Measures of Time in Ancient Ireland

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XXIII....concluded

5. Time.

The Irish divided their year into quarters. The four quarters were called Earrach [arragh], Spring; Samhradh [sowra], Summer; Foghmhar [fowar], Autumn; Geimhridh [gevre], Winter: and they began on the first days of February, May, August, and November, respectively. We have historical testimony that festivals with games—which will be described in chapter xxv.—were celebrated at the beginning of Summer, Autumn, and Winter; but we have no account of any such celebrations at the beginning of Spring. These divisions of the year and the festivities by which they were ushered in originated with the Pagan Irish, and were continued into Christian times.

The 1st February, the beginning of Spring, was called Oimelc, signifying 'ewe-milk,' "for that is the time the sheep's milk comes": but this day is now universally known among Irish speakers as Féil Bhrighde [Fail Vreeda], 'St. Brigit's festival,' the old Pagan name Oimelc, being obsolete for centuries.

The first day of May was the beginning of Summer. It was called Belltaine or Beltene [beltina], which is the name for the 1st May still always used by speakers of Irish; and it is well known in Scotland, where Beltane has quite taken its place as an English word:—

“Ours is no sapling, chance sown by the fountain,

Blooming at Beltane, in winter to fade.”

Lady of the Lake.

The 1st of August, the beginning of Autumn, was, and is still, called Lugnasad [Loonasa], from the nasa or games instituted by the Dedannan king Lug [Loo] of the Long Arms, which were celebrated at Tailltenn yearly on that day.

Samain or Samhuin [sowin], the first of November, was the first day of Winter. This name is still used even among the English-speaking people in Scotland and the north of Ireland, in the form of sowin or sowins, which is the name of a sort of flummery usually made about the 1st November.

The ancient Irish counted time rather by nights than by days. Thus in the Life of St. Fechin we are told:—"Moses was forty nights on Mount Sinai without drink, without food." In coupling together day and night they always put the night first: in other words, the night belonging to any particular day was the night preceding; so that what they called Sunday night was the same as Saturday night with us.


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