Sunday, February 2, 2014


     The Irish who are scattered everywhere.  During the Great Famine, the Irish had three choices:  emigrate to anywhere, go into the workhouses, or die.  (More on the Great Famine later).
     Many chose to emigrate.  Some went to England, particularly to Liverpool, but the largest numbers of immigrants went to the United States, Canada and Ireland.  Now, there are more than 40 million people of Irish ancestry in the United States  -  5 times the number of people in Ireland during the Great Famine.  The map below (from shows the scattering of the Irish throughout the world.
image from

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Clan and Story

(image from     

      Did you know that knit sweaters of the type in the photo were the GPS of their day?  Fashioned on the Aran islands off the west coast of Ireland, each sweater had a clan pattern and that pattern belonged only to that clan.
     Each sweater told two stories; the first was the story of the land and the sea, the rocks and twists, the braid of life and the values of that clan.
     The second was a sadder story, for when a fisherman died at sea and later washed up, the clan pattern would identify him to his family, would allow him to come home from the sea to his own people.
     In pre-literate peoples, this need to capture story often expresses itself in objects. Each totem pole of coastal Native American tribes tells the story of its own clan. The horses and hands in the caves at Lascaux do something similar.  Here we are and were; here is what we saw and knew.  The glyphs of Mayan temples, the heiroglyphs of Egypt, the braided stones of the Boyne tombs in Ireland all "capture" story, prayer, purpose.
     The impulse toward story is universally human and universally necessary. In some deeply felt way (as in Jung's river of shared human consciousness) the maker of such objects knows absolutely that his story will be seen, heard or "read" when he is no longer present.  Thus, he carries on a dialogue with people he will never meet. 
     When we see such art, wear a sweater like the one above, hear a fine piece of music, read a good book, we have, in some way, linked ourselves to that person or that clan. We have participated in a storytelling in which a clear exchange has occurred between maker and recipient, even across boundaries of time or death.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Untold Story

     Near Sligo, I saw the pair from the bus window.  They were making their way through a field of high grass, angling slowly upward toward a nearby hill.  Behind them, a flock of sheep, spattered with blue paint, watched the pair as they walked away.  A raven on a fencepost turned to follow their trajectory.
     The man was tall and loose-limbed; he had a kind of scarecrow walk, as if his knees might squiggle and drop beneath him.  He wore a knit sweater, baggy and dark, the pattern clearly visible.  His hat was pulled low along his brow. In his left hand, he carried a walking stick.
     His companion was a border collie, black and white. The grass was so high that it swished along his sides.  He walked behind the man, determined and low, as if he was herding the man up the hill.
     Both of them cut chevrons into the high grass, like the prows of two ships or the determined v shapes of geese.
     Geesegrass. Seagrass.
     The light was dropping, low, spangling the lake that ran beside them.
     The image snapped itself, not into my ubiquitous camera, but onto the screen behind my eyes.  At any moment, even all these years later, I can close my eyes and see them, the watery stride of the man, the low determined collie, his tail sweeping the grass to either side.
     What was up there on the rounded hill?  A lost sheep, blue-spattered and bleating?  A lost child? Or just a moment - still - at the end of the day, when the two companions could sit and watch the light dive beneath the surface of the water?
     I will never know, but as a writer I can tell you this; these images are the places from which fiction arises,  the frozen moments, the unanswered questions, and then the leafy, papery voice that begins to whisper, "I can tell you.  I can answer.  All you have to do is listen."

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Five Places to See in Ireland and who Shouldn’t Miss Them

Five Places to See in Ireland and who Shouldn’t Miss Them
                                                           * All photos copyright Juilene Osborne-McKnight

What to See  -  Muckross House
Where  -  Killarney National Park
Who Shouldn’t Miss It  -  Downton Abbey Fans
Why?  This huge Anglo-Irish mansion has everything a Downton fan will love – stone facades decorated with climbing vines, an “upstairs” of curving staircases and elaborate fireplaces, accompanied by a “belowstairs” with a giant kitchen whose walls are full of  servant’s bells. Outside are gorgeous formal gardens, all on the shores of a shining lake ringed by mountains.

What to See  -  Newgrange Passage Tomb
Where -  Boyne Valley
Who Shouldn’t Miss It  -   Ancient History/Mystery Buffs
Why?  This tomb and temple capture the light, both literally and figuratively.  Built in approximately 3200 B.C., Newgrange predates the Great Pyramid of Giza. Visitors duck down a long passage and stand in a central room beneath a tightly corbelled ceiling. The walk takes five minutes, but it returns you to a time thousands of years before Christ.  At the winter solstice, the returning light enters the lintel above the door of the tomb, threads down the long passageway and illuminates the central room of the tomb.  But who built these passage tombs? How and why?

What to See  -  Bunratty Folk Park
Where -  County Clare
Who Shouldn’t Miss It  -  Photographers
Why?  The folk park is a virtual photographer’s stage set.  On every corner are cottages with thatched roofs, cottages with climbing roses, bicycles leaning against windows and tinker caravans from long ago.

What to See  -  Thor Ballylee
Where -  County Galway
Who Shouldn’t Miss It  -  William Butler Yeats fans
Why  -  Yeats was weird and wonderful crazy, wandering about the countryside, pressing his ear to the ground to hear the fairy folk playing on their fiddles.  At Thor Ballylee, in the ferny, greening woods, it is easy to imagine Yeats meandering the forest, climbing into his tower, writing brilliant lines like “peace comes dropping slow.”

What to See  -  Strokestown Famine Museum
Where -  County Roscommon
Who Shouldn’t Miss It  -  Fifth Generation Irish Americans, i.e. Famine Irish Descendants
Why -  In the stables beyond the house is a fine Famine museum with many records from the period.  When you see how horrible the treatment of our ancestors was, you will understand why they had to leave and why they were lucky if they were actually able to leave.  Both of your halves – Irish and American – will become self-explanatory.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Song of Amergin

                                      The Song of Amergin
                                                       Possibly an actual historical person & bard
                                                       500 B.C. - The first Irish poem
                                                       Primary Character in Song of Ireland

                                                       Translation by Douglas Hyde

I am the wind which breathes upon the sea,
I am the wave of the ocean,
I am the murmur of the billows,
I am the ox of the seven combats,
I am the vulture upon the rocks,
I am a beam of the sun,
I am the fairest of plants,
I am a wild boar in valor,
I am a salmon in the water,
I am a lake in the plain,
I am a word of science,
I am the point of the lance of battle,
I am the God who created in the head the fire.
Who is it who throws light into the meeting on the mountain?
Who announces the ages of the moon?
Who teaches the place where couches the sun?
(If not I)



Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Anam Cara

"It is strange to be here.  The mystery never leaves you alone.  Behind your image, below your words, above your thoughts, the silence of another world waits.  A world lives within you."
                                                    John O'Donohue  Anam Cara
     If you have never read this book, you must find it and read it; it will open your heart, allow your spirit to blossom, alter your thinking on life and death. 
     For the Celts of ancient Ireland, the barrier between this world and the next was not a wall, the way it is in Western culture.  Rather it was a fog -  a mist, through which they could pass easily and often.  The brilliance of O'Donohue's book is that he lets us see just how available that passage still is for us, even in our harried and technologically overwhelmed world.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Julius Caesar and the Celtic Connection

     On my webpage I tell everyone to watch for tales of Vercingetorix and here he is, photo by Brigitte Rebollar (really nice job with the clouds Brigitte - good angle too - good photo!).     
     Vercingetorix is the ancestor, perhaps genetically and certainly culturally, of my great Irish heroes Fionn Mac Cumhail and CuChulainn, but Vercingetorix was an actual, historical person and leader of unified Gaul against Julius Caesar.  The Gauls were the Celtic tribes of France.
Photo by Brigitte Rebollar
     Vercingetorix took a disjointed collection of Gallic (Celtic) tribes, united them, learned and copied Roman military techniques, created Gallic guerilla techniques, and very nearly managed to stop Caesar.  In the end, on an oppidum (ancient Gallic hill fortress) in Alesia (now Alise Sainte Reine), Vercingetorix and the Gauls were defeated, because Caesar built both a circumvallation and a contravallation around the hill, walling the Gauls in and preventing anyone else from coming to their aid.  Vercingetorix surrendered to Caesar, who paraded him around Gaul, threw him into a Roman prison and waited for years to execute this proud warrior. 
      Recently, I taught a course in Rome on Vercingetorix and the Gallic tribes of France, who were the subject of Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War. The difference engine is that I taught the course from the perspective of the Gauls, who did nothing to merit that war, and who were run over by the prodigious Roman war machine, led by Caesar, who was nothing if not a brilliant military tactician, albeit one who killed a million Gauls and sold another million into slavery. I believe that my students came to love and admire Vercingetorix as much as I do, but they will have to weigh in on that issue.  For me, he is a symbol of bravery, intelligence, strong leadership, self-sacrifice, and freedom.  I have already begun to write the book in which he features.