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The Youghal Halloween Festival & The Legend of An Bhean Uisce
Youghal, in eastern Cork, Ireland, is a small town with a big history. Pronounced "Yawl", the town's name is derived from Eochaill, meaning "yew woods". Once these forests carpeted the entire region, but now the only Yew forest to be found in Ireland is in the Killarney National Park, in neighbouring Kerry.
There is evidence of human habitation at Youghal from as early as the Neolithic Period, but it was not until the Norse voyaged to Ireland to create trading posts in the 9th Century that the town really made a name for itself. Perhaps attracted to an earlier Christian settlement, allegedly founded by St. Declan in the 5th Century, the sea wolves liked what they saw, and decided to stay. From that point on, Youghal grew as a town of major importance to a world where power of the waves influenced power in the courts of the land.
In recent times, the striking historical streets and buildings, sweeping coastline, and welcoming culture have all made Youghal a popular destination for visitors to Ireland. Within driving distance from Dublin, the town is located roughly half-way across the southern coast of Ireland, making it an ideal base for anyone wishing to explore the region.
Proud of its rich history and culture, the people of Youghal hold festivals throughout the year, full details of which can be found at the town's website. The most exciting one of all for me, has to be the one they hold in the month of October; The Halloween Festival.
"A Festival with Soul"
The motto of Youghal's Halloween Festival, this October spectacle was first begun fairly recently in 2011. Festivities around Samhain (pronounced sow-in) are not unknown in Ireland and the Celtic world. One of the "Celtic Fire Festivals", Samhain marks the end of the summer and the start of the darker half of the year. There are many myths and metaphors associated with this time, which illustrates the cycle of the year travelling into another phase. In the 19th Century, it was suggested that Samhain was the Celtic New Year, a description that has stuck with many .
Samhain is seen as a magical place in calendar; a twilight between summer and winter. Like many places-between-places, magical energies are believed to thin the veil of our reality to open a threshold through which spirits and the Aos Sí can walk among men in the realm in which we dwell. Offerings were left for these travellers, and the souls of the dead could visit their former homes to pay a visit to the loved ones they left behind. Food and drink was offered to these ethereal visitors, with even a place made at the table with a mute supper left for a deceased relative to welcome them to the home. Divination and folk-magic was not uncommon on this magical night, even in a strictly Catholic country such as Ireland.
The wearing of costumes and assuming a role was taken during the Samhain festival, and this may be one of the origins of Trick-or-Treating that has been exported from North America back to Ireland and the British Isles, as this custom would have been observed by Irish emigrants finding new lives in America.
This custom continues with Youghal's annual festival, a modern spectacular that revives the ancient Celtic Samhain festival and combines it with lore and magic of its own, to enchant an audience of the 21st Century. For three days and nights, the town takes on a guise of its own to present a distinctly unique experience to all that witness it.
The Youghaloween Spooktacular
Much fuss and excitement goes into the festival. Months of careful planning make sure everything goes just right, and even the unpredictable weather does not put a dampener on the festivities. For three days each year, Youghal is transformed. The town is decorated to suit the theme of Halloween and Samhain, and the streets are filled with entertainers and performers. Whilst each year is slightly different, the festival has adopted the following proceedings:
Day 1 (Friday before Halloween)
The Opening Ceremony is held at the 1798 Memorial Park in the evening. A coven of witches perform a rite to welcome An Bhean Uisce to Youghal, who spectacularly arrives by water before joining her knights. A torch-lit parade then moves through the town, watched by lantern bearing onlookers.
Day 2 (Saturday before Halloween)
The main festival is in full swing this day. The Town Centre is transformed, with stalls and activities to entertain people of all ages. Contests and competitions provide a bit of fun, whilst a local historian takes visitors through the town on ghost-tours, telling tales of terror in around the streets of Youghal. Be sure to be safe before nightfall, for a headless horseman takes to the streets bringing dread to the unsuspecting reveller.
Day 3 (Sunday before Halloween)
This is the final day of the festival, before An Bhean Uisce returns to her resting place beneath the waves. For the last two years, a convention of Spiritualists has taken place, with much interest in mediumship bringing some of the more traditional aspects of Samhain to the festival. In times of old, communing with the deceased was performed for the services of the community, and this continues in a more modern context. Psychics are also on hand for some card reading and divination; another example of a traditional activity carrying on. In the evening, An Bhean Uisce is returned to the sea in the Closing Ceremony. A funeral pyre is lit dramatically, as the festival comes to a close.
Youghal's Halloween Festival varies from year-to-year, and there are far more events listed than described above. For further details I recommend that you follow their Facebook Page.
An Bhean Uisce
The Festival describes how An Bhean Uisce has the power to collect dreams, wishes, desires, and hopes from the living, and takes them back with her to the Underworld, when she returns to her rest after the Closing Ceremony on the Sunday. Festival goers can write their wishes at a stall in the Town Centre, to see if maybe their wishes come true.
From Bhean, meaning "Lady" and Uisce, meaning "Water", this striking figure is a key theme to Youghal's Halloween Festival. Whilst there are many examples of Otherworldly female spirits and deities in Ireland, it would appear the this Lady of the Waters is folklore in the making, forging legends from the town's history with the vivid creativity of the Festival's dedicated organisers.
The result is spectacular, and whilst the "witches" performing the ceremonies have practised their rites in no more sinister a manner than the women playing the three weird sisters in Shakespeare's Macbeth, one cannot help but sense that maybe... just maybe... there is some genuine magic in there.
The tale of An Bhean Uisce has been written for the benefit of those wishing to know more about this intriguing figure. Available for all to see on the town's website, the story is one of heroism, tragedy, and the overcoming of death; albeit for three nights a year:
"A long, time ago, when the land was dark and lawless, a time of chivalry and honour existed to a lucky few that were born and bred to serve others. Kings, Noblemen and Princes were around every valley and glen, some led their people justly and with order, some I am afraid to inform you, did not. This is the story of a band of gallant knights who knew nothing but grief and battle while fighting for honour in the crusades of the holy lands.
Since returning to their homeland they found that it was very easy to find employment, since they had a particular set of skills. Useful skills in these harsh ages. It was Lord Tybalt of Montfort who ruled this land and saw that these knights could be useful to him as he was at war with a tribe of savages that roamed his kingdom. They attacked his subjects, convoys and especially his soldiers at every opportunity, savagely mauling and slaying them leaving no one alive. Lord Tybalt’s ferry which ran from Youghal town on the west of the river to a place called Ferrypoint on the east was very important to him as it was his lifeline, supply route and easiest way to deploy his troops to attack or defend his kingdom.
It was almost as important to him as his daughter, Lady Gloriana. Her beauty was known throughout the land and could not be matched. The Lord had so much trust in this band of knights that he assigned their leader, Borin, as the personal bodyguard to protect and serve his only daughter. It was not uncommon for Lady Gloriana to use the ferry with her knights to visit some of her family and subjects across the river, she enjoyed visiting them and asking them their dreams, hopes and wishes as if collecting them. Her bodyguards were always with her, although sometimes she managed to sneak away for short periods to the annoyance of her charges.
This one faithful day was like any other, the weather was calm, the river was still. Lady Gloriana set out to continue her visitations with her subjects across the river with her bodyguards and fearless knights Borin, Brom, Rowan, Ulric, Merek and Fendrel (meet them at the youghaloween festival this year). Upon nearing the ferry point to the east of the town, they were attacked by a large group of savages. The knights fought off the first wave of attackers, however they were still in the ferryboat and did not see the enemy swimming behind them. After a good fight the savages managed to capsize the ferryboat spilling all its passengers into the river Blackwater.
The enemy retreated as not to lose too many men once the knights reached the shore and organised themselves to continue fighting and protecting the Lady Gloriana. As Borin and the knights were preoccupied with the fight at hand they did not notice the disappearance of Lady Gloriana. They searched the shoreline and scanned the coast for any sign of her. Unfortunately none was to be found and they believed her to be drowned. The knights returned with heads hung low to inform Lord Tybalt that they had failed him and his only daughter.
Lord Tybalt was so furious with Borin and his knights that it is said he was heard across the river “Since you could not keep her safe here in the living, you shall keep her company in death”. Shortly after he had the knights put to death by using the various torture equipment he had at his disposal and banished their souls to the underworld (these can be seen during the festival in the town centre). It was said that thereafter on a still quiet night if you happen to be down the quayside next to the river Blackwater, you might see something very strange indeed, a large raven flying back and forth, up and down the quay. This is believed to be the Morrighan a very powerful witch known as the goddess of battle. She shapeshifts to a raven in order to travel between our world of the living and the underworld. She keeps an eye on An Bhean Uisce in the afterlife.
It is also widely known and believed that each year around Halloween she takes the form of An Bhean Uisce to return to the living world always accompanied by her fearsome knights, sworn to protect her living or dead. Her purpose is to collect the dreams, wishes, hopes and fears of those brave enough to give them to her, as she did when she was alive all those hundreds of years ago and bring them back to the underworld when she returns. For the past couple of centuries she would return to the living with the help of the local witches of Youghal who would aide her in her quest. This Halloween will be no different.
The witches will use their mystical powers to summon her up from the underworld, along with her knight protectors. So be very careful and have your wits about you at Halloween, beware, the town will be teeming with witches and knights. Most of all, make sure you salute An Bhean Uisce if you see her, unless you want to find her looking in your window late at night, looking through your dreams and seeing your worst fears. Who knows she might just make them come true."
Whilst some might dismiss the story as Blarney for the tourists, it is a carefully crafted tale, designed to ignite the imagination and interest in a town already rich with history and lore. All folk-tales begin somewhere, and with the Youghal Halloween Festival and the tale of An Bhean Uisce, we are seeing a tradition and legend being forged from the very beginning. And who of us can claim to witness such a thing? Let us hope that in generations to come, they still tell tales of the Lady of the Waters that visits the town of Youghal each year, to read your dreams and deepest desires.
With thanks to Shane Broderick for use of his photographs.
 Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain - ISBN 978-0198205708
© 2014 Pollyanna Jones