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The Grand Celtic Fair, the Óenach—Part II

The Ancient Celtic Fair, the Óenach—Part II

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher concludes his look at the grand Celtic Fair of ancient Ireland, The Óenach, Part II. (Click here for Part I.)

As we saw last time, the great Celtic fairs were called only once every seven years or so. They were times feasting, drinking, games, and horse racing. It was also a place where far-flung clans could bring their wares, exhibit their crafts, and trade.

I again quote from my novel, The Bonfires of Beltane, where my main character, Taran mac Teague, describes his experience with a óenach called by Forga mac Dallán, the regional king (or Rí Cóicid) of Ulster.

The Óenach—a Grand Marketplace

“The fair filled a large field next to the forest below the fortified hilltop. Tents rose everywhere. At one end, log structures topped with hide served as shelters from the frequent drizzle. Here the vendors slept and sold their wares. Sweet-smelling wine from Gaul. Forge-hammered swords and daggers cast by expert metalworkers—iron for business, silver and bronze for show. Fruit pies, sweet breads, and honey cakes, filling the aisles with enticing aromas. Capes and tunics of newly tanned leather, smooth silk, or white wool—painted or dyed, decorated with shells, brass, or animal teeth, or woven with plaids and stripes. Hats of fur, silk, or skin. Saddles and bridles—aye, the finest hard leather all. And the musical instruments—harps, bagpipes, bone whistles, and bodhrán drums.”…

Straight from the Forge

“Early in my exploration, I chanced to meet Mùirne.

“ ‘Never have I seen such a sight.’ Her eyes were wide with excitement. ‘Kilgarren never let me see anything. And before him, I traveled na but five miles beyond our tuath.’

“ ‘So you like the fair?’

“ ‘Like it?’ She looked at me and smiled broadly. ‘Sure, and I like it just fine.’

“We decided to walk the aisles together. A man wearing a leather apron, his face scarred by years of sparks, beat a hammer on white-hot iron. Children’s eyes grew round at the sight of swords and sickles coming straight from his furnace. He pounded, bent, and shaped them on anvils before our eyes. Another smelter worked only in gold and silver. That day he was fashioning a torc, a wide, circular neck ornament of silver, on which he made intricate designs.”


A Celtic Loom

Items from the Loom

“Further on, an old woman made furs and blankets, her loom set up to weave, rods clicking back and forth. Her fingers quivered as she flipped the wooden poles, the different colored threads lining up and falling into the cloth exactly where they belonged.

“ ‘Bright plaids, lassie.’ She winked at Mùirne as her fingers flew. ‘Na but bright and cheerful plaids from my loom.’

Mead Aplenty to Go Around

“Besides the trading, there was, of course, the mead. The Ériu could never do without that intoxicating beverage. From shortly after the noon meal, it flowed like a river from the mead tents.

“Forga maintained rows of hives, spread out over five fields, with men to tend the bees. The honey was stored and chilled in caves kept for the promise of a óenach. From this he prepared vats of the drink, enough to drown a thousand men, he said. Maids dispensed it freely from four makeshift tents. Forga liked his mead drier, rather than sweeter, and even allowed a limited amount with nutmeg. Everyone brought their own mugs. Forga also provided plenty of barley ale at these tents, but he prided himself on his mead….”

Wicked Clowns

“Clowns roamed the field and aisles at will, men acting the goat, playing the fool, their faces painted in scary reds and blacks and yellows. Some would throw mocking, piercing jests at every passerby. Others told bawdy jokes and had their audiences laughing, holding their sides, and spilling their mugs. These I tried to avoid.

“ ‘I donna like the clowns.’ Mùirne frowned. ‘They’re funny, but also . . . mean.’

“ ‘Aye, they’re wicked. At any other time, some of these jests would end in dead clowns.’

“Mùirne laughed. ‘I dare say you’re right.’ ”


The Celtic Musical Tradition Lives on Today

Grand Music, Indeed

“And the musicians! Their music floated over the crowds from dozens of players, each ensconced in their own quarters. Eerie music of the pipe to put your hair on end and your skin aquiver. Drums and cymbals syncopated to the drummer’s inner beat. Tunes from the bone whistle and bagpipe to send your heart aflutter. Harps to accompany the singers’ ballads and fill your soul with grief or joy. Each musician chose his territory, and before them, the dancers would gather. The livelier the music, the more dancers they attracted. …”

That was the óenach as told through the eyes of Taran, my main character in The Bonfires of Beltane.

A Warrior’s Boasting

One thing I didn’t mention in my book was that the óenach was also a time for a warrior’s boasting of his personal conquests. How did he do this? By producing the tongues of the men he’d killed in battle. Sometimes, the braggart would inflate his trove of trophies with the tongues of cattle. But boasters beware! If you speak thus fraudulently of your success, ’tis said your sword will speak with the tongues of demons and betray your lie!

To further immerse yourself in the world of ancient, Celtic Ireland, check out my novel, The Bonfires of Beltane, from which this description of a great Celtic fair was taken.

Next time, we’ll take a look at the ancient, Celtic Otherworld.