This is not an unusual comment in Ireland at this time of year. It refers to a very specific kind of rain, where the day is dark, the lights and the fires and the heating goes on pretty much as soon as we get up in the morning and stay on all day. You can’t leave the house without getting soaked to the skin, and yes, you get covered in muck, if you go anywhere on foot or by bike… even by public transport. These are the days when we all end up with sniffles, or colds, or flus, when the Lemsips and the hot whiskeys come out. These are the days when really, there’s nothing better than being the second one home in the evening so that someone else has lit the fire and it’s blazing away in the hearth when you come in.
It’s the kind of day when the rain just comes down, relentlessly, all day. (While we do tend to get rain 365.5 days a year, it doesn’t usually rain all day every day!) And while I know new houses in this country and being built with no fireplaces, I can’t imagine ever living in a house without a fireplace or a stove or something. That feeling of a fire being lit in winter brings with it comfort as well as heat – it’s no wonder our major festivals are called the “fire festivals”. No more than most other societies in the world, we have learned to live with our climate in this country, which means houses built to keep in the heat, plenty of light, and real fires.
But the thing is, our climate is changing. And our houses need to change with it, to a certain extent. Temperatures of 30oC+ are not usual in this country, but we’re getting them more often. The use of air con in this country is limited at best, but I find myself thinking of trying to pick up a unit over the winter in hopes it might be a bit cheaper than in the summer. But fires are as much a part of our Bealtaine and Lúnasa celebrations as they are our Samhain and Imbolc celebrations. And that might be because even in May and August, the evenings can get fairly cool in Ireland traditionally speaking. Of course, no one was determining how big a fire had to be either, but one would assume giving the term “bonfire” would give a certain size element…
But where do we go in a changing world? Even lighting a fire these days can be problematic, since most of our fires require some element of fossil fuels. Do we change our traditions to better align with current practicalities? Well yes, we do. We keep the heart of the tradition, the bit that’s important and we work with the modern practicalities. So, for example, my fire festivals move to the closest weekend to the calendar date most of the time, although at least all four fire festivals now have a bank holiday associated with them! (Despite complaints from people about another holiday in Ireland being linked to a religious holiday, but I think there’s been some education around that as well.) So, even within our own personal practices, we adapt and change things to suit our lives.
When does this become a problem? Well, when someone presents something as “traditional” when it’s really not. So for example, someone claiming that their practice of always lighting a red candle at Imbolc (I’m making this up!!) is a long held, deeply rooted tradition in Ireland, when we know most of the candles in Ireland were natural coloured, cos dyed ones were more expensive – that’s a problem. Someone “suggesting” something by adding in a maybe, as in “maybe since the times of the Tuatha De Danann”, that’s an issue, since we really don’t know what day to day practices the TDD had in their spiritual lives, neither our stories, nor our archaeology can tell us that.
It’s important to know what the traditions are, in my opinion so you can work out how to make them work for you. And as long as we’re all clear on the difference between a tradition (light a fire on Imbolc) and a personal tradition (my habit of celebrating on the weekend closest to the festival), we’re all ok. So you can check out my free class on Basic Intro to Imbolc in Ireland this Wednesday, to get a high level reminder of the traditions in Ireland and a sneak peek at the framework I use to prepare for the Imbolc festival. Or indeed, check out duchas.ie to see those wonderful entries from the Schools Collection. Or check out Lora O’Brien’s and other classes at the Irish Pagan School. But remember, fires were and are an important part of Irish society for a reason – and if you live in a place where wild fires are a significant risk, don’t. Try a candle, or an electrical option. Change the tradition to suit your circumstances, and make sure you understand the heart of the tradition. For me – I’m in work, so no open fires here, but I’m off to get a nice cup of coffee to warm myself up! (For some reason, they won’t allow hot whiskeys in work!!)