Emerald Isle

Midsummer Bonfire Night

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

When fairies and humans danced and sang together

Although it is less celebrated these days, the midsummer festival used to be an important occasion in Ireland, going back many centuries, far into ancient times. Even as lately as fifty years ago half the streets in Ireland would have their own bonfire, or more properly bone fire, since the Irish word for “bonfire” is tine cnaimh. The bones of animals were cast into the fires, which were usually of hot-burning gorse, as offerings to the spirits.

The old people used to call it Oíche Fhéil Eoin or Oíche Tine Seán, the Night of John's Fire. Before Christianity came to Ireland, the first midsummer fire was lit on Howth Hill, and the moment the flame appeared in the darkness a great shout went up from the watchers on all the surrounding hilltops, where other fires were quickly kindled until soon the whole country was in a blaze, flames of fire springing like magic from hill to hill.

These celebrations took place on the 23rd of June, midsummer's eve, halfway through the year and two days after the summer solstice. It was called St John's eve festival. Great fires were lit by the oldest person present exactly at sundown, while the youngest there would throw in a bone, and they were tended until midnight, or in some places until dawn.

Young people would walk around from house to house for a few days beforehand asking for “a penny for the bonna,” and would spend the money on sweets and treats. It was considered bad luck to refuse them! At some fires, so they say, the names of the most generous donors were called out and the crowd would cheer, while the names of the tight fisted were also announced to be greeted with jeers and catcalls. They would also gather wood, gorse, turf twigs and sticks for the fire, which had to be exactly circular in shape and situated close to a holy well or graveyard, or even on top of a fairy mound!

People gathered around the fires to dance and sing, roasting potatoes, praying and reciting poetry, while young men proved their bravery by leaping through the flames and walking through the fields carrying lit torches before casting them into the fire to protect the crops from disease, misfortune and the sidhe.

The oldest woman in the area might go three times sunwise, or deiseal, round the fire on her knees saying prayers for protection and health. Holy water was sprinkled on the fires and a special treat called Goody was made of milk, bread, sugar and spices for the children, spooned into the bowls they brought along with them.

Farmers would also leap high to ask for tall crops, and weeds were thrown on the fires to fend them off for the growing season. People used to gather large leafed and strong stemmed hocusfian plants from marshy ground, and each went around lightly striking each person that he or she met with them. This was supposed to protect those who were struck from illness and evil influences during the coming year. Afterwards, the hocus stems were thrown into the fire.

The ashes and embers of the fire were considered blessed, and they were brought home to scatter in the hearth or over the fields to ensure a rich harvest. Sometimes they were mixed with water and drunk as a medicine! Cattle were also driven through the ashes to protect them, or if two fires were built, they might be driven between the two fires.

Any man who had built a new house or had nearly completed it took from the bonfire a shovel of red hot coals to his new home so that the very first fire would be lit by the ceremonial bonfire. This would protect his house from fairies, even if he had built it on a fairy path!

Bonfire night also marked the beginning of the Irish swimming season, and if the weather was good up to then, when the cuckoo ceased calling, it was believed that a bad harvest will follow. But if the weather was bad beforehand they thought it would be a good dry harvest. Foxgloves and St John's Wort were gathered, both for use as medicine and as protection against evil spirits. Fishermen's boats and nets were blessed by priests when the fires were lit, and a communal salmon dinner served in coastal areas.

In 1861 Limerick poet Aubrey Thomas de Vere wrote a poem called “The Sisters” which describes the Midsummer festival after the famine.

At last,
After our home attain'd, we turn'd, and lo!
With festal fires the hills were lit! Thine eve
Saint John, had come once more, and for thy sake
As though but yesterday thy crown were worn,
Amid their ruinous realm uncomforted
The Irish people triumph'd. Gloomy lay
The intermediate space; -- thence brightlier burn'd
The circling fires beyond it. 'Lo!' Said I,
Man's life as view'd by Ireland's sons; a vale
With many a pitfall throng'd, and shade, and briar,
Yet overblown by angel-haunted airs,
And by the Light Eternal girdled round.

Lady Wilde wrote about the celebrations she saw taking place in the old west of Ireland:

“The fires are still lighted on St. John's eve on every hill in Ireland. When the fire has burned down to a red glow, the young men strip to the waist and leap over or through the flames; this is done backwards and forwards several times, and he who braves the greatest blaze is considered the victor over the powers of evil, and is greeted with tremendous applause.

When the fire burns still lower, the young girls leap the flame, and those who leap clean over three times, back and forward, will be certain of a speedy marriage and good luck in after-life, with many children. The married women then walk through the lines of the burning embers; and when the fire is nearly burnt and trampled down, the yearling cattle are driven through the hot ashes, and their back is singed with a lighted hazel twig.

These hazel rods are kept safely afterwards, being considered of immense power to drive the cattle to and from the watering places. As the fire diminishes the shouting grows fainter, and the song and the dance commence; while the professional storytellers narrate tales of fairy-land, or of the good old times long ago, when the kings and princes of Ireland dwelt amongst their own people, and there was food to eat and wine to drink for all comers to the feast at the king's house.

When the crowd at length separate, everyone carries home a brand from the fire, and great virtue is attached to the lighted brone which is safely carried to the house without breaking or falling to the ground. Many contests also arise amongst the young men, for whoever enters his house first with the sacred fire brings the good luck of the year with him.”

An old Limerick schoolmaster wrote of the celebrations he witnessed in 1943:

“...old people of thirty years ago and more remembered how the fire used to be lit exactly at sunset and had to be watched and tended until long after midnight. Prayers use to be said to obtain God's blessing on the crops, then at the peak-point of summer bloom.

Round the fire gathered young and old. There was much fun and music; a dance was started and games were played while some young men competed in casting weights or in feats of strength, speed or agility. I gathered that it was mostly women who shared in the prayers for the gardens and for good weather. Neglect in this respect might lead to a bad harvest or cause "the white trout not to come up the river" as they usually did with the mid-summer floods.

Unless the weather proved too cold, summer swimming in the river began on St. John's Day and the observance of the festival was supposed to eliminate all danger of drowning.

Old people told me that it was customary to jump over the fire from side to side. Some wise elder claimed to be able to tell, from the manner of jumping and the flickering of the fire, whether the jumpers were guilty or not of certain misdemeanors, such as theft or misbehavior with women.

It was also customary that small objects of piety, such as rosary beads, little statues or scapulars, when they became broken or worn out were destroyed without disrespect by being burned in the Midsummer Fire.”

John Millington Synge and Jack B. Yeats observed a Bonfire Night celebration in Mayo in 1905.

“...the impression one gets of the whole life is not a gloomy one. Last night was St. John's Eve, and bonfires - a relic of Druidical rites - were lighted all over the country, the largest of all being in the town square of Belmullet, where a crowd of small boys shrieked and cheered and threw up firebrands for hours together.”

The day and night were even celebrated in the cities, where colourful parades marched through the streets wrapped in sashes and ribbons and strewing flowers before them as they danced to lively music. Tradesmen would carry long poles with the sign of their trade on top, and a couple of them wore masks to match!

These were called the Merrymen, and they would perform tricks and tumble wildly for the amusement of the crowds.

A great pole as tall as the mast of a sailing ship was erected in the town square and a basket of cakes and garters would be attached to the top. The best dancers would compete at the foot of the pole and the winners would be awarded the basket of cakes for the women and the garters for the men!

This was a time considered especially special to the fairies or the Daoine Sidhe, the people of the mounds, and they would hold their wild revels, playing sweet music for pretty mortals to entice them to enter their caves, never to be seen again. A sprig of Foxglove was said to be a sure protection against abduction.

Many of the very ancient monuments of Ireland, some more than five thousand years old, like the Hill of Tara in Meath, Lough Gur in Limerick and Carrowkeel are associated with the summer solstice.

In Mallow there is a deep cave beneath Castlecor, where they say many treasures lie glittering, guarded by a white cat that was once a queen called Aeibhill, until she was enchanted by her sister. Once a year the cat can again become human for a week at midsummer, appearing as a beautiful maiden of twenty.

She is regarded as the guardian spirit of the Dalcassian race, and Queen of the Fairies of North Munster. The King of Ireland, Brian Ború, is reported as saying on the evening of the Battle Clontarf that Aeibhill came to him the previous night and told him he should fall that day.

Castlecor can be found on the map below!

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