Category Archives: Celtic culture

The shock of the old

irish-statue

In the introduction to his translation of Beowulf, Irish poet Seamus Heaney recalls his surprise when he learned the odd-looking Anglo-Saxon word þole (pronounced “thole”) wasn’t really alien:

I gradually realized that it was not strange at all, for it was the word that older and less educated people would have used in the country where I grew up. “They’ll just have to learn to thole,” my aunt would say about some family who had suffered an unforeseen bereavement. And now suddenly here was “thole” in the official textual world, mediated through the apparatus of a scholarly editon, a little bleeper to remind me that my aunt’s language was not just a self-enclosed family possession but an historical heritage, one that involved the journey þolian had made north into Scotland and then across into Ulster with the planters and then across from the planters to the locals who had originally spoken Irish and then farther across again when the Scots Irish emigrated to the American South in the eighteenth century. When I read in John Crowe Ransom the line “Sweet ladies, long may ye bloom, and toughly I hope ye may thole,” my heart lifted again, the world widened, something was furthered.

Learning and reading definitely widen and further one’s contact with the world. Literature, by making the strange familiar and the familiar strange, challenges us to see the world with new eyes. Recognizing an active past in our present world gives us a new dimension of life desperately needed in a live-for-the-moment consumerist society. And seeing one’s culture blossom in distant parts of the globe makes those faraway places seem a bit closer.

For more on the defining influence the Celts exerted on the South, check out Grady McWhiney’s Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways In The Old South.

Witch Flambé

Witch Flambe

The latest edition of Aurora Wolf features my short story “Witch Flambé.” Set in and around modern-day High Point, North Carolina (my home town), it’s about two old friends now in vastly different circles who team up to clear a young lady who’s accused of setting fires at her employer’s “guerilla dinners.” Someone’s casting spells on the “underground dining” events, and our protagonists must seek out the help of a Scots-Irish granny witch.

Appalachian Granny Magic is one of those old Southern ways that have recently enjoyed renewed interest:

The tradition is a very old one, dating all the way back to the first settlers of the magical Appalachian Mountains who came over from Scotland and Ireland in the 1700’s. They brought along their even older Irish and Scottish Magical Traditions with them. Those two ‘old world’ Traditions were then blended with a dash of the local tradition of the Tsalagi (Now, called the Cherokee Indians.)

Because of the rural and secluded nature of the Appalachian community, the old customs, wisdom, and practices were not as often lost, forgotten, or ‘modernized’ as the ‘old world’ traditions that came over to other, more urban areas of the ‘new world.’ Therefore, one will often find that ancient Irish or Scottish songs, rhymes, dances, recipes, crafts, and ‘The Craft,’ are more accurately preserved in Appalachia than even in Ireland or Scotland.

This story was a blast to write. It has just about everything I love: good food and drink, old friends, the surprisingly enduring power of the past, nature’s astonishing ability to rejuvenate — all topped off with a delightfully scary confrontation at the end. I hope you enjoy it.

Winter Solstice in Ancient Ireland

Meet Newgrange, an architectural, archaeological, and spiritual wonder of Neolithic Ireland:

Newgrange predates the great pyramids at Giza in Egypt by some 500 years and Stonehenge by about 1,000 years. When it was built, sunrise on the shortest day of the year, what we now call December 21, entered the main chamber precisely at sunrise. Experts say it is not by chance that the sun shines there.

The structure of the passage tomb was buried in earth for many centuries, until archaeologist M.J. O’Kelly began excavating it in 1962. He worked there until 1975. In 1967, he saw for the first time in thousands of years the dawn sunlight striking into the chamber on December 21. The light enters a perfectly placed window and hits deep in the tomb where the human remains were found.

O’Kelly wrote in his notes: “The effect is very dramatic as the direct light of the sun brightens and casts a glow of light all over the chamber. I can see parts of the roof and a reflected light shines right back into the back of the end chamber.”

One thing the ancients had that we have in such short supply was a sense of connectedness, an emotional bond with our fellows and the great yonder. Imagine the thrill the ancient Irish felt when that beam of sunlight shot through the window into the main chamber where the remains of their dead resided. In that moment, the Irish worshipers felt powerfully linked to both the distant sun and long lost ancestors. The Winter Solstice sunrise merged the believer, time, and space.

That’s even more exciting than a Playstation for Christmas …

The Scots-Irish Rascals Who Made America

DavyCrockett

Here’s my review of Karen McCarthy’s The Other Irish, one of the books I read while researching my latest book. Who are “The Other Irish”? As McCarthy writes:

“They settled the frontier, intermarried with other migrants, imbued the national character with their own nature and values, and, arguably, became the most patriotic of all Americans. They provided American icons like Davy Crockett, literary giants from Mark Twain to Stephen King, American warriors from Sam Houston to George Patton. They invented NASCAR — the biggest spectator sport in America — and provided more than twenty presidents.”

My review is featured today at the Abbeville Institute.

Like a waterfall

Greenville2

I’m in the Zone, folks. It’s finally come together. I’ve achieved cruising speed on my latest wip, as ideas, dialogue, and action are flowing onto the laptop like a waterfall. My characters and I are finally on speaking terms, even to the point where they nudge me to point out what I need to have them say and do next. Man, what a feeling. This is what writers live for.

Gone are the gruesome hours of agonizing over the major plot points. You know what it’s like: The protag can’t do that. He wouldn’t react that way. And why the hell would our villain do that? She’s not stupid.

And so on. I’m almost in that other-worldly state you see in movies about painters, song-writers, and authors where they’re possessed by their muse, and their wip just flows out of them in a burst of feverish activity. That’s not the way it really works, but you get the idea. Rent Moulin Rouge ( the one with José Ferrer, not Tom Cruise’s first ex) to see what I mean. Great movie. Lousy role model for writers.

Anyway, my latest wip is about Appalachian folk magic in an urban setting. So far, it’s been a blast. Here’s the list of books I’ve read or re-read as background:

Cracker Culture Grady McWhiney
Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America David Hackett Fischer
At Home in Dogwood Mudhole Franklin Sanders
Grammatical Man Jeremy Campbell
The Story of North Carolina Dr. Alex Arnett
The Other Irish Karen F. McCarthy
Our Father’s Fields James Kibler
The Making of a Cop Harvey Rachlin
A History of the South Francis Simkins & Charles Roland

And last but certainly not least:

The Golden Bough Sir James George Frazer

Underlying all this research is a bit of family history you probably wouldn’t believe, but which I’ll discuss fully once the book is out. Then there are my excursions into Charlotte’s extensive creek walks at weird hours. One thing that’s always fascinated me is how familiar things transform come nightfall. More on that later.

Further updates to follow. Right now, it’s time for bed. Yes, it’s been that intense.