St John’s Day, the feast of St John the Baptist, or Midsummer’s Day as it is sometimes called, occurs on 24 June. In many cultures, however, it is 23 June, the vigil of the feast, that is considered more significant because of the wealth of superstition that surrounds it much of it going back to pagan times. Evidence for Midsummer celebrations in Ireland can be found as far back as the early fourteenth century. There is an ancient belief, for example, that on Midsummer’s Eve, the soul wanders from the body and makes its way on a sort of preliminary visit to the eventual place of death.
Fires were originally lit as part of a Celtic celebration to honour the goddess Áine, who was associated with the sun, fertility, and protecting crops and animals. However, as with many pagan festivals, the Catholic Church took over the event and linked it to the birth of St John.
Some say that Áine’s true dwelling-place is in her hill of Knock Áine in Limerick; upon which on every St. John’s Night the peasantry used to gather from all the immediate neighbourhood to view the moon, and then with torches (cliars) made of bunches of straw and hay tied on poles used to march in procession from the hill and afterwards run through cultivated fields and amongst the cattle.
In many parts of Ireland, bonfires were lit and, indeed, still are on St John’s Eve. Traditionally, they were called “bonefires” and correctly so, since bones from oxen, sheep or pigs were often used as fuel. According to the authoritative mediaeval manual Festyvall, published in 1515, “in the worship of St John the people made three manner of fires; one was of clean bones and no wood, and that is called a bone fire; another of clean wood and no bones and that is called a woodfire; and the third is made of wood and bones, and is called St John’s Fire.”
The whole exercise was very much concerned with wooing. It was customary for the young people to compete with each other in leaping over the bonfires to see who could jump the highest over the flames. The winner, it was believed, would be the first of those present to be married, and moreover, anyone who jumped clear over the bonfire three times was assured of a happy marriage and a lucky life. For those less ambitious or athletic, merely to walk three times around the bonfire was sufficient to keep disease at bay for a full year.
On St John’s Eve, too, young maidens could discover the state of their lover’s affections by observing the behaviour of a sprig of orpine, known colloquially as Midsummer Man – the plant was clamped vertically in clay, and the future of their romance depended on whether the plant leaned to the right or to the left.
After the merriment of St. John’s Eve and with the fire burned out, families retired to their homes to rest up for the festivities of 24 June.
Photo: Rising from the ashes: A phoenix captured in the flames of a bonfire by Adam Da Silva