It's Lughnasa, the month of August, and almost time for harvest to begin in Ireland. Mind you, with the summer we've been having, the farmers will be lucky to get anything into their barns at all. It's been the wettest on record, and pretty well the coldest too. And yet, I know that many of my friends in the southern half of the world are experiencing hideously high temperatures and no moisture at all. 'If I could get over to your place, I'd dance in your garden in the rain,' wrote my friend Angeluna feelingly, from Texas. 'It's 109 deg here and I only go outside to refill the birdbaths,' says Linda in Oklahoma. Here in the grey north we simply can't imagine temperatures like that. My thoughts are with you, and here is a quick trip into Ireland's damp green landscape to cool you down.
Being the beginning of August, and therefore the great sun festival of Lughnasa there is only one place to be. Mount Brandon, down on the Dingle Peninsula in Kerry, where every year at this time the local people celebrate Lughnasa by the age-old tradition of scaling the mountain. They call this Climbing to Crom, which links it to a very early pre-Christian nature god. Today, of course, a priest or two will be among the climbers, and prayers are said at a grotto on the way up and on the way back, but the original ritual is still preserved, no matter what decorative vestments may be thrown over it.
The same celebration takes place at Croagh Patrick up in Mayo, where upwards of three thousand pilgrims made the climb at dawn this year, and there are several other mountains around the country, each with their own faithful followers.
It's not a harvest festival, but more a festival of first fruits. The blackberries and froachans (bilberries, wild blueberries) are ripening, and in some counties they celebrate Froachan Sunday at this time, young people heading out to the hills to gather the fresh berries to bring home. Yes, I know we can all buy jams and jellies at the local supermarket these days, but try to think back to a time when your life, and that of your family, depended on the crops you could grow? July was always known as the Hungry Month in Ireland in earlier times, and probably in many other lands too. You had used up all your carefully stored foodstuffs and had to wait, sometimes half starving, until the new crop was ready to cut. The ripening berries were not just welcome, they were desperately needed.
When potatoes were introduced into Ireland around the 17th century, they became the eagerly awaited early August crop. On this day the very first new potatoes were dug, and the family would have a celebratory meal, always remembering to say Go mbeirimid beo ar an t'am seo aris ('may we all be alive at this time again.') I still say it when I bring in the first blackberries, the first new potatoes. It's nice to keep up the custom.
So why climb the mountain? Well, it's the nearest you can get to the sun, and to the sun god Lugh, after whom the month of Lughnasa is named, to ask his blessing on a good harvest to come. If he isn't thus honoured, he might just throw an unexpected thunderstorm or a battering bout of rain into the picture, and ruin the long-awaited crop. Crom, the earth deity, would have been an earlier nature god, before the Celts came to Ireland. You find references to him in different parts of the country, always associated with the land and crops.
Gosh, sorry. I didn't mean to go into all that detail. Blame the new book. It's driving me mad in these final stages. Here are some of the climbers, a few going up, some coming back down already after the long climb there and back. You can just see the little base camp grotto there on the right, beyond the fence, under the trees.
There are several routes up Mount Brandon, two of them, on opposite sides of the hill, bearing exactly the same name Pilgrim's Road. This one was less frequented that day, but just look at these sentinel stones looming powerfully over the track, observing all that comes by. Straight out of Lord of the Rings. And it was a wild blowy day too, brief glimpses of sunshine giving way to driving mists as we drove up to the very end of this track to the point, in a deep dark valley surrounded by hills, where you had to strike off across the slopes and up into the clouds. So mysterious you fully expected to see little shadowy figures darting from the shelter of one rock to another, dodging out of sight before you could see them fully. Gollum or an elf?
The village of Cloghane was in full festive mood that day, with weary climbers returning to join their friends who were busy setting up stalls, organising dog shows, corralling the sheep for the shearing contest later on.
Gosh I remember well the days you'd be lucky to get a chipped mug of instant coffee anywhere on the Dingle Peninsula. These days things are much better. The local shop not only brewed up a fresh cafetiere of good strong brew, but also had delicious freshly-baked buns and cakes on display. Locals were rushing in and out for loaves, still warm from the oven, or home-made raspberry and redcurrant jam (yes of course I bought a pot, how could I resist? First fruits, after all!)
After that it was a quick dash down to Brandon Quay a few miles away, for the Blessing of the Boats, another ceremony which takes place during the Feile Lughnasa. That's something that has been observed since earliest times too, whether carried out by a clergyman or a druid, since the dangers of the sea have always been well known, and too many families have known the loss of a father, a brother, a son. Do you know that incredible play of J. M. Synge's, Riders to the Sea? At the end, when her last son is drowned, the old woman, Maurya, echoes Greek tragedy in her strange almost-relieved acceptance.
They're all gone now, and there isn't anything more
the sea can do to me. . . .
Here is Brandon Quay, looking lively and cheerful in the afternoon sunshine (the grey clouds had decided to go off and dampen somebody else's spirits for a while). The Dingle lifeboat was there, and scores of smaller fishing craft. You probably can't make it out from here, but there are traditional tarred canvas curraghs up on the slipway too. They've been used as long as men have fished the coasts of Ireland and they're still being made today.
Ha, you thought I wasn't going to mention knitting, didn't you? Well you're wrong. The Ravellenics are on, which means thousands (possibly millions) of knitters around the world are somehow finding time to work on the most challenging projects possible, and achieve their personal best. Me, I went for this cabled jacket in a gorgeously soft merino/silk from Malabrigo. Cabled did I say? This pattern has cables on cables, and then some. There is barely a row when you can draw breath in between twists and lifts and crossovers. But it will look stunning when it's done. IF it's done by the end of the Olympic Games, next Sunday...
Nice picture, isn't it? Credit to DH once again. He really knows how to capture both colour and texture.
But here's the one you wouldn't normally see - me retracing my steps carefully from the fence where we photographed the piece, gathering up the miles (well it seemed like miles) of unwound yarn from the ball which for some reason had decided not to come with us but wait further down the cliff until we should see fit to return again. Sophy Wackles was no help at all.
Oh I almost forgot. Those of you yearning to move to Ireland and cooler, damper climes (are you absolutely sure? Haven't been able to hang out the laundry for months), I've found your house of dreams.
Now look at that. On a quiet country lane, where right now the wild roses and fuchsia are running riot, with Mount Brandon on one side and the sea on the other. Desirable residence? I should think so.
Sorry? Oh you want another angle to make absolutely sure? OK.
Not exactly sure how many rooms, but you'd get a nice traditional kitchen anyway, with an open fire and one of those cranes for hanging the pots over it. A settle bed would be a bench by day, sleeping quarters at night. Then in the other room you could have a real bed, muslin curtains at the window. Bathroom? Well there is plenty of space outside. Myself, I think a little stone outhouse would add the perfect touch.
All right, all right, don't all rush at once. Maybe I should go look up the estate agent?
Here is another little spot I thought you might like to see. I simply love places like this, a microcosm of the countryside. An old stone wall, covered with moss, ivy, and small plants. Two protecting holly trees leaning over it to frame the distant view. The kind of place you'd like to have at the end of your garden.
See, a whole posting without mentioning De Cat?
Well since you insist... Of course Mishka is progressing superbly, growing inches by the day. She's discovered that trees can be climbed (although the reverse procedure is still giving a little trouble) and has perfected the art of popping up by Sophy's chair to pat both doggy cheeks with each paw in turn at full speed (really confuses Sophy, that trick). And the other day, observing her graceful and effortless leaps from one piece of furniture to the next, across beds, down staircases, DH determined to capture her in full flight. It took two hours, and hundreds of shots (thank heaven for digital photography, can you imagine the rolls of film?) but in the end -