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The Grand Celtic Fair, the Óenach—Part I

The Grand Celtic Fair, the Óenach—Part I


Preparing Food for the Óenach

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at the Óenach [WAY-nock], the great Celtic Fair of the ancient Irish Celts.

As we look forward to (or recover from) our Thanksgiving day feasts, it’s interesting to look back on a time of great celebration and feasting in the ancient Celtic world. Was there an occasion when all the clans would gather from every corner of the region and meet in common celebration? Aye, lads and lassies, there was. It was called the óenach, the Celtic fair, and because of the grand nature of the event, it was only held periodically, by some accounts every seven years.

Earlier, we talked about the day of Samhain and how the druids taught that on that day, the spirits of the Otherworld came closest to this world. That was Samhain’s dark side. But it had a brighter side. Although the Rí Cóicid, or regional king, could call one of these grand festivals for other reasons, often he’d decree they be held for the three days before and the three days after Samhain.

Here I quote from my novel, The Bonfires of Beltane, as my main character, Taran mac Teague, describes his first experience with a óenach:


A Celtic Horseman–Going to the Óenach?

The Heart of the Celtic Fair—Horse Races

“In the weeks before the óenach, all Emain Macha seemed alive with preparations. On Inis Creig we’d had celebrations to be sure, but nothing like the great fairs on Ériu. The heart of the fair, as anyone would tell you, was the horse racing. There were short races at full gallop across the field. Long races through the forest to far destinations. Chariot races circling round and round the field for a mile or so. And mock battles on horses with wooden, yet still dangerous, weapons.”

Everyone Dressed in Their Best

“How can I describe the sights and sounds of the óenach through the eyes of yesteryear, through the senses of one seeing such things for the first time? Back then, the world was much smaller, and the great fairs of Forga mac Dallán were the grandest events the land of Ériu had ever seen. Every tuath of Ulster would send people to Emain Macha, until many villages were nearly empty. Each farmstead volunteered someone. And all came dressed in their best. Every tunic was painted and dyed, boasting artful designs, colorful plaids, or stripes of red, yellow, green, and blue. Around their necks, they wore brass and silver torcs. On their hands and fingers, gold bracelets and rings. Everyone came in their finest clothes.

“People waited years for a óenach. When it arrived, no one wanted to miss it. Pity the poor herdsman’s son or daughter who was chosen to stay behind and tend the sheep or look after the cattle. Since his death, the likes of Forga’s óenacha have never been repeated. I’ve now been to a óenach in Connacht, and they say the óenacha in Leinster are grand, but for my opinion, none were greater than those of Ulster under Forga mac Dallán.”

To understand the importance and novelty of the the Celtic fair events, we must imagine what it must have been like to live on an isolated farmstead, most of the time seeing only your local tuath or clan. Visitors were rare. Travel was infrequent and dangerous. So when the Rí Cóicid of Ulster or Connacht or Meath called a great fair, it was a grand event, indeed.

Next time, we’ll conclude our look at the óenach with Part II.

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 Óenach was taken.