Bonfire Night also known as ‘St. John’s Eve’ or ‘Midsummer’ is celebrated in Ireland on the evening of June 23rd and has been celebrated for centuries.
The origin of bonfire night dates to Celtic pagan times when the Irish were polytheistic, they worshipped a number of Gods and Goddesses of which the Celts believed were present in nature. The ancient Celts believed their deities and other mythical creatures were present in trees, rivers, stone circles et cetera.
The Celtic calendar celebrated a number of festivals throughout the year, many of which later influenced the Irish calendar.
Vernal Equinox – Around March 20th – Day and night are of equal length.
Litha was the festival in which Irish Celtic farmers would ask the Goddess Áine for blessings. Áine was the Goddess of love and fertility and had command over crops and animals.
During this festival fires were lit on hilltops in honor of the deity. Prayers were said by druids, songs were sung and people danced around the fire.
In some communities it was said if a young woman lit the fire she would become pregnant and bear a child within a year.
It was tradition to keep a watch over the fire until dawn, some believed there would be bad luck should the fire quench before morning. The ashes of the fire were sprinkled over crops in the hope Áine would bless the harvest.
In the early centuries Christianity was flourishing in mainland Europe. Before St. Patrick was sent to Ireland (432 AD) by the the Pope, Bishop Palladius was tasked with converting Ireland to the christian faith. He was unsuccessful as he denounced the beliefs of the Celts. When St. Patrick preached to the Irish he and his followers Christianised many of the Celtic festivals.
The early Christian church declared June 24th as the Feast of St. John the Baptist. As time went on, the evening before a Saints day was known as the eve for example June 23rd St. John’s Eve, St. Brigid’s Eve January 31st
On bonfire night or St. John’s Eve Christian prayers replaced Pagan ones but other customs such as singing and dancing remained part of the celebrations for many centuries. In some parts of Ireland there is still a tradition of sprinkling ashes on crops.
Over the past few decades the number of bonfires has declined. Bonfire night remains a popular evening in rural Ireland. While prayers may not be said or songs may not be sung they remain as a community event.
In some areas of North Mayo where each family had their own fire, communal fires are now common. Communities now often organise outdoor BBQs (weather permitting) while younger generations are enthralled by the fire.
So if you’re visiting North Mayo during mid June, why not head to the local bonfire and enjoy an ancient Irish tradition.