When the former owners of Reavilleen came to welcome us to the house in April, the wife, Paddy, brought me a sprig of hellebore from her garden to brighten my windowsill. It was a sweet gesture that brought a bit of the outdoors in during the cold and dreary days of April as we toiled away in cleaning and prepping the house. As we walked around the property she pointed out the plants they had placed as hedgerows and said to me: Those are whitethorns and hawthorns. They bloom beautifully in May, but never bring the blooms or branches into the house. It is Pishogue. I nodded thoughtfully and filed away the note, going so far as to write it in my list of things about the house – Whitethorn. Not inside. Is Pishogue. I had a general sense that it was forbidden, but she quickly diverted the conversation to travel and America and I lost my chance to inquire in depth.
As soon as we started meeting local people and getting on friendly terms I began asking what pishogue meant. Most of our friends just shook their heads and laughed. Oh, just superstitionor That’s an old Irish thing or My mother used to say that too or I don’t believe in witchcraft. And while they laughed at it or brushed it off, most agreed that they, too, didn’t do some things that were considered pishogue. Superstition, spells, charms, folklore. Call it what you will, but the –thorn family of trees have a strong association with fairies and death, as being gateways between worlds.
After doing a little research I found that:
“Using the blossoms for decorations outside was allowed, but there was a taboo against bringing hawthorn into the house. Mediaeval country folk also asserted that the smell of hawthorn blossom was just like the smell of the Great Plague in London. Botanists later discovered that the chemical trimethylamine present in hawthorn blossom is also one of the first chemicals formed in decaying animal tissue. In the past, when corpses would have been kept in the house for several days prior to burial, people would have been very familiar with the smell of death, so it is hardly surprising that hawthorn blossom was so unwelcome in the house.” 1.
“The hawthorn was often seen as a gateway into the fairy realms. Thomas the Rhymer, a Scottish poet in the C13th claimed to have met the Fairy Queen by a hawthorn bush from which a cuckoo was calling. She led him into the Otherworld for a short visit, but when he emerged, he found that seven years had passed.”2.
“In Ireland it was believed that if one of your neighbors used a whitethorn (hawthorn) stick to herd cattle then he was up to no good. An old Irish custom was that the first milk of a newly calved cow should be taken and poured under a fairy tree as a tribute to the fairies. It was also planted around the house and sheds to keep away witches.”3.
Indeed, to this day you can drive by perfectly plowed fields with rows as straight as a laser (indeed, sometimes laid out by such modern tools) and smack in the middle there will be a crazy looped diversion around a big hawthorn tree. Oak and Ash also enjoy some protection in the world of superstition, but none hold the fearsome reckoning that comes with disturbing the – thorn world of witches and fairies. Recently in County Clare they diverted a large road works already in progress because a large band of locals warned that if the Whitethorn in the way of the diggers was disturbed there would be death and destruction associated with the future road. Nearly 1.3 million euro was spent to re-jigger the plan. Belief in superstition runs deep and permeates the most mundane aspects of daily life, especially in the rural communities such as ours. I can’t tell you the amount of times we have been mid-conversation with someone and they have uttered a phrase and then said Touch Wood to ward off whatever evil spirits might be lurking to carry out some dastardly deed. I find myself knocking on wood when I say something bad, too, though I have done that my whole life. Salt over the shoulder, an offering on a windowsill, a ritual to start or end the day, we do all of these things to beat back the possibility of the furies exacting revenge.
Another West Cork custom that has enchanted us is the display of the Infant de Prague. We found ours left for us in a kitchen drawer by the renters that lived here before we bought Reavilleen. As I was scrubbing the drawer interiors I flung open the small one and this porcelain painted figuring came rolling forward. I held it up to show Tom and wondered at its significance and then put it aside. Near the end of our trip that April I placed it on the mantle over the stove, up out of reach, and began to ask our Irish friends for information. Apparently the statue is commonplace in Irish Catholic households, and is the grantor of wishes for good weather for weddings, communions, and confirmations. One has to place the statue under a bush or hedge the night before the event and say a prayer. Also, a coin placed at the feet of the statue ensures the house will never be hungry or want for anything. The statue’s power is increased if it is continually displayed, even if the head has been knocked off, though this has to happen accidentally. Our Infant holds its prominent spot on the mantelpiece, and even though neither Tom nor I practice religion, we have no intentions of taking it down from its honored spot. There are some traditions you just don’t mess with.
As this trip draws to a close I find myself already planning for our next return, as I am deeply enamored with the rhythms and customs of this country. Market days on Friday and Saturday, exploring on Sunday and Monday (but no shopping or eating because most everything is closed!) and Tuesday Wednesday Thursday of housework, gardening, daytrips, and art making. Clare is enclosed in her little garret up under the eaves, Tom has set up his studio in the utility room, and I rule the kitchen and dining rooms with three squares a day made on my finicky Irish cooker. There is a simplicity and a beauty to days of exploring and expanding our horizons. Tom’s retirement and my rest phase have come at a time when it is possible to relish the small things such as friends coming to visit and planning for parties in the future. There is no doubt that our current life is a charmed one; one that I hope to share with others. I’ll just be sure to leave the hawthorn branches outside and a little coin under the toes of the Infant de Prague in the hope that these and many other blessings will be granted.
Did I mention the pig races the next night? They choose audience members to get in the ring and shoo the pigs around barricades. The crowd goes wild! The pigs go.... to slaughter the next day!! (They were going to be processed anyway, so why not give them a little runaround, right?) Clare attended this event without us, as Dan Barry offered to take the kids down to see it while Sinead and Tom and I nursed the last glass of wine over dinner and pretended to do the dishes. There's something magical about meeting people and becoming fast friends and entrusting your child to them. She had a blast.
Each summer for the last 50+ years, the small town of Rosscarbery hosts a Family Festival in mid August. On the lineup: Sandcastle building, a disco in the square for tweens, slippery pole contests, fun runs; dog, pig, and mouse racing; a dog show, concerts in the church, a bake sale, and something known as the Monster Rag. A quick internet search shed no light on what this might be, but a few locals described it as a public routing of bad behavior, so we set our calendars to mark the day so we wouldn’t miss the spectacle. We held a place at the front of the barricades and waited for our friends Dan and Sinead to arrive, as Sinead promised to interpret the floats for us. Near the beginning of the Rag, our next door neighbors John and Kathy showed up too, and soon I spotted our beloved electrician, GerFuck, edging his way toward us as the music started to blare. Familiar faces began to bloom in the crowd, as the people we had met over the past few months drifted into the square: Ger from Atkins in his HiViz vest was directing traffic in front of us, grin spread for ear to ear; the waitress from Pilgrim’s restaurant (she’s originally from Wisconsin) floated by in her civilian clothes; Kathleen, the famous baker we had only heard about joined the back of the crowd and stood on her tiptoes to shake hands with us up front.
Seizing the opportunity to quiz the crowd while in the midst of the Rag, I asked what the significance of the name might be. Everyone shook their heads and said, ummm… Monster as in big, I guess? And Rag like bloody or to make fun of…. I think? Later I told Tom that I found a parallel in the Shirley Jackson story “The Lottery” where they pick a person at random to sacrifice for the good of the town and the crops, but they don’t know how the ritual started or why they do it, but they continue to do it because stopping is scary and the outcome unknown. That is where the similarity ends, because the Ross Monster Rag serves a very clear function as a steam valve where the rural community can come together and poke fun at the people who have caused a rip in the social fabric over the past year. Anyone can build a float as long as they register and are approved to ride, and the topics range from the humorous to the dastardly. In small towns where everybody is in everybody else’s business and no one slips by unnoticed, this ritual is a way to renew a bond that may have been frayed by a person’s poor choices or to solidify a sense of proper behavior. Often the people being Ragged On are right there at the front of the crowd, lifting their glasses and playing the good sport.
The one that was the most humorous to me was a float depicting The Pike Bar. Apparently the new owner wanted to have it be a tourist destination, barred some locals, and allegedly ran a flophouse AirB&B operation upstairs. Sinead said to check the Booking.com comments and AirB&B comments to see the details. Each year The Pike used to run The Festival of the Bard (poet) and the title of the float is The Festival of the Barred. The new owner was said to have remarked that the locals need to be re-educated if they want to drink in his bar. Ooof.
The weather has been a beast in Ireland this year. First snow in decades and hottest driest summer in 40 years. Also, a hurricane and other assorted mayhem on the meteorological scale. What better way to depict that than a water sprayer behind a leaf blower, the sunshine throwing gummy treats to the crowd, and joggers just trying to have a fun run while being simultaneously drenched and blasted. The crowd got a real laugh from Weather Red Alert.
The good news: New bathrooms were built at the tiny neighborhood beach called the Warren. (It’s not called that on maps, natch.) The bad news: there’s only one stall per gender and the doors don’t lock. The lad in charge of the public scheme is in the left hand side of these images in a navy blue jumper, holding his beer and laughing.
A fight in the local fast food joint that ended with a bunch of 18 year olds getting hauled off in the paddywagon was the focus of this float.
Assorted other floats included a goat getting lifted 15 feet into the air, some grannies voting for a granny grant of 1000Eu per year for childcare support, and a cross dressing Yes to the Dress person commenting on the self-involved behavior of a local woman who appeared on the TV show.
And a good time was had by all!
I look down the schedule of activities for this week in Rosscarbery and see that we have already missed the annual mouse racing event at O’Brien’s bar. Luckily, though, we have not missed the Monster Rag, an event that has been described to us as a medieval routing of those in the community who have done something to raise the ire of the neighbors. At the Monster Rag a float is built depicting the wrongdoing, with characters acting out a scene or poster boards decrying the behavior. We have been told to stand close to a local for explanations. When we asked how the people being roasted took it, all agree that the Rag is a time of airing grievances, and that if you are roasted, you must take it on the chin and move on. The Rag is tonight, and I already can’t wait to see what transpires. Tom has joked that he will know we’ve been accepted into the community if we see ourselves outsized and trotted out for the locals to haze on one of these floats. For my sake, I hope to never be the target of my new community’s critical gaze.
The events scheduled for the Rosscarbery Family fair this week include a charity run, movies in the park, a dog show, horse race betting, a sandcastle contest, pig racing, a concert to raise money for cathedral repairs, fundraising for charity missions, and more. I looked forward to the release of the events with such anticipation precisely because they seemed so different than anything I would come across in California, but the more I thought about it, the less that seemed true. The Orange County Fair has some of those exact events, and it is going on in my home city right now. Most years we grudgingly go (mainly only if there is a concert we really want to see at the Amphitheater) and endure the heat, the crowds, the expensive food, the dust, and the parking mayhem for a few hours of diversion. What, then, makes the Ross Family Fair different? Consider these numbers: The OC Fair has 1.3 million visitors each year; that breaks down the 56,000 people per open day. The parish of Rosscarbery has about 1,200 people TOTAL, so the chances of being trampled, pushed and shoved, or waiting for 45 minutes for a parking lot to empty so I can drive the three miles home, is nil. There is simply room to breathe.
Perhaps that contrast is what I find so refreshing about splitting my time between Ireland and California. I love living in California and all that it means: liberal leanings, easy going lifestyle, sunny days and lovely breezes, access to fresh and organic foods from all over the world; top class culture in theater, art, music; the contrast of the ocean to the dry scrub of the mountains, and people who create little islands of like-minded communities where they feel nurtured and heard. Also, if you experience friction with a person or group you can gracefully shift gears, pull back and refocus on a new crowd that fits a bit better. The downsides are crime, crowding, traffic, and expensive land and commodity prices. Despite all that, I have a deep attachment to the area that is genetic: I am fourth generation Californian, a rarer and rarer title in this melting pot of a world.
The attachment I have to Ireland is a newer one, as my first visit here was in 1998, twenty years ago, and I don’t have a strong Irish family tree. The things I love about my adopted country are the lushness of the fields and byways, the green springing from every crack and even growing in the lineaments of the windowpanes. The wet wet sky and earth and stones emit a fragrance that is rather like the beginning of time, raw and new like birth. The monuments are simply stones erected to celebrate the passage of light, the celestial realm, and they don’t command attention like a Continental cathedral with its soaring ceilings. Standing stone and stone circles weren’t erected to dazzle man, but to commune with the earth and sky. This subtlety can often be lost on people looking for the castles to be theme-park ready. Irish people cut out the small talk and head straight to what matters. In the first three minutes you may know more about them and them about you than some friends you have held for years in the States. This is both thrilling and exhausting, as you can feel wrung out after a 15-minute lightning exchange. The food in Ireland is unfailingly good, as the Irish never lost their connection with agriculture and the land as they did in Britain, and the idea of slow food is so much an integrated part of their lifestyle that to label it slow seems absurd. It just IS.
In Ireland, however, while there are pockets of culture like Dublin, Cork, and Galway, the distance one must travel to catch a venue can be daunting. It feels as though the infrastructure to move about is kept deliberately narrow, squeezing the pipeline to slow it all down. Here the food choices are narrower, too, with the occasional Chinese, Thai, or Curry being offered rarely as a complement to the traditional Irish fare. The landscapes change here too, with the Burren and its lunar fields, to the lush forests of the Wicklow valley, but the changes are sometimes so subtle that it takes a trained eye to see them. And the towns are tiny, mostly a main street or three, and if you have a beef with a neighbor or friend, you WILL run into them at the local markets, so you may as well patch it up quickly. There is no escaping small town frictions.
These are the things I think about each evening as I review my day. As our trip draws to a close this week I am finding myself reflecting on what I find magical about Ireland, and considering how to bring those ideas home. Frankly, I am realizing that many of them are already extant in the States, I just need to immerse myself in them with the same sense of wonder and delight as I do here in Ross. I have been gifted this chance to live part-time on two continents, and the temporary distance from my friends and family makes me realize just how essential they are to me. I haven't even seen the Rag yet, and already I think the lesson will be that life is too short to cling to frictions and grudges that color our days grey. Instead, build a float on the back of an old tractor, convince the neighborhood messer to dress in drag, and raise a pint while ribbing the louts amongst us.