Monthly Archives: June 2015

Home thoughts at Midsummer 2015

Many decades have passed since I was last able to call Donegal ‘home’ in the physical sense, of having a house and an address and family and siblings there. Since those distant days in the 1950s and 1960s I have lived in various places, all of them a long way from Donegal. Yet when people ask,’Where are you from’? I reply without hesitation ‘Donegal’ even though I spent less than one-third my life there.
But this is where I grew up, where I walked to National School, where I progressed through the then important life’s rights of passage, such as communion and confirmation. This is where I learned to read, learned to play, learned to ride a bike, went to collect the milk in a can from Wee Rodgers in Tirlaugan or from McKemeys out the road. This is where I was terrified of Mary Tammy’s geese who chased me, and where Charlie Ward’s donkey once bolted down Figart with myself and my older  brother on board.

Carrigart in the 1960s. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Carrigart in the 1960s. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

This is where my younger brother’s dog was killed one Sunday morning by a car speeding to get to Mass on time. This too is where I collected water from the well out at the back of Figart or from the ‘spoot’ (spout) in later years. This is where Patrick McElwee dropped dead one summer evening when bringing his cow down from Figart to be milked. This is where I went to see him slumped against the rectory wall.

This is where my friend Norah and I, each armed with ninepence on a Friday night,went to the visiting cinema or what we then called ‘the pictures’. This is where we sat patiently on hard benches waiting for Keeney to load up the reels – and sometimes a reel ran out and the next one had to be rewound before the show could continue. This is where I first saw Laurel and Hardy,The Three Stooges, lots of Westerns and and my first 3D film.

This is where I learned to polish brass, loving  Mrs Duffy’s beautiful brass kettle; learned to knit at Mary Mandy’s fireside as she made very exotic and delicious vegetable marrow jam; this is where I learned to churn butter out at Shelia McBride’s in a big old wooden churn. This is where my baby brother died on a warm June afternoon. This is where I bought my first pop record, had my hair back-combed by Meta and went to dances in the North Star Ballroom, with a gold waspie belt and my dress resting  on stiff petticoats. This is where I first fell in love and bought my very first pop record.  This above all is where I learned to love nature, the sky and the stars, the pounding Atlantic Ocean, fabulous scenery.

It is Midsummer and invariably thoughts turn to Donegal and those long, long summer evenings when we stayed up late. Days of 17 and a quarter hours were for living and playing. The sun will stand still at the summer solstice this year at 16. 38 pm. UTC on Sunday June 21st. But this year we have an extra treat to mark Midsummer, in the form of an unusual Planet Dance. Tonight, June  20th just after sunset the dazzling Venus will form a triangle with Jupiter and the crescent Moon in the western sky, I like to think, to help us celebrate Midsummer!

In Donegal sixty years ago, our midsummer celebration was held on the 23rd of June, St John’s Eve. This is a post from my archive in 2011, about what happened in our village then, in those long, happy hazy crazy days of summer!

June 23rd: Midsummer Irish Style

This post is one of a series looking at ancient traditions in Ireland.

Midsummer, or St. John’s Eve (Oiche Fheile Eoin) was traditionally celebrated in Ireland by the lighting of bonfires. (The word ‘bonfire’, according to my Etymology dictionary is a word from the 1550s meaning a fire in the open air in which bones were burned). This custom is rooted in ancient history when the Celts lit fires in honour of the Celtic goddess Queen of Munster Áine. Festivals in her honour took place in the village of Knockainey, County Limerick (Cnoc Aine = Hill of Aine ). Áine was the Celtic equivalent of Aphrodite and Venus and as is often the case, the festival was ‘christianised’ and continued to be celebrated down the ages. It was the custom for the cinders from the fires to be thrown on fields as an ‘offering’ to protect the crops.

Midsummer bonfires are also a tradition across Europe. In Latvia, for example, the celebration is called Jāņi (Jānis is Latvian for John); in Norway they celebrate ‘Sankthansaften’.

Growing up in the northern part of Donegal in the 1950s, Bonfire night was surely the highlight of our year! To us, it was Bone- fire night. For days we piled our fire high down on the shore, with every bit of flotsam, jetsam, old timber and rubbish we could find. We did actually use a lot of bones on our fire as on the verge of the shore was a slaughter-house (an abattoir in more genteel circles) so naturally there were many cattle bones lying about… from horned cows heads to bits of legs and hip bones etc. They made welcome fuel for our great pyre!

Midsummer in Donegal was wonderful with the sun not setting until very late at about 10.15 pm.  We were allowed to stay up late, waiting for the sun to set so that we could enjoy the lit fire. An adult would light it at the proper time, as dusk was setting in, and we were thrilled by the intense heat and the crackling sound of the splitting timber as the flames leapt joyfully high into the still balmy air.

In Thomas Flanagan’s book, ‘The Year of The French‘, set in 1798, mention is made of the midsummer bonfire:

”Soon it would be Saint John’s Eve. Wood for the bonfire had already been piled high upon Steeple Hill, and when the night came there would be bonfires on every hill from there to Downpatrick Head. There would be dancing and games in the open air, and young men would try their bravery leaping through the flames. There would even be young girls leaping through, for it was helpful in the search of a husband to leap through a Saint John’s Eve fire, the fires of midsummer. The sun was at its highest then, and the fires spoke to it, calling it down upon the crops. It was the turning point of the year, and the air was vibrant with spirits.’

In Ireland, Bonfire night is still celebrated to an extent in Cork and in counties west of the Shannon as well as in northern counties. Cork city council has stepped in, in recent years to provide a safe environment for children and families and this year is organizing 15 events across the city. Ráth Carn in the Meath Irish-speaking district (Gaeltacht) also celebrates Bonfire night with a huge fire, feasting, music and dancing.

The old traditional Midsummer bonfires  seem however, to be a thing of the past now in Ireland. If you have any recollections at all of having attended one, or you know of someone who has attended one, please do let me know – I would love to hear from you!

References

Flanagan, Thomas 1979. The Year of the French

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Filed under Ireland, Ireland Seasons, Irish Culture, Irish Heritage, Irish Traditions, Life in the 1960s, Living in Ireland, Oral History, Social History Ireland

The Roman Catholic Cathedral in Perth, Western Australia

DSCF6392I discovered this beautiful building on a recent trip to Perth, Western Australia, when on a mission to find out about an  Irish bishop who had fallen foul of the powers that be in Rome in the mid 19th Century. Somehow I seem to have missed St Mary’s Cathedral in Perth,officially the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on earlier visits. This is the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Perth, which is ever so slightly off the beaten track in that relatively small city. It certainly ranks among the most fascinating buildings I have visited as it has a fascinating story.

The history of this magnificent building spans three centuries. Officially opened in 1865, it has been a work in progress almost ever since, as it was only finally completed and officially reopened in December 2009. I engage with architecture at a very superficial level – if I like it, I will look at it – but I do know that this is a special place,unique because of the distinctive way architecture from various eras has been beautifully fused together to make a remarkable whole. Not unsurprisingly, at least to this layperson, this building has won an architectural award for the brilliance of its design. These are a few of my snaps which I hope might give a feel for this beautiful structure.

The original cathedral was begun in 1863. Bishop Serra went to Rome and secured donations in the form of money and marble for the altar, which arrived in Western Australia in 1862. The foundation stone was laid in 1863 by Bishop Salvado. Masons from the Benedictine monastery in Subiaco walked each day to the construction site, but progress was determined by the flow of funds, or lack of them from a small catholic congregation of about  5,000.  Eventually the cathedral was blessed and officially opened in January 1865.

The foundation stone of the original structure

The foundation stone of the original structure

 

The original building  was relatively simple with a square bell tower.

The Cathedral in 1865 on the left, with Mercedes College on the right

The Cathedral in 1865 on the left, with Mercedes College (Catholic Girls School) on the right

Between then and 1910 alterations were carried out, including the addition of a spire to the bell tower and the addition of two porches. As the catholic population continued to grow Archbishop Clune, the first Archbishop of Perth, (an Irishman – more in next post), set about fundraising for the enlargement of the cathedral. The foundation stone for the new addition was laid in 1926.

Archbishop Clune lays Foundation Stone in 1926

Archbishop Clune lays Foundation Stone in 1926

Stained glass windows were manufactured in Birmingham, England and beautiful mosaic floors based on the Book of Kells were modelled by an Australian company. However,it became impossible to raise funds to complete the envisaged building and work was halted due to the Great Depression. The Gothic style sanctuary and transepts were grafted on to the existing 1865 nave. The incomplete cathedral was blessed in May 193o with thousands in attendance.

Huge crowds attended the opening in 1930

Huge crowds attended the opening in 1930

The original plain building  and its nave to the front with the bell tower and two porches, has been attached to a new more elaborate extension – much more reminiscent of a cathedral. The outbreak of World war 2 after the great depression meant that plans to complete the cathedral were put on hold indefinitely due to lack of funds.

The structure was a protected heritage building and the need for repairs became clear in the 1990s. The bell tower was crumbling and there was extensive rising damp. Fundraising began and following a bequest of 2 million dollars plans to complete the cathedral could finally be brought to fruition.  Still short of funds, the state stepped in with a contribution of 2 million dollars, and a further 3 million from the federal government. Finally the cathedral was closed in 2006 and building began.

The story of the construction is great reading in itself as the bell tower had to be moved a considerable distance and of course there was always the danger that the entire structure could collapse with the ground excavations going on.  In effect the 1865 nave was taken out and a huge hole dug in the ground for parish facilities below with the new cathedral part above. During construction remains of earlier bishops were uncovered so it was decided to incorporate a crypt  beneath the new altar. Costs soared to over 32 million dollars by the time the building was completed in 2009. (Those interested in the technical construction details may read more here)

The result is remarkable with the modern part sitting in the middle of the earlier structures. Perched on a hill, it is indeed an imposing and beautiful building.

 

A most spectacular building on the outside, but inside it is a wonderful  space.

01-DSCF6400

The modern central aisle leading to the circular altar, with the 1930 stained glass window beyond

It looks like a traditional church from the entrance, but with wonderful light that spills in from the high windows that open to help deal with the heat of the Perth summer. The modern Stations of the Cross are remarkable in that they are two strips of three-dimensional images, and each face has been modelled on a real person.

The mosaics are behind the main altar in the 1930s section. Clearly based on the Book of Kells, the floor was split from one side to another during an earthquake on 14 October 1968.

The stained glass windows and  side altars from the 1930s building also survive.

The is an amazing trinity of buildings, each having its own characteristics, yet all blend beautifully to form this wonderful space. A fabulous feat of architecture and well worth a visit!

 

 

Further reading

Technical details of the construction

A wide angle professional photo of the interior

 

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Filed under Emigration from Ireland, Ireland and the World, Irish Convicts, Irish diaspora in Australia