Spring can be an awful tease, especially in Ireland. Some say the first day of spring is Imbolc in early February, while others acknowledge it being at the vernal equinox on March 20th. Generally, things are looking a lot more like spring at the equinox than at Imbolc. But in 2018, we seem to have made very little progress toward that elusive, mild spring weather. This year, snow is still clinging to the shadowy spots along the hedgerows as March draws to a close. There are even rumors of snow for Easter. In a country where snow is always a big deal because it isn’t seen every winter, this is a bit unnerving.
The nation greeted a recent freak blizzard that dumped several inches of snow with good cheer and an onslaught of self-mocking memes about our tendency to stockpile bread. At the government’s urging, schools and businesses shut down. The army transported hospital staff in some areas, and the entire country suffered severe cabin fever for three long days. Surely we deserve some real spring after that?
What Happens at the Vernal Equinox?
The ancient Celts marked the spring equinox at Loughcrew in County Meath. They built a cairn there, which is now open to the public. Similar to the famous Newgrange at the winter solstice, this cairn was constructed very carefully. Light enters at just the right angle at the spring and autumn equinox to illuminate the inner chamber. Cairn T, as it is known, features a sort of corridor with intricate stone carvings that leads to the inner chamber. At the equinox, light reaches the depths of the inner chamber and illuminates the complex stone carvings there.
While we don’t have any clear record of the meaning of these carvings or why our ancestors made them, we do have some intriguing theories. The designs at Loughcrew are different from those at Newgrange. Here we have circular symbols that resemble the sun or a flower. Both of those theories make some sense. The sun obviously was extremely important to the builders of these passage graves. Their purpose is to capture the light on significant days on the solar calendar. The first flowers of spring start to appear at the vernal equinox, and the last blooms of the year are dying at the autumn equinox. But there is another possibility that makes even more sense. The circles could be a wheel depicting the changing seasons and passage of time.
People still gather at Loughcrew at the spring and autumn equinoxes. Visitors come to see the carvings all through the summer and ponder their possible meanings as they take in the astonishing view of the surrounding counties. And we still love to wear Celtic jewelry inspired by those mysterious carvings. The feeling of connection runs deep, even if we don’t know exactly what our ancestors were saying with these beautiful carvings.