The Beginning of the End

Halloween, originally Samhain, is the biggest autumn event in Ireland, but it is not the only day this time of year that was significant to our ancestors. Samhain was the end of the year, their New Year’s Eve, but instead of going out, they stayed safely inside. But the beginning of autumn, the harvest season, is the Autumn Equinox. In 2019, it is on Monday, September 23rd.

On that day, the sun is directly over the Equator and divides the day and night into two equal portions. We have 12 hours of sun, and 12 hours between sunset and sunrise. Today, it will be an ordinary Monday for most of us. But for our Celtic ancestors, it was a very special day that merited ceremony and acknowledgement.

We don’t have all the details. However, we do know that some sort of event was held at Loughcrew in County Meath. That is not far from Newgrange, the site in the Boyne Valley with the amazing stone carvings now replicated on so many Irish gifts. Loughcrew is a quieter site. It is smaller but equally moving and impressive.

Equinox at Loughcrew, County Meath

A cairn sits at the top of a short but steep climb up a hillside. From the top, a stunning vista surrounds, rolling green fields with a quality that cannot be captured on a postcard. Visitors can enter and see the stylized stone carvings inside. We don’t know exactly what these circular designs depict. Experts speculate that they could represent the sun or time itself, the cycle of the year. To the layperson, some of them look like flowers or wheels. But the reason we know the equinox was so significant to the ancient Celts is the very structure of the cairn. It is designed so that at sunrise, if it is reasonably clear, the sun illuminates the inner chamber much like happens at Newgrange at the winter solstice.

It makes sense that the ancient Irish would notice and celebrate the movement of the sun. Their whole lives would change with the seasons. The food available would change, and their need for shelter would also change. Anticipating the seasons and the sun’s movements was key to survival. The autumn equinox was a warning to prepare for winter, to take stock of what Irish gifts nature was providing. It was time to harvest the apples, enjoy the last berries, gather firewood and fortify their shelters. Eating seasonally might sound trendy now, but it was the only option for them.

Today, we aren’t worried about hunting and gathering as much as picking Halloween costumes and finding the best Irish gifts for Christmas. But taking some time out to notice how nature is changing around you and observe the angle and hues of the sun’s rays can help you feel connected to those ancient ancestors who gathered at Loughcrew.