The ancient Irish didn’t have clocks or calendars like we do today. Instead, they developed their own way of observing time and the turning of the year. The old way of measuring the year was much more in tune with nature than the modern calendar system.
They were primarily an agricultural society so good harvests were hugely important. Bad harvests could mean death or devastation to a tribe. For this reason, they structured their year around significant seasonal changes and solar events.
They learned quickly that the sun was their friend when it came to sowing, growing and harvesting seeds. They also knew from observing the positions of the sun in the sky that it was a constant – it happened more or less the same time every year. We are lucky, in modern times to know that it takes the earth a year to orbit the sun and the sun’s position changes as the earth moves around it, but our ancestors had to learn this for themselves. From observing, tracking and studying the skies they devised the ‘Wheel of the Year’ to dictate when to plough, sow, harvest and rest.
The Celtic wheel of the year was an annual cycle of seasonal festivals observed by the ancestors. Firstly, they divided the year into four of the year’s chief solar events – the solstices and equinoxes. These included the winter solstice (around December 21st), the spring equinox (around March 21st), the summer solstice (around June 21st) and the autumnal equinox (around September 21st).
Then they subdivided the year into four evenly spaced midpoints between these events known as ‘cross-quarter’ days or ‘fire festivals’. These ‘cross-quarter festivals’ were Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lughnasadh and Samhain. These made up a total of eight sacred festival days which were a time to celebrate significant seasonal events.
The ancestors were so efficient at tracking the movements of the sun, that they built mounds or ‘temples’ such as Newgrange, Loughcrew and Carrowkeel where the sun would shine into them on these dates. It could be said that these important events became essentially written in stone.
The Celtic year began with the festival of Samhain which occurred around October 31st and November 1st. This seems strange as this was the time of coming into winter and everything was shutting down. However, this was a very important time for the ancestors to gather the final harvests, take stock of the produce they had, and make plans for the year ahead. They feasted on livestock that were old or injured and brought the healthy ones in for the winter. They celebrated the new season and gave thanks. The cold and frost were considered necessary to cleanse the land and prepare it for the new bountiful year ahead.
It was also a time for remembering those they had lost during the year. They commemorated their dead through feasting and celebrating. It was seen as a time when spirits could cross the veil between the living and the dead, and a time when communing with them was possible.
It’s worth noting that Celtic people marked this festival as beginning at one sundown and ending at the next. So, Samhain would have been celebrated from sunset on October 31st, all through the night and day until darkness fell on November 1st.
It is said that from this festival, our modern day ‘Halloween’ on October 31st derives. ‘Oiche Shamhna’ is the irish for Halloween, which means night of Samhain. Also, All souls day is celebrated in Ireland on November 1st which also connects to the ancient festival of Samhain.
Interestingly, the passage in the ‘mound of hostages’ at Tara is orientated to the rising sun. It was also at Samhain that ancient tribes gathered in Tara to discuss important issues of the nation at a gathering called ‘Feis Temro’. This was one of the most famous Samhain harvest festivals. It was held once every three years, laws were made and histories recorded.
The winter solstice occurs around 21st or 22nd December and because Ireland is in the northern hemisphere, the Sun is at its lowest daily maximum elevation in the sky. This results in the shortest period of daylight, making it the shortest day and longest night of the year. The ancient Irish didn’t have names or scientific explanations for the solstice. From their observations, the sun was at its lowest point, the daylight hours were at their fewest and the nights were at their longest.
They also knew that this was a turning point in the seasons in that the days were about to get longer, and the sun was going to get warmer. It was a special time for our ancestors. It was celebrated by festivals and rituals. It marked the symbolic death and rebirth of the Sun.
The mysterious Neolithic mound at Newgrange remains a potent reminder that this time held great significance to ancient Irish people. It is only at this time that the sun is in the correct position to shine into the inner chamber, bathing the sacred space in light.
The word ‘Imbolc’ comes from the Irish ‘i mbolg’ which means ‘in the belly’. At this time of year, the ewes, goats and cows were usually pregnant. This day fell around February 1st and marked the beginning of spring in ancient Ireland. It was a time of new beginnings, rebirth and of hope of warmer days ahead.
Imbolc was a day to honour Brigid, the goddess of spring. Offerings were made to her to ask for protection of families, livestock and crops.
The mound of hostages at Tara is said to be orientated to the sunrise at Imbolc.
The spring equinox occurs sometime between the 20th and 23rd of March. It was a time of perfect balance. Day and night are of equal length and was a sacred moment for our ancestors. It was a perfect time for sowing seeds. An alignment to the sunrise on the spring equinox occurs at Cairn T or the Hag’s Cairn – the largest cairn of Sliabh na Cailleach, Loughcrew, Co Meath.
Bealtaine was celebrated around May 1st, or about halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice. It marked the beginning of summer and when cattle were driven out to the summer pastures.
Special bonfires were kindled, whose flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. The people and their cattle would walk around or between bonfires, and sometimes leap over the flames or embers. All household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Bealtaine bonfire. These gatherings would be accompanied by a feast.
According to 17th-century historian Geoffrey Keating, there was a great gathering at the Hill of Uisneach each Bealtaine in ancient Ireland. Two bonfires would be lit from the Uisneach fire in every district of Ireland, and cattle would be driven between them to protect them from disease.
There were also rituals to protect people, crops, dairy products and to encourage growth. Bealtaine symbolised a time to celebrate life.
People of childbearing age would choose a partner for a year and a day and hand-fastening ceremonies were held.
The summer solstice is when the Sun reaches its highest position in the sky in the northern hemisphere where Ireland is located. Again, our ancestors didn’t have a name or science for the solstice, they just recognised it as being the day with the longest period of daylight and shortest night.
The summer solstice occurs sometime between June 20th and June 22nd in the Northern Hemisphere. This event marked the longest day of the year and the peak of summer. The land was alive with life and greenery once again.
It was a significant time of year for the ancient Irish as it also marked a turning of the seasons – the days would be getting shorter from this day forward leading them back into winter. Preparations would have to begin.
This important and sacred Celtic festival was held around August 1st. Crops were harvested and stored. It was one of thanksgiving and celebration. With the joy of an abundant harvest, our ancestors would burn huge bonfires on hilltops and great feasts were had. This was time of gratitude and a day to honour the Celtic God Lugh.
Falling around September 21st, this time was a celebration of equilibrium and balance. The hours of day and night are the same, but from this day onwards, the nights will become longer, and winter will be drawing in.
Similarly to the spring equinox, the great Cairn L at Loughcrew was built to align with the rising sun on the autumn equinox. It was another significant turning point in the seasons. The sun would be moving away towards its farthest point from Ireland once again. Nevertheless, it was a time of celebration thanksgiving for the sun’s good work during the previous season.
The beliefs and customs of our ancestors remain both a source of intrigue and mystery. It is obvious however that they were deeply in tune with their environment and in harmony with the natural order of things.