16 July 2018

Has Saint Swithun’s
Day brought an end
to this year’s summer?

The mists and rain at Beale Beach on the afternoon of Saint Swithun’s Day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

When major feast days of saints fall on a Sunday I prefer to celebrate them rather than transfer them to a day in the week that follows, unless the Sunday itself is a major feast day itself.

Sundays in Ordinary Time offer appropriate opportunities to celebrate the saints whose feast days fall on Sundays. For example, Sunday next [22 July 2018] is both the Eighth Sunday after Trinity and the feast of Saint Mary Magdalene. It is going to provide an opportunity to remember an apostolic saint who is often misinterpreted and whose apostolic ministry is often side-lined too, and an opportunity to discuss how women in the infamous Magdalene laundries were misunderstood in the past by the Church and then marginalised and victimised.

But, while Saint Swithun may be a very Anglican saint, he is not named in the Calendar of the Church of Ireland, and his feast day yesterday may have arrived with a mixture of welcomes.

Farmers in this group of parishes must welcome the rain that has been pouring down now over 24 hours. But some of us may wonder if this is truly a taste of next 40 days, and whether the best summer we have had for about 40 years came to an end this weekend.

There is a superstition that rain on Saint Swithun’s day means rain for 40 days. The first evidence for the weather prophecy seems to be a 13th or 14th-century entry in a manuscript in Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

Saint Swithun is scarcely mentioned in any document of his own time. His death is entered in the Canterbury manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 861. However, his feast day recalls not the date of his death but the day his relics were transferred in 971 from the churchyard to Winchester Cathedral, after reports of miracles, by Bishop Aethelwold.

After that, Saint Swithun’s cult spread widely, and his name displaced those of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the dedication of Winchester Cathedral.

There are many churches dedicated to Saint Swithun throughout the south of England, especially in Hampshire and in Norway, Stavanger Cathedral is dedicated to him. The only church in the Diocese of Lichfield that he gives his name to is Saint Swithun’s Church in Cheswardine, a rural village in north-east Shropshire, close to the border with Staffordshire and about 8 miles north of Newport.

Saint Swithun’s Church overlooks Cheswardine from the hill at the top of the village. This is at least the third church on this site, and was rebuilt in 1887-1889 under the direction of the architect John Loughborough Pearson, who died before the work was completed.

Saint Swithun’s importance in his day as Bishop of Winchester is overshadowed by his reputation for posthumous miracle-working. According to tradition, if it rains on Saint Swithun’s Bridge in Winchester) on his feast day, it will continue for 40 days.

The traditional rhyme or proverb says:

Saint Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
Saint Swithun’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain nae mare

The legend may have been known in the 12th century, although some historians suggest the legend derives from a tremendous downpour of rain on Saint Swithun’s Day in 1315.

Wine glasses in a dresser in Daroka in Ballybunion, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

It certainly poured yesterday, and after Morning Prayer in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, and the Parish Eucharist in Saint Brendan’s Church, Tarbert, two of us headed west to Ballybunion, planning a walk on the beach and a cosy Sunday lunch in Daroka on Cliff Road.

However, the Saint Swithun’s Day rain continued to pour down, the beach at Ballybunion was shrouded in rain as we looked out the bay window upstairs in the restaurant, and our plans for a walk on the beach were cancelled.

We walked back though the streets of Ballybunion, where holiday-makers were huddled in the doors of shops and pubs. No-one was even braving the opportunity to sit out in what boasts to be the ‘World’s Smallest Beer Garden.’

On the way back, we stopped briefly at Beale Beach. The tide was out, but the mists were down, and we were back in the Rectory in Askeaton in time to watch France beat Croatia in the World Cup Final.

The ‘World’s Smallest Beer Garden’ in Ballybunion, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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