TOO MANY CASTLES TO COUNT

Shortly after the turn of the century, I was working as an actor, risking my life in freeway traffic every day, and attempting to recover after the devastating end of a romance. I was more burned out than a cold campfire. To say that I looked forward to spending the entire summer in Ireland would be a profound understatement.

Before I left, a friend suggested I go see a ‘fabulous’ psychic. Though he knew nothing about me, the psychic was amazingly accurate. The first words out of his mouth were:

‘You’re going to travel across water to a place with lots of castles.'
It was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud and squealing in his face, ‘Duh!’

In Ireland, castles are like hiccups. One pops up every few minutes when you’re driving across the countryside. Some have been painstakingly restored, but many are crumbling yet still beautiful ruins. Most are located on bodies of water, which makes them positively breath-taking. For a tour guide, there’s nothing more gratifying than hearing people gasp in awe when they round a corner and step up to these little pieces of the past. Unlike fairy tale castles, these are the genuine article, with most of the structures dating back to the 12th through 16th centuries. That means the castles were usually tower houses or keeps, built so that the people inside could be easily defended.
The renaissance period in Ireland was fraught with peril, and overrun by a bunch of angry white dudes greedy for land. The Normans swept across the country to the west, defeating the High Kings of Ireland; the War of the Roses created a wave of trouble beyond British shores; rebelling Anglo-Irish and Gaelic families wacked off heads and asked questions later; the Battle of Kinsale was a total nightmare; and then there was that whole Cromwellian load of crap. All this fighting meant that castles were a necessary practicality.

Consequently, a real castle doesn’t usually look like Cinderella’s Magic Kingdom digs at Disneyland. That structure is a hollow fa├žade (so Hollywood) based on the Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria. Neuschwanstein was built by wacky King Ludwig in the late 19th century when people no longer needed to live in castles for protection. To put it in perspective, Ludwig was more or less deposed for spending too much on his castle.
As a tour director and guide, I get lots of requests from travellers who want to see castles. My usual response is: If you come to Ireland and don’t see any castles, it means you had your eyes closed the whole time.

This coming summer, for Ireland Writer Tours, there are castles included in both the July and August tours. In addition to countless drive-byes, where ruins will be visible, and stories told, we’ll also be spending private time with specific famous castles. 
In July, there’s a magnificent structure dating as far back as the 12th century, complete with a moat and a Rapunzel tower. Though we’ll be touring the grounds, the interior is off limits (unless you want to be sneaky!) The second castle in July is a privately-owned 14th century tower house that is so haunted, a psychic medium used to travel from Scotland to teach classes there. We’ll be having dinner in the tower room and visiting the haunted bedrooms. Sometimes the toilets even flush themselves.
In August, in addition to the photo op castles and drive-byes, we have a special highlight. It will include a docent-guided afternoon in a 15th century castle tower house on the picturesque shore of Lough Leane. This tour is particularly appropriate for anyone writing or planning a project that takes place in a castle because there will be details about daily life in the castle, including everything from what people ate, where they slept, how and why they bathed infrequently, even the oddities involved with going to the loo. The docent also describes harrowing defence and battle practices, as well as architectural details and building methods.

My long-ago psychic-predicted-summer in Ireland was spent researching and writing a historical novel. And the psychic had been right—I did indeed spend a lot of time in and around castles, as I had on numerous trips to Ireland. But a nice surprise happened when I had to return to L.A. After spending three months immersing myself in the lives and tragedies of my Irish ancestors, my own life didn’t seem nearly so bad.

There's nothing quite as spiritually enlightening as travel, learning how someone else lived, and walking a few miles in their shoes.


The Coming of Alban Hefin



The Earth is hurdling toward Alban Hefin, the longest day of the year. Irish summers are poignantly beautiful in their brevity. They can also be as unpredictable and volatile as a hyena on crack. However, for the past two weeks the wild west of Eire has been blessed with magnificent sun and blue skies. Tonight, I took these photos on my twilight walk, at ten in the evening.
At this time of year, the sun doesn’t set until after 10pm and light lingers in the sky for hours after that. I’ve worked in the garden until late and been shocked to go inside and find that it’s after one in the morning. Yesterday, the daylight woke me at 3:45am. Over the next few weeks, as the moon grows bigger, it will rise in the east while the sun is still beaming in the western sky. And everywhere, animals and plants are celebrating all this light.
Alban Hefin is the old Druid name for the summer solstice. It means ‘The Light of the Shore’ and is symbolic of the shoreline between earth, water, and sky. The places where these three elements meet are considered to be ‘between the worlds.’ These are sacred places of great power. The shoreline of the largest lake in Ireland, where I live, positively throbs with energy, especially at this time of year. The trees are full of fat, green leaves, lush ferns whisper in the breeze, and delicate wild flowers in purple, blue, white, pink, red, and yellow grace the land like fashion accessories. If you stand in the quiet twilight, you can almost hear the Earth singing.
This year, Alban Hefin arrives on the 20th, and Druids in their white robes will be celebrating at Stonehenge as they have for millennia. But I’ve been celebrating the light for the last two weeks, and I’ll continue to celebrate for as long as this exquisite seasons lasts.

Happy BELTAINE!

It’s that time of year again when we celebrate the coming of summer. White hawthorn blossoms are everywhere, just like in the old Collier painting of Guinevere. Bluebells, cherry blossoms, wild garlic, sunshine-yellow dandelions and soft yellow primroses, as well as a myriad of flowering fruit trees, have painted the Irish landscape with bursts of joyous colour.


All week I’ve watched birds carrying nesting materials into hedgerows; shy baby calves peering out from behind their mothers, tiny baby colts that seem to be all legs and eyelashes. It’s a most amazing time of year that positively throbs with life-energy and enchantment.
It’s probably not news to anyone that tonight is one of the two holidays (the other being 31 October) when the veil between this world and the Otherworld is thin to the point of disappearing. If you’ve a mind, and spirit, to meet the wee folk, that could easily happen this evening.

At twilight, I’ll be going a-Maying in the local wood known to be ‘home of the King of the Faeries of Connaught.’ I’ll take with me offerings of fruit and seeds for nesting birds and other wild creatures. Most of my neighbours are afraid to bring hawthorn in the house, especially tonight, and they’ll definitely avoid any areas known to be favoured by ‘the folk.’



But prudent has never been one of my favourite adjectives. It sounds like someone who’s eaten too many prunes. So I’ll happily dive into the wilderness and let the fey have their way with me. In fact, on a previous evening at twilight, I did get ‘pixie-led’ in the same forest I’ll visit tonight. Though I knew the area well, I strayed off the main path and ended up lost, wandering around for a seemingly endless length of time. While the experience was disconcerting to say the least and—if I’m going to be honest, downright scary—it was an evening I’ll never forget. The kind of evening that, when it’s over, is life-affirming.
And isn’t that what this season is all about?

If you don’t have a forest to wander around, this is a fine time to burn a green candle and make a wish as you leap over the flame for good luck (the old Irish custom). It’s also the perfect time to plant a few seeds and water them, thinking of your goals as you do. Then, as the plants sprout and grow, so will your goals.

In lovely harmony the wood has put on its green mantle,
and summer is on its throne, playing its string-music;
the willow, whose harp hung silent when it was withered in winter,
now gives forth its melody.
Hush! Listen! The world is alive!
--Thomas Telynog Evans--







EASY WEIGHT LOSS

This week I got a nice surprise. I lost two pounds without even trying! I'm attributing this joyous occurrence to the only thing I did differently:

SPRING TONICS

At this time of year, if you take advantage of new growth, nature will give you a few gifts. The tender, green shoots of new plants are the best antidote for a body that's become sluggish and slow over the winter months. Historically, people in this part of the world always looked to spring as the time to 'purify the blood' and circulatory system.

If you're outside doing a bit of gardening, save some of those weeds you're pulling. I've got a few recipes for you, but first I'll explain how they can help.

Throw some young Dandelion leaves in your salad, and you'll start to feel mighty. They don't taste bad and do a wonderful job of stimulating the liver as well as offering a mild diuretic effect. If you save a dandelion plant or two and let them mature, you can even use the plant's 'milk' to remove warts.
Young Dandelion Leaves
If you suffer from allergies or hay fever this time of year, or any type of lung problem, Nettles can be your best friend. Just be sure to wear gloves when you gather the new, young leaves. Unlike dandelion, nettles taste less than fabulous, so chop the leaves finely and add a tablespoon full, raw, to whatever kind of soup you prefer. Nettle is rich in loads of minerals, including calcium. It's one of the few plants that contain Vitamin D so it can elevate your mood too. It was once used as a cure for tuberculosis, and daily intake can relieve sneezing and itchy eyes. If you'd like to try nettle soup, here's a link to a nice recipe: http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/2137636/nettle-soup
Nettle
Carrageenan, from the garden of the sea, is a traditional Irish cure. It has anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties, is rich in potassium chloride, has loads of vitamins, and can work wonders for relieving congestion and mucous. It’s also good for treating dry skin, eczema and psoriasis. A seaweed bath can make you feel like a mermaid and does luscious things for your skin. I like to use dry seaweed flakes in my salads. They're a terrific source of Vitamin B12, which offers a jolt of energy, aids weight loss, soothes the nerves and intestines, relieves leg cramps, and can improve homocysteine levels. That last bit is important because it protects the brain from atrophy, making B12 a great choice for anyone dealing with Alzheimer's and/or dementia.
'Carrageen Sprinkle'
Then there's the old stand-by, Apple Cider Vinegar-Lemonade Tonic. This is the one I drank each morning this past week, and it's the one that must've helped me lose those two pounds. Here's the recipe: 
1 tablespoon Apple Cider Vinegar (Bragg's Organic 'with the mother') 
2 tablespoons Organic Lemon Juice 
1 tablespoon Maple Syrup 
1 teaspoon Ceylon (the better, organic cinnamon) 
1/4 teaspoon Cayenne Pepper 
Mix together in a pint glass with purified water and drink this in the morning before anything else. 

This drink is a great way to correct your acid/alkaline balance, thereby eliminating yeast and eating up extra starch you may consume. The lemon juice offers Vitamin C, Ceylon is a super antioxidant that balances blood sugar, and Cayenne drops blood pressure and speeds up metabolism. 

So that's where my extra two pounds went! 

Remember, the juice and leaves of plants that are freshly gathered are far more potent than anything bottled, so get out there and celebrate springtime! Because, in the words of the famous Dr. Bach, 'Nature patiently waits and we have only to turn back to her to find relief from our suffering.' 

St. Patrick - Not the Guy You Thought He Was



Before you go diving into a pint of green beer to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, you might want to pause for a moment and reflect a bit on ‘yer man,’ Patrick.

While he may be the patron saint of Ireland, he was NOT the first to bring Christianity to this island. That distinction goes to a bishop named Palladius who came from Gaul and mostly hung out in Leinster when he got here, setting up churches in that small area. He was sent by the pope to preach to ‘the Irish who believe in Christ.’ But Palladius had zip when it came to PR, so people pretty much forgot about him. In fact, if Palladius and Patrick were 21st century authors, Palladius would be the guy who published his own e-book and sold 12 copies to his family members. Patrick would be 50-shades of E.L. James.

How did Patrick get such outstanding publicity in the 5th century? He made up stories, of course.

According to research conducted by Cambridge University professor, Roy Flechner, ‘The traditional story that Patrick was kidnapped from Britain, forced to work as a slave, but managed to escape and reclaim his status, is likely to be fiction. The story was instigated by Patrick himself in the letters he wrote, because this is how he wanted to be remembered.’

Even more interesting, it’s probable that Patrick owned slaves and became a slave trader in Ireland. This is based, in part, on early medieval Irish legal texts which regulate the church’s ownership of slaves. Since there was no monetary economy in Ireland at that time, slave trading was the main basis for the economy. Slaves were also, frequently, used for sex. And, yes, the church was a major slave owner.

Flechner adds, ‘Escaped slaves had no legal status and could be killed or recaptured by anyone. The probability Patrick managed to cross from his alleged place of captivity in western Ireland back to Britain undetected, is small.’

A 7th century cleric wrote that Patrick took a liking to a boy he had converted to Christianity and named Benignus. The boy, ‘took Patrick’s feet between his hands and would not sleep with his father and mother, but wept unless he would be allowed to sleep with Patrick.’ They had a close, lifelong companionship, and Benignus succeeded Patrick as bishop of Armagh.

Another story about yer man Patrick that’s really more symbolism than fabrication is the one about driving the snakes out of Ireland. Since there never were any snakes here, this one is in reference to the fact that Patrick led a fight to have Druid priests and priestesses expelled from the country or killed. His main gripe was that Druids worshipped a Mother Goddess. He seems to have forgotten, their Goddess was his God’s mother. But, of course, Patrick wasn’t the first to wipe out the indigenous culture of a country through religious imperialism.

No matter how you celebrate this green holiday, you might want to follow Patrick’s lead the next time you have to compose your own bio. Maybe add in a little snippet about how you were captured by pirates before you managed to drive all the duck-billed platypuses out of lower Manhattan. You could get centuries of good publicity out of it.