Lughnasadh and The Tailteann Games

Tailteann Games

In Ireland, August is when two very important events occur; the first harvest of the year, and the festival season kicking off. Festivals have been an integral part of our history for thousands of years and have carried on to the modern day with new, innovative ways of engaging with our heritage while still maintaining a very traditional, if not ancient, celebration of life, agriculture and culture. The most famous, and one of oldest running, is the Puck Fair which as been going on since the 17th century, but many communities much like our own have smaller local fairs and festivals in the early part of August, but beyond it being associated with the harvest season, why else do you think we have so many localised fairs and festivals nationally, and do you ever think it’s associated to an Old Irish God?

Well, if you are not familiar with it already, the first of August is actually a festival in the Irish Celtic Calendar from ancient times. This festival is called Lughnasadh and its origins date back to when Ireland followed a polytheistic faith. The name is believed to be derived from the God of Craft and the Arts, Lugh Lamhfada or Lugh of the Long Hand – a greatly skilled hero and warrior in Irish Mythology who also has ties to the harvest and warrior culture. According to legend, Lugh was cast from the shores of Toraigh Island by his Grandfather, Balor of the Evil Eye, and was raised by his Foster Mother Taitliu. After clearing the plains of Ireland for settlement, she died and Lugh created a harvest festival with funeral games in her honour known as Áenach Tailteann. During this, there would be events honouring the dead, proclaiming the laws and the festivities following. Some of the sporting including running, hurling, spear throwing, archery and even horse racing, and the festival, much like today, would have competitions in crafting and music and food. Due to these great sporting events and competitions, the Tailteann Games are often referred to as the Irish Olympics because of this!

One of the stranger events that took place were mass arranged marriages where couples would often meet for the first time before being married amongst other brides and grooms. If you didn’t like your spouse though, you had a year and a day to decide of you wanted to divorce them.

This festival also celebrated the beginning of the harvest season. People would celebrate by cooking grand feasts, playing music, selling their wares and revitalising their connection with nature as the Irish landscape was bursting with produce and foliage. We still see this today with events like the Pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick on the last Sunday in July. Lughnasadh is actually the last of the major festivals in the Celtic Calendar.

Today, the festivals that we have across Ireland have evolved into something new that reflects our ever-changing climate while still honouring and preserving ancient tradition. If you have a festival coming up in your community, take a moment and consider how this yearly festival has its roots in our rich line of cultures and traditions.

The Second Battle of Moytura

For 2022, we want to start sharing more posts to do with our cultural heritage and our Mythology, so we’re starting up Mythology Monday with our Heritage Officer, Róisín. Even if it’s a condensed version, it’s so important that we’re able to share these stories and this week we’re starting with one very close to home, the Battle of Maigh Tuireadh.

In an Ireland times gone by, a great battle took place to restore the honour of the old Gods, the Tuatha Dé Danann. The Tuatha were made up of Gods and Heroes that nurtured the earth and the mortals, gods like Brighid, the Dagda and Dian Cecht. For years they had been oppressed by the Fomorians under their king, Bres, but enough was enough. They raised their armies to fight their oppressors and reclaim Ireland.

They fought ferociously against the Fomorian armies, the Dagda lifting his great club, Nuada slicing with his sword, the Claomh Solais, and the Morrígú crying out their battle cry but the Fomorians pressed on. Their leader, Balor, struck down their men with his Evil Eye, a cursed third eye which killed any man in its line. However, when things seemed lost, Lugh Lamfhada rose. Lugh, son of Eithne and Grandson of Balor, stood with the Tuatha and faced his Grandfather. Balor laughed, as all Lugh had before him was a slingshot – such a weapon could not defeat him! But Lugh was not deterred. He swung his arm and fired a stone towards Balor’s head. The stone ripped through his evil eye and Balor and the Fomorians fell.

The Tuatha were victorious, and Lugh took his ranks amongst them. Prosperity returned to Ireland and the Fomorians retreated back to the sea and their fort at Tory Island.

Suggest other myths you’d like to see next week! The reason why this is so close to home? Some versions of the myth say this battle took place in the Poisoned Glen in Dunlewey! In fact, it’s said Balor is buried in the side of Errigal.

Yule, Newgrange and The Irish Winter Solstice

Ireland has been celebrating the different markers of the year for millian and over time these different festival have evolved to adapt to our changing Climates. Samhain has evolved into Halloween, Ombolc has evolved to St. Bridget’s Day and even the festivals of Lughnasa are believed to have evolved into the village fairs we see across the country. The Winter Solstice is a quieter festival date that marks the shortest day and longest night of the year, but it may be one of the most important dates in the ancient Irish calendar based on our archeology. 

The Winter Solstice or Yule, known as “An Grianstad” in Irish, is a mid-season festival on December 21st that marks the Winter Equinox – the shortest time of the year in which we only have around 9 hours of sunlight. Our ancestors would have recorded this time as having some great significant meaning, from what we can see through archeology, specifically at Newgrange which dates back as far as the Neolithic Period – around 5,000 years ago! 

Newgrange is one of the oldest buildings in the world, and is the second largest of the mounds of Brú na Bóinne, the largest being Knowth. It is approximately 80m in diameter with a 19m long passage tomb running through the mound with a corbelled ceiling which has kept the interior of Newgrange water-tight for millenia. Upon its rediscovery in the early 20th century, bones and cremated remains were found on the flat stones in the chambers of the passage tomb, along with intricate designs and grooves carved into the stone of triskles and spirals that to this day historians are still unsure of their significant meaning. Some believe that Newgrange, and it’s surrounding mounds in Brú na Bóinne, were the burial sites for important figures in society, such as Kings or Bards, and that the Winter Solstice marked a point in the calendar when the first light born after the longest night carried the spirits of the dead, but this is only speculation. 

The entryway of the passage tomb, guarded by an intricate carved kerbstone and a lightbox above the doorway, is perfectly aligned so that at dawn from the 19th to 22nd of December the rising sun [pierces through the lightbox perfectly illuminates the long inner-chamber for 17 minutes. 

There is so much we can learn through monuments like Newgrange on how our ancestors celebrated different markings of the year, and what they may have meant, and even looking at things we still do today says a lot about how our folklore and culture has evolved. Today, the Winter Solstice is synonymous with dark, cold evenings shared with loved ones and roaring fires, and I’m sure not much has managed to change in the past 5.000 years.