A hundred years ago, and for many centuries before, Midsummer’s Eve was celebrated throughout Ireland on the 23 June, that is, on Saint John’s Eve.
The bonfire was central to the activities of Midsummer’s Eve, and those who witnessed the flames more than a lifetime ago noted that the landscape was filled with hundreds of bonfires, creating a beautiful aspect by illuminating the country as far as the eye could see. These fires were lit on elevated sites including mountain tops and hills, but also in fields, at crossroads and on the streets and in squares of towns and villages throughout the country. In Dublin bonfires were outlawed by the Lord Mayor in the 1700’s, and as a substitute, the towns’ people attached candles to trees and bushes to maintain the tradition in some form. Gradually, during the nineteenth century, coercion bills were brought in an attempt to eliminate bonfires from many towns and villages across Ireland, but these bills, while having limited in their success, failed to end the popular tradition of lighting bonfires on Saint John’s Eve. While the tradition of lighting bonfires on Saint John’s Eve has declined substantially over the past century the tradition is still observed in certain parts of the country up to the present day.
Bonfires in previous centuries were fed on materials that were readily available and easily obtained; in some areas straw, reeds and wood were collected throughout the whole six months leading up to Midsummer’s Eve, while in other areas the bonfire was principally made of turf, with every inhabitant of the village donating their own share to feed the bonfire. Well into the last century the ancient Irish tradition of burning animal bones continued, some believe in imitation of ancient sacrifices, in certain parts of Munster and Connaught, the addition of which created crackling noises, bright stray sparks, while, at the same time, providing the origin of their very name “bone-fire”, now generally spelled and often pronounced as bonfire.
The Midsummer’s bonfire are traditionally thought to increase fertility and produce luck, while passing through the flames of the fire was also thought to provide protection from both the fairies and the evil eye. Many accounts relate how cattle were driven through the flames between two persons who each held lighted sheaf of straw or reeds, known as a “cleer”. Members of the household also jumped through the fire, as did lovers who held hands in the hope of encouraging their own fertility. In County Cavan, a century ago, it was still believed that if you ate your supper by the fire on Midsummer’s Eve you would be protected from hunger throughout the coming year, while farmers often spread a sod of turf, coal, ashes, or even holy water on their crops as a method of protection from diseases including blight on Midsummer Eve.
Games and amusements were performed by many who attended, caps were often grabbed from unsuspecting heads and thrown or, at least, pretended to be thrown in the flames by the more boisterous members of the community. Spectators at the bonfires also fashioned bundles of reeds or straw which, when lit, were waved through the air, and in some places including Belmullet in County Mayo sods of lighted turf were thrown to the sky in the belief that the air would be purified through the motion of these smouldering sods. Additionally, a lighted piece of turf or a coal was often taken from the bonfire and carried home to relight the hearth in the household, which according to many accounts, was annually quenched on Midsummer’s Eve.*
*It is worth mentioning that quenching the fire on Midsummer’s Eve was only observed in some localities, as there was a strong tradition in many parts of Ireland of keeping the hearth fire burning continuously for years, or even decades, on end.
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O’Hanlon, Rev. John (Lageniensis). Irish Folk Lore: Traditions and Superstitions of the Country; with Humorous Tales. London, 1870.
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Various articles from the Folklore Journal 1881 – 1916