The Key Festivals of the Celtic Year
In ancient Ireland, the Celtic Year was dominated by the four key festivals of Samhain, Beltane, Imbolg and Lughnasadh.
The winter half of the year began with the feast of Samhain (see here for more information), which was on 01 November and marked the end of harvest – it was a forerunner of Halloween. The summer half of the year commenced with Beltane which was on 01 May.
Imbolg was on the 01 February and marked the start of Spring, while Lughnasadh was on 01 August and marked the beginning of the harvest season. The Brian Friel play ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ set in Donegal, includes references to the traditions observed at this time. Lughnasadh is also known as Lammas.
The Festival of Beltane
The Irish name Beltene has been interpreted as bel probably meaning ‘shining, brilliant’ while tene is the word for ‘fire’. The first of May was sacred to Beltene, one of the names of the god of Death who gives life to men and takes it away from them again.
The first of May was a noteworthy date in Irish mythology when a number of key events happened, namely:
- The day that Partholan landed in Ireland. The race of the Partholanians did battle with the Fomorians to win control of Ireland, but eventually were all killed by pestilence and the land lay empty until the coming of the Nemedians.
- The pestilence that killed Partholan’s people arrived on 01 May and destroyed them within one week.
- The day that the sons of Miled arrived and began their conquest of Ireland (also known as the Milesians and the group that many of the ancient houses of Ireland trace their ancestry from).
Traditions Associated with Beltane
Communities prepared a bush decorated with ribbons which was often the cause of raids and fighting between the men of neighbouring districts. Interesting, the Ordnance Survey Memoirs records the name of the Maybush district at Carrickfergus, County Antrim, which might have its origins in the custom of decorating the bushes.
In some parts of Ulster and some towns in Leinster and the Irish midlands, May Day was celebrated by decorating a maypole rather than a bush. Decorating and dancing around the maypole is more familiar as an English custom and is a fertility rite, with the pole representing the god, while the ring of flowers at the top represents the goddess. The dance that weaves the brightly coloured ribbons around each other represents the spiral of life, the union of the god and goddess and the union between earth and sky.
The lighting of bonfires was an important part of the Beltane rituals. One ancient Beltane custom saw cattle being driven ceremoniously between two fires which purified them and blessed them with fertility before they were driven to their summer pastures. People jumped through the flames and danced around the fire. House fires were doused and later re-lit from the Beltane flames.
It was a time for staying up all night and couples blessed the earth with fertility by making love in the woods and fields. Women washed their face in the early morning dew as it was believed to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness.
Greenery and flowers were gathered to decorate the house and out-buildings and to give as presents.
Of course, the ancient Beltane festival survives now as the May Day Bank Holiday, but its origins lie in the pagan past of the Celtic world and is wrapped up in the fascinating world of Irish mythology and folklore.
Bardon, Jonathan. (2009) A History of Ireland in 250 Episodes. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.
Circle Sanctuary. Fox, Selena. (2019). Beltane Lore and Rites. https://www.circlesanctuary.org : accessed 02 May 2019.
Conolly, S. J. [Ed]. (1998) The Oxford Companion to Irish History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
MacCana, Proinsias (1983) Celtic Mythology. Middlesex: Newnes Books.
Roberts, Alice. (2015) The Celts: Search for a Civilisation. Great Britain: Heron Books.
Rolleston, T. W. (1986) Celtic Myths and Legends. London: Studio Editions Limited.
McWilliams, Patrick. (2002) Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland: Index of People and Places. Belfast: The Institute of Irish Studies Queen’s University Belfast.
The Goddess and The Green Man. (2019) Beltane. https://www.goddessandgreenman.co.uk/beltane : accessed 02 May 2019.
Wikipedia. (2019) Beltane. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beltane : accessed 02 May 2019.
About the Author
Natalie Bodle, a native of Northern Ireland is the author of the Roots Blog and founder of Roots Revealed. She is a professionally qualified genealogist and is a member of APG. She is also a qualified tour guide and a member of TGNI.
Roots Revealed provides genealogy research services to clients who are searching for their Irish, Northern Irish and Scots-Irish ancestors, in addition to genealogy tours and family history courses. For more information about the full range of services provided by Roots Revealed, please visit www.rootsrevealed.co.uk or get in touch by emailing email@example.com