Oíche Fhéile Eoin – St. John’s Eve

Oíche Fhéile EoinTiteann Oíche Fhéile Eoin (‘St John’s Eve’) ar an 23 Meitheamh achan bhliain, an tráthnóna roimh ceiliúradh breithe Eoin Baiste.

Oíche Fhéile Eoin takes place on June 23rd, on the eve of the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist. The festival is also referred to as ‘Oíche tSin Seáin’, or ‘St. John’s Eve’, and most likely originated in pagan times. 

Clearly, Oíche Fhéile Eoin is a festival with its own unique origins and customs, and it’s closely associated with many Gaeltacht areas, but what’s it all about? Let’s sift through the cinders to find out a little bit more about this annual event…

What are the origins of Oíche Fhéile Eoin?

Scholars have noted the widespread tradition of bonfires throughout Europe, often marking the beginning and continuation of summer. Midsummer celebrations such as Oíche Fhéile Eoin echo the festival of Bealtaine on May 1st, with communities often worshipping the sun and calling for plentiful sunshine and good fortune towards their animals and crops. These midsummer celebrations have been observed in parts of Ireland for centuries, and have their roots in pre-Christian Ireland, when bonfires were lit in honour of the Celtic goddess, Áine. An equivalent of Aphrodite and Venus, Áine was the goddess of summer, wealth and sovereignty, and she is most associated with midsummer and the sun.

Enter St. John the Baptist

Most would agree that this pre-Christian festival was eventually co-opted by Christianity in honour of St. John the Baptist. The evolution of the festival towards a religious celebration in Ireland is likely due to the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, as there is little or no evidence of celebrations in honour of St. John the Baptist prior to the 1170s. This narrative aligns with what we know about similar midsummer bonfires in Europe, such as ‘Jāņi’  in Latvia (Jānis is Latvian for John) and ‘Sankthansaften’ in Norway.

Traditions of Oíche Fhéile Eoin

So, what tended to take place at Oíche Fhéile Eoin? Traditionally, a fire was lit at sunset on June 23rd, and this bonfire continued to burn until long after midnight. Prayers were said in the hope of good crops and the avoidance of mid-summer flooding. Next, feasting, music, dance and fun would begin for young and old, including competitions of strength, agility and fire-jumping!

Modern Day Beltane FestivalIn some parts, a special dish called ‘Goody’ was often served, consisting of white ‘shop-bread’ which had been soaked in hot milk and flavoured with sugar and spices. This food was prepared in a large pot on the communal bonfire, where locals would bring their own bowls and spoons. It was also a tradition in some places for children to go around the village asking for “a penny for the bonfire”  to buy sweets and cakes to eat that evening at the fire. Older people drank poitín while younger folk would buy a barrel of beer or porter, to share all around. Afterwards, it was customary for the cinders from the bonfires to be thrown on fields as an ‘offering’ to protect crops.

Lighting a bonfire on Oíche Fhéile Eoin is a custom that harks back centuries, regardless of the true origins of the tradition. On June 23rd, we again see bonfires lighting up the dark skies wherever Irish traditions burn bright…

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