Oíche Shamhna, or Halloween, Old Irish Style

This is the time of year when an ancient Irish celebration turns our world black and orange.

Advertisements

This post originally appeared on my Tumblr blog in October, 2016.

‘Tis the season! This is the time of year when an ancient Irish celebration turns our world black and orange and fills our streets with little (and sometimes not so little) ghosts, goblins, and superheroes.

Happy New Year!

In ancient Ireland, Oíche Shamna, or “Samhain Eve” (“Samhain,” pronounced “SOW-un” (first syllable rhymes with “cow”) is the Irish name for the month of November, and also the name of the Old Irish new year celebration) was a time when the veil between the world of the living and that of the dead was believed to grow thin.

People believed that the dead, both good and bad, could walk among the living on that night. They prepared offerings of food and drink to welcome their beloved dead, as well as to appease spirits who might mean to do them ill.

People also believed that the fairy folk were better able to “cross over” on such a night. Fairies in Irish mythology are not elegant elves or glittery pixies. They are supernatural creatures that are, at best, mischievous, and, at worst, truly terrifying.

For this reason, treats would also be left out to propitiate any visiting fairies in the hope that they would leave the household alone. This eventually evolved into young people dressing up as such creatures (or as deceased ancestors) and going from house to house collecting goodies. ‘

Sound familiar?

A Tradition that Spans Cultures

My recent travels took me to México, where I had the opportunity to view examples of Mexican art, both ancient and modern, with the guidance of local experts. It was quite an eye-opening experience!

I was struck by the similarities between the carvings in the ruins at Huatulco and Puerto Chiapas and some of the carvings on ancient Irish artifacts – particularly the use of the spiral and the “tree of life.”

The real eye-opener, however, was our visit to an art gallery in San José del Cabo that featured artwork based on the upcoming Méxican holiday Dia de los Muertos – The Day of the Dead.

Seeing a familiar holiday in a new light

Of course I was already familiar with Dia de los Muertos. I live in a place where it is widely celebrated. I’d never really given any thought, though, to how similar it is to the ancient Irish observance of Oíche Shamhna, whichover the span of centuries, eventually morphed into our modern Halloween.

The concept of honoring ancestors with their favorite foods and music; the sense of the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead growing thin, allowing the dead to visit the living; the acceptance of mortality as part of the cycle of life rather than something to be dreaded and shunned…all are significant aspects of both celebrations.

Even though I’ve celebrated Halloween all my life (and have known about its Irish roots since high school), and have lived among people who observe Dia de los Muertos for much of my adult life, just how closely the two celebrations are related never really clicked for me until that day in San José del Cabo.

Fascinating, isn’t it? Two completely different pre-Christian cultures, on two continents, evolving what is, essentially, the same celebration.

It gets even more fascinating when you look a little deeper and realize that similar celebrations have evolved on virtually every continent. Really makes you wonder if there might be something to it, doesn’t it?

In any case, I knew that I had to write something about Halloween and its Irish connections when I got home. The problem was (and is) that my travels have left me very short of time, and I wasn’t sure I could give the topic the justice it deserves.

Then I realized that I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

From the Archives

When I worked as a blog writer for Bitesize Irish Gaelic in 2012 and 2013, I wrote extensively about Halloween, so I dug through my archives and found three posts that I think my followers will find interesting:

Oíche Shamhna (Halloween) Part 1 Happy New Year!: This post describes how the ancient Irish celebration evolved into the holiday we celebrate today.

Halloween Old Irish Style How the ancient Irish observed Oíche Shamhna, with suggestions incorporating some of these traditions into your own Halloween celebration.

Irish Language Phrases for Oíche Shamhna Irish words and phrases appropriate to the season, with phonetic pronunciation.

I hope you enjoy these posts. Please feel free to share the links, but please DON’T copy large blocks of text from them without the approval of the owners of Bitesize Irish Gaelic*

Oíche Shamhna shona daoibh go léir! (Happy Halloween to you all!)

GG

* Full Disclosure and a Plug

Or maybe it’s a plug and full disclosure. In any case, if you’re looking for an on-line program for learning Irish, Bitesize Irish Gaelic is one I highly recommend (And not just because I used to work there.That’s the disclosure part. Don’t worry…I left on good terms, and still pop in from time to time in a supporting capacity)

The program is designed as a series of very short, “bite-sized” lessons, each of which can be completed relatively quickly. Lessons are categorized s “Grammar,” “Vocabulary,” and “Conversation,” and feature audio recorded by a native speaker.

Pricing is on a sliding scale depending on how much of the program you want to access. It’s a month-to-month set-up, so you can always leave (or upgrade!)

Bitesize offers extensive support, and additional resources, including frequent podcasts and a private Facebook group.

Anyway, if you’re looking for an affordable way to get started learning Irish, give it a look!

www.bitesizeirishgaelic.com

Slán go fóill, and Happy Trick or Treating!

GG


In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of  The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada.  For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit http://www.bradanpress.com/irish-tattoo-handbook/

Get Your Irish on in San Francisco!

Every September, when our hazy summer light begins to change to the clear, golden brightness of autumn, my mind turns toward my favorite event of the year: The San Francisco Deireadh Seachtaine Gaeltachta.

Every September, when our hazy summer light begins to change to the clear, golden brightness of autumn (Yes, we have seasons here on the California Central Coast, though sometimes you have to have lived here for a while to notice them!), my mind turns toward my favorite event of the year: The San Francisco Deireadh Seachtaine Gaeltachta.

This year’s Deireadh Seachtaine will be held from September 22 – 24 (6:00 p.m. Friday to 4:30 p.m. Sunday), at the United Irish Cultural Center (UICC), 2700 45th Avenue, in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset District. The cost is $420 per person, which includes tuition and meals. Lodging is not included, so folks coming from out of town will have to make their own arrangements, but the organizers (of which I am one this year) can help you find lodging and transit information if you’re not familiar with the city.

You can register and pay on-line here, or contact Seán Séamus Larkin at larkinmaps@gmail.com or at 415-299-0850 for information on how to pay by check.

 So What’s a Deireadh Seachtaine Gaeltachta?

Deireadh Seachtaine Gaeltachta (often affectionately shortened to “DSG”) means “Gaeltacht Weekend.” If you’re not familiar with the term, the word “gaeltacht” refers to the areas of Ireland where Irish is still spoken as a day-to-day language.

A DSG simulates a gaeltacht experience by immersing attendees in Irish language and culture. These events have been popping up all over the U.S. in the past 10 – 20 years, and are an absolute boon to Irish learners (not to mention a lot of fun!)

The San Francisco DSG is one of the granddaddies of the movement. We’re celebrating our 19th year in 2017!

Activities include fun, conversationally based classes interspersed with social-conversation opportunities over meals, drinks, and music (Lots of music! There is a wealth of Irish musicians in the greater San Francisco area, and a lot of them come out for this event).

But…But…I’m Just a BEGINNER!

I have to say, I hear this a lot. “I’m a beginner! I’m not ready for immersion yet!”

Here’s the thing: When you’re beginning is the IDEAL time to do an immersion course! There’s really no better way to get your learning off to a flying start!

The other cool thing is that these events are the best way I know of to connect with other Irish speakers and learners (you may be surprised at just how many there are in the Bay Area!). If you’ve been struggling to learn on your own (as many of us are at first), these events are how you make those connections that will support your learning for years to come.

And you won’t feel out of place because…

We’ve Got Your Level…

The San Francisco DSG offers four levels of classes (well, actually, four and a half. We’ll get to the “half” in a moment). No matter where you are with your Irish studies, we’ve got a level for you:

Level One: If you’re just beginning your Irish journey, or if you feel you need to review beginner basics, this is your level.

Level Two: This level is for lower intermediates. If you have a grasp of the basics and can participate in a simple conversation (“Haigh! Is mise Audrey! Cé thusa? Is scríbhneoir mé. Cén post atá agatsa?”), you’ll probable be happy growing your conversational skills here.

Level Three: If you understand and read Irish reasonably well and are seeking the confidence to make that wild leap into more conversation, this is the level for you. This is really an exciting point for most learners…right on the cusp of fluency! This group tends to have the widest range of students, from people just venturing out of level two to people about to make the move to level four.

Level Four: This level is for fluent or near-fluent speakers who want to polish up their spoken Irish, and/or explore the depths of the language, including modern terminology, folklore, and literature.

Level Four-and-a-Half*: The Children’s Class: One stand-out aspect of the San Francisco DSG is the special class for children. This level is geared toward youngsters who are fluent Irish speakers (typically the children of adults who are attending the course, most of whom use Irish at home). They join the adults for some of the activities, and go off with their teacher for others. It’s a great opportunity for Irish-speaking kids in The Bay Area, who might otherwise not have much opportunity to speak Irish with their peers.

* OK, I made this term up. We usually just call it “The Kids’ Class,” or “Rang na bPáistí.

…And Some First-Class Teachers

All our teachers are experienced at helping adult students have fun while learning. Each year’s teaching staff is organized with the help of Oideas Gael, the renowned Irish language and culture school in Donegal.

Our roster of outstanding teachers for 2017 includes:

Catríona Weafer, Level One

Bairbre Ní Chiardha, Level Two

Anna Ní Choirbín, Level Three

Aisling Ní Churraighín, Level Four

Orla Mc Garry, Children’s Class

And Then There’s the Location

I’ve attended immersion courses in all kinds of locations — including a college campus, an office building, and even a monastery —but the UICC is my favorite (and not only because this is my “home” DSG).

For one thing, the building itself has a lot of character.  From the outside it looks very secretive, due to the lack of windows. The first time I saw it, way back when I lived in the city in the 1980s, I thought it was some kind of Irish Masonic lodge! 

Step inside, though, and it’s a little like being transported to Ireland in the 1950s or 60s, especially in the restaurant and bar (which are the first things you see when you enter the building). There’s a warmth to it that I find very appealing.

The UICC also has wonderful facilities for hosting events such as this, from a kitchen that keeps us very well fed to a private dining room where we can get together for a sit-down lunch and dinner on Saturday. It also has a small Irish-themed library (which often holds a book sale on the Sunday of the DSG), plenty of rooms for class and gathering spaces and, of course, the bar (who doesn’t want a pint after a long day of learning?)

Its location is absolutely ideal. The Sunset is one of my favorite districts in the city. It’s a mostly quiet, mostly residential neighborhood that’s easy to get to by car or by transit and where it’s relatively easy to find free parking (a plus in San Francisco!).

The UICC is just steps from the beach and from the zoo, and there are a few good eating places nearby if you want something beyond what is on offer at the DSG (I’m especially fond of Java Beach, right around the corner from the UICC).

Also, with several bus lines operating in the area, as well as MUNI Metro’s L-Taraval street car line, it’s relatively easy to get just about anywhere in the city if you feel like adding a little sightseeing to your visit.

What’s not to love?

For More Information

For more information about the San Francisco Deireadh Seachtaine Gaeltachta, or to register, visit the official DSG web page, or contact Seán Séamus Larkin at 415-299-0850 or larkinmaps@gmail.com.

Hope to see you there!

GG


In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of  The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada.  For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit http://www.bradanpress.com/irish-tattoo-handbook/

A Rocky Mountain “Haigh”: Irish Immersion in Montana

July 22 found me flying eastward on I-90 toward a new experience in the western foothills of the Montana Rockies.

It was pure serendipity.

I was in the midst of planning our annual two-week road trip to visit family in the Pacific Northwest when a friend of mine on Facebook posted information about the week-long immersion course hosted by Friends of Irish Studies in Butte, Montana.

I have been peripherally aware of the Butte course for years, but had never thought about attending it because of the distance. Also normally when I’m in the Northwest I’m with my husband and daughter, neither of whom has any interest in Irish.

This year, however, I was going to be doing the greater part of the trip alone, as my husband had recently started a new job and my daughter had plans to visit her girlfriend in Seattle. It suddenly occurred to me that Butte isn’t all that far from my father’s home in Spokane, Washington — just a four-and-a-half-hour drive (which, when you’re doing a 2,000-mile road trip, isn’t much of a distance at all) — and that there was nothing preventing me from taking an extra week to immerse myself in some Irish (That’s an advantage of being a writer. You can do your work pretty much anywhere.)

That’s why July 22 found me flying eastward on I-90 (And I do mean flying! Montana has an 80 mph speed limit!) toward a new experience in the western foothills of the Montana Rockies.

A Stunning Location

If you’ve never been to Butte, you owe yourself a visit. This small city (population approx. 34,200) is situated in a beautiful bowl-shaped valley, with mountains on every side, and a constantly changing view of Montana’s trademark big sky.

A magnificent thunderhead, seen from just outside Centennial Hall on the Montana Tech campus in Butte.
A magnificent thunderhead, seen from just outside Centennial Hall on the Montana Tech campus. Centennial Hall is the dorm in which most of the Irish students were housed.

It’s a mecca for those who enjoy outdoor sports, such as hiking or camping, as well as for people with an interest in western U.S. history (it is still very much a mining town, and evidence of that is visible everywhere, from the ubiquitous mining head frames and the strangely beautiful Berkeley Pit to the World Museum of Mining, which gives visitors an opportunity to experience mining from a miner’s point of view).

The people who live there are fiercely proud of their city (the name of which, by the way, is pronounced “byoot,” NOT “butt” — a mistake the guide on the city tour told us is relatively common), and with good reason. In addition to its stunning location, interesting history, and unique architecture, Butte also boasts Montana Tech, which, according to the Princeton Review, ranks among best colleges in the country.

What many visitors don’t realize, however, is that Butte is also a major center for Irish culture. In fact, during its heyday, Butte had the largest concentration of Irish immigrants and their descendants west of the Mississippi!

A trinity knot: One of several Irish symbols near the entrance to The Berkeley Pit.
A Trinity knot: One of several Irish symbols near the entrance to The Berkeley Pit.

 

It’s home to multiple Irish festivals throughout the year, as well as to one of the best Irish-themed shops I’ve encountered: Cavanaugh’s County Celtic.

 

http://www.mtgaelic.org/
Entrance to Cavanaugh’s County Celtic, on Park Street in Butte.

If Irish history and culture is of interest to you (and, if you’re reading this, I imagine it is), Butte is definitely a must-visit!

A Week of Firsts

I’ve attended many Irish immersion courses over the years, both in the U.S. and in Ireland, but the Butte course was a first for me in many ways.

To begin with, it’s the only week-long course I’ve attended outside of Ireland (full-week courses are not as common in the western U.S. as they are on the East Coast). Weekend courses are wonderful, but often it seems that they’re over too quickly. It was nice to have the time to get to know people, and to explore the area, as well as more time to practice speaking Irish!

It’s also the first immersion event I’ve attended on a university campus which, among other things, meant that we had the option to save a lot of money by staying in the dorms ($25 a night, and wi-fi included…heck of a deal!). The dorm we were housed in — Centennial Hall — was less than a block from the Student Union Building, where we had our classes (and almost as important…just a few steps farther along to a Starbucks!)

The most interesting thing to me, though, was the fact that it’s the only immersion course I’ve attended at which most of the students, as well as the teachers, spoke the same dialect — Munster Irish.

Munster is the dialect with which I am the least familiar (though I can understand it, thanks in large part to TG4!), and it was interesting and useful to hear it all around me for an entire week.

Class Structure

I have to admit I was a bit concerned at first, when I realized there were only two levels: bunleibhéal for beginners and lower intermediates and ardleibhéal for upper intermediates and advanced speakers. I wasn’t certain that it could be made to work for people of markedly different levels.

Fortunately, it worked out very well indeed! In our class (ardleibhéal), we broke into groups during the morning session, with the more advanced students working among ourselves on conversational exercises. During the afternoon the class came back together to work on reading and listening comprehension and and on translation.

The daily pattern was similar to what you find with other immersion courses: A morning session with a 15-minute break in the middle, about an hour and a half free time for lunch, then back for an afternoon session (also with a brief break) that continued until about 4:00.

After Class

One thing that did differ from what I’m used to is there were no scheduled afternoon/evening workshops or activities (sessions, dancing, etc.), and I found that I missed that a bit.

That’s not to say that we didn’t do things together after class. We went out to dinner together on two occasions. One afternoon we went together on a guided trolley tour of Butte, which was really interesting, and a lot of fun (should you find yourself in Butte, I highly recommend it)!

Students waiting for the trolley tour of Butte.
Waiting for the trolley tour
Picture of the Butte Trolley.
The Butte Trolley. Highly recommended should you find yourself visiting Butte!

On another afternoon, some of the more athletic among us went for a hike up near The Continental Divide (given my bad knee and back, not to mention my tendency for altitude sickness, I had to regretfully decline, but I heard that it was a lot of fun!)

And, of course, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to stuff ourselves with street food, listen to music, and ogle the motorcycles and classic cars at Evel Knieval Days!

I often found myself taking advantage of the long summer evenings and the nearby walking/cycling trail (which ran right past the dorm), to enjoy the historical markers and the ever-changing sky.

Sunset on clouds in Butte, Montana
No, it’s not a volcano. It’s a dramatically beautiful sunset!
Beautiful sunset from the walking trail near Montana Tech.
You never get tired of sky watching in this Rocky Mountain town! This was taken from the pedestrian/cycling trail near Montana Tech.

Still, as a musician (and as someone who was drawn to Irish by a love for traditional music), I found I missed having some kind of musical gathering. Next time I’ll just have to pack my small harp!

I’ll Be Back

I have no doubt that there will be a next time, when circumstances allow. I had a good time in a beautiful place with some wonderful people, and as always, I learned a lot. Agus bíonn sé go deas i gcónaí bheith ag caint as Gaeilge, in Montana nó in Éirinn! 

I’ll leave you with a few more pictures of beautiful Butte.

Le meas, GG

The author standing in the viewing stand at The Berkeley Pit.
Me at the viewing stand at The Berkeley Pit. You can see the pit from just about anywhere in Butte, and it’s strangely beautiful, with its varying colors.
The butte from which the city of Butte draws its name.
This is the butte from which the city of Butte draws its name, taken from the walking trail near the Montana Tech campus.
Rainbow over Butte, taken from in front of Centennial Hall on the Montana Tech campus
Rainbow over Butte, taken from in front of Centennial Hall on the Montana Tech campus.
Mining head frame, Butte, Montana
A mine head frame. You’ll see these all over Butte. The colors of the open pit behind it are astounding.
The entrance to Montana Tech illuminated at dusk
The entrance to Montana Tech illuminated at dusk
People eating dinner together at a restaurant in Butte.
Dinner together. I was truly impressed at the quality of the restaurants available in this small city!

 


In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of  The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada.  For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit http://www.bradanpress.com/irish-tattoo-handbook/