Billberry Sunday

MacNeill (1962) has made a strong case that many pilgrimage  that take place on the last sunday of July such as pilgrimage to Mount Brandon Co Kerry, Croagh Patrick Co Mayo and Maumeen  Co Galway evolved from the celtic  Festival of Lughnasa held in honour of the God Lugh.  Another relic of this festival  was the collection of billberries  also on the same day the last sunday in July.

Billberry Bush

Billberry Bush

Bilberries are a small blue/black berry that looks very like a blueberrybut are much smaller. They  grow in mountainous land. They are known by different names around the country  fraughan or the irish  frachóg, whorts, hurts or heatherberries. The last sunday of just which is also known by a variety of terms Garland Sunday, Domhnach Crom Dubh (Sunday Black Crom) Domnach na bhFraochóg (Billberry Sunday) as well as Billberry Sunday or Fraughan Sunday.

Traditionally the gathering of the berries was carried out by young people  who would climb up into the hills and have a
good time picking the berries. In the evening young girls would incorporate the berries into a cake and at the dance that evening present the cake to whatever ‘fella’ they had their eye on.

Billberries

As a child, my cousins  my sister and I, would collect these berries which we called hurts as a snack when we played at my grandparents house, unaware of the ‘ Billberry Sunday’ tradition .

In the past the berry was used  for cooking in  medicine and as a dye. Seeds from the fruit have been found in excavations of Viking and Anglo Norman Dublin. The medieval sources for Ireland also suggest it was a a valuable crop being mentioned in a middle Irish text on the entitlements of kings (Kelly 2000, 307). In 1941 the berries were ‘ Bought and cleaned by local dealers, the berries were shipped off within 24 hours – some 400 tons of them in 1941, an exceptionally good year (when British pilots, reportedly, found bilberry jam improved their night vision)’ (Viney 2012).  It is sad that most people dont know what this berry is or what it looks like. This year with the wet summer the crop is very poor, but there are still some yummy berries to be found for the adventurous.

Bibliography

Kelly, F. 2000. Early Irish farming. Dublin: Institute for Advances Studies

MacNeill, M. 1962. The festival of Lughnasa: a study of the survival of the

  Celtic festival of the beginning of harvest. London: Oxford University Press.

Viney, M. 2012. ‘When we found our thrill picking billberries on a hill’ Irish Times Saturday, July 7, 2012

Sexton, R.( no date) ‘Bilberry Sunday, a Festival of Food and Courtship’ http://www.ireland-fun-facts.com/bilberry-sunday.html

11 comments on “Billberry Sunday

  1. sinead says:

    A new book was published recently on bilberries and the traditons associated with it – available in the book centre, kilkenny, i love picking them and the jam is great

  2. Terry says:

    Excellant stuff, only seeing this now…

    Nineteenth century folklore from Connacht, re: Domhnach Crom Dubh/Patrician pilgrimage has something obviously related. The friday before was known as Aoine Crom Dubh, this being the day when many agricultural foods/material ‘should’ have been collected/brought in. Garlic Sunday/Patrician festivities around Downpatrick/Kilcummin/Kilalla, North Mayo would start on the friday night itself. Events could get very ‘raucous’ over the weekend; so much so that Church authorities eventually put an end to the more ‘secular’ aspects of the festival 😉

    • Thanks Terry
      Thats really interesting!! thanks so much for sharing the info. I have recently come across photos of people in south Kildare who gathered on a hill for Domnach na bhFraochóg, when the girls and boys would go collect billberries. This went on up to the early 1900’s but
      the events were cancelled by the church who didnt approve of the mixing of the sexes.

  3. Terry says:

    Thats brilliant. Must have survived relatively late there for a photo!

    Speaking of cake dances, there’s some great folklore accounts around too. Seems to have been sometimes associated with outdoor Easter/Spring festivities on hilltops; as well as Billberry events. I know of a late corrupted version on a west coast Island, where the cake dance was a communal party at a certain archaeological monument… involving the sudden dropping of all work that day and the imbibing of poitín! (But, as the Islanders were keen to point out ; never on a Sunday 😉

    You probably have this, already:

    Ó Duḃda, S. 1941. ‘The Cake Dance’, Béaloideas, 11, pp.126-142.
    Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20642551

    • the photos look like they date to the 1930’s 1940’s . I am hopeing to scan them and see if i can find out a bit more about the site.

      thanks so much for the info on and the article, its all fascinating stuff. I need to win the lotto so I can afford to research all these things

  4. Michael says:

    Hi Louise, thanks for the article. I am from South Kildare. Would love to hear what you know about this area. If you can scan the photos it would be marvelous. Although i have heard stories about Fraughan Hill/Corballis Hill from my father, the only reference i have is MacNeill. I wonder is this the hill you refer to?
    Many thanks.
    Michael K. Lambe

  5. Esther Cousens says:

    Mam, from near Rathvilly on the Wicklow / Carlow border, talked about going out to the Fraughan Hill on a certain Sunday of the year. I think the map name for the hill is Corballis HIll, between Castledermot and Baltinglass. They would go off on their bikes after Mass to collect the fraughans but according to Ma, the main reason for the outing was to meet chaps! This would have been in the 1930s.

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