Lammas Fair

The Lammas Fair in Ballycastle, County Antrim, is Ireland's oldest traditional fair. It takes place on the last Monday and Tuesday of August and attracts hugh crowds with its combination of street entertainment and market stalls.


Do you have a happy mem'ry of the Lammas Fair and wonder about its origins?

The name "Lammas" originated from the feast of Lughnasadh or Lugh (pronounced Loo) and was celebrated at the beginning of August. In Irish legend, Lugh was the sun god who had a mortal foster mother - the Queen of the Firbolgs. These original settlers began to clear the land and sow grain. The sun ripened the crop and thus a feast was held each year to celebrate a successful harvest and give thanks to Lugh.

When the Christian church arrived, it modified this feast by arranging for loaves to be baked from the first harvested grain and laid before the altar. A priest said a "loaf mass" and hence the word lammas was born. In parts of Ireland, the old tradition of gathering blaeberries and a blaeberry mass still pertains. Many customs relate to the cutting of the grain. The first sheaf was cut at dawn, threshed, ground and baked into harvest bread to be shared by all. Often the loaf was blessed and divided into four pieces, each being placed at the corner of the barn to protect the stored grain.

Lammas Fair
The final sheaf was woven into a corn dolly,dressed with ribbons and carried in ceremony, before a harvest supper. It was then safely stored in the home until spring when it was returned to the soil, ensuring that Lugh's fertilizing influence would pass from harvest to harvest.

Lammas is prominent in Scottish history. It is a Quarter Day, the date on which rents were due and servants hired. In the highlands, it marked the end of the hay harvest and is recalled in the Ballad of Otterburn- "It fell about the Lammastide when the muir -men win their hay". We are reminded of Lughnasadh by Brian Friel in his play "Dancing at Lughnasa", which uses an alternative, more modern, spelling. The play is set in August and portrays the bitter harvest reaped by the Mundy sisters.

Today, the celebration of Lammastide has expanded, though still the ancient traditions can be discerned. Climbing Croagh Patrick on Reek Sunday, the last Sunday of July, circling holy wells and leaving a coin as an offering, the Puck Fair at Killorglin,where a billygoat is crowned king and a local maiden queen. Being Ireland, Lugh looks on a pint of Guinness and whiskey chaser with benevolence and appears to enjoy traditional music and song.

The Fair in Ballycastle has been in existence for over 400 years. Originally held on Castle Point, overlooking Rathlin island, expansion meant moving down to the Diamond in the town centre. John Henry MacAuley-known as "the carver" due to his ability to produce small decorative items from wood - was born on a farm in Glenshesk, but a childhood accident caused such injury that he was unable to do heavy farm work. He was an accomplished fiddler and composer of ballads, yet only one was published - the Ould Lammas Fair - now known across the world. When it is sung or played, perhaps Lugh is gratified.

©Ronnie Carser