The Carrickfergus Lughnasa Fair

(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! 

Halt Hier Berghuis.

“Halt Here Berghuis.” a slightly bizarre advertising, or warning, sign was the only thing left standing on the morning of Thursday 18th February 1943. The rest of my grandparents’ home was gone. It had been a nice house, of a type common to the area: a front for the living space, and the back a small barn or, in my grandfather’s case, a shop for household goods. The front faced the Wolddiep canal, and the knotted willows on the other side of it, and you could also see the simple but graceful wooden bridge.

“Halt Hier Berghuis.”

On Wednesday the 17th February, about 6:30 in the evening, an English bomber let loose its bombs above the small village of Sebaldeburen, in the north of the Netherlands. How this happened has never become clear; probably it was being chased by a German hunter. It was a miracle that the whole family survived. As my uncle Lukas, the oldest son of the family told: “After the bang everything was completely flattened, except for a small part. A new inside wall had just been built, and part of the attic was resting on it. How we landed in that corner, I don’t know. After the hit we all were in that corner, but not before the impact.” My grandfather then forced himself through another newly built wall, wrecking his back for life, and the family got to safety.

Little can be found in the archives about what really happened, as documentation is scarce. One local historical researcher found no more than a receipt for repairing the bridge: a list of the various works, with below the line the sum of 6827,- guilders. RAF report are also infuriatingly vague. Six Wellingtons went armed with bombs to Emden, but then: “Lost: none”. That’s all. Jan Bos was a boy at the time and lived in the pub across the road. He remembers the bombardment well, according to a 2013 newspaper article: “Everything moved, it was like an earthquake. You heard a horrible shriek, really frightful. We knew something came down, but not what it was.” Jan van Duinen was just working outside: “A shriek, and then bangs. No, not one, but four or five.” He didn’t seek cover as, “It had happened already.”

My grandparents’ house, over the bridge left.

Locals rushed to the Berghuis family home to help, according to a recent newspaper article, and were amazed to see the family appearing from the house unscathed. Looking at some of the photos, and hearing the family stories, a slightly different picture emerges. It is of people engaging in disaster tourism searching through the rubble for anything still useable – the Berghuis family after all had a shop. It is a story of the Berghuis family being left completely destitute, and forced to bunk in with relatives for years, until they found their footing again. My mother was born in the autumn of 1945, more than two years later, on the farm of an aunt. There were no birth announcement cards – just plain postcards, brought round by an aunt to the few friends and relatives.

The joke went round that my grandfather had asked for the bombardment himself, with his big sign, “Halt Here Berghuis.” and of course the pilots had read this. My grandfather wasn’t well liked; this is what they won’t tell you in the newspaper articles. This is what we don’t talk about in the family. In the later 1930s he joined a political party which had promised to stick up for the little people like him. A party which promised, let’s use some modern parlance, to drain the swamp. My grandmother wasn’t too pleased and said: “Don’t get involved with that bunch of crooks!” but Hemke didn’t always do the sensible thing. Of course, when the Germans rolled into the country, he could not back out of the party. As a ‘friendly’ shop, the soldiers came to the Berghuis shop, and my grandmother made the best of it. She invited them for a cup of coffee, asked them what they were up to. Going round the houses looking for draft dodgers? Well good luck. Then she’d send my aunt round to warn the people to make sure nobody was hidden in their houses.

A grand day out

That was all forgotten on the morning of 18th February. Was the bomb maybe divine intervention? At least, he’d deserved it, no? After the war, my grandfather was rounded up with all other ‘traitors’, great and small, and locked up in the primary school of Grootegast, where schoolboys made it a sport to look at who they’d caught. He didn’t stay long there, as the mayor wrote a letter of recommendation, stating that Hemke Berghuis had been harmless. Still – when my mother was a teenager, and went to a dance somewhere in the neighbourhood, and she was dancing with some guy, it would only be a matter of time before he’d be tapped on his shoulder and she’d overhear those dreaded words: “That’s one of Hemke Berghuis’s, the collaborator.”

A new bridge was laid over the Wolddiep, and the pub from which Jan Bos heard the bombs falling as a child is still a pub. Nothing remains of Berghuis’ house and shop. It’s pasture now. It’s as if nothing has ever happened in Sebaldeburen. Some wounds, however, run deeper than in flesh alone. One thing is as true now as it is then: don’t vote for fascists, no matter what they promise you!


Sources: and

The Farmer, at the Grave of his Horse

The farmer’s life isn’t an easy one; Ymke’s father, in The Red Man, would agree with that.

As a farmer, Marten Douwes Teenstra drew the shortest straw. In 1819 he started farming on ‘Arion’, the farm his successful father bought for him. However, profit margins had collapsed due to cheap imports from the Americas, and he didn’t manage to make the farm a going concern. After five years of hard work, he threw in the towel. He became a civil servant, travelled to the colonies and wrote important travelogues and works on folklore.

In the early 2010s Teenstra’s home village of Ulrum saw some development; a new road was laid around the village for heavy traffic. The plan was that businsesses would be built alongside it. Someone suggested naming it “Teenstra Road,” but this was quickly shut down. Surely a road couldn’t be named after a failed farmer! As of 2020, only fields of potatoes and some lazing horses line the Industry Road.

Teenstra could be long-winded; make a punchy point, and then spend paragraphs, pages, diluting its impact because he couldn’t rein himself in. This was a particular problem in his own magazine, without the restraining hand of an editor. As shown by this short piece from a Frisian almanac from 1845, Teenstra at his best writes from the heart, with a shovelful of social conscience and a whiff of pity.


Here lies my loyal nag, who stiff and old of days
Till the end of its life, shackled in its harness,
pulled the plough through fields – ’till finally this beast,
hollowed out by hunger, gave up the ghost under the knacker’s knife.

And so this is my fate! What benefits me all my toil?
When another harvests the fruits for which I’ve had to plough,
When they milk, pick, shear, yes, skin my life away; I am
Worse off even than my horse, as it already lies dead by its grave.

Ulrum, 15 July 1844 M.D.T.

Dig Me No Grave

We’re working on a story that’s set in the mountains. For research I’m rereading Trespassers on the Roof of the World, which deals with the earlier European attempts to reach Lhasa. These early travellers were sometimes foolhardy and unwise, sometimes overly optimistic and underprepared, but one thing that comes across in the narratives is a sense of Adventure, this kismet-like drive to reach that remote city that stood symbol for everything forbidden and mysterious.

It also brought the story “Dig Me No Grave” by Robert E. Howard to mind, which appeared in Weird Tales of October 1936, less than half a year after the author’s death. It’s contains more than a share of pulpy ‘Eastern mysticism’.

This illustration by Virgil Finlay, one of the mainstays of pulp illustrators, shows why he was so well liked; he had a knack of getting to the heart of the matter, and distilling a representative image from a story that would be alluring and intriguing. Sometimes the allure lay in a carefully rendered buxom woman, sometimes in a dynamic layout. This image has no spaceway pinup, nor a dynamic layout. In fact, it’s the way in which Finlay so very carefully controls the elements that makes the image work.

We see two men, standing around the (death)bed of a third, surrounded by black candles, symbols of sinister rituals. That we’re dealing with “Oriental Mysticism” will be clear from the man behind the altar, who is Asian, wearing something like a Tibetan monk’s habit, a circle painted on his forehead. All Orientalist tropes of the time, conveying the clichéd inscrutability. This contrasts with the man on the left, who we can take for a Westerner; and an educated one at that – noble forehead, aquiline nose, you get the idea, and clothing just short of elbow patches. He seems to have dressed hastily, as his tie is at an angle.

So, there’s an atmosphere of terror on one side, but also of the calm before a storm. This is done by using the trappings of black magic, but keeping the composition very quiet and organised. The illustration is built up from evenly spaced verticals, formed by the men and the candles, and a few horizontals, being the altar and the corpse. There are a few sets of diagonals. First, that of the shrouded body, which is parallel to the top of the illustration, binding the corpse to the space, and the Westerner’s tie is parallel to the papers he’s holding; we can assume that whatever he has read is the cause of his haste and unrest.

That these papers contain a formula to awaken the man’s dead friend would be a fair guess, and that the other man is to preside over the ceremony is also clear. I can’t really remember how the story exactly goes; it’s been decades since I read it. The illustration is enticing, though, and gives a lot of direction of what the reader can expect. It certainly makes me want to pick up the story and read it again. Luckily, I can just reach out to my bookcase for the excellent collection of horror stories by Robert E. Howard.


Pickman’s Model’s Model

The second of July was the birthday of Hannes Bok (1914-1964), one of science fiction and fantasy’s finest illustrators. Much as I’d like to claim Bok as “one of ours”, he’s not actually Dutch – his real name was Wayne Francis Woodard, and Hannes Bok was a rendition of Johan S. Bach. His drawings and paintings vary between heightened or stylised realism and abstracted grotesque, and originals are much sought after.

Years ago, when I was studying for my BA, I had to do a paper about a subject of my choice, as long as it was linked to the material we’d dealt with. I wrote about some illustrations from the heyday of pulp magazines. One that I still like is the illustration for H.P. Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model, by Hannes Bok, which appeared in Famous Fantastic Mysteries in December 1951.

Like other illustrators of his time, Hannes Bok used pointillism to construct his drawings. However, his are distinctive because they’re more stylised than those of, for example, Virgil Finlay. He could draw realistically, but often chose instead to emphasis a mood, concept or atmosphere. This gives his illustrations a certain mythological quality, which makes him a good choice to illustrate this story by H.P. Lovecraft.

The story is about an artist (based on fellow writer and artist Clark Ashton Smith) who has dedicated himself to depicting monstrous creatures, making magnetic, life-like works of art. Pickman disappears mysteriously, and those looking for him discover that Pickman’s creatures were so lifelike because he was modelling them from life, and one of his models got the better of him.

Hannes Bok manages to illustrate a key scene from the story without giving the plot away, and the key is in the story’s title. “Pickman’s model” can be interpreted as either the subject of Pickman’s art, or a three-dimensional figure of a monster. Until the last five lines of the story, we assume that Bok’s illustration is of a carved statue of a creature holding a tiny human. Only at the very end do we realise we’re looking at the real thing, an effect Bok achieved by limiting detail and simplifying the anatomy of both figures.

The drawing has great depth, yet lacks any suggestion of colour differentiation; creature and human are shaded alike. Only the eyes glow, or cast light, and light is reflected on the creature’s knee, foot and outlining his victim. There’s a sense of claustrophobia: it is looking at us, breaking the fourth wall, while its victim’s head sags. The creature is set in black, with no visible background. Yet we feel the size of the room, as the creature’s posture is that of one squeezed into a small space; a monster in a human-scaled room where it does not belong.

A quick Google search finds several different illustrations of this pivotal moment. Some artists undoubtedly handle their paint better than Hannes Bok ever could. But it is his piece that most catches the eye, and has lingered to disturb the imagination of new generations.