Unearthing the Archaic

Dia duit cairde!

As we delve deeper into the people of Ireland and their splendid culture, one cannot travel beyond Carrowmore without stopping. Whether it be respect for the dead or curiosity of the living, Carrowmore in County Sligo invokes a feeling of hushed fascination, one that merits leaving the beaten path and traveling over grass that’s blanketed rocky hillsides for thousands of years – along with the thousands of years-worth of history nestled in said hillsides like ancient and undisturbed Easter eggs…

Though some might argue Easter eggs and the concept of Easter itself is predated by these impressive and stony structures.10462543_776009269085788_2963576252580794883_n

Let’s set the scene – a wind-tossed sea of grass bends low against the earth; kowtowing to the looming image in the distance that almost can’t be seen through the silvery mist. Wild Westies walk down a pebbled path toward a great open space agape beneath a platinum sky. The silence there is a tranquil veil of serenity; sweeping passersby underneath cloud cover that does not so much hover above the ground as it does embrace it as an old friend. Smatterings of rain splatter the stones; and just across to the right, the great cairn of Queen Maeve is seated in the highlands of Knocknarea, shrouded in enigma – and yes, more fog.

The guide for this place of glory and gloom is a man tall in stature and kind in face. With a resonant voice and a plucky hat pulled low over his brow, he seems to descend from the mountains to tell stories by watery daylight to any who’ll listen – and listen you will; as his words are spellbinding. Dr. Michael Roberts of Co. Sligo grew up in this area – and knows it like it’s a piece of his (very warm) soul.

With a passion for mythology and folklore that came at an early age; Dr. Roberts pursued anthropology as a means of “understanding people”. Cultural Anthropology; in fact – perhaps a direct reflection of being raised in these places of mists and legends. There was, for example, a fairy fort that Michael had to cross every day on his way to school. A fairy fort, for those who don’t know, is the skeletal remains of a structure predating the Christian era of Ireland – possibly; in some superstitions, predating human inhabitants. In terms of folklore; it’s considered bad luck to disturb these forts – in doing so, one runs the risk of losing anything he holds dear (including his life).

But Michael’s interpretation was slightly different – rather than approach the fort with wariness, he took it as an opportunity to ask important internal questions. Who built this? And why was it built? Things buried in Sligo’s history seemed likely to stay that way; as modernity forces all things ancient to remain in the past – were it not for the inquisitive mind of a young man with an old soul.

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Photo by Westie Debbie; picturing herself, Michael, and Westie Katie.

Now grown; Michael makes a point of bringing others around Carrowmore for a study not only in the stones of the archaic designs from the Iron Age and beyond, but also for a study in how the landscape and mythology shaped the world he grew up in. Worried that traditions and storytelling from the olden days was dying out, Michael began writing down his stories, rather than simply reciting them. His book, The Cailleach of Sligo: Stories and Myths from the North West of Ireland is a riveting take on Celtic and Gaelic mythology previously unexplored. The Cailleach, after all, is the Winter Hag – a creator and weather deity who, in Michael’s words, “makes the tough decisions” – a hard woman who clears out for Samhain in the Celtic Winter, a sort of “fall cleaning”, if you will. Without her, the year could not begin again, and the doubts, misgivings, and troubles of the year prior would continue on. She is the lady tossing open windows in a stuffy house to air it out. Or, as we call her at home where I’m from, “the fresh air fiend”. Passage tombs in Sligo were said to be affiliated with her; tombs in which the equinox light would illuminate carvings almost lost to time.

The full experience, however, does involve actually walking with careful tread into this great place of sacred energy; surrounding oneself with tall stones and a towering megalithic masterpiece comprised of wishes and prayers.

A cairn, after all, is a marker for burial; here – albeit they have had other purposes depending on location and historic insight, such as astronomy, ceremony, and defense. These at the Carrowmore site are specifically meant for those who have passed on; paying homage to their energy and potential – Maeve’s Cairn on the adjacent hill; for example, is considered a blessed place, one of power and focus. Carrowmore is also home to a few dolmens, more obvious in their structuring and well-recognized for their flat tops and raised rock sides. These were believed to be places of passage – not so much for the dead, but in the interim moments between life and death. The whole of Carrowmore crackles with silent, but prominent energy – the result, no doubt, of a place that has seen many a soul pass through it. It is indescribable unless you go there; because standing there amidst it all, one almost becomes a part of it, in spirals of carefully-laid stone that sing beneath the sky.

Spiral or cyclical aspects of passage are evident throughout Irish folklore. Michael Roberts points out that modernity forces people into a “linear” way of living – contrary to the old days (and old ways) wherein individuals lived on a cycle, rather than a line. A circular time is more hopeful, he suggests – knowing that one thing will end and another will begin. Linear living is much harder, as it’s difficult to see the stars from inside stone walls. People in the city should return to the country – to feel and embrace that cycle. A reboot, if you will – for your spirit.

There is much more to appreciate in a circular world than a flat one, after all – the monotony of urban life, the same monitored “weather” of an interior dwelling day after day can drain a person. It’s a different sensation entirely to feel the wind of Carrowmore on your neck than the dull wheeze of an air conditioner, you know. The ancients who inhabited the area of Carrowmore believed so much in the cycle of life that they put faith in the return of their souls to their people. Round stones were smoothed by artisans; wisewomen/wisemen, and people of great skills – then, through life’s many

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Photo by Westie Claudia Pellegrini Quieroz

events, death of the wearer, a bonfire (or “bone fire”, as it was previously called), and a washing away of ashes, the stone would be passed on to an expecting mother, whose child was said to inherit the soul that came with that stone. In such a way, the circle of life moves on, forever turning, and changing for the better. A concept of spiritual recycling – which even has the word “cycle” embedded in it.

It is also a reflection of how important it is to keep the old ways alive – Michael Roberts has done a spectacular job of doing just that. “Captured my attention the minute he started talking,” said Westie Wayne. “Especially when he would talk about the stars and how they were used.”

Things don’t have to be high-tech or fancy to invoke conversation. Communication can crop up in discussions following the recitations of his stories; stories he gathers with love and respect from the peoples of the past. He brings them into modernity via simple discussions – opening the door to those who are seeking to deviate from that linear life. He carries the past into the present and gives it a future, as more and more people come to explore the megalithic sites and learn of those who came before.

There is nothing quite like standing in the shadow of Knocknarea and Maeve; overlooking the hills of cairns and pondering the past. When one thinks of dig sites; or historical areas, one might first think of archaeologists, with their little tools and their painstaking focus; dusty-kneed and desperately, determinedly digging…

But in actuality; it may in fact be the anthropologists who are keeping history alive – as without them, we would never understand what a dolmen is, or why fairy forts exist, or how the culture before us lived; and we might not care to learn from the people who came before us –

And thus, without looking back at the past, and having those like Michael to tell us about it; to make us care again, we would most surely not have half as bright a future.

Slán go fóill,

 – Sam Fishkind.

May This Bring You Joy

Happy Bealtane to you all!

Last post, we touched on the hazel of wisdom in Irish folklore. It was believed Finn ate the salmon of wisdom who ate the hazelnuts of wisdom from said hazel tree. There’s a story similar to this in Yiddish folklore, but that’s a parallel for another day.

Folklore is an intrinsic and necessary aspect of Irish culture. A slightly superstitious and brilliantly imaginative people, the Irish seem to take a great deal of dual comfort and pride in their storytelling. There’s an explanation for just about everything, and long lessons about life.

Bealtane [or Beltane, or Bealtaine] takes place on the 1st of May. As we enter the “Bright Half” of the Celtic calendar year – and is a perfect example of how rich and long-lasting folklore and traditions can be.

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Pius Murray, phenomenal teacher & stellar guide.

According to Pius Murray of Coisceim Anama, Footstep of the Soul [an affiliate of Wild West Irish Tours], Bealtane is linked to Beli or Belanus, “the shining one”, an old god whose origins are quite enigmatic. Bealtane [or any of its other variants in spelling] refers to “the fires of Bel”, and encourages warmth and the return of outdoor gatherings and/or celebrations. You might be familiar with the dancing around Maypoles, which is a reflection of “the weaving of life”. This, however, is a widely-recognized English tradition which never took root in Ireland. Instead, according to Pius, people would celebrate by dancing around the actual “maybush”, typically the hawthorn. They would cut branches of whitethorn or hawthorn (an act typically forbidden as those trees are considered sacred), tie the branches with ribbon and sometimes drape the boughs on holly trees with eggshells – the mingling of different types of prickers being significant to the festivities in terms of spiritual protection.

Many of the celebratory aspects of Bealtane have faded out, however. Aspects such as the ragdoll and couples scampering off into the night to find a private place in which to watch the rising of the sun on Mayday have more or less disappeared from Irish traditions. The great lighting of bonfires similar to that of Samhain (the beginning of Celtic winter; a concept explored on one of the Irish Pilgrimage tours with the Westies) has changed – going from a signal fire lit at Uisneach [what Pius calls “the spiritual center of Ireland”] that summer had come to something much more canonically Christian: if anything, the more common parallel to something chronologically close to Bealtane is the Festival of Saint John on the 23rd of June: midsummer. Initially, fires were lit at Uisneach on Bealtane to signal to the rest of Ireland that the summer season could commence – resulting in a ripple effect which swept Ireland from coast to coast. Fires would sprout up for days following, igniting a focal point of flame to reflect Belanus – the shining god, whom history has now all but forgotten. But in pre-Christian times, when the goddess Ériu [from whom Éire takes its name] was the primary focus of Celtic traditions, the landscape and seasons were always on the Irish mind.

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Burren blooms.

Speaking of Christianity – it has a hand in Beltane as well, in a roundabout way. Ever heard of Saint Patrick? I imagine you might’ve. It was said that the beginning of his struggles with combatting pagan worshipers started with Beltane – the High King Laoghaire (Leary in pronunciation) of Tara was designated with lighting the first bonfire for Bealtane, but Patrick beat him to the punch…by lighting a Pascal Fire for Easter on an adjacent hill called Slane. Incensed, the King sent nine chariots out to confront whosoever dared to light a fire instead of his druids. Reports vary, but it’s safe to say Patrick moved on to continue his conversion of Celtic pagans to Christianity. It was suggested the fire Patrick lit could not be put out – a great example of symbolic storytelling in saying the spread of Christianity, likewise, would not and could not be extinguished.

On the continued subject of fire, it has been said that Bealtaine is a time of passion, of asking for growth and fertility. It was an opportunity to seek out ways to ensure farms and fields were fruitful – and families, too.  Bealtaine is majorly a celebration of the end of “the Dark Half” of the Celtic Year – albeit, the Dark Half is celebrated with equal enthusiasm during Samhain, with bonfires of its own and ritualistic cleansing of negativity – however, in Bealtane, however, some of that cleansing is literal…and physical.

“Are you familiar with a rock and a hard place?” Pius asks. “Similarly, there would be a lighting of two fires, quite close in proximity. A farmer would drive his cattle one by one between the two fires – just close enough to singe the cows’ hair. Belanus was said to heal cattle, and it was believed that by doing this, it would purify the cattle and prevent them from becoming diseased.” People, he added, were also prone to following suit. If a person was ill or injured, they could also walk through the two fires in the hopes that they, too, could be healed. Likewise, in terms of healing, the grandmother of the family would rouse the children before dawn on May 1st, bring them to the end of the home’s garden (“still in their pajamas and barefooted”, notes Pius), wherein they’d wash their faces on the dew of the leaves and flowers. It was believed that by doing this annually, you’d secure a happy life. Water and fire, after all, hold a great deal of cleansing power in the Celtic tradition.

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The Burren

The Dark Half of the Celtic year is also a time of reflection and gradual growth, a sort of “gestation” in darkness, cold, solitude, and quiet. Bealtaine is its zealous parallel; less an opposite than it is a complimentary, “louder” time in which to flourish outward. Everything comes into bloom, from the Burren to the bays.

In a quieter comparison to Samhain, it is believed in Celtic tradition that the “veil” between the worlds is thin – meaning it is allegedly a great time to communicate with spirits or even the Good Neighbors [more commonly known as Fae; or fairies]. In terms of superstition, people in places such as Corofin would hang rowan; or mountain ash on their doors, or use it to line their windowsills. It was believed the powerful branches could scare away unwanted spirits who slipped out from under the veil when it was at its thinnest. Alternatively, people could place flowers on their doors for a similar effect. As such, they would be protected for the coming months of summer.

It is a bittersweet time of year, according to Pius. Offsetting the excitement of summer is the promise of the next season to come. Bealtane is the brightening of weeks; the lengthening of sunlight and the burst of flowers from the earth. However, it also signals the approach of Lughnasa, or harvest season. Six weeks of light before the darkness starts to creep back across the land. It once again marks the duality of the Irish spirit – to enjoy and relish the present; to reflect on the past, all whilst always noting the future. The Celtic wheel continues to turn, and each day is met with new possibilities.

As much as there is to enjoy currently; Pius says his favorite thing [besides the extension of daylight hours] about Bealtane is the flowers. The Burren fills up with them – “Twenty-three types of orchids,” says Pius fondly. The Burren is home to a great deal many varieties of wildlife – a coexistence of incredible ecology, from tundra plants to deciduous and even tropical, along with a remarkable array of birds [including the infamous cuckoo]. The green Goddess of Ireland comes back to life in lavish and emerald glory, her particular blaze that of a flaring fanfare of wildflowers and floral wonder.

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Preparation for a Bonfire – Photo by Michael Waugh; Wild West Irish Tours

So, if nothing else, getting outside to celebrate the coming of Irish summer is a great way to embrace the Bealtane spirit. Admire the blossoming of flowers, burn leaf piles to make way for gardening and harvest. Take in the extra light and spend time outdoors. Wash your face in dew. Tell stories around a campfire; a bonfire –

And light the way for future generations to remember those who came before.

Until next time, keep the fire burning!

— Sam Fishkind

If you are interested in meeting Pius on one of our journeys, please visit our website for the latest dates & tour options!

An Irish Spirit in Hazelwood

First and foremost – go raibh to everyone who participated in our first post! You’ve all been a huge boon in kicking us off. The wind beneath our wings. The fire in our hearts.

Many of you had the same (or similar) things to say about Ireland – how much your spirits feel called there; how those who have gone can’t wait to return…and above all was the feeling that the people of Ireland are what make the country so extraordinary.

Westie (the cunning nickname for someone affiliated with Wild West Irish Tours) Deana had this to say about her personal experiences: “Everywhere we ventured, an almost palpable warmth emanated from the people of Ireland. Twinkling eyes, the lilt in their voices, such a willingness to be hospitable; to welcome us to their beautiful and beloved country, answer our many questions, share their stories, songs and humor…”

Friendliness, openness, a willingness to engage with others? Sounds like a magical experience to some in this day and age. And none is perhaps more magical than one individual who, quite arguably, embodies the concept of “twinkling eyes” and the sharing of stories…along with everything else.

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Pictured: Westie Steve H. with Michael. Photo by Martin B.

 

Sligo’s very own mystic with a chisel, Michael Quirke, is notorious with the Wild Westies (and many others) for being an exceptional craftsman. This of course refers not only to his ability to carve wood as if it were butter and his chisel a hot knife; but also in part to his swift, witty, and informative storytelling.

Allow me to set the scene for you: it’s a soft and rainy day in the side streets of Sligo. The wind’s picked up and you’re looking for somewhere interesting; somewhere different to duck into to catch your breath. Or perhaps you’re with your band of Westies, blowing in out of the brisk weather and onto your next adventure.

Thus find yourself introduced to a shop not unlike something out of a legend: wall to wall with wondrous carvings and flaked with wood-shavings, the interior smells sweet, and dusty in an inoffensive way. The wide window overlooking the daily hubbub of the city lets in enough light to illuminate handsomely-made faces and elaborate engravings. A bucket nearby humbly states “Donations for the Artist’s Poor Wife”, implying you’ve entered the domain of someone with a sense of humor. That’s only putting it mildly, however.

Enter then Michael Quirke – an honest face weathered, yet somehow still youthful. Blue eyes bright with the promise of excitement to come address those who enter his shop with a smile the rest of him matches. With a light voice and hands so capable of spellbinding art after many years at it, he greets his guests and gets to it.

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Photo by Wild Westie Nancy S.

Agile and sprightly, he moves from project to project; leapfrogging between creating, say, a headboard for a young couple to be wedded, a statue of a Celtic deity, and, most infamously, displaying his skills firsthand for those kind enough to drop by on a tour.

Mary Jane (another Westie) had the pleasure of spending time with Michael during her trip – and found that after a warm salutation, Mr. Quirke didn’t hesitate to individualize little gifts for her and her fellow Westies. While working, Michael chatted with his visitors and connected with each on a personal level: asking their connections to Ireland and tying in family histories.

“His knowledge of the Sullivan family was amazing,” Mary Jane says. “He was digging out books and recommending I read this and that…he was a jewel of the trip, so warm and sharing…even telling us quite a bit about himself and his family.” The “wisdom and wit” Westie Nancy experienced when spending time with Michael is reflected in her salmon carving – salmon being infamous for eating the “hazelnuts of wisdom” in Irish folklore. Westie Mel keeps another statue representative of wisdom on her coffee table to admire daily, while Westie Piper has an otter and infamous Knocknarea to remember the special occasion she met Mr. Quirke.

Intricately carved into everything Michael Quirke does is a fundamental feeling of Something More – warmth; hospitality, and a foundational experience for those who are looking for an example of what the Irish spirit truly is. It can be found in strong hands and even stronger humor as much as it can be found in stories shared both verbally & through the crafting of fine wood.

Michael keeps company reflective of his charitable spirit as well – Debbie; another Westie, had an equally unique experience with the artist. She stopped by to find him with his friend, Malachi Quinn, a local poet, and each welcomed her into their conversation without a moment’s hesitation. According to Debbie, their stories were priceless.

“Malachi was writing a poem, and when he found out I write poetry too, he signed it and presented it to me,” Debbie says. “I was so touched.”

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There is a profound generosity and resilience to be found in the Irish spirit. I think it’s safe to say that in coming back around to it, the “soul of the Irish” and the people of Ireland are one and the same. To be open and welcoming; friendly and inquisitive, humorous and engaging are all aspects confirmed several times over by those who have experienced a connection to Ireland. Michael Quirke’s dedication to his art and people who come to experience said art is unparalleled. He and what he does are both so indicative of Irish hospitality – welcoming in strangers, inviting them to share their stories with him, and, in turn, sharing stories and time with them likewise. As Yeats once said, and is perhaps applicable here, “think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people”.

There is also something to be said of the authenticity in Ireland’s magic – that it can be found in Éire’s people, the stories they share, and the connections they make with others.

So please keep sharing YOUR stories! There’s a reason we’re all here. Celebrate that Irish spirit any way you can – make connections, be hospitable, adventurous, and open. You never know where it might take you.

Until next time, may the road rise to meet you on your journey!

– Sam Fishkind

[Note: last names were left out for privacy purposes.]

The Best & the West of Us: An Introduction!

From bountiful emerald hills to wild Atlantic coastlines, the Land of Heart’s Desire resides in Ireland’s wild west.

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Why Western Ireland; specifically? One need only look at the vast beauty laid out in a tapestry of watercolor hues further spread by soft rains to know that most of, if not all of, Ireland is worth the adventure of a lifetime. But here at Wild West Irish Tours, we believe the journey begins where houses peek out of craggy hillsides; caves gape in awe at the cloudy skies above, painted sheep decorate the necks of the great green goddess like so many jewels, and the ocean is but a salty breath away in every direction.

 

Whether you’re looking for peace, excitement, sentiment, or fulfilment, Ireland’s West has something for everyone. Needless to say, the wilderness and wildness [two separate entities; mind] of Western Ireland are each unmistakable.

 

Places such as the Clare-Connemara area harbor impressive mountains defiant of their respective landscape alongside lakes that reflect the sky above. Along the coast, secluded beaches and holy wells offer serenity unparalleled in the modern world. The hubbub of all things dies away to allow the traveler to become, in a way, their most complete self. Without obligation or expectation other than to one’s individual person, freedom and peace are more than possible: they’re almost guaranteed.

 

In small groups meant for intimacy and approachability, Wild West Irish Tours endeavors to make each experience of this mystical, invigorating world memorable and unique. Adaptable and surprising, each tour is unlike the other: no two events are ever the same – and that’s a good thing. As changeable as the coast and as steadfast as the mountains, the Wild West expeditions promise a fundamental experience for the human spirit – a connection to the world of Ireland that is remarkably unforgettable. We’d love for you to start your sojourn with us.

 

There is nothing quite like a new beginning. Which brings us now to the points of interest we’d like YOU; our audience, Westies and newcomers, to get involved in! As the tour season kicks off with triumphant return; heralding what’s sure to be a most exciting year for all of us here at Wild West Irish Tours, we’d like to hear what you want us to cover in our new journey through this journal.

 

What we’d like to do is make this blog a resource for those thinking about going to Ireland for the first time – and for those returning! What’re some of the most important things a traveler should know? What exciting facts about the area of Western Ireland should take the spotlight? What do people want to know about this region of Ireland? And of course: what makes Wild West Irish Tours different from everybody else out there? Not that we’re here to compare – we know who we are as people, and what we’d like others to experience when taking a journey with us.

 

If you could please take some time to reflect on these questions and respond accordingly, we would be delighted to share some highlighted replies for future enlightenment. Every thought counts, so please don’t hesitate to share! Tell us what you want us to know…

 

  1. What do you like most about Ireland?
  2. What is your personal connection to Ireland?
  3. What are some topics you’d like to see us cover?

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Go raibh, Westies & friends!

We’re delighted to have you with us on this eve of Celtic Summer; approaching the beginning of a brand new day…

–Sam Fishkind