Is this the real life…is this just purgatory?
This time of year feels like purgatory. The cold months go on like they’ll never end, the long dreary days of winter lie before us like an eternal bus journey. We wrap ourselves up, layer after layer, pitiful armour in the face of Mother Nature’s worst work. Friends, it’s hard to appear stylish in a jacket, coat, bobble hat, scarf and gloves. Ladies become Shakleton-reborn as they brave the frigid evenings out in their party dresses.
Nowadays Christmas begins the day after Halloween and reaches a sorry climax on December 25th. Wheelie-bins groan under the weight of our collective disappointment. We buy more and more stuff seeking to fill the void left behind by the sun, friendship and comfort. We eat too much, grow pale, wan and tired like the winter sun barely able to rise in the morning. The Irish are no strangers to purgatory. For the people of ancient Europe, Ireland was a land literally on the edge of the world: a mystical place with one foot in this life and one foot in the life to come. The ancient Romans called us Hibernia, the land of eternal winter, and they believed that the spirits of the dead waited here before moving on to the next life.
Not only did the ancient Europeans believe that Ireland was a magical place, they also thought it full of magical beings, the Tuatha de Danann, the Fomorians, the Fir Bolg and, my personal favourite, the Péist. Ireland does not have a tradition of dragons but there were a number of giant serpents, legless like many an Irishman has been. One serpent was said to be very intelligent, as she had eaten of the tree of knowledge. She lived atop Mount Cuilcagh between Fermanagh and Cavan. She heard that St Patrick had set up shop in Lough Derg, and being very intelligent, promptly fled the country to the Garden of Paradise, so large was the serpent, she cut a new path for the Shannon, and that is why the Shannon now is the longest river in these islands.
St Patrick’s Purgatory in Lough Derg, aside from being a place much feared by serpents, was believed to be the spot where Christ showed Patrick a vision of Hell and the fires of Purgatory. St Patrick to this day is the patron saint of purgatory. Setting the Christian language aside for the moment, I visited Lough and you can tell it is a liminal place, you really feel that the border between this world and the next is very thin there.
You might think, that I bemoan this purgatorial feeling that comes over us at this time, but feeling close to the great beyond at Lough Derg teaches you something. Yes, I could feel it was a liminal space but it is difficult to put myself in the shoes of those who believed you could enter purgatory in county Donegal. Our increased knowledge of the sciences has brought with it a confidence in the inherent stability of reality. It is not easy to see things from the perspective of those who built Newgrange/Brú na Boinne. They too would have difficulty trying to understand the obsession with the perfect instagram post Christmas morning. They believed that every year the sun did battle with the darkness and there was a real danger that the sun would lose that battle on the solistice. The light would fail to make love to the land and all life would perish. With their ancient rituals, and their great symbol Newgrange, they ensured that the light won. When the ray of light, penetrated the land, illuminating the passage tomb wall, and the symbol of the universe painted thereon, the people knew that the light had won, all would be well, and they could cease to live in dread.
Imagine if you went home and there was no light switch to turn on, no heating timed to come on before you get home. You lived in the dark for two-thirds of the day and got up in the morning and it was still dark, however, perhaps our real gateway to understanding these people is the moments in which we reflect upon our mental health.
Studies consistently show that seasonal affective disorder has a real impact on our lives, our mood naturally cycles with the seasons, such that those affected often struggle to wake up, have anxiety, lack energy and overeat. Those with depression often liken it to a kind of darkness doing battle with all the light in their lives. The psyche in some ways is like a conservatory cold, bleak, underused until the light shines in.
All that being said, as you think about the horrible winter ahead, the purgatory of the next few months, be happy that you know one day it will be over. You don’t have to fear that the darkness will win out, we know better. As you put on your bobble hat and scarf, brace yourself for the walk to the bus, be content that unlike our ancestors we know summer will come again for sure. There’ll be days of wine and roses yet.