May Day flowers

Today is May Day. For many people it’s International Workers’ Day, but it’s also the ancient spring festival of Bealtaine, celebrated during my childhood as the beginning of an entire month dedicated to Mary. And even though I’m living in the southern hemisphere these days, and we’re in the second month of autumn, old habits die hard.

In primary school, we used to have May altars in the classroom and in our houses. My great friend Steph remembers her particular school tradition:

We had a procession into the convent garden and each class put a bunch of flowers at the foot of the statue. Everyone brought in flowers, which were put together to make a bunch. One person from each class was the chosen one to lay the bunch at the feet of Mary. I loved it! My friend Finny and I would go down the bog at the back of our house picking wild irises early in the morning. And we sang Bring Flowers of the Rarest, Queen of the May to our heart’s content. (Stephanie Burton 1 May 2021)

My mum was never overly enamoured with May altars so I had to have mine in my bedroom. I had a statue of the Virgin Mary and I surrounded her with tiny vases of flowers filched from my dad’s garden or from the fields around our house.

These days, I don’t have a May altar but I do put flowers on the threshold early on May Day. This morning, I was the first one up in the house, and went barefoot to the back garden at dawn where I cut some petunias and sprigs of jasmine leaf. I don’t think being barefoot is mandatory, but it was such a beautiful morning it seemed a shame not to. Then I placed the flowers carefully on the threshold for love, luck and good health for all in the house. According to legend, witches and fairies are unusually active at this time of the year (Evans 1957:272). Thankfully, they can’t cross a threshold strewn with flowers, so that’s an added safety measure put in place!

Flowers are a common custom recorded in Irish folklore for the first day of May, described by Kevin Danaher:

Perhaps the commonest custom of all, examples of which might be cited for every county in Ireland, was the picking and bringing home of fresh flowers… Usually these were gathered before dusk on May Eve by the children, although in many places the tradition lingers that they should be picked before dawn on May Day. The children usually made ‘posies’ of the flowers, small bouquets, which they hung up in the house or laid on the doorsteps or window-sills or hung over the door. (Danaher 1972:88)

References
Danaher, K. 1972 The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs. Cork: The Mercier Press.
Evans, E.E. 1957 Irish Folk Ways. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

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Leprechauns in Adelaide for Saint Patrick’s Day 2021

I had started writing something completely different in preparation for 17 March and then I found the object pictured below. Isn’t it perfect? It was in an op shop, in a dusty plastic bag. It cost me $3.99. Which may have been over-investment in what is essentially some plastic tat and a cheap golden candle. But leprechauns! There is no point of origin marked anywhere – Ireland, China, Germany, it’s a mystery. These leprechauns materialised all by themselves in Adelaide and I have to say that when I washed off the dust they were even better than I expected. First of all, there are four of them. Usually, the leprechaun is a solitary creature. Secondly, two of them are using the candle to pole dance; this is not something I have ever encountered before, it’s certainly not a tradition I’ve come across in my research. And thirdly, the cauldron of gold and shamrocks of green are quite perfectly formed and heavy for their size. Class!

Leprechaun candle
Four leprechauns, a pot of gold, some green shamrocks and a candle.

The rest of the family is not so enamoured. ‘Donate them back’, I was told. ‘They’re embarrassing.’ ‘They have no place in a modern Irish Australian home.’ A compromise was reached and they are now confined to the study, banned from appearing anywhere else in the house. ‘And you have to donate them back soon.’ ‘Of course’, I lie. Because by now I’m quite fond of them.


The leprechaun is probably the most widely known Irish mythological creature. Traditionally, he is the fairy shoemaker, banker and guard of the fairy treasure. In fact, his very name comes from one of his occupations – leprechaun, according to Douglas Hyde (first President of Ireland and scholar) via W.B. Yeats (poet and collector of Irish legends), comes from the Irish leith bróg, the one-shoemaker, as the leprechaun is usually spotted working on a single shoe. If you encounter a leprechaun and keep a hold of him, he is obliged to show you the location of his gold hoard. Which, when you think about it, doesn’t seem like quite the right action by us mortals. If he’s essentially the fairy banker, the pot of gold belongs to the fairies or good people; it’s not ours to steal. And I for one wouldn’t want to get on their bad side. Leave well alone I say. If you meet a leprechaun while out and about, exchange good wishes, mention the weather, wish each other good health and safety in these Covid times, and go about your business.

The lepracaun, who continually makes shoes.
Drawing of a leprechaun at work on a shoe (Yeats, W.B. (1986 [1888]:81).

I think these four leprechauns who have taken up residence in our house may stay for a while. And then they’ll probably move on of their own accord. When they’re quite ready.
In the meantime, I’m sure they’ll join with me in wishing everyone a happy, safe and socially distanced Saint Patrick’s Day in 2021.

Further reading:
White, Carolyn 2008 A History of Irish Fairies. Cork: Mercier Press.
Yeats, W.B. (ed.) 1986 [1888] Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. New York: Avanel Books.

Posted in Folk traditions, Ireland, Irishness, Material culture, South Australia | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Culchie Day in the big city

Today is 8 December. It’s a holy day of obligation, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and when I was a child it was a day off school. Traditionally, this was the day that the country people went to Dublin to do their Christmas shopping, and known by Dubliners for this reason as Culchie Christmas Shopping Day. We never did this – my dad couldn’t abide the thought of those Dublin jackeens laughing at the culchies up from the country on the 8th. We went the weekend before to see the lights in Henry Street, the women on Moore Street crying ‘Last of the cheeky charlies’, the toys in Hector Grey’s and Roches Stores. And then the walk up and over the Ha’penny Bridge, past College Green to Grafton Street and Switzers where we were able to tell Santy what we wanted and gaze at the Christmas windows in wonder.

A visit to Santa Claus at Switzers in Grafton Street, Dublin, 1971
Santa at Switzers, 1971

In defence of Dublin, the Santa Claus at Switzers was a lot less scary than his alter ego down the country.

A visit to Santa in Longford, c.1966
Santa in Longford, c.1966

Extensive research (a quick look in Google) finds that Culchie Day is no longer such a big event. Online shopping and the American Black Friday sales mean that 8 December is less relevant. But for many people, it is still the day to start Christmas and put up the decorations. And in this pandemic year, when many of us are physically further apart from our families than ever before, it might be even more important to celebrate family and friendship and the anticipation of an upcoming feast. Happy Christmas on Culchie Day!

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Tools of the archaeology trade

These days, I’m deep in the results from the Baker’s Flat excavations of 2016 and 2017, analysing what we found as part of the ‘writing up’ of my PhD. As we excavated, the work was captured in words, photos, total station data, and more forms than you would care to imagine. And each time a photo was taken, its details were recorded on the Photographic Recording Form – photo number, description, photographer, date, direction of view.

But sometimes I took photos just for fun. And here are a few of them, deliberately taken without identifiable people in them, designed to highlight the tools we use. As you can see, most of them are very ordinary – buckets, string, brushes, plastic trays. They’re essential though, as are the trowels and sieves. And a sense of humour!

Sieving in the late afternoon sun.
Sieving in the late afternoon sun.
Shadows of archaeologists dancing.
Archaeologist shadow dance.
Two large sieves on top of a pile of sieved dirt.
Pink sieve and brown sieve on top of an ever increasing pile of dirt.

Posted in Baker's Flat, Excavation, Field work, Kapunda, South Australia | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Turnip carving? It must be Halloween

I’ve written before about Halloween, citing a spine-tingling poem and stories of children stolen by the good people. I loved this time as a child, that feeling of uncertainty, that strange things could happen on this one night when the membrane between our world and the next was thin and fragile, when we were on the cusp of winter and the short dark days. My mum told me how one year, one of the men she worked with saw the banshee on his way home late on Halloween night. The banshee was sitting in a window, high up in the ruins of Newtown Cathedral, combing out her long grey hair and wailing. This was just at the end of our road! I was terribly impressed.

In our family, we didn’t go calling on houses at Halloween. None of our friends did either. Most years, though, a group of young lads would call to the door masked and disguised, singing songs and playing the guitar, and in return we would give them coins and nuts. Once they had enough coins, they would go to the pub. I don’t know what they did with the nuts.

Aside from that excitement, we just ate barm brack and mixed nuts, and played games involving apples. We ducked for apples in basins of water. And we tried to snap bites of an apple as it spun round on a string hung in the middle of the doorway. This snap-apple game got more complex over the years. My dad made a small cross-piece from two pieces of wood. At each end he hammered a nail through and we stuck the apples on the nails. Four apples spinning round, and my brother and I trying to take a bite with our hands behind our backs. And then my mum would kiss us goodbye and head to her night shift as a nurse in the local hospital. As soon as she was out of sight, my dad would replace two of the apples with lighted candles. And then we had to try and take a bite of the apple before our hair caught on fire from the candles. Happy days!

These days, my Halloween adventures are a lot tamer but I do like to mark it in some way. Although I’ve carved pumpkins I’ve never tried to make a turnip lamp, which is the Irish tradition. And honestly, the year of 2020 needs all the help it can get in warding off evil spirits. So if a turnip lamp can help in some small way, I’m all for it.

To carve a turnip, you need a few tools. Some sheets of newspaper, a small cutting board, a sharp knife, a strong spoon and a ballpoint pen. The slideshow below shows the process, but basically I chopped the head off my turnip, scored a criss-cross of lines in the ‘lid’, then used these lines to help scrape out the innards with the spoon. Same process for the rest of the turnip, augmented by cutting a slice off the end for a flat base. Eyes and mouth drawn for a face, carved out with the knife and spoon, skull cap back on top, add a candle and there he is – one creepy turnip head.

That one had been so successful that I had to give it another go. With a smaller rounder turnip.

The final touches were to add a hanging wire, and then my two turnip lamps were ready to scare away all the ghoulies and ghosties that might be wandering around our South Australian suburban street.

Once Halloween is over, I’m going to hang them in the shed and see how they look in a year’s time. Watch this space!

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