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 http://catholicsaints.info/the-life-and-acts-of-saint-patrick-by-bishop-jocelin/
[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.

Cacao Herbal Monograph

I’ve decided to be really cliché and do a Valentine’s kind of theme for my herbal post this week.  I will share this short monograph on Cacao that I wrote for Natural Herbal Living Magazine in February of 2015.  Because chocolate! ~ Stephany 

One of my fondest childhood memories is coming indoors on a cold winter day and waiting impatiently while Mom whipped up a batch of homemade hot cocoa. Our modern love affair with cocoa and chocolate go back to the days when the early Spanish and British explorers first brought it back from the New World. Although preparations and uses for the plant have changed over the centuries, the fact remains that cacao holds a special place in our culture. Few people stop to consider that what is now considered a confection was once widely used as a medicinal preparation.

 Scientific NameTheobroma cacao
Family: Malvaceae
Other Names: cacao tree, cocoa tree

Origin of Cacao
The cacao tree is native to the Amazon Basin, but its range spread north to Central America when more cultures began cultivating it. The cacao tree will only flourish in very specific climatic
conditions. It’s a tropical undergrowth plant, and it depends upon high temperatures and humidity only found near the Equator. The trees also require the presence of the Forcipomyia midge, which inhabit these ecosystems, for pollination.

Each of the roughly 12- inch (30 cm) pods growing from the trunk and main branches produce anywhere from 25 to 40 bitter-tasting seeds, or beans, which are surrounded by a white pulp. Cocoa powder and chocolate are both products that come from processing the cacao bean. The beans are processed into powder, cocoa butter, and chocolate; the pulp is harvested for other uses.

You can see how these would be hard to break.

The pods will not open without some sort of mechanical assistance from animals or humans. Spider monkeys,who use the pods as a food source, earned the reputation as the “bringers of cacao” due to their efficient dispersal of the seeds.[1]

The Science

There are a lot of claims about cacao’s superfood status, and even more traditional and modern
suggested uses. I’ve included below a brief summary of what has been investigated through scientific methods.

Cacao contains the xanthines theobromine and caffeine. It also contains the fatty acids stearic
acid and oleic acid. Recent scientific research into the phenol content of chocolate has identified thousands of various polyphenols in chocolate including the flavonoid quercetin and the flavonols epicatechin and catechin.[2]

The theobromine in cacao acts as a central nervous system stimulant, working on both the cardiac and respiratory systems. Theobromine is also a diuretic, a vasodilator, and a smooth- muscle relaxant.[3] Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant and diuretic too. Unlike theobromine, it is a vasoconstrictor.[4]

It seems worth noting that these opposing actions of vasodilation and vasoconstriction could have a toning effect on the vasculature, although more research is needed to confirm this theory. The various phenolic compounds act as antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory actions, which contribute to cacao’s positive “metabolic, antihypertensive,anti-inflammatory, and anti- thrombotic effects.”[5]

In addition to these actions, chocolate has been termed a euphoric, as it has been theorized to impact serotonin and endorphin levels in the brain.[6]

Cacaos Many Uses
There is an incredibly rich history of ethnobotanical use that continues up to the present day. While today cacao is thought of as food, historically cacao has been considered ceremonial, medicinal, and nutritive.

History and Tradition
Cacao’s long history of both medicinal and ritual use began in Mesoamerica. The similarity between Aztec and Mayan use of the plant, point towards its use by a common ancestor.[7] According to both cultures, cacao was gifted to humans by the divine and was an integral part of religious rituals.







The most common preparation was a drink made from cacao powder or paste cakes mixed with water. Depending on the area, the drinks contained additional ingredients such as chili powder, vanilla, or ground maize. The drink was typically frothed by making it in a special cacao pot with a spout for blowing into it, or by quickly transferring the drink between two vessels.[8] Traditional cocoa powder preparations were considered to have antiseptic, diuretic, ecbolic (stimulating uterine contractions), emmenagogue, and parasiticidal actions.

Early Spanish explorers reported that indigenous peoples used cacao to treat angina, constipation, dental problems, dysentery, asthenia, gout, and many other diseases [9] including alopecia, burns, cough, dry lips, eyes, fever, diarrhea, listlessness, malaria, nephrosis, rheumatism, snakebite, and wounds.[10]

The use of cacao as a medicinal plant spread to Spain and Great Britain as these empires settled the Americas. In 1624, Spanish physician Santiago de Valverde Turices was the first to assign energetic qualities to both cacao powder and chocolate. He claimed that while the powder was cold, chocolate drinks were hot, dry, and suitable for cold, damp conditions.[11] Henry Stubbe was one of the first Europeans to write extensively on cacao. His text, titled The Indian Nectar; or A discourse concerning chocolate wherein the nature of the cacao-nut is examined…, was published in 1682. Axtextli, a beverage he mentioned as an aphrodisiac, was a mixture of cacao paste, maize, mecaxochitl (black pepper),and tlilxochitl (vanilla).

InThe English American published in 1648, Thomas Gage mentioned that black pepper mixed with cacao was a remedy for a “cold liver.”[12] King’s American Dispensatory recommends a mixture of cacao and milk as a restorative drink for “persons convalescing from acute diseases.” M. Grieves mentions in A Modern Herbal that in her time, cacao was given as a diuretic along with digitalis to relieve “accumulation of blood in the body resulting from cardiac failure” and as a remedy for hypertension due to the vasodilative action.

Modern Day
Although human studies of theobromine have confirmed its potential usefulness in inhibiting
coughs,[13] for the most part, the use of cacao as a medicinal has faded out of practice. It is,
however, still widely considered a dietary supplement with health- promoting qualities. There is a great deal of research available on the health benefits of adding cacao to our diets.

The phenolic compounds seem to protect against chronic diseases related to oxidative stress, one study concluding, “Several in vivo studies have provided strong support for the hypothesis that the consumption of flavanol-rich foods, such as certain cocoas and chocolates, may be associated with reduced risk for vascular disease.”[14] A study released last year has addressed the potential of cacao polyphenols in preventing “metabolic diseases and chronic inflammation associated with obesity.”[15]

Since “milk proteins inhibit absorption of flavonoids” dark chocolate may be the best way to
consume chocolate for the dietary benefits.15 Cacao may also have mental health benefits.

Ask many people, and they will tell you that they self-medicate on down days with chocolate. This practice seems to be supported by research on how eating chocolate impacts mood. Cocoa butter, which is another by-product of processing the beans, is used extensively in modern cosmetic preparations, due to its rich emollient properties, as well as in the chocolate-making process.

Using Cacao Safely
As with any food plant that is also a medicinal herb, there are some precautions to keep in mind
as you incorporate it into your daily regimen.

Side Effects
Cacao can cause allergic reactions in some people, although that is rare, and it may trigger migraines in some individuals.[16] Many of its side effects are related to the caffeine content.
As with all caffeinated beverages, moderation is key.

Contraindications and Drug Interactions
Avoid cacao if you have an allergy to any member of the Sterculiaceae family. People who suffer from kidney stones or gout may also want to avoid cacao as it increases urinary oxalate levels.[17]

There are a number of pharmaceutical drugs that interact with caffeine including clozapine, beta-adrenergic antagonists, lithium, and drugs used for testing for heart conditions. Be sure to discuss your caffeine intake with your physician before starting a new prescription. The flavanols in cacao may also interact with blood- thinning medications. (Sorry you all…gotta include the CYA disclaimers. The main thing here is to communicate with your providers about excessive consumption.  I am looking at you people who drink a pot a day!)

Use During Pregnancy and Lactation
Follow your physician’s recommendation regarding daily caffeine intake during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. In some studies, excessive caffeine in the maternal diet has resulted in colic in infants.[18]

 Dosage and Administration
There are no established dosages for cacao powder. Administration is generally in the form of a beverage or confection. Half of a 3-ounce chocolate bar contains 86 – 240 mg of theobromine and 9 – 31 mg of caffeine.[19]

[1] 1 Nisao Ogata, Arturo Gómez-Pompa, and Karl A. Taube, “The Domestication and Distribution of Theobroma cacao L. in the Neotropics,” Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao ed. Cameron L. McNeil (University Press of Florida: Gainesville, 2006), 87.

[2] 2 Chiaki Sanbongi, Naomi Osakabe, et al., “Antioxidative Polyphenols Isolated from Theobroma cacao,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 46, (1998).

[3] Lisa Ganora, Herbal Constituents, (Herbalchem Press, 2009), 155.

[4] Ibid.

[5] G. Lippi, M. Franchini, et al., “Dark chocolate: consumption for pleasure or therapy?” Journal of Thrombosis Thrombolysis 28, (2013).

[6] Gordon Parker, Isabella Parker, and Heather Brotchie, “Mood state effects of chocolate,” Journal of Affective Disorders 92 (2006).

[7] “Caroline Seawright. Life Death and Chocolate in Mesoamerica,”(archaeological essay, 2012). Full text: http://www.thekeep.org/~kunoichi/kunoichi/themestream/ARC2ZT, pp. 13.

[8] Hillary Christopher, “Cacao’s Relationship with MesoamericanSociety.” Spectrum 3, (2012).

[9] Donatella Lippi, “Chocolate and medicine: Dangerous liaisons?”Nutrition 25, (2009).

[10] 10 “Chocolate,” National Standard Food, Herbs and Supplements Database (2014).

[11] Lippi, “Dangerous liasons.”

[12] Gage, Thomas. The English American. London, England: Printed by A. Clark, and are to be sold by J. Martyn, Robert Horn and Walter Kettilby, (1677). pp. 241.

[13] OS Usmani, MG Belvisi, et al., “Theobromine inhibits sensory nerve activation and cough.” The Journal of the Federation of American Studies for Experimental Biology 19 (2005).

[14] Carl Keen, Roberta Holt, “Cocoa Antioxidants and cardiovascular health,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 81, (2005).

[15] Faisal Ali, Amin Ismail, and Sander Kersten. “Molecular mechanisms underlying the potention antiobesity-related diseases effect of cocoa polyphenols Molecular Nutrition Food Research 00 (2013).

[16] Leira, R. and Rodriguez, R. [Diet and migraine]. Rev Neurol. 1996;24(129):534-538.

[17] Massey, L. K., Roman-Smith, H., and Sutton, R. A. Effect of dietary oxalate and calcium on urinary oxalate and risk of formation of calcium oxalate kidney stones. J Am.Diet.Assoc. 1993;93(8):901-906.

[18]Evans, R. W., Fergusson, D. M., Allardyce, R. A., and Taylor, B. Maternal diet and infantile colic in breast-fed infants. Lancet 6-20-1981;1(8234):1340-1342

[19] Mumford GK, Evans SM, Kaminski BJ, et al. Discriminative stimulus and subjective effects of theobromine and caffeine in humans. Psychopharmacology (Berl) . 1994;115(1-2):1-8.

The Truth of the Thing

A student asked me to talk a little about what I mean when I talk about creative nonfiction writers. She might be getting more than she bargained for, but I thought I would throw it up here in case someone else was wondering.  I promise I am going to post some practical stuff this month, too…Stephany

I bet you instantly recognize this as a Celtic Cross, right?  Except that its Anglo Saxon at St Paul’s Church in Cumbria, England. Celts did not have a patent on knotwork.

There is a lot of fanciful recreation out there and it’s hard not to fall for it.  Hell, my bachelor’s thesis has errors because of it.  I kind of live in dread fear of crossing over and talking to my great-grandmother like I know all the things, only to have her say “Jesus, Joseph, Mary, child, what the devil are you on about?” and hand me an ear of corn to shuck.

I could probably give hundreds of examples.   Carmichael’s work compiling the charms of the Highlands absolutely employed some creative writing.  Then people muck around with them more by “paganizing” them further and soon they are being cited in academic papers as the original version and no one knows the difference. Luckily there are less creative sources and a good professor will call you on bullshit.  Thanks, Eva.[1]

So, here’s my first tip, if something says it is “adapted from” any source that means the author of the paper has changed the words to suit their own beliefs or worse yet prove an erroneous thesis—thus, creative nonfiction. (This does not pertain to recipes.)

Even some of our beloved authors of the Celtic Twilight were prone to “throwing in a little fancy”. It seemed to sell books.   (A professor used this phrase a lot.  It’s from a Melville quote and I use both : “ It will be a strange sort of a book, tho’, I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho’ you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree; . . . to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy. . . . Yet I mean to give the truth of the thing, spite of this.”)

For example, Lady Wilde wrote that a common saying in Ireland was “The blessing of Bel and the blessing of Samhain be with you,’ that is, of the sun and of the moon.”  Native Irish speakers of the day quickly scoffed at the idea, Douglas Hyde retorting,

“It would be interesting to know the locality where so curious a Pagan custom is still practised, for I confess that though I have spoken Irish in every county where it is still spoken, I have never been, nor do I expect to be, so saluted.”[2]   Hyde offers up this poem as likely being the source of her bit of fancy.

Patrick Sarsfield, a man with God are you are,
Blessed the country that you walk upon,
Blessing of sun and shining moon on you,
Since from William you took the day with you.
Och, och hone.

It’s funny to read Hyde’s books of stories because the discussions in his footnotes remind me of the discussions held on my Irish language forum today.   Before you think him perhaps sexist, you should know that he worked frequently with Lady Gregory and wasn’t entirely critical of Lady Wilde’s work.  He just disliked that she never named her sources and was not a native speaker, so unlike Lady Gregory she had to work entirely through translators.  He was equally harsh concerning American Jeremiah Curtin’s appalling handle on the language.  I regret not finding much of Hyde’s  work until after I wrote my thesis.

The fancy is, of course,  quite appealing to the public.   Frazer shared quite unique explanations of his observations, leaving Edmund Leach a noted anthropologist of the 20th century to criticize Frazer’s assumption that he and other anthropologists “possess some kind of golden key whereby they can blandly assert that a particular piece of stereotyped human behaviour ‘stands for’ or ‘is a symbol of’ this, that, or the other thing.”[3] At least Frazer tried to be objective.  Graves wrote poetic myths and convinced people it was anthropology.

So, there’s another thing to look for.  If someone tries to tell you exactly what something meant, much it’s pretty conjecture on their part. As far as Frazer goes, you can generally accept the observation as fact, just ignore his interpretation. Don’t even bother reading Graves.

The poet modern author Irish linguists like to pick on most for “murdering the Irish language” is John O’Donahue. Take the word tenalach which O’Donahue defined as “a relationship one has with the land, air and water, a deep connection that allows one to literally hear the Earth sing.”

A linguist friend of mine had a lot to say about that, “Tenalach {sic} which would be properly spelled tenlach was a variant spelling for the word tellach[4] the Old Irish word for a fireplace or “those who shared a fireplace” so a family.” There are variations of the word in Old and Middle Irish which have a variety of meanings related to fire such as tendálach[5] which translates to fiery.

I suppose a bit of creative license is to be expected, but think what is lost by supplanting the true meaning of the word in this case. I love that there’s a word for those who share a hearth, because I tend to attract stray people.

And then there is his use of the word anamchara.  Despite the words literal translation, the word originally applied to members of the clergy.  Your anamchara was your confessor, offered spiritual advice and read you last rites.  O’Donahue’s claims that this was an extension of a Druidic tradition of priests advising kings kind of falls apart when you understand that at first this was only a thing amongst members of the clergy.  It was common practice in the church. Eventually everyone wanted one, because an anamchara could reduce the penance demanded of people for personal sin, by church doctrine.[6]

“In Ireland, everybody [this was written in the early 1960’s, he means every man] had an anamchara, a pater confessarius. It was a proverb: colann cen ceann, duine cen anamcharaid, a man without an anamchara is like a headless body’. Kings and princes, nobles and commoners, prelates and monks, all had their ‘soul-friends.”[7]

Power distribution in these relationships was not equal.  The anamchara was looking out for the well-being of the eternal souls in his charge and had little concern for their embodied selves’ physical comfort. The anamchara often demanded harsh sacrifice or toil from those they agreed to serve in this role.  One king had to fast for forty days and forty nights on nothing but bread and water.  Frequently, the sadistic priests refused to let their charges have intercourse with their wives and live otherwise ascetic lives.

Not to go off on a weird tangent here but this was kind of significant.  Because the transition to Christianity went fairly smoothly in Ireland, they didn’t have any actual martyrs.  So the holy men got into some freaky stuff.   White martyrs were ascetics and  hermits and green martyrs were in to self-flagellation and penance.

So, please try to understand that when you are talking about your lovely Druidic friendship rite, anamchara, I am imagining Bishop Powertrip getting his jollies by making his penitent little puppets dance.  It detracts from my enjoyment of the word.

As Irish is a living, evolving language Donahue’s “soul friend” definition has been adopted, by enough people to make it perfectly valid as a modern definition. I have plenty of respect for O’Donahue as a poet and a visionary who wanted to make the world a better place, just don’t call him a historian and we get along just fine.

It is the same thing with the word “herbalist.” It’s meaning has clearly evolved over the years, but once I learned its etymology, the word started to remind me of elitist douchebags like Gerard who got the title because he wrote an herbal (in which he advocated beating women), so I stopped using the word to describe myself.  I think I mentioned the other day that I have a problem with authority.

That’s my final tell, if someone is using a word that you can’t find in an dictionary or defining it in some odd way, there is a strong chance that you are reading some creative nonfiction. Here are some online sources: Irish, Irish,  Scottish, Cornish

I am going to take just a minute to share with you what I find to be “the truth of the thing.”

I  have a problem with making shit up while you are invoking the ancestors.  The whole idea of a uniform “Celtic” identity has been pretty much set aside we started mapping the human genome.  My Irish and Scottish ancestors share just as much genetics with Spanish and Russian ancestors as they do the Keltoi.    So I think it is time for us to give up this idea that only Druid and Celtic customs influenced ancient Ireland. I probably get more of those genetics from my Cornish ancestors.

I also contend that it is poor form for people to appropriate Christian charms, “adapt” them and call them their own.  Maybe that’s because I have a good number of my kin still in the Church and I choose to respect their beliefs.  More importantly that Gaelic Christianity is part of my heritage, too. I am tired of being expected to feel badly about it.

I love the mishmash of beliefs represented in the charms as they were collected by Mackenzie, because it a representation of the beliefs of my ancestors at that time.  That is sacred to me and I don’t appreciate it being “adapted”.

Also, its never as good.  It doesn’t ring true in that part of you where you store the memory of the ancestors. It’s one of those things about the UU that used to bug me.  They used the music for services that I heard sometimes growing up, but gave it new words. It was odd and I always found myself singing the “real” words under my breath.

I’ve probably gone on about this more than enough, but I do want to say that I love the idea of invention and I think the work that people involved in creating new and evolving forms of spirituality is important.

To me though you make something new, you want to revel it is newness and make everything about it uniquely yours.  Don’t just change the words to the same old song.

           [1] Mackenzie, William. Gaelic incantations, charms, and blessings of the Hebrides… Inverness, Scotland: Northern Counties Newspaper and Printing and Pub. Co., 1895.
           [2] Hyde, Douglas. Beside the Fire: A Collection of Irish Gaelic Folk Stories. London: D. Nutt.
           [3] Leach, Edmund, E. R. “Magical Hair.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 88, no. 2 (1958): 147.
           [4] Royal Irish Academy. “eDIL - Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language.” Royal Irish Academy, 2017. http://edil.qub.ac.uk/40466
```````````[5] Ibid http://edil.qub.ac.uk/40495
           [6] Bradshaw, Brendan. “The Wild and Woolly West: Early Irish Christianity and Latin Orthodoxy.” Studies in Church History 25 (1989): 1–23.
           [7] Ryan, John. “The Sacraments in the Early Irish Church.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 51, no. 204 (1962): 508–520.