Our great playwright, Brian Friel, afforded our national heritage a singular favour when he wrote Dancing at Lugnasadh, allowing the distinct and complex character of our harvest festival to be grasped and celebrated all over the world.

There are many eminent scholars who have dedicated their life to expounding the festival of Lugnasadh, not least the great Máire MacNeil, but it is Friel who brings the primal, natural, and elemental aspects of the festival to life and accentuates the frenzied excitement of this pivotal point of the year.

The first of August was the auspicious and important date when and only when, the harvest proper could begin.

July was known as “Hungry July”, the month when the potatoes and cereal crops were left untouched and allowed to increase and ripen.

At Lugnasadh, the harvest, if ready, could begin and this was the time to measure good husbandry, to profit from the positive interaction with the natural world.

Agriculture was seen as a relationship of human (male) and earth (female): the people under the guidance of the king planting the seed and the female earth, in response, providing the fertility and bounty.

In ancient Ireland, if the king was good, then the land was super-fertile with bumper harvests of wheat, barley, oats, and rye along with knee-high harvests of acorns in the woodlands and apple trees bending with the weight of fruit on their branches.

However, if the king was bad and unjust, then the crops were seen to fail, with famine, pestilence and warfare breaking out. In respect of pre-Christian Celtic heritage, the god who represented the perfect male and consequently the perfect king was Lug and he therefore is the one on which the harvest festival is centred.

In our mythological cycle of tales, Lug takes on the kingship of the Tuatha Dé Dannan when he arrives in Tara and to gain access to the feast, he is asked what gift or talent he possesses.

Lug informs the doorkeeper that he is a carpenter, a harper, a poet-historian, a smith, a warrior, a druid and so on, but the doorkeeper says that there is already one of each within already.

Lug asks whether they have anyone who possesses all the gifts at one time.

They do not and of course Lug gains entry and asserts his supremacy. He is known as Lug samhildanach, “the combined multi-talented one”.

Lug is the perfect male, the Celtic god of kingship and Nasadh is an “assembly”, “feast” or “gathering”.

Lugnasadh was the assembly to assess the quality and calibre of each king in each tribe and province of ancient Ireland, as reflected in the bounty of the land.

On occasions when the crops failed, and it was attributed to the corrupt ruling of the king, it was essential to rid the group of his negative influence.

It was necessary not only to kill the king but with reincarnation in mind, it had to be ensured that he could not re-emerge.

The preserving qualities of our turf bogs provided the solution, acting as a perpetual cold-storage system where the bodies of those who were ritually killed, were then kept in a never-decomposing stasis.

Some of the bog bodies of Ireland were some of the unsuccessful kings who failed the Lugnasadh harvest test.

In Dancing at Lugnasadh, Friel, through the character of Fr? Jack, deliberately blends the African harvest rituals of Ryanga with those of Ireland allowing for a deeper sense of the primal nature of the festival.

Friel includes the detail of lighting bonfires on hilltops.

In all our mythologies hilltops are the ultimate places apart: the limit of the height is as far as we can go and it becomes a place apart; a place close to the otherworld. In Ireland at Lugnasadh, we still climb to great heights, to Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo and Mount Brandon in Co. Kerry.

Whatever about Patrick and Brendan, this weekend, we should spare a thought for Lug, the great god of kingship and harvest.

Shane Lehane is a folklorist who works in UCC and Cork College of FET, Tramore Road Campus. Contact: shane.lehane@csn.ie

Read more

Folklore with Shane Lehane: the bog in May

Folklore: Irish pancakes – different to the French counterparts