Originally published 23 November 2012.
Saturday night’s activity was the very best of the trip, in my humble opinion! We made it to the Brazen Head, the oldest pub in Dublin, dating from 1195, just in time to get to our seats and place our orders. Helena, the storyteller, greeted us and was just a delight right off the bat! We were seated by the fire in the corner, but we had no trouble seeing from our spot. I was happy to be by the fireside, myself, even though a couple of the waitstaff said they could turn it down if we got too warm. After such chilly weather, I was happy to be warm and toasty for the next three hours!
Just a few minutes after the 7:00 start time, Helena rang a little bell to get our attention. She explained the schedule of things—stories, food, stories, food and music, stories—and told us the types of things she’d be talking about: food, Irish culture, the world through Ireland’s eyes, and the “truth” about faeries and the legends of Old World Ireland. All that sounded good to me! Helena is a spectacular storyteller. She’s so entertaining and has an enchanting voice. She really made the experience special!
First up: Why is the potato so influential and prominent in Ireland and the Irish culture?
Ireland was the poorest country in Europe. Nearly all the land was owned by landlords, not be the people. Folks had to work very hard to earn enough money to pay rent and still feed and clothe their families at the end of the day. The crops most people grew took a lot of effort to plant, grow, and harvest, and people didn’t make much money off of these things. People were also rather unhealthy because they were not consuming enough food for energy in daily life. But when the humble potato was introduced in the 1790s, the Irish world changed for the better! In the span of just 50 years, Ireland’s population had move than doubled!
What was the magic? Well, potatoes can grow in most any type of soil—rocky, flat, hilly, whatever. They also LOVE rain… of which Ireland already had an overabundance! And the only tool you needed was a spade—no plow, no horse or donkey, no heavy machinery! One acre of potatoes could feed 6-8 people for an entire year. Your typical farmer himself was eating about 14 pounds of potatoes… PER DAY! People were finally getting the calories they so desperately needed to live, plenty of potassium and they could sell all these potatoes to pay their rent and still have enough to clothe their families!
The Irish got right creative with their potatoes. They would make boxty, potato cakes, colcannon, and other interesting concoctions and mixtures to change up the flavor of the potatoes and add bulk to their other forms of nourishment. They’d put potatoes in their stews; mix them with cabbage, onions and butter; make bread out of it, etc.
Things were going along great for a while. The people in Ireland thought the faeries were all happy with them… until August of 1845. The potato blight came to Ireland. Know what happens in a potato blight? Potatoes rot in the ground. And you and can smell it. People didn’t know why this was happening. Were the faeries upset with the people of Ireland? People thought a volcano had erupted underground. Priests took holy water out to the fields and tried to fix the situation, but nothing helped. By 1847 (called “Black ‘47”), hunger was taking its toll, and diseases such as cholera and various fevers were spreading rampantly.
Many Irish felt they had no choice but to emigrate. Most went to the States or Canada in what they would call “coffin ships.” Whenever someone died onboard the ship, they had to be buried at sea. Once the survivors made it to America, they had a hard time integrating, especially in the larger cities. America was largely a Protestant nation, and the Catholic faith the Irish brought with them was seen as a threat to the American way of life. Also, the Irish spoke Gaelic, not English—or at least not much of it. But they made their way! There are currently around 17 million Irish and people of Irish descent all over the world—they say the biggest Irish export is people!
And then we had our appetizers. I had the fish cake, which I thought would be like a crab cake. It sort of was, but it was thicker and included lots of different sea creatures, not just crab—and of course potatoes!
And now, on to the faeries!
When things happen that people don’t understand, the human mind begins to fill the void–or make things up. =) That’s where the faeries come in for the Irish. The faeries live in the underworld, which is an idyllic place to live. The faeries controlled everything, and they were not necessarily good people–they were to be feared!
This is what the Irish people believed, and to a degree some still do, until St. Patrick came in to teach them about Catholicism around the 5th century. When that happened, people used to explain the Biblical accounts and facts using faery tales, as a way to find common ground with these people.
There are two types of faeries: trooping and solitary. Trooping faeries move around and can take on any shape or form–including that of a person! Mostly they do this on Samhain (pronounced “sah-wen”), which is Halloween! So obviously, children in old Ireland do NOT go out on Halloween–they don’t want to be caught in the path of a faery who could take them away!
Solitary faeries pretty much keep to themselves. Leprechauns are this type of faery! Their job is to make shoes for faeries and to guard their treasure. Crafty leprechauns are known to encourage drinking and gambling. But we know them today as happy, jovial little people who wear green all the time and lead people to their pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. =)
Other faeries to be feared are the banshee and the pucah. Ever heard the term “screamin’ like a banshee?” That expression came from Ireland and alludes to the fact that banshees wail and scream when they’re about to steal someone away with death! The pucah is an evil of a different sort. He hangs out in the pubs. When men finish drinking at the pub and start home for the night, the pucah will take him and carry him away for hours! So when the man went stumbling home at 5:00am the next morning, he blamed it on the pucah’s magic! Another thing about faeries is that they like little boys. And by like, I mean they take them away! So, the Irish tended to dress their little boys in dresses to look like little girls to fool the faeries!
So, faeries live in the underworld, but they come up to Earth on occasion. Where do they stay during that time? In faery trees and faery forts, of course! People do NOT build homes or other buildings on a faery fort or tree. Some have tried, but there are even recent accounts of terrible things happening. When DeLorean built a car plant on property where there was a faery fort, it failed! Others have built homes on faery forts and had the houses burn down or have other bad things happen like that. Once, when the government wanted to build a road clear through a faery tree, the people of Ireland protested! Helena described the out come of the road, “Straight, straight, straight. Around the tree. Straight, straight, straight.” When asked if they believe in faeries, some Irish folk will say, “No, but they’re there anyway.” Ha!
And then it was time for our entrees and dessert! =)
Yes, it was as delicious as it looked!
Anyway, back to the final stories and songs. During our lovely dinner, a duo or Irish instrumentalists and singers came in to entertain us! They played traditional Irish songs and had us all playing games and clapping during the meal, without being intrusive. =) It was such fun!
Back to the storytelling! Helena informed us that, as we may have already figured out, the Irish didn’t just kiss the Blarney Stone, they swallowed it! They have a love of conversation and stories, which has been spread with them throughout the world. Winter has always been the best time to tell stories because of the cold, short days. Sitting in front of the fire is the perfect place for telling stories, as the fire is the spark of the family. As a matter of fact, the family fire was never extinguished. It burned low throughout the night, then was stoked in the morning. Even when the Irish decided to emigrate, they would take embers from their family fire and share it with neighbors, as if to keep the family going in the hearts and homes of their friends. She told us a few other Irish tales that kept us entertained, then sang a beautiful version of Van Morrison’s sing, “Irish Heartbeat,” dedicated to her sister and other Irish who have emigrated throughout the world and would like to come home.
It was wonderful! I would highly recommend the evening to ANYONE visiting Dublin! The food was fabulous, the stories and music were such fun, and Helena was just fabulous! I’m not sure how many other storytellers they have, but I’m sure it’s incredible every time! Helena left us only after we promised her one thing: that we would all go home and tell stories. She said everyone heard her telling the same stories, but all of us had different pictures in our heads. Everyone has an individual imagination!
That’ll be no problem for me… as you well know by now! I hope you’ve thoroughly enjoyed our Irish adventures! Where will QuickWhit turn up next? I’m open to suggestions! Wherever it is, I hope you’ll join me always!