By Melanie Ward
Until the twentieth century, it was customary throughout Ireland for people to gather at a local beauty spot to meet with neighbours, gather fruit or flowers and admire the view.
These excursions took place on the last Sunday of July or the first in August, and were known variously as ‘Bilberry Sunday’, ‘Blaeberry Sunday’ or ‘Garland Sunday’.
Maire MacNeil detailed these traditions in her book ‘The Festival of Lughnasa’, and concluded that they could be traced back over two thousand years to a festival originally celebrated by the Celts.
Maire MacNeil, daughter of Gaelic League founder Eoghan MacNeil, was employed by the Folklore Commission, set up by De Valera to record Irish customs and traditions.
Lughnasa was one of the major Celtic Festivals. Taking place at the end of summer, it celebrated the beginning of the harvest and was associated with the Celtic God, Lugh.
One myth states that Lugh ordered a week-long festival in memory of his foster mother, Tailtiu, which was held at Teltown in Co Meath.
Here people gathered from all over Meath to join in festivities which included horse racing, athletics and dancing competitions.
At Beltaine Hill, Gortahork, bilberries were picked by young men to make into bracelets for their sweethearts. Then there would be storytelling, singing and dancing and at the end of the festivities the girls would leave the bracelets in the hilltop before heading home.
At Slievenakilla, Playbank, Co Leitrim, people gathered in the last Sunday of July and picked bilberries on their way to the summit. When they arrived they held music and dancing competitions, and contests in jumping and throwing.
A picnic was held and on leaving the mountain the people raised a cheer to give ‘the last salute to the summer’. The practice was discontinued in 1916.
At Carricknahorna, Co Sligo, Bilberry Sunday was the second last in July, when people would gather to climb Bricklieve mountain, gathering berries to eat or to thread together as necklaces and at the summit sing, dance and play games.
At Skelp in County Mayo, ‘Garland Sunday’ was celebrated until 1860. People picked flowers to make garlands, gathered fruit and played sports. ‘Blaeberry Sunday’ was celebrated at Mullyash, Co Monaghan until 1942.
After Mass people climbed the hill to gather bilberries which were eaten or brought home to make into jam and wine for those who were unable to make the climb. People danced jigs and reels, and competed in running and jumping.
Less common than the gatherings to pick bilberries were assemblies at lakes, rivers and the sea. Here the tradition was was to drive cattle or horses into the water to swim.
In her book, Marie MacNeil reported that this tradition existed at Kinvara, Co Galway, until the nineteenth century, when young men would ride horses into the sea.
Sir Henry Piers described the swimming of cattle in Westmeath in 1682, which locals believed to be beneficial.
Along with the gathering of fruit and flowers and the ritual cleansing of animals, another Bilberry Sunday tradition was a special meal made with the first of the new crop of the potatoes.
These were gathered by the head of the household, who might also bless the fields with Holy Water, and made into a traditional meal for the family – in some areas colcannon, in others served with cabbage and bacon.
Marie MacNeil made the case that this custom was also a Lughnasa tradition, as it related to ‘the festival of the first fruits of the tilled fields’.
Though most Lughnasa traditions were discontinued in the twentieth century, one that is still thriving is the annual Muff Fair in County Cavan. Here, on the 12th of August, one of Ireland’s oldest horse fairs takes place near the Rock of Muff, attracting hundreds of visitors.
As well as horses there are a number of stalls and tents that offer music, dancing and liquid refreshments. An outing to gather bilberries at nearby Loughinlay used to take place the Sunday before the Muff Fair, but sadly this practice is now discontinued.
‘The Festival of Lughnasa’ is a fascinating record of Irish customs in the distant (and not so distant) past. Ask in your local library, and see if you can find any local beauty spots mentioned – you may even decide to gather bilberries there!