Memorial Day..Till Valhalla

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Or ,”go dtí dTech/Teach Duinn” to underline my own worldview. No, respectively I’m not trying to appropriate the Heathens, “Till Valhalla” happens to be a fairly modern common phrase used by the United States Marine Corps upon the death, anniversary , or memorial commemorating our fallen comrades. Just like the legends surrounding the cultures of the Norse and Germanic peoples, the USMC adopts similar allegoric motifs in our warrior ethos, and this particular saying was likely adopted in or around 2010 after it was popularised by a YouTube video of the Norwegian Telemark Batallion shouting it as  their war cry during operations in Afghanistan.

 

Before Memorial Day became about a three day weekend and BBQs, it was birthed from the decoration of soldiers’ graves with flowers. There really isn’t much of a counterpart here in Ireland to the States’ Memorial Day. The closest probably being Remembrance Day which correlates with the WWI fallen, however its observation with traditions such as wearing the poppy are controversial to some, especially here in the north. Regardless of politics almost 50,000 Irishmen, with over 3,500 in the Somme alone, fell in An Chéad Chogadh Domhand, The Great War. Other than that, the Irish Revolution Period that won the Republic’s independence (also controversial in the north) is celebrated by commemorating those that gave their life in the insurrection of the Éirí amach na Cásca, Easter Risings. Being absent of the recognition I’ve come to know of my native Memorial Day, it has reflected in the practises of my religious life in mundane ritual.

 

Heroes were praised, sacrificial weapons deposited into sacred waters, feasts and fights were had, and libations made. The myths, legends, and artefacts reveal these aspects of our ancestors’ warrior caste. While many like to claim that ‘warrior path’ label, the lifestyle can be truly forlorn. As a veteran of that occupation, being a professional warrior has permanent casualties. The mental residue of war and operating in constant violent scenarios leaves alienating scars, with the most severe loss being actual life. The wounds sustained when one is extracted from the closest fraternity you know is like none other. Though we have specific holidays and festivals, Samhain for example,  reserved for honouring our dead with rituals related to that, Memorial Day has come to be important to me.

 

As we poured our beers onto the earth in those enlisted days, the praises will still be given. When one of our own is extracted from the summer lands of Donn’s rock, across the waters into the dark one’s house, deeds will be done on their behalf, their memories kept alive with a life lived for them. Go dtí Teach Duinn, the libations continue. Till Valhalla.

RememberOurFallen1USMC (1)
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All Snakes Day

Around this time generally everything “Irish” appears in all sorts of headlines, and current news topics. Aside from the general stigma attached to American celebration of the day in the States chalk full of false stereo-types some even go as far as labelling racist, or at least discriminatory,  leading the boozefest in a general day ignorant of anything relating to actual Irish culture. I understand this pretty well coming from a city that has such big “Irish-American” festivities for it, and yes, was part of the sub-culture I was raised with.

This is however nothing new to me, but my current focus is the way the day is treated within “pagan” communities. The same sort of disassociation that you may see among the native&secular Irish, you also find within the pagan community, especially those following “Celtic” paths. The big reasons are usually for one, despite the normal piss up of a celebration with sin and debauchery, the festival is a primarily Christian religious one in origin. Going deeper, the feast day of Ireland’s patron saint happens to be the saint most linked to the Christianisation of Ireland, not something your typical pagan would want to celebrate eh?

We’ve all heard the modern lore of good auld St. Paddy driving the “snakes” from the island, snakes of course assumed to be a metaphor for either the general pagan inhabitants, or druids, but history is a funny creature in itself. Actual events, supposed events, and our understanding of them are often distorted, so if we’re going to adopt such serious attitudes towards popular celebrations in modern culture, I guess it would be wise to at least understand them.

First of all. St. Paddy wasn’t the first Christian, or missionary in Ireland. The first known Bishop was Palladius. It’s important to understand Ireland’s conversion to Christianity was relatively embraced and peaceful to a certain extent. The pseudo-history in the hagiographies featuring Patrick in “magical combat” with druids are likely made up to resemble Biblical stories like that of Simon Magus, but of course in the guise of encouraging belief in Christ. We actually owe a debt of gratitude to the church for recording our myths, which even though monks re-worked with their own twist, made it possible for them not to be lost in time. In regards to myths, other than the two main early sources we have of St. Patrick, mainly his Confessio, and letter to the soldiers of Coroticus, it’s a possibility the man as we know him may not have even existed.

Now the “Snakes” right? It is well known there have never been snakes in Ireland. Either they didn’t survive the last Ice age, or didn’t have the right environment to migrate when there was a land-brdge. The whole bit of lore with Paddy&snakes was written by Anglo-Normans in the Middle ages. It was stated in some of his earlier biographies that he studied at the Lérin’s monastery off the south coast of France founded by St. Honoratus, who was said to have banished all the snakes from Aralanensis. The Anglo-Norman writers must have liked that association, and since there were pre-existing tales of Paddy banishing demon-birds, and monsters into lakes, they penciled that one in under him as well. His role as a missionary in Ireland, and lore involving supposed encounters with druids likely lead to the symbolic association of pagans&snakes in modern folklore, but we do in fact know that the last pagan High-King in Ireland to be sworn in under the ban-feis rite at Tara, Diarmait mac Cerbaill, did so well over 100 years after Paddy’s death in the 6th century, and pre-christian religious practices would have taken longer to wane generally from then.

Therefore if “All Snakes Day” is taking the piss out of modern folklore, then fair play to it, but there shouldn’t be any more need in the pagan community to disassociate with the secular celebration of the day. If anything the stereo-types alone would make more sense in reducing an island with the second oldest vernacular in Europe, had a church that lead the rest of Europe throughout the Dark Ages, and has given such beauty, music, and amazing poets&literature to the rest of the world as a need for lack of acknowledgment. The day can also be seen as one of national pride, or by the diaspora as one to honour those that left their home, family, and language behind in order to face oppression& discrimination in becoming “Good Americans.” That has usually been the case for me, so on that note, Lá Fhéile Phádraig shona daoibh!

Sliabh Dónairt

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Recently did a charity run up Sleeve Donard called “The Donard Challenge,” to raise money for the Cancer Centre. Sliabh Dónairt is Northern Ireland’s, and the whole of Ulster’s highest mountain peek which is fortunately in the back yard of our local Co. Down in the Mourne Mountains(That inspired C.S. Lewis to write ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’). There are two Neolithic passage tombs on the mountain, with the one at the top being the highest passage tomb in the British Isles. Before being named after the saint, Donard was called Beann mBoirchi, and Sliabh Slángha. Boirche was a legendary otherworldly king, and in myth Slángha was a son of Partholón, and the reputed first physician of Ireland. Like many other mountains in local tradition it’s customary to carry a stone from the bottom to place on the cairn at the top which likely originated as a Lughnasadh tradition in which mountain hiking is also customary.

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