John Arnold: I recall walking cows through fire to celebrate St John’s Eve

St John's Eve have long been big times of gathering and feasting, writes John Arnold
John Arnold: I recall walking cows through fire to celebrate St John’s Eve

MARKING THE SUMMER SOLSTICE: A traditional midsummer bonfire in Savonlinna, Finland

TODAY, June 24, is the Feast Day of St John the Baptist.

Most saints’ Feast Day is on the date they reputedly died, but thousands of years ago, calendars with lists of dates and diaries weren’t commonplace, so a mixture of tradition and folklore has been responsible for the dates on which we remember and commemorate different saints, martyrs and holy people.

I think that only Virgin Mary and John the Baptist are honoured on their historic date of birth.

The Bible tells us John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus, so that’s why today is his day. Imagine, six months from today and we’ll all be thinking of Christmas!

Down the centuries, the day before the holiday or feast was often the occasion of merriment and celebration. Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, May Eve and, last night, St John’s Eve, have long been big times of gathering and feasting.

In pre-Christian Ireland, the solstices, both summer and winter, were major events. 

Life was centred around the land and crops and primitive farming. The four basic elements of life, earth, water, fire and air, were the keys to survival and the weather, the daylight hours and temperature were all inextricably bound together in the belief systems of our ancient forefathers.

The goddess Áine was revered in Ireland in the centuries before St Patrick came — her name is still preserved in place names like Knocainey in Co. Limerick. She was associated with minding the animals and crops, fertility and the sun.

Midsummer Day on June 21 marked the time with the longest hours of daylight and was a time of great joy and happiness. Fires of sticks and bones were lit, especially on hilltops, to mark this event, bone-fires became bonfires so this practise goes back thousands of years.

It is claimed that as the birth date of John the Baptist coincided — well, nearly — with Midsummer, that the Celtic pagan practise of lighting celebratory fires was continued down the ages and became part and parcel of St John’s Eve, June 23.

Though yesterday was a damp auld day, I built a bonfire of wood in the afternoon. 

I can well remember here on our farm right up to the 1970s we’d always have a little event on St John’s Eve too.

That time, we were milking the cows below in the stall in the old yard. After milking, on their way back to the fields for the night, the cows had to pass through a gateway — one led to the Glen and the opposite gate to the Boiler House Field. Whichever direction they were going that evening, we’d light a few dry furze bushes at either side and the cows would walk back to their grazing in single file, literally through the fire.

It never seemed to bother the cows. I suppose, like everything half a century ago, the living was aisy and the cows were the same!

I know that in this parish and elsewhere, burning branches were often taken from the fire in the haggard or bawn and placed in each field on the farm.

Fire, in all its power, is a form of purification and in religious history also as a kind of trial. That’s reflected in that great old hymn Faith Of Our Fathers, “living still in spite of dungeon, fire and sword”. It was one of the songs we sung last Sunday morning at Doonpeter in Glenville.

In age old tradition, people from that district and surrounding parishes gathered to walk, pray and do the ‘rounds’ at the Well of St John.

Similarly, last night, on St.John’s Eve, the gathering was repeated.

Earlier this week, myself and Christy Roche, a local historian, went to the national School in Bartlemy with a copy of a 250-year-old book. It was the first English Irish Dictionary ever produced. It was written by Bishop John O’Brien — the school in Bartlemy bears his name. He lived in a small house here in Ballinterry during Penal Times, and was born in Ballyvoddy, near Rockmills in North Cork.

As we spoke to the pupils — socially distanced of course — Christy made the point that we are so lucky in Ireland to have our old place names still ‘in situ’. In many European countries the ancient names are long forgotten, replaced by Districts, Zones and Municipalities.

I thought of Doonpeter in Glenville and its layered history. In written tracts, it’s chronicled that the Church of St Peter stood here within an even older Dún or fort. This was a medieval Christian church. When O Neill and O Donnell were coming south for the Battle of Kinsale, they ‘encouraged’ all local chieftains to support them and those who were less than enthusiastic suffered the consequences.

A ‘slash and burn’ policy was put in place and the probably thatched Church of St Peter was burned to the ground — fire again — but the nearby little well dedicated to St John survives to this day.

You know, I often think St Patrick and all the others that came to ‘pagan Ireland’ were very wise people. They came with the firmly held belief that Christianity was the way forward, the one true church, the path to salvation. Their wisdom was in the fact they didn’t attack and belittle the older customs and practises of the native Irish. No, they integrated and adapted what was here into the ‘new faith’, thus giving us a unique heritage that stretches unbroken back into the mists of time.

That heritage is all around us, from ancient wells and churches, famine roads, cillíns where un-baptised babies were buried, penal Mass rocks and much more.

The Church of St Peter — why was it so named? Did St Bartholomew ever come to Bartlemy? If not, why is the Well here dedicated to him? As the man said, sin ceisteanna eile!

So, when I was building the bonfire yesterday on St John’s Eve, I was conscious that I live in Garryantaggart — the Priest’s Garden — but who was that priest? Was he a Christian or a druid of an older era? We may never find out, but what joy there is in surmising and remembering the many generations who walked our fields and paths long before our time.

In piling the sticks and furze bushes together, I knew I was just simply carrying on a tradition started long before St Patrick was a boy.

You know, there is something very special, even sacred, about rekindling an ancient practise in the manner of our ancestors. 

As the smoke curled up and the flames danced in the evening air upon the bountiful earth, all the elements that are so basic to us truly came together. So did the water also, in the rain that fell later and quenched the last of the dying embers.

I felt privileged to be able to show the generations coming on a glimpse of their history and heritage.

Fire can be terrible sometimes with it’s awful intensity and lightening speed. A bonfire is different, created, managed and magical.

We’ll make a bonfire of our troubles and we’ll watch them blaze away

and when they’ve all gone up in smoke clouds,

we’ll never worry should they come another day

and as the bonfire keeps on burning,

happy days will be returning,

while the band keeps playing

we’ll let our troubles blaze away

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