What happened to Ireland’s May bonfires?

There are too few shared activities that are genuine traditions. And even fewer that aren’t monetised

Bonfire night is one of those occasions that brings different things to mind depending on where you’re coming from. But in Ireland it usually means one thing: the fires lit on May Eve, 30th April.

Everyone likes a bonfire – it speaks to our inner pyromaniac – and when I was growing up in Arklow, the respectable thing to put in and on it was furze or Maybush…it would be built up for days beforehand, chiefly by boys. That made for a lovely fire. But that was before it occurred to anyone that a bonfire is a useful way of disposing of spare furniture; by the end, the bonfires were smelly affairs, with the smoke from burning tyres visible from a distance. Nowadays, the fire brigade puts a dampner, in both senses, on them.

There was also, where I come from, an element of local competitiveness about the bonfires. The one in the fisheries was the best, but others ran it close. When they burned out, people headed for the big bonfire near the beach, which burned for days.

There isn’t, by any means, the same aspect to the thing now: there are only about four modest bonfires remaining from the pyres people used to erect. Teenage boys have other things to do; the attentions of the fire brigade are repressive; the tyre burning has made the thing mildly hooligan; and cutting down furze bushes is a) hard work and b) frowned on.

I think, though, we’re missing a trick. There are places where the custom has undergone a renaissance – Dingle, for instance – but we should be encouraging teenage boys to go out and build fires for the night. Unless you’re lucky enough still to have a Corpus Christi procession, there are too few shared activities that are genuine traditions. And even fewer that aren’t monetised – see Halloween.

Famously, the first mention of the custom was by Cormac, archbishop of Cashel, in the early tenth century. In his entry for Beltane, then ancient Irish May day festival he refers to two great fires the druids built, to which cattle would be brought; in one manuscript he mentions that cattle were driven between the fires. That pattern persisted for centuries: the passing through the bonfire by cattle. People too would pass through or over them.

[There’s less milage nowadays in the notion posited in Cormac’s account, that the fires were dedicated to a god, Bel, or Baal given that the Irish preface bel, favourable or bright, easily combined with tine, or fire, a version also raised in Cormac’s description. What’s undoubtedly true is that this time – midway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice – is a significant time of year, when cattle might need protection from baleful spirits. There’s a hint of all this in the tradition that it was unlucky to take fire from someone else’s hearth that night, lest they have power over the donor.]

Sir William Wilde, father of Oscar, in 1858 describes people with any project, from an imminent baby to a long journey, seeking a good outcome by jumping over the flames of the May-eve fire. But he also describes a quasi-religious aspect to the custom: “With some, particularly the younger portion, this was a mere diversion, to which they attached no particular meaning, yet others performed it with a deeper intention, and evidently as a religious rite. Thus, many of the older people may be seen circumambulating the fire and repeating to themselves certain prayers”.

All of which is a reminder of the ease with which pre-Christian customs combined with Christian practice, without any sense of incongruity (a subject addressed in a new book by Ronald Hutton, Queens of the Wild). The same thing holds true of the other bonfire-fest of the year, the vigil of the birth of St John the Baptist, on 23 June, which was celebrated in many areas until quite recently, including Leitrim, in common with much of Europe. It was a combination of the old celebrations for the summer solstice and the feastday of the Baptist - the one person apart from Christ (and later, the Virgin) whose earthly birthday was celebrated instead of the day of his death. The Christian celebrations were based on pre-Christian traditions, and until the Reformation, nobody minded).

For unionists, bonfire night makes no pretence of pagan origins, being celebrated on the eve of the 12th July, with enormous urban bonfires, quite often with a tricolour on top. But if the flag could be replaced with something more anodyne, or heavily contextualised, why, that too could be harnessed for some contemporary version of the Orange celebrations which tourists might visit as a lovable folk festival.

But if a revival of the bonfire is too much to hope for, how about a return to the cheap and cheerful custom for May Day: putting flowers – primroses for preference - on the doorsteps on the first of May? We were told that this was in honour of Our Lady but this too may be an old practice to bring the summer greenery to the threshold of the home. Once, this was part of the pattern of the year; it could easily return.

Melanie McDonagh is an Irish writer based on London