Tuesday 19 May 2020

Celtic Roots Craic 72 – Lockdown, self-isolation and St. Patrick

St. Patrick – drawing

Well suddenly the world has become a very strange place indeed! New phrases have entered our vocabulary to stay – like ‘lockdown’, ‘social distancing’ and ‘self isolation’. Where will it end – and more importantly, when?

At least after two months we’re beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel here in Ireland. From next Monday we can go to garden centres again and recycle all those bottles I’ve been collecting up for months! 

But can you imagine being in Ireland and not a single pub is open? Who could ever have predicted that? And not a single church is open – they’ve had to move to YouTube and Facebook. The saints of Ireland could never have imagined such a situation! 

Mind you it’s not all bad – the church I belong to now has around 3 1/2 thousand people listening in – instead of a couple of hundred! And we’re even more in contact with our community – because we’re delivering medicines and food to people who are isolated, and getting a great response from local councils, the police, etc. 

I was thinking about the old Irish saints – I’ve talked about Colombanus recently, for instance. Like most of them he knew all about ‘self-isolation’. He used to make a habit of going off into the woods in France and spending days on his own in prayer. Mebbe we should take a leaf out of his book?

Patrick, Brigid, Columcille – all of these guys were known for the hours they would spend in prayer and isolation. When Patrick was forced to work as a slave herding on Mount Slemish in Antrim he claimed that, ‘in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same’. 

He described himself in his Confession as being, ‘like a stone lying deep in the mud. Then He who is powerful came and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall.’  And later he said, ‘Whatever comes about for me, good or bad, I ought to accept them equally and give thanks to God'.

Maybe we could learn from Patrick. I know these are very difficult times for all of us. We are suffering from the effects of this lockdown, from being restricted and unable to interact normally with those we care about. Patrick learned that giving thanks changed things – in particular it changed him – so that the difficult times didn’t bring him down, instead he was ‘lifted up’. 

You may not have the same confidence and trust as Patrick and the other saints, but I really recommend their way of looking at things – it certainly works for me!

Celtic Roots Craic 71 – The 'black stuff' – a traveller's tale!

The Bush Bar, Blacklion, Co. Sligo

Well, life can be a wee bit unpredictable, wouldn’t ye say? The whole world seems to have gone totally crazy at the moment. I was in a local supermarket the other day and it reminded me of news stories of GUM stores in Moscow before Glasnost came along! Ah, well, sure at least ye can relax for a wee while and enjoy some music ’n’ craic.

Normally we have a parade in Downpatrick at this time of year, but they’ve all been  cancelled. The health people recommend that we keep drinking plenty – though I think they actually had water in mind – uisce, rather than uisce beatha – the ‘water of life’! However, the choice is up to yerself!

Anyway, I thought I’d tell yez a yarn, to cheer yez up. When I was about twenty one, or so, myself and a friend, Davy, decided to take a wee trip down south. This was still during the troubles, mind, and we were hitch-hiking – not too many people were inclined to risk giving lifts at the time, but we managed. We started at the access to the M2 Motorway in Belfast and managed to get a lift for forty miles or so, beyond the end of the motorway at that time.

That took to what was then known as ‘bandit country’ in Co. Tyrone – made all the  more obvious by the local road signs being riddled with bullet holes! It took us ages to get through that part. Eventually we made it to the border – which at that point is between two villages – Belcoo, on the northern side, and Blacklion, on the southern side.

Traffic was scarce and lifts were even scarcer and we were seriously thinking of sending the night in a roadside workman’s hut when a car stopped for us. The occupant was a local pub owner, Vincent McGovern – known locally as ‘Vincie the Bush’, because he owned four bars, which he inherited from his father – on either side of the border – each called, ‘The Bush Bar.’

Vincent was also a reformed alcoholic, and – after treating us at his local bar to tea and sandwiches – gave us a ride to Sligo, while entertaining us with stories of his travels all over Ireland to help fellow alcoholics.

After a night spent in Sligo, we headed south again and found ourselves once again marooned – this time in the remote west of Ireland, with not a vehicle in sight for miles. Eventually we got a lift on a farm trailer carrying milk churns and passed by another couple also hitchhiking, waving as we overtook them. Shortly after they waved to us as they passed in a car. And so it continued – we passed them, they passed us – going only a few miles each time.

While we were trudging through Ballyhaunis a single driver in a yellow Ford Cortina pulled up and told could take us all the way to Galway City. We got in and thanked him, and I mentioned how we had kept passing this same couple all day. Sure enough, we caught up with them again and our driver agreed to pick them up also. I chatted with the driver, but the others sat quietly in the back listening to his music and not talking.

When we arrived at Eyre Square in Galway, Davy and I got out on the passenger side and the other couple got out on the opposite side, so they were halfway across the Square when the car drove off. Even so, I tried what turned out to be the magic words, shouting, ‘Buy you a pint?’ across the Square.

They responded and joined us in Richardson’s Pub in Eyre Square for the first of several pints that afternoon. They were husband and wife, Bernard and Nuala, from Sligo and we had a great conversation which led to a friendship which has continued now for many years – my wife and I visiting them every few years. Until that day I had only ever drunk Guinness shandy, but Bernard didn’t know that when it was his round so that was how I developed a taste for Guinness!

Celtic Roots Craic 70 – Down at 'The Yard' – The Titanic Quarter

Filming the Titanic Quarter from the Goliath Crane (100m up)

Now, I live down the road from Belfast – otherwise known as B’lfahst! – and Belfast’s main claim to fame is its history of shipbuilding. The Harland and Wolff company, who started shipbuilding there in 1861, was founded by local, Edward James Harland, and a German immigrant from Hamburg, Gustav Wilhelm Wolff. 

Harland had previously managed the existing Hickson’s Shipyard and bought this yard from his employer in 1858, making his assistant Wolff a partner in the new company. They built ships for the white Star line – the Olympic, Titanic and Britannic – between 1909 and 1914. Harland & Wolff also once owned shipyards in Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Southhampton.

In 1936 the company started an aircraft manufacturing facility with the Short brothers, known as Short Brothers and Harland Ltd. – known locally as Shorts.

In 1898 my great-grandfather died – he’d lived in Glasgow since the age of seventeen – and my grandfather and his older sister then moved back to Northern Ireland, where my great-grandfather was originally from. My grandfather began to work in the joinery workshop in Harland & Wolff’s shipyard – or ’The Yard’ as it was always known. 

During the Second World War the shipyard employed about thirty five thousand people, constructing six aircraft carriers and repairing several thousand ships. The aircraft factory – Shorts – were also building Stirling Bombers. In 1941 the Luftwaffe bombed the shipyard heavily, causing a lot of damage to the yard, the city and completely destroying the aircraft factory.

The most famous ship built at Harland & Wolff was, of course, the RMS Titanic, which unfortunately sank on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, via Cherbourg in France and Cobh in the south of Ireland. More than 1,500 lives were lost, because the ship didn’t carry enough lifeboats for all the passengers.

I had a great uncle – a man called William George Given – who in 1912 had booked to emigrate to Canada on the Titanic. However, he was so anxious to make the trip that he decided not to wait and took another boat instead – which turned out to be a very good move!

 A few years ago the Titanic Belfast visitor centre was opened in what is know known as the Titanic Quarter of the city. You can learn how the ship was built, the history of the shipyard and see what the luxury cabins and ballroom looked like, walk around the slipways, etc. You can also visit the sister ship – the SS Nomadic – which has been restored nearby.

The shipyard is still in operation, though it only employs a small fraction of the thousands who used to work there. Belfast’s skyline is dominated by the two huge yellow cranes – Goliath and Samson – which span 459 feet across the dry dock below and can lift up to 840 tonnes to a height of 230 feet. They were built by the German company Krupp in 1969 and 1974, respectively. Nowadays, instead of building ships the yard mostly repair oil rigs and manufacture wind generators.
In 2011, before the Titanic Centre was built I was asked to film some video from the top of one of the cranes for the new Titanic Belfast website. Four of us went up inside the tapered leg of the crane in a small lift. At the top there is a large room containing two huge diesel engines, which are used to propel the crane along rails. We were able to walk along the top of the gantry, which is over 300 feet above the ground, and film the harbour from it. 

While we were filming the weather suddenly changed from beautiful spring sunshine to wind and snow blowing horizontally – so we had to make a hurried escape back to the lift area!

Celtic Roots Craic 69 – Balagan – 'What are ye like?'

Balagan – a travelling puppet show, or a mess!

Here’s an interesting word for ye – balagan. It means a mess, but it could be the name of a town somewhere in Ireland, couldn’t it? Actually, it’s a Hebrew slang word that I first heard on a visit to Israel. It can refer to many situations – a traffic meltdown, the state of your kid’s room, Irish politics, Israeli politics, your complicated relationship with your boyfriend or girlfriend – and so forth.

It has interesting origins, too. It seems to have come to Israel from Russia in the late nineteenth century. It meant the same thing in Russia, especially referring to the wagons used by travelling puppet shows. The word apparently originated in Persia – as balakhaana (from which comes our word, balcony) – and travelled via Turkey to Russia, Poland and Lithuania – and eventually, Israel.

When I first heard it in Israel and had the meaning explained to me, I thought, ‘This really ought to have been an Irish word!’  What we might say instead is that something is a ‘Horlicks’ – as in, ‘Ye’ve made a right horlicks of that, haven’t ye?’  We might also say, ‘Yer makin’ a right pig’s lug a’ that.’ 

If yer referring to someone mixing their food all up together ye might say, ‘Yer making a right stour of it.’  Stour is an Ulster Scots, or Scottish, word that can also apply to a cloud of dust – if you stir up a whole lot of dust yer ‘making a stour’. Stoor might possibly have originated with the Vikings, because it is also a Scandinavian word for dust.

I spent a hour or two wandering around Krakow, in Poland, with a Polish couple who used to live here in Northern Ireland. Camilla, the wife, kept finding opportunities to repeat the Ulster phrase, ‘What are ye like?’ – which usually means there’s something odd, or amiss, about the person referred to. We might also encourage this person to ‘Wise up!’ or to ‘Catch yerself on’.

Of course, I’m sure everyone is familiar with the Irish word – eedjit – a different way of pronouncing, idiot – for instance, ‘Ye eedjit, ye – what did ye go and do that for?’ or, ‘Yer man’s all right, like, but he can be a bit of an eedjit at times!’  

Another way of saying that would be, ‘Yer man’s not the full shillin’, or ‘He’s a couple a stories short of a bungalow!’ – calling into question someone’s mental capacity. You could also say, ‘Ye haven’t a titter of wit, have ye?’ 

In this part of the world we tend to excel at this sort of derogatory banter – we call it slaggin’. Strangers can be a bit taken aback when apparent friends start to ‘slag each other off’ – saying things like, ‘Ach, ye haven’t the wit ye were born with,’  or, ‘Aye, yer head’s a marley!’ (referring to a marble); ‘Sure he’s as thick as champ,’  or, ‘I think there’s air gettin in!’ or, ‘Quit actin’ the maggot, you.’

If we want to make fun of someone’s lack of height we might say, ‘Stand up, Jimmy – oh, ye are standin’ up!’  The opposite would be, ‘What’s the weather like up there?’ Or we might say, ‘If he was chocolate he’d be some eatin’!’

Celtic Roots Craic 68 – 'R'aper blades and the 'glass hammer'

Tilley lamp (as sold in Redmond Jefferson's store)

A wee bit a’ history here. When I was about 15, or 16, I used to work in the summer holidays in a hardware shop in the centre of Lisburn – called Redmond Jefferson. Redmond is from the same Teutonic root as Raymond – i.e. Raedmund, meaning ‘mighty and wise protector’ – but that’s just by the way!

Actually, a year and a half ago I found myself in Poland – in a town called Mikolow – pronounced Mikov – not far from Krakow. We were involved in a small building project in a poor area of town, and some of the local men came out to help us. I was mostly cutting up wood with a circular saw and one of the locals joined me to help hold the wood steady. We had no common language – I’d learned only a couple of words of Polish and he knew no English. 

After a few hours of repeating ‘dobre’, meaning good, ‘dziekuje’thank you, and ‘tak’, meaning yes, I got one of our Polish friends to translate for me and asked my helpful friend what his name was – it was Rajmund – spelled with a ‘j’ and a ‘u’ – then I told him my name was the same and he was delighted!

Anyway, I used to work for this firm called Redmond Jefferson. They supplied just about everything you could imagine in the building and agricultural line. A farmer would come in and ask for ‘r'aper blades’ – which were sharpened metal triangles which formed the teeth on a reaping machine. 

There was quite a dodgy store room on the second floor, where the floor was weak and sloped towards the middle and you had to walk carefully around the edges of it. This was where they kept rare items such as glass globes for Tilley lamps, carefully wrapped up in newspaper dated 1931! No it wasn’t the most up-to-date hardware store!

In the hardware shop I learned all about plumbing fittings such as male or female 1/2” bends, or tees, or a half-round ‘bastard’ file – that’s what it’s called! I even learned to cut glass, when the normal glass-cutter was on holiday. You had to lean a large sheet of glass on the edge of the bench, then let it drop flat onto the bench, which worked because the air underneath created a cushion and the glass didn’t break.

One of the jobs I hated most was being asked to go for a stone of lime – this had to be scooped into a paper bag by leaning into a metal bin and you ended up breathing in the lime dust – not pleasant. 

On one occasion a customer asked for an 8ft by 4ft sheet of steel, which was leaning against the wall in the yard. I carefully pulled it upright and leaned it against my back, before carrying it to the customer’s trailer a few yards away. When I went into the office to find out the price of this metal sheet I discovered it weighed 2-3 hundredweight (that’s about 150 kgs!). After that I didn’t volunteer to carry any more sheets of steel on my own!

The other employees were quite adept at disappearing for long periods – skivin’ off, it’s called – and I would often end up trying to serve two customers at once at opposite ends of the shop. Of course, when you were the new lad the older hands had to try to ‘take a hand out of you’ by sending you off to another hardware store to borrow such non-existent items as a ‘glass hammer’, or for  the ‘long weight’. I never actually fell for any of these fool’s errands, but it never stopped them from trying. 

One of the regular questions they’d ask was, ‘Is yer da an Orangeman?’ As my father was not a member of any Orange Lodge, I said, ‘No.’ What they really meant was, ‘Are you a Protestant?’ – so, of course they then assumed I was Roman Catholic. Took me a while to work that one out!

Celtic Roots Craic 67 – 1798, a bridge and 'the priest's grave'

Kilmore Parish Church re-built in Ulster Folk Museum, Cultra,  Co. Down

Well, we’ve looked at some further away parts of the Celtic world recently – so I thought I’d update you on my own part of the world. My wife, Gerry, and I are sort of in transition at the moment. Yes, I’ve finally got the underfloor heating working properly in our converted stone barn, which we hope to move into permanently later this year. In the meantime, we stay there about one night per week. It’s about fifteen minutes from Downpatrick, Co. Down – just outside Crossgar. 

Crossgar is a bit unusual for Irish towns – because before the year 1800 it didn’t exist. There was a big house nearby called Crossgar House, which has since become the Passionist monastery of Tobar Mhuire, meaning ‘Mary’s Well’, after a holy well in the grounds. An Cross Ghearr in Irish means ‘the short cross’, so possibly there had once been a Celtic Cross there which was broken? There is no trace of it now, though.

There was also a pub close to the Glaswater River – glas, in Irish, means ‘grey’, by the way – where apparently, ne’er-do-wells used to hang out. The people of the much older – 800 AD – village of Kilmore about a mile away, used to refer to, ‘those drunkards down at the bridge’.

Now the bridge is the secret to the existence of the village of Crossgar. The local landowner, Price, in what is now called Saintfield, four miles to the north, planned out the village of Tamhnach Naomh – Irish for ‘Field of Saints.’  

Saintfield had taken a major part in the 1798 rebellion of the United Irishmen against the English. A force, led by local Presbyterians, ambushed a British force in a wood, killing around 100 men in total. The British retaliated by pretty much destroying the village. The name change to Saintfield, in English, took place around the same time.

Now after re-building and improving the damaged village of Saintfield, this same local landowner then turned his attention to what was to become Crossgar. You see, there were only two roads at that time from Belfast to Downpatrick – one was the route for passenger coaches, via Killleagh and Comber, to the east; and the other, which passed through our little hamlet of Listooder, was the route of the mail coach, which also passed through the village of Saintfield.

Price decided to build a new bridge – at Crossgar – with a new coach road running from Saintfield, over the bridge, and on to the County Town of Downpatrick. Now, both mail and passenger coaches changed to the new route and a new village grew up beside the bridge, named Crossgar after the nearby demesne house. Of course, this road also brought prosperity to Saintfield – half-way between Belfast and Downpatrick – which, of course, was Price’s plan.

As a result, both Kilmore – which means ‘large church’, and Listooder – meaning ‘Fort of the Tanner’, after the Celtic fort on the hill nearby, became backwaters, served only by minor roads – boreens, really. The original church outside Kilmore was later numbered stone by stone, and transferred to the Ulster Folk Museum at Cultra, in north Down, and a new Church of Ireland church built closer to the village.

The area was once known as the seven chapels, dating back to around 400 AD – six of which can still be identified because of the remains of old graveyards. Just north of our hamlet of Listooder, there is one of these – Killygartan – known locally as ‘the priest’s grave’. There is also a ‘mass rock’ , from Penal Times, in a field nearby. The priest in question was one Fr. McCartan, who also gave his name to the Killygartan River, which flows past our front door.  

Wednesday 15 January 2020

Celtic Roots Craic 66 – Columbanus – how the Irish saved civilisation!

St. Columbanus in stained glass window

At the moment I still live in Conlig – between Bangor and Newtownards, though we’ll soon be moving to our new/old cottage near Downpatrick. Bangor is not from the Irish – it’s from the Latin, Beann Chor, meaning good choir. That’s because the town of Bangor grew up around the ancient Irish monastery that was established there around 555 AD by a man called Comgall. 

It is reported that St. Patrick had once rested there and saw a valley filled with angels. All that remains there now is ‘St. Malachy’s Wall’ – most of the stone being re-used to build a later Abbey Church nearby – and a sundial, which is now placed in front of the Town Hall.

Comgall was born between 510 and 520 in Magheramorne, Co. Antrim, and educated at Movilla, in Newtownards, Glasnevin, in Dublin and Clonmacnoise, on the River Shannon, in Co. Offaly. He held to a very strict rule, with a lot of prayer and fasting, but also music and singing – the Bangor Antiphonary being the hymnbook which remains from those times. 

Almost 3,000 monks worked, studied and prayed there. They also held a 24-hour prayer watch – prayer, scripture reading and worship – that continued for more then 100 years and probably explains why Bangor has become known as ‘The Light of the World’ – sending missionaries out to Europe during what was known as the ‘Dark Ages.’

The two best-known of those missionaries were Colombanus – or Columban – and Gall, or Gallus. Columbanus – meaning ‘white dove’ – was born of a rich family in the province of Meath in 540 AD, but came to Bangor to study under Comgall. At the age of forty he was given permission to travel to Europe and took twelve younger men with him, including Gall.

They landed in Brittany, near St. Malo, in 585 AD, leaving a village of Saint Coulomb there, before moving on to Annegray, where they founded a monastery in an abandoned Roman fortress. In 590 he founded a second monastery in a nearby castle, at Luxeuil-les-Bains, and then a third called Ad-Fontanas – modern day Fontaine-lés-Luxeuil.

When the king of Burgundy died – who had been a strong supporter of Columbanus – his sons were still minors and Columbanus fell foul of their grandmother, Brunhilda, and eventually he and his Irish companions were forced to leave Burgundy. Their ship, however, was driven back to shore by a storm and the captain refused to take them any further. Columbanus and his friends travelled across France to Switzerland and Bregenz, in Austria, where they established another monastery. 

Colombanus moved on after a year, crossing the Alps into Italy, but Gallus remained and later founded another monastery nearby, which was named after him, St. Gallen – now the town of St. Gallen. 

Columbanus arrived in Milan in 612 and was welcomed by the king and queen of Lombardy, who gave him land at Bobbio, including a ruined church, so he could establish a monastery there, which he did in 614 AD. Columbanus died at Bobbio a year later, having meanwhile been invited to return by the new king of Burgundy. He and his followers are credited with saving the civilisation of Europe.

Tuesday 14 January 2020

Celtic Roots Craic 65 – 'Ye cannae take our freedom!

Scottish highland bagpipes

I got into a whole history of Galicia last time – which I found interesting, I don’t know about yous? – anyway, it occurred to me I haven’t talked about our close neighbours across the North Channel – the Scots. 

My grandfather was actually born in Glasgow – or Glasgae, as they might put it! – although my great-grandfather had actually come there from here in Northern Ireland, then married a Scots lady called Mary ?? and the rest of that sad story I’ve told before. 

A lot of people in Northern Ireland have Scots connections – many of them dating back to the time of the Highland Clearances – back in the early 1700s – when many Scots came to the north of Ireland, as well as emigrating to North America. 

Scots from the Highlands and islands were forcibly evicted from their crofts, so the landlords could develop huge sheep farms – making money came first, once again! These evictions pretty much destroyed the traditional Scottish clan-based society, that had existed up until then – and the emigration has continued – just as it has done in Ireland – ever since. The Scottish Celtic band, Runrig, released a great song about it, called ‘Oran Ailein/Leaving Strathconon.’ 

We Irish – especially in the the north – share quite a lot with our Caledonian neighbours. In the 6th and 7th centuries there used to be a Gaelic kingdom called, Dalriada – or Dál Riata, in Gaelic – which spanned the North Channel, with part of the kingdom stretching to Argyll, in Scotland – the coast of the Gaels – and the other part in County Antrim – which would explain the Scots accent in ‘Co. Antrim, hey!’

They still speak Gaelic in western parts of Scotland – only they call it gáidhlig Gáidhlig and the Ulster gaeilge have many similarities, but there are differences, too – you can easily get caught out! 

By the way, do you know where the word, Scot, originated? It comes from the Latin word, scotus, meaning an Irishman – so all them Scots over there are really just Ireland, east!

Of course not all people from Scotland are really Scots – that is of Irish descent – the tribe that lived in the eastern part of Scotland were the Picts. As far as I know they had no connection with Ireland, and they had a few battles with the Scots of Dál Riata. The first king of Dál Riata was Fergus Mór – Fergus the Great, from which, of course, you get the Scots name, Ferguson – plenty of those about in Ireland! Eventually, in the 9th century the Scots and Picts united into the new kingdom of Alba, or Albannach.

Did you ever hear the story of how the Scottish bagpipes were invented? No? Well, a certain Scots chieftain came over to the north of Ireland for a wee visit and they laid on a banquet with food, drink and entertainment. He was very impressed when he heard the wild sound of the Irish uilleann pipes and asked if he could possibly get a set to take back to Scotland.

Well, the local chieftain called in his pipe maker and he agreed to do his best to make him a set of pipes before the visiting chieftain went home. When it came time to leave the pipe maker presented the Scottish chieftain with a newly made set of pipes, and explained that he hadn’t had the time to make the bellows, which are used to fill the uilleann pipes with air, but had put in a little pipe that the player could blow into in the meantime. And ye know what? The Scots haven’t caught on to this day!

Celtic Roots Craic 64 – Galicia – the Cinderella of Celtic nations

Galician flag

You might have noticed we’ve been playing a lot more Breizh music – from Brittany – on recent shows? That’s because several Breton musicians and bands have contacted me from France – usually through Facebook. And I’m also hoping to get hold of some authentic Galician tunes in the near future, from a similar contact. 

Galicia is the north western province of Spain – with towns like A Corunya, Vigo, Santiago de Compostela – where the famous pilgrimage across the north of Spain terminates. Another inland town is Lugo, which is named after the ancient pagan Celtic God, Lugh – like the village Conlig, close to where I live at the moment – which gives ye a bit of a clue to the Celtic heritage of Galicia.

Unlike Catalonia, which has been having a big row with the Spanish government over independence, the Galicians seem to be happy enough with their lot. They’ve had their own autonomous parliament since 1978 – Franco took away their autonomy while he was in power. The Galicians were originally called Gallaeci by the Greeks and Romans – similar to the Galli – in Gaul, and the Gallati – the Galatians, another Celtic tribe who lived in part of what is now Turkey – St Paul wrote a letter to them, remember? In those days Galicia extended into what is now northern Portugal. They lived in fortified villages called castros – hill forts.

The Roman historians regarded them as a bunch of barbarians – occupying themselves in fighting by day and eating, drinking and dancing at night – sounds like they were true Celts all right! When Rome collapsed the Kingdom of Galicia survived independently for more than 170 years. Like Brittany, the northern part of Galicia had an influx of fellow Celtic Britons, who had been squeezed out by the anglo-Saxon invasion of what then became England. The Britons brought Christianity with them and established their own diocese of Britonia. In 718 Ad the Islamic Moors took over most of Iberia – modern Spain and Portugal, but they never really conquered Galicia – just sent some soldiers to collect taxes from them. 

Unfortunately, the Galicians no longer speak a Celtic language – modern Galician is a Romance language, based on Latin and close to Portuguese, which – although containing lots of Celtic words – disqualifies them, in the opinion of some, from being a truly Celtic nation. At a meeting of the Celtic League in 1986, Galicia officially joined the other six Celtic nations – Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales. Unfortunately for Galicia, this decision caused an uproar in the Celtic League and – mainly because they no longer have a living Celtic language – Galicia’s membership was revoked again a year later.

Despite this rejection, regular Celtic Festivals are held there – the International Festival of the Celtic World in Ortigueira being one of the largest and best known in Europe, with sometimes over 100,000 visitors. Last year the Galician Parliament recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of self rule with bagpipes and folk songs. Yeah, the place is apparently coming down with bagpipers – which they call gaitas, similar to words used for the pipes in eastern Europe. There are hundreds of pipers – gaiteras – registered in Galicia! Some of the most popular tunes are called munieras – which are very similar to Irish jigs – I’ve played some on past shows.

Galicia has something else in common with the other Celtic nations in that it is remote, hilly and not industrialised. The coastline is made up of rias – flooded river estuaries, similar to those found in Brittany – with plenty of beaches. The climate is generally wetter than other parts of Spain – so us Scots and Irish should feel right at home. And there’s Finisterre – Land’s End in Galician – the second most westerly point in mainland Europe.

And, while it may not be particularly Celtic, the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage ending in Santiago de Compostella, nearby, attracts millions of pilgrims, who walk the Camino Trail and stay overnight in special hostels provided for the pilgrims. The saints bones were rediscovered after the Romans departed and are claimed to be those of the apostle James, who was the first disciple martyred in Jerusalem, then – apparently – secretly transported the length of the Mediterranean by his disciples. Some believe the bones were actually those of the fourth-century, Priscillian, bishop of Avila, who was executed by the emperor as a heretic and whose followers brought his body back to Spain from Trier, in Germany.

A former colleague of mine when I was a lecturer – from here in Northern Ireland – went on the pilgrimage and then wrote a book about it – it’s called Restless Hearts'.

Celtic Roots Craic 63 – Roast potatoes, chips 'n' mash!

Fried farls of potato bread

There is one thing that people always associate with Ireland, although they actually originated in the Americas. The Inca Indians in Peru were the first to cultivate potatoes back around 5,000 B.C.

Then, in 1536, the Spanish Conquistadors conquered Peru, discovered the potato, and brought it to Europe. Sir Walter Raleigh brought potatoes to Ireland in 1589, on his 40,000 acre estate near Cork. And the rest, as they say, is history.

But why is the potato associated so much with Ireland? Well, the main reason is that during Penal times most of the Irish were poor tenant farmers. They grew wheat, barley and oats on their smallholdings, but it took the sale of most of that to pay the high rents.

So, they cultivated a small area of their land in potatoes and mostly they lived on that – which is why the Irish Famine in 1845 and subsequent years had such a devastating affect. The potato blight that destroyed the crops affected Britain and Europe, also, but the people there were not so dependent on the potato for survival – they had bread and meat to live on.
Did you know that all through the famine years, Ireland continued to export cattle, sheep, pigs, wheat and barley in great quantities. Profits came first, unfortunately, and the poor people found their only means of sustenance turned into a rotting mush. Many of them tried to survive on grass and often whole families were found dead with grass stains on their mouths. 

Capitalism and a lack of concern – ‘sure they were only Irish Catholics, weren’t they?’ – caused the deaths of about a million people! Actually, though, quite a few Protestants – mainly Presbyterians – died also. There was no international famine aid, or emotional TV appeals in those days!
So, you’d think we’d have gone right off potatoes by now, wouldn’t ye? Not a bit of it! We were up in Donegal a few years ago and decided to have a meal in Buncrana, in the old railway station, there, which has become a restaurant and pub. 

While we were waiting for a table there was a local boy making a mobile phone call home to his wife. He’d obviously stopped in for a pint, and – by the look of him, he intended to have a few more – but was reassuring his wife, ‘I’ll be home for the spuds, now, so I will. Oh, aye, I’ll be home for the spuds!’ 

When he actually arrived home ‘for the spuds’ is anybody’s guess and whether they were still fit to eat, or stone cold, or burnt, or maybe eaten by the dog – we’ll never know. Perhaps not the recipe for domestic harmony, eh?
Speaking of recipes, I said we were down in Dublin recently – for the first time in a few years. We had a meal in Gallagher’s Boxty House in Templebar and, of course, we both had boxty. It’s a sort of pancake made with potato and then filled with chicken, beef, or whatever, in a sauce – very tasty! You can get it in Belfast, too, on the Belfast Barge – a floating restaurant on the River Lagan. 
In nearly any Irish restaurant you can get a ‘feed a’ champ’, which is mashed potato with scallions mixed in (spring onions, if you’re English). By the way, did you know that the word, scallion, came from the town of Ashquelon, in Israel? Another variation on champ is something called colcannon, which is mashed potato mixed with cabbage. That’s very tasty as well.
But something you’re unlikely to find south of the border is potato bread. That’s an Ulster thing – a vital component of the Ulster Fry, in fact. If ye’ve never had an Ulster Fry, then ye’d better get yerself over here and try one – but maybe not if yer suffering from heart disease already! They also do potato bread in Scotland.
When I was a wee nipper my mother used to make soda bread, wheaten, treacle bread and potato bread – all baked on the griddle set on top of a gas stove. You take a wean a’ cooked potatoes and mash them up, add a wee taste a’ flour and a teaspoonful of salt and spread the mix out on a flour-covered board, or baking sheet. Then you roll the mix out thin and place it on the griddle, with some flour sprinkled on it, cut it into four pieces and cook it dry. You can always fry it up in the pan with oil, or butther, later.
My mother also made a variation on this called potato apple – potato bread with chopped apple mixed in – mmm, delicious! It’s very hard to find anywhere that sells potato apple these days, but ye can easily make it yerself.
The other potato thing we love is potato crisps – or potato chips, if yer American! They were supposedly invented by a black American chef, in Saratoga, New York – one George Crum, I kid you not! – but actually, they first appeared in an English cook book by William Kitchiner in 1817. 
Of course, an Irishman got in on the act – Joe Murphy – who else? known as ‘Spud Murphy’ – who started up the Tayto company in Ireland and is credited with inventing Cheese ’n’ Onion flavoured crisps – my favourite! The Tayto factory in Northern Ireland is inside a big stone castle, down in Tandragee, Co. Armagh. I actually once drove a lorry – a truck – right inside the castle to make a delivery. Oh, and by the way, not far from Dublin we have the Tayto Theme Park!
So, we Irish do love our spuds – purties, praties – whatever! You’ve heard of the Irish mixed grill, haven’t you? – roast potatoes, chips and mash?

Celtic Roots Craic 62 – Huguenots, 'Millies' and the ‘wee blue blossom’.

A field of flax in blossom

I think it’s time for a wee bit a’ history. There are a few things that Ireland is well known for – music, fighting, our accents, Irish whiskey, being scattered all over the world ..  

Apparently Ireland ranks second in the Good Country Index – after Finland, would you believe? But there are a couple of exports that are particularly related to the north, here – Ulster. You’ve heard of Irish linen? 

When the Industrial Revolution came to Ireland it mostly affected the north. Of course, the famine in 1845 contributed greatly to poor people leaving the countryside and heading for towns and cities – and the Irish ports, railways and canals were built to bring produce to those ports, to supply the market in England. Cotton and linen mills were established in towns and villages all over Ulster – but not much south of what since became the border.

The Irish Linen industry developed here because of a group of people called the Huguenots, who emigrated here from France in the mid nineteenth century.  King Henry IV, of France, issued the Edict of Nantes in1598 – which gave religious freedom to the Protestant Huguenots. That, unfortunately, was later revoked by king Louis XIV, who issued the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685. The Huguenots were stripped of their freedom and ordered to renounce their faith. 

So, thousands of these persecuted Protestants decided to call it a day and emigrate from France and, for some of them, the north of Ireland seemed the right kind of place to head for – as they were pretty much Presbyterians. They brought with them their particular skills in weaving and finishing linen.

Linen is made from flax, and Ireland had a particularly suitable climate and topography both for growing and, after harvesting, for retting the flax. Retting was basically rotting away the outside to leave the strong fibres inside the plant. This was done in a flaxhole – which was a dug out pond, or ditch, where the flax was placed under water for a time. 

Flax has been grown in Ireland from at least the eleventh century, and was referred to as the ‘wee blue blossom’, from the pale blue flowers the plant produced. In the sixteenth century Irish nobles wore tunics – or leines – made from linen which had been dyed yellow, using saffron obtained from the crocus flower. Yellow, apparently, was a status symbol at the time.

Most of the Huguenots arrived here in the nineteenth century – around 5,000 of them – and, by this time, Presbyterians were no longer discriminated against in Ireland. They came to places like Dublin, Cork, Kilkenny, Waterford and Portarlington – and some came to the north and settled around the town of Lisburn. 

They brought Huguenot names, such as Fyfe – I had a friend called Tony Fyfe; Boucher (or Bow cher) – there’s still a Boucher Road in Belfast today; Cloquet (or Clokey), De Vagnes (which became Devanny or Devenny), René (which became Rainey), etc. A lot of these names are still in use today. 

Linen production is mentioned in the ancient Brehon Laws. The Irish trade in wool was too competitive with England and  William of Orange encouraged the Irish Parliament to pass a law restricting wool export and in 1699 it was prohibited altogether. So the Irish had to concentrate on the linen industry instead and, by the end of the eighteenth century linen accounted for about half of Ireland’s exports. 

A Huguenot called Louis Crommelin came here from Cambrai in the north of France – actually, we still have a Cambrai Street in Belfast – only Belfast people pronounce it with four syllables, instead of two – Cam-ber-ai-yah Street!  Crommelin set up a weaving factory in Lisburn – the town where I went to school. He is regarded as the founder of the Irish linen industry. 

In 1825, hand spinning and weaving were replaced by machines and the large Belfast mills came into being. Encouraged by the famine, many people moved from the country to Belfast. Most of the employees were poor, uneducated and female and became known as ‘millies’, or more often, ‘wee millies!’ 

Some of my own family were a part of this story. My great uncle, George Given, moved from owning a grocer’s shop in Dunkineely, Donegal, to Lisburn in 1877. His sons worked as ‘hackle-setters’ in one or other of the two flax mills, he himself drove a cart between the mills. My own father worked in the surviving Linen Thread Company mill for most of his life – though he was an electrician. I actually worked there for one summer myself.

There’s a sad Belfast tale about a man from the Shankill Road who cuts his wife’s throat with a razor and then, in fear of the law, hangs himself with a linen bed sheet twisted into a rope. The story finishes, ‘He went to hell, but his wife got well, and she’s still alive and sinnin’, for the razor blade was German made, but the rope was Belfast linen!’