Was it only me, or did you feel as though July delivered about three months worth of life packed tightly into just thirty one days? Was it the early dawns and late sunsets? Was it the heat? Was it the pin-balling news: wildfires, world cup, Thai boys’ rescue, summits, protests, elections in Pakistan and Zimbabwe, whacky weddings….? Whatever it was, I loved July, but now that it’s done, I’m more than ready for August to take my hand and lead me through to Lughnasa. Lughnasa (you might favour the spelling ‘Lughnasadh’): the gaelic festival marking the beginning of the harvest season in Ireland. It is named after the Celtic God ‘Lugh’, God of the sun, light and harvests. Traditionally it is held on or about August 1st – about halfway between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox. Many of Ireland’s prominent mountains and hills were climbed at Lughnasa – climbing up towards Lugh. Although not well known as a Lughnasa tradition, ‘Reek Sunday’, when thousands of people (many of them barefoot) climb Croagh Patrick, dates back to the ancient, pagan times of Lughnasa. It’s a fine (and challenging) mountain in County Mayo and climbing it on Reek Sunday (the last Sunday in July) has largely been re-cast as a Christian event. But Lughnasa is firmly embedded in the pathways of Croagh Patrick.
Irish playwright, Brian Friel, wrote the wonderful, ‘Dancing At Lughnasa’ about the five Mundy sisters in their County Donegal cottage in late summer. They were all on the cusp of change. The narrator of the play tells us: “When I cast my mind back to that summer of 1936, different kinds of memories offer themselves to me. We got our first wireless set that summer. Well, a sort of set, and it obsessed us. We called it Lugh, after the old pagan God of the harvest, and his festival was Lughnasa, a time of music and dance.” It’s an incredibly sad story, and it prods me to remember that today, on 1stAugust, I might believe that there’s a whole lot of summer left to be enjoyed, but it is slipping by fast. Change is imminent. Lughnasa’s climbing of mountains and lighting of fires was seen as a farewell to summer; the gathering in of fruits and flowers, the symbolic burying the first sheaf of the harvest – all of it was a practical and emotional means of preparing for the change to come.
Whether you hold with the old ways or not, August is, undeniably, a month when there is a sense of waning. Everything is turning golden, even more so this year – parched, drooping, tired – a bit like myself. The switch has been thrown; these days are no longer about growth, they are about ripening. The English have a different name for their early August harvest festival; they call it, ‘Lammas’, a name that has slipped over to Ireland. “At the auld Lammas Fair, boys, where you ever there? Where you ever at the fair at Ballycastle-o? Did you treat your Mary-Ann, to some dulse and yellow man, at the auld Lammas fair in Ballycastle-o.” It’s a great couple of days in the County Antrim town, if you like horses, crowds of people, wasps (there’s always wasps), dulse and yellowman and country music. Confusingly, it’s not at the start of the month, but, instead, has been planted on the last bank holiday weekend in August – falling in with the modern holiday schedule, a last hurrah before going back to school.
Not today, but later on in the month, I’ll follow some rituals in the spirit of Lughnasa. In a couple of weeks (when S. comes to visit) I’ll dig the first of the sharpes express potatoes from the garden. Then, later in the month, I’ll go blackberry picking with E. down the laneways of East Lothian. Last year we picked on 24thAugust, but Lugh has been working hard this summer and they might be ready earlier. For the record, I’m not going to let mine rot.
‘Blackberry Picking’, by Seamus Heaney
‘Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.’