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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve
Noigh na Nollaig

24th December

1. You should try to finish work by midday and get home before night-fall. Try to return to the homeplace on Christmas Eve.
2. During medieval times, the decorated log was ceremoniously carried into the home on Christmas Eve in a remembrance of the pine logs used in the sacred fires, and placed in the fireplace. Traditionally this was lit with the saved stump of last year's log, and then it was burnt over the twelve days of the winter celebration, and its ashes were kept until the following year to sprinkle on the new log, so that the fortune would be passed on from year to year.
3. Some observe Christmas Eve as a fast day. (Three Lents were kept – from Ash Wednesday to Easter, after Easter for 60 days up to Pentecost or Whitsun, and from Martinmas in November to Christmas, in remembrance of the fasts of Christ, Moses, and Elijah.)  If you do eat, perhaps it should be fish with white sauce and potatoes. End your fast after candles are lit at 6 o’clock and the Angelus Bell is rung, although the holiday has usually began with the appearance of the first star of Christmas Eve.
4. Start last preparations for the most elaborate dinner of the year, Christmas Dinner. Traditionally stuffed Goose was the most common dish. Oysters were also very popular. Boiled Ox head was the favourite dish in Armagh, Tyrone, Monaghan and other places in the north.
5. In Leinster and Munster the wealthy prepared many dishes, chicken or goose, also bacon and mutton, cakes, puddings, and pies in preparation.
6. Some puddings were made on Christmas Eve for final cooking on Christmas Day. In County Wexford they made Cutlin pudding – a porridge of wheaten meal, sugar, dried fruits and spices, made into a ball as big as a football and wrapped up in muslin for boiling.
7. In Donegal they make a Christmas pie in the shape of a manger decorated with strips of pastry.
8. Place large candles into sconces made from a turnip or ‘piggin’ filled with bran or flour. One for each of the adults in the house. Little coloured candles should be set up for the children of the house.
 9. Holly, ivy and mistletoe are an important part of decorating the Irish house at Christmas. Holly wreaths and bunches of mistletoe hanging from the doorway are ancient traditions. Mistletoe is such a powerful symbol that two enemies meeting under a branch must call a truce until the Christmas period. Decorate all candles with holly and ivy. One big candle, the Coinneal Mór na Nollaig, is prominently displayed, usually in a window.
10.  Light all Christmas candles with a prayer. The candle in the window also indicated a safe place for priests to perform mass as, during Penal Times, this was illegal and the penalties severe.
11. Light three candles or a three branched candle in honour of the Holy Family.
12. Have the youngest person light the principal candle because an old Irish tradition is ‘they will live the longest and send the custom furthest’. Have a candle in every window. Leave a candle for each of the family who has died since last Christmas to welcome them in. Candles are lighted to show the way to Joseph and Mary. Take the children to a high place to show them all the candles in the surrounding houses.
13.  If the principal candle goes out for some reason it is a bad omen, possibly of the death of the head of the household during the coming year.
14. In some parts of Connacht a big ceremonial dinner is prepared for this evening. Pork or bacon from the pig slaughtered at Martinmas or Mutton with potatoes and turnips.
15. After dinner gather the family around the fire. Cut the Christmas cake and make tea, brandy punch and other festive drinks. Give sweets and apples to the children, an apple as part of the evening meal would give protection against bad health during the coming year.
16. Sing carols. Saint Francis of Assisi is again credited with bringing in a Christmas tradition by introducing carols into the formal worship of the church during a Christmas Midnight Mass in a cave in Greccio, in the province of Umbria in 1223. The Wexford or Enniscorthy Carol is the oldest in Europe.

17. Leave doors unlocked on Christmas Eve for travellers returning late or those lost with no place to go.  Leave the table set for three people; the Holy Family.
18. Put on a good fire before going to bed and let candles burn all night, extinguishing them just before the first mass. This could now be the lights on the tree?
19. Put bread made with caraway seeds and raisins on the table, along with some milk, in preparation for Christmas visitors. Possibly the origin of leaving sherry and mince pies out for Santa?
20. Cold weather with frost or snow will indicate a mild spring with absence of illness. There is an old Irish saying, ‘A green Christmas makes a fat churchyard’.
21.  When it snowed on Christmas Eve, it was thought geese were being plucked in heaven.
22 No prayer will be unanswered on Christmas Eve and if you die on Christmas Eve you will go right into heaven.
23.  At midnight leave the cows and other animals alone to kneel in adoration of the Christ Child. Animals are given the power of speech at this time but will not often use it in front of humans; if you do hear them speak it is often a bad prediction for your future that you hear… Feed the animals a Christmas treat.
24.  A new moon on Christmas Eve is thought to be very lucky as was a starry sky, this would bring a good summer harvest.
25.  The cock will crow on unusual times -to hear him crow at midnight will be a good omen.
26.    There is a belief that Bees woke from their hibernation at Christmas to hum a psalm 100 to the new born babe. As with the animals talking, the bees do not like to let humans hear them.
27. There are other superstitions associated with Christmas Eve, pairs of shoes should not be separated in order to keep the peace and more seriously, death could be foretold by the shape of a shadow at the fireside; a headless shadow was a portent of death.

Compiled by B. D'Alton

Monday, December 23, 2013

Rathcroghan Christmas Cake

175g butter chopped
200g Dark muscovado sugar
750g luxury mixed fruit
1 orange finely grated and juiced
1 lemon finely grated
Cherry brandy 125 ml plus extra for topping up
3 large eggs
200g plain flour
½ tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. ground spice, cinnamon, all spice

1 – Put butter, sugar, fruit, zests, juice, and 125 ml brandy in large pan and bring slowly to boil, stirring until all the butter has melted. Reduce heat and allow to bubble for 10 mins stirring occasionally.
2 – Remove pan from heat and leave to cool for 30 mins.
3 – Preheat the oven to 150 c and double line your cake tin.
4 – Stir the eggs into the fruit mixture and mix well, sift in flour and baking powder + spices into pan, stir gently until there are no traces of flour left.
5 – Spoon the mixture into tin and smooth down evenly ( tip : use metal spoon dipped in boiling water )
6 – Bake for 45 mins, then turn down heat to 140 c and cook for 1.5 – 2 hrs . Until cake is dark golden in appearance and firm to touch. Check with skewer if comes out clean cake is done.
7 – Make some holes with skewer and add extra brandy to cake, leave to cool in tin 8 – When cold wrap in foil for storage Cake will keep for 3 months or 6 when frozen

Merry Christmas from all At Rathcroghan Café Brian & Marie

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Winter Solstice

 Winter Solstice
 Grianstad an Gheimhridh

The Winter Solstice is the time of year when we experience our shortest day and longest night - the sun is at its lowest point in the sky at noon and midnight is the darkest point of the year. It is known as Yule in many parts of Europe, this derives from the Norse word jól, referring to the Winter Solstice festival. Ancient people celebrated the rebirth of the Sun God and the days becoming longer and lighter.

In Ireland the ancient traditions of the land at the Winter Solstice had been celebrated here since Neolithic times. Ancient farmers had to have knowledge of the changing seasons and the turning of the year.

Bru na Boinne in Co. Meath is the sacred mid-winter site. The sun rises on the five mid-winter days and shines, in turn, into each of the mounds at different times during the day; starting with the main mound at Newgrange where the first light strikes the stone with five spirals at the end of the passage, and ends at Dowth, ‘Darkness’, as the last rays fade at sunset. It is a very ancient and powerful ritual of Sun worship

 In the ancient tradition the Goddess Tailltiu, as Mother, gave birth to Lugh, the Sun God, at the Winter Solstice. At this time our ancestors celebrated the expulsion of evil winter spirits. It was considered a mysterious and powerful time, for it is at this point the sun begins to make the return journey across our skies.

After the longest night of the year the sun is seen as growing stronger and the return of the warmer season is anticipated, the concept of rebirth became strongly associated with the Winter Solstice. 

For five days around the Solstice our ancestors celebrated the return of light and the sun growing in strength. The well-known figure of Father Christmas may have derived from this Sun God worship including Lugh, the ancient Irish Sun God, who travels across the sky at this time.

The Solstice was celebrated with bonfires to stimulate the ascent of the sun, and lamps or candles illuminating houses decorated with evergreens to simulate summer. It is a time to look on the past year's achievements. The days will now grow longer up to the summer solstice. Fires were lit to symbolize the heat, light and promise of a spring and summer by the returning sun. A Yule or Juul Log was brought into the house and burned on the hearth in honour of the Scandinavian God Thor. In Scandinavia a piece of the log was kept as both a token of good luck and as kindling for the following year’s log.

Traditionally in England, Germany, France and other European countries, the Yule log was burned until nothing but ash remained. The ashes were then collected and either used on the fields as fertilizer, being scattered every night until Twelfth Night, or kept as a charm and or to use in medicine. In France, people believed that if the ashes were kept under the bed, they would protect the house against thunder and lightning. The Yule Log came to Ireland with the Vikings and has been taken up as the Bogdeal, the "bloc na Greihbain”. 

The pine tree is related to this Solstice as it is with mid-summer.  Its bright light and invigorating scent when burned were thought to have a purifying effect and protect against evil spirits when used on ceremonial bonfires. It is connected to birth and brightness, perhaps because of its evergreen properties and resinous burning abilities.  Its thinner branches can be used a torches and give a bright clear light.  Bog pine is especially prized for the Bloc Nollaig or Yule log.

During medieval times, the decorated log was ceremoniously carried into the home on Christmas Eve in a remembrance of the pine logs used in the sacred fires, and placed in the fireplace. Traditionally this was lit with the saved stump of last year's log, and then it was burnt over the twelve days of the winter celebration, and its ashes and stump were kept until the following year to sprinkle on the new log, so that the fortune would be passed on from year to year.

In France and Germany ashes from the Yule log were mixed with the cattle feed to ensure their health and in other regions the ash was sprinkled around fruit trees to increase their yield of fruit.

Another Solstice tradition among the druids was the cutting of the mistletoe.
Druids considered the mistletoe‘s poisonous pearly white berries to be drops of the Oak God's semen, much as the red holly berries were drops of the life-giving lunar blood of the Goddess Hel (Holle). Thus the mistletoe acquired fertility significance. Druids 'castrated' the old oak god by cutting the mistletoe with a golden sickle, and catching it in a white cloth before it could touch the ground, thus letting the new young king take the throne.

An Cailleach Bheur, The Winter Hag, is also a symbol of this season. The Cailleach displays several traits befitting the personification of Winter: she herds deer, she fights off Spring, and her staff freezes the ground.
Together with the goddess Brìgid, the Cailleach is seen as a deity ruling the winter months between Samhainn (1 November or first day of winter) and Bealltainn (1 May or first day of summer), while Brìgid rules the summer months between Bealltainn and Samhainn. Some have the Cailleach and Brìgid as two faces of the same goddess, while others describe the Cailleach as turning to stone on Bealltainn and reverting to her own form on Samhainn in time to rule over the winter months. Depending on local climate, the transfer of power between the winter goddess and the summer goddess is celebrated any time between Là Fhèill Brìghde (1February) at the earliest, Latha na Cailliche (25 March or Lady Day), or Bealltainn (1 May) at the latest, and the local festivals marking the arrival of the first signs of spring may be named after either the Cailleach or Brìgid. Là Fhèill Brìghde is also the day the Cailleach gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter.

 Legend has it that if she intends to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure the weather on 1 February is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood to keep herself warm in the coming months. As a result, people are generally relieved if Là Fhèill Brìghde is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep, will soon run out of firewood, and therefore winter is almost over. On the Isle of Man, where She is known as Caillagh ny Groamagh, the Cailleach is said to have been seen on St. Brigid's Day in the form of a gigantic bird, carrying sticks in her beak.

In Scotland, the Cailleachan (lit. 'old women') are also known as The Storm Hags, and seen as personifications of the elemental powers of nature, especially in a destructive aspect. They are said to be particularly active in raising the windstorms of spring, during the period known as A' Chailleach.

Meán Geimhridh

Winter Solstice 
 21st December-24th December
1. Children survey the countryside for holly, ivy, bay and other evergreens for cutting. Holly with berries is especially prized.

2. Winter Solstice wreaths were traditionally made of evergreens and holly and ivy. Holly represents the female and ivy the male and the wreath's circle symbolizes the wheel of the year. Both holly and ivy were used as protection in the home against bad spirits

3. Obtain a special log of wood for the festive fire - Bogdeal, the "bloc na Greihbain”. 

4. Before the festival clean house and farmyard thoroughly.  Clean outbuildings and yard entrances, passageways and surroundings. White-wash all buildings inside and out. Sweep, wash and clean the house. Do major laundering- include everything. Clean tables and chairs. Clean pots and pans.

5. Make or buy Poítin. Make sure you have at least a quart available.

6. Lay in a good supply of fuel for heating.

7. Clean the Chimney using a prickly bush pulled up and down, do not use holly for this, that would be an insult to the Spirits who inhabit it.

8. Cut coloured paper scraps into adornments, such as sun, moon and stars, or use needle and thread to stitch loose pieces of holly onto linen in patterns or seasonal mottoes.

9. Where mistletoe is found you can decorate with it, hang it in a place where people pass, traditionally the girl kissed under it receives a gift from the boy.

10. Leave a bowl of water out to be blessed by those travelling on such a night, this water will be used for cures.

11. Decorate byre and stable with evergreens and provide a special lantern there.

12. Place a small wreath of holly, yew or other evergreens on family graves especially on the grave of one who has died during the year.

13. Children tie sprigs of holly on cow's horns.

14. Remind children that a faerie stands on every spike of holly leaf this night and all nights.

15. Make Ivy garlands. Whiten ivy berries with whiting or starch.

16. Light the large candle with prayers and incantations for a peaceful winter and a plentiful summer.

 Compiled by B D'Alton

Monday, December 16, 2013

Rathcroghan Monuments Spotlight No. 6 - Relignaree: The burial place of kings, or a high-status residence?

Relignaree has been described as large univallate circular enclosure with an internal diameter of 100m from bank to bank. The majority of the enclosure is not presently served by an external ditch except for a section which does remain insitu north-west of the monument, measuring 6m wide and 50cm deep. It is accepted that the later use of the land for farming has eroded such features. There are a number of breaks distributed throughout the enclosure banks which may possibly be the result of cattle grazing.
3D LiDAR model of Relignaree (Image courtesy of OSi & Kevin Barton)
It is a general known that placename evidence is not a reliable source from which to gain information about a monument or area. Unfortunately, Relignaree is no exception. Reilig na Rí, the graveyard or burial-place of kings, was another of the place names thought to be have been recorded in the 18th-century which appears to provide a role for the monument that is very different from the evidence. It is interesting to reiterate the description of Cruachan as being one of the three Heathen cemeteries of Ireland and an important place of burial and funerary practices in the Iron Age period. Through reinterpretation, the erroneous placename evidence of Relignaree in a wider context may potentially find its origins in a local folkloric remembrance of some human interactions with the wider complex in times gone by.  

The above magnetic gradiometry image highlights the now invisible complexity of Relignaree, with a number of concentric rings indicating the possibility of a long and protracted interaction with the monument (Image courtesy of Brian Shanahan & The Discovery Programme)

A later field system runs across the entire site, physically dividing the enclosure into four unequal quarters. This feature has been theorised to represent the four provinces of the island but this is a more sensational claim given the timeline and known use of the site. Within the enclosure there are traces of a smaller concentric enclosure, with a bank that reaches between 50 and 100cm in places. It is also possible to trace three rectangular houses and a souterrain on the site, further evidence of the monument's use for settlement.

Aerial photograph of Relignaree, showing the later field boundaries, concentric circular enclosure, and habitation evidence

The information stated above is clearly contradictory in regards to the site name which suggests funerary and burial purposes. This is further challenged by the excavations at Relignaree in 1911 which provided no physical evidence of human interment. However, this does not diminish the importance of the monument within the complex. The size of the site and associated souterrain implies its main period of use, namely in the 1st millenium AD, but informs us of Relignaree's high-status as a ringfort site. In total the site includes the remains of five house-type structures situated in and around the monument and the presence of a smaller ringfort with associated souterrain 100m to the south-west of Relignaree. The size and complexity of Relignaree may act as further evidence to suggest this site as one of importance and substantial settlement in the early Historical period. Daniel Curley.

Relignaree can be seen in the south of this map, relatively centrally.

  • Waddell, J., "Rathcroghan - A Royal Site in Connacht", in The Journal of Irish Archaeology 1, 1983
  • Herity, M., Rathcroghan and Carnfree: Celtic Royal Sites in Roscommon, (Na Clocha Breaca, Dublin: 1988)

Monday, December 9, 2013

Rathcroghan Monuments Spotlight No. 2 - Cashelmanannan: a monument with a complex story to tell

For the second post in our Rathcroghan Monuments Spotlight series, I will focus on the enigmatic site of Cashelmanannan. 

The stone ringfort site at Cashelmanannan - Caiseal Mhanannán (literally "Manannán's Fort") is a feature of our complex that has a very complicated story. Its name was first recorded by John O'Donovan in 1837. To focus firstly on the place name, Manannán refers to Manannán mac Lir, a deity in Irish mythology that is associated with the sea. That in itself would provide us with a problem. However, the stories mentioning Manannán also give him a role as guide to the Otherworld, which, given the location of the monument in relation to our entrance to the Otherworld at Oweynagat (880 metres apart), goes some way to explaining its choice. Before theorising on the site's use, however, we will describe it's archaeology.

As it exists presently, Cashelmanannan is a trivallate stone fort, with only the foundations of the stone walls still visible, existing to a maximum height of approximately 50cm. The average width of these concentric walls, however, is 1.5m, implying that it would have been a very well-defended site during its period of use. The diameter of the inner enclosure is 40m, with the overall dimensions of the main enclosure being 57m north/south by 63m east/west. Attached to the main enclosure are two 'annexes', located to the north and east. Both are defined by a single bank. These have been variously described as small fields or agricultural enclosures in the literature, although their precise function can only be ascertained with excavation.

Aerial photograph of Cashelmanannan from the west (After Waddell et al. 2009, fig 6.7). Note the two 'annexes' attached to the main enclosure.

So to the theories as to the function of Cashelmanannan. The traditional view associates the site with the conversion of two daughters of King Laoghaire of Tara, Eithne and Fidelma by St. Patrick. It is said that the two princesses were being educated at a druidic school, believed to be Cashelmanannan, and that Patrick baptised them at the nearby Ogulla Well, after which they died. The association of the site with the deity Manannán, evident in the place name, could help strengthen the case for this site being affiliated with druids. Its placement in relation to both the Mucklaghs and Oweynagat would further strengthen these links, if we interpret the feature in the middle being used as a ceremonial path- or procession way between both monuments.

An alternate view of the role and function of Cashelmanannan, however, can be seen in its construction. The fact that it is was a stone-built feature, with three concentric walls 1.5m wide, implies a very defensive role for the site. It is also the only stone-built monument on the complex. If we believe the evidence from medieval literature describing the 'royal residence' of Rathcroghan as a stone structure, there is a possibility that Cashelmanannan could have been less of a druid's school, and more of a residence for high-status individuals in the first millenium AD. A geophysical survey conducted on the site in 2010 uncovered anomalies usually associated with domestic and industrial activities,(Waddell et al, 2012) something which would make sense in a settlement context.

But what of the Mucklaghs? A reinterpretation of Cashelmanannan wouldn't necessarily disregard the importance of the linear earthworks known as the Mucklaghs. With Oweynagat being associated with warrior initiation ceremonies, the placement of the royal residence at the beginning of this ceremony would allow the Mucklaghs to retain its vital function linking the two monuments. Food for thought, perhaps...Daniel Curley

Cashelmanannan is located in the south-west corner of the map

  • Waddell, J., Schot, R., Fenwick, J., "The Connacht Project: Geophysical Survey at Rathcroghan, Co. Roscommon, 2012", (October, 2012)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Rathcroghan Monuments Spotlight No. 3 - Rathbeg: An exemplar of the Bronze Age ring-barrow

Rathbeg or An Ráth Beag, the Small Fort, provide a confused notion as to the function of this monument. The name was first recorded in the late 19th-century by the Irish language scholar John O'Donovan as part of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland.
Rathbeg from the roadside (Image courtesy of Rathcroghan Visitor Centre)

Despite the name denoting a place of residence, Rath translating to Fort, the site has been identified as a ring-barrow. It is located approximately 540 metres North West of Rathcroghan Mound. The monument is situated on a high knoll on the South West end of a small ridge. The monument composes a small central cairn which is surrounded by a pair of concentric banks with inner ditches cut on the perimeter of the knoll. The placement of the ditches inside the banks suggests the possibility of this monument not having an overly defensive function. The inversion of this system on monuments is sometimes suggested to indicate ritual or ceremonial activity. The overall diameter of the feature is approximately 36 metres.
3D LiDAR model of Rathbeg (Image courtesy of OSi & Kevin Barton)

A barrow, or tumulus, is almost exclusively associated with single or multiple burials. There are a wide range of different types of barrows whose names usually derive from their individual shape. Such monuments tend to originate in the Neolithic and Bronze Age in Ireland. There is plenty of evidence for later interactions and reinterpretations by successive generations which has, in turn, preserved their ritual importance but oftentimes changing the original role. This can be seen through the reuse of such monuments at the sites of Tara, Navan Fort and our own Rathcroghan.

Rathbeg: combination model of annotated shaded relief model draped over a 3D LiDAR model in the previous image

The literature concerned with Cruachan presents a context for a number of the archaeological features on the complex. Burial mounds and tumuli, such as Rathbeg, legitimise recorded references to Cruachan. This pertains to the description of the site as one of the three Heathen Cemeteries of Ireland by Christian scribes in the 12th-century manuscript Lebor na hUidre or The Book of the Dun Cow.

There appears to be a certain correlation between the positions of the mounds of Rathbeg and Rathcroghan. Observations at the summit of either will grant clear, unobstructed views to the other. Therefore, Rathbeg's location lends itself to many theories regarding its ritual purpose and status of the presumed corpses deposited at the mound. Although these questions can only be answered through excavation, there is a tantalising possibility that a member or members of the Iron Age Aos Dána or high-status warrior caste could be interred in situ. Its central proximity in relation to both Rathmore and Rathnadarve may also suggest the feasibility of interaction between these features in some ritual or ceremonial capacity. Daniel Curley

Rathbeg can be seen to the south of the N5