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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
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The Fires of Midsummer's Eve:

Delving Into Old Customs

red tree

Near Rosscarbery, West Cork - photo by author

by Suzanne Barrett

Midsummer's Eve in Europe, and certainly in Ireland, conjures up a quite different feeling than it does in the United States. Europeans cling closer perhaps to the old ways, and Celtic Europeans keep alive an ancient pagan culture, loosely garbed under the cloak of Christianity.

Midsummer's Eve is known in Ireland as St. John's Eve or Bonfire Night. Wiccans call it Litha. June 24th is officially St. John's Day, however, Midsummer's Day is, among other things, a celebration of the summer solstice--the longest day in the calendar year--and from ancient times the custom of lighting fires on hilltops, at crossroads, on top of a large rock outcrop, or in an open space where many could assemble. It is also a time of green trees, lush meadows, verdant fields and love. Lovers often clasped hands together and leapt over the bonfire. Those who wanted love often performed one or more love divinations. It was believed that if a maiden fasted on the Eve od St. John's Day, then set a table with a white cloth, bread, cheese and ale, the man she would marry or his spirit would come over the threshhold to sup with her.

Two fire traditions were extant in places in every county of Ireland. The large communal fire, lit by the townspeople, or perhaps by the inhabitants of the entire parish, and the small, family fires lit by the members of a household. The communal fires were a place for merriment following prayers. Music, dancing, jumping over--or passing through--the fire all contributed to the noise and gaiety of the evening, while the family fires were subdued occasions marked by ceremonies invoking protection on flock or fields, or even one's household. An eighteenth-century account of an exorcism being performed at a bonfire exists in County Limerick history, and in the nineteenth century, in Athea parish, the parish priest attended the bonfire and led the prayers.

At nightfall on the nativity of St. John the Baptist, fires were lit, often by a venerable old man of the community who recited this prayer: "In the honor of God and of St. John, to the fruitfulness and profit of our planting and our work, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen."

The communal fire could be so large that a ladder was required to set the last bundle on its top. Material for the pile might include turf, wood, sticks, bushes and brambles--anything that would burn. Sometimes gatherers went from house to house asking for fuel, and it was considered unlucky to refuse.

Bones were burned in ancient times, possibly with some ceremonial intent. Other times, the bonfire was used as a place to discard broken symbols of piety--rosaries, statues, scapulars--without incurring disrespect.

On the night of the communal fire, the older people began the proceeding by reciting prayers, sometimes a decade or more of the rosary. Kevin Danaher, in his book, The Year in Ireland, tells us of a custom of the people walking clockwise around the fire while praying. Sometimes a rosary would be used, other times a handful of pebbles, with one being cast into the fire as each prayer was concluded.

Merrymaking followed the prayers. Shouting, beating on tin cans, blowing on horns were all used in the celebration. In Dunmanway, West Cork, I was told of musical "instruments" being made by pouring an inch or so of water in the bottom of a glass bottle which was then placed on hot coals. If you were lucky, the bottom cracked cleanly off and, voila!--an instrument which, when blown through, produced a rather harsh sound that could carry for miles.

Interspersed with the music were recitations, storytelling, instrumental solos, and individual dances. Sometimes a pitchfork was plunged into the fire, then held aloft for all to see the blazing piece of wood impaled on its tines. Jack Yeats drew a sketch of lads in Belmullet, Co. Mayo, tossing burning sticks into the air to watch the showers of sparks.

After the fires had burned down, households would carry quantities of the ashes to sprinkle on fields or in each of the four corners for blessings on the crops, an ember or two to lay on the hearth. To fail to do so invited unpleasant consequences. The ashes were considered lucky; they might ensure a peaceful death to old people, and they were thought to have curative powers when taken internally. Sometimes the people carried lighted torches around the fields, inside a milking parlor "to keep milk and butter safe from evil magic."

This was the time of year also, for the gathering of St. John's wort. For best medicinal purposes, it had to be picked between Old St. John's Day and "Little St. John's Day" (between June 29th and July 4th). Yarrow was gathered as well for medicinal purposes, but also to be used in marriage divination by young girls. It was thought that by placing a bit of the herb under the girl's pillow, she would dream of her future husband.

Danaher, in his book, tells of these customs occurring as late as 1951. No doubt, some of them have been abandoned or changed in recent times, but the small household fires still occur in the more remote regions. If anyone has a story to relate about the Fires of Midsummer's Eve, and their modern occurance, I would like very much to hear it.

Midsummer's Eve celebrations have pseudo-Christian trappings, but as with many other calendar celebrations, its roots are buried in antiquity that far pre-dates Jesus Christ or the church. Do you have a question about Ireland? The Ireland for Visitors Forum is available with many helpful members.

Until next time.

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