Imbolc – How Our Ancestors Welcomed Spring

February 1 – we celebrate it as St Brigid’s day now, and support the call for making it a national holiday. But we have celebrated it in Ireland forever as Imbolc, the calendar marker that heralds the arrival of spring.

St Brigid by Harry Clarke in St Barrahane’s Church, Castletownshend

What follows was originally a Joint Post by Finola and Robert, written way back in 2013. We have edited it to update the links and added some new photographs and are republishing it now.

Archaeologists have long been aware of the astronomical siting of some Irish megalithic sites, such as at Newgrange, and Loughcrew Passage Graves in Co Meath and Drombeg Stone Circle in West Cork.

Inside Cairn T at Loughcrew

We have become intrigued by the work of Michael Wilson, a talented amateur astronomer who is singlehandedly documenting the astronomical siting of many monuments in this area. Recently he has turned his attention to prehistoric rock art. Mike’s website contains an astonishing body of work, meticulously researched and rigorously recorded, along with explanatory notes.

Michael Wilson and his Whole Horizon Analytical Technique (WHAT)

Michael Wilson carries out his Whole Horizon Analytical Technique (WHAT)

His thesis, in a nutshell, is that the builders and carvers of Neolithic and Bronze Age times were keen observers of the day and night skies and were intimately familiar with their surroundings. They situated their megaliths and rock art in places where the contours of the horizon allowed them to mark significant solar and lunar events, such as solstices, equinoxes, lunar settings and risings, and intermediate points. Thus, the sun at the winter solstice might rise at the highest point on a nearby mountain, or set in a deep notch in the hills at the spring equinox.

At Drombeg Stone Circle people gather on the winter solstice to watch the sun set over the recumbent stone

The solar calendar has four quarter days (the solstices and the equinoxes), four cross-quarter days (the half way points between the solstices and the equinoxes) and a further finer division into points half-way between the quarters and cross-quarters: an ancient 16 month calendar.

A few days ago [in 2013], Michael posted this:

Imbolc, the spring cross-quarter, is almost upon us. It will be on Feb 1st by the Gregorian calendar, where it is commonly known as St Bridget’s Day or Candlemas, but this is not the correct day. By day-count, the times to celebrate will be sunset on the 3rd and sunrise on the 4th. Astronomically, the sun will be exactly half-way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox at about 16:13 GMT on Feb 3rd, while Feb 2nd is the day to see the sun rise and set at the prehistoric positions for marking this festival.

We set out for our favourite rock art site, Ballybane West, before dawn on Feb 2nd, feeling incredibly lucky to have a clear sky. As the sky brightened, and the nearby hills started to receive the sun’s rays, the carvings on the rock surface became clearly visible.

The sun is already hitting the high ground across the valley

Then, the sun rose, exactly where Michael’s predictions said it would, at the highest point of a rounded hill on the horizon. As people had been doing 4000 years ago in this exact spot, we marked the cross-quarter day of Imbolc – a time when the land starts to warm up, the first spring flowers appear, and the ewes are visibly pregnant.

The carvings light up in the dawn rays

The slanting rays of the rising sun provide perfect lighting for seeing rock art, which is often difficult to observe at other times

If Michael is correct, we have to incorporate a new possibility into our thinking about rock art. There have been indications before that the location of the carved rocks was significant. For example, there is often a view of water or of a significant mountain, some theorists have posited that they are ancient boundary markers, and some rock art sites are inter-visible with each other.

But this way of looking at rock art elevates the actual siting of the rock as most important, and allows us to view the carvings themselves as a way to indicate the purpose of the site – a means to an end rather than an end in itself. The motifs, though, will probably remain as enigmatic as ever.

 

Barley Lake

In Ireland February 1st – St Brigid’s Day – is thought of as the first day of Spring: we begin to look out for snowdrops and daffodils, and expect to see a ‘real stretch’ in the evenings. Of course, we also make our St Brigid’s Cross to ensure good luck and fertility to the household. It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that the church festival of Candlemas (St Blaise’s Day) falls on the following day: February 2nd. Traditionally, people took candles into the church to be blessed that day, and these were used for the rest of the year.  Surely this is something else connected with the turning of the year and the coming of the light?

Header – a tantalizing glimpse of Barley Lake seen from the N71 road north of Glengarriff. Above – the winding boreen that heads up towards Crossterry Mountain

To make our own celebration of the arrival of Spring we set out on February 2nd on a trip to Crossterry Mountain in County Cork, just north of the road running west to the Beara Peninsula from Glengarriff. This was unexplored territory for us, but we had long planned to visit Barley Lake: if you travel on the spectacular N71 road from Bantry over to Kenmare you get tantalising glimpses of this corrie or tarn away to the west, just before you pass through the first of the tunnels.

Above – a closer view of the mountain crater that contains the lake

If you are into geology, Barley Lake is a classic demonstration of how Ireland’s land mass was moulded by the movement of the great glacier sheets towards the end of the last Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago. As the melting glacial ice moved south, it carved out and dragged huge boulders, which ‘plucked’ or excavated the land surface, leaving craters which filled with water after the ice melted. These are known as ‘corrie lakes’, ‘ribbon lakes’ or ‘tarns’. Barley Lake is one such crater; another is the lake at Gougane Barra in the Shehy Mountains, also in West Cork.

Upper – how ‘corrie lakes’ or ‘tarns’ are formed (DooFi  via Wikipedia). Above – glacial geology clearly delineated by fresh snow on the way to Crossterry Mountain

The road to the lake is remote and picturesque, but we were surprised to find quite a sizeable settlement high up on the mountainy road. We were not quite sure what it is called, but the townland is Crostera West. We enjoyed some of the names we found on the map: Lake Derreenadavodia, Magannagan Stream . . .

Mountain dwellers: Coomarkane townland, Scully’s Cottage and a red-roofed barn becoming part of the landscape

Driving, you approach Barley Lake from the north side. On the extract from OS Map 85, below, you can see the narrow way that winds up to a high point – the 300 metre contour, where there is a place to park, and then proceed on foot. Look carefully at the way the road is drawn here – it’s no exaggeration: there really is a series of hard S bends that have to be negotiated to get up the mountain. We should have photographed them, but I was hanging on tight to the steering wheel, while Finola was hanging on to anything she could – and we found ourselves driving into a blizzard!

Middle photo – a relatively straightforward part of the drive up the mountain, before we reached the S bends! Lower photo – snow coming in as we reached the summit

It was a day of weather contrasts: some of the journey was made in that beautiful low sunlight that we have been experiencing at the start of this year, while at other times the wind whipped suddenly in and threw sleet and ice at us. On the top we found a good covering of snow on the rock-strewn path that we had to take to reach the shores of the lake. We braved the elements, and passed by peat workings that looked to be still in use.

Top – the path to the lake. Above – peat workings

The lake itself felt remote and lonely – and unvisited on our winter day, although I gather many hikers aim to circumnavigate the shores. We didn’t: it takes several hours and the light was beginning to fade with the incoming snow. It would be fair to say that it’s bleak up there, but – as always in Ireland – beautiful. Our only companions were sheep, who seemed to space themselves out neatly on every available ledge.

Robert – finding his own ledge! Thank you to Finola, who took all the photographs on this journey

In spite of some challenging conditions, it was a grand day out. As we wended our way carefully back down the bends, we admired the wonderful distant views, and – as we approached the glens of Glengarriff, fortuitously back in sunlight – paused to examine more geological formations.

We never tire of exploring West Cork, and we will never run out of destinations: as always, our delight is the out-of-the-way side roads – Ireland’s speciality.

High Drama!

tower in context

If you suffer from vertigo or claustrophobia – or both – then you won’t want to follow us in the adventure we had this week while returning from a visit to Dublin: climbing to the top of an Irish Round Tower! Overcoming any tendencies we might have had towards these phobias, we arrived at the roof of the 32.6 metre high Kildare tower and marvelled at being able to stand on the summit of a piece of architecture over a thousand years old. Kildare has the second highest Round Tower still extant in Ireland: the highest is at Kilmacduagh, Co Galway, at 34.9 metres; however, Kildare now lacks a conical cap, which it might once have had. If so, it would just tip in as the highest of all the towers.

Kildare Round Tower: note the battlemented top - probably added in an 18th century restoration, the romanesque doorway and the granite base. The upper stonework is limestone and sandstone

Kildare Round Tower: note the battlemented top – probably added in an 18th century restoration, the romanesque doorway and the granite base. The upper stonework is limestone and sandstone

The print above – dating from 1788 – shows the ruins of St Brigid’s Church, which was fully restored as a Church of Ireland Cathedral a hundred years later. We looked down on this from our vantage point atop the Tower – and had a good view of the (also restored) Fire Temple where a perpetual flame, lit by the Saint, was kept burning for hundreds of years, finally being extinguished by the shenanigans of Henry VIII.

Looking down on Kildare Cathedral, with St Brigid's 'Fire Temple' in the grounds

Looking down on Kildare Cathedral, with St Brigid’s ‘Fire Temple’ in the grounds

You’ll have heard me talk about St Brigid many times: she’s second only to St Patrick in the Irish Martyrology. In fact, as probably the most influential woman in Irish history, I’m going to declare her as quite the equal of St Patrick: she’s often enough described as one of the Patron Saints of Ireland. You will also know that she is surrounded by folklore and traditional customs, such as the making of her Cross on her day, the First of February.

St Brigid’s Cross – left, at her Holy Well and right, a textile in the Solas Bhride Centre, Kildare

Back to the adventure (although the whole day was adventurous!) – climbing the tower was hard going. There were a series of near-vertical ladders to be negotiated: each one took us to a higher timber platform, six floors in all. At the top of each ladder we had to squeeze ourselves through a narrow opening; this, and the confines of the tower interior – only two metres or so across – certainly challenged the claustrophobiac in me.

The restricted space also made us question some of the theories about the uses of these towers, which are always located at ecclesiastical sites. The definitive work on them is, as it happens, written by someone who also lives in West Cork – just a little distance from Nead an Iolair: Brian Lalor. Brian has led a very full life, involving architecture, archaeology, sketching and printing (his etchings are exquisite). He is also the author of a number of books, many of which are on our own shelves, including The Irish Round Tower, published by The Collins Press, 1999 and 2005.

lalor

Brian is unequivocal in his assertion that the primary purpose for round towers was to house the monastery bell. He also suggests that a secondary function would be as a safe storage place for the monastic treasures: the entrance door was always raised at a considerable height above the surrounding ground level, requiring steps or a ladder to gain access. In the times when they were constructed they would have been visually impressive – and could be seen from a great distance. They would have acted as signposts for travellers who might have been searching for the hospitality which monastic communities always offered. Brian discounts some of the more bizarre theories for the towers – for example, that they might have been places of safe refuge for the monks if under threat of attack by Vikings – or that they are simply phallic symbols! Lastly, Brian considers – and gives some credence to – the idea that the towers were monumental buildings of prestige and local aristocratic patronage: certainly, they required considerable expense and effort to construct.

centre entrance

As is often the case with our days out, one adventure led on to another. When we came down from the tower we found that St Brigid’s Cathedral had closed for lunch. But we knew that the Saint’s trail also involved a Holy Well and we had heard that there was a new building devoted to the work of Brigid just outside Kildare.

Solas Brhíde Centre

Solas Brhíde Centre

Robert with Phil, one of the Sisters who conceived the project

Robert with Phil, one of the Sisters who conceived the project

We were very impressed with the Solas Bhríde Centre: a small group of Brigidine Sisters has put together the project to build a Christian Spirituality Centre which unfolds the legacy of St Brigid and shows that it is still relevant in the present day. We were shown around the Centre by one of these Sisters, Phil, who pointed out that Brigid was attuned to the natural world and would have appreciated that the new building (designed by Solearth Ecological Architecture) is conceived on ecologically sound terms using sustainable materials and techniques which care for the wellbeing of the Earth. The plan of the building is appropriately inspired by the shape of a St Brigid’s Cross.

Architect's drawing of the newly completed building

Architect’s drawing of the newly completed building

The next stop on our itinerary was the nearby Holy Well – a popular place of pilgrimage and veneration on St Brigid’s Day:

Finally, we arrived back at the Cathedral. I’m always a little disappointed by restorations – particularly those which were carried out in Victorian times; nevertheless there are some impressive features. The possibly twelfth century font is one of them (below left), and another has to be the hidden Sheelagh-na-gig under the lip of Bishop Wellesley’s tomb (below right). I reached under to feel this little carving, and was then told by the Cathedral’s guardian that anyone who touches the effigy is ensured everlasting fertility!

The excellent Heritage Centre opposite the Cathedral entrance is informative about the town’s history and the important connections with this special Saint. There is much more to be discovered – and written – in respect of St Brigid, and other places in Ireland which are connected with her still to be visited. Do go to Kildare and, at the very least, suspend your phobias sufficiently to allow you to climb the ancient Round Tower. But make sure you go between May and September – and not during the lunch hour…

tower poster