Sr. Joann Sambs, executive director of the Dwelling Place of New York. PHOTOS BY DAN BROWN
By Carmel McMahon
Nollaig Na mBan NYC is a group of artists who celebrate the four great festivals of the Celtic year. Our events raise funds for the Dwelling Place, a transitional residence for women.
Lughnasa traditionally falls at the midway point between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox. Our event was held on Aug. 1 at the Ripley-Greer Studios in Manhattan.
Lughnasa is a harvest feast. It has the opposite but complementary energy of Imbolc. Imbolc is associated with the goddess Brigid. Her feast is about fertility and the feminine. Lughnasa is related to the god Lugh. His feast is about virility and the masculine. What we sow with Brigid, we reap with Lugh. Lugh represents this contract. There is supposed to be a balance here, but what is there to celebrate when we reap more than we sow?
Co-hosts Mary McIntyre, left, and Dolores Nolan.
Ancient and indigenous cultures have much to teach us today. The ancient Irish practiced sustainable farming and fishing. It was considered a serious offense to harm an apple tree, a sacred source of food for the community. Their judicial system, Brehon Law, was restorative rather than retributive, and crucially, retribution was paid by the whole community, not just the offending individual.
We are connected to this past, so I don't want to waste precious space writing something sentimental about he-goats and corn dollies. Instead, I want to tell you what happened on my way to the Lughnasa event. I had to pass a group of men sitting at an outdoor café on Broadway. Will they say something? I wondered as I approached. Will they make one of those noises? (You know the ones, the grunts, the groans, the whispers about a. what they are going to do to me, or, b. the reasons why they wouldn't touch me). Will they just watch me intently as I pass, as if I am an object that belongs to them?
What happened? All of the above.
I have become aware of what happens in my body during these encounters: a tightening of the stomach, a constriction of the throat, a quickening of the breath. A triggering of the fight or flight response. Over so many years: fight or flight. If I say something, and I have, the situation can escalate dangerously, so I did what many women do, I swallowed it down in my belly.
Recently, I tried to explain to a male friend what this kind of abuse feels like. His eyes glazed over, "Mm-Hmm." A favorite comedian accused women of being "weak-spirited" for not sucking it up. Once you see the web of misogyny in our culture, you can't unsee it. But once you see it, you can do something about it. Misogyny is one of the ways we reap more than we sow.
To that end, I'd like to write about the Irish goddess Tailtiu. We have forgotten somewhere along the line, that it is she who we commemorate at Lughnasa, and it is she who has a message for us today.
Jack Di Monte.
Tailtiu was "diminished" to human form. She traveled to the center of Ireland where she felled a dense forest, so the land could be planted. Afterward, she died of exhaustion. On her deathbed, she made one request of her foster son, Lugh: that her funeral be celebrated forever.
Tailtiu's request may seem strange, but the ancients would have understood the symbolism: she died with the trees so the land would produce food to feed the people. Out of death, rebirth. They would have recognized the connection between the woman's body and the earth. The fact that Tailtiu was not Lugh's birth-mother underscores the fact that we all have a responsibility to respect and care for each other, and the earth that sustains us.
Tailtiu's asks that we never forget her. But we have forgotten her, and we remember the great warrior Lugh at Lughnasa instead. Lugh of the Long Arm, Master of All Arts & Crafts! A god with a very different energy and focus.
What of Tailtiu's call for festivities? She knew the energetic power of collective intention and celebration. This "diminished" goddess as an ordinary woman, asked her community to honor her/the earth in their games, their trading, their feasting and their relationships, and they can be hopeful for the coming season. This is her message, and one we can disseminate at Lughnasa today.
At the Nollaig Na mBan event, we were delighted to see so many new faces. Performers Marni Rice, Jack di Monte, and Greg Ryan entertained us with their stories and songs. Sister Joann Sambs of the Dwelling Place told us the residence is at capacity, and countless other women come for the open weekly meal. There is always tablecloths and flowers. There is always dignity and respect. Our meager offering will hardly put a dent in their running costs, but we have spent the evening together, and we are all the better for it. We leave reconnected, our hope somewhat restored, our hearts somewhat softened.