Elaine Doyle is on a mission to help people here remember what she says many of us already know: the deep wisdom to be gained from connecting with nature and the land. It was 2017 when she found herself completely burned out in her job as a hospital mental health social worker. Her body, she says, literally gave up. Going back on a three-day-week basis made no difference and so she began searching for a new way of life.
Burnout led to what she calls her spiritual awakening. Moving to Donegal, she attended her first women’s circle, a space where women gathered together to share their experiences of the world and to find connection. She began celebrating events like the summer solstice and seeking ways to incorporate the wisdom of our ancestors into her own life.
For the past number of years, 34-year-old Doyle, who is also a qualified cognitive behavioural therapist, has dedicated her life to studying the Celtic Wheel of the Year and its seasons: Samhain, Imbolc, spring equinox, Bealtaine, summer solstice, Lughnasa, autumn equinox and winter solstice. Drawing on the traditions associated with these times, she’s made it her life’s work to hold women’s circles and retreats, bringing what she’s learned to others.
“The path I’m on isn’t for everyone, but every single one of us has the capacity to carve out time to celebrate the turning of the seasons, whether it’s lighting a fire or having friends over at Lughnasa. Everyone can create time to remember. I felt like nobody was talking about this in 2019, but by 2020, it was everywhere. I had to get sick before I woke up. The s**t had to literally hit the fan before people felt a spiritual connection,” she says of the hunger people have to know more about the ancient Celtic ways since the pandemic hit.
“I think we were forced into looking for ways to connect with the land and nature. People finally slowed down and started remembering what was really important. It’s in times of hardship and discomfort that we look for connection. I’m just an ordinary Irish woman who is craving connection to the land and the wisdom of the land. I could call myself a priestess or a pagan, but I’m a woman who is remembering the medicine of Ireland. I didn’t grow up in a ‘hippie’ family. My father wasn’t a druid. I worked in the system most of my life,” she explains.
For Doyle, from Gowran, Co Kilkenny, marking Lughnasa — which can be celebrated anytime in the first weeks of August — is all about singing, dancing and creating some space to literally sit with what you have harvested internally. “Last year, we had a women’s circle where we asked, ‘What are you proud of?’ For me, the main thing at Lughnasa is giving thanks. You could forage for wild berries or have friends over for dinner. Light a fire. Dance. It’s basically a celebration,” she adds.
For more than 30 years, Dolores Whelan has blazed a trail to provide a potent understanding of the value of ancient wisdom and ignite appreciation for Celtic spirituality and the waning traditions of indigenous Ireland. “My work is in recovery of the ancient spiritual traditions of this country. It wasn’t only Celtic — it’s older than the Celtic culture. What I’m interested in recovering is a world view that works better than the one we have,” she says.
While a move away from organised religion has left people without a solid framework to hold them up, people are hungry for a spiritual dimension in their lives, she believes. Whether we liked it or not, organised religion was a framework that held us in a relationship with the world we’re in, she says. “We know that that relationship wasn’t a healthy one but we knew who we were. It’s good that a lot of it has gone but now we’re in a complete abyss, and people don’t know who they are or where they’re going,” she says.
For Whelan, people have become much more exploratory in their lives and their thinking, and while we can’t go back, we can collect pieces from the past that provide meaning for our lives. “This country has always been a spiritual place. The land has an extraordinary energy. I’ve been bringing people on pilgrimage here for many years, and when you walk with an open heart and the intention to connect with the energies of the land, the landscape opens up and shares its energy with you,” she says.
Whether it’s bringing people to Slieve Gullion in South Armagh, to Slieve na Calliagh (the megalithic site at Lough Crew near Oldcastle in Co Meath), Croagh Patrick in Co Mayo, or Navan Fort/Emain Macha (one of the country’s most important archaeological sites), Whelan believes approaching these sacred places with the right frame of mind is what’s important. It’s the energy you bring that curates the experience, she says.
When it comes to Lughnasa, Whelan says you can’t speak about one festival unless you understand how the seasons flow. The Celtic calendar is at least 3,000 years old, linking the passage of time with the changing seasons of the natural world and the cosmological dimensions of the world through its relationship with the sun and the moon.
Whelan believes the Celtic calendar contains much wisdom for how we live our lives today. It highlights the changing nature of life and the rhythms and flow that create all seasons, each with their own gifts and challenges.
“For people who lived thousands of years ago, Lughnasa was incredibly important — if the harvest didn’t happen, people would have nothing to eat. It was a wonderful celebration of people on their land and it was also a way of consolidating the tribe. They got together for practical, spiritual and community reasons,” she says.
For the last 18 years, she and a group of friends have been marking this ancient festival in the garden of her home near Dundalk, Co Louth. And more and more people are interested in holding their own celebrations today, tapping into our tribal memory, she says. She explains that, typically, celebrating Lughnasa meant doing things differently, with ritual forming the physical enactment of the mythology of the season. Dancing, cutting the first sheaf of corn, gathering bilberries or making a garland of flowers are simple ways of incorporating the ancient ways into our lives, she says.
Growing up in rural Co Tipperary, Jenn Ryan never really felt she fit in. An only child, she felt connected to the animals on her family farm much as if they were her siblings. Bullied at school, she never felt lonely when she was out in nature or with her animals. She says she drifted aimlessly through her twenties, going to art college, working as a model in Milan, and travelling through India and Asia, arriving back in Ireland on the cusp of her thirties.
It was when she started working as a hairdresser and set up a small business called Velvet Moon, travelling the country selling gypsy-style wraps at festivals, that she began to feel like herself again. Her summers were spent living out of a tent close to the natural world, connecting with “kindred souls” and finding a purpose.
For as long as she can remember, 41-year-old Ryan wanted to buy a piece of land where she could live close to nature. By good luck, she found a site in Co Clare that she was able to buy and has lived in a yurt with her dog Lugha — named after the Celtic god Lugh from which Lughnasa takes its name — and a family of cats for the last three years. She describes it as her forever home, and even though she has no electricity and cooks from a gas ring, she feels there’s so much healing in this magical place for her.
“It’s not that new to me to live in a yurt, but I’m new in many ways to the practical side of living sustainably. I’m growing my own vegetables but I’ve had to ask for help and guidance. I’ve made a little shed and I’m not a builder. There are many things I don’t know yet, but you can learn the practical stuff,” she says.
Since she’s been in Co Clare, Ryan says she has thrown herself into the shamanic work she first started studying in her twenties. While there are many misconceptions about shamanism, she describes it as connecting with the elements and the seasons as well as the natural world and the spirit world. To make a living, she still cuts hair, taking trips to Dublin to see her clients, but her dream is to be able to share the things she’s learned with others and hold healing retreats on her land. She’d also love to have some more animals, maybe a few goats.
Lugha, her beloved dog, came into her life around the time of harvest and marked the start of a new chapter in her life. “Lughnasa is the time of abundance. Ritual and ceremonies during these sacred times are really important. I’ll be doing a little ceremony to call on that abundance and to honour it. I might spend some time with friends but I will definitely spend time on my own with this land,” she says.
Ten years ago, around the time that Kathy Scott set up The Trailblazery, which designs and produces live and virtual events, she started working with the Celtic Wheel of the Year in her own life. She describes how, at a time when people have become more relentlessly goal-driven, their lives dictated by the clock, the ancient calendar provides a place for us to explore what she calls a deeper time.
For Scott, the extraordinary thing about following the wheel of the year is beginning to understand there is a time for everything, including a time to die. “In my experience, it gets deeper every year. There is a revolution of people sea swimming and following the tides in this country. Anything that can tune us into the deep time and slow down our overactive nervous system and the collective overactive nervous system is a good thing,” she says.
Lughnasa, she says, was a time to dance. She was reminded of this when she went back to the film of Brian Friel’s play, Dancing at Lughnasa, which tells the story of the Mundy sisters in Donegal. “It was a time to celebrate the ripeness. I wonder do we do that enough? It’s a time to ask what’s ripe in our lives now? The pandemic asked us to slow down, to ask what are we harvesting in our lives and where do we source our joy?” she asks.
After finishing a degree in social anthropology and French, Belfast-born Lucy O’Hagan followed her passion for teaching. In 2015, she trained as a forest school practitioner and set up the Phoenix Forest School later that year. A life-long passion for the environment and for how our ancestors lived have influenced many of her life choices, including the setting up of her latest incarnation Wide Awake, which sees her run courses in ancestral skills and animal tracking.
Now in her early thirties, O’Hagan is about to embark on another change in her life — moving to Falcarragh in Co Donegal, where she’s been visiting since childhood and from where she wants to deepen her own relationship with the land and the local community there.
In her work, O’Hagan says she’s witnessed huge transformations in people when they remember themselves as nature. Her intention is to help people build practical skills while also exploring the deeper questions of what it means to be human. “It’s dreaming a new world into being and trusting that a new world is possible,” she says.
Marking the festivals of the ancient past is about taking time to pause and reflect on where we are and where we’re going, she believes. “The capitalist and consumer culture we’re in right now don’t place any value on that need to pause, to stop and reflect and then decide. So many people felt with Covid that they didn’t want to continue in this way. I think people realised the way we are living is so fragile. It’s starting to hit home that we need to look at our ways and how we are living,” says O’Hagan.
For this year’s Lughnasa festival, O’Hagan is hosting a camp-out in the woods near Gortahork in Co Donegal, bringing people on a four-day journey which will end at Dún Bhaloir or Balor’s Fort on Tory Island. In Irish mythology, Balor of the Evil Eye was slayed by his grandson, Lugh, who thrust a red-hot spear through his eye.
O’Hagan says that, in ancient times, it was customary for people to gather on hilltops to give thanks, to dance and to feast. But following the wisdom of our ancestors doesn’t have to mean turning our backs on the modern world. “I’m sitting here in my house with my iPhone — I run a business and I have my laptop open. I’m very much in this world but feel I can straddle both.”
Her advice to people beginning their journey to connecting more with nature, the land and the old ways is to start building relationships with human, plant and animal neighbours. “It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. Meet your neighbours. Maybe it’s a dandelion breaking through the concrete or a bird or a tree outside your house. Get to know your human and not human neighbours. If people are able to find a few friends to begin to learn about these incredible animals living around us, from there, more relationships can grow,” she says.