Bonfires and St John’s Eve

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.


Substitute inside fire for St John’s Eve

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.

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We’re building a wall and adding a foundation deposit

So, we like gardening, although we’re often neglectful and the plants that thrive do so because they’re hardy.  This weekend’s project, in which I played a minor role, was to build a three-course curved wall around the fence that holds the vegie patch. We need a fence for the vegie patch, not to stop the potatoes and carrots escaping, but to keep the dogs and chickens from getting in and digging up everything green.

The first course of bricks has been laid out in situ for the past few weeks. In Irish folklore, it is most important not to build over a fairy path. These are the routes that the fairies take, usually in a straight line, between one significant place and another. In his classic work on Irish folk ways, E.E. Evans (1957:30) states that it is ‘at all costs necessary to avoid giving offence to the fairies by building across one of their “pads”‘. If you are unlucky or stupid enough to build across a fairy path, you may be guaranteed trouble and bad luck. One way to avoid this is to lay out your proposed wall and leave it for a few nights. If none of the stones or bricks have been moved when you return, you’re safe enough to continue. Now I know we live in Australia and not Ireland, but you never know who’s there, so we played it safe and left the proposed wall out for a few weeks. It didn’t move. Step 1 complete.

Step 2 was the foundation deposit to ensure safety, protection and good luck. There are many choices of foundation deposit in Irish folklore. Silver or gold coins, holy medals, pots, even animal heads, are all candidates for a decent foundation deposit. Here we used my medal from this year’s City to Bay Fun Run. If an archaeologist ever digs this up in the future, they will be delighted because the year is stamped on it. Ideally, the foundation deposit would go at one of the weak points of the wall, the corner perhaps. But I had to get to my yoga class at 10am, and I was already running late, so the medal was carefully placed at the point the wall builder had reached at 9.45am. Covered with mortar, a brick laid on top, the level checked, and it was done.

Now the wall is finished, and no one would ever know that there’s a 2018 City to Bay medal beneath it. Just another everyday invisible ritual. But I tell you, that wall is well protected!

And a final note on foundation deposits. There is lots of folklore and archaeological evidence in Ireland of the use of horse skulls as foundation deposits. In just one example, the National Folklore Collection at UCD holds a manuscript from 1938 which states:

Heads of horses and other animals were often and often buried in churches and mansions and even in the dwelling houses in the long ago. There was a reason for this. These heads helped the preacher, and he wouldn’t have to speak very loud at all in order to be heard. It stands to reason that when a person enters a church or a big building of any kind and if he only coughs the sound goes over the whole place. Many and many a time when people were demolishing the old castles, the old skulls were found. … When a horse would die his head would be cut off and kept and whenever a person would be building the first thing to go down would be the head.

When we had our first season of excavations on Baker’s Flat, I was very much hoping to find a horse’s skull. Sadly, I didn’t, but the excavation team was undeterred, and came up with this:

Horse head on Baker's Flat - not a foundation deposit

Horse head on Baker’s Flat – not a foundation deposit

Evans, E.E. 1957 Irish folk ways. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

National Folklore Collection 1938 Animal skulls as foundation deposits. Informant: Thomas Butler, Lambstown, Killkinnan, Co Wexford. Collector: Seán De Buitléir. Manuscript 496:245-246.


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A short visit to Z Ward

It was a cold and wintry afternoon in Adelaide today. What better time to visit an old lunatic asylum?

For nearly 90 years, Z Ward was home to the ‘criminally insane’ patients of South Australia’s health system. Opened in the late 1880s, it was at the rear of the Parkside Lunatic Asylum complex, and was built to house the state’s criminal and refractory patients.

The approach to Z Ward.

The approach to Z Ward.

It is now open occasionally for visitors, and you can see from the pictures below that the inside is largely intact. It’s very plain and looks like a prison. Not that I’ve been to prison. But I did watch Porridge in the seventies.


Ground floor hall, with open cell doors.

First floor hall, with open cell doors.

First floor hall, with open cell doors.

And why is it called Z Ward? I’m glad you asked. Originally it was called L Ward, but when telephones started being used, people phoning up heard it as Hell Ward. Not really a comfort for anybody. So it was renamed Z Ward, because by adding a straight line to an L you make a Z, which was easier for re-marking all the ward’s laundry!

Outside, there is a Ha Ha Wall,  designed to give the illusion of a low wall surrounding the building. On the patients’ side, however, a deep ditch makes it too high to climb over. The ditch is now overgrown with small trees, but there would have been no such climbing aids when it was in use.


On the southeastern and northeastern corners of the rear yard, there are grooves in the sandstone bricks, allegedly made by patients dragging their fingers along the bricks. Dates and initials have also been gouged into the sandstone, including a date from 1886 and one from 1971. Z Ward wasn’t closed until 1973.

Some carvings that I particularly noticed were the hexafoil patterns in several of the bricks. Hexafoils have been used as a type of protective magic in many places, including Britain, Scandinavia and Australia. They are designed to ward off evil and protect people from witches and other dangers. The photo below on the left shows a rough hexafoil in a brick next to a window – like doors, windows are vulnerable entry points and need protection. The other photo shows a rudimentary hexafoil beside a date on the south-eastern corner.  They could have been carved either as a protective aid or just to alleviate boredom. Or maybe both.


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St Dymphna’s, Booborowie

At the weekend, it was my great privilege to drive to Booborowie for the decommissioning of St Dymphna’s Catholic Church. It’s not every day one gets to go to the deconsecration of a church, and in fact, this was my first.

Booborowie is a small place, about three hours drive north of Adelaide, and as we drove up, it got drier and drier. It was 34 degrees Celsius, hot for April. There was dust in the air, and the paddocks and hills were brown. We’re all waiting for rain, in the city and the country. But the sky was clear blue and it was beautiful.

The church is a small stone building, built in 1903 in place of the Booborowie Station Wool Shed which had been used for Mass for some years. The Irish played a key role in building and sustaining this ‘humble’ church that was built ‘in keeping with the requirements of the congregation’. Irish names dominate – Finlay, Kelly, Hogan, Cousins, Quinn, Murphy, O’Dea, Byrne, Farrelly, Ryan. As the bishop said, tongue firmly in his cheek, a pluralist multicultural society up here in the mid-north of South Australia!

The church was packed. The bishop and six priests celebrated Mass, and then, one by one, several parishioners carried out the key artefacts from the church. These included: a purple stole used when hearing confession; the lectionary used for the readings at Mass; the church missal carried out by a descendant of the donors; the baptismal register carried by the last child to be baptised in the church; the record of funerals; the baptismal font; the thurible used at the last funeral; the tabernacle; the altar stone; and finally, the crucifix. As the last of the congregation left the church, the bishop and priests processed down the aisle, and the door was closed.

Afterwards, everybody gathered outside the church for a group photo, a tradition at every momentous event in the church’s history over the last 115 years.

And then we repaired to the Booborowie District Soldiers Memorial Hall where we enjoyed strong cups of tea, sandwiches and savoury muffins, and the best cream sponge cake I’ve had in a long time.

And who was St Dymphna? Well, I’m glad you asked. Dymphna was born in the 7th century. Her father was a king and pagan, her mother a devout Christian. After her mother died, things fell apart for Dymphna, particularly after her father proposed marriage to her. Dymphna, who had taken a vow of chastity and piety, was horrified at this incestuous proposal, with her father appearing to have taken leave of his senses. She fled to Belgium but eventually, her father found her in Geel and beheaded her with his sword, making her a Christian martyr at the age of fifteen. Dymphna became the patron saint of people with a mental illness or neurological disorder, those who are nervous or emotionally disturbed, and those who are the victims of incest.

Note that when she was on her way to Belgium, it is believed she took refuge for a night in the Abbey of Kildalkey, Co. Meath, which happens to be just a few kilometres from my home town of Trim. This ancient abbey was later dedicated to St Dymphna, as was the holy well close by. The well, known as St Dymphna’s Well, has the cure for headaches, and a sign nearby says that a headache is cured when a ribbon is dipped in the water and tied around the sufferer’s head. For many years, the well was closed, but twenty years ago some of the local community rebuilt and re-opened it. As luck would have it, I visited a few years back and took lots of photos. You can see that the well is still in use, with many devotional items at the walls, a name picked out in white pebbles, and coins in a watery plate mimicking a well. The ruined abbey is just behind the wall in the graveyard.

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Christmas jigsaw puzzle of the ceramic variety

Christmas is an excellent time for jigsaw puzzles. One of my longtime favourite novelists, Margaret Drabble, asserts that ‘jigsaws are a joy at Christmas, the ideal gift, the perfect employment’. Further, she says, they ‘give you an illusion of order and progress when all around is chaos’. What could be better? Part of the jigsaw’s appeal is the challenge, and that you can do them either on your own or with others. Apparently, they’re also good for the brain.

I was very fond of jigsaws as a child, they were often a birthday or Christmas present. My Aunty Pat in America once sent me a jigsaw of a field of sunflowers. It wasn’t terribly big, but its key feature was a table on the side of the box that listed times to completion (30 minutes, 20, 15, 10, 7) and assigned a label to those times (average, good, very good, excellent, genius). Naturally, nothing would do me until I reached genius level. This took me many days one summer, on the dining room table, completing the jigsaw over and over and over again.

Fast forward many years, and a harmless childhood diversion is reaping rewards. For I am cataloguing artefacts from the excavations at Baker’s Flat. And some of the ceramic shards could well be from one original artefact. In the picture below you can see how I’ve spent some of the Christmas break. There are 53 ceramic fragments, all potentially from the same Rhine pattern plate (intact example pictured on the right). Each fragment has been catalogued, labelled and photographed in the Flinders University Archaeology Lab. They are all from Trench A, but from two different contexts and four different squares. Armed with low residue masking tape (thanks to the tech officers in the lab), the challenge was on.

53 ceramic shards, all potentially from the same plate.

53 ceramic shards, all potentially from the same plate.

It didn’t take too long to fit the first pieces together – ranking myself at genius level here.

The easy bits, completed fast.

The easy bits, completed fast.

But the last ones took ages – possibly even below average level, if I’m being honest. Part of the challenge was that a plate is three dimensional, so various supports had to be contrived using kneadable erasers and Blu Tack. And my masking tape skills are clearly not expert. However, here is where I’ve ended up. Of the 53 fragments, 52 conjoin with at least one other piece. It is now as complete as it can be.

As complete as it can be.


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