The Festival of Lughnasa by Máire MacNeill

Synopsis From Garland Sunday and Domhnach Chrom Dubh are two of the many names of a  festival celebrated by Irish country people at the end of July or the  beginning of August.  It marked the end of summer and the beginning of  harvest season, and on that day the first meal of the year’s new food  crop was eaten.

The chief custom was the resorting by the rural  communities to certain heights or water-sides to spend the day in  festivity, sports, and bilberry-picking.  The custom existed also in the  Isle of Man, Wales and in the north of England.  Formerly it must have  been general in all Celtic lands for there is no doubt that it is a  survival of Lughnasa (Lugnasad), the Celtic festival held on the first  of August.

In the description of the celebration much emerges of  the old life of the countryside, and so the study is, in part, a  contribution to social history.  Moreover, as the people preserved  legends of the origin of the festival and of the assembly sites, it has  been possible to show a correspondence with ancient mythology, as  expressed in Irish Literature and in the cult-figures of Roman Gaul.

The dominant myth of the festival is brought to light.

Review: This is one of these books that everyone interested in the Irish year and who can afford it should get it.  I couldn’t believe my luck when they had a new edition printed in 2008 and once I could get a copy of it I snapped it up.  The book was first written in 1962 and it is a study the festival of Lughnasa as it was celebrated in Ireland in the last two hundred years (before 1962). The sources for the book came from questionnaires done by people in Ireland as well as a look at Irish folklore and customs.  The author also used journals and travel books associated with Irish culture and customs. However, these aren’t the only sources.

This book describes the festival as it was celebrated before, as the popular celebration and high point of the agricultural year.  It gives evidence of the past history of the assemblies where possible and it seeks to discover the ancient myths concealed in the stories and the religious concepts which informed the customs.  It is interesting to note that the celebrations were of the harvest of the main crop in the country, in the beginning that was corn but later on it became potatoes.  This is interesting because it shows that it is not something static but changes as the society needs change.

The book is amazing and a great wealth of information.  I wish the same had been done for all of the other festivals in the Irish year, be it Christian or Pagan.  I highly doubt there is a more in depth study done on the Irish year with the same kind of information.