Ireland’s Pre-Christian Festivals
There were eight sacred days in Ireland, the times when the old Celtic world stopped to celebrate. Christianity adapted many of their feast days to match.
St Brigid’s Day – February 1st
The years’s first sacred holiday, the feast day of Saint Brigid, is celebrated on February 1st, which marks the beginning of Spring. The Bogha Bríde or Brigid’s Day Cross is the symbol of the day. Traditionally, reeds or straw are collected from the fields and crafted into a cross. St Brigid is Ireland’s most celebrated female saint and was the Abbess of one of the first convents in Ireland.
Spring Equinox St. Patrick’s Day
Around the globe Irish people and those of Irish decent celebrate St. Patricks Day on March 17, which is one of Ireland’s biggest holidays. The special holiday is devoted to the patron saint of Ireland. The religious day is marked by a special mass for the feast and traditionally everyone wears green. This is considered the middle of the Spring season and is also referred to as the Spring Equinox.
May Day, the 1st of May in Ireland is a Holy Day which marks the start of the summer season. Centuries ago, bonfires were lit to welcome the arrival of summer. In Ireland, dependant on what day the holday falls, the feast is marked by a public holiday. In towns around the country May fair days are held where farmers and traders all gather in towns to sell their wares.
Bealtaine, an ancient pre-Christian tradition elsewhere aka Walpurgisnacht. In Ireland fires were lit for cattle to go around (or through) for blessings, as well as people in the community. After the influence of Christianity, it was bad luck for the “need fire” to go out on Bealtaine, and it could only be re-lit from a priest’s hearth. The ashes from the need fire were sprinkled over the threshold of the homes in a community as a blessing (Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde).
Midsummer- Summer solstice
The summer solstice is marked in parts of Ireland by bonfires on the side of the road. It is usually celebrated on June 23rd, the longest day of the year. In rural Ireland communities gather and for their local bonfire and celebrate the longest day of the year with song and dance.
In ancient times this sacred day marked the beginning of harvest on August 1st. It honored the Celtic God of Lugh. In Gaelic folklore it was a time for handfastings or trial marriages that would last a year and a day could be renewed. Many celebrate the holiday today with re-unions, bonfires and dancing.
Similar to the St. Patrick ’s Day festival it celebrates when night and day are of equal duration and usually falls in the middle of Autumn, around September 21. The symbol of the scared day is the cornucopia as all the harvest is collected and the stocks for winter is hoped to be plentiful.
This day falls between two days Oíche Shamhna (October 31st) and Lá na Marbh (November 1st). Oíche Shamhna is Halloween and Lá na Marbh, is the Day of the Dead, or All Souls Day, when those who have passed away are remembered. It marks the beginning of the “darker half” of the year as the winter approaches.
Samhain festivities marked the end of the farming year, when harvested crops were placed in storage for the long winter ahead and livestock brought in from the pastures to be selected for slaughter or breeding; the flames of old fires were extinguished and ceremonially re-lit by druids, and the souls of the dead were released from the Otherworld and became visible to mankind.
The winter solstice celebrates the shortest day of the year and dependant on the calendar occurs between December 21-23. Annually hundreds of people gather in Newsgrange, Co. Meath, Ireland to watch the sunrise and magically illuminate the ancient burial site.