Saturday, March 11, 2017

Hands of History

Ever since I was a very young child I have been attracted to people's hands. I recall watching my father's hands whenever he would describe something. His fingers, long and lithe, were weathered from years of hard work, yet the fingernails were perfectly oval and smooth, like polished pebbles on the beach at Dingle bay.

I loved my mother's hands, the way she would articulate her fingers when she was speaking, the way her hands held parcels, or folded linens.

As I age, my hands are beginning to resemble those of my mother, so much so that sometimes I 'see' my mother in the movements of my hands, when I open a door or pat someone on the shoulder. In a strange way it is as though a part of her is with me.

On the hands of the very old, their skin is often loose and wrinkly, and it has a sort of translucence to it so that you can see the blues and reds of the veins and capillaries making their way ever closer to the surface. The fingers of old hands may be slightly crooked from arthritis or injury, but for me they represent history. I imagine the work those hands have done, the documents they have signed, perhaps to defy a colonizer and found a country, or more simply to sign a note, witness a marriage, or buy a home. Whose hands have they held tight?

Whenever I look at photographs I look at the hands of the individuals in them and think about what those hands mean.

The image on the right is clipped from a larger photograph of my maternal grandparents and their sons. In it my maternal grandmother, Mary Fitzpatrick Ball, is holding her youngest child Tom, her hands are drawn together, supporting him on her lap. A few short months after this photo was taken Tom was dead and those hands wrapped him in swaddling clothes for burial.

Hands connect us and draw us together. Hands protect us, and sometimes push us apart. When you are first introduced to someone you can tell so much just by looking at their hands. On an elderly person they are usually weathered and aged, marked by the daily living of a long life, while on an infant they are smooth, soft and unblemished, so full of possibility.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

St. Valentine in Dublin

Happy St. Valentine's Day! 

The Shrine of St. Valentine,
Our Lady of Mount Carmel Whitefriar Street Church,
Aungier Street, Dublin.
Ah yes, it is time to once again celebrate the love in your life on the feast day of the martyr Valentine. Saint Valentine is widely known as the patron saint of love and lovers, engaged and happily married couples, and he is also, oddly enough, the patron saint of beekeepers. It is said that Valentine is the patron saint of love because he was executed for continuing to bless marriages at a time when Christianity was outlawed.

Dublin, Ireland, has a special association with the patron saint of love because the church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel — popularly known as Whitefriar Street Church — has a shrine in honour of St. Valentine which holds a reliquary bearing some of his remains.

So, how did Saint Valentine end up in Ireland?

In 1835, Father John Spratt, an Irish Carmelite priest, visited Rome. Father Spratt was not only responsible for the building of Our Lady of Mount Carmel at Whitefriar Street in Dublin — on the site of a 13th century Carmelite Monastery — but over time he had become internationally renowned for his preaching skills and for his work with the poor and indigent in the Liberties area of Dublin.

While in Rome Father Spratt was asked to deliver the homily at The Church of the Gesù, the famous Jesuit church in Rome. He so impressed the elite of the Catholic Church that as a token of their esteem Pope Gregory XVI presented Father Spratt with a reliquary containing some of the remains of St. Valentine.

On 10 November 1836, the St. Valentine’s reliquary arrived in Dublin. Following a solemn procession to Whitefriar Street Church, it was received by the Most Reverend Daniel Murray, Archbishop of Dublin.

After the death of Father Spratt in May of 1871, the reliquary was stored away and it was not until the church underwent a major renovation in the mid-20th century that the reliquary was installed under the altar of the shrine which had been constructed in the church to honour St. Valentine.

The reliquary that holds the saint's remains.
Notice the book on the altar in which you may write requests for blessings from St. Valentine.
Saint Valentine is most often depicted in the colour red, as he is here in the shrine. Red roses are associated with Valentine, as is the crocus flower. On his statue at Whitefriar church, Valentine holds a crocus in his hands. The crocus flower is said to represent cheerfulness and gladness, and also love. There is a long held belief that if the petals of a crocus are laid on the matrimonial bed after the wedding ceremony, the couple will be blessed with a long and happy marriage.

Today, this Shrine of Saint Valentine is visited throughout the year by couples who come to pray that the saint might bless their relationship with long lasting love. The shrine is also the site for the Blessings of Rings ceremony for those about to be married. On any given day when you visit the shrine you will find a book atop the altar cloth into which you might write requests to Saint Valentine to bless you with much love in your life.


Friday, February 10, 2017

34 days

Life is never simple. You go along thinking things will remain pretty much the same. You awaken at generally the same time each morning. The tasks you do are relatively similar day to day: you take the dog outside, shower, have breakfast, drive to the train. There is a rhythm to life, a rhythm which sometimes seems humdrum. The rituals of life make everyday seem ordinary. You always hear people talking about wanting to break out of the everyday, not realizing that in some ways such a rhythm is life affirming. Such a rhythm appears to be permanent, like a possession you can hang on to, but then something profound happens which folds up that rhythm and throws it away.

10 February 2017, is the seventeenth anniversary of the day, 10 February 2000, on which my father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer; he died exactly 34 days later. Each year in February I begin to think about those thirty-four days. For me February and March are now the cruelest months because those 34 four days intersect them. I find myself imagining what I would have done differently if someone had said to me on that February day, 'in thirty-four days your dad will disappear and you will never see him again'.  Even though we did not realize it, those 34 days were spent trying to recapture the rhythm of the ordinary, trying to hold on to our ordinary rituals.

On television shows about doctors and hospitals, the doctors always seem able to tell their patients exactly how much time they have left. In life as a television show they say, 'You've got 34 days', and then the patient embarks on a life affirming journey which ends in a sad yet beautiful way, but real life is just not like that.  The oncologist didn't have a crystal ball; there were no predictions about how much time was left, no inspirational speeches, just a sort of resignation.  An explanation of what could be done was offered: radiation, chemotherapy, maybe some surgery, but it would all be to no avail. I remember the oddest things about the appointment, in that strange little room, at the cancer centre. I remember the tiny blue ink stain on the pocket of the doctor's lab coat, the way in which he stood so near to the door, as though he might run away from giving this diagnosis, the unpleasant shade of green on the walls, and the odd sort of octagonal shape to the room, like a stop sign.

Did my father believe it when he was told this was the end of his life, I wonder? In his face that day, as I sat across from him in the oncologist's little room, I thought I saw that belief. Dad had a look in his eyes, a look which was the recognition of an absolute certainty, as though the long awaited answer to a question had been given, and he completely understood that answer.

We spent that 34 days in search of the ordinary, but the unusual kept creeping in, no matter how much we tried to push it away.  People came to the house to visit, people we hadn't seen in years, a long line of goodbyes and empty platitudes. There was a long list of phone calls to be made, always starting with an apology, 'I'm sorry to be the bearer of such bad news', always feeling angry that I was the one chosen to utter those words, 'Dad has terminal cancer'. The recipients of the news on the other end of that phone line always seemed determined to say, 'don't worry Jenn, he'll be okay; he'll be better before you know it.' I remember losing my temper with an uncle when he uttered those words to me, losing my temper and shouting into the phone, and wishing desperately for a return to that place, the place with the rhythm of the ordinary.

34 days: Sleeping at my parents' home in my old bedroom, waking each morning, and hoping it had all been a bad dream.
34 days: Shopping for the softest sheets, as though somehow more comfort would take away Dad's cancer.
34 days: Talking to friends and family who did not seem to understand our plight.
34 days: Listening to the whir of the oxygen machine.

34 days: Searching for the rhythm of life, and longing for its return.

(Originally posted 10 February 2012)

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Feast of Brigid & the first day of spring on the Celtic calendar

Although not much is known about the saint for whom it is named, St. Brigid’s cross is a national symbol in Ireland. St. Brigid is said to have been born into the family of a Leinster chieftain, sometime around 450, in the County Louth village of Faughart, near Dundalk.

It is said Brigid refused to enter into an arranged marriage and instead chose to consecrate her life to God. Brigid is credited with the founding of several monastic communities around Ireland, including a large monastery at Kildare. The significance of this community may account for the fact that St. Brigid is known as Brigid of Kildare. Brigid’s communities provided education for young Irish women at a time when the Roman church would not do so.

There is a long list of persons for whom Brigid is said to be patron saint, including babies & brewers, mariners & midwives, poets & scholars.

All around Ireland on the first day of February — the first day of spring on the Celtic calendar — you may find children crafting St. Brigid’s cross out of rushes. Also, you might spy the crosses in transom windows over doorways, beseeching St. Brigid to keep safe those who reside within. My own St. Brigid's crosses are pictured above. The black one is crafted out of petrified turf, and is a souvenir of time spent in County Kildare. The reed one is a little the worse for wear, but hangs in our home, not only as a talisman against harm, but also as a symbol of the kindness of the young woman who crafted it for me at the 2014 January Tradfest site on the grounds of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Around Ireland there are a number of sites dedicated to Brigid, but my favourite among these is near the National Stud in County Kildare. Please enjoy the brief video slideshow below of my visit to St. Brigid's Holy Well.


Friday, January 20, 2017

Surname Saturday: Irish Surnames: Did you know?

In the 14th century, two hundred years after the Anglo-Normans invaded Ireland, many of their descendants could no longer read English. It was thought by the English Government that they were becoming 'too Irish'; therefore, any Englishman living on the island of Ireland was compelled by law to use only surnames which were deemed to be of English origin.

A 1366 Statute in English law reads as follows:

"Every Englishman do use the English language, and be named by an English name, leaving off entirely the manner of naming used by the Irish."

In the 15th century a law was enacted compelling Irishmen, who resided in particular districts of Ireland in which they might find themselves living near to English persons, to use only English surnames.

The law of 1465 reads as follows:

"Every Irishman that dwells betwixt or amongst Englishmen in the County of Dublin, Myeth [County Meath], Vriell [County Louth], and Kildare shall take to him an English Surname of one town, as Sutton, Chester, Trym, Skryne, Corke, Kinsale; or colour, as white, blacke, browne; or art or science, as smith or carpenter; or office, as cooke, butler."


If ever you are wondering about the origins of an Irish family surname such as Cook or Butler, or why the surnames of your Irish ancestors appear to inexplicably change, this may have something to do with it.


Source: Sir Robert E. Matheson: Special Report on Surnames in Ireland with Notes as to Numerical Strength, Derivation, Ethnology, and Distribution; Based on Information Extracted from the Indexes of the General Register Office, Alex. Thom & Co. (Ltd.), Dublin, 1909.

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