According to legend, Samhain, the ancient Celtic festival, has strong links to County Meath in the Boyne Valley.
Samhain began around 2,000 years ago to mark the harvest and a time of transition, with feasting and celebration as the long winter nights approached. It incorporated aspects of Irish, Scottish and Welsh customs. According to legends collected in the medieval period many important or portentous events took place at Samhain; great battles took place where heroes often met their fate. It was a time when the spirits of the Otherworld, the 'Sidhe', were more likely to emerge from their mounds (also called 'sidhe') such as Newgrange, Knowth, Loughcrew and others elsewhere in Ireland. One tale recounts how the legendary warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill had to defend the royal complex at the Hill of Tara from an attack by a fearsome monster who had attacked every Samhain night.
The Hill of Tlachtga and Samhain
One place in County Meath that has a strong mythical association with Samhain is the Hill of Tlachtga, now called the Hill of Ward, one mile east of Athboy. Legend has it that during the time of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the hill took its name from a sun goddess called Tlachtgla. She was the daughter of the druid, Mogh Ruith and in one legend Tlachtga died giving birth to three sons; Dorb, Cuma and Muacth and was buried on the hill.
According to Geoffrey Keating, a 17th century chronicler of Ireland, a Samhain fire festival began on the hill of Tlachtga. Keating wrote in his History of Ireland that it was here on the hill that "the Fire of Tlachtgha was instituted, at which it was their custom to assemble on the eve of Samhain to offer sacrifice to all the gods...it was of obligation under penalty of fine to quench the fires of Ireland on that night, and the men of Ireland were forbidden to kindle fires except from that fire."
Recent archaeological excavations at Tlachtga suggest this ancient hill was indeed used for feasting and ceremonies from the late Bronze Age (1200–c. 500 BC) through to the early medieval period.
Samhain in the Boyne Valley
It wasn't only the Hill of Tlachtga that has a Samhain association in Meath. The passage tomb on the Hill of Tara known as the Mound of the Hostages might have been built on a Samhain sunrise alignment. Some believe that Cairn L and Cairn U at Loughcrew were also built on a Samhain (and Imbolc) alignment to honour the cross-quarter days.
The Feis Temro at the Hill of Tara was one of the most famous Samhain harvest festivals. Keating wrote that at the Feis Temro ('Feast of Tara'), held once every three years, laws were made and histories recorded, and "It was also their custom to pass six days in feasting together before the sitting of the assembly, namely, three days before Samhain and three days after it, making peace and entering into friendly alliances with each other".
The origins of Halloween on the 31st October are obscure but it likely contains elements of the old Samhain festivals. It also contains elements of Christian traditions, especially when the Christian festival of All Saints Day and All Souls Day were moved in the medieval period to 1 November and 2 November respectively.
Modern folklore celebrates Halloween as a time where spirits must be appeased lest they cause mischief among the living, and even the living are allowed to cause mischief that they usually wouldn't be allowed to get away with! Many aspects of Halloween have developed from these northern European folk customs, such as dressing-up, bobbing for apples and making offerings of food and trick or treating, and when Europeans migrated to America they brought these customs with them. In the USA Halloween grew in popularity and reemerged in Europe in the later twentieth century.
Today we celebrate the ancient Samhain traditions and the modern Halloween festivities with the Spirits of Meath Halloween Festival. Follow the link for a wide range of events; whether it's fun by day or fright by night, there's something for everyone!