Tag Archives: Summer Solstice

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

Advertisements

12 Comments

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

Heritage Week: The magic and mystery of Lough Gur

Mythology, ancient settlements, magic, folklore – Lough Gur has them all!

Almost in my backyard – about 40 minutes drive – Lough Gur is one of the most important archaeological places  in Ireland, yet I had not been there in decades. On the list of special events for Heritage Week was a complimentary guided  tour of the sites surrounding the lake, so what better to do on a fine Monday morning than to go and find out about this historic place?

DSCF1644Our first stop was at the Grange Stone Circle, – a perfect circle made of 113 standing stones and aligned to the rising sun on the summer solstice. Unfortunately it was not possible to get a single shot of the entire  circle which has a diameter of some 150 feet. The  circular shape is explained by the archaeological discovery of a post hole in the centre, from which the perfect circle was drawn.DSCF1653It is one of the most impressive stone circles in Ireland. In an  adjacent field there are remains of another stone circle, but the main one is quite stunning and intriguing. Rose, our volunteer guide, tells us that locals will not enter this area after dark, although she did not say why they are fearful. Archaeologists have found some human bone fragments, and thousands of pottery shards. This has enabled them to date the structure to about 1800 B.C.  The purpose of the  circle is not known but it is probably ritualistic.

DSCF1647One particularly large stone, weighing 40 tons stands 13 feet high. It is called the Rannach Croim Duibh, named for the Celtic God, Crom Dubh, the Black Crooked One. It is said to give energy to those who rest their foreheads and the palms of their hands on it.

DSCF1657 (2)Our next stop was at the ‘New Church’ which in spite of its name  is in ruins. It is said that Tomas OConnellan a minstrel bard, who died about 1698 is buried here in the adjoining graveyard.

DSCF1666

The church is on the shore of the lake.

Scenically located by the shore of the Lough, at one time the church was used by the Earl of Desmond.  The bored teenager (unrelated to the writer)  dates from the late 20th or early 21st century and sits on a wall which was built some 4 centuries before her arrival.  There are a couple of tombs inside the walls of the church as well as some graves in the churchyard.

DSCF1679Our next stop was the Giant’s Grave which is in fact the remains of a wedge tomb that lies on the slope of a hill, just a short walk from the New Church.  This tomb is  about 4,000 years old and when excavated was found to contain the  remains of  at least 8 adults and 4 children with further human remains discovered outside.  The story is told of how an old woman lived in this tomb for several years at the time of the Famine.  When she died the farmer who owned the land reputedly demolished the tomb to prevent anyone else using it as a shelter.

We processed (in our cars) in a funerial fashion, around the narrow twisting roads to Carraig Aille (Rocks on a cliff?) A stiff  uphill walk with uneven ground (from where a lady had to be airlifted last year, having broken her ankle on the ascent) lead to the remains of  two stone forts.(It was at this point that I regretted not testing the energy giving properties of the large stone at the Stone Circle). These circular enclosures would have been domestic in nature. Archaeological excavations revealed bronze and iron pins, metal implements, combs, jewellery and beads of amber and glass and date the site at about one thousand years ago.

DSCF1685 (2)There is a spectacular view of  the Lough from up here, with a marshy reed filled area far below. This indicates the original level of the lake, for as part of the Poor Law Relief  Schemes, the Lough was drained in Famine times by means of channels, resulting in the level being lowered by 8 feet. It is said that there were dozens of artefacts discovered at this time, but that they were carted away and dumped! Strange stories of hidden treasure protected by the remains of a sacrificed servant, yet to be discovered, abound in this place!

DSCF1697 (2)And so we arrive back at Lough level and get our first view of  remains of lake-dwellings  that date back to about 500 A.D.  These dwellings, known as Crannógs, were created by laying a circle of boulders in the water, filling in the enclosure with earth , and then a hut type structure was raised on top. In the image above, the Crannóg  was located on the site of the vegetation behind and to the right of the swans and dates from about 500A.D.

DSCF1716The design of the interpretive centre is based on what these lake-dwellings would have  looked like – stone dwellings with straw roof and  timber supports.

There are numerous other sites around Lough Gur that span thousands of years of civilization. Another climb, again without the much needed assistance of energy from Crom Dubh, leads us to Hangman’s Rock from where  there is a great view of the loch.

DSCF1703The Interpretive Centre is so worth a visit, for a small admission fee. There are replicas of some of the major artefacts associated with this area, audio presentations of some of  the folklore and mythology associated with the Lough, costumes for children to dress up in, an area  where they can become  archaeologists and discover treasures!

Lough Gur is a beautifully scenic place with delightful walks along the Lough. The feeling of tranquillity and serenity is palpable, all the more amazing when you realize that this is only 15 minutes away from Limerick City – well worth a visit, and an ideal destination for our visitors from overseas. 5,000 years of  habitation just waiting to be explored!

This is a replica of the stunning bronze Lough Gur Shield  – the original is in the National Museum of Ireland.

DSCF1712References

Illustrated Guide to Lough Gur  Pamphlet by M.J. & C. O’Kelly

Lough Gur Heritage Centre Booklet

My thanks to Kate at the Heritage Centre for her warm welcome and for sharing her knowledge.  A warm welcome is guaranteed to this jewel in our heritage crown!

12 Comments

Filed under Irish Culture, Irish Heritage, Irish History, Irish Traditions