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.
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.
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?!
‘Worties’ was the common name in Ireland, from the English ‘wortes’, which were vegetable greens and members of the onion family, such as cabbage leaves, spinach, beet greens, leeks, wild garlic leaves and so on, as well as some of the leafy herbs used for seasonings, like borage, parsley, and sage.
When cooked together with butter, and the leftover bread added to soften and soak up the flavoured butter, a delicious mess of goodness is created, and this we still call Worties.
Believe it or not, this was a very popular dish at our living history re-enactments, particularly with the kids! They just can’t get enough of it, even the ones whose parents swear they wouldn’t let a green leaf touch their lips at home. I guess when you cook anything in enough butter it’s going to taste good.
From England in the 1400s, we see the description of “A Dish of Cooked Greens”. The original recipe runs like this:
“Buttered Wortes. Take al manor of good herbes that thou may gete, and do bi ham as is forsaid; putte hem on þe fire with faire water; put þer-to clarefied buttur a grete quantite. Whan thei ben boyled ynough, salt hem; late none otemele come ther-in. Dise brede small in disshes, and powre on þe wortes, and serue hem forth.”
(by Thomas Austin, from Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books: Harleian MS. 279 & Harl. MS. 4016)
In other words, it can be read:
Our recipe uses 2 sweetheart cabbages, shredded or chopped to bite-size pieces, and a whole bulb of garlic, with each clove peeled and finely chopped. We get a large pot over an open fire (but your stove top will do just fine), melt a block of butter (about a lb) in there, and add the garlic to simmer. Throw in the cabbage, and sure if you’ve any other stray green leaves to use up you can toss them in there too. You could season with a little salt, but unless your butter is unsalted to start with, the extra is not really necessary.
Once the greens are softening but not mushy, we’d take a whole loaf of bread, break or chop it up, take the pot of greens off the heat and stir the bread right in with them. Tip it all out into a big serving bowl, or individual portions, and you’re done.
I should probably note a few things:
Worties would have been served as a side for meats in a main meal, and as a lunchtime or even breakfast meal to use up the previous day’s bread.
Indeed, there’s many a working man and woman who was coming home to some variation of the Worties dish after a hard day’s work in Ireland right up til the 1900s, and I’m sure it’s served up on Irish lunch and dinner tables even to this day!
Fadó, fadó, sure there were only the 2 seasons in Ireland. Summer and Winter.
Even after things moved on, for people, and for the land, these main boundaries in time loomed large every year for the Irish people.
And the turning between the two was a time of magic, and mayhem… you’d never even know what could happen as the boundaries shifted and the worlds changed.
At Samhain, from Summer into Winter; and again at Bealtaine, from Winter back to Summer.
So, here we are now, on that very threshold. What is the magic that might happen, on May Eve (now often called Beltane) in Ireland?
Long time ago now, the young children – especially girls – used to go around from house to house dressed in beautiful flowers. Think about the other side of this, with the Halloween customs we still have, and you’ll see the truth and the balance of it alright. These youngsters used to sing a song at each house, and get a few pence in exchange. They’d sing and bring flowers through the community, all the way around the boundaries.
You could do a bit of divination too, around May eve, if you were of a mind to. First sweep the threshold clean, sprinkle ashes from a fire over it, and watch for the first footprints. If you see the prints turned inwards, it means a marriage; but if you see the prints turned outwards, it means a death.
There’s talk to, of how they used to get a plate and sprinkle it with flour, then leave it at the threshold of the house. At sunset, take a look, and you would see the initials of your true love’s name.
In the old days, they’d also light a bush before the house on May Eve, and that would keep away thunder and lightning. ‘Twas sure to.
Folk would sit up at night on this eve, to be minding their cows and their land – there was a lot of witchcraft worked in those days. And maybe there still is sure, who knows?
One farmer I heard tell of had the experience of seeing a hare one May Eve going around his cows, and drinking a sup of milk from each cow. He chased the hare to a cabin with a hound he had with him. When he went into the cabin an old woman was panting in the bed. There’s a lot of stories like that I heard, when I was growing up here in Ireland.
They used also light a fire on May Eve too, and drive their cows over it. Or two bonfires side by side, and the cattle had to go between them. So close that the hide on them would be singed and the tang of burnt hair was strong on the breeze. In certain places, some would even be taken to the hilltops and bled; as an offering to the Old Ones, or to let out the bad humours… who knows why?
If there was a pond of water between two farmers, both farmers would try to be out early to skim the pond before the other got to it. They’d have to say the right words too: “North and South and East and West is mine”, or it wouldn’t even work, and their neighbour would get it all instead.
Then – to protect from all this magical influence going round and about at Bealtaine, you’d go and gather armful of yellow flowers. Or send the young girls of the house to do it, and these flowers were simply 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. They’d keep away all sorts; the ill-luck, evil spirits, and disease.
Sure you’d never know what’s out and about on May Eve in Ireland.
It’s been suggested a couple of times that I should get on ‘the other side of the interview’, and talk about my own Irish Spirituality, and Pagan or magical practices. So recently I queried my Community for their questions on Irish Paganism and Spirituality (or my history/practice in particular). Then I went on FB Live and recorded the Video, which you’ll see below.
Morgan Daimler what is your favorite subject to teach or write about and why?
Morgan Daimler What do you think is the best way for someone to get started with Irish Spirituality, and how can a person (anywhere) avoid the usual pitfalls of bad information while building an understanding of the spirituality and the Gods and spirits?
Mac Tíre Would you have any advice specifically with regards to connecting to deity (even more specifically An Morrigan) E.g. like what you were saying in your interview with Oein DeBhairduin about contracts. Also appropriate offerings and what NOT to do.
Cat O’Sullivan Sometimes no matter how hard you try to avoid it you end up having to deal with the other crowd (the Good Neighbours, The Sidhe, the Irish Fairies). What would you recommend. Bargain, banter or banish?
Teididh McElwaine Question: Could you recommend how to wisely pursue like-minded, serious people in our respective communities? Thanks! (eg. Pagan community building)
Victoria Danger Yay! What parts of your devotion/practice/spirituality are centered on joy? Tell us about the parts that are fun or feel good 😊
Gemma McGowan Apart from teaching, writing and political activism (which I know is already a lot!!!) what other areas do your Gods ask you to actively work in e.g. Devotional practice, ritual, healing, specific types of magical work?
Cheryl Baker What does daily/weekly/monthly practice look like for you?
Marocatha Bodua Brigiani I’d love to hear you talk about magic vs religion in Irish spirituality – are those pieces separate for you, are they not separate, how do they integrate or not in your practice.
Branwen Stephanie Rogers Aside from the lore and researching, what do you consider foundational to your practice and spiritual well being?
J-me Fae What is a practice that you, personally, would like to see folks outside of Ireland integrating into their work on Irish Spirituality? What do people do that most honors the gods and land you love?
SallyRose Rivers Robinson What altar items do you see as making up an Irish Spiritual altar? Is there specific things that should be there? Specific things that shouldn’t? Is it strictly personal choices?
Pamela Holcombe Question: I hear you say you found yourself Wondering around the Otherworld many times throughout your life before you understood the way of traveling there so curious what your most profound experience was there or scary interesting experience was? Also I find that I sometimes end up on my island in my dreams and travel around in the other world in my dreams do you do that also and do you think it’s pretty much like a journey we do awake?
Izzy Swanson What Carl Jung book would you read first? I printed a list of his collected works. My head may explode. I am most interested in his definition of the psychopomp.
Darla Majick What do you think about The Morrigan whiskey? I have it on our Morrigan Altar and love the bottle. Its not the best whiskey out there but it’s definitely not the worst. Ive blessed and cleansed ours before just putting in on Her altar. WE did ask her if she liked it and we did not get a negative response from her
Alanna Butler GallagherHave you ever tried to draw what you saw (in the Otherworld, ref. Pamela’s Q above)? That experience illustrated sounds like it would be a learning point for other people to not do that type of thing for the craic 🤔
J-me Fae Do you have any specific recommendations for parents looking to support their kids in building authentic connection with Ireland? I read the stories to them, share *some* of what I am doing with them (but I’m wary there), and we are all learning Irish together, but at least one of them is hungry for more
The Longest Night.
A woman sits by her fire, wrapped in a blanket to keep out the chill, watching the flames in the quiet of a room.
Her house is silent around her, family sleeping as she waits. Lights burn through the darkest hours.
When the deep blackness begins to lessen, she makes her way outside, searching the horizon.
A shaft of light appears, a bright lance across the land – winter is broken… Summer will return.
She smiles, then returns inside, sticks on the kettle and hops in the shower, before driving herself to work.
What? Did you think we were looking at a scene from long ago? Perhaps, but come the 21st of December, this ancient ritual will be repeated in houses all over Ireland. Meán Geimhridh, Midwinter, brings a vigil through the darkness, waiting for the new-born sun.
Irish people have been marking the return of the sun for at least 5,000 years. We have built vast and complex monuments around it, and not just Newgrange. You don’t even have to be a politician or lucky in the Winter Solstice lottery to see these wonders of a by-gone age.
Knockroe Passage tomb in Co. Kilkenny, which has been called ‘the Newgrange of the Southeast’, is a fine example, which contains extensive megalithic art, and not one, but two, chambers with astrological alignments; showing light through the chambers at both sunrise and sunset on the Winter Solstice. Or take a look at Drombeg Circle in Co. Cork, a beautiful ring of standing stones which frames a flat topped rock, aligning to the horizon where the sun sets on the Longest Night.
Many traditions, now associated with Christmas and the holiday season, have their origins in the pre-Christian past. We are lucky now to have such a beautiful blend of customs, fitted exactly to the Irish psyche and community spirit.
In bringing the evergreen tree inside, we remind ourselves of life within the seeming death of winter, of sustenance and growth that continues through the darkest times. Plants such as holly and ivy compliment this theme, and not forgetting mistletoe, which was especially sacred to our Druidic ancestors as a fertility symbol. Be careful who you kiss under the mistletoe at this year’s parties!
Decorating the tree with candles, and reflective items such as mirrors and silver coins, in the past stood for an amplification of the natural energies of the living greenery; bringing more light and life to the darkness, throwing it around the room. Today we use dodgy flickering fairy lights, glitter and tinsel, but the principle is the same. And safer, for the inevitable puppy or toddler tree attacks.
Green is the colour of life, and health, but so too is red – the bright blood of life that flows through our veins, keeping our hearts beating and our senses alive. Before a certain drinks company decided it’d look great on the jolly fat guy with the beard, the colour red was valued as a decoration and a reminder of life throughout our homes for the Winter Solstice season.
Wren Day, or Lá an Dreoilín in Irish, was continued until recent times on Stephen’s Day, with troupes of kids (known as wrenboys) going round the village or town with a fake bird on a decorated stick, singing or dancing and asking ‘a penny for the wren’. A little further back, we see a more grizzly form of this, in the hunting and capture of a live bird, which was then used to decorate the pole and held pride of place as a centrepiece for the dance that followed.
In a time of sickness and death for the weak, this may be an echo of an older sacrifice to the Gods of Winter; take one life and spare the others through the darkness until the coming of Spring. Or with the ‘winter-wren’ being a symbol of the old year, maybe the people simply wanted to make sure that it was well and truly done with.
The singing and dancing part of that tradition is pleasant, at least, and brings us to another Winter Solstice favourite, the feasting and the parties. This is one that most of us keep up, to one degree or another, and having a good party to look forward to can get us through the darkest, coldest mornings.
Winter is the time we naturally draw in on ourselves, it can be the loneliest, harshest time of year. It’s not just the cold that brings us down, it’s the lack of light, and company. In days gone by there was a serious food scarcity through the dark winter days too – but a bright feast, filled with family and friends, was the perfect reminder that the time of dark death still held strong seeds of light and life.
So, enjoy your parties!
I hope you’re keeping well.
My name is Lisa [xxxxx] and I’m a freelance journalist for the Irish [xxxxx]. I am currently working on a Halloween special for the newspaper and I would like to include a feature on modern Irish women who practice witchcraft.
I was wondering if you might be interested in speaking to me about this? The questions will just be about how you got interested in witchcraft, explaining what it’s about, how you became interested in it, what role it plays in your everyday life, its benefits for you, etc. and hopefully debunking any old-fashioned ideas readers might have about it!
If you’re interested let me know, I would love to speak with you.
Lisa – 13th October 2016
Sure I’m interested but as a fellow freelancer I should inform you I may not be what you’re looking for.
I go by the native term Draoí rather than witch, and my magic/spiritual practice are as close to indigenous pre Christian ways as I can figure. I’m about the archaeology of ancient sites and authentic translations of old Irish manuscripts rather than black cats and broomsticks. The reality of native Irish “witchcraft” doesn’t lend itself well to photo ops 😉
Of course being unaware of the query you’ve had accepted, this might still be aligned. In which case, I’d be happy to chat to you. I’m presenting at Octocon in Dublin on saturday, or can do a phone call at a mutually convenient time. Mornings are best for me.
The modern definition of the term is a little muddied, but technically the word Draoí means: druid, wizard, magician, augur, diviner. In practice, for me, it means that I follow the native spirituality and magic of Ireland as closely as I can in my everyday. This means that my worldview and actions are informed and shaped by the indigenous wisdom of our ancestral heritage, as far as that is possible.
Yes, those practices come from the same roots as my own work, and there are similarities.
For divination or information seeking purposes I don’t use Tarot cards (though I did learn to read them, and even did so professionally a long time ago!), but rather a personal method of Journeying to the Otherworld (similar to the shamanic techniques in other native and tribal cultures) for guidance and clarification, combined on occasion with tools from our culture such as Ogham staves, or a simple 3 Stone method as described in our historical manuscripts.
Irish Magic is a very broad topic (and one which I’m currently writing a book on for a US publisher), but yes. The practice of magic and specific spells are described from our most ancient historical texts right through to Irish Christian folklore. While it is distinct from my spiritual beliefs, it does run hand in hand.
I’ve always been fascinated by the myth and magic of our stories, from childhood on, as well as having an affinity and reverence for the natural world. These things form the foundation of my path as a Draoí. Consciously though, I began to identify as ‘Pagan’ from the age of 16 when I read a book and realised there was a name for what I believed and felt, and other people who felt the same! I studied all I could about modern Paganism by myself, until I could contact others at the age of 18 (nobody reputable will seriously teach or even talk to a child or teenager), and found a group I could work with to learn more. Though there wasn’t anybody publicly teaching or sharing authentic spiritual connection to specifically Irish practice back then – and wasn’t didn’t really change until I published my first book in 2004! – I studied everything I could about earth based spirituality and magic world-wide, and built my own system and techniques that fit with what I was feeling and experiencing on the ground here.
I really got involved with our sacred sites and places of power in my twenties, and went on to guide at and manage one of our most important archaeological complexes, Rathcroghan in County Roscommon, for 8 years. Following this path has – literally – changed my life. I went from a very disturbed, anxious and troubled teenager who felt increasingly isolated and desperate, to a useful dedicated person who writes, teaches, guides, counsels, supports, speaks publicly all over the world, and has a genuine purpose in bringing those who wish to connect to Ireland the opportunities to do so in an authentic way. Plus we have a bit of craic while we’re at it. The benefits, to me and to those I help every day, are immeasurable.
When I had children, then moved to Roscommon, a lot of my community interaction moved online out of necessity. Now that I work a lot with people who aren’t physically in Ireland, or who can’t travel regularly to me or to the sites that I visit, that online contact remains a huge factor for me. Personally, I work alone rather than as part of a group – but I can’t stress enough how vital the role of community is in the practice of native Irish spirituality. Ireland is a small island, and I’ve been active in the Pagan community here now for over 20 years, so I know a lot of folk who form the basis of that community, and we talk, meet and share on a regular basis. And with the huge growth in interest in the last 10 years particularly, there are teaching and social events all over the country.
I live in Waterford now, and I’ve just started a social monthly meet-up locally, the Waterford Pub Moot, but there are events like that every month in counties all across Ireland. There are annual events and gatherings such as Féile Draíochta in Dublin (which myself and Barbara Lee organised and ran for 13 years), and Eigse Spiriod Ceilteach in Wicklow. And for those who can’t make it to events or sites in Ireland in person, I run a monthly community ‘club’ on Patreon which facilitates authentic sharing and connection to Ireland.
I’ve been public about my practice for a very long time now, and as a writer I’ve been on the internet since way back in the day, so yeah, I’ve received some really oddball requests. People who are hurting, or even just selfish, think that magic can solve all their problems, land them their dreams with no effort, or take their pain away. Of course, it doesn’t work that way. Like every other area of this existence, you have to do the work yourself to get the result.
I’ve been ‘out’ about who I am and what I do since I became consciously aware of it – back when I was 16. It gave me so much hope, support, and joy every day that I wouldn’t have been able to hide it even if I’d wanted to, and I never did want to anyway. I’ve never felt the need to introduce myself on first meeting as a Pagan or a Draoí, no more than regularly minded folk do that about their Christianity, but it’s not hard for people to discern for themselves before long. Or they just Google me and it all pops up.
The reaction has been mixed through the years, but for the most part it’s positive. People are curious and interested, even if they don’t understand it, and the most common response is to share their own (or their family’s) experience and stories of the ‘supernatural’ – the fairy fort or the banshee or the odd little folk habits and observations that Granny had. That’s the foundation for what I am doing, and it’s very relatable to the vast majority of Irish people, our spiritual and even magical heritage is only just under the surface.
The catholic church has had a stranglehold on Irish spirituality for a very long time, and though our ancestors found many ways to weave and blend their native faith into the new one, the church has always been jealous of our attention. As that hold releases, slowly but surely, I do believe that our people will begin to feel the call of the land more strongly, and build healthier communities where spiritual expression and practice is an open, fluid thing that serves the very real needs of the people, not the desires of any one organisation.
Samhain is the original Irish festival which has become our modern Halloween, a time of huge importance to our ancestors which remains probably the biggest time of change and growth and celebration to modern practitioners.
Personally, I observe and celebrate Samhain from the dark moon to the dark moon, and not just on the calendar date we have now. So I will begin in the Cave at Rathcroghan (traditionally given as the entrance to the Irish Otherworld, and home of the Goddess Morrigan) on the dark moon before the 31st, and continue with personal ritual and celebration on a regular basis until the dark moon in November.
No, it’s not ok to pronounce it Sam-Hane…
“How can I be substantial if I do not cast a shadow? I must have a dark side also if I am to be whole” ? C.G. Jung
In Irish (Gaeilge), it’s pronounced Sow-wen, with sow as in female pig. It’s a word that has a huge cultural and historical foundation as well as a place in modern spoken Irish language as the calendar word for the month of November.
You don’t get to just take someone else’s heritage and language and change the pronunciation because it’s ‘how you’ve always said it’. Don’t do that.
Out of all the Pagan festivals, this one is most specificially rooted in Irish traditions, and is perhaps the most bastardised by modern culture around ‘Halloween’… so forgive my grumpiness? As Pagans, we can do better. So let’s start by saying it right.
(Unless you’re Scottish; they got their own pronunciation stuff going on.)
Samhain time, for me, runs Dark Moon to Dark Moon. As most of you will know by now, the Goddess I work for is kinda dark. Known for it like. We see lots of quotes and comments around at this time of year about facing the darkness, and coming through it to the light, and I get that. I do. Some of that is due to the turning of summer to winter of course, but there’s also a whole pile of crap about living in the light only, and that’s not right.
Why is darkness a bad thing?
I live in the darkness. This is where the real magic happens, the formative creation.
Can the light catch that first push from inside the seed? The first unseen growth always happens in the darkness – the plan is formed, the form is set, the energy is gathered.
Samhain, in Irish lore, is the shifting time from summer into winter, from light to dark. Historically, it’s the time of year that outside active summer work and chores change to inside passive winter work, planning and preparing.
Sam and Gam are the 2 words in old Irish which denote summer and winter – the original seasonal shift going back to days when the hunter gatherer people of Ireland changed from summer to winter camps as part of their annual tribal cycles. Before industry, before agriculture, before settlement… our ancestors were between their seasonal worlds at this time of the year.
That time of change can be dangerous. While we move, before things settle into their new patterns, we can lose our way. Change is especially difficult for the vulnerable in a tribe – old comforts and security lost, new spaces bring new dangers, seen and unseen. The old, the young, the sick and the weak, all at risk as we shift and move towards settling down again.
And when we are moving from light towards darkness? Respect is due and care should be taken, for human form is somewhat fragile in body and mind. Between times, between places, is the boundary. The liminal space that holds stronger magic.
Magic is change, and change is inherent in between.
So Samhain, from the oldest times in Ireland, is a dangerous, magical time. When we moved to agriculture, tough decisions had to be made with supplies set to dwindle during the winter, on what animals would live and what would die. Perhaps even for the people, in lean years the best rations had to be set aside for the strongest to survive, so facing the dark year could mean facing your death.
Thoughts still turn to death in earnest at this festival, with our subconscious and even ancestral memories influencing our conscious minds. This naturally brings about memories of those who have ready passed through to the Otherworld from this one.
Many homes in Ireland still lay the ‘dumb supper’ – the placement of one full meal on Samhain night (that is, the 31st), at the family’s table. This usually consisted of a dinner in the evening, with an empty chair available, for any passing spirits who might drop in. The windows and doors are left unlocked all night (by those who deem it safe to do so, now).
These customs are given as a sign of welcome for the ancestors that are about at this time of year. The extra meal is left outside when the family has finished their meal. None of the living may consume the food meant for the dead; it was said that they would be barred from partaking of it after their own death if they were greedy enough to touch it while living.
The theme of honouring the dead, and aiding them in any way possible, is very prominent – maybe because of the significant reminder that as we are coming into the time of death, it may be us who pass on before too long. There may have been an element of hedging our bets, so to speak, by being polite and utterly respectful to the dead spirits, and the spirits of death, at this time.
For your own practice this year, why not take the time between the dark moon just before Samhain, to the dark moon after (you can find your local phases of the moon here) and set up an altar to your ancestors – either physical bloodlines or spiritual/community? Those elders and ancients who have made an impact on your life, who you would like to honour at this time when they are close enough to more easily commune with.
Will your ancestor altar be indoors or outdoors? What will you put on your altar – pictures, memorabilia, items that remind your senses of that person? How will you observe a practice at the altar each day – what will you say or do before it?
If you are making offerings, think about things that involve a little work or sacrifice on your part, not just cheap wine from the shops that has no relevance to them or meaning for you.
An offering can be a physical item that you place by the altar in observance and respect, or it can be an act you perform – volunteering at a charity relevant to them for example – or work you do that they would appreciate, that honours their spirit.
Why not post about your altar or offering ideas and descriptions in the comments, and share your seasonal observances with the community for Samhain time? We’d love to hear from you!