Friday, 23 December 2011

An Irish Christmas Eve Tradition

In the past, doors here in Ireland were always left unlocked on Christmas Eve, fires were kept burning on the hearthstones, and candles shone in the windows.

They offered warmth and shelter to Joseph and Mary, walking the world on their long road to Bethlehem. And they echoed even older rituals that brought light and warmth into darkness.

In the Irish folk tradition, Mary, the mother of Christ, and Bríd, the Irish saint, protect sleeping households until daybreak. They’re echoes of the Good Goddess - the ‘strongest and most energetic of women’ - and images of fertility, and hope. For thousands of years the same ideas have been shaped and re-shaped in their stories. The goddess breathes life into the earth in springtime; grass grows when Bríd’s cloak sweeps the hills; and when Mary hangs her cloak on a rosemary branch, the bush's aromatic flowers become sky blue. 

And all three energetic women are linked with fire and light. The Good Goddess marries Lugh, the sun-god; Mary’s child brings light into the world; Bríd lights a sacred flame that’s kept burning for centuries (till, according to legend, a medieval bishop insisted it be put out!)

If you cross the mountains to Dingle this Christmas there'll be lights shining all around you. And as you drive back west along the peninsula, to the sound of the Atlantic waves against the cliffs, you'll see single flames glimmering high on the mountains. 

In isolated cottages, villages and farms, ritual candles still burn here all through the Christmas season, welcoming the stranger and offering refuge from the dark.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Winter Solstice On The Dingle Peninsula

Walking the hills of Corca Dhuibhne you find tumbled forts and gravesites, ancient mounds and stones, marking the lives of people who lived and died here under the panoramic sky. 

Some sites, nearer the tourist routes, are fenced and gated, hemmed in by car-parks and neatly-clipped fuchsia hedges. Others, in higher places, lie among plantain and tiny, pale-green wildflowers, lost in grasses and smothered by briars. 

Among them are single standing stones, some tilted in the boggy earth, with parallel grooves of different lengths scored along their sides. Some are carved with crosses or single or linking whorls,  etched in grey and yellow lichen. Exposed in high fields, they seemed forgotten, except for official notices warning against vandalism. Sometimes they're tilted in deep ruts carved by grazing cows. 

Many are gravestones. But where the sun warms the weathered stones they strike warmth back when you lay your hand on them. It's hard to believe that the earth beneath, cold and wet in the deepest places, holds smooth and ancient bones.

In some places you find straight rows of single standing stones, called 'stone alignments'. They're monumental calendars in the landscape, marking seasonal turning-points in the year. 

And they're sites where people once came together  to celebrate and promote the endless stream of energy which, according to their world-view, held the universe in balance. 

There are two stone alignments here in Corca Dhuibhne. 

One - orientated on the rising sun on midsummer's day - is near the village of Cloghane, on the far side of Mount Brandon from the house where I'm writing this. The other's on our side of Mount Brandon, at Ardmore, near Lispole, just beyond Dingle. 
The Ardmore site marks the winter solstice. Three standing stones line up on an elevated view of the landscape that stretches from Lispole in the east to the western tip of the peninsula, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the cliffs. They're orientated on the point on the horizon where the sun sets each year on December 21st. 

In Ireland, the season of Samhain was also the time when the Good Goddess was pregnant with the promise of springtime and longer, lighter days. So, to the ancient Celts, winter feasts and gatherings were demonstrations of confidence in the future. In the darkest days and nights of the year they celebrated sunlight to come.

As I'm typing this, rain's pouring down outside my window and during the last few weeks we've had days and nights of swirling mist and hail. So, although there's a gathering planned at Ardmore, it may be that this year's solstice sunset will happen here unseen. 

But the wheel of the year keeps turning whether or not we witness it. So, when the sun rises on Thursday, the days will begin to get longer. 

As the  evenings get lighter, sap will start to  rise in the hedgerows. 

We may still get snow before we get through the winter.

But soon the earth and the air will smell of spring.