Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Challenge of Lughnasa

Being a reconstructionist parent offers many challenges and one of the most complex may be celebrating Lughnasa.

Lughnasa is one of the four Irish fire festivals and is generally celebrated on August 1st. The word itself means the assembly of Lugh, and is often said to commemorate the funeral games of Lugh’s foster mother Tailtiu. Traditionally the holiday may have lasted for more than a single day, possibly even several weeks, and marked the beginning of the harvest season. Lughnasa was a time of celebration for the entire community when everyone would gather at local sacred sites to celebrate with story telling, music, athletic competitions which could include anything from games of skill or strength to races, decorating wells and standing stones, marriages, divination and feasting. Reaching the sacred site was intended to be a challenge, and might involve travelling to the seashore, a hilltop, mountaintop, or river. Particular emphasis was placed on the preparation of foods related to the new harvest, especially the first fruits of the season. In very modern times the potato is usually the main harvested item prepared, but older sources often refer to corn as and it’s preparation, although corn too is not a native crop; it’s likely the original featured food would have been an oat or wheat, or similar grain product, that could be used in the bread or porridge dishes that are ubiquitously talked about in reference to Lughnasa.

Speaking of food, that is one of the first and most basic ways to celebrate and to include the kids. One of the traditional foods, albeit from the Christian period, that was mentioned in several sources is the Barm Brac, a type of bread made with fruit; most recipes use non-native dried fruit but since gathering fresh berries is another Lughnasa tradition it would be better to use fresh berries. Porridge is another food that is mentioned as traditional. I tend to go with oat based bread or porridge since my youngest daughter cannot have any wheat products due to a gluten sensitivity, but someone seeking other traditional cereals could use wheat or barley flour. In any of these cases it would be perfect to take the children out to gather fresh berries if they grow locally, or if you can grow your own, and then have them help you cook the chosen food.

So, what makes this holy day so challenging to a parent? Partially it is the heavy emphasis on community in a time when most of us have little real world community beyond our families. Unlike Samhain, Imbolc, and Beltaine which are all easily celebrated within the family unit Lughnasa is meant to be celebrated on a much larger scale. This is an immediate conundrum for the recon pagan parent that is not easily solved. One possible solution is to expand a portion of the day’s festivities beyond your recon family and include others; perhaps non-recon pagans or possibly a non-religious picnic that include many of the elements of Lughnasa. The religious celebration could be done privately before or after, but gathering friends and family for a picnic with games would still preserve some aspects of the other Lughnasa traditions. Neither of these is ideal, but they do at least attempt to include the important social aspects of the holiday.

Another challenge for the recon parent – one that I am particularly struggling with this year – is how to include the children in athletic games in ways that they will find fun but that are age appropriate. The foot races and swimming races of Lughnasa tradition are meant for adults (and are often dangerous) and are hard to tailor to a wide age range of children, and horse racing would exclude the youngest children, at best. My own daughters are 3 and 7 so the difference between them is huge when it comes to physical ability. How do I find athletic games that are challenging but still fun for both of them? Moving away from the traditional practices but keeping the spirit of the holiday I have decided to include the entire family in relay races, so that the adults can balance out the children’s abilities while still letting the kids have fun. I also settled on a bean bag toss that could be modified for each age group, with different levels of difficulty, and – in honor of the old stories of Lugh outwitting his rival Crom Dubh – on a couple trivia games and a scavenger hunt.

This year’s Lughnasa will be something of an experiment, as we try to find new ways to celebrate that are more family friendly. We don’t live in a time or place where we could join our entire town in celebrating and enjoy watching the athletic games from the sidelines but we still want to celebrate in a genuine way. So on Lughnasa my family will hike to a local place that we feel is sacred, we will bring Barm Brac we have cooked with local berries we gathered, we will sing, make music, and tell stories with whomever of our friends decide to join us and we will have our own types of games. We will hold a ritual to honor the deities we choose, most likely including Lugh, and possibly Tailtui. The food will be passed out and then we will all walk sun-wise around a fire, or if we don’t have a fire we’ll substitute a candle, and a prayer will be said (this comes from McNeill’s Silver Bough, volume 2) and we will leave some of our food as an offering to the daoine sidhe and to the gods of our rite…and hopefully our children will have fun doing it all.

Danaher, K. (1972). the Year in Ireland: Irish calendar customs. Minneapolis: Mercier Press.
Kondratiev, A. (1998). the Apple Branch: a path to Celtic ritual. New york: Citadel Press.
MacNeill, M. (1962). the Festival of Lughnasa. Dublin: Oxford University Press.
McNeill, F. M. (1959). the Silver Bough, Volume 2: a calendar of Scottish national festivals, Candlemas to Harvest Home. Glasgow: Maclellan.

Author: Morgan Daimler
Irish Reconstructionist Parent & Author
Morgan Daimler Amazon Page

Sunday, July 3, 2011

St. Pat's Conundrum

I know what's coming. 1) It's July so why am I writing about St. Patrick's Day? 2) This is a Reconstructionist blog, so why am I writing about St. Patrick's Day?

Let me address the first question by simply stating I'm catching up on my writing for this blog and hoping *wink wink* that others will help me keep this blog alive as I have a lot of projects I'm working on and am hoping that I can get many different traditions of Recon parents to write not just me. As I have been busy, I haven't really gotten to focus on this blog though I have tried numerous times to start at least one book review.

To answer the second question, as an Irish Recon pagan, we not only look to the practices of the ancients, but acknowledge that our ancient ancestors did become Christian. They weren't persecuted, they (relatively speaking) gladly accepted the switch in traditions and as we can see with the story of the collaborations of St Patrick, Irish Fili and pagan Kings in order to create the Senchus Mor (Irish Law Tract) combining of Christian ideals and Irish pagan law was deemed compatible. Patrick was there to represent the new religious understanding while the Kings were there to keep the honor of the pre-Christian ideals based in the original laws and the Fili were there to combine the two for the educated final decision. Through this we see Ireland respectfully utilized both and continued such traditions up until the English invasion.

Regardless of said invasion, we acknowledge that our current Irish counterparts are, in fact, happily Christian  today and for us to ignore such information would be turning our backs on our ancestors' evolution as well as the pride we have for Erin as it exists now. With that said, it is an individual Irish Recon pagan's decision to honor St. Paddy's and there is nothing wrong with choosing not to for whatever personal reason. In my personal practice, I do honor St. Patrick's Day as a day to share with my family, honor my American-Irish heritage and honor Ireland as it is today. My Irish immigrant ancestors thought it a worthy occasion and I happen to agree.

In regards to my family, I chose to make a traditionally inspired creation referred to as a "Kerry Pie." It is basically a Shepard's Pie, but with a crust on top instead of the traditional mashed potatoes. I also modified the contents to make it Iron Age specific as to keep with that theme (and to see if it would work for a later fire festival celebration). I'll tell you, it was very good, but most definitely not for those looking for fat free food, but that should go without saying in regards to Iron Age cuisine.

Because it worked out so well I'm going to pass on the recipe. Feel free to modify anyway you think would work for your family or purpose. It's good for any occasion!

(Blackbird note: any non-Iron Age specific foods have been removed)
Source: Allen, Darina, The Festive Food of Ireland, Pg 36-37

Mutton pies, made in Kerry, were served at the Puck Fair in Killorglin in August and taken up the hill where men were herding all day. The original hot water crust pastry was made with mutton fat but we have substituted butter for a really delicious crust.

Serves 6


450g/1lb boneless lamb or mutton (from shoulder or leg – keep bones for stock)
275g/9 ½ oz diced onions
275g/9 ½ oz diced carrots
2 tablespoons/3 tablespoons flour
300ml/1/2 pint/1 ¼ cups mutton or lamb stock
Sea Salt

350g/12oz/3 cups flour (Blackbird note: wholemeal/whole wheat would be Iron Age)
Pinch of  sea salt
170g/6oz/1 ½ sticks butter
100ml/4 fl oz/1/2 cup water
1 egg beaten with a pinch of salt, to glaze


1 trim off all surplus fat, saving the scraps, then cut the meat into small neat pieces about the size of a small sugar lump. (Blackbird note: I used ground beef and kept the majority of the fat)
2 render down the scraps of fat in a hot, wide saucepan until the fat runs. Discard the pieces. Toss the diced vegetables in the fat and cook for 3-4 minutes. Remove and toss the meat in the fat over a high heat until the colour turns.
3 Stir the flour into the meat. Cook gently for 2 minutes and gradually blend in the stock. Bring to the boil, stirring occasionally. Return the vegetables to the pan, season with salt and leave to simmer, covered, until the rest is almost cooked. If using young lamb, 30 minutes will be sufficient; an older animal may take up to 1 hour.
4 Meanwhile make the pastry. Sieve the flour and salt into a mixing bowl and make a well in the centre. Dice the butter into a saucepan with the water and bring to the boil. Pour the liquid all at once into the flour and mix together quickly; beat until smooth. At first the pastry will be too soft to handle but as it cools it will become more workable. Roll out two thirds to 2.5mm/ 1/8-1/4 inch and line a 23cm/9 inch pie tin (or smaller, individual pie tins).
5 Fill the pastry-lined tins with the slightly cooled meat mixture. Make lids from the remaining pastry, brush the edges of the base with water and egg wash and put on the pastry lids, pinching them tightly together. Roll out the trimmings to make pastry leaves or twirls to decorate the tops of the pies, make a hole in the centre and egg-wash carefully.
6 Bake the pie or pies at 200⁰C/400⁰F/gas6 for about 40 minutes. Serve hot or cold.

Author: Blackbird O'Connell
Irish Reconstructionist Parent
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Mommy' First Iron Age Feast

To first read about the research done for this meal, feel free to visit -

fire festivalsWhile I couldn’t involve my toddler very much in the cooking process for my first official Iron Age inspired Samhain meal it was still an experience worth sharing in the mommy realm of things. Since my son was born I felt as if I have a whole new outlook on my own spirituality, now that I must guide him through my practice and beliefs. Before as a solitary practitioner, learning as I went I could choose to go all in or partially in with certain aspects of my study because I was the only one to worry about. If I simply had a small ritual for [insert fire festival here] I was the only one to answer to (besides the Gods, of course). Now, as I look into my child’s eyes I feel that, since I don’t have a church or specifically face to face Reconstructionist “village” to help raise my son in this tradition, I have to be as well-educated and as well informed as possible. It is going to be my son that assures I stick to my life mantra of the Fianna – “Truth in our hearts, strength in our arms, and fulfillment in our tongues.” It is time to put my money where my mouth is. That is what got me inspired to finally journey through Iron Age food and cook a meal that my ancestors could have possibly enjoyed.

I awoke at 9am to put my thawed beef roast in the slow cooker. Originally I was going to buy a nice steak and have my husband bar-be-que it on the grill (me like fire *bangs on chest*), but I found a really nice roast for a great price so I went the slow cook route. That was the simple task of the whole process as I just turned it on and plopped in the meat. It couldn’t be easier. Well, it could be if someone else was doing it for me, but you get the point.

CrockpotNext I got out all of the vegetables I was going to add later to the pot. As I am not a fan of cabbage or leeks (I know, bad Irish pagan) and potatoes were not available to our Iron Age Irish ancestors, I chose to go with mainly root veggies. I washed the rutabagas*, carrots and parsnips cleaning them off. Then I took out my knife and peeled them, which was interesting unto itself. The last time I peeled anything I actually had a peeler and it was at my mother’s house. I don’t own a peeler so after one large rutabaga and one mangled carrot I perfected my “with knife” peeling skills and got through the additional vegetables. I also added mushrooms because 1) they would have been available and 2) we add mushrooms to everything so it was definitely the “family touch” to the meal.

Bannock Cooking

After letting the crockpot do its thing for a little over an hour I began working on the Bannock or flat bread. The modern version is a bit closer to today’s Indian fry bread, but I didn’t want to deal with any kind of ancient leavening so I simply made an unleavened version. Utilizing a recipe from I mixed together all-purpose flour (okay, I took liberties with this one because I already had it in the house), ground oats and then added in honey for sweetness and water. I made sure to add the water slowly because I didn’t want to add too much and have a nasty mess that I had to keep correcting. Other than that there wasn’t a whole lot to this recipe so that was good, but I definitely want to experiment further with it may be trying leavening next time. It was just very heavy, but the addition of blackberries and honey** can make anything taste amazing.


While the bannock and meat/veggies cooked I popped the salmon into the toaster oven as I knew it wouldn’t take quit as long to cook. I am a total salmon snob and I prefer it cooked through basically at medium-well, but I hate when the corners get dried out and the inside isn’t cooked through so I cooked it at a lower temperature and checked it every 5 minutes. I was really happy with how this worked and will continue to do that in the future.

While everything cooked I set the table with some really great place mats I got

Imbolc Activities

              Brigid Altar 

Type in Imbolc or Lá Fhéile Bríde  into most search engines and you will get pages and  pages of information on family activities. Generally those pages will be focusing on two specific things, a Brideog and a Brigid's Cross. A Brideog is a doll made from straw or rushes that symbolizes Bríde and is traditionally made with a Bríde's bed for the doll to sleep in made out of a basket and a cloth. You'll read of little girls making the dolls the night before and the men welcoming the doll into the home. On the day of Lá Fhéile Bríde they will parade their dolls down the street shouting cute little phrases. What you won't read about this activity is the origin. While I won't speak about the antiquity of the project I wouldn't, at this point, consider it an activity that would be specific for a Celtic Reconstructionist child if relating it to the ancient Celts.  

In regards to the Brigid's Cross, you will find various websites that will show you how to make them, that will sell you pre-made ones or even include charms for pendants. There are schools that will show you children with their freshly made crosses as they sit at their desks in their little uniforms. Again, what you won't find is the origin of this practice, but the simple fact that it is a cross and that Bride did become a saint during Pope Sergius I’s reign, it is probably a safe bet that this is also not an activity the pre-Christian Celts would have participated in. That doesn't at all invalidate either practice.  

Because in the Reconstructionist realm we try to take that which is ancient and place it into a modern world, the traditions of Brideog and Brigid's Cross making are as traditional and modern as you can get. I completely recommend if you are a Celtic Reconstructionist and specifically an Irish Reconstructionist to take part in these activities with your children. What better way to share in the love of the country you take your beliefs from than participating in activities that children your child's age do in that country? It is also a good teaching opportunity, depending upon the age of your child, to start teaching them the difference between that which the modern practitioners do as opposed to what the ancestors did. Making those types of distinctions are important in the Reconstructionist world because it also helps children understand the difference between the ancients and us. 

With that said, and those modern practices set aside, what does a Celtic Making ButterReconstructionist do as an activity with their child to fully understand how the ancestors connected with this time of year? Well, food is always one of the first things to come to mind and in this case, food is what your child can help with. While, depending upon the age of your child, they may be able to help you cook the holy day feast, there is one activity that even a toddler can enjoy with you.  

Because the ancients acknowledgement of Imbolc relied heavily on the first milk produced by sheep and goats, dairy is obviously very important. That production of dairy signaled the slow return of the light into Spring and the return of their agricultural nourishment. With dairy playing such a huge role in this time period what better way to celebrate the day than making your own butter? Now, one could be completely gungho and go break out grandma's old churn, or see if there is a local farming or antique store that might carry one if you are feeling adventurous, but there is a much simpler way to do it and it involves three things.

Butter in processTo prepare for your butter making experience you need a clean jar or container with a lid, heavy whipping cream (salt to taste, if you prefer) and a few pairs of hands. You just pour the whipping cream into the jar, secure the lid so it is on nice and tight and start shaking. My twenty month old loved this. He sat on Dad's knee and put both hands on the sides and held on tight. He giggled non-stop for the entire time Daddy helped him shake it.  Then came Mommy's turn and when my arms felt like they were going to fall off it went back to Daddy. Of course he kept asking me when will we know it's done?

Basically it becomes thin whipped cream, then thick whipped cream and then you will notice a liquid starts to form, but the jar seems to get heavier. It will take you about 20 minutes to finally see the results of the activity, but it is well worth it. In Butterthe end you have fresh made butter and an activity that your children will remember forever. It's a great game that everyone gets to reap the benefits of and it truly helps you appreciate what our ancestors went through to get something we take for granted. What a great way to teach children to appreciate what they have?

Side note - Another great activity is involving them in bread making as well. You need something to put your finished butter on.



Brigid's Cross:

Butter Making:

Author: Blackbird O'Connell
Irish Reconstructionist Parent
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Women Warriors: The Myths and Legends of Heroic Women – Marianna Mayer

“There once was a warrior maiden who was told that her actions were like those of a man. ‘If I do these things, then they must be the ways of a woman,’ she replied, ‘since that is what I know myself to be.” This wonderful book by Marianna Mayer would fit nicely in any Reconstructionist child’s library. From stories of Devi, the Hindu Goddess who was the only one strong enough to rid the world of Durga, the Evil One to Yakami who, instead of allowing the sacrifice of another innocent girl to the dragon under the sea, cast herself in and slayed him.  There is also the tale of Winyan Ohitika of the Lakota Sioux who avenged her brothers deaths by defeating their enemies, the Crow nation as well as the tale of Hiera, who sent her women warriors into battle against a king attempting to take their territory.

Celtic Reconstructionists, particularly Gael specific, will adore this book as it contains stories of Scathach, who was the female warrior who trained Cu Chulain, Gwendolen, the first warrior Queen of Britain, the historic Boadicea, who lead her tribe against the Romans after her husband was killed and her daughters violated. As the Morrigan is my patron deity I love to read the encounter between her and Cu Chulain to my son which is very easy to do before bed time because many of the stories are only three pages long, the longest being five pages. The stories are written in small enough words for children to understand without speaking down to them and they move so quickly that they don't have time to get bored.

My only issue with the book is that some of the stories, as the author explains, may be bits and pieces of stories strewn together that may not have been related to an original complete legend as well as the story of Aliquipiso is claimed to to be of the Oneida tribe, but in the same sentence admitted that the particular tribe doesn't lay claim to said story "anymore". As those of us Recons are familiar with our legends it is easy to scan through them and know if they are complete or embellished by the author. As I tend to stick with the Celtic tales, I can attest that those are indeed complete and well written. My other issue is with the artwork. While it is absolutely gorgeous and catching to the eye of a child in their early teens and up as well as adults, it really isn't such with younger children. The drawings are like colored pencil sketch work and younger children tend to get drawn in to much bolder colors. While this isn't my favorite art for a children's book the stories are so short that the artwork doesn't help or hinder your child's focus.

If you are the type of parent who likes to introduce your kids to legends of the world or are a Celtic Recon looking for some easy to understand versions of the legends to read to your little ones, I highly recommend Women Warriors.

Author: Blackbird O'Connell
Irish Reconstructionist Parent
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