It is said that every cloud has a silver lining, and while not dismissing the awful consequences of the current pandemic, how glad I am to have the Irish Cultural and Heritage Course, facilitated by the National Print Museum, to look forward to every day. The ancient world of our Irish forebearers, which this course unfolds day by day, fascinates me. I am humbled by, and in awe of the beauty and artistry of ancient Irish artefacts. I am lost in the psychological drama and intrigue of Irish mythology. I mourn the loss of great Irish traditions, having learned about Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine and Lunasa and the communal spirit which underpins their festivities and rituals.
One of the most beautiful customs, which this course revealed to me, is that of Meitheal. It is a wonderful old Irish custom in which neighbours come together to work in union to ensure that each family’s crops, in the community, are saved before the onset of darker days. In these challenging times which can be characterised by isolation and loneliness, this simple, practical and yet profound gesture of communal camaraderie, inspired me to reach out and make connections with family and friends.
In the bleak, dark days following Christmas 2020, family members grieved for cherished relatives and treasured friends whose lonely empty spaces around the festive table were reminders of their absence. Adults and children bemoaned the consequences of COVID which necessitated that, for Christmas 2020, gatherings had to be deferred for the common good. This January our class learned about the custom of Meitheal and the Celtic cross days, including the festival of Imbolc (or its Christianised appropriation, La Fheile Bride / or Saint Brigid’s Day) which is celebrated on 1st February. The information inspired me to set up a zoom Meitheal so that relatives, who were unable to travel home for Christmas, could connect with family in Dublin. It was called, ‘ A zoom Meitheal : Imbolc/ La Feile Bride’.
The Meitheal was a tremendous success with family members from all over Ireland and abroad participating. Children played tricks; held up their drawings of St Brigid trees; recited their own written poems on Spring. Adults sang and told stories ; others recalled childhood on a farm in Meath and the custom of hanging the St Brigid crosses in the houses and barns and then saving them from year to year; a St Brigid’s Cross was presented and its significance explained; a storyteller related the Legend of St Brigid and the Cloak ; a nephew, settled in Italy, described the veneration of Santa Brigida of Lombardy; to this day in Leitrim, it was explained, it is possible to wake up on Feb 1st to find spring flowers on your doorstep and window sills, left by neighbours to ward off bad luck befalling the inhabitants. There were many highlights but two poems generated a communal spirit of good will and humour. My oldest sister, recited the following poem, familiar to old and young from their school days:
Anois teacht an Earraigh – Spring is now coming
le Antaine Ó Raifteirí (1784-1835)
Anois teacht an Earraigh
beidh an lá dúl chun shíneadh,
Is tar eis na féil Bríde
ardóigh mé mo sheol.
Go Coillte Mach rachad
ní stopfaidh me choíche
Go seasfaidh mé síos
i lár Chondae Mhaigh Eo.
The second poem recited by my daughter, who joined from Cork, brought a smile to those afflicted with the common family scourge of asthma:
The Benadryl Zombies
In the early Spring, when there’s pollen in the air,
The Benadryl Zombies can be spotted everywhere;
Stumblin’ down the sidewalk and walkin’ the dog,
Driving their Toyotas in a Benadryl fog.
Sleepin’ at their desks in the office or at school,
Sleepin’ on the train or sleepin’ in the pool;
Shiverin’ in the sunlight and complainin’ that they’re freezin’
Oh well, thank God, at least they’ve stopped sneezin’!
The second Meitheal took place on the eve of Imbolc for colleagues with whom I worked in Zimbabwe over twenty years ago. Again, people from all over Ireland and abroad joined together in celebration of ‘La le Bride’. It was an amazing experience; some people hadn’t seen each other in months, due to COVID and others not for years, due to the exigencies of life. Our screens reverberated, as smiles beamed up, down and across the rows of little gallery frames, and voices chimed delighted greetings in Shona and in Irish,
‘Mhoro shamwari! Maswera sei?‘ (Hello, friends! How are you?)
‘Ndakanaka ndatenda’ ( I am fine, thank you)
‘Beannachtai la Fheile Bride!’
The excitement was tangible as we exchanged precious memories of the wonderful people and stunning landscape of Zimbabwe. Bulawayo, Marondera, Harare, Masvingo, Chitungwiza, Gweru, Mutare , Dombo Tombo ( my own) unfurled a cartographical poem as we recalled our locations. Mary, gave a presentation on St Brigid and Noreen gave an update on Zimbabwe. We shared memories of craft making from our own school days, and the practice of customs on family farms. A retired primary school teacher demonstrated how she used to make Brigid crosses with her little pupils. Everyone agreed that reaffirming our friendship on the zoom Meitheal, on the eve of St Bridget’s Day, which welcomes the arrival of light and growth after the bleak days of winter, made the occasion very special.
A garnet of cultural wisdom mined from the rich resources of the Irish Cultural and Heritage Course shone light into our darkness and revitaliised our family with hope, connection, love and laughter. We have agreed to come together for a zoom Meitheal for the cross days, Bealtaine, Lunasa and Samhain. Family members are already preparing hats and performances for the St Patrick’s Day Meitheal!!!! I have agreed to sponsor a prize for the best hat!! Likewise, I have just finalised our next Meitheal for my group of friends with whom I worked in Zimbabwe. It will take place on the Sunday before St Patrick’s Day in order to facilitate people who are resident abroad. One friend will give a presentation on St Patrick. We will also have a presentation on ‘Wildlife Conservation Challenges’ from a Zimbabwean professional who will join us from the capital, Harare. Both of these subjects will undoubtedly generate some very lively discussions. We also plan to wear our green attire and toast to the health of St Patrick. Slainte!!
The Irish Cultural and Heritage course has extended its reach beyond my immediate participation to enrich the lives of many people, both in Ireland and abroad. Through the medium of future zoom Meitheals, a communal space will offer family and friends, a temporary release from the spectre of COVID-19 and an opportunity to connect with the joys of Irish culture.