Friday, 23 June 2017

Oíche Shin Sheáin: St John's Eve is Bone Fire night in West Kerry.

The word 'bonfire' derives from the Late Middle English 'bone fire' and originally referred to large, open-air fires on which bones were burnt, often as part of communal celebrations.   

June 23rd is St John's Eve when, in many parts of Ireland, a 'tine chnámh', or 'bone fire' was traditionally lit at sundown as the focal point of festivities concerned with fertility and the land. The nature of the ritual and the proximity of the saint's day to the summer solstice, on or about June 21st, indicate the subsuming of pagan fertility rites into Christian worship.

Fires fuelled by bones, timber or turf were lit on boundaries, promontories, shorelines and hilltops, where communities gathered to sing, feast and dance, and young men would compete to leap through the flames. 

In some places cattle were ritually driven between two fires to protect their health, and prayers and charms were recited to promote the year's successful harvest.

The bone fire flames were considered lucky. Bringing embers into houses to rekindle cooking fires on the hearth promoted the health of the household; while healthy crops were ensured by burning weeds, scattering ashes on the land, and walking field boundaries with lighted sods of turf or branches. 

Similar rites can be found on St John's Eve throughout Europe and Scandinavia where the festival is also linked to bone fires.

June 23rd is also the night on which women traditionally gather healing herbs, such as St John's Wort, Meadowsweet and Yarrow. These were burned to promote health as well as prepared and stored to be used medicinally. In Galicia herbs gathered on St John's Eve, called herbas de San Xoán, are still left to steep overnight in water, while in some parts of Ireland they were exposed overnight to dewfall and used as a cosmetic face-wash the following day.   

Here in Corca Dhuibhne, some farmers still light a tine cnámh on field boundaries on St John's Eve, and people still gather to celebrate the festival. 

And tonight, on yet another long midsummer evening, the healing smoke and flames will rise again in a tradition that, in these parts, stretches across millennia to the time of the Corcu Dhuibhne - the People of The Goddess Danú. 


Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Danny Sheehy: Loss of a Voyager.

Tonight in Corca Dhuibhne neighbours came together to wake Danny Sheehy in his home in Baile Eaglaise close to the burial ground at Dún Urlann where he'll be carried tomorrow after his funeral mass. He died on Friday June 9th after a boat which he and a friend had built, and of which he was a crew member, overturned off the northwest coast of Spain. 

Danny and his companions were returning from a sea pilgrimage, taking the old medieval pilgrim route of The Camino de Santiago in a naomhóg - a traditional Irish boat with a wooden frame over which a covering of tarred canvas or calico is stretched. The boat was called the Naomh Gobnait, after a legendary saint associated with the area, and, according to the medieval Nauigatio sancti Brendani abbatis, a similar craft carried the monks who took part in the Voyage of St Brendan, the saint after whom Corca Dhuibhne's Mount Brandon is named.

Over a period of years, beginning in 2014, the Naomh Gobnait had continued on its journey each summer, arriving last year in Santiago de Compostela, where it was carried into the Cathedral to the sound of music played by the traditional Irish musician, Breanndán Ó Beaglaoich, one of the crew.  

Others, who knew Danny better than I did, will write about his prowess as a boatman; a boat builder and a poet; a folklorist; a storyteller; a philosopher; and a friend. Here, in his own words, are some of his thoughts about his voyaging, given to Wilf and me last year when we were collecting the conversations which are the core of each chapter of Dingle And Its Hinterland: People, Places and Heritage

We recorded Danny as he and I sat in the back of a car by the sea, near Baile Eaglaise, and when I came to transcribe and translate his words from Irish to English they flowed smoothly and steadily, like the powerful rhythm of the waves.

‘It’s hard to know why something like Camino na Sáile [the Sea Camino] happens. You’re going into great danger and I don’t think you’re ever able to tell yourself why. You never have the answer. But it comes from a love of the sea. Love of your own place – the hills and the cliffs and the mountains and the sea. When you’re at sea there’s always a connection with the place you came from. Your mind is always going back to it.'

'I made many a voyage before the Camino. Around Ireland. Across the Atlantic in a Connemara Hooker. To Spain that way as well – from Dublin to Santander. And other voyages. One from Trieste down to the Adriatic and the Mediterranean and back to Connemara. And one from Dingle in 2011, up to Shetland and on to the Faroe Islands and across to Iceland and back again to Dingle. I suppose there was spirituality involved in all of them.'

'Mount Brandon is very important to me. Before I take such a voyage I’ll constantly go up Mount Brandon by way of preparation. Before going to Iceland I’d say I went up and down  at least twenty times. It made me think. It made me remember. It prepared my mind. Because it’s so hard. You have to focus your mind and your soul – everything. And you have to strengthen your body.'

'When you walk alone to prepare yourself you think of how your ancestors took those same paths up the mountain. You think about God. I do that. I believe in God. I suppose many people don’t, but I do. I believe that there’s another life in which the people who died before us live, and that they’re still all around us. And that if I trust them they help me.’

'There’s a difference between fighting against the odds and winning as a voyager and winning a game or a competition if you’re an athlete. When you’re the victor at sea you’ve beaten no one. You’ve done something remarkable, but what you’ve been fighting is the sea itself and the weather and fear - and even ignorance. You learn something. About yourself and about the world you live in.'

'People are very important. Before I leave this place it’s important that people bless me and wish me well. There are people who say they’ll pray for me. That they’ll light a candle for me. I know one man who will keep a candle lit here without ever quenching it throughout the whole voyage. Such things help you and give you energy. The energy crosses the space between you. Another important thing – I think I learnt this from going up Mount Brandon – is that you must never complain. You can’t complain on a sea voyage. It doesn’t matter what pain you might be in or how much other people might be upsetting you, or whatever happens, you mustn’t complain. You must take pleasure in everything or you lose the energy that sustains you.’

'There’s a saying in Irish that there are three things that are magical - music, fog and sailing. I’d say myself that sailing in a naomhóg is the most magical of the three.’