In Irish mythology, the Lughnasadh festival is said to have been begun by the god Lugh (Lú) as a funeral feast and athletic competition in commemoration of his mother (or foster-mother) Tailtiu. She was said to have died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. Tailtiu may have been an earth goddess who represented the dying vegetation that fed mankind. The funeral games in her honour were called the Óenach Tailten or Áenach Tailten and were held at Tailtin in what is now Co Meath. The Óenach Tailten was similar to the Ancient Olympic Games and included ritual athletic and sporting contests. The event also involved trading, the drawing-up of contracts, and matchmaking. At Tailtin, trial marriages were conducted, whereby young couples joined hands through a hole in a wooden door. The trial marriage lasted a year and a day, at which time the marriage could be made permanent or broken without consequences. After the 9th century the Óenach Tailten was celebrated irregularly and it gradually died out. It was revived for a period in the 20th century as the Tailteann Games.
Many of Ireland’s prominent mountains and hills were climbed at Lughnasadh into the modern era. Over time, this custom was Christianised and some of the treks were re-cast as Christian pilgrimages. The most well-known is Reek Sunday—the yearly pilgrimage to the top of Croagh Patrick in Co Mayo in late July. As with the other Gaelic seasonal festivals, feasting was part of the celebrations. Bilberries were gathered on the hills and mountains and were eaten on the spot or saved to make pies and wine.
Another custom that Lughnasadh shared with Imbolc and Bealtaine was visiting holy wells. Visitors to holy wells would pray for health while walking sunwise/sunward around the well. They would then leave offerings; typically coins or clooties. Although bonfires were lit at some of the open-air gatherings in Ireland, they were rare and incidental to the celebrations.
In Ireland, some of the mountain pilgrimages have survived. By far the most popular is the Reek Sunday pilgrimage at Croagh Patrick, which attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims each year. The Catholic Church in Ireland established the custom of blessing fields at Lughnasadh. Féile Lúghnasa, revived in 1995 in Co Kerry, features music, children’s activities, stage dramas as well as many local traditions, including sheep shearing, a blessing of the boats at Brandon Pier, and a pilgrimage to the summit of Mount Brandon.
The Puck Fair is held each year in early August in the town of Killorglin, Co Kerry. It has been traced as far back as the 16th century but is believed to be a survival of a Lughnasadh festival. At the beginning of the three-day festival, a wild goat is brought into the town and crowned ‘king’, while a local girl is crowned ‘queen’. The festival includes traditional music and dancing, a parade, arts and crafts workshops, a horse and cattle fair, and a market. It draws a great number of tourists each year.
In recent years, other towns in Ireland have begun holding yearly Lughnasa Festivals and Lughnasa Fairs. Like the Puck Fair, these often include traditional music and dancing, arts and crafts workshops, traditional storytelling, and markets. Such festivals have been held in Co Donegal, Co Sligo, Co Kerry, Co Kildare and a number of other places. Craggaunowen, an open-air museum in Co Clare, hosts a yearly Lughnasa Festival at which historical re-enactors demonstrate elements of daily life in Gaelic Ireland. It includes displays of replica clothing, artefacts, weapons and jewellery. A similar event has been held each year at Carrickfergus Castle in Co Antrim. In 2011, RTÉ aired a live television program from Craggaunowen at Lughnasa, called Lughnasa Live.
The festival is referenced in Brian Friel’s play Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), which was made into a film of the same name.
Photo: Croagh Patrick, Co Mayo © Stair na hÉireann