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As autumn starts to draw in, thoughts turn to the pagans of our ancient past

The nights are growing longer and on many trees the leaves are slowly turning from green to gold, heralding the arrival of autumn. We seem to have missed out on the season of summer this year and crops of fruit and grain are poor at a time when they should be in abundance. Good hay is virtually unobtainable but the wrapped round bale has allowed us to at least salvage a fodder crop of some sort. The summer we have just endured reminded me of a passage in David Thomson's book Woodbrook, when he wrote of helping to make hay in a wet season in Roscommon in the 1930s.

"It rained for days. The hay was ready to bring in and we repaired the shifters endlessly under the roof of the empty hayshed. It rained until the haycocks turned black and sank in to the ground and till some on the bottoms were floating. It rained until there was nothing to do except saw wood for the winter".

Tough times indeed but a rainy year is nothing new. Thomson's words just emphasise how important the weather patterns are to farming today as they were to our ancestors. The ancient Celts used a solar calendar to mark the beginning of each season, which was then celebrated with four distinct agricultural festivals. Imbolc marked the start of spring, followed by Beltaine, Lughnasa and Samhain and it is nice to see the festival of Lughnasa enjoying something of a revival. While our ancestors were of course pagan, the word seems to have rather lost its true meaning. Nowadays pagan is taken to mean non-Christian but in its direct Latin translation a pagan is simply someone from a rural area.

Those pre-Christian farmers believed in the gods of nature, but eventually a gradual blending of the new and old religions occurred. One good example of how Christianity and paganism merged is St Brigid, who has a truly ancient background and may have her origins as Brigid of the Tuatha Dé Danann or the more ancient goddess Danu.

It is fascinating to try and disentangle this mix of legend and myth and read how the Sidhe or fairy folk are still credited with mystical powers and how they could influence the movement of the sun, the size of a harvest of corn or the fertility of a cow. We might laugh at such superstitions today but nothing would ever induce me to cut a lone thorn bush having grown up listening to tales of what happened to those who did so. We all now know the Earth orbits around the sun but in the past you could have been jailed or even excommunicated for promoting such a heresy. In 1510 the Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolas Copernicus published his theory that the Earth was not in fact the centre of our universe. Religious leaders naturally objected strongly to this, for if one believed that the Earth was not the dominant planet then the Bible had to be wrong. The Protestant reformers Luther and Calvin were among the most vocal critics of Copernicus's discoveries and his studies on the movements of planets were later taken up by Galileo who was then famously placed under lifetime house arrest by Pope Paul V for advocating such a heretical idea.


Nowadays, according to Met Eireann, the months of autumn are September, October and November but ancient Gaelic tradition had it that autumn began in August and ended in September. Perhaps this is an indication of climate change but we can still enjoy the beauty of the waning year so aptly described by John Keats when he wrote his ode to the "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun". Mind you, I would take issue with some of Keats lines when he writes "To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees, and fill all fruit with ripeness to the core" What fruit? My old apple trees have hardly a singly bloody fruit on them this year, the strawberries and raspberries were a disaster and while the spuds and leeks might look in good shape, the slugs have eaten just about everything else. But then it has been a great year for young trees, so I won't complain too much. Even that elderly lone thorn bush is thriving.

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