Thursday, 13 November 2014

Society trip to Samhain Festival of Fire 2015

Samhain Festival of Fire 2014
You can see all the photographs from the event on our Flickr account

This year the Society made its first trip to the Samhain Festival of Fire at the Hill of Ward in Athboy, Co. Meath. The festival is an annual event that takes place every Halloween, and commemorates the tradition of lighting fires on the hill to mark the Celtic new year and the ancient celebration of Samhain.  The trip was significant for us due to our recent excavations conducted on the Hill of Ward, and was a rather nice way of tying our physical studies and archaeological finds with the long held folk traditions and cultural significance associated with the site. Overall it was a very enjoyable evening as well as a really pleasant and novel way to spend Halloween. I would certainly support the society making it an annual trip!

Pre-festival drinks in Athboy

Our evening began with a coach ride from UCD to the small town of Athboy in county Meath. We arrived a little early and went to Floods pub on the main street for a little refreshment and festive atmosphere while we waited for the festival to start.  At 7:30pm we wandered down to the fair green where a crowd was assembling. At the centre were speakers, including the founder of the event; Joe Conlon, who gave us an outline of the festival and the evening's events as well a little local history and mythology of the hill and of the druidess Tlachtga. They also thanked the various contributors and supporters that allowed the event to go ahead, as well as UCD archaeology for our excavations. We were also taught a song about Tlachtga and told a little of the ancient religious and cultural significance of the hill and the use of fires on Samhain. During the gathering, flaming torches were handed out to the crowd, and after the speakers had finished we began a torchlit procession to the hill. 

The procession route was along a country road, and the residents had lined it with little fires and braziers outside their homes, where they stood offering us treats and greetings. It was a lovely festive atmosphere, particularly as many of the people in the procession had come out in costume and the only lights to be seen came from the orange glow of torches and fires, with the occasional ray of moonlight. We reached the hill by climbing over a stile and walking along a grassy path lined with torches. The crowd formed a circle around the centre of the formation on the hill, where there was a bonfire and a procession of hooded and cloaked individuals playing drums and carrying banners entered the circle. We were then treated to the tale of Tlachtga, acted out with singing, drums and pageantry which the crowd was invited to join in with.

 As we watched and listened, we were able to avail of hot cider, tea, coffee and buns from a little kiosk erected by the hill. After the story of Tlachtga, the cloaked people in the midst of the crowd offered druidic prayers and chants and spoke of the ancestors and such, after which the crowd were asked to shout out the names of the dead, in a similar manner to prayers, following the belief that the boundaries between the various worlds was thinnest on Samhain. Whether you believe in this or not, it is a beautiful experience, and simply being on the hill with such a crowd, with light from the torches, singing, fires, hot cider and refreshments and the sight of occasional fireworks going off on the horizon all makes for a fantastic Halloween.

After the ceremony we wandered back down the road to the town where we met up once again at Floods pub. At this point it was far more crowded with Halloween revellers, so we gathered in a small side room for a few games of pool and some food from the local takeaway. After we had a chance to unwind and relax after the nights excitement, we returned to the coach for a lift back to UCD to enjoy the rest of our Halloween.

All in all it was a splendid night and a good experience, particularly for the many international members of our group, for whom it must have been a great taste of Irish culture and tradition, and even for the natives such as myself it was a new experience, as a Halloween activity it was a lot of fun and a nice chance. I think it would make a rather good annual society trip, and its certainly worth experiencing! 

Report by Tom Manning

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