The Birthplace of Halloween: A New UNESCO World Heritage Site?

As the people of the northern hemisphere start to leave the summer months behind, say a solemn farewell to shorts and sundresses, and start wrapping themselves up just a little bit warmer, there is a justified general feeling of sadness as we prepare ourselves for several cold winter months.

Sure, the brown, yellow, and orange colours of autumn are pretty at first, but it only takes a week of wind and rain for those crunchy golden leaves to transform into a dark, smelly sludge which persists for far longer – and Christmas is still 10 weeks away. 

The one sweet reprieve from our collective sorrow, however, is that the best, and most fun holiday on earth, Halloween, is just around the corner.

Nothing beats dressing up and going trick or treating with your friends as a kid, except for maybe dressing up and getting shitfaced with your friends as an adult. Christmas is nice, but it’s also stressful; buying gifts, receiving gifts, queuing in the cold, and hanging out with neighbours and distant family members who you don’t even know that well does suck out a lot of the enjoyment.

The most stressful thing about Halloween is the fear that nobody will know what movie or TV show your costume is in reference to. (A hint for 70% of the costumes this year, it’s Squid Game).

But it’s great! Seeing everyone’s creativity come to the forefront while their inhibitions fall to the back is truly wonderful.

Can you believe that some countries don’t even celebrate Halloween? It’s honestly tragic.

It’s common (ish) knowledge that Halloween’s origins can be traced back to pre-Christian Ireland and to the pagan festival of Samhain, but less people are aware that the exact location of the birthplace of Halloween is known. It lies near Rathcroghan, the capital of the ancient Irish Kingdom of Connacht, in modern day Roscommon.

This lesser-known archaeological site may be about to become more present in the global consciousness, as an application has recently been submitted to make the Rathcroghan complex a UNESCO World Heritage site.

A brief history of Samhain

As fun and child friendly as Halloween is today, with sugar-loaded children bouncing off the walls of every home and dunking their heads in bowls that are 60% water and 40% saliva to grab overripe apples, Samhain was decidedly not fun.

Long before a Welsh warrior monk travelled to Ireland to banish snakes and replace them with Christianity, and even before a white baby was born in Bethlehem, Celtic paganism was the dominant belief system on the island.

Celtic Festivals

The Celts in Ireland separated the year into two seasons: summer and winter; and within those seasons were four festivals:

Imbolc

The least known and probably least exciting festival, Imbolc started at the beginning of February, and was a festival that marked the lambing season. 

Bealtaine

Pronounced be-all-tain-eh, (not BALL-TAYNE, looking at you Americans). It was a festival which marked the beginning of Spring. It involved customs like washing your face with dew, plucking the first blooming flowers, and dancing around a decorated tree – which I’m pretty sure they still do in Westmeath. 

Lughnasadh

This was a harvest festival that was dedicated to the God Lugh and presided over by Celtic kings

Samhain

The one that eventually became Halloween, Samhain marked the end of the pastoral year, and involved the sacrificing of animals at the main temple.

Rathcroghan, the archaeological site in question, is said to have been the main meeting point for these festivals and was particularly busy during Samhain. The festivities were focused around a raised temple which was surrounded by the burial mounds of the most elite members of the Kingdom of Connacht.

One of the most interesting spots around Rathcroghan however, is a small cave called Oweynagat – which played a central part in the festivities that would eventually become a main Halloween tradition. 

The Celts believed that this cave was one of the gateways to a subterranean dimension inhabited by otherworldly beings. These creatures, which included birds and pigs with decaying abilities, would enter our world through the cave to ravage the landscape to prepare it for winter.

So, the gateway to a dimension of evil, malevolent, spirits is in Roscommon. Let us all come together in shocked silence.

The significance of Samhain with this was that it was said to be the night that the barrier between the two worlds disappeared, unleashing the creatures. Are you beginning to see the link? 

The people were terrified of falling victim to these creatures, so they would light ritual bonfires on hilltops to keep them at bay, and even dress up as ghouls themselves so they would go unnoticed. These are two traditions that have survived the centuries and are still practiced today (albeit in a much more easy going way).

Rathcroghan archaeological site

Irish people have believed for centuries that this area was the site of Rathcroghan, but there was never any real evidence to support it. It’s easy to see why no one had confirmed its location before, since the Celts were not really ones of building with stone, most of these ancient structures have either been slowly buried over the centuries or have disappeared altogether. You could drive past Rathcroghan and only see empty fields.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that researchers confirmed its existence through the use of remote sensing technology. Now, experts believe that Rathcroghan may be Europe’s largest excavated royal complex, covering a 4 mile radius, and harbouring well over 200 archaeological sites.

Unfortunately, Rathcroghan predates Ireland’s written history, the Celts also not being overly fond of writing, meaning that the story of the site will have to be told through the examination of any artefacts found in the area, which I’m sure there will be no shortage of.

Archaeologist and Rathcroghan expert Daniel Curley, in relation to the excavation, said: 

“The beauty of the approach to date at Rathcroghan is that so much has been uncovered without the destruction that comes with excavating upstanding earthwork monuments. Targeted excavation can be engaged with, which will answer our research questions while limiting the damage inherent with excavation.”

Rathcroghan still does accept tourism, and even has a visitor center which can provide any fans of Halloween and history with as much information as they need while exploring this incredible site.

Oweynagat cave

Oweynagat cave itself is far less accessible than the main mound where the temple of Rathcroghan was said to have been. But if you’re feeling brave, and you’re able to find the thing, you can visit it by foot, and even enter the caves yourself, claustrophobes beware: it’s a bit of a tight squeeze

It isn’t very well signposted; however, it’s completely surrounded by trees and is in the middle of a usually waterlogged field. The cave’s significance cannot be understated though, as it is also said to be the birthplace of Maeve, Ireland’s most famous queen.

UNESCO Heritage Site

What is a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

World Heritage Sites are landmarks or areas that are given legal protection by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). These sites have either a historic, cultural, or scientific significance and are deemed to be of outstanding value to humanity. 

Some famous examples of World Heritage Sites include The Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, Easter Island, Angkor Wat, and Stonehenge. 

Ireland itself already has two such sites: Newgrange and Skellig Michel. 

What this means

The prospect of Rathcroghan becoming a heritage site is incredibly exciting for archaeologists, as the exposure would attract more tourists to the area, perhaps providing funding that could be used in further excavation and site maintenance. 

Being deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site would provide Rathcroghan with protection from further harm. Unfortunately, it doesn’t guarantee that damage won’t be done – an example being the minor damage done to Skellig Michel by the crew of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. But at least the movie was good right? Right?

Rathcroghan is among other Irish sites which are applying for the coveted status. The others are:

  • Dún Ailinne in Kildare
  • The Burren in Clare
  • Glendalough monastic city in Wicklow
  • The Rock of Cashel in Tipperary
  • Hill of Uisneach in Westmeath

The extra publicity given to the site would of course have huge benefits, but archaeologists hope that it won’t be repackaged as a gimmicky Halloween destination, and will instead provide more sustainable tourism. The last thing we need is gobshites with sheets over their heads running around and destroying archaeological evidence.

Experts do seem to think that this is unlikely however, since even though the site has been heavily marketed as the birthplace of Halloween in the past, there are no signs or indications whatsoever in reference to this in Rathcroghan, or in the closest town of Tulsk.

The criteria

UNESCO doesn’t just award this status to any old crumbling ruin however, and the site must meet at least one of ten selection criteria. Six of which are cultural and four are natural. The six cultural criteria that may apply to the Rathcroghan site are:

  1. To represent a masterpiece of human creative genius.
  2. To show an exchange of human values over a period of time on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design.
  3. To bear a unique testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared. – Machu Picchu would be an example of a site that meets this criteria.
  4. To be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history. – Like the Pyramids of Giza.
  5. To be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture, or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change.
  6. To be associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. – This one usually needs to be combined with other criteria.

Over the last 2000 or so years, we have moved from being terror-stricken peasants lighting bonfires, dressing as monsters, and sacrificing animals to keep horrifying hell-creatures at bay, to jovially dressing up as witches and ghosts to get sweets in exchange for, most, a poorly rehearsed song or poem. How times have changed. 

If the birthplace of Halloween becomes a UNESCO World Heritage Site, maybe we’ll all be able to learn a little bit more about the pagan origins of our favourite demonic holiday.

 

 

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Thomas Cleary

5 Comments

  1. It was not a “white baby” born in Bethlehem but a Mid-Eastern Jewish one. Let’s be fully accurate please. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for a concise well written article.Next we need an explanation of the process of converting these days into the Christian observances of All Souls /Hallows and All Saints.
    Happy Celtic New Year!
    John Smith

  3. Every well studied Irish and Pagan/Druid person knows the origin of Samhain is in the Boyne – specifically the Hill of Tlachtga (Hill of Ward). Otherwise, this is an interesting piece.

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