This year, the Summer Solstice falls on 21 June and is the longest day of the year, when there are approximately 17 hours of light and when the sun is at its highest point of the year in the northern hemisphere. The name comes from the Latin solstitium meaning “sun stands still”. It happens because the sun stops heading north at the Tropic of Cancer and then returns back southwards.
In ancient pagan societies the Summer Solstice was hugely significant, it was seen as an important time for fertility, when the harvests of the coming year were blessed. When Christianity entered the pagan areas rather than displace the practices of the old religion it simply incorporated many of them into its own observances under a new name. Because of this, many pagan traditions survive up to the present day. The traditions of the ancients live on in the antics of the revellers even if their original significance has been forgotten.
In pre-Christian Ireland the first fire was lit on the hill of Howth, Co Dublin, and the moment the flame appeared through the darkness a great shout went up from the watchers on all the surrounding hilltops, where other fires were quickly kindled until soon the whole country was ablaze. Midsummer fires still blaze from every hilltop in Ireland on the eve of 23 June, now called in Gaelic, Oidche Tein’ Seaghan (Eha or Eel Chin Shawn), or the “Night of John’s Fire.”
Saint John’s eve is also a favourite fairy season, when the “good people” hold their midnight revels in every green fort. On this night especially the fairies are on watch to carry off careless mortals, particularly, women and infants who are not protected by a sprig of lusmor (foxglove), or some other safeguard against fairy influence. This night is a chosen time for visiting many holy places, especially the numerous wells called after Saint John.
The following account of the celebration, carried out in the west, as given by Lady Wilde: “The fires are still lighted on St. John’s eve on every hill in Ireland. When the fire has burned down to a red glow, the young men strip to the waist and leap over or through the flames; this is done backwards and forwards several times, and he who braves the greatest blaze is considered the victor over the powers of evil, and is greeted with tremendous applause. When the fire burns still lower, the young girls leap the flame, and those who leap clean over three times, back and forward, will be certain of a speedy marriage and good luck in after-life, with many children. The married women then walk through the lines of the burning embers; and when the fire is nearly burnt and trampled down, the yearling cattle are driven through the hot ashes, and their back is singed with a lighted hazel twig. These hazel rods are kept safely afterwards, being considered of immense power to drive the cattle to and from the watering places. As the fire diminishes the shouting grows fainter, and the song and the dance commence; while the professional story-tellers narrate tales of fairy-land, or of the good old times long ago, when the kings and princes of Ireland dwelt amongst their own people, and there was food to eat and wine to drink for all comers to the feast at the king’s house. When the crowd at length separate, every one carries home a brand from the fire, and great virtue is attached to the lighted brone which is safely carried to the house without breaking or falling to the ground. Many contests also arise amongst the young men, for whoever enters his house first with the sacred fire brings the good luck of the year with him.”
Photo: Newgrange sunset, Co Meath