Harvest Time

…The heat of the summer was eased by the cooling breezes from the Atlantic. It was busy on land and sea, with seine fishing by night and fish curing and farming by day, but there was always time for scoriachting, games and dance, sometimes on Carbery Island or across Dunmanus Bay…

(from Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy & Richard Hawkes, Mizen Productions, 1999)

This selection of photographs is from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, 1907 – 1967, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s. I have chosen his pictures that concentrate on gathering the harvest – and the fairs that are associated with harvest time: the festival of Lúnasa. They are generally not captioned, so we are not aware where these were taken. When I travelled in West Cork during the 1990s I remember seeing traditional stooks in the fields: this method of collecting the corn was practiced by the small farmers then, although now I believe it has completely vanished.

…Most of the people on the Northside had holdings that were so small that they could only grow corn (barley or oats) or wheat, for their own use. The land wasn’t good for corn crops. By the middle of August, the stooks were seen in the fields. As with the bringing in of the hay, the cutting of the corn was a great event with a meitheal to help you if needed. For cutting, a reaping hook or the scythe was used. When buying a scythe it had to be sharp enough to lift a penny off the floor. A man followed the cutter, collecting the corn, a sheaf at a time, and putting it out behind him. This was called ‘taking out’. Two people followed the man ‘taking out’ and bound the corn into sheaves with a bind, making sure that the ears on the bind lay with the rest of the ears. Six sheaves were made into a stook and left for a week, then the small stooks would be made into a stook of twelve sheaves which was left in the field to finish ripening for the rest of the month. The stooks were gathered into the haggard, by donkey or horse and cart, and made into a barrel stack ready for threshing in October… (Northside of the Mizen)

Lúnasa is one of the important turning points in the Irish calendar: harvest time, fruitfulness, and the onset of autumn. The others are Imbolc – 1st of February (the coming of the light and new life, spring), Bealtaine – 1st of May (onset of summer and a time of growth), Samhain – 1st November (winter and darkness). All these points have to be marked and celebrated. Lúnasa, or Lughnasa is probably the most fertile time for celebration, and festivities could last for days or even weeks. There was always a fair: the most well-known one still celebrated is at Killorglin, in the heart of County Kerry, where a great wild Puck goat is crowned and reigns above the crowds.

 

Champions for Ireland

wolfhounds

Irish Champions – ancient warriors, wolfhounds and rain at the Tailteann Games 1924

We heard hearty cheers coming across the water on Friday, when Ireland won the Olympic silver medal in the Lightweight Men’s Double Sculls Final. The cheers we heard were not coming from Rio, however (although there were plenty there), but from Lisheen, the tiny West Cork parish that’s just around the corner from us. That’s where Gary and Paul O’Donovan hail from. We think they have declared a public holiday there in honour of the two rowing brothers who, prior to this title, won gold at the European Championships in Brandenburg in Germany this year – the first Ireland rowing crew to become European Champions. This success set me looking at the records of Irish Olympic achievements over the years.

NGI 941

The Liffey Swim by Jack Butler Yeats, painted in 1923. Courtesy National Gallery of Ireland

Independent Ireland was represented at the Olympic Games from 1924 onwards. No Irish athletes won medals in 1924 but Jack Butler Yeats won a silver medal for the above painting and Oliver St John Gogarty won a bronze medal for literature in that year. Did you know that between 1912 and 1948 competitions in the arts were part of the Olympic Games? For a small nation Ireland has made its mark in the games: in Melbourne in 1956 Irish athletes and boxers won 5 medals between them – a gold, a silver and three bronze, and in London in 2012 boxers, athletes and a showjumper won 6 medals – a gold, a silver and four bronze. 1996 was a memorable year when, in Atlanta, Michelle Smith won 3 golds and a bronze for swimming.

An original cover from the 1924 programme for the Tailteann Games, an artist’s perception of the ancient games and (right) two medals struck for the Games

While researching this information I came across Tailteann Games. The word is pronounced ‘tell-tin’. The eleventh century Lebor Gabála Érenn (the Book of the Invasions of Ireland) states that the games were founded by Lugh Lámhfhada, Lugh of the Long Arm – the first High King of Ireland – as a mourning ceremony for the death of his foster-mother Tailtiu. Lugh buried Tailtiu underneath a mound in an area that took her name and was later called Teltown in County Meath, not far from the Hill of Tara. It’s perhaps significant that the games took place around the festival of Lughnasa – at the beginning of August. Accounts vary as to the historical periods in which the games were held: some say as early as 1800 BC, while a more generally accepted dating seems to be from the 6th to the 9th centuries AD: the festival died out after the Norman invasion but was later revived as the Tailten Fair, consisting of contests of strength and skill, horse races, religious celebrations, and a traditional time for couples to contract ‘trial’ marriages. These were allowed under Brehon Laws: couples could meet and live together for a year and a day – at the end of this time either party could end the marriage on the ‘Hills of Separation’.

Presumably these photographs are from the ‘Opening Ceremony’ of the 1924 Tailteann Games held in Croke Park

While the 1924 Olympics were being held in Paris (where Finola’s grandfather was a member of the Irish team) a revival of the Tailteann Games was held in Croke Park, Dublin. This ‘meeting of the Irish race’ or ‘Irish Olympiad’ had been announced by Éamon de Valera in Dáil Éireann in 1921 to celebrate the founding of the Irish Free State, but the event was delayed because of the Anglo-Irish War and the Irish Civil War. Organised by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), it was open to all people of Irish birth or ancestry. Participants came from England, Scotland, Wales, Canada, the USA, South Africa and Australia as well as Ireland. 

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Note the media presence at the 1924 Tailteann Games: newsreel cameras mounted on to motor vans  

Tailteann Games were held again in 1928 and 1932. The name survives today as Rás Tailteann, which is an 8 day international cycling race around parts of Ireland. This race has run every year since it was founded in 1953 and has developed into a much sought after event by professional and amateur teams from many parts of the world: it is able to award qualifying points that are required for participation in Olympic Games and World Cycling Championships.

Fireworks_at_the_First_Tailteann_Games_August_15,_1924

No modern games ceremony would be complete without a fireworks display: (top) this unusual photograph shows the fireworks at the 1924 Tailteann Games. (Lower left) a 1958 poster for the Rás Tailteann. (Lower right)  We watched this year’s Rás Tailteann on the road to Ballydehob. (Below) Paul and Gary O’Donovan – West Cork lads in Rio on Friday added a 2016 Olympic Silver to their many achievements (photo afloat.ie)

brothers

Lúnasa

Garlic Sunday at Nead an Iolair

A summer storm approaches Rossbrin Cove

Lúnasa – in Ireland it’s the name for the eighth month, and a festival.

August? So that would relate to Lammas in English – the first of August?

loaf

Yes, Lammas is supposedly from the Anglo-Saxon Hlafmaesse – meaning ‘Festival of the Loaf’. Here it was traditional to bake bread at Lúnasa – a round loaf, which was cut into four and each quarter was then set in the corners of the barn where the grain would be stored, to ensure a good harvest.

So is Lúnasa the harvest festival?

By some accounts, yes. Although the beginning of August is a bit early for harvesting. Having said that – our music session in Ballydehob last night was temporarily disrupted by the sight and sound of a fleet of huge tractors and a combine harvester thundering through the main street in the dark – yellow lights flashing dramatically: after a prolonged period of hot sunny weather there was a big rain storm forecast, so the farmers were working through the night to get in as much of the crop as possible before the deluge.

And did the rain come?

It did – just in time to dampen the Ballydehob Wooden Boat Festival. But it certainly didn’t put a dampener on the spirit of the event.

A damp Boat Festival in Ballydehob

A damp Boat Festival in Ballydehob

Is Lúnasa celebrated in Ireland nowadays?

Well – it’s remembered: you may have heard of Brian Friel’s play Dancing at Lughnasa, turned into a film in 1998. It’s set in rural Donegal in the 1930s and poignantly tells of the lives of five women encapsulated through one summer month. It touches on ritual themes and the mixture of superstition and religion which still characterises life in Ireland today.

Now you’ve spelled it differently…

Well spotted! On the calendar it’s usually Lúnasa. It’s suggested that the word Lughnasa harks back to pagan times: there was a god – Lugh – who in Irish mythology led the Tuatha Dé Danann against the Fomorians. After the victory Lugh finds Bres, the half-Fomorian former king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, alone on the battlefield, and Bres begs for his life. If he is spared, he promises, he will ensure that the cows of Ireland always give milk. The Tuatha Dé Danann refuse the offer. He then promises four harvests a year, but the Tuatha Dé Danann say one harvest a year suits them. But Lugh spares his life on the condition that he teach the Tuatha Dé Danann how and when to plough, sow and reap.

That story rather neatly ties up the connection with the harvest… Any more traditions?

August is the holiday month and there are plenty of things happening in Ireland: my favourite is Puck Fair, held every year in Killorglin, County Kerry. I came across it by accident when I was travelling in Ireland some forty years ago; now it’s notorious.

Why?

King Puck

King Puck (www.abitofireland.com)

Well, the central feature is an enormous Billy Goat, captured in the wilds of the Kerry Mountains. He gets treated royally – literally, as on the first day of the Fair he’s crowned King by a twelve year old girl. He’s then placed in a cage on top of a high platform which looks out over the street fair, which continues for three days.

Puck Fair, Killorglin 1900

Puck Fair, Killorglin 1900

That certainly does sound pagan! What happens to King Puck after the Fair?

He goes back to the mountains. It’s not uncommon to see wild Goats up in Kerry.

Sheena Jolley's superb study of Kerry Goats

Sheena Jolley‘s superb study of Kerry Goats

Is there a story attached to King Puck?

Of course… During St Patrick’s travels he reaches the borders of Kerry. He has with him his herd of Goats which give him food and milk. During the night his goats are stolen and this means he can’t go any further (in fact he supposedly then never set foot in Kerry, which means that Kerry people were never converted from their old pagan ways!). ‘…He resolved to detour a community that was so utterly depraved and lacking in hospitality. However, a chieftain from the Barony of Dunkerran saved the day for Kerry. He presented as a gift for the Saint a magnificent Puck-Goat and a hundred of the finest Goats from his herds on the slopes of Glencar highlands. The Saint came no further west, but instead of a malediction he gave to Kerry that benediction that will live forever in the salutations of the Irish Race – “Go mbeannuigh Dia siar sibh”*. Killorglin being the natural centre of defence of the Barony at that time has ever since held the Puck-Goat in the highest esteem, and elevated him to the place of honour for three days each year…’ (Liam Foley – the Kerryman, 1945)

*May God bless you back

cove

And are you celebrating Lúnasa yourself?

We’re off to the Blessing of the Boats this morning in Schull. Then we’re over to Hare Island later on for an evening meal with friends who’ve sailed down to West Cork for the weekend.

Enjoy it!

Ready for the Harvest

Ready for the Harvest