Fr Kevin Hegarty
Tonight, June 23, is Bonfire Night. The roots of this tradition are steeped in antiquity. For the Celts the fires marked the summer solstice. With the coming of Christianity to Ireland the ritual was baptised and called St John’s Eve.
Bonfire Night remains strong along the western seaboard. This evening plumes of smoke will arise from many villages. Families, neighbours and friends will gather round the fires to chat, reminisce and celebrate.
When I was growing up in Ballina, most neighbourhoods had their own fire. We competed as to who had the most dramatice conflagration. Preparations for the night began early in the year. We used to haunt the local garages for worn-out tyres to fan the flames. We did not know then that they are toxic for the environment. Green then was just a colour, not a political ideology.
Bonfire Night features in our historical records and folklore collections. In ‘The Year in Ireland’, Kevin Danaher records the memories of an old Limerick teacher, given to the Folklore Commission in 1943:
“At the present time the observance is almost entirely confined to children who still on St John’s Eve gather sticks etc and light small bonfires to carry on the time-honoured custom. But old people of 30 years ago and more remembered how the fire used to be lit exactly at sunset and had to be watched and tended ’til long after midnight. Prayers used to be said to obtain God’s blessing on the crops then at the peak point of summer bloom.
“Round the fire gathered young and old. There was much fun and music: a dance was started and games were played while some young men competed in casting weights or in feats of strength, speed or agility. I gather that it was mostly women who shared in the prayers for the gardens and for good weather.
“Some people used to take ashes from the fire then extinct on St John’s morning to scatter them on their fields. At the close of the festival too, about midnight, any man who built a new house took from the fire a shovel of red hot coals so that the very first fire there should be started by the flame of St John’s Eve.”
The Westport-born historian, James Hardiman in his ‘History of Galway’, published in 1820, provides a colourful description of the fishermen of the Claddagh processing through the city on St John’s Day. It resembles a contemporary Macnas display:
“The nativity of St John the Baptist they celebrate by a very peculiar kind of pageantry. On the evening of that day the young and old assemble at the head of the village and their mayor, whose orders are decisive, adjusts the rank, order and precedence of this curious procession.
“They then set out, headed by a band of music and march with loud and continued huzzas and acclamations of joy, accompanied by crowds of people, through the principal streets and suburbs of the town: the young men all arrayed in short white jackets, with silken sashes, their hats ornamented with ribbons and flowers, and upwards of 60 or 70 of the number bearing long poles and standards with suitable devices which are in general emblematic of their profession.
“To heighten the merriment of this festive scene, two of the stoutest, disguised in masks and entirely covered with party-coloured rags as ‘Merry Men’ with many antic tricks and gambols, make way for the remainder. In the course of their progress they stop with loud cheerings and salutations opposite the houses of the principal inhabitants, from whom they generally receive money on the occasion.
“Having at length regained their village, they assemble in the groups dancing round, and sometimes leaping and running through their bonfires, never forgetting to bring home part of the fire which they consider sacred; and thus the night ends as the day began in one continued scene of mirth and rejoicing.”
Enjoy your bonfire and stay safe.