Samhain Fires and the thinning of the veil between worlds

Witch's familiar

I love Halloween, I always have. Most years, I look forward to dressing up (to anything you want to be -just for a day) and handing out candy to the trick or treaters. This year, though, I wasn’t feeling it. It could be the hours and hours of overtime at work. It could be a poor mood, new house, different neighbors, and or too much going on with trying to get Irish citizenship. It could be just getting over an illness. It could be the lack of me time… but while the thought of parties, dressing up and handing out candy didn’t appeal – it all worked out.

About a week before Halloween, my friend Barbara made a Facebook post that she wanted to go to Tlachtga (aka the Hill of Ward) in Athboy for Samhain celebrations and participate in the annual 2km fire procession to the ring fort. Now, I know of Tara, Knowth, Dowth, and New Grange Neolitic Monuments. But I’d never heard of this place. Tlachtga is very close by (15 KM away) and within site of Tara. It seems that this ring fort (in the middle of a farmer’s sheep pastures) has not received the attention it deserves as a place of importance, which it has yet to receive. Upon reading up about Ireland, I learned one crucial piece of information and decided I had to go, and offered to drive, because this statement left me intrigued:

Tlachtga (pronounced t-CLA-ck-ta) is the place where Irish Halloween began.


So it was that we left Dublin at 3:30 PM on Halloween Day and headed up the N3 to Athboy, about 35 km North of Dublin. We arrived an hour later, found parking and wandered about Athboy for about 40 minutes (really, the town is not that big). As part of this – we popped over to the old Church of Ireland building which was erected 1770, reuses an old Tower from the Carmelite monestery. I took a few pictures of the building, the cemetery, and noticed that on the North side of the church in the eve – there’s “screaming” man carving. The North side of the church (the Devil’s Side) often has these sculptures to “ward of the Devil” who apparently doesn’t like noise. (Clearly – if that’s the case, then Rock and Roll wouldn’t be known as the “devil’s music”… but that’s a whole other story). A few pictures from the building and the cemetery:

Athboy Church of Ireland
The Carmelite Tower on the front

Athboy church of Ireland Cemetery

Athboy church of Ireland Cemetery

Athboy church of Ireland Cemetery
Screaming Man Warding off the devil

Old Norman Castle Walls
The last of the old castle walls from 1200s which now surround part of the cemetery.

As the sun set, we decided to leave the spooky cemetery and popped into a pub to catch the Rugby world cup, warm up a bit, and have a drink. At 6:45pm, with the darkness outside (and many cars already trying to find parking) we went out into the clear, cool, dry and breeze free October evening.

Tlachta Procession

Samhain Walk

We walked down to the fair green (it’s just up from the petrol station), passing by a sign for the “traffic delays due to Samhain walk” and people were already beginning to gather. There we were handed strips of paper to write our intentions for the coming year, some fire torches, and a lady in a “druidic” costume told us the following:

Tlachtga hill fort This was the place where the Celtic Sun God and Fertility Goddess were celebrated at the year’s end. But most importantly for Hallowe’en, it is the point where the druids felt that this world and the otherworld were closest at the New Year. It was the center of the Great Fire Festival that signalled the onset of winter. The rituals and ceremonies carried out here by the pre-Christian Irish, offered assurance to the people that the powers of darkness would be overcome, and the powers of light and life would prevail. Traditionally, people would converge here from miles around. Then, on Samhain, a congregation would march up the 2km to the hill with torches that were then extinguished. After sunset, the ceremonial New Year Samhain fire was lit from fire and embers that were brought over from the volcanic soil on Howth Island (or elsewhere). Subsequently, new torches were lit from this sacred fire and carried to seven other hills around the county including Tara and Loughcrew, and then on to light up the whole countryside.

Why New Year in Autumn? The Celts / Druids believed that the start of the Autumn darkness symbolized a rebirth, like in a woman’s womb, or a seed. To germinate, a seed is planted in the darkness and germinates and grows slowly in the earth (or the womb) before spring forth into the light. As Autumn grows darker, it is a time of dormancy, of death, and time to go back into the Earth (and/or onself) to rethink and re-emerge in the light, as a “newborn”, or a seedling, or a new chance for the year ahead.

The procession begins

From here, the narrator taught us a little chant / song and gave us an overview of what we’d see/do on the way up and also the ceremony at the fort. We were invited to take one of the few tiki torches, a candle, or other light source, light them, and begin the procession up the hill.

Bonfire & us

Fires on the procession

As we walked, we passed by houses – nearly all of which had fire in some form outside. Some had bonfires, some had lit logs, others had lanterns, jack-o-lanterns, candles, or glow sticks to guide our way.

Druid's well
The Druid minding the Druid’s well (below)

Druid's well

Halfway up, we came to the druid’s well. This sacred well hasn’t been renamed to the name of a saint (like many here in Ireland) and people stepped into the well to take a bit of the magical (supposed to have healing properties) water. A man in druid costume stood nearby to help those in and out of the well.

Next to the well, 3 ladies in veiled costumes sat nearby. These were the 3 fates, who spin the tales of our lives. For an offering, you could get a blessing, a fortune, or advice. I crossed the blessing fate with a bit of silver and gold (a euro) donation, and received a lovely blessing from the goddess for the New Year (the goddess knows what is in your heart, and asks that you remain focused. If you are, she will help you make it happen). Barbara chose a different fate, and received some beautiful advice – which touched her deeply.

Blessing of the fates
Getting the fortune from one of the 3 “fates”

Proceeding on, there was a slight bottleneck as 300 people climbed over a narrow gate into the field. Here we proceed up the hill, past the 4 directional signs and a giant goddess puppet figure, then through a gate lit on either side by a fire. We had arrived. The ring fort makes a natural ampetheater, and about 300 people gathered along the outside of the ring, looking downward to the middle, where the ceremony would take place.

The Magic circle

With a drumbeat, the procession into the sacred circle began. Each of the 4 directional banners entered, with the Goddess figure following last.

Entrance Procession

Our singing chant of:

Tlachtga, lady, goddess fair
Come to us on frosted air
Guide our steps in pale moonlight,
Light our fire this Samhain Night

filled the area. The sacred circle was opened, calling on the 4 elements from each direction, and welcoming people from all over (North America, South America, Asia, Europe, and Australia – sorry you lost the rugby) to the event. We were reminded to turn off cell phones (not everyone did) and to be quiet so that everyone could hear (shhh!!). With that we were told of the story of Tlachtga.

At the hill fort....The ceremony

The Story:

The GoddessTlachtga
Effigy of The Goddess Tlachtga

The figure of Tlachtga is one of the many tragic heroines of Irish myth. Tlachtga is the daughter of Mog Roith, a powerful druid of Munster. Her name, Tlachtga means “earth spear” from tlacht “earth” and gae “spear”, and refers to one of the many Sun goddesses, but she is also the goddess of lightening and storms.

In the story, Tlachtga and her father Mog Roith travel to Italy. There, they seek out the wisdom of a powerful wizard named Simon Magnus. There, they constructed a flying wheel, called the Roth Ramach. Being unafraid and curious, Tlachtga travelled the world (to the North,South,East,West) and gained much wisdom. When she returned to Italy, Mog Roith and Simon Magnus were not happy with her. Simon Magnus’s 3 sons rape her, and then Mog Roith and Simon Magnus cast Tlachtga out – disgraced as a woman. Pregnant and shamed, Tlachtga returns home to Ireland. When she arrives, she is heavily pregnant and goes to the now named after her. There, after a long and painful labor, she gives birth to 3 sons. Just before dying of exhaustion, she gives each of the son’s a name – Doirb, Cumma, and Muach, and promises that as long as their names (and hers) continue then Ireland will be free from domination by strangers. (The 3 sons later have descendants that are the 3 kings – one of each of the provinces of Ireland – Munster, Leinster, and Connaught). Tlachtga dies, and is buried in the ring fort on the hill. Eventually, as we all know, the names were eventually oppressed and forgotten (with the Christianisation of Ireland) and thus, we see Ireland conquered by the Vikings, the English and so on.

With the story now complete, we were reminded that for the last 16 years, the processions have begun again, and that children are remembering and learning the significance of the sacred fires and the story of Tlachtga. History again remembers her name, and Ireland is free once again.

To the East...

A druid priest came and blessed our intention papers before burning them in the fire to offer them up to the Sidhe (pronounced-She-he- aka earth or mist fairies) to carry into the ether. Then came the remembrances of the spirits. Each person was asked to remember and call out the name of a loved one who had passed since the last procession. To think of them, hold them near to our hearts, and to listen for their words. Then, we all turned to face to the west, and the spirits were to follow the winds to the netherworlds…. as we did, and the spirits were released… a little bit of “magic” happened –

Multiple shooting stars passed over head

much to a few people’s oohs, ahhs, and “did you see that?!?” It made me tear up to think that yes, this is a little bit of the “magic” of the universe, and 2000 years ago, someone stood here and saw the same thing and thought that’s my beloved… sending me a message.

Winds of the West

Finally, the circle was closed (with a brief speech from the founder), we sang them out of the ring, and the community were invited to enjoy some brack (traditional cake) and hot tea provided by the lovely Conlon family – the farmers who own the field and generously let us celebrate here. We could also offer a little donation for the organizers / farmer / etc as the event is held solely based on donations.

Fires and Fog

Our tummy warmed by the tea, it was nearly 10 PM. Barbara and I walked down the hill in the dark (most of the fires which greeted us on the way up were down to a few warm coals) and watched the mist and fog turn from tiny wisps to a heavy cover over the countryside. The Sidhe (Pronounced Sheehey or ground fairies) had arrived in full force. We were now shadows of ourselves, silhouettes lit by a few flashlights and the lights of the occasional car on the back country road. The Wheel has turned, the Veil has thinned… I can see why people believed that spirits of the other world would be closer in this place. (Of course, we also looked a bit like a promotional poster for the Walking Dead each time a car passed and all you could see was lights and the outline of a body… but hey, that’s me watching too many horror movies, right?!?)

We drove home from Athboy in the darkness and fog – and arrived back in Dublin just before midnight, the witching hour, where others were setting off fireworks from their gardens or having their own bonfire – continuing a tradition of 2000+ years (a tradition they may not even remember the reason for).

All in all, it was a memorable and magical experience – and one I know I’m blessed to have. One that someday, I hope to pass on to keep Tlachtga and her sons in mind.

Happy Hallowe’en, and Blessed Be!



Kilkenny, Ireland at Night

Kilkenny, Ireland.
Fortification along the River Nore at Night

In yesterday’s post, I gave a history of Kilkenny and lots of the pictures taken during the day time. B and I actually spent the night at the Ormonde hotel in Kilkenny – and were pleasantly surprised with our last minute booking. The room was great and the hotel has a great breakfast selection. I would recommend staying there if you get the chance.

Kilkenny, Ireland.
Kilkenny Castle entry at night

Staying over night, of course, gave us a chance to wander around at night and experience some of the sites and bar scene. We wandered from our hotel and got a few pictures of the Castle above, before going across the river and passing the newly remodeled River court hotel (below) which re-opened this spring.

Kilkenny, Ireland.

Kilkenny, Ireland.

Kilkenny, Ireland.

We walked up the main street, and headed to the Kilford Arms hotel. Now the hotel I can’t say much – as I’ve never stayed there, but inside the hotel, there’s a bar which the architecture is simply awesome. The bar re-uses old Abby (cloister?) ruins as features in the architecture. It totally impressed B, and we enjoyed both the atmosphere and the charm of the decor. Some photos from inside below:

Kilkenny, Ireland.

Kilkenny, Ireland.

Kilkenny, Ireland.

Kilkenny, Ireland.

Once we left there, we headed back toward the river and passed several bars, before popping into another bar to warm up and try the flaming Pig whiskey. Then we headed on to Bridies, which we were hoping to get into once it opened.

Kilkenny, Ireland.

Kilkenny, Ireland.

Bridies was interesting – the front entry way area was like an old general store / candy shop. Filled with old style goodies in floor to ceiling shelves. However, as you crossed through the “western style” swing doors to the back room, you found a long bar with comfortable seating in the pub. Here, we stopped for our third whisky of the night Paddy’s this time and had a few laughs with the local musicians. It was a classic Irish sing along – and lovely B graced us with a solo of O Solo Meo! Despite saying she couldn’t sing, it was lovely!

Kilkenny, Ireland.

From here, we headed to an Italian Restaurant where B said it was just like home (the Best Italian I’ve ever had for sure!). I didn’t get a picture (sadly) but totally enjoyed it. (there are actually several good Italian restaurants in Kilkenny)

Kilkenny, Ireland.

As we wandered back to the hotel with full bellies, we went into the Left Bank (quite full for an evening in January),

Kilkenny, Ireland.

Kilkenny, Ireland.

And then back up past a shop (onlookers) before heading to bed.

Kilkenny, Ireland.

The next morning, we headed back to Dublin, Renewed, and happy to have gotten a breath of fresh air. 🙂 I’ll have to come back to Kilkenny and explore further – perhaps this summer.


Kilkenny, Ireland

Kilkenny Castle at night. #kilkenny #castle #ireland #night #nightphotography #history #landmarks #travel #tourism #alllitup #escapefromthecity #exploreireland #inspireireland #PhotoGrid

Yesterday, I mentioned a little bit about a day trip that my friend B and I took back in January. From the Rock of Dunamase (former home of Strongbow and Aoife), we drove through Abbyleix (an old 1700’s planned mill town) a second time, and then to Kilkenny (a secondary residence of Strongbow). Now I’ve been to Kilkenny for a few hours once before with my friend AB & her son, but this time, I was there for a bit longer, and I have to say I really enjoyed it.

Kilkenny & Castle
The River Nore

Kilkenny, Ireland is about a 2 hour drive from Dublin, and it’s a pretty, well kept, walkable middle ages town. It’s known as the “marble city” because when Italian marble became too expensive / scarce to Ireland, the black limestone mined from Kilkenny could be shined up to look like marble – and cost much less. Thus, for many years the locals were put to good use in the stone cutting / carving industry.

Kilkenny, Ireland
the old city walls

Kilkenny, Ireland

A little history. The populated area around Kilkenny dates back to the Mesolithic and Bronze age and it was most likely settled due to the large flat river Nore making a bend here. However, the “modern day” founding of the town was originally based around a Church settlement with a round tower – St. Canice’s Cathedral in the 6th century. The Cathedral’s round tower was added in the 9th century, and can be climbed to the top as it is intact, despite the Viking raids in 1085 and 1114 where the settlement burnt. (The present day church dates to the 1300s, and wasn’t open when we were there, thus no internal pictures.)

Kilkenny, Ireland
St. Canice’s Cathedral and Round tower

Kilkenny, Ireland

Kilkenny, Ireland

In the 1100’s, the initial Norman fortification – a wooden fort – near Kilkenny Castle was constructed by Richard de Clare (better known as Strongbow), and then in 1185, reconstructed by William Marshal (married to Strongbow’s daughter Isobel) with the stone castle being completed in 1213. Remnants of the castle (the three round towers) have subsequently been incorporated into the modern incarnation of the castle – which was updated in 1385, and again in the 14-1500s, then added to with a more formal palace and gardens in the 1700’s. It was in the 14-1500’s that the castle came into the hands of the Butler Family (Margaret Butler was the grandmother of Anne Boelyn of Henry VIII fame) and held onto by the Butler family until 1935. It was sold in the 1960s to the OPW (Office of Public Works) and has since 1990s gone extensive archaeology and restoration – and today can be toured for a nominal fee. (Well worth the tour!)

Kilkenny & Castle
The Kilkenny Castle and 2 of 3 of original round towers

Inside the courtyard of the castle

As the town grew, it was mentioned in manuscripts from the 13th century onwards, and in particular, the ravaging of the town by the black death (bubonic plague) in 1348 which left somewhere around 100 people alive. By this time, the area around the St. Canice’s Cathedral was known as “irishtown” (local Irish lived there) and the area around the castle was known as “High town” (where the Anglo-Normans lived). In 1609, King James granted Kilkenny a Royal charter as a city, and in 1689-1690, King James II of England stayed in the Kilkenny Castle while fighting against the Cromwellian Army.

Kilkenny & Castle
The Coach House / Craft village

Today, Kilkenny is known as a place that Dubliners go on holiday, and for stag parties. There’s a huge craft village (Kilkenny design workshops) that is housed in the former castle coach houses / stables. There’s also lots of fishing, boat cruises up the river, a cave to visit, waterfalls, and big houses.

Kilkenny, Ireland
The Butler house and formal gardens

Kilkenny, Ireland
The old Kilkenny Jail / courthouse

Kilkenny, Ireland
an Old Mill in Kilkenny

Local events that are held in the spring and summer include music an food festivals. There’s also a large number of pubs in and around the center of the main town area – all of which are walkable. (For the population – I am surprised how many there are – more on that tomorrow – when I take you around a bit of Kilkenny at night!).