Monday, April 04, 2011

Of Brigit's Cloak, An Ancient Yew Forest, Bee Judgements and Bould Actors

I should have thought of it sooner, of course. Isn't it always the way, that you have studied something for years, and yet you never apply its practicalities to your own life? That back of mine wasn't getting any better, and I was still unable to sit at the computer - or anywhere else for that matter - for more than two minutes at a time without discomfort. With time to think (a rare commodity), I remembered that the morrow was Feb 1, Brigit's Day, Candlemas, Imbolc, whatever you call it in your corner of the world. And that very day, a friendly woman who runs a great coffee house in Macroom town square, had said her family had always put out the 'Brat Bride' on the eve of her festival. I'd been checking for old customs and traditions as usual, for De Next Book, and noted this down carefully as evidence of the old ways still continuing in West Cork. Somewhere between twilight and dark, the rusty penny dropped in my own brain. Why not put out the Brat Bride myself, and see would it help the back any? (It's pronounced 'brah breed-eh' by the way.) This is a length of ribbon or cloth placed on a friendly bush on Brigit's Eve where the dew or rain can fall on it, and Brigit herself can confer power upon it as she passes. Next day it is brought back into the house, dried, and kept carefully for the year ahead, to apply to anyone suffering from pain or injury. What better to use than the Advent Lace Shawl I'd knitted along on with Zemy during December? Just the right sort of thing to appeal to Brigit, I felt.

Outside the front door it went, to be carefully draped around the bay tree which stands there in a pot. Didn't dare to place it any further afield, as the wild winds would certainly blow it to Tir na n'Og and I'd never see it again. Brought it in duly on February 1, dried it, and laid it across my bed that night. Possibly it was going to happen anyway, especially with the physiotherapy I'd been getting, but my back started to improve right away.

Now it's in a place of honour on the spinning chair, ready for the next emergency. Old ways are good.

So much recovered did I feel that we headed down to Killarney in search of a very ancient yew forest, the only one remaining in Ireland, and one of just three in Europe overall. It has all kinds of official protective status now, but for me the important thing was that it had been there back in the mists of time, when trees were highly valued and believed to be the holders of considerable magical powers. Oh of course we know better these days. How could a tree be stronger or better for us than a computer chip, for heaven's sake? What benefit could a bush possibly bestow that modern technology cannot?

Here's just a glimpse of the edge of that ancient wood, which was old when the Tuatha de Danann walked this land. You'll get more when we go back in brighter spring weather to do a serious photoshoot. But let me share with you a very very venerable quotation which I discovered recently while researching De Next Book. The speaker is Fintan the seer, who claims to his hearers that he survived the Deluge and has lived in Ireland ever since, seeing kings come and go, landscapes change, while he lives ever on. ‘One day I passed through a wood of West Munster in the west. I took away with me a red yew berry and I planted it in the garden of my court and it grew up…’ Now you can't get more west Munster than Killarney, and I think that Fintan is surely speaking here of this selfsame ancient yew wood of Reenadinna, now within Killarney National Park. It gives you a strange feeling to stand silently amid those trees and moss-covered rocks, and think how long this forest has been here. Of course the individual trees grow and die (though yew has a very long life, sometimes a thousand years), but new ones spring up from their roots or their fruit, and the forest continues in an unbroken tradition.

Here is Sophy looking suitably enigmatic, almost swallowed up in the thick moss which covers every rock and fallen branch in Reenadinna.

On the way back, called in at Muckross House where a craftsman was making the traditional straw hats for the Biddy Dancers.

Here are the Biddy Dancers themselves, executing a lively jig outside the house. They even had a brideog with them, the traditional figure which used to be carried around by children on Brigit's Day, while they begged for pennies. I should point out, in the interests of historical accuracy, that this version I saw at Muckross had been pretty well Christianised with a white dress and veil. The original type would have been roughly fashioned of straw and wrapped in a scrap of cloth. But she is holding Brigit's cross of rushes which is genuinely historic. It's not really a cross, but the very ancient symbol for the sun, used by the Sumerians among many other races. That the Irish would greet the coming of spring by making sun symbols of rushes is entirely appropriate. Now where was I? Oh yes, trees and their power. Did you know that the old Irish Brehon laws provided specially for the protection of trees? They most certainly did, and the modern Tree Preservation Order is but a poor copy. Seven species were classified as Nobles of the Wood, and to damage one of these in any way brought heavy fines. They were oak, hazel, holly, yew, ash, pine and apple. After that came the Commoners, the Lower Divisions, and the Bushes of the wood, all with their own legal protection. Heck, to remove one of the noble trees entirely brought a penalty of three milch cows with their calves. That would beggar you in ancient Ireland, and certainly make you think again about random acts of devastation. But the Brehon Laws were, above all, sensible, practical, and reflective of the life of the times. Wood was valuable, trees were important. So were bees, which provided the only source of sweetness before the coming of sugar. There was a special section of the laws known as the Bee Judgements. Isn't that nice? If you kept bees, you had to give a share of their honey every third year to your neighbours, since after all the bees had gathered pollen over their fields too. See what I mean? Practical and sensible. Enough. You're probably thoroughly sick of old Irish yew woods, not to mention the bees. On to more interesting topics. Like world famous actors, for instance.

The nice thing about pottering down by the seashore for an afternoon is that you simply never know who's going to happen by. Now you might not recognise this well-wrapped up gentleman on the skewbald, but think Brideshead Revisited, French Lieutenant's Woman, Betrayal, Lolita, The Merchant of Venice, or indeed the upcoming Borgias. Yes, it's Jeremy Irons, who lives not far away along the coast, when he has time to be in Ireland. Didn't get better pictures than this, because quite honestly, we both feel that when he's at home, he wants to be treated like one of the crowd, and that's what everyone does. Have to say though that he is an amazing rider, the best I think I've ever seen. Rides long, like an American, and stays simply glued to the saddle even at full gallop. Quite something to watch... and watch...

Knitting, knitting, knitting. Yes, it's been done - lots of it. Sock Madness is upon us once more, and so far two rounds have been completed.

Here are the Nornirs from Round Two. I love this brightly dyed yarn, a present from Zemy (she of the Advent Scarf KAL). It was perfect for the Nornirs.

And do you remember that nice Hitchhiker scarf I made some time back, in Wollmeise yarn? Well, we were dashing through Amsterdam airport a week or so ago, and I thought I saw something rather familiar just in front of me in the queue:

Look at that! What are the chances of finding two Hitchhiker scarves, both worked in Wollmeise, in the queue for the Cork flight? (The lady was a little taken aback by my enthusiasm, so I promised I wouldn't show faces, just her lovely pink version of the scarf.)

Managed to get a batch of dyeing done this weekend,

and the sun came out long enough to allow them to be photographed. You wouldn't believe how wet that grass is, and how drenched the branches above! When the next downpour came, retired to the study and put all the yarns up on eBay. Mostly merino/tencels, but a couple of merino/silks too.

Now that's it, I think. Oh no, no, I forgot! We have another sock machine! Yes, really. I know, I KNOW, but how could I pass this one by? Blessings on LizLimerick who alerted me to the devastating news that there was one for sale in Annascaul. Couldn't sleep that night! Kept waking up thinking, 'I can't, I can't. But - how can I not?'

This is when the true worth of the DH comes out. He could have said, 'You're joking!' He could have said, with truth, 'Don't you think you have enough already?' But he didn't. He hauled on his heavy coat (it was a freezing day) and went out to warm up the car. What a treasure.

And it was a freezing day. You wouldn't believe that we could get snow in March in West Cork, but we did.

It was quite eerie, driving through the tiny hamlet of Glenflesk with the grey winds whistling, and seeing the mountains towering up with their filmy white mantles.

Even the unicorn which rears up proudly on the border 'twixt Cork and Kerry had drifts of snow on his western flank, showing without doubt which way the wind was blowing.

Annascaul is the village that produced Antarctic explorer extraordinaire, Tom Crean, a mild-mannered, soft-voiced man who went out with several terrifying and fateful expeditions yet survived them all to come home, open a pub, and live peacefully ever after. What a man. Ni beidh a leitheidh aris ann.

But the sock machine, the sock machine, I hear you cry! Yes, here it is, just as I saw it first, when we arrived at the house where it was waiting.

Well could you have left that behind, turned your back and walked away? No, I thought not. The sheer weight of history (we won't talk about the weight of the machine, no, not, while my back is still delicate) would stop you in your tracks.

Almost the best thing was that Derek, here seen dismantling the stand for easier transportation to the car, actually knew its history, and had been involved in it. That makes the machine so much more intrinsically valuable. It had belonged, he explained, to an elderly lady called Hilda, who lived near them in London. She had been blind from teenage days, and had been taught by the Society for the Blind to operate this machine which they found for her. So adept did Hilda get at making socks (yes, even turning the heels, a procedure I myself haven't yet ventured to try on one of these babies) that the Society would take her to festivals and fairs to demonstrate. Isn't that something? Puts me to shame, it really does, with my pusillanimous efforts. As she became more elderly, though, Hilda's arthritis wouldn't permit her to work the machine any more, and rather than let it fall into disuse, standing ina corner of her flat, she offered it to Derek and his wife. They brought it over to Ireland, and now he wanted to sell it on to someone who would actually continue to use it.

Here is a picture of Hilda herself (who has since passed away). It's taken from Derek's computer screen, so it might look a little odd, but it's wonderful to see this courageous lady, all dressed up for a special occasion. A good life, well lived. That we may all learn from you, Hilda. And thank you, Derek, for passing on the trust.

Miraculously the cafe at Inch Strand (an amazingly long beach jutting out into the ocean for miles, they filmed the horse races for Playboy of the Western World there back in the late 50s) was open, not at all a common occurrence during a chilly Irish March, so we went in and had coffee and lemon cake. The management obligingly turned a blind eye to the fact that Sophy had come in too.

Oh the fun we had unpacking! Because not only was there the machine itself (a Harrison Sun by the way) and its mightily heavy stand (made, Derek told us, by the same Glaswegian firm that made stands for deck cannon, and I wouldn't be surprised), but several sacks of yarn cones, some beautiful antique wooden cones, set-up baskets, weights, spare ribbers, cams, and all kinds of other goodies. Look at these! Genuine old wooden stocking shapers. And sixty - yes sixty - steel DPNS, about size 2.25mm as far as I can ascertain. Yes, I'll be looking to dispose of some of the spares in due course, and will let you know. Need to work out how much yarn is on the cones, that sort of thing. But the machine works delightfully, even though it desperately needs a good clean to remove the oil and gunge of half a century or more. I think it's happy to be back in use again. They built these beauties to last, and more power to them.

Welcome to your new home, a chroi istig.


Ruth said...

Happiness is seeing you up and about again. And yes, I'd keep that scarf someplace safe in case it needs to be used. (but hopefully not).

Katie K said...

I'm so glad you're back in the saddle again yourself, having been feeling concern this past weekend about how you were doing. Congrats on the recovery and the sock machine. Did you know, by the way, that there are acupuncturists who can do amazing things to correct backs and other skeletal-muscular problems? If you were here in NYC I'd take you to one who would set you right for sure.

Anonymous said...

I certainly can appreciate receiving the heritage of the sock machine. Yesterday a fellow church member met me just inside the church and greeted me with "Do you crochet?" Well, yes, I do, but not as much as knitting. She presented me with an old cigar tube crammed full with small crochet hooks, many sizes 14-16. They had been her grandmother's. What a gift! Those will be used for placing tiny beads on lace knitting.

lilysgrannie said...

Bingo! I was hoping you left a post today and such an interesting one it was too. I'm going to have to read up on sock machines as I don't really know about them. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

"Isn't it always the way, that you have studied something for years, and yet you never apply its practicalities to your own life?"

Bless you for reminding me that I am not alone in this tendency!

I simply cannot wait for Da Next Book!

Anonymous said...

How fortunate that you decided to go for another sock machine - it comes with such a good story. May we learn from Hilda, indeed.

The bits of lore about the trees and the Bee Judgements have us looking forward ever more eagerly to the new book. And I'm looking forward to putting out the Brat Bride next year. Does a climbing rose or grapevine count as a bush?
-- Gretchen

magli840 said...

Jo - so happy to see another post from you! And thanks to you, I also have a Brat Bride of my own, placed outside out window at Waterford Castle on Jan. 31. It rained overnight and miraculously the next day it was like spring arrived.

I am finishing my first project with the Irish yarn I brought home, did the Kilcarra project first because I felt a little more confident that the pattern fit my skill level. LOVE the yarn.

Happy spring - it might finally have arrived here in northern Ohio!

Anonymous said...

So glad to see you back! I have certainly missed your posts. I have your blog on my sidebar and check everytime I'm up to see how you are! Happy Spring Jo!

Oh BTW - in previous contact many moons ago you mentioned that you had been in our neck of the woods once upon a life time (Cape Town) Well, we are now a bit closer to yours as we have just moved to England. So far so good! Loving being in the UK.


Mary Burke said...

How lovely! We visited Tom Crean's pub last year - it was truly an amazing site. Best of luck with the new sock machine - though I hope you won't abandon your DPNs completely. Tell you what - keep the machines for making knee socks!

Angeluna said...

Delightful journeys with you, Mistress Jo. My favorite photo of the bunch? Little Miss Sophy Wackles in her very own chair at the café on Inch Strand.

The new sock machine is indeed a treasure. You are so funny obsessive.

Unknown said...

I'm truly delighted that you found such an honourable and worthy use for your advent scarf. One does need ones back!

Your new treasure is exquisite and I am already in anticipation of what wonders the two of you will produce.

Helen of PEI said...

I enjoyed warm sunny days, music & dance filled evenings in Killarney the first week of March. Only had a glimpse of beautiful Cork/Kerry at that. I look forward to your posts and hope to return and explore your corner of the world again soon.

Unknown said...

Yay, so happy to see you again! And glad to hear you're feeling better.
I was just telling my roommate that you are my favorite blogger. I also couldn't agree more about trees. When I went to Killarney National Park I couldn't help but hug a tree. Trees understand.

Anonymous said...

I love, love, love to hear of your adventures and see the lovely photos. Especially of trees & forests. The picture of the edge of the wood--one can almost feel it breath. Am looking forward to the release of 'De Next Book'.

Am glad your back is better. I'm sure Brigit was delighted by the shawl! And congrats on the sock machine find and its fascinating history.

Winston, GA

Wendy said...

So glad that you are finally back. We missed you! Glad that the back is better and hopefully will stay that way.Glad that you you got the sock machine. I think that it was meant for you. Now don't stay away so long.

New Hampshire

Linda said...

Jo, what a wonderful post, they continue to remind me of our wonderful trip two short years ago. I finally finished my Central Park Hoodie(minus the hood) using my beautiful Kerry Woolen Mill yarn, I love it! It will get a lot of use with our long Montana winters. Take care, Linda and family.

Windybrook Spinner said...

Congrats on the wonderful sock machine. How neat to have the story with it. I love the Brat Bride scarf and I am very glad your back is improving.

Anonymous said...

What a great post to come back with, too - everything from yew forests to sock machines (and I'm glad that it has found a new home where it will be loved and valued and, most importantly, used).

Sarah said...

I really enjoyed the post; the ancient laws, the woods, the sock knitting machine and I'm glad your back is feeling better.

annie said...

Happy to see you back doing things you love. And I love all the interesting things you so and write of .

I wanted to look up the machine and found this sight with Harrison instruction manuals. Hope you find it helpful!

Dez Crawford said...

Congratulations on the sock machine, my friend! What a find.

Unexpected snow is always a delight. We had four inches of it here in Baton Rouge about 20 years ago in the first week of March. It's a bit of an event to have more than a light dust of snow in December, January or February here, absolutely astounding in March.

I would treasure a set of those steel dpns if you ever choose to part with some, and would compensate you with a fine trade in handspun in return, like any good Druid would. :)

Mael Brigde said...

Jo, I have reposted the first few paragraphs of this entry on my Brigit blog, "Brigit's Sparkling Flame", with a link back to your blog.

This is a lovely posting, and I look forward to reading more of your thoughts (and looking at more of your photos) over time.

Tracie said...

I thought you'd be interested to know that I have just read this post. Five years after its writing.

I am doing lots of reading about Ireland as my husband and I are about to take a holiday there. In less than 2 weeks time we will be driving around the perimeter of Ireland. I'm so excited!

I was reading about Brigid and had read the term "put out the cloak" but didn't know what it meant. Your blog was the first thing I came upon that explained it. But then the reading was so good, I read the whole thing! Just wonderful. Thank you!