Country Under Wave – An Irish Story

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No day in this realm is without its beauty. But it takes a special kind of spirit to appreciate these grey, sunless days of our nascent Spring. “The hungry gap”, it used to be called as winter stocks were depleted and the land  gave little or nothing  amidst the coldest, bleakest months of the year.

Spring is a misnomer here. It’s a slow grind through February, March and April as the days lengthen and light slowly returns to the ascendant as Spring ever so gradually stretches its limbs and wakes up. There is no real heat until May.

The driving rain today is unrelenting and has an angry aspect. It is being driven by a gutsy, gusting wind beneath a translucent, grey sky.

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I regard our weather as a mixed blessing. Blessed by modern convenience, I can be totally at my ease on these grey days living the indoor life. Books, music, cozy fires and pleasant pubs are plenty for me. Of course it is possible to do outdoor activities but any sort of outdoor work or exercise quickly takes on a survivalist, epic atmosphere.

The mind naturally inclines inwards and indoors. In olden times that meant the world of the fireplace and the imagination. It is why the musical and literary traditions are so strong. So much of the old ways are gently shrouded in story and song. As I sit under a wave of rain, wind and general greyness, this story came to mind and I thought to share it. I have decided against going to a source material and will instead allow the story to spill and take whatever shape it takes in this strange vessel we call the written word.

Many thousands of years ago, in the land that is now Ireland, but before, and long before there was any strange notion or concept of “country” or a “nation-state”, there was a wise woman, a wise man and their three children living on the shores of a beautiful, abundant lake in the West of Ireland. The woman of the house Máire, was in fact a skilled herbalist. So when her husband, Aodh, fell gravely ill, at first she was not worried, confident that the land around her contained the medicine he needed.

But…………………….her best efforts failed. Then one night her eldest son, Tomás had an aisling (visionary dream) in which it was revealed to him that on the eve of Smahain ( Halloween), he could jump through the surface of the lake and encounter a magical country at the bottom of the lake wherein it was possible, although very difficult, to obtain the knowledge of how to heal his father. He was told that if he could travel through this magical land for a year, he would encounter the hazelnuts of knowledge near the enchanted well in a clearing in the forest. The land was known as the realm under wave.

He told all this to his mother, who, while deeply conflicted about this dangerous journey bid him to go and do his best. So on the eve of Samhain, he went out to the lake. Whilst making this journey he encountered two Sidh (fairy people) who gave him two further pieces of advice. The first told him that he must never tell a lie in the realm under wave. The second told him, that no matter how tempted he was, he must not spend more than one night under any one roof. If he was to do any of these things, a great misfortune would befall him and he would not return to the land of his people.

Taking all this on board, Tomás, who was naturally a brave boy, jumped into the lake and swam towards the bottom of the lake. While the water was icy at first, it quickly warmed up to a pleasant temperature, so that after a few moments of swimming, he felt like he was taking a warm bath. It was also strangely lit under the water and by some strange magic, he was also able to breathe. Presently, he came to the realm under wave.

It was indeed the magical land of his dreams. The sun shone eternally, the trees were forever in blossom and gave fruit and nuts and beauty with such abundance that Tomás spent three whole days solidly staring at them in wonderment. When he finally tasted of the fruit and nuts, they were the finest foods he had ever known. He knew immediately that this was a country in which no-one would ever want. He wandered for a full sixty days and nights without meeting a soul. But, strangely, he never felt lonely or even a little bit sad. He noted that his emotions were always positive, his mind always clear and his thoughts steady. And despite all this, he remembered his purpose well and was never tempted to think of remaining there in that wonderful place. 

And then after 60 days and nights, of eating the most delicious fruits and nuts and sleeping the perfect, peaceful, blissfull sleeps under the open skies and experiencing nothing but happiness he encountered some of the inhabitants of the land.

They came upon him as a group but Tomás was not scared. Somehow their peace descended upon him even before he met them. When he laid eyes on them, he saw that they were the most beautiful people he had ever seen. The men and women were tall and stately and looked just like people in our world but each carried an inner glow that was somehow visible to Tomás. By some strange magic he could observe their inner qualities such as virtue, generosity and honesty as surely as we can see colours in the world around us. 

Tomás was awe-struck by their presence and it took him a while to speak even after they had greeted him. Presently he was invited to the palace where he spent a glorious evening enjoying the best food, music and company he had ever known. It was all perfect bliss and Tomás was sorely tempted to forget his mission and remain in the palace. Eventually however, he pulled himself together and, remembering the warning not to spend two nights under the one roof, he said his goodbyes, asked for and received directions to the enchanted well and the hazelnut tree of knowledge and made to continue his journey. Just as he was leaving the main door, the King addressed him.

“Did you have a good time ?” asked the king.

” I did indeed”, answered Tomás

“Was it not the finest time you have ever had in your life ?” , asked the King, ” and are we not the finest people in the finest land you have ever encountered ?”, he continued.

Now at this question, Tomás hesitated. He was indeed a good and a loyal man and indeed highly courageous but if he had a fault it was an excess of pride. On hearing the question, he was filled with a defiant and angry pride in his own land, his own people and the good times he had with them.

” My own people are as fine as any of you, my own land as beautiful and the times we have there are just as good, if not better”, he lied.

And with that he fell under an enchantment. He instantly forgot who he was and why he had come and fell in with the servants at the castle.

Now back in the land of people, the woman of the house, Máire, grew restless. After her son failed to return on the Samhain of the following year, she considered that she had made the wrong decision in allowing her son go off to the country under wave.

As her husband grew weaker, she worried that not only would she lose her husband but that she would lose her eldest son also. A deep sadness and despair fell over the whole family. It was such that Conn, the next eldest, decided to go to the Realm under wave to see what had befallen his brother and, of course, with the idea that he too might get the hazelnuts of knowledge and the wisdom of how to cure his father. He knew he wouldn’t get his mother’s permission, seeing how distressed and regretful she was over his brother’s absence, so he went without asking permission, telling only his sister, Aoife, where he was going.

Conn journeyed into the country under wave much as his brother had done, received the same advice from the fairy people on the way, and encountered the same wonderful world that his brother had encountered. When he encountered the fairy people too, it was much as it had been for his brother and indeed he did not see his brother, who of course, was working as servant there now.

Conn was also a good, loyal son and never forgot his purpose, but if he had one flaw, it was a propensity to over-indulge in the finer things in life. After one magical night in the castle with the inhabitants of that beautiful, perfect land, he simply could not resist another. The music, the food and the company had all been too good. He told himself he would continue his journey after another magical evening in their company.

But of course after spending a second night under one roof, he fell into the same enchantment as his brother, forgot who he was and why he had come to this land and ended up falling in with the servants in the castle just as his brother had done.

Well, you can imagine the mothers grief with her two sons gone and her husband just about hanging on to life. Aoife, her youngest, and her only daughter,  took one look at her and realised that if she did not go the country under wave, rescue her two brothers and gain the hazelnuts of knowledge, then her mother would not live for much longer either.

So reluctantly, on the eve of Samhain, she too set out for the country under wave. She too, encountered the same fairy people who gave her the same advice as her brothers and when she encountered the country under wave, she was just as entranced by the beauty of the place as her brothers had been.

She too encountered the fairy people and spent a wonderful evening with them. She even spotted her brothers among the servants and was sad to see that they couldn’t remember who they were or what their purpose was.

Although sorely tempted, she declined to spend another night at the castle and, as she left, when the King asked her “if this was not the finest land, with the finest people and the finest company she had ever encountered ? ” she answered without lying and without letting her people down either. ” Who is there to compare such things?”  ” things are as they are”.

The King accepted this and sent her on the right road to the hazelnut tree of knowledge. She gathered the hazelnuts which grew by the well of wisdom. She knew instantly that it was she who must eat the nuts and thereby gain knowledge of, not just how to cure her father, but how to rescue her brothers also.

After eating the nuts she understood that to heal her brothers and make them remember who they were she would have to sing them their favourite song from childhood. What a happy troop they made as they exited that happy land and swam back to the land of mortals, just as winter was setting in and Samhain passed.

With the herbal knowledge gained from the hazelnuts of knowledge she was able to heal her father. Her mother too was healed by the happiness of having her family back together.

Aoife went on to become not just a great healer, but in the fullness of time, became a chieftain and leader of the tribe, ruling by knowledge and virtue.

And just as sadness can leave a mark, so too can happiness, and the three children who had been to the happy realm under wave were known as particularly happy people all their lives. And isn’t that the important thing !

 

 

 

 

A cup of tea in Ireland

The cup of tea is an Irish institution. Of course all cultures have tea ceremonies. The Japanese have their elaborate, intricate ritual of precision and beauty that opens the participants into the timeless tranquility of the moment. The English, historically,  have their afternoon tea with its aristocratic associations and formality while American professionals go for “coffee”,  an art-form taken to new heights by the so-called hipster generation.

The Irish cup of tea is distinct,if not entirely different, and here, just for fun, I want to try and pin the ritual down, knowing in advance my generalisations will ultimately fail and any attempt to define and even describe it will be like trying to hold a handfull of milk. For the ritual itself is liquid, expanding into the space it is put and flowing freely and easily across the boundaries of our lives.

Ultimately it is intimate; at the heart of family life. It invites conversation of a generally innocuous kind; the weather, kind-hearted gossip about others and practical considerations will form the main topics of conversation. But amongst family and friends there is the potential for more serious matters to be raised and shared, if neccessary.  In offering tea you offer your attention, your listening, your small talk. Most of the time, people prefer to keep the conversation simple and innocous, avoiding contentious issues such as politics or religion but amongst friends there is space to venture into more personal matters but also no pressure.

In general the conversation is light and the atmosphere sympathetic. For better or worse many things will be left unsaid. But there is space to raise issues too, if you need it.

Among friends the intimacy will be just as strong or stronger but even among work colleagues who don’t know each other so well, a little of the intimacy remains.

There is still the shared space, the sympathetic conversation and

 

the banalities that bind. Such simple, saying nothing conversation, needs to be mastered or at least practiced. It is a bit of an art form.

The tea itself is almost always black, fermented tea with milk. The blend that emerged as favourite blends Assam tea from India with Ceylon tea from Sri Lanka and is known as Irish breakfast tea. The Barry family in Cork were famous tea importers and while they traded in Cork from 1901 it wasn’t until the 1960’s that they cut out the English merchants and imported directly from Asia. They are a highly influential in politics and business to this tea and the Barrys brand carries the same comforting associations of home as Guinness stout or Tayto crisps for many.

The milk is crucial. Comforting. It can be strong or weak and everyone will have a preference. It is possible you will be judged as a particular type of person depending on how strong you like your tea! Builders tea, for example, is strong to the point of bitterness and has often been stewing so long that it has even cooled down a little. Any fussiness or fastidiousness about how one likes one’s tea will certainly be taken as an indication of either contrariness or conscientiousness.

The amount of milk added is also a highly personal matter and if making tea for someone else, you should allow them to add their own milk. People are very particular about thier tea !

Tea arrived in Ireland in the 1700’s. Initially confined to the aristocratic classes it became more widespread in the 1800’s as prices dropped and tea imports (often smuggled poor quality tea) increased. In fact, drinking tea was a rebellious and feminist activity. The aristocratic English viewed the Irish penchant for tea drinking, particularly among women as alarming and pamphlets distributed encouraging women to use both their time and their money more appropriately.

Who knew that tea drinking could have revolutionary connotations? This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Irish tea story I have come across. The wealthy believed tea was their prerogative and despised its spread among the masses.

“Must not every poor mans wife work in and out of doors and do all she can to help her husband. And do you think you can afford tea at thirteen pence a day. Put that out of your head entirely Nancy and give up the tea for good” urged a pamphlet of the day.

Helen O Connell has done extensive research on attitudes towards tea drinking in Ireland by the l chattering classes and believes it was a common enough preoccupation amongst them. It was believed that tea drinking could cause “addiction, illicit longing and revolutionary sympathies”.

The social nature of the ritual, its connotations of social betterment and even plain enjoyment seemed to perturb them greatly. While reading articles from the period and imagining conditions of the time a picture emerges in my mind of people enjoying tea in pretty poor housing and in the midst of cold weather taking a revolutionary and illicit comfort in a cup of smuggled tea. The hot warm tea and the social banter form a quiet statement of equality and sensible materialism.

Its not quite the Boston tea party but perhaps a million Irish tea partys somehow fanned the flames of the many social movements towards the end of the 19th century. It is easy to assume that the humble pot of tea helped serve as a symbol of equality and betterment and helped a nation on its way.

Is this why we hold the humble pot of tea with such reverence and affection to this day ? we are certainly the biggest tea drinkers in the world.

And on a lighter note, Mrs Doyle is pretty passionate about her tea

 

while Eamon Kelly tells a hilarious story of a poor tay boy (tea seller) from times past.

 

Note: This article was produced with the assistance of two cups of coffee, one peppermint tea and one black tea without milk or sugar.

How Catholic is Ireland today ?

It certainly is a current issue at the heart of our zeitgeist at present. Switch on a radio this week or have a look at our newspapers and they are full of shrill arguments in the media about abortion rights and about church ownership of schools and hospitals.

This is because, by  a curious coincidence, in the same week that the citizens assembly recommended amending the constitution (which requires a referendum)  to allow for the parliament to legislate for abortion provision in Irish hospitals, a huge controversy has blown up regarding the baffling decision to gift a hospital to the sisters of charity because the hospital is to be built on their lands.

It seems official Ireland is still happy to keep church and state solidly intertwined. The general population has moved on however. Nothing illustrated this better then the public vote to legalise same sex marriage in 2015. It wasn’t , of course, the first country to do so, but it was the first country to do so by public vote and the 76% in favour was a stunning endorsement of a liberal policy change.

None of which is necessarily bad news for Irish Catholicism. We still have the highest mass attendance in Europe with 46% attending weekly and 65% attending monthly. We still listen to the church, we just don’t always agree.

The church is also still a huge part of family and community life in Ireland. Just this week, I brought my daughter to a preparatory mass for her communion later in the month. It was a very pleasant experience and the gentleness of the service was striking. Although I don’t attend mass regularly, I was very happy for my daughter to share in the spiritual experience of prayer, community and eventually communion. In these materialistic and superficial days, I hope that it can provide  a spiritual grounding in a religious tradition. As someone, who is not a practicing Catholic but is happy to acknowledge the role of tradition and spirituality I suspect that I am pretty representative of my generation.

We are slowly but surely coming to the point where religion can have its role as a spiritual servant of the people who want it and not the master of our institutions. But we are not there yet !