Dancing at the crossroads in August
In olden times (yes, I did attend such a chéileadh as a child with my grandparents. I’m middle-aged not old), rural Ireland had a small gathering celebration at August weekends in the evening at crossroads. It was a tradition where families would meet with other ones at crossroads that were halfway between their homes and come together for merry making until dusk of music, food, and ,of course, dancing. In the 21st Century, rural Ireland is no longer awash with such as it has decreased a lot in size and the convienance of modern entertainment, has all but deleted this annual get-together.
The start of this event was always after the first bank holiday weekend of August (it’s the first weekend of the month in Ireland) which , traditionally, is the start of the three month harvest ending at Samhain. In the modern calendar, August is Lúnasa, September is Mhéan Fómhair (Mid Harvest), and October is Dheireadh Fómhair(End of Harvest). Obviously before the advent of the Calendar, these times were marked by the observance of both the solar and lunar cycles in stone circles. The smaller d-style stone circles were for observing the solar cycles at sunset and lunar cycles whereas the larger stone circles were mainly for observance of the solar cycle at sun rise. Even some passage tombs were purpose built indicating equinoxes and others the solstices. This has been demonstrated by archaeologists at different megalithic sites. Development in modern farming and use of different crops that have different maturing phases compared to traditional crops, this is no longer required but remains to this day, a very accurate clock of Nature’s cycle. The chéileadh normally lasted for four weekends which, I am only personally guessing, would roughly equate from the first new moon after the Summer solstice to the next new moon. There is also a solar indication of Fhéileadh Tailitú(Lughnasadh)/ Cenn Dhú. The Irish folklore tales of Lugh’s Fir Bolg foster mother, Tailitú dying and laying on the cereal field before the first reaping, and the bull carrying the sun upon his back through the portal stones, hint to us how important this time was to the early Irish especially on the reaping of the harvest in time before the onset of harsher conditions.
Fast forwarding to the early 1980’s, I used to spend a lot of Summers at my maternal grandparents in Barryscourt, a townland of Carrigtwohil in east Cork. From what I can remember, I always used to look forward to this particular Bank Holiday weekend and the fun that came with it. For those not native to these times, the only gaming system available was the Atari, there was only two TV stations (which only broadcasted for certain lengths daily) for those not lucky enough to have a UHF ariel (to get the English stations), and the radio only had three stations on FM (RTE1, 2FM, and Rádio na Gaelteacht). The good clothes or Sunday best was donned in the afternoon and then a hike to Carrigtwohil through the grounds of Barry’s castle( at that time it was a ruin and the local unofficial playground) and into the common grounds just outside the Girls National school. And like every year, the Merries (travelling fairground) had arrived. To a young country lad, this was one of the highlights of the year. The bumper cars, helter skelter, spinning cups, hook-a-duck, waltzer as well as candy floss, sticky apples and ice cream cones come fondly to memory. The day ended as soon as it got dark and then the tired trek back to my grandparents house stopping at the well on the castle grounds to wash down the sweet morsels. For the rest of the week, it was business as usual, helping my grandmother feed the hens and collect eggs after the ritual pecking of the hands, pick blackcurrants to make jam, weed the furrows of the vegetable acre, climb trees and generally do what kids do, play until called in. In front of my grandparents house there was a little plot of land locally known as the Gooses Acre (now long gone) at the cross roads of Cobh road, Carrigtwohil road, Ballintubber road, and Ellis’s Quarry road. After the August Weekend, the following four Friday evenings, the neighbours would gather and have a bit of a chéileadh. Everyone brought something to the table. Bodhrán’s, tin whistles, flutes, pipes and even spoons were played. Everyone danced. Tea was downed by the gallon, apple and rhubarb tarts gobbled. I still can taste the jam covered homemade scones and soda bread to this day. This was a very Catholic community yet still celebrating the very essence of a very old tradition.
Looking back fondly on these memories even my woeful shrill notes on the tin whistle, it would be a crying shame to see this tradition disappear completely. The crossroads don’t have a deep spiritual beginning or a native Deity associated with it. It’s an idea of getting together socially and celebrating the harvest regardless of culture or creed. Even a different religion couldn’t wipe it’s memory. It became engrained into Irish society. The only real danger is letting modern convenience make us forget our cultural roots. I forgot about it as well. I have no intention of making the world suffer from my musical prowess and getting people to meet halfway over anything is a harsh enough task as it is getting them to gather together in an agreed designated spot. Maybe if we do one small thing as a tradition with family and friends in honour of this time and for those who went before us. The Gooses Acre is long since tarmacked over for a bigger road, my Grandparents are long passed as is their small farm land, Barryscourt castle is now a Bord Fáilte tourist attraction, a Dual Carraigeway bisects the route from Barryscourt to Carrigtwohil, the travelling Merries are now long gone and the common ground is a carpark with a Community Centre. A distant memory but sometimes when I park there and my little seoíge jumps out of the car, I hear the repeat jingles and smell the sticky apples. Cycling past what is now my uncle’s family home, sometimes I can remember my time there with my Grandparents and the annual chéileadh. The music is playing and the food is prepared. Take my hand and join in the dance at the crossroads. The memory is there to be awakened.
Go mbeadh amhrán agus damhsa an Fhómhair go deo i do chroí.
Seán Ó Tuama.