A good summer’s just a phrase away

On the first day of spring folklore fan Margaret Neylon examines the signs our ancestors used to predict the weather

IF you’re planning a ‘staycation’ this year, you’re sure to want to know what the weather will be for the summer months before making any commitment. But with Ireland lying in the most westerly landmass of Europe, and subject to the vagaries of the westerly winds and the Gulf Stream, it often seems virtually impossible to predict what the weather will offer us over the next hour, let alone the next month or two.

However, our ancestors who lived pastoral lives where their future depended on sowing the right crop at the right time, developed many diverse ways to look into the future. It wasn’t just necessary to look to the skies, there were many other areas which warned of upcoming elemental changes.

Perhaps we should have more faith in animals and nature which have always been seen as having special instincts regarding what’s in store.

For long-range weather forecasts, watch out for squirrels in the autumn. If their tails are overly bushy and they seem to be collecting more food than normal for the winter ahead, then beware! We will be facing into a harsh winter.

In Ireland, today — Feb 1, which is the Celtic festival of Imbolc — is traditionally the beginning of springtime. While nowadays we long for dry, sunny weather, this would not auger well for the promised harvest later in the year, for the soil needs frost and rain for good future growth. So don’t despair if the sun is hidden behind the clouds just now, for an old adage warns us:

Of all the months of the year, curse a fair February.

Candlemas Day, (tomorrow) has always been a weather marker as we are told in this poem:

If Candlemas Day be fair and brightThe winter will take another flightBut if it should be dark and drear,The winter is gone for another year.

Feb 2 is celebrated as Groundhog Day in the USA. On this date we are told to watch as the groundhog appears above ground, preferably around noon, and look to see if you can see his shadow. If so, the belief is that the weather will be cold and wintry until the Spring Equinox on Mar 21.

The name February actually means ‘fill the ditch time’, so it should be a wet month, but not always. Some sayings we should listen to are:

In February, if thou hearest thunder,Thou shalt see a summer wonder.

If we’re digging the car out of a snowdrift and turning up the heating over the next few weeks, take heart, for:

If February gives much snow, a fine summer it doth foreshow.’

If you’re out and about in February or March, seek out a river or stream and look for frog spawn. Folklore states that if the spawn is laid in the middle of the stream it will be a dry summer, as the frogs want their offspring to survive in what water is left rather than die from dehydration if the water evaporates in the heat. Then, as the trees begin to bear new leaves and develop their flowers, seek out an oak and an ash, for the belief is:

When the oak flowers before the ash we’re in for a splash.When the ash flowers before the oak, we’re in for a soak.

When it comes to short-term forecasts here are some suggestions you can follow: As a child I would keep a fir cone handy and check it every day. No matter what the morning sky promised, if the cone was closed tightly this told of a wet day ahead, if the cone had opened up, it promised a dry day. Another of my childhood favourites was seeking out the Scarlet Pimpernel. This is a tiny scarlet-coloured flower which is easily overlooked among such things as chickweed. When the flower is open this promises good, dry weather, even if it is cloudy and overcast, while the closed petals tell us it will be wet, no matter how promising the day ahead may seem.

If you are close to water, keep an eye on the surface (lake or sea). If it’s ‘as calm as a millpond’ then the weather will be calm for the next few days, but a choppy surface portends bad weather.

Simply looking up at the sky can give you a fair hint of what the day holds. However, don’t despair if it’s raining as you leave for work in the morning, as they say ‘Rain before seven quits before eleven.’

Cats can be good weather markers for they can sense the oncoming change in the atmosphere. Though it may be dull and damp, if your cat insists on going out, you can be pretty sure it will clear up soon.

Just how many are merely ‘Old Wives’ Tales’? We can see for ourselves if we keep our eyes open and we can learn from hindsight. For instance: ‘A year of snow is a year of plenty’, and we know from the weather in 2010 that this proved true for Irish agriculture which enjoyed one of its best harvests in years. My prediction for the year ahead? Whatever weather predictor, you use one thing’s for sure: it will be changeable!

* www.margaretneylon.com

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