Sláinte! Mother Earth
Edythe Preet writes of the many reasons why Ireland is called the Motherland.
Civilization began when hunter-gatherers learned to cultivate grain and evolved into permanent agricultural communities. Since males were the hunters and females the gatherers, anthropologists theorize it was most likely women who realized that grain grew from gathered seeds that could be deliberately planted and harvested. The cycle directly parallels women’s cycle of pregnancy and birth.
Archaeological evidence indicates that a primordial Earth Mother was the center of prehistoric communities’ religious and social structure. Carved figures and drawings depicting full-figured but faceless female forms have been found at numerous Neolithic sites, especially in central Europe where the Celts originated. There the mother goddess was called Danu, and her name was given to the mother of the continent’s eastern rivers – the Danube.
Irish myth holds that Danu, also known as Anu, was the earth goddess from whom all life emerged, including the Tuatha De Danaan, or fairy folk. Anu offered fertility, abundance, regeneration and nurturing. Two side-by-side hills in County Kerry are known as The Paps of Anu. To mark the site, the ancient Irish placed mounds of stones on the hillcrests, which viewed from a distance, cause the hills to resemble a woman’s breasts.
In the Lebor Gabala (Book of Invasions, transcribed from oral history in 1000 AD), it is recorded that when Anu’s Tuatha de Danaan arrived, they encountered an earlier Celtic population, the Fir Bolg. According to the saga, the Fir Bolg were defeated by the Tuatha De Danaan at the Battle of Moytura, at the Galway-Mayo border on Beltaine. Now fixed on May 1st, Beltaine was originally celebrated during the full moon midway between Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice to insure an abundant harvest.
Despite their supposed otherworldly powers the Danaan were defeated by the next wave of invading Celts – the Milesians. Even so, the Book of Invasions records that the Danaan retained enough magic arts to plague the Milesians by rotting their crops and sickening their cattle. Finally, a truce meeting was arranged between Amergin, bard and spokesman for the Milesians, and three sister-queens, all daughters of Dagda, the greatest ruler of the Danaan. It was agreed that although the Milesians would rule and the Danaan would retreat to live in fairy raths (hills), the land would always and forever be known by the name of the youngest Danaan queen – Eire.
But Eire and Danu are not the only women who figure prominently in Irish myth. Celtic goddesses presided over battle, nature, healing, and fertility. Many times, they exhibit opposing themes of virginity and sexuality, abundance and destruction, war and peace, life and death. Partnership is a prominent theme, and in these relationships, the female is frequently the dominant partner, an indication of the independence afforded women in early Irish society.
Like the Christian patriarchal concept of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, several Celtic goddesses are associated with triplicity, implying the three ages of woman: maid, mother, and crone. Brid, or Brighid, is a classic example. A triple goddess, her dominion encompassed the elements of earth, water, and fire (planting, caring for, and preparing food). Her dual nature is expressed by her patronage of both smiths (those who fashion killing weapons) and midwives (those who bring new life to the tribe).
Ireland’s history of reverence for women is today best exemplified by the national devotion to Mary, Mother of Christ. Like Danu, Mary is a Great Mother deity, possessing virgin and mother duality. Although Brighid is a popular Irish name for a female child, it is eclipsed by the number of girls named Mary, or a derivative form such as Margaret, Marian, Moura, Molly, Meg, Maire, and Moire. Irish Catholics believe that Mary appeared one day in Knock, County Mayo. A cathedral was erected there in her honor, and the month of May is dedicated to her worship.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when millions of Erin’s sons and daughters fled the Great Famine and emigrated to America, many popular songs told of their longing for the green land of their birth. Three of the best known are “Come Back To Erin, Mavourneen, Mavourneen,” “Ireland, I Love You, Acushla Machree,” and “Won’t You Come Back To Mother Machree.” In all, mavourneen, acushla and machree are variants of ‘dearest,’ and it is the bond to mother and motherland for which the singers pine.
In 1928, the great Irish American director John Ford, whose father was born in County Galway, produced a silent film called Mother Machree, which is occasionally aired on Turner Classic Movies. The plot tells of an Irish widow, Ellen McHugh, who immigrates to America and joins a carnival, placing her only son, Brian, in a fashionable school. When his mother’s profession is discovered, the principal forces Ellen to surrender the boy legally into his care. She becomes a housekeeper in the home of a posh society family and rears her employer’s daughter, Edith. Years later on the eve of WWI, Edith and Brian meet and fall in love. Eventually the boy and his mother are reunited, and all ends happily.
Since time immemorial women have figured prominently in Irish history and myth. Ireland is Eire’s land. Eire was a queen of the Tuatha de Danaan. The Tuatha de Danaan was ‘the tribe of Danu.’ Danu was the Celt’s Mother Goddess. The way I see it, the Irish are better justified than any other people on earth to call their homeland ‘the motherland.’ Thus, I suggest the following. On Mother’s Day this year while honoring your own dear Mother, take a moment and have a care as well for Eire, Mama Machree of us all. Sláinte!
During the Middle Ages in Ireland, the third Sunday in Lent was celebrated as ‘Mothering Sunday.’ On that day servants in big manor houses were relieved of their duties so they could attend Mass at their home villages’ ‘mother’ church. After the service they brought pretty wildflower bouquets to their mothers. The day was also celebrated with a very special baked treat called a Simnel Cake. Over the years, the custom lapsed but it has been revived. Making a Simnel Cake is somewhat involved, but do give it a go as the result is delicious!
Simnel Cake – Personal Recipe Collection
400g icing sugar, sifted
250g ground almonds
1 large egg yolk, beaten lightly
3-4 tablespoons orange juice
5 drops almond essence
250g plain flour
1 pinch salt
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
110g mixed peel
160g caster sugar
3 large eggs
200ml milk, to mix
TOOLS CHECK LIST: a sifter, nest of bowls, food processor or electric beater, spatula, wooden spoon, 9-inch round cake tin, baking paper, brown paper and twine, rolling pin, thin metal skewer.
To make your own almond paste you will need a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Don’t be tempted to use store-bought almond paste because its sugar content will turn liquid under the broiler in Step 4.
Place icing sugar and almonds in food processor bowl. Process, slowly dripping in egg yolk, orange juice and almond essence. The mixture should form a pliable paste.
Set aside a small portion for balls with which to decorate the cake (Step 4).
Roll out the remaining paste into 2 circles that are the approximate size of the baking tin. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 320°F.
Butter the base of a sturdy 9-inch non-stick cake pan and line with baking paper. As the baking period is long (1-1 1/2 hours), prevent the cake drying out by wrapping a double thickness of brown paper around the pan and securing it with twine.
Sift flour, salt and spices together, then stir in fruit and peel.
Cream butter and sugar thoroughly until light and creamy, then beat in eggs one at a time, until the mixture is fluffy. (Reserve some egg yolk for brushing over top layer of almond paste in Step 4.)
Stir flour and fruit into creamed mixture (you may need to add a little milk to give the mixture a dropping consistency).
Place half the mixture into a greased and lined cake tin.
Place one pre-rolled round of almond paste over the top.
Cover with remaining cake mixture. Before baking, give the pan of mixture a sharp tap on a firm surface. This settles the mixture and prevents holes from forming in the cake.
Bake in the center of the oven for 1-1 1/4 hours or until a thin metal skewer inserted in the center of the cake comes out without a trace of stickiness.
Let cake settle in baking tin for 10-15 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack, peel off paper and leave to cool completely.
Cover the top of the cake with a second round of almond paste. Roll 11 small balls of paste and place evenly around the top of the cake. Brush the top with a little beaten egg and very lightly brown under a heated broiler until the almond paste turns light golden brown. Remove from broiler and leave to cool.