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.
The Wheel of the Year
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 Fire Festivals – with Community elements, but a focus on Hearth & Home, and the Otherworld.
- The Cross Quarters – with Community elements, but a focus on the Land & Sovereignty, and this World.
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.
Irish Pagan Holidays – the Fire Festivals
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.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Bolg or https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Folc
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.
It’s most likely connected to the Old God Lugh, (lug in old Irish can be ‘magnificent, heroic, warlike’: eDIL), and Lugnasad is ‘the festival of Lugh, the first of August’: eDil.
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
Irish Pagan Holidays – the Cross Quarters
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]
EARRACH – THE SPRING EQUINOX
The balance of day and night. The Vernal Equinox in Irish is Cónocht an Earraigh.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Earrach
SAMHRADH – THE SUMMER SOLSTICE
Mid Summer, the longest day. The Summer Solstice in Irish is Grianstad an tSamhraidh.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Samhradh
FÓMHAR – THE AUTUMN EQUINOX
The balance of night and day. The Autumn Equinox in Irish is Cónocht an Fhómhair.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Fómhar
GEIMHREADH – THE WINTER SOLSTICE
Mid Winter, the longest night. The Winter Solstice in Irish is Grianstad an Gheimhridh.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Geimhreadh
[Click to Download FREE Gift – both Diagram Charts as a PDF – No Email Required!]
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?!
41 thoughts on “Irish Pagan Holidays”
I really appreciate this. Always felt I instinctively that terms such as Ostara, Manon etc were wrong wrong, wrong.
I have been a long-time fan of your work and think this may now be one of my favorite posts from your blog. Thank you, as always, for the clear information! You are a great communicator.
I am by no means fluent in modern Irish but I am in the process of becoming so (granted, at an early stage haha). Would you mind horribly answering a grammatical question? When you refer to the phrase ‘this world’ as an saol sin why do you use ‘sin’ instead of ‘seo’?
I hadn’t thought about it… Good question!
Seo is probably more grammatically correct, maybe?! But I think it’s personally because I don’t necessarily feel very grounded in this world. So it becomes separate from me too.
You communicate things in such clear, succinct ways. This is probably the best I have ever seen or heard the Irish pagan holidays explained. Thank you!
Thank you for this! I actually and honestly had no idea that Mabon, Ostara, litha and Yule were culturally appropriated terms, and celebrations. I’ve been doing it unknowingly. And so… Time to change. Thank you for educating me, I’m glad I stopped upon this post before getting too far.
I appreciate this website and the information you’re sharing with pagans interested in Irish culture. Go raibh maith agat!
Re: Cross Quarters
But those are the names of the seasons. Wouldn’t it be more accurate/in spirit to use the Irish for say, midsummer instead of summer?
Meitheamh an tSamhraidh nó Samhradh?
If that’s what you want to do, go for it! For the purposes of this basic beginner’s education, I decided to keep it very simple.
Great article. Ditto on the Samhain rant! I’d like more info on the individual festivals as you mentioned 🙂
Great article. It’s a gift to learn from you. Go raibh maith agat. <3
thanks for information. im just curious are you from northern Ireland or the republic? really don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.
I grew up between Dublin and Clare, spent some time in Belfast but not lived there, lived in Roscommon for near 15 years, and we’re now based in Waterford. Since you asked.
An excellent article, thank you! Two notes: First, “Lammas” comes from Old English, not Old Irish, so it makes sense there’s no modern Irish equivalent. It meant Loaf Mass, and was the Christian Mass where the bread from the first harvest was blessed. Why modern pagans use that name, I don’t know. Maybe they can’t spell Lughnasadh.
I get why you do it here and in the cultural context it makes sense, but it would probably be worth noting in your article that when non-Irish pagans talk about cross-quarter days, they are talking about the fire festivals, Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lunasa and Samhain, not the equinoxes and solstices. The solar events are the quarter days and the fire festivals are cross-quarter days in the standard Wheel of the Year.
If I live in the south (brazil) I follow the wheels in different dates? Here people were now celebrating imbolg (august 1st), but I don’t know if it fits in irish paganism.
I always used the terms Equinox and Solstice for the for those four. I didn’t know the proper pronunciations and I didn’t want to get caught up in a stuttering fit while mid working. I’m a practical girl; it seemed stupid to say words in a ritual space that I didn’t know. I’ve never met a US Pagan say ‘Sam-hane’ and the Pagans I do know would be ready to throw down anyone who would correct an Irish woman.
I have a friend who identifies as Wiccan (we are both American), and she insists on saying Sam-hane. I know she knows how to say it, because she slips up once in a while and says it right. But I think she thinks it’s cute. Sets my teeth on edge.
Thank you so much especially for the pronunciations! I would not have a clue otherwise.
So there is a lot of information out there on Samhain, Imbolg, Lunasa and Bealtaine. Much less on the solar holidays. Except of course, Winter Solstice, but even then, many traditions seem to be German rather than Irish. Some blogs on the solar holidays would be helpful.
This was perfect, I would love to hear more on each. Thank you
Do you have any book recommendations for the Holy Days? Everything I can find is about the neo-pagan versions of them, which I don’t follow at all.
I was curious about how exactly to celebrate a holiday like Samhain. Is there a sacrifice that I should make? Is there a particular prayer or set of prayers that should be made? I’m very new to this & I want to get it right
Go raibh maith agat agus sláinte duit!
There’s a whole class on it here – https://irishpaganschool.com/p/ritual-samhain
This was very insightful! Thank you for the great information. I’d love to know more about the Summer Solstice.
It is wild to me, as a Pagan living outside of Eire, that anyone would correct your pronunciation—and I mean that as a “wow that is so disrespectful” and not “I don’t believe you” for the record haha.
I always have heard that the holidays of Imbolg, Bealtaine, Lunasa, and Samhain were lunar holidays to balance the cross quarters as solar holidays too. There has been some talk that some celebrate Imbolg on the First Quarter Moon closest to the beginning of February, Bealtaine on the Full moon closest to the first of May, Lunasa on the Last Quarter Moon closest to the first of August, and Samhain on the New Moon closest to the first of November. What are your thoughts on this? I can’t find any research to back this up (except celebrating Samhain on a Dark Moon). It seems plausible since agriculture follows the moons that these holidays would as well but figuring out when they may have done it is challenging. I wonder though if the entire months of May, August and November carry the holiday names that they would happen on the old lunar beginnings of the month. Again scholars can’t agree but since the full moon looks full for 3 days and the new moon looks dark for 3 days that the First Quarter moon might have been a good choice (somewhere I read that Pliny mentioned they started their months 7 days after the dark moon). This would mean the Gibbous and full moon would be the light half of the month with the crescent and dark moon being the dark half of the month, much like Samhain and Bealtaine being the dark and light halves of the year? I would love to hear your thoughts about all this.