Lúnasa is the Irish word for the month of August and in ancient Ireland was one of the major pre-Christian festivals, a harvest festival celebrated all over the country and later Christianised under various names. Puck Fair in Killorglin, Co. Kerry and Reek Sunday at Croagh Patrick, Co.Mayo are among the many contemporary events that owe their origin to the ancient Lúnasa. The festival and the Celtic deity that inspired it, Lugh, also gave their names to two of the finest Irish traditional bands to emerge in the 1990s, Lúnasa and Lá Lugh. The latter hailed from Co. Louth, Ireland’s smallest county, also named after the god Lugh, sometimes spelt Lú.
The son-god Lugh in Irish mythology was often known as Lugh Lámfhada (‘Lugh of the long arm’) or Lugh Samildánach (‘Lugh of the many arts’). Julius Caesar writes of the Gaulish equivalent of the Roman god Mercury, whom he describes as the inventor of all arts, most likely Lugh. Sanctuaries with dedications to this god are known throughout Gaulish territories and various versions of the Celtic place name Lughdunon, or ‘Lugh’s fort’, survive in many places in Europe today, including Leiden (Netherlands), Lyon and Laon (both in France). Lugh was the focus of a harvest cult at Lyon, which the Romans forcibly changed to a celebration of the emperor Augustus.
In early literature, Lugh is the supernatural father of Cú Chulainn, one of the greatest heroes in Irish mythology and there are many tales of his feats and magical powers. In one story, he plays magical music on the harp at Tara, the seat of the High Kings of Ireland. In another he defeats his grandfather, Balor of the Evil Eye, king of the Fomorians, in an epic battle.
In early Irish sources Lugh Nasadh or the ‘assembly of Lugh’ took place at Tailtiu, an ancient site in Co.Meath which still has substantial archaeological remains. It is named after an earth goddess who was reputed to have organised the clearance of the forests on the plains of Brega (today Co. Meath), one of the richest farming areas in Ireland. The task proves so demanding that she dies and on her death-bed requests that funeral games be held annually on the cleared ground. Lugh leads the first games around August 1st and thus is born the Óenach Tailten, one of the greatest Fairs in early Ireland, associated with the Kings of Tara. The Fair, often described as Ireland’s Olympic Games, was celebrated intermittently from ancient times right down to about 1770. It was revived for a while in the 20th century but no longer takes place today.
In ancient times, assemblies took place at other hilltop sites and wells throughout Ireland around August 1st. Gradually the festival became Christianised and the tales of Lugh defeating Balor were replaced by similar tales of St. Patrick and Crom Dubh. The latter was a kind of antichrist who was overcome by St. Patrick in evangelising Ireland. He gave his name to Crom Dubh Sunday (the last Sunday in July or first Sunday in August), also known as Garland Sunday, Lammas Sunday, Bilberry Sunday or Fraughan Sunday. Markets or fairs were held on days close to this Sunday in various parts of Ireland, including Ennistymon (Co. Clare), Ballycastle (Co. Antrim) and Killorglin, Co. Kerry where Puck Fair is still celebrated annually.
Some bands and individual songs or pieces of music have been inspired by Lugh or Lúnasa. The traditional band Lá Lugh (‘The Day of Lugh) came from County Louth (Lú or Lugh in Irish). Their singer, Eithne Ní Uallacháin, grew up speaking Irish and was fascinated with ancient Irish culture and the many customs and traditions which had their roots in pre-Christian or early Christian times. Some of her most interesting work tried to give these traditions a contemporary relevance or celebrate them in songs that mixed modern and ancient elements. This was very much the case with her song ‘Lughnasa Damhsa’ (‘Lughnasa Dance’), which lyrically celebrates many aspects of the ancient harvest festival in lyrics in Irish and in English. Like other work she has done, the song somehow manages to capture a sound that is at once ancient and modern.
Brian Friel’s highly successful play Dancing At Lughnasa was turned into a movie starring Meryl Streep in 1990, with music composed by Riverdance’s Bill Whelan. Although set in 1936, the story does use the ancient festival of Lughnasa as a focus for the release of earthly, primitive instincts largely suppressed in the lives of the central characters.
The four main Lughnasadh pilgrimage mountain sites in Ireland are Church Mountain (Co. Wicklow), Slieve Donard (Co. Down), Mount Brandon (Co.Kerry) and Croagh Patrick (Co.Mayo). At the latter site, ‘Reek Sunday’, usually the last Sunday in July, draws thousands of pilgrims annually who climb the mountain in their bare feet.