In the northern hemisphere, March 20th is celebrated as the spring equinox, the point in the year when the day and the night are equal and which heralds the return of the sun from its winter abode. For the pre-Christian ancient Celts, the Irish year was divided starkly and simply in half: the dark and the light. Samhain was the beginning of the dark and Beltane was the beginning of the light. Between the two was Imbolc on February 1st and Lammas on August 1st, dividing the year into quarters.
The Irish have traditionally celebrated the beginning of spring, not on the equinox, but on February 1st, the Celtic festival of Imbolc. Imbolc, which literally means “in milk” marked the beginning of the light or the return of spring. The ewes, which could not produce milk until after they had given birth, were in milk and this was a time of great celebration in Ireland, as the pastures greened and the days grew steadily longer. During the celebration of Imbolc, it was expected that the people would offer milk or cream by pouring it onto the earth, in thanksgiving for the coming of the light.
This day is also known as the Feast of St. Brigid and is still celebrated in some Irish households by the women and girls crafting a doll made of cornhusks to represent Brigid. This “Brideog” or little Brigid is decorated with baubles and ribbons and is the center of the celebration, as described in detail here. [link to the article on St. Brigid that I wrote earlier] Irish Christian practices were a mix of pre-Christian and Christian beliefs and practices until the 12th century and the celebration of the Feast of St. Brigid reflects that mix of customs.
Of course, St. Patrick’s Day
is also celebrated in Ireland just a few days prior to the equinox. St. Patrick brought the light of another Son to Ireland, so the Christianized Celts may have simply swapped their equinox celebration for the celebration of the Feast of St. Patrick.
But the modern Irish don’t confine their spring celebrations to St. Brigid’s and St. Pat’s. There are a variety of spring festivals in Ireland to welcome the return of light and warmth and the melting of the snow. These include, in addition to the traditional celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, these festivals:
The International Festival of Light Opera in Waterford, Ireland is held in the spring. Waterford is known throughout the world for its famous glass making and crystal factory, as well as shipbuilding. The city was settled by Vikings in 814 AD and Reginald’s Tower, constructed during this period and still in use today, is the oldest civic structure in all of Ireland.
The Kilkenny Tradefast, a traditional festival of Irish music, song and dance is held each year on St. Patrick’s Day weekend and features a wide variety of musical groups, including individual performers and bands. There are activities for all ages, as well as music and dance workshops.
The Belfast Film Festival has been going strong since 1995. In addition to showcasing classic films and presenting new cinema offerings, the festival also offers experimental cinematic collaborations as well as film competitions and workshops.
Not to be outdone, Galway hosts its annual Galway Food Festival on Easter weekend. The Festival’s mission is to showcase the city’s diverse food culture throughout Galway and the West of Ireland.
On Good Friday, when many establishments in Ireland are closed, the BD Festival in the surrounds of Glendalough House, Annamoe, County Wicklow is in full swing. The festival brings together music, art, community, cuisine, and BYOB and is going strong even after ten years.
In mid-April, there is more music, this time heavy metal, at the Siege Of Limerick, a bi-annual metal and hard rock gathering held in Limerick City, Ireland. Their mission is simple: “The event is run with a community ethos at its heart with the support of Dolans Limerick, an exceptional bar and venue in Limerick City. We strive to bring together local, national and international underground metal acts for a day-long event that is free in. We don’t do this for profit.”
And finally, in late April, again in Limerick, there is Riverfest, including Riverfest on the Shannon, Riverfest BBQ Competition, the Riverfestival village in Arthur’s Quay Park, the Barringtons Hospital Great Limerick Run plus a fireworks display. Something for everyone!
And for those who can’t get across the pond, there’s the Irish Spring Festival held each spring in Ireland. Ireland, West Virginia that is! And the festival includes the sport of Irish Road bowling. The town was founded in the 1800s by Andrew Wilson whose nickname was “Old Ireland” as he had recently immigrated to West Virginia.
Of course, there are many other spring festivals held throughout Ireland but this list gives you just a taste of the variety of ways in which the Irish celebrate spring! So in honor of the return of the light, I’ll leave you with this old Celtic blessing:
May the blessing of light be on you
light without and light within.
May the blessed sunlight shine on you
and warm your heart
till it glows like a great peat fire.