Saturday 1 February 2014


Today - Imbolc! It is one of the four Celtic Quarter Days (along with Beltane - May Day, Lughnasadh - Aug01 and Samhain - Hallowe'en) which are fixed in between Solstice and Equinox.  The word looks alien to anglophone eyes and there are two strangely related etymologies.: i mbolg "in the belly" refers to the should-be-now-swelling bellies of the the sheep whose lambs are expected shortly OR oimelc "ewe's milk" which was the gloss put on it by one medieval scribe.  Scholars of PIE (proto-indo-european) call down the common word used for sheep as part of their evidence that Indo-Europeans started their explosive trek from a heartland in Central West Asia.  Common word for sheep?!?  Sheep doesn't have much in common with the Irish caora or the French mouton does it?  Indeed it doesn't, but we have ewe, which shares the putative PIE root with Latin Ovis, Spanish Oveja, Portuguese Ovelha Russian овца and even Ukrainian вівця at a pinch; and if you dig you can find minority sheep-words in most other PIE languages.

Bolg, the Irish for belly appears in the name of the famous Wexford theatre group Bui Bolg - the yellow-bellies - a common nickname for the plain rissole-eatin' people of Wexford. That epithet is said to stem an exhibition match of hurling 200 hundred years ago when one of the Colcloughs of Tintern took a team to London to play the locals.  They identified themselves from their opponents in the mill on the pitch by wearing yellow sashes as cummerbunds.  My great-grandmother was a Colclough from the same family.  She married my great-grandfather John the Bastard from King's County in about 1860. He was the offspring of the local laird and the red-headed cook, and got to inherit the estate near Birr, while his brothers shipped off to New Zealand where their descendants thrive.

Imbolc is celebrated as Lá Fhéile Bríde (St Brigid of Kildare's Day) in large swathes of the Celtic World as the beginning of Spring . . . if the Cailleach (Holy Hag, to you Batman) sees that the weather is crap.  If the weather is fine on the 1st of February, on the other hand, the Cailleach will be gathering sticks to heat her home because winter will last for several weeks more.  This will remind Americans of Groundhog Day which is traditionally celebrated tomorrow on Candlemas.  Seems a bit unfair on the humble woodchuck Marmota monax to be playing the part of a hag.  Using the contrary to predict future weather will remind English people over the age of fifty of St Swithun's day (15 July): if it rains on St Swithun's it will be fine for the next forty days and vice versa.  St Swithun's Day is celebrated by Billy Bragg, of whose work we should all hear more.

Brigid goes back so far that nobody agrees how to spell her name: Brigid, Bridget, Brighid, Bridgit, Bríd (usu. pron. breej), and Bride all having a punt somewhere in the literature or as part of a placename (Bridewell became a generic name for prison because of one such in London). She is usually cast as an early nun, but her association with fertility, lactation and such Ob&Gyn matters suggest strongly that she was a much earlier deity kidnapped by the Christians, cleaned up and no longer smelling of cheese.  It would be an excellent idea if we all, especially young women, wove us a St Brigid's Cross today.  So lost from your traditions that you don't know how?  Una Casey will show you.  This last Thursday at the Institute the Chaplaincy was weaving crosses with the students.  Inevitably, the Irish kids were above all that, but the Chinese visitors were fully into an opportunity to get the full out of their time in Ireland.

It's a brutal stormy day out there in the dark this morning - bodes well for a grand summer.

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