Emerald Isle

Bilberry Sunday

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland

Farewell to hunger

The month of July was known for the past several centuries in Ireland as the hungry month, since that was when the food from last year's harvest began to run out or had spoiled. The ability of the typical Irish household to store food and save money to buy more was at its lowest by the middle of the nineteenth century, even before the great hunger took a bite!

July was also known as Staggering Month and the Blue Month, as well as the Yellow Month, after the colour of the fields and the faces of the poor. Most sinister of all, some called it the Dead Month, Mí Mharbh. The poor walked the highways and byways of Ireland in the baking heat of summer begging for alms, as visitors to the country described in their journals.

With that said, the poitín or moonshine makers didn't waste the weather either, laying out their malt to dry in fields and yards hidden high among the hills and mountains, away from official attention!

So it's understandable that the last Sunday in July was celebrated with some enthusiasm! It was called Reek Sunday, Bilberry Sunday, Lammas Sunday, Hill Sunday or Garland Sunday. On this day people would, and still do, climb Croagh Patrick in Mayo, some barefoot, in a pilgrimage to celebrate the life of Saint Patrick.

Festivals and gatherings were held throughout Ireland on this day, often at the top of hills, where young men challenged one another in sporting feats and there was music and dancing. The first of the potato harvest was taken in and cooked, served with meat and bilberry cakes – traditionally made by young women for the young men they loved!

Delicious bilberries were gathered around this time of year, and were once a popular export to foreign lands. They have been used in Ireland since ancient times as food, dye and in the making of medicine. They were called fraughans or frachóg, and also heatherberries, whinberries and blaeberries.

Although the festivities of Garland Sunday are rarely practised these days, some parts of Ireland still continue the tradition, like at Keshcorran in County Sligo, marked on the map below, where competitions and shows take place every Garland Sunday.

Further Folk and Faerie Tales of Ireland

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