Lá Saoire i mí Lúnasa

Today being the first Monday in August it is a Bank Holiday in Ireland. This holiday was created by the Bank Holiday Act of 1871 when Ireland was under British rule. While the holiday was subsequently moved to the end of August in England and Wales it has remained at the start of August in Ireland.

I was leafing through my diary yesterday, looking at all the deadlines coming up and wondering whether I could actually take today off*, when I got to thinking more generally about matters calendrical.

In the Northern hemisphere, from an astronomical point of view, the solar year is defined by the two solstices (summer, around June 21st, and winter around December 21st) and the equinoxes (spring, around March 21st, and Autumn, around September 21st). These four events divide the year into four roughly equal parts each of about 13 weeks.

Now, if you divide each of these intervals in two you divide the year into eight pieces of six and a bit weeks each. The dates midway between the astronomical events mentioned above are (roughly) :

  • 1st February: Imbolc (Candlemas)
  • 1st May: Beltane (Mayday)
  • 1st August: Lughnasadh (Lammas)
  • 1st November: Samhain (All Saints Day)

The names I’ve added are taken from the Celtic/neo-Pagan (and Christian terms) for these cross-quarter days. These timings are rough because the dates of the equinoxes and solstices vary from year to year. Imbolc is often taken to be the 2nd of February (Groundhog Day) and Samhain is sometimes taken to be October 31st, Halloween. But hopefully you get the point.

Incidentally, the last three of these also coincide closely with Bank Holidays in Ireland, though these are always on Mondays so often happen a few days away.

Anyway, it is interesting (to me) that the academic year here in Ireland is defined by these dates.

Usually the first semester of the academic year starts on or around September 21st (Autumnal Equinox) and finishes on or Around December 21st (Winter Solstice). Half term (study week) thus includes the Halloween Bank Holiday.

After a break for Christmas and a three-week mid-year exam period Semester Two starts on or around 1st February (Imbolc). Half-term is then around March 21st (Vernal Equinox) and teaching ends around May 1st. More exams and end of year business take us to the Summer Solstice and the (hypothetical) vacation.

So we’re basically operating on a pagan calendar.

The exception is, of course, the date of Easter, which is fixed by a mixture of solar and lunar considerations: Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday following the full Moon that occurs on or just after the spring equinox. This date moves about between March and April, which is very messy and inconvenient and should, in my opinion, be reconsidered.

*I decided on “yes”.

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