Home thoughts at Midsummer 2015

Many decades have passed since I was last able to call Donegal ‘home’ in the physical sense, of having a house and an address and family and siblings there. Since those distant days in the 1950s and 1960s I have lived in various places, all of them a long way from Donegal. Yet when people ask,’Where are you from’? I reply without hesitation ‘Donegal’ even though I spent less than one-third my life there.
But this is where I grew up, where I walked to National School, where I progressed through the then important life’s rights of passage, such as communion and confirmation. This is where I learned to read, learned to play, learned to ride a bike, went to collect the milk in a can from Wee Rodgers in Tirlaugan or from McKemeys out the road. This is where I was terrified of Mary Tammy’s geese who chased me, and where Charlie Ward’s donkey once bolted down Figart with myself and my older  brother on board.

Carrigart in the 1960s. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Carrigart in the 1960s. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

This is where my younger brother’s dog was killed one Sunday morning by a car speeding to get to Mass on time. This too is where I collected water from the well out at the back of Figart or from the ‘spoot’ (spout) in later years. This is where Patrick McElwee dropped dead one summer evening when bringing his cow down from Figart to be milked. This is where I went to see him slumped against the rectory wall.

This is where my friend Norah and I, each armed with ninepence on a Friday night,went to the visiting cinema or what we then called ‘the pictures’. This is where we sat patiently on hard benches waiting for Keeney to load up the reels – and sometimes a reel ran out and the next one had to be rewound before the show could continue. This is where I first saw Laurel and Hardy,The Three Stooges, lots of Westerns and and my first 3D film.

This is where I learned to polish brass, loving  Mrs Duffy’s beautiful brass kettle; learned to knit at Mary Mandy’s fireside as she made very exotic and delicious vegetable marrow jam; this is where I learned to churn butter out at Shelia McBride’s in a big old wooden churn. This is where my baby brother died on a warm June afternoon. This is where I bought my first pop record, had my hair back-combed by Meta and went to dances in the North Star Ballroom, with a gold waspie belt and my dress resting  on stiff petticoats. This is where I first fell in love and bought my very first pop record.  This above all is where I learned to love nature, the sky and the stars, the pounding Atlantic Ocean, fabulous scenery.

It is Midsummer and invariably thoughts turn to Donegal and those long, long summer evenings when we stayed up late. Days of 17 and a quarter hours were for living and playing. The sun will stand still at the summer solstice this year at 16. 38 pm. UTC on Sunday June 21st. But this year we have an extra treat to mark Midsummer, in the form of an unusual Planet Dance. Tonight, June  20th just after sunset the dazzling Venus will form a triangle with Jupiter and the crescent Moon in the western sky, I like to think, to help us celebrate Midsummer!

In Donegal sixty years ago, our midsummer celebration was held on the 23rd of June, St John’s Eve. This is a post from my archive in 2011, about what happened in our village then, in those long, happy hazy crazy days of summer!

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 in, 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  seem however, to be a thing of the past now in Ireland. 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!

References

Flanagan, Thomas 1979. The Year of the French

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12 Comments

Filed under Ireland, Ireland Seasons, Irish Culture, Irish Heritage, Irish Traditions, Life in the 1960s, Living in Ireland, Oral History, Social History Ireland

12 responses to “Home thoughts at Midsummer 2015

  1. Lyn Nunn

    I am the opposite Angela, if you ask me where I am from I will say that I am from Sydney when I was actually born 100 miles away (something to remember in family history). If you ask me where I was born however, you will get the correct answer. We used to have bonfire night when I was a kid in the 50s and 60s – I think it was traditionally the Queen’s birthday weekend that we had it and we also lit fire crackers. Once crackers were banned, bonfire night died even though it was mid winter and fun around the bonfire, it lost a lot of its appeal. I am not sure where our tradition originated but I suspect from the same tradition as Ireland.

    • The sense of home and belonging seems to differ greatly. I wasn’t born here as my mother returned to her own parents house for my birth,but I grew up here. Perhaps ‘home’ is where the happiest carefree memories were made…seems to be that way for me! Bonfires were a great way of celebrating, I haven’t seen one in years. How interesting that you had them over there too. Thank you for dropping by!

  2. You do an amazing job in this post of evoking your past and weaving a beautiful, nostalgic web–the details are really fascinating. I’ve been in Donegal at about midsummer and was stunned at how light it stayed until late at night. I can see how Donegal would stay in your heart for your whole life!

  3. I must agree with KerryCan in that your evoke your past and weave a tale with details. Your posts always flow and I learn from them. Here in Texas we will not have bonfires but I will light a candle and open a bottle of wine. It has been a rainy period which is rather unusual for us. Here’s to summer – cheers!

  4. Angela, this is so superb and beautiful. Happy Midsummer’s to you this year!

  5. Sorry, looks like I barged into the wrong place I was so taken with your post!

  6. Silver Voice: this is an amazing post. You bring pieces of your life and your story that are beyond what I have encountered. Your loss that you have included in this post connects with a deep sacred place in my own being … my heart goes out to you. I can imagine that you have grieved these losses … and yet I still hurt for what you have experienced. Thank you for this wonderful gift of your blog.

  7. Angela, an evocative story of growing up in a special place. the sadness of loss, of people and place, becomes a part of the tapestry of your life. I’ve often made the point in relation to researching Irish ancestors we need to think how we respond to the question of where we are from…much depends on the listener’s knowledge as to how we refine the levels of our reply.

  8. Lovely post SV – what a memory you have for things that are gone. I love hearing tales of old Ireland. People treasured simple pleasures and special occasions back in the days before entertainment was to be had at the touch of a button.

    Flanagan’s book is an epic and I must re-read it sometime.

  9. I remember being in Donegal in the middle of a very cold winter, mid 80s probably, and there was ice on the beach and big night-time fires in the hills. I’ll be at Kells also – will look out for you Angela!

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