Festival Fit: Goat-milking and bush-worshipping in Co Offaly

The Milking of the Goat festival is more ‘Father Ted’ than ‘Wicker Man’, thank god

Fri, Feb 7, 2014, 00:00

Seven-thirty on a Sunday morning is a time for going to bed, not for setting off on roadtrips. Whilst tucking into a rasher and puddin’ blaa, the sun rising red over Mount Leinster, Luke Kelly belting Paddy Kav’s lyrics on Wanderly Wagon’s wireless and the prospect of a goat-milking festival in the Slieve Blooms ahead, I realised that I wasn’t just en route to the midlands, this was a journey to the heart of the country. Flooded fields, dull-wittted pheasants, melting snows by mountain roads, the first snowdrops poppin’ out brilliant white in the hedgerows, and a salute from a flat-capped farmer in a bailer twine-fastened coat, all pointed towards this being one of those deeply satisfying and uniquely Irish festival jaunts.

Imbolc is the Celtic pagan cross-quarter day, the day that falls halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox. There were celebrations of Lá Fhéile Bríde all over the country, a day traditionally seen as the start of spring, a time for making Brigid’s Crosses and Brídeógs. On the eve of Brigid’s Day, some people hung out scarves overnight, believing they’d be blessed and could then be used to help with everything from sore throats to calving heifers in the year ahead. Other people opened the front and back doors of their house, letting a breeze pass through, blowing out winter and blowing in spring; people who tried this in Limerick and Cork ran the risk of shark-suited swimmers and kayak clubs sloshing through their gaff.

In Co Offaly they’ve a unique spin on these traditions. They take a goat up the Slieve Bloom mountains for a spot of milking, with some butter churning on the side. The Milking of the Goat Festival has that streak of real life Father Ted-ness running through it that I find irresistible. Cadamstown is an ideal spot to gather for bizarre ritual celebration, it being on the edge of Offaly’s Mystic Triangle (similar to the Bermuda Triangle, except the ghosts in Offaly are much paler).


TIE A YELLOW RIBBON
Just before meeting the milkers, I stopped off to take a drink from St Kieran’s and St Lugna’s wells; some soul-onic irrigation wouldn’t do any harm. I secured a strip of cloth to St Kieran’s Holy Bush, slightly disappointed that it had been stripped of some of its more entertaining accoutrements since I’d last petitioned it. The bush gets more vajazzled around March.

Although the Milking of the Goat Festival takes its cue from pagan celebration, it became obvious very quickly that this community outing in the hills was more about having a laugh and reviving old traditions than dour deity devotion. My Wicker Man qualms were blown away by the fresh mountain banter and buzz. Mick Dowling was a font of knowledge on the surroundings and traditions.

“I left out bread, milk and meat with the scarf for Brigid,” he told me. “It’s the ancient equivalent of the brown envelope.” He winked.

Johnny Ruigney introduced me to Ginny, telling me that she was partial to crisps and cornflakes; it was nice to know we had some things in common before I grasped her by the teats for a gentle tug.

The goat was milked, the butter churned and Mick explained the significance of oílmeg (lactation) and imbolg (large-bellied) to us, as he stood atop the stones of the Giant’s Grave. Behind him was a backdrop of spruce, emitting a dull glow of bluey green in an afternoon sun that glinted off composite stones that occasionally poked through the rusted red brown bog, dashed with hints of green from the waking heather.

“Kissin’ will be out of style when the furze has no blossom,” Mick good-humouredly commented, half to himself and half to me, as we made our way down a country lane heading back towards the village. Spring had sprung and the festival fields ahead promised an abundance of synthesisers and cider, but right then, a sup of goat’s milk was perfect.

Safe travels, don’t die.


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