Oíche Shin Sheáin: St John's Eve is Bone Fire night in West Kerry.



The word 'bonfire' derives from the Late Middle English 'bone fire' and originally referred to large, open-air fires on which bones were burnt, often as part of communal celebrations.   


June 23rd is St John's Eve when, in many parts of Ireland, a 'tine chnámh', or 'bone fire' was traditionally lit at sundown as the focal point of festivities concerned with fertility and the land. The nature of the ritual and the proximity of the saint's day to the summer solstice, on or about June 21st, indicate the subsuming of pagan fertility rites into Christian worship.


Fires fuelled by bones, timber or turf were lit on boundaries, promontories, shorelines and hilltops, where communities gathered to sing, feast and dance, and young men would compete to leap through the flames. 


In some places cattle were ritually driven between two fires to protect their health, and prayers and charms were recited to promote the year's successful harvest.



The bone fire flames were considered lucky. Bringing embers into houses to rekindle cooking fires on the hearth promoted the health of the household; while healthy crops were ensured by burning weeds, scattering ashes on the land, and walking field boundaries with lighted sods of turf or branches. 


Similar rites can be found on St John's Eve throughout Europe and Scandinavia where the festival is also linked to bone fires.

June 23rd is also the night on which women traditionally gather healing herbs, such as St John's Wort, Meadowsweet and Yarrow. These were burned to promote health as well as prepared and stored to be used medicinally. In Galicia herbs gathered on St John's Eve, called herbas de San Xoán, are still left to steep overnight in water, while in some parts of Ireland they were exposed overnight to dewfall and used as a cosmetic face-wash the following day.   


Here in Corca Dhuibhne, some farmers still light a tine cnámh on field boundaries on St John's Eve, and people still gather to celebrate the festival. 


And tonight, on yet another long midsummer evening, the healing smoke and flames will rise again in a tradition that, in these parts, stretches across millennia to the time of the Corcu Dhuibhne - the People of The Goddess Danú. 

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