It was a cold, dark September night, 9pm to be exact. We could see our breath creating a silver fog as we exhaled and our red noses were beginning to freeze. We were lucky, the air was crisp and clear with the occassional whisp of dark cloud crossing the moon as if the last short breathes of summer were finally being expelled. The ink-black sky cast a bakcdrop of magic and enchantment over the event. Dark, crumbling castle walls, like the ribcage of a carcass, reached up to the silver pendant in the sky, and begged for compassion as it was filled with a new type of life, a life where coloured lights cast terrifying shadows that danced across its walls, where characters once feared and respected were revived with an eerie mixture of fear and excitement. This was the scene the unexpecting audience were greeted by as they crossed the threshold, one by one, maps, books and pens in hand, ready to meet the creatures of magical origins, human history, the depths of the deepest lakes and those who warned of death, each deliberately plucked from Irish mythology and re-created in a modern world.
Magic has always been of intrigue, fascinating us, humanity, capturing a part of our imaginations that wonder that little bit further than the story books spell out for us. It would break my heart to see fields cleared, woods cut down, waterways disturbed because…what if, just what if, there was an element of truth to the magic of Irish mythology.
The past few weeks my life has been consumed by Irish mythology and literature. As ever, Culture Night is an opportunity for us to bring magic back into the world, open up imaginations to the possibilities that somewhere out there, in the woods, the waterways, the deepest darkest thoughts, magic really, truly does exist.
While I have not yet figured out how to blog and sew chainmail simultaneously, when making and creating, my thoughts have never stopped. Occassionaly interrupted by the pesky question ‘how the bloody hell am I going to make this’ and followed by a solution, or 10 attempts of soultions before one finally works, but something I love about costume making is that it gives me a lot of time to think, wonder, imagine… Through all this thinking I find myself wondering how I ended up exactly where I am, right in the moment when sewing sequins into the gown of Queen Maeve or building horns for the Puca or driving home from a rehearsal bringing the Yeats family to life.
People often ask ‘what do you?’ Well… I create… I create experiences for people. That’s the most specific answer I can give. But why do we (The Rabbits Riot) feel the need to create these experiences? Whether it’s re-imagining children’s books for the stage, challenging stigma’s in society, creating magic or bringing historical figures to life… why do we do what we do? Because someone somewhere once did the same for us when we were young enough to be captivated by it and old enough to remember it, and it left an incessant need in our blood, a need to pass on that magic of imagination, to evoke emotions and broaden minds. It pulses through our veins, that need to share the magic. We were once shown a path where story telling, history and magic were believed in, a time when they were the foundations of culture, a time before technology, before films and YouTube, a time before political correctness and a whirlwind of lawsuits.
Being Irish, my mother always ensured that we were raised with books, stories, myths and legends that taught us of our Irish heritage. We didn’t grow up in Ireland but we would visit every few years for summer or for Christmas. Magical memories of beaches littered with shells, mountain walks scattered with buttercups and fairy rings and walks through the woods full to the brim of bluebells and towering, ominous trees where fairies were bound to still live, the magic of our first snowfall and the endless horizons of glassy lakes make up my memories of Ireland as a child. They were vastly different to those of dusty roads, swealtering heat and hippos and monkeys in the lake and forest by our house…which made up my day to day childhood reality. When I was about 5 or so my granny sent over a book of Irish myths and legends, I still have it somewhere. It had a variety of stories in it but Queen Maeve and the Bull of Cooley was always one of my favourites. Although not perfect, she lived in a time when women were powerful and ruled their households. They could lead armies, wage war and made the laws of the land. As a child I didn’t know of her infidelity and all the moral questions of her character but she was fierce, fearless and powerful. I was enchanted by her strength and the power she had over the lands of Connacht. The cover of the book had a picture of her leading her prize winning bull, her hair in curls down to her ankles wearing a coat of furs and jewels.
When slightly older, we moved to Ireland. Once, at Halloween, our parents took us to Achill Island for the day. We visited the ruins of a famine village (I would not suggest this on Halloween!) as well as the ruins of a castle. The castle belonged to Grainne O’Malley, one of several that she had. Although Queen Maeve was still a favourite, Grainne O’Malley soon followed suit. The Legendary Pirate Queen of the Irish waters both fascinated and terrified me, much in the same way Queen Maeve did. She was fierce and powerful and being a woman didn’t stop her, or her army, becoming the most feared pirates of the seas. She was definitely the reason I became a little obsessed with pirates, ships and swords!
Needless to say, Queen Maeve and Grainne O’Malley were the two human representatives in our Irish Myths and Legends experience, created in the ruins of Manorhamilton Castle. There were magical characters…the Puca, a shapeshifter and trickster and the Abhartach, a vampire like creature with Druid blood, said to have partly inspired the stories of Dracula. There were water creatures… The Merrow, a mermaid like creature who resembles the selkie and the Dobharcu, a water hound who drew people to their death, who’s pawprint is said to be on a gravestone in Leitrim and there were creatures of Death…the Banshee, the symbol of death for certain families in Irish history, her scream is said to still be heard today by some unlucky few and the Dullahan. He was my favourite, the original headless horseman of death, with a scythe in one hand and a whip made from human spine in the other, who would appear if death was near and blind, with his human spine, any who looked upon him.
Culture Night for us was made up of characters and literature. While creating magic in the ruins of the castle we were also re-creating the Yeats siblings in Sligo, using the shreds of information we have on the four siblings William, Susan, Elizabeth and Jack (yep, WB Yeats had 2 sisters and a younger brother!) to build an interactive poetry hunt for children.
In all the work that we produce, the characters are central. Stories come from people, and people come from reality. Magical or otherwise, all creatures come from humanity…whether imagination or not…to leave their mark in history. The characters that we choose to represent are always very specific. Last year we recreated a world of Faeries as part of Culture Night. Faeries may or may not be real, along with the entire concept of magic, but the very idea of Faeries and magic has been inspiring story telling in the imagination of children and grown-ups alike for thousands of years. So what purer way to celebrate our Cultural Heritage than to inspire the imagination through legends, magic and literature.
The characters we chose represent more than just the magic and history of Ireland. Grainne O’Malley and Queen Maeve represent a time when women had power and remind us that women are strong and fierce. The creatures of magic and water remind us that despite what logical thinking may teach us, there is always room for the inexplainable and there will always be space in our imagination for magic, questions and games. The Banshee and the Dullahan represent death, both warnings, one casting fear into those who see him, the other fair warning for those who hear her scream. They represent mortality, they remind us that magic or no magic we are mortal. Legends may live forever, granted that we keep them alive, but even Legends can die.
The Yeats family represents a more recent history, pathways laid down a hundred years ago that are still being built on and followed today. We are still delving into the lives of the Yeats family as we gradually begin to build the story of a family, real people who lead difficult lives, faced challenges of their own both with each other as well as outside forces, as they learnt to survive, to live and then to build a legacy to carry on Irish literature, the old arts of story telling, design, culture, the belief in magic and Faeries and the power of culture and literature in a world often so driven to move forward that it sometimes forgets to look back on where it came from.
And so our Culture Night projects were born of character, of culture, of literature, of all the influences of magic over the years.
Sometimes we get so tied up in our lives, in the day-to-day dramas, in the chaos of technology and the instant world that we live in, that sitting in the quiet with our thoughts for comfort we can reflect on all the happenings in our lives that have lead us to where we are now. It can be fascinating to look back over our lives and see the influence a storybook given to us when we were a child can have on us when we are in our late 20’s, the power a poem learned by heart in primary school has over our imagination, the choices our families have made to bring us to where we are and the influence story-telling and literature can have in our lives in a way we may never have anticipated. My mother was an avid believer in myths and legends, fairytales and literature teaching us more about life than a school could ever teach us. In many ways, she reminds me of W.B. Yeats’ father who ensured his children were well read and learnéd but not necessarily school smart. We went to school and worked hard but I have always been aware that living and learning are far from linear, they come hand in hand through experience, survival and just a little bit of magic to help us on our way as we create the character that we, ourselves, choose to become.