St. John’s Day and Eve, occasionally called the Feast of St. John or Midsummer is celebrated on June 23 and 24. This holiday is a chance to pay homage to water, fire, and plants. It is a time to cleanse one’s soul to become the best versions of one’s self, spread love and compliment the Energies of the Summer Solstice. Celebratory traditions vary from region to region; however, the main theme remains—to honor the sun.
At sunset on June 23rd, another of the ancient fire festivals begins. This midsummer festival was known as St. John’s Eve, or Bonfire Night, and not that long ago, it was a wide-spread tradition throughout Ireland.
The following description is edited from a piece written in 1943 by an old schoolmaster who lived in West Limerick:
“…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 were 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.
…in my early youth near Knockaderry, County Limerick, I remember a curious custom repeated each St. John’s Eve. The young people used to gather from the marshy ground near the river Deel the large leaf and strong stem the hocusfian as it was called and each youth armed with one of these went around lightly striking each person that he or she met. This was supposed to protect those who were struck from illness and evil influences during the coming year. Afterward, the hocus stems were thrown into the fire. Here, too, people threw into the fire specimens of the most troublesome weeds in the district – this was supposed to protect the fields from these weeds.
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.
Some people used to take the ashes from the fire then extinct on St. John’s morning to scatter them on their fields. At the close of the festival too about after midnight any man who had built a new house or had nearly completed it took from the bonfire a shovel of red hot sods to his new home so that the very first fire there would be started by the ceremonial bonfire.
About the year 1905, a very old man told me that his grandfather had told him that in his young day – in the late 18th century – the young men used to walk through the fields with lighted torches and then cast these into the fire. This was supposed to bring a blessing on the fields and protect the crops from harm.
It was widely believed that a house built on a path frequented by the fairies and other such uncanny travelers would suffer from midnight noises or supernatural manifestations. Perhaps too, ill luck in the farm or personal illness might afflict the family. One remedy for these evils was to bring on St. John’s Eve portion of the blessed fire and to build with them on the path in several places small fires which would be left burning until morning.
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.”
While this very much abbreviated description of St. John’s Eve still captures this writer’s imagination, it overlooks the fact that there used to be two very distinctive fire traditions. The first was the one the old school master mentions – the large communal bonfire assembled and lit by the residents of an entire townland or village – and sometimes the whole parish! But, the equally as important tradition that he doesn’t mention is the one where small fires were lit by individual households. In contrast to the revelries of the community event, these were quiet occasions where the main concern was in observing the protective rituals. About the only merry-making, one might have witnessed was younger children playing around the fire.
But, enough of the peace and quiet. Back to the fun and frolic of a community festival!
For several days beforehand, children and young people went from house to house asking for donations for the blessed fire. It was considered very unlucky to refuse. In fact, at some fires, the names of generous donors were called out and the crowd would cheer. But then, the names of the miserly were also announced and these were greeted with jeers and catcalls.
Imagine what it must have been like. Around the fire were assembled all the people of the locality – from the smallest children to the oldest men and women. As the sun set, the fire was lit. Usually, this honor was given to a knowledgeable elderly man who would say the traditional prayer for the occasion. One verse of this prayer is:
In the honor of God and 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.
In many places, the older people continued the preliminary proceedings with more prayers. Afterward, the merry-making began. As the flames and sparks shot up, loud cheers would arise from the crowd, horns were blown and some people beat on tin cans. The musicians struck up and the young men asked their partners to dance. In-between sets, songs were sung, stories were told, and soloists – musician or dancer – demonstrated their talents. By now the fire would be well ablaze. People leaped through the flames for luck in a new venture, or marriage, when trying for a baby, for good health, and for self-purification. Farmers leaped high so their crops would grow tall. In many places, a young woman and man would join hands and jump together. Often, this was nothing more than a mere flirtation, but onlookers took it for granted that there was some intention of marriage between the pair. Some observers would even go as far as to predict the outcome of such a union by the way the flames flickered as the couple jumped!
It was indeed, a grand time enjoyed by all. But, perhaps the best part of celebrating a Celtic festival is that it continues until sunset the next day.
The large communal fires of St. John’s Eve were carefully tended so they would burn brightly long into the night. One of the favorite games for the youngsters was to snatch a burning stick from the fire and throw it high into the air — very exciting for the kids, but incredibly dangerous for the spectators!
It was reported that John Millington Synge and his friend, Jack B. Yeats attended a St. John’s Eve celebration on a visit to County Mayo in 1905. At first, they had been saddened by the depressed state of the area, but then Synge is quoted as saying: “…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.” Yeats remembered a little girl in the crowd, in an ecstasy of pleasure and dread, clutching Synge by the hand and standing close in his shadow until the fiery games were over.
Other customs included inviting the oldest woman in the area to go three times sunwise round the fire on her knees saying prayers, to ward off disease; in some localities, holy water was sprinkled on the fire and, as on other festivals, it was sprinkled on the house, its occupants, outbuildings, livestock and the crops. Generally, this was done by either the oldest person in the family, but in some parts of Ireland, the youngest child was asked to do it.
As might be expected, there was plenty of eating and drinking! Customarily, in Connaught, a special dish called “Goody” was made. This was white ‘shop-bread’ which had been soaked in hot milk and flavored with sugar and spices. It was usually made in a large pot that was either placed on the communal bonfire or heated on a smaller fire close by. Revelers brought their own spoons and bowls if they wanted to share in the “Goody.”
In many parts of Ireland, it was the tradition for children to go around the village asking for “a penny for the bonfire.” They used the money they collected to buy candy and cakes to eat that evening at the fire. Popular with the old folk were a few bottles of poitín (potcheen) or whiskey; the young men, on the other hand, would pool their resources and buy a barrel of beer or porter which was shared all around.
When the communal bonfires were dying down, cows were often driven through them. Just so you don’t think the Irish were being cruel to their livestock, the communal fire was often a pair of fires between which the cattle were driven to protect them against disease for a year.
Likewise, it was believed that the fire would protect all the crops grown on the farm and that it could increase the yield, ensure a good harvest, and keep away blight, rust and other plant diseases. To make certain the fields were adequately protected, the fire had to be applied to the fields.
There were two ways this was done; many people took embers from the big fire and threw them into each field; if the growth of a crop was high enough to hide the glowing ember, this was thought to be a very good omen. The other way was for people to bring a long stemmed bush to the communal fire, light it, throw it into a crop or carry it through the fields. Many times, each member of a family would make individual torches which were lit from the fire and then carried high aloft as the family processed around every corner of their property. It must have been quite a sight to see from a distance, as neighboring families performed the same ritual!
Before moving on to the other customs surrounding the festival of St. John, there was one last ritual to perform and that was the bringing home of an ember from the communal fire and placing it on the family hearth. Some families also kept ashes from the fire for luck, others because they believed the ashes would ensure a peaceful death to old people who were ailing. The ashes also had curative powers: mixed with water, they were drunk to relieve internal disorders and they were used to cleanse and bathe wounds, sores, and swellings.
After the merriment of St. John’s Eve and with the fire burned out, families retired to their homes to rest up for the festivities of June 24th, the Saint’s birthday!
In the city of Limerick, they would have eagerly anticipated a colorful parade of tradesmen. Adorned with sashes, ribbons, and flowers, and accompanied by musicians, they marched in groups through the principal streets. A similar procession took place in Galway City, except that the marchers were the fishermen of Claddagh village. They were all uniformly clad in an outfit that included a short white jacket, silk sash and a hat decorated with flowers. Each of them carried a long pole or staff on which was an emblem of their trade and two of them – usually the stoutest pair in the group – wore masks as well as hundreds of ribbons all over their outfits. These were the ‘merry men” or clowns of the day who performed tricks and antics along the route. At the head of the procession was a group of musicians who led the marchers through the streets and then wound their way through the city until they arrived back at the starting point.
In just about every fishing district, St. John’s Day was important. In many places, it was the day the boats and nets were blessed and there was many an angler living inland who eagerly anticipated the arrival of sea trout which entered the rivers at this time of year.
The Large crowds bent on fun and frolic would be attracted to these events which included the erecting of a decorated pole. This pole was once described as being “as lofty as the mast of a sloop” and on its top, a small basket of cakes or gingerbread and a bunch of garters were tied. The best musician attending the assembly was always selected to perform at the foot of the pole and the best dancers competed with one another for the honor of winning the prizes – a girl got the gingerbread and a fellow got the garters.
Indeed, Midsummer in Ireland was merry for most; however, there was sadness in west Ulster and West Connaught for this was the time of year when the menfolk went as migratory harvest workers to England and Scotland. Often, they would be gone until late fall or even early winter, which meant that the turf had to be saved and the potatoes earthed up before the migrants left. Overall though, it was a time of optimism, with farmers hoping they’d get a period of wet weather before St. John’s Day and dry weather afterward. Those who were ill hoped for improvement and it was generally believed that even the very sick if they survived over midsummer, would live on at least until fall. As for the children, they hoped the cuckoo would eventually return, for it was about this time that the cuckoo ceased its call and the children were told it had flown away to Spain!
St. John’s Eve in old Ireland
by Bridget Haggerty
It is with great sadness that I have to announce: Bridget Nancy Margaret O’FlahertyHaggerty, founder, and controller of Irish Culture and Customs, passed away on Sunday, June 4th. She was 70 years of age but that was just chronology; in her thoughts and everything she did she was still a teenager.