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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.

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Pagan, Celtic Samhain — Halloween’s Ancestor

Pagan, Celtic Samhain—Halloween’s Ancestor

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at Samhain, the pagan Celtic celebration that preceded our modern Halloween.

samhain-nightSamhain, the Start of Winter

On October 31 of each year, we celebrate Halloween. Children dress up in scary costumes as ghosts, skeletons, or Darth Vader. But from whence came this strange custom? From ancient Ireland and the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced SAH-wen).

Samhain was celebrated from sunset, October 31, to sunset, November 1. It marked the end of the grazing and growing season and the beginning of winter. The crops were mature, and it was time to gather in the produce. It was also a time to bring in the herds from the fields and cull the weakest or non-breeding animals.

Time for a Great Fair?

After gathering the harvest, the clans might have some food that would spoil and not last until spring. Thus, Samhain was a good time to call a óenach (WAY-nock), one of the great harvest and feasting festivals of the ancient Irish Celts. (The subject calls for its own future post.)

A Time When the Otherworld Came Closer

But besides being a time for harvesting, gathering together, and feasting, Samhain also holds a darker meaning. Standing between the death of summer and the birth of winter, between the time of growing and the time of consuming, Samhain marked the year’s midpoint. Perhaps because of this, the druids taught that Samhain was one of only two days when the spirits of the Otherworld came closest to this world. On the nights of both Samhain and Beltane, fires were also lit on hilltops all across Ireland.

The druids believed in an eternal afterlife, and the Otherworld was the place of the dead. By some accounts, it was a grim, dark underworld, ruled by Manannán mac Lir, the sea god. Normally the boundary between this life and the next was fixed, but on the two days of Samhain, winter’s beginning, and Beltane, summer’s beginning, the boundary between worlds became porous. Then the spirits of the dead and the gods of the underworld could cross freely from their world into ours.

A Samhain Night Tale

This story comes to us from Philip Freeman’s St. Patrick of Ireland:

“In one early Irish tale, Medb and Ailill were huddled with their tribe in their feast hall on Samain night, fearful of spirits and gods roaming the land. They offered a reward to anyone who would dare to go outside and tie a twig around the foot of a dead man hanging from the gallows. All the warriors shrank in fear, but a young man named Nera volunteered to go forth.  Just as Nera finished the task, the dead man nonchalantly asked him for a drink of water, which Nera gladly gave him. Then on the way back to Medb and Ailill, Nera saw the hall of his king and queen burning and a troop of Otherworld warriors marching away. He followed them into a hole in the ground where it was spring, the opposite of time in his own world. After a series of strange encounters, which included getting a fairy woman pregnant, he left the cave, only to discover that he had been living in the future and still had a chance to save his tribe in this world.”

Thus, on Samhain night, this ancient warrior traveled into the future, saw a disaster precipitated by Otherworld soldiers, and returned to his own world in time to save his people.

It was also said that at Samhain, the dead could return to this world and haunt those of the living who had wronged them. So Samhain was a time not only of harvest and feasting, but also a time of fear and trepidation.

halloweenSamhain Gave Birth to Halloween

With the coming of St. Patrick and Christianity, the importance of pagan Samhain in Ireland diminished. In 609, the Catholic church declared November 1 to be All Saints’ Day and October 31 to be All-Hallows Eve (Halloween). In this way, the church co-opted a pagan celebration. They later declared in 1000 AD that November 2 would be All Souls’ Day, a time when people could honor the dead. Samhain is thus the ancestor of our modern Halloween.

Now we can see clearly from whence came Halloween’s emphasis on goblins, skeletons, monsters, and demons, and why some today look askance at this “holiday”. For when you look into Samhain’s distant past, a dark underbelly does, indeed, hide beneath it.

Next time, we’ll look at Celtic artisans and craftsmen, Part I.

Sources for this post were: www.digitalmedievalist.com/opinionated-celtic-faqs/samain/ and Philip Freeman’s St. Patrick of Ireland.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above