Cat Flag Explains Popular Irish Symbols

It’s time once again to celebrate the ol’ Emerald Isle by wearing green, drinking Guinness, and putting on an embarrassingly bad phony Irish accent. Or, if you’re me, eating corned beef while listening to Enya.

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Cat Flag special for St. Patrick’s Day, so this year I’ve decided to look at some popular symbols of Ireland that you tend to see this time of year. I’ve already discussed the origin of the Irish flag and the shamrock, but let’s take a quick look at…

The Irish Harp

The coat of arms of Ireland is a blue shield with a picture of a golden harp on it, and this has been the case since at least the 13th century. Not only is it the coat of arms of the independent Republic of Ireland, but you can also see it on the coat of arms of the United Kingdom, representing British-ruled Northern Ireland:

The oldest recorded image of the Irish harp that has been preserved to this day dates from 1280, but the origins of the harp as a symbol for Ireland are a bit unclear. One theory holds that it refers to a fictional King Anguish of Ireland that appears in some of the legends of King Arthur, another that it stems from a medieval Irish poem mourning the loss of a popular harp-playing king, a third that it symbolizes the Biblical King David.

What we do know is that the harp was made the official national symbol of Ireland in 1541, when King Henry VIII of England proclaimed himself “King of Ireland” to get around the pesky problem that Ireland had technically been granted to the English by the Catholic Church and King Henry had just had a bit of a falling out with the pope.

Today, the harp is such a well-known symbol of Ireland that many Irish businesses, such as Guinness, use the harp as part of their logo to show off their Irish heritage.

Leprechauns

 

There is probably no fantasy creature more specifically associated with Ireland than the leprechaun. Technically a type of fairy, leprechauns are infamous for their greed and mischievous nature. They are short, wear green, drink heavily, and store a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Where did such a strange legend come from?

Like many aspects of folklore, tales of the leprechaun have evolved and changed over time. In early medieval times, Irish legends about water spirits called “luchorpán” started to be mixed in with legends about drunk fairies that lived in cellars and depleted the local booze supply. Many versions of the leprechaun tale say that the creatures are shoemakers by occupation, perhaps because the Irish for shoemaker is “leath bhrogan”. It’s a pun, you see.

Whatever their origin, the leprechaun has had staying power, not just in Ireland but around the world, in part because legends surrounding them have a universal message. Our protagonist finds the leprechaun’s treasure, but the little green-clad man manages to trick him or her into somehow losing the pot of gold. These tales are a warning against being too greedy and trusting “get rich quick” schemes, a moral that will always have relevance.

The Blarney Stone

About five miles away from the Irish city of Cork lies a medieval castle known as Blarney Castle. This castle was built in 1446 by a local Irish noble family. It has changed hands many times over the centuries, but one thing has been consistent in all of that time: the legend of the Blarney Stone. This seemingly ordinary, if large, stone built into one of the castle’s defenses, is said to give those who kiss it the “gift of gab”, i.e. the power of eloquent and persuasive speech.

How this stone gained this power varies from legend to legend. In one telling, it is the stone on which Jacob slept as he had his famous dream of a ladder to heaven as described in the Book of Genesis. In another it was the throne on which the ancient High Kings of Ireland were crowned. Still another says that the builder of Blarney Castle, fearing he would lose everything in an upcoming lawsuit, prayed to an Irish goddess who told him to kiss the stone, so when he testified at his trial he swayed the jury to his side.

Regardless of where and how the stone got its powers, it has become a magnet for many visitors every year who wish to try it out for themselves (and conquer their fear of heights in the process). In Irish slang, “blarney” has become a synonym for “empty, meaningless talk” in reference to this tradition.

HAPPY ST. PATRICK’S DAY, EVERYONE!

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Cat Flag asks: Who am I?

I’m sure you have seen the ads on TV or on YouTube that play all the time for services that test your DNA to tell you about where your ancestors came from. Well, this year I got one of those DNA test kits for Christmas! Specifically, I got an AncestryDNA test kit, which promises to tell me what percentage of my heritage came from which part of the world. So, I decided to share my experience with all of you Cat Flaggers.

This blog post will be broken into three parts. The first part I wrote before I got the test results; in it, I will recount what I knew, or thought I knew, about my ancestry. The second part describes the test and my experience with it. Lastly, I will go over my test results with all of you.

Before the test: My family history as I understood it

My father’s family has been in the United States for a very long time. Years ago, my grandfather had made a family tree tracing his heritage back to a Capt. Howell Griffith who fought in the American Revolutionary War. I have also been told that his father, my great-grandfather, is a very, very distant relative of the Swedish royal family. He married my great-grandmother, whose maiden name was Toothacher, but we don’t know very much about the Toothacher family.

Meanwhile, my grandmother was part Choctaw, and said her lineage can be traced to Suzanne Graham-Stewart, a Choctaw woman who married a Scottish-American and was present at the signing of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. She also believes that other ancestors of hers were Scots-Irish.

My mother’s side came to America more recently. Her father’s family came from Wisconsin, an area that was heavily settled by Germans in the 19th century. Meanwhile, my grandmother’s father came through Ellis Island. His surname was Balde, but my family is convinced this was a misspelling or mistranslation of his actual family name that some poor immigration officer couldn’t write. We believe that he was Russian, but at the time the Russian Empire ruled over many, many different countries that are now independent, so it’s possible he was from one of these countries under Russian rule.

My grandmother’s grandfather was John Simbach, whose family name comes from the German town of Simbach am Inn. For years, we thought he was originally from this town, but recently we learned he was actually born in another part of Germany. Regardless, he he had twelve children – six from his first wife, and six from his Jewish nanny, who became his second wife. My grandmother is descended from one of the second set of six.

The Test

So, the test came in a small box, no bigger than a paperback novel. In the box were an instruction sheet, a plastic container with a test tube and cap, a small plastic bag, and a small self-addressed prepaid postal box.

First, you have to register for an account at ancestry.com. After all, this service is provided by Ancestry.com LLC, and they need to be able to tell whose DNA sample is whose. Registration only takes a few minutes. The most important part is telling the website what the 15-digit code on your test tube is. This way, the system will be able to track your test results. While registering, you can also opt-in to having your DNA be used not only to trace your own ancestry, but also to help in a scientific experiment to model human migration across time.

Then, once you have registered, you pull out the test tube. You are supposed to spit into the tube until the saliva reaches a fill line. This is more difficult than you might think. It took me about a half-dozen spits to fill that tube, with my mouth getting drier each time. Once you reach that level, you put on a cap filled with a blue liquid that is supposed to stabilize the DNA sample. You shake the tube for a few seconds to mix the two fluids together.

Then, you put the tube in the bag, and put the bag in the box to ship back to the lab.

It’s all quite simple and easy. The whole process takes no more than 10 minutes. Then, you just wait for the test results.

The Test Results!

It took about six weeks for me to get my test results. I have to say, I am a bit surprised! Considering how diverse my known family history is, and how much of my background was a mystery, I expected to be much more of a mutt. Instead, it turns out that I’m 85% British. Well, blimey, that’s bloody brilliant, gov’nor.

It’s pretty safe to say that the Eastern European part of my genetics can be traced to the Balde family, and the Western European (which includes German) and Jewish lines can be traced to the Simbach family. I’m also not surprised by the Scandinavian genes, thanks to my great-grandfather. However, I was quite surprised by the small percentages that came from the Iberian peninsula and the Caucasus. I mean, who in my family tree was Spanish or Portuguese? As for the Caucasus region, that includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia (the country, not the state), and I was never aware of any ancestors of mine from that region.

For context, my parents, my brother, and some of my other relatives also took the AncestryDNA test. My father turned out to be mostly British, like me, but my mother was surprised to learn that she had some British and Scandinavian ancestry as well. She expected to be mostly German and Russian, as those were the parts of her background that she was aware of. She was also the source of the Iberian peninsula and Caucasus genes. As for my brother, his results more closely matched my mom’s.

That’s an important point about these DNA tests. Your results are NOT an exact percentage-match to your family tree. You aren’t exactly 25% what each of your grandparents’ ancestries were. Genetics are a complicated mix of dominant and recessive genes that are mixed semi-randomly from each parent. My genetic profile more closely matches that of my father, while my brother’s more closely matches our mother. Similarly, one of my relatives DID find Native American genes in her AncestryDNA profile, but I did not. I guess those genes just weren’t passed down through my branch of the family tree.

This does beg an important question, however. How, exactly, do these genetic tests work? How do they figure out which genes are associated with which geographic regions of the world? Well, these tests look at your autosomal chromosomes – the parts of your DNA that are not responsible for determining whether you are male or female – and comparing them to other, known samples in an existing database of test results. In other words, if lots of people who take the test from a particular region have a particular genetic trait, that trait is probably associated with that region. That is part of the advantage of AncestryDNA; it has more than 6 million people in its database to compare against your specific DNA. More data means a higher likelihood of accuracy.

Still, I have to say, I did not expect the results I got, and I am now even more curious about my family history. Since getting the results back, I have learned a few more details about my family history. My Balde ancestors did, indeed, arrive in the United States from Russia… aboard the RMS Lusitania, one of the most famous ships in history! I’m sure even more interesting factoids about my family history are just waiting to be uncovered.

Cheerio!

This was NOT a sponsored promotion. Cat Flag received no compensation whatsoever from Ancestry.com LLC in the making of this blog post.

The Country That Shall Not Be Named!

It’s Olympics time once again! I absolutely love the Olympics, in case I hadn’t mentioned it on this blog before. My favorite winter events are the bobsled and luge, though I’m also a fan of snowboarding, curling, and speed skating. This year, however, as you watch the alpine skiing and cross country skiing events, you will see some athletes competing under a very unusual “country” name.

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Yes, that is a real country, but no, that is not its name. It’s just what everyone is forced to call it thanks to some good old-fashioned Strange Politics.

Our story begins more than two millennia ago. Just north of ancient Greece, there was a kingdom called Macedon that was famous for its horses. The kingdom was heavily influenced by its Greek neighbors, and under its king Philip II it came to dominate Greece in the 4th century BC. However, the most famous Macedonian ruler by far was Philip’s son, Alexander the Great, who conquered the Persian Empire, subdued Egypt, and marched as far east as India. Alexander was one of the greatest military commanders of history, but he died before he could consolidate power. After he passed away, his generals split his empire among themselves. A century and a half later, the Romans conquered the area and created the province of Macedonia.

Roman Macedonia lasted a very, very long time – it continued to exist until the 7th century AD. What brought it to an end, though, is also the root of all the controversy. Slavic peoples from eastern Europe migrated south, invading and conquering most of the Balkans. These invaders became the ancestors of many of the ethnic groups that live in southeastern Europe today such as the Bulgarians, Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians.

Centuries later, the entire region was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, and centuries after that, several countries broke away from Ottoman rule: Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Montenegro. In 1912, these four countries ganged up on the Ottomans to drive them out of Europe. They had made an agreement beforehand on how they would divide the land up between them, but over the course of the war, Greece and Serbia seized portions of Macedonia, a region that had been promised to Bulgaria. This prompted Bulgaria to declare war on its former allies, but that plan backfired, as Bulgaria ended up losing far more land and was forced to give up virtually all of Macedonia to the Serbs and Greeks.

The Greek-controlled region of Macedonia was particularly important to the Greeks, since it included many important historic sites tied to Alexander the Great. The area was originally inhabited by a mixture of Greeks, Slavic peoples, Turks, and others. However, after the Greek takeover, the population was thoroughly Hellenized, with non-Greeks either being expelled or forced to adopt Greek names, convert to the Greek Orthodox Church, and speak Greek. Today, the population of Greek Macedonia overwhelmingly identifies as Greek.

Meanwhile, Serbia merged with some of its neighbors in the aftermath of World War I, becoming Yugoslavia, a country that existed for most of the 20th century. The Yugoslav-controlled part of Macedonia was originally called Varnar Banovina, but under the Communist regime of Josip Broz Tito, the region adopted the name Socialist Republic of Macedonia. The inhabitants of this region mostly belonged to a Slavic people that are closely related to ethnic Bulgarians, but have identified themselves as “Macedonian” since at least the late 19th century. The new name reflected the desire of Macedonian nationalists to be recognized as a legitimate ethnic group, and not just a subgroup of the Bulgarians, and to gain some political autonomy. However, Greece objected to the name, on the grounds that it was a ploy to try to invade and annex Greek Macedonia. The fact that Yugoslavia was supporting Communist rebels in Greece didn’t help that impression.

Then, in the 1990s, Yugoslavia broke up, and “Macedonia” gained its independence, and like all newly independent nations, it began to forge its own national identity. The Macedonian leadership decided to adopt symbols of the ancient kingdom of Macedon, such as the Vergina Sun that Alexander the Great used as his emblem. The airport serving the country’s capital of Skopje was named Skopje Alexander the Great Airport, and the city’s main sports stadium was named Philip II Arena. To Macedonians, this was just a way to honor their ancient history while instilling a sense of national pride.

To the Greeks, this was some rogue Bulgarians stealing their stuff.

Who’d have though someone who lived more than 2,000 years ago would cause so much controversy?

To the Greeks, ancient Macedon was a Greek kingdom, Alexander the Great was Greek, and the only legitimate “Macedonia” is the Greek region. They claim that for this ethnic group inhabiting the country to their north to call themselves “Macedonian” is cultural appropriation. Greece rejects the use of the name Macedonia for this country, and demands that the country change its name. And yes, Greece still claims that the name “obviously” represents a scheme to try to take over Greek Macedonia.

So what? Greece doesn’t like the name Macedonia chose for itself. Who cares?

Well, Greece is a member of the European Union, and Macedonia wants to join the European Union. For a country to join the EU, it must have the approval of all existing EU members. Thus, Greece has used this rule to repeatedly block Macedonia’s membership application. Also, Greece is a member of NATO, making it an ally of the United States. Nobody messes with an ally of the United States.

Thus, while Greece may be small potatoes on the global political scene, it has enough connections to convince not only the Olympics, but also the United Nations and many other international organizations to only let the country participate under the description “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”. For decades now, the two countries have negotiated and argued over the name, with the Greeks refusing to let the northerners call themselves “Macedonians” and the Macedonians refusing to adopt any other name. There have been several proposed compromises over the years, including:

  • New Macedonia
  • Upper Macedonia
  • Slavo-Macedonia
  • Vardar Republic
  • Independent Republic of Macedonia
  • Republic of Macedonia (Skopje)
  • Republic of North Macedonia

Still, the two sides seem to be no closer to an agreement, so for now, the poor country is stuck with a name that no other country will dare say and a horribly unsatisfying “description” instead. Once again, politics is just… strange.

The Commuter is Quite a Ride!

I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned it on this blog before, but I’m a huge fan of Agatha Christie, a world-renowned British mystery writer who wrote many novels and short stories from the 1920s to the 1970s. She had a very distinct style of writing that emphasized brain-bending, seemingly unsolvable puzzles. Now, if she were alive today, and she were tasked with being a scriptwriter for a Liam Neeson action thriller, it might look something like The Commuter, the latest film from StudioCanal, the French film studio that clearly wishes it was American. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows, Non-Stop), the film is based on a very simple premise – on a seemingly ordinary commuter train running between New York City and the suburbs along the Hudson, there is someone who doesn’t belong there. Could you figure out who that person is before the train reaches its destination?

Neeson stars as a seemingly ordinary insurance salesman who is on his way home, feeling dejected after just being laid off, riding the same commuter train he always rides from Manhattan to his suburban home, when a woman who claims to be a psychologist offers him $100,000 to find a specific passenger on the train who she says “doesn’t belong”. At first, he thinks this must be some sort of prank, but as the train rides along on its journey north out of the city, he begins to realize that there is much more to this mystery than what appears on the surface, and he may have just gotten himself in over his head.

Writers Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi have concocted a very tight script that does an excellent job keeping the tension high as more and more layers of the mystery are peeled away to reveal even more questions. The movie is full of very effective set-ups and payoffs; even the smallest details start to become important to the story as both the train and the movie approach their destination. Meanwhile, Collet-Serra clearly has begun to master how to use stylism and artistic flair in a way that actually serves the movie, and isn’t just there to be artsy for artiness’s sake. The film is very effective at delivering edge-of-your-seat excitement throughout.

However, the film’s biggest weakness – ironically enough, given it’s a Liam Neeson film – is the action sequences. After spending so much energy on creating a realistic, and very tense, mystery, the action scenes seem a bit over the top and cartoonish, particularly near the end. It’s as if someone at the studio decided early on that “This is a movie starring the Taken guy, he NEEDS to do at least some crazy stunts!” Still, at least the action scenes are competently shot and it’s easy to follow the action, and they aren’t too distracting.

Still, this is a great movie to start 2018. An exciting thriller that is just the adrenaline rush I needed to get ready for what is gearing up to be a very big year in film. A 9 out of 10.

The Origins of Our Christmas Traditions

It’s time for my favorite holiday of the year! I absolutely love Christmas, as my past blog posts about the holiday might have indicated. I love Christmas trees, I love gift-giving, I love getting together with family to celebrate the holiday. Which is why it surprised me to realize that as long as I have been doing this, I have never written about where our most popular Christmas traditions came from. Well, let’s fix that.

Where did Christmas trees come from?

Winters in Europe, especially northern Europe, tend to be cold and snowy. This should come as a surprise to nobody. Having said that, one thing that anybody who lives in a place that gets snowy, cold winters can tell you is that, after a while, you come to miss the warmth and greenery of spring, and can’t wait for it to arrive. So, ancient Europeans would take the boughs off of pine trees and use them as evergreen decorations in their homes.

According to legend, though, it was Martin Luther that came up with the modern idea of the Christmas tree. The story goes that as the man who kick-started the Protestant Reformation was wandering through the piney woods in Germany on route to an important sermon, he looked up and saw the night sky shining through between the trees, and it reminded him of the wonder of God’s creation. This inspired him to bring a pine tree into his own living room and decorate it with lit candles so his family could see what he saw.

Seems pretty dangerous to me…

Christmas trees were brought to America by German immigrants in the 19th century. However, they didn’t become popular until something happened across the pond in England. Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, a German prince, and the two of them adopted the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree in Buckingham Palace, and that popularized the practice across the British Empire, which helped it to become popular in America as well.

A little side-note: the ancient European practice of decorating with pine branches in the winter may also have combined with the ancient Roman practice of putting wreaths on the door to celebrate an important victory to give us the Christmas wreath, though it may also have originated as a variation of another German tradition, the Advent wreath. This is a wreath laid on a table or mantle with four candles sticking out of it. The idea is that each week, as you count down to Christmas, you light one of the candles. On Christmas Eve, you put a bigger candle in the middle of the wreath and light it to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Why do we give gifts on Christmas?

I have mentioned this before on this blog, but the early Christian church liked to time Christian festivals to occur right around the same time as pre-Christian pagan festivals so that converts to the faith would have an easier time adjusting to their new religion. Christmas was timed to coincide with Saturnalia, the ancient Roman festival honoring Saturn (hence the name). One of the most important aspects of Saturnalia was the exchange of gifts. Children would get toys, while adults would get everything from clothes to tools to books, just like today. Sometimes, these gifts would be accompanied by poems, sort of like a modern greeting card.

Showing love for those you care about by giving something of yourself is exactly the sort of thing that is in keeping with the teachings of Jesus, so it seems like incorporating gift-giving as a part of the celebration of Christmas was a natural move for the early church to make.

What is up with mistletoe?

This parasitic vine was believed by the ancient Druids to have magic anti-evil-spirit powers, and was widely used in pagan Britain as a decoration for that reason. Early Christian missionaries tried to ban the practice, but failed, as the plant was just so popular and so important to British culture. In medieval England, it was a common practice for young lovers to kiss under a mistletoe plant and pick a berry from it. The idea was that once the last berry was picked, you couldn’t kiss under the plant anymore. It was also once common to burn mistletoe after Christmas was over as a way to ward off Satan in the new year. Although ceremonies using mistletoe got far less elaborate over time, the practice of hanging the plant from the ceiling during Christmastime has managed to survive to this day.

Why do we eat candy canes?

By contrast, the practice of eating candy canes is a far more recent tradition, only dating back to the mid-18th century. Originally all-white, the red stripes were added in the early 20th century to symbolize their peppermint flavor. Many have attempted to assign a religious significance to their shape – either that it is in the shape of a shepherd’s cane in honor of the shepherds who visited the baby Jesus in the manger, of that it is in the shape of a “J” for Jesus – though all of these meanings were later additions. It seems likely the first candy cane makers just liked the shape and thought it was festive.

I hope you enjoyed this look at the origins of some of our most popular Christmas traditions. At last. Check that one off the list!

MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!!!