Let’s start with a joke – my kid wanted to dress up as a ghost – i told him not to waste money on a custume and just wear a white sheet. Without missing a beat he said – ” dad, your brilliant “
ok, so the history of halloween –
Halloween is rooted in the ancient Gaelic festival known as Samhain. It was one of four Gaelic festivals which punctuated the year at the cross quarter points between the solstices and the equinoxes. These four festivals are
Imbolc ( between the winter solstice and the Spring equinox),
Bealtaine ( between the spring equinox and Summer solstice)
Lunasa ( between the summer solstice and autumn equinox)
Samhain ( between the spring equinox and winter solstice)
Samhain is definitely the one which is best survived in to modern times and serves as the origin for halloween. To really get a feel for halloween we need to imagine being in Ireland hundreds of years ago entering the dark side of the year. Ireland , despite its temperate climate , is at a fairly extreme latitude and experiences only seven hours of daylight on the winter solstice. It is obvious to point out the lack of electricity and modern entertainments but worth contemplating the effect this dearth of light and modern conveniences would have on peoples minds.
My feeling is that people would have become more at one with the winter season. The mind would harmonise with the cold, dark sorrounds and at the same time the dependence on and interdependance with the community would have been keenly felt and celebrated. The sense of the other world becoming close and the ancestors drawing in would dominate as the seasons turned.
It seems to me that the magical and mystical element to Halloween was almost certainly stimulated by the easy availability of the psilocybin containing mushroom psilocybe semilanceata coloquilly known as the liberty cap in farmers fields around this time of year. While most people in Ireland today are relatively unaware of its easy availability and its use would still be frowned upon and illegal, it seems obvious to me that a rural peasantry, frequently pushed to the verge of starvation would have had knowledge of every type of mushroom and its effects and this would surely have included the liberty cap, which grows relatively abundently in the open fields where animals graze.
While many cultures have a similar festival on the precipice of winter, for example, the Mexican day of the dead, most of the traditions we associate with halloween are Irish customs which travelled with Irish emigrants to America, mostly in the late 19th century in the years following the great famine.
These include “trick or treating”, bobbing for apples and indeed carving pumpkins, although in Ireland it was turnips that were carved in to candle holders. The ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain would also have included communal bonfires and the wearing of costumes. Of course there was also the church involvement as they created ” all saints day” and ” all souls day” on November 1 and 2 respectively, in an effort to appropriate and influence the festivities.
So as you celebrate Halloween this year, remember that it is an ancient marking point towards the winter, a time of potential hardship and community interdependance but also marking a time of community abundance at harvest time. It is a time also perhaps to be humble about the otherworld and stay open to life’s mysteries and wonder. May you have an abundant and joyous celebration !
Glendalaugh is a beautiful valley in the heart of Wicklow. It is famed both for its monastic heritage and natural beauty. I have been there many times as a tour guide but I wanted to visit myself to explore the hiking trails more extensively.
We had a beautiful sunny morning to explore the hiking trails and the beautiful scenery. The beautiful winter sunlight and cool, windless day gave us a glimpse of Glendalaugh at its peaceful, tranquil best.
There is an air of contentment and ease about the place on mornings like this that is irresistable. The water in the lakes was still and gave a beautiful mirror like surface to the splendid valley. The clear sky and winter sun lent a majestic, generous light. I always find sunny, winter days to be magical. There is a preciousness about that brilliant, winter light that is absent in the longer summer days and the cooler air invites more vigorous exercise. But there is no real cold here yet. Our mild autumn had not yet given way to winter.
So a perfect day for a hike !
With the luxury of time, we were able to explore the longer white trail around both lakes, which gives way to a steeper climb towards the further reaches of the valley and then returns along the cliff, giving beautiful views of the lakes at the heart of the valley.
Glendalaugh is named after these two gorgeous lakes., from the Irish Gleann an dha locha which translates as the Glen of the two lakes. It is very much associated with St. Kevin who lived as a contemplative saint and mystic here in the golden age of Celtic Christianity in the 6th century.
He did have a moody and perhaps even murderous side to him however ! St. Kevin was a famously handsome and charismatic figure and it seems that his quest for a silent, contemplative life were constantly interrupted by a local population that was in thrall to his ways. Young women were particularly persistent and most persistent of all was a young lady by the name of Kathleen of the green eyes. Undeterred by Kevins rejection of her, she continued to pursue him until one day in a fit of rage Kevin threw her into the lake where she drowned.
The valley went on to host a large and important monastic community right through the glory days of Irelands monastic tradition when Ireland gained a reputation as Europe’s premier seat of learning and scholarship in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries. During this time much of Europe was in a chaotic state following the decline of the Roman Empire and Irelands relative isolation, peace and respect for learning allowed the monasteries to become repositories of learning and scholarship during this era. Indeed scholars flocked from all over Europe monasteries such as Glendalaugh during this time.
Much of the original monastic settlement remains including the entrance way, the round tower, St.Kevin’s kitchen, a beautiful Celtic cross. All her bathed in myths, legends and stories. For example, it is said that if the central archway falls down, then armegeddon will follow in seven days.
The round tower is a particularly well preserved and impressive construction dating from the 11th century and is one of the finest preserved round towers of its era. It served as both a beacon and a look out tower, allowing pilgrims to locate the monastery and allowing the monks to keep a watchful eye on the surrounding country also.
While, St. Kevin’s kitchen is also nicely preserved, overall we are talking about the ruins of an old settlement. Imagination is essential in bringing it to life. You have to imagine the monks, living, working and praying in this beautiful tranquil valley.
The golden age of Glendalough came to an end with its sack by the Anglo Normans in the 12th century and its subsequent union with the Dublin diocese in 1214. It fell into disuse in 1398 following destruction by English forces. It remained an important local church and remained an iconic site for the local population throughout its history right up to the present and indeed their are accounts of riotous celebrations there on the feast of St. Kevin in the 18th and 19th century.
It remains an icon of Celtic spirituality and the serenity of the lakes and their attendant atmosphere remains special right to this day.
Alan Coakley is a travel director with Trafalgar tours based in Ireland
No day in this realm is without its beauty. But it takes a special kind of spirit to appreciate these grey, sunless days of our nascent Spring. “The hungry gap”, it used to be called as winter stocks were depleted and the land gave little or nothing amidst the coldest, bleakest months of the year.
Spring is a misnomer here. It’s a slow grind through February, March and April as the days lengthen and light slowly returns to the ascendant as Spring ever so gradually stretches its limbs and wakes up. There is no real heat until May.
The driving rain today is unrelenting and has an angry aspect. It is being driven by a gutsy, gusting wind beneath a translucent, grey sky.
I regard our weather as a mixed blessing. Blessed by modern convenience, I can be totally at my ease on these grey days living the indoor life. Books, music, cozy fires and pleasant pubs are plenty for me. Of course it is possible to do outdoor activities but any sort of outdoor work or exercise quickly takes on a survivalist, epic atmosphere.
The mind naturally inclines inwards and indoors. In olden times that meant the world of the fireplace and the imagination. It is why the musical and literary traditions are so strong. So much of the old ways are gently shrouded in story and song. As I sit under a wave of rain, wind and general greyness, this story came to mind and I thought to share it. I have decided against going to a source material and will instead allow the story to spill and take whatever shape it takes in this strange vessel we call the written word.
Many thousands of years ago, in the land that is now Ireland, but before, and long before there was any strange notion or concept of “country” or a “nation-state”, there was a wise woman, a wise man and their three children living on the shores of a beautiful, abundant lake in the West of Ireland. The woman of the house Máire, was in fact a skilled herbalist. So when her husband, Aodh, fell gravely ill, at first she was not worried, confident that the land around her contained the medicine he needed.
But…………………….her best efforts failed. Then one night her eldest son, Tomás had an aisling (visionary dream) in which it was revealed to him that on the eve of Smahain ( Halloween), he could jump through the surface of the lake and encounter a magical country at the bottom of the lake wherein it was possible, although very difficult, to obtain the knowledge of how to heal his father. He was told that if he could travel through this magical land for a year, he would encounter the hazelnuts of knowledge near the enchanted well in a clearing in the forest. The land was known as the realm under wave.
He told all this to his mother, who, while deeply conflicted about this dangerous journey bid him to go and do his best. So on the eve of Samhain, he went out to the lake. Whilst making this journey he encountered two Sidh (fairy people) who gave him two further pieces of advice. The first told him that he must never tell a lie in the realm under wave. The second told him, that no matter how tempted he was, he must not spend more than one night under any one roof. If he was to do any of these things, a great misfortune would befall him and he would not return to the land of his people.
Taking all this on board, Tomás, who was naturally a brave boy, jumped into the lake and swam towards the bottom of the lake. While the water was icy at first, it quickly warmed up to a pleasant temperature, so that after a few moments of swimming, he felt like he was taking a warm bath. It was also strangely lit under the water and by some strange magic, he was also able to breathe. Presently, he came to the realm under wave.
It was indeed the magical land of his dreams. The sun shone eternally, the trees were forever in blossom and gave fruit and nuts and beauty with such abundance that Tomás spent three whole days solidly staring at them in wonderment. When he finally tasted of the fruit and nuts, they were the finest foods he had ever known. He knew immediately that this was a country in which no-one would ever want. He wandered for a full sixty days and nights without meeting a soul. But, strangely, he never felt lonely or even a little bit sad. He noted that his emotions were always positive, his mind always clear and his thoughts steady. And despite all this, he remembered his purpose well and was never tempted to think of remaining there in that wonderful place.
And then after 60 days and nights, of eating the most delicious fruits and nuts and sleeping the perfect, peaceful, blissfull sleeps under the open skies and experiencing nothing but happiness he encountered some of the inhabitants of the land.
They came upon him as a group but Tomás was not scared. Somehow their peace descended upon him even before he met them. When he laid eyes on them, he saw that they were the most beautiful people he had ever seen. The men and women were tall and stately and looked just like people in our world but each carried an inner glow that was somehow visible to Tomás. By some strange magic he could observe their inner qualities such as virtue, generosity and honesty as surely as we can see colours in the world around us.
Tomás was awe-struck by their presence and it took him a while to speak even after they had greeted him. Presently he was invited to the palace where he spent a glorious evening enjoying the best food, music and company he had ever known. It was all perfect bliss and Tomás was sorely tempted to forget his mission and remain in the palace. Eventually however, he pulled himself together and, remembering the warning not to spend two nights under the one roof, he said his goodbyes, asked for and received directions to the enchanted well and the hazelnut tree of knowledge and made to continue his journey. Just as he was leaving the main door, the King addressed him.
“Did you have a good time ?” asked the king.
” I did indeed”, answered Tomás
“Was it not the finest time you have ever had in your life ?” , asked the King, ” and are we not the finest people in the finest land you have ever encountered ?”, he continued.
Now at this question, Tomás hesitated. He was indeed a good and a loyal man and indeed highly courageous but if he had a fault it was an excess of pride. On hearing the question, he was filled with a defiant and angry pride in his own land, his own people and the good times he had with them.
” My own people are as fine as any of you, my own land as beautiful and the times we have there are just as good, if not better”, he lied.
And with that he fell under an enchantment. He instantly forgot who he was and why he had come and fell in with the servants at the castle.
Now back in the land of people, the woman of the house, Máire, grew restless. After her son failed to return on the Samhain of the following year, she considered that she had made the wrong decision in allowing her son go off to the country under wave.
As her husband grew weaker, she worried that not only would she lose her husband but that she would lose her eldest son also. A deep sadness and despair fell over the whole family. It was such that Conn, the next eldest, decided to go to the Realm under wave to see what had befallen his brother and, of course, with the idea that he too might get the hazelnuts of knowledge and the wisdom of how to cure his father. He knew he wouldn’t get his mother’s permission, seeing how distressed and regretful she was over his brother’s absence, so he went without asking permission, telling only his sister, Aoife, where he was going.
Conn journeyed into the country under wave much as his brother had done, received the same advice from the fairy people on the way, and encountered the same wonderful world that his brother had encountered. When he encountered the fairy people too, it was much as it had been for his brother and indeed he did not see his brother, who of course, was working as servant there now.
Conn was also a good, loyal son and never forgot his purpose, but if he had one flaw, it was a propensity to over-indulge in the finer things in life. After one magical night in the castle with the inhabitants of that beautiful, perfect land, he simply could not resist another. The music, the food and the company had all been too good. He told himself he would continue his journey after another magical evening in their company.
But of course after spending a second night under one roof, he fell into the same enchantment as his brother, forgot who he was and why he had come to this land and ended up falling in with the servants in the castle just as his brother had done.
Well, you can imagine the mothers grief with her two sons gone and her husband just about hanging on to life. Aoife, her youngest, and her only daughter, took one look at her and realised that if she did not go the country under wave, rescue her two brothers and gain the hazelnuts of knowledge, then her mother would not live for much longer either.
So reluctantly, on the eve of Samhain, she too set out for the country under wave. She too, encountered the same fairy people who gave her the same advice as her brothers and when she encountered the country under wave, she was just as entranced by the beauty of the place as her brothers had been.
She too encountered the fairy people and spent a wonderful evening with them. She even spotted her brothers among the servants and was sad to see that they couldn’t remember who they were or what their purpose was.
Although sorely tempted, she declined to spend another night at the castle and, as she left, when the King asked her “if this was not the finest land, with the finest people and the finest company she had ever encountered ? ” she answered without lying and without letting her people down either. ” Who is there to compare such things?” ” things are as they are”.
The King accepted this and sent her on the right road to the hazelnut tree of knowledge. She gathered the hazelnuts which grew by the well of wisdom. She knew instantly that it was she who must eat the nuts and thereby gain knowledge of, not just how to cure her father, but how to rescue her brothers also.
After eating the nuts she understood that to heal her brothers and make them remember who they were she would have to sing them their favourite song from childhood. What a happy troop they made as they exited that happy land and swam back to the land of mortals, just as winter was setting in and Samhain passed.
With the herbal knowledge gained from the hazelnuts of knowledge she was able to heal her father. Her mother too was healed by the happiness of having her family back together.
Aoife went on to become not just a great healer, but in the fullness of time, became a chieftain and leader of the tribe, ruling by knowledge and virtue.
And just as sadness can leave a mark, so too can happiness, and the three children who had been to the happy realm under wave were known as particularly happy people all their lives. And isn’t that the important thing !
Alan Coakley is a Travel Director with Trafalgar Tours.