St. John’s Eve or Bonfire Night; Irish Folklore

bonfire

June 23rd, is St. John’s Eve, or as it is known in many parts of Ireland, Bonfire Night. It was traditionally marked by the construction of large fires throughout the countryside. These were lit at sundown and were the focal point of communal festivities. People gathered to dance and sing, while young men proved their bravery by leaping through the flames.

The night was also rich in folklore, much of it concerned with fertility. Prayers and rhymes were recited to ensure a plentiful harvest. Indeed, the fire itself was thought to have magical powers. Burning weeds in its flames would prevent arable fields from becoming overgrown, while scattering its ashes would guarantee the land’s fertility. Similarly parading through the fields with lighted branches from the bonfire would protect the crops from disease and pestilence. It was also deemed particularly lucky to bring the ashes home to light the kitchen hearth.

Although most of these customs are no longer practised, lighting St. John’s bonfires still takes places in many parts of Ireland (especially the west). It is hardly a coincidence that these fires are lit so close to the Summer Solstice and it suggests that the custom may have ancient roots.

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9 thoughts on “St. John’s Eve or Bonfire Night; Irish Folklore

  1. In 1965 i stayed with a farm family in Ballynafad(?) Connemara. On St John Eve the whole family traipsed up a nearby hill to light a bonfire. We sat around singing talking “give us a song now..” kids jumping around. Sometime us 3 girls ended up sleeping on the sofa.
    “Did ya see the light in the graveyard now?” Yes. We had lit a candle to look at the gravestones. An and one of our crazy friends from Trinity College wore a tiger skin from the cottage he rented. Another played dirges on a squeezebox he found.
    I carried a giant leaf growing at the side of the road. Sun stays up late in the West on Midsummer. We were all very merry.
    Nothing naughty. All good.
    June 23-24 Connemara 1966

    1. We light a bonfire on St. John’s night every year for the last 20 years, but this year we were reported and a member of the garda called out, to see what was going on, he didn’t realise that it was St. John’s night until we said it, and all he said was have a good night.

  2. There used to be a Holy Well in Donaghmede on Dublins Northridge associated with St Donagh. On St John’s eve there would be a pattern around the well that involved bathing the eyes as a cure for vision problems. The pattern was discontinued in the early 20th century because of “excessive drunkenness “

  3. Growing up in Ennistymon County Clare in the early 1960’s I remember that every street had its own bonefire on St. John’s Eve 23rd. June. Everybody called them bonefires never bonfire which makes sense as the Irish wording is Tine Cnaimh meaning fire of bones or bone fire coming from the old pagan tradition of burning animal bones as a sacrifice to the gods. As far as I know there is still one bonefire lit there on 23rd June. I remember being there one time in the late 1990’s and a lot of people arrived late in the night returning from the fair of Spancelhill to join in the fun and music and singing. Spancelhill fair happens the same night 23rd June. Nice memories.

  4. We had bonfire night each year in Dingle in the 50s and 60s.
    Cooked potatoes and periwinkles over the flames.
    Every street had its own fire.
    A great night of simple fun and comradery.
    John

  5. Bonfires are lit by each village in Achill on 23 June but are only lit at midnight. Traditionally, gorse bushes were the main component.

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