The weekend began with a local amateur drama production in a small town nestled in the hills between Bunclody and Carnew. The production was staged in the local community hall, which is adjoined to the local pub on one side and a children’s crèche on the opposite. There is also a recycling bank, children’s play area, a holy grotto and out door gym directly outside the community hall. One of the oddest combinations of amenities I’ve ever come across! You can drop your child to crèche, have a work out, say your novenas and then have a pint, all with not having to walk more than 15 meters in any one direction.
Never either have I been to a drama production where you can sit in anticipation of the show with a pint of Guinness in hand – brilliant! The production we attended was a comedy skit about a farmer ‘Bob Haigh-Turner’ (say it out loud) who reluctantly weds an ugly woman ‘Barb Dwyer’, played by a man, in this case a young local electrician. The bridesmaids were two local farmers who have seen more harvests than I’ve had hot dinners, dressed in purple wigs and colourful frocks.
I wondered whether, if the play had been about transgendered men, dressed as women, what might the reaction of the crowd have been like? My guess is that it would have been entirely different. This production was not intended to challenge gender stereotypes nor raise awareness of transgender issues; it was a comedy skit. However, the men dressed as women in this context seemed to me to reinforce normative gender stereotypes. Certainly the make-up and costumes were exaggerated and brass, and this added to comic effect. The men in drag looked awkward and uncomfortable, they laughed nervously and seemed unsure as how exactly to behave. These men in dresses were subjects of hilarity and ridicule. It was as if humour was being used to define what masculinity is not. Maybe my interest in gender studies has resulted in me reading too much into this comedy skit. But it does raise the question, why is a man in a dress so funny? The answer may lie in normative gender stereotypes, which are so strongly defined and socially regulated, that when we are met with something outside the norm we react with disbelief, laughter and ridicule.
Leaving the play aside, the following day my wifey and I headed off for a leisurely drive, and found our way to a small town called Clonegal, close to the Carlow / Wexford boarder. We ventured up towards Huntington Castle, where we enjoyed some tea and biscuits before taking a guided tour of the house. Whilst enjoying our tea, two women walked passed us in pink and purple velvet robes, each wearing crowns and other mystical type necklaces and bracelets. My wife and I presumed it was all part of the tour. Huntington Castle, it turns out, is home to an international multi-faith religion known as the Fellowship of Isis (not to be confused with the acronym ISIS for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militia). The Fellowship of Isis celebrates the feminine aspect in all religions and the basement of the castle features a variety of temples and shrines dedicated to a variety of deities. Shortly after the two women in robes passed, a man and woman in similar apparel approached. My wife’s eyebrows raised and a small smile emerged on her face.
The tour of Huntington Castle was excellent and the interior is filled with beautiful rooms steeped in history. Our guide, Harry Durdin-Robertson, told us about the lives of his ancestors, the many of whom continue to reside in the castle in ghostly form. The basement temples were fascinating and eerie. As our tour ended amongst the temples and shrines our guide informed us ‘it seems your not going to be sacrificed today!’ to which the group giggled. With our tour complete, my wife and I continued to explore the grounds of the castle. An elderly man, with a long pony tail and hands full of silver rings, approached very quickly on a motorised chair, and with a skid and a grunt became stuck on a grass embankment. I approach the man to help dislodge his chair. I joked saying ‘you need to get all-terrain tyres!’ He laughed, stopped, looked at me funnily and asked ‘… are you going to the ceremony?’ I pondered for a moment, curiosity sparked and tempted to say yes, but my wife shot me a ‘don’t you dare look’ and I replied ‘no, are you?’ He was, and once freed from the embankment he tore away in his chair at top speed.
With the man speeding away towards a wooded area, a parade of people became visible; dressed in robes, they danced and sang through the trees. My wife and I stood and watched in amazement. It reminded me of scenes from the 1973 film ‘The Wicker Man’ featuring Christopher Lee. The group were celebrating the feast of Lughnasadh, marking the beginning of the harvest season. My wife was anxious I might be tempted to join the ceremony and so I was ushered promptly back towards the car park!
That evening our exploration of the hills of Wexford continued with a visit to the ‘Holy Grail’ restaurant in Ballindaggin, where in the surrounds of medieval style I enjoyed one of the best Indian curry’s I’ve ever had! The Holy Grail although situated in a tiny rural ‘village’ (a pub, church and adjoining grave yard) is renowned for its Indian menu. The head chef is Indian, as is the kitchen and waiting staff.
My weekend in rural Wexford was as always great, however, this weekend was far from being quiet and boring. It was in fact both comic and alternative, mysterious and diverse. The weekend featured three distinct communities, the first supporting their local amateur drama production, the second celebrating an ancient religious festival and the third bring a taste of India to rural Wexford. The drama production and proceeding dance was a mix of fun, friendship and frivolity, even if the play inadvertently reinforced hegemonic gender stereotypes. Huntington Castle was a mix of old and new, with a history that goes back nearly 1000 years to the monks that first built on the land there, to a new age spirituality that celebrates femininity and advocates peace. The Holy Grail with its Indian spices in medieval surrounds provides a case study for how the global can become local.
The rural is anything but quiet, uneventful or boring, judging by our recent weekend visit, which was a mad mix of cross dressing farmers, chanting high priestesses and creamy Indian curries. The diversity of urban towns and cities are equally matched in the green hills of the rural countryside … you just have to drive a little further to find it!
© Clay Darcy, August 2014