On June 23rd, or St. John’s Night, bonfires were lit all over County Mayo. This night was also known as “The Bonfire Night”.
On that night the countryside twinkled with the bonfires’ lights.
Everyone joined in collecting things to put into the bonfires. Two weeks before-hand children collected old shoes, old mattresses, old furniture and rags, but also huge stacks of gorse, and unloaded them at the bonfire sites. Usually former cross-roads or old roads no longer in use were chosen as bonfire sites.
At home they used to eat boiled bread and milk with a few raisins added and gathered all together to light the fire at about 9pm.
The fire was kept well stoked until dawn. Prayers were also recited to commemorate St John’s birth. Bonfire night was an exciting event for every community; people danced, sang and played music and sausages were cooked on open fire and passed around to everyone.
Red coals were spread over the potato and crop fields for protection from disease and one piece of coal was brought at home and put into the kitchen fireplace.
Farmers made their cattle run through the fire to ensure fertility. It is said this old custom came from a pagan ritual and associated to sacrificial fires offered to gods.
On Achill Island people used to scorch a medical herb, called bugoir, in the bonfire on that night, dried and kept it as a cure for many ailments.
In Mayo, nowadays bonfires are still lit up in the countryside on St. John’s Night.