How important are the seasons for you? For Lora O’Brien, they are pivotal in organising her world.
Lora O’Brien is an Irish Tourism and Heritage professional, business writer and consultant, and an author of books on Irish mythology, heritage and spiritual traditions. She co-organises Ireland’s national festival of magic and spirituality, Féile Draíochta, and is a guardian at the Celtic royal capital of the West, Rathcroghan (Cruachan, home of Queen Maeve). She tells us how she celebrates the turning points of the year.
Here is a basic break down of the festivals as I’ve been observing them. I work in two interweaving cycles, not the full eight together as such. The calendar dates given are for convenience; our ancient ancestors certainly didn’t use them, or recognise this modern calendar. The Fire Festivals are the main points of my year, celebratory and community festivals, with the Cross Quarters being observed in their own way too.
The four Fire Festivals are:
Samhain – 31st October
Imbolg – 2nd February
Bealtaine – 31st April
Lughnasadh – 2nd August.
The Cross Quarters dates fall within:
Midwinter – 19th to 22nd December
Spring Equinox – 19th to 22nd March
Midsummer – 19th to 22nd June
Autumn Equinox – 19th to 22nd September.
We all know from the rather large and obvious temples and megalithic monuments aligned to the Cross Quarter points that these times had some sort of significance to our ancestors. They didn’t get in position, all lined up neatly, by accident; it took a whole lot of planning and hard work to make that happen. These times were important, and they still are.
Midwinter, or the Winter Solstice, is a big deal in our house. At the heart of it is the exact return of the light – the longest night of the year is followed by the dawn of the shortest, weakest day. A small and fragile thing, new-born and fresh. But the light returns. Yes, we know for sure that it’s going to, science tells us so. We don’t have the same worries or concerns which kept our ancestors awake at night – or did they? Did people really believe that the sun may not actually return? Surely the passage of time, year after year, would teach that this is a thing that will happen regardless. Or maybe they felt that the reason the light was able to return was down to our influence – what if one year everybody in the world forgot to wait, forgot to wonder?
What if there is a Power, a being who is aware of the watching, and the waiting, who takes it as a sacrifice, propitiation, a feed – and will come back only when this obligation is fulfilled? Has there ever been a year when every single person on this planet forgot to wait for the return of the sun? When we factor indigenous beliefs world-wide, carrying the weight of it as the western world became industrialised, and then on into the resurgence of Celtic belief, the popularity of neo-paganism… I doubt there has ever, in the history of humankind, been a single year without somebody, somewhere, waiting for the return of the sun.
I keep a vigil. Every Midwinter, I sit through the dark, I tend my hearth and keep the home fires lit, and I wait. Maybe you think that’s silly, but maybe that one extra sacrifice, that little weight of propitiation, my offering of a feed, is what is keeping the lights on. Or, maybe not.
Through the darkness, we also like to remember the light. The wonderful, warm lights of fire, food, family, and friendship that sustain us through the year. So we have a party, every year, inviting everyone we know; everyone we meet through the year is invited to our Midwinter Party. Whoever can come, comes, and brings an offering of food, or drinks, and most importantly – their company. Our home lights up, literally and energetically, and it has become over the years a solid base for turning the year, and securing relationships, as well as an opportunity to embrace new people to our little community. It can help to check in with people who may need a little boost too, a reminder of the heart that beats right through the winter season. No matter how dark or alone things can seem, there is always light and life, and something to look forward to.
You might be forgiven for an automatic association between what is perhaps Ireland’s best known megalithic site, Newgrange or Brú na Boinne, and the Winter Solstice. Every year with the rising of the winter sun, a shaft of light enters through the roof box and penetrates the 19 metre long passage through the tomb, illuminating the chamber at the heart of the mound. The alignment of a monument, a mound of about one acre in size, built over 5000 years ago, is not of course by accident, and our Newgrange is in illustrious company indeed, with many worldwide monuments sharing the same alignment – Glastonbury Tor in England, the Temple of Karnak in Egypt, and the Incan Sun Gate at Tiwanaku in Bolivia. But there are also other Irish sites that have been built on alignment, and a little less crowded than Brú na Boinne.
Knockroe, Co. Kilkenny, has been called ‘the Brú na Boinne of the Southeast.’ The Knockroe Passage Tomb Survey has been conducted by University College Dublin, with Dr. Muiris O’Sullivan and Dr. Blaze O’Connor as the principal investigators. This is a long-term research project on the Neolithic passage tomb at Knockroe (known by locals as ‘the Caiseal’) and includes a broader landscape of the fields surrounding the site. This passage tomb is located near the town of Carrick-on-Suir in County Kilkenny, and contains extensive megalithic art. There are two chambers with astrological alignments, providing illumination through the chambers at both sunrise and sunset on the Winter Solstice.
The Spring Equinox is when the green really starts to appear, and life is visibly returning. This is the balance time, the platform from which Light steps to prominence, begins to gather energy and momentum for the outward spiral. Re-alignment and preparation are necessary. A readiness to move and step out as the time approaches is essential here, for me. My environment must be clean and tidy, with everything in a proper place. My relationships can be most easily harmonised here, and I tend to look for what areas, or people, might need a little extra boost from my general direction to stabilise and smooth the connections. Likewise, my Self. I look inwards, see has anything shifted, changed, come off balance, or just outgrown a box I had put it in last year. Springtime tends to be streamlining, trimming, pulling off loose bits and pieces and making sure everything is ready to be tended and nurtured, for me.
Midsummer is the full of light time, but darkness sits and patiently waits right outside the door. It is creeping it’s shadow across the sun, and sunset on this day is a little death, a sigh of mourning for the height and strength and power of the Light we have just been thankful for, while turning (somewhat resignedly, but patiently) towards the slowly, slowly gathering Dark. This is the longest day, during which I live and breathe and feast and run and play and exist fully in the light. This is the King who lives high before the coming sacrifice, and must be acknowledged, and appreciated, and loved. The land is alive, and strong, and there is fun to be had, and love and sex and pleasure and food, did I mention food? And all the wonder that is life. And as the sun sets, finally, over a day well lived, it is time to turn and greet the dark twin, a small weak thing as yet, but growing.
The Autumn Equinox is the time of bright life beginning to leave the land, shuffling away, slowing down, beginning the process that will see it curl and slowly die, or sleep through the deep cold. This is the platform from which the inner spiral begins. This is when I begin my shedding, to look at what can be easily dropped, what needs clearing, moving, replacing or mending. This is the time for slowing down, beginning to curl in on yourself, a slow walk towards winter. I begin a stocktake of how I’ve been spending my time, and my energy, and where the best place to channel that energy will be as we move forward. Have you been frivolous, throwing yourself about? Will you be able to sustain that energy through the darkness? If you have to, what do you need to build up, what stores will be necessary in order to survive, and thrive, through the winter?
Fire Festival dates are entirely flexible, and not specifically accurate as things stand anyway. When we celebrate on the calendar dates, Samhain and Bealtaine are on the eves, with Imbolg and Lughnasadh on the days. So it runs like this:
-Samhain 31st October (Hallowe’en) – Winter from Summer
-Imbolg 2nd February – Spring Growth
-Bealtaine 31st April (May Eve) – Summer from Winter
-Lughnasadh 2nd August – Harvest Reaping
What do these dates mean to you? What do you think or know or feel about each particular time of the year, how does it fit with your own pattern? Do you meet with others at any of these times, or around these times of the year?
This is an extract taken from the book A Practical Guide to Irish Spirituality – Irish Magic, Ancestry, Language, Mythology, Archaeology, and Other Interesting Things. The book is available here from amazon.