Many people know that Halloween can be traced back to the ancient Samhain festival of Celtic Ireland, but did you know its roots can be pinpointed to the pre-Christian site of Tlachtga, near Athboy in Co Meath? This year, The Flame of Samhain Festival invites you to celebrate Halloween where it all began thousands of years ago.
A few miles west of the historic Hill of Tara, seat of the ancient High Kings of Ireland, lies a lesser known pre-Christian site. Now called the Hill of Ward, Tlachtga (as it was called by our Celtic ancestors) was as important to the druids of Ireland as Tara was to its kings. This site represented the heart of the pagan religion in Ireland. It was the birthplace of Halloween and the centre of the ancient Samhain celebrations.
Samhain was the biggest pagan celebration of the year in Celtic Ireland. It symbolised the end of the light half of the year and beginning of the dark half, a time when the dead could return to the land of the living, a time when preparations were made for the long winter ahead. Many modern Halloween traditions have their roots in Samhain. Click here to find out more about the fascinating history of Halloween.
According to old manuscripts, the druids lit the fire of Samhain at Tlachtga and all the fires in Ireland were rekindled from its flames. The fire would bring light to the darkness, offering safe harbour from evil spirits and welcoming the good spirits. The reassuring sight of the Samhain fire would have been seen for miles around by many people, including the king at the nearby Hill of Tara.
This week, the town of Athboy celebrates its position as the birthplace of Halloween with The Flame of Samhain Festival. This free event kicks off at 6pm on October 31st with a procession from the town to the top of the hill. At 7pm an authentic retelling of the story of Samhain and its ancient origins at Tlachtga will take place on the hilltop.
Festival goers are encouraged to dress up in Celtic costumes – think druids and druidesses, Celtic warriors like Cu Chulainn or famed Celtic rulers like Queen Maev. Free face painting will help get everyone into the spirit of Samhain. After the event, you can warm up with a cup of soup at The Darnley Lodge Hotel or The Lawrence Hotel in the town.
According to local Councillor and Chairperson of Boyne Valley Tourism, David Gilroy, there has always been awareness locally of the historical importance of Tlachtga. This was confirmed in 2014, when the UCD School of Archaeology undertook an excavation of the hill. The site on top of the hill dates from the 5th century, but it sits on top of a much older hill fort, dating from about 1500 BC. That’s more than 3,000 years ago!
Modern day Halloween celebrations at Tlachtga have been going on for the past fifteen years. Locals Joseph Conlon, Gemma McGowan and John Gilroy, author of Tlachtga: Celtic Fire Festival, were instrumental in getting the event off the ground. This year, for the first time, the festival is supported by Meath County Council and Boyne Valley Tourism.
Councillor Gilroy feels that the the story of the spread of Halloween is the story of the movement of Irish people across the world. And, he says, at the Flame of Samhain Festival the circles on the Hill of Ward are seen as ripples emanating from this focal point of Celtic Ireland all across the world.