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The Festival of Lúghnasa: an Irish harvest festival

Yesterday was Féile Lúghnasa, the pre-Christian Irish harvest festival, which is still celebrated at a few locations in Ireland. One time it was held at around 200 sites, nearly always remote, inaccessible places that were on heights, or near water. The festival was dedicated to Lúgh, the young and most brilliant god of the Tuatha de Danann. Lúgh was the god of light, god of arts and crafts, father of inventions and the likes. It was he who saved the harvest by vanquishing Bal, the sun god who was in the process of scorching all the country’s plants and crops with relentless heat.

Lúgh was a good time god. His festival was a young peoples gig and it was party central. In the Irish calendar it was the biggest celebration, the harvest was safe and the population could go and boogie. Held at remote locations, only the young, the fit and the agile made their way there.

As was its practice, the Catholic Church cast their net wherever there was a crowd. They took over Lúghnasa and put a religious stamp on it. One of the most glaring examples of this hi-jacking is Reek Sunday on Croagh Patrick, an ancient Lúghnasa site. The Irish Church said that St. Patrick spent 40 days and nights on the mountaintop, fasting and praying for the salvation of Ireland. If he did, he failed. But it’s more likely a pr job and the nearest Paddy got to the mountain was Campbell’s pub in Murrisk or maybe Matt Molloys in Westport. Anyway, year in and year out, thousands of the hoodwinked faithful climb the mountain on Féile Lúghnasa, saying prayers to Patrick, Mary and Jesus. Some climb barefooted, others climb blindfolded. Lúgh is probably shaking his head at the pain, wondering why they no longer believe in a good time god.

Bridget: Irish goddess disguised as a nun

In west Clare, the oldest Lúghnasa site is Dabach Bríde, also known as The Blessed Well or Bridget’s Well. Near the Cliffs of Moher, it’s a well in a little grove and has the sense of an ancient place. The Well is unique, as it’s the site of pilgrimage on Féile Bríde (February 1) as well as Lúghnasa. One time, thousands of people came there on Lúghnasa and later went down to the seaside village of Lahinch to sport and play. In recent times attendance has been slack and it’s mainly a scattering of diehard locals like myself who turn up to ‘pay our respects’ to the local deity, i.e. Lúgh.

So I went over to the Well yesterday afternoon. It was misty up by the Cliffs and I had a sense that the year had turned. When I was a youngster, Lúghnasa was the highpoint of our summer. We knew it as Garland Sunday, the last Sunday of Hungry July. It marked the day when we could harvest the new crop of potatoes — the ‘floury spuds’ and we gave thanks.

There was nobody at The Well when I got there. Inside, there were a few candles flickering, the faithful had been and gone. I paid my respects and walk up the old path three times to do ‘the rounds’, went back to the well again and sipped the water. Outside the sky was a bit brighter, the mist had cleared and I could see across Liscannor Bay and down along the coast of West Clare.

all around the shrine, there are offerings, prayer requests, memory cards

As I was about to leave, I heard the chattering of young voices, and saw a troop of teenagers coming down the road. They stopped outside The Well and looked at maps or guidebooks. They were young German hikers. One of them approached me and said,
‘Please, what is this?”

So I told him about Lúgh and the tradition and said it was auspicious that they came this way on his feast day. He related the story to the others. They asked questions and I answered best I could. They were respectful and asked if it was ok for them to enter the shrine and taste the water.
“Sure,” I said, “Lúgh would be delighted.”

Young German hikers about to meet Lúgh...


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13 thoughts on “The Festival of Lúghnasa: an Irish harvest festival

  1. an deas!
    Im missing the harvest of Floury Spuds.
    Well done on this nice piece.

  2. I grew up at a place where every July a dance floor “The Board” of many 8X8 sections were laid out, levelled and connected and then waxed. This Board was set in an alcove of trees with a river running at back of the stage. There were not to many cars in those days but come wind or rain the Board was thronged every weekend. The ditches would be covered in pushbikes, Raleigh, Triumph and the BSA. As a kid I was told BSA stood for bloody sore arse! I once seen a guy trot a shortcut across the fields trousers legs rolled up and shoes stuck in pockets who then washed his feet in the stream and socked and booted danced with the best of them. I learned to waltz and did my Siege of Ennis as a lad of 5years. The site was revered as an ancient meeting place according to my grandfather who was the overseer of the board and collected the gate; Always on the way to the Board he would give me a sixpenny piece so as I could pay him on the way in, and that sixpence went into the pouch with all the rest. I had the good fortune to see the play performed by the Abby Actors on the South Bank in London 1990 I think, and the heart nearly burst from my chest with pride and nostalgia to the memories of what was as true to home as I remembered growing up in. It was a first night and the audience went wild; I think they would go wild in their droves if we revived and combined the Lúghnasa and Dance and Patterns again.

  3. mick guinane on said:

    I enjoyed this article immensely…..very informative….Thank you……
    I must pay a visit to the Well before the Summer has gone….
    Tanx again……Keep up the good work agus Tog Go Bog e…..

  4. Ed..Never knew you were that religious!The well is a favourite and I bring my visitors there.Ta for educating me.

  5. Triona on said:

    Hi Ed
    Brought back many happy memories of my childhood spent in West Clare. We had our very own St Joseph’s blessed well a couple of miles outside Miltown!
    Article made me chuckle – keep ’em coming!

  6. As a matter of interest! There are many holy wells on the West Clare Peninsula from Kilkee to Leap Head on the Shannon side and back by the Atlantic side via the one across from Bishops Island dedicated by/to St Senan; A holy well pilgrimage is a thought!

  7. I really enjoyed this post about Lúghnasa (I especially love the boldness with which you talk about the religious stamp that was put upon it!). Although I was in West Clare at the time I didn’t make it to that particular well, however, I did make a stop at the nearby Kilkee holy well. You’re a braver person than me, I don’t think I would ever drink the water!

  8. … by the way, I’ll bet that stop at the well and your explanation of Lúgh and the history of the well was a highlight of the trip for those German hikers.

  9. Pingback: Fourth World Eye » Blog Archive » Lughnasa

  10. Pingback: Lughnasa « neoghan ua niall

  11. Regina O'Dea on said:

    I think tis high time for the return of the”good time God”.We weren’t put here to be miserable but to live our dreams.I really enjoyed reading about Lugh.Thanks.

  12. Barbara O'Dea on said:

    I love all the articles you write. My sister always forwards them to me. I live in New York and I really miss County Clare. Keep up the good work!! Thanks

  13. I’ve never been to Ireland, but now I know one thing I’ll be doing if I ever get there. Thanks for the little history lesson 🙂 I just wish I could see the details better in the photos you put up.

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