A student in our Mórrígan Intensive Programme asked me for resources on the Brehon Law system the other day, and I had to be honest – I didn’t have them to hand.
It’s not an area I’ve really dug into yet, though I know there’s a lot to study.
But look, as a teacher, one of the most ethical things that I hold sacred is that if someone asks me a question I don’t know the answer to… I tell them that honestly, and then I go and do my best to find quality resources where they (and me, usually) can go learn about the thing.
I found a few of my own, but the internet is full of mischief, and if you don’t know what you’re looking for – or looking at – it’s hard to tell what’s reliable.
Luckily, I run a couple of Facebook Groups that are full of the smartest people I know, so I always know where to go for the best recommendations. And with this question, they did not let me down!
[Huge thanks to: Erynn Rowan Laurie, C. Lee Vermeers, Geraldine Byrne, Shane Broderick, Robert L. Barton, Pamela Holcombe… and to Elisabeth Marx for the original question.]
The Wiki Page is actually not bad, for starters, as Shane pointed out in the group post. I have mentioned elsewhere many times before; we don’t take Wikipedia info as definitive source material, but we can use the reference section as a good starting point for any research.
Fergus Kelly featured, as anyone who is even passing familiar with Early Irish Law will be entirely un-shocked by. Erynn kicked us off by recommending ‘A Guide to Early Irish Law’ (book, 2005) as the classic – excellent for reference but it can be a little dense for a read through. This was backed up by Geraldine and others.
‘Whodunnit? Indirect evidence in early Irish Law’ (article, 2015) by Fergus Kelly also got an honourable mention from Pamela, and I’d like to add this link to his article about the legal status of trees: ‘Brehon Laws’ on Forestry Focus.
There’s a book online, written by Laurence Ginnell in 1894, which may be of interest. It’s on my list to work through… if you’ve read it, let me know what you think in the comments? It’s called ‘The Brehon Laws: A Legal Handbook’.
The Irish History Podcast is excellent (I’ve recommended it elsewhere too), and they did an episode called ‘Brehon Law: From Divorce to Irish Sex Magic’, which interviews Dr. Gillian Kenny – who also helped me out with an article on Gaelic Marriage Customs. The podcast description reads:
“Divorce and sex magic are not things we associate with medieval Ireland. However for over one thousand years Irish society was governed by a unique and radically different legal system called Brehon Law. In this podcast I interview Dr Gillian Kenny who explains what Brehon Law was and how it worked. She challenges widely held misconceptions and explains how divorce existed in medieval Ireland given it was banned in modern Ireland until 1995!. And then of course there is the sex magic.”Listen to the Irish History Podcast on Spotify
I must say though, I actually do associate Medieval Ireland with divorce and sex magic. Quite regularly.
‘Cattle Lords and Clansmen’ by Nerys Patterson is a great book, which I’ve also recommended elsewhere, but Robert reminded me that it has a chapter on the Brehon Law system that… “takes a long view of the development and cultural context that can help to understand the specific laws as they exist within a system.”
For the more established scholar, we can move to Daniel Binchy’s edits of the ‘Corpus iuris Hibernici’, in seven volumes. You can see the CODECS listing for Volume 1 here. Liam Breatnach’s book – ‘A Companion to the Corpus Iuris Hibernici (Early Irish Law)’ – will help get you through.
Neil McLeod wrote a number of articles on the topic, which you can find indexed on CODECS here. C. Lee has found the 2 part “Interpreting Early Irish Law: Status and Currency” particularly useful.
And finally, Robin Chapman Stacey has two books that are a somewhat easier read, and very useful. They are:
What’s your favourite (or most useful) Brehon Law Resource?
If you have any other recommendations, or would like to add your opinion on the ones above, please feel free to leave a comment below!
The 1st of August (sometimes the 2nd) is Lúnasa (Lughnasadh, Lughnasa, Brón Trogain) – the harvest festival in Ireland.
In her excellent book, ‘The Festival of Lughnasa’, Máire MacNeill wrote:
“Garland Sunday and Domhnach Chrom Dubh are two of the many names of a festival celebrated by Irish country people at the end of July or the beginning of August. It marked the end of summer and the beginning of the harvest season, and on that day the first meal of the year’s new food crop was eaten. The chief custom was the resorting of the rural communities to certain heights or water-sides to spend the day in festivity, sports and bilberry-picking.”Publisher: Folklore of Ireland Council; Reprint edition (January 1, 2008)
Lughnasadh is mentioned in the old text, Tochmarc Emire, ‘The Wooing of Emer’ – which Kuno Meyer has dated to the 900s CE – along with a small piece on all the Fire Festivals:
“Bend Suain, son of Rose Melc, which she said, this is the same thing, viz., that I shall fight without harm to myself from Samuin. i.e., the end of summer. For two divisions were formerly on the year, viz., summer from Beltaine (the first of May), and winter from Samuin to Beltaine. Or samfuin, viz., suain (sounds), for it is then that gentle voices sound, viz., sám-son ‘ gentle sound.’ To Oimolc. i.e., the beginning of spring, viz., different (ime) is its wet (folc), viz., the wet of spring, and the wet of winter. Or, oi-melc, viz., oi, in the language of poetry, is a name for sheep, whence oibá (sheep’s death) is named, ut dicitur coinbá (dog’s death), echbá (horse’s death), duineba (men’s death), as bath is a name for ‘death.’ Oi-melc, then, is the time in which the sheep come out and are milked, whence oisc (a ewe), i.e., oi-sesc, viz., a barren sheep. To Beldine, i.e. Beltine, viz., a favouring fire. For the druids used to make two fires with great incantations, and to drive the cattle between them against the plagues, every year. Or to Beldin, viz., Bel the name of an idol. At that time the young of every neat were placed in the possession of Bel. Beldine, then Beltine. To Brón Trogain, i.e. Lammas-day, viz., the beginning of autumn ; for it is then the earth is afflicted, viz., the earth under fruit. Trogan is a name for ‘ earth.'”Kuno Meyer, Archaeological Review Vol. I, 1888
The festival of Lughnasadh began as a commemoration feast and games, started by the Tuatha Dé Danann God Lugh in honour of his foster mother Tailtiu, a Firbolg Queen.
Yes, they were warring tribes. Yes, Tailtiu took in the child of an enemy, and raised him as her own. There’s a lesson there, people, for modern Ireland.
In a fascinating entry recorded in The Schools Collection, from County Clare, we hear the following:
“Domnach Lunasa, or Lammas Sunday, the first Sunday of the Month of August, was the first – fruits day, and a great day on Buaile na Greine. On Laammas Sunday, called Domnach Crom Dubh, and anglicised Garland Sunday every household was supposed to feast his family and household on the first fruits, and the farmer who failed to provide his people with new potatoes, new bacon, and white cabbage on that day, was called a Felemair Gaoithe, or wind farmer, and if a man dug new potatoes before Crom Dubh’s Day he was considered a needy man, and hence this Sunday was called first – fruits Sunday.
On this day all went to Buaile na Greine with their contribution and their lons (or food supplies) to hold the fair.
The ceremonies consisted of strewing summer flowers on the altar and festive mound, of which we have been speaking up to this, under the name of Altóir na Greine, or Altar of the Sun, but which is on this day used as the altar of Crom Dubh.
The assemblage of this day is called Comthineol Chruim Duibh, or the congregation or gathering of Crom Dubh. And the day is called from him Domnach Chrom Dubh, or Crom Dubh’s Sunday, now called Garland Sunday by the English speaking portion of the people of the surrounding districts.
The name is supposed to have been derived from the practice of strewing garlands of flowers on the festive mound on this day as homage to Crom Dubh: hence the name Garland Sunday.
Assuredly I saw blossoms and flowers deposited upon it on the first Sunday of August 1844, and put some upon it myself as I saw done by those who were with me. I was then a mere lad, but very inquisitive. The assembly was at this time a mere gathering of boys.”The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0612, Page 323
According to MacNeill, the main theme that emerges from the folklore and rituals of Lughnasadh is a struggle for the harvest between two gods. One god – usually called Crom Dubh – guards the grain as his treasure. The other god – Lugh – must seize it for mankind. (Tailtiu may have been an earth goddess who represented the dying vegetation that fed mankind.)
The Tailteann Games, Tailtin Fair, Áenach Tailteann, Aonach Tailteann, Assembly of Talti, Fair of Taltiu or Festival of Taltii were the funeral games which Lugh started in her honour.
There is still a complex of ancient earthworks dating to the Iron Age in the area of Teltown where the festival was historically known to be celebrated off and on from medieval times into the modern era.
On a personal note, I’ve always connected very strongly with the Goddess Tailtiu. Indeed, I chose her as my avatar and screen name when I moderated a popular English Witchcraft forum, many years ago. The pronunciation was always fun (Tall-CHEW), and earned me the nickname of Chewy. So, nothing to do with Star Wars, if you remember me from those dim and misty times.
My first introduction to the Irish Pagan Community, back in… 1996, I think, was to represent the Goddess Tailtiu in a ritual re-enactment of a sacred procession, organised by Chris Thompson (of Story Archaeology fame).
This was in protest at the landowner attempting to dig up one/some of the mounds, and was filmed by the Nationwide programme, for our national broadcaster RTE.
So, no pressure then.
If anyone can source a copy of that segment, I’d be most grateful 😉
If you’d like to learn more about the history and practice of Pagan Holidays, or Pagan Festivals in Ireland, you can check out my blog post here.
Uncovering the layers of Irish Mythology. On this site, you will find a regular podcast and articles about Irish Pagan Mythology by the Story Archaeologists, Chris Thompson and Isolde Carmody. This is the essential primer with regard to Irish pagan Podcasts. To find out what Story Archaeology is, and how we apply this method to the exploration of Irish stories, listen to this introductory mini-episode.
This is the podcast from The National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin, and is a platform to explore Irish and wider European folk tradition across an array of subject areas and topics. Hosts Jonny Dillon and Claire Doohan hope this informal and friendly tour through the folklore furrow will appeal to those who wish to learn about the richness and depth of our traditional cultural heritage; that a knowledge and understanding of our past might inform our present and guide our future. Check it on Sound Cloud here.
A series of interviews with Neil Jackman and a number of Ireland’s archaeologists and specialists, to discuss the key periods in Ireland’s past, the different types of sites and artefacts and how people lived in the past. An insight into the profession and practice of archaeology, and the various techniques and scientific methods that help to build the picture of Ireland’s history. View the website here.
With Irish Pagan Author and Guide Lora O’Brien. Authentic connection to Ireland with a native voice on mythology, indigenous spirituality, archaeology, history, culture, society, storytelling, and travel round the island. This one ticks the box for Irish Pagan Podcasts specifically – the first series is a reading of a dissertation on the Mórrígan – Listen Here.
Behind the wall of grammar homework lies the amazing world of the Irish language, and Darach (that @theirishfor guy) wants to take you there. With a crack team of the internet’s soundest Irish speakers, Darach will explore topics like differences between the Irish and English versions of the Constitution, silent letters, Gaeilge and technology, how new words get added to the dictionary and which old words have fallen out. It’s an all slammer, no grammar half hour. Get it in your ears here.
It’s about the culture, history and politics of Ireland, with journalist Naomi O’Leary and lecturer Tim Mc Inerney. They tie current events to the history and culture that explain them. Get your passport to Ireland here.
Fin Dwyer is a historian, author and podcaster. There are hundreds of free podcasts on Irish History, including things like the story of the Norman Invasion to the Great Famine. Irish Pagans will be particularly interested in the Witches and Witchcraft series here.
If you like listening to Irish folk talk about topics relevant to Irish Paganism, or Paganism in general, you’ll enjoy my YouTube Channel here.
And if you want to know about Irish Paganism – Start Here!
Beltane is the anglicised version of our Irish word Bealtaine – still in use and meaning ‘the month of May’ in our own language. Bealtaine is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature, and it is associated with important events in Irish mythology.
Irish folklore still holds the legacy of the traditions and customs associated with this ancient festival. Bealtaine and Samhain are the original two turning points for the ‘wheel of the year’ in Ireland. That’s May Eve and Hallowe’en, in case you’re not familiar.
These major Irish Pagan Festivals were pivotal – literally – times of upheaval of change for our ancestors over 8,000 years ago when the Hunter Gatherer societies moved from their Summer to Winter camping grounds at these seasonal turning points, and they still resonate through the landscape and the Irish communities to this day.
Bealtaine – May Eve is a sidheógai [of the fairies] evening in the country. Green branches are placed over the doors of homes and stables, supposed to keep out the fairies from doing harm to the stock. The cabins and dairies are all locked this night to prevent fairies from taking away the milk and butter. (County Clare)The Schools Collection –
There are many strange customs connected with Beltane – May Eve. The ancient May Eve customs are now dying away. Long ago the young children especially girls used to go around from house to house dressed in beautiful flowers. These youngsters used to sing a song at each house and get a few pence in exchange. In former times May Eve was regarded as a great festival. The following were the principal customs connected with May Eve in ancient times. First sweep the threshold clean, sprinkle ashes over it and watch for the first footprints. If it is turned inwards it means a marriage and if it is turned outwards it means a death. Secondly May Eve pick it up and put it on a plate, sprinkle with flour and at sunset you would see the initials of your true love’s name. Thirdly light a bush before the house on May Eve and it is considered to keep away thunder and lightning. Another old custom was to go out May Eve and gather armful of yellow flowers known as May Flowers. These are strewn at the gate of every field, outside the doors of homes and out-houses and even on the housetops. It is considered that these would keep away ill-luck, evil spirits and disease. (County Limerick)The Schools Collection – https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4922074/4850082
Many old beliefs and customs were attached to May Eve and the month of May itself. For instance may-flowers were scattered around the house to keep away the fairies. Another old belief was that if a person washed his face in the May Eve dew he would not get sunburned during the Summer or he would not get wrinkles. Persons leaving presents of fresh milk and honey for the fairies would have a plentiful supply of butter and milk through-out the whole year. If a person was hit on the head with a bow-tree stick on May Eve he would not grow any more. Long ago the cow’s udder was washed with May-flower (?) on May Eve so that she would give plenty milk during the year. A person going through briars three times on May-Eve and saying “all the butter come to me” would have the power to steal butter. If a person went out on May morning and skimmed the water off the well he would be boss of the village for that year. Another old custom was to tie cowslips to the cow’s udder in order that the butter would not be stolen.The Schools Collection – https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4427930/4358799
There is a rhyme about the month of May as follows:-
“A wet and windy May
Chills the haggard with corn and hay”
On May Eve people gathered different varieties of flowers and herbs which they mashed up. This mashed substance was called “Bealtanach”. It was rubbed on the cow’s udder and tits on May day. It was then believed that the cow would give a much better supply of milk and butter. (County Mayo)
Beltane, or Bealtaine as we prefer it, is a truly remarkable time of year in the Irish calandar, whatever religion you’re following.
It’s a powerful time when ‘the veil is thin’, as they say, and if you double down on this by being at locations which are traditionally ‘thin places’ in Ireland, and by tuning in to the customs and magic that have been carried through for countless generations… well. You’re tapping into pure Irish Draoícht right there.
Today, I’m grieving.
Yesterday morning, I learned of the loss of a very good friend. I was in a café having breakfast while I waited on our car to be fixed… the most ordinary of situations, right?
My friend Cat texted me, to check had anyone been in touch, and then asked for a phone call. She told me of the loss of Jon Hanna.
A man I have known since we were both only young and coming into the Irish Pagan community, a comrade I have fought beside for the freedom and equality and understanding of all, a fellow Irish Pagan author, a Craft brother I have stood in circle with many times, a dear friend whose life rites and passages I have shared at every step.
The first time I met Jon, I was 18 years old. At some Pagan event in a pub, maybe a moot? Or an organisation gathering for something in the wider community? Anyway, he was in a group with a person I had no time for, who had quite vocally offended the majority of the Irish Pagan Community and continued to do so. This tall, skinny, ginger man with the Northern accent shouldn’t have been in any way interesting to me, given all that.
But he was.
Even back then I could see his wicked sharp intellect and dry sense of humour. I could feel a kinship, a kindred spirit. I wanted to be friends with him, regardless of anything else.
Luckily for me, my wish came true in good enough time. Jon was a member of pretty much every community I’ve ever considered myself a part of, and we became excellent friends through the long years between then and now.
My brother’s journey echoed my own, and mine his, in a great many ways.
We often spoke of past trauma and shared experiences, our personal mental health struggles as survivors, and the toxic culture that created the situations we both found ourselves in.
I don’t know why I still survive today, and he doesn’t, and that terrifies me.
But I will go on without him, as we all have to try to do, and hope that he has now found the peace he so needed. And deserved.
On Friday night we will Wake him at his house, and on Saturday his Wiccan Brothers and Sisters will give him his full due and send off, in a ceremony that will be incredibly difficult for us all.
Though Traditional Wicca is not a path I follow in my personal practice any more, those rites of initiation are ties that bind through lifetimes, and it is still my right and my duty to stand within that circle in times like this. For him.
Please, if you can, light a candle for our fallen brother, and for strength (and what peace may be had) to surround his family and his children, that they may draw on it if they choose or need to.
“Until we meet, know, remember and love again.”
If you’re struggling with PTSD, C-PTSD, or any other mental health issues – I’m not going to tell you to just “please talk to someone”, because I know exactly how difficult that can be. If you can – please do – but if you feel you can’t right now… Know at least that I’ve been there. I might be there again some day. But we can survive this, and keep surviving it. I believe in us.https://www.mentalhealthireland.ie/need-help-now/
On this blog, and in the weekly Irish Pagan Resources emails through our community mailing list, we cover a variety of topics, including: Irish Mythology, Irish History, Irish Culture, Irish Spirituality, Irish Storytelling & Irish Travel.
Or, really, whatever catches my interest that week?!
I thought it might be useful to provide a monthly collection of Irish Pagan resources here, under each heading. If you have any further recommendations yourself, comment below!
First, a warning… When we’re looking for authentic resources in Irish mythology, we often come across obviously poor materials. If there’s sparkly gifs flashing, that’s your first clue. But some of em are sneaky.
This for example – Fairies of the Irish Mythology – from The Irish Fireside, Volume 1, Number 24, December 10, 1883
It may LOOK like ye olde academic quality source material. But the reality is that it’s a pompous piece of colonial crap, with butchered Irish language references and arrogant assumptions about the uncivilised native savage.
So, Britain’s in a right oul mess too, aren’t they? Seems like a good time to dust off this article – Northern Ireland, a Beginner’s Guide.
We’re still a bit of a mixed bag here when it comes to equality in our society. While we have the Gender Recognition Act, which is amazing for Trans people in our community, we also have the likes of the Iona Institute and Glinner polluting our air. I’m not going to link to them – look them up, or just trust me they’re vile.
Gotta recommend the Irish Pagan School here, as I am a co-founder!
Many online courses and programmes (free and paid), with new content from excellent native Irish teachers coming each month.
I learned a while back that my good friend Joe Perri of Wolf Mercury Photography had NEVER HEARD OF EDDIE LENIHAN. Honestly, it’s kinda put me in a panic – I mean, who else out there isn’t aware of out storytelling national treasure? In case that’s you… Eddie storytelling live in a Pub. His beard scares me, but you know, each to his own. (Check this one especially for the Biddy Early reference).
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to recommend any other Travel company than Land Sea Sky Travel. Vyviane is just too wonderful. Check out what’s on offer.
When you’re looking for authentic Irish Pagan Resources, it’s best to stick – in general – with native Irish sources. Check out my YouTube Video on Cultural Appropriation for more info!
“Pottage is not so much used in all Christendom as it is used in England”– Andrew Boorde, Dyetary (I542)
Pottage in England, came from the Old French pottage, meaning simply ‘potted dish’. I’m not sure how extensively Mr. Boorde had travelled in Ireland, but here it was craibechan for a stew and anraith for a soup, while porridge was leite, and any of them could be made in the same ‘potted dish’ method.
We’re talking one pot peasant food here, the type that starts with a single pot over an open fire, with anything that is to hand thrown in, and cooked for hours til it’s reduced to mush. The next day more water is added, more of whatever’s handy, and more mush ensues. In fairness, it’s tasty, tasty mush, and this type of soup or stew is still eaten in Ireland, and there’s never a truer word spoken than when someone smacks their lips, pats their belly, and says “It always tastes better the next day”.
This was a staple all through Europe, probably from Neolithic times at least, but definitely through the Middle Ages, because we’ve got the references and recipes to prove it.
There are records from the English Beaulieu Abbey, in I270, specifying daily allowances for the lay gardeners: “a convent loaf, a gallon of good ale, and four bowlfuls of the convent pottage”. There is a line in ‘Piers Plowman’ (c. 1377) which says: “Had ye pottage and pain (bread) enough, and penny-ale to drink . . . ye had right enough”. And in the 1500’s, the Fromond list of ‘Herbys necessary for a gardyn’ included no less than 49 herbs deemed suitable for pottage.
To make the pottage, the large metal pot or cauldron was hung over the hearthfire, filled with water or the stock from boiled meat, fish or foul, as available, and various other items added. John Harvey (Vegetables in the Middle Ages) details:
“It is various species of herbs that are consistently mentioned as ‘good pottagers’. In the pottage (‘porray’ or ‘sewe’) were usually cooked one or more of several vegetable foodstuffs, notably the leaves of colewort (Brassica oleracea), leeks (Allium porrum), both of them grown in the garden; or the field crops peas (Pisum sativum) and broad beans (Vicia faba).”(Harvey)
He references a Friar Henry Daniel, who frequently comments on ‘good pottagers’, e.g. borage (Borago officinalis), chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium), mallows (edible Malvaceae), several forms of orach (edible Atriplex), and turnip (Brassica rapa).
The cabbage and it’s cousins (Brassicae) frequently appear under various names such as Cale, Kale, Wild Cabbage, Colewort, Worts, Worties and Braisech in Irish. It’s interesting to note that Langland’s first version of Piers Plowman, written about I362, says; “I have porrets (young leeks) and parsley and many cole plants”, while in the version from about thirty years after we see what might indicate a diversification in the diet (or a move up in the author’s social status?), with the line changed to; “And I have porret plants, parsley and scallions; Chibols and chervils, and cherries”. Cherries, if you don’t mind!
In England the most common pottage flavouring was certainly Parsley (Petroselinum crispum), which carries not only huge health benefits, but also a stack of Medieval lore and superstition round it. In Ireland the Nettle (Urtica dioica) was most common and used regularly for its tremendous health benefits. That bit (health benefits) is, admittedly, supposition on my part, because Nettles taste of very little – other than slightly metallic and a little rank if you don’t get the fresh young tops. So I reckon the popularity must be attributed to medicinal rather than culinary value.
Wild Garlic (Ramsons, Allium ursinum or Creamh in Irish) on the other hand tastes divine. There’s little evidence of cultivation in Ireland, but sure there was no need to. Wild Garlic grows best in damp woodland areas and, well, that was most of Ireland. PW Joyce noted in 1906 that it was a common pot-herb, saying: “The facts that it is often mentioned in Irish literature, and that it has given names to many places, show that it was a well-recognised plant and pretty generally used”.
A recipe for this one really isn’t necessary. It depends on what you have available that was common in the Medieval country of your choice. Start with a stock or broth, add in some chopped meat (beef, mutton, pork, goat, venison, chicken, goose or duck – take your pick!) for a higher status feed. Finely chop some cabbage or kale, onions, leeks, wild garlic. A bit of turnip and a few peas or broad beans wouldn’t go amiss. If you’re going very posh you could add pepper, ground coriander or cardamom. Sage, rosemary and thyme were common enough though, so feel free to throw those in to taste, then some parsley or nettle tops, and let it boil softly for a few hours.
Try it with authentic Irish Soda Bread, but most importantly… don’t forget that it always tastes better the next day!
As any witch will know, you take good care of where your hair and nails end up. And with whom. So here’s some advice from the native Irish Folklore tradition on best practices around your own nail care.
Avoid cutting your nails on Sunday. it is thought that whoever does so is followed closely by the Devil the following week. A very old rhyme was made about this :
Cut them on Monday, you cut them for news
Cut them on Tuesday, a new pair of shoes
Cut them on Wednesday, you cut them for wealth
Cut them on Thursday, you cut them for health
Cut them on Friday, a sweetheart you’ll know
Cut them on Saturday, a journey you’ll go
Cut them on Sunday, you cut them for evil
For all the next week, you’ll make friends with the devil.
The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0638, Page 340 https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4428104/4378363
There are a couple more Irish folklore traditions around the nails that I’ve heard of growing up.
Any others? Add them in the comments below!
Pagan Holidays (Holy Days) worldwide are coming back to a more general use and understanding, with folk often asking questions about whether Christmas is a Pagan Holiday (it is, sort of), and observing the 8-fold Wheel of the Year.
The current Neo Pagan calendar (and its primarily Wiccan holidays) is ostensibly based off the ‘Celtic Wheel of the Year’, as the early creators and authors of our modern traditions were very fond of their romantic notions of Celtic culture, and very sure that it was ok to just… take what they wanted, and change or use it however they wanted.
*cough* Coilíní *cough*
The problem with this (one of the problems) is that we now have a sort of tangled, much mangled, view of the original pre-christian Irish Pagan festivals, that even many Irish Pagans adhere to.
In this post, I’d like to break this down a bit, and clarify some of the basics, so that we can (hopefully), start fresh. With a somewhat cleaner slate for Irish Pagan practice. Le do thoil.
To begin with, the ‘traditional’ eight Pagan Holidays, are actually 2 sets of four. So the wheel of the year is maybe 2 wheels, rotating side by side.
This can be a little confusing if you’re not used to considering things this way, but I do remember being quite frustrated back in my baby Pagan days by how the festivals seemed to just be copies of each other. Like, within the Wiccan traditions, there’s not a huge difference between how you’re celebrating the Summer Solstice (Litha) and Beltane, for example.
In my native practice, I break the focus, themes or concerns out as follows:
The Pagan Calendar names I use are in modern Irish, and the associated Gaeilge video is also my schoolgirl modern Irish pronunciation, to be clear.
Irish is a living language, and while I’m the first one to honour the Primitive Irish and Old Irish source material, they are different languages. We have modern Irish terminology for every single Pagan Holiday name, and a wealth of associated folklore and traditions within our living memory in Irish communities. So let’s use that.
Admittedly now, some of the folklore has gotten crossed over and shifted around with the Christian influences, eg. Summer Solstice bonfires now happen on St. John’s Eve, on the 23rd June, and the animal sacrifice tradition has moved from Samhain to St. Martin’s Day, on the 11th November. But that’s ok too.
At least the traditions still exist, and have grown and moved with the communities as we did.
Focus on Community, Hearth & Home, the Otherworld (an Saol Eile).
When people first walked this land, there were 2 seasons: summer and winter. They signified the change and move between camping grounds, as theirs was a Hunter/Gatherer lifestyle.
These times of moving and changing were dangerous and uncertain, and this still holds true in the primary Irish Pagan holidays of Bealtaine, and Samhain, which remain times of great change and uncertainty.
When the people settled, and began to farm the land, the seasons of Growth and Harvest were marked, with Imbolg and Lúnasa, and so began the 4 Fire Festivals.
[Download this Chart as a PDF Below]
Personally, I use the name Imbolg for this festival. That’s from the Irish i mBolg, meaning ‘in the belly’, for the pregnancy aspects (animals as well as humans, because if we get pregnant at Bealtaine we give birth around now). Imbolc is commonly used too though, and may have associations with washing or a ‘spring clean’ after winter, from Folc, meaning ‘bathe or wash’. I’m honestly not sure which language the term Oimelc comes from, though it’s been given to mean ‘ewe’s milk’. That would be Bainne na Caoirigh in modern Irish though, which doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
We have this clearly in old Irish as Belltaine (with various other spellings, the manuscripts weren’t always precise or standardised), meaning the month of May, or even ‘the month of the beacon-fire) according to the eDIL. It may have associations with an Old Celtic God Boleros, ‘the flashing one’ (Ó hÓgáin) or Balar/Balor in Ireland, he of the single, blazing destructive eye (often thought to be symbolic of the sun), and form the word Bealtaine from Balor’s Fire (tine).
There are multiple spellings out there, and I know some of them are based on the Gaelic language of Scotland, which I don’t speak. But as we still use the word Bealtaine in modern Irish for the month of May, and again – this is a living language, and it’d be great not to have to deal with bastardised or anglicised versions of it anymore please and thank you – let’s go with that eh?!
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Bealtaine
You’ll often see this written as Lughnasadh, and indeed, I’ve done so myself. As above though, I prefer the modern Irish spelling, and in Gaeilge, Lúnasa is the word for the month of August. I mean, I wasn’t joking about these Pagan holidays still being a part of our culture.
You’ll see references too, to Lammas, which we don’t have in modern Irish. My basic exploration of Old Irish suggests it MIGHT be a version of a ‘fine, handsome or excellent hand’ (from n. Lám and adj. Mass?)… but be warned, that is a very rudimentary look at a compound word! I definitely don’t use it as a Pagan Holiday name anyway.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Lúnasa
It’s not pronounced Sam-Hane. Never. I don’t care what your esteemed Elders passed down to you not-so-very-long-ago (in the grand scheme of things).
This is a LIVING LANGUAGE. Respect it, and the people who still speak it every day. Stop that Sam-Hane shit immediately.
It probably comes from the Old Irish samfuin, meaning ‘death of Summer’: eDIL. Samhain in modern Irish is the word for the month of November.
So yes, we know how to pronounce it properly. (Are you getting a sense for how many times I’ve had U.S. Pagans correct my pronunciation? Like, I’m not sure how to even communicate how infuriating that is, especially when it happens consistently!)
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Samhain
Focus on Community, Land & Sovereignty, this World (an Saol Sin – or Seo).
We know these times were important to our ancestors due, at least, to the sacred sites they constructed and used to observe and celebrate them. Massive monuments all over the island still attest to the power and value that was placed upon aligning ourselves, our communities, and our leadership, with these turning times of the Pagan year.
Please note: the common names Ostara, Litha, Mabon, and Yule, are at best culturally appropriated and co-opted into Neo Paganism, and at worst, carry entirely fabricated pseudo histories. I’m looking at you, Mabon.
They have NO place in native Irish paganism.
The Irish names below are simply the names of our seasons, as Gaeilge, and have always suited my personal practice around the Irish Pagan Holidays best.
[Download this Chart as a PDF Below]
The balance of day and night.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Earrach
Mid Summer, the longest day.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Samhradh
The balance of night and day.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Fómhar
Mid Winter, the longest night.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Geimhreadh
If you’d like more detail on any of the Irish Pagan Holidays, comment below and let me know. There’s already extensive sections in my books (see Publications – coming soon), but I can try and get some more blog posts and YouTube videos together for them if there’s an interest, and maybe even a wee course through our Irish Pagan School.
Let me know which of the Pagan holidays you want to see more on?!
Most of us will know, or at least know of, a child who attends a gaelscoil. These Irish language medium schools are those which function in accordance with the usual rules of the Department of Education, just like a regular school, except that Irish is the language of instruction and the language of communication amongst teachers, children and management.
In short, everybody speaks ‘as Gaeilge’, all the time. To quote the web site of the voluntary national organisation ‘Gaelscoileanna’;
“Irish is the living language of Irish-medium schools, both within the classroom and without.”
There were more than 30,000 pupils receiving all-Irish education in 158 primary schools and 36 post-primary schools (outside the Gaeltacht regions) in Ireland in 2006. With the opening of Gaelscoil Liatroma in County Leitrim, on 1st September 2005, all-Irish education at primary level was finally available in every county.
The first gaelscoil – Scoil Bhríde, in Ranelagh – opened it’s doors in 1917, and is still one of the 29 primary and 8 secondary gaelscoileanna which operate in Dublin.
What is the attraction of education through the Irish Language? I spoke to parents, teachers and pupils from around the country, to find out…
[Note: this article was first published in our national press, 2006]
In Ulster, 23 year old Community Artist Seán Pól Ó Fhlannigáin started attending an Irish nursery school in 1984. The primary school he attended was the only one in Northern Ireland at that time. Bunscoil Phobail Feirste is in west Belfast, where it first opened in 1971.
Seán was also a pupil at an Irish language secondary – Meanscoil Feirste, located on Bóthar na bhFal, or the Falls Road as it is more commonly known, from 1991 on. When it first opened it’s doors, there were 9 pupils. There are now over 600. Catering for an eclectic mix of races, religions and creeds, the Meanscoil is described as “a mixed school of non-denominational religion”.
Now receiving grant aid and state backing, Irish language schools in the North have come a long way from their beginnings. Like other gaelscoileanna, the first ones in Ulster were started by determined parents. As well as paying fees to cover the teacher’s salaries, buildings, and equipment, the parents did most other things within the schools.
This included driving and supervising on school buses, cooking for the pupils, and cleaning the schools. One resolute family made the journey from their home in Derry to the gaelscoil in Belfast every day, a round trip of 150 miles.
Seán says he knew growing up that his school was different, but that he always thought it to be different in a good way.
He would hear his peers complain about their teachers, and give them nick-names – while in his school the teachers were known by their first names. Although discipline was important, there didn’t seem to be the same animosity or rancour between teachers and pupils in the Gaelscoil.
His teachers also had huge interest in folk music and traditional sports, and so the extra curricular activities available were rich in Irish culture. He remembers little trouble arising from attending an Irish language school, even though Gaeilge is considered a foreign language in Northern Ireland, and there was a time when speaking it would have said more about your affiliations than your linguistic skills.
The UK government has now recognised that many of its citizens wish to educate their children through Irish, and has granted financial aid and status accordingly.
Seán finds his extra language skills to be a definite bonus to his teaching career, and he enjoys the ability to express himself in what he considers to be his native tongue. He still meets with friends who are also fluent Irish speakers, and can often be heard engaged in a comhrá when in his local pub.
In Munster, Catriona Ní Fhiachra has a 6 year old daughter, whom she decided to send to the local Gaelscoil Philib Barún, in Tramore, County Waterford.
She gives her reasons for choosing this school above others in the area; “There are small class sizes, which is important because it imparts a feeling of family and community. We get a good range of extra curricular activities, and there is better equipment and facilities than in a lot of other schools. There is the option, later on, of my daughter doing her Leaving Cert through Irish, and gaining extra points. And besides the benefits of gaelscoil educated children being able to pick up foreign languages very quickly, because they are used to multi-lingual study – it is important to keep our own language alive.”
Though not educated in a gaelscoil herself, she says the Irish she does have is all coming back to her now.
Catriona is very pleased with the caring attitudes of teachers, and with her daughter’s progress in the school. She says she wants her daughter to go to a school where “everybody knows your name.”
In Connacht, Orla Ní Chuinneagáin was interested in gaelscoileanna even before the new Roscommon bunscoil advertised for a principal in 1999. Having written her college thesis on Irish-medium schools, she was already aware of how things operated when she applied for, and won, the position.
She explained the process involved in starting up the gaelscoil; “There was a founding committee, of about 6 or 7 people, who were parents or would be parents. Just ordinary local people with an interest in Irish. With the bare minimum requirement of students, and temporary use of the Girl Guide’s centre as a premises, they raised funds through raffles and events, and received loans from parents (which have now been re-paid) to get things off the ground. The committee visited existing schools, and spoke to those who ran them, in Longford and Ballinasloe. The first planning meeting was in October 1999, they advertised for teachers in July 2000, and the school opened in September 2000.”
There is no government aid available until there are a minimum of 17 pupils and a premises, and even then it is only a temporary sanction at first – they help with 75% of the rent.
For anybody wishing to start a gaelscoil in their area, Orla offers the following advice; “Talk to parents who have already done it. Look around established schools, and get advice and aid from the ‘Gaelscoileanna’ organisation (www.gaelscoileanna.ie). You will need to apply a year in advance of your proposed opening date. Make sure you have the numbers required, and meet the government standards – they are getting stricter on that now.”
Gaelscoil de hÍde, County Roscommon, moved to a new premises with a long term lease, and proudly opened its doors to 98 pupils in September 2005.
In Leinster, Cillian Ó Síaghail recently graduated from Scoil Oilibhéir in Dublin. Although the school is only 5 minutes from his house, the closest one available, there was just one other child from his housing estate in attendance with him.
When asked if he ever got a hard time from other kids about going to a Gaelscoil, he replied; “They just asked me if we had to do everything in Irish. I’d say that we do, and they’d just say – hate that! They thought Irish was really hard.”
And yet, having grown up with an older sister and brother who also attended the Gaelscoil, he was quite used to the language and didn’t find it a problem. In fact, he feels quite confident about his future Junior and Leaving Cert exams in the subject.
I was dying to know, after his total immersion, did Cillian actually LIKE Irish? His response speaks volumes; “I’m glad that I know the nation’s real language.”
Pádraig Pearse maintained that a country without language is a country without soul – “Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam”. He might rest easier knowing that at least 30,000 children are more comfortable with our nation’s language, thanks to their Gaelscoileanna.