How Our Irish Ancestors Celebrated Midsummer or St John's Eve
Updated: Aug 31, 2020
In ancient Ireland, the Celtic Year was dominated by four major festivals; Imbolg was the start of the agricultural year on 01 February; Beltane marked the start of summer and was celebrated on 01 May (read more here); Lughnasadh was celebrated in August and marked the harvest and Samhain was celebrated on 31 October (read more here).
In between these key festivals there were other celebrations such as Christmas and Easter, both of which have their roots in a much older pagan past. Another of these annual celebrations was the St John’s Eve celebrations which fell on 23 June and was also known as Midsummer Eve or Bonfire Night. 
In this post we will look at the links between the Summer Solstice, Midsummer Eve and St John’s Eve and the customs that our ancestors observed.
The link between the Summer Solstice, Midsummer and St John’s Eve
In the Northern hemisphere, the Summer Solstice takes place usually (but not always) on 21 June and this is the longest day of the year, but in Roman times, midsummer solstice celebrations took place on 24 June. 
The midsummer festival is celebrated in many countries and the celebrations at Stonehenge in England are particularly well known. Of course, it is an ancient celebration that pre-dates Christianity, but as with many pagan customs, it was assimilated by the Christian church and given respectability by the inclusion of prayers and the veneration of Christian saints.
In Ireland, Midsummer’s Eve was celebrated on 23 June – this date also came to be known as St John’s Eve. 24 June is the Feast Day of St John the Baptist’s Nativity and was a focus for a range of celebrations, with an interesting mix of Christian rites and activities that hark back to a pagan past.
St John’s Eve was also known as Bonfire Night and the lighting of both small family and larger communal bonfires was a key feature of the festivities, while the Freemasons celebrated their patron saint St John the Baptist with processions in many Irish towns.
You will sometimes see Midsummer referred to as Litha. This comes from Bede (672-735 AD) who wrote about the names of the months as used in olden times by the English. He recorded that June and July were called Litha which meant ‘gentle or navigable because in these months the calm breezes are gentle and they were wont to sail upon the smooth sea.’ 
Feast Day of St. John the Baptist’s Nativity
John the Baptist (c.12BC-c.AD27) was a Jewish preacher and prophet who baptised Christ. He was born in Nazareth, Galilee, the son of Zacharias, a priest and Elizabeth, who was a cousin of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
John spent a time in solitude in the desert and then emerged as a prophet who had an inner circle of disciples and urged his followers to be baptised to prepare for the imminent coming of the kingdom of God. He was noted for wearing the typical prophet’s attire of a camel’s hair robe and for his diet of locusts and wild honey.
At some point after he baptised Jesus, John the Baptist was imprisoned by King Herod Antipas who ruled Galilee and central Transjordan. Herod had divorced his first wife and then married Herodias, the divorced wife of his half-brother. This was considered illegal in Jewish law and John the Baptist denounced Herod for his behaviour.
The Bible relates how on his birthday, Herod persuaded his niece and step-daughter Salome to dance for the assembled guests. He was pleased with her dance and promised to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother Herodias, Salome asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter which Herod reluctantly agreed to.
John was born six months before Jesus which is why the celebration of his nativity is 24 June.
St John the Baptist is the patron saint of various countries, states and provinces including Jordan, Puerto Rico, French Canada, Newfoundland as well as the towns and cities of St. John’s in Newfoundland, Saint John in New Brunswick, San Juan in Puerto Rico, Penzance in Cornwall, Perth in Scotland, Porto in Portugal and Halifax in Yorkshire.
His patronage includes the sick, nurses, booksellers, printers, heart patients and firefighters and in the Middle Ages, St John the Baptist was also known as the patron of stonemasons in continental Europe.     
The Baptism of Jesus Christ, by Piero della Francesca, 1449.
Evidence for ancient celebrations of the Summer Solstice in Ireland
The ancients believed that the summer solstice when the sun was at its highest position in the sky was a sacred time and there is evidence in the landscape of how our ancestors might have celebrated the event.
Lough Gur in County Limerick is one of Ireland’s most important archaeological and historical sites – described as a mystical and enchanting place of stone circles, megalithic tombs, ring forts and castles.
Built around 2200BC, the Grange Stone Circle at Lough Gur that is comprised of 113 standing stones, is aligned with the rising sun of the Summer Solstice – celebrations of the longest day of the year have been a local tradition for over 5,000 years.
The Hill of Tara in County Meath is well known as the seat of the Ard Righ or High King of Ireland and Irish mythology has countless tales that feature the halls of Tara. It was also a place held sacred by people of the Neolithic era (from about 4000BC) who believed it to be a place of the gods and an entrance to the world of eternal joy. 
Beaghmore Stone Circle in County Tyrone is a Bronze Age, c. 2000-1200BC historic monument that includes stone circles and cairns, although there is evidence that the site has been in use from 2900BC. Some of the small stone cairns cover a cremation burial.
It’s thought that the site may have been constructed to record the movements of the sun and moon – three of the stone rows point towards the sunrise at the time of the summer solstice and another is aligned towards moonrise at the same time. 
Generally, these sites have brought the celebration into the modern-day with a programme of events, but with ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, you should check whether any events are being held in 2020.
In ‘The Year in Ireland’ Danaher  related a description of the celebration of midsummer in County Limerick written in in 1943. The bonfire used to be lit at sunset and tended until after midnight. Prayers were said to obtain God’s blessing on the crops that were then at peak growing. A bonfire was built near a blessed well that was sacred to St Bartholomew, the patron saint of the parish.
Young and old gathered around the bonfires where there was music, dancing and games. Prayers were said for the crops and for good weather – it was feared that if these were neglected it might lead to a bad harvest, cause disease on the crops or cause the trout not to come up the river. Prayers were also said for the dead.
Specimens of troublesome weeds were thrown into the fire and this was believed to protect the fields from these weeds. Young folk near the River Deel gathered the large leaf and stem of the hocusfian and lightly tapped each person they met. This was supposed to protect those hit from evil influences and illness in the coming year and the stems were then thrown in the bonfire. [I’ve been unable to find a translation for hocusfian, but it may be the gunnera or giant rhubarb that grows on riverbanks].
Family and communal bonfires
There were the larger fires attended by the wider community and also smaller fires lit by individual households which were a quieter affair. The larger communal fires often had music, dancing and singing. The original name of bone-fire comes from the burning of bones in the fire – perhaps harking back to some long-forgotten rite.
The communal fires were often at a set place such as a crossroads, a town square, on a height, a hillside or other public place, but it had to be in an accessible place so that the locals could enjoy the fire and the socialising. The fire was lit at nightfall and the person given the honour of lighting it may have said a traditional prayer such as:
‘In the honour of God and of St John, to the fruitfulness and profit of our
Planting and our work, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of
the Holy Spirit, Amen.’
In some place those present also recited prayers, sometimes kneeling to pray, while in other places such as Connaught and Ulster, people walked sunwise around the fire while praying. Once the prayers were finished, the merrymaking commenced, with songs, dancing, music and recitations, while young boys would grab burning sticks from the fire and throw them high in the air.
There was a custom of young men in particular jumping over the flames and when the flames had subsided, young girls jumped or walked through the burning embers to procure a good husband, while a pregnant woman might walk through the embers to ensure a safe and happy delivery. Jumping the flames and walking through the embers brought health, long life and protection from accidents, disease and malevolent forces.
After midnight, hot sods were taken from the fire by anyone who had built a new house so that the first fire of the home would be started by John’s Festival Fire. Others took hot sods home to bring them good luck with their crops, livestock and children to succeed them.
Forgetting to bring home an ember from the fire was seen as inviting bad luck and misfortune. The ashes could be kept and were seen as having a healing property – mixed with water they were used as a drink for internal disorders and used to clean wounds.
The fire brought benefits to the crops too – the smoke driting over the fields was beneficial and embers or ashes were taken from the fire and scattered in the fields to offer protection.
The midsummer fire gave protection to cattle – from the smoke drifting over them or by placing lighted brands, embers or ashes in their pasture, or by driving the cattle through the smoke or burning embers. In some places, a smouldering bush or torch was held over the cattle or could be used to lightly singe them – in County Clare this was believed to ensure the cows would have healthy calves.
As far as the customs associated with the bonfire, the similarities can be seen between those of St John’s Eve and Beltane which was another fire festival.
Parades, Dinners and Fairs
In Galway City the fishermen of the Claddagh had a parade on the Nativity of St John, accompanied by music, wearing masks and general merrymaking. In County Antrim, the salmon fishermen of Portballintrae held ‘The Salmon Dinner’ that included fish-soup, freshly caught salmon, new potatoes and of course, Bushmills whiskey.
Many towns held fairs on St John’s Day and as these were also a great opportunity for socialising - no doubt for many, the merrymaking continued for some time. 
Freemasonry was established in Scotland around 1600 and an Irish Grand Lodge was formed in 1723 or 1724.  The feast day of John the Baptist is important to the Order because he was the patron saint of stonemasons during the Middle Ages. 
Freemasons are generally seen as a secretive organisation so it might be surprising to find that in the early years of their existence, they took part in public parades. The St. John’s Day parade was an important celebration in which they wore their aprons, sashes, medals and carried banners.
The typical order of the day was to meet at their Lodge rooms, have the parade to a church where they heard a sermon and then returned to a tavern for dinner and entertainment. The first recorded procession was in Dublin on 24 June 1725 while in Belfast in 1781, the parade was headed up by the Mayor and the Corporation. 
There are references to the Freemason’s celebrating on 24 June in various areas during the 1830’s including in the County Antrim parishes of Killagan, Ballyclug and Rasharkin with parades and processions. 
The Survival of Bonfire Night
There have been efforts to ban the celebrations such as the joint attempt by the clergy and magistrates in County Kerry who in 1854 proclaimed that they had ‘denounced and strictly forbidden bonfires (that absurd remnant of fire worship)… They are never again to take place. They were the source of much demoralization, drunkenness and crime.’ 
Nevertheless, the customs persisted and although the St John’s Eve celebrations seemed to have survived for a longer time in the west of Ireland, there were still references to burning fires in the far north-east County Antrim parishes of Rasharkin and Ahoghill in 1837. 
In 1906, the Irish News carried a report of ‘the usual torchlight procession, accompanied by bands and joined by a large number of the A.O.H’ [Ancient Order of the Hibernians] that took place in Glenmornan, County Tyrone. 
In 1950 the Derry Journal ran a story about how locals had built a large Celtic cross and erected in on Mullaghnamoyagh Hill in the parish of Greenlough, County Derry. The hill was the highest in the parish and commanded a view of Counties Londonderry, Antrim, Down and Tyrone and was the site of the traditional St. John’s Eve bonfire that was lit each year.  The fire was still being lit on Mullaghnamoyagh Hill in 2010 when it was filmed by Tnag TV and the ceremony still takes place up to the present day, although 2020 celebrations are restricted due to COVID-19. 
Local man Enda Clarke who runs the Facebook page Photos of Portglenone has been attending the St John’s Eve celebrations for many years, taking photos and helping to keep the ancient ceremony alive. Known locally as Den’s Hill, quarrying for gravel took place on Mullaghnamoyagh which required the cross and the annual fire to be moved to a different spot on the hill, but the locals still gather and the fire is blessed by the parish priest.
St John’s Eve fire at Mullaghnamoyagh Hill, Co Derry – photo by Enda Clarke of Photos of Portglenone Facebook page.
Bonfire Night Poem
This poem by B.T. McGovern published in 1905 paints a picture of the midsummer celebrations. 
(St. John’s Eve)
My thoughts tonight are far away
Among the Irish hills,
Where happy, laughing children play,
Beside the dancing rills.
Their parents glad in their delight,
The long day’s labour o’er,
Assist them light the fire bright
Before the cottage door.
I hear the quaint brown corncrake;
She wakens memories dear;
I hear her in the distant brake
And in the meadows near.
Among the vale the cuckoo’s song
Comes trembling on the breeze,
With clamour of the rooks among
The ancient elm trees.
For weeks the boys have gathered peat
For the bonfire on the hill,
Around its blaze in joy they meet
Their cheers are loud and shrill.
And bright-eyed maidens, blithe and fair,
Whose hearts sweet rapture feel,
Like fairies in the ruddy glare
They dance the Irish reel.
But oh! The best delight of all
Is where the cattle browse;
When dark the midnight shadows fall
They milk the farmer’s cows.
And laden is the balmy night
With music mirth and song –
Where else on earth is such delight
And such a sprightly throng?
Now round the fire’s fast fading glow
The plain repast is spread;
Not meat nor wines from fair Bordeaux
But rich new milk and bread.
The morning star is on the height;
The lark her matin sings –
Oh why is this the short night,
And why has pleasure wings?
Midsummer Celebrations in the Modern Day
The ancient customs associated with Bonfire Night or St John’s Eve or Midsummer’s Eve have largely been forgotten, although they survive in pockets in some rural areas, while more modern celebrations and festivals are organised at important sites. Where there are still remnants of the old ways, they will be curtailed in 2020 due to the ongoing restrictions because of COVID-19.
Perhaps you’re planning your own celebration – if so, why not leave a comment and let us know your customs and how you plan to mark Midsummer? Or maybe you would like to plan a visit for next year, join with the locals and celebrate in style!
About the Author
Natalie Bodle, a native of Northern Ireland is the author of the Roots Blog and founder of Roots Revealed. She is a professionally qualified genealogist and is a member of APG. She is also a qualified tour guide and a member of TGNI.
Roots Revealed provides genealogy research services to clients who are searching for their Irish, Northern Irish and Scots-Irish ancestors, in addition to bespoke genealogy tours and family history courses and talks. For more information about the full range of services provided by Roots Revealed, please visit www.rootsrevealed.co.uk or get in touch by emailing email@example.com
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