Tag Archives: Winter Solstice

One of these days: A Winter Solstice Birthday

Newgrange. Aligned with the rising sun whose light floods the chamber on the winter solstice. Image Wikimedia Commons
Newgrange. Aligned with the rising sun whose light floods the chamber on the winter solstice. Image Wikimedia Commons

‘One of these days’ is a phrase that trips off many an Irish tongue and whose meaning is clearly understood as being ‘sometime in the near future’. I was not so sure if this is the case across all the English speaking world, so a quick Google came up with the following: “One of these days” is an idiom that behaves like an adverb. It’s basically a drop-in replacement for “someday,” meaning something like “at some unspecified point in the future”. So there we have it!

‘One of these days’ goes around in my head at this time of year for two reasons, both of which are ingrained in my DNA.

Growing up in North Donegal with its dark star-filled skies meant that we were reasonably familiar with celestial goings-on, especially in winter. We spent many an hour out in the backyard with our mother, identifying the Milky Way, Orion’s Belt, The Plough, and The Seven Sisters as well as the occasional passing comet with its long tail. She would say ‘One of these days now you will see shooting stars if you are good’. Shooting Stars cropped up at reasonably regular times and wowed us as we headed over the barrack-brae towards Carrigart chapel for October Devotions, or to pray for the Holy Souls in November. Or, she might say: ‘One of these days now, you might see the Aurora Borealis’. The very sound of it was magic, that matched the dancing colorful waves in the sky! And so too with the Winter Solstice…’One of these days the sun will have gone as far away as it can go and will turn back to us and the days will begin to lengthen’. In days predating electricity in our houses, with only battery operated wirelesses and newspapers to inform us, we never knew exactly when these events might take place, but we knew when it was ‘one of these days’!

Solstices and equinoxes fall in March, June, September and December, some on the 20th or maybe the 21st or perhaps the 22nd or possibly even the 23rd. Who could possibly keep track of them, and which date referred specifically to which event? Old Moore’s Almanac was stocked in Speer’s shop at Christmastime and brought home. As it contained dates and predictions for the upcoming year, it didn’t help with the exact time of the winter solstice for the current year. And then, by the time we needed to consult it for other celestial events it was lost, probably having been thrown away in disgust when the first prediction of ten feet of snow that would close all schools for the month of January never materialized. So, on ‘one of these days’ we marked these wonderful events in Donegal. On, or around about, the correct dates.

Another event in our house was marked in a similar fashion. It too was a moveable feast, a winter, and December event, but not one we could check up in Old Moore’s Almanac. It was my father’s birthday. I often asked him, ‘what is your birthdate?’ and he said he wasn’t sure. He said his birth certificate said one thing, his baptismal certificate said another and his mother never agreed with either of them. So he spent his entire life being confused about it and confusing all of us around him. ‘Ah, it’s one of these days’, he would say, when all we knew was that it was going to happen in the days coming up to Christmas.

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Dad was born in a small house in Templedouglas, Glenswilly, County Donegal in December 1921. He was the first son to my grandparents, James Gallagher a National School teacher in Templedouglas, and my grandmother Mary Friel, a seamstress from Pollaid in Fanad. He was the first brother of my Aunts May and Eileen. My grandfather had been born in Mulnamina, Glenties, so both he and his wife were relative newcomers and blow-ins to Glenswilly. My aunt Eileen had been born here two years earlier, so they had been living in the area for at least two years that we know of. In the days before hospital confinement, home births were the norm. The midwife would have been sent for and kettles of water put on to boil. My aunts often told me that Dad was ‘frail’. I wonder was it a troublesome birth? Was his life in some danger when he was born? Or maybe his mother was very unwell following the birth and everyone was concerned for her welfare. In any event, something gave rise to confusion about his birthdate. If he was at risk, he may have been baptized immediately. Registration may have been delayed. A church baptism may have taken place at a later date, but the norm would have been for baptism within three days of birth. We will never know.

Today, December 21 is being heralded at the Winter Solstice in these northern climes. However, to be absolutely pedantic about it, this year, 2015, the Winter Solstice will happen tomorrow, December 22. (Update – the exact time of the 2018 winter solstice will be 22:23 in Ireland). The winter solstice happens most often on December 21, but also sometimes on December 22nd and rarely on December 23rd.

Dad’s birth certificate here before me, states that he was born on December 22,1921. The 1921 Winter Solstice occurred on December 22 at 7 minutes past 9 am. I often wonder if in fact he may have been born just at that time, just right at the solstice? Again, we will never know.

So, on ‘one of these days’ in December 2015, I  want to celebrate what would have been my father’s 94th birthday. I want to celebrate the solstice ‘new beginnings’ that would have given him great joy: His children in Donegal, Dublin, Perth Western Australia and Cork; his grandchildren in Dublin, Dubai, Cork, Limerick,Waterford and Western Australia; his great-grandchildren in Western Australia, in Dublin, in Limerick and soon to be in Skerries in Dublin. How proud he would have been! A winter solstice? A solstice birthday? New Beginnings? Yes!

Entrance to Newgrange. It is here that the Winter Solstice sunrise shafts of light enter the passage. Image Wikimedia Commons

At the winter solstice here in Ireland (weather permitting), at the astonishing Newgrange Stone Age Passage Tomb in the Boyne Valley, County Meath, the shafts of solstice sunrise will light up the chamber to mark the turning of the year. Across this island, there are ancient groups of standing stones aligned to capture the rays of light from the winter solstice sun, so this event has been of significance for thousands and thousands of years. How nice to think that Dad was born on ‘one of these days’, at such a significant time in 1921.

Happy Solstice to you all,  and Happy Birthday to Dad!

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The turning of the year at Newgrange

Newgrange Burial Mound.  Image Wiki Commons.

Newgrange Burial Mound. Image Wiki Commons.

Older than the Pyramids in Egypt and older than Stonehenge, Newgrange is the jewel in the crown of ancient sites in Ireland.  Engineered  about 3,000 B.C. Newgrange is an enormous  mound that covers an area of about an acre. Constructed by some of earth’s earliest  farming communities in the Boyne Valley, Newgrange, and similar mounds at Knowth and Dowth  are a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site. Originally thought to be a burial mound, Newgrange may have been an ancient temple. It is famed for the fact that for a few days around the time of the at the Winter Solstice, the long passage to the interior is lit by the rising sun. The exact date and time of the Winter Solstice varies slightly from year to year. In Ireland in  2013 it will occur today( 21, December  2013) at precisely 17:11 p.m.

Newgrange was engineered so that the narrow shaft of light from the rising sun at the solstice  would enter a narrow passage way and gradually lengthen and broaden so that a chamber , some 19 metres from the doorway would become fully lit. The phenomenon lasts for about 17 minutes.

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Entrance to the mound with light box above. The spectacularly carved stones are a feature of Newgrange.  Image from Newgrange.com

While the Irish weather with cloudy conditions  is not always conducive to the witnessing of this phenomenon, today it happened and for the first time since 2007 when those lucky persons present in the chamber saw this wonderful spectacle.  There is an  image of this morning’s  event from  The Irish Times, here.

Newgrange is part of a series of mounds on a bend of the River Boyne in County Meath, Ireland.  Access throughout the year is via the Brú na Boinne visitor centre.  It is a magnificent attraction, often overlooked by visitors to these shores but well worth a visit.

Further information: World Heritage Ireland Brú na Boinne

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Saint Brigid and Imbolg

Saint_Brigid's_cross

Saint Brigid’s Cross made from fresh rushes. Image Wikimedia Commons

On 1 February each year, Ireland celebrates the feast of ‘Mary of the Gael‘, St Brigid (Also pronounced Breege  or Bríd.) Most people of my generation will recall going to school on the  day before St Brigid’s day armed with lots of rushes that had been carefully pulled from their sheaths. There we would fold and turn the soft green stems until we had a swastika shaped St Brigid’s Cross.  The ends would be tied, the rough edges straightened up and cut and then we had it! A really simple pleasure that was very easy for even the youngest child. The Cross was then brought home and placed over the front door (on the inside) or behind a picture,  and there over the coming year it would gradually dry out and turn a straw colour as it acted as a talisman to protect the house and all those within.

Brigid we learned, was born in Faughart, County Louth in the 6th century and one of my abiding memories as a boarder in the St Louis Convent in Dundalk County Louth was the annual pilgrimage to her Faughart birthplace on cold wet god forsaken February days!  Bridget we also learned was a great friend of the other great Irish saints – Patrick and Colmcille – and is reputedly buried with these  two in Downpatrick in County Down – an unusual enough occurrence I suspect that a female would be buried alongside two holy men.

According to tradition a sacred fire has burned in Kildare since pre-Christian times and  priestesses gathered on the hill of Kildare to attend to the ritual fires dedicated to the goddess Brigid in return for protecting their animals and their crops. St Brigid is also associated with Kildare as it was there that she founded her monastery and church and where she kept alive a tradition of keeping a fire burning on a hill. For her and her nuns the fire represented the new light of Christianity, which reached Irish shores early in the fifth century.

Brigid Perpetual Flame

The Perpetual Flame Solas Bhride Brigidine Order

There is definite convergence then between St Bridget, the Christian Abbottess and the pre Christian goddess, Bridget  and their symbolic use of fire.

Imbolg or Imbolc is a Celtic festival marking the arrival of Spring. It falls half way between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. It is one of the fire and light festivals in the Celtic tradition and marks new beginnings  longer days, return of the sun and animals  preparing to breed.

The Christian festival of Candlemas also occurs at this time – so-called as this was the day of blessing for all church candles for the coming year. On Candlemas night, people lit candles in their homes to ward off evil spirits.

St Brigid, the goddess Bridget, Imbolg and Candlemas are all celebrated at this time of new beginnings. Whether pagan or Christian is arbitrary… what is certain is that here in the Northern Hemisphere our days are lengthening – we are pulling away from the darkness of the winter solstice, towards new beginning, new life, a new season.

Lá fheile Brighid fe mhaise daoibh!

References

Pagan Imagery in the Early Lives of Brigit: A Transformation from Goddess to Saint? by

Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, Vol. 16/17, (1996/1997), pp. 39-54

http://www.solasbhride.ie

Wikipedia.org

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