Sláinte!: Dancing at Lughnasa

An illustration of the god Lugh of Irish folklore
An illustration of the god Lugh of Irish folklore

By Edythe Preet, Contributor
August / September 2008

Of all the months of the year, only August has no ‘official’ holiday. That’s poor marketing if you ask me. Holidays generate more ‘stimulus’ to the economic calendar than any paltry government ‘rebate’ could ever engender.

Granted, there’s a flurry of back-to-school buys but academic purchasing doesn’t hit full momentum until September. To fill the void, I suggest adding another Irish celebration to the wildly successful duo of Halloween and St. Pat’s Day. That would be the year’s first harvest festival, Lughnasa.

Doing so would rank the holiday marketers on a par with George Lucas who morphed the Sword-of- Light-wielding Celtic warrior Lugh Samildanach (The Many-Skilled) into the light-saber-wielding Star Wars hero Luke Skywalker.

Long, long ago in an Ireland not so far away, there lived the magical Tuatha De Danann and their enemies, the evil Fomorians. It had been predicted that the Fomor king, Balor of The Evil Eye, would be killed by his grandson. When his daughter gave birth to Lugh, who had been sired by a prince of the Tuatha De Danann, Balor ordered the child’s death. But Lugh was hidden away and raised by foster parents.

Years later, as the Tuatha De Danann prepared for war with the Fomorians, Lugh arrived and demanded a role in the fray on the grounds that he had mastered every known skill. The Tuatha chieftain, Nuada of the Silver Hand, welcomed him and they set out to do battle. When Balor turned his Evil Eye on Nuada and slew him, Lugh fulfilled the prophecy by hurling a bolt of lightning from his sword through Balor’s Evil Eye, destroying him and the whole Fomorian army.

Like Star Wars, Celtic mythology centered on opposing forces – light and dark, good and evil, birth and death, planting and harvest. When the crops were mature, they were cut down, dying so that the people might survive. Lugh, who personified the conflict in opposing forces, has symbolized harvest throughout Celtic history.

Before ‘early’ crops were developed, July was known as the Hungry Month. Food stores put away from the previous year were dwindling and rations were meager. But as summer drew to its close, the bounty of field and furrow was finally ready for harvest. In pre-Christian times this abundance was celebrated at Lughnasa, the full moon between summer solstice and the autumnal equinox, with market festivals, music, dancing, horse races, and ‘handfastings’ – trial marriages that would last a year and a day with the option of making the union permanent or ending the partnership amicably.

As late summer is the time when wild blueberries appear, the Sunday before Lughnasa – Bilberry Sunday – has long been the day for young folk to climb the countryside’s rolling hills and gather the fruit.

After Christianity arrived in Ireland, grain from the first threshing was ground up and baked into special loaves of bread that were taken to church and blessed at a ‘hlafmaesse’ – an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘loaf-mass’ which over time shortened to Lammas. Once potatoes were introduced to Ireland, even the poorest folk could grow a subsistence crop in a tiny cottage garden and the ‘first fruits’ custom was transferred to the humble spud which conveniently produced a crop of tiny new potatoes just in time for the August harvest celebrations.

George Lucas is not the only writer who has been inspired by the importance of Lugh in Irish folk tradition. On April 24, 1990, Dancing at Lughnasa premiered at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Written by Brian Friel, the production is a memory play in which the central character, Michael Evans, recounts the events of August 1936 when he was a seven-year-old fatherless child staying with his mother and her four sisters at the family cottage in Donegal. In the shadow of the approaching harvest celebration honoring Lugh, the god of light and fire and music and dance, the women of the house share such strong bonds of love and courage in moments of joy as well as loss that the memory of them dancing and singing lives with Michael all his life. When Dancing at Lughnasa was produced on Broadway in 1992, it won the Tony award for best play. In 1998, the play was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep as the eldest sister.

While only a few pre-Christian Celtic celebrations have withstood the passage of time, the Irish have made merry at the harvest festivals of Lughnasa and Lammas for thousands of years, perhaps because until only recently Ireland’s primary industry was agriculture. Today both festivities are wildly popular summer events in several places around the island.

On the Dingle Peninsula, Feile na Lunusa is a celebration of surf and turf, combining the bounty of both land and sea. Ballyhugh, Co. Cavan marks Lughnasa with a full week of music concerts and ceilis, step and house dancing, and traditional craft workshops. The Ould Lammas Fair at Ballycastle, Co. Antrim is the biggest and longest-running harvest event. Dating from the seventeenth century when the McDonnells of Antrim distributed food to the needy, it is renowned for two local specialties: Dulse, an edible local red seaweed, and Yellow Man, a sugary confection that resembles honeycomb.

While not specifically harvest festivals, several other of Ireland’s August happenings bear noting. At the quirky Puck Fair in Killorglin, Co. Kerry the townsfolk crown a goat ‘king’ to commemorate the day that a herd of goats ran amuck through the village warning the people of Cromwell’s advance on their region. The weeklong Galway Races draw horseracing fans from around the world to gape and wager on Ireland’s magnificent thoroughbreds. And last, but certainly not least, fine fillies of the human kind vie for top honors at the Rose of Tralee beauty pageant. August may be a sleepy time in most places on the planet, but the opposite is certainly true of Ireland. Someone should tell the Madison Avenue marketing mavens they missed this particular boat. Sláinte!

Blueberry Cobbler
(Note: This recipe can easily be doubled and baked
in a 9×13-inch baking pan.)
3⁄4     stick butter
3⁄4     cup flour
2⁄3     cup sugar
2     tsp. baking powder
pinch salt
3⁄4     cup milk
2     cups blueberries (frozen is ok)
1⁄2     cup chopped walnuts (optional)
cinnamon
nutmeg
Preheat oven to 350
Melt butter in 8-inch square baking dish. Set aside. In a clean bowl, mix next five batter ingredients. Pour batter in dish. Sprinkle blueberries on top (add chopped walnuts if
you like your cobbler crunchy). Dust with cinnamon and
nutmeg. Put the cobbler on the middle shelf of the oven and bake 35-40 minutes.   –Recipe by Edythe Preet

The Ould Lammas Fair
by John Henry MacAuley
At the Ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle long ago
I met a pretty colleen who set me heart a-glow.
She was smiling at her daddy buying lambs from Paddy Roe
At the Ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle-O.
Sure I seen her home that night
When the moon was shining bright
From the ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle-O.

Chorus:
At the Ould Lammas Fair, boys, were you ever there?
Were you ever at the Fair In Ballycastle-O?
Did you treat your Mary Ann to some Dulse and Yellow Man
At the Ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle-O?

In Flanders fields afar while resting from the War
We drank Bon Sante to the Flemish lassies O.
But the scene that haunts my memory is kissing Mary Ann,
Her pouting lips all sticky from eating Yellow Man
As we passed the silver Margy and we strolled along the strand
From the Ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle-O.

(Repeat Chorus)

There’s a neat little cabin on the slopes of fair Knocklayde.
It’s lit by love and sunshine where the heather honey’s made
With the bees ever humming, and the children’s joyous call
Resounds across the valley as the shadows fall.
Sure I take my fiddle down and my Mary smiling there
Brings back a happy mem’ry of the Lammas Fair.

(Repeat Chorus)
Note: This well-known ballad was composed by John Henry “The Carver” MacAuley, a skilled bog-oak carver. Born on a farm in Glenshesk, he was expected to follow in the farming tradition but when he was a child, he met with an accident that left him crippled. MacAuley was a gifted and well-known fiddle player.

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