The Bonfire on Saint John’s Eve

Offaly –

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Saint John’s Eve, 23 June –

Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, circa 1815;

‘It is the custom at sunset on that evening to kindle numerous immense fires throughout the country, built like our (English) bonfires, to a great height, the pile being composed of turf, bog-wood, and such other combustibles as they can gather.

The turf yields a steady, substantial body of fire, the bog-wood a most brilliant flame; and the effect of these great beacons blazing on every hill, sending up volumes of smoke from every point of the horizon is very remarkable.

Ours was a magnificent one being provided by the landlord as a compliment to his people, and was built on the lawn, as close beside the house as safety would admit. Early in the evening the peasants began to assemble, all habited in their best array, glowing with health, every countenance full of that sparkling animation and excess of enjoyment that characterize the enthusiastic people of the land. I had never seen anything resembling it, and was exceedingly delighted with their handsome, intelligent, merry faces; the bold bearing of the men, and the playful, but really modest deportment of the maidens; and the vivacity of the aged people, and wild glee of the children.

The fire being kindled, a splendid blaze shot up, and for a while they stood contemplating it, with faces strangely disfigured by the peculiar light first emitted when bogwood is thrown on: after a short pause, the ground was cleared in front of an old blind piper, the very beau ideal of energy, drollery, and shrewdness, who seated on a low chair, with a well-plenished jug within his reach, screwed his pipes to the liveliest times and endless jig began.

An Irish jig is interminable, so long as the party holds together; for when one of the dancers becomes fatigued, a fresh individual is ready to step into the vacated place quick as thought; so the other does not pause, until in liked manner obliged to give place to a successor. They continue footing it, and setting to one another, occasionally moving in a figure, and changing place with extraordinary rapidity, spirit and grace. Few indeed, among even the very lowest of the most improvised class, have grown into youth without obtaining some lessons in this accomplishment from the traveling dancing-masters of their district; and certainly in the way they use it, many would be disposed to grant a dispensation to the young peasant which they would withhold from the young peer.

But something was to follow that puzzled me not a little: when the fire had burned for some hours, and got low, an indispensable part of the ceremony commenced. Every one present of the peasantry passed through it, and several children were thrown across the sparkling embers; while a wooden frame of some eight feet long, with a horse’s head fixed to one end, and a large white sheet thrown over it, concealing the wood and the man on whose head it was carried, made its appearance. This was greeted with loud shouts as the “white horse;” and having been safely carried by the skill of the bearer several times through the fire with a bold leap, it pursued the people, who ran screaming and laughing in every direction. I asked what the horse was meant for, and was told it represented all cattle. While I looked upon the now wildly-excited people with their children, and, in a figure, all their cattle, passing again and again through the fire.’

Personal Recollections, 1841

Midsummer’s Eve in Ireland

Midsummer’s Eve-

21 June;

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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 eliminated bonfires from many towns and villages across Ireland.

Bonfires in previous centuries fed on materials that could easily be 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 was 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 where 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.

 

Selective bibliography

 

Mac Lir, Mananaan. ‘The Folklore of Months’. Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, Second series II (1896), 157, 316, 365.

Mahon, Rev. Michael P. Ireland’s Fairy Lore, Boston, 1919.

Mason, William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. Dublin, London and Edinburg, 1814-19.

O’Hanlon, Rev. John (Lageniensis). Irish Folk Lore: Traditions and Superstitions of the Country; with Humorous Tales. London, 1870.

Ó Súilleabháin, Amhlaoibh. The Diary of an Irish Countryman 1827 – 1835. Translated from the Irish by Tomás de Bhaldraithe. Cork/Dublin 1970/1979.

Piers, Sir Henry, A Chorographical Description of the County of West-Meath,  A.D. 1682

Synge, J. M. In Connemara. Dublin, 1979.

Warburton, John & others. History of the City of Dublin. Dublin, 1818.

 

Various articles from the Folklore Journal 1881 – 1916