Following the publication of the Brian Friel play; Dancing at Lughnasa, subsequently turned into a movie starring Meryl Streep; Lughnasadh (pronounced ‘Loo-na-sa) is one of the four Celtic cross quarter days.
Originally celebrated from sundown on the 31st July, or on the first full moon closest to this date, unlike the other quarter days which are more fixed, Lughnasadh, has a strong hold throughout the month of August.
Irish Mythology associated with Lughnasadh
The celebration is named after Lugh an Irish God associated with the sun, storms, craftwork and smithing and his name means ‘flashing light’. He is said to have started the tradition in honour of his mother Tailtiu who died of exhaustion clearing the Irish midlands for agriculture. Funeral games were organised in her memory that finished on the 1st of August, in what is now Teltown (Co Meath).
The games incorporated competitions including horse riding, wrestling, spear throwing (associated with Lugh who owned a magic, living and blood thirsty spear) story telling, poetry and music. Legal disputes would also be settled and couples could be ‘hand-fasted’ which was a type of trial marriage that lasted for a year and a day; after this time, the couple could choose to make the arrangement permanent, or walk away with no recriminations.
Although the tradition dates much further back, the first written reference to the celebrations are documented in a 15th Century telling of “The Wooing of Eimer”. This is one of the tales that make up The Ulster Cycle, one of four main areas of Celtic Mythology. Cú Chulainn, ‘the Hound of Ulster’ and hero of the age, is the son of Lugh, and features in many of the stories of the Ulster Cycle, including the epic Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley).
Traditions associated with Lughnasa
The custom of Lughnasadh itself centres around the first harvest, and appeals to the God for help in bringing it safely in. Traditionally, the first grain would be cut and carried up to a high place where it would be buried along with flowers and bilberries. This was in recognition that summer was ending, but winter had not yet begun. A bull would be sacrificed, with the meat used for a feast, and a younger bull would then ceremonially take it’s place. Finally a play would take place showing Lugh first fighting the god Crom Dubh for the harvest, which he secures for mankind, and then battling the god of blight, signifying that the harvest is not yet safely indoors for winter.
Always associated with high places, Lughnasadh traditions continued well into the 20th Century, under the guise of “Bilberry Sunday’ or Garland Sunday’ where people would climb to the top of a mountain and bury berries or flowers at the summit. The tradition has been incorporated into Christianity and most famously adapted to become ‘Reek Sunday’ where pilgrims continue to climb to the top of Croagh Patrick each year on the last Sunday in July.
The Auld Lamas and Puck Fairs
The Auld (old) Lammas Fair
On the last Monday and Tuesday of August The Auld Lammas Fair is still held in Ballycastle, on the North Antrim Coast. This fair has been going for over 400 years.dating back to the 17th Century – when coincidentally, a licence was granted to distill whiskey in nearby Bushmills, though they had been happily distilling without licence since the 12th century.
The origins of the fair vary depending on who you talk to shifting between the development of an older sheep market, and a celebration organised by Sorley Boy MacDonnell, (a local Clan Chief) for his son. The name Lammas, though named after Lugh, comes from a Christianised form meaning Loaf Mass, the harvest tradition of putting a loaf from the new harvest on the alter during worship.
The Fair is known for horse trading, which still takes place, and two local delicacies that you will find for sale; Dulse – a seaweed that is dried and bagged before being eaten as a snack and Yellowman, an exceptionally dense, sticky version of honeycomb that is guaranteed to seize you jaws shut or rid you of teeth. The fair and its wares were made famous in a poem/song by John Henry McAuley. McAuley died in 1937 before the song became popular.
The Auld Lammas Fair
At the Ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle long ago
I met a pretty colleen who set me heart a-glow
She was smiling at her daddy buying lambs from Paddy Roe
At the Ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle-O!
Sure I seen her home that night
When the moon was shining bright
From the ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle-O!
At the Ould Lammas Fair boys were you ever there
Were you ever at the Fair In Ballycastle-O?
Did you treat your Mary Ann
To some Dulse and Yellow Man
At the Ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle-O!
In Flander’s fields afar while resting from the War
We drank Bon Sante to the Flemish lassies O!
But the scene that haunts my memory is kissing Mary Ann
Her pouting lips all sticky from eating Yellow Man
As we passed the silver Margy and we strolled along the strand
From the Ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle-O!
There’s a neat little cabin on the slopes of fair Knocklayde
It’s lit by love and sunshine where the heather honey’s made
With the bees ever humming and the children’s joyous call
Resounds across the valley as the shadows fall
Sure I take my fiddle down and my Mary smiling there
Brings back a happy mem’ry of the Lammas Fair
The Puck Fair
The Puck Fair is held in early August in Kilorglin, Co Kerry and this may date to as early as the 16th century. At the beginning of a three day festival, a wild goat is brought into the town and crowned The Puck King, whilst a local girl is crowned Queen. No harm to them, but Kerry folk are a law onto themselves. The Puck Fair includes music, dancing, art & crafts in addition to a thriving horse, and cattle market, it is believed to be an original surviving Lughnasadh tradition.