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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
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Samhain: the Eve of All Hallow

coppinger's court

Coppinger's Court, Ballinaclogh, Rosscarbery - photo by author

by Suzanne Barrett

Samhain (pronounced "Sow' en") heralds the beginning of the Celtic New Year. As the days grow shorter, the season colder, and trees shed their leaves, the agricultural season comes to a close ... and a beginning. For in the dark of winter, cold forces seeds to germinate in preparation for their spring emergence. In winter's sleep, all the earth lies in wait for the light and the warm rays of spring--Imbolc to the Celts.

Ancient lore explains Winter in the story of the old woman goddess, Cailleach, who struck the ground with her hammer, and made it hard until Imbolc. It is the time when Celts believed the gates to the otherworld were opened and they could communicate with the dead. Later, in the Christian era the festival has been reassigned to the Feast of All Saints, however, many of the customs surrounding it concern this understanding of the accessibility to the dead at this time. November is a month of special devotions to the dead.

It was thought that at the feasts of Samhain and Beltaine (May 1st), supernatural events took place. Some believe Samhain is the time the fairy mounds open and the Sidhe--the fairies (pronounced "Shee")--swarm. Some believe the Sidhe are the spirits of the dead, others the Tuatha ("Too'ha")de Dannan. Nevertheless, it was a dangerous time to be abroad at night for fear of abduction by the Sidhe as they traveled around the countryside.

Over hundreds of years, many of the customs and practices of the pagan Celts have been absorbed into Christianity. Halowe'en has been celebrated more than two thousand years in Ireland. Its origins are steeped in antiquity. Even today, some rural Irish people will tell that the moan of the bean Sidhe ("banshee") foretells of a death in a family by morning.

The long barrows where dead heroes were buried are also the fairy mounds which open up at Samhain. On this evening, it was customary to leave a milk and barley offering for the Sidhe. It was also a time for family feasting, to mark the laying in of a good harvest for winter. To avert the threat of famine, a cake might be thrown against the door. It was a time for storytelling and games, often games of divination, for this was the night of the Devil, and Samhain was his time. Among the pagan Celts, it was also a time of sacrifice of the black sheep in memory of those who had died in the year.

Stories of ghosts and hauntings abound in rural Ireland. It is said that William Butler Yeats had the fairy faith and incorporated much fairy lore into his poetry. In his book Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888), he said:

"On November Eve they are at their gloomiest, for, according to the old Gaelic reckoning, this is the first night of winter. This night they dance with the ghosts, and the pooka is abroad, and witches make their spells, and girls sit at a table with food in the name of the devil, that the fetch of their future lover may come through the window and eat of the food."

Feasting and merrymaking played a big part in rural homes. The mistress of the house prepared a special feast in honor of the night. Colcannon, a mashed potato and kale or cabbage dish with a reservoir of creamy melted butter, was a favorite. Boxty bread, made from mashed potatoes and flour was also popular, as was Barm Brack.

Leslie Shepard, in his story of Halloween said the folk traditions were taken to America by Irish emigrants, and the familiar "Trick or Treat" chant echoes old beliefs in the ill-wishing of witches.

Pope Boniface was instrumental in superimposing a Christian festival over the pagan tradition. He adopted the festival of the dead to become the festival of all saints and martyrs. Originally, it took place on 13 May, but a century later, Pope Gregory III shifted it to November. In Ireland, All Saints Day was instituted in 998 A.D. by Abbot Odilo of Cluny, and by the thirteenth century, the Christian festival of the dead was firmly established though the old pagan rituals persisted as folk customs.

In Waterford, Hallowe'en is called oídhche na h-aimléise, "the night of mischief or con." It was a custom for boys to assemble in gangs and descend on farmers to levy a sort of blackmail, good-humoredly asked for, and as cheerfully given, according to Kevin Danaher in his book The year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs. Additional information may be found in Caitlín Matthews' The Celtic Book of Days: A Daily Guide to Celtic Spirituality and Wisdom and the Chronicles of the Celts by Iain Zaczek.

Over the years, fairy beliefs passed from the country people to sophisticated society. Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare incorporated some of these rituals in their works, while the Elizabethan court initiated elaborate masques, and echoed the peasantry in the folk customs of the mummers and "guising" or begging for money while masked.

Today, much of the past beliefs have moved into the background as costumed children scamper about the neighborhoods begging a sweet in their annual celebration of Hallowe'en. Certainly in America this is true. And in Dublin, a family might be found watching a program on television rather than setting out a portion of barley and milk to appease the Sidhe. However, beneath the cloak of Christianity, Ireland's age old rituals permeate the lives of country and city people alike. Perhaps it is the fey ancestry. Whatever, the rituals of a pagan culture steeped in antiquity, are very much evident in the country people, their beliefs and practices, especially on Samhain, the eve of the Celtic new year.

Until next time.

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Glendalough

Glendalough, Co. Wicklow

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