Golowan – Cornwall’s Midsummer celebrations
Golowan (sometimes also Goluan or Gol-Jowan) is the Cornish word for the Midsummer celebrations. Widepsread prior to the late 19th century and most popular in the Penwith area and in particular Penzance and Newlyn The celebrations were conducted from the 23rd of June (St Johns Eve) to the 28th of June (St Peters Eve) each year, St Peter’s eve being the more popular in Cornish fishing communities. The celebrations were centred around the lighting of bonfires and fireworks and the performance of associated rituals.
Since 1991 the Golowan festival in Penzance has revived many of these ancient customs and has grown to become a major arts and culture festival its central event ‘Mazey day’ now attracts tens of thousands of people to the Penzance area in late June. Old Cornwall Societies across Cornwall on this date light bonfires in a giant chain reaching from Kithill on the Devon Border, to Chapel Carn Brea near Land’s End. The ancient festival was first described by Dr Borlase in 1754 in his book Antiquities of Cornwall.
A Victorian description of the event is:
Penzance, and in nearly all the parishes of West Penwith, immediately after nightfall on the eves of St John and St Peter, the 23rd and 28th of June, lines of tar-barrels, occasionally broken by bonfires were simultaneously lighted in all the streets, whilst, at the same time, bonfires were kindled on all the cairns and hills around Mounts Bay, throwing the outlines in bold relief against the sky.
Another excellent description of the Golowan festivities in the 19th Century.
In no part of Cornwall, is Midsummer celebrated with more hilarity than at Penzance and its neighbourhood) for on the 23rd of June, the young people are all alert in the preparations for their favourite festival. No sooner does the tardy sun withdraw himself from the horizon, than the boys begin to assemble in several parts of the town, drawing after them trees, branches of wood and furze; all which had been accumulating week after week, from the beginning of May. Tar-barrels are presently erected on tall poles, in the market-place, on the quay, and in all of the principal streets; while pretty female children trip up and down in their best frocks, decorated with garlands, and hailing Midsummer-eve as the vigil of St John. The joyful moment arrives ! the torches make their appearance! the heaped-up wood is on fire! the tar-barrels send up their intense flame! the ladies, and gentlemen parade the streets, walk in the fields or on the terraces which command the bay; from thence they behold the fishing towns, farms, and “villas, vieing with each other in the number and splendour of their bonfires: the torches quickly moving along the shore, are reflected from the water; and the spectacle though of the cheerful kind, participates of the grand. In the mean time, rockets (of all descriptions,) crackers, squibs, &c., &c, resound through every street; and the screams of the ladies, on their return from the show, and then precipitate flight into the first shop, passage or house, that happens to be open, heighten the colouring and diversion of the night.
Then comes the finale: no sooner are the torches burnt out, than the inhabitants of the quay quarter, (a great multitude,) male and female, young, middle-aged, and old, virtuous and vicious, sober and drunk, take hands, and forming a long line, run violently through every street, lane, and alley, crying ‘an eye, an eye, an eye!’ at last they stop suddenly and an eye to this enormous needle “being opened, by the last two in the string, (whose clasped hands are elevated and arched) the thread of populace run under and through; and continue to repeat the same, till weariness dissolves the union, and sends them home to bed, which is never till past the hour of midnight. Next day, (Midsummer day) the custom is, for the country people to come to Penzance in their best clothes, about four or five o’clock in the afternoon, when they repair to the quay, and take a short trip on the water: on which occasion a number of boats are employed, most of which have music on board: after one cargo is dismissed another is taken in, and till nine or ten o’clock at night, the bay exhibits a pleasant scene of sloops, sailing-boats, rowing-boats, sea-sickness, laughter, quarrelling, drum-beating, horn-blowing, &c, &c. On the quay there is a kind of wake or fair, in which fruit and confectionary are sold, and the public-houses are thronged with drinkers and dancers. Such is Midsummer in this part of Cornwall; and on the eve of the feast of St. Peter, which follows so closely upon it, the same things are acted over again.
St Peter’s Eve (June 28th) Porthleven and Newlyn in particular being the centre for much of the celebration of St Peter’s tide because of St Peter’s role as the patron Saint of fishermen.
Penglaz the Penzance ‘Obby ‘Oss makes an appearance during the Golowan festival.
For more information please visit the official Golowan website www.golowan.org.
The Federation of Old Cornwall Societies hold Midsummer Bonfire ceremonies on the 23rd of June every year.
The Serpent Dance and the Golowan Band
Torchlit procession and Penglaz
Old Cornwall Society Midsummer Fire
Cornish Culture Association Midsummer Fire