Many people know that Halloween originated from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain but did you know that Samhain has deep connections in county Roscommon, the home of Black Donkey Brewing? The origins of Halloween in Roscommon date back thousands of years to the ancient Celtic people of Ireland. Read on for a quick history lesson about the roots of Halloween in Roscommon.
The Origins of Halloween
The modern festival known globally as Halloween has its roots firmly in the ancient Celtic pagan celebration of Samhain. Samhain takes place on October 31st every year. For Celts, this date marked the harvest and the end of growing season, and forecast the start of the lean season. It was considered to be the eve of a new year, equivalent to our modern New Year’s Eve. On this night, it was believed that the veil that separates the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest. The spirits of the underworld returned to earth to cause trouble and damage crops. It was thought that Celtic druids could commune with the spirits during this time and have premonitions of the future.
A night of feasting and drinking was held to celebrate Samhain, and huge, sacred bonfires were lit. Celebrants dressed in costumes made from animal skins joined the feast. When the celebrations came to an end, the ancient Celts relit their hearths from the dying embers of the sacred bonfires. The hearth fires would help to protect them against the cold, dark winter. As time passed, successive Christian popes began to replace Celtic festivals like Samhain with their own religious celebrations. All Saints Day, also known as All Hallows’ Day, or Hallowmas honours all the Christian saints. It falls on November 1st every year. All Souls Day follows on November 2nd and commemorates all the souls in purgatory. The period from October 31st to November 2nd is sometimes known as Allhallowtide. All Hallows Eve occurs on October 31st which eventually became contracted to Halloween. And that is how the feast of Samhain became Halloween.
The Warrior Goddess Morrigan
A key character in the Samhain legends was the Morrígan, also known as Morrígu. A fierce shape shifting warrior Goddess, and a member of the Tuatha De Danann. The modern Irish translation of Morrigan is “great queen” or “phantom queen”. She is associated with war, death, doom and victory in battle. According to legend, every Samhain or Halloween, the Morrigan would emerge from Oweynagat Cave driving a chariot pulled by otherworldly beasts. She was hell bent on ravaging the landscape to make it ready for winter. Folk tales about the Morrigan convinced early Christian writers that Oweynagat cave was ‘dorus iffiirn na Hérend’ or ‘Ireland’s Gate to Hell’.
“The horrid Morrígan, out of the cave of Cruachu, her fit abode, came”… (Odras – An extract from Metrical Dindshenchas)
While many of Ireland’s counties claim a piece of the Samhain legend, the origin of Samhain in our home county of Roscommon is quite distinct. Surrounding the medieval village of Tulsk, in the north of the county, and only 25kms from the brewery, is the ancient Rathcroghan archeological complex. Identified as the site of “Cruachan” or the ancient royal capital of Connacht, Oweynagat cave lies just to the north of the village. It was from this legendary cave that the Morrigan, and her otherworldly horde spewed forth every Samhain, withering crops with their breath, and blowing the leaves off the trees.
Rathcroghan and the Oweynagat Cave
Today, intrepid visitors can venture into Oweynagat cave with excellent and informative tours from Rathcroghan Visitor centre in the nearby village of Tulsk. Some foolhardy souls even visit on Samhain itself, but few remain after the darkness falls.
The visitor centre includes a cafe and an amazing bookshop to further your interest in local and national Irish archaeology and heritage. You can read a much more detailed history from Daniel Curley, the Rathcroghan visitor centre manager in this article. The cave is 37 metres long, 2.5 metres wide and descends 7 metres below ground. Uaimh na gcat is the Irish name, which translates as “Cave of the Cats”.
Underworld Beers straight from the "gates of hell"!
Beginning in summer 2017, the Black Donkey crew embarked on a mission to try and capture a wild, native Irish yeast strain, with the aim of brewing a uniquely Irish beer, with an unparalleled provenance. October 31st 2017 found the crew at the mouth of the legendary Oweynagat Cave. A long and winding, and up to that point yeast free, road had led the explorers to this storied location. True to form, the cave yielded up some of its legendary magic. The result of what became known as the Wild Yeast chase is our Underworld series of beers. Each of the three beers in the series is fermented with Morrigan 1, the wild yeast we captured at Oweynagat cave. The Underworld series of native Irish beers was born out of our quest for adventure, our sense of history and our respect for tradition. Celebrate the feast of Samhain with our unique and limited edition Samhain Underworld gift pack. Each beer is represented by an animal connected to the legendary Cave.
The Morrígan is a shape-shifting goddess from Irish mythology associated with war, and is most often portrayed as a crow. The Morrígan encourages warriors to do brave deeds and strikes fear into their enemies.
That same crow represents Underworld Savage, our native Irish Saison farmhouse ale.
(5.6% ABV – Saison, dry, fruity, citrus, spice)
Another one of the Morrígan’s ‘Shape Shifting’ forms was described as a ‘grey she-wolf’. It is believed she fell in love with Cú Chulainn but he spurned her advances.
That same wolf represents Underworld Allta; our native Irish Pale ale.
(4.6% ABV – Pale Ale, hoppy, malty, crisp)
The Red Birds
Like a Red mist, a flock of small coppery birds poured from Oweynagat cave during Samhain, withering every plant they breathed on. The growing season was done and a lean winter lay ahead.
Those same red birds represent Underworld Rua; our native Amber Irish ale.
(6.0% ABV – Native Amber Ale, malty, fruity, toffee, toast.)
Celebrate Samhain season with Black Donkey Beers
If you are inspired by the history of Samhain and enjoy great beer, you’ll love the story of our Underworld series. At Black Donkey Brewing, we’ve been brewing without boundaries since 2014 in Ballinlough, Co. Roscommon. Our beers are never filtered, never pasteurised and always independent. You can get your hands on our beers from your quality local stockist or you can purchase directly from the brewery at our webshop.
Handmade, real Irish Beer from Roscommon!
Richardhowe.com – “Rathcroghan, the Irish Otherworld & the Home of Halloween” by Daniel Curley
Monumental Ireland – Oweynagat
History.com – Halloween: Origins, Meaning & Traditions
Irishcentral.com – Making the Dead Welcome – All Souls Day Ireland