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Secrets at Samhain

31 Oct 2021

Anybody interested in Irish legend will know that Samain, the night before the first of November, is a time when the natural and supernatural dimensions of existence come particularly close together: a time when mortals can visit the Otherworld, and when the inhabitants of the Otherworld can visit us – often in dangerous ways.

It is also a time for gaining knowledge by supernatural means: something which can still be seen in the fortune-telling games that are part of Hallowe’en tradition in Ireland. The same idea provides the basis of the medieval tale Fíngen’s Night-Watch (translated by T. P. Cross and A. C. L. Brown, Romanic Review 9 [1918] 29-47), about the brother of a king of Munster: ‘There was a woman of the síde speaking with him always at every Samain. And whatever was obscure or wondrous in the royal fortresses of Ireland, and in its fairy troops, she would relate it to him every Samain night.’

Nor was this something that only happened in stories. The Annals of Tigernach, for the year ad 1084, speaks of a man named Gilla Lugán who used to go to the mound of Newgrange every year at Samain to learn the future from Óengus Óc son of the Dagda (Whitley Stokes, ‘The Annals of Tigernach: Fourth Fragment’, Revue celtique 17 [1896] 337-420).

Roinn na Sean- agus na Meán-Ghaeilge

Department of Early and Medieval Irish

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