Sunday, 24 July 2016

Lughnasa, loughs and a last salute to Summer.

Lughnasa was often associated with great assemblies, bonfires on hilltops and dancing 
at the cross roads but it was also a time when water possessed special qualities.

In rural Ireland the largest celebration of the year was at the start of the harvest season when the weather was warm and the first wild fruits were ripe. 

People gathered to celebrate, often at the Fair, before the hard work of harvesting began.

The Christian festival, Lammas, was usually celebrated on the first Sunday of August and in Ireland
it was known by many names, reflecting the rich folk traditions. 
On lakeshores, particularly in the midlands, people came together to celebrate ‘Lough Sunday’ 
which was usually held on the first Sunday of August.

Lough Owel, Co. Westmeath, famous for Lough Sunday gatherings.

The swimming of horses and cattle took place to ensure the health of the animals and it was also an opportunity for people to exchange news, settle marriage contracts, celebrate and to watch the 
horse-swimming contests. 

The most well-known contest was at Lough Owel where large crowds gathered as young men 
on horseback engaged in dangerous water races. 

At Lough Keeran, a small pool known locally as a blessed well, horses were brought to the water 
to swim in order to protect them against ‘incidental evils’ in the coming months
The tradition included submerging spancels and halters as an added safeguard although some were left in the well, perhaps as an offering. 

Cattle too were brought to the water and offerings of butter, the Clad Ime, were thrown 
to the lough spirits to guarantee a good milk yield.  

A RAG TREE once stood near Lough Keeran, with the ropes used for tying cows hung on branches in the belief sick cattle would be cured. The tree was later cut down by the order of the Bishop to prevent people from continuing the custom.

As late as 1900’s offerings of butter rolls were still left at this well.

In the 19th century it was recorded that people swam their cattle across the River Boyne to act  
as a charm against the attentions of the Good People and protect against disease.
This custom of driving horses and cattle through rivers, lakes and pools at Lughnasa appears to 
mirror the custom of herding cattle between two fires at Bealtaine which was also executed to protect their well being.

Lough Neagh where the practice of wading through water was not confined to animals.

On the first Sunday of August pilgrims at Lough Neagh and Lough Patrick would recite the rosary then enter the waters to wash feet, hands and heads in the belief that the water at this time contained cures.

Many sacred wells were also considered most potent at this time of year.

St Moling’s Well, Co Carlow where pilgrims waded barefoot through the water 
and children had their heads placed underwater to guard against head ailments.

At Tobar Alt an Easa cattle were driven to the water on the first Sunday of August 
to cure them of illness.

Tubberberrin, in Co. Meath, was famous for being dry all year, but filling with water at midnight on Lughnasa Eve when it gave cures. 
The water stayed in the well for three days before disappearing again. 

The TRADITION at St Keiran’s Well took place at midnight on the first Sunday of August.

The first Sunday in August was known in many places as Garland Sunday when flowers were left on summits, on Neolithic monuments, on graves and at sacred wells “to give a last salute to summer.” 
In Donegal people wore flowers in their clothes to climb hills on Garland Sunday and a hole was dug and the flowers buried as a sign that summer was ended.

Tobernault. Co. Sligo, was visited at this time also. 

And Brigid’s Well at Liscannor is honoured by locals, not in February but on Garland Sunday.

In Co. Galway Lady’s Well was also visited on Garland Sunday when “the girls wore daisy chains and the young men wore flowers in their buttonholes.” to attend the Pattern there.

At the end of the ritual flowers were left in the water.
A visit to the well in recent times shows that the daisy tradition may not be lost.

It is at this time of year that I visit St Lugna’s Well, Co. Offaly, hidden besides the Slieve Bloom mountains. 

The well was restored 1995 but little is known of the saint.
Few find their way here any longer but some of us still visit at Lughnasa to honour the water.

And as the wild flowers begin to pass away and the fruits appear I also give offerings to the 
local river as “a last salute to summer.” 

Sunday, 3 July 2016

“In silent need they searched for Hallowed ground” The Pagan burials of rural Ireland.

Rath Coffey, also known as Raheen or the Fairy Hill.

I visited Rath Coffey before Bealtaine, when the leaves were just a haze on the branches and the Aos Sídhe had not yet emerged to travel the land.

A boreen skirts the river and leads to a tangled ditch filled with brambles but once clambered over, the mound is just a short walk away.
Although close to the road, it remains somehow remote and isolated.
The ráth is home to the Good People and there are many stories which relate the consequences of interfering with the trees and land about it. 

Human activity near the Otherworld mound is unwelcome, 
today Raheen Field is used to graze cattle.

It was understood that entering the mound led to underground passages which radiated outwards, enabling the Good People to travel beneath the land to various locations in the neighbourhood.

One such passage led to another local Fairy Fort near to the home of a family, the Bells, who were tormented by invisible hands. 
Why they attracted this attention isn’t recorded, though it was known that the unseen activity led the householders to block up a window.

The strong belief in the Good People meant that the Fairy Hill was respected but avoided and it’s position, close to the river Barrow, added to the perception that it was a liminal place, between this world and the Otherworld. 

Known as ‘the graveyard of Pagans’ the rath invokes an air of sadness even 
on a clear spring morning.

Rath Coffey once held an important role in the community but today few remember its’ secret: the mound was a cillín, an unofficial burial ground, where grieving families came to bury their unbaptised babies. 

Stones were placed to mark small graves on Rath Coffey.

The Church held that stillborn or unbaptised babies who died soon after birth, could not be regarded as members of the Church.
As they were considered to inhabit the Limbo of Children, a place between Heaven and Hell, these infants were denied internment in the consecrated grounds of Catholic cemeteries.

In the face of this decree some parents, if they had land, buried their infant in the corner of a field or garden, others had no choice but to lay their babies to rest in a once sacred place, away from prying eyes.

This ruling also applied to people who had died by suicide, mothers who died 
in childbirth but hadn’t been churched and strangers whose religion was unknown.
But the greatest number of those buried in pagan graves were unbaptised babies.

Throughout rural Ireland cillíní were in special locations, at the in-between places; 
by Megalithic tombs and ring forts, on beaches and islands, near sacred wells and old churches 
or beneath lone whitethorn trees.

Lone thorn and stone on Rath Coffey.

Perhaps some families believed that their infants would be cared for by their Ancestors or by the Good People when there was no place in heaven for them.

Research in 2013 recorded 1,394 children’s burial grounds within the Republic.

It was customary in rural areas to perform burials between dusk on the day the infant died 
and sunrise the following day. Often the father would be alone when he dug the grave and marked 
the site with stones.  
In one community, where 21 babies had been buried, WHITE QUARTZ  had been used to outline each resting place.

Raithin Well, Co. Clare which is surrounded by an air of melancholy. 
Research after my visit showed the presence of a cillín behind the well, 
close by the lakeshore.

Visiting the cillíní was a very moving experience for me, remembering the lost infants and the countless bereaved women brought me to tears and it is unsurprising that many of these places are still shrouded in aura of sorrow.

However these lonely burial places are now being remembered and brought back into the community. 

This is a reclaimed ring fort in the Midlands, used by generations as an unofficial burial
ground for their unbaptised babies until recent times.

The site was cleared of brambles and undergrowth, the stones placed upright where they had fallen and new trees planted to create a place of remembrance and play.

On some days the space is filled with the laughter and shouts of local children

and offerings are left.

As time passes the fort will hold happier memories but the lost children will always be recalled by local people. 
And the land still remembers.

Please take 30 minutes to watch Oileán na Marbh, Island of the Dead, a programme first shown on TG4, broadcast in Irish with English sub-titles.