Blog Post by Rev. Barbara Ney Ni Saomhair
I was born in the suburbs of Dublin in a working class area. Both my parents were Catholic and I was reared as a Catholic, but there were so many elements of Paganism in the way I was brought up. In ways of thinking, tradition and pisogs my parents imparted to me, both consciously and subconsciously.
Though both my parents were city born, both their roots and ancestry are in the Midlands, in Co. Westmeath. My Father and Uncle were sent down to my Great Grandparents farm during the war years when there was a shortage of food, my poor Uncle because he had rickets, and my Father because that’s where he was happiest, on the land, with the chickens and horses.
From his Grandparents he learned that the land was a living being with a spirit of its own, and to be thankful for what grew and fed us. He remembered and told me that as a young boy, he helped his Grandmother bring water from the well, and his Grandmother whispering thanks to the well, so as not to anger the fairies and the spirit of the water.
My Father spent many summers even as a young man down on the farm, learning about chicken husbandry and became quite an expert. In later years he told me it was very natural that on one hand the rosary was said every night and on the other hand a firm, deeply held belief in magic, fairies, and the almost worship of the land happened and both were in harmony and did not seen to contradict each other.
There was the annual weaving of the Brigids crosses, hanging one in the barn and the other in the house. The old ones being burnt each year. He remembered his Grandmother churning the butter, and that there was a type of song she would sing, almost whisper, and he knew not to disturb her while she was doing this, as this song had to be sung, or something would happen to the butter. I would love to know the words of that song! 🙂
My Father began to keep chickens in the back garden of his parents house in Dublin and indeed when he married and eventually moved to where I live now, he kept chickens in our back garden too. I loved helping my Father with all aspects of caring for the chickens, feeding them, watching the eggs hatch, sometimes under the hens, sometimes in the incubator, and handling the chicks the moment they hatched. The chickens and even the cock were very tame and would peck the grain from my Father’s and my hands.
My Dad had a deep respect for all animals, he always said they were sentient beings that could think and feel, and he detested any form of animal cruelty or neglect. He was also a very practical man. He taught me all of this from a very young age. My Father also taught me in a very practical manner about the circle of life: birth, life, death and rebirth.
When the chickens reached a certain age, they were useful for only one thing, to eat them. He would coax them into his lap, and talk gently to them. He would stroke them and pet them. He would then place their head under their wing until they fell asleep. He would then very quickly dispatch them and they felt no pain.
He did try to teach me, but I would only coax them, then pluck them afterwards! I always had a profound natural affinity with animals and they seemed drawn to me and I to them. I was never afraid of any animal.
Both my Father and Mother had green fingers, and could make anything grow, there was almost a competition between them. They decided between them that Dad would have the back garden and Mam had the front garden. Dad grew vegetables in the back garden, and there I would help him too.
I learned from my Dad the importance of respecting the Earth and of looking after the Earths needs. We recycled before it became popular to recycle and I think most people did. My Mother grew the most beautiful roses in the front garden, I can still smell them.
From a very young age my Father and I took our early Saturday morning walk. All year round, it didn’t matter what the weather was like. In the early 1970s up to the middle 1990s, all we had to do was cross the field in front of us, go through the small lane and we were in the country side.
On these walks, he would teach me about the “unseen in nature” the fairies, the leprechauns, the magical beings that inhabit the land with us. He told me they were more ancient than humanity, they were here before us. And though he was a Catholic and practised his religion, he told me that there were many Gods and Goddesses and to believe in just one God was a very silly thing to do. He had a great devotion to Mary the Mother of Jesus and treated her like a Goddess.
When I was a teenager, he said to me one day that as there were both male and female in humans and the animal kingdom, therefore it was only logical that there were Gods both male and female. On these walks he also talked about the spirits of the land, trees and plants and spoke about them as if they were friends. My Father was very psychic, he had a gift of “knowing”. My Father was also a very shy man, but he became animated and very passionate when he talked about such subjects.
We picked wild blackberries when they were ripe, but never after the end of October he said as the devil had spat on them! My Mother, a wonderful cook, made blackberry jam, and apple and blackberry tarts. The same tradition of the weekly walk continued with my son, and his Grandfather imparting the same wisdoms to him. It was only as my Father became weaker and less able did the walks stop, a sad and poignant time for all of us. The chickens too had to go, we made sure they went to a good home, and we knew it was the end of an era.
As relatives and friends died, my Dad talked of death as just another beginning, without pain or disease, there was no mention of sin, or of penance, just of peace and reunion with those who were waiting for us, including animals. He also believed in rebirth, but of having a choice of whether to be reborn or not. He did not believe however that you could come back as an animal, only as a human. He firmly believed that when one was dying the family that went before gathered around to collect and welcome the one who had just died.
Both my Father and I loved horses, and in the field across from the house there were plenty. Travellers horses and working horses. My Father was often called to help if something was wrong, and to watch him with the horses was a wonder. He seemed to know what was wrong instinctively and if a vet needed to be called or even the blacksmith. Of course any chance I was allowed, I was up on the back of a horse galloping across the field, my Mother nearly tearing her hair out with worry and my Father standing there grinning!
My Father for several reasons had slightly deformed/crippled hands, yet that never stopped him from doing anything he wanted to. He worked hard all his life, was a very professional engineer and carpenter and he installed in all his children the will and determination to live life on their terms.
My Mother was reared in the heart of Dublin by her adoptive Mother who was a convert to Catholicism. (My Mother’s biological family come from the Midlands). This Lady was often called to either lay out the dead or help birth a child. My Mother was often with her when she laid out the dead and learned from her Mother about opening the window to allow the spirit of the newly dead to float to Heaven.
It was also important to put two coins in with the dead person either laid on top of their closed eyes or in their hands or clothing. Most people at that time were waked at home and somebody always had to sit with the dead person, there were never to be left alone. Two candles always had to be lit on either side of the coffin. When in later years I asked her why, she said it was the belief that it took three days for the soul to fully leave the body. However she was never allowed to go see a baby being born! 🙂
My Mother was more traditional in the practice of her religion. She had great devotion to the Sacred Heart (an aspect of Jesus) and she always said anything she asked of him she got.
The May Altar for Mary the Mother of Jesus was set up at the beginning of each May and fresh flowers put on the Altar every week. The May Procession was almost compulsory to attend. We were encouraged to go to Mass and confession regularly until mid teens and then left to make up our own minds on the matter.
However she also had traditions that she taught me that were clearly more Pagan in nature.
When moving into a new house, you always put salt into each corner of every room and lit a blessed candle in every room she said. You also, she said, gave a piece of coal to the people moving into the house and this would be kept, not burned, so that symbolically at least you always had fuel in the hearth and home. Sympathetic Magic?
My Mother also every few years performed this ritual in our house, to in her words “ to clean the dirt that can’t be seen”.
Holy water too played an important role, we were blessed with holy water every time we left the house and the house would also be blessed to ward of evil. Any sign of a storm, especially thunder and lightning, the mirrors were covered and all of us and the house blessed too.
At Halloween we left the dumb supper for all who had gone before us and a small coin was left outside for the fairies. November was the Month of the dead, where we visited the graves of our loved ones, cleaned the graves and brought fresh flowers. We often took a picnic with us and had tea out of a flask and sandwiches.
My Mother also seemed to have the ability to predict when there was going to be a death in the family or close loved ones. She would get this itch in the middle of her forehead (third eye?) and most of the time she was right.
At Christmas candles were lit for all the spirits that might be wandering, especially tall red ones from when it became dark on Christmas eve and on New Years eve at midnight the hall door was opened to let the old year out and the new year in.
The first Monday of the New Year was called according to my Mother “Hansel Monday”
This was the day when you exchanged coins with family and friends and you kept these coins until the following Hansel Monday. This was again symbolically to always have money in your purse or wallet, this then might attract more.
My Mother like my Father was a very practical person, she was also very strong mentally and highly intelligent. So when I was 10, the Government of the time wanted to use the domestic dump near us as a toxic dump. My Mother and other concerned people educated themselves and then formed the local environmental group to fight these plans. It took some years to fight and entailed many meetings with officials, politicians, court appearances, blockades, media attention etc. As I am the youngest in my family I was brought along to everything and it was certainly an education for me about protecting the environment and future generations. It also showed to me at a young age how power can corrupt people.
We did win, but then the quality of our water began to decrease, so again my Mother and others became environmental warriors and battled to win for our community clean water.
My Mother was also a social warrior, with other people she brought in the “Neighbourhood Watch”, in conjunction with the local Gardai and also with the co-operation of FAS set up a Community Workshop for disadvantaged teenagers and young people to provide them with basic education, practical and life skills.
I was also taught by both my parents the importance of respecting and honouring the Elders within the family. So just as my Mother cared for her Mother, I too cared for my Parents in their later years. My Uncle too. It was a privilege to do so. I gained insights into both my parents and my uncles personalities that I am deeply thankful and grateful for.
When their time came I waked them in the old ways, in their own home, and in their coffins I placed two coins and emblems of things they had enjoyed in life.
I have spent a lot of time researching my Mothers family history and have discovered that my Great Grandmother was a known herbalist that had cures for sick animals.
This article is called ‘traditions my parents taught me’. But I also have to include my older brother, who was my playmate and my mentor. As a young man growing up, he had a huge interest in all things scientific and also in art and painting. He had what he called his Lab out in a small shed in the back garden as I was growing up. In there he had a microscope and a telescope. On clear nights I looked through the telescope and could see the moon and the night sky so clearly. One day he pricked my finger and put some of my blood on a slide. I looked through the telescope and could see all the different components of blood. He taught me to live life on my terms, be kind, respectful, have an inner strength but never be a doormat!
Thank you Mam and Dad and my brother for an unusual and magical childhood. You all helped to form within me the deep desire and the courage to begin to walk my own Path and that then led me, with many twists and turns to another joyful coming home, to Wicca and Paganism.