Yesterday, 23 June, was St John’s Eve, which was traditionally celebrated in Ireland with large bonfires across the countryside. Hence its other name, Bonfire Night.
June in Ireland is the height of summer, and the long twilight would be a lovely time to have a bonfire and take part in some customary activities with one’s friends and neighbours. Leaping through the flames hand in hand to procure a good husband or wife, and to ensure love and fertility. Music and dancing, games and feats of strength. Snatching burning sticks from the fire and throwing them as high as possible into the air. Throwing weeds into the fire to protect the crops from unwanted species. Casting lighted torches into the fire to bring blessings on the fields. Even small holy objects that were broken or worn out, such as rosary beads, scapulars and little statues, could be destroyed without disrespect by being burned in the St John’s Eve bonfires. (Danaher 1972:134-153).
Here in Adelaide it is the height of winter. So we didn’t light a bonfire outside, although we did light a fire in the fireplace. Inside, where it was cosy and warm, and we could sit and look at the flames in comfort.
From the mid 1850s, up at Baker’s Flat, Kapunda, the Irish continued their tradition of celebrating St John’s Eve. This is referenced in a few newspaper stories, including the Southern Cross (1936:29) which remembers:
On June 23, the eve of the Feast of St John, the men collected the wood from the neighbours for the centuries old custom of lighting the bonfire, and all danced the grand old dances and sang the old songs of Ireland till the early hours of the morning. Gaiety and fun was never wanting in the ‘Flat’…
The Kapunda Herald in 1901 published a report from a local man who was away fighting in the South African war and who wrote about bonfires, with a reference to Baker’s Flat:
We burnt many of the oldest waggons, carts, old clothing, etc. My word, you should have seen the bonfire! Talk about Baker’s Flat, it was not in it.
Again, in the Kapunda Herald (1949:2) an article about a centenary play at St Rose’s Catholic Church mentions that one of the scenes depicted ‘a bonfire at Baker’s Flat on St John’s Eve’.
I take my hat off, but not my ugg boots and warm flannelette pyjamas (yes, those are kittens), to the Irish of Baker’s Flat, who continued celebrating their traditions, even on the other side of the world. And I hope that the bonfires were big enough to warm the crowds, since this morning it was 2 degrees Celsius and there was frost on the grass down here on the Adelaide plains.
Danaher, K. 1972 The year in Ireland: Irish calendar customs. Cork: Mercier Press.
Kapunda Herald We burnt many of the oldest waggons … 23 August 1901, p.3
Kapunda Herald Catholic Centenary at Kapunda. Successful celebrations. 29 September 1949, p.2
Southern Cross Early days and ways in Kapunda. 6 November 1936, pp.29-30.