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The Hearth's Fire | Celtic Cultural Minute

Stéphane Juban

The hearth and its fire holds a special place of reverence at the heart of Celtic culture. After working outdoors in wind and rain, to come in to a warm turf fire with the kettle on was a joy.

Spending time around the fire meant light and warmth, hot food, and socializing. It was a special place for a Bard or storyteller to spin tales or recite poetry, to entertain as well as to teach.

The hearth fire would traditionally have been kept alight all year long in both Scotland and Ireland, with the exception of Bealltainn eve when it was extinguished, and then relit, from a flame brought from the festival bonfire, ensuring the household health and prosperity in the coming year. It was matter of pride - and superstition - not to let the flame die out, even in in the height of summer, and there were households that boasted that their hearth had remained alight for several generations – even centuries. If the fire did die out, it was said that, “the soul goes out of the people of the house”

Now, those who rely on a fire for warmth and for cooking know well what it takes to properly tend and keep that central fire alive. Constant attention within the home, and constant work without, to find fuel that's fit to burn. And so, each night before bed, the woman of the home had the task of smooring the fire of the hearth.

Smooring- a Scots word usually translated as ’smothering’, or more accurately, ’subduing’ - was a process by which the fire was dampened down so it would not need tending, and therefore could be left safely alight during the night. In Ireland, it was said that the Good Folk would be displeased if they arrived at a house during the night to find that there was no fire for them.

Smooring a peat fire was usually done by covering the embers with ash. In Ireland, a prayer would be said to St Brigid, protector of the hearth, as the fire was covered.

In Scotland, where the traditions associated with smooring have been well recorded, the embers would sometimes be made into a circle and then split evenly into three parts, each part representing an aspect of the holy Trinity. Peat was laid in between each section in the name of the God of Life, the God of Peace and then the God of Grace, and the ashes were spread on top in the name of the God of Light. The resulting heap was called Tula nan Tri, the Hearth of the Three, and when the smooring was complete a prayer would be said as the housewife closed her eyes and stretched her hands over it.

For Celtic Cultural Alliance, this is Kate Scuffle – Slainte!

An actress, producer, writer and educator, Kate is the Managing Director of Selkie Theatre, and was the founding Executive Director of the award-winning Theatre Outlet. At The Outlet she produced several innovative performance series featuring new drama, music, dance and spoken word, as well as the Outlet’s Educational Outreach programs.