The Ancient Golowan in Penzance

he Golowan festival is upon us once again here in Penzance. Golowan is now a major community arts festival with a programme of traditions in and around a spectacular display of civic pride. The modern Golowan shares with it’s ancient ancestor some traditions, that of Mock Mayor, The Serpent Dance, St John’s Eve and of course the fire work. Golowan circa 1860 would have been a very much different event, and was world famous.

The festival can be seen as part of the wider St John’s Eve Midsummer traditions of Cornwall that gradually faded from the rest the Duchy leaving only Mount’s Bay as a bastion of the “firey carnival”. After the festivities of May day and Whitsun the people of the town would start collecting firewood to use on St John’s Eve, this would have included gorse which was often used in Cornwall as fuel anyway. At 5pm people started to assemble their fires in the middle of the street and on every street corner. A large fire was created in the Green Market (Yes I know its quite narrow there!).   In some places “tar barrels” were laid out ready to burn (please note that they were never carried as in Ottery St Mary).

At Sun down the people of the town would congregate at the Green Market to elect a Mock Mayor (The Mock Mayor of the Quay) and following his or her election would shower him with sparks from “squibs”, large sparking fire works,

When the light finally faded pandemonium would break loose the ,various bonfires were lit an thousands upon thousands of fireworks let off in the street. Then hundreds of torches appeared all being swung in a peculiar manner around the head. Some torches where 6 feet long with tar soaked sail cloth used as a wick, some were fireballs on chains, some improvised from whatever people could find. Candles would also be lit by residents and placed in their windows, a bough of Bay or St John’s wort were could also be found fixed above peoples doors.  Girls would often dress with “Golowan garlands” large wooden hoops decorated with flowers.

When the fires and fireworks has died down a strange half game half dance would begin known as the “Serpent Dance”. This is not the rather graceful serpent dances of recent Cornish revival but a near scrum. Hand in hand the people of the town would form a long line, dancing between the embers of the fires. Now and again “dancers” in the middle of the line would shout “An Eye” An Eye” and raise their arms to form a gateway for the front of the dance to rush through in imitation of thread and needle. Sometimes the line would have to leap through the embers to avoid being burnt.

Midnight (1am BST actually) would mean the end of the this display and a return to the taverns of the Dock area where the town would drink itself into a stupor.

The next day was of course Midsummers day and in the quay area there was a fair, Market stalls would spring up to sell strawberries served on a cabbage leaf while some “took a pennorth of sea” in other words, took a boat excursion into the bay.

So what happened? It was though for many years that the festivities has died out in the 1870’s but there is now evidence that the celebration lasted in some form up to the 20th century. As early as 1815 we have references to attempts to ban the festival especially Penzance Mayor “Henry Boase” who wrote in his diary of the “Depredation of the Fire Folk”.By the 1870 some of the town council, eventually succeeded in moving the celebrations to the Promenade area where it declined.. By the advent of WW1 it was but a cherished memory.

We owe a huge debt to those people who 25 years ago had enough imagination and determination to start a revived Golowan albeit a somewhat different one to the old. It was without doubt their intention to use the past to inspire the future and to gradually restore and revive. Will we ever see a firey carnival on the 23rd of June again? It is certainly unlikely that fires will be randomly lit on street corners, fireworks thrown at people or any of the seriously dangerous activities that would quite clearly endanger public safety. I think however it would be possible to recreate some of the display with skilled, trained people, to use modern theatrical techniques to recreate the awe inspiring sight of the Midsummer fire.