Lughnasa was often associated with great assemblies, bonfires on hilltops and dancing
at the cross roads but it was also a time when water possessed special qualities.
In rural Ireland the largest celebration of the year was at the start of the harvest season when the weather was warm and the first wild fruits were ripe.
People gathered to celebrate, often at the Fair, before the hard work of harvesting began.
The Christian festival, Lammas, was usually celebrated on the first Sunday of August and in Ireland
it was known by many names, reflecting the rich folk traditions.
On lakeshores, particularly in the midlands, people came together to celebrate ‘Lough Sunday’
which was usually held on the first Sunday of August.
Lough Owel, Co. Westmeath, famous for Lough Sunday gatherings.
The swimming of horses and cattle took place to ensure the health of the animals and it was also an opportunity for people to exchange news, settle marriage contracts, celebrate and to watch the
The most well-known contest was at Lough Owel where large crowds gathered as young men
on horseback engaged in dangerous water races.
At Lough Keeran, a small pool known locally as a blessed well, horses were brought to the water
to swim in order to protect them against ‘incidental evils’ in the coming months.
The tradition included submerging spancels and halters as an added safeguard although some were left in the well, perhaps as an offering.
Cattle too were brought to the water and offerings of butter, the Clad Ime, were thrown
to the lough spirits to guarantee a good milk yield.
A RAG TREE once stood near Lough Keeran, with the ropes used for tying cows hung on branches in the belief sick cattle would be cured. The tree was later cut down by the order of the Bishop to prevent people from continuing the custom.
As late as 1900’s offerings of butter rolls were still left at this well.
In the 19th century it was recorded that people swam their cattle across the River Boyne to act
as a charm against the attentions of the Good People and protect against disease.
This custom of driving horses and cattle through rivers, lakes and pools at Lughnasa appears to
mirror the custom of herding cattle between two fires at Bealtaine which was also executed to protect their well being.
Lough Neagh where the practice of wading through water was not confined to animals.
On the first Sunday of August pilgrims at Lough Neagh and Lough Patrick would recite the rosary then enter the waters to wash feet, hands and heads in the belief that the water at this time contained cures.
Many sacred wells were also considered most potent at this time of year.
St Moling’s Well, Co Carlow where pilgrims waded barefoot through the water
and children had their heads placed underwater to guard against head ailments.
At Tobar Alt an Easa cattle were driven to the water on the first Sunday of August
to cure them of illness.
Tubberberrin, in Co. Meath, was famous for being dry all year, but filling with water at midnight on Lughnasa Eve when it gave cures.
The water stayed in the well for three days before disappearing again.
The TRADITION at St Keiran’s Well took place at midnight on the first Sunday of August.
The first Sunday in August was known in many places as Garland Sunday when flowers were left on summits, on Neolithic monuments, on graves and at sacred wells “to give a last salute to summer.”
In Donegal people wore flowers in their clothes to climb hills on Garland Sunday and a hole was dug and the flowers buried as a sign that summer was ended.
Tobernault. Co. Sligo, was visited at this time also.
And Brigid’s Well at Liscannor is honoured by locals, not in February but on Garland Sunday.
In Co. Galway Lady’s Well was also visited on Garland Sunday when “the girls wore daisy chains and the young men wore flowers in their buttonholes.” to attend the Pattern there.
At the end of the ritual flowers were left in the water.
A visit to the well in recent times shows that the daisy tradition may not be lost.
It is at this time of year that I visit St Lugna’s Well, Co. Offaly, hidden besides the Slieve Bloom mountains.
The well was restored 1995 but little is known of the saint.
Few find their way here any longer but some of us still visit at Lughnasa to honour the water.
And as the wild flowers begin to pass away and the fruits appear I also give offerings to the
local river as “a last salute to summer.”