Celtic festival celebrated with heaps of burning rubbish

Mícheál Ó Coileáin Environmental Awareness Officer, Kerry County Council

Published 14/11/2012 | 11:29

LIGHTING bonfires at Samhain, or to give it its modern title Hallow'een, has a long history in Ireland. There was a time when fires were lit to signify the changing seasons but today it seems bonfires are lit at Hallow'een to dispose illegally of any rubbish left around the house or farm.

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Samhain is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the 'darker half' of the year. Most commonly it is held on October 31 - November 1, or halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. Along with Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh it makes up the four Gaelic seasonal festivals and was observed in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Kindred festivals were held at the same time of year in other Celtic-influenced lands; for example the Brythonic Calan Gaeaf (in Wales), Kalan Gwav (in Cornwall) and Kalan Goañv (in Brittany).

Samhain is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature. Many important events in Irish mythology happen or begin on Samhain. It was the time when cattle were brought back down from the summer pastures and when livestock were slaughtered for the winter. In much of the Gaelic world, bonfires were lit and there were rituals involving them, as at Beltane. People and their livestock would often walk between two bonfires as a cleansing ritual and the bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into its flames, thus we get the origin of the word bonfire from bone fire.

Samhain (like Beltane) was seen as a time when the 'door' to the Otherworld opened enough for the souls of the dead, and other beings, to come into our world. Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place set at the table for them. It has thus been likened to a festival of the dead.

People also took steps to protect themselves from harmful spirits, which is thought to have led to the custom of dressing up in disguise at this time of the year. It has been linked with All Saints' Day (and later All Souls' Day) since the 9th century, when the date of that holiday was shifted to November 1. Both have strongly influenced the secular customs of Halloween.

Unfortunately the modern bonfires of this past Halloween festival were full of old tyres, mattresses, bags of household rubbish, farm plastics and other rubbish - as happened this year near Causeway and Ballyduff on October 31. Several tonnes of tyres, farm plastics and other household rubbish had to be removed by Kerry County Staff earlier in the day but the fires were later loaded with more material and set alight. The plumes of poisonous black smoke could be seen for miles and there was more environmental damage from those two fires in one evening than an Incinerator for 200,000 people would produce in several years.

Burning waste is illegal - whether it happens on open bonfires to 'celebrate' Samhain or in the open fires or stoves inside your home, it all pollutes the places you live in and the air you breathe.

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