A speckled thrush upon a bush pours forth her matin hymn
A new-born hope has in her woke; with her ’tis not a whim.
Some wondrous thrills her bosom fills – what can she do but sing
When back again o’er wood and plain has come the joyful Spring.
The verse above, written by Peggy O’ Brien, Carlanstown, Co. Meath was recorded among the items of traditional practice, custom and belief and oral literature collected by schoolchildren in the 1937-1939 Schools’ Collection. Having just celebrated St Brigid’s Day this week, we can finally expect spring to make its grand entrance. In preparation for the brighter and longer days to come, we have delved further into The Schools’ Collection to discover what can be expected of the spring season.
St Brigid’s Day, February 1st, is one of the four Quarter days celebrated in Ireland. These four days divide the year into seasons – May Day/Bealtaine brings the beginning of summer, Lammas/Lúnasa brings the autumn and harvest season, Halloween/Samhain brings winter and Imbolc/St Brigid’s Day marks the beginning of spring. St Brigid and observances for her festival have already been explored in previous blog posts, but this year we are looking ahead into the coming months to see what the season will bring.
The traditional agricultural year begins after St Brigid’s Day, and so farmers start to prepare for the busy season ahead. The horse might be brought to the smith, to be clipped, in preparation for the spring work. The land must be broken up to prepare for the spring sowing, and so the land would be ploughed and harrowed. Then drills would be set for the seed potatoes and manure added to the plot. Crops like oats, barley, wheat, turnips and cabbage would be planted in spring. Seeds planted on Good Friday were thought to be particularly successful. Some farmers would not plant their potatoes until after St Patrick’s Day, March 17th, as the cold was then supposed to have left the ground. Crops were expected to be planted soon after this, however, and any farmer that would leave planting so late that the cuckoo could be heard would be called a ‘cuckoo farmer’, and his crop would be poor and thin. Seaweed would also be collected in spring, to be burned or to be used as fertiliser for the crops. February also brings the beginning of the fishing season, and if the weather was agreeable then fishermen would be out in their boats from St Brigid’s day. Rabharta na Féile Bríde(The tide of St Brigid’s Day) was expected in the first month of spring, and Rabharta na Féile Pádraig (The tide of St Patrick’s Day), was expected in March.
The weather is still unpredictable at this time of year, and so different signs and signals are watched carefully, to see what weather the coming season will bring. An improvement in the weather is expected, as promised by St Brigid, but if the weather brightens too early then it is taken as a bad sign. Candlemas is celebrated on February 2nd, when candles are brought to church to be blessed. If the weather is fine it is said that bad weather will follow in the year to come.
If Candlemas Day is bright and clear,
We’ll have two winters in a year.
Similarly, if the blackbird and thrush were heard singing in late winter, it was said to foretell a bad spring. Weather in February is expected to be changeable, and though it was said that snow wouldn’t fall after St Brigid’s Day – Ní bhíonn sneachta ar na craobhacha ó Lá ’le Bríde amach/There’s no snow on the branches from St Brigid’s day onward – there are memories of heavy snowfall in 1933 and of high winds in 1838, among other instances of severe weather in February. The longer days are expected, and soon there would be less need for artificial light, as the proverb states: ‘On Candlemas day, throw a candle away and on St Patrick’s Day, throw candle and candlestick away.’
March brings further improvement in the weather, as St Patrick promises that everyday from his feast onward would be longer than the last. The turbulent spring weather hasn’t seen its end yet, however, as we encounter ‘The Borrowed Days’ or Laethanta na Bó Riabhaí (The Days of the Brindled Cow), in the beginning of April. These are caused by the boasting of a cow, who exclaimed that the weather was warming now that she had reached the end of March, and she would be comfortable now for the summer. Hearing this, March borrowed some days from the month of April in order to kill and skin the poor cow, and so the first three days in April always bring terrible weather, akin to the rigours of early March.
These later spring months bring the reappearance of some wild birds, and the birth of new animals. Lambing season brings a busy time for farmers, and it is worth looking out for these newcomers, as the first new lamb you see is considered lucky. If the lamb is facing you, you will have good luck, but if it has its back to you, this will bring bad luck. Hatching eggs also begins in spring. The March cock, hatched from an egg laid on the first Tuesday of March, was considered an incredibly lucky bird to have, as it protected the house and the family. An incident from Co. Roscommon explains how a woman was saved from drowning in Lough Ree in 1701. She was taking a basket of chickens to sell at the market, and among them was a March cock, which protected her. The bird could also protect the house from the supernatural, driving away evil spirits.
As illness was a threat at this time of the year, herbs would be used to create cures or produce protective measures that would keep one healthy throughout the year. In Buncrana, Co. Donegal, bogbean was collected at the beginning of March, as it was believed to keep sickness away for the rest of the year. Nettles were also thought to be purifying, and were boiled in March as a protective measure for the coming months. Dandelions flower early in the year, and dandelion tea was supposed to have health benefits. The leaves could also be eaten in the early part of the year, and watercress could also be added into meals at this time of year, if food was still scarce.
Of course, the esteemed collectors of our Schools’ Collection were children, and many students elected to mention the seasonal patterns in the games they played during the year. In spring they would return to outdoor games, such as hopscotch and skipping. Other activities would make use of the cold spring weather, like skating. Some children would take advantage of the new growth, and spend their spring days searching for birds’ nests. A back-up plan of ‘four corners’, where five children would compete to stay in each of the four corners of a room, would be kept for rainy days.
Whatever the spring season has in store, may it be longer and brighter than the one just gone.
- This post was researched and written by Ailbe van der Heide.