St. John's Eve

From An Illustrated History of Ireland by Margaret Anne Cusack

« start... Chapter X. ...continued

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The celebration of St. John's Eve by watchfires, is undoubtedly a remnant of paganism, still practised in many parts of Ireland, as we can aver from personal knowledge; but the custom of passing cattle through the fire has been long discontinued, and those who kindle the fires have little idea of its origin, and merely continue it as an amusement. Kelly mentions, in his Folklore, that a calf was sacrificed in Northamptonshire during the present century, in one of these fires, to " stop the murrain." The superstitious use of fire still continues in England and Scotland, though we believe the Beltinne on St. John's Eve is peculiar to Ireland. The hunting of the wren [6] on St. Stephen's Day, in this country, is said, by Vallancey, to have been originated by the first Christian missionaries, to counteract the superstitious reverence with which this bird was regarded by the druids. Classic readers will remember the origin of the respect paid to this bird in pagan times. The peasantry in Ireland, who have never read either Pliny or Aristotle, are equally conversant with the legend.

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[6] Wren.—In Scotland the wren is an object of reverence: hence the rhyme—

"Malisons, malisons, more than ten,
That harry the Ladye of Heaven's hen."

But it is probable the idea and the verse were originally imported from France, where the bird is treated with special respect. There is a very interesting paper in the Ulster Archaeological Journal, vol. vii. p. 334, on the remarkable correspondence of Irish, Greek, and Oriental legends, where the tale of Labhradh Loinseach is compared with that of Midas. Both had asses' ears, and both were victims to the loquacious propensities of their barbers. 

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