LAST night, June 23, was St John’s Eve, and if you grew up a true Corkonian, that meant only one thing in your childhood days: “De Bon-ah.”
It was part of tradition, part of our lives, that at this midsummer time, a bonfire should be lit in an open space and everyone should gather round it. That tradition still continues countrywide, and most strongly here in the south. The authorities try to prevent it, but the deep-rooted instinct is too strong.
One lady flying into Cork on June 23 a few years ago remembers being perplexed as she looked down for her first sight of the city.
“I wondered if there was some sort of fog, or if it was low-lying cloud. When I peered closer, I could see wreaths and columns of smoke, some pale grey, some so dark as to be almost black, twisting their way up into the serene summer sky. You could see them out in the countryside as well as in the city. I couldn’t think what it was! Once we got to our hotel, the receptionist explained it all!”
If you had driven up through housing estates on the hilly northside of Cork on this particular night any year, it would be obvious that something was afoot. Children running from every direction, dragging old planks, scraps of timber, and bundles of newspaper. Older youths hauling broken tables and arm-chairs that had seen better days, and adding them to towering pyres that were growing rapidly on open patches of waste ground. Everybody busy, excited, shouting and laughing as they work. Elderly folk bringing chairs to their front doors and settling down for what was clearly going to be a spectator event.
As dark settled over the city, and the fires died down, daring young boys and girls took a run and a leap across the glowing embers, encouraged by the cheers and clapping of their friends. Proudly, they thought they were the first ever to do such a thing. Finally, the smallest children, nodding wearily, were taken home to bed, and gradually the others followed, blackened, dirty, happy. Fire engines patrolled the city, watching for stray sparks. Another Bonfire Night over.
So, what is the reason for this sudden outburst of bonfire-building, on this particular date? It’s not Hallow-E’en, it’s not Christmas, it’s not the celebration of a famous victory. It most emphatically has nothing to do with the English Bonfire Night in November, which commemorates Guy Fawkes and his attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
It is, in fact, the deliberate moving of the old Celtic festival to a different date, to separate it from the religious one observed by Catholic countries.
What makes the young people come together instinctively on this specific night with the one consuming urge to create and light a bonfire? Ask them and they will look at you uncomprehendingly. “We always do it,” they might say. “It’s Bon-ah Night.” And that is enough for them.
You don’t usually expect to discover ancient rituals in a modern city, but that’s exactly what is being enacted here. What makes it all the more fascinating is that, almost without exception, those collecting the materials so enthusiastically, and dancing round the fire, have no clear idea of why they are doing it, other than that they have always done it, as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents have done before them.
It’s a custom that goes back far further than any of its participants might realise.
And, for centuries, the authorities have expressed anger and outrage, and done their best to stamp out the practice.
The Kerry Evening Post of today’s date in 1829 thundered: “A great part of this town was kept, for the whole of last night, in a state of alarm and disturbance, by assemblages of drunken men and women collected round fires, lighted in some of our streets, and the roads in the vicinity, for the purpose of celebrating this old heathenish rite, originally instituted for the adoration of Bael, or the Sun, on his passing the equator at the summer solstice...”
The Munster Observer of June 20, 1854, did its best to get in ahead of the event with a stern statement: “The Clergy and Magistrates have denounced and strictly forbidden bonfires, that absurd remnant of fire worship, on Friday next. They are never again to take place. They were the source of much demoralization, drunkenness, and crime. The Clergy are most cordially co-operating with the authorities on this point.”
It didn’t do any good. The voice of the law went unheard, and the flames leapt higher than ever. Our own Cork Examiner on the morning after, in 1864, declared: “Yesterday being the eve of this saint, as customary the city and county around blazed with bonfires. From an early hour in the evening the city was clouded with smoke from the fires which were burning in all directions.” And so it has continued.
Ritual bonfires were very much part of the yearly cycle in ancient Ireland. The Midsummer fire honours the sun at his highest point, and since time immemorial, the people of a region would gather on hilltops, on rocky outcrops, or at crossroads for the purpose.
Young men and women would join hands and jump through the flames to mark their handfasting or betrothal.
Farmers leapt high so their crops would grow tall. A couple hoping for a baby would leap in the hope that the sun god would bless their union. Youths would bravely seize burning sticks and toss them into the air to watch the showers of sparks.
The fire had to be lit at sunset and tended until midnight had passed. Next day, when the ashes had cooled, these were sprinkled in the fields.
If the whole ritual were not observed, crops might fail, or the salmon might not come upriver that year, thus removing a vital food supply.
Today’s participants usually have no idea that they are continuing a midsummer sun-worshipping custom which has been enacted since human beings ever settled, tilled the ground, raised crops and families, in this land of Ireland.
They only know that when June 23 arrives, they must gather the wood and light the bonfire. That, in itself, is perhaps the most telling aspect of this annual ritual that brings furrows to the foreheads of the fire brigade: that even when people have no idea why they carry out such a ritual, they still continue to do it. It is more deeply rooted in the Celtic psyche than anyone can fully grasp.
“Oh, we always had a bonfire on St John’s Eve when I was a child,” recalls Breda Lucey of Gougane Barra.
“Mrs O’Leary down at the end of the lake would arrange it on the rocks across the road from her place, and we would all look forward to it so much.
"It was tradition, it was what you did, even though we children didn’t understand why, we just knew that it was something that always took place on June 23.
“You would see the light of the bonfire at the farm across the lake while you were dancing round yours, they had one too, and there was one down on the main road in Keimaneigh. Oh, it was the thing to do. Yes, I remember the young people jumping across the fire towards the end of the evening, although I didn’t know why at the time.”
Denis Mahony says all the bonfire nights of his childhood have become blended in his memory. “They all merge into one event where I can see the sparks floating up into the sky like little red stars.
“We were always supervised by a few parents, who would sit round on kitchen chairs brought for the purpose and chat, casting an odd eye at us and letting out the occasional roar if we ventured too close to the fire.”
In his part of the city, it was a locally organised party, he remembers, with kids collecting most of the items to be burned.
“We drank ‘Little Norah’ lemonade and ‘rasa’ to slake the thirst, and enjoyed a few sweeties too. Somebody might be encouraged to sing a song, but got scant attention, since the emphasis, for young ones, was to create as much noise and mayhem as possible, whoops and hollers being the normal means of expression. That was all part of it.”
In the days leading up to the ‘bon-ah’, they would roam the entire area to seek anything that might burn.
Denis says: “My recollection is of collecting branches of trees and old timber that might be lying around anywhere. We took old cardboard boxes, newspapers, old books, anything that would burn.
“People took advantage of the opportunity to discard old items of funiture too — not that there were too may families who had excess furniture in those days.”
Denis even remembers occasionally seeing the remains of a burned out mattress on the embers the morning after.
“They were reasonably civilised events when I was a young fella. In later years, a bad habit developed of throwing on old tyres, which blackened the smoke and ruined washing for miles round, if you were silly enough to let it out.”
Where Denis lived, the sons of the local butcher would provide cardboard tubes, the kind around which brown wrapping paper was supplied to shops.
“We made grand torches out of these by stuffing paper in the ends and lighting it. I can also remember making torches with bulrushes, the kind that had a cigar-like part at the top. I’ve no idea how we lit them... we surely were not allowed to use what would be called ‘accelerants’ nowadays!”
In his day, says Denis regretfully, ‘bon-ah’ nights were an innocent night of fun for kids. “In later years, sadly, it became more rough, and led to a level of vandalism and disruption, needing intervention by fire brigades, and even gardaí in some areas.”
And by the way, summer swimming in the river traditionally began on St John’s Day, when the observance of the festival was supposed to eliminate all danger of drowning (in today’s world, don’t take chances, right?)
When did you consider that it was time to start hunting out the togs and heading for the nearest stretch of water? Where did you bathe, or learn to swim? In the sea or in a nearby stream? Tell us about your summer swimming as well as your memories of Bonfire Night. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.