A fascinating look at the ancient Irish calendar: festivals, traditions, and more

Did you know that the Irish used to have their very own calendar? Get festive – Celtic style – and try out some of these celebrations from the ancient Irish calendar.

We all have those yearly milestones we can’t wait for. Whether it’s the Christmas season or the spooky fun of Halloween, there’s nothing like coming together with friends and family to celebrate. In ancient times, before modern religions came to these emerald shores, the people of Ireland celebrated strange and wonderful holidays in their ancient Irish calendar.

Here, we take an in-depth look at four of these, known as ‘cross-quarter festivals’. These events were highlights of the ancient Irish year, marking the midway points between the solar events of the Winter and Summer Solstices, and the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes, and were marked with lavish feasts and communal parties.

Have a read and see if you can spot elements of the ancient Irish calendar that still survive in Ireland today.

Imbolc (Pronounced IM-bullug)

Imbolc is one of the main festivals celebrated in the ancient Irish calendar.
Credit: Steven Earnshaw / Flickr

When: February 1st

Origins: You may know February 1st as the Christian feast day of St. Brigid, but this festival has its roots long before Christianity came to Ireland. This date was once celebrated as ‘Imbolc’, a festival honouring Brigid, a pagan Goddess of Spring.

In ancient Ireland, this day was a symbol of hope, marking the end of winter, and signalling the returning life in nature.

"Brigid's Cross" were frequently made during Imbolc, one of the festivals in the ancient Irish calendar.

Imbolc and the Goddess it celebrated were so loved by ancient Irish people that the Christian Church could not convince the total population to forgo it. So instead, the church chose this day as the feast day for a saint of the same name.

Traditions: Ancient Irish people honoured Brigid by making effigies in her image, often using rushes. This tradition developed through the ages, and the practice of making an intricate ‘Brigid’s Cross’ is still widespread through the island on this day.

Once constructed, this cross is often hung above doors and is believed to protect households from evil. These traditions are the reason why the ancient Irish calendar is so fascinating.

Bealtaine (Pronunced: bee-YAWL-tinnuh)

Bonfires were a frequent element of Bealtaine, a traditional festival in the ancient Irish calendar.

When: May 1st

Origins: If you happen to be travelling through rural Ireland on May 1st you may come across the many fairs that pop up in towns and villages around this time.

The selling of fresh food, plants, and crafts are a nod to significant belief about this time of the year in Ireland’s ancient past.

May 1st marks the festival of Bealtaine, which is said to have honoured the pagan God Bel, and the beginning of summer.

Traditions: Traditionally ‘May Eve’ was a time of joy and liveliness. Bonfires were lit upon hills, couples were married, and great feasts were held outside, making the most of the warmer weather.

Fairies were feared during Bealtaine festival as they were known to cause mischief for the ancient Irish.

Bealtaine is also said to be one of the two times of the year when the gaps between the living world and the other world are at their thinnest, and when the power of the fairies is at its most active.

But before you romanticise them too much, it’s worth noting that the ‘little people’ we speak of may differ from the fairies you may have encountered in children’s books.

While some of these mischievous creatures are said to be benevolent, others wish to harm people.

Elderly Irish people will still tell stories of the fates of those who were unlucky enough to stumble upon a fairy tree on May Eve…

Lughnasadh (Pronounced LOO-nah-sah)

Marking the celebration of the God Lugh, Lughnasadh was a widely celebrated festival in the ancient Irish calendar.

When: August 1st

Origins: The ancient festival of Lughnasadh, which falls around August 1st, marked the beginning of the harvest. It was also a day to honour the Celtic God, Lugh.

At a time when agriculture was at the forefront of Irish society, the success or failure of the year’s harvest could mean the difference between life and death.

After a successful harvest, ancient Irish people honoured the Gods and the earth for providing for them once more.

Bealtaine was all about celebrating a bountiful harvest. It was one of the traditional festivals in the ancient Irish calendar.

It was a day of plenty and a time of gratitude for all that one has cultivated in the year before.

Traditions: As with all Celtic cross-quarter festivals, Lughnasadh was celebrated with the burning of large bonfires upon hills. Communities would come together to feast on the wheat and barley that’d been harvested and dance the night away.

Samhain (Pronounced SOW-in)

Samhain, and its modern day counterpart, Halloween, were widely celebrated in the ancient Irish calendar.

When: November 1st

Origins: Ireland is well-known as the birthplace of Halloween. However, it once held a greater meaning than the children’s holiday its modern counterpart is today.

Like Bealtaine, this night marked the time when the veil between the worlds grew thinnest, and loved ones, who had passed to the other side, could once again travel back to the homes of their families.

Traditions: Great feasts were prepared, with a table set for a departed loved one. Bonfires were burned, music was played, and people exchanged stories of those who had passed on. It was a time for remembrance, not sorrow.

Candles were lit to guide the souls of dead family members back home during Samhain.

They put candles in windows and doors were left unlocked to help departed loved ones find their way home. They carved turnips (no, not pumpkins. That tradition only came about when this vegetable was more readily available to Irish immigrants in the US) and used them to light the way in the dark.

But it wasn’t just beloved souls that could pass through the veil. While joyful times were had, people feared other, more sinister forces might come to join their parties on Samhain eve.

They wore costumes to hide from the malevolent forces they feared they might meet on the lanes at night, a custom that has survived the tests of time.

Modern day Halloween evolved from the ancient Irish festival of Samhain.

Like Imbolc, the love that Irish people had for Samhain proved so strong that attempts to eradicate it were fruitless. Eventually, a celebration of ‘All Soul’s Day’ was established, and still falls on this date today.

As you can see, the ancient Irish calendar and its festivals aren’t celebrated in the form they once were but elements of them have managed to survive – a testament to their power and the will of our Irish ancestors.

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