For thousands of years the human race has studied the movements of the sun and the planets. They knew – even if they couldn’t explain why – that throughout the course of the year, the sun’s relationship to the earth affected their lives.
There was the season of long, warm days (hopefully!) and the season of short cold days (definitely). Between these were two days when day and night were of equal length.
These four markers of the year were both recorded and anticipated. In fact they became religious occasions when the gods must be appeased and prayed to.
With the coming of Christianity, these four days were given new names: the Spring Equinox (21/22 March) became the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (25 March); the Summer Solstice (21/22 June) became St John’s Eve (23 June); the Autumnal Equinox (21/22 September) became St. Michael’s Day (24 September); and the Winter Solstice (21/22 December) became Christmas Eve.
What concerns us here is the Summer Solstice, St. John’s Eve, Bonfire Night, Tine Féile Eoin, Oiche an Tine Cháimh, and several other names besides.
It’s not such a big deal now, but some parts of Ireland still celebrate this major turning point in the astronomic calendar by lighting fires on hilltops or other traditional locations. Years ago, particular practices were observed in particular regions, but there was always music and craic, feats of strength, speed and agility while young men vied for the attentions of young women.
Christian prayer was also thrown into the mix of this essentially pre-Christian celebration.
The fuel was usually furze bushes (called gorse or whin in various parts of Ireland) and there was often great rivalry between neighbouring villages or parishes as to who would have the largest.
Raids on rivals’ stockpiles were not unknown and some gifted local bards no doubt wrote epic poems along the lines of the Táin Bó Cualainn, comparing the furze-thieves to the cattle rustlers of ancient times. In latter years, where the custom is still observed, car tyres seem to be the preferred material.