Fall into line – Frank McNally on St Matthew, Loughcrew, and the autumn equinox

A side-bet on superstition

The sun is packing its bags and about to head south again, cruelly abandoning us to the rigours of a northern winter. Or as astronomers prefer to put it, the ecliptic is crossing the celestial equator from the second this year.

Either way, right on cue for the equinox, the past week’s weather has marked a turn for the autumnal, including a few windy days of the kind that used to be blamed on St Matthew.

As part of the early church’s man-marking strategy against old pagan festivals, the apostle’s feast-day was deployed to cover the autumn equinox. So doing, it was said to usher in the “windy days of the barley harvest”.

The late great Brendan McWilliams of this parish, being a meteorologist, was sceptical about the connection, although he did acknowledge that, statistically, there does tend to be an increase in the frequency of high winds during the second half of September.


“It is not uncommon, therefore, for mid-September to provide the first real gale of the winter season, leading to ‘guilt by association’ for the equinox,” he wrote.

St Matthew is, among other things, the patron saint of tax collectors, having been one himself.

It may be apt therefore that in Ireland, his feast day now also announces the coming of the budget, and the annual upsurge of another kind of windiness that accompanies it.


By the time many of you read this, I hope to have been at Loughcrew in Co Westmeath to watch the equinoctial sunrise penetrate the chamber of the ancient Cairn T, with which it is aligned.

That and the other cairns at Loughcrew were built about 3,000 years before anyone heard of St Matthew. The Stone-Age Meath farmers responsible – although the concept of Meath was probably still evolving them – had their own ideas about religion, now all but lost to us.

But they were avid sky-watchers, clearly, and in their stone placement and carvings they mapped the movements of sun, moon, and stars with great and reverent intricacy.

By coincidence of late, I’ve been reading a book called A Universe From Nothing (2012), in which Prof Lawrence Krauss offers a religion-free explanation to the greatest mystery of all, including the vital role played by exploding stars.

Maybe the ancient farmers at Loughcrew were also inspired by these supernova events, which shine temporarily with a brightness of “10 billion” ordinary stars.

In any case, Krauss marvels: “One of the most poetic facts I know about the universe is that essentially every atom in your body was once inside a star that exploded. Moreover, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than did those in your right. We are all, literally, star children, and our bodies made of stardust.”

I will reflect on that while I’m at Loughcrew. As a side-bet on superstition, however, I may also have another go at sitting on the mysterious stone construction known as the “Hag’s Chair” and making a wish.

The last one I made there doesn’t seem to have worked – yet anyway. But the chair was wet that day, so maybe I didn’t linger long enough.


The autumn equinox also marks the start of Vendémiaire and with it another new year, according to the old French revolutionary calendar. In the words of one supporter, that aimed “to substitute for visions of ignorance the realities of reason, and for sacerdotal prestige the truth of nature”.

To this end it abolished all saints’ days, including St Matthew’s, and introduced a scheme exalting the agricultural economy, celebrating plants, animals, minerals, and implements instead.

The calendar didn’t last long, yet it still has its fans, the Diarist included. To judge from the archives, Brendan McWilliams was fond of it too.

In its brief heyday, the more fanatic of revolutionaries took its lead in changing their own saint-derived names to match the new feast-days. But that only worked if you shared your birthday with a flower or one of the more glamorous plants or animals. Franks were not so lucky.

As McWilliams wrote: “Even the most ardent Francois might hesitate to become a Potiron, or Pumpkin, after the vegetable to which St Francis’s Day was dedicated now; and Catherine, by the same logic, was likely to find a change of name to Pig to be too revolutionary by far.”

France being France, New Year’s Day – 1 Vendémiaire – was dedicated to the grape, or “raisin”. This reminds me of one of my long-time linguistic blind-spots whereby, until very recently, I was in the habit of mispronouncing the second syllable in that word.

Many’s the time I must have confused French boulangers by asking for what sounded like “pain au raison” rather than “pain aux raisins”. The Bread of Reason is a popular metaphor in religious and philosophical circles, I know. But not even the most expensive Parisian bakery could be expected to have the recipe.