By Eugene Daly

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

As I write this article, the rain is beating on my window and I’m just grateful that it is not 15 July, St Swithin’s Day. If it were, tradition assures us, it would herald rain for the next forty days.
How did this rumour start? More to point, how reliable is it?
It all began with an Anglo-Saxon name Swithin, the ‘Strong One’. He served as bishop of the Winchester cathedral of Sts Peter and Paul from 852 (or 3) until his death about ten years later. The dates aren’t exact.

Early biographies (which are about as reliable as early dates) tell us his tenure as bishop was marked by its lack of ostentation. When he gave a banquet he invited the poor rather than the rich, and he preferred simplicity in all things.

On his deathbed he requested that he would prefer if his body was buried outside the cathedral where ordinary passers-by might see it. This break with tradition was no doubt frowned on by many of his subordinates, but it was his last wish and had to be honoured.

In the 960s a new basilica was built and named in honour of the former bishop who, over the century since his death, had slowly been acquiring something of a cult following. It was also decided to remove his body to a more exalted position within the new church. The date chosen for the removal was the 15 July 971.
But as they say, the best laid plans of mice and men …
It started to rain heavily, so heavily that the exhumation could not be carried out that day – nor the next – nor the next.

For ten days it rained and then for ten more and ten more after that. After weeks of incessant downpour, the land around was flooded and there was great fear for the harvest. Clergy and laity prayed for the rain to stop but all to no avail.

Then, in answer to their supplications, Swithin appeared to explain what was happening.

Throughout his life, he had been known as someone who eschewed pomp and ceremony. He didn’t want the status of burial under the high altar. He was content to be left in the simple grave outside the basilica.
He went on to explain that he felt the money spent on erecting the new church would have been better spent on relieving the plight of the poor. If the clergy of the cathedral really wanted to honour his memory they should respect his wishes and leave his body where it lay.

Presumably, that’s what they did, for the rain ceased after forty days.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own