The subject of Lughnasagh is worthy of a whole podcast episode on its own, as are any of the traditional Irish festivals. We may well examine these these in more detail sometime in the future.
In essence, however, Lughnasagh is a festival that marks an important phase in the agrarian year. It is the close of the summer, the hay is saved, and produce, crops and stock, close to harvest. Like all of the major festivals, it marks a nexus point in the year and such times have always been marked by rural communities in particular.
Typical of Lughnasagh, have been the holding of fairs, games, feasts, social ceremonies and settling of contracts such as marriage, and a particular focus on visits to hills and high places. Customs have, of course, changed and developed over the centuries but recognisable Lughnasagh customs survive, in a variety of forms, to this day
The notes below represent a few collected mixed notes on Lughnasagh customs, both in the distant and more recent past, which may provide a few starting points for further inquiry. links to external sites are given where relevant.
In Irish mythology, the Lughnasadh festival is said to have been begun by Lugh as a funeral feast and games commemorating his foster-mother, Tailtiu, who died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. The first location of the Áenach Tailteann gathering was at Tailtin, between Navan and Kells. Historically, the Áenach Tailteann was a time for contests of strength and skill and a favoured time for contracting marriages and winter lodgings. A peace was declared at the festival, and religious celebrations were held. The festival survived as the Taillten Fair, and was revived for a period in the 20th century as the Telltown Games
A similar Lughtnasadh festival was held at Carmun.
A Useful Resource
In 1962, “The Festival of Lughnasa”, a study of Lughnasadh by folklorist Máire MacNeill, was published. MacNeill drew on medieval writings and on surveys and studies from throughout Ireland and Britain. Her conclusion was that the evidence testified to an ancient Celtic festival on 1 August that involved the following:
A solemn cutting of the first of the corn of which an offering would be made to the deity by bringing it up to a high place and burying it; a meal of the new food and of bilberries of which everyone must partake; a sacrifice of a sacred bull, a feast of its flesh, with some ceremony involving its hide, and its replacement by a young bull; a ritual dance-play perhaps telling of a struggle for a goddess and a ritual fight; an installation of a head on top of the hill and a triumphing over it by an actor impersonating Lugh; another play representing the confinement by Lugh of the monster blight or famine; a three-day celebration presided over by the brilliant young god or his human representative. Finally, a ceremony indicating that the interregnum was over, and the chief god in his right place again.
Comment from Chris: I am not sure about the “solemn aspect” but Lughnasagh has always been a popular festival. See the article “Lunacy at Lughnasagh” for our light-hearted take on the festival.
Climbing Croagh Patrick on “Reek Sunday” and other recent customs
Lughnasadh celebrations were commonly held on hilltops. Traditionally, people would climb hills on Lughnasadh to gather bilberries, which were eaten on the spot or saved to make pies and wine. It is thought that Reek Sunday — the yearly pilgrimage to the top of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo in late July — was originally a Lughnasadh activity. In the Scottish Highlands, people made a special cake called the lunastain, which was also called luinean when given to a man and luineag when given to a woman.
AnotherLughnasad custom was the lighting of bonfires and visiting of holy wells. The ashes from Lughnasadh bonfires would be used to bless fields, cattle and people.
Lughnasadh was also a favourite time for handfastings. Handfasting was legally binding: as soon as the couple made their vows to each other they were validly married. It was not a temporary arrangement. During handfasting the man and woman in turn would take the other by the right hand and declare aloud that they there and then accepted each other as man and wife. The words might vary but traditionally consisted of a simple formula such as “I (Name) take thee (Name) to my wedded husband/wife, till death us depart, and thereto I plight thee my troth”.Because of this, handfasting was also known in England as “troth-plight” Gifts were often exchanged, especially rings: a gold coin broken in half between the couple was also common. Other tokens recorded include gloves, a crimson ribbon tied in a knot, and even a silver toothpick. Handfasting might take place anywhere, indoors or out. It was frequently in the home of the bride, but according to records handfastings also took place in taverns, in an orchard and even on horseback . The presence of a credible witness or witnesses was usual.
Comment from Chris: This topic also deserves far more than just a mention. The history and development of handfasting and its legal status is a fascinating one.
Seonaidh – An unusual Lughnasagh custom from the Outer Hebrides
Seonaidh (anglicised “Shony” or “Shoney”) was, according to Martin Martin, the name of a water spirit in Lewis. Dwelly defines seonadh (without the “i”, a related form in Scottish Gaelic) as “1. augury, sorcery. 2. Druidism” and quotes Martin further.
Martin says that the inhabitants of Lewis used to propitiate Seonaidh by a cup of ale in the following manner. “They came to the church of St. Mulway (Mael rubha), each man carrying his own provisions. Every family gave a pock (bag) of malt, and the whole was brewed into ale. One of their number was chosen to wade into the sea up to his waist, carrying in his hand the cup full of ale. When he reached a proper depth, he stood and cried aloud:
“Seonaidh, I give thee this cup of ale, hoping that thou wilt be so good as to send us plenty of seaware for enriching our ground during the coming year.”
He then threw the ale into the sea. This ceremony was performed in the night-time. On his coming to land, they all repaired to church, where there was a candle burning on the altar. There they stood still for a time, when, on a signal given, the candle was put out, and straight-away, they adjourned to the fields where the night was spent mirthfully over the ale. Next morning, they returned to their respective homes, in the belief that they had insured a plentiful crop for the next season.
It seems likely that Seonaidh was originally some kind of god, whose worship had been lightly christianised by the addition of various church features. However, it is also possible that “Seonaidh”, which is the Scottish Gaelic form of the English Johnny, may also be a reference to one of the Saints John, and some kind of invocation to him.”
Comment from Chris: I have heard of a similar celebration connected with the name “Brian”, and have wondered about a connection with Bran, the Welsh giant who strode the sea, too large for any boat. (Fionn, as a giant, was so large he had to build a bridge from Ireland to Scotland)
Lugh as Cornish “Giant Killer” ~ Lughnasagh Stories
In Cornwall, the town of Morvah used to host Morvah Fair on August 1 every year, which has been described as the biggest Lughnasagh celebrations outside Ireland. The fair was also associated with the legend of “Jack the Tinkard”. In the late 19th century the then priest of Morvah lead a successful campaign to ban the celebrations due to the excess of drunken and promiscuous behaviour. In a proclamation he stated:
“The Church-Town of Morvah has for many years past been much resorted to on the First Sunday in August by disorderly persons of every description, much to the annoyance of the parishioners, he hereby cautions all such persons from assembling on that day for idle and profane amusement, so revolting to that great command of the Law of God – “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” Strict orders have been given to the Constable and Officers of the Parish to take into custody any person who shall be found desecrating the Lord’s Day.”
However, Lugh is still remembered in stories of Tom the Tinkard or indeed, the better known “Jack the giant killer”. If you would like to read some of the Cornish “Tom the Tinkard” stories, go to Steve Colgan’s site at http://www.stevecolgan.com/Cornish%20Folklore%20Site/giant_stories3.htm