Celebrating With Fire – May Day in Ireland


Monday, May 7 is a national holiday this year in Ireland. Don’t try to go to the bank. Mail a letter, forget it. Conduct government business, come back tomorrow.  Many businesses will be closed, although the pubs will be going strong. Of course, we are in Ireland. But what is special about this day and why is it celebrated?


May Day has observances throughout the world, and in Ireland it is called Lá Bealtaine. Lá Bealtaine is held about halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals—along with Samhain, Imbolc and Lughnasadh—and is similar to the Welsh Calan Mai.


Lá Bealtaine is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature, and it is associated with important events in Irish mythology. It marked the beginning of summer and was when cattle were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth. Special bonfires were kindled, and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. The people and their cattle would walk around the bonfire or between two bonfires, and sometimes leap over the flames or embers. All household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire. These gatherings would be accompanied by a feast. Doors, windows, byres and the cattle themselves would be decorated with yellow May flowers, perhaps because they evoked fire. In parts of Ireland, people would make a May Bush: a thorn bush decorated with flowers, ribbons and bright shells. Holy wells were also visited, while Lá Bealtaine dew was thought to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness.


Lá Bealtaine celebrations had largely died out by the mid-20th century, although some of its customs continued and in some places it has been revived as a cultural event. The custom seems to have lasted to the present day only in County Limerick (especially in Limerick itself) and in Arklow, County Wicklow. Some cultural groups have sought to revive the custom at the Hill of Uisneach and at the Hill of Tara. The lighting of a community Lá Bealtaine  fire from which each hearth fire is then relit is observed today in some parts of the Gaelic diaspora, though in most of these cases it is a cultural revival rather than survival of the ancient tradition. In 1999, the Uisneach Fire Festival was started and is probably the biggest festival celebrating Lá Bealtaine in the country today.



So if you see a plethora of bonfires around Ireland in early May, don’t call the fire department with concern. Just realize that it is associated with Lá Bealtain, a spring time festival of optimism, celebration, joy, music, dancing, feasting, and fun for the whole community.

Whiskey with an “e”

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“So smooth I would drink it even if my name were not on it.” Those are the words of John Jameson, who established his namesake Irish Whiskey company in Dublin, Ireland. While Bushmills claims to be the oldest Irish whiskey, there is no doubt that Jameson is the largest and most popular, selling more than 20 million bottles annually in 122 countries worldwide. (The United States is the largest market for Jameson.) Originally distilled at the famous Bow Street distillery in Dublin, since 1975 Jameson has been produced exclusively at Midleton, an enormous modern distillery in County Cork. It is in Midleton that we took a fascinating tour of the plant and learned about the process of producing Jameson Irish whiskey.

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John Jameson and his wife Margaret

One of the first things you learn is that John Jameson was not Irish, but Scottish. Jameson’s wife, Margaret, was from a family of distillers, and upon their marriage, they came to Dublin in 1786 so that John could manage her family’s Bow Street distillery, which had started production in 1780 (hence the 1780 date on all Jameson labels.)

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Jameson Whiskey Label

The Jameson label also displays the Jameson family coat of arms and includes the motto “Sine Metu,” which means “without fear.” The family was granted the coat of arms in honor of their pursuit of pirates along the Scottish coast in the 17th century.

I won’t confuse you with all the technicalities of the distilling process, but during the tour, you do get to see how it all takes place while walking through historical buildings and viewing some of the old equipment, including the copper pots where the main distilling takes place. Jameson Blog8You get educated on the difference between Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey. Besides the obvious — Scotch is made in Scotland while Irish whiskey is made exclusively in Ireland and uses an “e” in the spelling — Scotch is distilled twice, while whiskey is distilled three times. Both spirits use the grain barley, but Irish whiskey uses both malted and unmalted barley, all procured from within a 50-mile radius of the plant.

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The use of unmalted barley in Irish whiskey originally began centuries ago as a cheaper alternative to malted barley, which was taxed by the British. The barley is dried in a closed kiln fired by natural gas (formerly coal). This contrasts with the traditional method used in Scotch whisky distilleries, which fire the kiln with peat, adding a distinctive smoky peat flavor.

One factor that both countries agree on is that the final product must age in wooden casks a minimum of three years in order to be official. The production of the wooden casks was what I actually found the most fascinating part of the tour. The art of barrel making is performed by a “cooper.” These casks are not just slapped together, but are precisely constructed using only timber for the barrels and steel for the hoops: no glue, no silicone, only the occasional river reed to help seal the top of the barrel. Once barrels are filled, they swell to accommodate the whiskey and become watertight. The slightest flaw in the barrel making — an imprecisely angled wooden plank, a weakness in the timber — means that the barrel could leak its valuable contents.

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It is an exacting process, and one performed at Jameson by a fifth-generation cooper who has been doing it for 40 years after taking over for his father. (It is a dying art, as while once over 10,000 coopers were working in Ireland, today there are only four!)

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The barrels that Jameson uses aren’t made from scratch, thanks in part to an Irish timber shortage in the 19th and 18th centuries. Instead, the distillery imports two kinds of barrels: sherry casks from Spain and bourbon barrels from Kentucky. Every bottle of Jameson is a mixture of the whiskeys aged in those two kinds of casks, balanced to get the characteristic notes of vanilla and spice. Every cask that comes into the distillery is examined for damage or flaws in the wood grain that would affect the taste of the whiskey or the integrity of the barrel, and any flawed candidates are sent back into the cooperage to mend.

Of course, the tour concludes with a visit to the lively and exquisite tasting room, where one can taste the many different Jameson varieties.The Jameson Experience. Midleton Cork I highly recommend this tour, even for those who aren’t lovers of the spirit — the surroundings and education makes it worth the time.

Also of course, Ever Irish Gifts sells some beautiful Jameson products, from a pair of whiskey glasses emblazed with a Jameson pewter logo, as well as an actual Jameson bottle made into a clock. Sláinte!



Thatched! You Can’t Top It.

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Thatched roof houses can be found in many corners of the earth, but those found in Ireland hold a special place in our hearts. Can there be a more enduring symbol of Ireland than the quaint, thatched roof cottages that still dot the countryside, and still bring a smile to our faces, no matter how many times we see them? On our last trip to the Emerald Isle earlier this year, I lost count of how many times I put us in danger, suddenly pulling off to the side of the narrow roads, or forcing the car in reverse, just to snap a picture of one of those cute cottages that seemed to appear out of nowhere. It got me thinking, however: What is the history of these thatched roofs, and why did they become ubiquitous in this part of the world?

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Thatching goes back hundreds of years, and thatching methods have traditionally been passed down from generation to generation. It is a craft of building a roof using dry vegetation such as straw and water reed, layering the vegetation to shed water away from the inner roof. Thatch has some natural properties that are advantageous to its performance. It is naturally weather-resistant, and when properly maintained does not absorb a lot of water. Thatch is also a natural insulator, and air pockets within straw thatch insulate a building in both warm and cold weather. A thatched roof, along with the fact that most cottages had few windows, ensures that a building is cool in summer and warm in winter.Thatched Blog5

Those beautiful thatched roof lines you see atop the stone Irish cottages were created by skilled craftsman using domestic cane. This cane grows well in the moist soils of Ireland and was inexpensive and readily available. Typically, naturally abundant sod turf was first placed on the wood roof beams to provide another layer of insulation before the cane thatching was placed on top.

Many people, and insurers, think thatched roof cottages are more susceptible to fire, but thatch is not as flammable as you may believe. It burns slowly, like a closed book, thatchers say. Thatched Blog 1The vast majority of fires are linked to the use of wood burners inside and faulty chimneys. Nonetheless, today, a layer of aluminum has replaced the turf layer as a fire precaution.

Thatch has fallen out of favor in much of the industrialized world not because of fire, but because thatching has become very expensive, and alternative “hard” materials are cheaper. This situation is slowly changing, and while thatched roof cottages are not being built in the numbers they once were, there are still more than 2,000 of them dotting the Irish countryside.

When you have a chance to visit Ireland, make sure you get outside the major cities and enjoy the thrill of spotting one of these beauties for yourself. The charming town of Adare, Thatched Blog2in County Limerick, has an unusual concentration of the adorable thatched roof cottages (although a fire a few years ago completely destroyed several of these iconic structures). Let us know, and send us a picture of your favorites. (And you can check out some of our favorites.)

Also, don’t forget that Ever Irish Gifts has many lovely items that would look fantastic in your or a friend’s Irish “cottage”, whether it’s thatched or not. discover more

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Aran Islands – The Right Choice


There are many sightseeing options when visiting the central western side of the Emerald Isle. The Cliffs of Moher, The Burren, and Connemara National Park are all on a must-see list. If you can squeeze it in, a visit to one of the Aran Islands should also be high on the list. It is a full-day commitment due to the fact that it is accessible only by ferry (or small plane), but it is a special day, where you step back in time to a different era.

The Aran Islands are three rocky isles guarding the mouth of Galway Bay. We visited the largest island, Inishmore, mainly because it was the most convenient to get to, and it is also home to the prehistoric fort of Dún Aonghasa, perched on top of a high cliff. After a 30-minute car ride from Galway to the ferry terminal, and a 30-minute ferry ride, we arrived at the small village of Kilronan. Inishmore is inhabited by less than 1,000 residents, very few of whom speak English. The signs are all in Irish, but that only adds to its charm and fun. While you can hire a taxi or horse-drawn carriage to travel around the island, we rented bikes for the day, which was an enjoyable way to tour this small island.

aran-island-blog-1.jpgBiking the island can be strenuous, but it allows an intimate introduction to the Aran Islands. You can stop and say hello to the animals. We were fortunate enough to come across a foal and its mother, the afterbirth not far away, indicating that this baby horse was probably less than 12 hours old. Aran-Island-Blog-2

Biking also allowed us to visit and explore the craggy shore line. The island is an extension of the Burren. The terrain of the island is composed of limestone pavements with crisscrossing cracks known as “grikes,” leaving isolated rocks called “clints.” A tough and challenging walk for sure, but fun for discovering small ocean life.Aran-Island-Blog-3

Biking also allowed us to view close up the famous stone walls that permeate the entire island, and give rise to the patterns found on the Aran Island sweaters. Of course, it is also fun to see the many thatched roof cottages that dot the island as well.Aran-Island-Blog12

The highlight of our day was a visit to Fort Dún Aonghasa. No bikes are allowed at the fort; the uphill pedal probably would have been impossible anyway. A 14-acre site, the remains of the fort consist of three terraced walls perched on the edge of a 300 foot-high cliff. The views from it are breathtakingly spectacular. Excavations indicate that people had been living at the hill top from about 1500 BC.

One fact I found amusing was that there was a fence that prevented a person from wondering off the fort property onto neighboring farm land, but no barrier that prevented someone from falling 3oo feet straight down into the ocean! Aran-Island-Blog-6Not far from the fort, people actually do dive off the cliffs into the Worm Hole, a naturally formed, rectangular-shaped pool which hosts several cliff diving competitions. Not for the faint of heart, but it would be fun to watch.Aran-Island-Blog13

As there is only one return ferry to the mainland at the end of the day, a leisurely bike ride can get a little more harried as the day progresses. Heading back to the harbor, we quickly stopped at the medieval ruins of the Seven Churches, Aran-Islands-Blog14took more pictures of the stone walls and cottages, and of course had to see the some of the residents making the most famous export of the island, the famous Aran knit sweaters. In fact, one of our sweater suppliers, Carraig Donn, got its start right here on Inishmore, but I will tell that story in my next blog. Of course, if you can’t visit the island personally, you can always check out our selection of Aran sweaters (men’s and women’s) as they are made in and come directly from Ireland.Aran-Islands-Blog15

After arriving back in our hotel after an exhausting yet exhilarating day on Inishmore, we knew we had made the right choice. A day on the Aran Islands is truly a special day.





Keeping Ireland Green

Stroll the Yew Walk on the Lisnavagh Estate, where you can plant a tree in Ireland.

Stroll the Yew Walk on the Lisnavagh Estate, where you can plant a tree in Ireland.

With Earth Day and Arbor Day occurring this past week, it reminded me that trees have played a central role in the practical and daily spiritual lives of the Irish people for hundreds of years. Trees served as landmarks and icons of family and clan identity, and their importance can be measured by the great number of tree-based place names in Ireland—of the 16,000 towns in Ireland, 13,000 are named after trees.

Unfortunately, over the centuries, Ireland experienced a near-total destruction of its forests mainly because of human activity and a deterioration of the climate. Of Ireland’s total land surface area, just 10 percent is comprised of forests, which represents the second lowest proportional percentage of any country in Europe.

The reforestation of Ireland is vital to Ireland’s long-term ecological health. As an old Chinese proverb espouses, the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the second best time is now.

Ever Irish Gifts has developed a unique “Plant a Tree in Ireland” program with County Carlow tree aficionado William Bunbury, whose love for trees in Ireland is unparalleled. There are few more epic ways to celebrate a birth, birthday, wedding, or anniversary than with the planting of a majestic tree in Ireland that your children, grandchildren, and their descendants can admire in generations to come. A beautiful, majestic tree is a living memorial of life-changing events. Its strength, long lifespan, and regal stature give it a monument-like quality and make it a powerful tribute to a life well lived or an occasion worthy of celebration.

Honor or celebrate someone dear to you by planting a living, growing tree in Ireland in his or her name—a unique Irish gift to be treasured forever.

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The tree certificate makes a meaningful memento.

We will notify the recipient of this very personalized gift by sending him or her a beautifully illustrated certificate bearing your own individual message. Information sent with this unique Irish gift includes directions on how to personally visit the tree, or to “visit” it virtually online using Bing maps.


This http://www.EverIrishGifts.com customer was present as William Bunbury planted her tree in Ireland.

One of our customers even timed a visit perfectly so she was able to actually be there at the planting of the tree she had purchased in memory of a close relative.

Whether planted in celebration of a life event or in memory of a lost loved one, your unique Irish gift of planting a tree in Ireland is of critical importance to the sustainability and regeneration of the Irish woodlands, and it will contribute to maintaining and repopulating the country’s forestry, helping to keep Ireland green.

If you are interested in planting a tree in Ireland, click here.

Stay Ever Irish,