Opinion: the Celtic festival of Lughnasadh around the start of August celebrates the beginning of the early harvest

Even though we're still in holiday season, the Celtic festival of Lughnasadh heralds the beginning of early harvest. Marking the cross-quarter day between summer solstice on June 21st and autumn equinox on September 21st, it is traditionally held on 1st August, though some of the celebrations in recent centuries have shifted to the Sundays nearest this date.

This year the exact true time of Lughnasadh (pronounced Loo-NA-sah and spelt Lúnasa in Modern Irish) will be at the Grain Half Moon on August 7th at 19.19pm. As one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, Lughnasadh heralds the commencement of autumn followed by Samhain and winter, Imbolg and spring then Bealtaine and summer.

Lughnasadh itself is named after Lugh, an Irish God called samildanach (pronounced sam-ill-dawn-ack), meaning he was highly adept in many arts simultaneously. There are countless inscriptions and statues dedicated to him and Julius Caesar himself commented on his importance to the Celtic people.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Sean O'Rourke, folklorist Michael Fortune on harvest and autumn traditions

According to the Book of Invasions (which records much of the early history of Ireland), Lugh's father, Cian was one of the Fomorians, enemies of the Tuatha Dé Danann, his mother Ethniu’s people. Lugh came to be associated with grain in Celtic mythology after he held a harvest fair in honour of his foster mother Tailtiu in the place where he buried her in Tailteann, Co. Meath. This equates with the first grain harvest in agricultural societies in the northern hemisphere and is called Lammas in England, after the Saxon phrase "loaf mass".

This festival became known as the Tailteann Games and involved great gatherings that included spiritual ceremonies, ritual athletic contests, feasting, matchmaking and trading. It is estimated that it started around 1600 BC and concluded in 1171 AD with the Norman invasion. Modern versions of the Games include the Rás Tailteann  a prestigious cycling race founded in 1953 and still run by Cycling Ireland as simply "the Rás". Athletics Ireland also continues to use the name "Tailteann Games" for its annual schools inter-provincial championships.

Last weekend's Féile Lughnasa in Cloghane Brandon combined such physical feats as paddle boarding, swimming races and several hill walks, with the annual pilgrimage to the summit of Mount Brandon to celebrate the harvest. Known locally as Crom Dubh Sunday, this refers to the name of either the Lord of The Harvest or The Bringer of Famine and there is glorious controversy as to whether he was a pagan wizard or an evil sorcerer defeated by Lugh.

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From RTÉ Archives, a RTÉ News report on the 1976 Puck Fair

A number of fairs are also believed to be survivals of Lughnasadh, such as Puck Fair in Killorglin, Co. Kerry. Reputed to be the oldest fair in Ireland, a wild male goat is hoisted above the festivities for the duration before released back to his mountain home.  One theory simply suggests that the male goat or "Puck" was a pagan symbol of fertility, like the pagan god Pan celebrating a fruitful harvest.

Food features strongly in Lughnasadh festivities and rituals typically centre around the assurance of abundance as people were now confident there would be plenty of new crops, freshly baked bread, and baskets brimming with berries. Grain has long held a place of importance in civilisation back nearly to the beginning of time. Traditionally the cutting of the final sheaf of grain was indeed cause for celebration with the making corn or wheat dollies, which represented the spirit of the grain. Sometimes these dolls were full-sized, made of the last stalks to be harvested, and decorated with ribbons, streamers and even articles of clothing. In English folklore, John Barleycorn is a character who represents the crop of barley harvested each autumn to make welcome beer and whiskey.

Today, the Catholic Church in Ireland has also set this date aside for ritual blessings of farmers' fields and many people still celebrate Lughnasadh with dancing, song, and bonfires harking back to olden time. Brien Friel captured this blending of the old and new evocatively in his iconic play Dancing at Lughnasa. Indeed, there will be many folk dancing up a storm this weekend at such events as the sold All Together Now music festival, the annual Spraoi street theatre extravaganza in Waterford, the Indiependence Festival in Co Cork. and the family-friendly Siamsa Sraide in Swinford, Co. Mayo.

READ: Why the last Sunday in July was celebrated in Ireland of old

Lughnasadh is Mother Nature’s call to us to sincerely look at the abundance that is present in our personal and collective worlds and it is a key tradition of this special time of year that we celebrate this abundance wildly with great joy.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ