The Rough Month of the Cuckoo
Updated: Jul 4, 2020
The Scairbhín ( pronounced skara-veen) is an Irish weather phenomenon I know only too well, but until very recently, did not know it had a name.
It translates as ‘the rough month of the cuckoo’ from the phrase garbh mi na gcuach, and refers to the period comprising the last two weeks of April, and the first two weeks of May.
So what’s so special about them?
These few weeks are often rampant with changeable extremes of weather patterns. In Ireland, we say you can expect to experience all four seasons in one day, and this is certainly true of the Scarbhín.
Our ancient ancestors who worked the land and were much closer to the seasons knew this as ‘the hungry time’ of the year. This is because they were busy planting and tending their crops which were too young and immature to produce food as yet.
But the Scairbhín was actually nature’s way of ensuring the crops success. Initial ‘unseasonal’ warm weather would enable seeds to germinate, a sudden cold snap would then serve to ‘harden off’ the young plants, and the howling gales which followed would distribute pollen.
So what has this to do with cuckoos?
Well, the Scairbhín coincided with the return of the cuckoo. The call of the cuckoo is often heard when the bird itself cannot be seen, which lends it an air of mystique. It was therefore seen as something of a herald of early spring and the milder weather which was sure to come, but which had not yet quite appeared.
Of course, the ancient Irish had quite a store of cuckoo lore; it was considered lucky to hear its call whilst out walking, but if you were to hear it whilst lying in your bed, you were sure to experience illness in the family before the cuckoo departed Irish shores for the winter.
If you heard the call whilst you had no money in your money, you were likely to remain poor for the rest of the year. Hmmm… so that explains it; I hear cuckoos most often whilst out walking with Indi, and I never carry money on me when walking the dog…
There are places in Ireland which have acquired their names through their connections with the weather.
One of my favourites is Magha an tSamraidh, which means ‘the Plain of Summer’, and is located in Co Kerry within view of the twin peaks of the Paps of Anu, I believe. Incidentally, Tir na tSamraidh means ‘Land of Summer’, and is the name of one of the Otherworld lands… heaven on earth, perhaps?
Cnoc Firinne in Co Limerick means ‘Hill of Truth’, and is so named for the accurate weather predictions made on it over the millennia, based on cloud cover and formation, visibility, and such like.
Closer to home, Loughcrew, also known as Sliabh na Caileach in Irish, or ‘Mountain of the Hag/ Crone’ is the site of a quaint Spring legend. It is said that if Imbolc (the Goddess Brigid’s feast day and first day of Spring, February 1st) dawns fine and bright, it means that winter has not yet relinquished its cold wet grip, and the crone is out and about collecting firewood to keep her warm.
If, on the other hand, Imbolc dawns cold, wild and wet, it is a good sign, for it means the crone has no need of extra firewood, and is sleeping in her bed.