Off the M8 – Searching out Péacáin

Once again we followed in the footsteps of our friends Amanda and Peter – she of Holy Wells of Cork and he of Hikelines. They had visited the Glen of Aherlow in County Tipperary and pointed us to St Berrahert’s extraordinary site at Ardane which I described in this post. Not far away is another site, which Amanda reported on fully in her own post, here. It is equally remarkable, and related to St Berrahert’s Kyle in that they were both restored by the Office of Public Works in the 1940s. They are also both very easily accessible in a few minutes from the M8 motorway at Cahir.

We were delighted to be travelling again through the beautiful Glen in the shadow of the Galtee Mountains (above) as we searched out a boreen that led us down to the railway, as directed by Amanda. We parked and crossed at the gate, watching out carefully as this is the Waterford to Limerick Junction line used by two trains a day (except on Sundays!)

Once across, we were in an idyll. It’s a private lane, running alongside a gentle stream, but the Bourke family allow visitors to walk (as they have done for centuries) to the old church, the cell and the holy well of Saint Péacáin. Ancient stone walls line the way, and trees overhang, shading the dappled sunlight in this most exceptional of Irish seasons. We met Bill Bourke, who regaled us with tales of his life spent mostly far away from this, his birthplace – but who returned to rebuild the family home and to enjoy perpetual summer in what is, for him, the most beautiful setting in the world. He also told us of the crowds who used to come to celebrate St Péacáin at Lughnasa – 1st August – paying the rounds and saying the masses.

In her monumental work (it runs to over 700 pages) The Festival of Lughnasa – Oxford University Press 1962 – Máire MacNeill points out the harvest feast day was such an important ancient celebration that it survives as the focus of veneration of many local saints who would otherwise have been known for their own patron day, and she particularly mentions Tobar Phéacáin in this regard: a place well away from any large settlement where the great agricultural festival was so critical to the cycle of rural life.

The rural setting of St Péacáin’s Cell can be seen above, just in front of the trees; the church and the well are nearby. MacNeill provides a description of Tobar Phéacáin and includes some variant names:

. . . Tobar Phéacáin (Peakaun’s Well), Glen of Aherlow, Barony of Clanwilliam, Parish of Killardry, Townland of Toureen . . . On the northern slope of the Galtee Mountain at the entrance to the Glen of Aherlow and about three or four miles north-west of Caher there is a well and ruin of a small church. About a mile beyond Kilmoyler Cross Roads a path leads up to it . . . In 1840 O’Keefe, of the Ordnance Survey team, reported that the old church was called by the people Teampuillin Phéacáin, or just Péacán . . .

. . . The well, which he described as lying a few perches south-east of the church was called Peacan’s Well or Tobar Phéacáin. It was surrounded by a circular ring of stonework. He stated: ‘The pattern-day still observed at this place falls on the 1st of August, which day is, or at least until a few years since, has been kept as a strict holiday.’ Devotions were also, he said, performed there on Good Friday . . .

A hundred years after O’Keefe wrote this, the church ruins were tidied up by the Office of Public Works. As at St Berrihert’s Kyle, it seems there were numerous carved slabs on the site and remnants of high crosses, implying a significant ecclesiastical presence here. All these have been fixed in and around the church ruin for safekeeping, and in an intelligent grouping. It’s wonderful to be able to see such treasures in the place they were (presumably) made for, and to experience them in such a remote and peaceful ambience.

McNeill continues:

. . . Nearby is the shaft of a cross which tradition avers was broken in malice by a mason who was then stricken with an inward pain and died suddenly as a punishment for his sacrilege . . . O’Keefe was told a story of a small stone, 6 or 7 inches long and 4 or 5 in depth, having ten little hollows in it and resting in a hollow of the ‘altar’ of the old church. Christ, or according to others St Péacán, asked a woman, who had been churning, for some butter; she denied having any and when the visitor departed she found the butter had turned into stone which retained the impression of her fingers . . . Nuttall-Smith speaks also of a cave where the saint used to practice austerities . . .

The carved fragments are quite remarkable and are in all likelihood well over a thousand years old. I have yet to see anywhere in Ireland – outside of museums – which has such an extensive collection of fascinating medieval antiquities as these sites in the Glen of Aherlow. Here you can also see cross slabs and a sundial said to date from the eighth century.

Nuttall-Smith’s ‘cave’ – quoted by MacNeill above – is likely to be St Péacáin’s Cell, set in a field on the far side of the river. This was probably a clochán, or beehive-hut, of the type once used by anchorites. It is protected by a whitethorn tree, but was quite heavily overgrown on the day of our visit. We could make out the ballaun stones inside, said to be the knee prints of the Saint who made his constant devotions there. Amanda – in her post on the holy well – reports that Péacáin would also stand daily with arms outstretched against a stone cross, chanting the psalter.

McNeill discusses the significance of weather at the August celebrations:

. . . Paradoxically for a day of outing so fondly remembered, no tradition of the Lughnasa festival is stronger than that which says that it is nearly always rainy. No doubt this has been only too often experienced. Saint Patrick’s words to the Dési: ‘Bid frossaig far ndála co bráth’ (Your meetings shall always be showery) must be as well proved a prophecy as was ever made. Still there must be more significance in the weather beliefs than dampened observation. Certainly it was expected that rain should fall on that day, and sayings vary as to whether that was a good or bad sign . . . There are a few interesting beliefs about thunder, which was also expected on that day: the loud noise heard at Tristia when the woman made rounds there to have her jealous husband’s affection restored; the prophecy that no-one would be injured by lightning at Doonfeeny, a promise also made by St Péacán . . .

The holy well is tucked away in a stone-walled enclosure hidden under the trees on the edge of the field which contains the Saint’s cell. It’s also a tranquil place, obviously still much visited: the water is crystal clear, refreshing and will ensure protection from burns and drowning.  This is a magical setting to complete the day’s travels in the beautiful Glen of Aherlow.

A Visit to Knock

Our travels have taken us to quite a few Christian pilgrimage sites in Ireland: they are all fascinating, and range from St Patrick’s holy mountain  – Croagh Patrick (where snakes were cast out of this country forever) – through the rather daunting Station Island on Lough Derg (where a medieval pilgrim entered, and returned from, Purgatory) to the more ‘unofficial’ shrine at Ballinspittle, here in West Cork, where a statue of the Virgin was seen to move (by hundreds of onlookers) in 1985. Recently we found ourselves in Mayo, so a trip to Ireland’s most impressive shrine – at Knock – was essential.

These illustrations show the evolution of the shrine. At the header is the updated interior of the Parish Church of Knock-Aghamore today, showing the beautiful high altar which was made by P J Scannell of Cork and which was presented as a gift during a pilgrimage in 1880. Behind this east wall is the gable where, on 1st August 1879, fifteen local people witnessed an apparition of Mary, Joseph, St John the Evangelist, and a lamb on an altar which seemed to float, stationary and silent, in front of the wall. It was 8pm and the rain was pouring down, yet the gable wall and the ground in front of it remained dry. The vision – which was also seen by others – seemed to last for about two hours. The upper picture above, which probably dates from around 1880, shows the gable and in front of it a rack of crutches and other paraphernalia apparently left by those cured at the shrine. The very first recorded cure, which happened soon after the vision, was of Delia Gordon, a young girl from nearby Claremorris, who was instantly cured of an acute ear infection and deafness after her mother scraped a little of the plaster off the gable wall and placed it into her ear. You can see in the upper picture where considerable amounts of the plaster appear to have been removed (presumably, following that first cure); by the 1930s (second picture) an iron fence had been erected to protect the wall. In 1963 (third picture), a dedicated chapel had been built in front of the gable, and today (fourth picture) a modern Apparition Chapel is in place to contain the large number of pilgrims who attend mass there on a daily basis. You can also see the elegant sculptures which have been installed on the wall to represent the figures of the apparition.

The vision is superbly depicted in this enormous mosaic which has recently been installed in the Basilica at Knock. P J Lynch, the artist who designed the mosaic, said he . . . tried hard to capture the sense of the wonder that the witnesses must have felt on that wet August evening back in 1879 . . . The mosaic measures 14 metres square and is one of the largest single flat pieces of religious mosaic of its kind in Europe: it is made predominantly from Venetian glass smalti and there are approximately 1.5 million individual pieces of mosaic in the complete work.

This is original stonework from the gable wall to the Parish Church: the lower picture is a panel built in to the modern Apparition Chapel wall. The statements made by the 15 witnesses who saw the vision at the wall in 1879 are fully documented here – an official Commission of Enquiry was held by the Catholic Church in that same year and concluded . . . the words of the witnesses were trustworthy and satisfactory . . . a further investigation in 1936 interviewed the then surviving witnesses, who corroborated what they had seen. Mary Byrne, who was 29 at the time of the apparition and 86 during the second enquiry said . . . I am clear about everything I have said and I make this statement knowing I am going before my God . . . She died shortly afterwards. John Curry, the youngest witness, was 5 in 1879. The child said . . . he saw images, beautiful images, the Blessed Virgin and St Joseph. He could state no more than that he saw the fine images and the light, and heard the people talk of them, and stood upon the wall to see them . . . He confirmed his memories when interviewed in new York for the 1936 enquiry.

Over a million people a year come to Knock, in search of faith, enlightenment, cures perhaps: or just out of curiosity. It is a place with a great sense of purpose – and long may it continue. As a (now retired) church architect I was distinctly struck by the enormous Basilica which was constructed initially in the 1970s and which has been refurbished very recently. It is spectacular in its size and scale and is fittingly  furnished with powerful works of art. In particular I was impressed by the large, harrowing, painted Stations of the Cross: unfortunately – and strangely – I can find no record anywhere of the artist.

If you have a spare couple of hours it’s worth finding and watching this entertaining and fair-minded documentary about Knock, made by RTÉ in 2016:

I make no judgments as to the veracity or otherwise of what was witnessed on that day in 1879. There have been many theories put forward, ranging from magic lanterns to unrest provoked by the Land Acts! But why should we doubt the faith of anyone, whatever their religion? The Christian story is all about miracles, so surely miracles are just as possible in the 19th century as they were in the 1st… The village of Knock carries on its normal life around all the trappings of the shrine: shops selling statues and Holy Water bottles abound, and add to the colour. On the site you can look out the well-curated museum, and treat yourself to good refreshments. It’s all worth visiting, even if your interest is purely anthropological. The Pope himself will be there this August and all the 45,000 (free) tickets have been booked. If the sun keeps on shining – and perhaps it will – it’ll be a grand day for all!

The Elemental World of Cormac Boydell

Perched on the very edge of Europe and facing into the Atlantic Ocean, the far west of Ireland is a terrifyingly beautiful place to set down your roots. Our own little spot, overlooking the comparatively calm reaches of Roaringwater Bay, faces into the winter gales and it’s a constant fight to keep the weather out: always a losing battle. But, could we live anywhere else? Certainly not. This week we met up with Cormac Boydell and Rachel Parry – two artists who live just about as far away as it is possible to be in wild West Cork. Like us, they battle with the elements; like us, they couldn’t envisage living anywhere else.

Cormac Boydell (header picture – in his studio) and Rachel Parry live on the edge of Ireland: their cottage and lush gardens feel as if they are carved out of the mountainside to seek maximum shelter from winter storms. They are well off the beaten track close to the end of the Beara Peninsula: the nearest settlement is Allihies (from the Irish Na hAilichí, meaning ‘the cliff fields) which was a centre for copper extraction in the Bronze Age and from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when generations of Cornish Mine Captains came here to manage the mines, providing work for a substantial local population.

Connection with the landscape is something that’s inherent in the make-up of Cormac Boydell. It must be significant that he started out studying and working as a geologist – getting to know the physical fabric of the rocks and the earth around him – before setting out on a more creative path, working with those very elements to produce exuberantly robust ceramic sculptures which are unique and highly sought after.

Cormac’s tools are his hands. He works raw terracotta clay and crafts the shapes of his pieces without wheel or mould. He applies colours and – most importantly – textures into the surface, and firing provides the finishes – not always predictable. For him, this is all part of the living process. But that’s the physical process: into the whole equation, also, are his close observations of the environment around him – the geology, textures and colours of the rock surfaces from the natural and cultivated landscapes. He sees the way rocks break and how they weather – how time is an element in their metamorphoses. Somehow, into all this surveillance and appreciation of nature he also makes stories. He finds inspiration in ancient sagas, particularly those from Ireland, as we saw in the exhilarating work on the walls of his studio.

Cormac Boydell is one of the important group of artists who came and settled in West Cork during the second half of the last century – a group whose lives and work have yet to be properly celebrated. Like many others of this group he has stayed for life and contributed to raising the profile of art produced in Ireland. In a catalogue of work produced by West Cork artists and displayed both in Skibbereen and the Crawford Gallery in Cork 30 years ago – Living Landscape ’87 – he writes this of his own contribution to that exhibition:

. . . Landscape is not the first term I would apply to my work. However I always welcome challenge. Breaking new ground stimulates creativity where repetition kills it. Experimentation, welcoming both failures and success, working out beyond the boundaries of my vision… that’s the excitement of art making. Using rock and fired clay as elements of the landscape, “Earthbone” expresses the spirit from which the landscape is formed . . .

Alison Ospina wrote in 2011 in the introduction to her book West Cork Inspires:

. . . Hidden down the leafy lanes of West Cork I have found artists whose work is of the highest calibre and should be considered of national importance . . . I have selected people working in a variety of media whose work has had an impact on other craftspeople and has been influential in developing West Cork’s reputation for excellence and originality . . .

In her book she writes of Cormac Boydell:

. . . Cormac’s work is organic and elemental, the earth is its source. It resonates across millennia from when the bedrock of this country was being laid down and speaks of torsion and vortices, glacial drift and the alchemy of fire. It taps into the energies of nature, to which it is inextricably linked . . .

One of my favourite new pieces from Cormac Boydell is this large plaque inspired by the story of the Irish Saint Éinne (also known as Saint Enda): the patriarch of Irish monasticism. He is the brother of St Fanchea (see Finola’s post about Irish women saints) and was a warrior until Fanchea persuaded him to lay down his arms. He went to Aran in 484 and founded the first monastery there but the local chieftain Corbanus intervened. Éinne’s response was to banish all of Corbanus’s horses from the islands. This is the scene which Cormac has illustrated and it’s one of a recent series which is based on myths and legends.

You could own a piece by Cormac Boydell! This ceramic – based on a story from the Finn McCool cycle – has been purchased by Uillinn, the West Cork Arts Centre gallery in Skibbereen, and will be on display there from this week until the end of the Art & The Great Hunger Exhibition which runs from 20 July to 13 October. While the gallery is open you can purchase draw tickets at only 5 Euros each: the prize, which will be drawn on the last day of the exhibition, is the Boydell ceramic. What an opportunity – every ticket stands an equal chance of winning this unique work of art! And all your contributions will be supporting the activities of the Arts Centre.

With grateful thanks to Cormac and Rachel for allowing us a glimpse into their world

Darerca – A Neglected Saint

Ireland is ‘The Land of Saints’. The Catholic Online website lists 331 of them, but some get much better treatment than others. Last week we celebrated St Patrick – the news was full of it, as it always is on 17 March. Yet, just five days after Patrick’s Day – on 22 March – I was at a schoriacht and asked the assembled crowd who was the Saint for that day: nobody knew. It was the day for St Darerca and she is, unfairly, much neglected, especially since she is St Patrick’s sister. In order to redress the balance I have put together everything I can find on the story of St Darerca, and – because she has never been pictured (as far as I can tell) – I have illustrated it with some general Irish Saintly connections.

Land of the Saints: header picture – Clonmacnoise, Co Offaly – Ireland’s holy centre, and one of the oldest and most important early Christian settlements in Europe. Above – the beautifully located Kilmalkedar monastic site in Kerry has long associations with Saint Brendan the Navigator

St Darerca is first mentioned in the Vita tripartita Sancti Patricii (Tripartite Life of Saint Patrick), which some scholars believe was written in the sixth century – within a century of St Patrick’s death (possibly in 493 at the age of 120). In the Tripartite Life, we read that St Patrick had two sisters, and that when he came to Bredach in County Derry for an ordination, . . . he found there three deacons, who were sons of his sister Darerca . . . These deacons were eventually ordained bishops and became St Reat, St Nenn, and St Aedh, the . . . sons of Conis and Darerca, Patrick’s sister . . . 

Upper – St Patrick’s Bell; lower – inscription on another 10th century bell – both now in the National Museum, Dublin

In his own Confessio, St Patrick makes no mention of his sisters. The Confessio begins:

. . . My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many . . .

But it’s a very brief account of his life, and hardly qualifies as an autobioigraphy.

Medieval cross head, in the National Museum, Dublin

One version of the Tripartite Life suggests that both sisters were kidnapped from Britain along with St Patrick and returned to Ireland with him when he set out on his missions. A 17th century Irish hagiographer, John Colgan, collected fragments of information pertaining to Darerca . . . from Irish tradition . . . He asserted that St Darerca may have had as many as seventeen sons between two husbands, and that all of them became bishops. He also states that, according to tradition,  many of these became saints:

. . . By Darerca’s first husband, Restitutus the Lombard, she bore St Sechnall of Dunshaughlin; St Nectan of Killunche, and of Fennor (near Slane); of St Auxilius of Killossey (near Naas, County Kildare); of St Diarmaid of Druim-corcortri, in addition to five other children. By her second husband Conis the Briton, she bore St Reat, St Nenn, and St Aedh; ancient Irish authors also attributed her motherhood to St Crummin of Lecua, St Miduu, St Carantoc, and St Maceaith . . .

A 1950s photograph from Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh showing the annual pilgrimage to the summit of St Patrick’s holy mountain in Co Mayo, Croagh Patrick

St Darerca’s second husband, Conis, was said by some to be the King of the Bretons, although others only suggest that, by him, she gave birth to Gradlon the Great, who became King of Brittany. It’s really surprising (and a shame) that we don’t know more about Darerca: perhaps she has just always been overshadowed by her famous brother. As well as – perhaps – seventeen sons, she is supposed to have had four daughters, all of whom were also connected with the spread of Christianity in Ireland. Only two are named: St Eiche of Kilglass and St Lalloc of Senlis.

The Ardagh Chalice, National Museum, Dublin

There is a reference to Darerca as having another name: Moninna, said to have founded a convent at Killeevy, Co Armagh which was second in importance only to that at Kildare. A curious story is told to account for the change of her name to Moninna. The Irish commentary is translated into English by Whitley Stokes:

. . . Darerca was her name at first. But a certain dumb poet fasted with her, and the first thing he said after being miraculously cured of his dumbness was minnin. Hence the nun was called Mo-ninde, and the poet himself Nine Ecis . . .

Moninna studied theology, established convents in Ireland, Scotland and England and travelled to Rome. Perhaps most interestingly she is also known by the name Liamain, and there is a connection with an ancient stone on the island of Inchagoill in Lough Corrib. The ‘Pillar Stone’ on that island is known as Lugnaedon Pillar, a piece of Silurian grit stone, about two feet high with an incised cross on the north side, and two such crosses on each of the other sides. The inscription on the stone translates as . . . The stone of Lugnaedon, son of Limenueh . . . or Liamain. The pillar is said to originate in the 6th century, and would therefore be the oldest Christian inscribed stone in Ireland.

Two photographs of the 6th century Lugnaedon Pillar on Inchagoill Island. It is also known as the Rudder Stone because of its shape

The Benedictines say that Darerca’s name is derived from the Irish Diar-Sheare which means ‘constant and firm love’. And, finally, a piece of local folklore say that St Darerca blessed a poor man’s beer barrel so that it provided an endless supply of beer ever after!

Lives of the Saints – a detail from a stained glass window by George Walsh in St Kentigern’s Church, Eyries

So there you have it – scraps gleaned from many sources, some of which are not named – from which we can piece together an incomplete picture of an Irish saint who may well have done as much in her day for Christianity in Ireland as her famed brother. How about giving Patrick a rest next year and, instead, celebrating the day of St Darerca?

Finn McCool’s Causeway

In a recent post this year I said how much we liked to go off the beaten track and find Ireland’s gems hidden away among the narrow boreens of West Cork and elsewhere. But sometimes it’s also worth going to the better known hotspots around the country – and being prepared to regard them objectively in spite of the sometimes intrusive crowds that you might meet along the way.

Last summer our trip around the coast of Northern Ireland took us past the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim. I had never been there before (Finola had) so I was keen to see what all the fuss is about. After all, I knew the causeway had been built by one of Ireland’s greatest heroes – Finn McCool – and that it once extended all the way to Scotland: the other end of it can be seen at Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish island of Staffa (Staffa is a Norse word meaning ‘Pillars’ and is named from the rock formations there): the Gaelic name for the cave is An Uaimh Bhinn, meaning ‘the melodious cave.’ It has been suggested that the name ‘Fingal’  is linked to the name ‘Finn McCool’ possibly after an 18th century Scots poet, James Macpherson, wrote an epic poem loosely based around the Finn story. Later, the composer Felix Mendelssohn visited the cave and celebrated it in his Hebrides Overture. It’s worth looking at this Youtube video of the piece as it is well illustrated with dramatic views of the Scottish end of things:

Before leaving Scotland – and this atmospheric music – I was intrigued to find mention of a tradition that the Staffa cave is fully illuminated by the sun on only one day of the year: on or around the 16th of December (quite close to the winter solstice), and the teller of this tale will point out that it was exactly on that day – 16 December – in 1830 that Mendelssohn completed his overture . . .

Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway has been a popular tourist destination for as long as there has been tourism in Ireland. I hadn’t realised that it had been served by a dedicated tramway since the 1880s (the photo above dates from that time). The line, running from the mainline railway at Bushmills, was the world’s first to be powered by hydro-electricity – fed by a generating station at Walkmill Falls near Bushmills via 104 horsepower 78 kW Alcott water turbines providing 250 volts at 100 amps. Sadly, the line closed down in 1949 but has been revamped over the final 3.2 km of the original tramway during the main tourist season, carrying its first passengers at Easter 2002.

Another modern development is the tourism and visitor centre, which opened in 2012: the previous building was burned down in 2000. As an architect (happily retired!) I always take an interest in large public buildings and their design. This one was very controversial when it was mooted, partly because there was concern about the way it was being commissioned – initially it was to have been privately financed and run. In the end funding was raised from the National Trust (who own the site), the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, the UK Heritage Lottery Fund and public donations. I think it is a successful building: it has gravitas while also being quite playful with the references to the hexagonal basalt formations of the Causeway. It has to achieve a difficult job: handling thousands of tourists (in 2016 there were 851,000!)  as efficiently as possible while providing a good informed experience.

Top – the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre has a well designed interactive information area. Above – Fare on offer at the Visitor Centre includes basalt column-shaped chips, and souvenir travel sweets!

The popularity of the causeway has ensured that it has been well recorded by artists, topographers and postcard publishers. Here are a few examples, beginning with one of our favourite antiquarians, George Victor Du Noyer.

Top to bottom – George Victor Du Noyer c1850; Thomas Rowlandson c1812; Susanna Drury, c1740; tourist postcard from 1907

The Giant’s Causeway was supposedly discovered by the Bishop of Derry in 1692, and announced to the world the following year when Sir Richard Bulkeley, a fellow of Trinity College Dublin, presented a paper on it to the Royal Society . . . I wonder if he mentioned Finn McCool? Just in case you don’t know this story yourself, here’s a good version of it, narrated by Tom Purves and beautifully accompanied on the Uillinn pipes:

We went fairly late in the season (October) and on a wet and windy day. It was a worthwhile visit and I do recommend it: the Antrim coastline is spectacular enough to warrant the journey, even if the causeway wasn’t there – but what a legend! It links one of Ireland’s best known heroes with the nearby Scottish coastline, and credits him with the creation of both Lough Neagh (Ireland’s largest inland mass of water) and the Isle of Man. Today it’s a Unesco World Heritage Site – in fact the only one in Northern Ireland.

Pagan and Pure

How does a prehistoric calendar mark turn into a pagan feast and then into a Christian saint’s day? This year, the cross-quarter day is Feb 3, yesterday: that is, the day that lies half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Together with the solstices and equinoxes, the cross-quarter days divide the year into eight ‘months’ and they also establish the dates for the ancient festival days of Imbolc ( Feb 2, spring), Bealtaine ( May 1, summer ), Lunasa (Aug 1, harvest), and Samhain (Oct 31, start of winter). In fact, the actual cross-quarters times don’t fall always on those dates but close enough so they have become established as the festival days.

The Brigidine Centre in Kildare, run as retreat and contemplation house. The lead image in this post is a St Brigid stained glass window in Ballinrobe, Co Mayo

As so often happens when an ancient culture is Christianised, Imbolc became conflated with a saintly feast day, that of our own Saint Brigid, the female patron saint of Ireland. Brigid may have originally been a female deity, also called Brigid, or perhaps Danu. This is all controversial, of course – did the idea of the goddess or the idea of the saint come first, for example? Whatever the origins, the marking of the cross-quarter day turned into Imbolc the pagan festival, and finally into Saint Brigid’s Day, and all over the country we make St Brigid’s Crosses, leave a scarf out at night for her to bless, or, still, in Kerry, dress up as ‘Biddies’ and go from house to house, carrying a Brídeóg doll and singing and dancing in a ritual that must be as old as time.

Another custom is to visit those holy wells that are associated with Brigid. Amanda has a special post on that – and is celebrating two years of holy well hunting!

On one Imbolc that lives in our memories Robert and I arose early in the morning and went to watch the sun rise over a small prominence, standing on a piece of 5,000 year old rock art. Our account of that occasion is here, and below is the thrilling moment the sun rose, and lit up the ancient carvings.

Our friend, the poet Paul Ó Colmáin, from whom we take Irish lessons, used one of his own poems as a teachable moment this week, and I was struck by how perfectly it captures that sense of the turning year, the joy of sunrise, the deep embedding in our Irish souls of the ancient and the traditional and the embracing of both. I give the poem first in Irish. For those of you who do not speak it, you can take my word that the language is beautiful and contains nuances that his English version cannot capture, brilliant as it is.

Lá ‘le Bhríde

Dhúisigh an ghrian sinn

an mhaidin úd,

solas órga

ag stealladh

‘is ag scairdeach

isteach ar an urlár,

ag slaparnach

thuas na fallaí,

ag sruthlaíonn

an doras síor-oscailte isteach.

Níor thuigeamar

ar dtús

cad a bhí ag titim amach.

Níor aithníomar

torann buí na Gréine.

Ach chuimhníos

go tobann ar na bhfocail a dúraís,

mar dhraoi:

“Tiocfaidh an Ghrian thar nais ar Lá ‘le Bhríde.”

Agus d’árdaigh dóchas,

ársa, pagánaigh im’ chroí,

inár suí sa leaba,

Bríd nó Danú,

an lámh in uachtar ag an t-earrach,

bhí an geimhreadh, gruama thart.

“Tiocfaidh an Ghrian thar nais ar Lá ‘le Bhríde.”

Paul’s English version of the poem is given below. At the time he wrote it, Paul, his wife, the artist Marie Cullen, and their sons were living on the Great Blasket*, off the Dingle Peninsula, the only inhabitants of the Island.

The Blasket Islands lie off the cost of Kerry, near the Dingle Peninsula. An Irish speaking enclave, it is now uninhabited

Winter was long on the Island, made gloomier by the fact that the sun, due to a combination of high ground and orientation, did not shine on their dwelling all winter.

The sun awoke us.

Like a fanfare

or a burst of wild laughter.

Playfully.

Unfamiliar.

Spilling in along the floor.

Splashing up the walls.

Streaming in through the ever-open door.

We didn’t – at first-  know what was happening,

Didn’t recognise the bright clamour of the sun.

Then we remembered the words

That you, druidlike, had spoken:

“The Sun will come back on St. Brigid’s Day.”

And a welling of Hope,

Pagan and Pure,

Came rising inside us,

Sitting in bed,

Brigid or Danú,

The Winter defeated:

“The Sun will come back on St. Brigid’s Day.”

We’ve turned the corner and spring is finally in the air. Today was golden and we spent it on The Mizen (see below). Thank you Brigid/Danu/Imbolc/ancient Calendar Keepers!

*If you’re ever in Kerry, make sure to visit the Blasket Centre