Sunday, 30 July 2017

LUGHNASADH - Gathering Fraochans at Brón Trogain.

Along the boreen flowers are becoming fruits and the year is turning towards Lughnasadh.

Honeysuckle flowers depart & berries appear.

The earliest name for Lughnasadh, derived from Old Irish, is Brón Trogain, which likens the earth to a woman in labour, sorrowing as she births her fruit.
As green berries are revealed, the first wild fruit to ripen is usually the fraochan.

Also known as fraughan, bilberry, whortleberry, blaeberry, heatherberry, whorts & hurts.

Fraochans have been known in Ireland since ancient times and their seeds have been discovered during excavations of Viking and Anglo-Norman settlements in Dublin. 

Across rural Ireland it was customary to celebrate this time of year by visiting the heights of the land to pick the berries. 

Purple dye was produced from the berries and the juice was believed to be a cure for eczema

The shrubs grow low on heathland and wet mountainsides where their solitary flowers produce purple-black berries, rich in vitamin C.
Bilberries were traditionally gathered on the last Sunday of July or the first Sunday of August and Domhnach na bhFraochog, Fraochan Sunday, was considered a day of great festivity when people danced, sang and played games in the wild places. 

Ard Éireann on the border between counties Laois and Offaly, 
was a popular place to harvest fraochans.

In 1942 massive crowds were reported as streams of cars, pony traps and bicycles from the surrounding countryside made their way to Arderin to pick the berries.

Large quantities of bilberries for export to Britain were harvested in Carlow, Wicklow, Tipperary and Waterford in the early 20th century. The price paid was very low and the baskets large but hundreds of people picked them to earn money to support their families.

During the 2nd World War imports of bilberries to Britain from Europe were disrupted resulting 
in the price paid to Irish pickers increasing dramatically, especially as British pilots 
reported that bilberry jam improved their night vision.

In earlier times the gathering of fraochans appears to have involved only the young people who would spend the day walking to the slopes, foraging for berries and celebrating. 
In Co. Donegal the aged were not allowed upon the hill tops so berries were strung on long stalks of grass, cuiseógs, to be brought down to them. 

At Glenkitt, Co. Laois people gathered to climb the slopes of Ard Erin in search of berries.

Many accounts describe Fraochan Sunday as a time for courtship, a festival where people could hope to find a husband or wife.
Young men threaded berries, making bracelets as gifts for the young women. 
Custom dictated that the bracelets had to be removed and left on the hill top at the end of the day, although the reason for this has long been forgotten.

A plentiful supply of the berries were thought to bring good luck to the coming harvest.

Bilberry pies called Pócai Hócai, were made by young women to be presented to their chosen partners and fraochan wine, a mixture of sugar and berry juice, was given to lovers in the hope of hastening a wedding.
Perhaps the tradition of courtship associated with Bilberry Sunday is an echo of the old Teltown Marriages lasting for a year and a day, which also took place at Lughnasadh ?

Gathering bilberries upon the heights brought people to the hilltop mounds and fairy-forts and there are accounts of the Old Gods and the Good People being honoured at this time. 

A celebration was held on Knockfeerna Hill, Co. Limerick where flowers and fraochans were strewn around a small cairn, the ‘Struicín near the summit, reputedly the entrance to 
Donn Fírinne’s underground palace. 

On the small hill, the Spellick, near to Slieve Gullion, Co. Armagh, everyone who gathered fraochans had to sit on a rocky formation known as the Cailleach Beara’s Chair, for luck.
However Crom Dubh, the ‘black stooped one’, was the pagan deity most associated with the festival and gathering berries any later than Fraochan Sunday was thought to bring his curse. 

Of the many traditions associated with Brón Trogain, later Lughnasadh, it appears that Fraochan Sunday has stood the test of time. In many areas people still pick fraochans on the hills. 

Here in the midlands Ard Erin was silent this year and Glenkitt a lonely place, 
but the fraochans are still thriving on the hills. 

Take a sound journey through Glenkitt to Ard Erin with local guide Mick Dowling who remembers the days when thousands gathered on Frochan Sunday. 


  1. cuiseógs. How is this pronounced? In Northumberland, I remember gooseberries being called goosegogs.

    1. Gooseberries were sometimes called goosegogs in Liverpool too Ray. I think cuiseógs referred to the bracelets made from the berries.

  2. A very enjoyable blog post, I well recall the semi-sweet flavour of the bilberry which I was introduced to by a near relative who lived on Dartmoor, England. He said that where you find bilberry's you find the wild deer, they growing so low to the ground.

    1. Yes they do grow very low - so hard to find! I imagined them to taste quite bitter, more like sloes, but they are quite sweet.

  3. Lovely! We collected them on the mountain in South East Wales where I grew up...coincidentally I am just working on a story in which they feature! We called them whinberries. xx

    1. Then a timely post :-) Yes, whinberries here too in places. Good luck with the story!

  4. Lovely photos and great information - I'm amazed how bountiful they are and I love the name of the bilberry pie!

  5. Thank you - yes I was surprised to find them. Pócai Hócai - great name!


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