Then on Friday morning I was heading to the gym in Magherafelt when there was a traffic jam from the roundabout to the filling station opposite St Mary’s school. What happened? Someone had broken down and no one would pass in the snow.
We haven’t a clue when it comes to bad weather.
Then again, we Irish haven’t a clue about most things. We are stuck in our little insular ways and anything that is not born and bred here or has not been eaten by us for ten generations gets a bye ball. We think we are the most important people in the world, we believe that we have shown the world how to make peace and we don’t believe in fairies.
Did ever you stop and think about our relationship with fairies? Seriously, when you pause and reflect on the Irish obsession with fairies and the little people, you see mental gymnastics at its best. Let me explain.
The next time you are sitting in company having a serious conversation about life, the universe and everything, and some secular Irishman/woman, (we have to be politically correct) who is too wise to believe in God and has turned their back on the old faith as superstitious nonsense, ask them if they believe in the tooth fairy.
I bet they say ‘no.’ Then ask them if they believe in fairies, and again I will bet they so ‘no.’
But ask them if they would cut a fairy tree down and see what kind of a response you get.
“I would not,” is the answer you will get 99% of the time and the other 1% are lying. That’s the double standard bit and, let’s face it, it’s the superstitious fear, which lies in us all.
Over Christmas we were sitting in the house and there was a knock at the door. A man I know reasonably well had come over to deliver something to Mrs Q and I invited him in.
“I only came to give your wife this,” said the man, as he stepped through the door. An educated and well-mannered man he stood in the hall and waited til my wife came forward and took the parcel. The next bit was the surprise: my acquaintance walked forward to the kitchen and sat down for a second and stood up.
He must have seen my bemused look because the next thing he said was, “I can go now. Surely you know that you never go into a person’s house without sitting down; it’s bad luck.”
“I suppose you’re going to go out the same door as you came in,” says I, to which my friend replied, “Indeed I am, how did you know?”
Then you have all the craic about the cures. I remember when I was young going to an old woman in Coalisland who had the cure for sprains. I had sprained my foot running and off I went for the cure. Whether it was time or what, something worked. In a week I could run again.
Again, no one can see the sense in cures and they appear to be totally irrational. People used to come from all over the country, even counties far down below the border, to a local man who had the cure for colic.
He turned the baby over three times and said a prayer while doing it. You took the baby home, the next night it would roar with the colic and after that the wee one would be as right as rain. Then there was a doctor who had a good practice in a Co Tyrone town and when anyone went to him with a bad back he would send them to a woman at the lough shore who had a cure for the bad back.
And he was serious; once when I was taking a person to the woman, who should I meet only the doctor’s wife. I have often wondered if the cure worked for her!
Another facet of Irish life were the Holy Wells.
The most famous of these was the St Aidan’s up near Limavady. It was a place of pilgrimage every year and health and safety would blow a fuse if they saw you drink form it now! They were dotted all over the country although they were never as common in Ireland as on the island of Britain.
Before we leave the subject we’ll just mention the ‘wishing trees.’
There was one at Ardboe. This is one of those memories that I am not sure about; you know, a memory that is from so long ago that you are not sure if it is true or not. I think I remember going down to Ardboe to stick a nail in a tree to transfer some disease, probably mumps or whooping cough, from me to the tree. But whether I ever went or just think I remember that I am not sure.
When you think of it, we believe a lot of stuff that is nonsense. I once heard a story that was from way before my time but the person who told me swore that it was true. I don’t believe a word of it, yet it is the kind of story that sinks into the cultural consciousness and tells us a lot about how we really think.
Here’s the story:
Many years ago a farmer went to a hiring fair in Co Armagh. He hired a lad from the next parish and took him back to his farm where the lad worked hard for the six months that he was hired. While he was on the farm the farmer bought him a pair of boots to wear while he was working but he was to give the boots back before he left.
At the end of the six months the boy went home and didn’t return the boots. One day, a while later, the farmer met the lad in the village and took the boots off him, leaving the boy to walk home in his socks.
A few months later, the farmer’s wife gave birth to a child who had deformed feet and who never walked in his life. The attitude of many people was that the farmer got what was coming to him.
Such stuff is nonsense; we know that God is not a petty vindictive God who sits up there getting his own back on his minions below. Thinking like this is no further on than the thinking of the Greeks who saw their gods as vindictive rulers over the earth.
On top of all this we had the stories of our ancient forbearers. I liked the one about how the red hand of Ulster came about. You know the story; if you don’t here it is as I was told it.
The king of Ulster died with no son and so the seat of the king became vacant. Two nephews from Scotland claimed the right to the throne and sat sail on a boat for Ireland. It was decreed that the first one to lay hand on Ulster would be king.
As they approached the shore one of the nephews took his sword, cut off his hand and threw it to the shore, thereby winning the throne. Whether the story is true or not we shall never know but I have travelled in most parts of Ulster and I wouldn’t give my wee finger for the whole lot, never mind a hand.
Did you ever hear what St Patrick said as he drove the snakes from Ireland?
He turned round and said, “Are you alright in the back!”
Where does the legend of St Patrick driving out the snakes come from? Actually, the story stretches right back to the time of Moses.
While the Jews were wandering in the desert, they came upon an area which was infested with small but highly venomous snakes; the story is told in the Book of Numbers. Moses could do nothing about the snakes so he prayed to God.
God told Moses to make a bronze figure of a snake and put it on top of a cross. If anyone who was bitten by the snakes looked on the cross with the bronze serpent, they would be cured.
But when St Patrick came to Ireland, our storytellers had to make out that Patrick was a better man than Moses. Whereas Moses had to go to God to get help with the snakes, Patrick could just wave his wand or shepherds staff and the snakes all ran in fear to the sea and drowned themselves.
It’s a pity he wasn’t here when the English came: would have saved us a lot of bother.
On a serious note, I recently read an article in an old book that I was given about the writing of the ‘Annals of the Four Master.’
I had always thought that the Annals of the Four Masters was an ancient text of unknown authorship but in this thinking I was way off the mark. It turns out that there is very detailed knowledge of how and why the book was written and a lot is known about the authors themselves. The book which I have is called, Irish Essays, and is by Bishop John Healy, who was archbishop of Tuam.
After the flight of the Earls in September 1607, it became apparent to one man, a Franciscan brother named Michael O’Clery who was in a monastery overlooking the sea, just a few miles north or modern Ballyshannon in Co. Donegal, that English rule was here to stay.
Brother Michael had the foresight to know that the traditional method of recording history in Ireland, that of storytelling from one generation to the next, was coming to an end. Brother Michael spent ten years from around 1620-1630 walking the length and breadth of Ireland gathering up all the old manuscripts that he could get his hands on.
He had to convince kings and chieftains that he needed the books for a great task and as well as this he organized for three of the best Irish historians of the time to converge in Donegal at a certain date.
On Tuesday January 22nd, 1632 the Four Masters, Brother O’Clery himself, Fergus Mulconry of Roscommon, Peregrine O’Duigenan of Leitrim and Peregrine O’Clery of Donegal, sat down to begin their task of writing the history of Ireland.
It took them four years of constant work but much of what we know of our land would not have been preserved if it were not for the foresight of Brother Michael.
We in Ireland have a long and glorious history. We have been here for thousands of years and have played a part in world affairs far beyond what our numbers or power could justify. We have been beaten down and tramped on by the English for hundreds of years; they tried everything, even the Penal Laws, to destroy our culture and faith.
That’s what I like about us Irish, we are such a mixture of old and new, ancient and modern. The superstitions which Patrick symbolically drove out of Ireland when he sent the snakes packing, are still alive and well: and the faith that Patrick brought to these shores is nowhere near as dead as people like to think it is.
Beating at the heart of our culture and social life is the faith of our fathers. For a while now many of us are choosing to ignore it, and indeed this is a good thing in that a point is coming and is probably here already, where those who play a part in Church life do so because they believe and not because it was the expected thing to do.
What would you do if you had the choice? Would you go back to the old days of packed chapels and rigorous faith in which everyone knew their place, or do you think that now, when Catholics are expected to be committed and know their faith, is a better way.
I, for one, think that today’s way is much better: it was unfair to expect all those people who were never really that interested to fund a Church they didn’t believe in and live by standards they didn’t accept.
But I would go even further. I would love to see the Church say to Ireland, north and south, that on a certain date, say January 1st, 2016, that:
“We are going to hand back all Church property, land and holdings to the state. We shall have nothing to do with schools, education or social structure. Masses shall be held in people’s homes, barns or wherever we can find a place. We might even have to go back to the fields.
We shall rebuild the Church from scratch, giving Catholic education to children of parents who genuinely want it, we shall care for our own sick and elderly as far as possible. Catholic marriages, funerals etc., shall only be for practicing Catholics, although all children who are brought forward shall be baptised, regardless of the parent’s circumstances. If parents want a child baptized it shall be baptized.”
The Church and state in Ireland have become too closely entwined, but the separation of the Church and state should be on the church’s terms as well as on the states. For too long in Ireland being a Catholic has been as much a social thing as religious.
And for too long our Church leaders have been overly concerned about the Church as a social institution.
Let’s go back to our roots, to where the Church was for those who believed, and not to be used as a political football by politicians who see it as a place to gather votes.
When we get our vitality back, the people of Ireland shall be reconverted.
The views expressed are not necessarily those of
the editor but are the views of the writer.
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