Bilberry Sunday, a Festival of Food and Courtship
By Regina Sexton
Today, few in Ireland remember combing the heather for a sweet treat on Bilberry Sunday
Bilberry Sunday is a charming old festival that lives only in Ireland’s distant memory. Celebrated in mid-summer, it was once a day when people went to hillsides and peat lands in groups to collect bilberries, and sometimes find a spouse.
These tiny, intensely dark blue berries, are related to the blueberry though they’re only about half as large. They thrive in acidic soils, have a sweet/sour flavor, and when you squash them up, the insides are yellow.
Finding bilberries in the thick heather bushes where they grow was so difficult that collecting them took the better part of a day. With young men and women spending long hours outside hunting for the berries together, Bilberry Sunday became known as a time for courting. Many a lad was said to have met his wife on this day. In some areas, the girls would bake a bilberry cake and present it to the boy of their fancy at a Bilberry Sunday dance. Others used the berries to make tarts and even, occasionally, bilberry wine.
Today most Irish people, unfortunately, don’t even know that bilberries exist here. This past June, I walked up the side of a mountain in Wicklow that was absolutely covered in bilberries. I wrote an article about it for a newspaper, and got a letter from someone a short time later saying they remembered collecting bilberries as a child 50 years ago. In most places, however, the festival would have died out well before the start of the 20th century.
Bilberry Sunday occurs in mid-summer because this is when the berries ripen. Like other Irish festivals, however, the custom may be related to other Christian and pre-Christian celebrations at the same time of year. A major Celtic festival that was celebrated on August 1st is “Lugnasa,” devoted to the deity Lugh. On Lugnasa, devotees would make expeditions to mountain peaks and hilltops and, in some cases, light fires there. Lugnasa has survived in a “Christianized” version as the popular practice of climbing Croagh Patrick, in County Mayo. The climb of Croagh Patrick, done by some 25,000 pilgrims (some barefoot) takes place on the last Sunday in July.>
Regina Sexton is a food historian and writer living in County Cork.