By Jim Rees
Not often referred to now, but 1 August was one of the most important dates in the calendar. Known both as Lammas and Lúghnasa, it was (and in some areas still is) a celebration of the harvesting of the first crops.
As in Christmas and Michaelmas, the ‘mas’ in Lammas denotes a feast day when the Christian Mass was held in thanksgiving. In this case, it derives from the Old English phrase ‘hlaf-measse’, meaning Loaf-Mass.
Of course, celebrating a new harvest long predates Christianity and most people in Ireland refer to this festive time as Lúghnasa, after the pagan god Lúgh – of whom more anon.
From the time of the first farmers, bread became ‘the staff of life’. Without it, people starved. No wonder the ripening and harvesting of a new, healthy crop, was a major marker in the turning of the natural cycle.
It was a time to enjoy. People had survived another year and, particularly if the crop was abundant, they could look forward to a new year in confidence. Not surprisingly, traditions grew up around this annual event.
In Ireland, after the 16th and 17th centuries, the potato replaced bread as the staple diet for the majority of people, but that didn’t change the significance of Lammas.
Whether the main crop was grain or spuds, harvesting it before that date was a sign of bad husbandry. It showed that not only could the farmer not make his previous crop stretch the full year, but he was already ‘borrowing’ from the coming year’s store which, in all likelihood, would leave him in an even worse predicament next summer.
In reality, many poor people had little option but to dig in early. Those with no land, and therefore no crops, picked tubers from the sides of other people’s ridges as soon as they could. Pilferage seldom observes protocol.
Newly gathered crops provided the main dish of the Lammas feast, which would be eaten in the family home. Afterwards, the more energetic made their way to the local gathering of the wider community on a hilltop or lakeside.
Here, they enjoyed all the usual sports, games and gossip which were part and parcel of community life. More food – and no doubt drink – also had a role, as local musicians tuned up for what could prove to be a long session.
Young couples could escape the scrutiny of elders by rambling over the heather to pick fraughans (wild berries). An innocent enough pursuit, you might think, but it is amazing how often such ramblings resulted in marriage.
Many of today’s summer festivals have their origins in those early celebrations.