I tend to think of South America as a bastion of conservative Catholicism, but come carnival time, everyone is stripping off and dancing in the streets. There even seems to have been an escalation, if that’s the word, in the skimpiness of carnival costumes down to the point where all that’s worn is some body paint and something the size of a belt buckle.
So why don’t we have something as sexy as that in Catholic Ireland? Even our most outrageous Pride exhibitionsts are dowdy compared to the South American cousins. OK, there’s the weather. Nipple-biting, even at the height of Summer, and the big celebration on St. Patrick’s day is inconveniently placed in March.
There were riotous celebrations and carnivals in pagan times though. The big ones, at the four corners of the year, were Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasa and Samhain, although none of those lines up with Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, the date of the Rio Carnival. Mardi Gras represents a last day of indulgence before the fasting period of Lent, a concept that may not have suited the ancient Celts. “Listen, Patrick. About this giving up the Guinness for forty days…”
Up the road from where I live, where now stands the ruin of Ballinderry Old Church, they celebrated Lughnasa every August, up until nearly 1800. That’s over a thousand years of survival after Christianity took over, although it was the Christian clergy who killed it in the end.
By that date, the Irish language had just about ceased to be used in this area, and the festival was called “Laa Lau” or “Laa Loo” without, apparently, recognising it as “Lá Lú” in Irish, or “Lugh’s Day”. In pagan mythology, it was the God Lugh who was associated with first establishing the festival, initially to commemorate his foster-mother Tailtiu. But by the late 1700s, Lugh had been forgotten, and they had invented an imaginary saint, St. Lau, to explain, or to justify, the celebrations.
And it seems to have been quite a party. Thousands of people turned up for four days of sober religious meditations round a number “stations”, which were prominent stones on the shore of Lough Beg. Well, sober religious meditations and drinking, cock-fighting, feasting, dancing, gambling, quarrelling and fornication. Oh, and “sundry other vices”, according to contemporary reports.
Around 1798, the Catholic parish priest, one William Dawson, decided to abolish the festival. Not, according to the accounts, because of the sundry vices or any pagan associations, but because sectarian violence at the gathering had got out of hand. It was a time of ‘Troubles’. Now that we have Peace in Northern Ireland, it would be a good time to re-start the Ballinderry Carnival. Pass me my g-string.