Inside the Irish “Hell Caves” where Halloween was born
Rooted in tradition
Spread over 2.5 square miles of rich farmland, Rathcroghan has 240 archaeological sites. They range from burial mounds to ring forts, standing stones, linear earthworks, an Iron Age ritual shrine and Oweynagat, the so-called ‘Hell’s Gate’.
Over 2000 years ago, when paganism was the dominant practice among the Celtic majority in Ireland, it was here in Rathcroghan that the Celtic New Year Festival of Samhain (“Sow-in”) was born, said Curley. In the 1800s, the tradition of Samhain was brought by Irish immigrants to the United States, where it evolved into the sugar overload that is American Halloween.
Dorothy Bray, associate professor and expert in Irish folklore at McGill University in Canada, explains that the pagan Celts divide each year into summer and winter. In this context, four festivities. Imbolc, February 1, was a spring festival that coincided with the lambing season. Bealtaine on May 1 marked the end of winter and involved customs like washing your face in dew, picking the first blooming flowers, and dancing around a decorated tree. August 1 announced Lughnasadh, a harvest festival dedicated to the god Lugh and chaired by the Celtic kings. Then October 31st came Samhain, when one pastoral year ended and another began.
Rathcroghan was not a town, as Connaught did not have true urban centers and consisted of scattered rural properties. Instead, it was the meeting place of the kingdom and a key location for these festivals. During Samhain, in particular, Rathcroghan was a “hive of activity” focused on his elevated temple, which was surrounded by cemeteries for Connachta’s elite.
These same privileged people may have lived in Rathcroghan. The rest of the lower-class Connachta community resided on scattered farms and came down to the capital only for festivals. At these bustling events, they traded, feasted, exchanged gifts, played games, arranged weddings, and announced declarations of war or peace.
(See how people dressed for All Saints’ Day a century ago.)
Festival-goers also made ritual offerings. These gifts were intended for the spirits of the Irish underworld, explains Mike McCarthy, tour guide and researcher from Rathcroghan who has co-authored several publications on this site. This dark and subterranean dimension, also known as Tír na nÓg (“Teer-na-nohg”), was inhabited by Celtic demons, fairies and goblins. During Samhain, some of these demons escaped via Oweynagat Cave.
“Samhain was when the invisible wall between the living world and the next world disappeared,” McCarthy says. “A multitude of formidable otherworldly beasts have emerged to ravage the surrounding landscape and prepare it for winter.”
Grateful for the agricultural efforts of these spirits, but fearful of falling victim to their fury, the Celts protected themselves from physical harm by lighting ritual fires on hilltops and in fields. To avoid being dragged deep into Tír na nÓg by demons, they disguised themselves as fellow ghouls, McCarthy says. Two millennia later, young children around the world are following this tradition on Halloween.
(These imaginary beasts fueled nightmares around the world.)