Monday, April 30, 2018


Beltane is the anglicised name of the Gaelic May Day festival.  May Day is on 1 May and is held on or near the halfway mark between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. It is one of the oldest and most ancient festival days.  It is widely observed in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, and in modern times has spread to the Diaspora.  In Irish Gaelic it is called Lá Bealtaine, in Scottish Gaelic, Là Bealltainn, an in Manx Gaelic Laa Boaltinn.  Beltane is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, along with Samhain, Imbolc, and Lughnasa. 

It is not a 'fire festival,' but fire is a integral part of the festivities.  Prior to modern times it was a festival to mark and celebrate the moving of livestock to summer pastures, to honour the Old Ways and old gods, and evoke blessing of fertility of the tribe and the life giving cattle.  It was pastoral in its focus. 

Beltane is mentioned in the earliest written Gaelic literature when Christian monks began to write down Gaelic lore and myths in early medieval times.  The medieval accounts were ancient even then and date back before Christianity was introduced to the Gaelic homelands. 

On the Beltane Eve the festival began.  The people gathered to feast, have drink, and make offerings to the Aos Sí, who are the old gods of the Gaels.  Byres, the windows and doors of homes, etc., were decorated with flowers.  It was a joyous festival ushering in the bountiful time when the days grew longer, the sun shined more, and the weather grew warmer.

Beltane survived the coming of Christianity and continued on for centuries, despite the attempts of overly zealous Christian officials who wanted to stop the practice, as they were fully aware of the origins of Beltane.  By the 20th century the festival had almost died out and was only celebrated and practiced in certain areas in Ireland, Scotland, and Man.  However, in the late 20th century there was a revival of Beltane festivities.  The focus of Beltane changed some in these more modern times, but the main core beliefs did remain.  The concept of the season change, the coming of the sun, and the start of the season of growth and plenty, etc., remain.

Fire was and is an integral part of Beltane.  All fires were put out on Beltane Eve and then rekindled starting with the lighting of the bonfire.  It was this holy flame from which the 'new' flames of the the folk began.  It was the 'force fire' and sacred.   Many will recognise the fire ritual as the same ritual used in the Catholic Church and several other Christian denominations in the Easter lighting of the Paschal candle.  The Paschal candle ritual was probably borrowed from the European Old Faiths. There are many old pastoral customs practiced on Beltane Eve.  There are too many Beltane nuances and rituals to describe here, but there is one core aspect of the ritual.  This is a Deiseal procession around the sacred fire.  Deiseal means 'right-hand direction' or Sunwise (clockwise).   The Deiseal procession around the sacred fire was a Blessing of the Cosmos upon all. 

Beltane is still celebrated and the practice is growing.  It is now held not only in the Gaelic homeland, but in the Diaspora, and has been incorporated into similar May Eve and May Day celebrations in Europe.  While many see Beltane as just a good time with a bonfire, there is also a growing interest in the spiritual aspects of the festival.  The concepts of the a new growing season, the connection to the Old Ways of ancestors, and reflection upon life, are also now part of Beltane for a growing number of people.

a sacred fire of Bealtaine
So... Do enjoy Beltane.  A bonfire is best way to partake of course and with a Deiseal (clockwise) procession around the sacred fire.  Followed by toasts to the Old Ways, to Ancestors, to the coming season of Summer.  If you lack the means of a bonfire, a candle will do, or even a wee fire in your fire-pit.  Connect with your Ancestors and the Old Ways, as these are very good things. 

Sláinte ar Lá Bealtaine

Post Script: there are many excellent books on Gaelic folkways and Old Ways and I encourage all to explore these... and for those with a little patience, I will be putting out a small book on the Gaelic Old Faith in future, as my current writing projects are finished.

© 2018 Barry R McCain 

Barry R McCain on Amazon

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Gall-Gael

Gall Ghaeil Lord circa AD 1000

During the reign of Coinneach Mac Ailpín (AD 844-860) a people appeared in mid Argyll who were closely connected to Norwegian vikings.  These people joined with these vikings on their expeditions and they were called the Gall Ghaeil.  The name itself is a combination of the word Gall meaning a 'stranger'  or 'foreigner.'   The second element in the name is 'Gael'  i.e. a Gaelic speaking Celt. Gall-Gael is the anglicised form of the Gaelic term Gall-Ghaeil. They were literally the 'Foreign Gaels.'

Mid Argyll was the epicentre of Gall Ghaeil society. Later in their history they were also connected with the Kingdom of Galloway (Dumfries and Galloway, and southern Ayrshire) in present day southwest Scotland.  In this area of Scotland they were called the Galwyddel, which is the Cymreag Celtic (Welsh) form of Gall-Ghaeil.   There was both a Gaelic and Cumbric component to Gall-Ghaeil society.  The Gall Ghaeil were a fascinating part of the history of Old North in the dynamic Viking age.

The Gall-Ghaeil were generally Celtic in ethnicity with some Norse admixture.  They were influenced by their exposure to Norse vikings.  They essentially became Gaelic Vikings. They adopted Norse accoutrements of war and shipbuilding.  The Gall-Ghaeil developed a strong warrior caste based society.

Gall Ghaeil Lord and warrior circa 1000 AD

In medieval primary sources we are only given negative reports on the Gall Ghaeil for the most part.  There are reports of their kings, their raids, and of their employment with Irish chiefs.  The Church considered them pagan and condemned them.  The Gall Ghaeil were active from the late 9th Century into the 12th Century. The Gall Ghaeil lived in a twilight world between pagan and Christian, between Gael and Norse. 

Their descendants gave rise to the families and clans that became the Gallóglaigh and later the Redshanks. Many of these families and clans migrated to Ireland; the Gallóglaigh circa AD 1300 to 1450 and the Redshanks in the 1500s.  

In some cases, Viking was a profession, not an ethnicity.  In parts of Argyll, Galloway, and northern Ireland, some Gaels went viking and became Gall-Ghaeil. 

© 2018 Barry R McCain 

Barry R McCain on Amazon


Monday, April 2, 2018

Book Review: A Bullet In His Forehead

(a book review, this work by a Peruvian born writer; I like South American writers, I love their perspective, dry wit and a cultivated sense of irony, and in general, the verging on metaphysical ambience of so many of the South American writers)

A Bullet In His Forehead is the first installment in a trilogy by Peruvian born writer Manuel Aguirre.  The book is a study of the fascinating and engaging world of Second Lieutenant Gerardo Arrieta.  It’s setting is in Peru with much of the action taking place in the Forward Operation Base located on the border between Peru and Bolivia, close to the famous Lake Titicaca.  It is a cold and arid environment where Aimara Indians, bloodthirsty smugglers, and even the Devil himself vex the protagonist.  Second Lieutenant Arrieta has only the local Indian shaman to help him find a path to survive. 

Photo: Percy Ramírez

I was hooked on the book from the opening pages. It is not only interesting, but also a glimpse into the very different world of the Peruvian highlands.  The familiar use of South American irony and dry humour kept me smiling as the narrative unfolded.  A Bullet In His Forehead uses changes in narrative point of view and chronology to expertly lay out an enchanting tale.  The back cover blurb insightfully describes the book as a ‘surrealistic transgressive-fiction.’  It is also a masterpiece of storytelling.  I highly recommend A Bullet In His Forehead.  This book is available on Amazon. 

Barry R McCain