EUGENE DALY continues his series on various aspects of Irish folklore and customs
Lugh was a mythical hero, originally a Celtic deity. His name is often accompanied by the sobriquet Lámhfhada (long-armed), the idea being not of a physically long limb but that his weapons had long range. He was adept at the use of the javelin and the sling. He was also known as Samhaildánach, meaning ‘the one who possesses all the arts’.
Writing of the Gauls, who ruled present-day France, Julius Caesar stated that they worshipped a god whom he compared to the Roman god Mercury: ‘They declare him the inventor of all arts, the guide for every road and journey, and they deem him to have the greatest influence for all money-making and commerce’.
Sanctuaries to Lugh have been located throughout Gaulish territories, and the Celtic place names Lugudunon (fortress of Lugh), survive in many forms, for example, Lyons, Lauzon, London and Leiden.
He was the focus of the harvest cult, for there was a great festival at Lyons at harvest time, which the Romans forcibly changed into a celebration of the emperor Augustus (hence the name August for that month).
The celebration of such a festival has long been celebrated in Ireland, being called in Irish Lughnasa, originally applied to one of the four great Celtic festivals in Ireland, the others being Samhain (November 1st, the start of winter; Bealtaine (May 1st), the start of Summer; Imbolg or Imbolc, the start of Spring, now St. Brigid’s Day, February 1st.
So Lughnasa, now the name in Irish for the month of August, provides a direct link between the mythology of the continental Celts and the tradition of Ireland.
A text from the ninth century explains Lughnasa as ‘an assembly held by Lugh at the beginning of harvest each year’. Another source identifies this assembly as the great fair of Tailtiu (Teltown, Co. Meath).
The origins of various communal activities relating to festival celebrations were also attributed to Lugh – ball games, horse racing and ficheall (the Irish form of chess).
The Lughnasa festival started on the last Sunday in July which had many names – Domhnach Chrom Dubh, Domhnach Deireannach, Garland Sunday, Hill Sunday, etc.
The chief event of the festival was not so much the festive meal as the festive gathering out of doors. This took the form of an excursion to some traditional site, usually on a hill or mountain top, or beside a lake or river, where large numbers of people gathered, travelling there on foot or horseback or in carts.
Many of the participants came to make a day of it, bringing food, drink and musical instruments and spending the afternoon and evening in eating, drinking, dancing and singing. The young men engaged in tests of skill and strength, in sports and games. The girls picked wild flowers and made them into garlands and nosegays. Almost always there were wild berries to be picked and enjoyed.
There were many such hill and mountain gatherings. Máire Mac Néill, in her famous book Festival of Lughnasa, enumerates seventy eight hills on which these assemblies were held: nine in Connacht, fifteen in Leinster, fifteen in Munster and thirty-nine in Ulster.
In addition to these, there are heights on which the merry secular gatherings took on at some time in the past a religious character and became pilgrimages or ‘patterns’. By far the most widely known of these is Croagh Patrick, the great quartzite cone of ‘the Reek’ as it is popularly known, on the southern side of Clew Bay in Co. Mayo.
Along the mountain ridge and leading up to the summit are two rough tracks, one from the eastern side, the other from the western side. Up these tracks the pilgrims have come on ‘Reek Sunday’, the last Sunday in July, for over a thousand years, to honour Ireland’s patron saint and to perform penance, on the spot where, it is said, the saint prayed and fasted for forty days and nights. Three other mountains formerly had pilgrimages at this time, Mount Brandon in Co. Kerry, Slieve Donard in County Down and Church Mountain in Co. Wicklow.
Another favourite gathering place at the Lughnasa festival was beside a lake or a river. These waterside gatherings differed little from those on the hills. There were the same dancing, eating and drinking, picking of wild flowers and fruit. The driving of cattle and horses into the lakes or rivers seems to have been widespread.
On the banks of Lough Owel near Mullingar there was a pattern held on the first Sunday in August, called the ‘Pattern of the Lough’.
It was also a favourite time for the holding of fairs. In ancient Ireland there was the Fair of Carman and the Fair at Tailtiu. A number of fairs held at this time bore names like ‘Gooseberry Fair’, ‘Bilberry Fair’ and ‘Lammas Fair’ in Northern Ireland, particularly in Ballycastle, Co. Antrim. The most notable of the survivors is Puck Fair in Killorglin, Co. Kerry, formerly held on 1-2 August, but now on the 10-12th.