Sláinte! Dancing at Lughnasadh
Remember the scene in The Godfather when Vito bit the dust in the tomato patch? The tall plants stood staked in nice neat rows, full of fruit, and bees were buzzing about all over. Well, I too have a tomato plot, but this is my first attempt at vegetable gardening and I simply didn’t allow for how huge everything would get. Ergo, unlike the orderly plants tended by the head honcho of the Corleone clan, my vines sprawl and clamber about in an unruly tangled mass, and every time I crawl around on hands and knees peering into the underbrush searching for spots of telltale red suitable for salad, my mind’s eye conjures up visions of the hunter-gatherers who first harvested wild food.
They were certainly their busiest during late summer because, as my own garden proves beyond any doubt whatsoever with zucchini and cucumbers and beans popping from itsy-bitsy to humongous literally overnight, that is when plants are in peak production. As summer begins drawing to a close, plants pump out vegetables, nuts and fruits like crazy so they can move into their seed production phases before cold weather arrives.
Eons ago, however, people were not terribly savvy about the science of agriculture. In their naiveté, they attributed the harvest’s abundance to the largesse of assorted gods and goddesses. The Irish were no exception.
Like every other early society, the Irish were agrarian, dependent for existence on rudimentary agriculture, and charted the course of the year by the agricultural cycle. Each phase was marked by rituals and a celebration that took place during the full moon that rose mid-way between each of the year’s four major solar events: winter solstice, spring equinox, summer solstice, and fall equinox. The lunar event halfway between summer solstice and the fall equinox occurred mid-August smack dab in the middle of agriculture’s peak production period.
Early societies, though naive, were not stupid. They were fully aware that when the days shortened, there was less sunlight, the weather turned cold, and it was difficult, if not impossible, to grow crops. Harvest was a critical time, and the gathering of its first fruits was celebrated joyously by all. In Ireland the event is called Lughnasadh, after the Celtic hero-divinity Lugh whose story is found in Lebor Gabala Erenn, “The Book of the Invasions of Ireland.”
The Fomor were the greatest enemies of the Tuatha de Danaan, the people of Dana, the mother goddess of the Celts, and chief among the Fomor was Balor of The Evil Eye, a fearsome sorcerer. As it had been prophesied that Balor would be killed by his own grandson, he forbade his daughter Ethne to marry, but she secretly wed Cian, a healer and prince of the Tuatha De Danann, and gave birth to a son whom she named Lugh. Furious and fearful, Balor ordered that the child should be drowned, but instead, a stillborn baby was thrown into the sea, and Lugh was secretly fostered by Tailltiu, a princess of the Fir Bolg, another powerful group in early Irish history. Years later, Nuada, prince of the Tuatha De, fought and defeated the Fir Bolg, losing an arm in the process, and leadership passed to Breas who allowed his people to become subservient to the Fomor. Nuada’s recovery took seven long years, during which time he was fitted with a magical Silver Arm. Once sound and whole, Nuada wrested leadership of the Tuatha De from Breas, and determined to sever the chains that kept his people in thrall to the Fomor.
Secure in his stronghold at the Hill of Tara, Nuada was planning his attack strategy, when a young warrior arrived at the gate claiming he could `swim forever without tiring, carry a cauldron with his elbows, outrun the swiftest horse, and leap on a bubble without breaking it.’ Recognizing that such skills would certainly be useful in battle, Nuada invited Lugh to participate in the take-over. The Tuatha De marched on the Fomor, but Balor unleashed the power of his Evil Eye and Nuada was killed. With a great battle cry, Lugh launched his weapon, turned the force of the Evil Eye on Balor and killed him, thus fulfilling the prophecy. If the tale seems familiar, it should. Adapted by George Lucas, it is the nucleus of the modern epic Star Wars.
Legend holds that Lugh himself initiated the first harvest celebration to honor his foster-mother Tailltiu, without whose devotion the Tuatha De Danann would never have known the aid of their champion, on the spot where she was buried after expiring from exhaustion brought on by clearing the land of its many stones. The festival celebrating Tailltiu’s dying gift — a harvest of life-sustaining food from land she had transformed from barren to fertile soil — was ever after called the Tailltenn Games, and took place in what is now known as Telltown, County Meath.
A number of cultural bits tie in to having a sudden abundance of food. As it was critical to have an able-bodied labor force on hand, many societies, Ireland’s included, outlawed war and territorial raids at harvest time so that the healthiest and strongest manpower would be available to bring in the crops. With the warriors home from the front, men and women who had been starved for the company of the opposite sex took full advantage of the situation. Men showed off their bravery and strength in sporting competitions hoping to catch the attention and favor of the ladies. The ready availability of food and drink created an environment of general contentment.
Entertainments at the festival included recitations of poems, genealogies and romantic tales, and dancing to the music of cruits (harps) and uillean piops (Irish bagpipes). While the Tailltenn Games were renowned for the excellent sporting contests that took place, especially feats of strength and horsemanship, they also served as an important market gathering with three distinct sections: one for food and clothing, one for livestock, and another for luxury goods. But more than any transaction conducted there, Tailtenn was famous as a marriage market. In a custom known as `handfasting’ couples’ hands would be fastened together by a cord and they would agree to live together for a year. At the next Games, they would return and either vow to continue their unions permanently or declare themselves `divorced’ by walking away from each other in opposite directions.
So interwoven are the rites of Lughnasadh, that it is impossible to determine which was more important: the harvest, the games, or the marriages. Suffice it to say that the plenteous provisions stored for the winter, the competitions that drew the strongest men and women to each other, and the marriages that ensued allowed for a blessed vital harvest of an entirely other kind nine months later. Slainte! ♦
Note: In Ireland, the fruit that reaches peak season in time for Lughnasadh is the Bilberry, a cousin of America’s blueberries which can easily be substituted in this recipe.
1 pound bilberries
4 ounces fine sugar
1/2 ounce powdered gelatine
juice of one lemon
1/2 pint heavy cream
2 egg whites, stiffly beaten
Put the berries into a saucepan with the sugar and lemon juice and simmer over a gentle heat for 10 minutes. Then take off the heat. Dissolve the gelatine in 3 tablespoons of water, add the cooked fruit and stir well. Put the mixture through a sieve, rubbing as much through as possible. Leave until cold and beginning to thicken. Add the whipped cream and fold in, then add the beaten egg whites and fold in. Fold everything together well, then spoon the mousse into a serving dish and chill until firm. Makes 4-6 servings.
–Irish Traditional Food by Theodora Fitzgibbon
Upside Down Blueberry Cobbler
3/4 stick butter
3/4 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 cup milk
2 cups blueberries
Preheat oven to 350. Melt butter in baking dish. Mix everything except blueberries together. Pour the batter in a heatproof 8″x8″ glass baking dish. Sprinkle the blueberries on top.
Dust with cinnamon and fresh grated nutmeg. Bake 35-40 minutes.
(Cobblers are so named because they are easily cobbled up and so delicious they are quickly gobbled up. While traditional cobblers have top crusts, this variation places the crust on the bottom to soak up and be colored by the blueberry juice. Purists can opt for the traditional top-crust method with equal success.)
Note: This recipe can be doubled. Butter and fruit should fill a medium-sized rectangular baking dish approximately halfway.
–Edyth Preet Personal Recipe