Celtic Festival of Samhain in Athboy, Ireland. A torchlit procession walks to the ancient ring fort of Tlagta on the Hill of Ward to watch a pagan ritual on the sacred site from which Halloween originates. Samhain, Athboy, Ireland. 31/10/2010
In a public park in the town of Athboy in County Meath, Ireland a crowd gathers on All Hallows Eve to experience the celebration of Samhain, the ancient Celtic Festival of the Dead from which Halloween was derived.
The crowd walk in procession to an ancient ring fort known locally as the Hill of Ward. Also known by its gaelic name of Tlagta this is the site at which the first fires were lit to mark the beginning of Samhain. Samhain is an ancient Celtic pagan festival that marks the end of summer and the beginning of the Celtic new year calling on the Goddess Tlagta to guide the souls of the dead onto the next world.
It was a rare chance for those in attendance to witness an ancient pagan ritual being celebrated by modern practising Wiccans. It is not a staged re-enactment or piece of entertainment. Reflective strips and high visibility jackets distributed among the crowd and references to the economic and political winds of change are a reminder of the contemporary setting of this ritual.
As the ceremony plays out it is clear that to those performing the rituals it is a deeply spiritual experience. To the people following the procession it has significance for a variety of reasons. For many it is a reminder of their heritage, and for pagans who traveled from as far as USA and conitinental Europe it is a rare opportunity to experience Samhain at the most sacred site.
Ten years ago, Joe Conroy, a local man revived the Samhain celebrations in Athboy. Tonight he introduces himself to the crowd. He briefly explains the background to this event, touching on the origins of Samhain and lamenting the lack of Government support for the preservation of such a significant heritage site, the Hill of Ward. He calls on, Gemma McGowan, a modern witch to begin the proceedings. Gemma distributes the words of the chant that will be recited along the procession to Tlagta. Gemma later explains that this chant is used to raise an energy calling on ancestors to be with those celebrating Samhain.
En route the procession stops at the site of a holy well where Janet Farrar, the Seeress prophesies about the coming year. Janet is a Wiccan medium and uses trace prophesy techniques to bring forward deities to speak to those who approach her. She is swamped by groups of children being ushered forward by their parents to have their futures recited. As the procession files on towards the Hill of Ward, many of the adults accompanying the children request a timid handshake and good wishes from Janet.
The procession bottlenecks as it reaches the entrance to the field at which the Tlagta ring fort is located. It is here that Joe Conroy's protests about the lack of Government support in the way of infrastructure or signage becomes more apparent. The only access to the site requires a cumbersome climb over a makeshift sty.
The crowd gather around the inner ring of the fort to watch a dramatization of how the young goddess Tlagta gathered her magic from all realms. The ceremony finishes with a reading of 'A Druids Prayer'. In a reminder that this evening is a Festival of the Dead ashes brought all the way from America are scattered over the fire on the hilltop. People are encouraged to call out the names of their recently deceased and pray for them to 'journey well.' A respectful silence descended on a jovial crowd as one by one people called out names of loved ones. After a couple of rather poignant minutes a young voice adds some light relief by calling out the name of Michael Jackson.
As the crowd disperses a group of children question a man dressed in red and black robes quizzing him about druids. Richard Redmond, the man who's attire has caught the attention of the group of children, explains to them that being druids was more of a reference to the class system in ancient society. The celebration concluded as paper lanterns floated up into the night sky in memory of the dead.