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.
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.
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.
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