Sunday, 31 May 2015

New painting: Tea with the Bean an Tí.

Let me introduce you to the Bean an Tí, the woman of the house, who continues the old tradition of hospitality for which Ireland is renowned.
This custom stems from ancient times when along the major roads of Ireland there stood houses of hospitality set at the junctions which were open to all travellers.
The Ban an Tí  always has the kettle on to provide visitors and family with a good, strong cup of tea often accompanied by home baking.
The willow pattern tea set she uses was common in many homes and is still sold today.
My grandmother owned a set, as I do, and sometimes when digging in the garden I find broken pieces of crockery of the same design faded over the years and discarded  by previous occupants.

My kitchen shelf
In the past it was considered a sign of hospitality and respect to offer a visitor a cut of  new bread
still warm from baking.
Soda bread recipes were passed down through generations of women and are often a closely guarded secret but in common with all homemade soda the dough is shaped into a round and using a knife,
is marked with an equal-armed cross before baking.

This cross allows the bread to rise evenly without splitting but is also believed to let the fairies out
and protect the bread from mischievous spirits so that the loaf doesn’t burn.

Cooking on the hearth ©
Soda bread would originally have been baked on griddles or in a black iron pot over a turf fire on
the hearth.The first written recipe in Ireland dates from 1836 and soda bread was made throughout the country because it was the least expensive bread to put on the table.

 Making the Brigid's cross Pic © Séan Gilmartin.
You can view us making the crosses HERE

Up until the last century, on the eve of  Brigid's day, the Bean an Tí made a Brigid's cross then passed
it around her body three times.
She would walk outside to circle the house three times then the cross would be welcomed into the front door by the family and hung over the kitchen door as protection from fire, fever and famine.

In Kerry it was customary for the Bean an Tí to put a pin into the brídeog, a home made representation of Brigid, when it was brought in to the house & leave it there as offering.

In many areas the original role of the Bean an Tí has almost disappeared with many women choosing or needing to work outside the home.
However, within the Gaeltacht, Irish-speaking areas, the Bean an Tí has risen in importance as woman take in students who wish to learn Irish in a family setting.
They not only provide lodging, meals and education but are an important source of income in these mostly rural areas and can be seen as protectors of the Irish language and culture.

The tradition of hospitality, so vital to our ancestors, is still important today when Ireland extends a welcome to thousands of visitors each year and it continues in homes where the Bean an Tí puts the kettle on to boil for a pot of tea.

You can watch Jack from Killorglin, Kerry make a traditional loaf & talk about soda bread:

If you would like to try your hand at making soda bread you will find a basic recipe here:
Soda bread recipe

Saturday, 16 May 2015

The Fairy Thorn - a new painting & the fairy thorn that stopped a road.

This is my painting of a Fairy Thorn, a whitethorn, sceach heal, which stands on the Connemara coast.
I have painted this image several times but my previous attempts did not capture the liminal aspect of these lonely trees which feature frequently in Irish landscape and mythology.

To my eye this painting of a wind torn tree goes some way towards illustrating the otherworldliness
and sense of the Aos Sí, the People of the Mounds, I feel when I visit such places.

The lone Fairy Thorn on the coast of Connemara.
It is believed that these special trees are connected to the Good People and are thought to be meeting places where they gather to roam the countryside especially during the months of May, Bealtaine and November, Samhain.
For this reason to cut down or maim a fairy tree is to invite their displeasure and eventual misfortune will fall upon those who do so.

One such tree, a fairy thorn in Latoon, Co. Clare became famous in 1999 when the route of a new motorway meant that the tree was ear-marked for destruction.
Now this particular tree had a great deal of folklore attached to it as it was here that the Kerry fairies were said to rest on their way northwards to fight the fairies of Connaught.
It was felt by those who remember fairy lore that destroying the thorn would result in road accidents and fatalities.

The Storyteller, Eddie Lenihan, publicised the plight of the tree and the story spread through the media in Ireland and abroad. The result of this publicity was that Clare County Council and the National Roads Authority met to find a way in which their motorway could incorporate the fairy thorn.
Finally a compromise was found which benefitted both mortals and those of the Otherworld:
a section of the field in which the bush stood would form part of the motorway but the bush itself would be spared, with a special fence built around it to ensure that the Sídhe could still rest there.

The fairy bush & fence beside the new road.

Sadly, in 2002, someone took a chainsaw and cut off the branches one night, leaving the trunk bare.
It is not known what befell the person who did this, though the Good People do not take this sort of destruction lightly and many believe that he will have been punished accordingly.
However, the celebrated fairy tree confounded all expectations eight months later by sprouting
new leaves and flourishing once more.

Image: ©

You can learn more about Irish Fairy Beliefs by listening to this interview with Dr Jenny Butler:

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Welcoming the summer with flowers.

In the past there were many customs and observances connected to the first day of May, Bealtaine,
and people here continue to mark the seasonal transition by decorating a May Bush, lighting bonfires
or by visiting a holy well.
When the weather cleared and the sun shone on May Eve I gathered wild flowers to celebrate the start of Summer.

An abundance of flowers in the hedges.
One of the traditions I maintain is to hang the May bough over the front door.
The bough had fallen naturally, I decorated it with ribbons and flowers and according to custom,
swept the threshold clean, and placed it above the doorway on May Eve to stay in place for three days.

The May bough hangs above the door.
Yellow flowers are used mostly, such as primroses, cowslips and buttercups because they symbolise
the sun perhaps but white and blue flowers are also collected.
As well as welcoming the summer it was believed that the sweet scent of spring flowers offered protection against the Good People who were understood to enter homes at this time.

In the past posies, red ribbons or slips of mountain ash were tied to the cows' tails and horses' bridles
to offer them similar protection from the activity of the Sídhe and also to counteract the 'evil eye' of certain neighbours who had the ability to steal the goodness from animals and produce.

Placing flowers on the doorstep or on windowsills also offers protection.
Good luck and further protection was afforded to the household after sunset on Bealtaine Eve when farmers' families and workers would walk the boundaries of the land carrying seeds of corn,
Sgaith-an-Tobar , the purity of the well, (the first water drawn from a sacred well after midnight the previous year) and the herb, vervain.
The procession stopped at the directions, beginning in the east, where they would dig a sod of earth, break it up, sow the seed then sprinkle it with the water.

So powerful are the supernatural forces at Bealtaine that the landscape itself was understood to be able relocate. The Motte / Motty Stone, a huge, white granite boulder on Cronebane Hill in Co. Wicklow,
was said to leave the hill top and come down to drink at the Meeting of the Waters on May Day,
whilst rocks off the coast of Ireland become unbound to journey across the sea.

PIC Motte Stone © 2015 Samuel Connolly

Encounters with the Sídhe were expected at Bealtaine when the Good People travelled the countryside to take part in hurling matches, dances and battles.
For this reason it was considered wise to stay safely indoors at night, although several precautions
could be taken if one had to venture out.
Carrying a black-handled knife, a piece of iron, a cold cinder from the hearth or a twig of mountain ash were all effective as means of protection against Other-worldly forces.
If however that protection failed one could always resort to the extreme remedy of washing the hands and face in urine which disgusted the Good People and caused them to depart!

The practice of leaving small offerings at a fairy fort, a lone bush or near the home was believed to propriate the Sídhe and to ensure their goodwill in the coming months.
This tradition also continues in Ireland to this day.

Personal offerings of milk & butter to the Good People on the eve of Bealtaine.
Irish readers can take part in the survey of May Day customs by submitting information & photos
to the website "Our Irish Heritage" here:

Information on May customs taken from The Year in Ireland by Kevin Danaher which has been republished by Mercier Press and can be found HERE