Pouring water on the fires

Jun 23rd, 2012 | By | Category: Ireland

Midsummer’s night and the rain has been falling since midday. The expected long evenings have never occurred this year; it being so dark outside that indoors the lights have been switched on from early evening.

Twenty-odd years ago, the last two weeks of June were spent in a cottage in Connemara. The weather was mostly grey, but occasionally the clouds broke and the sun shone. Walking with friends on 24th June, at the junction of two back roads there were the ashes of a bonfire. ‘A Saint John’s Night fire’, commented one of our companions. An inquiry as to what this meant brought a shrug of the shoulders.

There will be no Saint John’s Night fires this year, the enthusiasm, if not the flames, would be soon extinguished by the rain. Even the temperature is barely into double figures.

Wondering what the fires were really about, an Internet search brought an explanation:

There are many bonfire customs associated with Midsummer celebrations.

Generally the dates celebrated are 23 June – St. John’s Eve which is sometimes called Bonfire Night. It is known in gaelic as: Oiche an teine chanáimh or Teine Féil Eóin. The fire must be lit exactly on sunset and must be watched till the next morning. The fire and its ashes brought blessings on to the crops. Fires were made to be circular in form – a holy shape. Music, dancing and games were popular along with feats of strength. Bonfires were set close to the graveyard and or holy well. Fires were made from turf, furze bushes and other firewood. Troublesome weeds were also burned. Demons were exorcised. The first fires of new homes were kindled from the bonfire. Fires lit from the bonfire were lit around houses to keep fairies away. Items were burned so as to inflict loss on an enemy. Fires were both communal and individual. Bonfires were so large that tall ladders were required for their construction. Begging for fuel was popular with those who refused being tormented. It was said that Protestant bones were burned on hilltop bonfires. There was competition to have the biggest and best fire. The fires were lit during the recitation of a prayer: ” In the honour of God and of St. John, to the fruitfulness and profit of our planting and our work, in the name of the Father and of the Sone and of the Holy Spirit, Amen”. All ages took part. Walking sunwise around the fire while praying was considered essential. Youths would toss burning sticks up into the air. Sometimes effigies were tossed on the fire. Food including a special dish called “goody” made of white shop bread soaked in milk and flavoured with sugar and spice was made in iron pots by the side of the fire. Children collected money in advance of the fire which they spent on sweets. The fire was usually blessed with holy water. Jumping over the fire was a sign of bravery but it also would bring good luck in deeds and in marriage.

From: Kevin Danaher,  The Year in Ireland, Mercier Press, Dublin, 1972

“Items were burned so as to inflict loss on an enemy . . . It was said that Protestant bones were burned on hilltop bonfires . . Sometimes effigies were tossed on the fire”? Probably nasty pieces of mythology, but if that mythology was a reflection of the spirit of the celebration, then the shrug of the shoulders is explained.

May it rain all night and may every bonfire be extinguished!

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