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Interesting Facts About the Ancient Celts, Part II

Interesting Facts About the Ancient Celts, Part II

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher continues his list of interesting Celtic facts about the ancient Celts with Part II. (Click here for Part I.)

In no particular order, they are as follows:

5 – The Celtic Fairs Were the Wonder of Ancient Ireland

Boar on a Spit

The Óenach was a grand event, a gathering of tuatha, or clans, from all over ancient Ireland. In a land where the largest settlement barely rose to the status of a “village”, when the Rí Cóicid, or regional king, called a Óenach, everyone wanted to attend. Sometimes the event was called to decide certain legal matters, but most often it was an occasion for celebration, trade, and merrymaking. People traveled for leagues to attend. They came dressed in their finest. And pity the poor lad who was chosen to stay behind and tend the flocks or herds. The heart of every Óenach was the horse races, both short and long distances. Other events might include rock throwing, wrestling, and swordplay.

See also: http://www.markfisherauthor.com/2016/11/grand-celtic-fair-oenach-part-ii/

6 – Some Celts Went Naked Into Battle

Celtic Raiders

Celtic Raiders, Mostly Clothed

Aye, ’twas so. In a previous post, I wrote:

“Although most Celts wore colorful clothing, often indicating their status in society, some bands of Celtic warriors fought naked. That’s right. They went into battle with only a sword, a shield, and the suit they were born with. They did it for religious reasons, believing it enhanced their spiritual connection with Mother Earth. If they died in battle, they hoped it would ensure rebirth in the Otherworld. We also have tales of the ancient Irish, some of whom not only fought naked, they died themselves blue and put lye in their hair to make it stand straight up, all the better to instill fear in their enemies. ”

See also: http://www.markfisherauthor.com/2017/06/interesting-celtic-facts-part-i/

7 – Pottage Was the Staple Meal of the Ancient Celts

In a previous post, I wrote:

“The typical ‘peasant’ breakfast, lunch, and possibly dinner in early Celtic Ireland might have been pottage. How do you make it? Throw some barley and water into the cauldron and let it simmer all day. Someone caught a rabbit? Skin it, cut it up, and throw that in too. Your lady harvested some onions, leeks, turnips, or carrots? Ah, those too make good additions. Your uncle killed a deer? Even better. Cut up some venison for the pot. Meanwhile, you’re eating from the cauldron at all times of the day. In fact, you can keep eating from and adding to it for days on end. A bit boring, maybe, but then the ingredients did keep changing.”

See also: http://www.markfisherauthor.com/2016/04/food-in-early-middle-ages/

8 – The Ancient World Didn’t Eat With Forks

In a previous post, I wrote:

“But what culinary equipment did the early medieval diner employ? Not much. Forks did not come into existence until after the 11th century, imported from the Byzantine empire. The first forks only had two tines and some viewed these strange devices with great suspicion. Surely there’s a diabolical similarity here to the Devil’s own pitchfork? And you want to stick that in your mouth?

But the basic tool for attacking your dinner was the knife, and you might have used two of them. Hard to stab a pea with, but useful for most foods. For soup only a spoon would do, and spoons have been around from the very beginning. The first spoons were probably seashells. And the early imagination, pondering such a useful natural instrument, would naturally add a handle. ”

See also: http://www.markfisherauthor.com/2016/04/food-in-the-early-middle-ages-celtic-ireland-part-ii/

Next time, we’ll continue our list of interesting Celtic facts with Part III.

Ancient Celtic Ireland is the setting for the Mark’s books of Christian historical fiction—one in publication, The Bonfires of Beltane, and The Amulet, now in search of readers before a final edit. The same setting is also the basis for the author’s fictional world in a novel of  Christian fantasy, The Scepter of Elyon, now seeking a publisher. Click on the link to learn more about The Bonfires of Beltane.

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An Irish Christmas, Yesterday and Today, Part I

An Irish Christmas, Yesterday and Today, Part I

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at Christmas traditions in Ireland today. What is an Irish Christmas like?

How do you wish someone Merry Christmas in Irish? Nollaig Shona Duit. And that’s a Happy, not a Merry, Christmas!

It wasn’t until St. Patrick brought Christianity to the island in A.D. 432 that the Irish Celts abandoned their pagan ways and even learned about the birth of Christ. Today, Christmas is a big holiday in Ireland, with many interesting and fun traditions, some old, some new. In no particular order, here are a few:

Christmas Whitewashing.

For thousands of years, a December Celtic farm tradition held that families would clean and whitewash every building on their farms. After the coming of Christ, it became a symbol of purifying them for the coming of the Savior.

Holly and Ivy.

Traditionally, families would trek into the country to cut some of the plentiful holly and ivy to decorate mantelpieces, make into wreaths, or fashion into sprigs to grace doorways. Want a harbinger of good luck for the next year? Find a holly bush festooned with berries. Because of its  thorns, holly hunters wear heavy coats to keep from being pricked. Mistletoe is rarely seen, perhaps because in ancient times it was a symbol of paganism.

Yet, traditions do change. One commentator suggests that because of National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation”, many Irish now put up Christmas trees with outside lights and decorations. They go up on December 8, The Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

“Little Christmas”

Little Christmas comes on January 6 and is also called “Women’s Christmas”. It’s women’s day off. The women who’ve done all the cooking and preparing for the holiday now go out, meet, and have fun while the men stay home, do the housework, and take down the decorations. But don’t remove your decorations before January 6. It’s bad luck.

The Christmas Candle.

Putting a candle in the window is a symbol of hospitality. It says that, unlike the Bethlehem inn that turned away Mary and Joseph, your household would welcome the Holy Family.

A Snack For Santa.

In the U.S., we often put out Christmas cookies and a glass of milk for old St. Nick. Not in Ireland. There it’s a bottle of Guinness and a mince pie. Or, if you prefer, a shot of whiskey and a tin of biscuits.

The Midnight Mass.

Whether Protestant or Catholic, the midnight Christmas Eve service brings out folks who haven’t set foot inside a church since Easter. Churches are packed as people dress up, sing Christmas carols, and listen to live music. Sometimes, the service is candle-lit. It brings everyone back to what the season is really about—the coming of Christ to earth.

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

In the U.S., black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is the day when some people mob the stores to begin their Christmas shopping. In Ireland, it’s December 8, when schools are closed for this Catholic holiday.

Christmas Presents.

In Ireland, children wake up on Christmas morning to find Santa has left presents at the foot of their beds, often in a sack. One or two gifts might be under the tree, but they’re unwrapped.

On Christmas day, we’ll conclude our look at an Irish Christmas with Part II.

(Parts of this post first appeared as an article by this author in “Celtic Canada” magazine’s winter issue.)

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above.

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The Grand Celtic Fair, the Óenach—Part II

The Ancient Celtic Fair, the Óenach—Part II

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher concludes his look at the grand Celtic Fair of ancient Ireland, The Óenach, Part II. (Click here for Part I.)

As we saw last time, the great Celtic fairs were called only once every seven years or so. They were times feasting, drinking, games, and horse racing. It was also a place where far-flung clans could bring their wares, exhibit their crafts, and trade.

I again quote from my novel, The Bonfires of Beltane, where my main character, Taran mac Teague, describes his experience with a óenach called by Forga mac Dallán, the regional king (or Rí Cóicid) of Ulster.

The Óenach—a Grand Marketplace

“The fair filled a large field next to the forest below the fortified hilltop. Tents rose everywhere. At one end, log structures topped with hide served as shelters from the frequent drizzle. Here the vendors slept and sold their wares. Sweet-smelling wine from Gaul. Forge-hammered swords and daggers cast by expert metalworkers—iron for business, silver and bronze for show. Fruit pies, sweet breads, and honey cakes, filling the aisles with enticing aromas. Capes and tunics of newly tanned leather, smooth silk, or white wool—painted or dyed, decorated with shells, brass, or animal teeth, or woven with plaids and stripes. Hats of fur, silk, or skin. Saddles and bridles—aye, the finest hard leather all. And the musical instruments—harps, bagpipes, bone whistles, and bodhrán drums.”…

Straight from the Forge

“Early in my exploration, I chanced to meet Mùirne.

“ ‘Never have I seen such a sight.’ Her eyes were wide with excitement. ‘Kilgarren never let me see anything. And before him, I traveled na but five miles beyond our tuath.’

“ ‘So you like the fair?’

“ ‘Like it?’ She looked at me and smiled broadly. ‘Sure, and I like it just fine.’

“We decided to walk the aisles together. A man wearing a leather apron, his face scarred by years of sparks, beat a hammer on white-hot iron. Children’s eyes grew round at the sight of swords and sickles coming straight from his furnace. He pounded, bent, and shaped them on anvils before our eyes. Another smelter worked only in gold and silver. That day he was fashioning a torc, a wide, circular neck ornament of silver, on which he made intricate designs.”


A Celtic Loom

Items from the Loom

“Further on, an old woman made furs and blankets, her loom set up to weave, rods clicking back and forth. Her fingers quivered as she flipped the wooden poles, the different colored threads lining up and falling into the cloth exactly where they belonged.

“ ‘Bright plaids, lassie.’ She winked at Mùirne as her fingers flew. ‘Na but bright and cheerful plaids from my loom.’

Mead Aplenty to Go Around

“Besides the trading, there was, of course, the mead. The Ériu could never do without that intoxicating beverage. From shortly after the noon meal, it flowed like a river from the mead tents.

“Forga maintained rows of hives, spread out over five fields, with men to tend the bees. The honey was stored and chilled in caves kept for the promise of a óenach. From this he prepared vats of the drink, enough to drown a thousand men, he said. Maids dispensed it freely from four makeshift tents. Forga liked his mead drier, rather than sweeter, and even allowed a limited amount with nutmeg. Everyone brought their own mugs. Forga also provided plenty of barley ale at these tents, but he prided himself on his mead….”

Wicked Clowns

“Clowns roamed the field and aisles at will, men acting the goat, playing the fool, their faces painted in scary reds and blacks and yellows. Some would throw mocking, piercing jests at every passerby. Others told bawdy jokes and had their audiences laughing, holding their sides, and spilling their mugs. These I tried to avoid.

“ ‘I donna like the clowns.’ Mùirne frowned. ‘They’re funny, but also . . . mean.’

“ ‘Aye, they’re wicked. At any other time, some of these jests would end in dead clowns.’

“Mùirne laughed. ‘I dare say you’re right.’ ”


The Celtic Musical Tradition Lives on Today

Grand Music, Indeed

“And the musicians! Their music floated over the crowds from dozens of players, each ensconced in their own quarters. Eerie music of the pipe to put your hair on end and your skin aquiver. Drums and cymbals syncopated to the drummer’s inner beat. Tunes from the bone whistle and bagpipe to send your heart aflutter. Harps to accompany the singers’ ballads and fill your soul with grief or joy. Each musician chose his territory, and before them, the dancers would gather. The livelier the music, the more dancers they attracted. …”

That was the óenach as told through the eyes of Taran, my main character in The Bonfires of Beltane.

A Warrior’s Boasting

One thing I didn’t mention in my book was that the óenach was also a time for a warrior’s boasting of his personal conquests. How did he do this? By producing the tongues of the men he’d killed in battle. Sometimes, the braggart would inflate his trove of trophies with the tongues of cattle. But boasters beware! If you speak thus fraudulently of your success, ’tis said your sword will speak with the tongues of demons and betray your lie!

To further immerse yourself in the world of ancient, Celtic Ireland, check out my novel, The Bonfires of Beltane, from which this description of a great Celtic fair was taken.

Next time, we’ll take a look at the ancient, Celtic Otherworld.