I remember waking up when my dad came into the bedroom, just as dawn was breaking. My parents had been called away to the hospital, to my granda, and I had crept into the warmth of their bed, (a privilege of being ‘in charge’ while they were away). He flung himself face down on the bed next to me and said “No more ‘Da’”. And then he cried, deep, racking sobs. I was eleven years of age, and this was the first time I had seen my dad cry. It was also a time of growing up for me, facing the grief and loss of my granda, a man who I spent every day with, and who was so instrumental in my life that he shapes much of what I do, even today.
I come from generations of farmers in my native Tyrone, and from north Tipperary. Every possible moment of my childhood was spent with my granda, walking the fields by day, as he showed me the old traditions of farming and nature, and sitting by the light of the oil lamps by night, as he played music and told stories. Or we’d go outside and he would teach me about the night stars. Occasionally, we’d walk down to the Lough shore and we’d watch the moon reflections on the stillness of the water, while he told me of the healing powers of Lough Neagh, and how people would come for miles to seek its curative powers. My granda also taught me the Gaelige, (Irish language), and how the month of November is called Samhain, representing an important time in the Gaelic year. A time of endings and beginnings.
The Gaelic calendar does not observe the astronomical seasons on the equinoxes and solstices. Instead, the seasons in Ireland follow the ancient tradition that is based solely on daylight and the strength of the noon sun. Samhain, November, is the feis (festival), marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. It is celebrated from sunset on 31 October, until sunset on 1 November. The festival is thought to be over 2,000 years old.
Samhain, (like Beltane), was considered a powerful time when the portals to the other worlds opened, when the Aos Si could more easily come into our world. It was a time when families / clans gathered and the souls of our loved ones were invited to join us, coming across the veil between the worlds, which were at their thinnest. Being a time when the worlds were joined also made Samhain the most powerful night of the year to perform divination. Divination is done in many forms, but all seek to establish a look ahead.
At sunset, special bonfires were lit on hilltops on the eve of Samhain, to help cleanse and protect from lower energies. The fire was also used for making wishes, and asking our spirit team to help them manifest. The festival also became known as Halloween, this name having its origins in the British Isles. In Ireland, a blend of these practices and customs still take place. While the more familiar Halloween celebrations are widespread, the more ancient rituals can be found too. At Tara, for example, the entrance passage to the Mound of the Hostages is aligned with the rising sun at Samhain, and people still go there to observe it shining into the tomb. Nearby Tlachtga was a place for the Great Fire Festival, begun on the eve of Samhain. The festival lasted for least several days and centred on the god Lugh (light). The Fire festival has been revived and has taken place there at sunset on Samhain eve for the last 15 years, attracting participants from all over the world. These sacred ‘fire’ sites retain their magic and powerful energy, especially at Samhain.
Like other aspects of the Gaelic calendar, Christianity incorporated this season of honouring the dead into the Christian calendar with All Saints (All Hallows), on November 1st, followed by All Souls on November 2nd. The festival of Samhain was carried to the US by Irish immigrants. Latterly, trick or treat, feasting and partying (a way to defy the coming darkness) became popular, and it has its origins in the Irish Samhain customs.
So whether you celebrate Halloween, Samhain, or the Christian feast days, it is an important time of remembering and inviting our loved ones in spirit to support and guide us, a time of recollecting, looking into the mirror of the past, in order to guide and celebrate the future. This is an occasion for honouring our loved ones in spirit, and for inviting them to impart their wisdom to us, in order to guide our lives.
Throughout my childhood, I walked in the shadow of my granda, as he taught me about life, about seasons, and the love of family, about Ireland, its language, culture and traditions. He taught me about the special places of healing and ceremony. When he passed from the Earth plane, I learned about loss and grief. I saw my father as his child. I grieved myself, and for the loss of him in my life. No more “da”, no more stories. I would not hear his deep laugh again.
More positively, I also learned from him that we do not die at physical death. A few months after his passing, he returned to me from the spirit world, at Samhain, our special feis. He told me that he was OK and happy, and that he would always be with me. And so it was, as I grew up, he walked with me, still my constant companion. Some of my physical characteristics are also part of him. Every time I look at my hands, I see the shape and shadow of his, overlaying mine. He now walks in my shadow, his hand still holds mine.
Physical death symbolises endings and beginnings. Samhain is therefore not only a time for reflecting on mortality, but also on the passing of relationships, and other significant changes in life. A time for taking stock of your past, letting go of what you no longer need, thinking of blessings and lessons, and look forward positively to the future, to new beginnings.
So, as I plan to do, sit quietly and think of friends and loved ones who have passed away. Don’t feel sad, try to feel positive in the knowledge that that they live still, and live in a world of light, joy and beauty, that they are there to guide us in our own journey. Keep in mind that the physical world here isn’t the reality; that souls never die.
I hope you will take the opportunity at Samhain to recall and celebrate special times too, wherever you are in the world.