Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland
One of the four great fire festivals of ancient Ireland
Lughnasa means “the gathering of Lugh” the many-gifted, who was once a leader of the Tuatha Dé Danann. In times we know only from myth and legend, this festival was celebrated for the two weeks leading up to the cross-quarter date, which might have been anywhere from the first to the fourteenth of August, and for two weeks afterwards, marking the end of the old year and the birth of the new.
Lughnasa is recorded from ancient times along with the other Irish fire festivals, Samhain, Imbolc and Beltane as having clear connections to the neolithic peoples of the continent, although it was also well known in Scotland, where it was called Lùnastal, on the Isle of Man where they call it Luanistyn, in Wales, Gŵyl Awst, and even in England, were they named it Lammas or Loaf Mass.
Each of these festivals is described on the Coligny tablet, found in France in 1897, dating originally from around 200 AD, as Gaulish Druids sought to preserve their culture from the Romans. This connection through the Coligny Calendar proving Irish antiquity’s inheritance from earlier predecessors, added to the extensive texts of early Irish tradition, has meant that historians use the classical Irish names for four of the calendar feasts.
The festival of Lughnasa was deeply connected to yet distinct from the Tailteann Games, which were founded by Lugh in order to commemorate the death of his mother in law, Tailtiú, who promised that “as long as these games were held, Ireland would not be without song.”
It was on the cross quarter days that the veil between this world and the others was believed to weaken and grow thin, and spirits of various sorts could pass over and back between them. The moundfires or Aos Sí were lit to keep away any malign spiritual influences that might be prowling on these nights.
The first fruits of the harvest were buried or burned at the summit of hills in sacrifice, an old bull was slaughtered and roasted for celebrants to feast upon, while a young bull was raised in his place. This practice reaches back to the first neolithic cattle farming which became such a central part of Irish culture and the naming of important places.
One of the highlights of Lughnasa was a darkly spectacular ritual dance, a battle between Lugh and Crom Dubh or Balor, signifying the powers of light striving against plague, pestilence, famine and death. When Christianity came to Ireland Lugh was replaced by Saint Patrick, but the ritual continued for a time nonetheless.
As amazing as it may seem, some survivals of the old pagan ways still persisted even to the end of the nineteenth century! Bull sacrifices around Lughnasa time were recorded at Cois Fharraige in Ireland, where they were offered to Crom Dubh, and at Loch Maree in Scotland where they were offered to Saint Máel Ruba.
Celebrations reached their peak after the sun set, for the old Gaels saw the new day starting after the sun had set. There was eating, drinking, dancing, folk music, games and matchmaking, as well as athletic and sporting contests such as weight-throwing, hurling and horse racing.
Any special or spiritual location around the local area would become a focus for the Lughnasa celebrations, such as “tipping stones”, great boulders precariously balanced on much smaller ones.
Young men and women wore garlands of flowers and berries as they danced and sang, and holy wells were visited. Some of these traditions can still be seen today, with Garland Sunday, Bilberry Sunday and most famously Reek Sunday, where thousands of people make a pilgrimage to the top of Croagh Patrick, circling stations sunwise as they climb. Now, while the Croagh Patrick climb is usually uneventful, a strange occurrence took place in the year 1113 AD, when chroniclers record that "A ball of fire came on the night of the feast of Patrick 17 March on Crú chain Aighle, and destroyed thirty of those fasting."
When the calendar changed from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian one in 1752, the first of August came almost two weeks earlier than it had before, so some farmers tried to stay in step with the older calendar by leaving their harvesting until the eleventh of August, while others who found that their crops were not ready would ritually dig up a sample of their crops the first of the August.
In County Donegal this tradition was still observed at the end of the nineteenth century, as Hugh Dorian describes in the following extract from his 1889 biography, The Outer Edge of Ulster:
“everyone who has a crop to fasten on makes it a point to open the new clay or as they say 'bleed the crop' on the first day of August. To fulfil the observance of digging on the first of the month, some would do so at a loss to the green crop, it not being in perfection, but then they withdraw hands for some days till nearer ripe.”
For both crops and livestock Lughnasa was a time to gain protection and blessings. Sir Henry Piers noted in 1682 that on the first Sunday of August it was at one time customary for local farmers in County Westmeath to “drive their cattle into some pool or river, and therein swim them”, explaining that by doing “this they observe as inviolable as if it were a point of religion, for they think no beast will live the whole year thro’ unless they be thus drenched.”
There are several fairs which are believed to be survivals of Lughnasa, for example the Fair at Greencastle, County Down and Puck Fair in County Kerry, where a goat is brought in and crowned “King” near to the vast lake known as Loch Currane which was formerly known as Loch Luíoch, named after the god Lugh.
John M. Synge writes about Puck Fair around the year 1900:
“The greatest event in West Kerry is the horse-fair known as Puck Fair, which is held in August.
If one asks anyone, many miles east or west of Killorglin, when he reaped his oats or sold his pigs or heifers, he will tell you it was four or five weeks, or whatever it may be, before or after Puck.
On the main roads, for many days past, I have been falling in with tramps and trick characters of all kinds, sometimes single and sometimes in parties of four or five, and as I am on the roads a great deal I have met the same persons several days in succession – one day perhaps at Ballinskelligs, the next day at Feakle Callaigh and the third in the outskirts of Killorglin.
Yesterday cavalcades of every sort were passing from the west with droves of horses, mares, jennets, foals and asses, with their owners going after them in flat or railed carts or riding on ponies.
The men of this house – they are going to buy a horse – went to the fair last night, and I followed at an early hour in the morning. As I came near Killorglin the road was much blocked by the latest sellers pushing eagerly forward, and early purchasers who were anxiously leading off their young horses before the roads became dangerous from the crush of drunken drivers and riders.
Just outside the town, near the public house, blind beggars were kneeling on the pathway, praying with almost Oriental volubility for the souls of anyone who would throw them a coin.
“Mary the Holy Immaculate Mother of Jesus Christ,” said one of them, “intercede for you in the hour of need. Relieve a poor blind creature, and may Jesus Christ relieve yourselves in the hour of death. May He have mercy, I’m saying, on your brothers and fathers and sisters for evermore.”
Further on stalls were set out with cheap cakes and refreshments, and one could see that many houses had been arranged to supply the crowds who had come in. Then I came to the principal road that goes around the fair-green, where there was a great concourse of horses, trotting, walking and galloping; most of them were of the cheaper class of animals, and were selling, apparently to the people’s satisfaction, at prices that reminded one of the time when fresh meat was sold for three pence a pound.
At the further end of the green there were one or two rough shooting galleries and a number of women – not very rigid, one could see – selling, or appearing to sell, all kinds of trifles: a set that came in, I am told, from towns not far away. At the end of the green I turned past the chapel, where a little crowd had just carried in a man who had been killed or badly wounded by a fall from a horse, and went down to the bridge of the river and then back again into the main slope of the town. Here there were a number of people who had come in for amusement only, and were walking up and down, looking at each other – a crowd is as exciting as champagne to these lonely people, who live in long glens among the mountains – and meeting with cousins and friends.
Then, in a three-cornered space in the middle of the town, I came on Puck himself, a magnificent he-goat (Irish puc), raised on a platform twenty feet high, and held by a chain from each horn, with his face down the road. He is kept in position, with a few cabbages to feed on, for three days, so that he may preside over the pig-fair, the horse-fair and the day of winding up.”
In Wicklow, West Kerry and Connemara, 1911.
Craggaunowen is an open-air museum in County Clare which hosts a yearly Lughnasa Festival where actors demonstrate elements of daily life in Gaelic Ireland. It includes displays of replica clothing, artefacts, weapons and jewellery. A similar event has been held each year at Carrickfergus Castle in County Antrim.
Puck Fair in County Kerry can be found on the map below!
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