Keep The Home Fires Burning

Donegal Democrat

From Ballyshannon to Buncrana, fires will burn this weekend.

But not all of them will burn to welcome home victorious footballers and government ministers. This Sunday, 23 June, is Oiche Fheile Eoin, the Feast of St John, traditionally the longest day of the year, and in many rural areas of the country, bonfires are burned to mark the occasion.

The solstice, which marks the highest point of the sun in the sky, is actually a moveable date, because of leap years. This year, it will occur on Friday, at 2.24pm, according to the Dunsink observatory.

The feast now has a Christian association, linked with St John, but its name in the Falcarragh area, where it is still known as Bealtine, betrays it’s older, Celtic origins.

Bealtine, which in the Celtic calendar took place in early May, marked the beginning of the Celtic New Year. The Celts did not themselves mark the solstices, the longest and shortest days of the year, or the equinoxes, when the sun crosses the equator and day and night are equally long. Instead they noted the passing of the year with ‘cross-quarter days’, falling halfway between solstice and equinox.

With the introduction of Christianity, however, pagan festivals were assimilated into the new religion. Imbolc, marking the beginning of the birthing season for lambs, became the festival of St Brigit. Samhain, the thanksgiving/harvest home festival, became All Souls, and Lunasa merged with the feast of the Assumption.

Bealtine rituals, marking the point in the agricultural calendar when cattle were moved from lowland to upland pastures, merged with festivals from Easter a few weeks earlier, or were incorporated into Marian festivals in the month of May.

In Donegal, however, the Bealtine festival seems to have moved forward to midsummer. Why this happened, no one is quite sure, but it may be due to the influence of continuing contacts between Ulster and Scotland. Scottish lowlanders, whose culture was influenced by the Saxons after the 5th century fall of Roman Britain, would have marked the solstice, and the two festivals may have merged as the cultures intertwined over the last two thousand years.

In olden times, ashes from the bonfires were believed to have magical powers, and were often sprinkled on cattle or crops to protect them from disease.