Lughnasadh – harvest festival with trial marriages

Lughnasadh, ancient Celtic festival. Image copyright Ireland Calling

1st August The first harvest

Lughnasadh is the festival that marks the beginning of the harvest. It is held halfway between the summer solstice and autumn equinox, around 1st August.

The festival of Lughnasadh was celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. In Wales, a similar festival of Calan Awst was celebrated and in England, it was known as Lammas.

Lughnasadh was named after the pagan god Lugh. It was believed in ancient times, that Lugh began the festival as a funeral feast and games for his mother, Tailtiu, the earth goddess. The funeral games, similar to the ancient Olympic Games, were known as Óenach Tailten and involved athletics and sporting contests.

This tradition continued throughout the years and was incorporated into the Lughnasadh festivities along with other events.

During the festival people would meet and trade goods such as corn, cattle and various goods. The festival’s main event was a large feast of newly harvested crops and livestock. Everyone took part. People also picked bilberries which have become significant to surviving rituals relating to this day.

The festival also involved matchmaking. There was a custom of trial marriages during Lughnasadh where a young couple would hold hands through a wooden door while a ceremony took place to unite them. After a year and a day, the trial could be made official or forgotten.

Religious rituals were also a part of Lughnasadh. People would visit holy wells to make offerings of coins or cloth while walking sun-wise around the well. In exchange, they were thought to receive good health. People would also climb sacred hills to make offerings of the first cut corn or a sacred bull in order to give thanks for the harvest. The climbing of hills and mountains on Lughnasadh carried on into the modern era. These treks were adopted by Christians as pilgrimages.

There is still a famous pilgrimage at Croagh Park in Co. Mayo called Reek Sunday Pilgrimage, which attracts thousands of people every year.

Although many of the old traditions died out for a time, several towns in Ireland have started to reintroduce Lughnasadh fairs and festivals into modern-day culture with food stalls, traditional music, dancing and crafts. It is now known more commonly as Lughnasa.

See more about Croagh Patrick and Reek Sunday Pilgrimage