Bonfire Customs of the Isle of  Ireland

Perhaps it all started with warmth and light in the darkness but it has lead to many diverse celebrations. Providing bonfires was a mark of status partaking of them was a delight of the people. First they may have been gifts of  the powerful to the powerless. Later they were taken over by the ancient religion to mark the seasons and clean up bad weeds and infected plants and to clean livestock. Then the Christian church adopted them for the new series of holidays. Click Here to read of the bonfire customs of the Island of Ireland.

Easter: "Sometimes the outdoor amusements on the Sunday included the lighting of a bonfire, but this appears to have come from the high spirits of the young people and to have no connection with Easter Saturday's Paschal fire."- Danaher p.81.

May and May Bushes: "Closely associated with the May bushes were bonfires.  This was especially the case in Dublin, where great fires were lit, around which the revelers caroused.  Elaborate preparations were made for these too. Thus Wilde:"Turf,coals, old bones, particularly slugs of cow's horns from the tan yards, and horses' heads from the knackers, logs of wood etc.  were also collected, to which some of the merchants generally added a few pitch and tar-barrels.  Money was solicited to "moisten the clay" of the revelers; for, whether from liking, or from fear, or considering it unlucky, few ventured to refuse to contribute "something toste de May bush." The ignitable materials were formed in depots, in back-yards, and cellars of old houses, long before the approaching festival;and several sorties were made by opposing factions to gain possession of these hoards, and lives have been lost in the skirmishes which ensued.  In Dublin the bonfires were always lighted upon the evening of May Day, and generally in the vicinity of the May bush.   the great fire was, as we  already mentioned, at the lower end of the Coombe; but there were also fires in the centre and  at the top of that classic locality.  The weavers had their fire in Weaver's Square; the hatters and piipemakers in the upper end of Jame's Street; and the neighbourhood of St. John's Well, near Kilmainham, beside Bully's Acre, generally exhibited a towering blaze.  Upon the north side of the city, the best fire blazed in Smithfield. With exception of one ancient rite, that of throwing into it the May  bush, there were but few Pagan ceremonies observed at the metropolitan fires.  A fast crowd collected, whiskey was distributed galore both to those who had, and had not, gathered the morning's dew.  The entire population of the district collected round the bush and the fire; the elder portion, men and women, bringing with them chairs or stools, to sit out  the wake of the winter and spring, according to the olden usage.  The best singers in the crowd lilted up, "The Night before Larry was stretched", or His for de Sweet Libertie"; but the then popular air of "The Baiting of Lord Altham 's Bull", and "De May bush"; and another local song of triumphal commemoration of a victory over the Ormand market men a verse of which we remember:

Begone, ye cowardly scoundrels,
Do you remember de day,
Dat yes came down to Newmarket
And stole de sweet May bush away?

were the "most popular and deservedly admired",, from their allusion to the season and the locality.  Fiddlers and pipers plied their fingers and elbows; and dancing, shouting, revelry and debauchery of every description succeeded, till, at an advanced hour of the night, the scene partook more of the nature of the ancient Saturnalia, than anything we can at present liken it to, except that which a London mob mow exhibits the night preceding an execution in the Old Bailey or at Horsemonger Lane Gaol. "
There are traditions from many areas to show that the lighting of bonfires on May Eve was common and widespread, but this custom  has almost entirely died out.  In limerick city May Eve is still "Bonfire Night" and until recently children in Belfast lit small fires in the side streets in honour of their "May queens"
The rural custom survived longest, perhaps, in the south east, where in County Waterford and in the southern fringes of Counties Kilkenny and Tipperary there are still memories of the cattle being driven through small fires or between pairs of fires, of wisps or coals from the bonfire being used to singe the cow's hair or to bless the fields of growing crops."- Danaher pp. 95-6

Midsummer: There are many bonfire customs associated with Midsummer celebrations. Generally the dates celebrated are 23 June- St. John's Eve which is sometimes called Bonfire Night. It is known in gaelic as: Oiche an teine chanáimh or Teine Féil Eóin.  The fire must be lit exactly on sunset and must be watched till the next morning.  The fire and its ashes brought blessings on to the crops.  Fires were made to be circular in form- a holy shape. Music, dancing and games were popular along with feats of strength. Bonfires were set close to the graveyard and or holy well. Fires were made from turf, furze bushes and other firewood. Troublesome weeds were also burned.  Demons were exorcised. The first fires of new homes  were kindled from the bonfire. Fires lit from the bonfire were lit around houses to keep fairies away. Items were burned so as to inflict loss on an enemy. Fires were both communal and individual. Bonfires were so large that tall ladders were required for their construction. Begging for fuel was popular with those who refused being tormented. It was  said that Protestant bones were burned on hilltop bonfires. There was competition to have the biggest and best fire. The fires were lit during the recitation of a prayer: " In the honour of God and of St. Hohn, to the fruitfulness and profit of our planting and our work, in the name of the Father and of the Sone and of the Holy Spirit, Amen". All ages took part. Walking sunwise around the fire while praying was considered essential. Youths would toss burning sticks up into the air. Sometimes effigies were tossed on the fire. Food including a special dish called "goody" made of white shop bread soaked in milk and flavoured with sugar and spice was made in Iron pots by the side of the fire. Children collected money in advance of the fire which they spent on sweets. The fire was usually blessed with holy water. Jumping over the fire was a sign of bravery  but it also would bring good luck in deeds and in marriage.

SSPeter  and Paul: Celebrated with bonfires in the East of Ireland from Monaghan  to Wexford on June 28. Men  stay up  and make fires in the  streets. Bonfires were  accompanied by singing and dancing.

12th of July:  In celebration of the liberation of Ireland from the grasp of the absolutist king James  II bonfires are lit throughout Northern Ireland on the night of the 11th of July to commemorate the victory of  William III at the Battle  of the Boyne. Food is cooked, and there is storytelling and music from the Lambeg drums.To read more of this bonfire tradition click here.

July Hiltop Gatherings:"On the last Sunday in July the people of Mountrath Trumera, and the surrounding districts go on the slieve Bloom Mountains, on to the slopes of Ard Erin.  They bring with them food, and spend the day on the mountain."
"There are all kinds of games and trials of strength and in the evening they kindle big fires, and the young men run races round the fires, and the more daring of them leap over the fires.  In this district, this Sunday is called Height Sunday."- Danaher, p.170.

Samhain (Oct.31): "There are traditions of the lighting of bonfires.  In his Irish Folk Lore, 218 "Lageniensis" speaks of this custom as already obsolete.
"Bonfires were formerly kindled at this time, as well as at midsummer.  When the embers had partially burned out, those who assembled were accustomed to cast them about in various directions, or sometimes at each other, with no slight danger to those who were not skillful in parrying or escaping from the burning brands.  Among men and boys this was regarded as an amusement  only, however dangerous it might prove to individuals; but it is thought to have been connected with former Druidic or Gentile incantations.  The high streets or market squares of towns and villages, or fair greens and cross roads in the country places, were usually selected for kindling this Samhain pile"
The custom, however, still is to be found in places and particularly in Dublin City, as is shown by this newspaper report, in The Sunday Press, 1 Nov. 1970:"Halloween provided one of the busiest nights this year for Dublin firemen last night, Gardai spent several hours touring the city keeping bonfires under control and preventing youths and children taking materials from business premises for the firs. "Between 6 P.M. and 8:30 P.M. Dublin Fire Brigade headquarters handled more than 120 calls from the public and Gardai to deal with bonfires out of control.  At one stage 10 units were on continuous bonfire duty. " "The Gardai had their share of work.  Youths took tires from premises in Leinster Street and the East Wall for bonfires. Children left crackers on roads to be detonated by passing cars."- Danaher p. 209

Guy Fawkes Day: In the past decades this holiday was also celebrated in Ulster.
The 5th of November celebrations marked the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 but also the arrival of William of Orange. (William III). Click here to read
more about this custom.

-Source: Danaher,Kevin,.The Year in Ireland.,Mercier Press, Dublin 1972

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