Donal Hickey: When does spring begin?

By Donal Hickey

THOSE of us of a certain vintage can clearly remember learning by heart a poem by Antaine Ó Raifteirí that runs: ‘Anois teacht an earraigh/beidh an lá ag dul chun síneadh,/ Is tar éis na féil Bríde/ardóidh mé mo sheol.’ (Now with the coming of spring, the day will be lengthening and after St Brigid’s feast I will raise my sail.)

I’ve lost count of the number of people who in the last week or so raised the question: When does spring begin?

For most of us, the season starts on February 1, also the feast day of one of our most popular saints, Brigid. That’s in accordance with folk tradition and also marks the old

Celtic festival, Imbolc, which celebrated signs of rebirth and the stretch in the day after the long months of winter.

In England and America, spring officially starts on March 1, a date also favoured by astronomers and meteorologists, including Met Éireann. In northern Europe, the spring equinox — this year March 20 when day and night each last 12 hours — is taken as the first day of spring.

If you go by stirrings of nature rather than the calendar, however, it’s becoming ever more difficult to sense the beginning of spring. Climate change means there’s growth during winter; lawns were mown before Christmas, daffodils were showing off their vivid yellow crowns by the new year and my rhubarb was shooting up in January.

There has been a revival in the custom of making St Brigid’s crosses from straw or rushes, especially in primary schools. The design of the unique cross varies from region to region. Some three-legged types can be found in the North but the four-legged cross is more typical of Munster.

People prominently displayed the crosses in their homes, believing them to protect against lightning and fire and to protect animals from diseases. Giving a cross as a gift was seen as conferring a blessing on the recipient. 

Hung prominently over the door or under the rafters, the cross was also said to have the power to ward evil spirits and would be kept in a house for the year.

February, meanwhile, is a good time for deer-watching. Most people go out looking at red deer during the rutting (mating) season in October when a lot of activity goes on and there’s aggression in the air.

Now, the deer are relaxed and the lowland herds are grazing in parts of Killarney National Park and surrounding lands such as Killarney Golf Club, which has a resident herd estimated at upwards of 80 head. Something to watch out for is the graceful way in which the hinds and stags leap, with stags able to effortlessly jump over high fences, for example.

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