Springtime traditions I love... but I never did ‘get’ Ulysses!

John Arnold reflects on the importance of keeping the flame of tradition alive, in his weekly column
Springtime traditions I love... but I never did ‘get’ Ulysses!

LINKS TO IRELAND’S PAST: Cork author Colm Keane, who died recently, with his wife Una O’Hagan. He wrote a book about St Brigid

ON Monday night, I went out to check the cows before going to bed around midnight. It was dry and crisp - amazing really for the last night of the driest January we’ve had with over 20 years.

Before I returned home, I wrapped a handkerchief around the handle of the door. January 31 was the Eve of St Brigid’s Day and there’s an old, very old, custom and tradition to leave some piece of cloth out on that Eve.

The belief is the Saint will impart her blessing on what is known as ‘Brat Bríde’, which literally means the scarf or flag of Bridget, and this will ward of ailments of the head and throat.

Is there a scientific or medical basis for this thinking? Definitely not, but then if we only believed in everything that’s been proven to the utmost degree, we’d have a sad and very sterile auld world.

Youghal-born Colm Keane died recently at the age of just 70. A wonderful radio broadcaster with RTÉ for years, he had taken up writing full time. His output was phenomenal with 29 books in three decades. Wonderful books – I’ve read his writings on Fatima, Padre Pio and Lourdes and near-death experiences.

In February, 2020, just before the dreaded Covid lockdown, I was honoured to have spoken at the same function that Colm and his wife Una O Hagan addressed. The Parish hall in Gortroe in East Cork was packed for a gala night organised by the local Ladies Club. What a night we all had.

Colm wrote and spoke so simply about life and death, living and dying, and explained the connections between this world and the next.

I’m just finished reading the last book written jointly by Colm and Una, which was launched last autumn. The Book Of St Brigid is a beautiful publication, a marvellous account of the life and times and ongoing influence of a woman who played a major role in ancient Irish society.

Wednesday February 1, next year, 2023, is to be an Official Holiday in this country, so St Brigid’s Day last Tuesday marked the end of an era. From next year on, February 1 will be a new holiday in Ireland, marking the gap between New Year and St Patrick’s Day. It’s so sad Colm won’t be with us to talk about and discuss the ‘second’ Patron Saint of Ireland.

Her legacy and the place names associated with this amazing woman, right across Ireland and Europe, will really come to the fore next year.

Reading the book, I was stunned at the number of scribes, scholars and writers who had remembered her down the centuries. From the monk Cogitosus, the Book of Lismore, St Patrick’s nephew Bishop Mel, right down to Alice Curtayne in the 1930s, a huge collection of facts, stories and lore has come to us, and Colm and Una threaded everything together in a most readable work.

On Monday, I was at timber over near St Bartholomew’s Well on the corner of our farm. A deep spring feeds the well and it’s from this water that people ‘doing the rounds’ take a drink. On exiting the Well, the water gushes out and down over a tiny little slope. Here one can pick up a little stone and make the Sign of the Cross on your face and eyes.

The Well water flows just a short distance to join the river Knoppogue, which about a mile away joins the Flesk. The Flesk in turn is a tributary of the River Bride. It’s possible that this river takes it’s name from an ancient pagan goddess named Bride.

Many of the attributes of St Brigid and the deity Bride are the same. They both loved nature, spring was their favourite season - environmentalists before the word was invented! They loved animals and were so kind to all creatures great and small.

When St Brigid had seen her Foundation grow and prosper, with hundreds of nuns involved under her tutelage, she could still be found tending to her sheep and lambs near the Curragh of Kildare. Humility, generosity and good humour were also common traits.

No doubt the deeds of Bride and Bridget have become intertwined and combined down the centuries. That in itself is no harm as the telling and retelling of stories is part and parcel of tradition.

A St Brigid’s Cross.
A St Brigid’s Cross.

Before I left the environs of the Well, I pulled a decent bundle of green rushes from the march area on the riverbank. These were to make St Brigid’s Crosses in the local National School. I’ve tried myself to fashion the crosses from the supple rushes, but must admit I’ve never fully mastered the craft.

Our house and milking parlour, old cow-stall and other outbuildings are still festooned with the crosses made by many nimble fingers over the years. They are faded to brown - many covered by cobwebs - but are still an intrinsic component of rural life. To me they represent continuity and keeping the flame of tradition alive.

I don’t think I ever burned an old St Bridget’s Cross, they simply get shoved up under the eaves as new versions take their place of honour.

As long as green rushes grow in soft and boggy spots in this country, the story of Brigid will be told. Hopefully that will be forever.

It was always thought the Cross brought health and safety to the household where it was displayed. Like the custom of the Brat Bríde, the St Brigid’s cross is a powerful reminder of our rich Christian heritage.

Another ‘anniversary’, or some might call it a ‘feast day’, that was marked this week was the centenary of the publication of James Joyce’s book Ulysses. Published 100 years ago yesterday, it is regarded as one of the world’s great literary masterpieces.

I can freely admit I’ve never read it. I’m not saying that in a proud, smug or condescending manner, simply I just never ‘got it’.

Maybe 50 years ago, as a school-going teenager, I got hold of a copy of it one time. You know the way young fellas might be told in a school-yard whisper about the ‘naughty bits’ in such and such a book? Well, I looked for these aforementioned passages of words, but like everything else in it I couldn’t make head, arse or tail of it.

Ye remember the story of the ‘King’s New Clothes’, where a powerful ruler convinced his subjects he was wearing magnificent, beautiful, opulent, and graceful attire, whereas in fact he was strutting his stuff in his undies?! I thought the same about Ulysses but was afraid to say it for fear of ridicule.

That was half a century ago and now, 50 years later, the book is being lauded on a global scale once more. All the world can’t be wrong about the book - or can they?

Look, I promise, some day or week or month soon, I will try once more to read it. 

Joyce was a pure eccentric and I love eccentrics with all their ‘couldn’t give a damn what anyone thinks’ attitude, vive la difference!

Yesterday was also Candlemas Day, when traditionally candles were taken to churches to be blessed for use in the home and at religious services.

As spring truly arrives, today is the Feast of St Blaise. Born in Sebastea in Armenia (now Turkey) about 2,000 years ago, he was a doctor and died a martyr. After his arrest for preaching Christianity, Blaise was being led away when a distraught woman threw herself before him. Her son was choking on a fishbone and knowing the holiness and piety of Blaise, she begged him to intercede.

He prayed for the boy, who recovered. Hence, St Blaise is regarded as the helper and healer of those with throat and speech problems.

Traditionally on this day, two candles were placed near the throat and a special blessing imparted; “Through the intercession of Saint Blaise, bishop and martyr, may God deliver you from every disease of the throat and from every other illness”.

It’s another old tradition that I like to observe and, God knows, they do no harm and maybe a lot of good.

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