The Thursday before last (28 October) Zoe Devlin had her latest book launch and I was invited along to Hodges Figgis on Dawson Street in Dublin for the wonderful event. Colin Stafford-Johnson, the globe-trotting Irish BBC wildlife cameraman and film-maker opened the proceedings, and I was also fortunate enough too to meet Richard Nairn who has published many books about Irish wildlife. And here are all three of them:
Personally I have found Zoe’s book ( Blooming Marvellous – A Wildflower Hunter’s Year) is making me pay much more attention to flowers in autumn than I ever would have normally. And I’ve found some very beautiful flowers are still blooming, such as this tiny and magnificent Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymalaria muralis) which lives in rocky places, including on footpaths, where I found this one:
Tuesday was Halloween, the eve of All Hallows, aka All Saints Day, and Halloween is also the ancient feast of Samhain. According to Irish myth and legend an evil spirit, a sort of serpentine creature, was unleashed on the feast, and the ancient Irish would light bonfires and make loud noises in an attempt to scare the creature away. It was eventually done away with by the heroic Finn MacCumhail (or McCool if you prefer). As with many ancient feasts and religious rituals, Samhain refused to disappear and to this day bonfires are lit and loud noises are created (using fireworks) to scare away the monster and all other evil beings from dark places who might walk the land in the dark half of the year. Because of Christianity Ireland has attempted to ignore Samhain, which has absolutely no effect on it, and as a result most of October is filled with the noise of fireworks and the building of illegal bonfires. If an attempt was made to engage with the feast, rather than trying to subdue it, much less anti-social behaviour and illegal bonfire-related activity would occur, as there would be an outlet for the activities and a point of focus. It’s part of Irish culture, from very ancient, pre-Christian times, and it seems this ritual has no intention of coming to an end, being hardwired into the Irish psyche. Let us not forget that Samhain is the Gaelic name for the month of November. But it is a very frightening time of year for animals, both domestic and wild. And for many people too. However, it is over for another year.
Today the precise time for the end of the natural year is 11.12 am Universal Time, formerly known as Greenwich Meantime (in about an hour’s time as I write this). It is our Winter Solstice and I marked it by visiting a local standing stone, which I have been studying with my brother for the past decade.
There does seem to be a strong alignment with the rising sun, as the flat face of the stone faces the sun, but its narrow edge points almost due south-south (it’s not perfectly flat being somewhat concave at the sea facing side). As many people will know, today has been hyped up as the end of the Mayan Calendar, and some unfortunate people have imagined this is the end of life as we know it. But it makes perfect sense that the Mayan Calendar ends today as it is the true end of the yearly solar cycle. In ancient times in Europe, and even much further afield, the sun was considered to be asleep for three days after the Solstice, with the actual rebirth, the birth of the new solar year, occuring on 25 December (most years), which you may choose to believe to be an incredible coincidence matching Christmas, if you so wish.
It has been long noted that the days immediately after do no grow noticeably longer than the day of the Solstice until a further three days have passed, so this could have something to do with it. Either way, it highlights just how important the sun is to our lives. But who were these ancients who erected these stone monuments on such a massive scale all across Ireland, and even in the difficult landscape of Wicklow? The monuments date to the Neolithic at least. The stone in the photo, which we refer to as the Leabeg Stone, is just to the north of Newcastle on the coastal plain and there are apparently references to this object in records going back to at least the 16th century. It can easily be seen from the road, especially by anybody seated on the top of the 84 double-deck bus as it makes its way either to or from Newcastle Village. Remarkably, it has an apparently related standing stone about 5 km to the west, on almost precisely the same latitudinal line. In a map you can draw and almost perfect east-west line from one stone to the other, with only five actual metres between them, which might actually be a discrepancy in the maps rather than any meaningful difference between them. Anyhow, out with the old and in with the new – happy new Solar Year to everyone!