The story of La Lughnasa, first day of Ireland’s ancient harvest festival
August 1st traditionally marks the start of the harvest. This year it might almost be the end
Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa: A West End theatre is an incongruous place for an Irishman to begin an education in the old pagan practices of his country. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
La Lughnasa, the first day of the festival of Lughnasa, falls on August 1st and traditionally marks the beginning of the harvest month. This year it might almost conclude it. In my corner of Wicklow – across the valley from Sliabh Bui, the yellow mountain – it is usually not till August before the fields on its flanks really live up to its name. But the cornfields have been golden for weeks – studded across them in pleasingly uniform ranks, the harvested bales dry in the warm air. Occasional meadows of light green pasture, dotted with drowsy cattle make a geometric contrast – an oblique patchwork draped across the gently tilted hills. Combine harvesters lumber past our cottage daily and since late June tractors in low gear have strained up the hill, towing trailers of hay or straw.
One recent, warm evening my sons and I took the dog for a cooling walk. We strolled through rows of huge golden bales which cast long shadows across the yellow stubble. The boys raced to climb and leap off them, or rested on top, flat on their backs to survey the still sky. I vaguely recall once doing the same. A race memory perhaps: children have been lying on mounds of straw pondering the wheeling heavens for centuries. And within living memory, young people gathered on our surrounding hilltops for sport, games and bonfires to celebrate Lughnasa.
The festival takes its name from Lugh, the sun god. According to the legend, Tailltiu, his foster mother, had died of exhaustion after clearing the central plains of Ireland for agricultural cultivation. The grieving Lugh held games in her honour culminating in a funeral pyre at the harvest’s end. Some of these seasonal customs survived around the country into the middle of the last century. A highpoint of the games was when the young men leapt over the bonfires to prove their prowess. An urge I dimly recall myself and still see exemplified in my boys. Just days ago I lit a bonfire of bone-dry garden refuse. To propitiate Lugh and to give thanks to Tailltiu for all her hard work, I did it the traditional way – using a whole box of matches and a pint of petrol. The boys leapt like young bucks through the smoke as it rolled in dark billows up the hill. Then the wind changed and it rolled in darker billows down the hill and across the road to fumigate our nearest neighbours.
In earlier times such noxious clouds were not unwelcome – the smoke from festival fires often provided useful cover for illicit stills, the produce from which usually ended up being consumed at the next festival when more hooch could be made and so on, inexorably, like the circuit of the sun. Lughnasa was one of the cross quarter fire festivals which fall mid way between a solstice and an equinox (the others are Imbolc, Bealtaine and Samhain) and I first heard of it as a young man in London when I acted in Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa.
A West End theatre is an incongruous place for an Irishman to begin an education in the old pagan practices of his country. I have since learnt that the play’s theme of dancing at the harvest can be traced back to an ancient ritual dance drama in which the benign Lugh battled for control of the crop with a sinister figure called Crom Dubh. Lugh desired humankind to reap the season’s bounty whereas his opponent wanted it for himself. It was always a close-run thing but Lugh usually won to general jubilation. The protagonists evolved with the coming of Christianity: the supernatural Crom Dubh was demoted to a mortal wizard and Lugh became St Patrick. But the dance endured and continued to mark the end of “Hungry July”. Despite the warmth, early summer was a lean time – winter stores were mostly depleted by then and the returning abundance of August merited joyous celebration.
The word “august” now means distinguished or illustious in reference to the venerable Augustus, the first Roman emperor. But the term actually derives from “Augere”, the Latin for “increase”. Octavian took the title Augustus (the increaser) at his accession and it is for him, and in that original sense of the word, that the month is named. Unfortunately, the increase is not confined to planted crops. The Anglo-Saxons called this time Woedmonath, or “weed month” and when I contemplate my kitchen garden in late summer, it is frequently this name that comes to mind. But this year, with the sustained good weather, I’ve been often outside and have mostly kept the weeds from strangling the vegetables. I might have something decent to exhibit in the Harvest Fair.
When the combine harvesters and tractors are on the back roads and the bales of straw line the yellow slopes, it is the high noon of the agricultural year – the summit of local life – and time for the county show. Ours takes place on the first Monday of August and my wife and I have never missed it. The first time we attended, we’d been here less than a year but had grasped the nature of the micro-climate and were suitably attired in shorts, wellies, sunglasses, rain-hats and mittens. We admired majestic bulls, mighty sheep and powerful goats. We were dazzled by gleaming agricultural machinery and vintage cars. We got sick on candyfloss and beer. But it was the home produce tent that captured my imagination and continues to torment my spirit. Every year I enter a jar of chutney made from my own produce. And every year I fail to win first prize. The recipes vary depending on my mood and what there’s a surplus of: beans, courgettes, apples, plums or pears. However, I love a good pickle and revere a fine relish and only ever enter something I consider to be supremely delicious.
Sadly, the adjudicators never agree but my bitterness never lasts long. By the end of the month the open fireplace in our kitchen will be packed with tiered jars of piccalilly, chutney, pickled shallots, crab apple jelly, pickled cucumbers, elderberry cordial and sloe gin. The lambs will have fattened into sheep, the calves will be hard to tell from the full-grown cattle and if we get a bit of rain, they will all graze on the rich, buttery grass. Lughnasa is, as a ninth-century Irish monk put it, “the sweet o’ the year”.
Philip Judge is author of In Sight of Yellow Mountain (Gill Books) and is currently rehearsing Two Pints by Roddy Doyle for the Abbey Theatre. It opens in the Flowing Tide pub on August 14th and then goes on a national tour till September 29th