THC-GUEST-blog is back! Today we host Dr Tiziana Soverino.
Tiziana holds a PhD in Early Irish and Irish Folklore from University College Dublin (UCD) – Ireland. She is currently based in Dublin, where she teaches Folklore at Crumlin College of Further Education. Tiziana has published her research in journals such as Folklore and Estudios Irlandeses.
‘A stranger would go near to imagine the whole country was on fire’
(Piers, Sir Henry Baronet)
The feast of Saint John or Midsummer falls on June 24th, and is still currently celebrated in parts of Ireland, such as the west and Cork city, in the south-west. June 24th is one of the longest days of the year, being remarkably close to the summer solstice, June 21st. It is possible that in prehistoric times theMidsummer solstice was celebrated in Ireland, as also in other countries. The presence of prehistoric monuments aligned with the sun on the summer solstice, such as the 4th millennium BC cairn G at Carrowkeel, Co. Sligo, seems to indicate that. Cairn G is a passage tomb, containing cremated human remains: at sunset on the summer solstice the sun illuminates the back of the chamber (Hensey et al., 2014 p. 79). However, in the last few centuries, June 24th has been celebrated as a Christian festival, associated with the birth of a significant Biblical saint, John the Baptist, Jesus Christ’s precursor, an ascetic and a martyr, who paved the way for the Messiah. Until the 1860s or 1870s, Saint John’s Day was a holiday of obligation in Ireland (Information kindly provided by Noelle Dowling, Dublin Diocese archivist).
The following article is primarily based on the research the author has conducted for her Research Master’s in Irish Folklore, in 2007-2009 (Soverino). It draws on two primary sources:
1. The manuscripts of the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin (UCD), Ireland. More specifically, the replies to the following questionnaires have been investigated: ‘Midsummer-The Feast of St. John’ (1943), ‘Bonfires’ (1973), minor questionnaires on ‘Patron Saints’ (1943) and ‘Holy Wells’ (1934), and selected manuscripts from the Schools’ Collection―a folklore collecting scheme undertaken in primary schools in the Republic of Ireland in the 1930s. All the manuscripts from the Schools’ Collection have been digitised, and are now available online.
2. The fieldwork conducted in Counties Mayo and Roscommon in June 2008, consisting mainly of interviews and recordings.
In this article, the principal customs associated with the Feast of Saint John/Midsummer in Ireland in the last two centuries will be examined, through the lens of Falassi’s festival morphology
Although, as mentioned, St. John’s Feast falls on 24thJune, the main emphasis was placed on the previous evening, 23rd June. That evening was known as ‘Bonfire Night’ in most of the country; indeed, ‘Bonfire Night’ was the most common name of the festival in 20th-century Ireland.
It should be noted that Saint John’s Feast is not merely an Irish feast. In the past, it was celebrated throughout Europe, and even as far as Morocco and Brazil. Bonfires are still lighted elsewhere in Europe, e.g., in Spain.
In Ireland, the festival has been observed at least from the 17th century, since it is mentioned in the written work of Sir Piers, which dates to that century (Piers 1981, p. 123).
Although the bonfires were undoubtedly the main custom associated with the festival in Ireland in the 20th and 21st centuries, there were many other customs and beliefs associated with Saint John’s Day, especially in older times. For instance, in some Irish-speaking areas of County Donegal the entire month of June was named after Saint John’s Feast in Irish, mí na Féil’ Eoin, ‘the Month of Saint John’s Feast’ (National Folklore Collection, henceforth NFC 1857: 118). Also, June was, and still is, a busy time on farms, and potatoes had to be moulded, and sprayed against the blight, by then; religious pilgrimages, such as the annual visit to Saint John’s Holy Well in Lecarrow, County Roscommon, also took place on June 24th.
The bonfires themselves were often elaborate affairs. There were two main types of bonfires: family and communal. The former bonfires were lighted near the house or farm, by the whole extended family, and were especially common in Counties Tipperary, Limerick, Cork and Clare. The latter bonfires saw the entire community gathering together; there were often overtly ritual aspects, such as performing crop and cattle protection rites by putting ashes from the bonfire, or a charred stick from it, to ensure growth and safeguard against blight and other calamities. People also had fun around the Midsummer bonfires: they were major annual social occasions, even for the elderly members of the community, who would have stayed at home on other occasions. The bonfires clearly fulfilled one of the primary functions of festivals: promoting social cohesion (Smith 1972, pp. 167-168).
Saint John’s Feast in Ireland is an under researched festival, which may be interpreted by using Falassi’s building blocks of festivals. Falassi was a scholar who studied both Italian and American calendar custom. He identified ten building blocks of festivals. The building blocks are minimal units, which seem to occur universally in festivals across the world, and which are similar to Propp’s constituent parts of folktales (Falassi 1997, pp. 295- 302). Not all the building blocks are necessarily always found in any given festival. The building blocks, or rites identified by Falassi, are as follows:
- Rites of valorization/preparation: an area is reclaimed, cordoned off, cleared, or adorned, for the festival to take place in. Since festivals can be considered ‘time out of time’, the area where they are held is special.
- Rites of purification: they consist of rites of renewal, and include customs involving fire or water; processions, and benedictions.
- Rites of conspicuous display: they include visually prominent displays, where the most important symbolic elements are seen, touched, adored, or worshipped.
- Rites of conspicuous consumption: they consist of food and drink, often prepared in abundance, or even excess; there is a link with seasonality. Food and drink are frequently partaken of ritually.
- Rites of reversal: through symbolic inversion, different categories and groups are reversed. For example, sex roles are reversed, when men dress up as women at Carnival.
- Rites of passage. As described by van Gennep, rites of passage mark the transition from one stage of life to another. For example, in Ireland balls were given to newlywed members of the community on May Day (Danaher 1972, p. 107).
- Rites of dramas: staged representations of the myths or history of the people, often through re-enactment or plays.
- Rites of exchange: they include buying and selling at fairs, and the giving and receiving of gifts. They are characterised by reciprocity and distribution.
- Rites of competition: they include games and awards and turn equality into hierarchy. Rites of competition celebrate the best community members.
- Rites of devalorisation: they signal the end of festive activities, and the return to normal, everyday time and space (Falassi 1997, pp. 295- 302).
The Feast of Saint John/Midsummer in Ireland, as observed in Ireland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, may be said to include eight of Falassi’s building blocks of festival:
RITES OF VALORIZATION/PREPARATION. The gathering of the material to light the bonfire, often weeks in advance, may be considered a rite of valorization/preparation. People frequently spent most of their free time in the weeks leading to the 23rd June collecting material for the bonfire. The material varied considerably depending on the location, and it usually consisted of the most widely available material. Turf [peat] and cow-dung were common, while wood was not, as it is usually scarce in Ireland. Tyres were used also, before they became illegal in 1987. As put by a tradition-bearer: ‘For about a week before, the houghana, as the common people were called that time in this area, in their spare time were kept busy gathering material for the bonfire. This consisted of dried woar, by which sea-weed is commonly known here, briars, skeoughs [sceacha] which the hawthorn is called here (…). The big stumps of wood on top furze, which is very plentiful in this area, were also used, as was also dried buchalauns [Irish buachalán], the name by which ragwort is known here. And for good measure also bean stalks [were used]. Beans were grown widely here as food for horses. The beans were ground into meal by the local millers. Many are the old mills that are still to be seen, though now minus their sails, only the walls remain’ (NFC 1855: 235-6, Neamstown, County Wexford). The careful gathering of material for the Midsummer bonfires several weeks in advance seems to indicate that Midsummer was a significant festival, characterised by expectation and excitement. The bonfire was meticulously prepared, as opposed to being a last-minute, spur-of-the moment celebration. The significance of the festival is also indicated by another rite of valorization/ preparation, namely the cleaning and whitewashing of the house in preparation for Saint John’s Feast (e.g., NFC 956: 147, Ardnageehy, County Cork).
RITES OF PURIFICATION. The principal custom linked to the Feast of Saint John, the lighting of bonfires, may be considered a rite of purification in itself, as indicated by its ceremonial lighting. As stated by a tradition-bearer:
‘The fire was lighted by the eldest person in the gathering. And, when I first took part in this, I remember he or she was robed with a white sheet, and handed an oil-soaked rag which was rolled on top of a piece of wood. The youngest lit the match. He or she then placed the burning rag into the pile’ (NFC 1855: 236, Kilmore, County Wexford).
Also, the jumping over or across bonfires by youths and others, once the flames had slightly died down, may also be considered a rite of purification, since jumping was said to confer protection from sickness, disease and supernatural evil (NFC 958:36-36, County Donegal).
Another example of a rite of purification associated with the Midsummer bonfires consisted of putting the ashes from the fire, or a charred stick, into the growing crops (primarily potatoes and oats in an Irish context), and on the cattle. As put by a tradition-bearer:
‘A few withered bushes [were] set ablaze in honour of the night, and for another purpose also. For, by taking a partly-burned cipín [twig] and throwing one into every field where a crop grew, St. John was invoked to protect the crops from blight of any description, and that a good return from each may be obtained. The throwing of the cipín into the crops was done by either the old man or old woman… ‘(NFC 956: 90-1, Desertserges, County Cork).
Not surprisingly, in view of the importance of cattle in the Irish economy, with Irish butter and beef having been exported across the world for centuries, the welfare of cattle was also paramount, as reflected in cattle protection rites. Family bonfires were often lighted in the proximity of a gap or of a gate in a field, through which the cattle were led, thereby inhaling what was regarded as beneficial and apotropaic smoke (e.g., NFC 1911: 37). It was also common for cattle to be driven through or around the St. John’s Eve bonfires (e.g., NFC 1855: 123). Sometimes the purification or protective qualities of the dying embers of the fires were enhanced by fashioning them in the shape of a cross before leading the animals through them (e.g., NFC 1857: 195).
In addition to rites involving fire, rites involving water may also be considered rites of purification. As regards Saint John’s Feast in Ireland, the water from certain holy wells was drunk on that day. A holy well may be defined as a well or spring of water, associated with a saint and usually endowed with curative properties by the people of the community. The link between water and healing has been widespread, across time, cultures and religions. For example, the Indian River Ganges, the ancient Roman healing and thermal springs, and the modern Lourdes water, have all been endowed with curative properties. It is estimated that there are as many as 3,000 holy wells in Ireland (Logan 1980, p. 14) many of which are found on the sites of medieval monasteries. Most holy wells are associated with Christian saints nowadays and called after them. In the past, when visiting holy wells, people had to follow a set number of rituals or rounds, and recite specific prayers. Visiting a holy well is highly experiential (Folay 2011, p. 470-479). For instance, that was done at the annual pilgrimage, or pattern, to Saint John’s Well in Lecarrow, County Roscommon, on June 24th. The tradition is at least as old as the 19thcentury, as the antiquarian, John O’ Donovan, mentioned it in his Ordnance Survey Letters in 1837. John O’ Donovan went to the pattern himself on June 24th and stated that the local priest had tried to abolish it. The water of the well was said to restore sight and agility (O’Donovan 1837, p. 75).
On June 24th, 2008, when the author undertook fieldwork in Lecarrow, the water of the well was still drunk for protection. That particular year, since the summer had been dry and there was little or no water in the well, buckets of water had to be brought. The pilgrimage in 2008 consisted of Mass being recited in the community centre, followed by the drinking of the water at the holy well by the congregation. Not only elderly people, but also families with young children and teenagers, were in attendance.
The role played by rites of purification in Midsummer celebrations in Ireland cannot be underestimated: rites utilising fire and water, such as the lighting of bonfires, jumping over or through them, cattle and crop protection rites, and drinking water deemed sacred and endowed with curative properties are at the heart of the festival in Ireland.
RITES OF CONSPICUOUS DISPLAY. The Midsummer bonfires themselves may be considered rites of conspicuous display, especially since they were frequently lighted in conspicuously visible places, such as hilltops and crossroads. As put by a tradition-bearer:
‘Site: a height where the fire could be seen a long distance away was the place generally chosen’ (NFC 957: 159, Kilmacshalgan, County Sligo).
The visibility of Midsummer bonfires from a great distance makes even more sense in light of Kevin Danaher’s hypothesis that lighting bonfires originated as a way of spreading messages before the advent of telecommunications (Ó Danachair 1959, p. 55).
Other rites of conspicuous display associated with the feast of Saint John in Ireland include the blowing of horns to announce that a bonfire was going to be lighted (e.g., NFC 956: 103); and the cheering and shouting around the bonfires later that night (NFC 1856: 94). It is possible that the noise was originally produced as a way to scare off evil spirits; alternatively, or additionally, the cheering and shouting might have been considered a form of competition between townlands.
RITES OF REVERSAL. Breaking the law may be considered a rite of reversal associated with Midsummer in Ireland: material for the bonfire was sometimes stolen, or cows were milked without the owners’ consent (e.g., NFC 1856: 70-71). It thus seems that a certain degree of anti-social behaviour was tolerated on Saint John’s Feast, reflecting the chaotic nature of some festivals. The victims presumably chose to turn a blind eye to the activities in question because of the special atmosphere of the festival, and possibly also to avoid social ridicule.
RITES OF CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION. The lavish consumption of food and drink, both on Saint John’s Eve and Day in general, and around Midsummer bonfires, may be considered rites of conspicuous consumption. For some communities, the day was the occasion for a communal feast: for instance, the fishermen of the River Bush, County Antrim, used to have a meal of fresh salmon, new potatoes, and whiskey, followed by merrymaking, on Saint John’s Day (NFC 958: 142). Food was also consumed around the Midsummer bonfires, in the west and midlands of Ireland: the most common type of food eaten there was ‘Goody’, consisting of white, shop-bought bread and milk. As mentioned, cows were often milked without owners’ consent. As put by a tradition-bearer:
‘…At this iron gate the bonfire was lit. It was generally a huge one, consisting of several sods of the best turf piled up like a turf stack. It was lighted at the usual time (eleven pm) and in the way already described. Young and old, women and children attended it till about midnight. Then the old people and children went home leaving the fire in charge of the young people. Then the dancing and feasting began. A melodeon was played and dancing took place around the fire, while some of the young girls went into the farm in which several milch cows belonging to the different people of the district were grazing. They milked the cows into big pails and took the new milk to the fire. They boiled it with baker’s bread in big pots on the fire. When it was ready they poured the ‘goody’, as it was called, into bowls, and gave one to each person. This they consumed as they sat around the bonfire. This was followed by singing and dancing, which continued till five am or five-thirty am on the following morning. Oftentimes the fire would still be burning brightly at noon the following day’. (NFC 957: 78- 9, Turlough, County Mayo).
The food was seasonal, as Saint John’s Feast falls at the height of the milking season, but also exceptional, as white, shop-bought bread was not the everyday bread in early 20th century Ireland.
RITES OF EXCHANGE. Fairs― where livestock and other products are bought and sold―may be considered rites of exchange. Numerous fairs were held around Midsummer, including the famous Spancil Hill fair in County Clare, to buy and sell horses (Logan 1986, pp. 7; 89; 113.). It is very possible that many fairs were held around this time for two principal reasons. First, to make the most of the long days, and also of the weather, that is more likely to be clement in June than at other times of year. Second, fairs were often set on/near holidays of obligation, and Saint John’s Day was a holiday of obligation in Ireland until the 1860s or the 1870s.
RITES OF COMPETITION. The many contests taking place around the Midsummer bonfires, such as dancing and jumping contests, may be considered rites of competition. However, perhaps the most significant competition emerged in rival gangs of youths competing for the best bonfire, by stealing material from each other. As put by a tradition-bearer:
‘Where children lived close to each other there was usually a good deal of competition and jealousy as to who would have the biggest fire and they tried to ‘steal’ the bushes from each other during the previous day. An old woman (R.I.P.) in the townland was also our common enemy’ (NFC 956: 64 Kilmocomoge, County Cork).
To summarise, as many as eight building blocks of festivals, as identified by Falassi, can be said to occur in the customs and beliefs attached to the Feast of Saint John/Midsummer in Ireland: rites of valorization/preparation, of purification, of conspicuous display, of reversal, of passage, of conspicuous consumption, of exchange, and of competition. Of those rites, rites of purification are undoubtedly the most important. The Feast of SaintJohn/Midsummer is an eclectic festival, which probably combines both pagan and Christian customs. A tradition-bearer seems to suggest that Midsummer was even more important in the years prior to the 1940s, when the questionnaire on Midsummer took place:
‘Up to some years ago the ‘Bonfire Night’ was looked forward to almost as much as Christmas’ (NFC 957: 218, Aughrim, County Roscommon).
The Feast of Saint John is still observed, primarily in the west of Ireland. It is hoped that it will be further investigated by scholars in the near future.
Cover picture: Midsummer bonfire, 2001, Porturlin, County Mayo. “The Photographic Collection, H041.03.00312”, Photo by Noreen Barron, by Dúchas © National Folklore Collection, UCD is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.
Danaher, K. (1972). The Year In Ireland. Cork: Mercier Press, p. 107.
Falassi, A. (1997). Festival. In: Green T. A. (ed.) Folklore. An Encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music and Art. Vol. I, New York: ABC-CLIO, pp. 295- 302 (297).
Foley, R. (2011). Performing health in place: the holy well as a therapeutic assemblage. Health Place, 17(2), pp. 470-479.
Hensey, R. et al. (2014). A Century of Archaeology—historical Excavation and Modern Research at the Carrowkeel Passage Tombs, County Sligo, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature 114C, pp. 57-87 (79).
Logan, P. (1980). The Holy Wells of Ireland. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, p. 14.
Logan, P. (1986). Fair Day. Belfast: Appletree Press, pp. 7; 89; 113.
Ó Danachair, C. (1959). The Quarter days in Irish tradition. Arv, 15, p. 55.
O’Donovan, J. (1837). Ordnance Survey Letters County Roscommon. Vol. I (manuscript), Dublin, p. 75. Digitised version available online http://www.askaboutireland.ie/aai-files/assets/ebooks/OSI-Letters/ROSCOMMON%20VOL%201_14%20F%208.pdf
Piers, H. Sir. 1786, A Chorographical Description of the County of West-Meath, Tara, Co. Meath: Meath Archaeological and Historical Society, p. 123.
Smith, R. (1972). Festivals and Celebration. In: Dorson, R. (ed.) Folklore and Folklife. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 167-168.
Soverino, T. (2009), Bonfire Night―Exploring Aspects of the Feast of Saint John in Ireland. Unpublished M.Litt. Dissertation, Dublin: UCD.