Take On Nature: Illuminated with inspiration

Ancient druids of Celtic times were said to have eaten the hallucinogenic fly agaric during rituals
Stephen Colton

COAL tits now enjoy in earnest, the juicy, red berried fruits of honeysuckle, while local rooks begin their raucous gatherings.

As swallows and other summer migrants embark on their perilous journeys back to southern Europe and Africa, mass migrations of wildfowl and waders are moving from northern haunts to winter here among our loughs, soft fields, and nutritious mudflats, these occurrences all salutations to autumn's arrival.

Another seasonal gesture is the presence of earthly decomposers, fungi, whose fruiting bodies appear across our woodland floors and grassy pastures.

These mushrooms or toadstools of fairy fame help maintain healthy ecosystems, breaking down fallen wood, and other dead matter.

Encountering some common field mushrooms in the local church grounds recalled the dangers of trying to distinguish edible from poisonous species.

Despite purchasing Collins's How to Identify Edible Mushrooms, years ago, I never became competent enough to forage and pick them from the wild, instead I heed the advice of herbalist, John Gerarde, who wrote of fungi in, The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597) that, "few of them are good to be eaten and most of them do suffocate and strangle the eater".

Long before Gerarde's warnings, however, the ancient druids of Celtic times were said to have eaten the hallucinogenic fly agaric during rituals, which they believed imbued them with great wisdom and enlightenment to share with their people.

It was named the 'flesh of the gods' because after eating it they were transported to a higher place of spirituality.

The Irish poets or 'fili' of the time talked of eating the "red flesh of a pig" which was thought to be a reference to the fly agaric mushroom with its shiny red cap.

These wise poets were sometimes referred to in Irish as 'imbas forosnai', which translates roughly as 'illuminated with inspiration', a place they certainly would have been after consuming psychoactive mushrooms.

Often formed in rings, these and other common fungi such as the mind-altering liberty cap (magic mushroom) were linked to fairies or 'púca' and 'fairy rings', probably the origin of the phrase describing someone as 'being away with the fairies'.

Fungi mostly live under ground in soil or amongst organic matter such as leaf litter forming a colony of threads called mycelium before they penetrate the surface to develop the fleshy fruiting bodies we recognise as mushrooms and toadstools.

These contain the spores which will disperse to produce future communities elsewhere.

Internationally, mushrooms hold a prominent position in myth and folklore, possibly because of their mood-altering properties or overnight appearance noted by one of its Irish names, 'fás aon oíche', meaning 'one night's growth'.

They feature in old Irish legends but also in more recent stories as this entry about 'wakes' in Wexford from 1937, in the National Folklore Collection (UCD) shows:

"Nearly every lad who was going would have his pocket full of mushrooms. They would all wait until about twelve o'clock when the Rosary and supper would be over... All the women would be gone to bed or gone home and they would have the place to themselves. They would all then take out their mushrooms...

"When they would be cooked to their satisfaction the fun would begin. There would be a regular row over the whole affair. They would not know which of them was their own and they would burn their fingers trying to get them out of the flames.

"The people of the house would know well enough that they would be at this game and they would hide the frying pan when they would be going to bed."

I'll stick with Gerarde's counsel...