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In search of spring’s beginning

Outdoor Living

SURE SIGN In folk tradition, if the skylark sings on St Brigid’s Day the year will be fine.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

So when does spring really begin? I asked James what he thought. “It doesn’t matter,” he said, as he pointed out the first pale blue flowers of periwinkle and then fattening catkins on the branches of a sheltered hazel.
“The first day of February? Some say not until the first of March.” I pressed him, knowing he would have a traditional view. Folk tradition and belief have been subject to scorn in our modern world, which doesn’t really make sense. As a result many older people hesitate before talking of the old ways, leaving modern Ireland, as one man put it, as a cut flower, a plant without roots, a momentary flourish with no foundation.
I let the question hang until the answer came, as I knew it would. “February the first, St Brigid’s Day. There’d be hope then, with the days drawing out and a bit of warmth in some. Maybe they needed something to stir them to life after those dark days of a long winter.”
“Who was Bridgit?” My English tongue lacked the soft roundness of Gaelic expression and sounded sharp, even to my own ears.
“A nun, they say. A Holy Woman.” He shot me a glance, one brow raised as if to question whether there ever was such a thing. “But there was a Brigid long before ours came along, in the days when everything had its divinity. You can understand how people worshipped the returning sun, for it gave them life. So the old Brigid was a goddess of fertility and fruitfulness. Did you hear of Imbolg?”
“I heard of it,” I said. “But tell me.”
“Imbolg, the Cross-quarter day, half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. That’s the first day of February. Lambs’d be born and the grass would be growing. People would clear the winter from their homes and be looking forward. When people had nothing they’d want to celebrate something. That was long before Patrick came to Ireland, when we were Celts. The new Brigid took the place of the old.”
“Did you make St Bridget’s crosses?” I asked.
“We did.”
“Can you still do it?”
“I can.” He pulled a couple of green rushes from the roadside and after pausing for thought began to twist the stems, skillfully weaving them together until they unraveled in a moment of inattention. When we reached the lake he pointed to the reed beds. “Years ago that was all open water. They’d cut the reeds regularly and use them for all sorts, for thatching, for animal bedding, even for lighting the fire, and if you cut them green they’d be supple and could be used to make things. Nobody bothers now.”
“Necessity is the mother of invention.”
“It was,” he said. “When the new shoots were growing in spring we’d go and pull them, just gentle but firm, so they’d come up by the root, and we’d eat the bit at the bottom. Spring might have got things growing, but there were hard times between the end of the previous year’s potatoes and new crops growing.”
It is hard to imagine how we’d survive, let alone thrive, if we were uprooted from the present and deposited in the past.
“So spring starts on the first of February.”
I’d quite forgotten where we’d started. “Back in the UK it was the first of March, or even the fifteenth. That was the first day of the trout fishing season as well.”
“A month late,” said James emphatically. “That’s Britain for you.”
A robin threw us a burst of song from the hedgerow. There were two of them, and though it’s impossible to tell them apart I was sure they were male and female, for while the one sang the other looked on admiringly. “That’s how best to measure the season,” I ventured. “Nature does it’s own thing.”
James leaned his shoulder at a tree and gazed across the water. “Did you ever hear the skylark?”
“Of course,” I said. “They used to be common.”
“St Brigid’s bird. If the skylark sang on Brigid’s Day the year would be fine. I’d say the day the lark sings is the first day of spring. But then, just because it’s suddenly spring it doesn’t mean that winter’s over.”
Now that, I thought, makes perfect sense.