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.

Tory Island and It’s History

This week’s Sheephaven History looks to one of the most inconic shapes in our landscape – Tory Island. Inis Toraigh or Tory is an island located off the coast of Donegal and, while small, is steeped in history with a rich tradition of music and mythology, as well as being a bastion of Ireland’s language and culture.  

For centuries, the island has stood as beacon in the Atlantic as it keeps a lookout on the continuing history of Ireland from ancient times right up to the present day. The Island has witnessed turbulent times from invasions to Wars and to Famines, and yet its people have remained steadfast against it all. The Islanders are fiercely proud of their island and its way of life, and visitors have traveled to the island in their thousands every year to immerse themselves in the language and Tory culture. Up until a few years ago, visitors were even greeted as they landed at the pier by the late King of Tory himself, Patsy Dan Rodgers. The rich tradition of Irish Kingship dates back millennium, and this made Tory one of the final places in Ireland with a King. 

Battles and warfare are as part of Tory’s narrative as the waves surrounding it, with many important parts taking place in its waters in both the History and Pseudohistory of Ireland. In the Lebor Gabhála Érenn or Book of Invasions, a medieval text which accounts for the mythical origins and history of ancient Ireland, Tory was the home of the Fomorian Stronghold, the enemies of the occupants of the mainland. According to legend, the third invaders of Ireland, the Nemedians, battled the Fomorians at the Conand’s Tower on the island, Conand being a Fomorian King. The later King of the Fomorians, Balor of the Evil Eye, locked his daughter Eithlinn in a tower on the island called Tor Mór in an attempt to prevent a prophecy that his death would come from her children.    

In more recent history, great battles and sieges took place around the island. In 1608, the Siege of Tory Island took place during O’Doherty’s Rebellion when surviving rebels from the rebellion made their last stand against the Crown on Tory Island. In 1798, the Battle of Tory Island (also known as the Battle of Donegal or the Battle of Lough Swilly) took place on October 12th between the French and British Squadrons during the Irish Rebellion. This was led by Wolfe Tone and the Society of United Irishmen and it was after this final Battle that Wolfe Tone was later captured by the British. In 1884, the HMS Wasp was on a mission to collect rents on the Island when it struck the rocks at Tory Lighthouse and was lost. Coincidentally, the Navy launched another HMS Wasp in 1886 but it disappeared at Sea a year later and was never heard from again. They may have wisely decided to not name another HMS Wasp after this. In 1914, on October 27th, the first British battleship of WWI was lost. This super-dreadnought ship, the HMS Audacious, was sunk off the island when it hit a minefield laid by a German merchant-cruiser. Officially, this loss was not publicisided until three days after WWI officially ended in 1918. The passengers of the RMS Olympic, the sister ship of the Titanic, witnessed and photographed its sinking. This is only one of many other ships that would have sunk around Tory in the two World Wars, and it is sus[ected that there are over three hundred wrecks in the vicinity of the island with the loss of thousands of lives. 

In more recent years, the Tory Islanders have faced battles which threatened their way of life and the island’s very existence. In the 1970s, the future of Tory came under threat when the authorities tried to depopulate the island but the islanders fought the campaign to save their island. Despite the fact that half the population left the island, those who stayed oversaw great developments on the island such as the Ferry Service, New Pier and the building of a New Secondary School.  Tory has been a thriving hub of life for the past 5,000 years filled with music, stories and tradition, and today not much has changed. Tory is a thriving and close-knit community that everyone should visit and if you do, be sure to take in the stunning views, the lifestyle and maybe practice some Irish while you’re there!