The Gaelic Origins of Halloween

The closest I get to a celebration of Halloween these days is to put a pumpkin on the front porch and call it good, but, of course, some folks get a lot more excited about it than I do. Some, in fact, take it too seriously—and I’m not talking about the folks with the inflated Headless Horseman in the front yard—which is why I also enact the Great Halloween Lockdown for my beautiful black cat.

Laddie never met a human he didn’t like, which makes him vulnerable to stupid people this time of year.

Laddie never met a human he didn’t like, which makes him vulnerable to stupid people this time of year.

The Lad thinks I’ve just forgotten to open the cat door, and spends a lot of this week before Halloween trying to get my attention so I’ll remember. It’s a trial for both of us. 🙂

Where were we? Oh yes.

Samhain. The Gaelic origin of Halloween.

They didn’t teach these things to little American children when I was growing up. Wikipedia says Samhain

is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year. It is celebrated from sunset on 31 October to sunset on 1 November, which is nearly halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. Along with Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh it makes up the four Gaelic seasonal festivals. … [It] is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature and is known to have pre-Christian roots. Many important events in Irish mythology happen or begin on Samhain. It was the time when cattle were brought back down from the summer pastures and when livestock were slaughtered for the winter. As at Beltane, special bonfires were lit. … Samhain (like Beltane) was seen as a liminal time, when the spirits or fairies could more easily come into our world. … In the 9th century, the Roman Catholic Church shifted the date of All Saints’ Day to 1 November, while 2 November later became All Souls’ Day. Over time, Samhain and All Saints’/All Souls’ merged and helped to create the modern Halloween. Historians have used the name ‘Samhain’ to refer to Gaelic ‘Halloween’ customs up until the 19th century.

I tell you all this so you’ll enjoy this article from an Irish web newspaper, about some ancient Samhain spots in Meath, Roscommon, Dublin, and Wexford:

The Hill of Ward (Tlachtga), Co. Meath

Rathcroghan, Co. Roscommon

The Hellfire Club, Co. Dublin

Loftus Hall, Co. Wexford (2 distinct links here)

Me, I don’t care much for the spooky, so when I get to visit these sites, I’ll make sure it’s in the broad daylight. In summer. Boo! Happy Halloween!

(Note: the author misspells William Conolly’s name; he was Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, which is how, apparently, the author comes up with “William Speaker Connolly.”)

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Counting My Blessings (Part 1)

29 May 2013, Wednesday

One of the biggest blessings I have received from my relationship with Gerry is my entrée into his family. I just adore them all. In particular I have a relationship with Gerry’s youngest niece, Orla, and her slightly older sister, Clare. And on this day—my last full day in Ireland—I was going to indulge myself with a little Clare and Orla fix. 🙂

I got up at 5:30 to finish packing and help carry everything down to the car before Gerry left for work (because we were going to turn in the rental car and move back into Bewley’s Dublin Airport for our last night). Then we went to breakfast, and he left for work … and I went back upstairs and got back into bed for a little while. I’m just not used to getting up immediately and eating. That’s my excuse, anyway. 🙂

When I was ready to check out, I had one more thing I wanted to do. You see, I travel with a CPAP machine (for sleep apnea), which requires distilled water. In the States, you’d pick up a gallon of distilled water at the grocery store for 89¢ … but in Ireland you have to buy it from a pharmacy. It has to be special ordered. And it costs !!!7 euro!!!, which I find absolutely shocking. However, water’s heavy, so I can’t exactly bring it with me from home, even though I would probably only use 50 ounces of this huge, expensive bottle. So … I took it to the front desk. I explained why I had it and that I hated to throw it away (which is what would have happened had I just left it in the room). As it turns out, they were thrilled to have it and put it away in their locked area.

And then I drove out of Dublin, all by myself.

When I was planning this trip, I’d hoped to find a day to spend with “my girls,” and I wanted also to use it to do a little more sightseeing. So I suggested Castletown House, which I’d visited last fall. I’d been sick with pneumonia that day; I’d failed to ask questions about the property, I’d failed to look closely at some things. I wanted to go back. “It’s a part of your Irish heritage,” I’d written to Orla by way of a sales pitch. It’s only thirty minutes from their neighborhood, and, though they are Dublin born and bred, they’d never been. So it was a date.

On my way out of the city center I think I drove past every historic monument in Dublin (St. Patrick’s, the Customs House, Marsh’s Library, Ha’penny Bridge—I was stopped at a traffic light right by that, along the quays) but of course I was driving so I had to focus. It took me forty minutes to get out to Gerry’s—there was lots of traffic, lots of buses. So I was about ten minutes late to meet Clare and Orla, who called me just as I was turning onto the Malahide Road. But once I reached that spot I actually knew where I was and didn’t need Ms. Emily GpS. 🙂

I kinda dig that I’m learning to drive around Dublin. Especially when Orla told me she hadn’t gotten up the courage to drive in downtown Dublin yet. (I should add that the driving culture is completely different in Ireland than it is in the States. Cars are expensive, insurance is prohibitively expensive. Most young people are in their twenties before they learn to drive and get a license.) Me, I had my license at thirteen (long story), so no amount of city driving on the wrong side of the road is gonna scare me off, by God! Ha!

So the girls got into my car and we set out for Celbridge, with Orla navigating to get me to the M50. It was a short trip, but—even though I thought I’d remember the little trick to getting up close to the house (you can park in Celbridge and hike a half-mile across the grounds, but I wasn’t feeling that fit)—we still got momentarily turned around. But only briefly.

It was a gorgeous day, and when we arrived there were quit a few people there. I’d been told last September that people love the café at Castletown House, and they come out for lunch and just to use the grounds as a park, a place to walk kids or dogs or lay in the sun. All of that was going on in County Kildare this day. Glorious!

It was a magnificent day in Celbridge, Co. Kildare.

It was a magnificent day in Celbridge, Co. Kildare.

And yes, the sap was rising. :) It had been a very long winter and a very late spring.

And yes, the sap was rising. 🙂 It had been a very long winter and a very late spring.

And that house! Oh! It’s Ireland’s largest and finest Palladian-style country house; it was built (between 1722 and 1729) for William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. It escaped burning by the IRA in 1922 during the Irish Civil War (though Conollys were Protestant, they were Irish, and Irish money had built the house). The house remained in the hands of William Conolly’s descendants until 1965; ownership of the estate is now divided between the government and private concerns.

It’s huge, y’all. Four floors if you count the basement. It’s interesting to me that they shave off the tops of the yew bushes like that, but perhaps it keeps them greener or fuller.

It’s huge, y’all. Four floors if you count the basement. It’s interesting to me that they shave off the tops of the yew bushes like that, but perhaps it keeps them greener or fuller.

And this is just the main building. The pavilion to the left (out of the photo) housed the kitchen; the one to the right housed the stables. Both were connected to the house via the colonnade walkway.

Here’s a look at the colonnaded portico.

Here’s a look at the colonnaded portico.

I wrote about the house last fall, so I’m using some of that text here. The pictures are all new, though. For a look at different things, do check the older post.

We went into the café to eat (first things first, after all!). Service was very slow for some reason (understaffed, I think), but the food was good and honestly the conversation never lagged. We spent a leisurely hour at that table, and I enjoyed every minute.

It was interesting to note that several things had changed just since my visit eight months previously. To start, they’d moved the ticket office from the kitchen wing to the stables wing, so we had to walk back outside and across the massive yard.

But it was a good excuse to take a few more photos. :) This is Clare and me. Stables wing in the background.

But it was a good excuse to take a few more photos. 🙂 This is Clare and me. Stables wing in the background.

Oh! We had such a good time! I love these beautiful women! Orla and Clare.

Oh! We had such a good time! I love these beautiful women! Orla and Clare.

Here we learned the guided tours only happen every couple of hours—but it was 1pm and the next one wasn’t until 3pm. Hmm … however, we could self-guide (that is, walk through the house) at no cost. Free! So that’s what we did. Another totally delightful hour with me trying to be a pretend-guide with the material I remembered from last fall.

Something else that was different during this visit was an art exhibit scattered throughout the house. Called “Prelude Speaker: Contemporary Castletown,” the exhibition “investigates the Palladian mansion that serves as its site through the work of sixteen contemporary artists,” according to a review at Artforum. The guidebook for the exhibit says,

By exhibiting historical artefacts nd contemporary art works together, the exhibition is an attempt to provoke dialogues which challenge traditional exhibition boundaries and to nurture relationships with history. [The Artforum piece notes “Ireland has a troubled relationship with its great houses of colonial rule. Some were burned out in the 1920s, while others sank into neglect.”] The elaborately decorated rooms in Castletown provide an irresistible contrast to the more commonplace white cube galleries where contemporary art often resides. Prelude Speaker: Contemporary Castletown also ponders upon the question as to whether we should let properties like Castletown House speak for themselves or whether we should interact with them and allow them to perpetuate the culturally dynamic role they had in the past.

So with this in our hearts and minds, we entered the house.

Oh dear: our first piece of modern art.

Oh dear: our first piece of modern art.

We’d had an interesting conversation last fall about the difference between conservation and restoration. It’s easily seen in the red and green drawing rooms, where the former has been conserved while the latter has been restored (that is, replaced with new, though historically accurate, of course). The green drawing room was where the Conollys formally received visitors to the house.

The red drawing room at Castletown House. The walls are covered in damask probably dating from the late nineteenth century.

The red drawing room at Castletown House. The walls are covered in damask probably dating from the late nineteenth century.

The green drawing room at Castletown House. The portrait on the right is Speaker Conolly; the one on the left is his wife, Katherine, and her niece.

The green drawing room at Castletown House. The portrait on the right is Speaker Conolly; the one on the left is his wife, Katherine, and her niece.

Castletown House was built on a 550-acre demesne, or estate, and the windows along the back of the house look out on what might seem like a grassy wilderness to untrained eyes—but this is a formally laid out landscape; every tree, every blade of grass was planned. (This was a popular pursuit in the eighteenth century: man’s intervention with nature in order to “improve” it.) Vistas were created so that no matter from which window you looked, there was something to see. The woodlands beyond the lawn have meandering paths. Everything orchestrated for a bracing walk. Windows in the green drawing room become doors, which allow guests to step directly onto the lawn.

This looks out from the green drawing room at a point two miles away—you can just see the top of the Conolly Folly (sometimes the Conolly Obelisk) in the distance. It is no longer a part of the property, though it was once.

This looks out from the green drawing room at a point two miles away—you can just see the top of the Conolly Folly (sometimes the Conolly Obelisk) in the distance. It is no longer a part of the property, though it was once.

We wandered from room to room with me dredging up as much information as I could remember from the paid tour I’d had the previous fall. For example—the print room. The guidebook says,

The 18th century saw the rise of print media that was prompted in part by a greater degree of literacy and press freedom in Britain. Prints were stuck on walls from the grandest houses to the humblest hovels; illustrations from stories, vignettes from the Bible or cartoons which savaged the government of the day. … It became popular for ladies to assemble and paste prints on to painted wallpaper, surrounding them with elaborate bows and swags cut from printed sheets.

Today women are scrapbooking; in the 1700s, they had print rooms. They’d purchase books of prints and borders, or individual prints, cut them out carefully, and a servant would paste them up. Basically—découpage. On the walls. Of course, tastes and fashion change over decades. Just as we might paint a room or paper it to have a change, so were print rooms lost to history. The one at Castletown is the only fully intact eighteenth-century print room in Ireland. I’m so glad it was left alone.

The print room at Castletown House. The screen in the lower left is one of the modern works of art on exhibition. The prints are nineteenth-century engravings of Irish eviction and famine paintings, printed on low-grade cotton cloth to subtly juxtapose the relationship between rich and poor.

The print room at Castletown House. The screen in the lower left is one of the modern works of art on exhibition. The prints are nineteenth-century engravings of Irish eviction and famine paintings, printed on low-grade cotton cloth to subtly juxtapose the relationship between rich and poor.

The Conolly bedroom, where the Speaker received morning guests in the manner of the French court. I guess when you had a fancy wig you didn’t need to worry about bed head. :)

The Conolly bedroom, where the Speaker received morning guests in the manner of the French court. I guess when you had a fancy wig you didn’t need to worry about bed head. 🙂

This is the long gallery.

This is the long gallery.

This type of room—a long gallery of paintings, prints, and other art—was in vogue when the house was first designed and built, but by the time the interiors were completely finished in the 1760s and ’70s was considered old-fashioned. Thus it became a space for informal entertaining. The guidebook calls it Pompeian-style—Pompeii was being excavated during the 1770s so this sort of thing was all the rage. What we saw is unchanged (although refurbished) from that time. There are a few more documentary-style photos in my post from last fall; I was enjoying the house in a different way on this trip.

Then we came downstairs to the massive receiving halls.

This is one of my favorite photos from that day … the stairwell.

This is one of my favorite photos from that day … the stairwell.

The plasterwork! Oh, my! The walls down the stairwell and into the downstairs rooms are a testament to the rococo-style ornamental plasterwork for which Ireland is famous. In this case, all created by Philip Lafranchini, who, with his brother, Paul, was renowned, then and now, for his artistry. No, it’s not exactly my personal style—but it’s quite impressive.

Here is a Green Man.

Here is a Green Man. Magnificent, isn’t it!

I’m standing on the stairs, looking through the doorway into the foyer or entry hall. Just look at that plasterwork.

I’m standing on the stairs, looking through the doorway into the foyer or entry hall. Just look at that plasterwork.

Now I’m in the entry hall, looking back through the doorway at the stairs I’ve just descended.

Now I’m in the entry hall, looking back through the doorway at the stairs I’ve just descended.

Another modern art installation, ornate—but very tall—tables that seem to mimic the eighteenth-century furniture we see throughout the house.

Another modern art installation, ornate—but very tall—tables that seem to mimic the eighteenth-century furniture we see throughout the house.

I love the windows in my house—I love observing the light at different times of day, I love watching the changing seasons as marked by the trees and plants outside—so I always take a few photos of windows. Here is the same scene taken looking out from the front of the house, one upstairs, one down.

The front driveway and the Wicklow Mountains in the distance (upstairs).

The front driveway and the Wicklow Mountains in the distance (upstairs).

The front steps. I’m endlessly fascinated by the chopped-off yews.

The front steps. I’m endlessly fascinated by the flat-topped yews.

Oh, we had a good time! It was a completely different experience than the one I had with Margaret last fall (which was also wonderful!). Last fall I’d failed to ask—at the appropriate time—about Conolly’s Folly and an unusual barn called the Wonderful Barn. Both were conceived and built as ways to put a little money in the pockets of the local farmers during bad economic times—and while these structures were once on the estate, now they are not.

So this time we inquired about seeing the Wonderful Barn and the folly (you can see some photos here) but both were being restored, we were told, and we couldn’t really get close. So they discouraged us a little, and it was somewhat complicated to get there (although I have a map now!) so we blew it off and came back to Dublin. (Next time!)

First, though, we had to exit through the stables. The acoustics were marvelous, which Clare and Orla quickly picked up on. 🙂

The stables at Castletown House.

The stables at Castletown House.

Irish Girl’s Choir.

Irish Girl’s Choir.

Don’t forget, you can review my Castletown House visit from last fall here. And don’t forget you can click on a photo to zoom in. Next, a visit to St. Anne’s Park. Stick around!

A Man’s Home Is His Castle

Day 9 / Wednesday, 19 September 2012 (part 1)

This was my third visit to Ireland, Alli’s second; Margaret and Jill had never been before. So about three months ago, armed with not much in the way of guidance (Alli wanted to go to Dingle, I’d heard), I’d created an itinerary of places to go and things to see on our walk-about. I wanted to make sure my sister and friend would get to see “one of everything”—a large country house, a monastic settlement, a cathedral, a stone circle, a prehistoric edifice of some sort, an original high cross, beautiful scenery … and on and on. Things Ireland is well known for. I also wanted to revisit certain places myself—and see some things I’d never seen too. I passed this itinerary around, offered choices, updated it. I also arranged for lodging at the places we would stay.

And now the day had arrived: we were going to go, as Dubliners say, down the country. Four gals, four suitcases, and our Ford Mondeo. (I was the driver.)

Our first stop would be Castletown House in Celbridge (Co. Kildare). This Palladian-style mansion was built (between 1722 and 1729) for William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. The house remained in the hands of his descendants until 1965; ownership of the estate is now divided between the government and private concerns. (We would be here all day if I tried to explain the family tree and the various Conolly women who influenced the way the house looks now; you can read about them at the site linked above.)

So we set off. It was about a thirty-minute drive to Celbridge, a town with a population of about 19,000. Castletown House lies within walking distance of town.

I don’t know that I’d ever seen the Palladian style in person. (Well, OK, in Washington DC.) Frankly, I don’t know that I could have defined it, although I can now: it’s an architectural style derived from the designs of the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio (1508–1580), which was based on the temple architecture of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In other words, formal, symmetrical, and large.

Like, really large. Castletown House consists of the main building and two wings (one is the kitchen, one is the stables), which are connected to the central edifice by curving porticos. The car park is near the kitchen wing (which is also the visitor entrance; you see the house by guided tour only), and we walked past it to look at the front of the house.

Walking past the kitchen wing at Castletown House. That’s Alli.

And then you see the house. Holy mackerel, it’s huge. This unadorned front yard is much like what it would have been in the 1700s.

Jill and Alli decided to get a little fresh air; they walked back to town through the Castletown House grounds. They are lovely.

Taken on the grounds of Catletown House, September 2012. (Jill’s photo.)

Taken on the grounds of Catletown House, September 2012. (Jill’s photo.)

Meanwhile, Margaret and I took the house tour. It starts in the entrance hall, which is two stories high. (The entrance hall in our house in Tennessee is two stories high, too, but what you see at Castletown is on a different scale altogether!)

The grand entrance hall at Castletown.

It’s two stories high. This makes the room seem bigger than it is.

The ceiling of the entrance hall. Look at that plasterwork! Don’t forget, too, you can click on this image, then click again to zoom in.

Imagine visiting the home in the 1720s. Your carriage would pull up to the wide staircase out front, and you’d ascend the stairs easily, as the rise is very gradual. The door would be opened, and you’d enter this grand hall with its polished limestone floor in a checkered design. It would be virtually empty of furniture, as it is today. This was simply the place to divest yourself of your outerwear and wait while your host was fetched by the servants. He or she would lead you down the hall to greet the rest of the guests.

From the entrance hall, look to the right: you might go up this staircase to the view the paintings in the long gallery.

The staircase hall adjacent to the entrance hall is a testament to the rococo-style ornamental plasterwork for which Ireland is famous. In this case, all created by Philip Lafranchini, who, with his brother, Paul, was renowned, then and now, for his artistry. No, it’s not exactly my personal style—but it’s quite impressive.

Seriously, look at this. This was a country home, so you’ll see pastoral themes—vines, fruits, flowers—in this incredible plasterwork.

Before we go upstairs, look back: that’s the entrance hall beyond this arch.

This staircase at Castletown, made of Portland stone, is one of the largest in Ireland. The solid brass balustrade is inscribed (in three places) by its manufacturer, Anthony King, who was later Lord Mayor of Dublin.

The staircase hall wasn’t built out until 1759–60. (Margaret’s photo; she notices things like this.)

Let’s go up the stairs. Plaster frames were even created for works of art. (Margaret’s photo.)

Look closer. This is a portrait of the man of the house.

The Bear Hunt, by Flemish artist Paul De Vos (1596–1672).

We went through all the downstairs rooms (which is misleading, really, because there is a floor below the level at which you enter—for servants, I guess): the dining room, the butler’s pantry, the brown study (originally used as a bedroom or perhaps a closet), the red drawing room, the green drawing room, the print room (more about which in a moment), the state bedroom, the map room (originally a closet, one of eighteen in the house). Then we went upstairs to the long gallery, the pastel room (anteroom to the gallery), the boudoir (three rooms), and the blue bedroom (also a three-room apartment).

This is the dining room, minus the dining table. The original table was probably large; but you can find online photos taken at the turn of the last century that show a much smaller table, dwarfed by this room.

The ceiling of the dining room.

It was just Margaret and me on the tour, which was fantastic, because we were able to linger and talk with our guide, a young woman who was a delight. We got the sense that it was the end of their season; we may have been the only tourists they saw all day. The house is constantly being refurbished. The green drawing room, for example, has new (silk) wallcovering, while the red drawing room’s wall coverings are a couple centuries old. “Do you like seeing it old, like it was?” our guide asked. “Or do you prefer the green, which has been restored?” Thereafter followed a conversation about refurbishing (fixing up) as opposed to restoring (replacing and making it new, although faithful to the original).

Standing in the green drawing room, looking back down the hall through the red drawing room and the brown study at the end. The windows—you can see the light from them—look out on the (ahem) backyard.

I’d never seen anything like the print room, but Margaret knew what it was immediately. (She is a retired antiques dealer.) “Ladies have always had their crafts projects,” she said, eyes twinkling. “Today women are scrapbooking; in the 1700s, they had print rooms.” Or, as the guidebook says, “It became popular for ladies to collect their favorite prints [of famous works of art, of celebrities, and so on] and arrange and paste them onto the walls of a chosen room, along with decorative borders.” They’d purchase books of prints and borders, or individual prints, cut them out carefully, and a servant would paste them up. Basically—découpage. On the walls. Of course, tastes and fashion change over decades, and there are very few print rooms left in the world. The one at Castletown is the only fully intact eighteenth-century print room in Ireland. I’m so glad it was left alone.

The print room. (Margaret took this.)

Not as good a photo (I was trying to not use the flash) but you can get an idea of the size of the room.

Next we went upstairs to the long gallery. This type of room—a long gallery of paintings, prints, and other art—was in vogue when the house was first designed and built, but by the time the interiors were completely finished in the 1760s and ’70s was old-fashioned. Thus it became a space for informal entertaining. What we saw is unchanged (although refurbished) from that time.

The long gallery at Castletown House.

The guidebook says this is Pompeian-style decoration. Pompeii was being excavated at that time (1770s), so it was all the rage. 🙂

As on the floor below, the windows here in the long gallery overlook the pastoral backyard.

Castletown House was built on a 550-acre demesne, or estate, and the windows along the back of the house look out on what might seem like a grassy wilderness to untrained eyes. But no. This is a formally laid out landscape; every tree, every blade of grass was planned. (That may be an exaggeration; I’m sure trees and grasses were already there.) Vistas were created so that no matter from which window you looked, there was something to see. The woodlands beyond the lawn have meandering paths. Everything orchestrated for a bracing walk. 🙂 Windows in the green drawing room become doors, which allow guests to step directly onto the lawn.

Taken from the windows of the green drawing room. The central piece of lawn here is significantly lower, thus the stairs in the foreground and further on. Note the visual line formed by the stairs continues on through the trees in the distance.

This is taken from the same spot, only one story higher—from the long gallery. Note, again, the visual line and the point in the distance.

See? Two miles away (and no longer a part of the estate) is the Conolly Folly.

The Conolly Folly was built to provide employment for the tenants, who were suffering in the famine of 1739–40. The Wonderful Barn was similar project. Unfortunately we didn’t see either of these in person, but I’ll have time next May to revisit Castletown House, and will do so then.

After the tour, we met up with Jill and Alli in the café, which is situated in what was originally the kitchen. It was a nice space, bright, and the food was delicious. We each had soup (the day was cool-ish); mine was cream of vegetable. (I am still trying to re-create it in my kitchen at home.) In the center of the room was a display of desserts—various baked goodies—but somehow we all resisted.

And then it was time to get back on the road. One last photo, taken from the car park: it wasn’t mentioned on our tour but I wonder if it is the ruins of the small church built on the estate sometime in the early 1800s. A small school was also built, so perhaps this is that. I don’t know.

A ruin on the Castletown House property. Perhaps the old church?

And a last note: many of the old country homes are in ruins, sometimes from lack of money at some point, but often because they were torched during one or another of the Irish rebellions aimed at driving out the English. Many more burned during the Irish civil war. But Castletown was not, although republicans had it in their sights in 1922: they were informed the owner was Irish and Irish money had built it, and the house was spared. Thank goodness.

It’s only lunchtime—the day isn’t over! But this post is. I’ll tell you about the rest of our day in the next one.

This Morning’s Image

Everywhere we have been (and everywhere we will go), we see fantastic-looking (and tasting) baked goodies. From the wonderful Irish brown bread to scones to apple tarts, everything looks scrumptious. You can find fancy desserts but I prefer the rustic pastries. The Irish are wonderful bakers.