Celebration Times or Festivals of the Gaelic
When establishing what the important times of the Gaels and other Celts were,
it must be remembered that they were a pastoral people. The way they reckoned
time was established by the importance of moving livestock from winter pastures
to summer pastures and back.
While the Norse broke the Wheel of the Year into an eight-fold plan, the Celts
celebrated four main festivals. The Celtic holidays have come down to us as
Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine and Lughnasadh.
The festivals with their accompanying fairs held an important position within
the social, economic and religious fabric of ancient Celtic society. The social life
of the ancient Celtic peoples to a very great extent revolved around the various
fairs and markets held during the festivals. This was true not only at the local
tribal or clann level, also all across Gaelic Celtic lands.
The various gatherings had different titles, for example the feis was a feast of
national significance to which only elected delegates from each region attended.
The most notable one was of course the Feis Tara, which was referred to
through-out the ancient Irish legends. There was the dal, which was a meeting
at the tribe or district level. There was also the mor-dal, or great assembly, of
which the Tailltenn Fair is probably the most well known example.
The important affairs of each district, region and province were taken care of at
the mor-dal gatherings. There were council meetings held for the holders of
the skills/knowledge, those known to us as the fili, where amongst other things
they revised laws. Kings and Queens met to discuss peace and war.
While certain responsibilities were fulfilled by those who held them, the fairs
held during the festivals were in general a time of great merriment.
Entertainment was always in abundance with poets, musicians, singers,
storytellers, games and races. Also in abundance was food and drink. It was a
time for everyone to enjoy themselves. The fairs saw traders who had traveled
great distances, even from overseas, displaying their fine wares. The markets
were vibrant places filled with buying and selling, bartering and haggling. The
economic infusion into the local economy from these traders, as well as the
redistribution of wealth by the generous gifts of the kings and queens were
critically important. The summer fairs were of course was the best time to trade
because people usually had some little excess that they could afford to spend,
unlike the lean winter months. It was common for young people to find a
marriage partner during the fairs. Such fairs were the mainstay of social life in
ancient times. They also created opportunities for inter-tribal ties of friendship.
The Brehon Law held that everyone must attend the festivals. To not do so was
an insult to the Old Ones in whose honor they were done. These fairs were
indeed ordained by the Old Ones themselves as being a necessary part of the
social order. Besides, it was after all for Them that the fairs came into existence
in the first place. Whoever neglected to attend the fair was apt to receive this
"There comes for the neglect of it
baldness, weakness, early greyness,
kings without keenness or jollity,
without hospitality or truth."
Considering the sacred element of the festivals (fairs), those held during the
times of the four great Fire Festivals, were held to be particularly sacred. Not
only did the Brehon Law mandate everyone be there, but it also proscribed strict
codes of behavior. The most important of these rules was that no-one could start
a quarrel or a fight during the festival period. This offense was one of the very
few in the old society that was punishable by death.
An oft overlooked component of the fairs is where they were (and even today
are in some places) held. The sites themselves had great religious significance
and where considered sacred. Under the guidance of the fili, the people came
together to enact the passion plays, or re-enactments, of the mythical event
which gave sanctity to the land. In Ireland. invariably the ancient provincial
centers where these festivals were held, stood on hills, where ancient burial
mounds were dedicated to the memory of the founding ancestors who were
buried there. More often than not, these founders were a Goddess or
As to the reckoning of the quarter days, Danaher says in "Irish Folk Tradition
and the Celtic Calendar", "they are separated from each other by regular
intervals, to be precise, by intervals of 92, 92, 92 and 89 days by our modern
calendar reckoning; thus they divide the year into four even quarters which are
recognized in popular tradition as the four seasons of the year."
Danaher further states: "These four season days were the outstanding festivals
of the Irish folk calendar, and no others approached them in diversity of custom
with the exception of the Easter cycle, which is entirely of Christian origin and
introduction, completely unknown in pre-Christian Ireland, Christmas which is
an inextricable tangle of the Christian celebration and old midwinter custom, all
overlaid with more recent additions, and Midsummer, which was mainly marked
by bonfires and their associated prayers and ceremonies."
The Soltices and Equinoxs certainly had both Solar and Lunar aspects. These
because they were held on the first New moon of the month in which they
occurred. Those days were not generally celebrated by our Celtic ancestors.
While those other days have a lunar aspect, this is not the case with the cross-
quarter days which are the days of the festivals of our Celtic ancestors. Many
people have asserted that there was a lunar aspect to these as well, but such is
not the case. Danaher also says, "The old Irish four-season year comes entirely
from solar reckoning, without any lunar influence whatever. It has a precisely
divided solar year, not a year formed by the setting together of a number of lunar
months and requiring frequent correction and intercalation." It must be noted
that in Irish folk tradition there is no reckoning of time by the moon.
Regarding any lore about the Moon, there are only scant amounts. This in
sharp contrast to the tomes of lore about the Sun. Before this can be construed
to be any kind of proof that the Celts were harsh patriarchs, I must at this point
out that amongst our ancestors the Sun was feminine. This is evidenced by even
Her name which is still carried in modern Irish, Griann. Bride is also considered
by many scholars to be the Sun.
Danahers conclusion, which is shared by many other scholars, was that while
the continental Celts reckoned time by both solar and lunar alignments in their
calendar, as illustrated by Coligny Calendar, such was not true for the insular
Celts who make up the Gaels. The Coligny Calendar has no relevance to Gaelic
Celts. Yet the festivals which our ancestors celebrated were also celebrated by
continental Celts. Also like our ancestors, neither did the continental Celts
celebrate the solstices and equinoxes.
There were definite customs which were common at all four Quarter Days.
These included such as their being valued as Holy days. The need-fire, or
communal bon-fire was ritually kindled, though on only two of these days were
household fires extinguished and re-lit from the need-fires. These were the days
when the sick or barren visited the Holy Wells. On these days too, those who
were particularly adept at spells and charms were careful to rise before the sun to
ensure no ill was coming their way. In some places, young women made careful
note of the first male they met, for it was believed that the surname of the first
man they met on a Qurter Day would be the surname she would take when she
married. The first Monday (moonday) of the new quarter was believed to be a
particulaly good day. This day was also held to be amongst the best for a form a
augury called frith.
A common custom dating back to our traditional ancestors was the baking of
the bonnock. This was a piece of bread which was prepared in a specific way. It
was in a very real way, a form of communion enacted in individual hearths,
between the people of that hearth and the Gods. Each of the Festival Days had a
bannock that was named for it. Bonnock Bride, was for Imbolg; Bonnack
Bealtain for Beltain; Bonnock Lunastain for Lughnasadh; as well as
Bonnock Samhain for Samhain, were the names. In many places these were
given a Christian veneer and were practiced even into the modern era.
Unlike modern paganism, with its emphasis on Judaic ceremonialism, the
traditional ways were votive in nature. Instead of deep mysteries withheld from
the people, all of the people would assemble on the sacred hill and sing hymns to
the sun. It began just prior to daybreak, with incantation by the king or queen.
Then all of the people would sing together, rejoicing and giving thanks.
Samhain is the beginning of the Celtic new year. In the Gregorian calendar
that we use today, it falls on approximately November 1st. This is the time when
the rising of Pleiades, heralds the triumph of night over day. Now it is the time
of the little sun and the portion of the year which is ruled by the realms of the
In the three days preceding the Samhain, the God of Light Lugh, dies at the
hand of his Tanist, who is himself as the Lord of mis-rule. Lugh then passes
through the veil between the worlds on Samhain. The Tanist is a stingy and
harsh King who while shining brightly in the skies gives no warmth to the land.
He cannot warm the north wind which is the breath of the Crone, Cailleach
Bheare. This is indicative of the cyclic harmony of seasonal dominance. Which
teaches us that neither Life nor Death can ever hold permanent sway.
Death was never far from our ancestors, and there was not the fear of it that
permeates the society we live in. Yet while death itself wasnt feared, it was held
important to die with honor. Through dying well, people had the promise of
living on in this world through their clann and at Fleadh nan Mairbh (Feast of
the Dead). It is at this time the ancestors were honored and the dead were
remembered. This feast took place on Samhin Eve. In many ways it is very
similar to the Mexican "Day of the Dead.
This is one of two times in the year when the veil between this world and
OtherWorld, the Shield of Skathach, is at its thinnest. For this reason it was a
time of divination. This day was considered to be a day that did not exist.
Because of this the Spirits of the Dead and those yet to be born of the Clann
walked freely amongst the living. Food and entertainment were provided in their
honour. In this way the Clann remained in unity with its past, present and
The common modern practice of carving pumpkins in the States, and turnips in
the old countries stem from the days when our ancestors were active head
hunters. They believed that the spirit resided in the head. They also believed that
if they controlled the head of a foe they had killed in battle, and displayed the
head at Samhain, then that foe could do them no further ill during this time when
they could again walk in this realm. This practice was modified in the times after
the rise to domination by Christianity. It was however remolded into the practice
of carving vegetables with the same intent. That being to keep away harm
It was a time of fairs and festivities. As with all the fire festivals, fires were lit on
the hilltops Samhain. This festival was one of the two when all hearth fires were
extinguished and re-lit from the communal bonfires. The cattle were driven back
from the mountains where they had been sent for the summer. At this time of
their return they were driven between two bonfires to purify and protect them.
People and cattle both had now returned from the hills and glens to their winter
quarters and were engaged in actively re-tying the social bonds.
Just prior to this, the stores that had been put up had been assessed. Part of this
assessment was how many could be fed during the cold months ahead. Rather
than have whole herds starve to death in the winter, the herds were culled and
the weakest harvested and the meat was preserved. The taking of life was done in
a sacred way, and the utilitarian killing of the excess livestock had a sacrificial
nature. Another area were the religious philosophy is addressed was in the bonds
of kinship which were renewed in the Clann spirit that was invoked at this time
of year. Traditionally Samhain is the when starts the time of storytelling by the
fires of the hearth, as there isnt much to do outside during this time of the little
Imbolc is the Festival of Brighid. Approximately February 2nd. Brighid is invited
into the house on the eve of this holiday. Candles were blessed. Auguries were
often taken at this time. This was the season when lambs were born.
From from Samhain to Imbolc was considered the winter. It was a time that has
always been known to Celtic peoples as 'the period of the little sun'. As there
were few daylight hours during the season of cold work outdoors, the family
spent their time round the fire which was the source of their light, heat and
warming food. It was also the gathering point for the seannachaidh (story teller)
who, with the fire of inspiration, would tell the stories of the People. The sacred
fire is strongly associated with Bride. Her name translates as 'fiery arrow'. One of
her aspects is the Goddess of poetry and it is She who is the 'flame of
inspiration'. Another term given to Bride is 'the flame in the heart of all women'.
This relates to the absolute authority of the woman in the house. Imbolc was a
fire festival only for the household.
During Imbolc, particular attention was paid to the hearth fire. Throughout the
day it was kept specially fueled with specific woods, to welcome Her arrival.
Great care was taken over the smooring of the fire on that night when a rowan
rod was placed in the heart of the fire. The following morning, before it was
opened up, the fire was checked for the signs of a blessing from Her. The mark
in question was a shape that looked like the foot print of a goose or swan. If a
mark was found there was an extremely fortunate time ahead for the family. The
associations between Bride and the goose or swan is also found in some of the
incantations in the Carmina Gadelica by Alexander Carmichael. The Language
of the Goddess by Dr. Maria Gimbutas goes a long way toward helping
understand the meaning of the Bird Foot Goddess.
This season ended at Beltaine. Approximately May 1st. Bonfires were lit and the
cattle were set out to pasture in the mountains, driven between the bonfires to
purify them. Beltaine - beginning of summer and a fertility festival. The
following is a poem translated out of the Gaelic by the Dal Riadh Celtic Trust
and said to be written by Finn himself
May, clad in cloth of gold,
Cometh this way;
The fluting of the blackbirds
Heralds the day.
The dust coloured cuckoo
Cries welcome O Queen!
For winter has vanished,
The thickets are green.
Soon the trampling of cattle
where river runs low!
The long hair of the heather,
The canna like snow.
Wild waters are sleeping,
Foam of blossom is here;
Peace, save the panic
In the heart of the deer.
The wild bee is busy,
The ant honey spills,
The wandering kine
Are abroad on the hills.
The harp of the forest
Sounds low, sounds sweet;
Soft bloom on the heights;
On the loch, haze of heat.
The waterfall dreams;
Snipe, corncrakes, drum
By the pool where the talk
Of the rushes is come.
The swallow is swooping;
Song swings from each brae;
Rich harvest of mast falls;
The swamp shimmers gay.
Happy the heart of man,
Eager each maid;
Lovely the forest,
The wild plane, the green glade.
Truly winter is gone,
Come the time of delight,
The summer truce joyous,
In the heart of the meadows
The lapwings are quiet;
A winding stream
Makes drowsy riot.
Race horses, sail, run,
Rejoice and be bold!
See, the shaft of the sun
Makes the water-flag gold.
Loud, clear, the blackcap;
The lark trills his voice
Hail May of delicate colours
tis May-Day - rejoice!
Amonst the folk lore of this holiday is that which survives to this day, in that
young women will wash their face in the due of Beltain morning to preserve their
youth. May dew was indeed considerd to be holy water.
This day was one which saw visits to the holy well. A visitor would walk three
times around the well, then they would throw in a silver coin, after which while
thinking of their wish they would drink from the well using their hands. When
those things were done, they would then ties a bit of colored cloth or a piece of
clothing to a branch of a nearby tree. The above had to be done in complete
silence as well as when the sun wasnt insight. The final part of the procedure
had the visiting person well out of sight of the well before sunrise.
As like the other festivals, games and racing were the norm. With the marches
and races, horses were a prominent feature. There was to be found the usual
music and singing, markets and feasting. In many places, a May Queen was
elected. She was crowned by an elder lady of notarity, after the new queen and
her court had arrived at a predetermined place. Some believe that in the older
times, it was the May Queen who lead the hymns to the rising sun, as all the
people congregated on the appropriate hill at Beltain. She is also believe to have
led some of the marches in the older times.
We can trace Lugh back to the Pretanic Celts. Here He is the son of Arianrhod
and Gwydion. While Arianrhod gave birth to him, Lugh was taken away by his
father, who was also his uncle, and raised by him. However, by the old
traditions there are certain things that can only be given by the mother. One of
these is the name and Arianrhod refused to do so when Gwydion brought him to
her. She said, "Why do you prolong my shame? He shall have no name until I
give it to him." The next day Lugh was practicing when Arianrhod remarked,
"The fair one has a skillful hand." Which is the meaning of his name, skillful
hand, amongst the Pretani. She was absolutely livid at having been tricked so
she swore that he would have no weapons lest they came from her hand, as this
is the next thing to come from the mother. Gwydion proceeded to determine
how to circumvent this problem and after having done so presented Lugh as a
champion in need of weapons. It was only after she had presented them that she
realized who he was. She then swore Lugh would have no wife, for this was the
last blessing to come from the mother. However, by the work of Math,
Gwydion created a woman made of the blossoms of oak, broom and
meadowsweet. She was named Blodeuwydd which means flower face. But
thats a whole story unto itself and well leave it for our Pretani cousins to take
Lugh came to the Gaelic peoples just prior to the Second Battle of Maige Tuired
(moy tura). In the lore is told how He came to the Tuatha de Danaan who was
being led by the Dagda. He presented Himself to be a help in the coming fight
against the Fomore. He was asked several times what his skill was. Each time he
told the a skill. And each time he was told that one of the Tuatha already
possessed that skill. Finally he broke the stalemate by asking who amongst the
Tuatha had all of the skills, as did he. None did, and so he was not only admitted
into the company of the Tuatha but also given the title Il Danach which showed
that he possessed all of the skills. When the mighty battle finally roared and
Tuatha warrior met Fomore warrior on the field of honor, Lugh had been kept
far away from the scene. Finally he, going against the wishes of the Dagda went
out to the scene of battle himself. The battle had gone hard for the Tuatha even
though the weapons of Goiban repaired themselves and the healing of Dianecht
brought back those who had fallen. Lugh certainly saved that day. For he put out
the evil eye of Balor before it could do more damage. Yet even with the help of
Lugh, the Tuatha suffered loses with the death of Nuada and others. Lugh
became permanent in the company of the Tuatha. Lugh, the God of Light, was
eventually wounded himself on the day that is named after him, Lughnassadh.
His death however comes in the three days preceding the Samhain, when He
dies at the hand of his Tanist (his other self) who is the Lord of mis-rule.
This is said to be the festival of Lugh. However this harvest festival usually
dedicated to Lugh was very often dedicated to his foster mother Tailltu. There is
quite a bit of evidence that Lugh stepped into the shoes once worn by Trograinn,
the son of Griann. The date of the celebration is approximately August 1st.
This is the time when the warriors returned from the fields of battle to begin
harvesting the crops. At this time fairs were held. Traditionally, this was also the
time when marriages were contracted. There were many games and races.
A great number of records still exist which show that this date held importance
across all of the Gaelic lands. One of these, the 12th century manuscript of 'The
Book of Leinster' tells of a fair, an 'aenach', held at Carmun in Leinster (probably
south of Kildare). This fair was held once every three years; it began on 1st
August and ended on the 6th. Another example is the Curragh of the Liffey
which is the most celebrated race course in Ireland. However, from the ancient
lore we see the God of Light Lugh Himself, instituted the great fair of Tailltenn
(now called Teltown) in honour of his foster mother Tailltiu (pronounced
Telsha). The lore relates how Tailltiu's heart broke under the strain of clearing the
plain that carries her name. Lugh then ordained that the fair, with feasting and
games should be held there annually for all time as a memorial to Her. Tailltiu
was in fact a Goddess of the Land who founded the kingship of Ireland under
the Fir Bolgs, in the time before the coming of either the Tuatha de Danaan or
It is said that the Fir Bolgs landed in Ireland at Lughnassadh, hence this festival
seems to have a great deal of association with the older races of that land. The
site of Tailltenn was also an ancient sacred burial place for the men of Ulster,
which is traditionally the stronghold of the Fir Bolg warriors. The Fir Bolg
peoples were closely associated with agriculture. Lughnassadh was an important
land festival within the communities of the 'common folk'. Throughout Gaelic
lands Lughnassadh is to this day known as "the festival of first fruits". It does in
a very real way honor Taillitu, who as a Goddess of the Land (and sovereignty),
is the Earth Mother. When considering the agricultural perhaps we can best
establish the idea of the intent of this festival time by exploring the Gaelic
language itself. By doing this study, we find that the name Lugh, transliterates to
the least. As the People were still by and large living on the stores or the
previous years harvest, this was the time when the stores were at the least. It was
a time of looking forward to the harvest time just starting. It must to be pointed
out directly, to avoid confusion, that this festival either in veneration of Tailltiu
or Lughnassadh, has no connection to any concept of Corn Kings or harvest
festivals, such as referenced to in Frazers The Golden Bough.
Tailltenn was the scene of the final battle between the Tuatha De Danaans and
the Gaels. The Gaels here defeated the Tuatha, and it is here that they buried
their three kings. After this the Gaels divided Ireland between the sons of Mil.
It seems that a common element was the prevalence of horses at the fairs
associated with Lughnasadh. Of course the White Stead is a common
companion of Lugh in the lore. Even in the Ulster Cycle, the foot race between
Macha and the chariots of macNesa speak of this. The emphasis on horse races
and horsemanship seem to drive home the point. This is very significant, for the
horse is the embodiment of the Goddess of Sovereignty. In this Her task seems
to be to deliver spirits to OtherWolrd. A telling custom related to this belief
which was once widely practised in the coastal lands of the Gaidhealtachd was
for people to drive their horses down to the beach and into the sea on
The Fair of Tailltenn, became a major annual event held on the Ist of August,
which was attended by people of all classes in Gaelic Celic. It had all the usual
attractions of a great festival, but was particularly renowned for its excellent
games and its 'marriage market'.
Lughnasadh was the season of handfastings, or trial marriages that lasted a
year and a day. After that time the couple had to return to the same place at the
fair the following year to make their contract a permanent one. They also had
the right to declare themselves divorced by walking in opposite directions away
from each other. Trial marriages of a year and a day lasted up until recent
centuries in many Gaelic areas.
During this time young people would often simply *pair up* with a 'brother'
or 'sister' for the duration of the fair, after which they went their separate ways.
As a matter of fact, even into the 18th century the ribald flavor of the Teltown Fair
(Teltown being the Anglicised version of the place name) was held to be quite
In some places one whole day was dedicated to horse and chariot. In addition
to the games, there were recitations of poems, geneologies and romantic tales.
Music was provided by cruits (harps), timpans, trumpets, horns and cuisig
or piob (pipes). Feats of horsemanship were performed. There were also
jugglers and clowns. It seems that there were usually three distinct market
places; one for food and clothes, one for livestock and another for luxury goods.
If it rained during this festival, it was believed that Lugh himself was present.
Like the other fire festivals, this one too was once celebrated with great
bonfires in every district. These fires lasted well into the nineteenth century in
many places. In many places the elderly women would go to the cattle to tie
red or blue threads onto their tails, while repeating incantations. For the milk to
retain its goodness, a ball of cow's hair or 'ronag' was put into the milk pail on
Curds and cheese were specially prepared from that day's milk. In many places,
after the rise to dominance of Christianity, the pagan bannock became the
'Moilean Moire', dedicated to Mary. In this way the ancient customs were carried
on under a thin veneer of Christianity as La Feill Moire, The Feast day of Mary.
This festival falls on August 15th, very close to the ancient date of Lughnassadh
before the Gregorian calendar changes. We can see many similarites between
Mary as mother of Christ (the Sun King) and our ancestral Goddess of the Earth,
Tailltiu, foster mother of the Sun King Lugh. La Feill Moire has retained much of
its pagan roots. It is not very difficult to back-engineer this verse to regain a
wholly pre-Christian expression. I shall howvere, leave that for the reader. In this
rite the father of the household breaks the bannock, giving a piece to his wife and
his children in order of age, then the whole family walk sunwise round the fire
singing the rune of Mother Mary,
'Iolach Mhoire Mhathair':
On the feast day of Mary the fragrant,
Mother of the Shepherd of the flocks,
I cut me a handful of the new corn,
I dried it gently in the sun,
I rubbed it sharply from the husk
With mine own palms.
I ground it in a quern of Friday
I baked it on a fan of sheep-skin
I toasted it to a fire of rowan
And I shared it round my people.
I went sunways round my dwelling
In the name of Mary Mother
Who promised to preserve me
Who did preserve
And who will preserve me...
(Translated from the Gaelic by the Dal Riadh Celtic Trust)