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The following was contributed by an Irish relative in County Sligo, Ireland. He will be a guest contributor from time to time:
In a few short generations, modern man has forgotten how crucially important fire was for mankind for many thousands of years. As someone who was brought up in the 1940’s, in a house that did not have electricity or running water, I have some appreciation of how important it was for us as a family. Saving and gathering sufficient fuel for a year involved all the family in several weeks work spread over a period from St. Patrick’s Day, when it was time to cut the turf, until it was all brought home from the bog by ass and cart (a slow and grossly inefficient frustrating method of transport) by August at the latest.
Our fire burned in our kitchen/living-room and never went out. Last thing at night two sods of turf were embedded in the hot ashes and with restricted access to oxygen just slowly smouldered throughout the night. The first chore in the morning was to rake out the hot coals formed by the two sods, clear all the ashes from the previous day, to light a new fire with the hot coals and to hang a kettle to boil for the first cups of tea of the day.
My strongest memory of the fire was of its warming power. It was our only source of heat and secondary fires would, very occasionally, be lit in other parts of the house. The main way for distributing the heat was by earthen ware hot water jars wrapped in thick stockings. After the war the high tech of rubber hot water bottles arrived. All our cooking, mainly boiling and frying, was done on the fire and we had a large oven in which my mother did baking and roasting. Years later, on a trip to Scotland, we visited a restaurant that specialised in peat smoked products, salmon, venison, oysters etc. They all tasted just like Mammy’s cooking.
All water for washing was boiled on the fire. We had two types of water: spring water from a pump two hundred yards away for drinking and cooking, and water from a stream one hundred yards away for personal and clothes washing. Hauling water was heavy physical work and a ten gallon pot full of boiling water was a potentially hazardous and heavy article that required two adults to remove from the fire. As kids I know we had a bath in the kitchen for Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day, but how much oftener I cannot recall. As the eldest I was the last in and my memory is of freezing soapy water that I absolutely detested. A big summer event was the annual washing of the blankets. This was done by lighting a fire by the stream and boiling the water there. I recall it as a fun event where we helped with rinsing the blankets in the running water and, of course fell in or got soaked.
Survival depended on the fire and, naturally, superstition evolved around it. It was considered unlucky to give your fire away and if a neighbour had a new house he brought his own fuel to be lit in your fire. A sod of turf glowing at one end would be used to give some light on a dark night when visiting a neighbour. The sod of turf was added to the neighbour’s fire as a sign of friendship. However it was considered good etiquette to bring your own sod of turf to light at the neighbour’s fire for the return trip.
Fire was a big component of druidic ceremonies in Celtic Ireland and echoes of two survive. Our big bonfire night is St. John’s night 23rd June (still widely practised, some say, as an excuse for waste disposal) which is of course the Celtic Mid-summer festival with Christian overtones. If you could jump through the flames you would be safe for a whole year. Another fire festival was on 1st May called Bealtaine (Beal’s Fire). A practice in Sligo was to hang whin bushes over the door for luck on 1st May. In the evening the children gathered the whins and had a bonfire.
There is the tale of St. Patrick lighting the Pascal fire on the Hill of Slane before the High King lit his on the adjacent Hill of Tara. In the subsequent conflict with the High King’s druid St Patrick was victorious and thereby converted the High king. Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiach was an authority on the Early Irish church and the missionary Irish which was isolated from Rome for 150 years. His view was that the Irish church had little influence on mainstream Christianity, except that it was possibly responsible for the introduction of the Pascal fire into Easter ceremonies.
See more Irish family history articles and lessons learned in earlier posts below and in the archives.
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