Thursday, March 15, 2012

Children's Guide to Irish Culture

Just in time for St. Patrick's Day, I will repost some of my ideas for teaching a child about Irish culture. Admittedly, I am no expert. I only spent five months there, primarily on the West coast. Although I can't promise that the snippets below are indicative of mainstream culture, I can assure you that they are part of the culture I experienced while studying there.

While U2 and Snow Patrol certainly qualify as Irish bands, Ireland can also boast of a sizable "trad music" scene, which generally features instruments such as harp, fiddle, tin whistle, concertina, guitar, and the bodhrán, a traditional frame drum. Some modern bands that play trad music include Planxty, The Outside Track, and Danú. For creating your own music, the easiest path by far is learning to sing the ballads and folk songs that carry the heart of the Irish people. Most of these are sung in English and often have a chorus that even young children can learn. Slightly older children can learn to play a tin whistle, which can be bought for about $10. They are a bit shrill, but with practice, even a child of seven or eight can be quite proficient.

Tin Whistle - Irish Trad Music
Image by Ivan Walsh via Flickr

For a real taste of Ireland, consider serving an Irish breakfast. Breakfast is the largest meal of the day for some families, especially on weekends, and can include multiple courses. One usually starts with juice and/or fresh fruit, followed by yogurt, then porridge, and only then the cooked meal. Breakfast is generally accompanied by home-made brown bread (at least at my roommate's home!) with fruit preserves and strong tea (often sweetened with milk).
What you'll need:
fruit juice
fresh fruit (often apples, which are a local commercial crop)
yogurt (Look for unusual flavors, as the variety in Ireland is inspiring. My favorite was rhubarb!)
oatmeal, cooked in milk with brown sugar, honey, or cream to sweeten it
fried eggs
fried bacon (ask your butcher about rashers if you want to be authentic or just pick fatty bacon)
fried blood sausage (known more appetizingly as 'black pudding')
medium sized tomatoes, halved and fried in butter
tea (with cream or whole milk)
fruit preserves
Irish brown bread
  • 4 cups whole-wheat flour
  • 1.5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1.5 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • scant 2 cups buttermilk
Mix dry ingredients and stir in enough buttermilk to make a soft dough. Knead lightly on a floured surface until smooth. Shape the dough into a circular loaf about 1.5" thick and mark a deep cross in the top with a floured knife. Bake for 45 mins at 400.

Irish Breakfast
Image by scottm32768 via Flickr

If you want to take an easier route, have what my roommates ate: toast topped with canned brown beans! Apparently that's pretty common, too.

Hurling is one of Ireland's traditional sports and somewhat similar to lacrosse, but its following pales in comparison to the popularity of Gaelic football, which contains some aspects of both rugby and American soccer. Each county has its own team and the rivalry is fierce! Encourage your children to learn the rules of the game, pick a team, and follow them through the season. Be sure to make flags or jerseys using the colors of the county you choose!

Gaelic football - photo by Matt Doyle
Image by Matt Doyle at dgaproductions via Flickr

Interesting note: Girls generally do not play 'sport' once they are out of childhood. Young women certainly will cheer their local team, but are rarely seen participating in athletics, even just a 'pick-up' game. While I was there, female university students would take walks to get exercise and watch the boys play, but never participate.

The Church
One of the texts from my Irish history course stated that to be Irish was to love the sport, the party and the church, and no one would ask which sport (Gaelic football), party (Fianna Fáil), or church (Roman Catholic). Times have changed, but the Catholic Church is still central to Irish culture. Take your children to a local Catholic church, preferably an older, traditional building, and show them the stained glass windows, the Stations of the Cross, and the statues. These visuals were very important for introducing Christianity to an illiterate population.

Image by Terabbs via Flickr

While many Irish young people today do not believe what the Church teaches, they are still very culturally Catholic, celebrating St. Brigid's Day, Pancake Day, Easter, Christmas, and St. Stephen's Day with their families. Research these feasts and join in the fun! Of course, you can always celebrate St. Patrick's Day, but be warned that the Irish think we're a bit batty for our green beer and shamrock necklaces. :-)

Literature and Folklore
Explore beautiful poetry by W.B. Yeats or the classic literature of Oscar Wilde. (James Joyce and Jonathan Swift were also talented Irish authors, but their works are more appropriate for teens than children.) Wilde actually wrote a collection of stories for children, The Happy Prince and Other Stories, which was published in 1888. Some of Yeats poems suitable for children include The Lake Isle of InnisfreeThe Hosting of the Sidhe, At Galway Races, and The Cat and the Moon. I love the imagery of The Hosting of the Sidhe, but I think your children will enjoy it more if you have already exposed them to the Fair Folk through Irish folklore. You also may need to do a bit of research on Irish pronunciation in order to read it! (And yes, the language is called Irish by the people who live there. The culture is Gaelic.)

Old Books
Image by gripspix via Flickr

An Ancient People
The first settlers of Ireland arrived about 9,000 years ago. If you want to teach history, here is a great culture to study! Be sure to include the High Kings of Tara for children who want tales of warriors and epic battles, pictures of the Book of Kells for the child who loves art, learning, and the written word, and tales of the Celtic druids to learn about our connection to nature.

Portrait of Christ
Image by nfejohn via Flickr

I hope this gives you a good primer for introducing your children to a culture that is often represented by leprechauns and drinking songs. Cheers!

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