This post is one of a series looking at ancient traditions in Ireland.
Midsummer, or St. John’s Eve (Oiche Fheile Eoin) was traditionally celebrated in Ireland by the lighting of bonfires. (The word ‘bonfire’, according to my Etymology dictionary is a word from the 1550s meaning a fire in the open air in which bones were burned). This custom is rooted in ancient history when the Celts lit fires in honour of the Celtic goddess Queen of Munster Áine. Festivals in her honour took place in the village of Knockainey, County Limerick (Cnoc Aine = Hill of Aine ). Áine was the Celtic equivalent of Aphrodite and Venus and as is often the case, the festival was ‘christianised’ and continued to be celebrated down the ages. It was the custom for the cinders from the fires to be thrown on fields as an ‘offering’ to protect the crops.
Midsummer bonfires are also a tradition across Europe. In Latvia, for example, the celebration is called Jāņi (Jānis is Latvian for John); in Norway they celebrate ‘Sankthansaften’.
Growing up in the northern part of Donegal in the 1950s, Bonfire night was surely the highlight of our year! To us, it was Bone- fire night. For days we piled our fire high down on the shore, with every bit of flotsam, jetsam, old timber and rubbish we could find. We did actually use a lot of bones on our fire as on the verge of the shore was a slaughter-house (an abattoir in more genteel circles) so naturally there were many cattle bones lying about… from horned cows heads to bits of legs and hip bones etc. They made welcome fuel for our great pyre!
Midsummer in Donegal was wonderful with the sun not setting until very late at about 10.15 pm. We were allowed to stay up late, waiting for the sun to set so that we could enjoy the lit fire. An adult would light it at the proper time, as dusk was setting in, and we were thrilled by the intense heat and the crackling sound of the splitting timber as the flames leapt joyfully high into the still balmy air.
In Thomas Flanagan’s book, ‘The Year of The French‘, set in 1798, mention is made of the midsummer bonfire:
”Soon it would be Saint John’s Eve. Wood for the bonfire had already been piled high upon Steeple Hill, and when the night came there would be bonfires on every hill from there to Downpatrick Head. There would be dancing and games in the open air, and young men would try their bravery leaping through the flames. There would even be young girls leaping through, for it was helpful in the search of a husband to leap through a Saint John’s Eve fire, the fires of midsummer. The sun was at its highest then, and the fires spoke to it, calling it down upon the crops. It was the turning point of the year, and the air was vibrant with spirits.’‘
In Ireland, Bonfire night is still celebrated to an extent in Cork and in counties west of the Shannon as well as in northern counties. Cork city council has stepped up in recent years to provide a safe environment for children and families and this year is organizing 15 events across the city. Ráth Carn in the Meath Irish-speaking district (Gaeltacht) also celebrates Bonfire night with a huge fire, feasting, music and dancing.
The old traditional Midsummer bonfires sadly seem to be a thing of the past now in Ireland. And I very much doubt that any real ‘bonefires’ such as ours exist at all!
If you have any recollections at all of having attended one, or you know of someone who has attended one, please do let me know – I would love to hear from you!
Flanagan, Thomas 1979. The Year of the French