Lughnasa: in praise of the foster-mother

Today is August 1, the old Celtic festival of Lughnasa: a celebration of harvest; a time for reaping what you sow. It’s often said that the festival honours the Celtic sun-god Lugh, and so its name would suggest, but if you were to go back to the original story, you’d find that the festival was created by Lugh to honour his foster-mother, Tailtiu. According to the source of so many old Irish myths, the Book of Invasions, Tailtiu was the daughter of the king of Spain. She married Eochaid Mac Eirc, the last king of the Firbolg, one of the races which occupied Ireland before the Tuatha de Danaan arrived. Although her husband was killed by the invading Tuatha De Danaan, Tailtiu survived, and she became the foster-mother of Lugh. Lugh’s father was of the Tuatha De Danaan and his mother was Eithniu, daughter of Balor of the Evil Eye, king of the Fomorians (early Irish mythology is a bit of a soap opera, with complex intertwining plots, and many contradictory versions of the narratives depending on the sources you read, but happily it’s full of wonderful stories and so you learn not to mind …)

So the real story behind the harvest festival of Lughnasa is that Lugh initiated the festival to commemorate Tailtiu, who died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. ‘The work of clearing proved so onerous as to break her heart,’ in the words of the old texts. Why would he name such a festival for his foster-mother, rather than his mother? It’s because fosterage was an immensely important part of Celtic life, and especially in ancient Ireland. Children were sent to foster-parents (usually but not always from the same clan) when they were as young as a year old, and remained with them throughout their childhood. The bonds between children and their foster-parents were considered to be sacred, and fostering was an important and highly regulated social contract. And so Lughnasa is not just a festival to celebrate the harvest: it is a festival to celebrate all women who take on the role of Mother. And specifically, to celebrate Tailtiu in her role as corn goddess.

At Lughnasa it is the custom to climb Ireland’s most prominent mountains, reflecting the fact that Lugh in his guise of sun-god was honoured predominantly in high places. Today, here in Donegal, that would be a risky business: the rain is falling in sheets and most of the mountains that surround us – the Seven Sisters, including the iconic An Earagail (Errigal) and Mucais (Muckish) – are invisible. But Lughnasa is also a time for fairs and festivals, and Lugh’s original Lughnasa festival was said to have lasted for two weeks. There were great athletic contests, but also there were literary, musical, oratorical, and storytelling competitions; singing and dancing competitions, arts and crafts competitions, and tournaments of all kinds.

There is a strong scattering of local festivals around and about us in Donegal during the times immediately before and after Lughnasa. We have an especially strong connection with Lugh in this part of the county, because it is here that he is said to have slain his grandfather, the giant Fomorian Balor of the One Eye – an eye which wreaked havoc and destruction when he opened it. Lugh eventually killed Balor (whose stronghold was Tory Island, just off our Donegal coastline) in a lengthy battle in the Poisoned Glen, at the foot of Errigal, by casting at him a long spear crafted by the Tuatha Dé Danann smith, Gobniu. A massive boulder that was split by droplets of poison from Balor’s eye can still be seen in the upper reaches of the Poisoned Glen.

The Poisoned Glen
The Poisoned Glen

Here in Donegal, the nights are slowing growing darker and the light is beginning to shift, shimmying towards autumn. The frantic period of early summer growth is over, and all of us who inhabit this land – human, animal, plant – are starting to focus on storing up our energies for the long dark ahead.