The summer solstice, the longest day of the year is just behind us. An important festival in the northern-European calendar, it was often overshadowed in Catholic Ireland by the feast of St. John the Baptist. Noted as being born 6 months before Jesus, the date of John’s birth was set as the 24th of June. Bonfires were lit across the country either on the day itself or “St. John’s Eve” (23rd June). Folklore collected by the Irish Folklore Commission refers to a number of gatherings on this night in the Blackstairs region.
Known as “Bonfire Day” in the St. Mullins region, locals young and old would gather on the green on the evening of the 24th of June As night fell, a pre-prepared bonfire was lit by the young people on top of the Norman motte (not advisable for anyone considering resurrecting the festival!) fueled with bushes, branches and in later years, rubber tyres. The origins of the tradition were unclear to the participants although it was noted as having died out by the time of collection (February 1973). No special traditions such as singing or dancing were noted by the informant although they may well have taken place as they are noted at every other festival in the region for which there is information. The tradition was also noted at the northern end of the range in the area around Myshall and Rossard. Burnt sticks were taken from the bonfire the following day and placed in crop fields to “keep away the blast”.
A more detailed account was gathered from the Ballygibbon region in Wexford. Since the potato digging and hay harvest was coming the following month, people were in a celebratory mood making St. John’s Eve and Day the perfect excuse. As well as Ballygibbon, bonfires were lit on St. John’s Eve at the Grange Crossroads, Gurraun, Rathduff, Killanne, Ballybawn, and Monamolin. Walter Furlong was noted as having lit the biggest fire every year on top of a lime kiln in Monamolin. Inhabitants of the slopes of Blackstairs and White Mountain also lit bonfires beside their own dwellings where they were visible from the surrounding area resulting in contests every year to build the biggest fire. Branches and bushes were burnt just as at St. Mullins as well as tar and oil barrels. John Breen, a timber cutter, was noted as being paid for supplying fuel. The oldest resident of the locality lit the bonfire at 9pm and dancing began with music provided by a fiddler. Around 10pm the older members of the community went home leaving the younger people (who would not leave until the early hours of the morning) to carry on the celebrations. Singing was another custom and as the fire died down, people would jump over the embers. Ashes from the fire were scattered over crops the following day. The custom was noted as dying out in the late 19th/ early 20th Century, first the communal crossroads and village gatherings followed by the longer lasting Blackstairs fires. The custom was also noted as having been carried out in the Bunclody region although no further information was provided.
St. John’s Eve and Day celebrations were not isolated instances as the summer was filled with gatherings and festivals probably helped in part by the increased number of travelling labourers in the region for the harvests as noted in a number of folklore sources. A pattern was held at Kiltennel, Carlow on the second sunday in June and another at Clonygoose on the third Sunday. After St. John’s Festival, June 29th and the following Sunday saw a gathering known as “Fraughan Sunday” in Coonogue Woods, Carlow. A pattern held at St. Mullins on 25th of July was followed by a Lughnasa festival gathering at the Cooliagh Gap on the Blackstairs ridgeline on the last Sunday in July, details of which will follow in future posts.
Collected by P.T. O’Riain from John Long and his wife of Rossard, Carlow in June 1940. Irish Folklore Commission Main Manuscript Collection 1063, p. 5.
Collected by Cáit Ní Bolgubhair from Mr. Myles Doyle, Ballygibbon, Wexford (85 years old) in August 1943. Irish Folklore Commission Main Manuscript Collection 959, p. 143-149.
Collected by C. Mac Niocláis in the Bunclody, Wexford region in August 1943. Irish Folklore Commission Main Manuscript Collection 959, p. 157.
Collected by John Moriarty, Glynn, St. Mullins, Carlow in the St. Mullins region in February 1973. Irish Folklore Commission Main Manuscript Collection 1855, p. 128.
Collected by Tomas O Riain in the St. Mullins region, Carlow in December 1943. Irish Folklore Commission Main Manuscript Collection 890, p. 413-431.