It’s been raining for ten days now. The river Clain, five minutes’ walk from our house, is rising steadily. Normally calm and clear enough to see the fish beneath the surface, it’s been transformed into a fast-moving, mud-churned current. Looking at it now, it’s hard to believe the level was so low back in the summer that people were walking across the river bed a few yards from Pont Joubert. More rain is forecast for the next few days, but then it should ease. There is no immediate risk to the houses along the river near us, and we live up a short but steep hill. If flooding ever reaches our house, most of western France will be under water.
Life goes on. I cast my net ever wider, in vain attempts to find things to write about. Given the weather, I was amused to discover that Monday (February 1st) was Imbolc, one of the four fire festivals held on quarter days in Irish mythology, the others being Beltane, Lughnasa, and Samhain (Halloween). Imbolc is meant to herald the arrival of longer, warmer days and the early signs of spring.
Now, in Irish mythology there is a fire goddess, Bridget, and as is often the way with these things, the Catholic Church has sought to ‘de-paganise’ all of this by making the day St Bridget’s Day. Along with Patrick and Columba, Bridget is one of Ireland’s patron saints. She was apparently an early Irish Christian nun, although there is some speculation as to whether she actually existed. Be that as it may, she is kept prodigiously busy, being the patron saint of babies, bastards, blacksmiths, boatmen, and battered wives. And that’s just the Bs.
Over the centuries, celebrations of Saint Bridget’s Day have seen a fusing of the Christian and pagan traditions. One that continued into the twentieth century is that of Brigid’s Bed. The girls and young unmarried women of the household or village create a corn dolly to represent Brigid, called the Brídeóg (‘little Brigid’, ‘young Brigid’, or ‘Biddy’) and make a bed for the Brídeóg to lie in. On St Brigid’s Eve (January 31st), the girls and young women gather together in one house to stay up all night with the Brídeóg. The following day, the girls carry the Brídeóg through the village or neighbourhood, from house to house, where this representation of the saint/goddess is welcomed with great honour.
In recent years, the tradition has morphed into a somewhat more rumbustious affair. In 2017, Brigid’s Day parades were revived in Killorglin, County Kerry, very close to where my parents grew up, and the town now has an annual Biddy’s Day Festival. These festivals are gradually spreading throughout Ireland. In them, men and women wearing elaborate straw hats and masks parade through the town carrying a Brídeóg, to ensure good luck for the coming year. There is music and dancing, and a torchlit Parade of the Biddies followed by a singing competition and the election of the King of the Biddies. You can see a clip of one of the Killorglin events on YouTube. It all seems very jolly and is similar to Morris or Molly dancing festivities in the UK. When I lived in Ely, several of my friends used to take part in these, and two or three times a year I
had to endure used to enjoy watching a bunch of Catweazle lookalikes cavorting around the town’s hostelries, getting steadily plastered.
In a second YouTube clip from the Killorglin festival, there is a brief shot of a young man doing a lively dance with a broom. For me, this brought back happy memories. At Christmas when I was young, my dad, normally a shy, quiet man, could sometimes be persuaded to give an impressive demonstration of the broom dance.
Tuesday (February 2nd) was a similar day of celebration here in France, being La Chandeleur, or la fête des chandelles. I had never heard of it before we moved to France, but I knew of Candlemas, which is the British equivalent. It is exactly forty days after Christmas, and again there is a pagan–Christian crossover. La Chandeleur is thought to be linked to an old pagan fertility ritual, which was then adopted in Roman times and became known as the ‘festival of Lupercales’ in honour of Faunus, god of farm animals and fertility. Halfway between the winter and spring solstices, people would celebrate the return of the light with torchlit processions and with candles placed around the house. (It seems quite possible that this has links with the Celtic-Gaelic festival of Imbolc.) Around the fifth century it became a Christian festival, with the fertility element associated with Christ as a baby.
For the French, La Chandeleur means crêpes and is their equivalent of the English Shrove Tuesday pancake day. The supermarkets have special offers on non-stick frying pans and crêpe ingredients in the days beforehand, and you can pick up ‘ready-mades’ in the boulangeries. Very tasty they are, too.
There is a saying here, Si la Chandeleur pleure, l’hiver ne demeure. If it rains at Candlemas, winter won’t hang around. Well it did, so I hope there is some truth in that. But I would point out another significance of February 2nd. It is Groundhog Day in the USA, and right now that seems like a much more accurate prediction for the coming weeks.
Things I’ve learnt this week:
The Irish name for jellyfish is smugairle róin, which literally translates as ‘seal’s snot’.
Sir Charles Isham, a vegetarian spiritualist, introduced garden gnomes to England in 1847. He hoped they would attract real gnomes to his garden.
Meupareunia is a term for sexual activity enjoyed by only one of the participants.