Food Festivals in Ancient Ireland
Our Celtic Ancestors were farmers, people who depended on the land they lived on for all their food needs. A bad harvest, a dry summer or a very wet winter meant an almost certain death for they and their family members so it will come as no surprise to hear that when it came to worship and religion, Mother Earth was a bit of a big deal.
The year was marked with quarterly festivals, and for each one, food was a deep part of it. Over the centuries, the Catholic Church arrived, and many of these old beliefs and traditions remained. The Gods the Celts worshipped, The Tuatha De Danu became the fairy people. The meanings behind the traditions became slightly distorted or lost in time, but all the same, many are still cherished and practised.
So lets take a look at some of these festivals, what they meant and how easy it is to bring a little ancient Irish Culture into our busy modern lives!
Samhain - the festival of nuts, fruit and berries
We are starting at this point as this was the start of the Celtic Wheel of the Year. Like the baby in the womb or the seed underground, everything starts in the dark. It was also a time of death, in days past, death was horrifyingly close at hand.
For our ancestors this time was known as a Thin Time, a time when our world and that of the dead, overlapped. This meant that while your dead granny might pop by for a visit, that lad you killed in battle last week might drop by too!
So if you were heading out, it is best to disguise your face. Any spirits wandering around, will assume you are dead too and will leave you alone. And if anyone knocks on your door, you better have a treat for them, just in case they try to drag you off to the Otherworld! Food was also left by burning candles near the front door, and after midnight, placed outside for anyone hungry passing by.
In the weeks running up to the festival; apples, nuts and berries were harvested and preserved for the coming months ahead. Root vegetables like turnips, carrots and later in history, the potato were pulled from the ground. The family pig or perhaps an older cow was slaughtered, sausages made and bacon salted. If you lived by the coast, you might be busy salting and even smoking fish too. The aim was to have as much food formed or foraged as possible. Mushrooms, hazelnuts, crab apples, rowanberries, blackberries, wild garlic and many more items were rooted out from forests and hedgerows.
Thin times are great for divination, so you might as well take advantage and throw some clues to a possible future into the mix. Apples too will be used to divine the future, the initials of your future spouse usually. And why not?
As your winter stores should be packed with apples after harvesting them over the past few weeks, you can afford to waste a couple on some party games!
Dried fruits and berries were added to dishes like the medieval Frumenty, a thick porridge that served as breakfast, lunch and dinner before the potatoes arrived. And of course, we cannot forget our famous Barm Brack arrived at some point in history, a bread sweetened with honey and rich with dried fruits and infused with the ancient belief of the Thin Time.
And all around the country communities gathered to share the bounty, celebrate the fact they survived another year, honour their ancestors and most importantly feast!
Imbolg - A festival of milk, cheese and butter
St Bridgets Day, was until recent years still a relatively important Religious Holiday, sadly overshadowed by St Patricks Day. I say sadly as this day, the 1st of February, has a much longer and more important history associated with it.
Celebrated for thousands of years, Imbolc or “in the belly” as it was known once, was a day to celebrate for the cows, ewes and goats began to lactate again, their pregnant bellies growing by the day. The Irish, all through history have loved milk.
You could almost say our ancestors were obsessed with it! They drank different types of milk at different times of the day and more again on special occasions. Skimmed milk blended with a little cream, buttermilk, curds mixed with honey and whey, salted butter, butter cakes, butter mixed with wild garlic, pancakes made from curds. A variety of cheeses, soft, hard and even smoked cheeses appear again and again over the centuries.
The ancient Irish worshipped the White Cow Goddess, Boann. Even to this day, the most fertile valley in Ireland, the Boyne Valley in named after her and the Milky Way was known until recent times as “the Way of the White Cow” So it would make sense that our ancestors celebrated when fresh milk was readily available again!
Ancient rituals involved taking new milk out to the fields and ceremoniously pouring onto the ground to nourish it. Stories were told of the Goddess Boann, feasts of milk rich foods were enjoyed. As milking was primarily the woman’s job, it is not so strange perhaps that Bridget became associated with the day over time.
St Bridget, was once the Goddess Bríd and is charged with looking after women, midwifery and fertility (and beer making!) all important tools when you’re trying to ensure your livestock reproduce!
She was also the Patron Saintess of fishermen, and considering Febuary is supposed to be the best month for catching Wild Salmon, perhaps this is why?
But back to milk. In 1690, one British visitor to Ireland noted that the natives ate and drank milk “above twenty several sorts of ways and what is strangest for the most part love it best when sourest.” and it was reported back by English Generals on how they might suppress local rebellions, noted that the majority of the population lived all summer on their cows’ milk, so the best way to starve out the enemy would just be to kill all the cows!
So asides from Milk, Imbolg also marked the day when they could start to plant barley and oat and pull the boats and fishing nets from their winter storage, all very important food related events!
Bealtaine - Honouring the union of the Earth and Sun
Bealtaine was essentially a Fire Festival, marking the 6 months that have passed since Winter began, and now it is the start of summer! But more importantly, it is also the point when the cattle are brought out to pasture after a long winter, and this meant a series of special blessings were in order to ensure the good health and continued fertility of your herd.
Huge ceremonial bonfires were lit, filled with sacred woods. The cattle were then driven between the bonfires to cleanse them. Once the bonfires had burnt down, the ashes were collected and sprinkled on the fields and other livestock. The largest bonfire was lit at Uisneach, which was lit in a huge ceremony. A few miles away on Tara, once they spotted the flames in the distance, they would light their own bonfire, and so it spread until on every sacred hill in Ireland a bonfire was burning. Warming the earth up, welcoming back the sun and its powers of fertility.
Bealtaine has long been associated with Fairies, and so milk was left outside the kitchen door along with oat cakes in case they passed by. They were also left outside the animals sheds to ensure the cattle stayed healthy, as a dry cow could be a disaster for any small farm holding family.
This drew from an earlier tradition of leaving offerings of Milk and Oat cakes to the Ancient Gods. Dagda the God of Agriculture and Goibhnui the God of Blacksmithing were both honoured at this event, The Blacksmith was an important member of any society, having the magical ability to mould stuff pulled from the earth into tools, weapons and ploughs. And Dagda, a God so fertile, it was said that a certain body part dragged along the ground behind him it was so long and girthy! Ouch though!
In May too, after the long winter, the woodlands and hedgerows are bursting with fresh greens to enjoy. Many of which have detoxifying properties like dandelion and nettle, ideal after a long winter of salted meats and dried fruits!
Bealtaine was all about the coming harvest, ensuring the cattle, goats and pigs are healthy and happy, plus the crops are in the ground, and the sun is on its way to make everything grow tall and strong!
Lúghnasa - the Festival of Grains
According to the ancient Myths, Lughnasa or Lúnasa, started as a funeral feast to commemorate Tailtú a fertility Goddess and Stepmum of Lugh, the God of Light. She is said to have died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. This is thought by some to mean the death of summer after the crops have been harvested.
Whether it’s funeral rights or a harvest blessing, Lúnasa , like Samhain, is one of the holidays that is still celebrated in some ways up into modern times. Our ancestors, together, would climb a mountain or hillside close to them, as close to the sun as they could get to make an offering of the first harvested grains.
A bull was sacrificed, his blood poured on the ground, again as an offering of thanksgiving. The same bull would then be cooked and served with breads made from the newly harvested grains. Everyone was expected to eat a portion out of respect. A ritual Blessing of the Bread was held and everyone tucked in to the feast. July, despite its warmth, was a hungry month. The crops from last years harvest are running very low and so Lúnasa brings with it the relief of a full belly once more.
Young men would act out mock battles, an ancient ritual drama in which the benign Lugh battled for control of the crop with a sinister dark Druid called Crom Dúbh. Lugh wants us to reap the season’s bounty whereas his opponent wants it for himself. It might be close, but Lugh should always win to great celebrations!
Over time, this practise was lost but the mountain part remained. In my own locality Mountain Sunday on Mount Leinster was a three day festival held up until the 1970s when it finally died off. And the Festival of Carmen, was held in Wexford town up until the 1700s. Another festival honouring a dead goddess, Carmen gave her name to the area , the Irish translation of Wexford is Loch Garmen, the lake of Carmen.
Festivities included sports, dancing, matchmaking and huge markets selling livestock and food. Today, you’ll still see a little of this at Puck Fair in Kerry or the people who climb Croke Patrick, a pilgrimage endured by only the most pious Christians, unaware that its roots lie in a much older Pagan ritual.
In the weeks following, coming into September, we start to see the blackberries, apples and hazelnuts appearing on the trees which brings the wheel turning back to Samhain and the winter again
Last year, 2018 saw us having a terrible cold and wet winter and spring, heavy snowfalls meant the ground was wet and boggy and so planting was late. Those same heavy snowfalls also brought us the great bread shortage of ’18. Shelves were bare for at least a week as people panic bought more bread than they would ever normally consume! This was followed by the driest summer in living memory and all over there were shortages of burgers, sausages and barbecue packs!
As I drove my little bus around the golden fields of corn and barley that cover rural Wexford last summer, and in recent days, seeing the fields being prepared for sowing, the rich, chocolatey brown soil. I can’t help but feel very grateful for the farmers and the work they do. These ancient holidays honour not just the land, but agricultural work too. We take our food for granted, shops filled with food from all over the world, restaurants, cafes and takeaways line our streets. But forget how quickly that can be taken away from us. Climate Change is a real and serious threat, whether its man made or a natural progression for a living planet is an argument for another day, the fact is, we are witnessing just how precarious our existence is. Reusable Coffee Cups and Water Bottles, Recycling, Electric Cars, Organic Farming running paperless businesses are all growing in popularity. As to are the festivals above.
All over Ireland farming communities are bringing them back. Here in Wexford Loftus Hall drove cattle between Bonfires while Finin the Blacksmith demonstrated how farming tools were made in the past alongside a barbecue of beef at their Bealtaine Fire Festival.
At Hook Lighthouse, Senator Grace O’Sullivan was invited to give a talk on Eco Sustainability along with talks about vegetable growing, herbalism and a ritual Celebration of Bridget at their Imbolg celebrations. And in Enniscorthy, we held a Lughnasa Banquet, including a Blessing of the Bread, as the showcase event for the Rockin Food Festival, a festival with over 80 local and artisan food producers selling their produce plus talks and demonstrations, similar events are planned for this year too.
So if we want to live more ethically and in harmony with the world around us, perhaps recognising and celebrating these ancient holidays again is a good way to start. Bringing with them an awareness of how important, ethical, free range and organic farming is. Not just for us, but to Mother Earth too.
And if you are questioning why we lost these wonderful festivals, well thats a question for the next blog!