Aug 31, 2010


From: Encyclopedia of Irish Spirituality, Phyllis G. Jestice

"Family relations were the most important stabilizing element in early Irish society. Irish law recognized kindred obligations that extended through four generations..."

Families can be unstable, of course. They can provide stress, and often emotions run high in families. So it is with mine. But my family also grounds me. Who knows me better besides God?

My sister Regena, Me, Regena's daughter Michelle, 1979.

I lost my oldest sister on August 19, unexpectedly. When that happens to you, you start thinking again about family and want to strengthen your ties. How many times have you been to a funeral and heard someone say: "We should get together in happier times. We only see each other now at funerals."

But really, that's not a bad thing. When do you need each other more than during a time of grief.

Hug, write notes, make phone calls, pay a visit. You'll be glad you did, trust me.

Aug 27, 2010


Circles are important in Celtic culture. The ancient sacred spaces were circles or enclosed by circles. Many buildings were circular. Towers were round. Celtic crosses bear circular rings. Did the ancients look to the heavenly bodies in the sky for inspiration? Or did they feel safe enclosed in a circle, like in a mother's arms? I don't know. I'd love to hear what you think.

It's interesting to note that the early Irish Christians used what is called a circling prayer. From my book, Celtic Wisdom:

"These prayers were appeals for protection and called for some things to be within the circle and some to be outside it. For example:
Circle me, Lord.
Keep peace within, keep harm without.
Circle me, Lord.
Keep love within, keep hatred without.

Aug 25, 2010

Irish Calendars

For us a day begins at sunrise. But for the ancient Celts it began at twilight. A festival would begin at twilight and end at the next twilight. For example Samhain (which we call Halloween) would begin at twilight on October 1 and run until twilight on November 1.

Thus dark was the beginning rather than light. In the same way, the new year begins in the dark half of the year (winter.)

This concept is common to many cultures, including Judaism. Every wonder why? Perhaps it's because of this:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. God called the light "day," and the darkness he called "night." And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. ~Genesis 1:1-5 NIV

Note "there was evening and there was morning--the first day."

Aug 23, 2010

Irish Time

No, I'm not talking about the Irish being perpetually late or not particularly worried about time schedules. That's another topic. I'm talking about the ancient Irish perception of time. This can be a difficult concept for modern thinkers who view time as linear: yesterday, today, tomorrow.

These ancient people believed that for God, all time was simultaneous. That is why many of the legends disregard chronological time. For instance, St. Brigid was said to have been midwife to the Virgin Mary, despite that she lived in the 5th century. St. Ita nursed the baby Jesus. St. Brigid and St. Patrick were contemporaries (when they weren't) and other saints are said to have spoken to St. Patrick before he came back to Ireland even though they lived hundreds of years after St. Patrick died.

Does this sound odd? If it does, consider that it's the stories--not the lack of historical accuracy--that is important. When I give talks people often ask if these ancient saints were real people, is there proof that they existed? I believe the stories are lessons to guide us in our spiritual lives. While Brigid could not have aided in Jesus's birth, the fact that the story says she did points to her character. She was giving and kind, and would have been someone Mary would have asked if she had the chance because Brigid was that special and had that close of a relationship with Christ.

It's hard to think of how God views time because our brains are so limited. I suppose the ancient Irish were trying to picture the concept for themselves, and thus, for us who would read and hear of the tales down through the ages.

Aug 20, 2010

Scots-Irish Ancestors

In my last post I provided a link to an article I wrote several years ago on the Scots-Irish. I'm quoting from that article.

They've been called a people without a name. Their roots go back to Scotland, but don't think tartans and bagpipes. They were Lowlanders, mostly coming from the border regions of Galloway, Dumfries, Renfrewshire, Ayrshire, Argyllshire and Lanarkshire in the west and Edinburgh, the Lothians and Berwichshire in the east. They spoke English and were Protestant, specifically Presbyterian.

They were different from their Highland cousins. They didn't wear kilts, didn't belong to clans, or speak Gaelic. But they weren't English either. They didn't support the Anglican Church. They held onto the memory of bloody massacres that their ancestors suffered at the hands of English conquerors centuries earlier.

Their history in Scotland was not pleasant. These people were caught, both geographically and politically, between the English to the south and the Highlanders to the north.

In the seventeenth century, when Scottish and English land-grant owners sought tenants to populate the northern region of Ireland and drive out the Catholics, the Lowland Scots fit the bill. They were not Catholic and they spoke English. To the English monarchy, the Lowland Scots were preferable to the Irish Catholics. The downtrodden Lowlanders had suffered endless cattle raids, had themselves resorted to such raids because of their poverty, and had lived on infertile, over-farmed land for centuries. The prospect of large, bountiful tenant farms in Ireland, a short jaunt across the Irish Sea, was more than appealing.

But as the decades passed, the transplanted Scots became known as dissenters. They did not vow allegiance to the Church of England, detesting tithing to a church they didn't support, and were governed by the Penal Laws. Those laws prevented dissenters from voting, bearing arms or serving in the military. Dissenters could not be married, baptized or buried with the assistance of any minister who was not ordained by the church of the state.

When I learned this, it helped answer why my specific ancestor, Thomas Little, who was born in Dumfries, Scotland, came to Ireland (my direct ancestor, his daughter Nancy Little, was born in Co. Down, Downpatrick, Ireland.) And then doing more historical study I learned why they probably left Ireland and came to America. Thomas Little's name shows up in lists of Dissenters. About the time they left leases were coming due on land that had been renting for decades, and the leases were doubled. Families like the Littles had little choice but to immigrate, and land in America was cheap and plentiful. We are often told that these people immigrated for religious reasons, and while that might be true, it was a small part of the picture. They came with the hope of providing a better life for their families.

Do you have a story like this about your family? I'd love to hear it!

Aug 18, 2010

Our Irish Ancestors

When did your Irish ancestors come to America? Was it during the Great Potato Famine of the mid-19th century? Was it more recent? Or was it earlier, pre-Revolutionary War? That's when mine came, in 1771. In that era the vast majority of immigrants from Ireland were Protestant Scots-Irish, or those who earlier had come from Scotland. You can read more about these Scots-Irish in an article I wrote.

I'm excited about a new publication that should be on newstands soon. "Tracing Your Irish Roots" is a culmination of the best articles on Irish genealogy published by Family Chronicle, Internet Genealogy, and the now out of print Discovering Family History. You can order it online. They're offering free shipping until Sept. 1!

Your ancestors may have come through Ellis Island. You can search records here free.

Got any interesting Irish ancestor stories to tell? I'd love to hear!

Aug 16, 2010

Why Family History Matters

This week I'm going to blog about family history. Later in the week I'll talk more specifically about Irish and Scots-Irish genealogy.
It's a mystery to me why some people aren't interested in genealogy. Perhaps they have the idea that it's just boring names and dates of people long dead. And if that's all it was, I probably wouldn't be interested either. But it's a mistake to think that you're a lone entity totally disconnected from the past. In fact, you are the result of someone else's being, someone else's struggle, someone else's lifelong journey. I'm not just talking about your parents, but your grandparents, and their parents before them, and on and on...

This becomes clear when you look at photographs. You can detect family resemblances sometimes. You can sometimes see the joy, pain, or just the results of a hard life on those faces. And then you begin to wonder who they were, where they lived, why they moved here and there, what motivated them, what they believed in, what values they held....then you are hooked.

It's the stories about those who went before us that are so fascinating and can tell us something about ourselves. For instance, my hardworking and sometimes hard headed (I mean that affectionately) in-law family, The Thomsons, are related to Charles Thomson, secretary to the Continental Congress. They are directly related to his brother William Thomson who, at about age 60, fought at Valley Forge and was court martialed for swearing at his commanding officer. General George Washington dismissed the court martial, saying that William Thomson had good cause for his actions. Was this tenacity and grit a family trait? It seems so. By knowing about this, the Thomson family members might be inspired to fight for what they believe in as well, in whatever form that might take in modern times.

It matters where we came from. For as Irish statesman Edmund Burke said, "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it."

We want to know and understand the mistakes that were made in the past so that we can try to avoid them. It does seem like society keeps making the same mistakes over and over, but we as individuals can take up that challenge and learn from the past. And not only should we learn from the mistakes, but also from the great, inspiring, courageous deeds that defined our ancestors' lives.

The Bible instructed the Israelites to remember the past, and remembering is good for us even today.

"Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates." Deut. 6: 5-9 NIV

Aug 13, 2010

WB Yeats

W.B. Yeats lived from 1865 to 1939. He was one of the greatest English language poets of the 20th century, and is one of my favorites. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. A troubled soul, he explored the ideas of reincarnation, communication with the dead, mediums, supernatural systems and Oriental mysticism--nothing I would promote. But his poetry is deeply emotional and thoughtful just the same. His first poems were published in 1885. Like Douglas Hyde (and sometimes with him) he translated old Celtic legends and stories. He helped found the Irish Literary Theater with Lady Gregory.

Below is one of my favorite Yeats poems. (I blogged about this poem back in April, but it's good enough to repeat it.)


by: W. B. Yeats

      ANCE there upon the shore;
      What need have you to care
      For wind or water's roar?
      And tumble out your hair
      That the salt drops have wet;
      Being young you have not known
      The fool's triumph, nor yet
      Love lost as soon as won,
      Nor the best labourer dead
      And all the sheaves to bind.
      What need have you to dread
      The monstrous crying of wind?

Aug 11, 2010

Another Irish Poet

Patrick Kavanagh, born 1904 in Inniskeen, Co. Monaghan. He worked on the family farm until he moved to Dublin in 1939. He began his publishing career around that time but most of his well known poetry is from the 1950's and '60s. The photograph is a statue of Kavanagh in a park Dublin, Ireland. Below is a similar one taken in Downtown Disney in Orlando, FL.


They laughed at one I loved-

The triangular hill that hung

Under the Big Forth. They said

That I was bounded by the whitethorn hedges

Of the little farm and did not know the world.

But I knew that love's doorway to life

Is the same doorway everywhere.

Ashamed of what I loved

I flung her from me and called her a ditch

Although she was smiling at me with violets.

But now I am back in her briary arms

The dew of an Indian Summer lies

On bleached potato-stalks

What age am I?

I do not know what age I am,

I am no mortal age;

I know nothing of women, Nothing of cities,

I cannot die Unless I walk outside these whitethorn hedges.

Aug 9, 2010

A Irish Poet

Douglas Hyde was Ireland's first president. He was born in Castlerea, Co. Roscommon in 1860. As a teenager, he fostered a love of the written word and composed stories, poetry, and plays. He also became an advocate for preserving the Irish language, co-founding the Gaelic League (Conradh Na Gaeilge) in 1893. He died in 1949, leaving a legacy of both his poetry and others, which he translated. For example:

A Poem to Be Said on Hearing the Birds Sing by Douglas Hyde
A FRAGRANT prayer upon the air
My child taught me,
Awaken there, the morn is fair,
The birds sing free;
Now dawns the day, awake and pray,
And bend the knee;
The Lamb who lay beneath the clay
Was slain for thee.

An ancient poem Hyde translated:

Feet of fine bronze under it
Gittering through beautiful ages,
Lovely land throughout the world's age,
On which the many blossoms drop.

An [ancient] tree there is with blossoms
On which birds call to the hours
It is with harmony it is their wont
To call together every hour.

Unknown is wailing or trechery,
In the familar cultivated land,
There is nothing rough or hard,
But sweet music striking on the ear.

Without grief, without sorrow, without death,
Without any sick men, without debility,
That is the sign of Emain,
Uncommon is an equal marvel.

I'm not an expert in poetry, and I don't write it, but if you are or if you do, you might find Douglas Hyde's words about the ancient poetry interesting:

I have now shown, and I think proved beyond any question, that the fair flower of poetry had blossomed amongst the Gaels in the seventh century, and possibly for a considerable time before that. They had many measures, or metres, or forms of versification, they had Uaithne (middle assonance), Uaim (alliteration) ComhĂ rda (Irish rhyme), a settled number of syllables in the line, and of lines in the verse, as far back as the seventh century, at the least. This is to say that the Gaels were three hundred years or more in advance of the rest of Europe, in everything pertaining to poetry.~ From Irish Poetry: An Essay in Irish with Translation in English and a Vocabulary by Douglas Hyde, 1902.

Aug 6, 2010

A Legend About St. Columcille

As I promised on Monday, I'm going to share one of my favorite legends about one of the three patron saints of Ireland, St. Columcille.

Better known by his Latin name, St. Columba, he was the founder of Iona. He is also the subject of the first Loch Ness monster sighting, way back in the 6th century!

In Scotland, he was on a journey with some of his followers. They came upon a riverbank where a crowd of people stood around a body. The man, they said, had just been killed by a monster in the river (the Loch Ness River that feeds the Loch Ness, the now famous lake in Scotland.) St. Columcille needed to get to the other side of the river. There was a boat, but it was on the other side. He ordered one of his followers to jump into the river, swim to the other side and get the boat, and then bring it back to him and the others. Would you have done that? I mean there was a dead man who had just killed in that river! But this man obeyed. He was about halfway across when a giant monster rose out of the water. The creature was just about to snatch the poor man when St. Columcille held up his hand and said, "In the name of God, stop right there."

The monster froze.

"Now, go back down to the bottom. You will never leave this place again."

The monster obeyed and sank back to the bottom of the river. The man swam across, got the boat, brought it back, and St. Columcille and his fellow monks went on their merry way.

What an impression that must have made on the folks watching all this. What a powerful God this man followed. Maybe they should follow Him too.

This story appears in a late 8th century Irish manuscript. Now you can impress your friends about the "real" story of the Loch Ness monster!

Aug 4, 2010

One Legend About St. Brigid

As I promised you on Monday, I'm going to share one of my favorite legends about St. Brigid, one of three patron saints of Ireland. (And yes, you can find this story in my novel, Brigid of Ireland.)

Brigid was known for her generosity. She gave away everything that she had whenever she met someone, and in that historical time period there were plenty of hungry, needy people around Ireland to share with. She was born a slave to her father (her mother was her father's slave) and he soon grew impatient with the girl giving away his property. So one day he decided he would have to get rid of her--he would put her into the king's service. They went by chariot and when they arrived at the castle belonging to the king of Leinster, he told her to wait while he went to fetch the ruler.

Meanwhile a leper (why do these stories always involve lepers???) came by to beg. She was away from her dairy. She had no butter, milk, or cheese to give him. She glanced around the chariot and the only thing she could find was her father's sword--no ordinary sword, this one was encrusted with valuable jewels. She figured that the beggar could barter or sell the piece and get something to eat, so she handed it over to him just as her father and the king returned. They saw the man running off with the sword.

"There. Do you see that?" her father asked the king. "Do see why I have to get rid of her?"

The king asked Brigid what she had to say for herself.

She looked again at his magnificent castle and his fine clothing and answered, "If I had as much as you, that's how much I would I give away."

The king was so humbled by this that he granted Brigid her freedom.

A good thing, right? Well, not necessarily. At that time if you did not own property (cattle, livestock) or were connected to a family who did, or you were not connected the royal family somehow, or you were not a slave, you were out on your own, left to wander and fend for yourself. So, Brigid became one of those people she had previously been aiding.

(For my version of how she survived from there, see my book!)

Brigid was so generous she gave away things that could, at that time, have been essential for survival. And yet, God always provided, as He does. There are plenty of lessons to be learned by studying St. Brigid.

Aug 2, 2010


This past weekend I had the pleasure of appearing at the Dayton Celtic Festival. I had a wonderful time and talked to so many really interesting people--even met some old friends. I grew up near Dayton. Tom and I moved away 11 years ago.

I spoke about the three patron saints of Ireland. Did you know there were three? Some people knew and some didn't, so I taught them a poem to help them remember. It's a poem that school children in Ireland recite:

In Downpatrick, one grave, three saints do fill
Patrick, Brigid, and Columcille.

There is a gravesite in Downpatrick where it is believed that these three saints are buried. We cannot say for sure that their remains are there, but it's the traditional site, pictured below.

I shared a favorite legend about each patron saint. I'll share the one about Patrick with you today, and then later this week I'll talk about Brigid and Columcille.

Patrick was born in the 4th century in Roman Britain. Where? We don't know for sure. We know that it was somewhere in the Roman areas of Britain--Wales, Scotland, or England. I've come to the conclusion that where you believe he was born has something to do with your own country of origin (or where your ancestral roots are.)

Patrick was captured as a slave off the coast, a common practice in those days--slave raids took place on both sides of the Irish Sea. He was sold to a master who put him to work as a shepherd. He spent many lonely days and nights tending the animals, and, according to his Confession, he grew ever closer to God. One day God directed him to a boat (he had to walk 200 miles to the coast) and he escaped and returned back to his homeland. (It was an arduous journey, but I'm giving you the short version.) He continued his religious training and became a bishop. One night he had a dream. A man bearing letters appeared to him and handed him one. It read, "The Voice of the Irish." Then he heard a multitude of voices speaking as if one, saying, "Come back, we beg you, and walk among us once again." He went back to the land where he had been enslaved, and the rest, as they say, is history. Within 200 years a country that had been entirely pagan, became almost entirely Christian, and without bloodshed (as we would see later in the Crusades, for example.)

That's the brief version, but you can use it now to impress your friends. St. Patrick, the most revered Irish saint, wasn't Irish after all! But more importantly, what a wonderful example he was. He went willingly back to his place of enslavement to minister to the people, many of whom he was sure were out to kill him. And what a difference that decision made. Not convinced? Read Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization and ask yourself what the world might be like if Patrick hadn't listened to "the voice of the Irish."