Eggshells

This whole wearing-your-clothes-backwards thing: I was doing it 20 years ago and people would say “Oh you’re like Kriss Kross!” and I’d think Seriously? I’m like an early 90s rap group? Then one day about ten years ago I ran into a former student of mine named Michael Dwyer who immediately noticed the backwards-facing top I had on and said I was well within an old tradition among us Irish. He said “they do that  to ward off fairies.”

And now just this week comes this email from him about eggshells:

“According to my grandmother the custom began in the 1840s during the Great Hunger, when millions of Irish were starving in ditches and millions more were fleeing to America in Coffin Ships. Whole families, entire villages, were abandoning land they had lived on for centuries – since the Middle Ages, if not longer, so long that they were intimate with their world in a way we can no longer imagine. Not just the land itself, the trees and hills and waterways, but the things that lived in it – the leprechauns and the kelpies and the Sidhe. Out of a combination of respect and caution, these enchanted peoples were called ‘the Gentlefolk’, ‘the Good People’, or ‘the Gentry’ – because it’s best to be polite to forces you don’t understand.

“And in the same way that they had developed a relationship with the land, some  families developed such strong relationships with these “gentry” that when the Famine forced a family to emigrate, a few decided to go with them. And that was what saved the Irish in America. As bad as things were for the refugees here, they would have been much, much worse without their luck and magic.

“The trouble was, my grandmother said,  the Gentlefolk didn’t like it here. They wanted to go home to Ireland. They couldn’t return as they came, of course; the ships were strictly one way. But they weren’t dependent on ships and for centuries had been making serviceable boats from eggshells.

Because they could do magic.

“They would lurk unseen in the corners of our kitchens, and whenever someone cracked an egg and discarded the shell they would claim it, and fashion a boat, and sail back to Ireland.  But if enough of them did this, the luck they brought with them would vanish.

So, my grandmother said, it was up to us to stop them. Every time we cracked an egg, we had to crush it before we threw it away, because a crushed shell was unfit for a boat.

I was young when she told me this, maybe six or seven years old. And from that time on it was my job to crush the eggshells. Any time we used an egg – at breakfast, after Easter, whenever we baked a cake – I would crush the shell and rinse my hands in the sink.

“But over the years questions arose.  First I wondered how we could make a difference, just the two of us, when there were so many people using eggs every day and not crushing shells? Because, explained my grandmother, most people didn’t count. Magic has rules, and even the Good People can’t ignore them:  If they want to make a boat that will take them to Ireland, the eggshell has to be broken by Irish hands.

So each time I crushed a shell I did it not only for myself but for her and my Uncle John and for my parents and my brothers and sisters, and that’s a lot of people.

Fair enough, I thought. But soon I had another worry, because if the Good People hated it here and wanted to go home, wouldn’t they be angry with me for preventing them?

“Oh no, said my grandmother, not at all  Because if I worked to keep them here it showed that I believed in them, that I understood how important they were.

“The only reason they want to leave, she said, is because no one in this country believes. No one greets them or asks their pardon or leaves them gifts. When I crushed an eggshell I did all of those things, as if I were saying “Please don’t go. We need you.” Doing that, I made them happy.

 “So I crushed eggshells, and continued to even as a jaded teen, bored and angry and believing in faeries all the same. I crush them to this day, and always will.”

Interesting story about broken eggs eh?

….and who it to say it doesn’t carry truth? 

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9 thoughts on “Eggshells

  1. Little things done with great love and devotion have far reaching effects, ones that transform a person and a nation in ways unimaginable. The power of belief and a fidelity to customs,however apparently simple, develop character and unity among a people. The inner meaning of this wonderful tale reminds of a lived reality, that of Irish monks, who knew the wisdom contained in a path of simplicity and stability. Beliefs, give way to “staying power” and this leads to a Redemption.

  2. Redemption can be interpreted in different ways…to redeem, in the expression I apply, is the spiritual value found within fidelity to time honored customs and beliefs..it’s capacity to retain, construct and edify..redeem that which is threatened or subject to becoming lost…the Grandma in the story insists that the custom must go on…thus the capital “R.” The emphasis of the capital “R” is to imply that any redemption, great or small, is of great importance, in it’s relation to a greater whole. Redemption is not necessarily a theological revelation-and not implied. It happens all the time. When relationships are repaired-when a healing is found-when a lost friend returns home, etc. We are led toward some expression of redemption almost daily, we just go unaware. So, I use it in the sense that it is “no small thing.” That any custom retaining a spiritual value, or solid traits of character, “leads to a Redemption.” I treat the word and what it defines with reverence.

    I always did well in class? It’s too late to correct my grammatical usage! 🙂

  3. I don’t believe in Redemption. I don’t believe in any of those Capitalized concepts. Remember Ulysses? “I fear those big words, Stephen said, that make us so unhappy.” Seems to me that redemption is like love or kindness or faith or name-your-poison – if it isn’t personal, it’s fodder for tyranny of one sort or another.

  4. Not believing is as personal as believing..so where would fodder apply?
    To both? The script is written as one see’s fit. Yet, “one mans weed is another mans flower.” One mans concept can be another mans reality. Capitalized or Not. The writer above is correct. It is all so deeply personal. Respect is given to all opinions here. Not all fear words, big or small.

  5. I believe in redemption. Just not in Redemption. There was this fellow named Bobby Sands who starved himself to death in the Maze Prison in the belief that he was furthering the Cause of Irish Freedom. His favorite book was TRINITY by Leon Uris. He knew whole swaths of it by heart, and would recite it while he lay dying in his prison cell. But TRINITY bear no more relation to what actually happened in Ireland than Malory’s Mort d’Arthur does to events in 14th century England. And it isn’t nearly as well written. To make it the lynch-pin of his martyrdom was too absurd to be tragic. Phrases like “The Cause” often have that effect, and there are some words that deserve to be feared. Even in this age of debased language.

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