A Letter from Ireland:
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Meitheamh – Mid-Summer in Ireland

Céad Míle Fáilte from County Cork – and here we are at mid-summer in Ireland. We are just past the longest day of the year here in Ireland and last night didn’t seem to happen at all as it stayed bright enough until about 11.00pm.

I’m sitting here with a cup of Barry’s tea in my hand – why don’t you have a cup of whatever you fancy and join me for today’s letter?

Meitheamh.

Meitheamh – pronounced “meh-hev” – is the Irish word for June, and more or less means mid-summer. The growth in the fields is at it’s green height – grass seems to be shooting up an inch a day up to this point.

Now, just to shake things up a bit – I have included pictures on this page that come from another Celtic region of Europe where they also celebrate Saint Johns Eve – the Galicia region of northern Spain! We had the good fortune to visit this part of the Celtic world this year – and discovered so many similarities with the sights and customs of Ireland, but more about that in another letter.

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Preparing the Fires on St. John’s Eve.

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 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.

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The Fires are Lit!

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 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! : )

  • Ellen Ladden Ranaudo says:

    Dear Mike,
    I look forward to your letter each Sunday.

    The photo of the bonfires reminds me of another tradition our family had when my daughter was a young child.

    I grew up in Connecticut, but left after getting married. We would go home in July. My mother always went to the shore for several weeks in July.
    The 4th of July, our Independence Day, the children would gather driftwood, etc. They would make the bonfire piles along the shore like in Galicia. In the evening we’d light the bonfires and watch the fireworks over the water. My daughter’s birthday is the 5th of July. Since all the family would be gathered to celebrate the 4th, we would celebrate her birthday that evening. It wasn’t until she was 8 or 9 that she realized the bonfires and fireworks were not for her birthday
    Slan, Ellen

    • Mike says:

      Great memory Ellen — thanks for sharing – I love how the child in us assumes everything is arranged on our behalf. Naturally! Mike.

  • Dana Zimmerman says:

    Hi Mike and Carina! Thank you for that lovely story about the bonfires along the shore in Spain. I trust you both had a great visit and not much sleep to stay up until midnight to light the fire! Do you still practice this celebration along the shores of Ireland every year at mid summer? And if so, is there also a celebration like this for the winter solstice too? I am planning my first visit to Ireland and wanted your thoughts on the best time of year to spend a week or so for the weather. I’m taking into consideration the fact that I will be driving around the entire island and doing some hiking, as well. Thanks to your story I also have a strong craving for new potatoes and creamed peas! Thanks for the detailed descriptions and pictures of your trip! Talk soon. DZ 🙂

    • Mike says:

      Hi Dana – delighted you enjoyed the story. In Cork, this tradition takes place each year on Saint Johns Eve – not so much anymore in other parts of the country. Best time for Ireland? I would say that May/June or September work best for people who have flexibility. If you are into hiking, see http://www.irishtrails.ie/

      Mike.

  • Patricia Tarpey Golden says:

    Love all your stories and can’t wait to go back to the land of my forefathers birth. Thanks for sharing all your stories.

  • Marge says:

    Interesting about the bonfires in Galicia. Some of my dad’s Spanish ancestors were from there. So I have many Celtic cords in my genetic makeup.

  • Danielle says:

    Interesting to learn more about Galicia, the traditions and even connections to Ireland.

    My dad was able to trace ancestry back to Spain and included ancestry from Galicia and Asturias. Maybe that is why some of my family have red hair despite coming from Mexico and why many of us look so different due to a mix of different ancestry (my hair is turning more of an auburn color and one of cousins seems to have reddish hair yet others have black, brunette or blond hair).

    I just ordered an DNA kit and hoping to find out even more from both sides. It is funny as when I first found this site and the letters from Ireland, I was looking for info of the Anderson clan and my mom’s side of the family but ended up finding some info on my dad’s of the family and the connects from Northern Spain. Interesting where info might lead to.

    Another amusing thing was I just happen to been born around Mid-Summer eve, actually on the last night of spring. So it feels close to a birthday celebration as well.

  • Diane Casey Backus says:

    Hi Mike, Once again I love the history lessons! What am I doing Halloween? I will expect to have over 200 for Trick or Treat. That is what happens when you teach Kindergarten for 34 years. Last year, I had a former Kindergartener bring his (God help me) GRANDSON for treats!
    Slan,
    Casey

  • Doreen Carter (Conlan , Deering) says:

    Dear Mike
    As I sit with my sister Mary and sip a cup or two of coffee fresh brewed I read your story’s with such passion and yearning for the old.
    There is a high population of Irish in the USA, and strong in traditional times.
    Our St. Patrick Day is celebrated every where with Parade’s and parties and granny’s receipe. Lamb stew, Irish sweet bread and potato’s everything.

    Mary and I are sitting on the front porch at 10:40 am we live on the waterfront the wind blowing and thee AMERICAN FLAG that greeted so many immigranting to the USA. Please pray for us as we pray for Ireland. So beautiful are the land and there could be so much more to celebrate if we adapted the strength and courage and moral fiber our grand parents and ancestor had which made our countries great.
    We tip a cup of Joe to our kinship in Ireland.
    Have an awesome Sunday:-)

  • rob hepburn says:

    Hi Mike,
    wonderful story and beautiful bonfire pictures!
    I agree with you – that our traditions are alive in
    our hearts and souls and evolve with us.

  • Gail Parker says:

    Hello Mike. My name is Gail. I’m Irish decent and I was born and raised here in Beautiful Montana. I grew up with gardens every where and I LOVE New potatoes and another early crop….peas. My Mom and Grandma always made creamed peas and new potatoes. Since I am IRISH I LOVE potatoes,I could live on them alone,but unfortunately a year ago I was diagnosed diabetic so have to cut carbs and my first reply to my Dr was”Oh no I’m Irish and I have to have potatoes or I’ll die!”He laughed and said I can have a potato a day if it’s small and I don’t eat any other carbs all day. So my treat to myself is a Good Ole Potato everyday. GOD BLESS.

  • jackie nickell says:

    jnnicke@hotmail.com ithink huckabee my maiden name is english, but my grandma huckabees mothee was a flannigan.my moms last name was autry. seems like it can be french, english and irish. my dna is 99% european, so i have lots of irish and lots scottish.craigs and campbells. i always just said i was a dukes mixture. we used to have new potatoes with english peas creamed also. my ancesters came to america in the 16 and 17 hundreds. i visited ireland about 4 years ago and thought it was beautiful and the people were so nice..enjoy your letters. jackie

  • Pam says:

    My mother’s grandmother, Honor Kinnealy, came from County Clare. No fires this time of year here in the Sonoran Desert. Our daytime temps are around 110F. here. Last week we were 120F. Evenings are in the high to low 90’s. I miss milder summer nights, thanks for a great story.
    Pam

  • Doris Sabatier says:

    Wonderful story and traditions, Mike. I wasn’t aware of the Celtic connection to northern Spain, so thanks for sharing. Growing up in a German household, potatoes were a staple in our diet. My favorite way to enjoy them is new/baby potatoes with butter and dill, fresh from the garden.

  • Ruth Woolman-Cubbison says:

    Thank you so very much for sharing. I am 26% Irish and appreciate you letting me see places I will never be able to see first hand. Thank you for teaching about different names and where they came from. I have always loved names and find them very fasinating. All the pictures and information you share are fabulous. You make me very happy!

  • Sandy LaFerriere says:

    Summer solstice In “dear auld Skibbereen “. How blessed I am.

  • […] I wrote in an earlier letter about the link between the mid-summers celebration here in Ireland (often called “Meitheamh” – pronounced “Meh-hev”) – and the digging of these first new potatoes. Click here to read all about Meitheamh in Ireland. […]

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