Lughnasa, the beginning of Autumn

We are just past the old Irish festival of Lughnasa or Lughnasadh. Not that I’d ever say Dad was a man of the land, but I think something always stirred in him around this time. This ancient pagan festival marks the start of the harvest season and potentially (hopefully) a time of plenty.

According to Irish Myths, Lughnasa marks the midway point between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox. Or if you prefer, Lugh, the ancient Celtic sun-god, is saying “farewell to power” on that day. The days are growing noticeably shorter. Lugh’s light is waning. Samhain is just around the corner.

Or Lughnasa is captured in an excerpt from the Celtic mythology-inspired play The Immortal Hour (1899):

The hour may hither drift
When at the last, amid the o’erwearied Shee—
Weary of long delight and deathless joys—
One you shall love may fade before your eyes,
Before your eyes may fade, and be as mist
Caught in the sunny hollow of Lu’s hand,
Lord of the Day.

The Immortal Hour

Well, whatever you believe, Dad enjoyed the craic around this time of the year.

Dancing at Lughnasa

I remember the film adaptation of the Brian Friel play, Dancing at Lughnasa, coming out in 1998, and starring Meryl Streep. Dad was certainly taken aback by it. Occasionally, a song, film or book would completely mesmerize him – he would talk about it for weeks, which was always good fun.

The story is about five unmarried sisters living in a rural Donegal cottage  in early August of the summer of 1936.. It’s a time of worry, immigration and craic. Dad always said, “It’s just like Shandrim” – the house where my Granny grew up in Inishowen, Donegal. The house still stands to this day, the walls thick as a garden room, but sadly, no one lives there.

Dancing at Lughnasa on
Dancing at Lughnasa , Pat O’Connor (Director) | Noel Pearson (Producer) | Frank McGuinness (Writer) | Bill Whelan (Music)

It was the characters in the play that Dad really missed. Brian Friel, another Derry/Donegal local, based the story on his own mother’s people who grew up in Glenties. I think my dad just caught the tail end of those people – the last generation of their kind – and he never forgot it. It was a magical time: no TV, no bother and plenty of music.

The walls of Shandrim had head many a story over the years. I remember going there in the 1980s when my two bachelor granduncles kept the place and the land. Both wore black suits, customary flat caps and didn’t speak much. There was a dog called Shep there for around 80 years (or many dogs), and no shortage of whiskey and woodbines. I could certainly see the link back to the Lughnasa film.

Almost the American Dream

It all could have been different though. My dad often told the story of a distant uncle returning from America when his mother, Kate, was young. He said, “She would do well in America,” and offered to pay her fare. The story goes that she packed her bag (I reckon she was only a teenager) and went up to Derry to set sail. Kate’s younger sister came up for the run and gave out yards when it was time to say goodbye to her big sister. She refused to stop crying until the uncle also agreed to take her. Of course, the result was nobody went. Just as well, we could  all have been American.

Photo of Gerry as a youngster in Donegal with his Mum and Dad on the right
Gerry as a youngster in Donegal with his parents Kate and John on the right

In saying that, a few of that family went to the US and brought up families. A distant cousin eventually made it “back home to Shandrim” in the early 90s. He went down to Shandrim, loved it and decided to stay for a while. Well, after a day, he decided it wasn’t for him. Why? The silence was deafening. For someone used to living in the city, the silence of deepest Donegal was eerie to him.

The last person to live there was Lizzie – my dad’s aunt. She did very well for herself in San Francisco and returned to Shandrim to live. She spent a little time there around 30 years ago and fixed it up. You could almost picture one of the sisters from the Lughnasa film coming back home to the cottage again in her 80s.

Things that go bump in the Donegal night

But it doesn’t end there. A nephew of Dad’s (who shall not be named) took a head stagger a few years ago and decided to go down and stay there. Sure, wasn’t it a shame that no one was using the place? Off he popped on his own, tidied a few bits up and lit the fire. Sure, that’s grand. He woke up at 4 in the morning onhearing a few strange noises. Swiftly coming to his senses, he realised he wasn’t alone. On hearing a loud rustle in the fireplace, he jumped up, into the car and back up the road to Derry and a nice warm bed.

Still, no harm in thinking about the countryside in August and remembering those who worked it so well. I hope they’re dancing somewhere: “Round the house and mind the dresser!”.  

2 responses to “Lughnasa, the beginning of Autumn”

  1. We Omagh folk like to claim Brian Friel as one of our own but nevertheless one of Ireland’s finest playwrights. Happy for Derry to adopt him though. Saw the play in London’s West End and loved it.

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