The Celtic Oak Moon

The kiss of midsummer is upon us and also the waxing Oak Moon. It's a beautiful time of year.

Solstice means 'standstill' and refers to the way the sun appears to rise and set in the same place for a few days this week. Here in the west of Ireland, there are very few hours of darkness right now. In fact, at this time of year, I have stayed outside gardening in the almost-darkness, and been shocked when I came inside and found out it was one in the morning.

People used to light bonfires on the summer solstice to celebrate the sun at the height of its power, and to strengthen the power of the sun through ritual. When the Christians arrived in Ireland, they took over the Summer Solstice, as they did most holidays, and declared that a new holiday would be celebrated on the 24th of June (a few days after the solstice). This, they decreed, just happened to be the anniversary of the birth of St. John the Baptist. The custom still exists and, on the eve of St. John (June 23rd), bonfires are lit all over the Irish countryside. Tomorow night, I'll go to the local bonfire and take old cardboard boxes, pillows, and a few other things that need to be 'released' to the flames! But instead of thinking about St. John (who may or may not have been born in June), I'll be thinking druidic thoughts about the symbolic strength of midsummer, and gratitude for how the warmer weather empowers all of us, humans, animals and plants.

Tonight, as the sun was setting behind the mountains, a waxing crescent moon was high in the sky, very close to the sun. It was an oddly magical sight. According to the ancient Celtic tree calender, this is the Oak Moon, a moon that symbolizes strength, security and power. Druids worshipped in oak groves, and later, the vaulting in English churches was made from curved oak timbers. A most powerful tree for a most powerful time of year. Right now is the best time of year to employ nature and use the strength of the sun to aid visualization and guide our personal powers.

I wish you all a blessed and magical season!
'She kneels beneath the huge oak tree 
And in silence prayeth she.' 
      -Samuel Taylor Coleridge 

A Haunted Landscape

When Roman Christianity invaded Ireland, a shameful Irish custom began, and continued until the 1960s. It was decreed that no unbaptised child or individual could be buried in consecrated ground. This was a concept used by theologians in an effort to compel individuals to be baptised into the Catholic faith.

Most unbaptised children, as well as victims of murder, disease or suicide, were buried in a lisheen. One such lisheen lies in the Ower countryside of County Galway, on the Black River. It is atop an ancient ring fort, which is now an overgrown forest. To previous generations, this would have been a ‘faerie fort,’ a landscape haunted by the fey. A place in between worlds, much like the ‘Limbo,’ unbaptised babies would be resigned to. To reach the lisheen, you have to traverse around briars and prickly hawthorne trees. In the springtime, the ground in this forest is covered in beautiful white wild garlic flowers. Always there is an air of extreme peacefulness here—an almost eerie calm—occasionally punctuated by the fluting of birds in the trees overhead and the rush of the river far below.

The land slopes down into the forest and the ground is covered in tumbled, moss-covered stones. Headstones.

Back when most babies were born at home and infant mortality was high, parents suffered unbearable grief and anguish, believing that their child would never get to heaven or they’d never see their unbaptised loved ones again. Standing in this forest, it’s easy to imagine a father burdened with the task of bringing a baby here, probably under cover of darkness, and laying the tiny creature in a shallow grave without a wake, or any support from neighbours.

In the centre of this forest is a large rectangular mound of stones which it is said was once an altar where the local Franciscan monks said mass during the time of the Cromwell invasion. 
The Ower lisheen, like most of the Irish landscape, is fertile both agriculturally and emotionally . . . a place where stories seem to come up out of the ground, grab you by the ankle, and demand, ‘Write me!’