Clontuskert Abbey, Ballinasloe, Co Galway

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The priory was built by the Augustinians in the 12th century on the site of an earlier monastery founded by St Baedan, who died c. 809AD. The fine medieval doorway has sculptures of St Michael with scales for judging souls, St John, St Katherine, and a Bishop. The priory became very rich and by the 14th century had become corrupt – just two years after the doorway was completed the Prior was accused of keeping concubines and committing murders.

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Temple Cronan, Carron, Co Clare

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Once the site of a seventh century monastery founded by a St Cronan, Temple Cronan is an early Christian church, re-built in the twelfth century with romanesque decorations added at that time. It was rebuilt again in the fifteenth century, and became a site of pilgrimage – the tomb shrine beside the church is said to mark the grave of St Cronan. Of particular note are the blocked up trabeate doorway and the animal and head carvings incorporated in the walls.

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The Siege of Howth

The story of Tallaind Etair (the Siege of Howth) is contained in the12th century manuscript of the Book of Leinster. A central character is Aithirne Ailgeasach of Ulster, a hard, merciless man and a powerful druid and file (poet). His cruel nature was demonstrated when he called on Eochaidh Mac Luchta, a one-eyed king of South Connaught. After being offered any gift he desired, Aithirne asked for Eochaidh’s good eye. The king plucked it out himself and placed it in Aithirne’s palm, and, on washing the empty socket in the nearby lake, the waters turned red with the blood. To this day, the lake is known by the name Loch Deirgdhearc (lake of the red eye), or in English as Lough Derg.

Aithirne moved on then to Ard Brestine, in Carlow, where he spent twelve months as guest of Mes Gegra, the king of Leinster. At the end of his year, he took away with him the wives of 150 of the princes and nobles of Leinster.  Although the men of Leinster could not wrong the druid within their own territory, no such prohibition existed once he left their boundary, and so, as he crossed the river Tolka, he was pursued by the angry Leinstermen. An army arrived from Ulster intent on protecting their druid and a mighty battle ensued, where the men of Ulster were routed.

They fled to Howth with Aithirne in their midst, taking shelter in the fort of Dun Bo. Nine days they were there, nine days without food and without water, while Aithirne refused to allow any to taste the healing milk of the seven hundred cattle he had in the middle of the fort. For nine days the armies fought at Dun Bo, until the death of the Ulster champion Mesdead, a foster son of Cuchulainn. Spurred on by the sound of his foster-son’s death cry, Cuchulainn led a fierce attack and broke the resistance of the enemy. The retreating Leinstermen had the presence of mind to raise a red wall behind them, as the warriors of Ulster were prohibited from passing over a red wall. That “red wall” can be seen today as a red sandbank opposite the station house just east of the DART terminus.

One of the Ulstermen, however, was able to breach the red wall, the hero Conall Cearnach. Two of his brothers had been killed by Mes Gegra and he had sworn vengeance. He followed Mes Gegra as far as Clane, Co Kildare, where he killed and beheaded the Leinster king. He removed the brain and baked it with lime, making a sling missile that was known as a “brain-ball”. This brain-ball was later used to kill the Ulster king Conor Mac Nessa.  As a footnote, Queen Medb of Connacht was also killed by a brain-ball while bathing in a pool on Inchcleraun Island.   Just off the shore of Lough Ree, Inchcleraun is named after Clothra, the mother of Crimthann Nia Nar who had his royal dun or fort on Tower Hill in Howth.

Howth Harbour in 1830, from the Dublin Penny Journal
Howth Harbour in 1830, from the Dublin Penny Journal

Father John Shearman, an antiquarian who was a priest in Howth, wrote in 1868 that:

“This tale speaks of a hollow, or “gap” beside the Dun, called “Cucullin’s Gap,” from the feats of bravery there performed by that hero.  To find out this precise place was for some time a difficult endeavour, as there were many places about the harbour called by that name. An old man at last turned up whose grandfather lived under Dunboe before modern innovations changed its appearance. He remembered a hollow, through which in wet seasons some water flowed, leading up from the sea where Mr. Crosbey’s new store is erected. The depression of the land behind Evora-house on Dunboe grew deeper as it reached the sea in this place. The old Dublin road crossed it where now the new road  leads from Abbey- street to the railway station; the hollow was then filled  to level it up to its present height This, my informant told me, was  called ” the Gap,” and that he often heard his grandfather speak of a  battle that was fought there ” about cows.” These traditions must have great value in settling the precise locality of the scene of the “Siege of Howth.” The top of Dunboe was crowned with a moat— portions of it can be still seen. It was a favourite spot in the olden time as a look- out station for the seamen of Howth. On it, too, were lighted the mid- summer fires, which were visible through the whole of Fingal. To the west of the moat at the mearing of the demesne was a terminal cross, to which the funeral processions of the lower part of the town were marched before interment in the old cemetery. Dunboe has suffered much by recent innovations: to make “The new road,” more than forty feet of its flank were cut away some years ago. Still earlier, another slice was cut away to give room for the road at the top of the harbour.  Some rocks in this place under the Court-house (now being built), called “Molly Piles Rocks,” anciently defended its base from the fury of the sea in the .north-east gales. Then also the place now occupied by the St. Lawrence Hotel was a deep pool of water, so that the hill was surrounded on the east, north, and west sides with the sea. Dunboe seems destined for still further ruin: an immense hole is made on its side. A house is to be built into it, which, apart from the questionable taste of removing an ancient land-mark of history, will be anything but ornamental to the only approach to the town.”

Wheatley's 1790 drawing of Howth Harbour
Wheatley’s 1790 drawing of Howth Harbour

Killone Abbey

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Built about 1190, Killone is unusual in that it is one of the few nunneries of the time. Situated overlooking the scenic Killone Lake, the abbey contains some fine Romanesque features, such as the east windows and vaulted crypt

There is a centuries-old tale of a mermaid in the lake. A man called O’Brien who lived in the nearby Newhall House saw a beautiful woman in the lake and caught her. Bringing her home, he found to his great disgust and disappointment that she had a fish’s tail. As she did n ot speak, scalding water was thrown on her to make her say something – an only too successful plan, for, after a wild, blood-curdling shriek, she cried

“‘As the mermaid goes on the sea,
So shall the race of O’Briens pass away
Till they leave Killone in wild weeds.”

Needless to say, the O’Brien of Newhall has long since gone……

 

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Crimthann and Howth

Eochaidh  Feidhlech was a King of Ireland in long-ago days, when it was common for brother to oust brother and son to oust father. Eochaidh was the father of Medb, later Queen Medb of Connacht, the woman at the centre of the tale of Tain Bo Cuailgne, the Cattle raid of Cooley. He also had three sons and another daughter Clothru. It so happened that Clothru became aware that her brothers were preparing to make war on their father and claim the kingdom for themselves. Fearing that her brothers would be killed without any heirs to carry on the bloodline, she seduced all three, giving birth to a boy, Lugaid Riabh nDearg. As she had foreseen, the three brothers were killed and Lugaid eventually gained the kingship (after much bloodshed and conquering of enemies).

Clothru then bore Lugaid a son, Crimthann (pronounced ‘criffin’), who in turn achieved the kingship. Crimthann had his royal residence (or dun) beside the sea at Howth, Co Dublin.  There were in Howth at the time a number of sidhe, or fairy mounds, entrances to the Otherworld where dwelt the Tuatha De Danaan, an already ancient race blessed with eternal youth and other magical  powers. Crimthann married Nár, a beautiful woman of the Tuatha De Danaan, and they journeyed to lands far beyond the realm, lands in this world and in the Otherworld. In the course of their travels, Crimthann was given precious gifts: a golden chess board, a sword inlaid with gold serpents, a gold-embroidered cloak, a shield, a spear and a sling which never missed its target. The latter gifts would have been of great benefit to Crimthann on his many raids on Roman settlements in Britain.  After sixteen years as king, in the year 9 AD Crimthann was thrown by his horse and was killed. Although Leabhar na hUidhre, an 11th century manuscript written in Clonmacnoise, suggests that he was interred in the fabled Boyne cemetery of Newgrange and Knowth,  other tales speak of his body being taken by Nár, along with the treasures, into her sidhe, where it may still rest to this day.

The location of Crimthann’s royal residence has been the subject of some disagreement in the past, with John O’Donovan, the great 19th century Celtic scholar, arguing that it was sited on the peninsula where the present Baily lighthouse now stands. Parts of the defensive banks and fosses of a peninsula fort can still be seen, but no trace remains of the “ancient circular stone fortress which encircled the apex of the rock, and of which considerable remains existed previous to the erection of the present buildings” (from The Dublin Penny Journal, over 170 years ago). The fort may have been Dun Etar, built by the Milesian chieftain Suirge the Slender and scene of a bloody battle in 646 AD. Indeed, in the course of the construction of the lighthouse  many human remains were unearthed, lending support to this theory.

Gabriel Beranger in this 18th century picture shows on Tower Hill "The karne, or ancient burying place of the Pagan Irish Kings and Nobility
Gabriel Beranger in this 18th century picture shows on Tower Hill “The karne, or ancient burying place of the Pagan Irish Kings and Nobility

The old annals suggest that Crimthann’s fort was situated on the other side of Howth: on Tower Hill, overlooking the modern Howth Harbour.  The Dindsenchas, for example,  (an early text reciting the lore of placenames) tells of Esa, who from her residence, Rath Esa, in Meath, could see the Mound of the Hostages at Tara, Newgrange, on the Boyne, and Dun Crimthann in Howth, meaning the fort had to be on the northern side of the peninsula. Gabriel Beranger, a Dutch Huguenot artist who travelled widely in Ireland in the 18th century, produced a sketch of Howth Abbey in which the remains of a large fort could be seen on Tower Hill. Unfortunately, with the building of the Martello Tower in 1804 any traces of the old fort and a later 12th century wooden castle were destroyed. The location of Crimthann’s dun, like the whereabouts of his Otherworldly treasures, is now another mystery to be solved.

Antique postcard of Tower Hill, overlooking Howth harbour.
Antique postcard of Tower Hill, overlooking Howth harbour.

The Irish Horse

Because it was so essential in Celtic society, the horse became a major figure in Irish folklore and mythology.  In battle, in transportation, and in agriculture the horse played a vital role in the conduct of daily life.  Although we have no “white horses” like the Bronze Age giant at Uffington in England, our ancient tales illustrate the high regard in which they were held. While archaeologically it has been shown that the arrival of the horse pre-dates that of the Celts, according to our legends the horse was introduced into Ireland by the greatest of our native gods, Lugh, the sun god.  Mannanan Mac Lir, the god of the sea, had a magical horse that could travel over land or sea; Cuchulainn had two magnificent chariot horses which came to him from lakes; many a rider emerged from the Otherworld astride a magnificent white horse, including the beautiful Niamh of the Golden Hair on her mission to tempt Oisin to leave the Fianna for Tir na nÓg.

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In our folklore, the importance of horses is reflected by the otherworldly powers assigned to them. They are credited, for example, with the ability to see ghosts, and there are many stories of horses refusing to ride past a haunted spot despite the exhortations of the riders. Then there is the “fíorláir” or ‘true mare’ – the seventh consecutive filly foal born to a dam, which was safe from all evil and its rider safe from all harm. On the spot where a ‘true mare’ was birthed a four-leaved shamrock would grow which would itself have curative and protective powers.

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A thousand years ago, we had our own native horse breed in Ireland, the hobby.  The name ‘hobby’ came from the Irish term “obann”, meaning sudden, unexpected. Samuel Johnson wrote in 1755 in his Dictionary of the English Language that a hobby was “A strong, active horse, of a middle size, said to have been originally from Ireland…”  The hobby was light, fast and agile, and was ideal for skirmishing; so much so that Edward I prevented the export of the horses from Ireland when attempting to subjugate Scotland, for fear of their suitability for the mounted raids carried out by the Scots.  Although the hobby had died out by the 14th century, many of its characteristics were passed onto the Connemara pony.

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Noted for its hardiness, versatility and disposition, the pony has thrived in the harsh landscape of Connemara, particularly since the Irish Connemara Pony Breeders Society was set up almost a century ago with the aim of protecting and preserving the breed.  The founder of the ICPBS was Michael J O’Malley, a friend and neighbour of Patrick Pearse, a leader of the 1916 Rising, in Rosmuc. Their success in promoting the Connemara pony can be gauged by the fact that the Connemara pony is now a familiar sight not only along the western seaboard but throughout the country and indeed the world.

Pearse's cottage in Rosmuc
Pearse’s cottage in Rosmuc

Roadside memorials

2Erected to the memory of the Meathmen and Wexfordmen, who fought and died for freedom in 1798, and whose remains lie in the vicinity of Summerhill, Culmullen and Dunshaughlin. May God have mercy on their souls"
“Erected to the memory of the Meathmen and Wexfordmen, who fought and died for freedom in 1798, and whose remains lie in the vicinity of Summerhill, Culmullen and Dunshaughlin. May God have mercy on their souls”

“We remember, we respect, we honour”

In the midst of the current debate on fitting ways to commemorate the “decade of centenaries”, I think it worth mentioning that throughout the country there are countless roadside memorials to those who died in the course of Ireland’s fight for freedom. Local initiatives, heritage societies, and bodies such as the National Graves Association have over the years erected plaques and statues dedicated to the memory of figures from the time of the 1798 Rebellion through to the end of the Civil War in 1923, ordinary men and women who paid with their lives for caring about their communities, their culture, their freedom.

Plaque in Ennistymon inmemory of Hugh Kildea and Michael Murphy, hanged for their part in the United Irishman rebellion of 1798
Plaque in Ennistymon inmemory of Hugh Kildea and Michael Murphy, hanged for their part in the United Irishman rebellion of 1798

Perhaps one contribution to the “decade of centenaries” might be the compilation of a public database of those memorials, an acknowledgement of people such as Harry and Pat Loughnane, Shanaglish, Gort. The brothers were arrested by Black and Tan forces in November 1920 and ten days later their bodies were discovered – the brothers had been tortured,dragged behind a lorry, and the bodies set alight.  In the same month, cousins John  and Patrick O’Brien, of Nenagh, Co Tipperary, were arrested by by Crown forces; their mutilated bodies were later found at Knigh Cross, Nenagh. In Clare,  Hugh Kildea,  a hedgeschool teacherfrom Moy, led a group of hundreds of United Irishmen in rebellion against the Crown. He was captured and in March 1799 was hung in the nearby town of Ennistymon.

Memorial at Knigh Cross, near Nenagh, in memory of cousins John and Thomas O'Brien
Memorial at Knigh Cross, near Nenagh, in memory of cousins John and Thomas O’Brien

Maybe we can reflect on their sacrifice as we look at the actions and behaviour of our politicians today:  the official video released to accompany the announcement of the government’s 1916 commemoration plans was denounced by Diarmuid Ferriter, professor of history in UCD, as “embarrassing unhistorical shit” (the video featured images of the Queen, David Cameron, and Bob Geldof, but completely omitted to mention the signatories of the Proclamation or even the 1916 Rising itself).

Our history and culture are currently being steamrolled into the ground – It would be good to answer that, as with our Neolithic ancestors who built their huge stone tombs, “ we remember, we respect and we honour”

Memorial to brothers Patrick and Harry Loughnane at Moy O Hynes Woods, near Ardrahan
Memorial to brothers Patrick and Harry Loughnane at Moy O Hynes Woods, near Ardrahan

The Celtic Druids

Our ancient tales are full of the exploits of renowned warriors and nobles, characters such as Cuchulainn, Fionn Mac Cumhaill and Queen Medb of Connacht; gods and heroes who give us a sense of the drama and the values of their culture. Yet the most colourful figure in popular imagination must be that of the druid, variously portrayed as poet, prophet and magician. We hear many stories of shape-shifting, of magic mists, of spells and enchantments, and of sacred woods and potions, and can picture a Getafix-like character from the pages of Asterix the Gaul.

An early representation of a Celtic druid by the 18th century English antiquarian William Stukeley
An early representation of a Celtic druid by the 18th century English antiquarian William Stukeley

In our stories, the most documented power of the druid (or file, which in modern Irish means poet but in ancient tales was interchangeable with druid) was his satire, which not merely insulted the honour but could physically punish an ungracious host or other victim. In the epic tale of Táin Bó Cuailnge, (the Cattle Raid of Cooley), for instance, the Ulster hero Ferdia could not be persuaded to switch his allegiance until “Medb sent the druids and satirists and harsh bards…that they might make three satires to stay him and three lampoons, and that they might raise on his face three blisters, shame, blemish and disgrace, so that he might die before the end of nine days if he did not succumb at once”. Cairbre Mac Eadaoine, having visited the inhospitable king Breas, was forced to spend the cold night in a dark, bare hut with only stale cakes to eat. He then satirized the king for his meanness, and “from that hour there was nothing but blight on Breas”. Even the elements could be controlled by the druid’s satire. Aodh Mac Aininne, a poet at the court of the Ulster king Conchobhar Mac Neasa, was sentenced to execution by drowning for cohabiting with Mughain, the king’s concubine. Each lake he was taken to, however, dried up completely after Aodh chanted over it, and the sentence was eventually lifted.
The power of foresight was another attribute of the druids. They possessed a secret knowledge that enabled them to interpret natural phenomena such as birdsongs and cloud formations as good or bad omens. They also used certain rituals in order to prophesise, practices such as the ‘tairbhfheis’ or ‘bull-feast’, whereby a bull would be killed, a seer would gorge himself on the raw flesh and blood, and then sleep on the hide. During his sleep, he would have a vision which would reveal the sought-after knowledge, such as, for example, the identity of the future king. When Eterscele, the king of Tara, died, the men of Ireland declared a tairbhfheis. The sleeper had a vision of a naked man approaching Tara after nightfall, carrying a stone in a sling. Meanwhile, the youth Conaire, an illegitimate son of Eterscele, was hunting a flock of strange birds as far as, and then into, the sea, where they threw off their birdskins and assumed human form. One of them advised him that they were his kin, and that he should proceed immediately to Tara. When Conaire arrived naked, as he had pursued the birds into the water, he was installed as the new king.

Portal tombs like Poulnabrone, although they pre-dated the coming of the Celts by thousands of years, were commonly known as "Druids'altars" in the 19th-century
Portal tombs like Poulnabrone, although they pre-dated the coming of the Celts by thousands of years, were commonly known as “Druids’altars” in the 19th-century

With his capacity to recite hundreds of tales, his knowledge of the lineages of the kings and his ability to harness the power of the Otherworld, the druid/file often demanded, and received, enormous payments. A Galway king, Guaire, was once visited by Seanchán Torpeist and his retinue. Seanchán made a series of difficult demands of his host, including the provision of strawberries in winter, the killing of a favourite pet, and the exclusion from a feast of the nobility of Connacht. In another tale, the court of a one-eyed king, Eochaidh MacLuchta, was called upon by Aithirne Ailgeasach. After being offered any gift he desired, Aithirne asked for Eochaidh’s good eye. The king plucked it out himself and placed it in Aithirne’s palm. Aithirne then moved on to spend a year in the court of a Leinster king, Meas Geaghra, and departed with the wives of 150 of the Leinster nobles. As well as catering for the file, the host had the added burden of satisfying his retinue, and this hospitality was exploited to the extent that “fully one third of the free-tribes had become enrolled in roaming companies of poets. These companies were wont to descend on the houses of kings and chieftains, requiring entertainment so long as it pleased them, and gifts of whatsoever they coveted.” That they were so treated is testament to how the druids were perceived in their own society – feared for their powers and honoured for their high social status, they were shamans, magi and seers, as well as the official historians, royal genealogists and judges.

Hawthorn, hazel, willow and ash trees were sacred to the druids
Hawthorn, hazel, willow and ash trees were sacred to the druids

The excessive demands of the file and his retinue, however, did provoke a reaction, and by 575 A.D. the High King Aodh Sláine had resolved to banish the whole caste. In that year, a convention was held at Drom Ceat (Daisy Hill, near Limavady in Co. Derry) and it was only the intervention of St Colmcille, who interceded on their behalf that induced the High King to withdraw his threat of exile. The privileges of the druids were curbed, however; even the master-file, the ollamh, was restricted to a retinue of twenty four men. It is with this St Colmcille that we first see the absorption of the old paganism into the new Christian movement. In the Leabhar Breac it was stated that his mother consulted a druid as to the proper time to start his schooling, and that this druid was actually his first tutor. St Barra, the patron saint of Cork city, was by one account, the son of Amhairghin, druid to Tighearnach, a west Cork king. Maolochtair, king of the Decies, had his own druid yet bestowed the site of Lismore on St Mochud. His stepson St Cumaine Fada then went on to become bishop of Clonfert until his death of plague in 661 A.D. Not that it was all a peaceful transition – St Caillin, for example, when founding a monastery at Fenagh, Co Leitrim, was opposed by the local king Feargna and his druids. Through the saints invocations, Feargna was swallowed up by the ground and the druids were turned to stone. St Patrick had to contend with the High King Laoghaire’s druids, causing one to rise in the air and then drop to the ground, dashing his brains out on a stone. He engaged the second, Lucat Moel, in a contest of wondrous feats which ended in Lucat being burnt to death.

The Fiach Dubh, or raven,  features in many of our legends and were considered good omens by the druids, as were crows
The Fiach Dubh, or raven, features in many of our legends and were considered good omens by the druids, as were crows

The occurrence of a series of natural disasters from the 6th to the 8th century assisted the spreading of the new religion throughout the island, and as it spread the longtime link between mysticism and literature was broken and the file became more and more of a purely literary figure. He lost the art of divination and other supernatural powers, and only the tradition of his magic survived. By the tenth century, the bardic schools in Ireland were studying metrical tracts called ‘iombas forosnai’, ‘teinm laida’ and ‘dichetal do chennaibh’, names which centuries earlier had been given to druidic rituals. The magicians had become wordsmiths, and Thus ended the Age of the Druids………

Irish Water

For most of the last ten thousand years, the people of Ireland have depended for their fresh water on access to lakes, streams and wells. The essential importance of water to physical survival was reflected in the spiritual importance attributed to the source of the water.

Tobercornan Well, near Ballyvaughan, with Gothic Revival shelter built over it in 1860
Tobercornan Well, near Ballyvaughan, with Gothic Revival shelter built over it in 1860

Votive offerings – the ritual sacrifice of valuable objects – have been found in water everywhere across the country: in the Corrib in Galway; in Loughnashade in Armagh; the Bronze Age Dowris hoard found near Birr; and, of course, the fabulous Iron Age Broighter hoard, thought to have been deposited in Lough Foyle in Derry. Wells, fed by underground springs, were especially venerated. The emerging water originated in the otherworld; not only did it preserve life, special healing powers were often associated with it. Even with the conversion of the populace to Christianity, belief in the supernatural qualities of the wells remained strong.

Tobar na Croise Naofa (Well of the Holy Cross), Gleninagh
Tobar na Croise Naofa (Well of the Holy Cross), Gleninagh

 

Now renamed in honour of local or national saints, the magical irish waters were credited with curative properties for healing ailments from headaches to rheumatism. In virtually every townland, we can find a St Bridget’s Well, perhaps known for curing sore eyes, or a St Patrick’s Well, for curing toothache, or a St Molaise’s Well, for lingering ailments. At some of these wells, ‘patterns’ are again (or still!) being held or mass celebrated annually. The pattern (derived from ‘patrun’ or patron saint) can yet retain vestiges of the pagan past – walking three times clockwise around the well while reciting particular prayers, for example, and tying scraps of cloth to an adjacent tree.

Tobermooghna, near Lahinch
Tobermooghna, near Lahinch

 

I haven’t heard of any recurrence of those less religious aspects of the rituals illustrated by a decree issued at the Synod of Tuam in 1660: “Dancing, flute-playing, bands of music, riotous revels and other abuses in visiting wells and other holy places are forbidden…” Unfortunately, a lot of our ancient wells have been destroyed in recent times (all too often by neglect or by development), but enough have survived to allow anyone to visit a holy well and travel back through time, past the penal laws, past the early saints, past the druids and myth-makers, past the ancient tomb-builders, right back to our earliest ancestors….

Dysert O’Dea

Built in the 12th century on the site of an earlier monastery, the church has one of the finest Romanesque doorways in the country. The round tower next to the church may once have been very tall as it has the second largest tower base (of existing towers).

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