June 23rd: Midsummer Irish Style

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



Filed under Celebrations in Ireland, Ireland, Irish Traditions, Living in Ireland

17 responses to “June 23rd: Midsummer Irish Style

  1. Crissouli

    I love this, for us, it was bonfire night in Australia, till the rules changed…and fireworks were banned. It was Guy Fawkes night in November… and the bonfire was a town event, held in the showgrounds, across the road from us. It was a great way for people to clear out their junk, but many a mother went searching for that old chair that the husband hadn’t gotten around to fixing…not all were rescued. we children loved the disasters, the stray rockets and the strings of Tom Thumbs that made the adults jump… and the shared food and drink which was often the best part…

  2. The practice of lighting fires is a very ancient one and one that has crossed the centuries. It is good to hear that it is alive and well in Australia. We never had fireworks as they were illegal here (and possibly still are,except for ‘professional’ use). I can imagine the thrill of them going off in unexpected ways! The English have Guy Fawkes in November – we do not celebrate that in Ireland at all.

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  4. Hi SV, I’m intrigued by the Midsummer bonfires. I never came across them in my travels around various parts of Ireland. Do you think they were a Donegal tradition or did they extend further south?

  5. WOW! There is so much to know, and learn, about Irish history … This is wild. Your post reminds me of how young these States are, over here … You have quite a bit of history there. It is evident that you enjoy the history and research … Keep on writing … Keep on Living.

  6. I am sorry I missed this post originally but I have not been posting and reading other blogs lately but am trying to catch up.

    Your history of bonfires is fascinating. I can just imagine the experience on the beach and can see the bones on the fire! I do enjoy your writing. And thanks for liking one of my humble posts.

    • Thank you for your very nice comment and thank you for dropping by! How we loved this mid summer event – this of course in pre television land, so we made our own wonderful entertainment! Your posts are very well worth reading – so less of the humility! 🙂

  7. Most of these are in fire-rings here on the beach in so. California. Back east there are numerous events at the big colleges that have huge bonfires piled 20 feet or more high. We also have a huge event in the desert called “Burning Man” where everyone from new age to bikers attend to drink and party the night away. See: http://www.burningman.com/

    • How fascinating – are these held at Midsummer? I visited the link to Burning Man and it seems to be a later event. It would be great to think that the celebration of midsummer and or the solstice is celebrated in USA as well as in Europe.

  8. Eric

    Going to bonefire night tomorrow in Blackpool cork like me and all my family do every year can’t wait

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  10. Tom McMahon

    Still one of the biggest nights of the year for kids in counties Sligo and Leitrim. The tradition is not dimming at all there. Mayo and South Donegal too.

  11. Pingback: Historia De Litha - Celebrando El Solsticio De Verano | Feper

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