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Article ID: 11296
Age Group: Adult
Posted: November 5th. 2006
A 21st Century Irish Samhain with Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone
by Caroline Kenner
Our modern Pagan religions have always drawn inspiration from the distant past, when our Ancestors worshiped the Gods and Goddesses we revere today. In America, many of us are separated from our ancestral lands by vast oceans. At this time of year, our thoughts turn to those old homelands across the oceans, to our Ancestors and their ancient Pagan monuments on the other side of the Atlantic. Many of us long to celebrate our holidays in the places our Ancestors built on the land, among the hill forts, passage graves, carved stones and earthen mounds that whisper of ancient Pagan practices. As the veil between the worlds becomes thin, could we sense our Ancestors more easily if we could walk in their footprints and worship in the same places our Ancestors worshiped?
Trying to answer this question, I decided to spend Samhain in Ireland with my beloved teachers, Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone. I wanted to live for myself the mixture of ancient past and 21st Century present that is today's Irish Samhain.
The most important place in all Ireland at Samhain is Tlachtga, also known by its English name, the Hill of Ward. Tlachtga is an impressive ring fort crowning the hill a mile outside the town of Athboy, County Meath. Four concentric circles of mounded earth alternate with deep ditches, like grassy crests and troughs of waves along the hilltop, surrounding a central mound. One side of the hill fort was looted of its earth in the last few centuries, none of the rings is complete, and it is completely unrestored.
Tlachtga sits on a 390 foot hill commanding a view across the Meath countryside. To the north are the cairns of Loughcrew, a group of ancient passage graves sacred to the Callaighe, the Irish Crone Goddess. Loughcrew is also known as The Hill of the Witch. Appropriately, that is where our dear Stewart Farrar's ashes rest. To the southeast, the Dublin mountains stand proudly. And twelve miles directly east sits Royal Tara.
Ancient Irish custom dictated that every fire in the land be extinguished at Samhain. Then, the Samhain fire would be lit at Tlachtga. Only when people could see the Samhain fire burning brightly at Tlachtga could the fires of Ireland be re-lit.
The hill fort is named after the Goddess Tlachtga, daughter of the Druid magician, Mog Ruith. Here is Tlachtga's myth: Mog Ruith nurtured Tlachtga carefully, and taught her all of his magic. When she grew to young womanhood, Mog Ruith sent Tlachtga on a quest seek magic from the four corners of the world. Tlachtga traveled on a flaming wheel, spinning through the sky. Young Tlachtga crossed oceans on her flaming wheel to gather indigenous magic and return home, bringing the knowledge of many lands to benefit Ireland.
When she grew older, she bore triplets to the sons of Simon Magus, or so the story goes. Tlachtga's avatar as an older Goddess changes from Fire to Water, and she is associated with a holy well by the side of the road leading to the site. The well has only been re-discovered in the past few years as the hedgerow had engulfed it.
For the last six years, the tradition of celebrating Samhain on Tlachtga has been revived thanks to one man, Joe Conlon of Athboy. Joe grew up three miles from Tlachtga: "Every morning when I got out of bed, I would look at the spire of the Athboy church on one side and the hill of Tlachtga on the other side. I have always been interested in Irish history, and Tlachtga has played a major role in Irish history. So six years ago, I decided to start having a Halloween bonfire on Tlachtga once again."
Although Tlachtga is a national heritage site, it is on privately owned land. The Clarke family is preserving the site with careful stewardship. They allow sheep (but not the heavier cattle and horses) to graze on the hill fort in order to keep the grass under control without having to mow. The Clarkes care deeply about Tlachtga, and have never plowed the ring fort as has happened to too many ancient earthworks.
Like many of the local people who attend the torchlit procession, Joe is not a Pagan person. But he is inspired by a vision of a Halloween festival honoring Tlachtga and the ancient customs of Ireland. "I am disappointed that the government does nothing to preserve or maintain the site, which is a thousand years older than the earliest monument on Tara. We are fortunate that the Clarkes are such good stewards. They cooperate with the Halloween ceremony evey year, asking only that no-one brings any fireworks as they would frighten the Clarkes' horses."
Joe's concern for Tlachtga is not misplaced: in 1997, a nearby ancient earthwork, Telltown, was bulldozed and partially destroyed. "We want national recognition for Tlachtga, and an archaeological dig to learn more about the site. The mounds are beginning to collapse, and we worry that the site will be closed off and visitors won't be able to see the site at all."
This is the third year Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone have been asked to coordinate the Samhain ceremony on Tlachtga. This year, a lovely 13-year-old local girl, Sarah van Zanten, played the part of the young Tlachtga in the ceremony. Janet Farrar assembled a terrific costume for Sarah: a cut velvet dress, a black velvet cloak and a garland for her head.
Most thrillingly, Janet gave Sarah a belt studded with gemstones that John Lennon had given her in the 1960s when Janet worked at the Apple Store in London. Sarah's expression when she understood that the belt was hers to keep was beautiful!
"It is a tremendous honor to be asked to organize the Samhain ceremony on Tlachtga," say Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone. "We are glad to serve the local community this way. It makes us particularly happy to be part of the revival of the Samhain bonfire on Tlachtga, since Samhain is such an important holiday for Witches. Doing the old rituals on the old sites is a very powerful act, after so many years in which it was impossible to do public rituals like this one."
The afternoon before the ritual, Gavin and I set out to Athboy to see what we could do to help Joe Conlon with the fire. We met at Joe's house, across from the Fairgreen, our meeting point later in the evening. We helped Joe and his family load up a trailer with the generator for the lights and the materials for the bonfire. Then we all went up to Tlachtga. The site of it brought tears to my eyes, the thought that once again the Samhain fires of Tlachtga are alight. I said a prayer and poured some offerings upon the sacred ground. Then I looked up to see a rainbow stretching across the sky. It looked like it began in the north at Loughcrew, a visible manifestation of joy.
Gavin and I then went to Athboy's Fairgreen, parkland held in common by the townspeople, and our meeting place for the torch lit procession. In the center of the park is a small rath planted with chestnut trees, a ring and ditch dating from ancient times. We found the meeting place covered in trash, the litterbin overturned and the picnic table broken. This was the legacy of the Culchie Festival, a festival celebrating the equivalent of Irish hillbillies, with a lot of drunken merriment leading to the trashing of the park. Naturally, Gavin and I picked up every bit of trash and did our best to tidy the place, as Pagans are wont to do.
At 7:30 we began the torch lit procession, up the hill a mile to Tlachtga, singing Tlachtga's song:
"Tlachtga, Goddess, Lady Fair
Come to us on frosty air
Guide our steps in pale Moonlight
Light our fire on Samhain night"
We were lead up the hill by Kellianna, an American musician visiting from the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts. Her untiring chanting and drumming inspired us as we progressed up the hill. Other Americans had also made the Samhain pilgrimage to Tlachtga: there was a large delegation from the Connecticut Wiccan Pagan Network, including Liz Guerra and Mark Sosnowski. Of course, Coven Na Callaighe, Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone's own coven, was there. Several prominent Irish Druid priestesses and priests attended, resplendent in ceremonial robes. Irish Pagan people joined us from as far away as West Cork, an eight-hour drive, although most of the Pagan folk in attendance came to join us from nearby Dublin.
We Pagans, Druids and Witches joined a crowd that was otherwise composed of non-Pagan people from the Athboy area who were there to honor this renaissance of their local customs. There were many children and young people, an encouraging development for the future.
Torches flaming, we processed to Tlachtga's sacred well by the side of the road. Parties of householders lined the roadside to cheer us on. At the well sat Gemma McGowan, an Irish member of Teampall Na Callaighe, in full prophetic trance, guarded by Gavin Bone in the dress of a medieval knight. I knelt to offer the elder Tlachtga of the Well a mass of flower petals, with the invocation:
"Blessed Tlachtga, we come to you with love, honor and respect. Accept these offerings from the magical workers of the four corners of the world, from the nine realms, given to you on this Samhain night to commemorate your gathering of the magics of the world to benefit the Irish people. So Mote It Be."
The Goddess Tlachtga spoke through Gemma eloquently, accepting the offerings. However, since Gemma was fully possessed of the Goddess, no one could remember the exact words she spoke. We know the well was sacred to Tlachtga, from the following ancient Irish verse:
Fish of Boyne
Venison of Luibnech
Heather of Bri-leith
Cresses of Brosna
Water of the Well of Tlachtga
Milrad of Uas
When we got to the top of the hill, we crossed a stile to get into the field where the bonfire already blazed brightly in the darkness. Another 50 people were waiting to join the hundred or so in the procession. And then, we began the Samhain ceremony dramatizing Tlachtga's quest to gather magic from all the realms. Feargal Gallagher, of Teampall Na Callaighe, played Tlachtga's father, Mog Ruith, wearing battle dress with a Horned Greenman mask. It was an impressive and dramatic ritual.
Janet Farrar drafted some of the children to take part in the ritual. "The most important people here tonight are the children," she said during the ceremony. "The children are the ones who we hope will keep this tradition alive."
As magical as the ritual on Tlachtga was for me, I found the lessons learned from my quest to experience Samhain in Ireland surprising. I loved being a part of sacred ceremony on the most important site in all Ireland at Samhain, and being there was the fulfillment of a dream. But I discovered that my sense of my own Ancestors lies within me, and is not dependent on being in specific place in which they might have lived and worshiped in the past. Wherever I am, is where my Ancestors are. That knowledge gained didn't diminish the experience of being at Tlachtga, only brought the burnish of a more mature understanding.
After the ceremony ended, we adjourned to the refreshments table, where Joe Conlon's daughter Deborah, her son Joseph, and other helpers had organized a feast of sweets for the children, fruit cake, hot tea and mulled wine for the chilled crowd. Everyone stood around to meet and greet and chat, warmed by the bonfire and the good fellowship.
Joe would like to see the festival grow larger, and possibly obtains sponsorship from the local heritage organization, Athboy Heritage Forum. "I won't rest until I am sure Tlachtga is protected for generations to come. Tlachtga needs more recognition from local people as well as visitors for the site's future to be assured. Our upcoming fundraising auction next spring will be vital to Tlachtga's future. If any Americans want to send us a donation to help protect Tlachtga, it would be most welcome. Perhaps if local people see that people from as far away as America care about Tlachtga, they will stop taking the site for granted."
Those of us who worship the old Gods and Goddesses should help protect sites like Tlachtga, where our most holy customs first blossomed in ancient times. Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone will be contributing generously to the Athboy Heritage Forum auction, and are happy to help coordinate any donations from American Pagans. Their address is below in the resources section.
As we walked down the hill to our cars on the way home, we found the Samhain bonfire had lit a flame of the Ancestors in each of our hearts, to warm us through the darkness. The Samhain fire at Tlachtga has been joyously restored to its proper place, a place of high renown, burning brightly to link the ancient past with the 21st Century. May the flame of Tlachtga burn ever brightly, illuminating the dawn of a new century in which the Old Gods and the Old Sites are respected once again. So Mote It Be!
Tlachtga - www.iolfree.ie/~tlachtga/
Athboy Heritage Forum:
Athboy, County Meath, Ireland
Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone's home page:
County Meath, Ireland
Kellianna, Goddess inspired Folk Music:
Information about upcoming tours of ancient Irish sites, including the ceremony on Tlachtga in 2007, coming soon from Liz Guerra of the Connecticut Wiccan Pagan Network: www.LizGuerra.com
Photo Credits (top to bottom)
1. Janet Farrar, Sarah Van Zanten and a small Druidess at Fairgreen, Athboy, before the procession (photo/copyright: Gavin Bone)
2. Feargall Gallgher as Mog Ruith and Sarah Van Zanten as Tlachtga (photo/copyright: Caroline Kenner)
3. Arial photo of Tlachtga (photo/copyright: Joe Conlon)
4. Doreen Valiente's familiar, Hob, on his Samhain altar with a photo of Doreen, and her companion Ron (photo/copyright: Gavin Bone)
Photo 5: Musician Kellianna (foreground) with Gavin Bone and Caroline Kenner, teaches the Tlachtga chant prior to the procession. (photo/copyright: Joe Conlon)
Photo 6: The towns people and member of the Irish Pagan community gather on Fairgreen by torchlite. (photo/copyright: Joe Conlon)
Photo 7: From Left to Right: Gemma McGowan, Sarah Van Zanten and Janet Farrar during the ceremony invoke the two Tlachtgas of past and present. (photo/copyright: Joe Conlon)
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