The people of ancient Ireland celebrated pagan holidays and festivals throughout the year. These feasts comprised a calendar which honoured the changing seasons or their Celtic deities. The celebrations divided the year into four quarters. Later, the holidays morphed alongside Ireland’s Catholic conversion to become Christian holidays and cultural events.
Imbolc marked the beginning of spring and was halfway between the winter’s solstice and the spring equinox. St Brigid’s Day, which is now celebrated on 1 February, eclipsed this pagan feast. The meaning of the name Imbolc could derive from the old Irish ‘imb-fholc’, meaning ‘to cleanse yourself’. The passage tomb on the Hill of Tara aligns with the sunrise on Imbolc, and tourists flock to the site each year to watch the crypt illuminate.
Lá Bealtaine marked the beginning of summer, and was celebrated halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. The meaning of the name, which comes from the early Celtic languages, is ‘bright fire’. In fact, bonfires are a custom associated with Bealtaine. Druids would build two fires on that holiday and make great incantations. Then, they would drive their cattle between them. This practice supposedly protected the cattle from disease.
In the mythical story of King Bress, the king drove cattle between two fires to singe their hair, presumably on Lá Bealtaine. Once celebrated all over Ireland, there is no one site associated with this day. However, there is a stone circle near Raphoe in Co. Donegal called the Beltany stone circle.
Lughnasadh was on the 1st of August and halfway between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox. It marked the beginning of the harvest season. The feast name translates as a gathering or assembly for Lugh, who was a member of the legendary Tuatha De Danann. His son was Cu Chulainn, and he had many magical possessions. These included a magical spear, one of the four legendary treasures of mythical Ireland.
The tradition of Lughnasa continues in Ireland. An example of this is Mamean Sunday, which is still celebrated in Connemara. On the first Sunday in August, pilgrims climb a pass in the mountains. There, St Patrick fought the pagan god Crom Dubh and killed him, freeing Ireland from paganism. According to the folklorist Marie MacNeill, St Patrick replaced Lugh as the deity fighting Crom Dubh when Christianity usurped Irish paganism.
Samhain was the beginning of the winter season and was halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. The name Samhain means ‘summer’s end’. At the time of Samhain, the connection to the otherworld opened, and one of the main portals was supposedly at Oweynagat, the Cave of Cats at Cruachan in Co. Roscommon. Because of the amount of demonic and ghostly traffic that was recorded there in Irish legends, early Christian writers described Oweynagat as “the Gates of Hell”. The Gates were especially active at Samhain.
Another story from the spectral past recalls a character named Aillen macMidgna. Every Samhain, he would come from the otherworld and visit the Hill of Tara. He would spit fire and burn Tara to the ground every year. After 23 years, the hero Fionn macCumhaill killed Aillen with his magic spear. The modern iteration of Samhain is Halloween. Halloween links a Catholic celebration, All Souls Day, with this ancient Irish festival.
Mythical Irish Wonders is a dazzling resource for niche Irish mythology and folklore. Along with information on the ancient Irish calendar, relates the legends of Lugh, ghost stories from Samhain, and Cu Culainn’s adventures. It is available from Currach Books.