Country Matters: Lughnasa spirit of sharing harvest bounty
Fergus Kelly, in a seminal work, Early Irish Farming (School of Celtic Studies), says that the Festival of Lughnasa was essentially to celebrate the ripening of the fruits of the earth.
In pre-Christian Ireland, the feast, named after a Celtic deity, was signalled by the Fair of Tailten in Meath, convened by the High King to mark the beginning of harvest-time and the gathering of grains, vegetables and fruits. Plentiful days had arrived after a long period of privation. Cartloads of harvested food were delivered to chieftains, princes and the royal court. There was much feasting and merrymaking.
Over the centuries and into the Christian era new locations for gatherings sprung up with one major event called the Fair of Carmun becoming established on The Curragh, where could be found music, story-telling, livestock trading and, of course, horse racing when young men displayed their skills.
There were also food markets, and, according to one scribe, "a great market of foreigners" where gold and fine raiment could be bought.
Thousands also flocked to other sites, on hilltops, lakes and rivers where naked youths swam horses in water-racing contests. Sans the nude riders and the water, this could be reminiscent of Galway's race week, just past, rock music events attended by thousands, and the annual pilgrimage of the Reek at Croagh Patrick, in atonement for man's errant ways.
Lughnasa and the relief of the harvest was a vital time of year after regular famines and privations. In the 1820s, before the Great Famine, a Kerry-born schoolmaster in Callan, Co Kilkenny, recorded in his diary scenes of the pre-Lughnasa month of July, "Iul na Ghorta" or "cabbage time" when food was particularly scarce.
Amhlaidh O Suilleabhain wrote of poorer people having to eat a great deal of the green vegetable and "other odds and ends" because there was little else. Grain was ripening in the fields and those who had recourse to oats and barley pulled on the stalk were dubbed "yellow-mouths", as he described the faces of the poor.
But he recorded, too, examples of the extraordinary generosity of the farming community who shared their bounty with the less fortunate. In one year, the incredible sum of £1m was handed out, which a Westminster commission noted was "an astonishing sum". A Poor Law Inquiry in 1836 noted: "The quantity given (to the poor) by farmers, small occupiers and often by the labourers themselves, is incredible."
The threshold of plenty was Lughnasa, Garland or Hill Sunday, when the harvest began and land-holders were prepared to have the first crops ready. To dig potatoes or cut corn before this was frowned upon. New potatoes and oats provided the main meal dish to honour the day and the tradition was to cut a symbolic sheaf of oats in the morning, burn off the straw and chaff with the grains made into bread or porridge in the evening.
In the Irish Independent last week there was a remarkable story of care for a homeless man on a Dublin street with people going out with hot food and clothing at night - nothing less, perhaps, than an example of a 'Lughnasa-sharing' with the less fortunate, a continuing of an old Irish tradition of spontaneous kindness and generosity.