Dancing at Lughnasa

I first learned of the August Celtic harvest festival, Lughnasa, from the play Dancing at Lughnasa. Written by the “Irish Chekhov” Brian Friel and first produced in Ireland in 1990, the play examines the cultural war between the catholic church and the old pagan religions it sought to destroy. Did destroy. 

Set in County Donegal in 1936, the tale is told by the boy, Michael, of the summer when the family life carefully constructed by his mother and her four sisters begins to disintegrate. Their only brother, Uncle Jack, returns from 25 years in Africa, where he was sent to practice colonialism as a catholic priest, and has gone native. Supposed to be a “visible saint, exemplar of ideal piety in a sea of persistent savagery,” he responds more to the drumming and fires of the pagan celebrations than to catholic doctrine. When the local priest learns of Jack’s pagan “conversion,” he fires Kate, the oldest sister and the only one of the five sisters with a paying job, from the school where she teaches. Two other sisters made some money knitting gloves until a glove factory opens nearby. Then the family, already dirt poor, suddenly has no income, destroyed by the church, patriarchy and capitalism in concert.

Our pollinator garden

The movie version, made in 1998, starring Meryl Streep as the conventional Kate and the Irish actor Michael Gambon as befuddled Uncle Jack is well worth watching. If you require car crashes or murders or automatic weapons, you will be disappointed. But these actors do a fine job portraying this resourceful proud Irish family in a beautiful rural setting.

A newly acquired wireless radio works on and off and provides a musical background to the family’s drama. We hear popular Western songs of the day, but it’s only when Irish music begins to play that the five sisters’ feet set to tapping and they dance with wild abandon, even priggish Kate, proving there’s still some pagan left in the Irish culture. 

Michael’s father, absent for 18 months, returns on a motorbike but does not intend to stay. He plans to join the International Brigades to fight for democracy in the Spanish Civil War. Uncle Jack asks if the catholic church is for the dictator Franco. Yes, says Gerry Evans, the father. “They would be,” answers Jack. 

Young Gerry says the war will probably be over by Christmas. Old Jack replies, “They say that about all wars.”

Says Kate, “It’s a sad day for Ireland when we send off our boys to fight for godless communism.”

Fr. Jack says he has been called away from the church to “the god of light, god of music.” He hints at his homosexuality when asked by Michael to whom he sings. With a nostalgic expression, he says it is his African houseboy. Jack has been given a feathered baroque helmet by an African priest. Colorful and magisterial, with its tall red and white feathers, it could be a piece of African regalia. But it is a remnant of British imperialism. The hat, reminiscent of a prop from a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, has made its way from the British imperial army to Africa and back again. Ironic because the Irish themselves were slaves to English colonialism.

In the movie, on the night of Lughnasa, fires can be seen burning in the “black hills” of Donegal where bits of the old religions are still practiced. People gather to drink, dance, and jump the fire. From Fr. Jack we learn of the African goddess, Opis (pronounced Opee), the great chthonian goddess of the earth. The Chthonian deities are the manifestations of the Great Goddess, like Gaia or Ge. Jack explains to the family how the Ugandans celebrate the harvest festival. August is the time of the new yam and the sweet cassava. “The Africans cut and anoint the new yam and pass it around. They light fires and paint their faces and they dance and dance and lose all sense of time.” It is easy to see why Jack has renounced repressive catholicism for a freer earth-based religious experience.

Medicinal yarrow

Here in Santa Rosa there is good reason to celebrate the harvest this Lughnasa. Strawberries are at their peak and Holly has planted enough this year to have fruit every morning. The corn is as high as a Columbian mammoth’s eye (they were taller than elephants). We have just harvested the last of the peaches and Gravenstein apples. Eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, beans and cukes are happening. Figs are having a good year. Holly has harvested her herbs and is mixing up the medicine. Flower and pollinator gardens buzz with bees. Even as we strive to conserve water, our garden is happy.

I probably won’t paint my face (ok, maybe my hair) and I certainly won’t light any fires, but you may find me dancing around our garden on Lughnasa on the first day of August.

Fire photo by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash

Celebrating Lughnasa in Quarantine

August 1, 2020

The Gaelic festival Lughnasa, midway between summer solstice and autumn equinox, celebrates the first fruits of the harvest season. 

Here in Santa Rosa, at a more southern latitude, we picked our first fruits at the beginning of July—tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, peaches and plums. The neighbor’s Gravenstein apple tree that hangs over into our yard was ready for harvest around August 1 last year, but this year the apples were a couple of weeks early, maybe because we are in a drought, or maybe it’s just global warming. Everything is early this year.

Apple harvest here is usually celebrated at the ides of August at the Sebastopol Apple Festival, but of course all of our local gatherings have been cancelled for covid.

We will miss the Sonoma County fall fairs and expositions. The Heirloom Expo in September is one of our favorites and last year we heard a presentation about native bees by a company based in Woodinville WA that propagates bees and sells them. We bought some—mason bees and leaf cutter bees. They came in the mail with detailed instructions. Native bees don’t live in hives like honey bees. They are solitary and nest in holes, often in undisturbed ground (so don’t dig up your whole garden) and they don’t sting like honey bees.

Introducing the mason bees to our garden went well. They are kept in the refrigerator until you place them in the top drawer of their bee house, mounted on the fence facing east so the morning sun hits it. Mason bees place their eggs in the wooden straws provided and then cement them in with mud to protect them from predators. They emerge with the daffodils in spring. The male bees fly only three weeks and the females seven weeks. We were instructed to leave a patch of wet clay in the garden for their masonry work.

The leaf cutter bees came in June and, before reading directions, we put them in the refrigerator till we could let them out. Only the next day did we read the directions which warned against refrigeration. We killed our bees! But we ran to the refrigerator and dumped them all out on a plate on the deck hoping for revival. Then we watched, transfixed, as they slowly crawled out of their shells, stumbled to the edge of the plate and flew off into the garden. Most of them survived.

For us humans 2020 has been a disastrous year, but for bees in our garden—honey bees as well as native bees—it’s been a great one. 

Sending virtual hugs to all of you as we continue to shelter in place.

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