St. John's Eve
In ancient Ireland the Summer Solstice was celebrated on the 21st June, the longest day of the year. When Christianity came to Ireland celebrations were centred around St John’s eve. The eve of St John falls on the 23rd June, it was also known as Bonfire night or Oiche an teine chndimh, night of the bone fire. Large fires were lit in communities, or small fires at individual households. The celebration is to honour St John the Baptist, which took the format of lighting a fire at sunset, the fire was to protect your crops and livestock. Small furze bushes were lit at households for the same protection and also to protect their family. The older people would begin by saying prayers, in Connacht is was customary to walk in the direction of the sun around the fire praying, after saying each prayer a stone or pebble would be thrown into the fire by way of keeping count.
When the prayers were finished it was time to celebrate, by way of music, dance and storytelling. Makeshift torches were made by lighting branches, and young boys would light sticks and throw them into the air, this was observed by J.M. Synge and J.B. Yeats when visiting Belmullet in 1905. Another part of the celebration in Mayo was to make “Goody”, bread in hot milk with sugar and spices. The fire would need to be attended until after midnight. It was customary to bring home a coal or embers from the bonfire to your own fire for protection throughout the year. The ashes also had curative powers and could be used to cleanse a wound, it was thought unlucky if you did not bring home a coal from the fire.
An account taken from Killadoon, as told by Michael Needham of Feenone, Louisburgh.
Tells Bonfire night as being the 24th June, the night that St John was beheaded. The account tells of every household having a bonfire, which stations were done around. The fire was made of turf, coal and a bone. Old people told stories of how St John was put to death and everyone was happy that night. “Then before the father goes to bed he takes a coal and puts it into the Potatoes or oats in a way they will yeld [sic] good crops in the harvest.” (The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0137C, Page 02_013)
Other customs associated with St John’s eve were jumping over fire, which was done for luck, or for couples who were trying to conceive. Farmers would drive their cattle through the embers of a fire or between two fires, others would bleed the cattle to protect them. In fishing villages and towns nets were blessed. If you had broken holy items such as a statue or piseóga, they could be burned in the fire without bringing harm upon you. However, you need to be careful of na daoine maithe, or fairies as they were said to be creating mischief and revelry at this time.
In 1888 a case was brought before the Westport Petty Sessions for the lighting of bonfires, having been defended by the Rev. Father Begley the case was dismissed. While the custom has died out in many places it still continues in parts of Ireland and parts of Co Mayo.
Danaher, K., 1972. The Year in Ireland – Irish Calendar Customs. Dublin: Mercier Press .
The Schools’ Collection, 1938. The Schools’ Collection. [Online]
Available at: https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5215801/5213039
[Accessed 18 June 2020].