Today is the Feast of St John the Baptist, a good example of one of those Christian festivals that neatly superimposed itself upon a much older pagan celebration, for it is also Midsummer – an ancient Celtic festival where fires were lit to honour Áine, the goddess associated with the sun, fertility and the protection of animals and crops.
Traditionally festivities began on St John’s Eve, 23rd June, which is also known as Bonfire Night in Ireland. Once every community would have had its communal bonfire, lit as the sun went set and tended through the night. As the embers died down cattle were herded through the fire to protect them from disease during the following year. Ashes from the fire were brought home to put on the fields to ensure good crops and some may have been added to the family hearth, for this was a festival about protection: in the home, in the fields, in the community.
In Thomas Flanagan’s book, The Year of the French, set in 1798, he describes a Midsummer bonfire:
Soon it would be Saint John’s Eve. Wood for the bonfire had already been piled high upon Steeple Hill, and when the night came there would be bonfires on every hill from there to Downpatrick Head. There would be dancing and games in the open air, and young men would try their bravery leaping through the flames. There would even be young girls leaping through, for it was helpful in the search of a husband to leap through a Saint John’s Eve fire, the fires of midsummer. The sun was at its highest then, and the fires spoke to it, calling it down upon the crops. It was the turning point of the year, and the air was vibrant with spirits.
Lighting fires seemed suitable to signify St John too, for he baptised Jesus and in doing so, according to the church, brought the world out of darkness. For more information about customs on St John’s Eve and St John’s Day see here.
As part of the traditions surrounding the festival, wells and sites associated with St John were visited and some are still venerated. I made my way to Tobar Eoin Óg in Carrigaline, where an annual pilgrimage and mass still takes place. This year it was a special Jubilee of Mercy Pilgrimage, marking the Holy Year of Mercy.
Tobar Eoin Óg
The well is on the outskirts of the town and the custom is to gather on the roadside until assembled by the Carrigaline Pipe Band. It was a very sociable evening, helped by the warm weather, and a good-natured crowd gathered, full of anticipation. At 7.30pm the pipe band struck up and we processed slowly down a boreen and into the woodland.
Sturdy railway sleepers form stairs down into the glade where a the small stone altar had been covered in a crisp white cloth, served by the parish priest, two altar boys and a trainee priest.
Sunbeams played through the trees and less romantically, clouds of midges hovered overhead!
Mass was celebrated and the well featured strongly.The Rosary was lead by the priest who circled the well clockwise, stopping at each of the five crosses, another man inscribing the stones. A Decade of the Rosary was said at each one. Later some pilgrims performed the same rounds.
Hymns were sung and we were given a general absolution of our sins, then everyone rushed to gather water from the well. Most pilgrims had brought water bottles with them, others scooped the water up and some just blessed themselves with it.
The well is large and roughly made from stone in a beehive shape. A limestone cross is cemented on top of it, and five stones on the structure have crosses inscribed upon them. The opening is small and rectangular, leading into a corbelled space within. It was quite difficult to get in and out of!
The water was cold and clear and flowed out down into the fields towards the Owenboy river. The last person to take the water was a young man. He had a bunch of white lilies and some candles and slipped right inside the well, conducting a small, intimate and personal ceremony.
At Ballinrea there is a mineral spring, which is considered to be of the same kind as that of Tunbridge Wells, and has been found efficacious in cases of debility; and near it is a holy well, dedicated to St Renogue, which is resorted to by the country people on the 24th of June.
St Renogue seems to be a corruption of Eoin Óg and is another, older name for the well. According to tradition the well was discovered by a blind man whose sight was restored. A rather eroded plaque tells the story:
Rónógs: St John’s Well
According to tradition was discovered by a blind man whose sight was restored. In gratitude he built this beehive surround in the early 19th Century. Crowds attended the pattern every St John’s Eve, 23rd June. To drink from the well it is customary to recite a decade of the rosary at each of the inscribed crosses.
The well has been fairly recently restored and is obviously still much venerated and looked after – at least a hundred people were here this evening.
Emerging from the woods it was rather nice to see a communal bonfire burning in the fields nearby, young people gathered around it. In fact I was amazed at how many bonfires I saw burning on my way home. Ainé is alive and well, as is St John.