Author Archives: Stephany

More Thoughts on Lá Bealtaine

We know very little about Lá Bealtaine of antiquity. A lot of conjecture is thrown about about the meaning of the name which I am not going to get into other than to share this entry from Cormac’s Glossary written in the 10th century.

Now granted at the time he wrote about it, he was still speaking of practices from centuries before him, but this is the oldest written documentation we have of what went on at Lá Bealtaine. Some 925 years later, Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháun wrote of watching this same event minus the Druids in Callan, Co. Kilkenny.

It is believed that the largest of these gatherings was held at Uisneach where there is a carved rock flat called Ail na Mireann or the Catstone which is the burial place of Ireland’s namesake Ériu according to ancient mythology. It is the very center of Ireland. From myths, we gather that people from the provinces of Connacht, Leinster, Munster, Mide (Meath) and Ulster gathered here and lit the Beltaine bonfire. The word bonfire literally means bone fire and has always held the implication of human or animal sacrifice.

We do know that because of its ancient origins as a fire festival, keeping the fire in your hearth going throughout the night later became an important aspect of the pisreóga surrounding the day.

Some rituals like the one above were passed down from the ancients, while others developed as the society evolved. For example, the custom of putting the livestock out to the summer pastures was undoubtedly an older tradition started by pastoral communities which persisted for quite some time in Gaelic areas.

Later, agricultural practices became integrated into the celebration. May Day became the day when rents were due to landlords and people were hired to work the fields for the season- gatherings became part festival and part employment fair which speaks to May Day’s modern association with the working class. Traditional fare started to include food made from grains such as making bannocks and rolling them down the hill to see if they broke or eating a stirabout made of corn meal and milk.

Of course, there was also divination about weather and plants. Rain on May day meant good crops for the year. A síol cuaiché was a seed that was not in the ground on May Day and not likely to mature.[1]

We can surmise that some of the pisreóga are remaining fragments of indigenous belief in nature spirits I collectively call the Fae. Whether they were “evil” or not was a matter of perspective. The English did their best to demonize the ancestral spirits and indigenous spirits of the land. I refuse to participate in perpetuating that.

Even the kindest of the wee folk could be unseelie  tricksters especially if people did not flatter and appease them, so sometimes you had to ward them off to keep them from doing things like stealing milk or poisoning the well. But those sorts of things were done every day—many women put embers under the churn and ashes on the eggs and crosses on their cows and hung plants in the byres, all of the time.

So, clearly there was more to the celebration. Some of it seems to hinge on the idea that on the at the quarters you were more likely to have otherworldly visitors. I don’t think that was  unique to Samhain, and I do wonder if people just gave up on being able to keep them away these nights?

It was considered bad form to lock your door on that evening, and sometimes people would leave out food and jugs of milk for the wandering spirits of the dead because “on May Day long ago the Dead would come back and visit their friends.”[2] Why would you leave food out for someone and the door unlocked if you didn’t want them to come in?

There are many stories of wandering fairies in the Schools’ Collection, also. This is one of my favorites:

There are many old sayings about May day. In olden times the people used to have the house very neat and tidy because on that night the fairies used to go from house to house dancing and playing music. It was not right to milk cows on that day.

There was once an old woman and she milked all her neighbour’s cows on May day and when her neighbours went to milk their cows they could not get any milk. They used to put a coal under the churn on May Day to have plenty of butter. The first to skim the well on May morning would have the most butter. It was not to put out ashes on May day or to clean out cabins on May day. The old people used to have everything done the evening before.

One May night as the fairies were going about they went in to John Machen’s house. They put down a fine fire and they began dancing and playing music and shouting. At last they went up stairs and they began shouting and they wakened John Machen. When John got up in the morning he saw the fire down and said that the fairies must play wondours…[3]

So,  again why would you clean your house for company you had effective warded off?  Why leave your cows unmilked for the little kindred, unless by doing so you were assuring they would be guid neighbors and let your cows be the rest of the year?   And since when are the Fae afraid of flowers, especially cowslips?

The Cowslip Fairy in a particularly Seelie state.


It makes far more sense that these things were offerings of reciprocity,  rather than wards.

People would gather the yellow flowers and decorate their homes, byres, and animals. They would spill milk across their doorways to please the Fae so they didn’t make too much mischief in their homes that night. For example they would rub the nectar from crushed cowslips was smeared all over the cow’s udders to distract the Fae from the milk.

In later years, some more pious folks said the flowers were picked in honor of our Lady or of the Saints and they would decorate a little alter with the flowers and crosses. (Danaher, 1988, 89) They certainly weren’t trying to ward her off.

Other customs have to do with the water and wells as undoubtedly by this time they had all thawed and began to run. It was good luck to be the first to draw water from the well. You could also do mischief yourself if you were so inclined. If you threw the water in the direction of a certain neighbor’s house, it would bring the family bad luck.[4]  If you went out early in the morning and washed your face with the dew should be healthy the whole year long.[5]

Then we come to the custom of the May-bushes and May-poles.

The first clootie hung at Faoi.

The modern streamlined version of the story is that Irish people cut hawthorn branches and place them outside their home to be decorated with bits of bright ribbon called clooties to scare away evil spirits, which is a fairly horrifying and problematic conclusion.

1. E.E.Evans wrote in Irish Folkways that this was only a practice in areas with strong English influence and that the Irish never fully adopted it, preferring instead to pour a bit of milk at the root of the fairy thorn where it stood. It’s possible that the May-bush custom is better more documented, but that’s because people with English backgrounds were probably more educated.  Evans quotes an newspaper article from the Leinster Journal written in 1768 which laments that “the hedges and fences, in the outlets of our city are stripped of full-grown hawthorns, whose late blooming pride and fragrancy is now miserably dying away on dunghills before cabin doors, by way of May-bushes.”

2. Even in areas where the practice was common, people from other communities would sometimes sneak into town and steal the May Bushes to steal the town’s luck which makes no sense if they were used to “ward off” things that go bump in the night.

Secondly, customs were never, ever uniformly “Irish.” The provinces had, and still have, unique cultural practices. Depending on what province a person lived in, they might  cut branches from holly, hazel, elder, rowan or white ash. In Co. Mayo, the tradition went that if you put a rowan branch up the chimney nothing can bring the butter out of the house.

Like Evans, I would wager that if they did cut a hawthorn they were of English ancestry. It was usually considered a fair bit of bad luck in most Irish communities to harm  the fairythorn such as — huath (whitethorn, hawthorn) or blackthorn.

In some  communities they  would plant hawthorn near their wells and people would hang clooties on this tree, although based on some records I’ve seen I’d say in Ireland, this was an adopted practice.

There are still some places in Ireland, Scotland, and Cornwall where these community hawthorns can be found and people still decorate them with clooties to ask blessings from their saints, gods or the Fae depending on their beliefs.

(Honestly, its kind of like giving Dobby a sock, so he has your back later.  Given the amount of random clothing found on Clootie trees in the UK, I wonder if Rowling had that in mind when she wrote that part?)

This is just something I threw together quickly from some notes. Someday,  I promise that this discussion  will take up a whole chapter in a nice long book that at least two of you will want to read.

I want to end by responding to something that made me crabby, today. In some places, you may read of May Day gatherings held at crossroads near a town and see it given some vague esoteric meaning. These types of crossroads gatherings were a result of political persecution.

During the Cromwell years, when that butcher popularized the phrase “To Hell or to Connacht” as he pushed the Gaels into the bogs, Catholic churches were burned; parish records destroyed, local gatherings were outlawed, and the Gaelic culture was in hiding for centuries. The painting below by Martin Driscoll illustrates crossroad dancing, one of the practices that developed in defiance of this oppression and which continued in some places into the early twentieth century.

One account of such events held in Co. Longford tells that:

“At a lonesome spot on the road there would be at least 300. Ally Dunne, and old woman, would be going around selling whiskey at 2d a naggin. There would be men as pickets on the road looking out for the R.I.C. so that Ally wouldn’t be caught selling the whiskey. If the R.I.C. came, the dance would be scattered.”[6]

You might wonder why I think this is important? It is just one small example of the way atrocities of the colonizers were swept under the rug by historians writing things like “Look at the silly peasants with their superstitions gathering in the crossroads” rather than acknowledging the horrors of colonization that drove away from their homes and sacred places.

I think that is important to understand about on May Day of all days.

[1] The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0108, Page 169
[2] The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0096, Page 645
[3] The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0096, Page 677
[4] The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0300, Page 211
[5] The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0152, Page 412
[6] Eileen Brennan, The Story of Irish Dance. (Landham:  Roberts Rineheart Publishers.1999), 118.

Desperately Seeking Work Trade Apprentice

Part of growing wiser is knowing when you are in over your head, right?

I have too much going on because I am trying to do all. the. things.  I have the clients, and the writing, and the teaching, and the garden.

Oh my gourd,  the garden.

As you can see, things are kind of out-of-control.

I have have been trying to get caught up around here, but I can’t quite manage.  I’ve tried to make some connections with local growers about growing more medicinal herbs, but its just not happening. So, instead of being able to cut back, I am going to have to move more in that direction myself and be my own supplier.

So  I need help in the form of a work-trade apprentice.  This would be a perfect for someone who wants to learn about herbs, but can’t afford classes.  This will be a hands on learning situation. We will be working with the plants daily and probably getting dirty and full of burrs.  You will learn identification, gardening, ethical harvesting, permaculture techniques, making preparations for clients and all the paperwork that requires. Yes, paperwork.

I also would like to find  an office assistant who is willing to barter some work on my book project and social media,  but that will  until fall.

I am not sure that you have to be local, we can probably figure something out for the right person who wants to trade more time for room-and-board.  You don’t have to know how to do any gardening, but it would be cool if you were handy with power tools and you have to be physically able.


Besides the free educational experience, you ill have access to many medicinal herbs I have growing and be able to harvest some for your own use. I will probably have some garden produce for you, too.

You will have access to my still room and equipment.

On occasion I travel for work and I can offer you  free tickets to some of the conferences I teach at in exchange for traveling with me and helping out with driving.

If everything works out over the summer, we can continue in the fall and I will enroll you in my practitioner’s intensive for work-trade.

If you have time to commit to the pursuit, let me know.

Wild Herb Custards

Savory custards are not as well known as their sweet counterparts these days,  but it is a dish that was commonly prepared historically in Europe and Asia.

I often make them for our first day of spring meal, as this is the time of year when the stores from the last harvest were dwindling and many were getting by on cheese, fresh dairy and eggs from the livestock that started producing in the spring, and whatever wild greens were popping up. It just makes sense that this is probably the time of year when they were made frequently as they would have been running low on flour to make tarts and pies.

I’ve seen this recipe made most often with wild leeks or wild onions, but I used chives because that’s all I have growing right now and I am more of a gardener than a forager.  You can really chop up any wild greens you have a plentiful amount of now to throw on top.

Chances are if you see this recipe on a site from the UK the proportion of milk and cream will be different.  The dairy products we get here in the US have a lower milkfat content, so I have fiddled with the recipe to get a good texture.

Wild Herb Custards

¾ cup whole milk
1 ¼ cup heavy whipping cream
4 large eggs
1 cup finely grated white cheddar cheese
5 Tbsp. finely chopped herbs

Preheat your oven to 300 degrees. Mix the first four ingredients, well.  Place your custard cups in a glass baking dish.  Fill the dish with boiling water until it comes up two-thirds of the way on the custard cups.  Fill the cups 2/3 full of the mixture from above and then sprinkle the chopped herbs on top.  Cover the cups with a piece of parchment paper and place them in the oven. The custards need to  cook for 30-45 minutes depending on the size of your custard cups.

When they are done, the mixture will have set up and a tester inserted in the middle should come out clean.

Irish American Aspects of St. Patrick’s Day

I have a historical look at the Shamrock written for  the Herbal Academy’s Herbarium. .  Look for that soon!


I was talking to a friend last night about the impending Irish celebrations around town and we got to talking (as I do about when I drink whiskey) about exploring the Irish American culture separately from Irish culture.  They are, after all, two different groups. They share a history up to a point, but you got to stay and we had to leave. At that point, our cultures diverged.

It sometimes seems that the descendants of the first wave of Irish nationalists who were forced from Ireland before An Gorta Mór are particularly well indoctrinated as to their heritage. There are history books that cover the Irish American experience before 1845 that speak to this. I have ancestors from both eras and I tend to agree.

It only makes sense that those Irish who were forcibly removed from a land they held dear would fiercely and stubbornly cling  to traditions that quite understandably seem to have waned in Ireland, as nationalism took an ugly turn in the form of car bombs and terrorism.

I think after  discussing it with friends and reading a few good books on the subject I’ve decided that Irish Americans do tend towards being “more Irish than the Irish themselves” sometimes to the point of overkill.

Still, I believe the Irish American culture has the right to expression. We don’t have to do everything the way the Irish do, because we aren’t Irish.

Unfortunately, sometimes that is no more understood by an Irish born person than it is by the millions of nitwits that flock to the bars for green beer and Irish Car Bombs on St. Patrick’s Day.  (May I digress for a moment to offer a sincere “to hell with you” to the person who named that drink.)

I think that the biggest mistake some people who write about these things make, is trying to link everything we do now with some practice from Ireland. As much as I love researching about folk healing and making traditional foods,  some things are uniquely ours and that’s okay, too.

So with that in mind, I’d like to take a moment to discuss some of the Irish American traditions surrounding St. Patrick’s Day.

Wearing Green Clothing

Wearing green on March 17th, is an Irish American thing.   Green is not the national color of Ireland, even today.  It’s is a shade of blue (azure) that Douglas Hyde called “St. Patrick’s Blue” when they started using the presidential standard at the end of his presidency.

The Irish Volunteers took the shamrock as their emblem in 1777, and when the United Irishmen splintered off from that group they took the emblem and color, with them.

Wearing green or a shamrock in the “caubeen” (hat) was a symbol of supporting that group and considered a crime.  Some young nationalists were hanged while others were exiled to penal colonies in America and Australia.

“The Wearing of the Green” is a song that dates to a time shortly after an uprising led by the United Irishmen in 1798, was stomped out. Like a lot of Irish songs that came with the emigrants, there are many versions but this version is distributed by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania as a resource for teachers.  I would argue that this is an Irish American folk song as opposed to an Irish folk song.

“The Wearing of the Green”

Farewell! for I must leave thee, my own, my native shore,
And doomed in foreign lands to dwell, may never see thee more:
For laws, our tyrant laws, have said that seas must roll between
Old Erin and her faithful sons, that loved to wear the green.

Oh! we love to wear the green, Oh! how we love the green,
On native land we cannot stand for wearing of the green,
Yet wheresoe’er the exile lives, tho’ oceans roll between,
Thy faithful sons will fondly sing “The wearing of the green.”

My father loved his country, and sleeps within her breast,
While I that would have died for her, may never be so blest;
Those tears my mother shed for me, how bitter they’d have been
If I had proved a traitor to “The wearing of the green.”

There were some that wore the green, who did betray the green,
Our native land we cannot stand thro’ traitor to the green,
Yet whatsoe’er our fate may be, when oceans roll between,
Her faithful sons will ever sing “The wearing of the green.”

My own, my native Island, where’er I chance to roam,
Thy lonely hills shall ever be my own beloved home;
And brighter days shall surely come than those that we have seen,
When Erin’s sons may gladly sing, “The wearing of the green.”

For we love to wear the Green, O, how we love the Green!
Our native land we cannot stand for wearing of the Green!
But brighter days must surely come than those that we have seen,
When all her sons may proudly sing, “The wearing of the Green.”

It is songs like this that led to Irish Americans wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day here in the US. If you talk to an older native of Ireland chances are they have never seen it done, before recent years.

Boiled Dinners

For Irish Americans, corned beef and cabbage is the traditional food of the day.  Corned beef is not even just a little bit Irish.  In Ireland, they use “rashers” or back bacon  (it’s a type of bacon that’s even a little meatier than Canadian bacon)  to make a boiled dinner.   We can’t get back bacon here in the US and corned beef probably seemed as good a substitute as any.

There was a precedent of cooking meat in water for the feast, though.  Some historians say that this custom started due to a legend about St. Patrick’s turning meat into fishes, by putting it in water. In the 12th century Bishop Jocelin wrote:

“Many of the Irish, wrongfully understanding this miracle, are wont, on Saint Patrick’s Day, which always falls in the time of Lent, to plunge flesh-meats into water, when plunged in to take out, when taken out to dress, when dressed to eat, and call them fishes of Saint Patrick. But hereby every religious man will learn to restrain his appetite, and not to eat meat at forbidden seasons, little regarding what ignorant and foolish men are wont to do.”[1]

It doesn’t seem as though his advice was heeded as is evidenced by the continued preparation of boiled dinners or stews for the St. Patrick’s Day feast.

Interestingly enough there was just a report released by the Catholic News Service  about some US dioceses handing out a St. Patrick’s Day dispensation for eating  corned beef this year despite it falling on a Friday.


Obviously, given the date on some of these references, the practice of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day is an ancient practice.   But like many feast days in Ireland, the day started with mass, proceeded to dinner and probably ended up in a public house with chums.

It wasn’t the public outcry that we Americans seemed to need to make of it.   We tend to do that, you know.  Look at how we turned what was once social dancing into a competitive sport.

St. Patrick’s Day was popularized in the US as a national day of publicly and proudly celebrating your Irish heritage, despite the discrimination the Irish faced when they arrived in the US.  That was probably due to the fact that they were able to — having escaped the tyranny of the English and come to the land of the free.

Parades are an extension of this “Kiss My Irish Ass” philosophy and definitely an Irish American invention. The first St Patrick’s Day parade was held by the Boston Charitable Irish Society, 1737. [2]  The first parade on Irish soil happened in 1975, as their celebration of the day became more public in order to keep up with ours.  It’s kind of cute that I found a few Irish blogs that claimed the parades as being the “one” Irish practice.

Why is drinking associated with St. Patrick’s Day?

I know the Irish would like to blame this on the Americans, but this is an Irish thing. They were being called out on it long before they came to America. While it certainly was not necessary to drink on St. Patrick’s Day, the Lenten prohibition against drinking was lifted for the day and drinking in honor of St. Patrick was allowed. Consequently, a lot of people lifted several pots to St. Patrick on the day.  They even had a name for them “pota Pádraig.”

They loved their St. Patrick’s Day tradition so much that in 1727 the author of the first herbal published in Dublin wrote of white meadow clover:

“This Plant is worn by the People in their Hats upon the 17. Day of March yearly, (which is called St. Patrick’s Day.)…However that be, when they wet their Seamar-oge, they often commit  Exceſs in Liquor, which is not a right keeping of a Day to the Lord; Error generally leading to Debauchery.”[3]

The word “wet” is not a misprint here. It refers to a tradition called “wetting the shamrock.”  At the end of your stay at the pub (often after far more than one whiskey) you drop your shamrock in your whiskey. You then raise the drink in a toast to the health of those gathered. After the toast, you take the shamrock out of the drink and toss it over your left shoulder.  This is a tradition my people brought over with them.

From what I understand people in Ireland rarely do this any longer, or maybe it’s a regional thing?  I remember the first time I spent St. Paddy’s Day with an Irish native many years ago, I excitedly did this thinking that he’d want to join in.

He looked at me like I was off my nut. That’s when I realized that no matter how Irish I think I am, I will always be  Irish American.

That’s also when  I began to relax  accept the customs fondly because they are part of my family’s American experience and no less valid because they aren’t “authentic” Irish traditions.


Further reading:

Cronin, Mike, & Adair, Daryl. (2002). The wearing of the green:  a history of St. Patrick’s day. London, UK: Routledge.

Ó Súilleabháin, Amhlaoibh. (1979). The diary of Humphrey O’Sullivan, 1827-1837  a translation of Cín lae Amhlaoibh. (de Bhaldraithe, Tomás, Trans.). Dublin, Ireland: Mercier Press.

[1] Jocelin, Bishop. (1185). The Life and Acts of Saint Patrick, by Bishop Jocelin. Retrieved from
[2] Crimmins, J. D. (1902). St. Patrick’s Day: Its Celebration in New York and Other American Places, 1737-1845 ; how the Anniversary was Observed by Representative Organizations, and the Toasts Proposed. New York, NY: J.D. Crimmens.
[3] Threlkeld, C., & Molyneux, T. (1726). Synopsis Stirpium Hibernicarum … Dublin, Ireland: S. Powell. pp. TR.