Spring is Sprung!

Snowdrops at a creek announce Imbolc. The first blooms of snowdrops or blackthorns or the first birth of the new lambs were often considered the announcement of Imbolc's arrival. (photo by Tony Eaglehart)

Snowdrops at a creek announce Imbolc. The first blooms of snowdrops or blackthorns or the first birth of the new lambs were often considered the announcement of Imbolc’s arrival. (photo by Tony Eaglehart)

The Celtic — and magical! — festival of Imbolc, celebrated February 1-2, was considered the first day of spring in Celtic cultures and across Europe in general during the medieval period. Although we nowadays generally consider the solstice or equinox the first day of a season (December 21 as the first day of winter, March 21 as the first day of spring, June 21 as the first day of summer, and September 21 as the beginning of autumn), those days were previously considered the mid-seasons. (That is why we can sing Christmas carols about “midwinter” in December and have Midsummer night dreams in June!) The traditional changes of the seasons were the “quarter days” which marked the midpoints between the mid-seasons. So we get the Celtic/magical festivals of Samhain (October 31, the first day of winter), Imbolc (February 1-2, the beginning of spring), Beltane (May, the first day of summer), and Lammas (August 1, the beginning of autumn).

Because Imbolc is the beginning of spring, it is often associated with various means of predicting the coming weather which is so crucial during the planting season of agricultural societies. Hence, we consult the groundhog to determine if he sees his shadow or not in order to know if cold and snow will last another six weeks or not. In Serbia, a bear who wakes from his hibernation to stumble out of his cave and see his shadow will know whether to go back to sleep for another six weeks or not, based on whether he sees his shadow. Imbolc was believed to be when the Cailleach—the divine hag of Gaelic tradition—gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she wishes to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure the weather on Imbolc is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood. Therefore, people would be relieved if Imbolc is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep and winter is almost over. At Imbolc on the Isle of Man, where she is known as Caillagh ny Groamagh, the Cailleach is said to take the form of a gigantic bird carrying sticks in her beak.

Aoife and Strongbow

The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife by Cork born historical painter Daniel Maclise (1806-1870) at the National Gallery of Ireland

The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife by Cork born historical painter Daniel Maclise (1806-1870) at the National Gallery of Ireland

Aoife, princess of Leinster, wed the English knight known as “Strongbow” on August 25, AD 1170. Aoife’s father, Diarmait Mac Murchada, had lost his seat as king of Leinster and sought military aid from England to reclaim it. Richard de Clare, a minor knight at the English court, responded to the Irish king’s request for aid; Diarmait promised that whichever knight helped him regain the throne would be given the his daughter Aoife as wife. Richard brought 1,200 fighting men with him and won the battle at Waterford, Ireland on August 23. He and Aoife were married on August 25 on the shore of the River Suir beneath a great oak tree that came to be known as “Strongbow’s Oak.” (The painting above shows the couple being wed in front of the stone tower that was built later alongside the oak.)

According to Irish law at that time, both the man and the woman had to consent to the marriage; it is fair to conclude that Aoife accepted her father’s arrangements. Aoife led troops in battle and is sometimes known as Red Eva (Aoife Rua).

When Diarmait died the next year, Strongbow claimed the throne by right of his marriage to Aoife and began the English occupation of Ireland which continued until the Irish Free State was established in 1922.

Aoife had two sons and a daughter with her husband Strongbow, and via their daughter, Isabel de Clare, within a few generations their descendants included much of the nobility of Europe including all the monarchs of Scotland since Robert I (1274–1329) and all those of England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom since Henry IV (1367–1413); and, apart from Anne of Cleves, all the queen consorts of Henry VIII.

Later folktales also identify Strongbow’s Oak as the location of the grave of the young woman known as the dearg-due (“red blood sucker”) who rises from the dead to seduce and kill men, lapping up their blood to sustain herself. The girl who became the dearg due was herself said to have been beaten to death by her English husband and he was her first victim when she rose from the grave as the vampire woman. The dearg due is an important character in the Come Hell or High Water trilogy.

In my upcoming project Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes the princess Aoife makes a bargain with the goddess Badb to be sure that Strongbow wins the battle; the English occupation of Ireland is therefore the result of witchcraft and magic. The goddess Badb is involved in creating the dearg due in an attempt to drive at least some of the English away from Waterford itself.

Windows of Christ Church Cathedral

A window of stained glass in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (photo by Stephen Morris)

Anothr stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (photo by Stephen Morris)

The first version of Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin was built of wood just after AD 1028 by the Viking king Sitric Silkenbeard–doesn’t that tell you a lot about him already? It sounds like he could have been Santa Claus! The stone church which is still standing was built by Strongbow and the English in AD 1170 as part of their attempt to invade and subjugate Ireland. The beautiful stained glass windows we see today were installed during the renovations of AD 1871-1878.

Traditionally, the stained glass windows of Gothic churches depict saints or biblical scenes that tell contrasting stories or somehow comment on each other. For instance, a scene of the Last Supper would often be depicted together with a scene of Moses feeding the people with bread from heaven in the desert or a scene of Eve coming from the side of Adam would be matched with a scene of the Church coming from the side of Christ on the cross. The windows in the nave of Christ Church depict fascinating pairs of saints that are not often paired together.

One window pairs King David playing his harp mourning the death of his friend (lover?) Jonathan with Jubal the great-grandson of Adam who was said to have invented musical instruments like the harp [top photo above]. Another window shows Noah blessing his son Shem after the Flood together with Melchizedek, the priest-king of Jerusalem blessing the patriarch Abraham [bottom photo above]. Another window in the cathedral pair depictions of Adam naming the animals with the murder of Abel, the first shepherd, by his brother Cain.

The unusual pairs of scenes in the windows of Christ Church Cathedral (Dublin) are a fascinating series of sermons in colored glass that illuminate often-ignored aspects of the lives of the characters depicted.