The Bilberries of Lá Lúnasa

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Today is the first day of August, whose Irish name is Lúnasa, in honour of the Celtic Sun God, Lugh (pronounced Loo). Lugh is the god of loads of things, including the harvest, which officially starts today. The fruits of all our labours throughout the year can be collected and celebrated now. One of the first wild fruits to ripen are the bilberries (although I have seen and eaten blackberries already this year – they are about 2 weeks early). Thanks to urban sprawl and conifer forestation, bilberries are quite hard to find in Ireland nowadays. The tradition of gathering them on the first of August was lost a couple of generations ago. Indeed most people I’ve been telling about them have never heard of bilberries, let alone our long cultural history with them.

Bilberries are the small, wild native cousin of the cultivated blueberry. They grow in acidic soil on mountains and are the bedfellows of purple heather. Wherever you see heather flowering, have a little look around and you might just see some blueblack jewels hiding in the moss and bog. Blueberries, as you know, have yellow flesh. Bilberries are red throughout and are more tart in flavour. They are good to eat fresh from the plant but they are more usually baked or made into jam.

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There was a time when youngsters would climb the hills together to spend long hours in the sun gathering the nutritious berries. Bilberry day was thus known as a time for courting. At the end of the day, the girls would bring the berries home, bake a yummy tart and head out in the evening to a dance. Each girl would offer her tart to the boy she fancied and hope he’d eat it! I’ve made a tart this evening, but my husband doesn’t eat such things. Must do a quick search to see if there are any country dances on tonight!

Fornication aside, since Viking times bilberries have been gathered throughout the month of August and in to September. Many Irish families combined the summer work of turf cutting and turning with bilberry picking. During the Second World War, whole townlands would head up onto the mountains to gather bilberries, which were immediately exported to make jam for the boys on the front line. The money Irish people got paid for their work would have been a godsend.

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I wanted to mark the day today with my family, so despite the rain, I packed us a picnic lunch and we drove to the summit of Tountinna, in Co. Tipperary. I knew there was a bumper crop of bilberries up there just waiting for little fingers. When the sun emerged, we discovered that they are fiddly to forage. They’re so ripe at the moment that it’s easy to squash them and this turned my son off the whole process very quickly. He hates sticky fingers so he sat down in the heather in protest while my daughter and I foraged on. Frequently, we’d grasp a berry and it would escape, disappearing deep down into the moss and heather, never to be retrieved. So after over an hour, we only ended up with about a cup of crop. Just enough to bake a tart, augmented with blueberries, which the kids picked the day before. But it’s the journey, they say, that counts and we all got so much out of being up there in the wind, listening to the birds and peering down into the growth. None of us wanted to leave, but we could see a sheet of rain making its way steadily towards us. I called it just in time and we didn’t get all that wet.

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