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?!
Some of the most common questions on Irish Pagan Beliefs I see, revolve around the Pagan Altar. What is it? How do you make one? What direction should a Pagan Altar face?!
I figure it might be useful to show you what I do, as a starting point. (Spoiler alert, there’s no pentagrams! The post image was a RUSE!) So, here’s mine, currently, and my answers to a few of those questions besides.
Back, left to right:
Front, left to right:
Not pictured, see the video for… Offerings glass, painted and gifted by my Witch Sister, Rhiannon, who died a long time ago and is still missed every day, and remembered every time I see it. 💔 Also, Blackthorn branches and Crow feathers collected during my Monthly Site Visits, which are in containers up above, on either side of my Pagan Altar.
As you can see, this isn’t too difficult.
I found the chest in a second hand shop for about 20 quid, and the drawers make handy storage for candles, lighters, and other assorted shite.
Fire is vital when practicising Irish Pagansim, in my opinion, as the hearth and home fires are SO much a part of our culture (and for many other reasons which are beyond the scope of this post… ask me in the comments if you’ve any questions!). So, be sure to have some sort of live flame on there whenever possible.
Connection to place is very important too, so have something that represents the place/s that are important in your practice.
Representation of deity is good – seriously though, don’t get caught up on finding the ‘perfect’ statue or painting. It probably doesn’t exist, to be honest. The gods are essentially formless, and anything after that is us trying to visualise them so that we can build relationship. Stick to the basics as you begin, and see what develops over time.
Ritual tools are optional, depending on your tradition and practice. I have 2 really large carved walking staffs, one bog oak and one yew, that obviously don’t fit on my Pagan altar. I have an athame with a carved Blackthorn handle, that was very special to me when I was an 18 year old in a Traditional Wiccan Coven, but doesn’t have a place in my current native Irish practice.
The most important thing for any Pagan altar is to find and use items that are special to you, that make sense to you.
I don’t even know what direction my altar is facing.
That compass is purely symbolic… I’m probably dyspraxic, and spend a lot of my magical life (and far too much of my mundane life) wandering in and out of the Otherworld. I very rarely know what direction I’m facing in this world!
Unless it’s a specific part of your tradition (in Alexandrian Trad Wicca as I was initially trained, for example, it goes in the North), it doesn’t matter what direction your Pagan Altar is facing.
Just put it wherever works for you, in your home, so you can see and connect with it every single day. I promise, that’s more important than getting it ‘right’ by anyone else’s standards or rules.
As I said, connect with it every day, in some way.
Some days, that will be giving it a bit of a dust or a tidy, and maybe lighting a tealight/votive candle.
Other days, you might be sitting in front of it for an hour or more, using divination or Journeying, perhaps for communicating with a God or Goddess.
And sometimes you may do rituals – like celebrating the seasonal cycles, rites of passage, or devotion to Deity – and decorate it with extra special or symbolic items for the duration.
These are all good uses of a Pagan Altar, and if you’re working alone, or just starting to figure out your Irish Pagan practice, experiement with what seems right for you.
Take notes, keep a record; watch for patterns over time and improve as you go.
Seriously though. Do something every day.
Irish Pagan Practice (or any Pagan practice, to be honest, but especially the Irish stuff) is about building relationship. To do this, you need to show up consistently, and do the Work.
It doesn’t always have to be big work, or important work, or hard work. But it’s all part of the Work.
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
Being Pagan in Ireland is a little different, I think, than being Pagan anywhere else.
We’re an odd lot, and we value individual strength, as long as it doesn’t upset the apple cart of family/community tradition, or give the neighbours anything bad to talk about.
I’m a… well, I don’t actually have a label that fits what I am or what I do, and that’s fairly reflective of Irish Paganism generally.
I’m an Irish heritage professional, a journalist, copywriter, a guide, an author – all things I’ve done or still do for my ‘day job’.
Personally, the term Draoi is the closest accurate description I’ve got, a ‘user of magic’.
Traditionally I might have been called a Bean Feasa (wise woman), but it seems a little arrogant to take that on for oneself. Before that, perhaps a Druid, though modern Druidry is very different to what that word means to me.
I am spiritual, but not religious, and I have a solid working relationship with the Gods, Guides and Guardians of old Ireland, and our sacred places.
How does all that translate into today’s Irish Christmas?
Most folk here go to mass on the eve or day, even if it’s only their token attendance of the year.
Besides the fact of the Catholic Church in Ireland essentially stopping anybody from leaving their organisation (is it just me, or is that a little cult-like? Illegal, even?) – Irish people are still stuck in ‘the done thing’, so babies are baptised, kids make communion and confirmation, and most people still get married in the church.
Many of us know that Winter Solstice is a much older tradition than our modern Christmas.
There’s the world famous Newgrange alignment, and the new but old City of Dublin Winter Solstice Celebration, with much more going on around the country, publicly and formalised just in the last few years.
Before that, you’d have to know someone who knows someone to get a personal invite to a genuine celebration rooted in Irish Spirituality.
So, raising kids in Ireland, interacting with non-Pagan friends and family, working, and all that jazz, you kinda have to do the Christmas thing, to some extent at least. But Winter Solstice is still a big deal, and getting more so.
How do we Irish Pagans handle that?
We have a party.
Every year, on the Saturday before Christmas. We invite everybody we know. We start late afternoon, and carries on til the wee small hours.
This is the time of year we acknowledge the deepest and longest darkness, and make a point of balancing it with the lights of food and fire and feasting, family and friends.
And every year, I take a personal vigil through the longest night, to greet the sun the following morning. It’s a mark of respect, a point of sacrifice, and a time for quiet reflection on the balance of dark and light in my life, in my spirit. Time to adjust as necessary.
Do I think the sun won’t rise unless I am there to greet it? No, not as such… but I guess it doesn’t hurt to be sure, right?
You’re welcome ;o)
Have a Cool Yule folks, a Peaceful and Blessed Winter Solstice, and a Happy Christmas – wherever you are, whoever you’re with, and whatever you believe in.
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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!
When I first went ‘public’ with this over 3 years ago, it seemed a novel idea to many folks, and maybe a little bit… extreme or some shit?
But it’s always made sense to me, for a few reasons:
So, this is how it works.
I check for the astronomical data on new moons on Irish time in October and November.
The night before a listed new moon is the dark moon – there’s usually a 3 day period of ‘New Moon’ that’s actually the very last sliver of the old moon, then the dark moon, then the very first sliver of the new moon.
The dates are simple and clear this year (2017), the New Moon is Thursday 19th October at 8.36pm Irish Time, so tomorrow is the Dark Moon – Wednesday 18th. In November, the New Moon is on Saturday 18th at 7.51am, so the Dark Moon on Friday 17th, and that clearly encompasses the calendar date of 31st October in the middle.
Sometimes the dates are a little less clear, so I always just pick the dark moon to dark moon that has the 31st October somewhere in there between them.
Mostly, my practice involves showing up consistently. It’s one of my ‘3 Cs’ of spiritual work:
Exactly what work I’ll be doing when I show up every day through my Samhain cycle varies from year to year.
Currently, I know it definitely involves morning tending and prayer at the Mórrígan altar (click for more info that) before my household wakes, continuing with my ‘Get in the Sea once in each 7 day period’ for at least the full run of this (I’m hoping for the sake of my poor, frostbitten fingers that I will be able to shelve that one at east ‘til the warmer weather once Samhain is done), and I’ll need to get out with bare feet on the earth under the sky and see the moon, every single night.
I’ve a few other ideas as to what I might have to do… but I’m hoping they’re not necessary. Still holding out hope for an easy life over here someday, as I’m pretty sure this shouldn’t be approached like the Ordeal Olympics with folk vying for who has the most hard-core contractual load being placed on them.
Essentially, I’m lazy as fuck, and if I wasn’t being God-bothered to do this stuff, I’d be tucked up in my Batman jammies and cozy toes slippers, HAPPY OUT.
Anyway, I’ll keep ye posted how the Samhain cycle progresses, but be prepared for me being even more than usually grumpy with the Mórrígan, and now Manannán Mac Lir (click for more info on him) for good measure, as I get even more God-bothered into doing shit I don’t want to be doing, and don’t even really understand why I have to do be doing it.
How’s your Halloween season shaping up?!
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.
May Bush, May Flowers, May Pole and May Bough are all traditions still to be found scattered through the Irish countryside come Bealtaine, 30th April (May Eve) and 1st May (May Day).
You might call it Beltine, Beltane, Beltaine, or any other variation of the word, but in Ireland it’s Bealtaine, as that is still the Irish language word for the month of May. So that’s good enough for me.
The turning of the year from Winter Darkness to Summer’s Light was and still is marked with flowers, fire, and fucking. (Maybe I should have said fertility? It’s also an ‘f’ word, so the alliteration would stand, but fucking just felt more honest.)
Luck and protection, health and happiness are the themes, and everything done as an individual or as a community focused on these important drives.
Originally we had two seasons, Summer and Winter, Sam and Gam in sean ghaeilge (old Irish). These were the times when everything changed – people, herds and flocks moved from winter to summer dwellings and pastures. Work focus changed. Women got pregnant at this time to ensure that come the third trimester they could be safely tucked up with indoor jobs beside the fire, preparing for a Spring birth with fresh foods available for essential sustenance. So, fucking in the fields was not just for fertility fun folks, this is a serious scheduling issue right here.
This year, I will not go out and get pregnant. In previous years, it seemed like an extreme adherance and a step too far – but this year, it’s moved to being physically impossible for me.
I will wash my face in the morning’s dew. Hey, I am turning 39 next Tuesday – I’ll take what I can get with regards to ancient traditions to impart a fresh faced glow. The sun’s rays piercing water, shimmering on a liquid surface this morning gives the blessing of beauty to those in the know. Or so they say.
There will be flowers strewn on my doorsteps, front and back, and on May Day a small group of us from the Waterford Pub Moot will meet and visit an ancient site for a picnic. I will probably do my usual clean up of said site, if there’s anything round it that shouldn’t be round it.
My Nana told me a story years ago about a cousin of hers in County Clare, who would go out on May morning with rotten eggs, and mix them into the soil of her neighbours’ fields. Bealtaine is a time for magic and mischief, and if you don’t look out you’ll be on the receiving end of all that.
So my protective fires will be lit, my boundaries and thresholds re-walked and reinforced, and I’ll do a general magical tidy up round the house and neighbourhood. Checking the fences, as it were. I pity the May Fool who tries to cross here uninvited *summer smiles*.
All will be well for the turning of the year, and as it should be. I wish you that and more, mo chairde.
Bealtaine shona dhaiobh, chun solas is beatha a fháil.
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!