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La Bealtaine ar Sliabh Gullion

La Bealtaine –  My favorite time of year since childhood. A time of promise, brimming with possibility, the light is returning and bring new luck with it. Our days are lengthening and stretching to those long evenings where we can make the most of things. The fields and hedgerows are wakening up from their quiet winter slumber and life is blossoming.

Bealtaine is my time to thrive. My hands feel the cool pull of the soil as I get busy planting. My senses are reawakened. I hear the call of the buzzard, the return of the cuckoo, the honeybee in search of their first dandelion, the lambs on the hills. My eyes trace the colours evolving as the Blaeberry blossoms, the Blackthorn erupts veiling the lonans in bridal white blossom. The whins are ablaze in a golden crown.

So Bealtaine for me seemed the most natural time to launch my new collection of wool paintings. Made over a year of uncertaintity, of stops and starts, during the worry and hesitance that ensued amid a global pandemic; it was creativity and an acute gratitude of belonging to this place and these people that nurtured me through. They are all centred around Slieve Gullion and her foothills where poets tred and still do. They are all inspired by that special feeling that we are a place apart…

Bealtaine is a time of traditions in our house. My mother Derry would make me a crown of flowers and ferns from the ditch ( see blog A Walk With My Mother) I’d wear a summer dress to mass (tomboy took a rest) and have some violets pinned to my cardigan. She’d play the organ in Dromintee and Forkhill masses and we would sing:

Bring flow’rs of the fairest,
Bring blossoms the rarest,
From garden and woodland
And hillside and vale;
Our full hearts are swelling,
Our Glad voices telling
The praise of the loveliest
Rose of the vale.

O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May!

My Grandmother Mary Rose would bring in fresh wild flowers every day to place on the shelf beside her statue of Our Lady, her own May altar. On the last day of April in the evening old Walter would bind the gathered wild flowers and white thorn together to hang over the door of the house and the stable to ward off the wee people and hold the luck.  He’d also set the small bonfire on the same evening to welcome the new light and ward off ill spirits. Flowers would also be placed above the well on the lane, even though it was long out of use.

And then there was my favorite – The may bush. The nearest Hawthorn to the house also known as An Crann Sí or the Fairy Tree would be decorated too, a handful of torn cloths, ribbons and a wreath of flowers around her trunk to appease the wee people and bring us luck.

This weekend I get to do it all again with my children. I get to listen to our local historian Una Walsh over zoom telling tales of Bealtaine. I get to be a child again and rejoice in the coming of the new light.

So our celebrations were a mix of religious and pagan traditions, there was a connection unspoken and unquestioned. A lot of it included adornment but the main message I took from it all was the wonder of nature, instilling a deep love for my people and the beautiful lands and traditions that were passed down to us. this love of nature has seen my artistic practice progress. My work has always been off the the land but nevermore so since I have began to explore naturally dying the wools using ivy, heather, dawkin leaves, lady’s bedstraw, rhubarb and hawthorn.

This collection of 10 original wool paintings ‘La Bealtaine ar Sliabh Gullion’ are my nod to the hills I come from, for the stories that have been shared, for the paths we all travel, shared beauty, shared struggles, shared ancestry. It was finding the beauty in the simple things all around me that kept me going through lockdown. It was the serenity and magic of Slieve Gullion that was my solace and my constant muse of inspiration. They have been made with hand dyed wools, silks and cloth remnants, there is even some left behind goat hair from the mountain thrown in for good luck. My work is a slow process but very cathartic. Working with wool and local plants provides a direct connection to the landscape at my door. I hope you enjoy the pieces as much as I enjoyed making them and I hope they become heirlooms to hand along and be reminders of a special time and place.

All 10 pieces will go live on my website https://www.cushlaofgullion.com/shop on Saturday morning May 1st.