The festival, like most other Irish ones, begins on the night before and goes into the next day. Oiche Fhéile Eóin and Lá Fhéile Eóin are celebrations of midsummer, but in many ways they are similar to and connected to the previous Bealtaine celebrations. The Daoine Maithe were especially active at this time of year and were known to be seen on the sí associated with them. Extra precautions were needed to stay safe from their mischief or outright maliciousness on this night. It was also common for prayers to be offered to and for the dead on this night (Danaher, 1972).
There are many traditions associated with Lá Fhéile Eóin [June 24th] as well as with the night before, Oiche Fhéile Eóin [June 23rd]. There is much supposition that the celebrations of this feast day in the church represent attempts to Christianize earlier pagan midsummer celebrations (Ó Súilleabháin, 1967). Probably the most well known practice and the one that has survived the longest into the modern era are the bonfires. People from the community would gather and build a bonfire on Oiche Fhéile Eoin, sometimes several, and the herds would be driven through them and the smaller ones jumped over sideways for health, fertility, and luck (Ó hÓgáin, 1995; Danaher, 1972). It was said to be lucky to walk three times sunwise around the bonfire on this night; by some accounts doing this ensures health for the year to come (Ó hÓgáin, 1995; Wilde, 1991). Even the smoke from the fires was lucky and the areas it drifted over were said to have received the same blessing as areas that later received it's ash.
The bonfires were community events where people would gather and celebrate together with music and dancing; the fire itself would be built from wood and bones gathered from all the households in the community. At the fire the men would compete with each other in games of skill while the women would pray for good crops and food supply (Danaher, 1972). The belief was strong that to neglect these prayers might result in a failure of the fish to come up river or bring a blight over the crops (Danaher, 1972). The practice of bonfires slowly died out into the mid-20th century but could easily be revived and indeed the celebration seems to be seeing a revival in modern Ireland.
The bonfires also had other, more esoteric uses. Because they were seen as powerful supernatural fires that carried blessings they could be used to safely dispose of magical or holy items that needed to be gotten rid of. Holy items, such as statues or rosary beads, that had been worn out or broken could be thrown into a bonfire on Oiche Fhéile Eóin, and so could magical items that had been used for either blessing or cursing (Danaher, 1972). Charms that had served their purpose as well as items used for hexing or ill-wishing that needed to be safely destroyed could be thrown into a bonfire on this night.
It was considered lucky for those with a new home to start their fire from the coals of the festival bonfire, and anyone who started a hearth fire from the main bonfire were believed to be ensuring their own luck, fertility and wealth in the coming year (Danaher, 1972). The ashes of the fires were also viewed as having power and would be scattered in the fields to promote growth (Ó hÓgáin, 1995). In some places the harvesting tool was left out overnight in the fields (Ó Súilleabháin, 1967). This may have been for blessing purposes, to encourage a good harvest, or it may have been protective, placing iron in the fields to ward off the attentions of the Daoine Uaisle.
Other folk customs intended to improve health and banish illness included bathing on Oiche Fhéile Eóin and drinking a tea made from St. John's Wort (Ó Súilleabháin, 1967). Yarrow was hung in the house to protect against illness (Evans, 1957). It's clear looking at the different folk practices that good health was a prevalent theme among them, and many of the activities were aimed at ensuring health for a person or household, as well as the herds and crops.
In many ways this holiday ushered in the true beginning of summer, although the season had properly begun at Bealtaine. Swimming was engaged in on the holiday and it was said that those who celebrated the festival should be safe from drowning in the following year (Danaher, 1972). The holiday is also called Bonfire Night, Oiche an teine chnáimh [night of the bone fires], and Teine Féile Eóin [fire of the feast of John] (Danaher, 1972). As with most other festivals fire and water played central roles in the celebrations.
Special foods associated with this holiday include sweets and in Connacht a dish called 'goody' which was white bread soaked in warm milk laced with spices and sugar (Danaher, 1972). Drinking was also a common feature of the celebrations. For myself I have made a habit of cooking cake and offering it to the Gods, Good People, and ancestors; this year I will be using my cáca síofra recipe instead of plain cakes.
This year Oiche Fhéile Eóin and Lá Fhéile Eóin fall during the dark moon, a time I find more potent and open to Otherworldly crossover. I suspect it will be an intense holiday, and am looking forward to celebrating it.
Ó hÓgáin, D., (1995) Irish Superstitions
Ó Súilleabháin, S., (1967) Nósanna agus Piseoga na nGeal
Wilde, E., (1991) Irish Cures, Mystic Charms & Superstitions
Danaher, K., (1972) The Year in Ireland
Evans, E., (1957) Irish Folk Ways