by a vastly superior Irish contingent led by the Anglo-Norman earls. They systematically subdued the Scotsman’s forces in a short-lived engagement. Edward was killed in the fight and, as was the custom of the day, promptly beheaded. What remained of his dismembered body, after it was carved up and dispatched to the four corners of Ireland, was buried in the Hill of Faughart churchyard…God rest his tortured soul.

Sure, enough of this ancient history and on to more current events. This coming spring and summer will be a feast of 1916-2016 happenings. If you can somehow pull it off, head over for Ireland’s St Patrick’s Day festivities followed by a total submersion into the recounting of all things Easter Rebellion remembered.

With that in mind, you may have noticed, over the years, that I’ve frequently quoted or referred to a wonderful Irish historical publication, published by-monthly for the last twenty-four years, entitled History Ireland. It is beautifully produced and very professionally done. Some of the finest present-day historians and writers pen succinct, provocative and informative pieces, plus its treatment of new Irish historical books is fabulous.

Well, over the next few years the editors of HI are putting together a truly extraordinary series of publications centring on the theme of commemoration. The first in this series will be entitled: 1916: Dream & death.  This 96-page special will be shipped this month for €12.50 [about $15] postage included. It will surely be a most prised collectible. If you are interested, give Carol or Helen a ring at 011-353-1-2933568 for all necessary details.

Speaking of books, one that might go unnoticed in the States is Maurice Walsh’s Bitter Freedom: Ireland In A Revolutionary World 1918-1923. [ISBN 9780571243006]. As Padraig Yeates states in his review: “This is probably the best overview of the revolutionary era in the current crop of books prompted by the ‘decade of centenaries.’”

Yeates, a fine writer and author himself, is spot on with his praise for Walsh’s book. It’s now available in paperback [about $20] from Amazon.

Now, for a bit of sadness. As IANOhio embarks on it tenth year of publishing, I must announce this will be my last column for the paper. I have so enjoyed our monthly visits. It has been a great pleasure writing you about all the comings and goings of things back home. Ireland’s political ebb and flow, with its intriguing interactions, all juxtaposed against its verbosity and oft-time absurd characterisations, have at times left me gasping for breath. But despite everything, I’ve truly enjoyed writing you about Ireland…it’s new books, restaurants, festivals and places of note…of the wonderful people I’ve met and shared adventures with…of introducing you to some of my friends such as Tom ‘the Publican’ Richardson and his mother May, Seán O Mahony, Tim Pat Coogan, Ronnie Daly, Niamh O’Sullivan, Pat Fallon and all his fine family…to mention only a few.

In closing, I want to thank John O’Brien and Cliff Carlson for all their wonderful support and friendship over the years. John has been such a rock and he certainly gave me the freedom to write as the whim strikes.

Finally, I want to thank our advertisers for their endorsements that have made this fine newspaper possible and to you, the readership, who have read and commented, usually most kindly, on my monthly pieces. Your encouragement has made all the difference.

So for the one-hundredth-tenth time without a miss, I close wishing you all God’s blessings and Éireann go Brách. Cathal

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