In the run up to Ireland’s marriage equality referendum earlier this year, we heard a lot of debate about “traditional marriage.” But those pushing for “traditional marriage” weren’t interested in what really constituted Ireland’s tradition of marriage, and one of Ireland’s Lughnasa traditions shows how very differently our ancestors viewed marriage. In fact, a few of our modern ways look a bit like how our ancestors celebrated Lughnasa.
Lughnasa is an annual festival created by the pre-Christian god Lugh that falls halfway between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox in early August. The origin is said to be that when Lugh’s mother died of overwork from clearing all the fields of Ireland so crops could be grown, he held a massive wake with athletic contests, which does seem odd given the nature of his mother’s demise. (Surely the mothers of Ireland could have come up with a more appropriate tribute such as national Clean Your Own Room Day or Children Do the Dishes without Moaning about It Day.)
Over time, Lughnasa grew to include other events such as matchmaking with trial marriages. Given that this is one of the first types of marriage in Ireland, we could well consider it traditional, and it is decidedly pragmatic. And without really realizing it, Ireland has come to accept the general concept of Lughnasa matchmaking today. The Lughnasa tradition was that young couples would hold hands through a hole in a door to be wed; these marriages lasted one year and one day. At that point, the couple could decide to remain married or walk away. It isn’t that far off from a modern couple living together for a year or so before deciding to marry.
Does Lughnasa Live on Today?
Lugh’s original memorial event for his mother Tailtiu also included feasting, which is still a common event after a funeral in Ireland. Today we don’t call it a feast; we just head to the pub where lunch has been booked. Lughnasa is therefore the first of the harvest season festivals. Many traditional festivals that are still popular today, such as Puck Fair, have their roots in Lughnasa. It might be a stretch to say that today’s huge outdoor music festivals such as Electric Picnic are an evolution of Lughnasa, but it is clear that big rowdy outdoor events with food, drink and (ahem) matchmaking have always been part of Irish culture.
Even the very Christian annual pilgrimage up Croagh Patrick in County Mayo held the last Sunday in July might have its roots in Lughnasa, which at one point became fixed on August 1st. Many pre-Christian celebrations involved gathering on local hills, and it is very likely this was also part of Lughnasa.
Lughnasa lived on for generations in relatively tame celebrations that went by names Garland Sunday, Bilberry Sunday, Crom Dubh Sunday and Mountain Sunday, and now it is celebrated in ways closer to its original festivities by some neo-Pagans and Wiccans.