Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Sligo Mummers to Bulgaria; Happy Birthday, Sean MacBride; Gaelic Storm in Dixie

Welcome to Hell's Kitchen, the official blog of website, or WGT, as we affectionately call it. Everyday (or nearly so) we chronicle "The Epic History and Heritage of the Irish." On January 26, 1904, Séan MacBride, revolutionary, statesman was born in Paris, fruit of the tempestuous union of Major John MacBride and Maude Gonne, a real Irish power couple, if ever there was one. You can read more about this week's key dates and Maud Gonne, where else, but on WGT. For more on Séan MacBride, check out the African National Congress' tribute and Pittsburgh AOH Division 32's summary of his life.

Gaelic Storm ("Titanic") is touring in the late Confederacy, where it will be performing at 9 p.m. Thursday at Knoxville, Tennessee, at World Grotto, 16 Market Square. Find more venues for Irish culture throughout the Irish world on WGT's Events page.

With the sun riding ever higher in the sky here in New York, the days are longer, if not necessarily warmer. Joe McGowan, WGT's Connacht correspondent, sent us the following post about Imbolc, and how the lengthening days have inspired this weekend's remarkable gathering of folklore groups in Bulgaria. (We recommend a visit to Joe's website, at, to learn more about folkways, and other cultural highlights, found in the northwestern corner of Ireland.)


Mullaghmore, County Sligo As the days grew shorter approaching the winter solstice, our forefathers feared the disappearance of the sun. Thousands of years ago, human and animal sacrifice were offered to propitiate the gods. The gods accepted the offering, the sun revived, and gradually the days grew longer again.

In medieval times, the winter struggle between dark and light was represented in plays. In Ireland these plays, which are believed to have their origins in the second millennium B.C., have come down to us in the form of Mummers and Wren Boys. Taking their name from the 'Fairy Whirlwind' of Irish folklore, our Sligo 'Sidhe Gaoithe' Mummers is part of that unbroken living tradition.

Below, Sligo mummers portray Brian Boru and Finn Mc Cumhail in mock combat. (Joe McGowan photo)

Similar customs exist in other European countries, and our group has been invited to attend the Surva International Festival of the Masquerade Games held in Pernik, Bulgaria. It showcases a still vital tradition, which can be traced for centuries, back to ancient pagan times. Because of its competitive nature, the festival is both a contest and a gathering of the people who keep the tradition alive.

‘Surva’, as it is known, is a two-day parade of masquerade groups from Bulgaria and abroad. On average more than 5, 000 people from as many as 90 folklore groups take part in the carnival each year. These are people from Europe, Asia and Africa as well as representatives from every folklore region in Bulgaria who all come to Pernik to celebrate. They come here for the thrill of the competition and the pride of presenting the traditions of their ancestors. The festival is an illustration of the most vital and deep-rooted traditions of masquerading rites dating from the remote past and preserved for us to present times.

In ancient times, the old Thracians held the Kukeri Ritual Games in honor of the God Dionysus ¾ especially known as a god of wine and ecstasy. Even today these games are also known as the Dionysus’ games. Among today’s dancers are many characters, including Dionysus and his satyrs as well as others from deep history such as the tsar, harachari, plyuvkachi, startzi, and pesyatzi. The masked participants are called kukeri, kukove, survakari, startsi, babugeri, dzhamailari, kamilari, etc.

During this international festival, Bulgarian and other folk groups march in procession through Pernik, displaying exuberant costumes and fantastic masks. They are performing the ancient rite of chasing away evil and celebrating the triumph of reborn life with the beginning of spring and the associated hopes of man for a better harvest and a better life.

It is hardly a coincidence that Surva is celebrated at the same time of year that we in Ireland celebrate the Celtic festival of Imbolc, the first day of spring, on February 1. It is now more popularly known as St. Brigid's feast day.

These are Brideogs at Maire Phaidíns kitchen on the Aran Islands. The dolls they carry are representations of St. Brigid. The poem they recite is below. (Joe McGowan photo)

Who was St. Brigid? Was she a pagan goddess or a Christian saint? Scholars hold that the saint was given the name of Brigit from a goddess in Celtic mythology, the name meaning Fiery Arrow. Ancient texts tell us that Brigit was daughter of the Dagda (the Celtic Zeus), who became a Christian. She is one of the Irish saints as to whose relationship with a pagan divinity there can be no doubt.

There are several indications that the pagan Brigid was goddess of fertility and agriculture. The suggestion is strengthened by the cult of St. Brigid who is, in folk culture, the patroness of farm animals and whose feast day is the first day of spring. The festival may have been originally connected with the pagan goddess, much of whose imagery was subsumed in that of the saint.

Like the ‘kukeri’ of the Balkans, mummers, wrenboys and brideogs still celebrate certain festivals in Ireland. Brideogs are not as common as formerly but in some places, such as the Aran Islands, they still go out at Imbolc chanting this verse:

“Crios, Crios, Brid mo chrios
Muire is amac
Brid is a brat
Mas feoir ata sibh anoct
Go mo seact fearr a bheidh sibh blian ó anoct.”

(Belt, belt, Brigid is my belt
Mary is out
Brigid’s is the cloak
No matter how well you are tonight
May you be seven times better a year from now)
-- Joe McGowan


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