(We wrote this years ago for Culture Northern Ireland. It seems that the festival was last held in 2014 and then axed over funding issues.)
Nowadays, most of us get our food from the supermarket, but in the Ireland from before the industrial revolution the harvest would have been the pivotal moment in the yearly calendar: a good harvest meant that the people had what they needed for the coming year, whereas failed crops could mean ruin and the worst fears for a cold winter. The first of August traditionally saw a harvest festival, Lughnasa, a word that still survives in the Irish word for the month August, Lúnese. When the Irish went abroad, they took Lughnasa with them, and all over the world August is still chosen as the time for family reunions, fairs and year markets, while Lughnasa finds its echoes in the United States both in Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July celebrations.
Carrickfergus Castle will play host to a traditional Lughnasa harvest festival on the eve of August, the 30th July to be exact. We spoke to the festival’s organiser, Jenny O’Rawe, who is enthusiastic about the festivities to come: “Well, it’s a medieval fair, and we’ve got living history, including sword fighting recreations. There will be magicians and other entertainers; we’ve got a blacksmith, traditional crafts and food – as you may expect at a harvest fair.” With an atmospheric array of Medievally-themed activities and traditional food stalls, visitors will be able to re-awaken to that age-old connection with the soil and the food grown in it, which was so important for our ancestors. Craft demonstrations, too, evoke a connection with the land, and visitors to the Lughnasa Fair will be able to see how natural materials can be made into beautiful things.
The Carrickfergus Lughnasa harvest festival fits into a grand old historical tradition with very deep roots, that go back to before medieval times, straight into the pre-Christian history. According to Irish mythology, the festival was initiated by the sun-god Lugh as a funeral commemoration of his foster-mother Tailtiu. It was she who had cleared the plains of Ireland so they could be used for agricultural purposes, but the effort had exhausted her so much that she died from it. Tailtiu’s death was commemorated with funereal games, traditionally contests of skill and strength. Visitors to Carrickfergus Castle themselves can take part in one of these skill tests. O’Rawe: “We’ve got workshops; there’ll be medieval archery so people can come along and learn archery if they want to.”
Traditionally, Lughnasa was also characterised by dancing and the wearing of berries and fruits, but it’s not all pagan ceremony and Celtic heritage, for in Medieval times the Christian church embraced Lughnasa wholeheartedly, making it the day on which the fields were blessed in order to ensure a fruitful year after the winter’s retreat. It is in fact very likely that Carrickfergus Castle and its grounds already hosted harvest festivals hundreds of years ago in it’s checkered. It’s rumoured that King John, infamous brother of Richard Lionheart, visited the castle, and one can imagine him presiding over, if not quite enjoying, such festivities.
Built in 1177 by John de Courcy, Norman knight and (for the next 27 years) petty king of eastern Ulster, Carrickfergus Castle was to have a tempestuous history due to its strategic significance. Besieged, expanded and reconfigured over the centuries, it also has a claim to fame as the spot where King William III arrived in Ireland in 1690. During the Napoleonic Wars, the Castle was used as a prison and a garrison, and it continued to have various military functions right up until 1928, when it achieved the status and preservation of an ancient monument. Nowadays the castle is open to the public wanting a taste of a nobleman’s life in bygone centuries, and its restored banqueting hall plays host to authentic medieval banquets.
While the Lughnasa Fair’s medieval re-enactments and the traditional local crafts will satisfy history enthusiasts, there’s also plenty to keep the kids entertained, If previous years are anything to go by, we can expect face painting, acrobats, storytelling and street theatre. The magicians that have been advertised will no doubt go down well with the youngsters currently hyped up by the last Harry Potter movie. Jenny O’Rawe is sure that nobody will leave disappointed: “It’s for everybody, children, adults; we’ve got something for everyone.”
We’ve done a little research, and discovered that Lughnasa was a popular time for handfastings. These were trial marriages which lasted a year and a day, after which the couple had the choice of ending the contract before the new year rolled round, or formalising it for the rest of their lives. Perhaps those who celebrate Lughnasa at Carrickfergus Castle should keep this in mind: you never know who you might come home with, even if it’s only for a year and a day!