Saturday, January 31, 2015

"Up Helly Aa," reconstructed Fire Festival, or Imbolc in Viking drag?

Guizers with torches at Up Helly Aa celebration in Uyeasound,Shetland.  Before the 19th c., tar barrels, not torches, were used. They look a bit KKKish.
The Viking Up Helly Aa, celebrated on the last Tuesday of January in the Shetland Isles in Northern Scotland, is a "reconstructed" fire festival. I'm not convinced the festival even has Viking roots, though modern-day Shetlanders would probably avow it does. I suspect the origin is a bit more obscure, as the Vikings invaded the Shetland Islands during the 8th and 9th centuries, but—detail!—there were other people living there since the Neolithic era.

The Vikings, as we know, were not big on sharing, and 19th century Viking scholars were also not keen on sharing. When something is claimed as being authentically Viking in Celtic lands, there is often a blurring of anthropological lines. What came before, is often overlooked, because it doesn't fit current thought. So, rather than observing the overlay with a cultural substrait, we often get skewed cultural theories based solely on later invading cultures—especially in Scotland where the Viking love affair is still in full swing some six centuries later. There is only "I" in Viking. Not even poetic license can alter that.

Shetland was no terra nullius before the Vikings invaded Shetland. Long before the Shetland archipelago (Scots Gaelic: Sealtainn) was under Icelandic-Norse control, it was a Mesolithic, Neolithic, then a Celtic stronghold—for millennia. The Shetland Islands were originally settled by Neolithic Bell-Beaker peoples, then the Celts, the Picts, and the Scotti, or the Irish Celts—who also celebrated a fire festival on this date as well

Since the Neolithic era, (4000 BC), people have raised cattle and sheep, and farmed the Shetland Isles. What survives are prehistoric field systems, Bronze Age burnt mounds, Iron Age brochs, and Pictish wheelhouses. The oldest archaeological find, ca. 4000 BC, is a midden at West Voe, Sumburgh. Hard to imagine now, but much of the North Sea was dry land, Shetland was lightly wooded and the climate was warmer. Neolithic burials include stone cists, and heel-chambered cairns on the island of Vementry, Punds Water and Islesburgh. Skara Brae, Maes Howe, and Ring of Brogar, in nearby Orkney, are extraordinary Neolithic monuments.

During the Bronze Age (2000 to 600 BC), the climate deteriorated, peat bogs spread, and sea level rose. Some 300 crescent-shaped burnt mounds (possible hearths) date back to the Bronze Age. "Ireland was the chief center for the manufacture of bronze and Scotland's early settlers were energetic seamen." Even way then there was a lot of travel between the islands. For millennia, there was Irish contact in the Shetlands, whether by trade, or by theft: a bronze-gilt harness mounting was made in Ireland during the 8th or 9th c. AD, was excavated from an archaeological dig.

Possibly due to a population explosion, or increased warfare, the Iron Age in Shetland saw the rise of massive fortifications: double-walled circular towers, and dry stone brochs—sometimes called "Pictish Towers", but their construction predates the Picts. Ancestors of the Picts, maybe.

Of the 120 Iron Age broch sites, Old Scatness, and the Broch of Mousa (ca. 100 BC), are among the finest preserved examples of Iron Age fort towers. In the case of Old Scatness, the Celts, the late Iron Age Picts, then the Vikings each built atop the old fortifications. Excavations at Jarlshof, confirm archaeological evidence in Mainland, Shetland, since the Bronze Age.
By the sixth century AD, Shetland had become integrated into the mainstream of Pictish politics and life. Artefacts such as painted pebbles and carved symbol stones demonstrate a strong Pictish presence in the islands. Good examples include the ogham script of the Lunnasting Stone, and Christian cross-slabs which include fine examples such as the cross slab and the Monk’s Stone, both from Papil.... From the late 8th century, Shetland was subject to the turbulent impact of the expanding Viking world.—Visit Shetland
The Viking invasions began ca. 800 AD. The earliest archaeological evidence of Norse occupation is in the nearby Orkneys (Viking Shetland was administered as part of the Orkneys, and they were both called the Northern Isles). In 800 AD, a Pictish, or Culdee hoard of silver bowls, brooches, torcs, thimbles, chapes, and a porpoise jaw, was found beneath St. Ninian's church floor on Shetland's St. Ninian's Isle. (See St Ninian's Isle Treasure. St. Ninian AKA Apostle to the Southern Picts).
Human settlement of the island dates from circa 3000 BC and there are remains of several Neolithic burial chambers known as 'heel-shaped cairns'. Little is known of the pre-Celtic and Celtic eras, but when the Norse arrived it is likely they found a religious settlement as the name of the island derives from Papey Stóra meaning "Big island of the Papar" (Celtic monks), in distinction to Papa Little. —Wiki  (see Culdees or papar.)
In 1299 AD, the oldest Old Norse manuscript from Shetland (the Norse called it Hjaltland), was over a duel, where the isle of Papa Stour is referenced. Thorvald Thoresson, accused of corruption, was called "dominus de Papay." In early Irish literature, Shetland is referred to as Inse Catt—"the Isles of Cats." 

During the outbreak of Celtic Christianity, when "green" martyrs were seeking hermitages to commune with God, the Irish monks settled on most of the Hebrides, Orkneys and the Shetland Isles, as well as the Faroe Islands, and Iceland, the first stepping stone from Shetland to Iceland. Iceland was settled by the Norse, and Celts from the British Isles—including from Hebrides and Shetland.
During the Dark Ages, groups of outlaws and farmers took to the sea from the northernmost reaches of Europe. These seafaring marauders became known as the Vikings. Some of these outcasts among the Vikings were to achieve historical distinction indirectly through dubious means. —from The Struggle against Colonialism and Imperialism in Kalaallit Nunaat
What's interesting about the Up Helly Aa festival is that it completely obliterates any connection with the peoples of the past, other than a nod to 19th century Viking revival nostalgia. It's a wayward case of settler colonialism displacing the preexisting subculture, as a means strengthening an invader's power base to shore up national identity. This was certainly true in Iceland even though Iceland was settled by as many Irish as Vikings. So, what is Up Helly Aa?
According to John Jamieson's Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1818), up is used in the sense of something being at an end, and derives from the Old Norse word uppi which is still used in Faroese and Icelandic, while helly refers to a holy day or festival. The Scottish National Dictionary defines helly, probably derived from the Old Norse helgr (helgi in the dative and accusative case, meaning a holiday or festival), as "[a] series of festive days, esp. the period in which Christmas festivities are held from 25th Dec. to 5th Jan." while aa may represent a', meaning "all".  —Wiki Up Helly Aa
But the Northern Isles were once described as "Pictish in culture and speech."  Not Viking. Few Pictish placenames survive, except for the northern islands Fetlar with its stone Funzie Girt (Finn's Dyke) a Bronze Age Berlin Wall, Unst and Yell, the second largest island, with 12 brochs, and 15 early chapels—a Culdee stronghold, probably not as enticing to the Norse. The dearth of Celtic "place-names suggest that the Picts may have been forced onto poorer land."
Despite many archaeological remains, we have only a patchy understanding of those who lived in Shetland before the Viking invasions of around 800 AD. Immediately before the Vikings arrived, though, it’s clear that Shetland – like much of Scotland - was part of the Pictish culture. By the time of the Viking invasion, possibly two or three hundred years earlier, Christianity had reached the islands. —History of Shetland
The "Northern Isles were the first to be conquered by Vikings and the last to be relinquished by the Norwegian crown." The historical record is weak but Woolf (2007) suggests the Icelandic sagas proclaiming dominion over the Shetland Isles are stories concocted "to legitimise Norwegian claims to sovereignty in the region. Perhaps that is also why Imbolc underwent a transformation into Up Helly aa.

An interesting aside: according to the Icelandic sagas, Egil's saga, and the Orkneyinga saga, the Broch of Mousa was used as a refuge for runaway lovers.

I suppose if one is inventive enough, the Norse origin of some island placenames could be challenged: Vementry (Old Norse: "Vemunðarey) could also be derived from a form of Finn, as in Finn's beach: as in Ventry, (Irish: Ceann Trá—which means head beach), which is an anglicization of Fionntrá, in Dingle, Co. Kerry. St. Ninian was also known as Fionnian. M, B and F, in the genitive, take on a v sound. But I'm being linguistically silly.

Maybe it would be more fruitful to look at DNA. Shetland's genetic heritage is 60% Norwegian Y-chromosome DNA (R1a Sigurd), and 40% is ancient Briton (Celts) DNA. The most common male Y chromosomes reflect the most recent migration. Apparently the Norse married lots of local women; as Norse (matrilineal) mtDNA was 30%. However:
[in] Orkney and Shetland, Roberts reported (1985, 1990) that both island populations diverged considerably in allele frequencies from neighboring populations. Roberts concluded that the islanders of Orkney and Shetland most likely represented remnants of an aboriginal gene pool that had changed on the British mainland because of later population movements.... Of the Scottish populations, Orkney [not Shetland] evidently has the closest matrilineal links with Scandinavia. The inhabitants of the Scottish islands share two to seven times more of their lineages exclusively with Gaels than they do with Scandinavians.... mtDNA lineages can be used to identify recent migration. Viking men settled and intermarried with existing populations in Shetland... —mtDNA and the Islands of the North Atlantic
So, with all that intact ancient matrilineal Celtic Briton gene pool intact, do you think their fire customs, celebrated since time immemorial, would suddenly be forgotten and just disappear with the occupation of the Vikings—only to return as a new and improved Viking festival? Methinks this particular fire festival smacks of the neo-Romantic Viking revivalist movement: think truncated Wagner as performed by Viking mummers. (Note that Up Helly Aa iis not celebrated in Scandinavia.) 

According to the Smithsonian article, "Up Helly Aa was first celebrated in the 1880s. Before then, rowdy residents would take to the streets to mark the end of the Yule season by burning tar barrels." 

Up Helly Aa is a procession of 1000 guizers celebrating their Norse heritage. Guizers (dis-guisers and galoshins) are a long-standing tradition in the Celtic ream; our modern Halloween trick or treaters are guisers

The festival is stapled onto the end of Yule season (see: Burning of the clavie), but even using the old calendar, "Old Twelfth" would have fallen on Jan. 17, not the end of January, which would be Imbolc, the Fire Festival of Brigid.

A parallel story of confusion: an Irish Medieval History Facebook post notes that people erroneously assume the pagan Celtic Goddess Brigid, who represented the light half of the year, was transported into Christianity as Saint Brigid. Ancient customs and religious beliefs were not swept away with the arrival of Christianity and traditions associated with St. Brigid’s day are thought to date from the pre-Christian period. Candlemas is the Christian overlay of Imbolc.

So taking that model for cultural continuance, despite new landlords, I suspect this Shetland fire festival is an offshoot of the festival of Imbolc, and of the pan-Celtic Goddess Brigid, which was a time for a massive spring clean-up, burning old possessions and replacing them with new ones. 

Since Neolithic times, cross-quarter days, that midway point between solstice and equinox, were celebrated with fire festivals. Cross-quarter days were marked via astronomical alignments on ancient monuments: Mound of the Hostages: Hill of Tara, Howth, Newgrange, Stonehenge. The four fire festivals, Samhain (the end of the Celtic harvest year), Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh also mark the beginning of each season. Spring was the beginning of the Roman New Year.

Imbolc might derive from Old Irish í mBolc, meaning in the belly (as in pregnant—bolg — Spanish /Galician bolsa means bag); it might mean purification or, First Milk.
...which arises from the word “oimelc/oí melg” used in the 10th century Sanas Cormaic (Cormac’s Glossary) which some people have taken to mean “sheep’s milk”. The word “melg” meaning ‘milk’ comes from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE—the ancestor language of most European languages) word “melg” which means "to wipe, to rub off". Purification/ cleansing was an important aspect of many ancient festivals and “oí melg” is not milking but rubbing, as in the act of cleansing. Further evidence of cleansing comes from the Roman festival of Februalia. The Old Irish word for February is ‘febra’, ‘febrae’ from Latin ‘Februarius’ which in turn comes from ‘februa’ meaning purifications. —Irish Medieval History: February 1st or Imbolc 
Imbolc was the second of the four great fire festivals, with significance placed upon the Light of fire. The Irish word for spring, "errach” thought to be related to the word “airreach” which means hauling and dragging. In Ireland, Imbolc is referred to as the big Spring Clean. "Right up to the twentieth century, on Brigid’s eve, the house was be scrubbed from top to bottom by the women who worked into the night." 

All debris was burned (including floor rushes, beds and bedding). Bonfires galore. Oh, and Brigid is a daughter of the Dagda, and a poet. She is the patron of the hearth, healing, metal smithcraft; and inventor of poetry, keening, and beer making. Ya don't want to piss her off. Burn, baby, burn. Sláinte!
A Bhríd, a Bhríd, thig a sligh as gabh do leabaidh
Bríd Bríd, come in; thy bed is ready
Brede, Brede, come to my house tonight.
Open the door for Brede and let Brede come in.
Imbolc festival in Marsden, Yorkshire. —Wiki

Brigid's the goddess of weather, for an early spring, forget the groundhog, chant this instead:

Thig an nathair as an toll
Là donn Brìde,
Ged robh trì troighean dhen t-sneachd
Air leac an làir.
The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bríde,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.

Lá Fhéile Bríde shona dóibh go léir (Happy St. Brigid’s festival day to you all)!

LINKS & SNAUSAGES (no beer):
Vikings Storm the Streets at Up Helly Aa, Europe's Biggest Fire Festival
Scandinavian Scotland
Shetland History
Papa Stour
Someone beat the Vikings into the North Atlantic by 500 years human settlements ca. the 4th and 6th centuries AD. “There is evidence of Irish hermits sailing into the North Atlantic islands in a passage by an Irish Monk called Dicuil in 825AD,”

Prehistoric Shetland (see Heel-shaped cairns, a style of chambered cairn unique to Shetland) Hjaltadans on Fetlar is a ring of stones, although there are no true stone circles in Shetland. The level of organisation involved suggest a relatively high population for Shetland in the Neolithic era, perhaps as much as 10,000. In AD 43 and 77 Roman authors Pomponius Mela and Pliny the Elder referred to seven islands, Haemodae and Acmodae, thought to be Shetland. Thule is first mentioned by Pytheas of Massilia when he visited Britain ca. 322-285 BC, but it is probably not Shetland as he said it was six days sail north of Britain and one day from the frozen sea. Tacitus reported that a Roman fleet had seen "Thule" on a voyage that included Orkney in AD 98. Watson (1926) states that Tacitus was referring to Shetland.

The Crucible of Iron Age Shetland
Broch of Mousa
Broch of Clickimin 
Broch of Culswick
List of Shetland islands
St. Ninian's Isle
Northern Isles

My grannie tried to show me how to make St. Brigid's crosses, I wasn't a very good student. Crosóg Bhríde. —Wiki
How to Make a St. Brigid's Cross

Irish Medieval History:
Lá Fhéile Bríde 
Did the goddess became a saint or did the saint become the goddess?
February 1st or Imbolc (Imbolg) is the name of the ancient Irish festival marking the beginning of spring. 

Celtic Lore and Mythology  Imbolc or Imbolg (pronounced i-MOLK or i-MOLG ), also called (Saint) Brigid's Day (Irish: Lá Fhéile Bríde, Scottish Gaelic: Là Fhèill Brìghde, Manx: Laa'l Breeshey), is a Gaelic festival marking the beginning of spring.

Brigid's British and continental counterpart Brigantia was the Celtic equivalent of the Roman Minerva and the Greek Athena.

'World's oldest calendar' discovered in Scottish field The ancient monument was created by hunter-gatherers about 10,000 years ago. The pit alignment, at Warren Field, Aberdeenshire, is a Mesolithic "calendar," thousands of years older than previous known formal time-measuring monuments created in Mesopotamia.

Shetland Amenity TrustShetland Place Names Project (Irrevocably lost: Few Pictish placenames survived, except for the names of the islands Fetlar, Unst and Yell). (See Shetland Archives)

Ancient Scotland

The blood of the vikings - Orkney's genetic heritage

mtDNA and the Islands of the North Atlantic: Estimating the Proportions of Norse and Gaelic Ancestry Some orphans: The Gaelic contribution to the Icelandic mtDNA pool was least as large as that from Scandinavia. in The Book of Settlements, Orkney is mentioned 7 times, the Faroe Islands are mentioned 3 times, and Shetland is mentioned 2 times.


Imbolc festival: A short history of the Gaelic celebration one of the oldest celebrations marking the beginning of spring, has a rich history in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.

The Sacred Fire The Celtic year was divided into two halves, the dark and the light. Samhain was the beginning of the dark half, with its counterpart, Beltane beginning the light half. Between these two 'doors' or portals fell Imbolc, on February 1, and Lughnasadh or Lammas, celebrated on August 1, quartering the Celtic year. These quarters were again divided by the solstices and equinoxes, which were known as the four Albans. Imbolc was celebrated in honor of Brighid or Brid (pronounced breed), also known as Brigid, Brigit, or Bride, in her maiden aspect. Brighid is the daughter of Dagda. Imbolc was the second of the four great fire festivals, with significance placed upon the Light of fire. At Imbolc, Brighid was pregnant with the seed of the Sun. She was ripe with the promise of new life, as the seeds of the earth deep within its soil begin to awaken at this time, ripe with the promise of Spring, new life for the planet. Thus Inbolc was a time of awakening, promise and hope for the coming spring.

Wheel of the Year, depicted by the eight-armed sun cross, is an annual cycle of seasonal festivals, consisting of four, or eight festivals: either the solstices and equinoxes, known as the "quarter days", or the four midpoints between them (Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine, Lugnasadh), known as the "cross quarter days".

Chapter 62. The Fire-Festivals of Europe: The biggest fire-festivals were on Beltaine, Midsummer Eve or Midsummer Day (Walpurgis Night), and Samain, or Allhallow Eve'n. In the Highlands of Scotland, “children gathered ferns, tar-barrels, the long thin stalks called gàinisg, and everything suitable for a bonfire. These were placed in a heap near the house, and in the evening set fire to. The fires were called Samhnagan. Whole districts were brilliant with bonfires, and their glare across a Highland loch, and from many eminences, formed an exceedingly picturesque scene.” In Wales the Samhain bonfire was called Coel Coeth. These cross-calendar dates don't coincide with the four great hinges of the solar year, the solstices and the equinoxes. Nor do they agree with the seasons of the agricultural year. A new fire was kindled every year on Samhain, and from this sacred flame all the fires in Ireland were rekindled.

Culdees or papar

St. Ninian: Apostle to the Southern Picts (aka Nynia, Ringan, and Trynnian). Tradition has it that Ninian was a Briton who converted the southern Picts to Christianity. He might have died in Whithorn, or Ireland in 432AD. Ninian dedications are found throughout the lands of the ancient Picts, also south of the Firths of Clyde and Forth, in Orkney and Shetland, East Donegal and Belfast; and in parts of northern England.

"Saint Ninian preaching to the Picts", Book of the Hours of the Virgin and Saint Ninian

Orkneyinga Saga History of the Earls of Orkney: Norse saga written ca. 1230 AD. chapter 85: enroute to the Holy Land, Earl Rognvald stopped off in Shetland—It was agreed that Rognvald should have the most ornate ship; but rival Eindridi broke the promise. So, his even fancier-assed ship smashed up in Shetland. Lots of sparring over women, etc. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, the Vikings used the islands as a base for raiding expeditions against Norway and Scotland. Norwegian king Harald Hårfagre ("Harald Fair Hair") annexed the Northern Isles (Orkney and Shetland) in 875, Rognvald Eysteinsson received Orkney and Shetland as an earldom in reparation for the death of his son in battle in Scotland.

Landnámabók Book of Settlements: (two mentions of settling in Shetland).

Lebor Gabála Érenn Brigid, daughter of The Daghda.

Galoshins Remembered, by Dr Emily Lyle; Galoshins was a seasonal folk drama learned orally and performed, mostly by boys, in people's houses. It took place on Old Year's Night or on Hallowe'en in central and southern Scotland at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The drama took the form of a fight, sometimes with 'swords', and then a 'doctor' performed a comic turn in bringing the injured party back to life. These oral reminiscences, gathered for the first time in book form, were collected in the 1970s for the School of Scottish Studies Sound Archives, University of Edinburgh from people in Melrose, Morebattle, Hawick, Westruther, Biggar, Morekirk, Kirkcowan, Newton Stewart, Armadale, Falkirk, Camelon, Dennyloanhead and Kippen.
Here comes in Wee Johnny funny
The best wee man to draw the money
Lang lang pouches down to his knees
A penny a tuppence or three bawbees.
To order from Amazon US

Tobar an Dualchais - Galoshins (sound recording) In Galloway the performers and the mummers' play known elsewhere as ' Galoshins' were called 'The Black Boys', because they had their faces blackened. The play was not rehearsed. The parts were cast at school, and, in order of importance and seniority, were: Wee Johnny Funny, whom David Laurie played in 1921, aged six, then the doctor, then Beelzebub, then The Black Knight or King of Macedonia, and Balhector. The meaning of the name Balhector, which appears to be peculiar to Galloway, is discussed.

Galoshins: The Scottish Folk Play (Google Books) In Galoshins, Brian Hayward provides a new, and much-needed, study of the Scottish folk play of Hallowe'en and Hogmanay. Cousin to the English Mummers' play and to the Irish Christmas Rhymers' custom, Galoshins has a tradition in Scotland that can be retraced to the thirteenth century. The story of this neglected folk custom is not only valuable in itself, but also in the new perspective it offers on Scottish lowland traditions and social history. In his study, Brian Hayward not only records the texts, locations, calendar dates and customs of performance but also places them in their historical context. Students and enthusiasts of drama, folklore studies, social history and Scottish traditions will find this a fascinating and rewarding volume.

See also: Galashen Galatian, Galations, Galoshins, Golaschin, Goloshans, guisards, guisers, guising.

Mummer's Day, or "Darkie Day" (Darking Day), an ancient Cornish midwinter celebration celebrated on Boxing Day or New Year's Day. Originally part of traditional pagan midwinter celebrations throughout Cornwall, with guise dancing, (dancers painted their faces black or wore masks).
Mummers' Plays: seasonal folk plays performed by troupes of actors known as mummers or Guizers (rhymers, pace-eggers, soulers, tipteerers, galoshins, guysers, and so on), from the British Isles (see wrenboys), In mummers’ plays, the central incident is the killing and restoring to life of one of the characters. "guisers" (performers in disguise). Although the main season for mumming throughout Britain was around Christmas, some parts of England had plays performed around All Souls' Day (known as Souling or soul-caking) or Easter (Pace-egging or Peace-egging).

A Mummers' play, the Papa Stour Sword Dance, is from Shetland:  
In 1831 Sir Walter Scott published a rhyme used as a prelude to the sword dance in Papa Stour, Shetland in around 1788. It features seven characters, Saint George, Saint James, Saint Dennis, Saint David, Saint Patrick, Saint Anthony and Saint Andrew, the Seven Champions of Christendom. All the characters are introduced in turn by the Master, St. George. Some of the characters dance solos as they are introduced, then all dance a longsword dance together, which climaxes with their swords being meshed together to form a "shield". They each dance with the shield upon their head, then it is laid on the floor and they withdraw their swords to finish the dance. St. George makes a short speech to end the performance. From Mummers

Oot bewast da Horn o Papa,
Rowin Foula doon!
Owir a hidden piece o water,
Rowin Foula doon!
Roond da boat da tide-lumps makkin,
Sunlicht trowe da cloods is brakkin;
We maan geng whaar fish is takkin,
Rowin Foula doon!" —Papa Stour

Wren Boys, Dingle, County Kerry, Ireland -Wiki

Wren Boys, or Straw Boys were guisers asking for money "to bury the wren".  The wren was a symbol of the old year; Celtic names of the wren (draouennig, drean, dreathan, dryw etc.) suggest druidic rituals. Wren Day is a Samhain or midwinter sacrifice celebration (now celebrated on St. Stephen's Day in Ireland; also celebrated in Galicia and Southern France). Lleu Llaw Gyffes, a Welsh hero, earns his name by killing a wren. He strikes a wren "between the tendon and the bone of its leg", causing his mother, Arianrhod, to remark "it is with a skillful hand that the fair-haired one has hit it". His foster father, Gwydion, reveals himself, saying Lleu Llaw Gyffes; "the fair-haired one with the skillful hand" is his name now".

Cill Aodáin
Anois teacht an earraigh, beidh 'n lá dul chun síneadh
'S tar éis na Féil' Bríde, ardóidh mé mo sheol,
Ó chuir mé 'mo cheann é ní stopfaidh mé choíche
Go seasfaidh mé síos i lár Chontae Mhaigh Eo.
I gClár Chlainne Mhuiris bheas mé an chéad oíche,
'S i mBalla taobh thíos de thosós mé ag ól,
Go Coillte Mach rachad go ndéanfad cuairt mhíos' ann
I bhfogas dhá míle do Bhéal an Áth' Móir

Fágaim le huacht é go n-éiríonn mo chroíse
Mar éiríonn an ghaoth nó mar scaipeann an ceo,
Nuair 'smaoíním ar Cheara nó ar Ghailleang taobh thíos de,
Ar Sceathach a Mhíl' nó ar phlánaí Mhaigh Eo.
Cill Aodáin an baile a bhfásann gach ní ann,
Tá sméara 's sú craobh ann, is meas ar gach sórt,
'S dá mbeinn-se 'mo sheasamh i gceartlár mo dhaoine
D'imeodh an aois díom is bheinn arís óg."
Antoine Ó Raifteirí (Antoine Ó Reachtabhra, Anthony Raftery 1779–1835)

SAINT BRIGID'S PRAYER(10th century Poem attributed to Brigid)
I'd like to give a lake of beer to God.I'd love the heavenlyHost to be tippling thereFor all eternity.
I'd love the men of Heaven to live with me,To dance and sing.If they wanted, I'd put at their disposalVats of suffering.
White cups of love I'd give themWith a heart and a half;Sweet pitchers of mercy I'd offerTo every man.
I'd make Heaven a cheerful spotBecause the happy heart is true.I'd make the men contented for their own sake.I'd like Jesus to love me too.
I'd like the people of heaven to gatherFrom all the parishes around.I'd give a special welcome to the women,The three Marys of great renown.
I'd sit with the men, the women and GodThere by the lake of beer.We'd be drinking good health foreverAnd every drop would be a prayer.

More poems and incantations here:

Brighid, Bright Goddess of the Gael

Smúraidh mi an tula
Mar a smúradh Brighde Muime.
Ainm naomh na Muime
Bhith mu'n tula, bhith mu'n tán,
Bhith mu'n ardraich uile.
I will smoor the hearth
As Brighid the Fostermother would smoor
The Fostermother's holy name
Be on the hearth, be on the herd
Be on the household all.
—Carmina Gadelica, Alexander Carmichael,  vol.3

Thursday, January 22, 2015


Dusted with black mold,
salvaged art and journals from childhood
reward me with a blazing headache.

My grandmother's black church shoes
polished up with a gleam, 

50 years later, the insoles still hold
the shape of her bunioned feet.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Tiki Totems

It begins as one tiny memory, and suddenly I am remembering sheaves of information. In the early 1960s, Barney West was carving a totem with a chainsaw, me sitting in the white convertible watching him work as my mom met up with some friends at one of the Sausalito houseboats. The day was harsh and Barney, dressed in shorts, and little else, was swarthy, sweat rolling off his back. She must've told him to keep an eye on me because he was cranky. He bristled. Wouldn't even talk to me. So, I sat there in the car, silent, and watched monsters unfold from the trunks of redwood trees. They glared menacingly from the shadows. Followed me home in sleep.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Making Butter

When we were kids, an after-school job at our neighbor's house was to churn butter as we watched Rin-Tin-Tin or Sea Hunt on the old black & white TV.  We were mesmerized.

In those days, TVs were a luxury item, and there were only two to four channels—that often broadcasted snow, depending upon where you lived. Reception was bad in the deep pocket valleys of Arroyo Road. The Stones lived on the Lagunitas side of Barranca Creek. I lived at the end of the canyon on the Forest Knolls side.

I remember watching Les Stone hitching himself up to the top of the tallest tree, lugging up an aluminum arial, and armloads of copper wire. Elaborate arial setups laced to the tops of tall pines worked, until the next big storm. They were like weathervanes. Long flat arial lines from the top of the Douglas fir to the house had to be maintained. A crack in the plastic cable, during a storm, and the line would short out. No TV. Just loud snow. The sound of deep space hissing.

So it was pretty exciting to be able to even watch TV. Stephanie Stone and I were horse crazy so we were partial to Lassie Come Home and Dale Evans and Roy Rogers. Rin-Tin-Tin was OK, because he looked like Ky-dog the German Shepherd—even if there were no horses.

One afternoon, it was my turn to churn the butter. I churned and tumped and churned until it felt like my arms were going to fall off. I churned my way through Rin-Tin-Tin to the 6 O'Clock News. My aching muscles were afire.

Still no butter. When I peeked into the churn, it was clotted, like snow on the TV. A loud thundercrack overhead. Lightning arced and struck the arial. Buckets of rain. In this way I found out that butter won't churn during a thunderstorm. It came down to science. Much more mesmerizing than the TV.

Multnomah Falls

Michael Horodyski Icy Jewel 7176 
An old high school friend posted a winter photo of Multnomah Falls on the Columbia River Gorge. It was so gorgeous, it took my breath away. Just thinking about how cold it must be in winter, also took my breath away.

And when we hiked up to the top of Multnomah Falls last summer, I was breathless, too, but for another reason, as my knee wasn't fully healed from surgery, so I used an old ski pole as a walking stick. It was bequeathed to me by the ski lift operator on Crystal Ridge—where we spent a stellar afternoon gazing at Mt. Rainer.

Neil kept telling me I shouldn't be hiking up to the top, but I was determined. it was a personal best moment. I'd been flattened for nearly a year and a half with this knee injury.

With the orphan ski pole, I was able to poke and prod my way up to the top of the first falls. It was muggy. Dragonflies practiced arial rolls worthy of the Red Baron. A storm was brewing somewhere. We lingered, refreshed by the waterfall mist, and lulled by the roaring water. No need for words. We counted rainbows until we were drenched and chilled to the bone.

Coming downhill from the falls was excruciating. I resorted to an odd crab walk, pivoting around the ski pole on alternate steps. I tried hopping, I dragged my injured uphill leg and sashayed. At one point I thought about sitting down and just scooting down on my butt to the parking lot. If only I had some cardboard. But a mile of road rash was daunting. I thought I'd never make it back down to the parking lot to my icepack and pain killers.

I hadn't been to the falls since the early 70s, right after high school. But despite the distance of time, memory was served up correctly. I hadn't forgotten how marvelous Multnomah Falls really are—despite the thundering hordes of tourists seeking the ultimate selfie shots, midsummer. Magnificent Multnomah. Gorgeous gorge. Refreshing—a page out of memory, like the picture stenciled on the cans of Oly my grannie used to sip on hot summer days.

This post was inspired by Katelin Stuart, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, (via Facebook) and Michael Horodyski. I've asked Friends of the Columbia Gorge for permission to share the photo. Here are two links to Michael and his work.

Michael Horodyski, (He also took the iconic cantelevered fog enshrouded tree shot on the way to the Point Reyes Lighthouse.

Icy Jewel 7176   Multnomah Falls is one of the Jewels of the Columbia River Gorge. It's not often that we get to see her covered in ice. We were headed towards Spirit Falls and it was raining/misting in the Gorge and all the falls were frozen. We decided to take some frozen "traditional" photos. It was kinda fun looking at the falls in all their frozen glory. Seeing things with new eyes and such. Both tiers of this falls make up the 600+ feet drop. For size comparison check out the person on the right side of the bridge in red.

Trying to remember to save first drafts...didn't quite succeed. I keep rewriting and rewriting, and a sentence becomes two, then a paragraph...

It's so gorgeous, it takes my breath away, it takes my breath away, when we hiked up to the top of Multnomah Falls last summer, I was breathless, for another reason, as my knee wasn't fully healed from surgery, so I used an old ski pole to poke and prod my way to the top. Coming downhill was excruciating. But I'd forgotten how marvelous the fall are. I hadn't been there since the early 70s. Memory served correctly. Magnificent.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Mother House at Dominican

During the summer of 1989 we held our 25th annual California Poets in the Schools conference in the Mother House at the Dominican Convent in San Rafael. It was a a big international event with guest poets from several Writers in the Schools programs, and poets from the USSR and Mexico.

Dominican Convent, San Rafael, California, circa 1908 [postcard‘ Marin County Free Library 
The Convent, dedicated on July 21, 1889 in San Rafael, California, was originally the home for nine Dominican Sisters, four postulants and one novice. The same building housed a girls' school plus high school. The Sisters also taught children at St. Raphael's School at Fifth and A Streets. The college was increased to a four-year institution and the first class of Dominican College graduated in 1922. The elementary school and high school moved to San Domenico in San Anselmo in 1965. In 1971, the College became coed, and in April 2000 Dominican changed its name to Dominican University. The Convent burned in 1990, and the Sisters elected to replace the remains with a new, more modern building. —Marin County Free Library 

The Mother House, designed by San Francisco architect Thomas J. Welsh, was an intricate and ornate four-storey affair, built of solid redwood. A grand Victorian dame replete with cupolas, bell towers and widow walks. There was gorgeous turned woodwork, hidden nooks, lace-curtained vaulted windows and Greco-Roman touches worthy of any fin de siècle grand hotel. Massive grand staircases, fine tongue and groove, intricate tile-work, wall panels of black walnut, oak and rich mahogany patterned veneers.

The Mother House was a living museum. I was attracted to the early California plein-air pastoral paintings worthy of the Hudson Impressionist School, probably hung on the walls when they were still wet. There was a rumor of a Rembrandt. It also contained the usual array of religious iconography, stained glass, and wooden shields, heavy antique claw-footed furniture, and vast carpets of Persian rugs blossoming everywhere.

I gave a presentation in the foyer on my poetry and art exchange program in the USSR. It was an uncomfortable time for me as my ex, John Oliver Simon, was also there, so I was a loose cannon. As it was, I had run off to Russia to escape John, his poetry program, and my past.  But you can't escape the past. It stays with you like a shadow. (Later, I would be a modern day Conchita—Doña Maria Concepción Argüello, California's first postulant, was a star-crossed lover who grew tired of waiting for Count Rezanov to return from the dead. But that's another story...)

John and I went to great lengths to avoid each other, like wary cats, and of course, then we'd run into each other, chest-thumping on sharp turns of empty stairwells. Face to face, filled with awkward dités, punctuated with profound silence. That weekend, fate had its way with us, rubbing our noses in our own excrement at every corner. The University’s motto, Veritas fax ardens, means “Truth Is a Flaming Torch.” Dirty laundry aside, I was on fire.

At the party we shared a slow dance, Goodbye, Sweetheart, an unchained melody, for old time's sake. A temporary truce, within the sanctuary of nuns. Everyone was hoping we'd get back together. Kathy Evans teared up and said, Are you sure it's over? You fit so perfect together. But I was one mass of raw scar tissue, unfit for any man (or woman).

At one point, in order to avoid John, I ran off to join a poetry caucus encamped on the front lawn. Tobey Kaplan laughed, and said, What are you doing here, this a GAY caucus! Sure enough, Francisco Alarcón, Fernando Castro, Patrice Veccione and others were there. But I wasn't about to leave. I needed mothering. I said, You're all poets, aren't you? And so they made room for me on the nurse-log.

The Dominican shield for the year of my birth, was a purple heart, Caritas Omnia Superat, Love Surpasses all Things. Yeah, right. I deserved a purple heart just for surviving the relationship. But I had to learn the hard way that anorexia was not a workaround for betrayal. For John's year, it was Pax Copia et Sapientia, Peace, Abundance, and Wisdom. Neither of us could find peace, and wisdom was hoarded in a future that will never come. Our cross to bear.

After the big evening poetry reading, Jorge Argueta, Celia Woloch and I sat on the wide verandah, after curfew, drinking aguaguardiente, telling ghost stories under a full moon. I thought for sure we were all going to go to hell. But the ground held. It held. The word Dominican, (domini canes) means "Hounds of the Lord." I sure didn't want them hounding me throughout all eternity.

Me & Celia Woloch on the front porch
The Dominican Mother House turned a hundred years old that summer, and it was redolent with ghosts of the past. Some of them were my relatives. I'm sure when the nuns, hard up for income, opened up the convent to educational groups, that wild poets dancing in the foyer, and drinking whiskey on the porches was not exactly what they envisioned. On the other hand, the nuns were conscripted to educate the children of the wild 49ers, a rough and ready bunch of outlaws.

The history of Dominican University of California in traces back to 1850 when Joseph Alemany was appointed Bishop of Monterey.
As Bishop Alemany was returning [from Italy] to his new post in [Monterey] California, he stopped in Paris and expressed a desire to have a few Dominican sisters join him to teach the children of the forty-niners. Within three years, nine women (three American, one Mexican, and five Spanish) joined Sister Mary to form the Congregation of the Most Holy Name. In 1854, the Dominicans moved to Benicia.
History of Dominican University
Conchita, or Sister Dominica, was the lone Mexican sister in that congregation, she lies in a graveyard in Benicia, and someone brought dirt from Rezanov's grave so they could share the same earth as they eternally slept. California's saddest love story of unrequited love fired the imagination of Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky who wrote Juno & Avos, it inspired Bret Harte who wrote of
"the love at ne'er grows old," and Gertrude Atherton wrote a novel about the love affair. It was mentioned in many histories of California, including the works of Hubert Bancroft, and an 1885 history by Theodore Hittell. —SF Gate

We all slept in shocking random configurations in the old St. Thomas dormitories. There was a covered walkway that connected the dorms. Like stepping back in time. The buildings stank of old linseed oil, the contractors must've already been working on restoring the buildings during 1989. Someone wrote on Facebook that the convent fire began on the top floor, from an unattended air blow torch (used to blister paint). The painting contractor got the job because of his sister, who was a nun. No one was injured. Some of the Aubusson rugs, antique furniture and fine art was salvaged. But much more was lost in the fire.

So sad that the Mother House burned down the following July. We were planning on having our next annual statewide conference there in 1990, and we had no place to go. The Ann Hathaway cottage was far too small. I don't remember where we wound up holding our conference. I don't think Walker Creek was a conference center yet.

I had a relative at Dominican. Yes, a Dominican nun. She eventually became Mother Superior—but not there (I think). She died recently, at the age of 97. I don't recall her spiritual name but she was my grandfather's sister, Anna Reilly. She left the order, went back to Ireland, and then claimed several Irish holdings that should've come to our family. Not a very nice woman in the end. 

Several of my mother's cousins and relations either taught at, or attended Dominican during the early 1960s. Many teachers I knew got their teaching credentials at Dominican, it was the first college in California to grant BA degrees to women. It wasn't even coeducational until 1971.

In 1854, the Dominicans moved from Monterey to Benicia (following the state capitols, as it were). An Irish woman, Mother Louis O'Donnell (1887-1929) was responsible for moving the school, and novitiate from Benicia to San Rafael in 1889. Conchita, or Sister Dominica did not make that final journey from Benicia but she was there in the Mother House, in spirit. Irish women (Mother Jones) were instrumental in establishing public schools across America. During WWI, the convent school expanded to include the purchase of Meadowlands, the summer home of the illustrious de Young family, as well as holdings of the Buck family.

My cousin got her BA ca. 2010 from Dominican so we got to see lots of old building interiors, not all of it was destroyed, just the mothership. The Mother House was like a big ornate wedding cake to God and the sky. Sadly it's not the first Victorian that's succumbed to careless contractors with blow torches. Helluva birthday party, burning down the house like that. 

And only now, 25 years later, am I able to write about it. 

I attended my cousin's alumni reception in June 2015,
and who did they feature in their newsletter? Me

Thank you for attending the Pathways/ADC Alumni Gathering,
and a special thanks to our Steering Committee!

We enjoyed connecting with you and hearing your stories.
Here are some responses to the question
"What word describes your Dominican Experience?"
Engrossing, Enriching, Self-Fulfilling & Spiritual,
Encompassing, Rich, As wonderful as having my 33 year old son!

Click here to join the Pathways/ADC LinkedIn Group.
We hope to see you at our upcoming alumni events.
Questions? Please contact Claire Neenan
at (415) 482-1948 or

After I'd posted this blog post, Jason Lewis of Marin Nostalgia posted a photo of the fire. There are lots more photos there. He's looking for Marin stories, so if you have some, leave them on his Facebook page. His Dominican Marin Nostalgia link now leads back to this post with a quote from me from this blog post! Love the circular filing aspect. Thanks, Jason.

Teddy Robertson has a blog post on her days at Dominican at The tribe of sunny childhood 
She used my blog as a reference, and I found it when I was hunting down word thieves who had nicked bits of my blogs... Teddy wrote that the Dominican sisters no longer teach, that's not true. Many of my cousin's favorite teachers were nuns. Lay people are also now included in the staff.

My research notes: As usual, this began as a tiny Lost Marin Facebook post that grew and grew. I never think a Facebook post will morph into a blog, and I also never think to save the first simple iteration. Only after extensive revision, once I have a vested interest in it. The original post went something like this:
I had a relative at Dominican. why yes she was a Dominican nun. She eventually became Mother Superior—but not there (I thnk). She died recently, at the age of 97I don't recall her nun's name but she was my grandfather's sister, Anna Reilly. Hey Barbara Dillon Reilly! In the summer of 1989 we had a big international California Poets in the Schools conference in the Mother House. There was early California art on the walls, and incredible rugs everywhere. I gave a presentation there on my travels to the USSR. We sat on the verandah and told ghost stories. The building was then a hundred years old. We slept in the old St. Thomas? dormitories. Pretty cool. So sad that it burned down soon afterwards. We were planning on having our next annual statewide conference there in 1990, but it burned down and we had no place to go. My cousin got her BA ca. 2010 from Dominican so we got to see lots of old building interiors, not all of it was destroyed, just the mothership. It was like a big ornate wedding cake to God. Sadly it's not the first Victorian that's succumbed to careless contractors with blow torches
here's the Facebook link to the post.
BACKSTORY: I was able to glean this from an online newspaper search—the OCR was loaded with typos and stray articles. The information, so hard to glean, is too good to pass up, so I'm posting it here, in my notes. And besides, Conchita figures heavily into my USSR writings. I would've given my eye teeth to find this article during 1990, as it was damned hard to come by, and I found out about it accidentally when the Leningrad Rok Opera came to Fort Ross to sing Juno & Avos. That's where I met pop singer Valerie (Valera) Stupachenko standing in line for dinner at the fort, we bonded over borscht and salmon. He was part of the group that got stranded on the research vessel, the Akademik Shirshov, during the putscht. Then I later ran off to live with him in Leningrad. Wild times.

According to an article in the Daily Independent Journal, the Dominican Sisters sent two nuns to take charge of St. Vincent's Orphanage in 1868. When my grandmother's house in Forest Knolls was remodeled during the 1950s, all the windows came from that orphanage. The connections run deep. 

Daily Independent Journal, Page 62,  March 25, 1961
San Rafael, California Dominican Sisters Brought College To Marin 
Donvent and gardens—This building was the first one to be erected on the Dominican campus in i889. Solid redwood was used in the building that is when the Marin Convent was rimmed by a wide hedge and wooden gates. Later metal gates replaced the original.Today both the gates and hedge are gone. 

Twenty-one years after the Dominican Sisters sent two nuns to take charge of St. Vincent's Orphanage in 1868. the mother provincial received permission to move the order's mother house from Benicia to San Rafael. Since then the Dominican Sisters have developed a small girls’ school into one of the outstanding woman's educational centers in the West. 

The sisters arrived in California in 1850, part of a small band who had crossed the Atlantic from Paris to New York by schooner and the Isthmus of Panama on muleback reaching Monterey where they opened a school and novitiate named Santa Catalina. The following year the order received its first postulant. Concepción Arguello, daughter of Don Jose Arguello. once governor of Alia California and later of Baja California. 

Concepcion was born in 1791 at the San Francisco Presidio where her father was comrnandante. When still a very young girl, Concepcion met Count Nicolai Rezanov, chamberlain and personal representative of the Czar of Russia, Rezanov tiad traveled to California on a diplomatic mission in the early part of the 19th century. The Russian nobleman fell deeply in love with the dark-eyed California girl and asked her to become his wife. 

THE ENGAGEMENT was announced and Rezanov left for Russia to make his report before returning to California to claim his bride. But Rezanov never came back. Many years later, long after Concepcion herself was dead it was learned the Russian nobleman's ship might have been lost at sea. 

Concepcion became interested in caring for the poor and sick and when the Dominican Sisters arrived in Monterey she asked to be admitted to the order. She was accepted the following year and took the name Sister Mary Dominica. 

The Domincan Sisters moved their school and novitiate to Benicia 150 miles north to the Carquinez Straits in 1854. Benicia was the state capital. Daughters of California families were sent to complete their education at St. Catherine’s in Benicia until 1889 when the school was moved to Marin.

 In 1862. the Sisters opened a school in San Francisco. St. Rose of Lima that today is a junior and high school at Pine and Pierce Streets, and in 1870 another school, St. Vincent's in Vallejo that is still operating. 

WHEN THE CAPITAL was moved to Sacramento, Benicia fell into de- cline. and the mother house of St. Catherine's was beginning *o worry about survival. The Sisters received a loan to start in San Rafael. Land was purchased from William T. Coleman. Coleman donated half the parcel valued at $20.000. 

In 1901 Dominican became accredited to the University of California and 14 years later Dominican Junior College conferred its first bachelor of arts certificate. In 1920 with the aid of the University of California. Dominican became a fully accredited four-year college. 

IN 1924, the college was empowered by the State Board of Education to grant certificates for teaching in the public high schools and grade schools of California, and two years later Dominican was placed on the approved list of the Assn. of American Universities. 

Today the college is a member of the Western College Assn. The college has promoted a number of firsts over the years including founding of the Marin Branch of the American Assn. of University Women in 1931. In 1932, Dominican was made the Pacific Coast branch of the Catholic University of America. To celebrate the Dominican Sisters centennial in California in 1850 the college initiated a graduate schooL

(Dominican then)

Dominican Convent 
Marin County Free Library
SF Gate

(Dominican now)
Dominican Sisters House of Formation in San Rafael Becomes the First LEED-Certified Convent in the US The convent was rebuilt in 2005, utilizing modern environmental features.
Russian Rock Opera? Epic Love Story Hits Bay Area