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.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.
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.”
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