As a child I remember dressing up in hand made stuff for Halloween and the excitement of a pumpkin, which was a new thing, coming from America. Now I see shops flooded with plastic junk made in China as soon as 1st October arrives, and houses are now decorated in much the same manner as at Christmas, albeit with a very different theme.
When I first moved to Ireland, in 1999, I was aware that Halloween had Pagan origins, in the Celtic festival known here as Samhain, meaning summer’s end more or less. However, I did not know that much about the traditions of Oíche Shamhna (Halloween night) or it’s predecessor Samhain. In 2003 I visited the Hill of Ward, near the small Gaeltacht town of Athboy, in county Meath. The Hill of Ward is the modern name, only three hundred years old at best, for an ancient site that was in use over 3000 years ago for the festival of Samhain. This place was once called Tlachtga and once again it is also known by this ancient Pagan name, which is also the name of a Goddess or possibly Druidess
Shortly after my first visit I discovered John Gilroy’s book ‘Tlachtga: Celtic Fire Festival’ which I read several times and indeed used as a launch-pad for my own book. Although a great introduction to the subject, which is sadly out of print, I found the book to be highly speculative and lacking in evidence to confirm the authors opinions. In the intervening 20 years or so since that book was published, there has been extensive archaeological work done at Tlachtga/Hill of Ward, which proved highly valuable, plus the small-scale Tlachtga celebrations morphed into a somewhat larger affair, culminating in the current Púca Festival, which began in 2019.
Although it attempted to re-enact the story of Tlachtga, the ‘performances’ used the Christianised and rather negative version of the story and the procession was in fact visiting the wrong well on the way to the sacred site on the summit of the hill. The original well is to the south of the site, about 1km away on private land, but in a state of disrepair. These two ‘anomalies’ ignited a desire to put the record straight with regard to Tlachtga’s story, working from the source material in the old anals and the historical records of the place, over its known history.
So, I began looking into the history and accounts of the place, of Tlachtga herself and her father, Mog Ruith, as well as looking for local information (with thanks to Gemma McGowan and Michelle Alú in particular). It also seemed necessary to me to explain how we got from the Druidic celebration of Samhain to the modern celebration of Halloween. I also decided to look at the inevitable changes, continuation of traditions and the transmission of traditions across the world through the Irish Diaspora. Indeed much of what was exported to the ‘New World’ has returned to modern Ireland, in a somewhat distorted form, often minus the original meaning or context. Part of the book’s purpose is to explain what these traditions as ‘survivals’ are really about and put them in the context of the festival of death and the ancestors, from which they originate.
Another interesting aspect is the integration of international traditions and customs into the modern celebrations, which seem to fit quite seamlessly alongside Irish traditions, particularly those from Mexico (Day of the Dead) and some parts of Africa. One thing that is common to all humanity is that we have loved ones who have passed on, ancestors that we remember and (apart from between the tropics) we also share the experience of the ‘death of the year’ as we enter into winter, this being more extreme the further north or south you go.
I was very lucky in the writing in the book, or you might call it serendipity, synchronicity, fate or even divine inspiration – everything seemed to come together at the right time, the archaeological info, personal accounts from local people, an elderly Breton woman in her 90s, finding related locations, largely forgotten source material and help arriving at the right time from people I knew or reached out to.
At the end of it I hope I have managed to weave all the strands into a coherent story that explains where Halloween came from and what the significance of Tlachtga and the Druidic festival of Samhain is in relation to our current annual celebrations and why we do the things we do such as lighting bonfires, dressing up, apple bobbing and trick or treating. The roots of our modern practices are way back in the pre-recorded past, largely forgotten by most Irish people. However, with the resurgence of interest in the ancient past, Irish native culture, and the growth of neo-Paganism it seemed to be the right time to clear off this almost buried trail of bread-crumbs into our past and make it visible once more.
Even for those with no interest in Paganism or religion, this autumnal festival is still a part of every-day life and modern Irish culture, and it seems to be growing ever more popular as the years pass. Perhaps opening a doorway into the past is valuable in giving context to our modern traditions, why we continue them and how we got to where we are now?
(c) Luke Eastwood
About Samhain: The Roots of Halloween
The modern celebration of Halloween is derived from the ancient festival of the dead known in Ireland as Samhain. It is from Ireland that we have inherited most of our Halloween traditions, mainly through the diaspora. Delving into the ancient past, this book uncovers the history of this festival in Britain, Ireland and Brittany, including the forgotten goddess Tlachtga and the sacred temple of the Druids in Co. Meath, where the first Halloween fires were lit.
Order your copy online here.