Meitheamh – Mid-Summer in Ireland
In the old Celtic Calendar there were four minor festivals through the year on the two solstices and the two equinoxes. Four major festivals then lay between them. Each of these eight festivals had special significance in a what was a pastoral society - the fertility and yield of the land had a direct effect on how hungry or how powerful your kingdom would be for the forthcoming year.
Meitheamh – pronounced “meh-hev” – is the Irish word for June, and therefore more or less means mid-summer. The growth in the fields is at its green height – grass seems to be shooting up an inch a day up to this point.
In the old Celtic Calendar there were four minor festivals through the year on the two solstices and the two equinoxes. Four major festivals then lay between them. Each of these eight festivals had special significance in a what was a pastoral society – the fertility and yield of the land had a direct effect on how hungry or how powerful your kingdom would be for the forthcoming year.
Brehon law dictated that all people would stop work for these festivals and gather in a place overseen by the local king to celebrate. In fact, it was also forbidden to fight during the celebrations and offenders were dealt with very harshly. Now you know why we Irish like to have a good time – it was required by law – and we do like to be good law-abiding citizens!
The mid-summer (meitheamh) solstice festival was one of fire – and celebrated on June 23/24. In later years it became known as Saint John’s Eve (also Bonfire night!). Here in Cork there was aways a tradition of bonfires on the evening of June 23rd – youngsters would gather old wood and anything that would burn over the weeks leading up to the day. The fire is then lit at a place in the centre of a community with different smaller traditions in each locality. Sometimes, the ashes are gathered and brought back to vegetable beds and fields to ensure a good harvest.
The other significant happening at this time is the arrival of the first early potatoes. Carina and myself have often sat around a fire – taken potatoes that were dug earlier that day for the first time – wrapped them up and buried them to cook in the embers of the fire. And the taste? Well, there is nothing like that first taste of the year!
And so it is in Ireland. We have a great love and hunger for tradition. Many of these rituals came from before Christian times – were adapted by the Church – and somehow prevailed to the present day in the work and celebrations of ordinary people. When people talk today about traditions “dying out” – I generally think they are wrong. Of course, our traditions, like Meitheamh, mutate and adapt to attract the attention of each new generation – but they are just too strong, soulful and rhythmic to disappear altogether.
What do you think?
As for me – I’m looking forward to our first new potatoes of the season!
Do feel free to let me know what you are up to at this time of the year in the comments section below.
That’s it for now!
Slán, Mike… talk next week!
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