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Ancient Irish Festivals

According to the knowledge we have at the moment, it is believed that the ancient Irish had four major festivals, as well as a number of smaller festivals. When Christianity came to Ireland around 1500 years ago, the priests and monks Christianised some of the Pagan festivals and because of that, some of the ancient Irish festivals are still celebrated in Ireland today.

Samhain

Signals the start of Winter & the New Year!

Strange to say, this word is connected with the Irish word for summer (“samhradh”), although the weather tends to be cold and windy during Halloween (Samhain) and the month of November, which in Irish is named after it (“Mí na Samhna”). However, the linguists are unsure of the exact meaning of Samhain. Some of them believe that it comes from samhfhuin, which means ‘the end of summer’ but according to other experts, the ancient Celts of France used to call the lunar month around Halloween samonios.

But Samhain was no ordinary festival. It was the New Year of the Ancient Celts too, and the most important festival of the year. And because of that, Samhain night was between one year and the next. In the religion of the ancient Celts, places which were between worlds (like islands or bogs) or between times (like Samhain) had a special importance. The night of Samhain was between one year and the next, between summer and winter and because of that, our ancestors regarded it as outside of ordinary time. The usual rules did not apply, and spirits and the souls of the dead could return to this world on Halloween night. 

Because of that, young people often used divination to find out what the future held for them. For example, they were blindfolded, and they had to choose between three bowls. There would be clay in one of the bowls, water in another, and a ring in the third. The poor person who chose the clay would die young, the person who chose the water would emigrate, and the person who chose the ring was destined to marry. 

Long ago, there was a three-day feast at Tara every year to celebrate Samhain. Many of the old customs relating to the feast of Samhain are still alive in Ireland and in other countries, and they seem to be spreading year by year. Children go from house to house in fancy dress doing ‘Trick or Treat.’ They eat apples, cakes, sweets, pies. There are fireworks and major festivals on the streets in the big cities in Ireland, in the USA and elsewhere and Derry is famous for the great Halloween party which is held in the city every year.

According to a Donegal writer called Seán Mac Meanmain, there used to be a custom of distributing kale or cabbage to every house in the village on Halloween night, so that they would be able to make a traditional broth for All Hallows Day with cabbage and oatmeal. The cabbage would be left on the doorstep and the person receiving it would have to shout ‘Síocháin Dé chugaibh! Seo chugainn an tSamhain!’ (God’s peace to you! Here comes Halloween!) three times. But then, the young people began to spoil the custom. They began to throw the cabbage at the door, or even through the window! Which is possibly how we ended up with the custom of Trick or Treat.

Imbolg / Imbolc / Óimelc

Signals the start of Spring!

Imbolg, which was around the start of February, was an important festival. The experts are not sure about its origins or about the origin of the name Imbolg, but they believe it is connected to an ancient word for milk. We know that the ancient Celts worshipped an important goddess called Brigantia (The Exalted One) who was linked to fertility, childbirth and milking and Imbolg was probably a festival celebrating this goddess. The Christians turned her into a saint, Saint Bríd or Brigid and that saint had many of the characteristics of the goddess. Her feast day is called Lá Fhéile Bríde in Irish and it is on the first of February – the Imbolg of the ancient Celts.

Most people in Ireland would recognise the beautiful little crosses made from reeds which are called Saint Brigid’s Crosses. They are usually made on Saint Brigid’s Day and it is believed that they will protect the inhabitants of the house for a year if they are hung over the doors.

Bealtaine

Signals the start of Summer!

Anyone who speaks Irish will be familiar with this word, because Bealtaine is also the Irish word for the month of May, along with the festival on the first day of that month. The word beal may have meant ‘bright light’ and the second part means ‘fire’, and this festival is strongly connected with fire in Irish tradition. When an Irish speaker is confused or unsure what to do, they often use the “tá mé idir dhá thine Bhealtaine faoi” (I am between two Bealtaine fires about it). Until a hundred years ago, people in some country areas of Ireland still followed the custom of building two great fires in a field on this day and driving their cattle between the fires to protect them from disease. According to a text from the 10th century called Sanas Chormaic, the Druids used to do the same during the Pagan era hundreds of years before that. 

Lúnasa

Signals the start of Autumn!

Lugh or Lú was one of the most important gods of the Celts, not only in Ireland but throughout Europe. Lugh was connected with the sun and summer and this is why he gave his name to the festival called Lúnasa on the first of August, as well as to the hottest Irish month of August, which is also called Lúnasa in Irish.  Lugh was called Lleu Llaw Gyffes by the people of Wales. Léon in Spain was named after Lugh, as well as the city of Lyons in France and some think London also.

Lúnasa was a festival to welcome the growth of the corn and the beginning of the harvest season. People in Ireland often danced and built bonfires to celebrate the Feast of Lúnasa and some of these customs survived until the twentieth century. Brian Friel, a famous playwright from Tyrone, wrote a play called Dancing at Lughnasa which contains many references to these traditions.

Other festivals

The festivals above were the most important to our ancestors, but there were other festivals as well. The solstices (the longest and shortest days) were important, as well as the equinoxes (when the day and the night are the same length). Many Christmas and St Stephen’s Day customs are probably linked to the Pagan rituals for the winter solstice (the Wren Boys, for example, when people used to go from house to house looking for money) and Saint John’s Eve/Day is linked to the summer solstice.

Ancient Irish Seasons:
Spring: February, March, April
Summer: May, June, July
Autumn: August, September, October
Winter: November, December, January

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